Tag: debt

Can You Spell L-A-F-F-E-R C-U-R-V-E?

I’m thinking of inventing a game, sort of a fiscal version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Only the way my game will work is that there will be a map of the world and the winner will be the blindfolded person who puts his pin closest to a nation such as Australia or Switzerland that has a relatively low risk of long-run fiscal collapse.

That won’t be an easy game to win since we have data from the BIS, OECD, and IMF showing that government is growing far too fast in the vast majority of nations.

We also know that many states and cities suffer from the same problems.

A handful of local governments already have hit the fiscal brick wall, with many of them (gee, what a surprise) from California.

The most spectacular mess, though, is about to happen in Michigan.

The Washington Post reports that Detroit is on the verge of fiscal collapse.

After decades of sad and spectacular decline, it has come to this for Detroit: The city is $19 billion in debt and on the edge of becoming the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. An emergency manager says the city can make good on only a sliver of what it owes—in many cases just pennies on the dollar.

This is a dog-bites-man story. Detroit’s problems are the completely predictable result of excessive government. Just as statism explains the problems of Greece. And the problems of California. And the problems of Cyprus. And the problems of Illinois.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Which Nation Is in the Deepest Fiscal Doo-Doo of All?

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the United States has a terrible long-run fiscal outlook. Assuming we don’t implement genuine entitlement reform, the only countries in worse shape are the United Kingdom and Japan.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, meanwhile, also has a grim fiscal outlook for America. According to their numbers, the only nations in worse shape are New Zealand and Japan.

But I’ve never been happy with these BIS and OECD numbers because they focus on deficits, debt, and fiscal balance. Those are important indicators, of course, but they’re best viewed as symptoms.

The underlying problem is that the burden of government spending is too high. And what the BIS and OECD numbers are really showing is that the public sector is going to get even bigger in coming decades, largely because of aging populations. Unfortunately, you have to read between the lines to understand what’s really happening.

But now I’ve stumbled across some IMF data that presents the long-run fiscal outlook in a more logical fashion. As you can see from this graph (taken from this publication), they show the expected rise in age-related spending on the vertical axis and the amount of needed fiscal adjustment on the horizontal axis.

In other words, you don’t want your nation to be in the upper-right quadrant, but that’s exactly where you can find the United States.

IMF Future Spending-Adjustment Needs

Yes, Japan needs more fiscal adjustment. Yes, the burden of government spending will expand by a larger amount in Belgium. But America combines the worst of both worlds in a depressingly impressive fashion.

So thanks to FDR, LBJ, Nixon, Bush, Obama and others for helping to create and expand the welfare state. They’ve managed to put the United States in a worse long-run position than Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and other failing welfare states.

And the King of the Fiscal Squeeze Is…Bill Clinton?

When Congressman Paul Ryan takes the stage at CPAC Friday morning, he will, of course, tout his new budget as a solution to America’s spending problem. The 2014 Ryan plan does aim to balance the budget in 10 years. That said, it would leave government spending, as a percent of GDP, at a hefty 19% – as my colleague, Daniel J. Mitchell, points out in his recent blog.  

Proposals like the Ryan budget are all well and good, but they are ultimately just that – proposals. If Congressman Ryan really wants to get serious about cutting spending, he should look to the one U.S. President who has squeezed the federal budget, and squeezed hard.

So, who can Congressman Ryan look to for inspiration on how to actually cut spending? None other than President Bill Clinton.

How can this be? To even say such a thing verges on CPAC blasphemy. Well, as usual, the data don’t lie. Let’s see how Clinton stacks up against Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. As the accompanying chart shows, Clinton was the king of the fiscal squeeze.

Yes, Bill Clinton cut government’s share of GDP by a whopping 3.9 percentage points over his eight years in office. But, what about President Ronald Reagan? Surely the great champion of small government took a bite out of spending during his two terms, right? Well, yes, he did. But let’s put Reagan and Clinton head to head – a little fiscal discipline show-down, if you will (see the accompanying chart).

And the winner is….Bill Clinton. While Reagan did lop off four-tenths of a percentage point of government spending, as a percent of GDP, it simply does not match up to the Clinton fiscal squeeze. When President Clinton took office in 1993, government expenditures accounted for 22.1% of GDP. At the end of his second term, President Clinton’s big squeeze left the size of government, as a percent of GDP, at 18.2%. Since 1952, no other president has even come close.

Some might argue that Clinton was the beneficiary of the so-called “peace dividend,” whereby the post-Cold-War military drawdown led to a reduction in defense expenditures. The problem with this explanation is that the majority of Clinton’s cuts came from non-defense expenditures (see the accompanying table).

Admittedly, Clinton did benefit from the peace dividend, but the defense drawdown simply doesn’t match up to the cuts in non-defense expenditures that we saw under Clinton. Of course, it should be noted that the driving force behind many of these non-defense cuts came from the other side of the aisle, under the leadership of Speaker Gingrich.

The jury is still out on whether Ryan (or Boehner) will prove to be a Gingrich – or Obama, a Clinton. But, at the end of the day, the presidential scoreboard is clear – Clinton is the king of the fiscal squeeze.

So, when Congressman Ryan rallies the troops at CPAC with a call for cutting government spending, perhaps the crowd ought to accompany a standing ovation for the Congressman with a chant of “Bring Back Bill!”

You can follow Prof. Hanke on Twitter at: @Steve_Hanke

Herbert Hoover Was No Penny Pincher

In a story regarding federal budget cuts, the Washington Post reports: 

‘One of the last presidents to balance the budget was Herbert Hoover,’ [Rep. Peter] King added darkly, referring to the penny-pinching Republican blamed for deepening the Great Depression.

What a loaded and inaccurate statement! 

I just finished the fine new biography Coolidge by Amity Shlaes. Hoover plays a major part in the book as a long-time cabinet member of President Coolidge and his successor in the White House. Coolidge was about as frugal a president as we’ve had, and he dreaded that he would be followed by big-spender Hoover, who he knew would probably unravel his years of hard work at budget restraint. 

Coolidge fought against many new spending plans pushed in Congress, including flood control projects, farm subsidies, and higher veteran’s benefits. But Hoover worked behind the scenes during the Coolidge years to boost flood control spending. And when he became president, Hoover sadly gave into the farm lobbies and launched the first major subsidy schemes. 

In 1929 Hoover signed the Agricultural Marketing Act, which created the Federal Farm Board to subsidize agricultural cooperatives. I’ve noted that the scheme turned into a $500 million boondoggle, harming consumers and disrupting markets. 

As president, Coolidge worked long and hard to cut the federal budget to $3 billion and hold it at about that level from 1923 to 1929. But when he was president, Hoover jacked up the budget from $3.1 billion in 1929 to $4.7 billion in 1932. 

Shlaes concludes that Hoover “spent like a Democrat. But that spending hadn’t been enough to ensure even Hoover’s own reelection.” And contrary to the implication of the Washington Post, neither did Hoover’s big spending alleviate the Great Depression.

The Sequester May Not Be ‘Fair,’ but It’s Real and It Would Slow the Growth of Government

Much to the horror of various interest groups, it appears that there will be a “sequester” on March 1.

This means an automatic reduction in spending authority for selected programs (interest payments are exempt, as are most entitlement outlays).

Just about everybody in Washington is frantic about the sequester, which supposedly will mean “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts.

http://danieljmitchell.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/sequestration-is-a-small-step-in-right-direction-not-something-to-be-feared/If only. That would be like porn for libertarians.

In reality, the sequester merely means a reduction in the growth of federal spending. Even if we have the sequester, the burden of government spending will still be about $2 trillion higher in 10 years.

The other common argument against the sequester is that it represents an unthinking “meat-ax” approach to the federal budget.

But a former congressional staffer and White House appointee says this is much better than doing nothing.

Here’s some of what Professor Jeff Bergner wrote for today’s Wall Street Journal:

You know the cliché: America’s fiscal condition might be grim, but lawmakers should avoid the “meat ax” of across-the-board spending cuts and instead use the “scalpel” of targeted reductions. …Targeted reductions would be welcome, but the current federal budget didn’t drop from the sky. Every program in the budget—from defense to food stamps, agriculture, Medicare and beyond—is in place for a reason: It has advocates in Congress and a constituency in the country. These advocates won’t sit idly by while their programs are targeted, whether by a scalpel or any other instrument. That is why targeted spending cuts have historically been both rare and small.

Bergner explains that small across-the-board cuts are very reasonable:

The most likely way to achieve significant reductions in spending is by across-the-board cuts. Each reduction of 1% in the $3.6 trillion federal budget would yield roughly $36 billion the first year and would reduce the budget baseline in future years. Even with modest reductions, this is real money. …let’s give up the politically pointless effort to pick and choose among programs, accept the political reality of current allocations, and reduce everything proportionately. No one program would be very much disadvantaged. In many cases, a 1% or 3% reduction would scarcely be noticed. Are we really to believe that a government that spent $2.7 trillion five years ago couldn’t survive a 3% cut that would bring spending to “only” $3.5 trillion today? Every household, company and nonprofit organization across America can do this, as can state and local governments. So could Washington.

And he turns the fairness argument back on critics, explaining that it is a virtue to treat all programs similarly:

Across-the-board federal cuts would have to include all programs—no last-minute reprieves for alternative-energy programs, filmmakers or any other cause. All parties would know that they are being treated equally. Defense programs, food-stamp recipients, retired federal employees, the judiciary, Social-Security recipients, veterans and members of Congress—each would join to make a minor sacrifice. It would be a narrative of civic virtue.

It’s worth noting, however, that the sequester would not treat all programs equally. Defense spending is only about 20 percent of the budget, for instance, yet the Pentagon will absorb 50 percent of the savings (though defense spending still increases over the next 10 years).

http://danieljmitchell.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/will-republicans-choose-sequester-savings-or-a-supercommittee-surrenderAt the risk of oversimplifying, the sequester basically applies to so-called discretionary spending. So-called mandatory spending accounts for a majority of federal spending, but it is largely exempt, so entitlement reform will still be necessary if we want to address the nation’s long-run fiscal challenges.

‘Unthinkable, Draconian’ Spending Cuts

It’s my job to advocate for spending cuts. It’s a job I’ve been doing in one form or another for over a decade. If I’ve ever experienced a victory, it must have been a pretty small one, because I can’t recall any.

So why do I persist?

For one, I’m a naturally optimistic person. And fueling that optimism is the press. I’m constantly reading about the possibility of spending cuts, and those articles usually say that the cuts would be major … or massive … or severe … or even draconian! The possibility sends a thrill up my leg.

Alas, the “draconian” spending cuts invariably turn out to be not-so-draconian after all. In fact, it’s often the case that reporters are talking about smaller spending increases rather than real spending cuts. Other times, the cuts are likely to only be temporary or come after years and years of increases.

In today’s example, a National Journal article reports that the “unthinkable” could happen: the fiscal 2013 sequestration cuts–just reduced and postponed by the fiscal cliff deal–might actually go into effect March 1st as scheduled:

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate appear to be coming to the same conclusion on spending, namely that once unthinkable, draconian cuts designed to force a more reasonable compromise may be much harder to undo than anyone ever imagined.

How “draconian” would these “unthinkable” cuts be? About $85 billion. To put that in context, the federal government will spend around $3,500 billion ($3.5 trillion) this year. The deficit alone is likely to approach or exceed $1 trillion (the federal government has run a deficit in excess of $1 trillion for four straight years).

If that’s draconian, what would the press call cutting enough spending just to balance the budget?

As we’ve been trying to demonstrate at DownsizingGovernment.org, spending cuts would be good for the country. I encourage journalists who cover federal policy to check out the site to see what real spending cuts are all about. It might cause you to have to find new adjectives to use to describe what Republicans and Democrats are really doing, but your readers would be better served–especially the wild-eyed optimists like me.