Who Deserves Credit for Reducing the Federal Deficit?


Hey, looky here! Steve Benen highlights the chart on the right, which shows that President Obama is making steady progress reducing the massive federal deficit that was rung up in FY2009 by George Bush and the Republican Party. Nice work, Obama!

But wait. Does this seem a wee bit unfair? Fine. You’re right. Bush wasn’t responsible for the deficit. The Great Recession was responsible for the deficit. Nor is Obama (or Boehner or McConnell or anyone else) responsible for the reduction in the deficit. That happened because the economy started to recover. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Deficits always go up during recessions and they always go down after recessions end. Tax and spending policy makes a difference, but not much of one. Taxes and spending almost always go down during recessions, and they almost always go back up during recoveries.

However, with the deficit now around 3 percent of GDP, we’re back in fairly normal territory, which means that tax and spending policy does make a difference. (Until the next recession, anyway.) However, there’s an iron law that everyone should remember but nobody ever does. Here it is:

  • If we drive the deficit down to zero, then private savings have to equal our trade balance.

In other words, if we run a trade deficit, then we’ll have negative private savings. If we want positive private savings (and we do), then we either have to run a trade surplus or else we have to offset private savings with a big budget deficit. There is no way around this. It’s an accounting identity. So whenever you hear someone yakking away about the horrors of the federal deficit, ask them what they want in its place. There’s no hedging on this. You either want a trade surplus (no more living beyond our means!) or negative private savings (bad for growth). It’s one or the other, whether you like it or not.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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