The fault lies with Bush… again

If you want to be depressed, but informed, read Clive Crook’s Financial Times column about the plight of the US economy. He starts with an excellent run-down of the poor shape of the economy:

The US economy may not be in recession, but this is the nearest thing. In spite of the recent fiscal stimulus, output grew less than 2 per cent at an annual rate in the second quarter, slower than expected. That followed growth of 1 per cent in the first quarter and a contraction (on revised numbers) of 0.2 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2007. A recession is usually defined as two consecutive quarters of shrinking output. It has not happened yet, but it very well might in the next few quarters. Even if it does not, that would be little consolation.

Prospects for the second half of the year are poor. Some of the current boost from the fiscal injection delivered last quarter will keep feeding through, but consumer spending, the hitherto unstoppable engine of US growth, is stalling. The prices of food and petrol, together with still-tightening credit conditions and a housing market that has not yet touched bottom, are weighing it down. Net exports were the main accelerator in the second quarter – without that rise, in fact, output would have fallen, fiscal stimulus or no. But they cannot be relied on in future because growth in Europe and elsewhere is going to be limited by, among other things, policymakers’ worries about inflation.

Most forecasters are expecting a double-dip US slowdown – and the second dip could be a technical recession. Regardless, the labour market is already behaving that way. Unemployment moved up to 5.7 per cent in July, the labour department reported on Friday. Overtime is falling; involuntary part-time working is on the rise. Unemployment will climb above 6 per cent next year. While it may be true that the US has seen much worse, this is no mere “mental recession”.

He makes clear how little room for maneuver there is, in either monetary or fiscal policy. What raises Crook’s column above the ordinary, however, is his clarity about why we’ve reached this point:

It is worth remembering where the blame for this neutering of fiscal policy lies: squarely with the Bush administration. At the start of this decade, the budget stood in surplus to the tune of 2.4 per cent of GDP. On unchanged policy, this was expected to grow to a surplus of 4.5 per cent of GDP by 2008. This year’s actual deficit of 3 per cent of GDP therefore represents a worsening of more than 7 per cent of GDP, or roughly $1,000bn. Almost all of this deterioration is due to policy: to tax cuts, spending increases, and their associated debt-service costs.

That projected surplus was a priceless gift to the White House. It offered the Bush administration ample scope for outlays on homeland security and other unforeseen priorities, and moderate tax cuts as well, all within a budget balanced over the course of the business cycle. Instead, the administration knowingly opted for outrageous fiscal excess – adding insult to injury with its phoney tax-cut sunset provisions, designed for no other purpose than to disguise the long-term fiscal implications. Eight years on, this startling record of fiscal irresponsibility has all but taken fiscal policy off the table as an available response to the slowdown.

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