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Progressives and the Budget Deficit

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The budget situation today looks hugely worse than it did two years ago. The reason for the deterioration is not that the country has suddenly embarked on a massive new round of social spending, undertaken another major military adventure or even emptied the coffers through tax breaks. The reason that the deficit situation looks hugely worse than it did two years ago is that the $8 trillion housing bubble that had been driving the economy finally collapsed and threw the country into the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

The tragedy in this story is that the collapse of the bubble and its devastating consequences were entirely predictable. Had policymakers recognized the housing bubble and its dangers, they could have easily taken measures to avert this disaster, preventing the surge in unemployment, the flood of foreclosures and the huge budget deficits that characterize this downturn.

Unfortunately, the sociology of the economics profession and economic policy-making is structured so that the voices of those who raised concerns about the housing bubble were largely excluded from public debate. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan and other leading lights of the economics profession insisted that everything was fine. As a result, nearly all the properly credentialed "experts" marched in lockstep behind their leaders, also insisting that everything was fine.

Remarkably, even after this collapse, nothing has changed in the structure of debates over economic policy. Nearly every day of the week an organization in Washington sponsors a policy session on the budget deficit or some other important economic topic and every last "expert" is among that distinguished group that somehow could not see an $8 trillion housing bubble.

This would be like hosting a session on the future of US military involvement in Iraq in which every participant had confidently predicted in 2003 that the United States would cakewalk to an easy victory. Even the Republicans wouldn't be foolish enough to host a panel like this. Yet, there seems to be a bipartisan consensus that completely missing the biggest economic calamity in almost 80 years doesn't call into question your competence as an economic analyst.

This should scare people. There is no reason to believe that people who were incapable if independent analysis before the bubble collapsed are now capable of thinking for themselves. In other words, the vast majority of the so-called experts who pontificate on economic policy are still people who are more accustomed to deferring to authority than doing their own analysis. This means that a great deal of silliness is likely to be perpetuated, just as was the case before the housing bubble collapsed.

The basic story on the budget deficit is very simple: We need badly need large budget deficits in the short term. They are the only force that can sustain demand in the economy after the collapse of housing construction and the loss of the consumption that had been supported by $8 trillion in illusory housing bubble wealth.

In the longer term, we will need to reduce our trade deficit to replace this demand, but this can only be brought about by a reduction in the value of the dollar against the currencies of our trading partners. If our budget experts had been capable of independent thinking before the crash, they would have pointed out the over-valued dollar as a main cause of imbalances in the US economy. Unfortunately, most of them are still incapable of recognizing the obvious.

The other big oversight that the budget experts commit is the failure to recognize the positive role that moderate rates of inflation can play in our economic recovery. Sustained inflation in the range of 3 to 4 percent will be the quickest way to rebuild the balance sheets of households who saw most or all of their wealth disappear with the bursting of the bubble.

Modest inflation will also help to erode the debt burden the government was forced to take on due to the housing crash. For those old enough to remember, inflation was also a major factor in reducing the burden of the huge debt that the country incurred as a result of World War II.

Of course in the long term, if we don't fix health care then the deficits will be unbearable, but this calls for discussions of health care, not budget deficits. If we don't fix health care, the economy will be wrecked regardless of what we do with the budget.

But, we won't get a more serious discussion of these issues until we have budget experts who actually form independent assessments of the economy. As it stands, the debate is dominated by a follow-the-leader crew who could not see an $8 trillion housing bubble.