America’s Exceptional Fiscal Conservatism

In most countries, to be “fiscally conservative” means to worry a great deal about the budget deficit and debt levels – and to push these issues to the top of the policy agenda. In many eurozone countries today, “fiscal conservatives” are a powerful group, insisting on the need to boost government revenue while bringing spending under control. In Great Britain, too, leading Conservatives have recently proved willing to raise taxes and attempted to limit future spending.

The United States is very different in this respect. There, leading politicians who choose to call themselves “fiscal conservatives” – such as Paul Ryan, now the Republican Party’s presumptive vice-presidential nominee to run alongside presidential candidate Mitt Romney in November’s election – care more about cutting taxes, regardless of the effect on the federal deficit and total outstanding debt. Why do US fiscal conservatives care so little about government debt, relative to their counterparts in other countries?

It has not always been this way. For example, in 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s advisers suggested that he should cut taxes in order to pave the way for his vice president, Richard Nixon, to be elected to the presidency. Eisenhower declined, partly because he did not particularly like or trust Nixon, but mostly because he thought it was important to hand over a more nearly balanced budget to his successor.

The framework for US macroeconomic policy changed dramatically when the international monetary system broke down in 1971. The US could no longer maintain a fixed exchange rate between the dollar and gold – the cornerstone of the postwar Bretton Woods system. The arrangement collapsed because the US did not want to tighten monetary policy and run more restrictive fiscal policy: keeping US voters happy was understandably more important to President Nixon than maintaining a global system of fixed exchange rates…

What has America done with this opportunity – arguably the lowest-cost funding in the history of humankind? Not much, in terms of productive investment, strengthening education, or maintaining essential infrastructure…

Ryan and members of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party undoubtedly want to cut the size of the federal government, and they have articulated plans to do this over several decades. But, in the near term, what they promise is primarily tax cuts: their entire practical program is front-loaded in that direction. The calculation is that this will prove politically popular (probably true) while making it easier to implement spending cuts down the road (less obvious). The vulnerability caused by higher public debt over the next few decades is simply ignored…

The assumption here – unstated and highly questionable – is that the US will be able to sell an unlimited amount of government debt at low interest rates for the foreseeable future. There is no other country in the world where fiscal conservatives would want to be associated with such a high-stakes gamble.

The wealth of American politicians, today, especially these so-called fiscal conservatives, is joined at the hip with financiers, bankers and corporate barons more intimately than any time in US history. While there have been a number of periods of such convivial corruption – on a much smaller scale – nothing like all-encompassing corporate control of Congress has existed until Gingrich’s contract on America set forth on the back of American taxpayers in 1994.

They have little need to worry about failure, taking down our nation’s economy in the process. They have friends in high places – well away from the oversight of government, pretty much ignored by today’s journalism-as-entertainment.

[BTW - a fine historical analysis of how we got to be so screwed-up is Simon Johnson's latest book, "White House Burning"]

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