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Policy Note 2010/4 | November 2010

A New “Teachable” Moment?

A common refrain heard from those trying to justify the results of the recent midterm elections is that the government’s fiscal stimulus to save the US economy from depression undermined growth, and that fiscal restraint is the key to economic expansion. Research Associate Marshall Auerback maintains that this refrain stems from a failure to understand a fundamental reality of bookkeeping—that when the government runs a surplus (deficit), the nongovernment sector runs a deficit (surplus). If the new GOP Congress led by Republicans and their Tea Party allies cuts government spending now, deficits will go higher, as growth slows, automatic stabilizers kick in, and tax revenues fall farther. And if extending the Bush tax cuts faces congressional gridlock, taxes will rise in 2011, further draining aggregate demand. Moreover, there are potential solvency issues for the United States if the debt ceiling is reached and Congress does not raise it. This chain of events potentially creates a new financial crisis and effectively forces the US government to default on its debt. The question is whether or not President Obama (and his economic advisers) will be enlightened enough to embrace this “teachable moment” about US main sector balances. Recent remarks to the press about deficit reduction suggest otherwise.

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