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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: Hey Big Spender!

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his facebook page:

There are few policy questions more important for Democrats than how they’re going to handle the debate about deficits and the national debt. This is because every time Democrats come up with some good new programs that would actually help people and make the country better and more productive over the long haul, the standard response is: we can’t afford it, that would run up the debt, we’ll become like Greece, etc. That is, unless you want to raise taxes to cover every nickel of that spending–and good luck with that.

But the conventional economic wisdom on deficits and the debt is shifting–finally–and that should help Democrats keep their heads on straight about this stuff. It’ll still be a struggle to hold off the conservative attack dogs and their pals in the deficit hawk community. But there is hope that the ideological tide on government spending is turning.

Paul Krugman:

“[T]here are…two big questions [about the debt]. First, how much should we care about debt? Second, will a double standard continue to prevail? That is, will the deficit scolds suddenly get vocal again if and when Democrats regain power?

On the first question: One surprising thing about the debt obsession that peaked around 2011 is that it never had much basis in economic analysis. On the contrary, everything we know about fiscal policy says that it’s a mistake to focus on deficit reduction when unemployment is high and interest rates are low, as they were when the fiscal scolds were at their loudest.

The case for worrying about debt is stronger now, given low unemployment. But interest rates are still very low by historical standards — less than 1 percent after adjusting for inflation. This is so low that we needn’t fear that debt will snowball, with interest payments blowing up the deficit. It also suggests that we’re suffering from chronic weakness in private investment demand (which, by the way, the 2017 tax cut doesn’t seem to have boosted at all).

So in the past few months a number of prominent economists — including the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund and top economists from the Obama administration — have published analyses saying that even now, with unemployment quite low, debt is much less of a problem than previously thought…..

[B]orrowing at ultralow interest rates to pay for investments in the future — infrastructure, of course, but also things like nutrition and health care for the young, who are the workers of tomorrow — is very defensible.

Which brings us to the question of double standards.

You don’t have to agree with everything in proposals for a “Green New Deal” to acknowledge that it’s very much an investment program, not a mere giveaway. So it has been very dismaying to see how much commentary on these proposals either demands an immediate, detailed explanation of how Democrats would pay for their ideas, or dismisses the whole thing as impractical.”

Noah Smith:

“[E]conomists’ views on the subject of debt are changing. Economist Kenneth Rogoff, who once ran into criticism for a dubious claim that debt reduces growth, now advocates more deficit spending for the U.K. The IMF has softened its tone on debt, and is beginning to embrace the idea of fiscal stimulus for distressed economies. And Olivier Blanchard, a respected macroeconomist and former IMF chief economist, has a new paper questioning the idea that higher deficits would impose any real cost on the U.S. economy.

Blanchard begins with a simple observation: If the interest rate paid by the government is lower than the rate of economic growth, government debt doesn’t have to be paid down. Instead it can be infinitely rolled over, and as the economy grows, the debt burden will have a tendency to shrink all on its own. Blanchard notes that interest rates on short-term government debt have generally been lower than the rate of nominal GDP growth during the past few decades:…

Blanchard notes that effective borrowing costs may be even lower for the government, since some portion of the interest paid to bond holders gets taxed, ending up back in the government’s coffers. Taking this into account, he finds that during the past half-century, the U.S. almost always could have afforded to take on more government debt than it did.”

Sometimes you just gotta borrow the money. And quite frequently, and especially now, that’s fine.

2 comments on “Teixeira: Hey Big Spender!

  1. Martin Lawford on

    “Blanchard notes that interest rates on short-term government debt have generally been lower than the rate of nominal GDP growth during the past few decades:…”

    The average GDP growth has been 3% since 1930, so Blanchard is correct only if you include many years of brisk economic growth we haven’t seen lately. GDP growth hasn’t exceeded 5% since 1985 and has averaged only 1.48% since 2010. At every point since 2010, the six-month T-bill has always exceeded the average rate of economic growth. So, Blanchard’s idea might work if we were seeing rapid economic growth which exceeds the rate of short term government debt, but we haven’t seen conditions like that in three decades.

  2. Rod Watkins on

    In my opinion, conservatives are able to attack Democratic policies as being economically “soft” because we insist on framing our polices on humanitarian terms instead of economic ones. And for conservatives, as well as many independents, this simply reinforces their perception that democrats are fiscally-irresponsible at best, and socialists at worst. So when time we talk about humanitarian issues we simply throw more red meat to the conservative base, while doing little to expand on those people who will vote for liberal policies anyway.

    Yet our liberal DNA prevents us from positioning our policies in ways that “speak” to the concerns of true independents or even moderate republicans. For example, although it’s true that universal healthcare will address a fundamental humanitarian need, framing the issue in this manner amounts to preaching to the choir. Instead, we should be characterizing these policies, such as healthcare, in terms of how they will benefit the economy, such as getting people back to work faster or reducing the cost of emergency care. Ditto for climate change.

    Yet we don’t do this. As a result conservatives have been able to define the economic Overton Window, the space within which economic conversations occur and policy is formed. In doing so the “window” has shifted far to the right, so far that conservatives got away with passing a massive tax cut for the rich even though the economy was late in a growth cycle with historically low unemployment!

    What liberals need to do is shift the goal posts back to the left, which they can do by re-framing policies on economic terms. We also need to get out from under the cloud of socialism, especially as the conservatives will clobber us with the label in the 2020 elections. We do this simply by reframing policies that are currently depicted as socialism for what they really are, Sustainable Capitalism.

    That’s right. Policies that put more money into the hands of consumers are actually more economically-stimulative and thus pro-business than tax cuts will ever be, and there’s ample empirical evidence to support this. Because contrary to what trickle-down nonsense expects us to believe, economic expansion, and specifically the creation of jobs, only occurs when consumers demand enough goods and services to require greater levels of employment, resulting in an expanding economy. This causes a virtuous cycle in which greater employment drives yet more consumption, repeating the cycle of economic growth.

    Contrast this to Supplier Capitalism in which the economic resources of the consumer classes are stripped to enrich the wealthy, thereby reducing consumption and killing off the economic golden goose. Even worse is that the very recipients of this largess, the wealthy supplier classes, aren’t about to expand hiring until they see sustained strength in consumption, which is unlikely as they blatantly supported the very politicians and polices that stripped consumers of the buying power needed to sustain a capitalistic system.

    So the irony is that the liberal version of capitalism that puts consumers at the center of the economic universe is fact more economically sustainable than unsustainable, suppler capitalism, even though it’s perceived as being more fiscally-conservative. This is totally upside down, and until we address it conservatives will continue to enact dangerous economic policies.


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