As even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recognizes, it is long term unemployment, not excessive deficits or debt, that is now inflicting the greatest human toll and economic damage. Polls show that voters agree joblessness and a bad economy are much higher priorities than deficits.
Yet too many in Washington are fixated on cutting public spending to balance the budget, not on how to put people back to work and get our economy going. There is no theory of economics that explains how we can deflate our way to recovery. Businesses are not basing investment decisions on how much Congress cuts the debt in 2023. As Great Britain, Ireland, Spain and Greece have shown, inflicting austerity on a weak economy leads to deeper recession, rising unemployment and increasing misery.
In a deep recession, deficit reduction is a moving target. If you cut spending and consumer purchasing power in an already depressed economy, unemployment rises and revenues fall — and the goal of a smaller deficit keeps receding like a mirage in a desert. When private purchasing power is depressed by the aftermath of a financial collapse, only public investment can make up the gap.
The budget hawks have the sequence backwards. Public outlay for jobs and recovery come first, growth is restored, and revenues follow. Budget cuts in a deep slump lead only to a deeper slump.
The government should invest in areas vital to our economy — to repair crumbling infrastructure, to build 21st-century smart-grid, public transportation and renewable energy systems, and to create public and private sector jobs. We should also help states prevent layoffs of teachers and other public servants, make early care and higher education more affordable and create public service jobs throughout the nation. It can do so by borrowing at record low interest rates. We can also stimulate recovery without increasing deficits by increasing taxes on the wealthy and pumping the proceeds directly into the economy.
Both bipartisan and conservative deficit reduction plans — Simpson-Bowles, Rivlin-Domenici, and the Republican budget — magically assume a recovery to “normal” levels of employment. Yet, the economy is nowhere near normal growth, and budget cutting will only retard growth. At the end of the year, we face a congressionally-created “fiscal cliff,” with automatic “sequestration” spending cuts everyone agrees should be stopped to prevent a double-dip recession. That threat has led to backroom negotiations, backed by a multimillion dollar public relations campaign, toward a “grand bargain” that would maintain tax give-aways for the rich; cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; and impose new, job-killing spending cuts. This is no bargain, and it should be rejected.
President Obama should be commended for proposing a new jobs program. But unless the balance of power in Congress changes dramatically, there is a serious danger that after the election the austerity lobby will prevail.
We need jobs first. With recovery, deficit reduction will come of its own accord thanks to increased revenues in an improving economy. That was the case in the three decades after World War II — when the debt to GDP ratio declined from over 120 percent of GDP in 1945 to under 30 percent by 1978.
In 1945, our leaders placed a priority on putting people to work, not cutting spending. So government doubled down with public investments like the GI bill, housing and highways — and widespread collective bargaining and equal opportunity laws made sure the rewards of growth were widely shared. Today, we need the same scale of public investments that made sure the greatest generation and their children enjoyed growth, opportunity and shared prosperity.
In the face of today’s weak economy, the Federal Reserve has vowed to sustain extraordinary measures until unemployment comes down and the economy picks up. But as Chairman Ben Bernanke observed, very low interest rates alone cannot fix this economy. To make sure the American people are not crippled by another lost decade of joblessness, we need presidential leadership — and congressional action — to spur jobs and growth, not dangerous austerity.
The preceding is a letter sent to Congress this week and signed by 350 economists. It is online at jobsnotausterity.org.