Tag: balanced budget

It’s Amazingly Simple to Balance the Budget

I’m testifying tomorrow to the Joint Economic Committee about “The Economic Costs of Debt-Ceiling Brinkmanship.”

I won’t give away what I’m going to say (though you can probably figure out my views rather easily by reading this, this, and this), but I do want to share a chart from my testimony.

It shows that it is remarkably simple to balance the budget with a modest amount of spending restraint.

Based on Congressional Budget Office data, we can balance the budget in just three years if spending grows by “only” 1 percent per year.

Balanced Budget with Spending Restraint

The chart also shows that you can balance the budget in just four years if spending is allowed to grow “just” two percent annually.

And if you for some reason think that the burden of government spending should rise faster than inflation, then we can balance the budget in seven years by restraining spending so that it grows 3 percent each year.

Here are a couple of relevant observations.

Senator Patty Murray Is Right…and Completely Wrong…about the 1990s

I wrote about the Ryan budget two days ago, praising it for complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule and reforming Medicare and Medicaid.

But I believe in being honest and nonpartisan, so I also groused that it wasn’t as good as the 2011 and 2012 versions.

Now it’s time to give the same neutral and dispassionate treatment to the budget proposed by Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

But I’m going to focus on a theme rather than numbers.

One part of her budget got me particularly excited. Her Committee’s “Foundation for Growth” blueprint makes a very strong assertion about the fiscal and economic history of the Clinton years.

The work done in the 1990s helped grow the economy, create jobs, balance the budget, and put our government on track to eliminate the national debt.

As elaborated in this passage, the 42nd President delivered very good results.

President Bill Clinton entered office in 1993 at a time when the country was facing serious deficit and debt problems. The year before, the federal government was taking in revenue equal 17.5 percent of GDP, but spending was 22.1 percent of the economy—a deficit of 4.7 percent. …The unemployment rate went from 7 percent at the beginning of 1993 to 3.9 percent at the end of 2000. Between 1993 and 2001, our economy gained more than 22 million jobs and experienced the longest economic expansion in our history.

And the Senate Democrats even identified one of the key reasons why economic and fiscal policy was so successful during the 1990s.

…federal spending dropped from 22.1 percent of GDP to 18.2 percent of GDP.

I fully agree with every word reprinted above. That’s the good news.

So what, then, is the bad news?

Well, Senator Murray may have reached the right conclusion, but she was wildly wrong in her analysis. For all intents and purposes, she claims that the 1993 tax hike produced most of the good results.

President Clinton’s 1993 tax deal…brought in new revenue from the wealthiest Americans and…our country created 22 million new jobs and achieved a balanced budget. President Clinton’s tax policies were not the only driver of economic growth, but our leaders’ ability to agree on a fiscally sustainable and economically sound path provided valuable certainty for American families and businesses.

First, let’s dispense with the myth that the 1993 tax hike balanced the budget. I obtained the fiscal forecasts that were produced by both the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget in early 1995 because I wanted to see whether a balanced budget was predicted.

As you can see in the chart, both of those forecasts showed perpetual deficits of about $200 billion. And these forecasts were made nearly 18 months after the Clinton tax hike was implemented.

So if even the White House’s own forecast from OMB didn’t foresee a balanced budget, what caused the actual fiscal situation to be much better than the estimates?

The simple answer is that spending was restrained. You can give credit to Bill Clinton. You can give credit to the GOP Congress that took power in early 1995. You can give the credit to both.

But regardless of who gets the credit, the period of spending restraint that began at that time was the change that produced a budget surplus, not the tax hike that was imposed 18 months earlier and which was associated with perpetual red ink.

But spending restraint tells only part of the story. With the exception of the 1993 tax hike, the Clinton years were a period of shrinking government and free market reform.

Take a look at my homemade bar chart to compare the good policies of the 1990s with the bad policies. It’s not even close.

You may be thinking that my comparison is completely unscientific, and you’re right. I probably overlooked some good policies and some bad policies.

And my assumptions about weighting are very simplistic. Everything is equally important, with a big exception in that I made the government spending variable three times as important as everything else.

Why? Well, I think reducing the burden of government spending during the Clinton years was a major achievement.

But maybe we shouldn’t rely on my gut instincts. So let’s set aside my created-at-the-spur-of-the-moment bar chart and look at something that is scientific.

This chart is taken directly from Economic Freedom of the World, which uses dozens of variables to measure the overall burden of government.

As you can see, the United States score improved significantly during the Clinton years, showing that economic freedom was expanding and the size and scope of government was shrinking.

In other words, Patty Murray is correct. She is absolutely right to claim that Bill Clinton’s policies “helped grow the economy, create jobs, balance the budget.”

Now she needs to realize that those policies were small government and free markets.

Ryan Budget Proposal Is Not a Blueprint for Limited Government

The now annual release of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget proposal has replaced the release of the president’s budget proposal as my least favorite policy event of the year. The president promises big government and Ryan promises smaller big government. What makes the Ryan proposal more aggravating is that it’s hardly a vision of limited government, but the left (and many on the right) treats it like it is.   

According to his numbers, Ryan’s budget ideas would reduce federal spending as a percentage of GDP from 22.2 percent this year to 19.1 percent in 2023. According to Democrats and liberals, such a savage reduction in the federal footprint would inflict unfathomable pain on various groups of Americans. 

Here’s Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) with the standard Democratic scare-mongering that we can expect to hear over and over again in the coming months: 

Instead of insisting on a balanced approach to deficit reduction, Ryan’s budget will demand that our middle class, seniors, veterans, women, children, federal employees, low-income families, and those nearing retirement pick up the tab. 

Other than perhaps Oompa Loompas, I believe Rep. Hoyer got’em all (rich males aren’t included because they don’t pay their “fair share”).    

Instead of delving any further into Ryan’s numbers, I’m just going to get to my point. Proposing that the federal government borrow and spend less than what is currently projected is certainly better than the alternative. But if your goal is limited government then there has to actually be limits on what all the government is involved in

I don’t see anything in Ryan’s proposal that would end the federal government’s involvement in education, job training, energy, transportation, etc., etc. Yes, Ryan calls for ending Obamacare, but that wouldn’t end the federal government’s involvement in health care. Yes, Ryan says that higher education subsidies should be capped, but that wouldn’t end the federal government’s involvement in education. And so on. How the federal government delivers the goods would change (e.g., block-granting Medicaid and premium support for Medicare), but more efficient government isn’t the same as limited government.

New Congressional Budget Office Numbers Once Again Show that Modest Spending Restraint Would Eliminate Red Ink

Back in 2010, I crunched the numbers from the Congressional Budget Office and reported that the budget could be balanced in just 10 years if politicians exercised a modicum of fiscal discipline and limited annual spending increases to about two percent yearly.

When CBO issued new numbers early last year, I repeated the exercise and again found that the same modest level of budgetary restraint would eliminate red ink in about 10 years.

And when CBO issued their update last summer, I did the same thing and once again confirmed that deficits would disappear in a decade if politicians didn’t let the overall budget rise by faster than two percent each year.

Well, the new CBO 10-year forecast was released this morning. I’m going to give you three guesses about what I discovered when I looked at the numbers, and the first two don’t count.

Yes, you guessed it. As the chart illustrates (click to enlarge), balancing the budget doesn’t require any tax increases. Nor does it require big spending cuts (though that would be a very good idea).

Even if we assume that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent, all that is needed is for politicians to put government on a modest diet so that overall spending grows by about two percent each year. In other words, make sure the budget doesn’t grow faster than inflation.

Tens of millions of households and businesses manage to meet this simple test every year. Surely it’s not asking too much to get the same minimum level of fiscal restraint from the crowd in Washington, right?

At this point, you may be asking yourself whether it’s really this simple. After all, you’ve probably heard politicians and journalists say that deficits are so big that we have no choice but to accept big tax increases and “draconian” spending cuts.

But that’s because politicians use dishonest Washington budget math. They begin each fiscal year by assuming that spending automatically will increase based on factors such as inflation, demographics, and previously legislated program changes.

This creates a “baseline,” and if they enact a budget that increases spending by less than the baseline, that increase magically becomes a cut. This is what allowed some politicians to say that last year’s Ryan budget cut spending by trillions of dollars even though spending actually would have increased by an average of 2.8 percent each year.

Needless to say, proponents of big government deliberately use dishonest budget math because it tilts the playing field in favor of bigger government and higher taxes.

There are two important caveats about these calculations.

1. We should be dramatically downsizing the federal government, not just restraining its growth. Even if he’s not your preferred presidential candidate, Ron Paul’s proposal for an immediate $1 trillion reduction in the burden of federal spending is a very good idea. Merely limiting the growth of spending is a tiny and timid step in the right direction.

2. We should be focusing on the underlying problem of excessive government, not the symptom of too much red ink. By pointing out the amount of spending restraint that would balance the budget, some people will incorrectly conclude that getting rid of deficits is the goal.

Last but not least, here is the video I narrated in 2010 showing how red ink would quickly disappear if politicians curtailed their profligacy and restrained spending growth.

Other than updating the numbers, the video is just as accurate today as it was back in 2010. And the concluding message—that there is no good argument for tax increases—also is equally relevant today.

P.S. Some people will argue that it’s impossible to restrain spending because of entitlement programs, but this set of videos shows how to reform Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

P.P.S. Some people will say that the CBO baseline is unrealistic because it assumes the sequester will take place. They may be right if they’re predicting politicians are too irresponsible and profligate to accept about $100 billion of annual reductions from a $4,000 billion-plus budget, but that underscores the core message that there needs to be a cap on total spending so that the crowd in Washington isn’t allowed to turn America into Greece.

American Politicians Should Copy Canada’s Leftist Government of the 1990s and Cap Spending

Since I’ve written before about Canada’s remarkable period of fiscal restraint during the 1990s, I was very pleased to see that the establishment press is finally giving some attention to what our northern neighbors did to reduce the burden of government spending.

Here are some key passages from a Reuters story.

“Everyone wants to know how we did it,” said political economist Brian Lee Crowley, head of the Ottawa-based think tank Macdonald-Laurier Institute, who has examined the lessons of the 1990s. But to win its budget wars, Canada first had to realize how dire its situation was and then dramatically shrink the size of government rather than just limit the pace of spending growth. It would eventually oversee the biggest reduction in Canadian government spending since demobilization after World War Two. …The turnaround began with Chretien’s arrival as prime minister in November 1993, when his Liberal Party - in some ways Canada’s equivalent of the Democrats in the U.S. - swept to victory with a strong majority. The new government took one look at the dreadful state of the books and decided to act. “I said to myself, I will do it. I might be prime minister for only one term, but I will do it,” said Chretien. …The Liberals thought their first, rushed budget - delivered in February 1994, three months after taking office, was tough. It reformed unemployment insurance entitlements, and cut defense and foreign aid… The upstart Reform Party, then the main national opposition party, had campaigned on “zero-in-three” - balance the budget in three years. “We were always trying to go faster,” said Reform’s leader at the time, Preston Manning. …The Liberals were stung by the criticism and, at first reluctantly but then with gusto, they got out the chain saws. …Cutting government spending programs went against the Liberal grain. Contrary to the Reform Party, the Liberals saw a more important role for government. Paul Martin now has a lasting reputation as the finance minister who slayed Canada’s deficit, but the conversion from spender to cutter was painful. His father, also called Paul, had helped create Medicare, Canada’s publicly funded health care system, and suddenly here was Paul Junior contemplating massive cuts.

This is a remarkable story. My only real quibble is that the fiscal restraint actually started the year before the Liberal Party took power, as the chart illustrates.

But the key thing to understand is that Canada enjoyed a five-year period when government spending increased by an average of only 1 percent each year.

There are more good passages in the story. Can anybody imagine Obama doing this?

At one 1994 cabinet meeting, Martin announced a spending freeze. A minister put forward a project that needed funding but Chretien cut him off, reminding him of Martin’s freeze. A second minister raised his hand to ask for funding, and a testy Chretien told the cabinet that the next minister to ask for new money would see his whole budget cut by 20 percent. …The ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes was seven-to-one. Asked why, Chretien said simply: “There was more need on one side than the other.” …Cuts ranged from five percent to 65 percent of departmental budgets.

By the way, while there were a few tax hikes implemented, they were trivial. Tax revenue as a share of GDP rose from 44.2 percent of GDP to 44.5 percent a GDP, an increase that probably was going to happen anyhow as Canada’s economy recovered.

So what were the results of Canada’s spending freeze?

The following passage has some numbers, but the second chart shows that the burden of government spending in Canada (right axis) fell from 53 percent of GDP to 44 percent of GDP in just five years. And red ink (left axis) completely disappeared.

The deficit disappeared by 1997 and the debt-to-GDP ratio began a rapid decline - it is now at about 34 percent. …After wrestling the deficit to the ground, Canada enjoyed what Crowley calls the payoff decade, outperforming the rest of the G7 on growth, job creation and inward investment. From 1997 to 2007, it averaged 3.3 percent economic growth. while U.S. growth averaged 2.9 percent.

The most important thing to understand is that Canada’s economy improved because the burden of government spending was reduced. Moreover, because the underlying disease was being treated, this meant two of the symptoms of excessive government - deficits and debt - also became less of a problem.

Last but not least, there are rewards for good policy. Just as Reagan enjoyed a landslide in 1984 after sticking to his guns, Canada’s Liberal Party also reaped the benefits of doing the right thing.

The final lesson is that you can impose painful spending cuts and still win elections. Chretien went on to win two more back-to-back to form majority governments, a rare feat. „,Drummond, who later moved to the private sector and is now an advisor helping the Ontario provincial government slash its deficit, noted that governments on the right and left in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario won more voter support after their own budget cuts in the 1990s.

Here’s a video I narrated that looks at the Canadian experience, as well as similar good reforms in New Zealand, Ireland, and Slovakia.

Last but not least, let’s put all of this in context. As demonstrated here, the U.S. would enjoy a balanced budget in just eight years if politicians could be convinced to limit spending so that it increased by 1 percent each year.

New CBO Numbers Confirm - Once Again - that Modest Spending Restraint Can Balance the Budget

The Congressional Budget Office has just released the update to its Economic and Budget Outlook.

There are several things from this new report that probably deserve commentary, including a new estimate that unemployment will “remain above 8 percent until 2014.”

This certainly doesn’t reflect well on the Obama White House, which claimed that flushing $800 billion down the Washington rathole would prevent the joblessness rate from ever climbing above 8 percent.

Not that I have any faith in CBO estimates. After all, those bureaucrats still embrace Keynesian economics.

But this post is not about the backwards economics at CBO. Instead, I want to look at the new budget forecast and see what degree of fiscal discipline is necessary to get rid of red ink.

The first thing I did was to look at CBO’s revenue forecast, which can be found in table 1-2. But CBO assumes the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts will expire at the end of 2012, as well as other automatic tax hikes for 2013. So I went to table 1-8 and got the projections for those tax provisions and backed them out of the baseline forecast.

That gave me a no-tax-hike forecast for the next 10 years, which shows that revenues will grow, on average, slightly faster than 6.6 percent annually. Or, for those who like actual numbers, revenues will climb from a bit over $2.3 trillion this year to almost $4.4 trillion in 2021.

Something else we know from CBO’s budget forecast is that spending this year (fiscal year 2011) is projected to be a bit below $3.6 trillion.

So if we know that tax revenues will be $4.4 trillion in 2021 (and that’s without any tax hike), and we know that spending is about $3.6 trillion today, then even those of us who hate math can probably figure out that we can balance the budget by 2021 so long as government spending does not increase by more than $800 billion during the next 10 years.

Yes, you read that correctly. We can increase spending and still balance the budget. This chart shows how quickly the budget can be balanced with varying degrees of fiscal discipline.

The numbers show that a spending freeze balances the budget by 2017. Red ink disappears by 2019 if spending is allowed to grow 1 percent each year. And the deficit disappears by 2021 if spending is limited to 2 percent annual growth.

Not that these numbers are a surprise. I got similar results after last year’s update, and also earlier this year when the Economic and Budget Outlook was published.

Some of you may be thinking this can’t possibly be right. After all, you hear politicians constantly assert that we need tax hikes because that’s the only way to balance the budget without “draconian” and “savage” budget cuts.

But as I’ve explained before, this demagoguery is based on the dishonest Washington practice of assuming that spending should increase every year, and then claiming that a budget cut takes place anytime spending does not rise as fast as previously planned.

In reality, balancing the budget is very simple. Modest spending restraint is all that’s needed. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, particularly in a corrupt town dominated by interest groups, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and politicians.

But if we takes tax hikes off the table and somehow cap the growth of spending, it can be done. This video explains.

And we know other countries have succeeded with fiscal restraint. As is explained in this video.

Or we can acquiesce to the Washington establishment and raise taxes and impose fake spending cuts. But that hasn’t worked so well for Greece and other European welfare states, so I wouldn’t suggest that approach.

I’m Willing to Go Along with President Obama’s ‘Balanced Approach’ to Deficit Reduction, but Only if We Use Honest Math

The President has issued an ultimatum that more tax revenue must be part of budget negotiations. Indeed, he endlessly repeats his desire for a “balanced approach,” implying that as much as 50 percent of the deficit reduction in any agreement should come from higher revenues.

Because I am a thoughtful, middle-of-the-road, pragmatic guy, I’m willing to accept the President’s ultimatum. I do have one tiny request, however, and that is for any such deal to be based on honest math.

What I mean by this is that I don’t want politicians to approve a budget that results in more spending, but then claim that they “cut spending” because the budget didn’t grow even faster. I want a spending cut to mean less spending (gee, what a novel idea).

And when they talk about new revenue, I want to see how much revenue the IRS is collecting this year, and measure revenue increases against that number. After all, the crowd in Washington should be happy to get more money, even if it is the result of benign factors such as more jobs being created, companies earning higher profits, and people getting more pay.

I assume these are reasonable requests. After all, this is how businesses and households operate their budgets, and I’m sure the political insiders wouldn’t want to use dishonest numbers to mislead voters (perish the thought!).

So what would a balanced approach look like, assuming we want to use honest math? The answer isn’t that complicated. I started with the latest estimates from the Congressional Budget Office for spending and revenues for this fiscal year (FY2011). I then assume, in the interest of a “balanced approach,” that spending should be cut by 5 percent each year and that revenues should climb by 5 percent each year.

The results, as illustrated by the graph, are remarkable. If we use a 50-50 deal of higher revenue and lower spending, we balance the budget in just five years. The President is right!

Taxpayers will be happy to know the “balanced approach” gets rid of red ink and also leaves enough room to make the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent. Heck, there would be enough left-over revenue to enact additional tax cuts. After all, since we’re looking for balance, there’s no need to let revenues grow by 7 percent or 8 percent each year.

So, Mr. President, do we have a deal? Should we use your “balanced approach” and eliminate today’s big deficit by cutting spending and raising revenue by equal amounts? You were serious about your request, right? Hello, is anybody there?

As you already realize, I don’t think the President actually means what he says about a “balanced approach.” Or, to be more specific, I think he’s happy to do a 50-50 deal, but only if “spending cuts” and “revenue increases” are defined in ways that enable the growth of government.

Inside the beltway, this is known as “baseline budgeting” or “current services budgeting.” But whatever it’s called, it is a dishonest way of presenting information to the American people, as explained in this video.