Tag: federal spending

Spending Cut Goal: 10% in Two Years

The new issue of International Economy has an article by Canada’s Liberal finance minister from the 1990s, Paul Martin, who succeeded in shrinking that country’s federal government. If a new President Mitt Romney wants to cut spending in Washington, Martin has some tips for him, such as cutting spending broadly, forecasting conservatively, and aiming to eliminate the deficit in a fixed time frame and sticking to it. (I’d also advise President Obama to follow the Canadian example, but he’s issued four budgets so far and seems to be more interested in following the Greek fiscal approach).

Paul Martin says:

I tabled the 1995 Budget in the House of Commons. No department of government escaped untouched. Transfers to the provinces for healthcare and education were reduced, public sector employment was cut by 20 percent, the Department of Transport was cut deeply, historic subsidies in the Department of Agriculture were eliminated, and spending in the Department of Industry was cut by 65 percent.

These were massive cuts, far greater than anything Canada had ever seen. Nor were the cuts simply reduction in the growth of future spending as is so often the case. These were absolute cuts in existing spending, such that by the end of the process the federal government’s expenditures as a percentage of GDP were lower than they had been at anytime in the previous fifty years.

From a libertarian perspective, Canada’s cuts weren’t actually “massive,” but for a Liberal government in a country with a population that had gotten used to government coddling, it was pretty impressive. As I noted in my recent article on Canada, Martin and his team cut the budget by 10 percent in just two years.

So my suggested goal for Romney and team if elected this Fall: at least match the Canadians and push for $380 billion of cuts out of otherwise expected spending in 2015 of $3.8 trillion. And do what the Canadians did: cut everything, including entitlements, aid to subnational governments, defense, business subsidies, farm subsidies, and much more in one big push. Many in Congress will resist of course, but presidents have their most leverage in the first year. Mitt will have nothing to lose but the country into a vortex of debt and economic despair if he doesn’t at least try.

Note to Larry Summers: The Government Borrows for Transfer Payments, Not Investment

“It is time for governments to borrow more money,” according to former treasury secretary Larry Summers.  He is not peddling this advice to Greece and Spain, but to countries like the United States and Japan that can still sell long-term bonds at very low interest rates. Summers urges the United States, in particular, to borrow more for “public investment projects” that are presumed to raise the economy’s future output. He offers the hypothetical example of “a $1 project that yielded even a permanent 4 cents a year in real terms increment to GDP by expanding the economy’s capacity or its ability to innovate.”

Even if such promising projects were easy to find, however, that is not the way the current government has been inclined to spend borrowed money. Despite all the rhetoric about “shovel-ready projects,” about 95 percent of the 2009 stimulus bill consisted of government consumption (salaries), refundable tax credits, and transfer payments which, as Robert Barro notes, “dilute incentives to work.”

Summers says, “Any rational chief financial officer in the private sector would see this as a moment to extend debt maturities and lock in low rates — the opposite of what central banks are doing.” Locking-in low borrowing costs would indeed make sense if the money from selling long bonds were used to retire short-term Treasury bills, but that would not involve borrowing more as Summers proposes.

For both government and households, it is certainly more prudent to use borrowed money to finance investments that will yield a stream of income in the future—either actual income (such as toll roads) or implicit income (the benefits from living in a mortgaged home).

Apostles of the Keynesian doctrine, such as Larry Summers, Paul Krugman, and Alan Blinder, invariably use hypothetical public works examples to make the case for more and more national (taxpayer) debt. Keynesian forecasting models, used by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to warn of the looming fiscal cliff and defend the fiscal stimulus of 2009, likewise assume the highest “multiplier” effect from tangible government investments.

In the real world of politics, however, Congress and the White House use borrowed money to placate constituencies with the most political clout. Federal spending on investment projects has essentially nothing to do with the huge 2009-2012 budget deficits (only 29 percent of which can be blamed on the legacy of recession, according to the CBO).

The Table shows that transfer payments and subsidies account for 63.8 percent of estimated spending in 2012, while federal purchases account for 28.4 percent. Also, most federal aid to states is for transfer payments like Medicaid.  Within federal purchases, only 7.6 percent of the spending ($152.5 billion) was counted as gross investment in the first quarter GDP report, and two thirds of that was military equipment and buildings. Net investment, minus depreciation, is smaller still.

If borrowing more for investment was a genuine political priority, rather than an academic conjecture, the government could do that by borrowing less for government payrolls, transfer payments, and subsidies.  At best, Larry Summers has made an argument for spending borrowed money much differently, not for borrowing more.

Why ObamaCare Won’t Help the Sick

The Financial Times published my letter to the editor [$]:

Sir, “Imminent ‘ObamaCare’ ruling poses challenge for Republicans” [$] (May 25) doesn’t quite capture my views when it reports that I believe “resurrecting protections for patients with pre-existing conditions would be wrong.” ObamaCare is wrong precisely because those provisions will not protect patients with pre-existing conditions.

Those “protections” are nothing more than government price controls that force carriers to sell insurance to the sick at a premium far below the cost of the claims they incur. As a result, whichever carrier attracts the most sick patients goes out of business. The ensuing race to the bottom will even harm sick Americans who currently have secure coverage.

The debate over ObamaCare is not between people who care and people who don’t care. It is between people who know how to help the sick, and those who don’t.

States Should Flatly Refuse to Create ObamaCare Exchanges (New Cato Video)

This new Cato Institute video explains why it is in no state’s interest to create an ObamaCare Exchange.

Many thanks to Cato’s very talented Caleb O. Brown and Austin Bragg.

For the more-words-no-pictures version, click here or here. For a word about ObamaCare profiteers the pro-Exchange lobby, click here. Click here to read about what is happening in the states.

Blocking Obamacare Exchanges Is Only Risky for Obamacare Profiteers

USA Today reports that groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Cato Institute have had much success in discouraging states from creating Obamacare’s health insurance “exchanges.” Even the Heritage Foundation, which once counseled states to establish “defensive” Obamacare exchanges, now counsels states to refuse to create them and to send all exchange-related grants back to Washington.

In response, Obamacare contractor and self-described conservative Republican Cheryl Smith sniffs:

When you work at a think-tank, it’s really easy to come up with these really high-risk plans.

Except, there is no risk to states. The only risks to this strategy are that health insurance companies won’t get half a trillion dollars in taxpayer subsidies, and that certain Obamacare contractors won’t get any more of those lucrative exchange contracts.

House Appropriations Chairman Behind Military Pork

After the Republicans took back control of the House following the November 2010 elections, the GOP leadership went with Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers—a.k.a. “The Prince of Pork”—to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee. I wrote at the time that “The support for Rogers from House Republican leaders is a slap in the face of voters who demanded change in Washington.”

I haven’t changed my mind.

A recent article in the New York Times offers up another reminder that the 30-year House veteran’s priority is to funnel taxpayer money back to his district—not downsize the federal government:

In the 1980s, the military had its infamous $800 toilet seat. Today, it has a $17,000 drip pan. Thanks to a powerful Kentucky congressman who has steered tens of millions of federal dollars to his district, the Army has bought about $6.5 million worth of the “leakproof” drip pans in the last three years to catch transmission fluid on Black Hawk helicopters. And it might want more from the Kentucky company that makes the pans, even though a similar pan from another company costs a small fraction of the price: about $2,500…The Kentucky company, Phoenix Products, got the job to produce the pans after Representative Harold Rogers, a Republican who is now the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, added an earmark to a 2009 spending bill. While the earmark came before restrictions were placed on such provisions for for-profit companies, its outlays have continued for the last three years.

According to the Times, Phoenix Products’ president and his wife have been “frequent contributors” to Rogers’s political committee and the company has spent at least $600k on a DC lobbying firm since 2005. Those efforts apparently haven’t gone unrewarded as Rogers “has directed more than $17 million in work orders for Phoenix Products since 2000.”

Readers should keep this story in mind the next time a Republican member of Congress calls for a Balanced Budget Amendment, complains about the growth in government under Obama, and then argues against “dangerous defense cuts.” The bedtime story that Americans often hear is that the federal government must spend gobs of money on defense in order to “keep us safe from our enemies.” I once believed that story—and then I spent some time in the U.S. Senate watching policymakers treat military spending like any other pot of taxpayer money.

[See here for more on downsizing the Department of Defense.]

The States Are Already Getting Bailed Out

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) advise the states to get their fiscal houses in order instead of holding out hope for a bailout from federal taxpayers. That’s sound advice. However, the states already effectively get bailed out by federal taxpayers each and every year.

The first chart shows that the federal government has accounted for over a third of total state spending in recent years. The increase can be attributed to federal “stimulus” spending. The federal government’s share will retreat as the economy (hopefully) continues to strengthen and federal policymakers limit spending increases in the face of mounting debt. However, getting the federal government’s share of total state spending back to, say, 30 percent would be nothing to celebrate.

The post-stimulus decrease in Washington’s generosity to the states has state and local officials—and the special interests that ultimately benefit from the Beltway-to-State money laundering operation—concerned. Reporters typically relay these concerns to the public without adding any historical context. The following chart provides that context, and it indicates that the concern shouldn’t be that the states won’t be getting as much money; rather, the concern should be that the states have become dangerously reliant on federal money.

So here’s another suggestion for state and local officials. If you want to spend more money than Washington will give you, go out and tell your taxpayers that you want to increase their taxes to pay for it.

[See this Cato essay for more on why the federal government should cut aid to the states.]