Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Robert Reich

Deficits are not the real economic problem

The biggest economic problems we face are unemployment, stagnant wages, slow growth, and widening inequality, Reich writes, not deficits.

By Guest blogger / March 14, 2013

Continuing his effort to end political gridlock with Congress, President Barack Obama comes to Capitol Hill to meet with the Senate Republican caucus, in Washington, Thursday. When American families can’t spend enough to keep the economy going, Reich writes, the government has to step in as spender of last resort.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Enlarge

“Our biggest problems over the next ten years are not deficits,” the President told House Republicans Wednesday, according to those who attended the meeting.

Skip to next paragraph

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.

Recent posts

The President needs to deliver the same message to the public, loudly and clearly. The biggest problems we face are unemployment, stagnant wages, slow growth, and widening inequality — not deficits. The major goal must be to get jobs and wages back, not balance the budget. 

Paul Ryan’s budget plan — essentially, the House Republican plan — is designed to lure the White House and Democrats, and the American public, into a debate over how to balance the federal budget in ten years, not over whether it’s worth doing.

“This is an invitation,” Ryan explained when he unveiled the plan Tuesday. “Show us how to balance the budget. If you don’t like the way we’re proposing to balance our budget, how do you propose to balance the budget?”  

Until now the President has seemed all too willing to engage in that debate. His ongoing talk of a “grand bargain” to reduce the budget deficit has played directly into Republican hands. 

As has his repeated use of the Republican analogy comparing the government’s finances to a household’s. “Just as families and businesses must tighten their belts to live within their means,” he said of his 2013 budget, “so must the Federal Government.”

Hopefully, he’s now shifting the debate. 

The government’s finances are not at all like a household’s. In fact, it’s when American families can’t spend enough to keep the economy going, because too many of them are unemployed or underemployed and have run out of money, that government has to step in as spender of last resort — even if that means taking on more debt. If government doesn’t fill the spending gap, an economy can collapse into deeper recession or depression, pushing unemployment far higher. Look at what austerity economics has done to Europe

In addition, it’s perfectly fine for government to borrow and continue to borrow in order to invest in new roads or other infrastructure, or education, or basic research — when those investments pay off in higher rates of economic growth.The notion that government spending “crowds out” private investment, keeping interest rates higher than otherwise, is obsolete in a global economy where capital sloshes across national borders, seeking the highest returns from anywhere. Societies that invest in the productivity of their people attract global capital and create high-paying jobs. And since most big corporations are no longer dependent on the productivity of any one nation, the responsibility for making such  investments increasingly falls to government.Not that we should disregard the debt altogether, but the best way to deal with it is to do so gradually, through economic growth. That’s how we reduced the giant debt Franklin D. Roosevelt bequeathed America, and it’s how the Clinton Administration (of which I am proud to have been a member) achieved a balanced budget in 1996. Republicans want Americans to believe government budgets are like family budgets that must be balanced because the analogy helps their ideological aim to “drown the government in a bathtub,” in the memorable words of their guru, Grover Norquist. As long as there’s a debt and balance is the goal, shrinkage is the only option — if tax increases are ruled out. 

At last the President wants to change the debate and focus on the real economic problem. In a Tuesday interview with George Stephanopoulos that got less attention than it deserved, he said “my goal is not to chase a balanced budget just for the sake of balance. My goal is how do we grow the economy, put people back to work, and if we do that we are going to be bringing in more revenue.”

Let the real contest begin.  

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.

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer

 

Doing Good

 

What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

 
 
Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!