Written by Michael Cohen for The Guardian, UK
So why does the US economy stink?
Why has job creation in America slowed to a crawl? Why, after several months of economic hope, are things suddenly turning sour? The culprits might seem obvious – uncertainty in Europe, an uneven economic recovery, fiscal and monetary policymakers immobilized and incapable of acting. But increasingly, Democrats are making the argument that the real culprit for the country’s economic woes lies in a more discrete location: with the Republican Party.
In recent days, Democrats have started coming out and saying publicly what many have been mumbling privately for years – Republicans are so intent on defeating President Obama for re-election that they are purposely sabotaging the country’s economic recovery. These charges are now being levied by Democrats such as Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Obama’s key political adviser, David Axelrod.
For Democrats, perhaps the most obvious piece of evidence of GOP premeditated malice is the 2010 quote from Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell:
“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Such words lead some to the conclusion that Republicans will do anything, including short-circuiting the economy, in order to hurt Obama politically. Considering that presidents – and rarely opposition parties – are held electorally responsible for economic calamity, it’s not a bad political strategy.
Then again, it’s a hard accusation to prove: after all, one person’s economic sabotage is another person’s principled anti-government conservatism.
Beyond McConnell’s words, though, there is circumstantial evidence to make the case. Republicans have opposed a lion’s share of stimulus measures that once they supported, such as a payroll tax break, which they grudgingly embraced earlier this year. Even unemployment insurance, a relatively uncontroversial tool for helping those in an economic downturn, has been consistently held up by Republicans or used as a bargaining chip for more tax cuts. Ten years ago, prominent conservatives were loudly making the case for fiscal stimulus to get the economy going; today, they treat such ideas like they’re the plague.
Traditionally, during economic recessions, Republicans have been supportive of loose monetary policy. Not this time. Rather, Republicans have upbraided Ben Bernanke, head of the Federal Reserve, for even considering policies that focus on growing the economy and creating jobs.
And then, there is the fact that since the original stimulus bill passed in February of 2009, Republicans have made practically no effort to draft comprehensive job creation legislation. Instead, they continue to pursue austerity policies, which reams of historical data suggest harms economic recovery and does little to create jobs. In fact, since taking control of the House of Representatives in 2011, Republicans have proposed hardly a single major jobs bill that didn’t revolve, in some way, around their one-stop solution for all the nation’s economic problems: more tax cuts.
Still, one can certainly argue – and Republicans do – that these steps are all reflective of conservative ideology. If you view government as a fundamentally bad actor, then stopping government expansion is, on some level, consistent.
So, let’s put aside the conspiracy theories for a moment, and look more closely at how the country is faring under the GOP’s economic leadership.
As Paul Krugman wrote earlier this week, in the New York Times, while a Democrat rests his head each night in the White House, the United States is currently operating with a Republican economy. After winning the House of Representatives in 2010, the GOP brokered a deal to keep the Bush tax cuts in place, which has reduced the tax burden as a percentage of GDP to its lowest point since Harry Truman sat in the White House. At the insistence of the White House, Congress also agreed to extend unemployment benefits and enact a payroll tax cut – measures that provided a small but important stimulus to the economy, but above all, maintained the key GOP position that taxes must never go up.
But as Congress giveth, Congress also taketh. The GOP’s zealotry on tax cuts is only matched by its zealotry in pursuing austerity policies. In the spring of 2011, federal spending cuts forced by Republican legislators took much-needed money out of the economy: combined with the 2012 budget, it has largely counteracted the positive benefits provided by the 2009 stimulus.
Subsequently, the GOP’s refusal to countenance legislation that would help states with their own fiscal crises (largely, the result of declining tax revenue) has led to massive public sector layoffs at the state and local level. In fact, since Obama took office, state and local governments have shed 611,000 jobs; and by some measures, if not for these jobs, cuts the unemployment rate today would be closer to 7%, not its current 8.2%. In 2010 and 2011, 457,00 public sector jobs were excised; not coincidentally, at the same time, much of the federal stimulus aid from 2009 ran out. And Republicans took over control of Congress.
These cuts have a larger societal impact. When teachers are laid off, for example (and nearly 200,000 have lost their jobs), it means larger class sizes, other teachers being overworked and after-school classes being cancelled. So, ironically, a policy that is intended to save “our children and grandchildren” from “crushing debt” is leaving them worse-prepared for the actual economic and social challenges they will face in the future. In addition, with states operating under tighter fiscal budgets – and getting no hope relief from Washington – it means less money for essential government services, like help for the elderly, the poor and the disabled.
This is the most obvious example of how austerity policies are not only harming America’s present, but also imperilling its future. And these spending cuts on the state and local level are matched by a complete lack of fiscal expansion on the federal level. In fact, fiscal policy is now a drag on the recovery, which is the exact opposite of how it should work, given a sluggish economy.
This collection of more-harm-than-good policies must also include last summer’s debt limit debacle, which House speaker John Boehner has threatened to renew this year. This was yet another GOP initiative that undermined the economic recovery. According to economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “over the entire episode, confidence declined more than it did following the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc in 2008.” Only after the crisis did the consumer confidence stabilize, but employers “held back on hiring, sapping momentum from a recovery that remains far too fragile.” In addition, the debt limit deal also forced more unhelpful spending cuts on the country.
Since that national embarrassment, Republicans have refused to even allow votes on President Obama’s jobs bill in the Senate; they dragged their feet on the aforementioned payroll tax and even now are holding up a transportation bill with poison-pill demands for the White House on environmental regulation.
Yet, with all these tales of economic ineptitude emanating from the GOP, it is Obama who is bearing most of the blame for the country’s continued poor economic performance.
Whether you believe the Republicans are engaging in purposely destructive fiscal behavior or are simply fiscally incompetent, it almost doesn’t matter. It most certainly is bad economic policy and that should be part of any national debate not only on who is to blame for the current economic mess, but also what steps should be taken to get out from underneath it.
But don’t hold your breath on that happening. Presidents get blamed for a bad economy; and certainly, Republicans are unlikely to take responsibility for the country’s economic woes. The obligation will be on Obama to make the case that it is the Republicans, not he, who is to blame – a difficult, but not impossible task.
In the end, that might be the worst part of all – one of two major political parties in America is engaging in scorched-earth economic policies that are undercutting the economic recovery, possibly on purpose, and is forcing job-killing austerity measures on the states. And they have paid absolutely no political price for doing so. If anything, it won them control of the House in 2010, and has kept win Obama’s approval ratings in the political danger zone. It might even help them get control of the White House.
Sabotage or not, it’s hard to argue with “success” – and it’s hard to imagine we’ve seen the last of it, whoever wins in November.