Starving the Unemployed

During the Bush administration, the federal debt “ nearly doubled,” going from $5.7 trillion to $10.6 trillion. This was no accident, but rather part of the Republican’s “starve the beast” strategy for shrinking government. While this was going on, many of us warned that if big trouble hit, and if we had high deficits at the time, it would limit our ability to respond in the most effective manner. E.g., from January 2006:

We are in a better position with respect to monetary policy now, but for awhile we had very low interest rates coupled with very high budget deficits. In such a case, when you’ve already thrown your two best punches, what do you do if trouble hits? It’s important to reload the policy guns – get deficits and interest rates in order – so when trouble hits you won’t have already fired your best shots. I also wonder if we are saving enough for the next rainy day.

We weren’t, and as I said, that was intentional. You see, the advocates of starve the beast policies believed that capitalism had entered a new era since Reagan. We had thrown off the limitations imposed by intrusive government making us, unlike Europeans who had not followed suit to anywhere near the same degree, highly resistant to shocks. Much was written about how effectively the relatively government free U.S. economy could absorb shocks relative to Europe (Phelps comes to mind). We could take a licking and keep on ticking. So they saw no real danger in pushing a large deficit, starve the beast type policy. Many denied that government could help, government is always the problem, never the solution, but in any case big shocks – the kind that produce depressions – couldn’t happen in a free, capitalist system, and they would point to the Great Moderation and events such as Katrina where the economy hardly lost a breath as evidence for that position.

But they were wrong about that, and what many of us were so worried about has now come to pass. Because of the high levels of government debt, our hands are not as free as they should be to deal with the crisis. Republicans – the very party that created the such a large problem by denying that it could ever occur – are now the ones wringing their hands about increasing the deficit any further. But instead of complaining, they should be apologizing profusely for leaving us in such a bad position. Their belief that capitalist economies, if only freed of government, can absorb any shock almost without blinking, and their conscious decision to try to starve government, particularly social insurance programs so necessary in a downturn like this one, has left us in a bad position. We may not be able to do as much as we need to do because of the objections to increasing the debt as much as will be needed. And if we cannot do what we need to do, it won’t be the beast that is starved, it will be families who no longer have jobs, healthcare, etc., and have no place to turn to get the help that they need, at least not in sufficient quantity. “Starving the unemployed” may not have been the goal, but if Republicans get their way and limit the recovery package based upon deficit fears, it could very well be the result.

Originally published at the Economist’s View reproduced here with the author’s permission.