Alternatives to Austerity

Joseph E. Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, in Project Syndicate:

…it is relatively easy to formulate a deficit-reduction package that boosts efficiency, bolsters growth, and reduces inequality. Five core ingredients are required. First, spending on high-return public investments should be increased. Even if this widens the deficit in the short run, it will reduce the national debt in the long run. What business wouldn’t jump at investment opportunities yielding returns in excess of 10% if it could borrow capital – as the US government can – for less than 3% interest?

Second, military expenditures must be cut – not just funding for the fruitless wars, but also for the weapons that don’t work against enemies that don’t exist. We’ve continued as if the Cold War never came to an end, spending as much on defense as the rest of the world combined.

Joseph E. Stiglitz is University Professor at Columbia University and a Nobel laureate in Economics.
Joseph E. Stiglitz is University Professor at Columbia University and a Nobel laureate in Economics.

Following this is the need to eliminate corporate welfare. Even as America has stripped away its safety net for people, it has strengthened the safety net for firms, evidenced so clearly in the Great Recession with the bailouts of AIG, Goldman Sachs, and other banks. Corporate welfare accounts for nearly one-half of total income in some parts of US agro-business, with billions of dollars in cotton subsidies, for example, going to a few rich farmers – while lowering prices and increasing poverty among competitors in the developing world.

An especially egregious form of corporate special treatment is that afforded to the drug companies. Even though the government is the largest buyer of their products, it is not allowed to negotiate prices, thereby fueling an estimated increase in corporate revenues – and costs to the government – approaching $1 trillion dollars over a decade.

Another example is the smorgasbord of special benefits provided to the energy sector, especially oil and gas, thereby simultaneously robbing the treasury, distorting resource allocation, and destroying the environment. Then there are the seemingly endless giveaways of national resources – from the free spectrum provided to broadcasters to the low royalties levied on mining companies to the subsidies to lumber companies.

Creating a fairer and more efficient tax system, by eliminating the special treatment of capital gains and dividends, is also needed. Why should those who work for a living be subject to higher tax rates than those who reap their livelihood from speculation (often at the expense of others)?

Finally, with more than 20% of all income going to the top 1%, a slight increase, say 5%, in taxes actually paid would bring in more than $1 trillion over the course of a decade.

A deficit-reduction package crafted along these lines would more than meet even the most ardent deficit hawk’s demands. It would increase efficiency, promote growth, improve the environment, and benefit workers and the middle class.

There’s only one problem: it wouldn’t benefit those at the top, or the corporate and other special interests that have come to dominate America’s policymaking. Its compelling logic is precisely why there is little chance that such a reasonable proposal would ever be adopted.