Its The Economy Moron

Terrance Heath

“It’s the economy, moron!”

That was pollster Celinda Lake’s succinct take, at the Summit on Jobs & America’s Future, this morning. Lake was there in 1992 when James Carville summed up the Clinton campaign’s winning message in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.” In 1992, that was the message to a Republican president who didn’t get “the vision thing”, and thus missed the recession and rising unemployment that working- and middle-class Americans were living with every day. “It’s the economy, stupid!” became the rally cry that made George H. W. Bush a one-term president.

Fast forward to 2011. Working- and middle-class Americans have a message for the GOP majority in the House, and Republican governors who say “So be it,” concerning our economic and unemployment crises: “It’s the economy, moron!” That message is getting louder.

Lake was the last speaker on a panel this morning that included economic Robert Pollin and PolicyLink CEO Angela Glover Blackwell. I’ll have to write a separate post on Blackwell’s comments, if I’m to do them justice. Blackwell reminded us in a visceral way that how we deal with the economic crisis, unemployment, infrastructure and a host of challenges will impact our future. Pollin and Lake reminded us that we have the power and momentum to finally bring about the change Americans have waited for too long.

The difference between 1992 and 2008 is the difference between “stupid” and “moron.” In 1992, George H. W. Bush just didn’t get it. But in 2008, what I wrote about CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Committee conference, can be applied to the John Boehner, Eric Cantor, the GOP majority in the House, most Republican governors, and the conservative movement itself: It’s a mass exercise in “not getting it.”

Now, they’re not even pretending to try and “get it.” In Wisconsin, the Scott Walker and the GOP-dominated senate demonstrated that their budget cuts and attacks on public workers had nothing to do with the state’s artificial budget crisis, when they met in the dead of night to pass their attack collective bargaining — after extracting it from the Walker’s budget proposal — without a single Democrat present. Spectators in the gallery denounced them as cowards.

The GOP’s proposed federal budget cuts demonstrate that they don’t care any more about the deficit than they do about job creation, as Ezra Klein notes.

There are economic risks we can’t easily control: an oil spike due to instability in the Middle East, say, or the bubble that is China’s real estate market bursting. There are policies we can put in place to mitigate these risks or respond to their aftermath, but we can’t totally eliminate them.

The same can’t be said for the risk of prematurely slashing federal spending, which is playing a crucial role propping up economic demand, or keeping monetary policy too tight. But as David Leonhardt writes today, “no branch of the federal government seems to be taking these risks seriously enough.” Republicans want to sharply cut back on federal spending this year — an approach that will do little for the deficit but much to impede the recovery. Democrats seem content to let the idea that we need to sharply cut back on federal spending win the day, with their limited objection being that we shouldn’t be too aggressive about cutting spending on education and scientific research. And the Federal Reserve is, well, the Federal Reserve: It congratulates itself for pursuing a more expansionary policy than it’s attempted in decades even as it holds to a vastly less expansionary policy than the current moment demands.

Pollin pointed out in his comments that conservatives are now “willfully ignoring” evidence that public employees don’t make more than private employees of equivalent age and education levels. But he went further and pointed out that the GOP’s attacks on public employees willfully ignores economic realities related to the state and local budget crises, as well as the federal deficit.

Pollin pointed out something that conservatives don’t know or don’t care to know: that state and local governments are collectively the nation’s largest employers, to the tune of 20 million American jobs. (And the kind that are harder to offshore.) But the GOP’s proposal cut federal aid to the states, thus endangering 710,000 of those jobs, creates a vicious circle. Severe reduction in revenues from income, sales and property taxes are down 13% relative to 2007, Pollin said. That’s not because of public employee unions, but because of the recession that Wall Street caused, but hadn’t paid for.

Pollin illustrated the vicious cycle, explaining that as those state and local government employees lose their job, or absorb pay reductions, they spend less, and thus less money goes into the state and local economies to support jobs. I’m no economist, but apparently I think like one, because Pollin’s comments reminded me of something I wrote about the deficit not long ago.

Austerity will not narrow budget deficits, because the austerity imposed in Ireland and proposed here is the job-killing variety. It's simple, really. Fewer people working means fewer people earning paychecks, which means fewer people paying taxes, which means less revenue. Austerity is just another word for revenue reduction — the logic of which is that one enhances one's ability to pay one's debts by reducing one's income. It's a vicious circle, the more you cut, the more you need to cut, because the more you cut the less you have coming in to pay your debts — which now look even bigger compared to your reduced income. So, you cut until there's little left to cut.

The way to cut the deficit is, Pollin says, to get out of the recession. And the way out of the recession is more people working, more people spending, paying taxes and increasing revenue. Do that and the deficit goes down from 10% GDP to 5% GDP. But we don’t get there by cutting taxes and hoping for the best, or cutting spending and hoping for a miracle.

The GOP, in Washington and state capitols across the country, is deeply invested in not getting it. But, as Celinda Lake reminded us, the American people do get it. They got it in 2008, and in 2010. Lake cited research, including the Democracy Corps/CAF Poll on Jobs and the Economy, showing that the GOP’s priorities don’t align with the American people’s top priority: jobs — not health care, not the deficit. A recent NBC/WSJ poll listed 26 ways to cut the federal deficit, but ultimately showed Americans care more about jobs than the deficit.

In the poll, eight in 10 respondents say they are concerned about the growing federal deficit and the national debt, but more than 60 percent — including key swing-voter groups — are concerned that major cuts from Congress could impact their lives and their families.

What’s more, while Americans find some budget cuts acceptable, they are adamantly opposed to cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and K-12 education.

And although a combined 22 percent of poll-takers name the deficit/government spending as the top issue the federal government should address, 37 percent believe job creation/economic growth is the No. 1 issue.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, says these results are a “cautionary sign” for a Republican Party pursuing deep budget cuts.

He points out that the Americans who are most concerned about spending cuts are core Republicans and Tea Party supporters, not independents and swing voters.

“It may be hard to understand why a person might jump off a cliff, unless you understand they’re being chased by a tiger,” he said. “That tiger is the Tea Party.”

Americans get it, because they understand what those budget cuts mean for actual people — for their family, friends and neighbors; for the police who keep their streets safe, the teachers who educate their children, the workers who keep them healthy, the transportation workers who get the to and from work each day, and to the people who spend money in their local businesses.

The GOP may yet be chased over a cliff by the tiger that is the Tea Party. But Americans have been living with the wolf of the recession at their door for too long not to get it. Last year, a Pew Research poll showed how much the recession had changed life in America. American workers who have faced pay cuts, furloughs and pay reductions, know that the recession highlights that we’re divided into two Americas:

By most broad measures of economic well-being, those who Held their Own and Americans who Lost Ground could hardly be more different. Among those who disproportionately experienced economic hardships during the recession, more than half (54%) say they are just getting by or fall short of meeting their monthly expenses and more than four-in-ten say the recession forced them to make “major” changes in the way they live.

In contrast, eight-in-ten of those who Held their Own during the recession say that they’re “living comfortably” or that they have money left over each month after paying their bills. And unlike their less fortunate counterparts, not a single one says the recession has forced major lifestyle changes.

It’s not surprising that some people were harder hit by the recession than others, or that people who, for example, suffered a spell of unemployment also had trouble making their rent or mortgage payments. What is striking, however, is the fact that the groups are roughly the same size yet the differences between them are so great.

For example, more than four-in-ten adults who Lost Ground (43%) say they were unemployed at some point during the recession, compared with less than 1% of those who Held their Own. Fully a third (35%) of those who Lost Ground had problems paying their rent or mortgage, while not a single one of those who Held their Own reported similar difficulties. Likewise, no one who Held their Own during the recession reported having trouble finding or paying for medical care, or having to borrow money from friends or family to pay bills, compared with 48% and 42%, respectively, of those who Lost Ground.

Nearly half of those who Lost Ground (48%) say their family incomes declined during the recession — more than three times the proportion of those who Held their Own (14%). Similarly, nearly two-thirds of those who Lost Ground say their family’s overall financial condition is worse now than it was before the recession. Again, that is more than twice the proportion of those who Held their Own (29%) who say their financial position worsened.

Whether the GOP can tame the Tea Party tiger or not, the American people don’t want to go over that cliff with them. And those Americans have a message now heard in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, and growing louder across the country: “It’s the economy, moron!”

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