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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Who's Really Creating Economic Uncertainty?

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have a new column arguing that the debt ceiling debate harmed the economy:

Debt-Ceiling Deja Vu Could Sink Economy, by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers: ...the biggest threat to the emerging U.S. economic recovery may be Congress. John Boehner, the leader of the House Republicans, has promised yet another fight with the White House over the debt ceiling -- the limit Congress has placed on the amount the federal government can borrow.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because we suffered through an identical performance last summer. Our analysis of that episode leads to a troubling conclusion: It almost derailed the recovery, and this time could be a lot worse. ...
High-frequency data on consumer confidence from the research company Gallup ... provide a good picture of the debt-ceiling debate’s impact (see chart). Confidence began falling right around May 11, when Boehner first announced he would not support increasing the debt limit. It went into freefall as the political stalemate worsened through July. ... Businesses were also hurt by uncertainty... This proved far more damaging than the regulatory uncertainty on which Republican criticisms of Barack Obama’s administration have focused...
Growth in nonfarm payrolls decelerated to an average 88,000 a month during the three months of the debt-ceiling impasse, compared with an average of 176,000 in the first five months of 2011...There are also more visible permanent scars. The sense that the U.S. political system could no longer credibly commit to paying its debts led the credit-rating company Standard & Poor’s to remove the U.S. government from its list of ... AAA ratings. ...
All told, the data tell us that a debt-ceiling standoff is an act of economic sabotage. ...
The next debt-ceiling battle could be worse, because the stakes are even higher. In addition to the threat of default, the U.S. is facing the so-called fiscal cliff... Another stalemate would almost certainly plunge the economy into a deep recession. Our best alternative -- in fact, our only hope -- is for Congress to set aside partisan politics and work together with a common goal of helping our country out of the Great Recession.

I wrote a column during the debt ceiling debate making many of these points, and it's nice to have more evidence to back them up:

The Real Cause of Economic Uncertainty: Prior to the midterm elections, Republicans made a big issue out of the economic uncertainty supposedly created by Democrats in areas such as health care reform, financial reform, future tax rates, the deficit, environmental regulation, and the long-run viability of our social insurance programs.
Even though there was little to suggest that uncertainty rather than lack of demand was the fundamental economic problem, Republicans were able to persuade many voters that this uncertainty was holding back the economic recovery and lowering long-run economic growth. Electing Republicans, it was argued, would help to eliminate the uncertainty and go a long way toward curing our economic ills.
Does anyone think that uncertainty has been reduced since Republicans gained a majority in the House of Representatives? I certainly don’t.
Let’s look at the record. Upon taking the House, Republicans began looking for ways to make good on their campaign promise to repeal health care reform. Whether they can actually do this or not isn’t clear – so long as Obama is in the White House veto power prevents major change – but even so, challenges in court, promises to cut the funds needed to implement the law, and vows to overturn health care reform at the first opportunity make it much more difficult for businesses and households to make long-run plans. Uncertainty has gone up, not down.
We’ve seen a similar attack on financial regulation. Conservatives have vowed to repeal as much of Dodd-Frank as they can, and to prevent any additional regulation. They have done everything possible to prevent the Consumer Financial Protection Agency from having any teeth, or existing at all, and they retain their misplaced faith that unfettered financial markets are the key to stability rather than an invitation for more problems. Again, precisely how successful they will be over time, and what the regulatory structure will look like in the longer run are uncertain, and it is more difficult than before for businesses to plan for the future. 
Republicans have also vowed to privatize Medicare and Social Security, and to substantially reduce the scale of these and other social insurance programs. And, when given the opportunity, they have demonstrated this is more than campaign rhetoric. They intend to privatize and scale down these programs if there’s any way possible to do it, and to continue trying for as long as it takes. It’s hard to see how this increases the financial security of the elderly, the unemployed, and the unhealthy, or how it promotes a more certain economic environment.
And then there’s the biggest of them all, the fight over the debt ceiling. It would be bad enough to hold the nation’s future hostage over an ideological dispute in the best of times, but to do so at a time when we are struggling to recover from the most severe recession since the Great Depression, a time when millions and millions can’t find jobs and must rely upon programs Republicans are trying to cut, is unconscionable. And this is not the first time Republicans have done this. Remember when Republicans threatened to undermine the recovery if Democrats tried to raise taxes on the wealthy? It was a clear threat – if we don’t get our way, the economy gets it.
And the current threat is even worse. ... And think of the precedent this sets. In the future, we can expect more of this. ... How does that promote long-run stability?
There will be a big sigh of relief when the fight over the debt ceiling ends, at least I hope it ends with relief... But if an agreement is reached, we should be careful not to think that the overall level of uncertainty has been reduced... Republicans will simply move on to the next target, and then the target after that – why not so long as it works. Until they are done with their efforts to impose their ideological will through whatever means necessary, holding the nation hostage, whatever it takes, the uncertainty will persist.
The president might have been able to stop this behavior had he stood up to the threat the first time Republicans played this game. But he didn’t... This won’t stop unless the next election tells both Republicans and the Democrats who enable them, in no uncertain terms, that this behavior will not be tolerated.

    Posted by on Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 10:12 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  Comments (76)


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