The hysteria over the fake fiscal cliff has helped create a false narrative for what U.S. budget policy should be in the coming year. What's actually needed is a plan for sustainable growth, one that allows us to relieve the acute problems our economy is suffering so that we can get to work on dealing with the chronic ones that predate the Great Recession but were greatly exacerbated by it. Chronic problems such as wage stagnation. Unlike what the Republicans and too many Democrats argue, the nation does not have a short-term deficit problem.
At a time when more than 27 million Americans are out-of-work and hunting for a job or working part-time but need a full-time job (or wanting to work but so discouraged they have given up looking and thus are no longer counted as part of the labor force), the focus on cutting spending to rescue us from the deficit is as wrong-headed as it gets. In fact, going the austerity route right now will increase the deficit by killing jobs, lowering demand and slowing a sluggish economy. Fewer jobs means lower tax revenues, after all. And higher unemployment increases the need for government spending.
What is needed is a national industrial plan of the sort every developed and many developing nations have had for decades, massive infrastructure repairs and upgrades emphasizing clean energy, a rethinking of trade agreements, laws protecting workers' right to organize and a sharply retooled progressive tax system. Such proposals ought to be on the lips of progressive politicians every day even though Republicans (and the cohort of Democrats who enable Republicans) put up roadblocks to far lesser proposals. Getting progressive policies on the economy enacted someday requires talking about progressive policies today though there is no way they can clear the stubborn no-gotiators in Congress in the immediate future.
Just how stubborn they can be is seen in their resistance to President Obama's modest and reasonable spending proposals to keep the economy from taking a downturn over the coming year. Those are:
• Extending the Social Security payroll tax break for one year: For the 2011 and 2012 calendar years, Congress cut the payroll tax from 4.2 percent to 6.2 percent. Like other tax cuts, this one expires at the end of the month. The average reduction for the 122 million families affected by the payroll tax was slightly less than $1,000 a year.
If the cuts end, it will mean an American earning $50,000 annually will pay about $80 more a month in 2013. Jan Hatzius, chief economist, at Goldman Sachs, projects that letting the tax cut expire would chop $125 billion out of the economy and 0.6 percent out of gross domestic product for the year.
Extending the cut through 2013 would cost $115 billion. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, estimates the extension would give the economy a $100 billion boost.
• Extending the federally funded emergency unemployment insurance benefits for one year: As previously noted, as a consequence of the budget deal in February, federally funded emergency unemployment benefits are set to expire Dec. 29. If they do, 2.1 million Americans will immediately lose this lifeline and by April another 900,000 will have lost theirs, according to the National Employment Law Project. Ever since 1958, these temporary emergency benefits have remained available as long as the national unemployment rate is more than 7.2 percent. It is currently 7.9 percent and not expected to fall below 7.2 percent before mid-2013, if then.
Extending benefits would cost $30 billion to $40 billion in 2013. Mark Zandi estimates that if the cost is $40 billion, it would boost the economy by $58 billion for the year. Unemployment benefits are widely seen as having the best bang for the buck as stimulating because recipients spend the money right away. Not only do they get help to survive on their modest average of $300 in benefits each month, but also their spending in 2013 would keep some 300,000 to 400,000 other workers on the job, according to the Congressional Budget Office and NELP, respectively.
• Adding a multiyear stimulus in the form of a bank for long-term infrastructure projects. For 2013, $50 billion to this effort. While that's really a pittance, such a bank has been a Democratic goal for a decade and actually getting it off the ground would be a major step in the right direction to provide long-term financing for projects that must now be paid for on a cash basis.
• Continuing the accelerated depreciation for business. This would cost about $65 billion in 2013. This encourages business to buy capital goods sooner than later.
• Continuing refinancing underwater mortgages with an upgraded plan. The mortgages of nearly 11 million homeowners are still underwater, more than a fifth of the nation's total. Efforts to help them refinance got off to a very bad start, but they've improved. The housing market has finally shown signs of life in the past few months, but it is far from restored to its pre-bubble health. That factor continues to be a major drag on the economy. Cost of the refinancing plan: unspecified.
As you can see, there's nothing radical or momentous here, mostly just a continuation of existing spending that has made a difference for tens of millions of Americans during the worst economic downturn in 80 years.
You would think these modest efforts would be eagerly supported on both sides of the congressional aisle and the deficit would take a back seat in all these discussions. Or rather, you would think that if you hadn't witnessed the know-nothings at work over the past four years.