The Pasty Little Putz and Krugman

The Pasty Little Putz is going to ‘splain “The Method to Their Madness,” and tells us that there are reasons why the Republican Party has its heels dug in on the debt ceiling.  Prof. Krugman, in “No, We Can’t? Or Won’t?”, says our failure to create jobs is a choice rationalized by an ever-shifting set of excuses.  Here’s The Putz:

The Republican Party’s strategy in the debt-ceiling negotiations has baffled centrists and vindicated liberals. For months, the party’s leaders have repeatedly turned down deals that would cut spending significantly because their members won’t compromise on taxes. To moderates, this intransigence is inexplicable: Are they crazy? To the left, it’s all-too-predictable: See, we told you they were crazy!

But there is a method to the Republicans’ madness, and it rests on four things they know (or at least sense) about the deficit debate that the rest of the political class often ignores.

Barack Obama wants a right-leaning deficit deal. For months, liberals have expressed frustration with the president’s deficit strategy. The White House made no effort to tie a debt ceiling vote to the extension of the Bush tax cuts last December. It pre-emptively conceded that any increase in the ceiling should be accompanied by spending cuts. And every time Republicans dug in their heels, the administration gave ground.

The not-so-secret secret is that the White House has given ground on purpose. Just as Republicans want to use the debt ceiling to make the president live with bigger spending cuts than he would otherwise support, Obama’s political team wants to use the leverage provided by those cra-a-a-zy Tea Partiers to make Democrats live with bigger spending cuts than they normally would support.

Why? Because the more conservative-seeming the final deal, the better for the president’s re-election effort. In that environment, Republicans have every incentive to push and keep pushing. Since any deal they cut will be used as an election-year prop in 2012, they need to make sure the president actually earns his budget-cutting bona fides.

Tax increases are lurking just over the horizon. The White House hasn’t made spending concessions just because the president wants to campaign as a deficit cutter next year. It has made concessions because it knows that taxes are already scheduled to go up when the Bush-era tax rates expire at the end of 2012.

If Obama gains a second term, Congressional Republicans will have to choose between a deal that lets the top rate go back to 39 percent (a $700 billion tax increase over 10 years) or no deal at all (a $3.8 trillion tax increase). Obviously, this dilemma won’t exist if President Mitt Romney occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But Obama’s re-election is the more likely scenario, meaning that any deal struck this summer comes with a very large asterisk attached: *Includes tax increases to be named later.

Bipartisan budget deals usually deliver fewer spending cuts than they promise. The grand bargains of the past haven’t been as bad for conservatives as right-wing mythology sometimes makes them out to be. As a share of G.D.P., federal spending fell faster in the decade after George H. W. Bush broke his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge and cut a deficit deal with Congressional Democrats than it did during the Reagan era.

But in absolute terms, no bipartisan bargain in the last three decades has delivered anywhere near the spending reductions that it promised. (As The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein notes, by 1995 actual spending was $58 billion higher than it was projected to be when Bush the Elder and the Democrats reached their 1990 agreement.) Bipartisan tax increases, by contrast, always seem to happen as scheduled.

The long-term deck is stacked in favor of tax increases. For decades, the tug-of-war between left and right has kept government’s share of the economy nearly constant, around 19 percent of G.D.P. But in what you might call the revenge of Lyndon Johnson, the ballooning cost of Medicare is poised to tilt the debate decisively toward liberalism.

For now, tax increases and entitlement cuts are equally unpopular. But with every passing year, the constituency for letting Medicare grow as scheduled gets bigger and bigger, and the clout of working-age taxpayers diminishes. Already, even a relatively radical proposal like Paul Ryan’s budget seems compelled to exempt current retirees from its Medicare reforms. Imagine how the landscape will look in a decade.

These are the realities driving Republican intransigence. Past experience, present politics and future trends all suggest that conservatives should be aiming for the nearly perfect in the current negotiation, rather than the merely good.

But this logic also cuts both ways. Precisely because conservatives have a window of opportunity that they may not have again, there’s also a strong case to be made for striking the biggest possible deal — even if that deal requires concessions that a smaller deal does not.

At the moment, Republicans seem to be moving toward a smaller, purer bargain. Depending on what’s being offered, that may be the right course. But self-described “constitutional conservatives” should remember that Mr. Madison’s ingenious system doesn’t just require compromise. Sometimes it rewards it as well.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman, who actually knows what he’s talking about:

If you were shocked by Friday’s job report, if you thought we were doing well and were taken aback by the bad news, you haven’t been paying attention. The fact is, the United States economy has been stuck in a rut for a year and a half.

Yet a destructive passivity has overtaken our discourse. Turn on your TV and you’ll see some self-satisfied pundit declaring that nothing much can be done about the economy’s short-run problems (reminder: this “short run” is now in its fourth year), that we should focus on the long run instead.

This gets things exactly wrong. The truth is that creating jobs in a depressed economy is something government could and should be doing. Yes, there are huge political obstacles to action — notably, the fact that the House is controlled by a party that benefits from the economy’s weakness. But political gridlock should not be conflated with economic reality.

Our failure to create jobs is a choice, not a necessity — a choice rationalized by an ever-shifting set of excuses.

Excuse No. 1: Just around the corner, there’s a rainbow in the sky.

Remember “green shoots”? Remember the “summer of recovery”? Policy makers keep declaring that the economy is on the mend — and Lucy keeps snatching the football away. Yet these delusions of recovery have been an excuse for doing nothing as the jobs crisis festers.

Excuse No. 2: Fear the bond market.

Two years ago The Wall Street Journal declared that interest rates on United States debt would soon soar unless Washington stopped trying to fight the economic slump. Ever since, warnings about the imminent attack of the “bond vigilantes” have been used to attack any spending on job creation.

But basic economics said that rates would stay low as long as the economy was depressed — and basic economics was right. The interest rate on 10-year bonds was 3.7 percent when The Wall Street Journal issued that warning; at the end of last week it was 3.03 percent.

How have the usual suspects responded? By inventing their own reality. Last week, Representative Paul Ryan, the man behind the G.O.P. plan to dismantle Medicare, declared that we must slash government spending to “take pressure off the interest rates” — the same pressure, I suppose, that has pushed those rates to near-record lows.

Excuse No. 3: It’s the workers’ fault.

Unemployment soared during the financial crisis and its aftermath. So it seems bizarre to argue that the real problem lies with the workers — that the millions of Americans who were working four years ago but aren’t working now somehow lack the skills the economy needs.

Yet that’s what you hear from many pundits these days: high unemployment is “structural,” they say, and requires long-term solutions (which means, in practice, doing nothing).

Well, if there really was a mismatch between the workers we have and the workers we need, workers who do have the right skills, and are therefore able to find jobs, should be getting big wage increases. They aren’t. In fact, average wages actually fell last month.

Excuse No. 4: We tried to stimulate the economy, and it didn’t work.

Everybody knows that President Obama tried to stimulate the economy with a huge increase in government spending, and that it didn’t work. But what everyone knows is wrong.

Think about it: Where are the big public works projects? Where are the armies of government workers? There are actually half a million fewer government employees now than there were when Mr. Obama took office.

So what happened to the stimulus? Much of it consisted of tax cuts, not spending. Most of the rest consisted either of aid to distressed families or aid to hard-pressed state and local governments. This aid may have mitigated the slump, but it wasn’t the kind of job-creation program we could and should have had. This isn’t 20-20 hindsight: some of us warned from the beginning that tax cuts would be ineffective and that the proposed spending was woefully inadequate. And so it proved.

It’s also worth noting that in another area where government could make a big difference — help for troubled homeowners — almost nothing has been done. The Obama administration’s program of mortgage relief has gone nowhere: of $46 billion allotted to help families stay in their homes, less than $2 billion has actually been spent.

So let’s summarize: The economy isn’t fixing itself. Nor are there real obstacles to government action: both the bond vigilantes and structural unemployment exist only in the imaginations of pundits. And if stimulus seems to have failed, it’s because it was never actually tried.

Listening to what supposedly serious people say about the economy, you’d think the problem was “no, we can’t.” But the reality is “no, we won’t.” And every pundit who reinforces that destructive passivity is part of the problem.

 

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