Tag: economics

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’s Tax Increase Trigger: Punishing Taxpayers with Automatic Tax Hikes When Politicians Overspend

Responding to widespread criticism of his AWOL status on the budget fight, President Obama today unveiled a fiscal plan. It already is being criticized for its class warfare approach to tax policy, but the most disturbing feature may be a provision that punishes the American people with higher taxes if politicians overspend.

Called a “debt failsafe trigger,” Obama’s scheme would automatically raise taxes if politicians spend too much. According to the talking points distributed by the White House, the automatic tax increase would take effect “if, by 2014, the projected ratio of debt-to-GDP is not stabilized and declining toward the end of the decade.”

Let’s ponder what this means. If politicians in Washington spend too much and cause more red ink, which happens on a routine basis, Obama wants a provision that automatically would raise taxes on the American people.

In other words, they play and we pay. The last thing we need is a perverse incentive for even more reckless spending from Washington.

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.

End the Fed: More than Just a Bumper Sticker Slogan?

To put it mildly, the Federal Reserve has a dismal track record. It bears significant responsibility for almost every major economic upheaval of the past 100 years, including the Great Depression, the 1970s stagflation, and the recent financial crisis. Perhaps the most damning statistic is that the dollar has lost 95 percent of its value since the central bank was created.

Notwithstanding its poor performance, the Federal Reserve seems to get more power over time. But rather than rewarding the central bank for debasing the currency and causing instability, perhaps it’s time to contemplate alternatives. This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity dives into that issue, exposing the Fed’s poor track record, explaining how central banking evolved, and mentioning possible alternatives.

This video is the first installment of a multi-part series on monetary policy. Subsequent videos will examine possible alternatives to monopoly central banks, including a gold standard, free banking, and monetary rules to limit the Fed’s discretion.

As they say, stay tuned.

A Happy Birthday to The Wealth of Nations

Today marks the 235th anniversary of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, otherwise known as The Wealth of Nations. I chatted with GMU economics professor Russ Roberts on the book and its enduring impact. This is the first of a two-part discussion:

And you might as well subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or your RSS reader.

Four Reasons Why Big Government Is Bad Government

A new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity gives four reasons why big government is bad fiscal policy.

I particularly like the explanation of how government spending undermines growth by diverting labor and capital from the productive sector of the economy.

Some cynics, though, say that it is futile to make arguments for good policy. They claim that politicians make bad fiscal decisions because of short-term considerations such as vote buying and raising campaign cash and that they don’t care about the consequences. There’s a lot of truth to this “public choice” analysis, but I don’t think it explains everything. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I think we would have better fiscal policy if more lawmakers, journalists, academics, and others grasped the common-sense arguments presented in this video.

And even if the cynics are right, we are more likely to have good policy if the American people more fully understand the damaging impact of excessive government. This is because politicians almost always will do what is necessary to stay in office. So if they think the American people are upset about wasteful spending and paying close attention, the politicians will be less likely to upset voters by funneling money to special interests.

For those who want additional information on the economics of government spending, this video looks at the theoretical case for small government and this video examines the empirical evidence against big government. And this video explains that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending rather than too much debt (in other words, deficits are merely a symptom of an underlying problem of excessive spending).

Last but not least, this video reviews the theory and evidence for the “Rahn Curve,” which is the notion that there is a growth-maximizing level of government outlays.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Tax Deal

Compared to ideal policy, the deal announced last night between congressional Republicans and President Obama is terrible.

Compared to what I expected to happen, the deal announced last night is pretty good.

In other words, grading this package depends on your benchmark. This is why reaction has been all over the map, featuring dour assessments from people like Pejman Yousefzadeh and cheerful analysis from folks such as Jennifer Rubin.

With apologies to Clint Eastwood, let’s review the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

The good parts of the agreement is the avoidance of bad things, sort of the political version of the Hippocratic oath – do no harm. Tax rates next year are not going to increase. The main provisions of the 2001 and 2003 tax acts are extended for two years – including the lower tax rates on dividends and capital gains. This is good news for investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other “rich” taxpayers who were targeted by Obama. They get a reprieve before there is a risk of higher tax rates. This probably won’t have a positive effect on economic performance since current policy will continue, but at least it delays anti-growth policy for two years.

On a lesser note, Obama’s gimmicky and ineffective make-work-pay credit, which was part of the so-called stimulus, will be replaced by a 2-percentage point reduction in the payroll tax. Tax credits generally do not result in lower marginal tax rates on productive behavior, so there is no pro-growth impact.  A lower payroll tax rate, by contrast, improves incentives to work. But don’t expect much positive effect on the economy since the lower rate only lasts for one year. People rarely make permanent decisions on creating jobs and expanding output on the basis of one-year tax breaks.

Another bit of good news is that the death tax will be 35 percent for two years, rather than 55 percent, as would have happened without an agreement, or 45 percent, which is what I thought was going to happen. Last but not least, there is a one-year provision allowing businesses to ”expense” new investment rather than have it taxed, which perversely happens to some degree under current law.

The Bad

The burden of government spending is going to increase. Unemployment benefits are extended for 13 months. And there is no effort to reduce spending elsewhere to “pay for” this new budgetary burden. A rising burden of federal spending is America’s main fiscal problem, and this agreement exacerbates that challenge.

But the fiscal cost is probably trivial compared to the human cost. Academic research is quite thorough on this issue, and it shows that paying people to remain out of work has a significantly negative impact on employment rates. This means many people will remain trapped in joblessness, with potentially horrible long-term consequences on their work histories and habits.

The agreement reinstates a death tax. For all of this year, there has not been a punitive and immoral tax imposed on people simply because they die. So even though I listed the 35 percent death tax in the deal in the “good news” section of this analysis because it could have been worse, it also belongs in the “bad news” section because there is no justification for this class-warfare levy.

The Ugly

As happens so often when politicians make decisions, the deal includes all sorts of special-interest provisions. There are various special provisions for politically powerful constituencies. As a long-time fan of a simple and non-corrupt flat tax, it is painful for me to see this kind of deal.

Moreover, the temporary nature of the package is disappointing. There will be very little economic boost from this deal. As mentioned above, people generally don’t increase output in response to short-term provisions. I worry that this will undermine the case for lower tax rates since observers may conclude that they don’t have much positive effect.

To conclude, I’m not sure if this is good, bad, or ugly, but we get to do this all over again in 2012.