That's the question for this week's Scripps Howard column. I take a slightly fatalistic approach:
Actually, the debate is already over. Americans may be worried about their jobs, but it's possible they're even crankier about the growing national debt. Politicians in Washington D.C. are responding accordingly, with President Obama even calling on most federal agencies to reduce their budgets by 5 percent. With a bipartisan deficit commission now on the job, those cuts may just be the beginning.
Perhaps that's as it should be: The bill for decades of deficit spending – in good times and bad, under both Republican and Democratic presidents – was going to come due sooner or later. It appears now may be the time. But Americans should understand one thing about the belt- tightening: It's gonna hurt.
Federal spending doesn't just prop up unpopular programs, after all: Right now, it's helping keep teachers and police officers on the job while states and cities deal with their own budget problems. Austerity will threaten such efforts. There is even talk the deficit commission will recommend big changes – and, perhaps, big cuts – to Social Security benefits. Americans won't like that one bit, but it's a logical result of efforts to bring spending under control.
The problem, as economist Paul Krugman explains, is that cutting spending during a recession is costly and ineffective. "Costly, because it depresses the economy further," he writes. "Ineffective, because by depressing the economy, fiscal contraction now reduces tax receipts."
So: Job growth or deficit reduction? Austerity now might give us very little of either. But it will still hurt a lot.