Tag: federal spending

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.

Thank You, America!

The Washington metropolitan area is the only major U.S. housing market where prices increased on an annual basis in the first quarter, according to a 20-city S&P/Case Shiller home-price index released Tuesday. The region was helped by relatively stable employment, fewer foreclosures and an abundant supply of house hunters.

Other surveys indicate sales in the area are approaching boom-time levels.

Wall Street Journal

Boehner’s Price for Increasing the Federal Debt Limit

House Speaker John Boehner, in his speech to the Economic Club of New York on Monday night, was very clear about the conditions for which he would support an increase in the federal debt limit:

… Without significant spending cuts and reforms to reduce our debt, there will be no debt limit increase.  And the cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given.

We should be talking about cuts of trillions, not just billions.

They should be actual cuts and program reforms, not broad deficit or debt targets that punt the tough questions to the future.

And with the exception of tax hikes – which will destroy jobs – everything is on the table.

Congress is institutionally incapable of formulating and approving a large responsible package of spending cuts in the next month or two, even if there were the basis for an agreement in the longer run.  The most likely outcome of this condition is that Congress would approve an increase in the debt limit for the next year or two with no significant amendments.  John Boehner would be the major loser from this outcome, for having talked tough and promised too much, without delivering anything to his party base.

Another possible outcome of this condition is that an increase in the debt limit would be deferred indefinitely.  This would lead to a period of fiscal anarchy in which total federal spending would have to be reduced to federal revenues on a month-by-month basis, and non-interest spending would have to be reduced about 40 percent with no political guidance on what activities are paid how much.

The House Republicans are better advised to sort out their priority budget changes in the longer run.  I suggest that it is desirable to maintain a commitment against any increase in tax rates but to consider major reductions in what is now roughly one trillion dollars of off-budget tax preferences; such reductions would increase both revenue and economic growth.  Finally, I  suggest that reductions in the defense budget should also be considered.  In a world in which the United States now faces no major power military threat, total real (inflation-adjusted) annual national security spending is now over twice that during the Ford and Carter administrations and over 40 percent of the total national security spending by all governments.

For the most part, I suggest, the Republican fiscal priorities are correct, but it will take better preparation and a longer time to implement these priorities.

Updated Cato Budget Plan

Over at Downsizing the Federal Government, Chris Edwards has released an updated version of his “Plan to Cut Spending and Balance the Federal Budget.” The plan proposes spending cuts of more than $1 trillion annually by 2021, which would balance the budget without resorting to damaging tax increases. Federal spending would be reduced to 18 percent of gross domestic product by 2021 under the plan, which compares to President Obama’s projected spending that year of 24.2 percent of GDP.

Some key points:

  • No sacred cows are spared. Defense, domestic, and so-called entitlement programs are all cut.
  • The plan recognizes that the scope of federal activities must be curtailed. It would begin the reversal of decades of federal expansion into hundreds of areas that should be left to state and local governments, businesses, charities, and individuals.
  • Instead of viewing federal spending cuts as a necessary evil, the plan recognizes that the cuts would shift resources from often mismanaged and damaging government programs to the more productive private sector, thus increasing overall GDP.
  • The plan doesn’t achieve budget balance by increasing taxes. Under current tax policy, federal revenues as a share of GDP will gradually return to levels considered normal in recent decades. It is federal spending that has reached abnormally high levels. It must be reduced in order to get the government’s spiraling debt under control.

Public Choice and Spending Cuts

The Institute for Humane Studies Learn Liberty project continues to offer clear-headed analysis in video form. The latest effort features Ben Powell of Suffolk University explaining the concept of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs in the context of ongoing budget fights.

Cato recently produced two short videos on complementary aspects of the budget fights. For a more detailed treatment of many aspects of public choice, get your free (cheap!) copy of Cato’s excellent book, Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice.

It’s Bigger Than the Budget

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Do the cuts (and increases) contained in the six-month spending bill House Republicans posted overnight make sense, and do they go far enough in attacking the deficit and national debt?

My response:

Today’s Arena question captures perfectly what’s missing from our current budget debate. In listing a few of the compromises contained in the six-month spending bill House Republicans posted overnight, and asking whether those cuts (and increases) go far enough in attacking the deficit and national debt, it invites us to imagine that America is one big family, arguing over how “we” should spend “our” money.

We’re not. As I wrote in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, we’re a constitutional republic, populated by discrete individuals, each with our own interests. Today’s question, perfectly understandable in the current climate, socializes us. The Framers’ Constitution freed us, to make our own individual choices.

To be sure, we have to start where we are today. But if that’s as far as we go, we’re doomed to never grasping the real problem. The Constitution was written precisely to check our appetite for “public goods.” It authorizes only a few, truly public goods. Not health care. Not education. Not most of what we spend “our” money on today. We’ve ignored the discipline it imposes, and we’re paying the price.

“The Largest Annual Spending Cut in Our History”?

In this week’s Britannica column, I look at the claims being made for the budget cuts in the weekend deal:

“The largest annual spending cut in our history,” President Obama said. Speaker of the House John Boehner called it the “largest real dollar spending cut in American history.” Saturday’s front-page, upper-right headline in the Washington Post proclaimed:

BIGGEST CUTS
IN U.S. HISTORY

The story went on to say that Obama “said the cuts would be painful but necessary.”

NPR’s Andrea Seabrook reported, “The Republicans got big, big cuts.”

And are they?

Please. It’s a cut of $38 billion in a budget of $3,819 billion. That’s 1 percent. That’s a rounding error in federal budgeting….

That same budget table shows that federal spending fell from $92.7 billion in 1945 to $55.2 billion in 1946, to $34.5 billion in 1947, and to $29.8 billion in 1948 (and all without any of the job losses that we’re told would result from modest reductions today). Check out also the drop in spending from 1919 to 1922, even larger in percentage terms….

The fundamental point here is that federal spending rose by more than a trillion dollars during Bush’s first seven years, and then by almost another trillion in barely three fiscal years. And then we had a titanic battle over whether to trim $38 billion.

The idea that the Democrats “have shown that they heard the message that government spends too much” or that the Republicans—the party that increased federal spending by a trillion dollars while nobody was looking during the Bush years—have “imposed a small-government agenda on Washington” is ludicrous.

Read it all here.