Shockingly, President Obama has announced his support for a commission whose purpose is to ramrod Social Security and Medicare cuts through Congress. Thinly disguised as a program for "deficit reduction," the proposed commission will meet its first test today, when the Senate may vote to authorize it as part of a bill to raise the national debt ceiling. A large progressive coalition is already on record against it. But the progressives' case is flawed; it's not tough enough. Here's why.
According to a press release issued by the Campaign for America's Future on January 20, describing the progressive coalition:
Speakers stressed the need for a long-term deficit reduction strategy.... Joan Entmacher of National Women's Law Center noted that responsible ways to cut the deficit were available now if austerity activists weren't only interested in attacking Social Security and Medicare.... Hillary Shelton of the NAACP said the responsibility for debt reduction should remain with democratically elected representatives from each congressional district...Now, when our civil rights leaders speak of deficits, no one supposes they do so from deep conviction. It's a political move. They are intoning phrases calculated to lend a tone of respectability to a larger and more important cause. That cause -- in this case protecting Social Security and Medicare from predators on Wall Street -- is a good one. But good political purposes don't guarantee good economics. And, let me argue, if the economics are based, as they are here, on a false premise, then you can't make the politics work in your favor.
The CAF coalition concedes that "long-term deficit reduction" is vital. But why? No reason is given. Are they worried about a threat of inflation? If so, why not look at interest rates? Last December's average 20-year Treasury bond rate was 4.40 percent -- lower than it was before the crash sent deficits soaring. Clearly, the markets aren't worried -- or the government would have to pay more to borrow. Equally obviously, the markets aren't worried about "default" or "national bankruptcy" either. Investors know those concepts don't apply to the government of the United States.
And once you concede that deficits are actually bad, you're boxed in. If you exclude Social Security and Medicare, there is no way to cut deficits seriously (short- or long-term, on unchanged economic assumptions) except by slashing the Pentagon or by raising taxes. If you had to do something, I agree, those would be better moves. But good luck. It's not a political battle one can win.
CAF leaders try to escape the box by arguing that deficit reduction should be "long-term" -- but that we need more "up-front" spending, stimulus and investment for now. But Social Security's enemies are playing for the long term. So long as they can put Social Security and Medicare on the path to destruction over time, they'll be happy -- and quite willing to make some "short-term" concessions to reach that goal.
So the fetish of long-term deficit reduction is politically poisonous -- and economically pointless. In reality, we need big budget deficits. We need them now. We need bigger deficits than we've got, to stabilize state and local governments and to provide jobs and payroll tax relief. And we may need them for a long time, on an increasing scale, and in the service of a sustained investment strategy aimed at solving our jobs, energy, environment and climate change problems. To pretend that expansionary policies are needed only for now, gives all this away.
The public deficit is just the obverse of net private savings. That is, when private credit is booming, investment exceeds saving and deficits tend to disappear. That's what happened in the 1990s. When credit collapses, deficits return. That's what's happening now. Large long-term deficits will occur, or not, depending only on whether we succeed in generating a new growth cycle, financed by the expansion of private credit. Policies to cut spending or raise taxes -- now or for that matter in the future -- contribute nothing to this goal.
Financial reform and debt relief are therefore the only paths to public deficit reduction.; It would be nice to have them, for the economy works better and people are happier when they can borrow and invest privately. But if we don't get them, the alternative isn't a "return to fiscal responsibility." It's a choice between large public budget deficits that fund important and useful activities and tax relief, or large deficits because the recession, housing slump and high unemployment drag on and on, all made worse by cuts in Social Security, Medicare and other public spending.
Yes, we must defend Social Security and Medicare from Wall Street and its political agents -- which now, sadly, include the Obama White House. But we'll lose on that -- and everything else -- if we start by giving up the fight for an aggressive, effective, sustained and long-range economic recovery program, deficits and all.
James K. Galbraith is the author of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, and of a new preface to The Great Crash, 1929, by John Kenneth Galbraith. He teaches at The University of Texas at Austin.