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I just finished moderating an Urban Institute panel discussion featuring three confirmed deficit hawks—former CBO directors Bob Reischauer and Rudy Penner, and TPC’s Len Burman. The question on the table: What will the now-official recession and the federal government’s massive deficits mean for Barack Obama’s hugely ambitious domestic agenda?
While Len, Bob, and Rudy had differing views on short-term stimulus, they agreed that any measures to boost today’s economy must be accompanied by credible proposals to get future deficits under control. It was an interesting contrast to Paul Krugman’s deficits-be-damned argument in yesterday’s New York Times.
Krugman, along with many others, has insisted we should do “whatever it takes” to revive the economy and that those who worry about federal red ink are headed down the catastrophic road of fiscal austerity.
His argument is clever, but based on a fundamentally false choice. No one I know is arguing for a contractionary fiscal policy right now. That would be truly stupid in the face of the economic downturn. But policy experts like Rudy, Len, and Bob are saying it is equally foolish to ignore the long-term fiscal consequences of pumping up today’s economy.
So, how should Obama walk this thin line? Rudy would tie a $300 billion stimulus plan to explicit budget process reform aimed at dramatic changes in entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. Bob would link stimulus to a specific plan to make Social Security solvent. He argues that these modest changes are well known and could be enacted relatively easily. Besides, a time when pensions are in such jeopardy might be the perfect opportunity to assure the long-run stability of Social Security, now more important than ever to retirees.
Len has an even more intriguing idea. He would tie short-term stimulus (aid to states, expanded Food Stamps, and well-targeted infrastructure spending) to long-range tax reform. His specific plan: Enact a Value-Added Tax starting in, say, 2011. The levy would raise badly needed revenues, which Len would use to fund health reform. But it would also boost spending in the short-run. Consumers, knowing that such a tax would take effect in a couple of years, might be more inclined to buy now. Normally, announcing big tax changes well in advance is a bad idea, because it can so dramatically change the timing of people’s behavior. But in today’s environment, that might be exactly the right idea.
Len, Bob, and Rudy also agreed that the recession and the flood of red ink might also give Obama the perfect excuse to jettison some of his worst campaign promises, such as his vow to cut taxes for everyone making $200,000 or less. I confess I’m a lot more skeptical. While it might be silly to cut taxes for those making $200,000 in the face of $1 trillion deficits, I can’t imagine Obama backing off that promise in the midst of an economic slowdown. But could he tie stimulus to long-term deficit reduction? He could, and should.
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