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Robert Reich

How to avoid austerity but still fix the deficit

As Europe has shown us, austerity is bad for weak economies facing large budget deficits. But it can be avoided by getting growth and jobs back first, and only then tackling budget deficits.

By Guest blogger / May 30, 2012

A man protests in front of police officers during a demonstration against education cuts in Madrid in this May 2012 file photo. Reich argues that the US can avoid the pitfall of austerity measures on a weak economy by focusing on creation first, and only then tackling the deficit.

Paul White/AP/File

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We now know austerity economics is bad for weak economies facing large budget deficits. Much of Europe is in recession because of budget cuts demanded by Germany. And as Europe’s economies shrink, their debts become proportionally larger, making a bad situation worse.

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Robert is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Clinton. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including “The Work of Nations,” his latest best-seller “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future," and a new e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His new movie, "Inequality for All," is available on Netflix. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

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The way to avoid this austerity trap is to get growth and jobs back first, and only then tackle budget deficits.

The U.S. hasn’t yet fallen into the trap, but it could soon. Last week the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office warned we’ll be in recession early next year if the Bush tax cuts end as scheduled on January 1, and if more than $100 billion is automatically cut from federal spending, as required by Congress’s failure last August to reach a budget deal.

Predictably, Capitol Hill is deadlocked. Democrats refuse to extend the Bush tax cuts for high earners and Republicans refuse to delay the budget cuts.

If recent history is any guide, a deal will be struck at the last moment – during a lame-duck Congress, some time in late December. And it will only be to remove the January 1 trigger. Keep everything as it is, the Bush tax cuts as well as current spending, and kick the can down the road into 2013 and beyond.
Which means no plan for reducing the budget deficit.

I’ve got a better idea — a different kind of trigger. Instead of a specific date, make it the rate of growth and employment we should reach before embarking on deficit reduction.

Say 3 percent growth and 5 percent unemployment. At that point the Bush tax cuts automatically expire, the wealthy pay a higher rate, and $2 trillion in spending cuts begin.

This way we avoid the austerity trap that Europe has fallen into. And we get on with the long-term job of taming the budget deficit when the economy is healthy enough to do so.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. This post originally ran on www.robertreich.org.

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