Tag: balanced budget

It’s Simple to Balance the Budget without Higher Taxes

John Podesta of the Center for American Progress had a column in Politico yesterday asserting that “closing the budget gap entirely on the spending side would require draconian programmatic cuts.” He went on to complain that there are some people who “refuse to look at the revenue side of the ledger – while insisting that we dig the hole $830 billion deeper over the next decade by extending the Bush tax cuts.”
 
Not surprisingly, Mr. Podesta is totally wrong. It’s actually not that challenging to balance the budget. And it doesn’t even require any spending cuts, though it would be a very good idea to dramatically downsize the federal government. Here’s a chart showing this year’s spending and revenue totals. It then shows the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of how much revenues will grow, assuming all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent and assuming that the alternative minimum tax is adjusted for inflation. As you can see, balancing the budget is a simple matter of limiting the annual growth of federal spending.

So how is it that Mr. Podesta can spout sky-is-falling rhetoric about “draconian” cuts when all that’s needed is fiscal restraint? The answer is that politicians in Washington have concocted a self-serving budget process that automatically assumes that all previously-planned spending increases should occur. So if the politicians put us on a path to make government 8 percent bigger next year and there is a proposal to instead limit spending growth to 3 percent, that 3 percent increase gets portrayed as a 5 percent cut.
 
This is a great scam, at least for the political class. They get to buy more votes by boosting the burden of government spending, but they get to tell voters that they’re being fiscally responsible. And they get to claim that they have no choice but to raise taxes because there’s no other way to balance the budget. In the real world, though, this translates into bigger government and puts us on a path to a Greek-style fiscal nightmare.
 

The goal of fiscal policy should be smaller government, not fiscal balance. Deficits are just a symptom of a government that is too large, as I have explained elsewhere. But the good news is that spending discipline is the right answer, regardless of the objective. I explained this in more detail for a piece in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Here’s an excerpt.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government this year is spending almost $3.5 trillion. Tax receipts are estimated to be less than $2.2 trillion, which means a projected deficit of about $1.35 trillion. So can we balance the budget when there is that much red ink? And is it possible to eliminate deficits while also extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts? The answer is yes. …It’s a simple matter of mathematics. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that tax revenue will grow by an average of 7.3 percent annually over the next 10 years. Reducing the budget deficit is easy - so long as politicians increase overall spending by less than that amount. And with inflation projected to be about 2 percent over the same period, this is an ideal environment for some long-overdue fiscal discipline. If spending is simply capped at the current level with a hard freeze, the budget is balanced by 2016. If we limit spending growth to 1 percent each year, the budget is balanced in 2017. And if we allow 2 percent annual spending growth - letting the budget keep pace with inflation, the budget balances in 2020. …Interest groups that are used to big budget increases will be upset if spending growth is limited to 1 or 2 percent each year. It means entitlements will need to be reformed. It means we might need to get rid of programs and departments that are not legitimate functions of the federal government. You better believe that these changes will cause a lot of squealing by lobbyists and other insiders. But that complaining will be a sign that fiscal policy is finally heading in the right direction. The key thing to understand is that there is no need for tax increases. Politicians might not balance the budget if we say no to all tax increases. But the experience in Europe shows that oppressive tax burdens are not a recipe for fiscal balance either. Milton Friedman was correct many years ago when he warned that, “In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.”

Utah Legislators Call for Fiscal Federalism

Tea partiers take note: at the forefront of any effort to reduce the size of the federal government should be the devolvement of federal programs to the states. Achieving this may seem like mission impossible given the states’ addiction to federal money. However, there are signs that the idea of returning the relationship between the federal government and the states to that which the Founders prescribed is starting to gain some currency.

On Friday, the president of the Utah Senate and the speaker of the Utah House of Representatives penned an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for the federal government to begin the devolution process. The authors want the states to have the right to opt out of federal programs and allow the states to keep the taxes their residents send to Washington to fund them. The states would then be free to fund and manage the programs as they see fit.

The authors call their idea a “modest experiment,” and indeed, it is hardly radical. The 10th amendment to the Constitution is clear:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

From the op-ed:

Let’s select a few programs – say, education, transportation and Medicaid – that are managed mostly by Utah’s government, but with significant federal dollars and a plethora of onerous federal interventions and regulations.

Let Utah take over these programs entirely. But let us keep in our state the portion of federal taxes Utah residents pay for these programs. The amount would not be difficult to determine. Rather than send this money through the federal bureaucracy, we would retain it and would take full responsibility for education, transportation and Medicaid – minus all federal oversight and regulation.

Such a notion terrifies proponents of big government because state budgets are generally constrained by balanced budget requirements, debt inhibitions, and the inability to print money. States are also more limited in how much they can abuse taxpayers for the simple reason that citizens can move to a friendlier environment. Indeed, one of the beautiful aspects of returning to fiscal federalism is that it would strengthen this competition that $600+ billion in annual federal subsidies has somewhat neutered.

See this essay for more on fiscal federalism and this Cato Policy Analysis on the problems with federal subsidies to state and local governments.

Update: A C@L reader pointed me to this resolution introduced by Michigan state representative Paul Opsommer, which calls on the federal government to allow the states to opt out of federal highway programs funded by the federal gas tax. The states would be free to fund their own roads with their own gas tax revenues instead of sending money to Washington where its then redistributed back to the states according to Congress’s politicized wishes. As the resolution notes, the federal government uses the leverage it has over transportation spending to force the states to enact policies that they don’t want.

The Problem Is Spending, not Deficits

Reckless spending increases under both Bush and Obama have resulted in unprecedented deficits. Congress will soon be forced to increase the nation’s debt limit by an astounding $1.8 trillion. Government borrowing has become such a big issue that some politicians are proposing a deficit reduction commission, which may mean they are like alcoholics trying for a self-imposed intervention.

But all this fretting about deficits and debt is misplaced. Government borrowing is a bad thing, of course, but this video explains that the real problem is excessive government spending.

 

Fixating on the deficit allows politicians to pull a bait and switch, since they can raise taxes, claim they are solving the problem, when all they are doing is replacing debt-financed spending with tax-financed spending. At best, that’s merely taking a different route to the wrong destination. The more likely result is that the tax increases will weaken the economy, further exacerbating America’s fiscal position.

No Balanced Budget, No Raise

Ben Goddard writes in The Hill about the new taxpayer revolt in California this week. The political establishment put together a package of initiatives that it thought would fix the budget process there – but the people weren’t buying it. The only thing they passed was the measure to ban salary increases for legislators if they didn’t balance the budget.

There are similar proposals floating around Capitol Hill. If bills were subject to a popular vote, it seems like such a thing would be likely to pass.