The same conservatives who spent the past year senselessly screaming about the U.S. budget deficit are now demanding an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich. The extension simply doesn’t make sense, and the policies implied are a recipe for massive job loss in the middle of the worst employment crisis in 75 years.
As William Greider explains for The Nation, the major problem facing the U.S. economy is not the budget deficit, but the prospect of deflation. Deflation was one of the driving forces behind the Great Depression. Under deflation, the value of money increases, which drives prices down. When millions of Americans are deep in debt, deflation makes those debts much larger. It also creates total economic paralysis, as Greider explains:
Deflation essentially tells everyone to hunker down and wait. Instead of buying big-ticket items, consumers wait for prices to fall further. Instead of investing in new production, companies wait for cheaper opportunities, cheaper labor.
In other words, nothing happens. And when nothing happens, the economy falls apart. Instead of spending money now while it’s still valuable, everybody just waits for it to accumulate value. Businesses lay off workers and workers don’t spend money, creating a vicious cycle in which prices fall further because nobody has any money to buy anything with.
Deflation Over Deficit
There are time-tested ways to fend off deflation. The Fed can cut interest rates, and the federal government can spend money—lots of money—putting people to work. But instead, conservative politicians are emphasizing the budget deficit, claiming that without immediate action to cut the deficit, the U.S. economy will collapse. As I note for AlterNet, the deficit is only a problem if it creates very high interest rates (our current rates are at record lows) or if it leads to severe inflation, as governments print loads of money to pay off their debts. But we aren’t seeing inflation—instead, we’re getting dangerously close to deflation.
Spending Cuts Kill Jobs
As David Moberg observes for In These Times, massive spending cuts in the middle of a recession don’t reduce the deficit. Those cuts create layoffs and reduce economic growth, which results in lower tax returns for the federal government. They make the deficit worse. We’ve just watched several nations attempt to counter their budget deficit woes with “austerity”—cutting back on jobs and social services—and the result has been disastrous. Here’s Moberg:
Government austerity and cuts in workers’ wages will simply reduce demand, slowing recovery from the Great Recession or even creating a second downturn. And weak recovery will bring lower tax revenues, continued pressure for austerity and difficulty repaying debts. In short, the medicine the financial markets and their political allies prescribe will make the global economy sicker.
Spending Money to Make Jobs
In a pair of posts for The Washington Monthly, Steve Benen notes that conservative politicians can’t even make sense when they talk about the deficit. They’re demanding action on the deficit, while also demanding an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Tax cuts make the deficit bigger, something Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) acknowledged in a recent interview. Cantor’s justification? We need jobs right now, and it’s okay to inflate the deficit in the pursuit of jobs. That justification is right—but Cantor’s policies are wrong. Tax cuts for the rich don’t create jobs, because rich people just hold onto the money. The fact is, government spending is a much more effective way of creating jobs than cutting taxes. If jobs are the priority in a deep recession, Benen argues, then, we should be spending to create jobs, not funneling economically useless money to the wealthy.
The Corporate Agenda after Citizens United
Much of the deficit and tax-cut hysteria is being pushed by corporate executives that are looking to score tax breaks for themselves and their shareholders. So it’s profoundly disconcerting to see corporations begin pouring money into elections in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United ruling. As Suzy Khimm emphasizes for Mother Jones, corporations have started spending like crazy on advertising in support of conservative causes. Prior to Citizens United, corporations were banned from conducting such direct electoral advocacy, but as Khimm notes, now major retailers like Target and Best Buy are jumping into the fray. Spending big bucks to derail the economy for profit is not okay. The best way for policymakers to fight this corporate assault is to make a strong push to actually repair the economy. Self-interested executives and corrupted politicians will make all kinds of convoluted economic arguments to enrich themselves and their backers. They’ll use the recession as an excuse. But if lawmakers actually fight the recession successfully, they can’t listen to deep-pocketed corporate miscreants. President Barack Obama and Congress should ignore the phony deficit hysteria and push for a strong jobs agenda, filled with lots and lots of government spending to put people back to work. Creating jobs is not just an economic priority, it’s a key tool to defanging disingenuous political attacks.
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