Barbell approach needed to lift heavy U.S. economy

Guest Column: Peter Orszag
Despite the hoopla over recent jobs numbers and the June 5 long-term fiscal outlook from the Congressional Budget Office, the underlying reality of the U.S. economy hasn’t changed all that much lately. We are still in the midst of the hard slog following the financial crisis, and we still face a massive long-term, government budget deficit. More

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OP-ED

Barbell approach needed to lift heavy U.S. economy

Guest Column: Peter Orszag
Posted 6/11/12

Despite the hoopla over recent jobs numbers and the June 5 long-term fiscal outlook from the Congressional Budget Office, the underlying reality of the U.S. economy hasn’t changed all that much lately. We are still in the midst of the hard slog following the financial crisis, and we still face a massive long-term, government budget deficit.

Let’s hope that dismal combination is all we face – because things might be about to get much worse. Europe stands on the brink of economic disaster, which at its worst could easily trigger another outright recession in America. Foreign deposits in Spanish banks amount to about 500 billion euros ($622 billion). It isn’t difficult to imagine those depositors changing their minds about such an asset allocation. That could prompt deposit flight in other southern-tier banking systems, which the European authorities couldn’t contain.

The U.S. desperately needs more fiscal insurance against such a shock wave.

The right policy, which also happens to be the only one with any hope of being adopted in the foreseeable future, is a barbell approach, with more stimulus on one side and, on the other, more deficit reduction enacted now to take effect over time. That would attack both the weak labor market revealed in a recent jobs report and the long-term fiscal gap that the CBO highlighted on June 5. If we could enact such a dual plan immediately – which is admittedly hard to see happening, even though it has been embraced by some Republicans – it would give us much-needed credibility in our efforts to urge the Europeans to act on their own problems before it’s too late.

Some recent proposals for the U.S. economy correctly note that current conditions, with the 10-year Treasury yield hovering around 1.5 percent and unemployment stuck at more than 8 percent, call for significant additional stimulus. But these stimulus-only proposals, by not lifting the other side of the barbell, are incomplete for three reasons:

First, substantial stimulus-only proposals have no chance of being enacted. Second, even if they could be, they would accelerate the date at which we again run up against the debt limit – and their proponents have no strategy for dealing with that impediment. Finally, even if the debt limit were simply assumed away (an ivory-tower approach that might prove appealing to some stimulus-only proponents), the impact of any stimulus would be stronger, and our international credibility enhanced, if it were combined with specific, but delayed, actions to reduce the deficit.

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