Tag: cbo

As If Gov’t Spending Had Nothing to Do with It

This is how a front-page story in this morning’s Washington Post portrayed the cause of this year’s $1.5 trillion deficit:

Record U.S. Deficit Projected This Year
CBO forecasts tax cuts will push budget gap to $1.5 trillion

The still-fragile economy and fresh tax cuts approved by Congress last month will drive the federal deficit to nearly $1.5 trillion this year, the biggest budget gap in U.S. history, congressional budget analysts said Wednesday.

Federal spending and federal tax revenue play equally important roles in creating the federal budget deficit.  Yet the Post blames the deficit only on inadequate tax revenue.  Federal spending isn’t too high, the Post implies, tax revenue is too low.

This may not be an example of media bias.  But it is an example of why supporters of limited government believe that major news organizations like the Washington Post are biased toward bigger government.  At a minimum, the Post has some explaining to do.

Nondefense Discretionary Spending Freezes

When it comes to reining in federal spending, House Republicans and the president have one idea in common: freezing nondefense discretionary spending. That category accounts for about 18 percent of total spending, so let’s see how such a freeze would affect the overall budget.

Today the Congressional Budget Office released updated budget figures and baseline projections of federal spending through fiscal 2021. Projecting the budgetary future is obviously an inexact science, and the CBO’s baseline reflects unrealistic assumptions. However, it does allow us to get an idea of the impact of a nondefense discretionary freeze on total federal spending.

Three proposals have been put forward:

  • In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed freezing nondefense discretionary spending for five years, beginning in fiscal 2012, at fiscal 2010 levels.
  • The conservative House Republican Study Committee and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) recently proposed freezing nondefense discretionary spending for ten years, beginning in fiscal 2012, at fiscal 2006 levels.
  • Ever since the release of its “Pledge to America,” the House Republican leadership has been talking about returning spending to fiscal 2008 levels. They apparently have non-security discretionary spending in mind, which is an even smaller category than nondefense discretionary. It’s not clear if they intend to freeze it at the new lower level.

Using the CBO’s latest figures, I calculated baseline spending from fiscal 2012-2021 under ten year freezes in nondefense discretionary spending at fiscal 2006, 2008, and 2010 levels:

Note:   To make an apples-to-apples comparison, I extended the proposed Obama freeze at fiscal 2010 levels from five years to ten years, and I assumed a ten year freeze at fiscal 2008 levels for the House Republicans. Also, projected annual interest payments on the debt are excluded. Therefore, the chart refers to “baseline program spending,” which is the sum of nondefense discretionary, defense, and entitlement spending.

The chart makes it excruciatingly clear that freezing nondefense discretionary spending at the levels specified or implied by Republicans and Democrats is only a start toward needed reforms in the federal budget. Congress also needs to cut defense spending, and spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs.

Republican Sellout Watch

Grousing about the GOP’s timidity in the battle against big government will probably become an ongoing theme over the next few months. Two items don’t bode well for fiscal discipline.

First, it appears that Republicans didn’t really mean it when they promised to cut $100 billion of so-called discretionary spending as part of their pledge. According to the New York Times,

As they prepare to take power on Wednesday, Republican leaders are scaling back that number by as much as half, aides say, because the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, will be nearly half over before spending cuts could become law.

This is hardly good news, particularly since the discretionary portion of the budget contains entire departments, such as Housing and Urban Development, that should be immediately abolished.

That being said, I don’t think this necessarily means the GOP has thrown in the towel. The real key is to reverse the Bush-Obama spending binge and put the government on some sort of diet so that the federal budget grows slower than the private economy. I explain in this video, for instance, that it is simple to balance the budget and maintain tax cuts so long as government spending grows by only 2 percent each year.

It is a good idea to get as much savings as possible for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, to be sure, but the real key is the long-run trajectory of federal spending.

The second item is the GOP’s apparent interest in retaining Douglas Elmendorf, the current director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Many of you will remember that the CBO cooked the books last year to help ram through Obamacare. Under Elmendorf’s watch, CBO also was a relentless advocate and defender of Obama’s failed stimulus. And CBO under Elmendorf published reports saying higher taxes would improve economic performance.

But Elmendorf’s statist positions apparently are not a problem for some senior Republicans, as reported by The Hill.

The new House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), gave a very public endorsement of the embattled head of the Congressional Budget Office during his first major speech as committee head Wednesday night. …“You’re doing a great job at CBO, Doug,” Ryan said after receiving the first annual Fiscy Award for his efforts at tackling the national debt. He added that he looked forward to crunching budget numbers with him in the future.

In the long run, the failure to deal with the problems at CBO (as well as the Joint Committee on Taxation) may cause even more problems than the timidity about cutting $100 billion of waste from the 2011 budget. Given the rules on Capitol Hill, it makes a huge difference whether CBO and JCT are putting out flawed numbers.

I’ve already written that fixing the mess at CBO and JCT is a critical test of GOP resolve, and I actually thought this would be a relatively easy test for them to pass. It is an ominous sign that Republicans aren’t even trying to clean house.

PAYGO, the CBO, and Repealing ObamaCare

One could argue that exempting ObamaCare from the PAYGO requirement is appropriate given the defects in current budget rules.

By law, the CBO must follow certain rules when doing cost estimates of legislation and projecting federal spending under current law. Under those rules, CBO projects ObamaCare will reduce the deficit. No question.

But Congress often defeats those budget rules by passing legislation with “pay fors” (i.e., spending cuts) that make the budget look better, yet are highly unlikely to be sustained because they are politically implausible. A good example of this is the “sustainable growth rate” formula, where Congress promises to ratchet down the government price controls that Medicare uses to pay physicians in future years. Congress has consistently reneged when those cuts come due. The pretense of future cuts that Congress writes into law makes 10-year budget projections/deficits look better than actual, unwritten policy would suggest.

This is a recognized problem. When the CBO believes that the law and actual policy are at variance, they actually do two types of cost projections: one based on the law as written and one based on the policy they think Congress is likely to adopt, based on past performance. They call the latter their “alternate fiscal scenario.”

ObamaCare opponents submit that this law is one of those instances where law and policy are at variance. So even though ObamaCare will reduce the deficit under existing budget rules, the spending cuts (actually, reductions in future spending growth) in the law were never going to take effect anyway. The CBO, CMS, and even the IMF have all discredited the idea that ObamaCare would reduce the deficit, because they all question the sustainability of ObamaCare’s spending “cuts.” Exempting ObamaCare repeal from PAYGO rules is appropriate if those rules have failed to protect taxpayers.

CBO on Fannie, Freddie and Mortgage Finance Options

Just in time for the holidays, the Congressional Budget Office has released its analysis of the costs and benefits of various alternatives to our current system of mortgage finance, particularly the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The report examines three possibilities:

  1. A hybrid public/private model in which the government provides explicit guarantees on privately issued mortgages or MBSs;
  2. A fully public model in which a wholly federal entity would guarantee qualifying mortgages or MBSs; or
  3. A fully private model in which there would be no special federal backing for the secondary mortgage market.

The report doesn’t really push one option over another, but simply lays out the advantages and disadvantages of each.  Some highlights worth keeping in mind as the debate continues into the new year:

“Relying on explicit government guarantees…would also have some disadvantages…If competition remained muted, with only a few…firms participating in the secondary market, limiting risk to the overall financial system and avoiding regulatory capture could be difficult…federal guarantees would reduce creditors’ incentive to monitor risk. Experience with other federal insurance and credit programs suggests that the government would have trouble setting risk-sensitive prices and would most likely end up imposing some cost and risk on taxpayers. In addition, a hybrid approach might not eliminate the frictions that arise between private and public missions.”

“Privatization might provide the strongest incentive for prudent behavior on the part of financial intermediaries by removing the moral hazard that federal guarantees create.  By increasing competition in the secondary market, the privatization approach would reduce the market’s reliance on the viability of any one firm. Private markets may also be best positioned to allocate the credit risk and interest rate risk of mortgages efficiently, and they would probably be more innovative than a secondary market dominated by a fully federal agency. Further, privatization would eliminate the tension between public and private purposes inherent in the traditional GSE model.”

It is worth remembering that over the years, the CBO has actually been quite strong in warning against the dangers of the GSE model.  Sadly Congress simply chose to ignore those warnings.  Here’s hoping that the CBO has little more influence on this issue than they’ve had in the past.

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Tax Subsidy, Either

I hit a nerve with my post, “There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Tax Expenditure.”  To recap: The federal tax code has credits, deductions, exemptions, and exclusions that reduce tax revenue.  By convention, budget experts call that forgone revenue a “tax expenditure,” a “tax subsidy,” or even “backdoor spending in the tax code.”  This is incorrect.  To claim that forgone tax revenue is a government expenditure implies that the money at stake actually belongs to the government, which is graciously letting taxpayers keep it, rather than to the people who earned it.  Government is not spending that money; it is merely not extracting that money from the private sector.  Statists deliberately use terms like “tax expenditure” precisely because that erroneous impression obscures their efforts to raise your taxes.

Less than an hour after posting, Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress Action Fund called me “daringly inaccurate.”  (Why be timid?)  The Manhattan Institute’s Josh Barro devoted a very thoughtful 1,155 words to the topic at NRO.

Yglesias explains in an email:

I understand why you might want to object to the “tax expenditure” phrasing, but surely we can agree that there’s such a thing as a “tax subsidy,” right? If the government declares that fuel-efficient hybrid cars are now tax-deductible, that’s a subsidy to the makers and purchasers of Priuses.

I’m afraid I cannot agree to that.

  • The term “tax expenditure” is nonsense because not taking Peter’s money, conditional on Peter buying a Prius, is not the same as spending the same amount of money on a Prius.  The outcome may be exactly the same.  But no one can spend money that he doesn’t possess.
  • The term “tax subsidy” is likewise nonsense because a subsidy involves giving something to someone else.  Not taking Peter’s money, conditional on Peter buying a Prius, is not a subsidy to Peter.  The government is not giving Peter anything.  Nor is it a subsidy to Paul, even though he profits from Prius sales: the government is not giving anything to Paul, either.  Again, the outcome may be exactly the same as a government subsidy.  Notably, Paul’s income rises.   Yet it does not rise because Paul received a subsidy.  Paul’s income rises because the state used coercion in a different way: to alter, for Peter, the cost of a Prius relative to other uses of Peter’s income.
  • To see the absurdity, consider what it would mean to eliminate a “tax subsidy.”  All else equal, eliminating an actual government subsidy reduces the tax burden.  Eliminating a “tax subsidy” increases someone’s tax burden.  Which is the whole point, isn’t it?

Barro makes more of our disagreement than actually exists.

  • We agree targeted tax preferences are harmful.  (I argue, for example, that the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance operates more like a tax hike than a tax break because, among other atrocities, it denies the typical parent control over $10,000 of her earnings.)
  • We agree they expand government power.
  • We agree government should account for them.  (Along those lines, the Congressional Budget Office has developed a concept it calls the “federal budgetary commitment to health care,” which is the sum of all federal health spending and all tax revenue forgone due to health-related tax loopholes.  The CBO calls them “tax expenditures” –  grrrr.  I dislike “budgetary commitment” for the same reason: the government can’t commit resources it doesn’t possess. But the CBO is on to something. We need an aggregate measure of “federal budgetary interference in the economy.”)
  • Finally, Barro and I probably agree that Congress should simultaneously eliminate all such loopholes and reduce marginal payroll- and income-tax rates – perhaps to zero.

I reject the term “tax expenditure” – as distinct from the concept – because it is nonsensical and biases the debate toward more government control of the economy and our lives.   Barro asks what term I’d prefer. Until someone comes up with something pithier than “tax revenue forgone due to targeted tax preferences,” I’ll stick with that.

Our Tax Dollars Are Funding Bureaucrats Who Advise Congress that Higher Taxes Increase Prosperity

I’ve already written about the terrible work of the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO did an awful job on the stimulus, for instance, repeatedly asserting that diverting money from the private sector to government somehow would create jobs. CBO also was a disaster on Obamacare, claiming that a giant new entitlement program would reduce budget deficits. And the legislative bureaucracy even has argued that higher tax rates boost growth.

That sounds absurd (and it is), but CBO is not the only taxpayer-funded bureaucracy on Capitol Hill producing this kind of nonsensical analysis. The Congressional Research Service just published a new report asserting that higher tax rates will boost economic performance. Here’s an excerpt from that CRS publication.

…it is ambiguous whether tax cuts lead to more or less work, saving, and investment. The expiration of the tax cuts would nevertheless reduce the budget deficit, absent other policy changes, which economic theory predicts would have a positive effect on the economy in the long run.

To be fair, CRS doesn’t actually claim higher taxes are good for growth. And neither does CBO. But CRS and CBO both assert that there is no clear evidence that higher taxes hurt growth. Budget deficits, however, supposedly have a very negative impact on economic performance according to these Capitol Hill bureaucrats. More specifically, CRS and CBO believe that government borrowing leads to higher interest rates, and they think that higher interest rates reduce investment. And since investment is a key to long-run growth, this leads them to endorse any policy – including higher taxes – that reduces red ink.

Taking the CRS and CBO analysis to its logical extreme (and neither bureaucracy has stated that there are limits to their methodology), tax rates of 100 percent would be the most effective way of maximizing prosperity.

This video explains that the real problem is spending, and that deficits are just a symptom of a government that is too big. This is not to say that CRS and CBO are completely wrong. We have record budget deficits and very low interest rates today, but it’s possible that interest rates might be even lower without all the red ink. And it’s certainly true that interest rates are one of the many factors that determine investment choices, so there’s nothing wrong with including them in the equation.

But magnitudes matter. For all intents and purposes, CRS and CBO want us to believe that more government borrowing will have a very significant impact on interest rates and that those higher interest rates will have a very negative impact on investment. Yet neither bureaucracy offers any evidence for these linkages, in large part because the academic research shows that the relationships between deficits, interest rates, and investment are weak.

By contrast, CRS and CBO have no problem supporting higher tax rates – including more double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Yet there is considerable evidence that punitive tax rates have a significant impact not only on decisions to earn income and be productive, but also on decisions whether to consume today or to save and invest (and thus consume in the future). CRS and CBO also assume, rather naively, that politicians would use any additional revenue for deficit reduction instead of new spending.

Let’s call this the triumph of left-wing theory over real-world evidence. To add insult to injury, the sloppy analysis at CRS and CBO is financed by our tax dollars. So we pay bureaucrats so they can tell politicians to seize more money from us. Gee, what’s not to love about a scam like that?

P.S. If Republicans are actually serious about restraining government spending, CRS and CBO are target-rich environments. Just saying.