Tag: budget

Paul Ryan and Political Discipline

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Paul Ryan’s budget – hard-headed fiscal sanity or inhumane?

My response:

Either we discipline ourselves, painfully, or soon enough the Chinese and other lenders will do it for us, more painfully still, by refusing to loan to us any longer at currently low interest rates. And in that event, the debt service will be all consuming. Neither individuals nor nations can go down the road we’re on without paying the price.

Margaret Thatcher put it plainly: “The trouble with socialism” – let’s be honest, we’re socializing the costs of our appetites by imposing them on our children and grandchildren – ”is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

Inhumane? The inhumanity is among those demagogues who put us on this path, promising something for nothing year in and year out. Paul Ryan deserves our gratitude for biting the bullet at last. The ball is now in the court of the demagogues.

Largest Spending Cut Ever?

The Washington Post said today that a plan to “cut $33 billion from the federal budget” would be “the largest one-time reduction in U.S. history.”

Really?

The $33 billion in Democratic-proposed cuts are less than 1 percent of this year’s total spending, so we are considering very small cuts here. However, it is also true that Congress has been far more interested in growing spending than in cutting in recent decades. Still, the Washington Post said “in U.S. history,” which is a long time.

This federal budget table shows total federal spending since 1901. Total spending fell in 22 years out of the last 110 years. In 19 of those 22 years, spending was cut by more than 1 percent, or more than this year’s proposed Democratic cuts of $33 billion.

Indeed, even with $33 billion in cuts, total federal spending will still rise by more than $200 billion this year due to rising “entitlement” costs. And even in raw nominal dollars, the Washington Post isn’t correct because total federal spending fell $37 billion in 1946 and $61 billion in 2010.

We can also consider the $33 billion in proposed cuts within the applicable budget category–nondefense discretionary (NDD) spending. And we can adjust for inflation in order to fairly compare cuts in different time periods.

A $33 billion cut would reduce NDD this year by about 7 percent in constant dollars. This budget table shows that President Reagan and Congress cut NDD by 13 percent in 1982 in constant dollars.

So here is what we have discovered: Congress has reduced overall spending numerous times in the past; total spending will rise substantially this year even with proposed cuts; and Reagan cut nondefense discretionary spending more than the current $33 billion proposal would.

One year of small budget cuts won’t solve our fiscal problems. The budget-cutting drives of the early 1980s and mid-1990s made a bit of progress because they were sustained over a number of years while the economy boomed. Thus, the real challenge for Republicans will be whether they can follow up this year’s small cuts with much bigger cuts next year and beyond.

Monday Links

Thoughts on the F-35’s Extra Engine

I’m a bit late to the party in commenting on the passage of the Rooney Amendment, a successful effort on the part of 2nd-term Republican Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) to strip funding for the F-136, an engine that the Pentagon doesn’t want for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

A few additional thoughts: unlike nearly all other amendments to the CR, Rooney’s passed, and fairly easily. Part of the reason is strong administration support for the effort, key especially to securing votes from Democrats – those who don’t have F-136 plants in their districts, that is. But Gates had signaled his displeasure many times previously, so that alone doesn’t explain this rare victory for budget hawks.

I would guess that an additional factor is the slew of new Republicans elected on a platform of fiscal prudence. Having Rooney as a champion for the cause certainly helped, with 110 Republicans voting for the amendment (vote tally here). A majority within the GOP still treat weapons contractors with kid gloves, but claiming that every single weapon system is essential to the nation’s survival can get pretty laughable, especially when the Secretary of Defense and all the relevant uniformed officers disagree. 

(Speaking of laughable, wouldn’t it be absurd for the Obama administration to threaten to veto the CR because it now has too little money for the Pentagon? Wait. That happened.)

Much as I would like to dwell on the defeat of the F-136 in the House, however, I am sobered by the reality of budgeting for the military. This is hardly the final blow in this battle. Opponents and supporters of the extra engine in the Senate have already lined up their forces. The engine might yet re-emerge. And we must not lose sight of the fact that the total amount saved – $450 million – is tiny relative to the Pentagon’s budget of around $540 billion in this fiscal year. Perhaps rather than debating the need for a second engine, we should be debating the need for a plane that is grossly over budget, badly behind schedule, and riddled with performance problems?

So kudos to Congressman Rooney for leading this fight, but there is still much, much more to do to bring military spending down to reasonable levels. (For example, removing U.S. troops from Europe, a policy that already enjoys considerable support.)

The Tea Party and Foreign Policy

There has been an on-going discussion recently about the Tea Party’s foreign policy views and how this might influence the upcoming election and new members of Congress.  In an essay at the Daily Caller last week, the Heritage Foundation’s Jim Carafano addressed this question and the claim that the new “Defending Defense” initiative— led by Heritiage, AEI, and the Foreign Policy Initiative—is aimed at co-opting the Tea Party movement (for more on the substance, or lack thereof, of “Defending Defense,” see Justin Logan’s response here).

Over at The Skeptics blog, I take issue with Carafano’s assessment of the Tea Party’s foreign policy views:

With respect to Carafano’s assessment of the Tea Partiers’s views on foreign policy and military spending, most of what he puts forward is pure speculation. Little is actually known about the foreign policy views of a movement that is organized primarily around the idea of getting the government off the people’s backs. It seems unlikely, however, that a majority within the movement like the idea of our government building other people’s countries, and our troops fighting other people’s wars.

Equally dubious is Carafano’s claim that the Tea Party ranks include “many libertarians who don’t think much of the Reagan mantra ‘peace through strength’ ” but an equal or larger number who are enamored of the idea that the military should get as much money as it wants, and then some. Carafano avoids a discussion of what this military has actually been asked to do, much less what it should do. By default, he endorses the tired status quo, which holds that the purpose of the U.S. military is to defend other countries so that their governments can spend money on social welfare programs and six-week vacations.

Tea Partiers are many things, but defenders of the status quo isn’t one of them. This movement is populated by individuals who are incensed by politicians reaching into their pockets and funneling money for goo-goo projects to Washington. It beggars the imagination that they’d be anxious to send money for similar schemes to Brussels, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, and yet that is precisely what our foreign policies have done – and will do – so long as the United States maintains a military geared more for defending others than for defending us.

Click here to read the entire post.

Unserious Cost Cutters Only

In a new Governing column entitled “Serious Cost Cutters Only, Please,” William Eggers and John O’Leary offer advice “for those public leaders who are looking to make structural changes that will bend the cost curve of government down.”

The target audiences are state officials who presently find themselves in the politically unrewarding position of not being able to spend as much as they’d like to because the recession has constrained revenues. Eggers and O’Leary correctly warn that policymakers shouldn’t “kick the can” down the road by pursuing short-term strategies that could prove costly in the long-run.

Unfortunately, their recommendations are of the pie-in-the-sky “good government” variety.

The piece caught my eye because I have first-hand state government experience with some of their suggestions:

The first lesson is that it is virtually impossible for the secretaries and department heads charged with running operations to come up with sufficient savings themselves to deliver the necessary cost savings. The best approach by far is to establish a dedicated team, located physically and philosophically close to the chief executive, and charge them with developing a set of recommendations that the mayor or governor can then direct her lieutenants to execute.

I spent two years working for such a dedicated team within Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Office of Management and Budget. The group, “Government Efficiency and Financial Planning,” was originally tasked with conducting a “long-overdue inventory of the state’s operations.” We produced two reports with hundreds of recommendations for making state government more “efficient” and “effective.”

The governor never directed his “lieutenants to execute” very many – if any – of the recommendations. In fact, the lieutenants were so worried about the potential political fallout from the issue of the second report that it was intentionally released when nobody was looking. They needn’t have worried because those interests who might have had cause for concern already saw that the first report was basically inconsequential.

Eggers and O’Leary continue:

There is likely to be some internal friction between the cost reduction team and the various department leaders. That is by design. The cost reduction team is supposed to be disruptive.

GEFP was somewhat disruptive, but not very effective. The governor’s lieutenants typically either sided with the department leaders or did little to support GEFP. The reason was simple. The perceived political costs of GEFP’s efforts usually exceeded the perceived political benefits. Department heads, on the other hand, can create favorable (and unfavorable headlines) and thus possess greater pull.

The sorry story of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation is instructive. A recent series of investigations by an Indianapolis reporter found that the IEDC had long been taking undeserved credit for job creation. When the reporter tried to visit some of the companies celebrated in IEDC news releases, he found empty fields, vacant lots and deserted factories. When he asked the head IEDC official to provide the public with evidence to support the agency’s claims, the IEDC head refused.

The IEDC, which was created by Gov. Daniels, was portrayed quite differently in the first GEFP report released in late 2006:

The previous Department of Commerce was responsible for a wide range of programs that included economic development, energy, community development and revitalization, agriculture, and tourism. The priorities of these programs were difficult to discern while mired within the former structure. The dismantling of the previous department into the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, Office of Energy and Defense Development, Office of Community and Rural Affairs, Office of Tourism Development, and Department of Agriculture has enhanced the profile of their respective programs and allowed for greater focus and accountability. Each of these areas now has a strategic plan that identifies its mission and long-term goals.

Adding insult to taxpayer injury is this gem of a quote that’s contained in the report’s introductory section on transparency:

Information on government performance mainly comes from agency heads and program managers. Human nature will incline agency heads and program managers to report results that show their programs in the best possible light. Naturally, agencies have little incentive to report information that would demonstrate inefficient or ineffective performance.

The last I heard, GEFP is now in charge of overseeing how Indiana spends its share of Obama’s stimulus money. The 2006 report, now a distant memory, stated in bold font that “outcomes and results matter.” Unfortunately for Indiana taxpayers, the outcome certainly hasn’t been a smaller state government or lower state taxes.

Eggers and O’Leary rightly acknowledge that politics make government cost cutting efforts difficult. But at the end of the day, politics almost always trumps policy. Government is not a business, and attempts to make it operate like one are a fool’s errand.

More importantly, when Eggers and O’Leary talk about cutting government costs, they’re not really talking about net cuts. Taxpayers bear the cost of government. Therefore, a net cut in government costs would mean a reduced burden on taxpayers. Making government “more efficient” is all well and good, but if the “savings” just get plowed into other programs – as has been the case in Indiana – then taxpayers aren’t any better off.

What structural changes can be made to avoid the long-term fiscal problems that concern Eggers and O’Leary?

I’ve concluded that a strong statutory limit on state spending and/or revenues is the best option. That such limits, like Colorado’s TABOR, are effective is proven by the vociferous opposition they generate from interests that depend on state largess.

Another sign is that it’s rare for an authoritative state policymaker to pursue such a measure for the obvious reason that it would inhibit the  ability to spend other people’s money. Once again, my time in state government was instructive.

When I suggested to Gov. Daniels that he consider pushing a measure like Colorado’s TABOR, he replied that he “guess he didn’t see the need for that.” A Daniels lieutenant would later instruct me, at the governor’s behest, to create a taxpayer rebate mechanism (a component of TABOR). However, I was told that the mechanism couldn’t “cost” much because the governor didn’t want his second-term spending “priorities” to be jeopardized. I was also told it had to “look good” to voters for purposes of boosting Daniels’ reelection prospects.

The bottom line is that policymakers of all stripes say they want taxpayer money spent more efficiently and effectively. If I had a dime for every time I heard a politician promise to root out “waste, fraud, and abuse” I’d be snorkeling in the Caribbean instead of writing this blog post. Therefore, if taxpayers want structural changes that will limit the burden of government, they’re going to have to demand that policymakers offer more than just platitudes.

Obamanomics and my Seven Steamy Nights with the Gals from Victoria’s Secret

The White House is claiming that the so-called stimulus created between 2.5 million and 3.6 million jobs even though total employment has dropped by more than 2.3 million since Obama took office. The Administration justifies this legerdemain by asserting that the economy actually would have lost about 5 million jobs without the new government spending.
 
I’ve decided to adopt this clever strategy to spice up my social life. Next time I see my buddies, I’m going to claim that I enjoyed a week of debauchery with the Victoria’s Secret models. And if any of them are rude enough to point out that I’m lying, I’ll simply explain that I started with an assumption of spending -7 nights with the supermodels. And since I actually spent zero nights with them, that means a net of +7. Some of you may be wondering whether it makes sense to begin with an assumption of “-7 nights,” but I figure that’s okay since Keynesians begin with the assumption that you can increase your prosperity by transferring money from your left pocket to your right pocket.
 
Since I’m a gentleman, I’m not going to share any of the intimate details of my escapades, but I will include an excerpt from an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal about the Obama Administration’s make-believe jobs.

President Obama’s chief economist announced that the plan had “created or saved” between 2.5 million and 3.6 million jobs and raised GDP by 2.7% to 3.2% through June 30. …We almost feel sorry for Ms. Romer having to make this argument given that since February 2009 the U.S. economy has lost a net 2.35 million jobs. Using the White House “created or saved” measure means that even if there were only three million Americans left with jobs today, the White House could claim that every one was saved by the stimulus. …White House economists…said the unemployment rate would peak at 9% without the stimulus (there’s your counterfactual) and that with the stimulus the rate would stay at 8% or below. In other words, today there are 700,000 fewer jobs than Ms. Romer predicted we would have if we had done nothing at all. If this is a job creation success, what does failure look like? …All of these White House jobs estimates are based on the increasingly discredited Keynesian spending “multiplier,” which according to White House economist Larry Summers means that every $1 of government spending will yield roughly $1.50 in higher GDP. Ms. Romer thus plugs her spending data into the Keynesian computer models and, presto, out come 2.5 million to 3.6 million jobs, even if the real economy has lost jobs. To adapt Groucho Marx: Who are you going to believe, the White House computer models, or your own eyes?