The Flaws in Rubinomics

The Flaws in Rubinomics

Economic policy centered on a balanced budget will destroy what’s left of FDR’s New Deal.


Before Democrats can begin to reverse a generation of laissez-faire policy dominance that has put corporations and CEOs ahead of working families, they must debunk Rubinomics, which makes the budget deficit the central focus of economic policy. This focus rests on faulty economics and stands to lock Democrats into confused policy messaging and a path of fiscal austerity that leaves no room for spending on infrastructure, alternative energy or education, among other needs.

The central proposition of Rubinomics–named after former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who shaped economic policy under President Clinton–is that budget deficits reduce saving and increase interest rates, thereby reducing investment and lowering future living standards. However, the record shows that interest rates have fallen to historic lows over the past several years, a time of large deficits, which fits the common-sense observation that the Federal Reserve largely determines interest rates contingent on economic conditions. Meanwhile, a flood of savings has poured into financial markets from wealthy individuals and pension funds.

Nor does the “twin deficit” argument–that budget deficits cause trade deficits–make sense, as evidenced by the fact that in the late 1990s the United States ran record trade deficits as the budget moved into record surplus. Rather, the trade deficit is due to undervalued foreign currencies and export-led growth strategies by many countries that look to grow by selling to the United States while restricting purchases of American-made goods.

Despite these logical failings, Rubinomics still has great appeal because Rubin’s tenure as Treasury Secretary coincided with the 1990s boom. That appeal is misplaced. The rooster crows at dawn but does not cause the sunrise. Rubin was Treasury Secretary during the boom, but budget surpluses did not cause it.

The political origins of Rubinomics can be traced back to the 1970s, when conservative charges about big government and “tax and spend” liberals took deep hold on America’s political consciousness. Throughout the 1980s Democrats struggled to respond, eventually settling in the 1990s on a strategy of “fiscal responsibility.” That strategy was always transitional and defensive, aimed at blunting Republicans’ relentless attack on government and plutocratic tax cuts. The long-term goal was always an alternative narrative to free-market mythology.

The tragedy is that once a myth takes hold, it must be lived out to be disproved. That is the price paid for losing the war of ideas. This process has now worked itself out, and America is finally grasping the fallacies of market fundamentalism. That creates a historic opportunity, but Rubinomics risks a tragic second act. Rubinomics worked brilliantly as a political strategy in the 1990s. But its success was political, not economic. However, its supporters have lost sight of this and now credit it with causing the late-’90s boom. Consequently, they argue for sticking with Rubinomics, thereby missing the opportunity created by the dismal failure of Bush’s presidency.

Instead of continuing down a mistaken path that focuses on the budget deficit, proponents of a progressive economic policy should focus on increasing investment, which is key to productivity growth and full employment. Rising wages and full employment, in combination with a fairly valued dollar, create a favorable investment climate. That sets the stage for a virtuous circle of shared prosperity. Investment raises productivity, which raises wages and profits, thereby increasing demand and drawing more investment. This is the real basis of a rising tide that lifts all boats. With regard to the trade deficit, the solution is to revalue exchange rates, raise wages abroad so that foreign workers can consume more of what they produce and have countries adopt coordinated policies that stimulate the global economy. That would benefit all, and it is why labor standards must be foremost in trade agreements.

Rubinomics is not only bad economics but also bad politics. First, by arguing that the problem is a shortage of savings, Rubinomics promotes a conservative tax agenda privileging saving and profits, which primarily benefits the rich. Second, by placing budget deficits at the center of the saving problem, it sets government up as a problem and makes a case for shrinking it. Furthermore, by promising to lock Democrats into a path of fiscal austerity, it exposes future Democratic Administrations to the charge of “flip-flopping.” This is because fiscal stimulus will inevitably be needed when the current unbalanced boom ends.

The greatest tragedy of all concerns the potentially disastrous consequences for Social Security and Medicare. These programs are more vital than ever, given America’s aging population and retirement wealth inequality. Yet Rubinomics establishes the premise for dismantling them. By claiming the budget must be balanced to increase saving, it sets up a political deal whereby Republicans suspend their unjustifiable tax cuts in return for Democrats putting Social Security and Medicare on the table. This would be the ultimate conservative triumph, the evisceration of the crown jewels of FDR’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society.

The cruel irony is that Democrats would be the agent of this destruction at the very moment when history is proffering the opportunity for a great reversal of market fundamentalism. At a time of extraordinary productivity growth, due to the maturation of the Internet and other technologies, Rubinomics establishes the premise that America cannot afford these great programs. Most bitter of all, once institutions like Social Security are dismantled, they are hard to resurrect, whereas tax cuts can easily be restored. This means that dealing Social Security benefit cuts in return for a repeal of the Bush tax cuts is both unjustified and a political trap–and Hank Paulson knows it.

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