Friday, July 8, 2011

Danger of US default shows failings of the free market

A resurgence of right-wing economics driven by ideology and special interests threatens the global economy.

JUST a few years ago, a powerful ideology - the belief in free and unfettered markets - brought the world to the brink of ruin. Even in its heyday, from the early 1980s until 2007, American-style deregulated capitalism brought greater material well-being only to the very richest in the richest country of the world. Indeed, over the course of this ideology's 30-year ascendancy, most Americans saw their incomes decline or stagnate year after year.

Moreover, output growth in the US was not economically sustainable. With so much of national income going to so few, growth could continue only through consumption financed by mounting debt.
I was among those who hoped that, somehow, the financial crisis would teach Americans (and others) a lesson about the need for greater equality, stronger regulation, and a better balance between the market and government. Alas, that has not been the case. On the contrary, a resurgence of right-wing economics, driven, as always, by ideology and special interests, once again threatens the global economy.
In the US, this right-wing resurgence is threatening to force a default on the national debt. If Congress mandates expenditures that exceed revenues, there will be a deficit, and that deficit has to be financed. Rather than carefully balancing the benefits of each government expenditure program with the costs of raising taxes to finance those benefits, the right seeks to use a sledgehammer - not allowing the national debt to increase forces expenditures to be limited to taxes.

This leaves open the question of which expenditures get priority - and if expenditures to pay interest on the national debt do not, a default is inevitable. Moreover, to cut back expenditures now, in the midst of an ongoing crisis brought on by free-market ideology, would simply prolong the downturn.

A decade ago, in the midst of an economic boom, the US faced a surplus so large that it threatened to eliminate the national debt. Unaffordable tax cuts and wars, a major recession, and soaring healthcare costs quickly transformed a huge surplus into record peacetime deficits.

The remedies to the US deficit follow immediately from this diagnosis: put America back to work by stimulating the economy; end the mindless wars; rein in military and drug costs; and raise taxes, at least on the very rich. But the right will have none of this, and instead is pushing for even more tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, together with expenditure cuts in investments and social protection that put the future of the US economy in peril and that shred what remains of the social contract.
But matters are little better in Europe. As Greece and others face crises, the medicine du jour is timeworn austerity packages and privatisation, which will merely leave the countries that embrace them poorer and more vulnerable.

There is an alternative: an economic-growth strategy supported by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Growth would restore confidence that Greece could repay its debts, causing interest rates to fall and leaving more fiscal room for further growth-enhancing investments. Growth itself increases tax revenues and reduces the need for social expenditures, such as unemployment benefits. And the confidence this engenders leads to still further growth.

Regrettably, the financial markets and right-wing economists have the problem exactly backwards: they believe that austerity produces confidence, and that confidence will produce growth. But austerity undermines growth, worsening the government's fiscal position, or at least yielding less improvement than austerity's advocates promise.

Do we really need another costly experiment with ideas that have failed repeatedly? We shouldn't, but increasingly it appears that we will have to endure another one nonetheless. A failure of either Europe or the US to return to robust growth would be bad for the global economy. A failure in both would be disastrous - even if the major emerging-market countries have attained self-sustaining growth.

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