Monday, March 04, 2013

The administration is wrong again in thinking it has the upper hand in the politics of the sequester


Just 'cause the Republicans have as usual landed squarely on the shamefully wrong side of an issue doesn't mean there will be any more price to pay over the sequester than there usually is.

by Ken

No American president, I think, would dare kick off his tenure with the kind of gloomy, foreboding address that Sunday Classics listeners have heard the last two weeks from Tsar Boris Godunov on the occasion of his coronation. The lesson of candidate Walter Mondale speaking honestly about the likely need for tax increases has been learned by all political high rollers.

So it was hardly surprising that President Obama didn't take the opportunity of his first Inaugural Address to level with the American people about the depth of the economic hole in which the country had been buried by the ruinous ideological crackpottery and fiscal malfeasance of the previous administration, which set about fighting two wars without making even a gesture at paying for them, unless you count the admonition to us the people to spend, spend, spend to defeat the terrorists as a gesture.

Part of the problem, of course, was that the president himself was far from free of the predatory capitalist impulse that when you've got the country on the ropes, that's the time to go in for the kill, picking its pockets clean -- or, better still, twisting the body upside down to enlist gravity in the job of making sure those pockets are emptied. That was without even reckoning that the Republicans would behave as treasonously as they actually did: doing everything in their power to prevent any of the president's initiatives from actually helping the country. The idea here wasn't so much to have the country on the ropes as to flush it down the crapper, from which vantage point even the ideological predation of the financial elites could be made to look like

And yet, once again, it proved dangerous to underestimate just how stupid the Predatory Elites can be in their insatiable greed, which turned out to outpace how stupid the American people can be when being subjected to imbecilic propaganda. All too many Americans understood that people hermetically sealed inside a bubble of privilege -- people like Willard and Ann Romney, to pick a pair of random examples -- knew nothing about their problems and cared even less.

Hilariously, Ms. Ann this weekend took a shot at political comedy with the idiotic assertion that it's all the media's fault that she and her Willard isn't ensconced in the White House. This is so idiotic, you'd think that even WaPo Fix-master Chris "The Village Idiot" Cillizza would be able to blast it out of the park ("Why Ann Romney is wrong"). And even our Chris does eventually get around to calling attention to "the biggest negative of the race: Romney's '47 percent' comments." ("Romney said those words. The media didn't force him into it or play 'gotcha.' ")

But first Chris ventures that Willard's real unforced-by-media errors were his failures "to sell the two best positive messages of the campaign," his religious faith and his business background. Sheesh! He does allow that right-wingers don't like Mormons but doesn't seem to notice that lots of people don't, and that Willard's faith in particular can have the aura -- assuming it's properly portrayed -- of economic elites who use their religious cult to redistribute as much of the country's wealth as they can into their own bottomless pockets. And he doesn't grasp at all that the Democratic calumnies of him as a "vulture capitalist" were sticking because they were true. Yes, Willard the Vulture created some jobs, but they were crappier and far less numerous jobs than the one his economic ministrations eliminated. You could say with considerable truth that it's thanks to people like Willard that the "recovery" from the Bush recession has been unlike any previous one, with all the economic gains going into corporate gains and the people who do the actual work getting screwed even worse.

Yet every now and then Chris's dogged Village tea-leaf readings actually get it right. And as we look at the prospects for the sequester, I think back to a December 30 post I wrote ("Why congressional Republicans don't have to pay even lip service to reality") about a post Chris wrote ("As 'fiscal cliff' looms, Republicans have no political incentive to make deal with Obama"), which began:
Amid the last-minute wrangling over a "fiscal cliff" deal, it's important to remember one overlooked fact of the 2012 election: Republicans in the House and Senate have absolutely no political incentive to compromise with President Obama.

The numbers are stark.

Of the 234 Republicans elected to the House on Nov. 6, just 15 (!) sit in congressional districts that Obama also won that day, according to calculations made by the Cook Political Report's ace analyst David Wasserman. That's an infinitesimally small number, particularly when compared with the 63 House Republicans who held seats where Obama had won following the 2010 midterm elections.

The Senate landscape paints the same picture -- this time looking forward. Of the 13 states where the 14 Republican Senators will stand for reelection in 2014 (South Carolina has two, with Lindsey O. Graham and Tim Scott up in two years time), Obama won just one in 2012 -- Maine. In the remaining dozen states, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won only one, Georgia, by less than double digits. The average margin of victory for Romney across the 13 states was 19.5 percentage points; take out Maine, and Romney's average margin was 22 points in the remaining 12 states.
All of which is a prelude to explaining why I'm pretty doomy and gloomy about the outcome of the sequester. The White House thinks it has been so shrewd in its political messaging at the start of the president's second term, and indeed, there's no question that it has been politically far shrewder than it was through most of the first term. But there doesn't seem much recognition that the ground rules have changed -- that it's no longer sufficient to be underpolling your opponents in the "Who do you hate worse?" surveys.

After all, contrary to the original theory of the sequester, that it would be so painful that both sides would move heaven and earth to prevent it, the Teabaggers -- far from finding it painful -- can smile smugly at having gotten just what they wanted: budget slashing. Never mind the consequences of mindless budget slashing, especially since the actual consequences won't be evident to the country. There are, however, a lot of Americans who don't grasp the difference between a family budget, where high levels of debt can be a crippling problem, and a national budget, which sets the economic pace of the country.

Here's the start of a recent New York Review of Books blogpost by Jeff Madrick, "The Sequester's Hidden Danger":
The sequester is dangerous, but not for the reasons we think. Contrary to what some alarmists predicted, there is little evidence that the automatic, across-the-board cuts to the US budget that went into effect on Friday are causing cataclysmic harm. The stock market has risen slightly to near record heights, and most economists agree that the $85 billion down payment this year on about $1 trillion in cuts over the next ten will not trip the economy into recession. Recent polls, meanwhile, indicate that a large part of the electorate has no opinion on the sequester, which is still poorly understood—making it perhaps less of a political liability for either party than some anticipated.

But what makes the sequester threatening is not that it will plunder the economy in 2013. Rather, it is that these arbitrary cuts are exactly the opposite of what the economy needs both in the short run, and—if the promised $1 trillion in further cuts over ten years is made—in the long term. In the coming months, it will make it difficult for the president to cut the unemployment rate from current levels around 8 percent, a fact that Republicans must enjoy since it reduces their chances of losing the House in 2014, and raises their chances of winning the presidency in 2016 if they can continue to cut spending.

And the sequester will be painful. Educational and housing subsidies will be cut, as will unemployment insurance and research spending. More than $40 billion will be cut from the defense budget, music to my ears, but not to those who will lose jobs at defense contractors. Above all, claims that economic growth down the road will be spurred by reducing the federal deficit through spending cuts are not credible.

Indeed, the real danger of the sequester lies in the misguided deficit-cutting mania that created it in the first place. Put in place by Congress with the president’s approval and encouragement in 2011, the idea of automatic sequestration came out of the same obsession with austerity measures that has put much of Europe into recession and prevented the US economic recovery from fulfilling its potential. Deficit reduction has wide support in Washington and its most active promoters are financed by some of the nation’s wealthiest citizens, who argue that it is a far better alternative than asking them to contribute more in taxes. We must cut deficits now, even before we have a full economic recovery, the thinking goes, to deal with rapidly rising healthcare costs that will drive up the government’s Medicare and Medicaid expenses beginning twenty-five years from now.

This approach to economic policy has no sound basis in either historical experience or current economic analysis. . . .
And Jeff proceeds to a discussion of the realities, as opposed to the Elites' fantasies, of "austerity," something Howie has been covering pretty thoroughly, pointing out that the results have been in for some time from Europe's fun-with-austerity movement of recent years. Which leads him to this:
These policies are an appalling intellectual failure. Yet our current leaders in Washington seem unable to learn this lesson, even in the face of such stark examples of Britain and other European countries. Though he backed the stimulus in early 2009, Barack Obama had already displayed a sympathy for deficit reduction policies before he took office, and he subsequently appointed the Bowles-Simpson commission to suggest ways to balance the budget as soon as possible. He did not accept their proposals, but the austerity advocates quickly gained the upper hand.

Many may wonder why it is so easy to renounce the remarkable Keynes. In part, it is because he so deeply challenged Smith’s Invisible Hand itself, that almost religiously held principle that markets themselves are self-adjusting as prices change to make demand and supply equal.

We all know that austerity economics rules in Europe, but it also rules in the US where the damage done will be considerable if less obvious. Even policymakers who are sympathetic to Keynesianism for the most part propose only moderate stimulus. As a result of Washington’s refusal to raise taxes to cut deficits, the government will not invest adequately in infrastructure, green technologies, public research, pre-k education, and in many other areas of critical need—all in order to meet spurious deficit cutting goals. It also finds expression in a greater willingness to cut needed programs, mostly for the poor, who will suffer as a result. At some point, such mean-spiritedness must take a toll on a nation’s moral confidence. And the budget battles may only just be beginning.

The economy would have been significantly stronger already had there been not been $1.5 trillion in earlier budget cuts. And it may yet improve once we digest the latest round of cuts. But let’s not mistakenly attribute future improvement in the economy to austerity policies. It will be in spite of them.

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