IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Maybe we really are all Keynesians now

John Maynard Keynes suddenly finds fans in the Republican establishment.
John Maynard Keynes suddenly finds fans in the Republican establishment.Getty Images

It'll probably be a while until the issues are on policymakers' frontburner, but Congress and the White House have quite a deadline looming.

As the Congressional Budget Office reminded everyone yesterday, on Dec. 31, all of the Bush-era tax rates will expire, as will lower payroll tax rates. At the exact same time, thanks to the failure of the so-called supercommittee, $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts will kick in, half from the military budget, half from domestic programs.

Yesterday, the CBO told policymakers that if the deadline comes, tax rates go up, and spending goes down, the deficit will shrink very quickly -- but the economy will probably contract and slip into a recession.

And wouldn't you know it, the CBO has suddenly made everyone Keynesians again.

A giant austerity bomb is timed to go off at the beginning of next year, and the threat of significantly higher taxes and lower spending has Republicans running around the Capitol sounding more like John Maynard Keynes than John Boehner.

Automatic, across-the-board reductions to domestic and defense spending, combined with the looming expiration of the Bush tax cuts, will dramatically consolidate the budget in the next calendar year, if Congress does nothing. And despite bemoaning deficits throughout the Obama years, the GOP's suddenly come around to the view that cutting government spending is a job killer.

Republicans have argued, practically every day since Jan. 20, 2009, that there's a "debt crisis" that threatens the very fabric of civilization. This "crisis" will not only crush our children's future, conservatives have argued, the budget shortfall, created largely by GOP policies, is killing jobs and holding back the economy today.

But they don't mean it. If Republicans were sincere about this, yesterday's CBO report would be seen as great news -- after all, the automatic cuts and higher tax rates would not only shrink the deficit immediately, it would prevent trillions of dollars in new debt over the next decade.

Instead, conservative policymakers said taking this much capital out of the economy would be awful -- which is what Democrats say about spending cuts all the time.

What's more, as Brian Beutler added, "Conversely, if all of current policy -- the Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax holiday, federal spending, etc -- is extended, economic growth will boom next year. If Congress picks a middle ground approach -- extending the Bush tax cuts but nixing the automatic spending cuts -- CBO forecasts modest growth, but no major economic hit."

Door #3 is the Democrats' preferred option, but as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) argued yesterday, such an agreement is almost certainly "impossible" because of the GOP's "blind adherence to tea party extremism."

Responding to GOP demands to immediately extend Bush-era tax cuts, Reid released a sharply worded letter Tuesday saying the right wing's refusal to entertain new taxes would prevent any deal before November. Republican senators have abandoned deal-making for "fear of retribution from tea party extremists," Reid wrote in the missive to Senate Republicans.

Reid said the GOP must accept higher taxes on those earning more than $1 million and corporations, and drop its leading Medicare overhaul proposal, in order to reach a consensus with his party.

"Unfortunately, it appears that Republicans' blind adherence to Tea Party extremism is making it impossible to reach this sort of balanced agreement before the election," he wrote.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), meanwhile, has organized a group of 40 GOP senators who are demanding all Bush-era tax rates be left in place, no matter what it does to the deficit.

As Republicans argued yesterday, what really matters is the economy, not the debt. Funny, that's what Keynesian Democrats have been saying all along.