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Krugman: Fiscal fever breaks in Washington, D.C.

In 2012, President Barack Obama, ever hopeful that reason will prevail, predicted that his re-election would finally break the GOP's “fever.” It didn't.

But the intransigence of the right wasn't the only disease troubling America's body politic in 2012. We were also suffering from fiscal fever: the insistence by virtually the entire political and media establishment that budget deficits were our most important and urgent economic problem, even though the federal government could borrow at incredibly low interest rates. Instead of talking about mass unemployment and soaring inequality, Washington was almost exclusively focused on the alleged need to slash spending (which would worsen the jobs crisis) and hack away at the social safety net (which would worsen inequality). So the good news is that this fever, unlike the fever of the Tea Party, has finally broken.

True, the fiscal scolds are still out there, and still getting worshipful treatment from some news organizations. As the Columbia Journalism Review recently noted, many reporters retain the habit of “treating deficit-cutting as a non-ideological objective while portraying other points of view as partisan or political.” But the scolds are no longer able to define the bounds of respectable opinion. What changed? I'd suggest that at least four things happened to discredit deficit-cutting ideology.

First, the political premise behind “centrism” — that moderate Republicans would be willing to meet Democrats halfway in a Grand Bargain combining tax hikes and spending cuts — became untenable. There are no moderate Republicans. To the extent that there are debates between the Tea Party and non-Tea Party wings of the GOP, they're about political strategy, not policy substance.

Second, a combination of rising tax receipts and falling spending has caused federal borrowing to plunge. This is actually a bad thing, because premature deficit-cutting damages our still-weak economy — in fact, we'd probably be close to full employment now but for the unprecedented fiscal austerity of the past three years. But a falling deficit has undermined the scare tactics so central to the “centrist” cause. Even longer-term projections of debt no longer look at all alarming.

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