Monday, January 9, 2012

If only we could "solve" the debt crisis

The News & Observer ominously warns
    The failure of Congress to slash the national deficit threatens to cascade from Washington straight into North Carolina's schools, stores and doctor's offices. 
    Automatic spending cuts - triggered by the lack of agreement in Congress over ways to reduce the more than $1.2 trillion deficit - will begin in 2013 and could mean:
    • An estimated 9 percent cut in the $417 million that Duke University gets from the National Institute of Health to research cures for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's, alternative energy and national security.

    • The loss of federal funds for public schools with large populations of low-income students. In Cabarrus County, for example, that means the school system could lose money that pays for a series of federal programs, including $210,000 in Title 1 funding, which helps low-income schools hire teachers and assistants to reduce class sizes, improve computer labs, purchase supplies, and increase teacher training.

    • And the death of mom-and-pop shops in military towns like Fayetteville that could lose $351 million in defense contracts and tens of millions in civilian payroll.
The article, correctly, points to the economic harms associated with automatic spending cuts that will be triggered by Congress' debt deal last summer and by Congress' failure to agree on an alternative debt reduction plan. We've seen this kind of government retrenchment at the state level, and it retards and can even reverse economic growth.

However, the article fails to mention the harms that would be associated with a debt deal.

There are only two ways to rein in the deficit: cut spending and increase taxes. The article lists cuts that would hurt university research, school spending, and military base businesses, but other cuts would fall on somebody else.

Cuts to poor people's medical care or food assistance, college students' education assistance, extended unemployment, or the elderly's medical care would also hurt specific people and take money out of the economy. Similarly, increases in taxes, perhaps in the form of closing "loopholes" (a.k.a. somebody else's tax break), letting the payroll tax cut expire, or straightforwardly raising rates, would take money out of wallets and pocket books and slow the economy.

Those are the unpalatable choices on the table. The News & Observer complains about one serving of brussel sprouts but doesn't tell you that the other serving bowls are filled with lima beans and that dinner will be followed by a big spoonful of castor oil.