The Deficit Hawks Have It Wrong

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/via AP Images

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell conduct a news conference 

Question for today: What is the connection between the Republican tax cuts, the rising federal deficit, and the wildly gyrating stock market? The answer is trickier than it seems.

Ever since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have relentlessly played the following cynical game. It has three basic moves.

One: Cut taxes on the wealthy. Insist that the cuts will not increase the deficit because of the tonic, “supply-side” effect on economic growth.

Two: When deficits increase, express shock; discover the menace of the national debt—and cut social spending.

Three: Rinse and repeat.

This fiscal spin cycle has been performed under Reagan, Bush I, Bush II (twice), and now Trump. The spending cuts typically occur under Democrats, who play the role of Fiscally Responsible Adults in this drama, thus putting Democrats at odds with their own ideology and constituency for public services, not to mention sensible economics.

After Republicans thrice looted the Treasury for the rich, deep cuts were ordered under Bill Clinton, and later under Barack Obama. Even worse, Clinton and Obama internalized the fiscal Kool-Aid and became true believers in the virtue of fiscal austerity.

Clinton even crowed that his policies put the federal budget into permanent surplus. Bush II quickly put an end to that surplus with two rounds of tax cuts, coupled with social spending cuts.

Obama temporarily increased spending to deal with a deep recession brought on by the economic collapse caused by financial deregulation. But Obama, as Fiscal Adult, felt so guilty about the deficits (caused mainly by the collapse, not by his modest stimulus spending) that he embraced a program of spending cuts even before Republicans took over Congress.

Now under Trump, we are back to phase one of the soaking. Taxes have been cut by $ 1.5 trillion over a decade. The deficit, which came down sharply under Obama, is headed skywards again.

The annual budget deficit, which steadily declined under Obama, thanks mainly to the economic recovery, from 10 percent to well under 3 percent of GDP, is projected to increase to 5 or 6 percent. And as another sign that they truly don’t care about deficits (during tax cutting season, anyway) Republicans, to close a two-year budget deal with Democrats, offered a rare agreement to increase some social spending along with military spending.

But this modest increase is hugely misleading, since discretionary social spending after several prior rounds of cuts is at its lowest level in several decades, well below the level of 2010 even with these restorations. And sure as night follows day, if Republicans keep control of Congress more cuts in social spending will come next year.

Should citizens be alarmed about the rising national debt? This brings us back to the tricky question that I posed at the outset—the connection between the tax cut, the projected deficit and the stock market wobble.

Basically, the stock market tanked because everyone knew it was overvalued and a correction was coming soon. Markets can’t keep going up at 20 percent per year when GDP only goes up 3 percent. The question was when the break would come.

The immediate trigger was a January report by the Labor Department that wages were at last rising because of low unemployment rates. Rising wages can be inflationary if corporations succeed in passing the costs along to the public in the form of higher prices, rather than taking them out of profits. But that may or may not occur.

Historically, central bankers have tried to preempt this inflation possibility by hiking interest rates, often long before it’s really needed.

It was this expectation of higher interest rates in the wake of that Labor Department report that triggered the first day of triple-digit decline in the Dow. Concern that the tax cut and the budget deal would further increase the deficit, leading to even more upward pressure on interest rates, poured oil on the flames.

But here’s where the story gets tricky. As central bank behavior during the long recovery shows, as long as underlying inflation pressures remain low, there is no need for deficits to raise interest rates—unless central banks revert to their usual folly.

Despite the belated increase in long-depressed wages, there is little general inflation on the horizon. And, if corporate America is to be believed, many companies are financing those (modest) wage increases out of their tax cuts, not out of price hikes.

So although it would be politically convenient for Democrats to blame the falling stock market on Trump, it would be an exaggeration to say the tax cuts “caused” the drop in stock prices. It would also be a big mistake as a matter of message and ideology.

The right criticism of Trump and the Republicans is not that they increased the deficit. The right criticism is that the Republicans needlessly gave a huge gift to billionaires.

Trump’s proposed $ 1.5 trillion infrastructure plan is a fake. It’s mainly privatization of public assets, with windfall profit opportunities for financiers paid for by consumers and local taxpayers. If you like privatized toll roads and more expensive water and sewer charges, you’ll love the Trump plan.

It would have been smart policy to increase the deficit by a trillion or more dollars, to finance true public investments in infrastructure and green transition. That would create jobs and increase productivity, in contrast to Trump’s phony plan.

Within broad limits, deficits can be accommodated, and Democrats have no business in the deficit-hawk camp. Even less should Democrats decry increases in workers’ wages. It’s no accident that the one senator who went nuts about the deficit was Rand Paul.

Indeed, if they do take back control of the Congress, the last thing Democrats should do is emulate the austerity policies of Clinton and Obama. Instead: cut back military spending and tax breaks for the rich, spend the money on public investments, and appoint a Fed chair in the spirit of Janet Yellen.

The stock market will take care of itself. Ditto the deficit.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Huffington Post. Subscribe here.

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