How to avoid the 'fiscal cliff'

Commentator Robert Reich says lawmakers need to apply the brakes on automatic spending cuts and tax increases set to go into effect at the end of the year or risk pulling us into another recession.

We now know austerity economics is bad for weak economies facing large budget deficits. Much of Europe is in recession because of budget cuts demanded by Germany. And as Europe's economies shrink, lower tax revenues there will force their debt loads proportionally higher, making a bad situation worse.

The way to avoid this austerity trap is to get growth and jobs back first, and only then tackle budget deficits.

The U.S. hasn't yet fallen into that trap, but it could soon. We could slid into a new recession early next year if the Bush tax cuts end as scheduled on January 1, and if more than $100 billion is automatically cut from federal spending, as required by Congress's failure last August to reach a budget deal.

Predictably, Capitol Hill is deadlocked. Democrats refuse to extend the Bush tax cuts for higher earners and Republicans refuse to delay the budget cuts.

If recent history is any guide, a deal will be struck at the last moment -- during a lame-duck Congress, sometime in late December. And it will only be to remove the January 1 trigger. Keep everything else as it is, the Bush tax cuts as well as current spending, and kick the can down the road into 2013 and beyond.

Which means no plan for reducing the budget deficit.

I've got a better idea -- a different kind of trigger. Instead of a specific date, make it the rate of growth and employment we should reach before embarking on deficit reduction.

Say 3 percent growth and 5 percent unemployment. At that point the Bush tax cuts automatically expire, the wealthy pay a higher rate, and $2 trillion in spending cuts begin.

This way we avoid the austerity trap that Europe has fallen into. And we get on with the long-term job of taming the budget deficit when the economy is healthy enough to do so.

About the author

Robert Reich is chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

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