FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Who Really Crashed the Economy?

by DEAN BAKER

The talk in Washington these days might lead people to think that the main cause of the economic downturn is the Social Security and Medicare benefits being paid to retirees. After all, we have people from both parties giving us assurances that cuts to these programs are an essential part of any budget deal. This is the sort of topsy-turvy thinking that passes as conventional wisdom in Washington.

In case it’s necessary to remind people, our economy plunged due to the collapse of a Wall Street-fueled housing bubble. The loss of demand from the collapse of the housing bubble both led to a jump in the unemployment rate from which we have still not fully recovered and also the large deficits of the last five years.

Prior to collapse of the bubble, the budget deficits were quite modest. In 2007 the deficit was just 1.7 percent of GDP, a level that can be sustained indefinitely. Furthermore, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the deficits would remain small for the near future, with the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts in 2011 projected to push the budget into surplus.

The reason that we suddenly got large deficits was the economic downturn, which caused tax revenue to plummet and increased spending on programs such as unemployment insurance. We also had temporary measures that included tax cuts such as the payroll tax holiday and various spending programs that further raised the deficit.

However these stimulus measures were temporary and were quite explicitly designed to boost the economy. Had it not been for the downturn, they would not have occurred. There is very little by way of permanent changes from the pre-recession tax and spending policy that would raise the budget deficits from the low levels that had been projected in 2008. This means that the story of current deficits is the story of the collapsed housing bubble.

In a sane world we might be looking to square the deck with the folks who brought us the bubble. One obvious way would be a modest financial speculation tax like the one that the UK has had in effect on stock transfers for centuries. A modest tax on trades of stock, options, credit default swaps and other derivative instruments could raise enormous amounts of money while barely affecting normal investors.

The Joint Tax Committee estimated that a 0.03 percent speculation tax proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Peter Defazio would raise almost $40 billion a year. This bill would imply a tax of just $3 on $10,000 of trades. Since computerization has caused trading costs to plummet, this tax would just raise transactions costs back to where they were 10-15 years ago.

The big hit would be on the high speed traders and other fast turnover types who are flipping stock and other assets by the hour or even by the second. This trading is a drain on the economy and cutting it back would free up resources for productive activity.

But in Washington policy circles, taxing Wall Street is off the agenda, cutting Social Security and Medicare is on the agenda. And, best of all, many of the people at the center of the housing crash are playing leading roles in this drive to cut retirees benefits.

Last week, many people might have seen Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, talking about the need to cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age. The last time that Mr. Blankfein was very visible in policy debates he was desperately seeking a bailout for Goldman Sachs which was facing a bank run that pushed the company to the edge of bankruptcy.

It was granted special protection from the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. This protection, coupled with tens of billions of dollars in loans at below market interest rates allowed Goldman Sachs to regain its health. Now its CEO wants to cut our Social Security.

An even more amazing apparition in this story is former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan. More than anyone in the whole country, Greenspan deserves blame for the economic downturn. As the bubble was growing to ever more dangerous levels, Greenspan was cheering it on, insisting that there was no bubble, and that even if there was a housing bubble its collapse would pose no special problem for the economy.

In a sane world, Greenspan would be hiding away somewhere enjoying his high six-figure pension. But this isn’t a sane world, this is Washington. Therefore we could find Greenspan telling us that another recession would be a price worth paying, if it led to cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

So welcome to the Washington policy world. Cuts to Social Security and Medicare are on the agenda and Wall Street speculation taxes are off the agenda. Don’t we have much to be thankful for?

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This article originally appeared on Yahoo’s The Exchange.

Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

January 19, 2017
Melvin Goodman
America’s Russian Problem
Dave Lindorff
Right a Terrible Wrong: Why Obama Should Reverse Himself and Pardon Leonard Peltier
Laura Carlsen
Bringing Mexico to Its Knees Will Not “Make America Great Again”
John W. Whitehead
Nothing is Real: When Reality TV Programming Masquerades as Politics
Yoav Litvin
Time to Diss Obey: the Failure of Identity Politics and Protest
Mike Whitney
The Trump Speech That No One Heard 
Conn Hallinan
Is Europe Heading for a “Lexit”?
Stephen Cooper
Truth or Twitter? Why Donald Trump Is No John Steinbeck
Binoy Kampmark
Scoundrels of Patriotism: The Freeing of Chelsea Manning
Ramzy Baroud
The Balancing Act is Over: What Elor Azaria Taught Us about Israel
Josh Hoxie
Why Health Care Repeal is a Stealth Tax Break for Millionaires
Kim C. Domenico
It’s High Time for a Politics of Desire
Shamus Cooke
Inauguration Day and Beyond
Clark T. Scott
More and More Lousy
David Swanson
Samantha Power Can See Russia from Her Padded Cell
Kevin Carson
Right to Work and the Apartheid State
Malaika H. Kambon
Resisting the Lynching of Haitian Liberty!
January 18, 2017
Gary Leupp
The Extraordinary Array of Those Questioning Trump’s Legitimacy (and Their Various Reasons)
Charles Pierson
Drone Proliferation Ramps Up
Ajamu Baraka
Celebrating Dr. King with the Departure of Barack Obama
David Underhill
Trumpology With a Twist
Chris Floyd
Infinite Jest: Liberals Laughing All the Way to Hell
Stansfield Smith
Obama’s Hidden Role in Worsening Climate Change
Ron Leighton
Trump is Not Hitler: How the Misuse of History Distorts the Present as Well as the Past
Ralph Nader
An Open Letter to President-Elect Donald Trump
Binoy Kampmark
NATO and Obsolescence: Donald Trump and the History of an Alliance
Zarefah Baroud
‘The Power to Create a New World’: Trump and the Environmental Challenge Ahead
Julian Vigo
Obama Must Pardon the Black Panthers in Prison or in Exile
Alfredo Lopez
The Whattsapp Scandal
Clancy Sigal
Russian Hacking and the Smell Test
Terry Simons
The Truth About Ethics and Condoms
January 17, 2017
John Pilger
The Issue is Not Trump, It is Us
John K. White
Is Equality Overrated, Too?
Michael J. Sainato
The DNC Hands the Democratic Party Over to David Brock and Billionaire Donors
John Davis
Landscapes of Shame: America’s National Parks
Andrew Smolski
Third Coast Pillory: Politicians and Rhetorical Tricks
Chris Busby
The Scientific Hero of Chernobyl: Alexey V. Yablokov, the Man Who Dared to Speak the Truth
David Macaray
Four Reasons Trump Will Quit
Chet Richards
The Vicissitudes of the Rural South
Clancy Sigal
“You Don’t Care About Jobs”: Why the Democrats Lost
Robert Dodge
Martin Luther King and U.S. Politics: Time for a U.S. Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Jack Sadat Lee
I Dream of Justice for All the Animal Kingdom
James McEnteer
Mourning Again in America
January 16, 2017
Paul Street
How Pure is Your Hate?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
Did the Elites Have Martin Luther King Jr. Killed?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail