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Deficit Hawks Ignore the Wisdom of Spending, Are Obsessed with Cutting Benefits

If the current deficit were larger, we would have more jobs and growth. But many deficit hawks seem more interested in cutting benefits than economic truths.

The country in which most people live is experiencing an economic disaster. More than 25 million people are unemployed, underemployed, or have given up looking for work altogether. Tens of millions are now underwater on their mortgages, with millions facing the imminent loss of their homes. Furthermore, there is little prospect that the situation will improve anytime soon.

Many fewer live in the other America, the world of Wall Street and Washington lobbyists. This is where you’ll find former Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson and investment banker-turned-Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, the co-chairs of President Obama’s deficit commission, which on Wednesday outlined its plans for what it calls “fiscal responsibility.” In their world the key fact is that, today, corporate profits are back to their pre-recession peaks. As long as the bonuses on Wall Street are again hitting record highs, the economy must be just fine, so what else is there to do but worry about deficits?

It would be hard to understand how ostensibly serious people could be concerned about the deficit right now, unless we realize that they stand apart from the economic calamity that has engulfed most of the country. The suffering caused by this recession simply does not register on their radar screens.

This is not just a moral complaint, although it is troubling that the people most responsible for the economic wreckage are doing just fine. More important is that there is no evidence that Simpson, Bowles, and the rest of the deficit cutters have the slightest understanding of the economy. If they did they would be looking at the deficit in a completely different way.

First, the current deficit should not even be viewed as a problem. Yes, a deficit of $1.4 trillion is big, but this is a direct result of the loss of demand stemming from the collapse of an $8 trillion housing bubble. This bubble was driving the economy until its collapse. There were two channels through which the bubble generated demand in the economy: bubble-inflated house prices led to a boom in construction, bubble-inflated wealth led consumers to increase their spending, pushing saving rates to almost zero.

This demand has disappeared now that the bubble has deflated. The economy has lost more than $600 billion in annual construction demand as builders cut back in response to an enormous over-supply of both residential and non-residential property. Similarly, consumption has plummeted. This left an enormous gap in demand that, at least in the near-term, can only be filled by the government. If the government were to spend less—say it instantly balanced its budget—the primary result would be a further decline in demand and more job loss.

We are in a peculiar situation where the main problem for the economy is a lack of demand. More demand will mean more growth and more jobs. Government must supply demand because there is no other entity that can step forward to do it—unless someone gets very good at counterfeiting hundred dollar bills.

The failure to understand current deficits also leads to a misunderstanding of the debt burden. Simpson and Bowles raise fears of an exploding debt reaching 90 percent of GDP by the end of the decade. They have raised the prospect of a crushing interest burden facing future generations of taxpayers.

Simpson and Bowles decided to include cuts to Social Security in the mix, even though Social Security has not contributed to the deficit.

But there is no real basis for this concern. There is no reason that the Fed can’t just buy this debt (as it is largely doing) and hold it indefinitely. If the Fed holds the debt, there is no interest burden for future taxpayers. The Fed refunds its interest earnings to the Treasury every year. Last year the Fed refunded almost $80 billion in interest to the Treasury, nearly 40 percent of the country’s net interest burden. And the Fed has other tools to ensure that the expansion of the monetary base required to purchase the debt does not lead to inflation.

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