Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sequester again

So.  We are now officially into sequestration, and I don’t see any immediate incentive for either side to get us out.  The thing was designed to contain at least one thing that each side disliked, to force them to the table to compromise, but the designer, probably Jack Lew, made a mistake: he also fenced off for each side the one thing they simply could not accept, the one thing they not only disliked but abhorred.  The Republicans are afraid that any new compromise will raise taxes, and the Democrats (at least the more progressive Democrats) are afraid that any new compromise would devastate support for the old, the sick, and the poor.  For each side sequester, sour as it is, is still sweeter than the compromise they fear.

In my last post on sequester I waited until the end to say this, and from a facebook conversation I know that there are people who didn’t read to the end.  Not surprising.  I do the same kind of thing whenever I try to read Charles Krauthammer; I can never get past the first paragraph of pompous sneer and misdirection before revulsion pushes me on to the next column.  For all I know Krauthammer may say brilliant and insightful things in the third and fourth paragraphs, but I never get that far.  So let me put this quote from the end of my last sequester post right up front here:

“For the average person in an average day, going to the job he or she still has and going home, cooking dinner and watching TV, caring for children, there will be no immediate cataclysm they can point to and blame on sequester.” 

Translation: I think it’s a serious mistake for Obama to overstate the short run cost of sequester, in part because most people won’t really feel any significant short run cost.

The consensus estimate is that it will reduce economic growth this year by one half of one percent.  So it will slow growth down, but on its own it probably won’t sink us into a new recession.  It will just mean that the long slow recovery will just be a little longer, and a little slower,  a little more grinding, and a little more fragile to external shocks.  With interest rates at the zero lower bound, I don’t think the Federal Reserve can do much to save us if external shocks---say, an economic crisis in Europe---do come along.  But if the world continues to limp along as it has been doing, there is no impending cataclysm.

The house Republicans have created a long series of crises, and we still have at least two ahead of us over the next few months.   But if they had to pick one of their crises to allow to ripen and bear fruit, this was the one to choose.  The others would either shut down the government completely (if they fail to pass a budget or a continuing resolution), or throw the Treasury into default (if they fail to pass a debt ceiling increase), so this is the one that will cause the least damage, and for most people the least pain.

But if it’s a mistake for Obama to overstate the costs, it’s also a mistake for others to understate them.  in that former sequester post I also said that:

“I expect the usual jokes about how the government shut down and no one noticed.  But those jokes are ignorant, and dangerous.”

And of course we are already hearing those jokes, and seeing them in political cartoons.  And we’re seeing columnists and others (such as George Will here, or today’s interesting op-ed piece by a former Republican hill staffer named Mike Lofgren here) claiming that the sequester is trivial, that the $85 billion total that will be cut from our $3.6 trillion budget is only 2.3%, so it’s nothing to worry about. 

Yes, the total budget is huge---we’re a huge country---and compared to that huge budget the sequester is small.  But the sequester cuts don’t come from the total budget.  They can’t.  We can’t at a whim just cut the interest payments on our national debt, for example, or our Medicare or Social Security payments, or military retirement, or military pay for active duty personnel, or a host of other non-discretionary spending.  The sequester spending cuts have to come out of a much smaller pie.  And as a result the great majority of federal civilian employees will face unpaid furloughs, generally of one day per week, starting in late April.  That’s not 2.3%.  That’s a 20% cut in income, and so for the whole of the federal government’s labor force the sequester, if it endures, creates a quick and significant hurt.   And for the rest of the country, those furlough days will create risk and stress, not for everyone, but in patches here and there.  Food inspection is one area that has had a lot of play in the news.  The result of fewer food inspectors will not be riskier meat, because risky meat cannot be sold.  The result will be less meat available, smaller supply and so, at least in theory, eventually somewhat higher prices.  Not catastrophe, but irritating to us omnivores.  And other scenarios will play out in many areas where public services will diminish.  Border security, embassy security, FAA, FEMA, wildlife fire management, child nutrition, student financial assistance, and on and on.  Refugee assistance.  Aging and disability services.   Air marshals.  $372 million from the FBI; $102 million from the DEA.  $45 million from the Small Business Administration disaster loan programs, and $24 million from the SBA business loans program.  On and on.  A few million here and there, as the total $85 billion gets parceled out to the lowest level.  You can download the whole list here; this is a PDF of the letter sent to John Boehner outlining the specific sequester cuts. 

Do all of these cuts spell disaster?  No, certainly not, at least not for those who are not directly effected by furloughs or sudden loss of services or support they need.  Not in the short run, anyway. Vegetarians won’t care if there is less meat.  People who don’t fly much won’t care if the FAA budget is decreased.  Those who do won’t even notice the absence of air marshals, unless there is a hijacking that could have been prevented; in an ordinary flight we don’t notice when they are on the plane, so why would we notice when they are not?  It’s all just a little more grit in the gears for most people.  Is it 2.3% more grit?  Is the pain greater than the cost savings?  I don’t know.  I would guess yes, probably a good deal more. 2.3% increased pain, or even twice that, isn’t Armageddon though.

But the half-percent growth slowdown that is the consensus forecast is just the short run, just this year or next year.  That’s just the loss of demand, and presumably, hopefully, we will recover from that eventually.  But the impact that concerns me most is long run, not short run.  The general Republican urge to make the government small and powerless, so small, as Grover Norquist is famous for saying, that they can “drown it in a bathtub”, means that we are all left with less power to cooperate in investing in long term research, in infrastructure improvements, and in general in providing public goods, or suppressing public bads.  And that can mean lower growth and create more meager prospects not just this year or next year, but forever.   

Republicans in the House are concerned about a few percentage points in the tax code; they would count it a great victory to reduce the top tax rate by, say, 10%.  But if the determined pursuit of reduced taxes also reduces public investment in infrastructure and research, the money they save in lower taxes in the short run would very quickly be overwhelmed by the loss of income growth in the longer run.

At least one real difference between my view and the view being expressed by a lot of the Grover Norquist branch of the Republican party who want to shrink government until they can drown it in a bathtub is that one.  I think there are public investments that matter, and that can increase growth, and that only government is likely to make those investments.  They don't think that, or at least they think that those government investments are displacing private investments that would provide an even bigger return to us.

If they're right, then what just happened hardly matters.  It's only 2.3%, after all.  

If I'm right, then it’s foolish to slash wildly away at government expenditures without considering what future costs are implied by current savings.  The long run costs could be much bigger than the small cost savings that are visible on the surface.


  1. Great post. You are an excellent writer and think pretty well, too.

    Here's what I don't understand, and this IS for lack of trying since I've been distracted lately, what happens now? Are we stuck with the sequester or can it be turned back? If so, by whom? And, since in the last election I thought it pretty clear that the Republican view on smaller government is necessarily better received a good spanking from the American people, why isn't the Obama administration doing more to explain what's going on and what they plan to do about it?

    No, the cuts aren't huge but they are, in my uninformed opinion, misdirected. Cut preschool programs by $600,000,000? Really? How about we cut the defense budget instead? We paid $79 BILLION dollars for 187 of the F-22 Raptors, a weapon for which even John McCain said there was no mission or need, a program which cost an estimated $420 million-plus per jet. This was a pork barrel project if ever there was one. If we need cuts for God's sake cut weapons from our bloated military budget, not kid's programs.

    So, what now Stuart? What is being done to prevent such travesties and by whom? What should we do to help?

  2. You've provided an ambition: I can aspire to someday be an excellent thinker who writes pretty well, rather than an excellent writer who thinks pretty well. Sigh...maybe in my next life.

    What happens now is budget negotiations, or continuing resolution negotiations, if those are possible. And they might be; those negotiations will be a bit less public than the sequester was. If so, maybe we will continue the sequester level spending but allocate the cuts better, to reduce the impact. But I don't think Congress will be able to do what I think it should do, and what a lot of people have been saying it should do, which is to take advantage of the astonishingly low long term interest rates available to borrow now and invest in infrastructure improvements---or in any other investments that will improve long term growth, like education or research. It looks like all of that is off the table for now.

    1. My wife and I were recently in Australia. While there we toured a local model school to learn more about what they were doing to improve education. Of everything I heard that day the most astounding was that the Australian government, in reaction to the economic disaster of a few years ago, had instituted a large and expensive program to rebuild old infrastructure, and create new infrastructure, for education throughout the country. The name of the program is "Building the Education Revolution." (You can learn more about it here:

      The thing is, I cannot imagine such a program being proposed, let alone funded, by the U.S. Government. We are frozen into inactivity while roads, bridges, and our schools fall apart around us.