Sunday, November 4, 2012

Romney's Economic Plan Relies on Magic, Not Math

Romney's Economic Plan Relies on Magic, Not Math

Joseph Stiglitz has a decent résumé. He won the Nobel Prize in economics and served as chairman of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers before being named chief economist of the World Bank. His C.V. , however, pales before his passionate commitment to pushing for economic policies that help the poor and powerless — inside and out of the United States. For Stiglitz, economics and social justice can’t be separated.

Since the election of Barack Obama, Stiglitz has also been something of a thorn in the side of the current administration, consistently critiquing the White House for falling short. He wasted no time in pointing out that Obama’s stimulus was too weak and his housing policy woefully ineffective — and he’s been particularly biting on the topic of Obama’s subservience to banking interests. But with Election Day fast approaching, it’s always useful to look at what the other guys would do, instead. Stiglitz took some time out to explain to Salon why, when the topic is economy, there’s really no choice for progressives in this election.

What’s at stake in this election for the U.S. economy?

Quite a lot. First, there’s what we call the macro-economy. The budget cuts that Romney/Ryan propose will certainly slow growth. If the European downturn continues that could tip us into a recession. The cuts certainly won’t provide the kind of stimulus that Obama’s jobs bill, for instance, pushes. Romney’s plan is based on magic: Just because he gets elected, the economy is supposed to take off. There is no evidence that anything like that would happen. Quite the contrary — I think the opposite would happen. The business community would see the cutbacks coming and that would itself cause a slowdown in the economy.

So that’s the macroeconomy. Secondly, the Romney/Ryan budget promises to spend more on the military while cutting taxes and cutting the deficit, and that means only one thing. If you look at the arithmetic, it means less investment in infrastructure, R&D, education … it just can’t add up any other way. And that means we’ll be growing more slowly in the future.

The irony is that these two things — lower growth now and lower growth in the future — means that our debt-to-GDP ratio won’t improve, it will get worse. So even if you were foolish enough to think that the debt-to-GDP ratio is the main determinant of future prosperity — which it’s not — the Romney agenda will fail.

And although I don’t like what’s called “presidential economics,” where you look solely at what happens under a particular presidential regime, the fact is that Romney has many of the same economic advisers that Bush did. Those economic advisers essentially doubled the debt in eight years. And that was in a period of relatively high growth. Why would we think that wouldn’t happen again? I don’t see any reason for that. Particularly when the global environment is more adverse.

And then the third part has to do with what kind of society we will be. If Romney wins, we will become a more divided society, a more unfair society. And that in turn will bring greater inequality, and will also undermine our growth.

Your most recent book is titled “The Price of Inequality.” Conservatives are pushing back, however, at the very idea that inequality is growing. One of Romney’s advisers just published an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal declaring, basically, that because everybody has a cellphone and an HDTV now, we’re better off than we were 10 years ago.

A lot of people living in shacks in South Africa also have cellphones and TVs, but that doesn’t mean they have an adequate standard of living — adequate nutrition or access to adequate healthcare, adequate life expectancies …

In any case, when we measure inequality we take into account the fact that the prices of some things go down while the prices of other things go up. That’s what we call “real income” — adjusting for those prices. And median household real income today is lower than it was 15 years ago.

You’ve made the negative case for how the economy will suffer if Romney is elected. Is there a positive case to be made for Obama? You’ve been one of the people on the left most critical of Obama’s efforts on the economy. Why should progressives vote for him now?

I think the main reason, quite honestly, to vote for him is that if he loses there could be a major step backward in every aspect. Not the least important of which is the importance of the Supreme Court, which would affect inequality of political power, as with the Citizens United case. The Court will also rule on basic human rights, gender rights, discrimination, things I think progressives should care a lot about.

But in terms of the economy, while I’ve been critical, there still has been progress in an awful lot of areas. Less progress than there should have been, less progress than was promised, but progress all the same.

Where do you see that progress?

Healthcare. Access to healthcare for everybody is an important step. It wasn’t the kind of deep reform that one would have liked where you would have done something about the pharmaceutical industry and health insurance industry and so forth, but it did result in increased access and that was terribly important. In education, getting the banks out of student loans saved $80 billion over 10 years. That’s a big deal. So while the housing program …

I was about to ask, what have been your biggest disappointments?

Housing policy has been a big disappointment. But compared to Bush, who didn’t do anything, and the Republicans, who haven’t proposed anything — Romney has been totally silent on the issue — at least Obama did something. So I am disappointed, but it represents a small step forward rather than zero. And I am worried that under Romney we will go back to the kind of deregulatory environment where we allow the banks to exploit our homeowners once again.

Looking ahead, are there things Obama could do that would represent a real step forward, rather than just consolidate what has already been achieved, or simply prevent going backward?

There aren’t many magic bullets, but let me talk about a couple things. Obviously, more progressive taxation — getting rid of the distortionary provisions in corporate welfare, special treatment of capital gains, carried interest — would make our economy more efficient and less unequal.
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