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Obama, Forget the Deficit and Take a Stand for Job Creation

Congress will either cut government outlay before a full economic recovery, or increase public spending and put Americans back to work. Much depends on Obama's leadership.

This fall, Congress will either follow the conventional wisdom and prematurely cut government outlay before an economic recovery arrives, or it will increase public spending, put jobless Americans back to work, and reduce the deficit in a less painful fashion thanks to increasing economic tailwinds. The road that Congress takes depends on presidential leadership.

Until very recently, deficit hawks were hogging every available megaphone, claiming that deficits and debts were more ominous than protracted joblessness and recession. But you know that this foolish consensus is beginning to crack when political moderates such as columnist Matt Miller, budget guru Robert Greenstein, and Yale economist Robert Shiller take a different view.

Greenstein, who heads the influential Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), bows to nobody in his longstanding concern about unsustainably large deficits. CBPP's latest paper, by Greenstein's close colleague Paul Van de Water, takes issue with the premise articulated by Erskine Bowles, chair of Obama's own commission on budget reform, that the federal budget should be balanced at about 21 percent of GDP, roughly the postwar average.

But as Van de Water points out in his paper, released July 28:

Such recommendations, however, fail to take account of fundamental changes in society and government -- the aging of the population, substantial increases in health care costs, and new federal responsibilities in areas such as homeland security, education, and prescription drug coverage for seniors. These factors make the expenditure levels of several decades ago inapplicable today. A careful analysis of these factors indicates that it will not be possible to maintain federal expenditures at their average level for decades back to 1970 without making draconian cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and an array of other vital federal activities.

Matt Miller, a longtime budgetary moderate, made a similar argument in Wednesday's Washington Post, noting that spending was well above 21% of GDP under Reagan.

Miller added:

Reagan ran government at this size at a time when 76 million baby boomers weren't about to hit their rocking chairs. In 1988, 32 million retirees received Social Security and 33 million were on Medicare, our two biggest domestic programs. By 2020, about 48 million elderly Americans will receive Social Security, and 62 million Americans will be on Medicare (then the numbers really soar).... Health costs in the Reagan era were around 10 percent of GDP, while they're now 17 percent, headed toward 20. Obviously we need a national crusade to make health-care delivery more efficient. But until there's progress on this front, the 21 percent goal would be tantamount to Democrats agreeing that Uncle Sam should handle health care, pensions, defense and little else.

Obviously, government needs to spend more money, both to get the economy out of the deep jobs recession, and then to meet other commitments valued by citizens. The only way to accomplish these goals is not to get hung up on deficits in the short run -- to spend what it takes to put Americans back to work and then raise taxes on the wealthy so that we can have a more balanced fiscal picture -- but that could be social outlay of 25 percent or even 30 percent of GDP.

Another mainstream economist, Yale's Robert Shiller, author of the book that warned of the financial collapse, Irrational Exuberance, recently wrote in the New York Times that government needed to spend more money putting people back to work directly -- breaking an Obama administration taboo. Obama economic policy chief Larry Summers opposes Roosevelt-style direct jobs programs, and stimulus spending has been carefully directed to the states and the private sector. But Shiller wrote:

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