Simon Johnson: Fiscal Austerity and America’s Future

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The New York Times

Simon Johnson: Fiscal Austerity and America’s Future

Simon Johnson

Read Simon Johnson's full article at the New York Times.

... The financial crisis may be behind us, but the link to the likely
intense debate this fall regarding fiscal policy is direct. We are told
that fiscal austerity requires outright and immediate further cuts in
the benefits previously promised to people at the federal, state and
local level.

Never mind that this is simply not true - at least in the form currently presented (here are a primer on short-term issues and another on the longer-term perspective).
A vocal class of people - including some at the upper end of the income
distribution - incessantly insist that entitlements must be cut while
refusing to address the real causes of both our recent surge in
government debt (the financial crisis, caused by perverse incentives in
the financial system) and the genuine longer-term issues we face (which
are about controlling the future increase in health-care costs, not
cutting the level of benefits today).

The self-described fiscal conservatives really cannot be taken
seriously. In the financial reform debate, they either didn't show up or
preferred to keep the existing system in place, and they refuse to put
serious health cost-control measures on the table.

If the "conservatives" don't really want to reduce the shocks that
have caused government debt to explode recently - or to deal with the
underlying, longstanding health-care cost issues in a reasonable fashion
- what exactly is going on?

That's a question they should answer for themselves, and hopefully
they will be pressed on this in public debates during the campaign for
November's elections. But there is a striking similarity between the
longstanding stated intention to "starve the beast" (meaning to press
for reduction in government by creating binding constraints, like a
perceived crisis) and what we are seeing play out today.

And there is very real danger that this strategy will work, in the
sense that the contours of a coming "fiscal crisis" - what will be
discussed and how the issues are framed - will largely be structured by
scaremongers who wish to cut pensions and health-care benefits for
middle Americans in the years ahead and who will work hard to keep
meaningful tax reform off the table.

People who push for this view are not being fiscally responsible, and
they are well down the road to exacerbating developing world-type
problems in the United States - and to creating the conditions for
another financial crisis.


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