Tuesday, Jun 8, 2010, 7:53 am
Weekly Audit: Deficit Reduction
In the fall of 2008, decades of finance-first, bankers-know-best economic policies coalesced to create one of the worst economic crises in history, one that the banks themselves could not survive without staggering levels of government support.
Yet astonishingly, nearly two years after the crash, Wall Street is still setting the economic agenda in Washington. As Congress begins to examine broader economic policy, lawmakers are under heavy Wall Street pressure to reduce the federal budget deficit—even though that could mean deepening the jobs crisis without any substantive economic benefits.
At the same time, the financial reform bill that Congress is on the verge of passing leaves quite a bit to be desired. As the editors of The Nation emphasize, that legislation includes several small-bore fixes to ease the damage caused by Wall Street excess, but almost nothing to actually curb the excesses themselves. The capital markets casinos will largely be left untouched. Congress still has time to improve the bill over the next month as the House and Senate iron out their differences, and many useful reforms remain in play.
Nevertheless, Wall Street's lobbyists have succeeded in taking the most important reforms off the table. We will not break up the biggest banks this year, nor will we tax reckless financial speculation. We aren't even banning economically essential banks from participating in risky securities businesses.
Et tu, Buffet?
As Annie Lowrey notes for The Washington Independent, the crisis has even discredited Warren Buffett, one the few financial superstars who previously had a reputation as a "straight-shooter" who invested in responsible enterprises.
Buffett was once a harsh critic of credit-rating agencies, the firms who slapped top ratings on toxic mortgage-backed securities and derivatives. But Buffett himself is also a top shareholder in Moody's, one of the worst ratings agencies. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission had to compel Buffett's testimony at a recent hearing via subpoena after he turned down multiple requests to appear. At the hearing itself, Buffett did everything he could to pass the buck from himself and Moody's to any other possible target.
Slashing the deficit
Wall Street's ugly influence on economic policy extends far beyond the realm of bank regulation itself. Right now, financial elites are pushing hard on a right-wing plan to slash the federal budget deficit, and even many moderate Democrats are coming out in support of reduced government spending.
This strategy is a tremendous political blunder, as Steve Benen emphasizes in The Washington Monthly. It's true that the deficit does not poll very well—but the deficit is only one side of the issue. Cutting the deficit means slashing federal support for jobs—we can help the economy or we can slash the deficit, but we cannot do both at the same time.
Nearly everyone believes that creating jobs should be a top priority for the government, but if politicians only ask questions about the deficit, they won't hear answers about the economy. The political imperative is clear, as Benen notes:
This really shouldn't be complicated: invest in more job creation, help struggling states as they keep laying off workers, and make clear to voters that the economy is more important than the deficit. Do this immediately, without apology.
Replacing Social Security with credit cards?
Wall Street loves cutting social services in the name of deficit reduction. Every public good that can be efficiently provided by the government can also be inefficiently provided by the private sector—replacing public benefits with corporate profits. The bank lobby would like nothing more than to replace Social Security with credit cards for senior citizens. Wall Street doesn't make a dime on the government's Social Security payments—but they can make a killing on a privatized market.
Weak job growth=Weak private sector
Lest there be any question about whether or not the government needs to take strong action to strengthen the labor market, take a look at Friday's jobs report. As Tim Fernholz notes for The American Prospect, this report was the most disappointing piece of economic news in months. While the economy gained 431,000 new jobs during the month, 411,000 of them were temporary hires by the U.S. Census, meaning the private sector is not able to support much new hiring.
There's a critical lesson there: The only serious engine of job growth in the month of May was the federal government. Absent government hiring, the economy is not improving at all. There is an almost bottomless supply of critical social needs that require work right now, but no private-sector momentum to meet those needs.
The BP oil catastrophe should underscore how important new, green energy is to the U.S. economy—yet U.S. efforts to develop green energy solutions have fallen far behind those of China and other industrial powerhouse nations. Major federal investment into the research and implementation of green energy would be good for our environment and good for our economy.
Don't let social services suffer
But astoundingly, the advice on the world economy currently coming from top policymakers at the Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund and European central banks is echoing the bank lobby line: Slash social programs now, and let the job market fend for itself. As Dean Baker emphasizes for AlterNet, these are the exact same policymakers who missed the housing bubble, made the wrong calls on bank regulation and sent the global economy into freefall.
There has been little change in personnel and no acknowledgment of error at the central banks whose incompetence was responsible for the crisis . . . their agenda seems to be the same everywhere, cut back retirement benefits, reduce public support for health care, weaken unions and make ordinary workers take pay cuts.
In short, Wall Street and the Wall Street policy agenda remain ascendant, despite economic catastrophe. In the Great Depression, the government actually learned its lesson—we regulated the banks, created Social Security and put millions to work through government hiring programs. That same basic agenda is needed today. Failing to meet it could well mean decades of economic decline.
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