Don’t succumb to deficit hysteria

Scared by the $1.6 trillion deficit? I wish it were even bigger

Topics: Great Recession

Today, as expected, the White House announced that the deficit projections are worse than it had thought. And as expected, the same old group of deficit hysterics went ballistic. “A 10-year deficit of $9 trillion is $30,000 for each man, woman and child in the United States!” Kabaam. “Public debt will total a whopping $17.5 trillion by 2019 — three-quarters of the nation’s entire economy!” Kaboom. “The number would send Reagan’s stack of thousand-dollar bills into satellite orbit!” Zowee.

Can we please relax?

First, ten-year projections are notoriously irrelevant. Remember Ross Perot? In 1992, he predicted that the federal budget deficit was on track to end to the world as we knew it. In fact, the rapid growth of the economy during the following years reduced the deficit to zero (neither Bill Clinton’s famous deficit-cutting nor Republican insistence on a balanced budget was responsible; the deficit reached zero before any major fiscal changes kicked in).

Second, deficits and debts mean just about nothing anyway — at least out of context. In 1945, the federal debt was 120 percent of the entire U.S. economy. Yeegads! Yet only a few years later, the debt as a proportion of GDP had been tamed — and not primarily because of cuts in government spending. Yes, of course, wartime spending ended. But the big change was in the denominator of the equation. Economic growth kicked in big time and reduced the debt as a proportion of the economy to manageable levels.



The only item worth looking at is the part of the report that predicts the government will have nearly a $1.6 trillion deficit in the fiscal year that ends this Sept. 30 — but not because that number is alarmingly large. It strikes me as alarmingly small. I’d prefer the government run a larger deficit. With unemployment and underemployment still rising, consumers still pulling away from the malls, business investment still in the basement, and exports still dead, the federal government has to spend more — and the deficit has to be larger — in order to get people back to work. 

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His new movie "Inequality for All" is in Theaters. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

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