A Question of Timing: What America Can Learn from the Revolt in Europe

Who’s an economy for? Voters in France and Greece have made it clear it’s not for the bond traders.

Referring to his own electoral woes, Prime Minister David Cameron wrote Monday in an article in the conservative Daily Telegraph: “When people think about the economy they don’t see it through the dry numbers of the deficit figures, trade balances or inflation forecasts — but instead the things that make the difference between a life that’s worth living and a daily grind that drags them down.”

Cameron, whose own economic policies have worsened the daily grind dragging down most Brits, may be sobered by what happened over the weekend in France and Greece – as well as his own poll numbers. Britain’s conservatives have been taking a beating.

In truth, the choice isn’t simply between budget-cutting austerity, on the one hand, and growth and jobs on the other.

It’s really a question of timing. And it’s the same issue on this side of the pond. If government slices spending too early, when unemployment is high and growth is slowing, it makes the debt situation far worse.

That’s because public spending is a critical component of total demand. If demand is already lagging, spending cuts further slow the economy – and thereby increase the size of the public debt relative to the size of the overall economy.

You end up with the worst of both worlds – a growing ratio of debt to the gross domestic product, coupled with high unemployment and a public that’s furious about losing safety nets when they’re most needed.

The proper sequence is for government to keep spending until jobs and growth are restored, and only then to take out the budget axe.

If Hollande’s new government pushes Angela Merkel in this direction, he’ll end up saving the euro and, ironically, the jobs of many conservative leaders throughout Europe – including Merkel and Cameron.

But he also has an important audience in the United States, where Republicans are trying to sell a toxic blend of trickle-down supply-side economics (tax cuts on the rich and on corporations) and austerity for everyone else (government spending cuts). That’s exactly the opposite of what’s needed now.

Yes, America has a long-term budget deficit that’s scary. So does Europe. But the first priority in America and in Europe must be growth and jobs. That means rejecting austerity economics for now, while at the same time demanding that corporations and the rich pay their fair share of the cost of keeping everyone else afloat.

President Obama and the Democrats should set a clear trigger — say, 6 percent unemployment and two quarters of growth greater than 3 percent — before whacking the budget deficit.

And they should set that trigger now, during the election, so the public can give them a mandate on Election Day to delay the “sequestration” cuts (now scheduled to begin next year) until that trigger is met.

About Robert Reich 547 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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