The "Fiscal Cliff" would drag America into certain recession

Congress must overcome its partisan rifts.

Irrespective of next week’s election, the fiscal challenges facing the next US government are vast. As the country races towards January’s “fiscal cliff”, the drumbeat warnings of recession have reached fever pitch, with partisan wrangling threatening to derail the sluggish US recovery.

Coming into effect at the dawn of 2013, the “fiscal cliff” represents the confluence of two events: a raft of spending cuts agreed as part of last year’s deal to raise the national debt ceiling and the expiration of Obama-backed extensions of tax breaks introduced in the Bush years.

The fiscal belt-tightening is expected to slash the deficit by almost $500bn – its steepest reduction since 1968. At 5.1 per cent, the rate is comparable to those experienced by Greece, Spain and Italy during their recent austerity drives.

Going over the cliff would almost surely plunge the US into recession, given the fragility of the economy. In May, the Congressional Budget Office warned of a 1.3 per cent contraction if action was not taken.  However, as the cliff looms, gloomier forecasts have predicted annual GDP contractions ranging from 3.6 per cent to 4 per cent.

According to a report issued by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAT), the fiscal shock would result in dramatic job losses of over 5 million by 2014, catapulting the rate of unemployment from the current rate of 7.8 per cent to 11 per cent by 2015.

Naturally, mass job losses and higher federal taxes would have severe effects on consumption. The report predicts that average disposable income is likely to fall annually by 8-10%, hitting the poorest hardest due to cuts in child tax credit and earned income tax credit.

Overall, mass unemployment, plummeting consumption and plaguing uncertainty is likely to weigh heavily on the US economy, stultifying its anaemic recovery unless drastic action is taken.

More pressingly, if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling before the US hits its $16.4tn statutory debt limit – expected sometime between the election and the end of 2012 – the US would face default – a truly grim prospect. 

The NAT has reported that the approaching “fiscal cliff” has already shaved up to 0.6 per cent from US GDP this year alone, with the tense climate deterring businesses from investing and hiring.

As insecurity gathers momentum, an anti-debt lobby group “Campaign to Fix the Debt” has garnered the support of more than 80 CEOs – including figureheads from General Electric, Microsoft, UPS and JP Morgan – to pressure Congress into overcoming partisan deadlock to hammer out a solution.

But the prospect of this has so far looked bleak; both sides seek different solutions and both sides brook no argument over their staunch positions. One particular impasse stems from the Democrats’ drive to introduce tax cut extensions to all but the highest-earners, much to the chagrin of the Republican contingent. Likewise, Republicans want cuts to health and welfare, whilst Democrats are adverse to cuts in entitlement spending.

Just last summer, such “political brinkmanship” was cited by Standard and Poor’s in their downgrade of the US economy from AAA to AA+, as political wrangling overshadowed debate over the federal debt ceiling.

“We could have a recession in my view that is significantly greater than [anyone] is forecasting today, because it’s an indictment of our ability to govern”, said Dave Cote, leading member of Campaign to Fix the Debt.

Even the current political stalemate is conquered, extended tax cuts and deferred sequestration would hold their own economic perils. This path would only curtail the deficit by $90bn, contrary to the $500bn reduction if America does indeed “go over” the cliff.

Therein lies the trade-off: foster the recovery or confront the debt head-on. Most likely, following pleas from prominent economists such Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernake, Congress will pursue a medium-term plan that privileges the recovery whilst tackling the debt, but time will only tell.

Overall though, inaction is most certainly not an option. The sudden jolt of the “fiscal cliff” could shock the economy into freefall, dragging the global economy down with it.

As the US stares into the abyss, Congress must – and most probably will – overcome its partisan fissures for the sake of America’s economic future.

Thus is the exigency of the times.

Clouds gather over Capitol Hill. Photo: Getty

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.