More Jobs and Growth, Not Deficit Reduction

Can we just keep things in perspective? On Tuesday, the President asked Republicans to join him in finding more spending cuts and revenues before the next fiscal cliff whacks the economy at the end of the month.

Yet that same day, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal budget deficit will drop to 5.3 percent of the nation’s total output by the end of this year.

This is roughly half what the deficit was relative to the size of the economy in 2009. It’s about the same share of the economy as it was when Bill Clinton became president in 1992. The deficit wasn’t a problem then, and it’s not an immediate problem now.

Yes, the deficit becomes larger later in the decade. But that’s mainly due to the last-ditch fiscal cliff deal in December.

By extending the Bush tax cuts for all but the top 2 percent of Americans and repealing the alternative minimum tax, that deal increased budget deficits by about $3 trillion above what the budget office projected last August.

The real deficit problem comes after that — when rising healthcare costs combined with 76 million decaying boomers will cost us all a fortune.

The answer is to move from fee-for-service health care to pay-for-healthy-outcomes, including lots of preventive care. This will almost certainly require a single payer instead of our balkanized healthcare system drowning in paperwork as each part of it bills and tries to collect from every other part.

Right now the central challenge is to reignite the economy — getting jobs back, improving wages, and restoring growth.

Deficit reduction moves us in the opposite direction. That’s because most consumers (whose spending is 70 percent of economic activity) are still losing ground, and businesses won’t expand and hire without more consumers.

So government has to be the spender of last resort.

Under these circumstances, increasing taxes on the middle class (as, for example, Republican legislators and governors are eagerly doing by raising sales taxes, and as the federal government did last month by raising Social Security taxes) makes it even harder for consumers to spend. Which means slower growth and fewer jobs.

Likewise, cuts in government spending, such as occurred in the fourth quarter of 2012, cause the economy to contract — as it did in the fourth quarter.

In other words, we’re still having the wrong discussion. It shouldn’t be how to cut the budget deficit. It should be how to bring back good jobs and economic growth.

Deficit hawks and government-haters are still framing the debate. That bodes ill for all of us.

About Robert Reich 543 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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