Tag: federal spending

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.

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.