Smart Talk On The Next Austerity Disaster

Robert Borosage

The United States is in the midst of the most protracted unemployment crisis in modern history, and for vast segments of the population, the recession has never ended. Wages are still sinking; more than 20 million people are in need of full-time work. Yet, the national debate is fixated on fixing the debt rather than fixing the economy.

This is “austerity” economics, which demands cuts in government spending in the belief that this will reduce government deficits, even as it costs jobs and imposes hardships on people.

Mass unemployment, declining wages, and faltering growth suggests the United States has already suffered too much austerity, too soon. And yet the political debate is focused on how much more to impose. Washington imposed $1.5 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years in the 2011 “debt ceiling” deal. Washington stumbled past the year-end “fiscal cliff” with a deal that featured about $600 billion in tax hikes over ten years, including returning rates for the richest Americans back to Clinton era levels, and ending the payroll tax holiday, adding 2 percent to every working family’s payroll tax rate.

Now Congress has created an even more precarious fiscal peril to extort even greater cuts. Between now and the middle of May, we’ll hit the debt ceiling again, the automatic cut (sequester) of military and domestic budgets for the remainder of the year will kick in, and the temporary appropriations for government will expire. This sets up a new negotiation to forestall these ruinous calamities, now with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid directly targeted.

The leaders of both parties suggest that more deficit reduction is needed and that it would help the economy. Not surprisingly, polls suggest that most Americans believe that cutting spending will help the economy, not harm the recovery. The reality is that spending is not out of control, the deficit is already plummeting, and we should be focused on fixing the economy to make it work for working people, not on austerity driven by wrong-headed deficit hysteria.

Here’s how we can make the case against it.

Start with the struggles families are facing. The budget debate now underway in Washington, focused on “fixing the debt,” misses the point. Americans are still suffering record levels of long-term unemployment. Poverty has risen to a level unseen in generations. Inequality is at new extremes. Wages are at the lowest percentage of the economy on record, while corporate profits are at the highest. We should be focused on fixing our economy.

Challenge the austerity myth. And here’s the real deal. You can’t fix the economy by “fixing the debt.” Cutting spending now will only slow the recovery, put more people out of work – and as we have seen in Europe, end up adding to our debt burdens.

In fact, fixing the economy is the necessary first step in getting our books back in order. Our deficits are largely due to the recession, with the costs of unemployment and the lost revenue from the loss of jobs. In these conditions, the best deficit reduction program is to put people back to work.

Even the slow growth we’ve witnessed has begun to reduce our deficits as jobs have been created. Despite all the hysteria, deficits are down by 25% compared to the economy, according to the Congressional Budget Office. They are falling faster than anytime since the demobilization at the end of World War II. And our debt level is basically stabilized for the next decade. More austerity – whether balanced between taxes and spending as the president calls for or focused just on spending cuts as Republicans suggest – will only serve to slow growth, cost jobs, and impede the recovery needed to get our books back in shape.

Worse, the austerity debate is now focused on whacking at the basic pillars of family security – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The cuts under discussion – slowing the inflation adjustment for Social Security, raising the eligibility age for Medicare or the retirement age for Social Security — would harm the most vulnerable in our society.

Describe the way out. Fixing our economy requires a very different agenda than mindless cuts. We need to invest in areas vital to our future, and stop squandering resources on things we don’t need and can’t afford. End the wars abroad, bring our troops home, and invest the savings in rebuilding America – putting people to work while modernizing our decrepit infrastructure, from roads and rail to broadband and the electric grid.

End the subsidies and tax breaks to big oil companies and invest the resources in research and development to capture a lead in clean energy and the green industrial revolution sweeping the country.

Crack down on global tax havens, tax Wall Street speculation, tax investors at the same rate as workers, and use that income to provide every child with the opportunity to learn, from universal preschool to affordable college.

Lift the minimum wage, empower workers to gain a fair share of the profits they help to generate and curb perverse CEO compensation schemes that give them million-dollar incentives to ship jobs abroad.

And fix the sole source of our projected long-term debt problems – our broken health care system. Don’t cut benefits for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Instead, take on the insurance and drug company lobbies that have made our health care cost nearly twice what the rest of the industrial world pays.


This is an excerpt from the latest edition of Smart Talk, a regular series of issue briefs on how to talk about the economic issues facing working-class people. Richard Eskow contributed to this post.

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