Spending Isn't the Problem, Austerity Is

Sequestration is going to hurt the economy--and the GOP.

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Don't buy the budget hype. Sure it's fun to ding Paul Ryan for his unrepentant (Election? What election?) budget plan and his Obamacare contortions. (He wants to repeal it, except for its Medicare savings and tax increases, which he was against, then for, then against, and now for again). But here's the thing about budget resolutions: They're not laws. They're not binding. They are, for all intents and purposes glorified, congressionally sanctioned, party platforms.

The great budget debate, in other words, is a philosophical one. And while such arguments are important we shouldn't let them distract from the real-world policy fights ongoing about how money is actually spent or not spent.

If you've paid any attention, for example, you know the GOP's mantra, that the nation's problem is spending, which is "out of control." This is the basis for their entire policy agenda. It's also pernicious, economically destructive nonsense.

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Consider some data points:

  • Federal spending grew by 0.6 percent from 2009 to 2012, according to Bloomberg. That's the slowest rate since the Eisenhower years. That's a novel definition of "out of control."
  • Austerity has been the single biggest drag on job growth, according to the Wall Street Journal. The paper notes that federal, state, and local governments have cut nearly 750,000 jobs since June 2009. "No other sector comes close to those job losses over the same period," the Journal reported last week. "Construction is in second worst place, but its 225,000 cuts are less than a third of the government reductions." The same article figured that without the public-sector job losses, the unemployment rate would be 7.1 percent instead of 7.7 percent. Remember that the next time Republicans react to improving job numbers with statements of yes, but it should be better.
  • And what good is all this austerity? "Here's a pretty important fact that virtually everyone in Washington seems oblivious to: The federal deficit has never fallen as fast as it's falling now without a coincident recession," Investor's Business Daily reported last month. Assuming sequestration stays in place, the deficit is expected to shrink by 3.4 percent of the economy between fiscal year 2011 and 2013, and the only other times the budget deficit shrank by a cumulative 2 percent of GDP or more—the start of Franklin Roosevelt's second term, the post-World War II demobilization, 1960-61, and 1969-70—recessions quickly followed.
  • [See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

    This isn't an error; it's a deliberate policy of austerity monomania, consequences be damned. Remember what John Boehner said weeks after he became speaker: "In the last two years, under President Obama, the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs," Boehner said. "If some of those jobs are lost, so be it." If anything is out of control, it's the push for spending cuts, which, let's not forget, is ongoing. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that sequestration—the arbitrary, across-the-board spending cuts which started going into effect two weeks ago—will cost the economy another 750,000 jobs this year if left untouched.

    The first couple of weeks of sequestration have produced a strange kind of euphoria on the right as lawmakers and activists alike preen over the cuts ("This was a necessary win for Republicans," one anonymous GOP aide told National Review Online) while most of the inside-the-beltway attention has focused on whether President Obama oversold the effects of the cuts and criticism over White House tours having been canceled. Republicans run the risk, however, of becoming the proverbial frog in boiling water. At some point the real-world effects of the cuts, slowly building though they may be, will punch through their ideological bubble.

    [See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

    A week into sequestration, the Huffington Post surveyed how local television news reports have covered the cuts. Local stations "did tend to dig more deeply into the ramifications of the cuts, looking at how people around the country … will be affected in their daily lives," the website reported. Those ramifications included Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth, Texas, trying to induce retirements in order to avoid having to fire people, while nearly two dozen county employees around Salt Lake City have been fired. It's not hard to find other grim sequestration stories: Air Force civilian employee furloughs will cost Ohio $111.1 million in lost wages, according to the Dayton Daily News; Customs and Border Protection will start furloughing 60,000 employees in April; the Army, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard have suspended tuition assistance programs; control towers in more than 200 general aviation airports nationally are expected to be closed; dairy exports could fall by $500 million, according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

    Corrected on 3/16/13:An earlier version of this column incorrectly characterized previous instances of dramatic deficit contraction. The deficit reductions which book-ended the 1960s occurred at a slower rate than the current fiscal retrenchment.