The ink had barely dried on the bipartisan budget agreement that President Donald Trump signed last week before Washington Post opinion page editor Fred Hiatt, self-appointed arbiter of how much money the government should spend, savaged the deal. He wrote that it “shows how far we have slipped as a democracy” and “imperils our ability to keep America great,” adding, “It took Trump 13 months to surpass Obama in breathtaking irresponsibility, with his massive tax cut last year, unpaid for, and massive spending bill last week, mostly unpaid for.”
Hiatt has a nearly unblemished record in being wrong on all matters fiscal. Nothing imperiled America more than the premature pivot to austerity coming out of the Great Recession; it stunted economic growth and unnecessarily left millions of people behind, because of false hysteria whipped up without a basis in reality. Hiatt was a ringleader of this movement to punish the most vulnerable with spending cuts for no real reason, and last week’s budget agreement only partially rolls back the damage from that terrible decision.
Contrary to Hiatt’s caterwauling, the exploding deficit isn’t going to irreparably harm the country—and may do a bit of good for those who need the help the most.
Hiatt longs for the halcyon days of 2012–2013, when House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama came together in a bid to slash Social Security and other domestic spending, nearly destroying the country’s full faith and credit in the process. While Social Security survived, the Republicans’ failed attempt to hijack the debt ceiling to cut the deficit led to the sequester, a painful, mindless policy that capped discretionary spending automatically across the board, regardless of whether the program was useful or not.
The result was the lowest public investment in the United States since the demobilization after World War II. Budgets for serious needs like infectious disease outbreaks or public defenders for the indigent were reduced indiscriminately. The United States wasted the chance to use low borrowing rates to rebuild outdated infrastructure, one of the biggest missed opportunities in recent memory. The output lost by capping spending amounted to trillions of dollars in lost income and reduced economic growth.
This unquestionably denied work and prosperity to millions of people, simply to feed the irrational desires of people like Hiatt. Public sector jobs sagged under Obama more than any president of the past 40 years. And because public spending disproportionately assists poorer and more vulnerable Americans—an inverse of a tax code which largely benefits the rich—the historic cuts fueled income and wealth inequality.
This is the world Hiatt wants us to celebrate: one that imposes senseless pain on the least of us without an economic rationale. The budget deficit circa 2013 was not at unprecedented levels, and the share of GDP going to interest payments—the more important figure from the standpoint of the cost of our national debt—plunged to a 50-year low in 2015. The deficit hysteria was manufactured to scare the government into canceling generational promises made to senior citizens on Social Security and Medicare, as well as other social spending.
Now, Congress has rejected those premises, with each side getting something they wanted to bust the spending caps. Liberals got public investment partially restored—although, even with this deal, domestic discretionary spending would fall five percent under 2010 levels after adjusting for inflation, and well below average spending levels throughout history as a percentage of GDP. Conservatives got massive increases in the military budget, the biggest year-over-year increase since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s also $90 billion in disaster relief in the package.
Combined with an unpaid-for tax bill, the result is an unbalanced fiscal policy that benefits the military and the wealthy while partially rolling back what the weak and vulnerable had to endure the past several years. Hiatt calls this irresponsible. “The only victims are: The next generations, who will have to pay the debt,” he wrote. But the height of irresponsibility was pushing down domestic spending in the first place.
Former Obama administration economist Jared Bernstein explained last week how the economy is not yet at full capacity, despite the low topline unemployment rate. There are still workers who would benefit from more job opportunity; wage growth has room to run; and inflation, the great bugaboo of people like Hiatt, remains below its 2 percent target. Even if the fiscal boost from the tax and budget bills, which is bigger than the 2009 stimulus package amid the Great Recession, were to overheat the economy, the Federal Reserve could use interest rates to dial that back.
Bernstein concludes that there’s a greater risk that a lack of public spending would reduce total demand in the economy than that too much public spending would create bad outcomes. “[T]his hyper-Keynesian experiment is worth undertaking,” he wrote.
There’s no doubt that today’s fiscal stimulus is badly targeted, with too much going to tax cuts for the rich and building up a bloated military. It includes ridiculous tax breaks for thoroughbred racehorses and NASCAR track owners. The bang for the buck will be limited. But even New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who admits to arguing against his political interest in seeing Republicans fail, admits that the stimulus won’t cause a recession. More optimistic folks see reason to cautiously support it.
What we absolutely shouldn’t do is dignify the relentless ravings of deficit scolds like Fred Hiatt. He and his ilk have been singling out the needy for pain for decades, gunning for the earned benefits seniors pay their entire lives to enjoy. These scolds were wrong in 2010 when they pushed austerity on a fragile economy. They’re wrong now when they lament spending that rolls back some of the damage.