WEEKEND EDITION APRIL 12-14, 2013
Austerity Economics, Democrat-Style
by ROB URIE
With Barack Obama putting his plan to cut Social Security and Medicare expenditures into writing in his Federal budget proposal the ability of those who voted for him to credibly deny his years of publicly stating he would do so disappeared. The pathetic pleas from liberals and progressives who only a few short months ago were assuring the unwashed masses Mr. Obama was on the cusp of a ‘liberal’ renaissance if only doubters would join them in granting him another term are today as empty as their assurances were then. And Mr. Obama’s self ‘sacrifice’ of voluntarily giving up 5% of his own $400,000 per year salary in solidarity with seniors present and future who will see their Social Security payments reduced calls into question his intelligence if sincere—the difference between the rich (Mr. Obama) voluntarily giving up a fraction of their yacht allowance versus millions of seniors choosing between eating and living indoors is fundamental.
Those whose politics begin and end with rolling off the couch every few years to vote could in theory be forgiven for perceiving a yawning chasm between the Republican and Democrat candidates. Marketing firms were paid a lot of money to create that illusion. And Mr. Obama almost certainly has the political calculus correct that the bourgeois commentariat, a/k/a/ ‘the left,’ will whimper in protest for a few days, weeks at most, before falling in line for Hillary or whatever militaristic, corporatist abomination the Democrats put forward in the next Presidential election. Early reports even have liberal pundits sticking with the line Mr. Obama is only posturing with the proposals, despite his near decade prior explaining why he believes Social Security and Medicare must be cut to be ‘saved.’ However, this is truly a ‘let them eat cake’ moment. Mr. Obama’s policies will needlessly, and in economic terms gratuitously, hurt a lot of people—overwhelmingly those who self-identify as the Democrats’ political ‘base.’ And lest there be confusion over the matter, in his first term Mr. Obama fully restored the fortunes of America’s ruling class at several trillion dollars of public expense before proposing these cuts.
The faux official hand wringing over Social Security is a result of the bi-partisan (‘Washington’) consensus that produced the trajectory of catastrophic public policy over the last forty years. Radically skewed income distribution, the result of public policy, has seen lower and middle-income wages stagnate with all economic gains delivered up to a tiny plutocracy. This has lowered the proportion of total income paid into Social Security because above the current $113,700 cap income is excluded from contribution to the program. Raising the cap would have some effect in reducing expected future shortfalls but would reframe the social insurance nature of the program because payments are also capped. The real solution—where the real money is, lies in shifting economic gains back toward lower and middle class wages. Doing this would raise the proportion of income paid into Social Security. And this leaves aside the fact the Federal Reserve created several trillion dollars ‘out of thin air’ to restore the fortunes of a dysfunctional financial system and its beneficiaries in the plutocracy and could more productively do so to fund the nation’s social insurance programs. In short, the ‘crisis’ facing Social Security and Medicare is one of skewed income distribution resulting from bad public policy and is readily solvable without cutting benefits.
To the argument proposed tax increases on the rich balance ‘sacrifice’ across economic classes, what makes Mr. Obama’s self-imposed wage cut so ludicrous is how radically it understates the degree to which a large and growing proportion of the population has been economically marginalized. It also frames income distribution as an outcome of ‘natural’ processes from which returning some proportion for the benefit of the common weal through taxes is ‘sacrifice.’ (The rich benefit from public expenditure in far greater proportion than the rest of us). About one-third of retirees exist entirely on Social Security payments that are already at bare subsistence levels. These payments constitute the bulk of monthly income for two out of three retirees. Cutting benefits for people who lack other options for obtaining income isn’t ‘sacrifice,’ shared or otherwise—it is immiseration. And Social Security belongs to those who paid into the program throughout their working lives—it is only through radically anti-democratic governance Mr. Obama and Congressional Republicans have say in the matter.
Income distribution data shows top incomes coming from two related sources—finance and finance related and corporate executive compensation. Wall Street—the F.I.R.E. sector (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate), benefited from Wall Street’s resurrection at public expense. Government ‘bailout’ policies were framed as ‘liquidity’ provision when in fact the programs went on far longer and at greater public expense than this explanation supports. In fact, Wall Street was (is) insolvent due to poor and / or fraudulent business practices meaning bankers killed ‘their’ banks, not nature. The resurrection of Wall Street, including paychecks and bonuses, took place entirely on the public dime. And a significant proportion of the rise in corporate earnings used to justify grotesquely disproportionate executive compensation came from cutting wages to labor. The ability of executives to cut wages derives from government policies specifically designed to reduce the power of labor unions and from tax breaks and incentives to shift production to low wage countries. These are no more ‘market’ forces than the bank bailouts were.
The challenge for the bourgeois commentariat is it largely accepts the political economy that produced current circumstance but objects to the outcomes. Explicit austerity economics, of which Mr. Obama’s proposals to cut social insurance programs are a component, receive their provenance from the ‘structural adjustment’ programs the IMF (International Monetary Fund) for decades inflicted on the citizens of other nations for the benefit of Western banks. The neo-liberal premises behind structural adjustment are still taught in university economics departments by ‘liberal’ economists who are leading members of the bourgeois commenting class now critical of austerity. With the aforementioned government policies to concentrate wealth within a tiny plutocracy whilst throwing labor to the wolves in mind, liberal economists defer to ‘market’ forces to explain the income and wealth skews behind the ‘natural’ austerity faced by the bulk of the working populace and then argue explicit austerity policies are ‘unfair’ and / or economically destructive. But why argue over effects when the causes can be addressed?
In the macroeconomic context in which austerity economics is argued the mainstream debate is between Keynesian economists ‘New’ and old and Austrians. Keynesians argue in circumstances where private demand for goods and services is ‘inadequate’ government spending produces multiples of the money spent in increased economic output. Austrians argue government spending is always and everywhere less productive than private spending and taxes levied to fund government spending take away from private spending. Eighty or so years of evidence strongly favor the Keynesian understanding of how modern economies ‘work,’ but with a caveat. Austrians tend to understand the roles of money and banking in the economy whereas ‘New’ Keynesians remain willfully clueless. This difference plays out in a few ways—private credit expansion has an economic effect similar to public expenditure but it is neither in the public interest nor is it socially neutral in its political-economic effects. And public investment funded with public debt has the power of the printing press behind its repayment whereas private credit doesn’t.
Mr. Obama’s delivery of several trillion dollars of public wealth to the banks in ongoing bailouts was sold as a way to ‘get banks lending again,’ ‘private’ Keynesianism, to raise the quantity of private debt issued to bolster consumption. But wholly reviving insolvent banks has no legitimacy in any economic theory. This is why the bailouts were, and still are, framed as liquidity provision when they are in fact solvency provision. And again, private debt has the political-economic consequence of concentrating wealth and political power in the hands of lenders (Wall Street). Intellectually honest Austrian economists would have let Wall Street die at its own hands in 2008 in favor of a functioning private credit system. ‘New’ Keynesians support public spending to bolster demand when necessary under the (correct) premise the power of the printing press is a tool to serve the public interest. But their ignorance of money and banking leaves them supporting the monetary policies of solvency provision for dysfunctional banks and at utter losses as to why fiscal policies funded by this same printing press are nowhere to be found. To coin a Clintonism, it’s the class warfare stupid!
The difference between the Federal government providing ‘liquidity’ to markets and restoring solvency to insolvent banks is more than a technicality. In the case of liquidity provision the government temporarily floods markets with money to facilitate transactions during bank panics– it is the ability to transact that is restored. In the case of restoring solvency the Federal government both buys bad assets from the banks that through fraud and / or incompetence rendered themselves insolvent and it provides subsidies from which banks can ‘rebuild’ their balance sheets. Both are transfers of public resources to private interests demonstrated by history to be economically destructive.
Without apparent irony, the structural adjustment programs fiscal conservatives look to for intellectual sustenance absolutely reject using public funds to restore dysfunctional banks because dysfunctional banks inevitably bleed the economies that remain dry. Austerity economics, the bases for IMF and World Bank policies, are banker economics designed to assure bank debts are repaid regardless of the economic devastation doing so may cause. For theoretical coherence austerity requires that core banks (Wall Street), the banks for which loans be forcibly repaid by the periphery, be functional and healthy. Having now saved a parasitic and dysfunctional Wall Street at public expense, fiscal conservatives in the U.S., led by Barack Obama, seek to cut public expenditures to pay for the privilege.
If cutting the inflation assumption for Social Security would ‘save’ the program, the purported rationale or doing so, then reversing policies designed to concentrate income and wealth would do far more. But cutting the inflation assumption isn’t intended to ‘save’ the program; it is intended to cut Federal spending in which Social Security plays only an indirect role (why else include it in budget ‘negotiations’?) because it is funded through a dedicated tax, not through Federal spending. This doesn’t mean Mr. Obama isn’t locally sincere (if wrong) in promoting the Hamilton Project (Robert Rubin) line that ‘tweaking’ social insurance programs will ‘save’ them. But here context is important. And the context is public expenditures are being cut to pay for the Wall Street bailout and the economic calamity Wall Street caused. Put another way, if there is no public debt ‘crisis’ (there isn’t) and the temporary increase in public debt was to save Wall Street and undo the damage it did to the economy, why not get the money from Wall Street?
But in fact the money is still going in the other direction. And across Europe the story is remarkably similar—through assuming bank liabilities directly (Ireland), shifting public resources to the banks to ‘save’ them and public expenditure on economic stabilizers and unemployment benefits, formerly fiscally ‘disciplined’ nations are now regularly characterized by the European Central Bank and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as nations of ‘takers’ whose morally bankrupt citizenries ruined their countries with fat public welfare programs that must be cut to restore economic health. To be clear, fiscal issues the European periphery faces came from delivering public resources to Wall Street alone. (Wall Street now includes large European banks).
For the uninitiated, the endgame appears nigh. The seizure of bank deposits in Cyprus to pay for bank losses simply removed the ‘middle men,’ the European Central Bank and the political powers that be in Europe, from transferring wealth from the citizens of Cyprus to Cypriot bankers (and to European banks and U.S. hedge funds). The capitalist media storyline promoted by gullible liberals that ‘Russian mafia’ money was seized is nonsense. By reports European banks and rich Russians had little trouble getting their money out of Cyprus. The deposits being seized are in precise inverse relation to the political-economic power the depositors wield. And across the West policies of economic austerity are being imposed in similar fashion.
Mr. Obama is who he is. But those who voted for him have some explaining to do. I oppose Mr. Obama’s policies and would have likewise vocally, and otherwise, opposed those of Mitt Romney had he ‘won.’ Were this simply a matter of resentment the situation would take care of itself—you are the schmucks who cut your own Social Security and Medicare programs. But if you think this is it, that the worst is over, I humbly suggest that was your view when Mr. Obama won his second term. To those paying attention, the Dodd-Frank legislation being sold as a way to ‘reign-in’ bailed out banks contains ‘Cyprus’ clauses that leave banks (or their creditors, beginning with derivatives counter-parties) no alternative than to seize insured deposits when they need their next inevitable bailout. On the plus side, this will eliminate the time-consuming theater of austerity ‘debates.’ On the minus side, Mr. Obama is exponentially increasing the misery of society’s most vulnerable. But I’m confident he appreciates your support for his policies.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.