Tag: debt

Why Are Geithner and Bernanke Trying to Panic Financial Markets with Debt Limit Demagoguery?

By taking advantage of  “must-pass” pieces of legislation, Republicans have three chances this year to restrain the burden of government.  They didn’t do very well with the “CR fight” over appropriated spending for the rest of FY2011, which was their first opportunity. I was hoping for an extra-base hit off the fence, but the GOP was afraid of a government shutdown and negotiated from a position of weakness. As such, the best interpretation is that they eked out an infield single.

The next chance to impose fiscal discipline will be the debt limit. Currently, the federal government “only” has the authority to borrow $14.3 trillion (including bookkeeping entries such as the IOUs in the Social Security Trust Fund). This is a very big number, but America’s gross federal debt will hit that limit soon, perhaps May or June.

Republicans say they will not raise the debt limit unless such legislation is accompanied by meaningful fiscal reforms. The political strategists in the Obama White House understandably want to blunt any GOP effort, so they are claiming that any delay in passing a “clean debt limit” will have catastrophic consequences. Specifically, they are using Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke to create fear and uncertainty in financial markets.

Just a few days ago, for instance, the Treasury Secretary was fanning the flames of a financial meltdown, as noted by Bloomberg:

“Default would cause a financial crisis potentially more severe than the crisis from which we are only now starting to recover,” Geithner said. “For these reasons, default by the United States is unthinkable.”

The Fed Chairman also tried to pour gasoline on the fire. Here’s a passage from an article in the New York Times earlier this year:

Mr. Bernanke said the debt ceiling should not be used as a negotiating tactic, warning that even the possibility of the United States not being able to pay its creditors could create panic in the debt markets.

There are two problems with these statements from Geithner and Bernanke. First, it is a bit troubling that the Treasury Secretary and Fed Chairman are major players in a political battle. The Treasury Secretary, like the Attorney General, traditionally is supposed to be one of the more serious and non-political people in a  President’s cabinet. And the Fed Chairman is supposed to be completely independent, yet Bernanke is becoming a mouthpiece for Obama’s fiscal policy.

But let’s set aside this first concern and focus on the second problem, which is whether Geithner and Bernanke are being honest. Simply stated, does a failure to raise the debt limit mean default? According to a wide range of expert opinion, the answer is no.

Donald Marron, head of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and former Director of the Congressional Budget Office, explained what actually would happen in an article for CNN Money.

Our monthly bills average about $300 billion, while revenues are about $180 billion. If we hit the debt limit, the federal government would be able to pay only 60 cents of every dollar it should be paying. But even that does not mean that we will default on the public debt. Geithner would then choose which creditors to pay promptly and which to defer. …Geithner would undoubtedly keep making payments on the public debt, rolling over the outstanding principal and paying interest. Interest payments are relatively small, averaging about $20 billion per month, and paying them on time is essential to America’s enviable position in world capital markets.

And here is the analysis of Stan Collender, one of Washington’s elder statesman on budget issues (and definitely not a small-government conservative).

There is so much misinformation and grossly misleading talk about what will happen if the federal debt ceiling isn’t increased that, before any more unnecessary bloodcurdling language is used that increases everyone’s anxiety, it’s worth taking a few steps back from the edge. …if a standoff on raising the debt ceiling lasts for a significant amount of time, the alternatives to borrowing eventually may not be enough to provide the government with the cash it needs to meet its obligations. Even at that point, however, a default wouldn’t be automatic because payments to existing bondholders could be made the priority while payments to others could be delayed for months.

The Economist magazine also is nonplussed by the demagoguery coming from Washington.

Tim Geithner, the treasury secretary, sent Congress a letter on January 6th describing in gory detail the “catastrophic economic consequences” such an event would entail. …Even with no increase in the ceiling, the Treasury can easily service its existing debt; it is free to roll over maturing issues, and tax revenue covers monthly interest payments by a large multiple. But in that case it would have to postpone paying something else: tax refunds, Medicare or Medicaid payments, civil-service salaries, or Social Security (pensions) cheques.

There are countless other experts I could cite, but you get the point. The United States does not default if the debt limit remains at $14.3 trillion. The only exception to that statement is that default is possible if the Treasury Secretary makes a deliberate (and highly political) decision to not pay bondholders. And while Geithner obviously is willing to play politics, even he would be unlikely to take this step since it is generally believed that the Treasury Secretary may be personally liable if there is a default.

The purpose of this post is not to argue that the debt limit should never be raised. That would require an instant 40 percent reduction in the size of government. And while that may be music to my ears (and some people are making that argument), I have zero faith that politicians would let that happen. Instead, my goal is to help fiscal conservatives understand that Geithner and Bernanke are being dishonest and that they should not be afraid to hold firm in their demands for real reform in exchange for a debt limit increase.

Last but not least, with all this talk about the debt limit, it’s worth reminding everyone that deficits and debt are merely symptoms of too much government spending. As this video explains, spending is the disease and debt is merely one of the symptoms.

By the way, the final chance this year to impose spending restraint will be around October 1, when the 2011 fiscal year expires and the 2012 fiscal year begins. But I won’t be holding my breath for anything worthwhile if Republicans screw up on the debt limit just like they failed to achieve much on the CR fight.

Obama Needs to Look at the Other Side of the Ledger

In his speech this afternoon, President Obama is expected to call for, among other things,  an increase in taxes on investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other “rich” people who make over $250,000 a year.  The goal, the President claims, is to reduce deficits.

America has a spending problem, not a revenue problem, as the Congressional Budget Office chart below shows. The federal budget has ballooned nearly $2 trillion in the past 10 years and that increased burden of spending is undermining growth. And if left on autopilot, the spending crisis will get worse in coming decades. Rather than trying to keep up with that growing burden of government – an impossible task –  by raising taxes, our leaders should be looking at ways to treat the underlying problem:  Our government is too big and it spends too much.   We cannot tax our way out of this problem, particularly since politicians will spend any additional revenue.

The federal tax burden will rise above the historical average of 18 percent of GDP with no help from President Obama.  Even without expiration of the Bush tax cuts or the alternative minimum tax, the tax burden is expected to climb because even modest economic growth slowly but surely pushes more and more people into higher tax brackets.

The chart below shows CBO’s estimate of personal income tax revenue based on current policy (as opposed to estimates based on current law, which includes already legislated tax hikes). To be more specific, it shows how much revenue the government will collect from the individual income tax even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent and the AMT is indexed.

The aggregate individual income tax burden will increase by roughly 5 percentage points of GDP when compared to the long-run average of about 8 percent of GDP (the CBO estimate only goes to 2035, so I extrapolated to show the same time period as the first chart). And remember, this is the forecast of what will happen to income tax revenues even if politicians don’t impose any new laws to coercively extract more revenue.

This might not be too bad if other taxes were falling, but that’s not what CBO is projecting. As such, this big increase in revenue from the individual income tax means that the overall tax burden will climb by approximately the same amount.

In other words, revenue likely will rise close to 25 percent of GDP as we approach the next century. So if we use this more realistic baseline, we can say that more than 100 percent of the long-run deficit problem is because spending is out of control.

The second reason for a firm no-tax increase position is that higher taxes are a very ineffective way of reducing budget deficits. Indeed, tax increases generally backfire and lead to more red ink. To understand why, it’s important to put away the calculator and instead consider the real world of politics and public policy. For instance:

Tax increases rarely raise as much revenue as predicted by government forecasters. This is because of “Laffer Curve” effects, as taxpayers change their behavior to earn less income and/or report less income. Simply stated, people respond to incentives, and this means taxable income falls as tax rates increase.

o  Tax increases erode pressure to control spending. Why would politicians want to make tough decisions and upset special interest groups, after all, when there is going to be more revenue (or at least the expectation of more revenue)? Using more colloquial language, trying to control spending with higher taxes is like trying to cure alcoholics by giving them keys to a liquor store.

o  Milton Friedman was right when he said that, “In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.” In other words, if politicians think they can get away with deficits averaging, say, 5 percent of GDP in the long run, then the the only impact of higher taxes is an equal amount of additional spending – while still retaining deficits of 5 percent of GDP.

The real-world evidence certainly points in this direction. We’ve seen “bipartisan budget summits” several times in Washington, and the result is more spending rather than lower deficits.

America’s fiscal challenge is too much spending. Government is too big and it is wasting too much money. Taking more money from the American people is not the way to solve that problem.

The Kiss-Your-Sister Budget Deal Is Finalized, but Claudia Schiffer Still Ain’t Your Sibling

There were reports about 10 days ago that the crowd in Washington reached a budget deal, for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, with $33 billion of cuts. That number was disappointingly low. I wrote at the time that if this was a kiss-your-sister deal, we didn’t have any siblings that looked like Claudia Schiffer.

I knew it was unrealistic to expect the full $61 billion, but I explained that $45 billion was a realistic target.

We now have a new agreement, which supposedly is final, and the amount of budget cuts has climbed to $38 billion. So our sister is getting prettier, but she still isn’t close to being a supermodel. Here are the highlights (or lowlights) from the New York Times story.

Congressional leaders and President Obama headed off a shutdown of the government with less than two hours to spare Friday night under a tentative budget deal that would cut $38 billion from federal spending this year. …the budget measure would not include provisions sought by Republicans to limit environmental regulations and to restrict financing for Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide abortions.

As with all deals (such as last December’s agreement extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts), there are good and bad provisions. The good news is:

Now let’s look at the less desirable parts of the agreement.

  • Total spending jumped by almost $2 trillion during the Bush-Obama spending binge, so a $38 billion cut is almost too small to mention.
  • Left-wing organizations such as Planned Parenthood will continue to feed at the public trough, something that should be objectionable to everyone, regardless of your views on abortion.
  • Obamacare is not repealed (not that I ever thought that was possible) and there is no restriction on the EPA’s unilateral assertion that is has regulatory power to implement radical Kyoto-style global warming policies.

I will have more comments this week about what happens next. Suffice to say that this was just one battle in a long war.

The 2012 budget resolution, for instance, will be a key test of fiscal responsibility, but in this case the debate will be about $trillions rather than $billions. The debt limit vote will an opportunity for some much-needed reform of the budget process. And it is quite likely that there will be another potential shutdown fight when it is time to put together appropriations bills for the 2012 fiscal year, which starts October 1.

New Budget Plan from Conservative House Members Would Do Best Job of Shrinking the Burden of Federal Spending

Just days after the introduction of a very good plan by the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, leaders from the Republican Study Committee in the House of Representatives have introduced an even better plan.

In a previous post, I compared spending levels from the Obama budget and the Ryan budget and showed that the burden of federal spending would rise much faster if the White House plan was adopted.

If the goal is to restrain government, the RSC blueprint is the best of all worlds. As the chart illustrates, government only grows by an average of 1.7 percent annually with that plan, compared to an average of 2.8 percent growth under Ryan’s good budget and 4.7 percent average growth with Obama’s head-in-the-sand proposal.

According to the numbers released by the Republican Study Committee, the burden of federal spending would fall to about 18 percent of GDP after 10 years if the RSC plan is implemented.

While that’s a great improvement compared to today, the federal government would still consume as much of the economy as it did when Bill Clinton left office.

Last but not least, for those who are focused on fiscal balance rather than the size of government, this is the only plan that produces a balanced budget. Indeed, red ink disappears in just eight years.

Why Are Self-Proclaimed Deficit Hawks Unenthusiastic about the Ryan Budget?

Washington is filled with groups that piously express their devotion to balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility, so it is rather revealing that some of these groups have less-than-friendly responses to Congressman Ryan’s budget plan.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, for instance, portrays itself as a bunch of deficit hawks. So you would think they would be doing cartwheels to celebrate a lawmaker who makes a real proposal that would control red ink. Yet Maya MacGuineas, president of the CRFB, basically rejects Ryan’s plan because it fails to increase the tax burden.

…while the proposal deserves praise for being bold, the national discussion has moved beyond just finding a plan with sufficient savings to finding one that can generate enough support to move forward. All parts of the budget, including defense and revenues, will have to be part of a budget deal… Now that both the White House and House Republicans have made their opening bids, this continues to reinforce our belief that a comprehensive plan to fix the budget like the one the Fiscal Commission recommended has the best hope of moving forward.

I’m mystified by Maya’s reference to an “opening bid” by the White House. What on earth is she talking about? Obama punted in his budget and didn’t even endorse the findings of his own Fiscal Commission. But I digress.

Another example of a group called Third Way, which purports to favor “moderate policy and political ideas” and “private-sector economic growth.” Sounds like they should be cheerleaders for Congressman Ryan’s plan, but they are even more overtly hostile to his proposal to reduce the burden of government.

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget is a deep disappointment. There is a serious framework on the table for a bipartisan deal on our long term budget crisis. It’s the Bowles-Simpson blueprint, now being turned into legislation by the Gang of Six. It puts everything on the table – a specific plan to save Social Security, significant defense cuts, large reductions in tax expenditures and reforms to make Medicare and Medicaid more efficient, not eliminate them.

That sounds hard left, not third way. But it’s not unusual. Many of the self-proclaimed deficit hawks on Capitol Hill also have been either silent or critical of Ryan’s plan.

Which leaves me to conclude that what they really want are tax increases, and they simply use rhetoric about debt and deficits to push their real agenda.

Congressman Ryan’s Budget Is a Big Step in the Right Direction

The chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, will unveil his FY2012 budget tomorrow. Not all the details are public yet, but what we do know is very encouraging.

Ryan’s plan is a broad reform package, including limits on so-called discretionary spending, limits on excessive pay for federal bureaucrats, and steep reductions in corporate welfare.

But the two most exciting parts are entitlement reform and tax reform. Ryan’s proposals would simultaneously address the long-run threat of bloated government and put in place tax policies that will boost growth and improve competitiveness.

  1. The long-run fiscal threat to America is entitlement spending. Ryan’s plan will address this crisis by block-granting Medicaid to the states (repeating the success of the welfare reform legislation of the 1990s) and transforming Medicare for future retirees into a “premium-support” plan (similar to what was proposed as part of the bipartisan Domenici-Rivlin Debt Reduction Task Force).
  2. America’s tax system is a complicated disgrace that manages to both undermine growth and promote corruption. The answer is a simple and fair flat tax, and Ryan’s plan will take an important step in that direction with lower tax rates, less double taxation of saving and investment, and fewer distorting loopholes.

One potential criticism is that the plan reportedly will not balance the budget within 10 years, at least based on the antiquated and inaccurate scoring systems used by the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation. While I would prefer more spending reductions, I’m not overly fixated on getting to balance with 10 years.

What matters most is “bending the cost curve” of government. Obama’s budget leaves government on auto-pilot and leaves America on a path to becoming a decrepit European-style welfare state. Ryan’s budget, by contrast, would shrink the burden of federal spending relative to the productive sector of the economy.

Along with other Cato colleagues, I’ll have more analysis of the plan when it is officially released.

Senator Corker’s CAP Act: A Better Version of Gramm-Rudman to Reduce the Burden of Government

This Thursday, April 7, Senator Corker of Tennessee will be the opening speaker at the Cato Institute’s conference on “The Economic Impact of Government Spending” (an event that is free and open to the public, so register here if you want to attend).

The Senator will be discussing his proposal to cap and then gradually reduce the burden of government spending, measured as a share of gross domestic product. With federal outlays currently consuming about 25 percent of economic output, excessive federal spending is America’s main fiscal problem.

Corker’s proposal would put federal spending on a 10-year glide path so that it eventually shrinks to 20.6 percent of GDP. This chart, from the Senator’s upcoming presentation, shows that government will grow at a much slower pace as a result of this restraint. Indeed, total savings over the 10-year period, measured against a baseline that assumes the federal government is left on auto-pilot, would exceed $5 trillion.

There are two things to admire about Senator Corker’s CAP plan.

First, he correctly understands that the problem is the size of government. As explained in this video, spending is the problem and deficits are a symptom of that problem.

Unfortunately, many policy makers focus on the budget deficit, which often makes them susceptible to misguided policies such as higher taxes. At best, such an approach merely substitutes one bad way of financing federal spending with another bad way of financing federal spending. And it’s much more likely that higher taxes will simply lead to more spending, thus exacerbating the real problem.

Second, Corker’s legislation has a real enforcement mechanism. If Congress fails to produce a budget that meets the annual spending cap, there is a “sequester” provision that automatically takes a slice out of almost every federal program.

Modeled after a similar provision in the successful Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law of the 1980s, this sequester puts real teeth in the CAP Act and ensures that the burden of government spending actually would be reduced.