The Tangible Effects of Austerity

One of our recent blog posts discussed the debate about austerity in Europe and here in the United States.  But what specific components of the economy will be affected by austerity measures and what effect would those measures have on the U.S. economy as a whole?

Both Europe and state economies within the U.S. have tried their hand at significant budget cuts so it’s worth examining the fallout in both cases.  Budget cuts have been heavily focused on areas like public education (both higher and lower), infrastructure, and research and development.  This is not by coincidence.  These areas, especially education, along with social welfare programs usually make up the majority of discretionary spending in state governments (particularly in large states like FL and PA) and state legislators and many governors have made public promises to not raise taxes under any circumstances.  Without the prospect of raising revenue through taxes, austerity (i.e. reducing deficits) can really only come in the form of budget cuts, and those cuts are most likely to come from those sections of the budget listed above.

Unfortunately, spending in education, infrastructure and manufacturing, and innovation is necessary for American competitiveness in a global economy and many have argued, most notably President Obama and his economic team, it is a surefire way to stimulate the economy.

The macroeconomic effects of the austerity experiment in Europe and at the state-level are muddled enough in terms of growth and job creation that it has been declared both a success and failure.  As such, the debate is still in full swing at the federal level as the U.S. approaches its so called “fiscal-cliff” at the end of this calendar year.

The cliff, and the debate itself, will have several components.  The first is whether or not to extend the Bush tax cuts and if so, to whom?  Similarly, programs for payroll tax deduction ($120 billion) and extended jobless benefits ($40 billion) will expire at yearend unless they are renewed.  And lastly, the types of budget cuts that have occurred in state and European governments discussed above are set to go into effect with mandatory 10% cuts on all discretionary spending beginning January 2013– reducing federal expenditures by $85 billion.  The mandatory cuts are part of the Budget Control Act that was passed last year after the debt-ceiling fiasco; the compromise that ended the standoff mandated that the cuts begin in January 2013 if Congress had not agreed to a debt reduction plan by that time (which of course, they have not).

With that date approaching, the austerity debate will become as prominent in Washington as it is in Brussels and in state capitols across the country.  If the mandatory cuts and tax increases occur, the nation’s GDP will likely lose several percentage points.  But even if there is a resolution, budget debates will continue and education, infrastructure, and R&D will all be on the chopping block.  The budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Chair of the House Budget Committee, has become the de-facto fiscal platform of the Republican Party and proposes significant cuts to all the areas discussed above.  Meanwhile, President Obama continues to insist that spending in such areas is a national priority.

The role of things like education, innovation, and infrastructure are central to America’s economy in a globalized market.  Policy makers would do well to carefully consider and debate any cuts to those areas and not simply sacrifice them for politically harder issues like defense spending and tax reform.

Posted by: Sean Norris

Sources: The New York Times, Forbes, CNN, The Guardian, The Telegraph

Photo Credit: Paul Ryan courtesy of flickr user Gage Skidmore

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