There are some obvious steps available to the administration to incite more credible inferences of economic progress that don’t require legislation, and should not be complicated, even in this very odd election campaign. Longer-term interest rates have just finally started to inch up, and there has been slight progress in the last couple of years to term out federal debt a little.
It is a truism, often hammered like a piñata throughout the Obama years, that $1.3 to $1.6 trillion annual federal deficits, in a country that had a conventional money supply of $900 billion when this regime was inaugurated, could not continue indefinitely without disastrous consequences. There is not the least indication of any national or official will to repay the new debt. And there is little likelihood of any timely growth out of the debt back to manageable debt/GDP ratios, as consumer spending won’t revive quickly until family and personal debt have receded further. More acquisitive consumers largely benefit foreign luxury-goods and engineered-products industries anyway.
Historically high levels of employment won’t be achieved until the service industries have given some part of their share of the economy back to more traditionally value-adding sectors. In all these circumstances, this mountainous new debt has much of the character of money-supply increases, and inflation has made greater inroads than is apparent, in response to such steroid-driven demand increase. Food prices have moved up quite sharply at times, and there is much concern about gas prices, which respond to a weaker dollar, and should produce moderated consumption. But bombed-out, deflated sectors like housing are disguising higher-inflation components of the inflation index, and though there is inflation in the gasoline price, it is mitigated to some extent by increasing domestic production and natural-gas use, as oil imports have declined from 60 percent to about 45 percent of the country’s consumption.
The administration’s predictions of deficit reductions are moonshine, from the same school of imaginative arithmetic that gave us the $900 billion cost of Obamacare, already acknowledged to be a very large underestimation, and the extent of the deliberate (unless the president and his entourage are insane) underestimation will certainly grow. Built into the Treasury’s roseate projections of an inexorable, slow march to budgetary balance are wildly optimistic notions of tax-revenue increases in defiance of historic patterns when taxes are raised, and of spending reductions, including swingeing cuts in defense costs that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reassures us (for which most are grateful) will not happen.
In the next five years, the rates for three-year Treasuries are likely to rise, according to the Congressional Budget Office, from 0.1 percent to 2 percent. The same source expects the cost of ten-year Treasury notes almost to double, from 2.03 percent to 3.8 percent. In the last two years, the percentage of U.S. Treasuries maturing within three years has declined from 55 percent to 52 percent, but the quantum of that early-maturing debt in these profligate days has risen from $3.85 trillion to $5 trillion. Publicly held federal debt has risen since 1997 from $4 trillion to $11 trillion today, but the cost of servicing it in that time has actually declined, from $245 billion to $225 billion.
The logic of these numbers — especially given that the CBO estimates of likely rate increases, though not as wildly euphoric as the administration’s deficit projections, are likely conservative — screams out at anyone familiar with Grade Three arithmetic. The administration should borrow forward as far as it reasonably can, and combine that with a serious proposal for deficit reduction, including entitlement reform and some elective consumption taxes on luxuries that would not inconvenience modest-income families. This would be believable, and the Republicans would almost certainly support it. Mr. Obama could transfer his tawdry soak-the-rich agenda from taxes based on Warren Buffett’s grandstanding fable to self-indulgence in luxury expenses; from a demagogic will-o’-the-wisp to collectible supplementary revenues that would essentially come from foreign luxury-goods and engineered-products industries that have had a free lunch at this country’s expense for decades.
While the president is at it, though this would apparently be too painful a derogation from Obaman holy writ, he should stop trying to suck and blow at the same time on energy exploration and pricing. Since the first days of his campaign for his present office, Mr. Obama has regaled the country with what has proved an imperishable fairy tale about green jobs and renewable energy, accompanied, until any further continuation would have made his mental health a livelier issue than his place of birth, by cap and trade and his quest for a $100 billion–a–year Danegeld slush fund for economically failed countries, conscience payments from the West to the likes of Mugabe and Chávez. Everybody balked, and the president was left at the Copenhagen Conference talking to himself; eventually, even he didn’t buy it. The administration, even at this late date, should rescue his energy policy from its pitiful status as, in Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal’s words in the Wall Street Journal of March 12, “a subservient by-product of his radical environmental policy.”
Last week, the president campaigned in Maryland and elsewhere boasting that domestic oil drilling had expanded to record levels of activity in his term. Deep-water oil-drilling permits are still well below where they were before the BP oil spill, though safety precautions are naturally tighter. He should stop his ambivalence about fracking, stop threatening the oil industry with higher taxes, and do a complete rethink on his mindless desertion of the Keystone XL pipeline, which ties in Canadian heavy-oil production and would produce over 100,000 jobs. He should proceed with it before Canada commits the pipeline construction to its own west coast, and the production to the Far East.
While there has been slight progress on the current-account deficit, there has been almost none on the trade deficit. Any solution to the immigration shambles should include a special minimum wage that could be adopted with a view to repatriating some manufacturing at the medium-to-higher end of what has fled the country. As China moves to raise the pay of its disgruntled work force and manufacturing moves to Vietnam and Indonesia and India, as it previously moved from the U.S. to Japan and then to Taiwan, South Korea, and China, it is time to bring some of it back. This would start to rebalance the American work force away from the fool’s paradise of the service-industry economy and the snobbish disparagement of manufacturing (which has been a potent issue for Rick Santorum). And it would help liberate under-documented immigrants from picking lettuce and rolling the tennis courts of Hollywood limousine lefties for starvation wages.
It is already clear that the president’s feeble electoral pincers attack of soaking the rich while saving the women by assaulting the Roman Catholic Church isn’t working. Any incumbent should be able to defeat Mitt Romney, the clumsiest Republican candidate since his father professed to have been brainwashed in Saigon in 1967. But any challenger, even Mitt Romney, should be able to beat this feckless, posturing administration.
That is why a little policy originality could be decisive in this election, on either side. The administration has only two ways to win unless Romney parlays his wife’s two Cadillacs, his offer of a $10,000 bet during a candidates’ debate, his uninterest in the very poor, and his organizers’ coup in having him address 1,200 people in a stadium for 65,000 people, to an absolute show-stopper. Either candidate could still produce a real program of deficit reduction, but the president could do something about it and give sensible people a comfort level that he was finally taking the matter seriously. Failing that, the president’s best chance could be bombing Iran. He should have done it already; it is getting late and could look hokey. There is still no sign that he will act, but the terrors of a fragile incumbency could incite unsuspected boldness.