Tag: budget

Will the Military Industrial Complex Save American Foreign Policy?

Missing from most of the commentary on the Secretary of Defense’s big defense spending speech yesterday is the fact that the program cuts he proposed are largely a result of freezing the topline – keeping defense spending level (once you adjust for inflation) for the next decade.

For nearly a decade the country has really had two defense budgets – one for imagined conventional wars against states like China, another from nation-building, peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. The first budget requires a small ground force and lots of big platforms operated by the Air Force and Navy. The latter requires much larger ground forces, a few niche capabilities like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and less high technology wonders.

The current American love affair with counterinsurgency has resulted in a gradual shift of dollars from the conventional budget to the unconventional one. We are reversing the old idea that the American way of war is to replace labor with capital, or manpower with technology. We are becoming a land power first.  We have been increasing manpower in the Army and Marines – adding 90,000 new troops – and paying them way more (compensation per service member is up by almost half since 1998). Personnel costs are taking more of the budget.  And for more complex reasons, including health care costs, the operations and maintenance part of the budget – essentially the day to day cost of running the military – has also been growing fast when measured per service member.  (For details on these issues, read this testimony by Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service.)

That was bound to squeeze the other big parts of the defense budget – research, development and procurement of new weapons systems. There is too much future cost in the budget for everything to fit without topline growth, so something had to give. Big weapons programs are where the most give is, if you don’t want to cut manpower.

That conflict was delayed while the budget topline grew, but now that it is flat, it erupts. The manpower intensive military that follows from our current policies is eating into the conventional military that delivers manufactoring jobs across the country and the high-technology dreams of our military leaders.

What will be interesting to see is whether this shift encourages those leaders and their friends on the Hill to take up the arguments that people like me have been making for years: that small wars are mostly dumb wars.  Preparation for these wars didn’t much hurt the military industrial complex before, now it does. 

An additional note: Gates’ criticism of the acquisition process was on the mark. Rather than blaming out of control weapons costs on the kind of contracts we write or crafty contractors, as the President seems to, Gates noted correctly that the trouble is the requirements process – what we want, not how we buy it.

Democratic Math

As President Obama institutionalizes the permanent campaign, Democrats are using his mailing list and his organization to generate support for his massive spending hikes. Yesterday they announced to the media that they were delivering 642,000 pledges of support for the Obama budget to Capitol Hill. But Washington Post writer Dana Milbank asked a couple of questions and got some interesting answers:

At Democratic National Committee headquarters yesterday morning, party workers were loading minivans with Xerox boxes, each addressed to a different congressional office. It was a classic campaign canvassing operation – except that the next election is 19 months away. “Supporters of President Obama’s Budget to Hand Deliver 642,000 Pledges Gathered from Around the Country to Capitol Hill,” announced the Democrats’ news release.

CNN and the Huffington Post dutifully reported the DNC’s claim of 642,000 pledges. Network cameras and the BBC showed up to film the operation. “We had one of the big printers downstairs smoking last night,” party spokesman Brad Woodhouse said.

In fact, the canvassing of Obama’s vaunted e-mail list of 13 million people resulted in just 114,000 pledges – a response rate of less than 1 percent. Workers gathered 100,000 more from street canvassing. The DNC got to 642,000 by making three photocopies of each pledge so that each signer’s senators and representative could get one.

So they asked 13 million Obama supporters to support Obama’s budget, and got 114,000 responses – which might suggest that even Obama supporters aren’t excited about trillion-dollar deficits farther than the eye can see. And then they counted each one they did get three times to get a good number for the press release, which some of the media bit on. I wonder – if I count each tax dollar three times, can I send in $3,000 and have them count it as $9,000? After all, my two senators and my congressman will all get to spend it.

New York’s ‘Not Austere’ Budget

“Not Austere” is how the New York Times is describing the state’s $131.8 billion budget for 2009-2010.  As a colleague pointed out to me, “how bad does a budget have to be for the New York Times to call it ‘not austere’?”  Apparently, pretty bad.

In addition to an estimated $7 billion in tax and fee increases, total state spending would increase almost 9% when federal “stimulus” money is included.  Supporters dismiss the inclusion of bailout money in the totals, but for those who think the “temporary” federal bailout money won’t foster otherwise higher state spending going forward, I’ve got a lot for sale in Poughkeepsie.

The Albany Times-Union reported that Gov. Paterson cited public employee labor contracts as a reason for the budget increase.  Once again, the needs of the productive class (i.e., taxpayers) take a back seat to the bureaucratic class living at their expense.  Of course, New York’s policymakers were also able to find money for critical expenditures on “gun clubs, churches, a yoga foundation and the Wantagh American Legion Pipe Band, among thousands of other projects.”

The biggest tax increase is a surcharge on personal income taxes paid by “the wealthy” that is supposed to net state coffers $4 billion.  (Note to New York personal income tax payers: New Hampshire doesn’t have one.)  But other tax increases will hit all walks of New York life including an increased assessment on utilities, a motor vehicle registration fee increase of 25 percent, an increase in driver’s license fees of 25 percent, increased taxes on beer and wine, a tax increase on auto rentals of 1 percent, and possibly the most insulting – a new $100 fee on tax preparers (guess who’s going to ultimately pay that one?).

Federal Debt Per Household

This afternoon, a congressional office asked me what the estimated national debt in President Obama’s fiscal year 2010 budget submission would be on a per-U.S.-household basis.  I think the answer is worth sharing with C@L readers:

According to the president’s budget, the estimated national debt (debt held by the public) in fiscal year 2010 would equal approximately $81,000 per U.S. household. 

But no worries, “we owe it to ourselves”!

Week in Review: No End to Spending and Regulation in Sight

Geithner to Propose Unprecedented Restrictions on Financial System

geithnerThe Washington Post reports, “Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner plans to propose today a sweeping expansion of federal authority over the financial system… The administration also will seek to impose uniform standards on all large financial firms, including banks, an unprecedented step that would place significant limits on the scope and risk of their activities.”

Calling Geithner’s plan another “jihad against the market,” Cato senior fellow Jerry Taylor blasts the administration’s proposal:

What President Obama is selling is the idea that government must be the final arbiter regarding how much risk-taking is appropriate in this allegedly free market economy. It is unclear, however, whether anybody short of God is in the position to intelligently make that call for every single actor in the market.

Cato senior fellow Gerald P. O’Driscoll reveals the real reason behind the proposal:

Federal agencies have long had extensive regulatory powers over commercial banks, but allowed the banking crisis to develop despite those powers. It was a failure of will, not an absence of authority.   If the authority is extended over more institutions, there is no reason to believe we will have a different outcome.  This power grab is designed to divert attention away from the manifest failure of, first, the Bush Administration, and now the Obama Administration to devise a credible plan to deal with the crisis.

A new paper from Cato scholar Jagadeesh Gokhale explains the roots of the current global financial crisis and critically examines the reasoning behind the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve’s actions to prop up the financial sector. Gokhale argues that recovery is likely to be slow with or without the government’s bailout actions.

In the new issue of the Cato Policy Report, Cato chairman emeritus William A. Niskanen explains how President Obama is taking classic steps toward turning this recession into a depression:

Four federal economic policies transformed the Hoover recession into the Great Depression: higher tariffs, stronger unions, higher marginal tax rates, and a lower money supply. President Obama, unfortunately, has endorsed some variant of the first three of these policies, and he will face a critical choice on monetary policy in a year or so.

Obama Defends His Massive Spending Plan

President Obama visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby Democratic lawmakers on his $3.6 trillion budget proposal. Both the House and Senate are expected to vote on the plan next week.

obama-budget1In a new bulletin, Cato scholar Chris Edwards argues, “Sadly, Obama’s first budget sets a course for more government bloat, more economic distortions, and ultimately lower standards of living for everyone who is not living off of federal hand-outs.”

On Cato’s blog, Edwards discusses Obama’s misguided theory on government spending:

Obama’s budget would drive government health care costs up, not down. But aside from that technicality, the economics of Obama’s theory don’t make any sense.

Obama’s budget calls for a massive influx of government jobs. Writing in National Review, Cato senior fellow Jim Powell explains why government jobs don’t cure depression:

If government jobs were the secret of success, then the Soviet Union wouldn’t have collapsed, because it had nothing but government jobs. Communist China, glutted with government jobs, would have generated more income per capita than Hong Kong where, at least before the Communist takeover, there were hardly any government jobs, but Hong Kong’s per capita income was about 20 times higher than that on the mainland.

Multiplying the number of government jobs did nothing then and does nothing now to revive the private sector that pays all the bills, in large part because of the depressing effect of taxes required to pay for government jobs.

Cato on YouTube

Cato Institute is reaching out to new audiences with our message of individual liberty, free markets and peace. Last year, we launched our first YouTube channel, which has garnered thousands of views and subscriptions. Here are a few highlights:

Obama’s Spending Theory

President Obama focused on budget and economic issues in his press conference last night. One concern raised by reporters was that federal deficits were exploding and that Obama’s big spending plans would seem to make the problem worse.

Obama’s response was essentially that higher spending reduces the debt problem, which would strike most people as paradoxical to say the least:

Here’s what I do know: If we don’t tackle energy, if we don’t improve our education system, if we don’t drive down the costs of health care, if we’re not making serious investments in science and technology and our infrastructure, then we won’t grow [the economy by] 2.6 percent, we won’t grow 2.2 percent. We won’t grow. And so what we’ve said is, let’s make the investments that ensure that we meet our growth targets that put us on a pathway to growth as opposed to a situation in which we’re not making those investments and we still have trillion-dollar deficits.

First note that Obama’s budget would drive government health care costs up, not down. But aside from that technicality, the economics of Obama’s theory don’t make any sense.

Government spending on infrastructure, education, science and energy are already at high levels. For example, infrastructure spending today is as high as it was during the 1950s, and higher than it has been in recent decades. If government worked efficiently—as liberals believe it does—then all the highest-valued uses of taxpayer money would already be funded. At the margin, the only place for Obama’s new spending would be on low-value items of less economic importance.

Thus, Obama’s new college subsidies might induce some added young people to attend college, but most of those people are probably pretty marginal students because the high-quality students are already going to college. The marginal students might pick up some added skills, but at the cost of higher tax burdens and less economic output in the years when those folks are out of the workforce. Liberals assume that more spending on any activity they are interested in, whether public or private, is always better, but the real goal of economic policy is to find the optimum because all spending has a cost. (And the optimum level of government spending on most things is pretty darn low, or zero, in my view).

Obama is essentially claiming that even with federal, state and local spending at about one-third of GDP, there are government spending projects left over that are so powerful that “we won’t grow” if they don’t happen.

Serious economists know that that is nonsense. Most government activities have negative effects on growth, not positive effects. Take the largest federal program, Social Security, which will consume about $660 billion in taxpayer money this year. The program is a negative on economic growth because it suppresses personal savings and the taxes to fund it create large distortions. Lots of liberal economists support such transfer programs for non-economic or “social” reasons, but few economists would argue that they expand GDP on net.

This Is Who’s Minding the Store?

There was a revealing colloquy during President Obama’s press conference last night.

I’ve edited it for brevity, leaving in the relevant sections. See if you can pick out the most interesting tidbit. The President called on ABC News’ Jake Tapper:

OBAMA: Jake?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

Right now on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats are writing a budget. And according to press accounts and their own statements, they’re not including the middle-class tax cut that you include in the stimulus, they’re talking about phasing that out, they’re not including the cap-and-trade that you have in your budget, and they’re not including other measures.

I know when you outlined your four priorities over the weekend, a number of these things were not in there. Will you sign a budget if it does not contain a middle-class tax cut, does not contain cap-and- trade?

OBAMA: Well, I’ve emphasized repeatedly what I expect out of this budget. I expect that there’s serious efforts at health care reform and that we are driving down costs for families and businesses, and ultimately for the federal and state governments that are going to be broke if we continue on the current path.

[President highlights other policy priorities]

Now, we never expected, when we printed out our budget, that they would simply Xerox it and vote on it. We assume that it has to go through the legislative process. I have not yet seen the final product coming out of the Senate or the House, and we’re in constant conversations with them.

[more on policy priorities]

Our point in the budget is: Let’s get started now. We can’t wait. And my expectation is that the Energy Committees or other relevant committees in both the House and the Senate are going to be moving forward a strong energy package. It will be authorized. We’ll get it done. And I will sign it.

OK?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) willing to sign a budget that doesn’t have those two provisions?

OBAMA: No, I – what I said was that I haven’t seen yet what provisions are in there. The bottom line is, is that I want to see health care, energy, education, and serious efforts to reduce our budget deficit.

And there are going to be a lot of details that are still being worked out, but I have confidence that we’re going to be able to get a budget done that’s reflective of what needs to happen in order to make sure that America grows.

Hey, Jake? The President doesn’t sign the budget resolution. Here’s one of many budget process primers you can look over.

The Fourth Estate is pretty weak on budget process, which contributes to the poor results that come out of Congress. Since the passage of omnibus legislation completing spending for this fiscal year (2009), WashingtonWatch.com has begun to highlight how the administration and Congress are falling behind schedule for fiscal year 2010. I’ve not seen anything in the mainstream media about the impending collapse of the budget process for the coming fiscal year.

Update: Jake Tapper contacted me about this post to explain that he was using the term “budget” as a shorthand for the reconciliation legislation that Congress often produces in the budget process. It’s clear to me now that Jake Tapper knows the budget process – and that he handles criticism well.