Today, the Obama administration released its proposed federal budget for 2013. The Republicans’ reaction has been swift and united in its thematics, claiming the budget fails to promote fiscal responsibility or future prosperity, accusing Obama of “duck[ing] the responsibility to tackle this country’s fiscal problems” and choosing to “campaign instead of govern,” and generally slamming the budget as a “threat to job growth” and “more of the same failed ‘stimulus’-style policies.” All of this suggests the Republicans are unaware that America is not, in fact, the only market-based western democracy attempting to work its way out of a massive economic slump — or that these efforts provide concrete lessons in what will and will not produce economic growth.
In Britain, a large package of budget cuts and austerity measures which rolled out in 2010 has not unleashed the proverbial job creators in the private market. Instead, the country is still shackled with an economic growth trend that’s even worse that what it suffered in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
In the Eurozone as a whole, the European Central Bank and other relevant authorities have so far insisted on massive austerity measures from struggling countries in exchange for fiscal aid. Here, too, the result has not been a revitalized economy but a continuance of dismal growth rates.
Here at home, the effect of 2009’s recovery package and the tax deal in December 2010 was more than offset by cuts in state budgets. By the end of 2009, the combined budgets of the federal and state governments had entered a period of fiscal contraction from which they have yet to emerge.
The portions of Obama’s economic policy which actually passed simply made the economic hole created by state-level cuts less deep. Which was a valuable and necessary function, but insufficient to actually boost the economy back to healthy growth. Contrary to Republicans’ claim that Obama’s first two years were a period of unbound Keynesian experimentation, austerity is the budgetary policy reality which has accompanied America’s stagnant economic growth.
This matters because, now that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down, the Bush tax cuts and the lingering effects of the recession remain the two primary drivers of the U.S. federal deficit. While the Republicans insist on not only maintaining all the tax cuts, but blowing an even larger hole in our revenue with added tax relief for the wealthy, Obama has proposed raising new revenue by allowing the Bush cuts for the top income rates to expire and by eliminating other injustices in the code which go to the benefit of the wealthiest Americans.
Even more importantly, because our tax system pulls in a percentage of the country’s overall wealth production, tax revenues will continue to underperform as long as our GDP production remains below capacity. The perverse irony of austerity as an immediate response to economic recession is that it drives down demand and GDP, thus driving down revenues and deepening the deficit hole it seeks to mend. In the opposite direction, a sudden positive jump in GDP could bring our economy back into line with its pre-recession trend and bring tax revenues back up without any change in tax rates or policy at all. The policy history in Britain, Europe, and here in America since the end of 2008 shows the Republicans’ austerity fixation won’t deliver this reinvigoration. But a recommitment by the government to boost demand could do the trick.
Obama’s budget, while imperfect, aims for the proper balance and the proper order of repairs: Investment now in jobs, infrastructure, state aid, extensions for the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance, and other immediate boosts to demand, followed by longer-term deficit cutting once the economy is again firing on all cylinders. If the GOP had not been using every political tool at their disposal to undermine this approach during the last four years, the president could probably have done considerably more.