Tag: deficit

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.

Margaret Thatcher and the Battle of the 364 Keynesians

With the death of Margaret Thatcher, and the ensuing profusion of commentary on her legacy, it is worth looking back at an overlooked chapter in the Thatcher story. I am referring to her 1981 showdown with the Keynesian establishment—a showdown that the Iron Lady won handily. Before getting caught up with the phony “austerity vs. fiscal stimulus” debate, the chattering classes should take note of how Mrs. Thatcher debunked the Keynesian “fiscal factoid.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a factoid is “an item of unreliable information that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.” The standard Keynesian fiscal policy prescription for the maintenance of non-inflationary full employment is a fiscal factoid. The chattering classes can repeat this factoid on cue: to stimulate the economy, expand the government’s deficit (or shrink its surplus); and to rein in an overheated economy, shrink the government’s deficit (or expand its surplus).

Even the economic oracles embrace the fiscal factoid. That, of course, is one reason that the Keynesians’ fiscal mantra has become a factoid. No less than Nobelist Paul Krugman repeats it ad nauseam. Now, the new secretary of the treasury, Jack Lew (who claims no economic expertise), is in Europe peddling the fiscal factoid.

Unfortunately, the grim reaper finally caught up with Margaret Thatcher—but not before she laid waste to 364 wrong-headed British Keynesians.

In 1981, Prime Minister Thatcher made a dash for confidence and growth via a fiscal squeeze. To restart the economy, Mrs. Thatcher instituted a fierce attack on the British fiscal deficit, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy. Her moves were immediately condemned by 364 distinguished economists. In a letter to The Times, they wrote a knee-jerk Keynesian response: “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”

Mrs. Thatcher was quickly vindicated. No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures to that letter than the economy boomed. Confidence in the British economy was restored, and Mrs. Thatcher was able to introduce a long series of deep, free-market reforms.

As for the 364 economists (who included seventy-six present or past professors, a majority of the Chief Economic Advisors to the Government in the post-WWII period, and the president, as well as nine present or past vice-presidents, and the secretary general of the Royal Economic Society), they were not only wrong, but also came to look ridiculous.

In the United States, the peddlers of the fiscal factoid have never suffered the intellectual humiliation of their British counterparts. In consequence, American Keynesians can continue to peddle snake oil with reckless abandon and continue to influence policy in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

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

Sequestration Is a Small Victory for Budget Hawks

The budget battles in Washington, D.C., are far from over. President Obama’s attempt to break the stalemate by reaching across the aisle and dining with GOP members two days in a row seems more about show than substance. 

The apparent lack of urgency to undo the cuts underscores what we knew all along: the world did not end under sequestration. Most of the cuts will be phased in over the next few months. The defense cuts amount to just 6.5 percent of total spending on national security (Pentagon base budget plus war costs). This is a pittance, and spending will still dwarf what we spent before 9/11. Those who claim that the cuts will undermine American security should explain how we managed to win the Cold War while spending much less, on average. (To learn more about proposals that would maintain a highly capable, but less costly, military, attend our event on March 14th.) 

There is still the possibility that most of this year’s cuts, or the caps on planned spending over the next decade, may not materialize. Congress could reverse the cuts in the future as part of a grand bargain. Or they could simply punt without one. Meanwhile, legislation is moving along that would allow the Pentagon and other agencies to implement the cuts with greater discretion across department programs. This is a good thing, potentially. Smarter cuts are desirable, but we should be on the lookout to ensure that Congress doesn’t simply legislate away any cuts, dumb or otherwise. 

Nonetheless, the fact that military spending actually declined is a small victory. But how will future battles play out? Are the neocons and their supporters in retreat? In a piece running today at Foreign Policy, I offer a cautionary note. Just because the fiscal hawks won this time doesn’t mean that they’ll win the next one, or the one after that: 

The defense contractors and special interests still have enormous firepower in Washington, and they’ve turned their attention to the “continuing resolution” that will fund the government for the remainder of the year. Meanwhile, the neoconservatives are single-minded and relentless. Their tenacity paid off in their bid to launch a war in Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein, but failed to stop Chuck Hagel’s nomination and eventual confirmation as secretary of defense.

The budget fight matters even more. A $470 billion military is more than sufficient to fight the wars the United States truly needs to fight, but not the wars that the neocons want to fight. The next phase in the fight over the Pentagon’s budget should focus less on how much the United States spends on defense, but rather why it spends so much. If we are going to give our military less than it expected to have three or four years ago, we need to think about asking it to do less.

Read the full article here.

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.