Tag: fiscal policy

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.

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.

Four Reasons Why Big Government Is Bad Government

A new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity gives four reasons why big government is bad fiscal policy.

I particularly like the explanation of how government spending undermines growth by diverting labor and capital from the productive sector of the economy.

Some cynics, though, say that it is futile to make arguments for good policy. They claim that politicians make bad fiscal decisions because of short-term considerations such as vote buying and raising campaign cash and that they don’t care about the consequences. There’s a lot of truth to this “public choice” analysis, but I don’t think it explains everything. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I think we would have better fiscal policy if more lawmakers, journalists, academics, and others grasped the common-sense arguments presented in this video.

And even if the cynics are right, we are more likely to have good policy if the American people more fully understand the damaging impact of excessive government. This is because politicians almost always will do what is necessary to stay in office. So if they think the American people are upset about wasteful spending and paying close attention, the politicians will be less likely to upset voters by funneling money to special interests.

For those who want additional information on the economics of government spending, this video looks at the theoretical case for small government and this video examines the empirical evidence against big government. And this video explains that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending rather than too much debt (in other words, deficits are merely a symptom of an underlying problem of excessive spending).

Last but not least, this video reviews the theory and evidence for the “Rahn Curve,” which is the notion that there is a growth-maximizing level of government outlays.

New CBO Numbers Re-Confirm that Balancing the Budget Is Simple with Modest Fiscal Restraint

Many of the politicians in Washington, including President Obama during his State of the Union address, piously tell us that there is no way to balance the budget without tax increases. Trying to get rid of red ink without higher taxes, they tell us, would require “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts.

I would like to slash the budget and free up resources for private-sector growth, so that sounds good to me. But what’s the truth?

The Congressional Budget Office has just released its 10-year projections for the budget, so I crunched the numbers to determine what it would take to balance the budget without tax hikes. Much to nobody’s surprise, the politicians are not telling the truth.

The chart below shows that revenues are expected to grow (because of factors such as inflation, more population, and economic expansion) by more than 7 percent each year. Balancing the budget is simple so long as politicians increase spending at a slower rate. If they freeze the budget, we almost balance the budget by 2017. If federal spending is capped so it grows 1 percent each year, the budget is balanced in 2019. And if the crowd in Washington can limit spending growth to about 2 percent each year, red ink almost disappears in just 10 years.

These numbers, incidentally, assume that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent (they are now scheduled to expire in two years). They also assume that the AMT is adjusted for inflation, so the chart shows that we can balance the budget without any increase in the tax burden.

I did these calculations last year, and found the same results. And I also examined how we balanced the budget in the 1990s and found that spending restraint was the key. The combination of a GOP Congress and Bill Clinton in the White House led to a four-year period of government spending growing by an average of just 2.9 percent each year.

We also have international evidence showing that spending restraint - not higher taxes - is the key to balancing the budget. New Zealand got rid of a big budget deficit in the 1990s with a five-year spending freeze. Canada also got rid of red ink that decade with a five-year period where spending grew by an average of only 1 percent per year. And Ireland slashed its deficit in the late 1980s by 10 percentage points of GDP with a four-year spending freeze.

No wonder international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary fund and European Central Bank are producing research showing that spending discipline is the right approach.

This video provides all the details.

Spending Restraint and Red Ink

I’m not a big fan of central banks, and I definitely don’t like multilateral bureaucracies, so I almost feel guilty about publicizing two recent studies published by the European Central Bank. But when such an institution puts out research that unambiguously makes the case for smaller government, it’s time to sit up and take notice. And since these studies largely echo the findings of recent research by the International Monetary Fund, we may have reached a point where even the establishment finally understands that government is too big.

The first study looks at real-world examples of debt reduction in 15 European nations and investigates the fiscal policies that worked and didn’t work. Entitled “Major Public Debt Reductions: Lessons From The Past, Lessons For The Future,” the report unambiguously concludes that spending restraint is the right way to reduce deficits and debt. Tax increases, by contrast, are not successful. The study doesn’t highlight this result, but the data clearly show that “revenue increases do not seem to have induced debt reductions, whereas cuts in primary expenditure seem to have contributed significantly in the case of major debt reductions.”

Here’s a key excerpt:

[T]his paper estimates several specifications of a logistic probability model to assess which factors determine the probability of a major debt reduction in the EU-15 during the period 1985-2009. Our results are three-fold. First, major debt reductions are mainly driven by decisive and lasting (rather than timid and short-lived) fiscal consolidation efforts focused on reducing government expenditure, in particular, cuts in social benefits and public wages. Revenue-based consolidations seem to have a tendency to be less successful. Second, robust real GDP growth also increases the likelihood of a major debt reduction because it helps countries to “grow their way out” of indebtedness. Here, the literature also points to a positive feedback effect with decisive expenditure-based fiscal consolidation because this type of consolidation appears to foster growth, in particular in times of severe fiscal imbalances.

The last part of this passage is especially worth highlighting. The authors found that reducing spending promotes faster economic growth. In other words, Obama did exactly the wrong thing with his so-called stimulus. The U.S. economy would have enjoyed much better performance if the burden of spending had been reduced rather than increased. One can only hope the statists at the Congressional Budget Office learn from this research.

Equally interesting, the report notes that reducing social welfare spending and reducing the burden of the bureaucracy are the two most effective ways of lowering red ink:

The estimation results indicate that expenditure-based consolidation which mainly concentrates on cuts in social benefits and government wages is more likely to lead to a major debt reduction. A significant decline in social benefits or public wages vis-a-vis the overall decline in the primary expenditure will increase the probability of a major debt reduction by 31 and 26 percent, respectively.

The other study takes a different approach, looking at the poor fiscal position of European nations and showing what would have happened if governments had imposed some sort of cap on government spending. Entitled “Towards Expenditure Rules And Fiscal Sanity In The Euro Area,” this report finds that restraining spending (what the study refers to as a “neutral expenditure policy”) would have generated much better results. 

Here are the main findings:

[T]he study assesses the impact of the fiscal stance on primary expenditure ratios and public debt ratios and, thus, provides a measure of prudence or imprudence of past expenditure policies. The study finds that on the basis of real time rules, expenditure and debt ratios in 2009 for the euro area aggregate would not have been much different with neutral expenditure policies than actually experienced.

…Primary expenditure ratios would have been 2-3½ pp [percentage points] of GDP lower for the euro area aggregate, 3-5pp of GDP for the euro area without Germany and up to over 10 pp of GDP lower in certain countries if expenditure policies had been neutral.

There’s a bit of academic jargon in that passage, but the authors are basically saying that some sort of annual limit on the growth of government spending is a smart fiscal strategy. And such rules, depending on the country, would have reduced the burden of government spending by as much as 10 percentage points of GDP. To put that figure in context, reducing the burden of government spending by that much in the United States would balance the budget overnight.

There are several ways of achieving such a goal. The report suggests a spending limit rule based on the growth of the overall economy, which is similar to a proposal being developed in the United States by Senator Corker of Tennessee. But it also could mean something akin to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, but intelligently revised to focus on annual spending rather than annual deficits. Some sort of limit on annual spending, perhaps based on population plus inflation like the old Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) in Colorado, also could be successful.

There are a couple of ways of skinning this cat. What’s important is that there needs to be a formula that limits how much spending can grow, and this formula should be designed so that the private sector grows faster than the public sector. And to make sure the formula is successful, it should be enforced by automatic spending cuts, similar to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings sequester provision.

Republican Sellout Watch

Grousing about the GOP’s timidity in the battle against big government will probably become an ongoing theme over the next few months. Two items don’t bode well for fiscal discipline.

First, it appears that Republicans didn’t really mean it when they promised to cut $100 billion of so-called discretionary spending as part of their pledge. According to the New York Times,

As they prepare to take power on Wednesday, Republican leaders are scaling back that number by as much as half, aides say, because the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, will be nearly half over before spending cuts could become law.

This is hardly good news, particularly since the discretionary portion of the budget contains entire departments, such as Housing and Urban Development, that should be immediately abolished.

That being said, I don’t think this necessarily means the GOP has thrown in the towel. The real key is to reverse the Bush-Obama spending binge and put the government on some sort of diet so that the federal budget grows slower than the private economy. I explain in this video, for instance, that it is simple to balance the budget and maintain tax cuts so long as government spending grows by only 2 percent each year.

It is a good idea to get as much savings as possible for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, to be sure, but the real key is the long-run trajectory of federal spending.

The second item is the GOP’s apparent interest in retaining Douglas Elmendorf, the current director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Many of you will remember that the CBO cooked the books last year to help ram through Obamacare. Under Elmendorf’s watch, CBO also was a relentless advocate and defender of Obama’s failed stimulus. And CBO under Elmendorf published reports saying higher taxes would improve economic performance.

But Elmendorf’s statist positions apparently are not a problem for some senior Republicans, as reported by The Hill.

The new House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), gave a very public endorsement of the embattled head of the Congressional Budget Office during his first major speech as committee head Wednesday night. …“You’re doing a great job at CBO, Doug,” Ryan said after receiving the first annual Fiscy Award for his efforts at tackling the national debt. He added that he looked forward to crunching budget numbers with him in the future.

In the long run, the failure to deal with the problems at CBO (as well as the Joint Committee on Taxation) may cause even more problems than the timidity about cutting $100 billion of waste from the 2011 budget. Given the rules on Capitol Hill, it makes a huge difference whether CBO and JCT are putting out flawed numbers.

I’ve already written that fixing the mess at CBO and JCT is a critical test of GOP resolve, and I actually thought this would be a relatively easy test for them to pass. It is an ominous sign that Republicans aren’t even trying to clean house.

Encouraging Polling Data on Spending Restraint vs. Deficit Reduction

When big-spending politicians in Washington pontificate about “deficit reduction,” taxpayers should be very wary. Crocodile tears about red ink almost always are a tactic that the political class uses to make tax increases more palatable. The way it works is that the crowd in DC increases spending, which leads to more red ink, which allows them to say we have a deficit crisis, which gives them an excuse to raise taxes, which then gives them more money to spend. This additional spending then leads to more debt, which provides a rationale for higher taxes, and the pattern continues – sort of a lather-rinse-repeat cycle of big government.

Fortunately, it looks like the American people have figured out this scam. By a 57-34 margin, they say that reducing federal spending should be the number-one goal of fiscal policy rather than deficit reduction. And since red ink is just a symptom of the real problem of too much spending, this data is very encouraging.

Here are some of the details from a new Rasmussen poll, which Mark Tapscott labels, “evidence of a yawning divide between the nation’s Political Class and the rest of the country on what to do about the federal government’s fiscal crisis.”

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 57% of Likely U.S. Voters think reducing federal government spending is more important than reducing the deficit. Thirty-four percent (34%) put reducing the deficit first.  It’s telling to note that while 65% of Mainstream voters believe cutting spending is more important, 72% of the Political Class say the primary emphasis should be on deficit reduction. …Seventy-four percent (74%) of Republicans and 50% of voters not affiliated with either of the major parties say cutting spending is more important than reducing the deficit. Democrats are more narrowly divided on the question. Most conservatives and moderates say spending cuts should come first, but most liberals say deficit reduction is paramount. Voters have consistently said in surveys for years that increased government spending hurts the economy, while decreased spending has a positive effect on the economy.

I wouldn’t read too much into the comparative data, since the “political class” in Rasmussen’s polls apparently refers to respondents with a certain set of establishment preferences rather than those living in the DC area and/or those mooching off the federal government, but the overall results are very encouraging.

Oh, and for those who naively trust politicians and want to cling to the idea that deficit reduction should be the first priority, let’s not forget that spending restraint is the right policy anyhow. As I noted in this blog post, even economists at institutions such as Harvard and the IMF are finding that nations are far more successful in reducing red ink if they focus on controlling the growth of government spending.

In other words, the right policy is always spending restraint – regardless of your goal…unless you’re a member of the political class and you want to make government bigger by taking more money from taxpayers.

So we know what to do. The only question is whether we can get the folks in Washington to do what’s right. Unfortunately, the American people are not very optimistic. Here’s one more finding from Rasmussen.

Most voters are still not convinced, even with a new Republican majority in the House, that Congress will actually cut government spending substantially over the next year.  GOP voters are among the most doubtful.