Tag: debt

Helping to Explain Greece’s Collapse in a Single Picture

Politicians in Europe have spent decades creating a fiscal crisis by violating Mitchell’s Golden Rule and letting government grow faster than the private sector.

As a result, government is far too big today, and nations such as Greece are in the process of fiscal collapse.

But that’s the good news – at least relatively speaking. Over the next few decades, the problems will get much worse because of demographic change and unsustainable promises to spend other people’s money.

(By the way, America will suffer the same fate in the absence of reforms.)

Here’s one stark indicator of why Greece is in the toilet.

Look at the skyrocketing number of people riding in the wagon of government dependency (and look at these cartoons to understand why this is so debilitating).

 

By the way, Greece’s population only increased by a bit more than 16 percent during this period. Yet the number of bureaucrats jumped by far more than 100 percent.

And don’t forget that this chart just looks at the number of bureaucrats, not their excessive pay and bloated pensions.

With this in mind, do you agree with President Obama and want to squander American tax dollars on a bailout for Greece?

Senate Spares Rural Development Subsidies

An amendment to a Senate appropriations bill introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that would have reduced funding for rural development subsidies at the Department of Agriculture by $1 billion was easily voted down today. Only 13 Republicans voted to cut the program. Thirty-two Republicans joined all Democrats in voting to spare it, including minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), ranking budget committee member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and tea party favorite Marco Rubio (R-FL).

This was a business-as-usual vote that will receive virtually no media attention. However, it is a vote that symbolizes just how unserious most policymakers are when it comes to making specific spending cuts. That’s to be expected with the Democrats. On the other hand, Republicans generally talk a good game about the need to cut spending and they rarely miss an opportunity to criticize the Obama administration for its reckless profligacy. Republicans instead fall back on their support of a Balanced Budget Amendment and other reforms like biennial budgeting.

I think most Republicans are in favor of a BBA because they believe it gets them off the hook of having to name exactly what they’d cut. There are several reasons why Republican policymakers won’t get specific: 1) they really don’t want to cut spending; 2) they’re afraid of cheesing off special interests and constituents who benefit from government programs; 3) they’re more concerned with being in power and getting reelected; 4) they’re just plain ignorant of, or disinterested in, the particulars of government programs.

As for biennial budgeting, Republicans would have us believe that appropriating money every other year will give policymakers more time to conduct oversight of government programs. I think it’s another cop-out. Coburn’s office put out plenty of information on the problems associated with USDA rural development subsidies (see here). A Cato essay on rural development subsidies provides more information, including findings from the Government Accountability Office that are readily available to policymakers.

(Note: I worked for both Jeff Sessions and Tom Coburn.)

Spending Reform in Rick Perry’s Plan

Texas governor Rick Perry’s “Cut, Balance, and Grow” plan is out. Dan Mitchell discussed Perry’s proposed tax reforms so I’ll offer my take on the proposed spending reforms:

  • Perry says he wants to “preserve Social Security for all generations of Americans” but state and local government employees would be allowed to opt-out of the program. Perry says that younger Americans would be able to “contribute a portion of their earnings” to a personal retirement account. I’d like to be able to completely opt-op without having to work in government. I suspect that other younger Americans who recognize that Social Security is a lousy deal will feel the same.
  • Other proposed reforms to Social Security include raising the retirement age, changing the indexing formula, and ending the practice of using excess Social Security revenues to fund general government activities. Proposing to put an end to “raiding” the Social Security trust fund might be a good sound bite for the campaign trail, but excess Social Security revenues will soon be a thing of the past anyhow. Bizarrely, Perry cites the Highway Trust Fund as “the model for how to protect funds in a pay-as-you-go system from being used for unrelated purposes.” As a Cato essay on federal highway financing explains, only about 60 percent of highway trust fund money is actually spent on highways. The rest is spent on non-highway uses like transit and bicycle paths. The bottom line is that the federal budget’s so-called “trust funds” generally belong in the same category as Santa Claus and the Toothy Fairy. Perry should just stick with calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.”
  • As for Medicare, Perry says reform options would include raising the retirement age, adjusting benefits, and giving Medicare recipients more control over how they spend the money they receive from current taxpayers. No surprises there.
  • I’m a little confused by Perry’s language on Medicaid reform. On one hand, he says that the 1996 welfare reform law should be used as the model. The 1996 welfare reform law block granted a fixed amount of federal funds for each state. On the other hand, Perry says “Instead of the federal government confiscating money from states, taking a cut off the top, and then sending the money back out with limited flexibility for how states can actually use it, individual states should control the program’s funding and requirements from the very beginning.” I believe that the states, and not the federal government, should be responsible for funding low-income health care programs (if they choose to offer such programs). However, I don’t think that’s what Perry is actually proposing.
  • Perry calls for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution and a cap on total federal spending equal to 18 percent of GDP. Federal spending will be about 24 percent of GDP this year. What agencies and programs would Perry cut or eliminate to reduce federal spending by 6 percent of GDP? He doesn’t really say. That leaves me to conclude that he embraces a BBA for the same reason that most Republicans embrace it: he wants to avoid getting specific about what programs he’d cut. One could argue that his entitlement reforms are sufficiently specific, but compared to Ron Paul’s plan, which calls for the elimination of five federal departments, Perry’s plan leaves too much guesswork.
  • Other spending reform proposals don’t make up for the lack of specifics on spending cuts. For example, Perry proposes to eliminate earmarks. That’s already happened. He says he’d cut non-defense discretionary spending by $100 billion, but that’s a relatively small sum and letting military spending off the hook is disappointing. Proposing to “require emergency spending to be spent only on emergencies” sounds nice but would a President Perry stick to it if Congress larded up “emergency” legislation for a natural disaster in Texas or some military adventure abroad?

In sum, there’s some okay stuff here, but I don’t think it’s anything those who desire a truly limited federal government can get excited about. That said, Perry could have done a lot worse.

Tuesday Agriculture Links

Some interesting links on agriculture in the news today.

First, a terrific front-page article in the New York Times, about what my friend Vince Smith so accurately calls the “bait-and-switch” farmers are proposing in their offer to give up direct payments (subsidies that flow to farmers regardless of prices or production) in exchange for a new revenue insurance program.  As Vince so rightly points out, because the new revenue targets will be based on today’s current record crop prices, “If farm prices move back towards what are widely viewed as more normal levels than their current levels, farmers will be compensated for going back to business as usual.”  Vince blogs here about the proposed new revenue assurance program, and how it could end up costing us just as much as the current set of programs.

Farmers and their congressional sponsors are still blathering about “proportionality,” essentially saying that they should not have to contribute any more to budget cuts than any other area of the federal government. Here, for example, is a corn farmer, towing the party line:

“We are very much aware of the budgetary constraints of the federal government,” said Garry Niemeyer, an Illinois farmer who is president of the National Corn Growers Association. “We want to do our part as corn growers to help resolve those issues, but we only want to do our proportional part. We don’t want to have everything taken out on us.” [emphasis added]

This is wrong-headed. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: “proportionality” implies that everything the federal government currently does is equally valid. That is nonsense.  Some programs are legitimate, some less so. Some—like farm subsidies—not at all. Spending cuts should be made on the basis of legitimacy, not by some abstract formula equally applied. We should be reshaping (in a downward direction) the federal government here, not trimming a topiary hedge.

Second, Bloomberg.com has a good overview on the current state of the negotiations between the Congressional agriculture committees and the deficit-reduction supercommittee regarding the cuts to farm programs. The leaders of the agriculture panels have written a letter to the supercommittee, saying that cuts to agriculture programs should be limited to $23 billion and those cuts ”should absolve the programs in our jurisdiction from any further reduction.” So there.

Finally, here are Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.)  on the wasteful and expensive sugar program.

The Biggest Budget in History

The Wall Street Journal notes today that the federal government spent more money in the just-concluded 2011 fiscal year than in any year in history, and no one noticed. What happened to all that austerity and all those spending cuts that we heard about all year? Well, some of us warned over the past year that they were all smoke and mirrors.

Now that the year’s over, you can see in this chart from the Journal that the federal government spent more and borrowed more in 2011 than in any previous year—$900 billion more than just four years ago, and $150 billion more than last year:

Happy Fiscal New Year (with an Unhappy Obama Hangover)

Today, October 1, is the first day of the 2012 fiscal year.

And if you’re wondering why America’s economy seems to have a hangover (this cartoon is a perfect illustration), it’s because politicians had a huge party with our money in FY2011.

We don’t have final numbers for the fiscal year that just ended, but let’s look at the CBO Monthly Budget Report, the CBO Economic and Budget Update, and the OMB Historical Tables, and see whether there’s anything worth celebrating.

  • The federal government spent about $3.6 trillion in FY2011, more money than any government has ever spent in a 12-month period in the history of the world.
  • The FY2011 budget is nearly double the burden of federal spending just 10 years earlier, when federal outlays consumed “only” $1.86 trillion.
  • The federal budget in FY2011 consumed about 24 percent of national output, up sharply compared to a spending burden in FY2001 of “just” 18.2 percent of GDP.
  • Defense spending is too high, and has increased by about $400 billion since 2001, but the vast majority of the additional spending is for domestic spending programs.
  • Federal tax revenue in FY2011 will be about $2.25 trillion, an increase of 7-8 percent over FY2010 levels.
  • Economic stagnation has affected tax revenues, which are lower than the $2.6 trillion level from FY2007.
  • Federal receipts amount to about 15.3 percent of GDP, below the long-run average of 18 percent of GDP.
  • The Congressional Budget Office does predict that revenues will rise above the 18-percent average - without any tax increases - by the end of the decade.
  • Record levels of government spending, combined with low revenues caused by a weak economy, will result in a $1.3 trillion deficit.
  • This is the third consecutive deficit of more than $1 trillion.
  • The publicly-held national debt (the amount borrowed from the private sector) is now more than $10 trillion.

With budget numbers like these, no wonder America has a fiscal hangover.

And let’s be blunt about assigning blame. Yes, Obama has been a reckless big spender, but he is merely continuing the irresponsible statist policies of his predecessor.

Fortunately, there is a solution. All we need to do is restrain the growth of federal spending, as explained in this video.

But we also know that it is difficult to convince politicians to do what’s right for the nation. And if they don’t change the course of fiscal policy, and we leave the federal government on autopilot, then America is doomed to become another Greece.

The combination of poorly designed entitlement programs (mostly Medicare and Medicaid) and an aging population will lead to America’s fiscal collapse.

Tim Geithner: The Forrest Gump of World Finance

One almost feels sorry for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

He’s a punchline in his own country because he oversees the IRS even though he conveniently forgot to declare $80,000 of income (and managed to get away with punishment that wouldn’t even qualify as a slap on the wrist).

Now he’s becoming a a bit of a joke in Europe. Earlier this month, a wide range of European policy makers basically told the Treasury Secretary to take a long walk off a short pier when he tried to offer advice on Europe’s fiscal crisis.

And the latest development is that the German Finance Minister basically said Geithner was “stupid” for a new bailout scheme. Here’s an excerpt from the UK-based Daily Telegraph.

Germany and America were on a collision course on Tuesday night over the handling of Europe’s debt crisis after Berlin savaged plans to boost the EU rescue fund as a “stupid idea” and told the White House to sort out its own mess before giving gratuitous advice to others.German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble said it would be a folly to boost the EU’s bail-out machinery (EFSF) beyond its €440bn lending limit by deploying leverage to up to €2 trillion, perhaps by raising funds from the European Central Bank.”I don’t understand how anyone in the European Commission can have such a stupid idea. The result would be to endanger the AAA sovereign debt ratings of other member states. It makes no sense,” he said.

All that’s missing in the story is Geithner channeling his inner Forrest Gump and responding that “Stupid is as stupid does.”

…at birth?
Separated…

This little spat reminds me of the old saying that there is no honor among thieves. Geithner wants to do the wrong thing. The German government wants to do the wrong thing. And every other European government wants to do the wrong thing. They’re merely squabbling over the best way of picking German pockets to subsidize the collapsing welfare states of Southern Europe.

But that’s actually not accurate. German politicians don’t really want to give money to the Greeks and Portuguese.

The real story of the bailouts is that politicians from rich nations are trying to indirectly protect their banks, which - as shown in this chart - are in financial trouble because they foolishly thought lending money to reckless welfare states was a risk-free exercise.

Europe’s political class claims that bailouts are necessary to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, but this is nonsense - much as American politicians were lying (or bamboozled) when they supported TARP.

It is a relatively simple matter for a government to put a bank in receivership, hold all depositors harmless, and then sell off the assets. Or to subsidize the takeover of an insolvent institution. This is what America did during the savings & loan bailouts 20 years ago. Heck, it’s also what happened with IndyMac and WaMu during the recent financial crisis. And it’s what the Swedish government basically did in the early 1990s when that nation had a financial crisis.

But politicians don’t like this “FDIC-resolution” approach because it means wiping out shareholders, bondholders, and senior management of institutions that made bad economic choices. And that would mean reducing moral hazard rather than increasing it. And it would mean stiff-arming campaign contributors and protecting the interests of taxpayers.

Heaven forbid those things happen. After all, as Bastiat told us, “Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”