August 29, 2014

Short-term support for the economy is not inconsistent with long-term fiscal responsibility

Perhaps the most difficult policy question Concord has been discussing with the public, the media, and members of Congress, is what to do about current large budget deficits given the lingering effect of a deep recession and projections for future debt levels due to population aging and rising health care costs. Does working on one problem preclude working on the other? The answer is no.

David Walker of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute had a good Op-Ed in Politico this week exploring the question. They highlight that:

The difficulty is that many politicians and news organizations often cast deficit debates as a dichotomy: You either care about them or you don’t.

But this is rarely accurate. The fact that the two of us, who have philosophical differences on the proper role of government, find much to agree on about deficits is a testament to the importance of dropping this useless dichotomy and finally talking about deficits in a reasonable way.

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Though a concern, most of the recent short-term rise in the deficit is understandable. Furthermore, public spending can help compensate for the fall in private spending, and help stem the pain of substantial job losses.

With more than a fifth of the work force expected to be unemployed or underemployed in 2010, there is an economic and a moral imperative to take action. Persistently high unemployment drives poverty up, makes it harder for families to find decent housing, increases family stress and, ultimately, harms children’s educational achievement. For young workers entering the workforce, the current jobs crisis reduces the amount they will earn over their lifetime.

In deep recessions, businesses tend to make fewer critical investments in research and development that can improve our economy’s productive capacity over the long term. Entrepreneurs usually find credit hard to obtain if they want to start a new business. These factors hurt U.S. global competitiveness and growth potential.

That’s why we agree that job creation must be a short-term priority. Job creation plans must be targeted so we can get the greatest return on investment. They must be timely, creating jobs this year and next. And they must be big enough to substantially fill the enormous jobs hole we’re in. They must also be temporary — affecting the deficit only in the next couple of years, without exacerbating our large and growing structural deficits in later years.

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But these problems, and the resulting short-term deficits they cause, should not be confused with the primary deficit challenge facing our nation: structural deficits. These deficits are projected to exist in coming years — even when the country is at peace, even when the economy is growing, even when unemployment falls.

Concord has struck a similar note many times, including in our recent analysis of the President's Budget. Policymakers can both enact fixes for short-term economic needs while at the same time enacting longer term fiscal fixes designed to phase-in once the economy recovers. We have also supported budget process reforms that put in place a structure that can encourage fiscal responsibility while maintaining fiscal flexibility to deal with the near-term economic emergency.

That is why the most important aspect of the President's proposed fiscal commission is not how it might decide to meet the short-term deficit reduction goal, but how its members might reach agreement to deal with longer term challenges. House Majority leader Steny Hoyer seems to feel similarly and at a Brookings Institution speech Monday highlighted this aspect of the commission and his vision for some of the compromises that could arrise.