The Hijacked Crisis, by Paul Krugman, in NY Times: Has market turmoil left you feeling afraid? Well, it should. Clearly, the economic crisis that began in 2008 is by no means over.
But there’s another emotion you should feel: anger. For what we’re seeing now is what happens when influential people exploit a crisis rather than try to solve it.
For more than a year and a half — ever since President Obama chose to make deficits, not jobs, the central focus of the 2010 State of the Union address — we’ve had a public conversation that has been dominated by budget concerns, while almost ignoring unemployment. The supposedly urgent need to reduce deficits has so dominated the discourse that on Monday, in the midst of a market panic, Mr. Obama devoted most of his remarks to the deficit rather than to the clear and present danger of renewed recession.
What made this so bizarre was the fact that markets were signaling, as clearly as anyone could ask, that unemployment rather than deficits is our biggest problem. Bear in mind that deficit hawks have been warning for years that interest rates on U.S. government debt would soar any day now; the threat from the bond market was supposed to be the reason that we must slash the deficit now now now. But that threat keeps not materializing. And, this week, on the heels of a downgrade that was supposed to scare bond investors, those interest rates actually plunged to record lows.
What the market was saying — almost shouting — was, “We’re not worried about the deficit! We’re worried about the weak economy!” For a weak economy means both low interest rates and a lack of business opportunities, which, in turn, means that government bonds become an attractive investment even at very low yields. If the downgrade of U.S. debt had any effect at all, it was to reinforce fears of austerity policies that will make the economy even weaker.
So how did Washington discourse come to be dominated by the wrong issue?
Hard-line Republicans have, of course, played a role. Although they don’t seem to truly care about deficits — try suggesting any rise in taxes on the rich — they have found harping on deficits a useful way to attack government programs.
But our discourse wouldn’t have gone so far off-track if other influential people hadn’t been eager to change the subject away from jobs, even in the face of 9 percent unemployment, and to hijack the crisis on behalf of their pre-existing agendas.
The usual suspects will, of course, denounce such ideas as irresponsible. But you know what’s really irresponsible? Hijacking the debate over a crisis to push for the same things you were advocating before the crisis, and letting the economy continue to bleed.