Tag: federal spending

A Turning Point?

Greg Sargent cites a CNN poll question:

As you may know, the agreement would cut about one trillion dollars in government spending over the next ten years with provisions to make additional spending cuts in the future. Regardless of how you feel about the overall agreement, do you approve or disapprove of the cuts in government spending included in the debt ceiling agreement?

Approve 65

Disapprove 30

Sargent continues:

Sixty five percent approve of deal’s spending cuts. But it gets worse. Of the 30 percent who disapprove, 13 percent think the cuts haven’t gotten far enough, and only 15 percent think the cuts go too far. One sixth of Americans agree with the liberal argument about the deal.

About 20 percent of Americans self-identify as liberals. This would suggest that all non-liberal Americans and one-fourth of self-identifying liberals approve of the deal or think the cuts have not gone far enough. It could also mean that some non-liberal Americans disapprove of the deal and more than one-quarter of liberals approve of it. Either interpretation will not encourage those who believe government should be larger.

Still, the political agenda is defined as cuts, and the public seems willing to go along. 2008 seems like a generation ago.

Thoughts on the Boehner Plan

These are the times that try budget analysts’ souls—especially budget analysts who’d like to see Washington dramatically cut spending. The debate over lifting the debt ceiling has produced a number of proposals from Capitol Hill—none of them have been worth celebrating. We can now add House Speaker John Boehner’s latest proposal to the pile.

Boehner’s proposal boils down to the following: cap discretionary spending over 10 years to achieve $1.2 trillion in savings; have (another) bipartisan group of policymakers come up with $1.8 trillion in “deficit reductions” over ten years; and get a vote on a balanced budget amendment. In exchange, the president would get to increase the deficit by $900 billion this year and by another $1.6 trillion next year.

Here are some thoughts on Boehner’s plan:

  • Under the Congressional Budget Office’s optimistic spending baseline, the federal government will spend $46 trillion over the next ten years. Obviously, reducing spending by $1.2 trillion oven ten years is relatively small.
  • The same dysfunctional congress that treats entitlement programs like lit sticks of dynamite is supposed to come up with $1.6 trillion in “deficit reduction.” Note that we’re not even talking specifically about spending cuts here, so that figure would likely include tax increases assuming they’re able to even come up with something.
  • Under the Boehner plan, spending and debt will continue to rise. At the most, the plan would produce an average of $300 billion a year in cuts in exchange for increasing the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion over the next two years.
  • Boehner’s bill includes language that tightens up the definition of what constitutes “emergency” spending. Congress regularly slaps the “emergency” designation on all sort of non-emergency spending bills. I have no faith that the new language will stop the foxes guarding the henhouse from continuing to devour chickens.
  • Where are the immediate spending cuts? Once again, we have the promise of cuts but no specifics. Even if the discretionary caps hold the line on that portion of spending, total federal spending (and debt) will continue its unsustainable upward climb. Entitlement spending is the biggest driver of our long-term budgetary problems but entitlement spending isn’t capped under the Boehner plan.

In sum, this plan is another stinker. But with Harry Reid controlling the Senate and Barack Obama sitting in the White House, the votes just aren’t there to get a plan passed that sufficiently addresses our fiscal mess by reining in the size and scope of government.

Senate Finance Hearing on Debt

I testified to the Senate Finance Committee today regarding federal spending and debt.

Here are some of the points I made:

  • Last night, President Obama called for a “balanced solution” to our fiscal problems, including tax increases and spending cuts. However, CBO projections do not indicate that we face a “balanced” problem. Instead, projections show that the deficit problem is caused all on the spending side of the budget.
  • The United States has sadly become a big-government country. Until recently, government spending in this country was about 10 percentage points less than the average of OECD countries. That smaller-government advantage has now shrunken to just 4 percentage points.
  • In recent years, policymakers have given us the largest deficit-spending “stimulus” since World War II, yet we are suffering from the slowest economic recovery since World War II.
  • Rising government spending suppresses GDP because the government’s “leaky bucket” gets leakier and leakier as spending increases.
  • Leaders in Congress are talking about cutting spending by $3 trillion over 10 years, or roughly $300 billion per year. The result would be that spending would rise from $3.6 trillion this year to $5.4 trillion in 2021, rather than the currently projected $5.7 trillion. That would be only a 5 percent cut. Interest savings would reduce spending a little more—but, come on Congress, you can do better than that!

Health Care Entitlements Are the Real Debt Bomb

I’m a few days behind on this, but over at The Corner Yuval Levin has written an important post about how health care entitlements are the real cause of the debt crisis facing the federal government. Using Congressional Budget Office projections, Levin creates this magnificent chart, which I plan to steal over and over again:

If Republicans want to conquer the federal debt, they need to embrace health policy like they embrace tax cuts.

The Debt Ceiling and the Balanced Budget Amendment

The Washington Post editorializes:

A balanced-budget amendment would deprive policymakers of the flexibility they need to address national security and economic emergencies.

A fair point. Statesmen should have the ability to “address national security and economic emergencies.” But the same day’s paper included this graphic on the growth of the national debt:

National Debt

Does this look like the record of policymakers making sensible decisions, running surpluses in good year and deficits when they have to “address national security and economic emergencies”? Of course not. Once Keynesianism gave policymakers permission to run deficits, they spent with abandon year after year. And that’s why it makes sense to impose rules on them, even rules that leave less flexibility than would be ideal if you had ideal statesmen. Indeed, the debt ceiling itself should be that kind of rule, one that limits the amount of debt policymakers can run up. But it has obviously failed.

We’ve become so used to these stunning, incomprehensible, unfathomable levels of deficits and debt — and to the once-rare concept of trillions of dollars — that we forget how new all this debt is. In 1980, after 190 years of federal spending, the national debt was “only” $1 trillion. Now, just 30 years later, it’s sailing past $14 trillion.

Historian John Steele Gordon points out how unnecessary our situation is:

There have always been two reasons for adding to the national debt. One is to fight wars. The second is to counteract recessions. But while the national debt in 1982 was 35% of GDP, after a quarter century of nearly uninterrupted economic growth and the end of the Cold War the debt-to-GDP ratio has more than doubled.

It is hard to escape the idea that this happened only because Democrats and Republicans alike never said no to any significant interest group. Despite a genuine economic emergency, the stimulus bill is more about dispensing goodies to Democratic interest groups than stimulating the economy. Even Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) — no deficit hawk when his party is in the majority — called it “porky.”

Annual federal spending rose by a trillion dollars when Republicans controlled the government from 2001 to 2007. It has risen another trillion during the Bush-Obama response to the financial crisis. So spending every year is now twice what it was when Bill Clinton left office. Republicans and Democrats alike should be able to find wasteful, extravagant, and unnecessary programs to cut back or eliminate. They could find some of them here in this report by Chris Edwards.

In the Kentucky Resolutions, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Just so. When it becomes clear that Congress as a body cannot be trusted with the management of the public fisc, then bind them down with the chains of the Constitution, even — or especially — chains that deny them the flexibility they have heretofore abused.

‘Cut, Cap and Balance,’ the Debt Ceiling and Federal Spending

Cato Institute scholars Daniel J. Mitchell and Chris Edwards evaluate the plans offered by Republicans for lowering federal spending using a so-called “Cut, Cap and Balance” proposal that would make small cuts to federal spending in the short run, cap federal spending, and balance the federal budget using a tax-limited balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

Christina Romer’s Naïve Keynesianism

President Obama’s former head of the Council of Economic Advisers has taken to the pages of the New York Times to warn us against pursuing “fiscal austerity just now,” particularly not spending cuts.

Christina Romer’s views are Keynesian. She doesn’t use that word, but she is focused on juicing “demand” with optimally-targeted and well-managed government “investments.”

Economics has numerous schools of thought, but Romer’s writing reflects nothing but the most simplistic Keynesian framework. The fact that the huge Keynesian stimulus of recent years that she supported has coincided with the slowest economic recovery since World War II seems to be of little concern to her.

She also doesn’t seem to be interested in how government spending actually works in the real world. She assures us that “government spending on things like basic scientific research, education and infrastructure … helps increase future productivity.”

That view has a veneer of economic authenticity, but it leaves many issues unaddressed:

  • Most federal spending is on transfers and consumption, not investment. The debt crisis we face is driven mainly by entitlements, which is consumption spending. Romer’s talk of investment spending is a rhetorical bait-and-switch.
  • Romer doesn’t distinguish between average and marginal spending. If some federal investment spending has created positive net returns, that doesn’t mean that additional spending would. Governments already spend massive amounts on education, for example, so the marginal return from added spending is probably very low.
  • If the government investments that Romer touts are so valuable, then why hasn’t the government done them already? After all, federal, state, and local governments in this country already spend 41 percent of GDP.
  • If science, education, and infrastructure investments have the high returns that Romer seems to think they do, then why does the government need to be involved? Private firms seeking higher profits would be all over such investments.
  • Romer mentions that the “social returns” on some investments might be higher than purely private returns. However, that doesn’t mean that the government should automatically intervene. For one thing, the government suffers from all kinds of management failures and other pathologies.
  • Romer also ignores that the government imposes substantial deadweight losses on the economy when it commandeers the resources it needs for its “investments.”

So my reading assignment for Romer is www.DownsizingGovernment.org so she can get a better understanding of how federal programs actually operate.

And readers interested in all the economics of government spending that Romer doesn’t tell you about can consult Edgar Browning’s excellent book, Stealing From Each Other.