Washington’s next challenge

August 3, 2011

By James Pethokoukis
The opinions expressed are his own.

Reuters invited leading economists to reply to Larry Summers’ ope-d on his reaction to the debt ceiling deal. We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Reuters Breakingviews columnist James Pethokoukis’ reply. Here are responses from Laura Tyson, James Hamilton, Robert Frank, Russ Roberts, Benn Steil and Donald Boudreaux as well.

Like Larry Summers, I have a “multifaceted reaction” to Washington’s debt ceiling and budget deal. In fact, I have the exact same multifaceted reaction, except driven by completely different rationales.

1. Like Summers, I feel relief — but not because the agreement averted default and avoided harsh austerity. While the package doesn’t fundamentally change America’s fatal fiscal trajectory, it keeps the legislative momentum headed in the right direction with a focus on reducing debt via spending cuts rather than tax increases.

Nor do I think the process was some sort of “shabby spectacle.” The democratic process is always messy, and frequently driven by a sense of crisis. But it was designed to prevent tyranny; not to promote efficiency. And the recent House ban on earmarks ensured much of the haggling revolved around policy rather than political favors.

2. Likewise, I am cynical — but not about the nature of the debt deal. Future editions of Congress and the economic cycle will have great say about how much America taxes and spends in coming years. Fiscal norms are being set and attitudes changed now, such as when Congress rejected President Barack Obama’s recent budget 97-0. The new budget deal is part of that ongoing evolution.

I am bothered, however, by the unwillingness of the current administration to clearly outline its vision for America’s fiscal future. The consensus of left-of-center economists and policy wonks is that America needs to tax and spend far above traditional levels in coming decades due to America’s aging population and public investment deficit. The White House should come clean and have an upfront debate with Republicans about where the country needs to go.

3. Additionally, I also suffer from economic anxiety — but not because temporary tax breaks and other stimuli are set to expire or fade just as the economy is rolling over. There is little evidence any of that stuff created jobs or growth during the past three years. America’s facing not just a lost decade but a lost generation. Avoiding that fate requires fundamental changes to tax, regulatory, education and immigration policy to boost productivity and enhance global competitiveness.

Right now I am not seeing a comprehensive approach to these issues from either party. The debt deal wasn’t the right vehicle for such changes. But one needs to be found ASAP. Instead of achieving escape velocity, the U.S. economy looks to be falling back to earth. Washington’s next challenge is clear.

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