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The Village Still Ignores the Most Important Point

8:48 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In recent posts I reviewed two commentaries by Abby Huntsman on Social Security and other entitlements, also noting points made in other critiques of her narratives. Abby’s commentaries are here, and here, and my critiques are here and here. The most important point I emphasized in my two rebuttals is that there are no fiscal solvency or sustainability issues related to Social Security, or other parts of the safety net, but that the issues involve only the willingness of Congress to appropriate entitlement spending, and either the removal of current constraints on Treasury to spend appropriations such as the debt limit, or the willingness of the Executive Branch to use its current legislative authority either to a) generate sufficient seigniorage from platinum coins to spend such appropriations; or b) use a type of debt instrument, such as consols, which aren’t counted toward the debt limit.

The day before I posted my second reply to Abby Huntsman, Richard J. Eskow and WeActRadio posted this video clip from Eskow’s radio broadcast. In his critique, Richard shows that Abby Huntsman’s treatment of Social Security and entitlements is full of misleading information and hews closely to the narrative offered by Alan Simpson, Pete Peterson, and organizations supported by Peterson funding, and he calls for the MSNBC producers of “The Cycle” to issue statements correcting the facts, and to give Abby’s co-hosts on The Cycle a chance to reply to her about social security. Read the rest of this entry →

How to Restore the Good Name of Government

2:28 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

There are four very important things the president can do before the elections of 2014 that would help to restore some faith in Government and, as a by-product, at least tentative trust in the possibility that renewed Government deficit spending may help people.

Why is it that Washington village “progressives,” and their associates in other parts of the country who are nevertheless part of the Washington village culture, often ask useful questions, but, almost always deliver, underwhelming answers? Here’s an example from Richard Eskow, probably the best writer at Campaign for the American Future.

How do we restore the good name of government spending, which is especially important during periods of high unemployment and slow growth like these? First, by supporting those politicians who are unafraid to make the case. Second, by demanding that the reluctant ones take a bolder stand – without mixing their messages between spending and premature austerity. Third, by rejecting the insanity that today’s Republican Party represents. Some in the GOP are even opposing infrastructure spending – as America’s bridges, schools, highways and dams decay around us.

Underwhelming, right? Why? First, because there aren’t too many politicians who are unafraid to make the case. Second, because people who are reluctant aren’t likely to respond to only “demands” from people who fiercely desire more government spending. Third, because merely rejecting Republican insanity is very unlikely to cut it, since that is what Democrats have been doing and it seems to be having little or no effect. And fourth, because the only way to restore faith in Government spending is to take actions that have consequences that are highly visible and unambiguously good for the vast majority of people. In other words, those who want to restore faith in Government spending have to get the Government to take actions delivering things for people that they see as important. So, how can this be done?

At this juncture, little can be done that involves the Congress because Republicans and Democratic corporatists won’t let it happen. They won’t legislate anything useful before the election.

Nor will they legislate anything useful after it unless 1) Democrats get a majority in both Houses and 2) Democrats who constitute those majorities are willing to move away from corporatism and legislate in the interests of people. So, if something can be done in this area, it must be done by the President. There are four very important things he can do before the elections of 2014 that would help to restore some faith in Government and, as a by-product, at least tentative trust in the possibility that renewed Government deficit spending may help people.

1. The President can re-institute the rule of law in the area of national security and secrecy by ending mass surveillance of the US population immediately, ceasing all investigations and attempts at prosecutions of journalists who have been trying to tell the public about the overreach of our intelligence agencies, beginning investigations and prosecutions of intelligence operatives who have broken existing laws in gathering intelligence, ending current prosecutions of whistle blowers, and issuing pardons for those who already have been tried, convicted, and jailed.

2. The President can re-institute the rule of law in the area of FIRE sector control and mortgage frauds by beginning investigations and prosecutions of high level executives at too big to fail FIRE sector organizations who have committed fraud including those that caused the financial collapse of 2008, which, in turn, led to the Great Recession and the destruction of so much middle class wealth.

These first two initiatives are supremely important because they will deliver a very visible presidential message that the Government is re-instituting honest government and a single system of law, which, in turn, will give people some reason to believe that renewed spending by the Government will be carried out honestly for the benefit of people, and not for the benefit of FIRE, health care, energy and other elite corporations. Giving people this is an essential step in restoring faith in additional spending, since from their point of view, it looks like the financial power of Government has been used to save big corporations and Wall Street and see to it that they prosper, while leaving working people and home owners to twist slowly in the economic winds of “the long depression” (Eskow’s memorable phrase). How can they believe that renewed spending will help them if they believe that the Government promising good results from new spending is a corrupt government, in the pocket of the 1% or perhaps even the 0.001%?

3. The President can next do something that is very essential to developing widespread support for renewing spending, because it will make plain that the US Government has and always will have whatever amount of funds it will take to create full employment and to finally end the long depression. The President has to remove the perceived problem of the national debt from the consciousness of the public by paying off a large proportion of it WITHOUT running economy-destroying surpluses. There’s only one way that can be done by the President acting alone right now, in time to affect the campaign environment in the 2014 election by eliminating the debt as an issue backing continued austerity propaganda.

That way is to cause the US Mint to create and deposit a platinum coin with a face value high enough to repay the debt subject to the limit entirely as it falls due, and to cover deficit spending for a long period of time thereafter. If the President does that, and sees to it (as he has the power to do) that the Mint’s account, and ultimately the Treasury’s spending account are credited with reserves equal to the value of the seigniorage resulting from the Mint’s deposit at the Fed; and also, if he follows that up by immediately paying off a large percentage of the debt, then everyone will know that the seigniorage is being used to get rid of the debt quickly.

When people know this they will know two other things. One, that the Treasury is easily paying off the debt, and two, that it has and always can easily create whatever funds it needs to follow through on its promises to end the long depression without either cutting spending or raising taxes. This will be a revelation to people which the President and the Democratic Party must drive home.

4. The White House and the Democratic Party must then run a campaign advocating a list of programs people will immediately view as likely to solve their economic problems. These must promise full employment recovery within a year using full payroll tax cuts and a Job Guarantee program at a living wage with good fringe benefits, strengthening social security and other trust fund programs by guaranteeing their annual spending regardless of the size of their trust fund balances, and by greatly increasing the size of safety net benefits and the protections they afford in case of inflation, truly universal and comprehensive health care using enhanced Medicare for All, revenue sharing for states on a proportional basis by population, fixing US infrastructure over 5 years, fixing the Housing crisis with various specific measures redressing the injustices done to homeowners by the big banks since 2007, fixing the student loan crisis with a “debt jubilee” and a grant program covering post-secondary education, and, lastly, dealing with environmental, climate change, and sustainability issues with a massive 5 year transition away from fossils fuels and nuclear and to renewable energy.

Democrats must then meet the cynicism and ridicule greeting these campaign promises by guaranteeing that if people give them a victory, then they will get rid of the Senate filibuster and other impediments to rapid action, and will legislate their program within the two year period of the next Congress without fail. These guarantees must be backed with a further promise not to run for re-election if they break any of their promises. Only then will some of the cynicism greeting their promises be dispelled.

Finally, these Democratic promises will surely be met with a campaign emphasizing the bogeyman of hyperinflation. Democratic promises will be estimated in a primitive way totaling up what will they cost over the two year period. The assumption will be made that they won’t be countered by automatic stabilizers producing increasing fiscal drag as the US approaches full recovery.

Democrats will have to respond with their own projections estimating that drag. It will come from gradual and automatic re-imposition of payroll tax cuts calibrated to kick in gradually as unemployment decreases, and gradual shrinking in Government spending on the Job Guarantee (JG) program as the private sector responds to increased demand by hiring people from the JG rolls.

In addition, it will come from increasing private sector savings and increasing trade deficits as recovery moves forward. It will also come from the White House working with Congress to phase in some of the programs I’ve mentioned gradually and in response to increasing fiscal drag.

The bottom line is that if the Democrats are successful in winning the Congress in 2014, and in legislating these programs, then faith in Government will be restored. But, there will be a fly in the ointment, as there is always is in life. The debates over fiscal policy will shift to debates about the likelihood of inflation, and managing the economy to avoid inflation at full employment will become a prime concern. We will have traded increasing government illegitimacy, chronic unemployment, stagnation, and “long depression” problems for renewed faith in government, full employment, prosperity, and inflation concerns.

That’s a great trade-off for all of us, I think. And I will take it anytime over the current neoliberal evolution toward a feudal/fascistic order.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Photo by l’ennui d’ennui, used under Creative Commons license

What Happens Now?

7:12 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In the aftermath of the great 2013 government shutdown/debt ceiling crisis, and the kicking of the can down the road while maintaining austerity once more, the subject on many minds is where do negotiations over fiscal policy go from here? Will the new “budget committee” produce more austerity and do a grand bargain including the “chained CPI”? Will Congress finally turn towards economic growth and job creation, or will we continue to have more shutdowns and debt ceiling crises in 2014?

Chained CPI and the “Grand Bargain”

Let’s begin with “chained CPI” and possible “Grand Bargains.” The President seems to still want one, but the question is, does anyone else? And, if they don’t, can he still get it through?

It’s dangerous for anyone running in 2014 to vote for chained CPI. Surveys show that overwhelming majorities of all Americans want no cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and also that 40% of tea party respondents are 55 or over, and are not likely to support such cuts, either. Nor do they appear to be anti- “their” Medicare. It’s the corporate Republicans who oppose these things. So, I don’t think the corporate Republicans would get much love from the tea baggers for supporting entitlement cuts, apart from Medicaid, which I think the tea party views as welfare. Certainly any credit the Congressional Republicans would get from their tea party base for voting for “chained CPI” would not outweigh their having given in on the CR and the rise in the debt ceiling just passed.

So what can the corporate Republicans in Congress gain from voting for chained CPI? Very little, I think, unless the Democrats get behind it, and then they can run against the Democrats as having sold out Social Security, as long as not many Republicans vote for it. In that case, however, the Democrats won’t have enough cover to vote for it, so they are unlikely to do so.

So, then we have to ask, what can induce the Democrats to vote for entitlement cuts knowing it will hurt them in the elections? Will the President be a big factor in the Congressional elections? He wasn’t in the elections of 2012, and, he was a negative in the 2010 wave election. Can he deliver votes by campaigning for other Democrats? Does he even want to? Does it matter to Congressional Democrats if he gets annoyed at most of them? I doubt all of these things.

Why will Patty Murray and Harry Reid (both of whom may want to run again in 2016) vote for chained CPI? To end the sequester? As Joan McCarter says, the coming second round of the sequester hurts the Republicans more than the Democrats. So, where’s the incentive for Democrats to go along with the President on chained CPI? I don’t think there is any.

If the President wants chained CPI this Spring, then he needs to assemble a corporate, Wall Street-supporting coalition from both parties, and that has to be large enough for a majority in the House. Since many Republicans would see passing the chained CPI as a victory for the President if he continues to support it, and the Democrats in Congress don’t, then we’re talking about a situation where the Tea Partiers and their allies would be called upon to pull the President’s chestnut out of the fire. How many votes do you suppose he’d get from the Tea Partiers and other Republicans for this? Keeping in mind that they just got 144 votes in the House to continue the ruinous shutdown/debt ceiling crisis, maybe 40, or 50? Or even that many, given that they’ll want to run against the Democrats on Social Security in 2014, if possible, and won’t see any political gain in holding hands with him as everyone jumps off the “I voted against SS” cliff?

And how many House Democrats would he get to play along? 150? 100? More? I think if he can’t get 200, an almost impossible outcome with at least 90 “progressives” very uncomfortable with the proposal, then this dog won’t hunt. The more he’s likely to fall short, the more likely it is that Democrats will see themselves as walking the plank for nothing, and will just run away from the proposal, and vote against it if need be.

Now you may see this scenario as far-fetched, because you may be thinking there would be some big omnibus deal with the Republicans that chained CPI would just get tucked into, and that would be irresistible for “progressive” Democrats. But what do the Republicans have to give? They certainly won’t offer any additional taxes on the wealthy. That’s poison to them. And they certainly won’t offer any increased deficit spending, say on infrastructure, because that would weaken the deficit/debt play they plan to run for all they’re worth in the election, and also because they know that infrastructure spending will reduce unemployment, and perhaps improve prospects for Congressional Democrats in the elections.

So what can they offer? Only concessions on the sequester. But here, if Pelosi, Murray and Reid play tough, as they certainly ought to do, then as Joan McCarter explains, the Republicans either have to shoot themselves in the foot again by keeping in place the sequester, or they would have to come to agreement. Then, if the Democrats know what’s good for them in 2014 (not a sure thing by any means, but still likely, in light of how well refusal to budge has served them over the past two weeks), then they won’t accept anything less than full lifting of the sequester. It’s harmed the economy for long enough, we need them to get rid of it, and they need that too.

The Republicans will then play games proposing lifting the parts of the sequester they don’t like, while giving the Dems nothing or only very little. At this point the Democrats need to take an all or nothing position on the sequester, rejecting the Republican’s salami tactics, and calling on the public for an end to the sequester nonsense, which has hurt the economy so grievously already.

The Rs will respond either by agreeing to lift it, or they will refuse. If they refuse, then the Democrats get to blame them for the down economy, we will surely see in the run up to the election, and the Democrats can run against that down economy which they would then claim was caused by the Republican shutdown, multiple debt ceiling crises, sequester, and blocking of any efforts to lower unemployment with jobs programs. (“They promised us “jobs,” “jobs,” “jobs,” and what did we get? Debt ceiling crises, sequesters, a government shutdown, more unemployment, and an economy in the ditch.)

Given that CBO projections will probably show the deficit going down to $400 Billion or less in FY 2014, which is about 2.5% of GDP, the Republican emphasis on “teh debt” and the deficit will not trump a Democratic campaign blaming Republicans for the lack of recovery and calling for jobs programs. Add to the above themes the Republican War on women, and suppression of voting rights of seniors, blacks, hispanics, and urbanites, and we have a Democratic victory in 2014 large enough to get back the House and keep the Senate.

Given all this, I don’t think there will be any Grand Bargain or chained CPI “compromise” in the near future and in the run-up to the election. It just makes no political sense for most Democrats and many Republicans. It may come up again in the lame duck and possibly in the next Congress, Republican or Democrat, if the President continues to push it. But I don’t think we’ll see it again this fiscal year.

Continued Austerity?

What we will see however, is continuing austerity from CRs or budget agreements, whether or not the sequester is lifted. Where a trade deficit exists, Government austerity is either running a surplus, or a deficit so low that it doesn’t make up for the leakage in demand due to the trade deficit. Let’s say one’s trade deficit is 3.5% of GDP, then the Sectoral Financial Balances (SFB) Model (whose terms refer to flows of financial assets among the three sectors of the economy in any defined period of time):

Domestic Private Balance + Domestic Government Balance + Foreign Balance = 0

tells us that the domestic private sector, taken as a whole, can’t increase its net financial assets, unless the Government has a deficit greater than 3.5%. And, if we wanted to provide for the domestic private sector to save 6% while it was running that 3.5% trade deficit, anything less than a Government deficit of 9.5% of GDP would not meet that objective.

Of course, no budget proposed by anyone in Congress or the White House envisions a deficit this large. Patty Murray’s Senate Budget proposed in the Spring of 2013 envisioned a 4.2% of GDP deficit for FY 2014, just a bit more than the austerity boundary of 3.5%. Paul Ryan’s House Budget proposed a 3.2% deficit, which is an austerity budget, in the precise sense that given a 3.5% trade deficit, it would entail the private sector running a deficit and losing 0.3% in net financial assets.

Will either a compromise bill coming out of the budget committee, or a CR, after a failure to agree on a budget, be closer to Ryan’s or Murray’s deficit figure? I think it will be closer to Ryan’s; partly because the Congress just passed a CR for the first approximately three months of the fiscal year that is closer to Ryan’s view than to Murray’s and which maintains the sequester, and partly because I doubt that the Democrats will even propose a more expansive budget involving a deficit, but will just focus on getting the sequester removed in early 2014, and will then turn to other problems and to positioning themselves for the fall elections.

Growth and Jobs or Shutdowns and Debt Ceiling Crises?

I think the answer is neither. We may have shutdown and debt ceiling threats before the 2014 elections; but we will not have either of these types of crises, because the cost in public opinion, if it keeps trending the way it has been, will be too heavy for many Republican candidates, except for those in the reddest gerrymandered districts, to bear in 2014. I believe they know this, and that many of them are increasingly willing to chance getting primaried by tea party candidates in order to avoid probable defeat from Democrats, if they toe the tea party line and then try to run.

So, I think the shutdowns and debt ceiling scares are over until after the elections. That means there will have to be an agreement on a CR for the first part of FY 2015 by next October 1. That will happen because there’s no way the Republicans will chance another hostage-taking taking a month before the next elections.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that there will be very little growth and very few new jobs. If the sequester remains in place for the rest of FY 2014, unemployment is likely to increase, not decrease, because Government will continue to be a fiscal drag on the economy, and the private sector is likely to avoid expansion without increased demand. That demand could be manufactured by a credit bubble; but it doesn’t look like that is in the offing for 2014. So, the shortfall in demand produced by the Government will not be made up from private sector spending.

On the other hand, if the sequester is lifted, then this will make some difference. We will probably see declining unemployment if that happens, but since the deficit was much too small to sustain a vigorous expansion, even before the sequester, the decline in unemployment, increased job creation, and economic growth, will all happen only slowly, and by election time we will still see an unhappy public, but maybe one that is a little more hopeful about the future than we are now seeing.

I don’t know yet whether the falloff in economic activity due to Government austerity or near austerity, will be enough to produce another recession in the middle of this long stagnation period, Richard Eskow has aptly named “the long depression.” But there is some chance that this will happen before the fall elections. If it does, then we will see a messaging war on who bears the blame for the downturn, and the outcome of the elections will hang on the outcome of that war.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Richard Eskow Asks: Which Side Are You On?

9:32 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Education Social Security

Education Social Security

Richard Eskow of the Center for the American Future, posted a very good one a couple of days ago. He used the old union meme “which side are you on” to beat up the President and Congress about Social Security being placed on the negotiating table. I thought his writing on it was striking. Here’s some of it:

“This is a moment of moral clarity. Right now there are only two sides in the Social Security debate: the side that says it’s acceptable to cut benefits – in a way that raises taxes for all income except the highest – and the side that says it isn’t.

“It’s time to ask our leaders – and ourselves – a simple question: Which side are you on?”

“Nancy Pelosi says she can convince most Congressional Democrats to “stick with the President” as he pursues his gratuitous and callous plan to cut Social Security benefits as part of a deficit deal – even though Social Security does not contribute to the deficit.”

I certainly hope that Nancy Pelosi cannot convince most Democrats to risk their seats and prepare the way for a Republican sweep in 2014 by voting to cut SS. The Republicans will respond to this by casting themselves as the protectors of SS, and while this is ridiculous, the Democrats will not be credible in claiming that they are its protectors, and they will lose their identity as the protectors of the safety net, a very high price to pay for the sake of raising taxes on the rich by an amount that is insignificant in the greater scheme of things. Eskow goes on:

“Excuse me: Stick with the President? What about sticking with our seniors and our veterans? What about sticking with our disabled fellow Americans? What What about sticking with the more than 4,000 children on Social Security who lost a parent in the Iraq War?

“If you want to “stick with” Americans on Social Security, it’s time to call everybody who represents you in Washington – your Representative, your Senator, your President – and tell them that they’ll lose your support if they do this deal.

“It’s time for an end to the Orwellian doublespeak. Cutting benefits won’t “strengthen” Social Security, as Nancy Pelosi claims. Cuts of 6.5 percent for a 75 year old and 9.2 percent for a 95 year old aren’t so small that “folks won’t even notice ‘em,” as President Obama claimed. They’re not a “technical” adjustment, as his press secretary argued, nor do “most economists believe … this about getting a proper measure of inflation.

“The smart economists know that even today’s cost of living formula isn’t enough. It undercounts the things older and disabled people use the most, like health care and public transportation. Some other people know the formula’s inadequate, too: Seniors. They live with the costs every day.

“So let’s stop all the double-talk and get down to the real question at hand: Which side are you on?”

The framing is “which side are you on”? Will you stick with the President and the people, who will do a deal at any costs, or will you stick with seniors and the American people. This reminds me of the frame Randy Wray recently used in one of his posts on re-framing MMT. That framing came from Bruce Springsteen: Read the rest of this entry →