“Morning Joe” had as guests this morning both Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) and Rep. John Shaddeg (R-AZ). These are two of the more thoughtful, reasonable Congressional members of either party. What struck me, though, is the formulation of economic policy that they were putting forth.

Rep. Shaddeg was being asked one of the media’s favorite questions these days, namely, why it is that extending unemployment benefits has to be “paid for,” but extending the Bush-era tax cuts does not. The response — predictable from either party — was that this was all about jobs. Shaddeg made the point that unemployed people don’t spend those unemployment benefits; they hold on to the money for as long as they can. Rep. Schock’s contribution was that the unemployed don’t hire people, business owners do.

To me, this is a complete distortion of economic reality. Of course business owners do the hiring, but why do they hire? They hire for one reason and one reason only: they need the workers to meet the demand for their goods or services. Certainly not because their taxes are lower (or higher). Where does the demand for goods and services come from? From consumer spending, mostly. Create more consumers, or increase the spending of the consumers we have, and demand goes up… and then hiring goes up. It’s pretty simple really. Except somehow it confounds the Washington crowd.

I am not making the case for or against extending unemployment benefits, nor the case for or against extending tax cuts. My point is that we will never get economically sound policy out of Congress if our elected representatives continue to put forth economic nonsense as the basis for policy.

Put very simply, we have to choose between more job creation or more debt reduction, at least in the short run. Republicans have come into town promising both. That’s nonsense. Those two policy aims, each important and valuable in its own right, work at cross purposes, at least in the short run. Pick one. You want job creation? Then extend unemployment benefits and extend the tax cuts — but be honest and tell the American people that it is necessary to raise deficits in the short term to stimulate those jobs. You want debt reduction? Then cut off the unemployment benefits and let the tax cuts expire — but be honest and tell the American people that job creation will suffer in the short run.

It has been four  five six days since the mid-term elections, and during that time I have started and abandoned four six seven different posts on that topic. So many different emotions have filled me. I may have needed at least little space to make better sense of them. A fable (kind of) to start off…

Once, there was a group of three Mexicans who set out on a fishing boat to catch sharks.  However, their boat soon experienced adverse winds and mechanical difficulties, and they were lost at sea. The fishermen existing on nothing but raw fish, rain water and the tiny amounts of additional fresh water they could condense and trap. Finally, after nine months and nine days, they were picked up by another fishing vessel, some 5500 miles from where they had started. (True story)
Of course, the Mexican fisherman were malnourished and emaciated. The captain of the ship that rescued them, a Democrat, immediately ordered that a sumptuous feast be brought forth for the starving men. They ate and ate until they had had their fill, gorging themselves on rich roast meats and delectable baked goods and every manner of decadent indulgence.
The First Mate of the rescue boat, himself a Republican, thought ill of the captain’s plan, however. He immediately dashed off a wire to the corporate office, complaining that the feast had ruined the food budget for the vessel’s entire trip. What is more, he strenuously objected to the eating habits of the rescued men. “They ate with reckless abandon,” he reported. “Plate after plate of rich, fatty food. To eat like that only will lead to grave ill health — obesity and heart disease and diabetes and worse. This must be stopped immediately,” he concluded.
The corporate managers summoned the boat back to the harbor, and launched an inquiry into the captain’s actions. They heard evidence from nutritionists and health experts, who confirmed the First Mate’s fears. No one could remain healthy on such a diet as this, they concluded. The captain was reprimanded for his poor judgment, and ordered not to pick up any more lost fisherman for the remainder of his commission. The next day, he apologized to the corporate managers, although many, including the First Mate, felt that he still didn’t really ‘get’ it. They vowed to watch his every move with great vigilance, lest his insidious plan come to pass, and every fisherman on the sea become obese and unhealthy.

And that is where I find myself after the elections. I am not disheartened that the electorate has focused its attention on putting America on a healthy diet. I am disheartened that the electorate seems not to have distinguished between the necessary government actions to turn back a catastrophic recession — a spending “feast” fed to starving fishermen, if you will — and the long-term fiscal realities that we must face.

Somewhere, somehow, successful candidates managed to turn the government’s response to the recent economic crisis upside down. Not only did they portray the government’s response as ineffective, they managed to sell it as the cause of the crisis. That is absurd. Without the Bush/Obama TARP and stimulus interventions, today unemployment would be much higher, and economic growth would be much weaker (perhaps even the economy still contracting), and bankruptcies and mortage defaults would be at even higher levels, and government spending (on safety net programs) would be considerably higher, and government receipts would be much lower (on a smaller economy; all capital losses, no gains), and federal deficits would be much higher, and federal debt would be growing much faster.

But that’s not what seemed to be in people’s minds last Tuesday. Voters seemed to think that runaway spending and an expansionist view of government had created the economic crisis, had created the huge deficits and growing federal debt.  They seemed to be oblivious to the reality that the campaign promises of many of the newly elected — to move immediately toward cutting spending and balancing the budget — likely would push the fragile economy right back into recession, economic contraction, job losses and all the woes that derive from that.

I would love to have an honest debate in this country about the proper size and scope of government, about how we really do address structural over-spending; about how to use tax policy to most effectively promote economic growth. Unfortunately, the mid-term elections were not that debate. They were a debate between the cynical fantasy of the minority party (to cut taxes and cut spending so as to balance the budget, all to end the current recession) and the naive oblivion of the majority party (failing to put forth a necessary agenda to address the country’s long-term structural deficits).

Gahhh.

Do you consider yourself a limited government type of voter? Are you looking for a path to find the political solution to runaway government spending? I am here to provide a word of caution. Consider, please, these facts:

  • Ronald Reagan: Federal spending in 1981 (the oldest year I have comparable data for) = $697.8 billion. Federal spending in 1988 = $1,066.9 billion. Average annual increase: 6.3%.
  • George HW Bush: Federal spending in 1988 = $1,066.9 billion. Federal spending in 1992 = $1,427.8 billion. Average annual increase: 7.6%.
  • Bill Clinton (pre-Gingrich with Democrats in control of the House): Federal spending in 1992 = $1,427.8 billion. Federal spending in 1994 = $1,463.0 billion. Average annual increase: 1.2%.
  • Bill Clinton (with Gingrich & Republicans in control of the House): Federal spending in 1994 = $1,463.0 billion. Federal spending in 2000 = $1,788.6 billion. Average annual increase: 3.4%.
  • George W Bush (with Republican control of Congress): Federal spending in 2000 = $1,788.6 billion. Federal spending in 2006 = $2,659.2 billion. Average annual increase: 6.8%.
  • George W Bush (with Democratic control of Congress): Federal spending in 2006 = $2,659.2 billion. Federal spending in 2008 = $3,145.3 billion. Average annual increase: 8.8%.
  • Barack Obama First Year: Federal spending in 2008 = $3,145.3 billion. Federal spending in 2009 = $3,516.1 billion. Average annual increase: 11.8%.
  • Barack Obama Second Year (annualized): Federal spending in 2009 = $3,516.1 billion. Federal spending in 2010 = $3,445.6 billion (annualized using data through September). Average annual decrease: 2.0%.

All information sourced from http://www.fms.treas.gov/mts/mts.xls.

My simple federal fiscal policy formula:

  1. Accept that these severe short-term federal deficits are an unavoidable consequence of many decades of spending growth, several decades of tax cutting, and the severe recession. It is unwise to sharply rein in these deficits until the economy is stably back on its feet. I define that as when job creation reaches the level needed to start making serious inroads into the unemployment rate — i.e., private sector job creation in the 250,000 per month range.
  2. Courageously attack long term deficits by starting to raise the Social Security/Medicare retirement age (but not for near-term retirees) and by tightening means-testing for Medicaid so that it is restored to its original purpose: a safety net for the indigent, not a middle class entitlement.
  3. In between, restore fiscal sanity by a formula of $2 of spending cuts matched to every $1 of tax increases. Real math, not Washington math.

Is that so hard? Apparently so, because I have not heard a single congressional candidate in this election cycle — not Republicans, not Democrats, not Tea Party folks, not libertarians — not one who espouses anything resembling a coherent fiscal message. This would be the time to do it, too, because for the first time in memory, the electorate seems to be ready to hear that entitlements need to be reformed. I don’t know about tax increases though. Most people still seem in denial about that stone-cold reality.

Seven Things It Seems We Could (Mostly) All Agree On:

1. That non-fossil fuels are better than fossil fuels, and that domestic energy is better than foreign energy. Therefore, promote domestic production of nuclear and alternative energy, and, for the time being, domestic fossil-based energy sources.

2. That the totality of retiree promises extended by the private and public sectors is a contract we cannot fulfill. Therefore, begin the long, slow deflation of the bubble by scaling back entitlements/benefits, and by extending more realistic promises to those currently working.

3. That neither the suffocating prescriptive regulatory framework of the 1970s and 1980s, nor the unfettered Wild West business environment of the 2000s has proved sustainable in the long run. Therefore, pursue enlightened progressive regulation where needed, by imposing appropriate capital and/or reserve requirements on risky corporate actions.

4. That 30 years of federal spending acceleration and tax cutting have left us with spending at record high levels, tax burdens at a 60-year low, and deficits as far as the eye can see. Therefore, calibrate spending reductions and tax increases until we are back in equilibrium.

5. That teachers’ unions really do put the interests of grown-ups over those of children, and really have gravely compromised the quality of public education. Therefore, break or circumvent them.

6. That all meaningful growth in personal income and personal wealth over the past 30 years has occurred only among the highest income Americans, meaning there has been a wholesale shift in wealth from the middle class to the wealthy. Therefore, be open to policies that restore the previous equilibrium.

7. That Congress has become incredibly beholden to special interests, chief among them the established political parties, putting at risk its ability to govern in a wise and thoughtful manner. Therefore, break down the hide-bound rules of seniority and deference that invest power in a select few.

The U.S. Postal Service lost $2.8 billion last year. It seems obvious that the escalation of email and overnight delivery will continue to cut into the USPS’s revenue stream. So, here’s one idea I came up with.

Imagine a two-tiered postage system. You could mail a letter for the usual rate — say $0.45. But here’s the catch. That letter may sit at the recipient’s post office, at least for a while.

Now consider a premium postage rate, say, $2.00. If you pay that rate, the letter will be delivered as soon as it arrives, along with any other accumulated regular-rate mail for that address. If no premium-rate mail comes along, any regular-rate mail will be delivered once a week.

This system has two advantages. One, it greatly reduces the number of stops each letter carrier needs to make each day. Instead of stopping at eight houses down the east side of the block, maybe he stops at five. Routes are cleared faster, and fewer letter carriers are needed. Two, it increases revenue by earning a premium on more important mail. And ultimately, the sender controls the delivery priority.

I don’t know, I’m no expert. I’m just here thinking.