It’s the Austerity and Lack of Trust

The chart below shows government spending after our last four recessions (that’s total federal, state and local spending, corrected for inflation, with the numbers at the bottom representing yearly quarters after the recessions).

After three recessions, government spending went up. After the most recent recession, it’s gone down:


It makes sense for families to cut spending if they run into economic difficulty, but it makes no sense for the government to do the same. In situations like we’re in now, the government has to counteract the natural tendency of families and businesses to cut back when economic times are hard. Common sense and economic theory tell us the government should spend more after a recession in order to help the economy recover, even if that means increasing government debt until things get better. Yet we’ve been following the opposite policy the past few years. The result has been a relatively weak recovery that has left too many Americans unemployed and underemployed.

Why have we acted so stupidly? The obvious answer is that there were Republicans in the White House after those earlier recessions. Now there’s a Democrat. That’s why Republicans in Congress supported government spending after the earlier recessions, but have vigorously opposed it this time. (After all, Republicans love certain kinds of government spending, despite what they claim.) Hypocrisy, foolishness, the desire to recapture the White House, combined with the failure of Democrats to make the case for more stimulus. It’s all those things and more. 

The chart is from “How Austerity Wrecked the American Economy” at Mother Jones. The author updates the story here.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman sees a connection between the declining acceptance of evolution among Republicans and their rejection of stimulus spending: in order to be a good Republican these days, you have to deny climate change, evolution and modern economics.

Another economist who has repeatedly pointed out the stupidity of what we’ve been doing is Joseph Stiglitz. In a New York Times article called “In No One We Trust”, he explains how we’re losing trust in each other and our institutions as inequality increases. The article is especially interesting when he shows how a lack of trust and an excess of bad behavior got us into the economic mess we’re still trying to get out of:

Trust is becoming yet another casualty of our country’s staggering inequality: As the gap between Americans widens, the bonds that hold society together weaken. So, too, as more and more people lose faith in a system that seems inexorably stacked against them, and the 1 percent ascend to ever more distant heights, this vital element of our institutions and our way of life is eroding….

The banking industry is only one example of what amounts to a broad agenda, promoted by some politicians and theoreticians on the right, to undermine the role of trust in our economy. This movement promotes policies based on the view that trust should never be relied on as motivation, for any kind of behavior, in any context. Incentives, in this scheme, are all that matter.

Selected Reading On The Mess We’re In

Historian Sean Wilentz makes a forceful argument in favor of Obama invoking the 14th Amendment to protect the world’s economy:

… the president would have done his constitutional duty, saved the country and undoubtedly earned the gratitude of a relieved people. Then the people would find the opportunity to punish those who vandalized the Constitution and brought the country to the brink of ruin.

The New York Times editorial board is justifiably outraged that many people living in Republican-run states will still lack health insurance next year — they’ll earn too little to be covered by the Affordable Care Act and too much to be covered by Medicaid:

Their plight is a result of the Supreme Court’s decision last year that struck down the reform law’s mandatory expansion of Medicaid and made expansion optional. Every state in the Deep South except Arkansas has rejected expansion, as have Republican-led states elsewhere, [although] there is no provision in the ACA to provide health insurance subsidies for anyone below the poverty line … those people are supposed to be covered by Medicaid… Eight million Americans who are impoverished and uninsured will be ineligible for help of either kind.

Of course, Congress could easily fix this problem, but that would require You Know Who to cooperate.

At Jacobin, Shawn Gude writes about the fundamental tension between capitalism and democracy, in the context of living-wage legislation in the District of Columbia:

The controversy throws into sharp relief one of our era’s great unspoken truths: Capitalist democracy, if not an oxymoron, is less a placid pairing than an acrimonious amalgamation. The marriage that Francis Fukuyama famously pronounced eternal is in fact a union of opposites. Inherent to capitalism is inequality, fundamental to democracy is equality. Class stratification, the lifeblood of capitalism, leaves democracy comatose. The economic “base,” to put it in classical Marxian terms, actively undermines the purported values of the political superstructure.

And finally, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that we can undo the decisions that got us into this mess:

We have become the advanced country with the highest level of inequality, with the greatest divide between the rich and the poor… The central message of my book, The Price of Inequality, is that all of us, rich and poor, are footing the bill for this yawning gap. And that this inequality is not inevitable. It is not … like the weather, something that just happens to us. It is not the result of the laws of nature or the laws of economics. Rather, it is something that we create, by our policies, by what we do.  

We created this inequality—chose it, really—with laws that weakened unions, that eroded our minimum wage to the lowest level, in real terms, since the 1950s, with laws that allowed CEO’s to take a bigger slice of the corporate pie, bankruptcy laws that put Wall Street’s toxic innovations ahead of workers. We made it nearly impossible for student debt to be forgiven. We underinvested in education. We taxed gamblers in the stock market at lower rates than workers, and encouraged investment overseas rather than at home.

Meanwhile, the Swiss are voting on whether to guarantee everybody a minimum monthly income of $2500 francs ($2800 dollars). They’re also voting on a proposal to limit executive pay to no more than 12 times what the company’s lowest-paid workers earn. Who knew that the businesslike, orderly Swiss were a bunch of commies? Or maybe they’re just fed up with rising inequality, even in Switzerland.