By June Carbone
I sit on the Faculty Senate of a large Midwestern university. Every meeting for the past year has been consumed with planning for this year’s budget crisis. For those insulated from Washington politics, the timing is curious. The economy is improving. State revenues are increasing. Yet this year will be the worst in over a decade for cuts to higher education, school teachers in the suburbs, police in crime-ridden cities, and bridge and infrastructure repair everywhere. Virtually every state will be affected. The cumulative impact will worsen unemployment and may be enough to trigger the feared double dip recession, touching off a new round of economic misery.
In this context, Congressional debate of the misnamed “Repealing the Job Killing Health Care Act” is a tragic distraction from the immediate source of job losses — the rejection of the economic lessons that have kept the economy on track since the Great Depression. As Paul Krugman explained in his critique of the euro in this week’s New York Times Magazine, national fiscal policy and state spending are fundamentally different, whether in Europe or the U.S. Spending at the national level includes automatic correctives. Run federal deficits too high for too long, the dollar falls, imports become more expensive and the demand for American goods increases.
States, however, cannot print money and they are rightly subject to balanced budget provisions that require that they slash expenses when revenues fall. Economists have accordingly maintained since the New Deal that federal spending should be counter-cyclical — a recession is the time to spend money to create jobs. Policy makers since Richard Nixon have further argued that much of the counter-cyclical spending should go to the states; they are closer to people’s needs and more directly hurt by falling revenues. So if the concern is jobs, counter-cyclical federal spending implemented through a Republican idea — revenue sharing — should be the new Congress’ first priority. It would forestall the job slashing taking place in statehouses throughout the country and do more to reduce unemployment than any proposal currently on the table.
Yet no one is talking about revenue sharing. President Obama proposed some aid to the states as part of his original stimulus package, but Republicans pared those measures back in favor of tax cuts that contributed less to job preservation. When the Republicans insisted on running up the deficit through tax cuts for the wealthy, the president responded with more tax cuts for everyone else — but not the spending most directly tied to jobs. The bailout of financial fat cats lasted long enough to bring back high corporate profits and rising stock market prices. Yet assistance to the states is being cut off at a time likely to forestall economic recovery.
The results reject the conventional economic wisdom of the last half century and inflict needless misery on the teachers, policemen, and construction workers who form the backbone of the country. While China undertakes massive public investment in schools, universities, technology, roads and a 21st century infrastructure, we are dismantling the institutions essential to our ability to compete. The token fight to repeal health care is a distraction from the job demolition derby underway in the states as a direct result of federal cutbacks. Yet the connection between ideologically driven federal policy and state layoffs does not even seem to merit notice in the scores of stories about layoffs, tuition increases and reduced crime protection. It is time to focus attention on the real job killers and hold them accountable.
June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri – Kansas City.