Tag: federal budget

Obama the Born-again Budget Cutter?!?

Chalk up another victory – at least on the rhetorical level – for the Tea Party.

President Obama will release his fiscal year 2012 budget tomorrow and he’s apparently become a born-again fiscal conservative. Here are some excerpts from a Washington Post story:

President Obama will respond to a Republican push for a drastic reduction in government spending by proposing sharp cuts of his own in a fiscal 2012 budget blueprint that aims to trim record federal deficits by $1.1 trillion over the next decade. …two-thirds of the savings would come from spending cuts that are draconian by Democratic standards… When it lands Monday on Capitol Hill, Obama’s plan will launch a bidding war with Republicans over how deeply and swiftly to cut, as the two parties seek a path to fiscal stability for a nation awash in red ink.

I’m skeptical of battlefield conversions, particularly when politicians utilize the dishonest Washington definition of a budget cutincreasing spending by less than previously planned. So the first thing I’ll do when the budget is released is to visit the Historical Tables of the Budget website and see what spending is projected to be in 2011 and what Obama is asking for in 2012.

Those numbers probably won’t be accurate since the Obama administration (like previous ones) will use best-case assumptions, but at least we’ll get a sense of whether:

a) spending actually is being cut (I’m not holding my breath for this miracle), or

b) spending is frozen at current levels (this approach would balance the budget by 2017, but it’s almost as unlikely at the first option), or

c) spending is being restrained (perhaps 2 percent growth, enough to keep pace with inflation), or

d) spending is growing far too fast (say 4 percent growth, pushing America quickly in the wrong direction), or

e) spending is continuing to explode (5 percent growth, 6 percent growth, or even more, meaning we’ll be Greece sooner than we think).

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that the Obama administration will claim (d) but will actually be proposing (e) if more realistic assumptions are used.

Needless to say, I hope I’m wrong. But other parts of the Washington Post story give me little reason for hope. The White House apparently is ignoring entitlements. Heck, the administration apparently isn’t even planning on meeting the President’s own deficit goal.

The blueprint ducks the harder task of tackling the biggest drivers of future deficits: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid… Obama’s blueprint does not even hit the short-term goal he set for his commission - reducing deficits to 3 percent of the economy by 2015.

The White House also plans to play a shell game with certain parts of the budget. Supposed spending cuts in health care won’t generate taxpayer savings. Instead, they’ll be used to finance more spending on Medicare, enabling the President to cancel savings that were promised as part of Obamacare. The interest groups win and the taxpayers lose.

The Obama blueprint also seeks to eliminate two budget gimmicks that Congress has long used to mask the true depth of the red ink: His proposal would offset higher Medicare payments to doctors by cutting $62 billion from other areas of federal health spending. And it would adjust the alternative minimum tax through 2014 to prevent it from hitting middle-class taxpayers, covering the cost by limiting the value of itemized deductions such as charitable contributions and mortgage interest for wealthy households.

The same shell game takes place on the tax side of the fiscal ledger. The White House plans to cancel one future tax increase and “pay” for that change by imposing another future tax increase. Once again, taxpayers get the short end of the stick.

Unless the Washington Post story is completely inaccurate, the Obama administration is not changing course. There may not be any major initiatives to expand the burden of government, like the failed stimulus or the budget busting government-run healthcare scheme, but it certainly does not seem like there are any plans to reverse direction and shrink the burden of government.

Slashing Popular Programs Contest

House Republicans proposed some (tiny) spending cuts this week and the Obama administration will likely propose some (tiny) cuts next week in the federal budget.

So get ready for a barrage of slasher stories! National Journal started us off yesterday with the headline “WH Slashes Heat for the Poor.”

Coming down the pike are dozens of stories about how policymakers are planning deep, vicious, and inhumane cuts that will undermine the foundations of the republic. A 5 percent cut to a program that has risen 50 percent in recent years will not be a simple “trim,” but a brutal, gouging “slash.”

Every single one of the upcoming cuts will be to “popular” programs. So policymakers will propose a $1 million cut to mohair subsidies, and the headline will be “Congress Slashes Popular Mohair Program.”

In reality, government spending has soared over the last decade, but I don’t want to spoil the fun. So let’s enjoy the coming crop of over-the-top slasher stories, and treat them as a genre of modern publishing art.

I propose a “Slasher Story of the Month” contest for February. Send me an email if you see a great slasher story, and I’ll get my crack assistant, Amy, to analyze the rhetorical content. The winning story will have the most frequent uses of “slash” and “popular” to describe the programs that the godless heathens in Congress and the White House plan to ransack and decimate.

(Bonus points for any editorial cartoon showing Attila the Hun with the word “GOP” on his helmet hacking away at a defenseless child with “nutrition subsidies” on her shirt).

The 1993 Clinton Tax Increase Did Not Lead to the Budget Surpluses of the Late 1990s

Proponents of higher taxes are fond of claiming that Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax increase was a big success because of budget surpluses that began in 1998.

That’s certainly a plausible hypothesis, and I’m already on record arguing that Clinton’s economic record was much better than Bush’s performance.

But this specific assertion it is not supported by the data. In February of 1995, 18 months after the tax increase was signed into law, President Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget issued projections of deficits for the next five years if existing policy was maintained (a “baseline” forecast). As the chart illustrates, OMB estimated that future deficits would be about $200 billion and would slightly increase over the five-year period.

In other words, even the Clinton Administration, which presumably had a big incentive to claim that the tax increase would be successful, admitted 18 months after the law was approved that there was no expectation of a budget surplus. For what it’s worth, the Congressional Budget Office forecast, issued about the same time, showed very similar numbers.

Since the Clinton Administration’s own numbers reveal that the 1993 tax increase was a failure, we have to find a different reason to explain why the budget shifted to surplus in the late 1990s.

Fortunately, there’s no need for an exhaustive investigation. The Historical Tables on OMB’s website reveal that good budget numbers were the result of genuine fiscal restraint. Total government spending increased by an average of just 2.9 percent over a four-year period in the mid-1990s. This is the reason why projections of $200 billion-plus deficits turned into the reality of big budget surpluses.

Republicans say the credit belongs to the GOP Congress that took charge in early 1995. Democrats say it was because of Bill Clinton. But all that really matters is that the burden of federal spending grew very slowly. Not only was there spending restraint, but Congress and the White House agreed on a fairly substantial tax cut in 1997.

To sum things up, it turns out that spending restraint and lower taxes are a recipe for good fiscal policy. This second chart modifies the first chart, showing actual deficits under this small-government approach compared to the OMB and CBO forecasts of what would have happened under Clinton’s tax-and-spend baseline.

Robert Kagan for the Defense

The calls for cutting the federal budget continue to build in Congress as the new GOP members try to make good on their promise to rein in the deficit.  And, right on time, the latest issue of the Weekly Standard features an article by Robert Kagan critiquing the chorus of calls for cuts to military spending. 

I think Kagan’s critique is reasonably fair, certainly more so than others of the recent past.  But his basic premise, that national security spending is unrelated to the national debt, simply is not true.  At the The Skeptics, I address this:

It is of course true that entitlements and mandatory spending pose the greatest threat to the nation’s fiscal health, but $700+ billion [in defense spending] isn’t chump change. The question of what we should spend on the military ought to take into account the trade-offs, an argument that Dwight Eisenhower advanced in his farewell address just over 50 years ago, and that Charles Zakaib and I highlighted last week. (See also James Ledbetter’s discussion on this point.)

Actually, it is a question of fairness, but not the one that [Kagan] proposed. Because security is a core function of government (I think one of the only core functions of government), it would be a mistake to treat military spending as synonymous with spending on, say, farm subsidies. But Kagan’s writings presume that other countries’ governments do not – and should not – see their responsibilities in the same way. Kagan contends that American taxpayers should be responsible for the security of people living in Europe or East Asia or the Middle East. Or anywhere in the world, really… It simply isn’t fair to ask Americans to pay for something that other people should pay for themselves. For reference, the average American—every man, woman and child—spends two and a half times more on national security than the French or the British, five times more than citizens living in other NATO countries, and seven and a half times as much as the average Japanese.

Justin Logan is in the process of authoring a lengthier response for publication, but in the mean time click here to read the full post at The National Interest.

Rep. Brady’s CUTS Act

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) has introduced the Cut Unsustainable and Top-heavy Spending Act, which would cut spending by $44 billion annually.  Brady’s effort moves in the right direction but it is a very modest fiscal reform effort.

The legislation, which Brady calls a “down payment on getting America’s financial books in order,” chooses targets that have already been proposed by the Obama administration or the president’s Fiscal Commission. Therefore, the proposal should have bipartisan appeal. For example, Brady’s bill would cut Pentagon spending and eliminate subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Many of the targets represent “house cleaning cuts” that would reduce spending on bureaucratic activities such as printing and federal travel. The legislation would also reduce the federal workforce by 10 percent per the Fiscal Commission’s recommendation. While there’s nothing wrong with a little house cleaning, these types of cuts would occur on their own if entire government agencies and programs were eliminated.

Eliminating federal agencies and programs should be the ultimate goal. Annual savings of $44 billion only amounts to about 3 percent of the project budget deficit this year, and less than 10 percent of the annual amount needed to be cut to stabilize the debt by 2020. (See this Cato spending cut plan for more details on what is needed to get our budgetary situation under control.)

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Tax Subsidy, Either

I hit a nerve with my post, “There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Tax Expenditure.”  To recap: The federal tax code has credits, deductions, exemptions, and exclusions that reduce tax revenue.  By convention, budget experts call that forgone revenue a “tax expenditure,” a “tax subsidy,” or even “backdoor spending in the tax code.”  This is incorrect.  To claim that forgone tax revenue is a government expenditure implies that the money at stake actually belongs to the government, which is graciously letting taxpayers keep it, rather than to the people who earned it.  Government is not spending that money; it is merely not extracting that money from the private sector.  Statists deliberately use terms like “tax expenditure” precisely because that erroneous impression obscures their efforts to raise your taxes.

Less than an hour after posting, Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress Action Fund called me “daringly inaccurate.”  (Why be timid?)  The Manhattan Institute’s Josh Barro devoted a very thoughtful 1,155 words to the topic at NRO.

Yglesias explains in an email:

I understand why you might want to object to the “tax expenditure” phrasing, but surely we can agree that there’s such a thing as a “tax subsidy,” right? If the government declares that fuel-efficient hybrid cars are now tax-deductible, that’s a subsidy to the makers and purchasers of Priuses.

I’m afraid I cannot agree to that.

  • The term “tax expenditure” is nonsense because not taking Peter’s money, conditional on Peter buying a Prius, is not the same as spending the same amount of money on a Prius.  The outcome may be exactly the same.  But no one can spend money that he doesn’t possess.
  • The term “tax subsidy” is likewise nonsense because a subsidy involves giving something to someone else.  Not taking Peter’s money, conditional on Peter buying a Prius, is not a subsidy to Peter.  The government is not giving Peter anything.  Nor is it a subsidy to Paul, even though he profits from Prius sales: the government is not giving anything to Paul, either.  Again, the outcome may be exactly the same as a government subsidy.  Notably, Paul’s income rises.   Yet it does not rise because Paul received a subsidy.  Paul’s income rises because the state used coercion in a different way: to alter, for Peter, the cost of a Prius relative to other uses of Peter’s income.
  • To see the absurdity, consider what it would mean to eliminate a “tax subsidy.”  All else equal, eliminating an actual government subsidy reduces the tax burden.  Eliminating a “tax subsidy” increases someone’s tax burden.  Which is the whole point, isn’t it?

Barro makes more of our disagreement than actually exists.

  • We agree targeted tax preferences are harmful.  (I argue, for example, that the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance operates more like a tax hike than a tax break because, among other atrocities, it denies the typical parent control over $10,000 of her earnings.)
  • We agree they expand government power.
  • We agree government should account for them.  (Along those lines, the Congressional Budget Office has developed a concept it calls the “federal budgetary commitment to health care,” which is the sum of all federal health spending and all tax revenue forgone due to health-related tax loopholes.  The CBO calls them “tax expenditures” –  grrrr.  I dislike “budgetary commitment” for the same reason: the government can’t commit resources it doesn’t possess. But the CBO is on to something. We need an aggregate measure of “federal budgetary interference in the economy.”)
  • Finally, Barro and I probably agree that Congress should simultaneously eliminate all such loopholes and reduce marginal payroll- and income-tax rates – perhaps to zero.

I reject the term “tax expenditure” – as distinct from the concept – because it is nonsensical and biases the debate toward more government control of the economy and our lives.   Barro asks what term I’d prefer. Until someone comes up with something pithier than “tax revenue forgone due to targeted tax preferences,” I’ll stick with that.

Will the Deficit Compel Congress to Cut Military Spending?

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, Megan Scully notes the military spending cuts contained within a proposal by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of the president’s deficit reduction commission. Scully asks: “How feasible would it be for lawmakers to make these kinds of cuts to defense?…What kind of sway will fiscal hawks have in the next Congress - and will it be enough to push through sweeping defense cuts over the objections from pro-defense members of their party?”

Government spending across the board must be cut, I explain, beginning especially with entitlements.  I continue:

Other spending must also be on the table, however, and that includes the roughly 23 percent of the federal budget that goes to the military. This often poses a particular challenge for Republicans given their traditional support for military spending and their professed commitment to fiscal discipline. But it need not be particularly difficult. If Republicans reaffirm that the core function of government, many would say one of the only core functions of government, is defense (strictly speaking), then the path to a politically sustainable and economically sound defense posture is clear: a military geared to defending the United States and its vital national interests, and not permanently deployed as the world’s policeman and armed social worker. Such a posture would allow for a smaller Army and Marine Corps as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are drawn to a close (as they should be), deep cuts in the Pentagon’s civilian work force, which has grown dramatically over the past 10 years, and sensible reductions in the nuclear arsenal. More modest cuts are warranted in intelligence and R&D. Finally, significant changes in a number of costly and unnecessary weapons and platforms, including terminating the V-22 Osprey and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and greater scrutiny of the F-35 program, for example, must also be in the mix….

Serious cuts to military spending… must be part of a broader strategic reset that ends the free-riding of wealthy and stable allies around the world, and that takes a more balanced and objective view of our relative strategic advantages and our enviable security.

 You can read the rest of my response here.