Economy

Why Big Banks Want Americans to Pay More for Everything

Once again, the nation’s big banks are working hard to have their own way with some of the most consequential issues before Congress. Tucked into the small print of Paul Ryan’s budget plan for 2012 and beyond are provisions to roll back the key regulatory steps taken to make another financial meltdown less likely, especially higher capital requirements tied to the riskiness of a bank’s investments. That’s not their only fight these days: They also are trying to roll back a critical debit-card reform enacted last year and just now about to go into effect. If they succeed — and the Washington airwaves are saturated with ominous ads calling for the rollback — it could cost many Americans nearly as much as what they have at stake in the ongoing squabbling over the 2011 budget.

The bipartisan debt and credit card reforms passed last year put the first real limits on how much the card networks and the large banks that issue nearly all cards can charge merchants when a consumer pays with a debit card. These charges are called “swipe fees,” and while they apply to all credit card as well as debit card transactions, the 2010 swipe-fee reforms apply only to debit card transactions. But if they save consumers as much as economists estimate, these reforms could well be extended to all credit card transactions too. And that could save the average American household some $230 per-year.

This is worth dwelling on, because it involves an ostensibly free market which, behind the curtain, a few huge companies actually manage to a significant degree — and now, behind the scenes, they’re also trying to manage the legislative process.

The facts, in a nutshell, are as follows. Merchants pay the three credit and debit card networks that account for some 80 percent of all charges a fee for every transaction using one of their cards that ranges from 1.5 percent to about 3.2 percent of the value of the transaction. A fee at some level makes perfect sense, since people buy more when they can charge or debit it, which benefits the merchants. But there’s no real economic basis for the actual levels of the fees. Less than 20 percent of the fees go to cover the actual costs of transaction for the banks and the credit card networks. Most of the rest goes to the four big banks that account for nearly 70 percent of all card transactions, with some going into higher profits and some for the advertising and rewards programs used to attract more customers.

We studied these fees last year. We found that in 2008, merchants paid swipe fees totaling some $48 billion. Those costs were tacked on to the price of everything they sold – clothing, computers, gasoline, restaurant meals, airline tickets, medications and so on. Moreover, the credit card networks forbid merchants from charging anyone using their cards a higher price to cover the fee, than those who pay cash. So, everyone pays for the swipe fees in higher prices every time they buy anything, whether or not they even use a credit or debit card.

We found that 56 percent of the swipe fees paid by merchants get passed along in higher prices, which in 2008 came to about $26 billion or $230 per-household. This year, it will be more, because we’re all charging more. And if the swipe fees were limited to the actual costs of processing debit and credit card transactions, plus normal profits, the lower prices for everything would expand real demand enough to create nearly 250,000 more American jobs.

In truth, the credit and debit card system operates more like a cartel than a genuine market. The fees are set by three companies that together account for 95 percent of consumer charges and two-thirds of business charges — Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Their actual customers are the banks that issue the cards, because the more cards are issued, the more swipe fees are generated. Moreover, four banks account for 70 percent of all cards and charges: JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, and American Express (all of which, by the way, also collected taxpayer bailouts).

Since each of the networks and each of the banks account for a good slice of any merchant’s business, merchants have little option but to deal with them — again, much like a cartel. So, merchants can’t put normal market pressures on the networks and the banks to lower the fees by exiting the system. And since the networks forbid merchants from charging different prices based on whether a customer uses a card or cash, consumers have no incentive to pressure the networks and banks to lower their fees by using cash instead.

This not only produces higher prices, but higher prices that are applied in particularly unfair ways. More than half of all lower and moderate-income Americans don’t carry credit or debit cards at all. Yet they pay the higher prices along with everyone else. And most middle-class Americans with credit or debit cards pay higher prices to finance rewards programs largely restricted to more affluent card users.

So, last year, Congress gave the Federal Reserve authority to set rules for the swipe fees on debit card transactions. When Australia did much the same to cover both credit and debit cards, swipe fees there fell to 0.50 percent — and the system continued to work fine. The new rules are nearly ready to be issued here, and that’s what the banks and credit card networks are working so hard to stop. It will be another political test of whether big finance really can get anything it wants from Washington, regardless of the cost to everybody else.

Rounding Up the Ryan Budget: Bad Numbers and Cost-Shifting

I wrote a lot about the magic behind Ryan's budget and GOP economic strategy yesterday, so I'd like to round up some of the smart commentary and analysis about it.

After half the national media descended on their obviously ridiculous employment projections, Heritage scrubbed the numbers from their report - seriously shameful stuff. Here are the links (via Krugman):

As of yesterday.

As of today.

Paul Krugman did a lot of work over the past two days breaking apart the economics and showing the of Ryan budget. As he writes, the part that hasn't gotten enough coverage is the fact that

the biggest source of supposed savings in the plan isn't actually health care, it's an assumption that federal spending on everything except health and Social Security can somehow be squeezed, as a percent of GDP, to a small fraction of current levels. 

Ezra Klein explains why Ryan's projections of health care costs over time are completely unrealistic, and makes this very important point:

This is an important point: there's difference between cutting costs and shifting them. As the Congressional Budget Office noted, a lot of what Ryan's budget does is shift costs from the federal budget to someone else's budget: Medicaid's costs moves to the states, and then when the states cut it, to the people who need it, or to their families. Medicare's costs move to seniors, or to the families of seniors. The budget doesn't have a clear theory for how to spend less on health care. It has a clear theory for how the federal budget can spend less, and other people can spend more. But that's not good enough.

If you like the gory details, the Congressional Budget Office has analyzed Ryan's budget. It's not pretty.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Robert Greenstein describes how two-thirds of Ryan's cuts come from low income programs.

While Paul Ryan and Alice Rivlin worked together on some Medicare reforms, she does not support the version he ultimately included in his budget, despite his implications to the contrary.

There's been a lot said and written in the last day describing Ryan's budget as an honest effort to address a major problem. Half the Members of Congress standing with Ryan yesterday called it "fact based." David Brooks wrote, "His proposal will set the standard of seriousness for anybody who wants to play in this discussion."

Here's the problem with all of that: the Ryan budget is simply not honest. The numbers in it and the economic analysis it relies on are wrong. You don't just get to put a bunch questionable numbers together, say it handles our deficit and debt issues, and declare victory. The tough part is that the plan has to actually handle the issues, and probably shouldn't do so on the backs of the most vulnerable. (One of the core principles of the Bowles-Simpson effort was to protect the truly disadvantaged.) So if Ryan sets the standard for seriousness, that standard is incredibly low.

The Magical Economy, Brought to You by Paul Ryan and the Heritage Foundation

This piece also appeared on The Huffington Post.

When Paul Ryan unveiled his budget today, he touted it as a "Path to Prosperity" and he and his colleagues kept saying it was "based in fact." In reality, Ryan's claims of prosperity are based on an analysis - written at his request by the conservative Heritage Foundation - that has more basis in magic than economics.

For starters, the Heritage analysis's unemployment projections alone are utter nonsense. It claims that - under the Ryan budget - unemployment will plummet from the current 8.8% to 6.4% next year, 4% in 2015, and 2.8% in 2021. Each number is totally impossible - we'll never see 2.8%, and 4% would require run-away economic growth. As Matt Yglesias points out, the Federal Reserve would respond to that type of growth by raising interest rates to avoid inflation, so the levels forecast could never be reached.  (As a reference point, full employment is around 5%, so 2.8% is a total fabrication.)

Furthermore, the Heritage report uses an almost comical conceptual explanation (under the heading "Economic and Fiscal Results" on page 3) of how the tax cuts in the Ryan plan pay for themselves and reduce the deficit. This would be great, if it were actually true. The Bush tax cuts did not come anywhere close to paying for themselves, nor have other large cuts to upper income tax rates. From the Chair of Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, Greg Mankiw:

I used the phrase "charlatans and cranks" in the first edition of my principles textbook to describe some of the economic advisers to Ronald Reagan, who told him that broad-based income tax cuts would have such large supply-side effects that the tax cuts would raise tax revenue. I did not find such a claim credible, based on the available evidence. I never have, and I still don't.

The unfortunately truth is that this Heritage "analysis" represents the lack of reality in which conservative economic policymaking functions. Paul Ryan is getting a lot of credit today for pointing out a large challenge facing America. Sure, we do have a debt problem, but we need to view it in its proper economic context.

America has two large economic problems. The first is an economy that's just not working in the face of rising global competition: a lost decade of median household income decline and wage stagnation followed by a recession and financial crisis from which we have yet to fully emerge. The second is a long-term structural debt problem: the federal government's expenditures far exceed its revenue, and that trend will be exacerbated by rising healthcare costs. And debt is a problem because it can impact the economy itself; it's not right now.

The President's budget is a credible response to the economic challenge: investments in education, infrastructure, innovation, and industries of the future represent a viable economic plan. It also makes down-payments - if incomplete - on long-term debt issues. Let's not forget though, that he already passed the most significant piece of deficit reduction legislation in recent memory - the Affordable Care Act, which the GOP wants to repeal. As former Obama OMB Director Peter Orszag often said, health care reform is entitlement reform. And the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission report, which Ryan voted against, recommends building on the ACA's cost-controls as a major form of deficit reduction.

Let's contrast the President's approach with the House Republican approach of massive cuts in the near-term and Ryan's budget, which focuses on dramatically reducing the size of government. In the near-term, the House GOP agenda of $61 billion in cuts would, according to McCain campaign economic adviser Mark Zandi, cause 700,000 jobs to be lost by the end of 2012, and, according to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, cause the loss of 200,000 jobs. Goldman Sachs estimates a 1.5 to 2% reduction in GDP.

In the long term, Ryan offers no strategy to make America more competitive, increase employment, or make people's lives better. Rather, he offers reduced benefits, namely to the elderly, the poor, and the handicapped, and cuts taxes for the wealthy. (His one sop to competitiveness is corporate tax reform, which President Obama also favors.) Forget about the immorality of his budget for a moment, (well, don't, it's pretty appalling) the fact is that Ryan's budget offers no real path to economic growth, other than fudged numbers from the Heritage Foundation, and a questionable, slash and burn approach to deficit reduction.

Taken together, it's clear that the GOP isn't focused on the real problems facing the country. At a time when Americans want more jobs and more growth, the GOP strategy - if you believe the analyses of George W. Bush's Federal Reserve Chair, a McCain economic adviser, and Goldman Sachs - is to create less. And, if you believe the analysis of Bush's Council of Economic Advisor Chair, their deficit reduction strategy is deeply flawed too. Unless, of course, you believe the Heritage Foundation's analysis that Paul Ryan's budget is made of magic.

Forget about Spending and Get Serious about the Economy

Washington today, especially the Congress, has a textbook case of cognitive dissonance. A confluence of black swan developments may well threaten the American and global recoveries. There’s the civil war in Libya and unrest across much of the Middle East that could disrupt world energy supplies, the natural catastrophes in Japan may upend the world’s third largest economy, and several European governments are flirting with junk-bond status. On top of all this, recent data on housing, investment, and consumer spending all point to a still-fragile U.S. expansion. Yet, with all of this, Congress spends its time bickering over funds the federal government needs week to week just to keep operating.

This debate has become almost willfully wrong-headed. An economy not yet recovered fully from a historic financial meltdown and deep recession, and now facing possible major shocks from three directions, is no candidate for budget cuts. In fact, a new National Journal survey of 44 Washington economists and “economic insiders,” Democratic and Republican, found only one of the 44 who sees immediate spending cuts as the highest priority. (Full disclosure: I am one of the 44 surveyed.) If there are still any doubts about what happens when governments ignore this basic economics, consider Great Britain and Germany. Both embraced the austerity snake oil and plowed ahead with sharp spending cuts and tax increases. Two quarters later, the recoveries in both countries are stumbling badly.

Of course, these debates are not about economics at all. Here and in Europe, they’re driven by anti-government factions inside the base of each country’s conservative party. Congressional Republicans might take note, however, that this approach no better politics than it is economics. After enacting their programs, the governments of David Cameron and Angela Merkel find themselves hemorrhaging public support.

There is a time for serious debate about the role of American government in our economy and daily lives. The 2012 elections could provide a platform for real public deliberation about how much the government should do in the future to provide health care for elderly and poor people, ensure access to higher education for young people unlucky enough not to be born into affluence, or support the weapon systems, manpower and womanpower needed to wage multiple wars. At a minimum, the campaign should include some serious talk about whether the Obama administration did the right thing in driving health care coverage for most Americans.

Right now, however, is the time to focus on the clear and present dangers to the jobs and incomes of average Americans. The President made a good start this week with proposals to make the U.S. economy less energy intensive and especially less dependent on imported oil. Dealing with the continuing problems in Japan and Europe will be tougher. As we outlined last week, if the crisis in Japan persists for another month or longer, it will disrupt production here of everything that uses parts or elements made-in-Japan, from automobiles and electronics to medical equipment and even pharmaceuticals. Congress should take this time to consider steps that will help our manufacturers keep their U.S. workforces intact through such supply chain disruptions — for example, a temporary tax break on foreign earnings brought back home by manufacturers who expand their U.S. jobs. If Japan’s crisis deepens, it also will absorb all of Japanese saving, and then some. That development would likely drive sales of U.S. stocks by Japanese investors and sales of U.S. government securities by the Japanese government, creating new downward pressures on U.S. stock prices and new upward pressures on our interest rates. All of this means that the Federal Reserve and Treasury should take this time to prepare for another round of quantitative easing.  

A new debt crisis in Europe would threaten the balance sheets of our large financial institutions, yet one more time. They don’t have large holdings of Greek, Irish, Portuguese, Belgian or Spanish government debt, all of which now hang in the balance. But our big banks do have hundreds of billions of dollars in normal business with the large European banks that do carry huge portfolios of those bonds — and which might find themselves unable to carry out their contracts with our banks if another crisis hit. That’s what happened, in reverse, in September 2008, when American banks couldn’t honor their contracts with many European banks in the post-Lehman panic. Today, instead of arguing about PBS funding, congressional leaders should be quietly talking with the administration about ways to contain another financial crisis without bailouts which the public would never support again.

If the Congress and administration could refocus their current debate around these real and pressing issues, perhaps they could then move on to the longer-term problems that matter to most Americans outside the Tea Party. To begin, what can Washington do to help American businesses create new jobs at the vigorous rates we all considered merely normal, until the last decade?  There might even come a time for a serious public discussion about what steps might help reverse the corrosive income patterns of the last 30 years, which have seen a small minority of very rich and very highly-skilled Americans capture nearly all of the nation’s income gains, while middle class people stagnated and poor people lost ground.

And one point should be very clear: Budget cuts are no more of an answer to these long-term issues than they are for the more immediate problems facing the American economy.

Dangers for the Economy Loom: Budget Cuts and Fed Inaction

Jonathan Chait argues that Speaker Boehner has no choice but to shut down the government because the Tea Party won't let him compromise with the White House and Democrats.

Politico's David Rogers updates on the latest in the budget wrangling. The facts on the ground seem to confirm Chait's thinking:

For Boehner, the great challenge is to hold his party together for a final deal and the GOP is still pursuing a strategy of first maximizing its Republican vote before reaching out to House Democrats.

Aides dismissed suggestions that there is already an active campaign to solicit moderate Blue Dog lawmakers-however much their votes may be needed. Instead the leadership feels it must prove its loyalty first to its large, conservative freshmen class, since even tougher party votes lie ahead this spring with the debate over the 2012 budget and raising the federal debt ceiling.

Eric Cantor seems to be having a very difficult time with these budget negotiations, so difficult that he has no idea what's actually going on.

David Leonhardt writes that the Federal Reserve is consistently overestimating both growth and the likelihood of inflation, and has therefore done too little to address unemployment. He explains why:

Why is this happening? Above all, blame our unbalanced approach to monetary policy.

One group of Fed officials and watchers worries constantly about the prospect of rising inflation, no matter what the economy is doing. Some of them are haunted by the inflation of the 1970s and worry it may return at any time. Others spend much of their time with bank executives or big investors, who generally have more to lose from high inflation than from high unemployment.

There is no equivalent group - at least not one as influential - that obsesses over unemployment. Instead, the other side of the debate tends to be dominated by moderates, like Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, and Mr. Meyer, who sometimes worry about inflation and sometimes about unemployment.

The similarities between the budget battle and limited action by the Fed are striking. In both cases, priorities are being misplaced because of a lack of political gravity on the side of unemployment and growth, so almost theological fears of inflation and the size of government are winning the day. And, in both cases, the frightening severity of current economic conditions - high unemployment, weak demand, a weak housing market, rising energy prices, global instability, and the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami - are not being fully accounted for.

At least in the case of the Fed, inflation hawks have an actual policy case. In the case of the budget battle, however, there's zero chance that the GOP's cuts will create jobs or growth or address the national debt.

The Aftershocks for the U.S. Economy from the Disaster in Japan

As the damage to Japan and its economy from the recent natural disasters deepens, we can begin to see serious potential aftershocks for our own economy. In certain respects, the United States relies on our broad and intricate financial and trading relationships with Japan. China has surpassed Japan as the world’s largest buyer of U.S. Treasury securities. But Japan remains the world’s largest, diversified investor in the United States, counting its large holdings of U.S. stocks, corporate debt, real estate, and plants and factories, as well as government securities. Now, in an unanticipated downside to globalization, the aftereffects of the natural disasters are beginning to disrupt the two countries’ normal financial and trading relationships. And that will create new upward pressures on U.S. interest rates, put new downward pressures on U.S. stock prices, and cause unexpected losses for many U.S. companies.

These concerns reflect the prospect that the terrible earthquake and tsunami will prove to be unusually destructive for the Japanese economy. The damage to the country’s power grid may extend the economic costs far beyond the communities directly devastated by the disasters, slowing agriculture and industrial activity across up to one-third of the country. And with the frightening news that Tokyo’s water supply contain radioactive iodine dangerous to infants, the radiation from crippled nuclear power facilities could bring economic activity to a halt in much more of the country, and for some time to come.

If this comes to pass, the aftershocks for the U.S. economy could be quite serious. The disaster and its disruptions for the Japanese economy have already begun to cut into the earnings and incomes of Japanese companies and citizens. To cover rising debts and other unexpected expenses, Japanese investors have been converting some of their foreign assets to yen, and then bringing those yen back home. Most of these liquidations involve American assets: Japanese investors hold some $211 billion in U.S. stocks and another $134 billion in U.S. corporate debt. Moreover, if the earnings of Japanese companies and the incomes of Japanese investors continue to shrink with the crisis, private saving in Japan will fall — and that’s just as Japan’s budget deficit soars. The result will be that most of the savings that Japanese companies and individuals manage to accumulate will go to finance their own government’s deficits, not to buy our assets. And if the crisis deepens and persists, rising outflows of Japanese holdings will depress U.S. stock prices and raise the interest costs for U.S. corporate borrowers.

The largest Japanese investor in the United States, of course, is the government in Tokyo, which holds some $1 trillion in U.S. government securities. As a long crisis drives up government spending in Japan and drives down revenues, a budget deficit already equal to over 8 percent of the country’s GDP will rise sharply. At a minimum, Japanese government purchases of U.S. Treasury securities will dry up. And if the crisis worsens, Japan may become a major seller of U.S. government securities. This will put considerable pressure on U.S. interest rates, potentially increasing our own deficit (through higher interest costs), and almost certainly slowing our economy.

The potential problems are not limited to finance. Japan accounts for about 5 percent of U.S. exports; and major exporters will feel the pinch. Those likely to feel it first include makers of aircraft and their parts, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, and computers. It’s not all bad news for U.S. exporters, because the current strong yen tied to Japanese investors cashing out some of their foreign financial assets will leave Japanese producers less competitive in other markets. More grimly, while U.S. exports of foodstuffs also are taking an early hit; U.S. food producers will step into the breach if more of Japan’s domestic food supply becomes contaminated.

The potential costs for the U.S. economy also include disruptions in U.S. supply chains that involve Japan. With holdings of $260 billion in U.S. industrial and commercial operations, Japan is the second largest foreign direct investor in the U.S. economy, just behind Britain. Sony, Toyota, Honda and other large Japanese enterprises operate here to serve the American market; but they still produce most of their most sophisticated parts in Japan. Japanese production of many of those parts already is disrupted. If conditions worsen, it will cost U.S. jobs as Japanese production and assembly here slows or even stops. And by the way, American companies are also the largest foreign direct investor in Japan, so a deepening crisis in Japan also will reduce the earnings of U.S. businesses operating there.

The United States is not the only economy exposed to economic aftershocks from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Japan is the largest foreign direct investor in China, having transferred a good part of its manufacturing base there over the last decade. Unlike U.S. companies which have invested in China mainly to serve the Chinese and third-country markets in Asia, Japanese enterprises in China produce mainly for the home, Japanese market. The sharp downturn already beginning to unfold in Japan, then, will cost China jobs and growth, especially in southern China.

In the end, it’s the American economy that is most interconnected with Japan’s, so the United States is most exposed to collateral economic damage from the recent, terrible natural disasters.

Weekly Economic Round-Up: Better Living for the Poor, More Exports for the West, and More

David Leonhardt points out that the world's poorest are enjoying dramatically improving standards of living:

In a new book called "Getting Better," Charles Kenny - a British development economist based in Washington - argues that the answer is absolutely not. Life in much of Africa and in most of the impoverished world has improved at an unprecedented clip in recent decades, even if economic growth hasn't.

"The biggest success of development," he writes, "has not been making people richer but, rather, has been making the things that really matter - things like health and education - cheaper and more widely available."

NYU professor William Easterly argues that the Eastward movement of economic activity is a good thing for the West:

the richer are our trading partners, other things equal, the more demand for our products, the more and better jobs created thereby, the more gains from trade, the more innovation as the extent of the world market grows, and the more we can benefit from the additional human capital and innovation happening in the East.

Amar Bhidé, a professor at the Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, has a new book out chronicling how the use of algorithms and pricing models in finance has "replaced the judgments of thousands of individual bankers and investors, to disastrous effect."

For you econ wonks out there - the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity are now available for free. Yes, free!

Finally, (h/t Ben Smith) a Rolling Stone article on how two early 20-somethings in Miami became global arms dealers is a gripping read.

The Economic After Shocks of the Disaster in Japan – Part 1

Natural disasters can strike anywhere, but the heart-wrenching tragedy unfolding in Japan may be unique for modern times, at least economically. In today’s post, we focus on what makes last week’s earthquake and tsunami so different from other natural disasters and why they have put Japan’s economy at real risk. Later this week, we will lay out the implications for the rest of us, especially the economic aftershocks poised to hit the United States and China.

As a rule, natural disasters in advanced countries, like terrorist attacks, inflict enormous economic costs on the specific places where they occur, but with little if any serious damage to the nation’s economy as a whole. When Katrina crippled New Orleans in August 2005 and exacted $81 billion in property damages on Louisiana and Mississippi, it didn’t puncture investment or growth in the rest of the country. For a natural disaster to upend an economy, the damage has to touch most of the nation and endure for a considerable time. Those conditions normally occur only in small countries, especially small developing nations that depend heavily on foreign investment. What makes the terrible Japanese earthquake and tsunami uniquely destructive to that country’s large, advanced economy is that they could result in disabling a significant part of the nation’s power grid for months and, even worse, spread dangerous radiation across many of the country’s agricultural, industrial and population centers.

To be sure, major natural disasters always have significant local and distributional effects. Katrina depressed parts of the Gulf state economies for several years, and tens of thousands of people fled Louisiana for nearby states, especially Texas. In addition, the temporary closure of the port at New Orleans reduced U.S. exports for several months. But the real losses were confined to the immediate region. And while the terrible human and property costs shook most Americans, their empathy didn’t dampen investment or household spending anywhere else in the country. In fact, two months after Katrina struck, the fourth quarter of 2005 saw the strongest GDP gains of the entire decade.

The same dynamics were evident after the 9/11 attacks, which hit lower Manhattan like an earthquake. There were large, temporary distributional effects. For example, the attacks devastated real estate prices and rents in downtown Manhattan, but they boosted the real estate market for midtown. The attacks certainly shook most Americans psychologically; and when millions of people canceled planned trips for the coming months, it depressed airlines, hotels and other travel services. But the money that people saved by skipping their vacations went instead to buy large screen TVs and SUVs. And the Federal Reserve responded to the attacks by cutting interest rates, boosting interest-sensitive industries from capital equipment to housing. Just like Katrina, then, 9/11 had no adverse effects on the national economy. In fact, investment and consumer spending in the quarter following the attacks, October-November-December of 2001, were stronger than any quarter for two years before and after.

Unlike such localized catastrophes, the recent earthquake and tsunami will likely inflict enormous damages across Japan, and for some time to come. The issue here is not the terrible, immediate losses of life and property in the country’s northern shoreline towns and cities. The damage done to the country’s power grid will extend the economic costs far beyond the communities directly devastated by the disasters, slowing agricultural and industrial activity across up to one-third of the country. And for these losses, there will be no offsetting gains from reconstruction. Even more frightening, the radiation released by the ongoing meltdowns at nuclear power facilities could bring economic activity to a halt in much more of the country.

Other national economic effects are beginning to be felt across Japan’s already fragile economy. Japanese investors are cashing out much of their large holdings of dollar and Euro-denominated financial assets, converting them to yen, and bringing those yen back home. The result has been a large boost for the yen’s value, dealing an additional blow to Japan’s export companies. Those same companies also are beginning to cut back their foreign production, because many of critical parts for Japanese automobiles and electronics are still made in factories closed down by the disaster and electricity problems.

The disaster and its aftermath also are quickly driving up Japan’s budget deficit and national debt, which already were at dangerous levels following a decade of economic stagnation punctuated by the 2008 – 2009 financial meltdown and subsequent deep recession. As Japan’s economic outlook deteriorates, and its domestic savings fall with incomes and earnings, international investors will likely pull back. All of this could raise serious doubts about the viability of Japanese sovereign debt, pushing up interest rates and possibly triggering a run on the yen and a dangerous downward spiral.

As terrible as these dislocations will be for Japan, the world’s third largest economy, they’re not enough to derail the current global expansion. Even so, serious economic aftershocks will be felt soon beyond Japan, especially in the United States and China. Later this week, we will examine the potential damage to the American and Chinese economies from the horrific disaster in Japan.

This Week in the Economy: Bottom Up Economics, Getting Smarter About Deficits

The new issue of Democracy Journal is out today, and - as usual - makes a strong contribution to the national conversation around the economy. Of interest to followers of NDN Fellow Dan Carol's work on bottom-up economic development is Andrei Cherny's piece entitled "Individual Age Economics," Cherny writes:

The task ahead in the Individual Age is to create a Horatio Alger economy, a drive to rebuild the possibility of upward mobility that is at the heart of the American experience. For today's middle-class Americans, life is a game of "Chutes and Ladders" with more chutes than ladders. While individuals have been thrown back upon themselves, both progressives and conservatives have acted as if the economy still functions from the top down. If America is to recapture the economic growth that was Hamilton's concern and the broad equality of opportunity that was Jefferson's dream, our mission must be to forge a new economics for the Individual Age that rethinks our economy from the bottom up.

Read the rest of the current issue here.

Ezra Klein points out that Congressional Republicans are being penny-wise and pound foolish about deficits. It's a crazy situation, but taken in totality, the House Republican economic strategy of cuts this year, health care repeal, and making the Bush tax cuts permanent offers, by independent estimates, less growth, fewer jobs, and more debt.

According to a new Gallup poll, 54 percent of Americans see either jobs/unemployment or the economy as the most important issue facing the country. That number compares to the 13 percent who see the deficit/debt as the number one issue.

And a poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago shows that Americans overwhelmingly favor increased spending on domestic programs:

The public's top priority for increased spending - education - provides a contrast, with views across partisan lines holding steady despite sharper concerns about the deficit. Three-quarters favored higher spending on education.

Majorities also supported higher spending on assistance to the poor (68 percent), protecting the environment (60 percent), halting rising crime (60 percent), Social Security (57 percent), dealing with drug addiction (56 percent) or drug rehabilitation (52 percent), and assistance for childcare (52 percent).

Cuts Now: Bad Policy and Bad Politics

In governing, there are generally two reasons political leaders make decisions: policy and, more often, politics. That's why the current obsession with near term budget cuts is so mind-boggling. While the long-term fiscal picture is an important policy question, there are not political or policy reasons to make anywhere near the cuts currently on the table.

From a policy perspective, we often hear that the United States is broke. If you only read one thing today, read about why the United States is not. Not only is the US not broke, it's not anywhere close. Bloomberg's David Lynch lays out why:

"The U.S. government is not broke," said Marc Chandler, global head of currency strategy for Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. in New York. "There's no evidence that the market is treating the U.S. government like it's broke."

The U.S. today is able to borrow at historically low interest rates, paying 0.68 percent on a two-year note that it had to offer at 5.1 percent before the financial crisis began in 2007. Financial products that pay off if Uncle Sam defaults aren't attracting unusual investor demand. And tax revenue as a percentage of the economy is at a 60-year low, meaning if the government needs to raise cash and can summon the political will, it could do so.

From a political perspective, while, again, people care about debt, the fiscal picture is, at best, a secondary issue. From a new Bloomberg poll:

Americans are sending a message to congressional Republicans: Don't shut down the federal government or slash spending on popular programs.

Almost 8 in 10 people say Republicans and Democrats should reach a compromise on a plan to reduce the federal budget deficit to keep the government running, a Bloomberg National Poll shows. At the same time, lopsided margins oppose cuts to Medicare, education, environmental protection, medical research and community-renewal programs.

While Americans say it's important to improve the government's fiscal situation, among the few deficit-reducing moves they back are cutting foreign aid, pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and repealing the Bush-era tax cuts for households earning more than $250,000 a year.

The results of the March 4-7 poll underscore the hazards confronting Republicans, as well as President Barack Obama and Democrats, as they face a showdown over funding the government and seek a broader deficit-reduction plan.

"Americans do not have a realistic picture of the budget," says J. Ann Selzer, the Des Moines, Iowa-based pollster who conducted the survey. "We all know people who are in debt yet cannot for the life of them figure out where the money goes."

Overall, public concern about the deficit -- which is projected to reach $1.6 trillion this year -- is growing, although it's still eclipsed by employment, with poll respondents ranking job creation as a higher priority.

I understand why a conservative movement would listen to a base obsessed with shrinking government. What I don't understand is why anyone else would.

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