Weekly Audit: The Real Legacy of Reaganomics

 

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of B-movie actor-turned-conservative president, Ronald Wilson Reagan. On the eve of the centennial, economist Yves Smith talked Reaganomics on the Real News Network. Smith argues that Reagan’s real legacy is the deregulation of the U.S. economy that set the stage for the economic meltdown of the late 2000s:

But [with] financial services, you have companies that have state guarantees. That’s the bottom line with the banking system. Ever since the 1930s, we in advanced economies have made the decision we’re not going to let the banking system fail. So if you don’t regulate banks, you have set up the situation that we have now, which is that you have socialized losses and privatized gains. And what have we seen come out of that? Financial crises. When we had a heavily regulated financial system, we had nearly 40 years of hardly any financial crises. When we started deregulating the banks, you saw increasing in frequency and increasing in significance financial crises directly resulting from that.

Spot of Tea?

Ordinary Britons are rallying to the defense of the welfare state. Faced with the deepest public spending cuts in living memory, citizens are taking to the streets to force deadbeat companies to pay their taxes, Johann Hari reports in The Nation. Their federal government has pledged to slash £7 billion in public spending. Cuts to subsidized housing alone will force 200,000 people out of their homes.

A group of friends in a local pub were galvanized by the news that Vodafone, one of the UK’s leading mobile phone companies, owed an astonishing £6 billion in back taxes. Calling themselves UK Uncut, the friends staged a protest outside Vodafone headquarters in London. The meme went viral. In the following days, several Vodafone stores were temporarily paralyzed by peaceful sit-ins.

Hari argues that the success of UK Uncut can teach American progressives a lot about how to build a grassroots counterpart to the Tea Party.

Persistent vegetative states

Big or small, liberal or conservative, state governments are screwed. That’s the upshot of Paul Starr’s latest essay in The American Prospect. Unemployment remains at recession levels and there is little political will to raise taxes. States can’t deficit spend like the feds do. So, the only option is public service cuts, which means firing teachers, doctors, firefighters, and other public workers.

Starr argues that the economic stimulus was a good start, but one that didn’t go far enough. As part of the stimulus, the federal government picked up a larger share of the states’ Medicaid costs. This was a good thing, in Starr’s view, because the extra federal dollars saved jobs while providing health care for the poor. Starr argues that state budget woes during recessions are so predictable, and the consequences so dire, that the Medicaid subsidy should kick in automatically whenever unemployment rises past a predetermined threshold.

Anti-union bill dead in CO

A bill to end collective bargaining for public employees in Colorado died in committee this week, according to Joseph Boven of the Colorado Independent. The bill would have abolished an executive order signed by former Gov. Bill Ritter, which gave state employees the right to organize. If the bill had been enacted, this kind of organizing would become illegal. This bill, sponsored by Sen. Shawn Mitchell (R-Broomfield), was just one of many attempts by Republicans to scapegoat public sector unions for what Mitchell calls the “financial Armageddon” facing state governments.

Smurfs rob Moms

“Smurfing” is money laundering slang for recruiting a lot of low-level accomplices to move money in untraceably small increments. But the word may soon have a new derogatory connotation.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones reports that a kids’ video game, Smurfs’ Village, is depleting parents’ bank accounts, one wagon of Smurfberries at a time. Capcom’s game offers kids the chance to build the village from scratch. Along the way, they can pay real money for in-game resources. One mother was shocked to receive a $1,400 bill from Apple because her daughter bought innumerable imaginary props, such as $19 “buckets of snowflakes,” and a $100 “wagon of Smufberries.” The purchases require a password, but critics say it’s too easy for clever kids to circumvent the security. As Drum says, if adults want to waste their real dollars on virtual Farmville paraphernalia, that’s fine, but such a racket has no place in kids’ games.

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Joseph Stiglitz: 'Trickle Up Economics' to Blame for Crisis

Why Joseph Stiglitz isn't in the Administration is beyond me. In this lecture given at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia in late July, Dr. Stiglitz puts the blame squarely for our economic meltdow squarely where it needs to be placed: on Ronald Reagan and his free market and low taxation policies that have redistributed wealth upwards. He argues that "trickle up economics" created the credit bubble that triggered the recent financial crisis. "There was a party going on, and nobody wanted to be a party-pooper," says Stiglitz.

Since 1976, 58 percent of all income gains have accrued to the top one percent of US households. Meanwhile, 25 percent of American workers earn a wage that puts them at or below the poverty level. If the redistribution upwards since 1981 had not taken place, if the average American family in the bottom 90 percent were today getting the same share of the nation's income as the average bottom 90 percent family received in 1973 when income distribution was much more egalitarian, this average family would now be taking home in income over $10,000 more per year. The wealth of the top tenth has come by impoverishing the bottom 90 percent. That's the legacy of Ronald Reagan.

Joseph Stiglitz was chief economist at the World Bank until January 2000. Before that, he was the chairman of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001. He is currently a finance and economics professor at Columbia University. He is the author of Globalization and Its Discontents and The Roaring Nineties. The full hour long lecture plus a 30 minute Q&A session is available at Fora TV.

The Blinder-Zandi Report

A paper by economists Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, finds that without the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that bailed out the nation's financial sector, the bank stress tests, the emergency lending and asset purchases by the Federal Reserve, and the Obama Administration’s fiscal stimulus program - the much maligned American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) - the nation’s gross domestic product would be about 6.5 percent lower this year.

Additionally, Dr. Blinder and Dr. Zandi find that the US economy would have lost an additional 8.5 million jobs, on top of the more than 8 million lost so far; and the economy would be in the midst of a deflationary asset spiral, instead of low inflation. Overall, they conclude that the aggregate effects of the TARP and the ARRA "probably averted what could have been called Great Depression 2.0." I am not quite sure why economists apart from Paul Krugman always seem to forget about the Panic of 1873, a five-year long financial downturn marked by deflation, price instability and the first sustained period of mass unemployment in world history.

More on the Blinder-Zandi report from the New York Times:

Mr. Blinder and Mr. Zandi emphasize the sheer size of the fallout from the financial crisis. They estimate the total direct cost of the recession at $1.6 trillion, and the total budgetary cost, after adding in nearly $750 billion in lost revenue from the weaker economy, at $2.35 trillion, or about 16 percent of G.D.P.

By comparison, the savings and loan crisis cost about $350 billion in today’s dollars: $275 billion in direct cost and an additional $75 billion from the recession of 1990-91 — or about 6 percent of G.D.P. at the time.

But the new analysis might not be of immediate solace to officials in the Obama administration, who have been trying to promote the “summer of recovery” at events across the nation in the face of polls indicating persistent doubts about the impact of the $787 billion stimulus program.

For one thing, Mr. Blinder and Mr. Zandi find that the financial stabilization measures — the Troubled Asset Relief Program, as the bailout is known, along with the bank stress tests and the Fed’s actions — have had a relatively greater impact than the stimulus program.

If the fiscal stimulus alone had been enacted, and not the financial measures, they concluded, real G.D.P. would have fallen 5 percent last year, with 12 million jobs lost. But if only the financial measures had been enacted, and not the stimulus, real G.D.P. would have fallen nearly 4 percent, with 10 million jobs lost.

The combined effects of both sets of policies cannot be directly compared with the sum of each in isolation, they found, “because the policies tend to reinforce each other.”

Oddly enough, the New York Times failed to link to the report but here it is: How the Great Recession Was Brought to an End (pdf). The title is perhaps a bit over optimistic given that we are not quite out of the economic doldrums as yet but I do think their conclusion is inescapable:

It is clear that laissez faire was not an option; policymakers had to act. Not responding would have left both the economy and the government’s fiscal situation in far graver condition.

Still no one has ever won an election with the argument that it could have been worse. 

Understanding GOP Economics, An Exercise in Futility

Though I largely hold that trying to understand Republican economics is an exercise in futility, credit Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, for writing the single most brilliant takedown of the GOP's economic approach that I've read perhaps ever. In a column entitled The Political Genius of Supply Side Economics details the transformation of the GOP from the party of the responsible frugality of Dwight D. Eisenhower to the party of the irresponsible profligacy of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

To understand modern Republican thinking on fiscal policy, we need to go back to perhaps the most politically brilliant (albeit economically unconvincing) idea in the history of fiscal policy: “supply-side economics”. Supply-side economics liberated conservatives from any need to insist on fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets. Supply-side economics said that one could cut taxes and balance budgets, because incentive effects would generate new activity and so higher revenue.

The political genius of this idea is evident. Supply-side economics transformed Republicans from a minority party into a majority party. It allowed them to promise lower taxes, lower deficits and, in effect, unchanged spending. Why should people not like this combination? Who does not like a free lunch?

How did supply-side economics bring these benefits? First, it allowed conservatives to ignore deficits. They could argue that, whatever the impact of the tax cuts in the short run, they would bring the budget back into balance, in the longer run. Second, the theory gave an economic justification – the argument from incentives - for lowering taxes on politically important supporters. Finally, if deficits did not, in fact, disappear, conservatives could fall back on the “starve the beast” theory: deficits would create a fiscal crisis that would force the government to cut spending and even destroy the hated welfare state.

In this way, the Republicans were transformed from a balanced-budget party to a tax-cutting party. This innovative stance proved highly politically effective, consistently putting the Democrats at a political disadvantage. It also made the Republicans de facto Keynesians in a de facto Keynesian nation. Whatever the rhetoric, I have long considered the US the advanced world’s most Keynesian nation – the one in which government (including the Federal Reserve) is most expected to generate healthy demand at all times, largely because jobs are, in the US, the only safety net for those of working age.

True, the theory that cuts would pay for themselves has proved altogether wrong. That this might well be the case was evident: cutting tax rates from, say, 30 per cent to zero would unambiguously reduce revenue to zero. This is not to argue there were no incentive effects. But they were not large enough to offset the fiscal impact of the cuts (see, on this, Wikipedia and a nice chart from Paul Krugman).

Indeed, Greg Mankiw, no less, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush, has responded to the view that broad-based tax cuts would pay for themselves, as follows: “I did not find such a claim credible, based on the available evidence. I never have, and I still don’t.” Indeed, he has referred to those who believe this as “charlatans and cranks”. Those are his words, not mine, though I agree. They apply, in force, to contemporary Republicans, alas,

Since the fiscal theory of supply-side economics did not work, the tax-cutting eras of Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush and again of George W. Bush saw very substantial rises in ratios of federal debt to gross domestic product. Under Reagan and the first Bush, the ratio of public debt to GDP went from 33 per cent to 64 per cent. It fell to 57 per cent under Bill Clinton. It then rose to 69 per cent under the second George Bush. Equally, tax cuts in the era of George W. Bush, wars and the economic crisis account for almost all the dire fiscal outlook for the next ten years (see the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities).

Today’s extremely high deficits are also an inheritance from Bush-era tax-and-spending policies and the financial crisis, also, of course, inherited by the present administration. Thus, according to the International Monetary Fund, the impact of discretionary stimulus on the US fiscal deficit amounts to a cumulative total of 4.7 per cent of GDP in 2009 and 2010, while the cumulative deficit over these years is forecast at 23.5 per cent of GDP. In any case, the stimulus was certainly too small, not too large.

The evidence shows, then, that contemporary conservatives (unlike those of old) simply do not think deficits matter, as former vice-president Richard Cheney is reported to have told former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill. But this is not because the supply-side theory of self-financing tax cuts, on which Reagan era tax cuts were justified, has worked, but despite the fact it has not. The faith has outlived its economic (though not its political) rationale.

The sad fact remains that too many Americans believe that taxes are too high (reality: among OECD countries only Mexico, Turkey, Korea, and Japan have lower taxes than the United States as a percentage of GDP) and perhaps worse too many Americans believe that the only road to economic prosperity is cutting taxes. In this they have been duped by the GOP but we too are culpable in that we have not successfully made the case that a progressive tax scheme not only produces a more egalitarian country but a more broadly prosperous one.

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It all began with Reagan... but it ends with us.

Thom Hartmann made an interesting statement on Olbermann's show Friday:

We have gone, when Reagan came into office we were the largest exporter of manufactured goods and the largest importer of raw materials on the planet. And the largest creditor. More people owed us money than anybody else in the world. Now just twenty eight years later we're the largest importer of finished goods, manufactured goods, exporter of raw materials which is kind of the definition of a third world nation and we're the most in debt of any country in the world. This is the absolute consequence of Reaganomics.
So here we are facing 2009 and it doesn't look like things will change anytime soon.

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