Tag: government spending

Moody’s Mulls Downgrading U.S. Debt

The U.S. isn’t Greece.  Yet.

Moody’s is no longer so sure about the quality of Uncle Sam’s debt.  Reports the Christian Science Monitor:

The US needs to make significant government spending cuts or else risk losing its gold-plated credit rating that has made extensive borrowing so affordable, Moody’s Investor Service said late Monday.

The announcement was a sobering warning that the country’s burgeoning debt has weakened the country’s economic standing, and that US Treasury Bonds, traditionally a bullet-proof investment, could lose their sterling Aaa-rating if Washington cannot control its federal debt.

If Moody’s were to downgrade the country’s rating, the impact could be severe. It would signal to lenders worldwide that the US is no longer one of the safest places to invest money.

That, in turn, would threaten the country’s ability to borrow freely and extensively from other countries on favorable terms. Investors would likely demand a higher interest rate to finance US debt, which would push federal debt higher still.

“There’s a profound effect in this announcement,” says Max Fraad Wolff, a professor of economics at New School University in New York. “The US has always been the gold standard … and this begins to signal a fall or weakness in US global economic position. That’s a bit like a sea change.”

Obviously we are long overdue for some fiscal responsibility in Washington.  And that means cutting spending across the board.  Lawmakers might start by considering what programs are authorized by the Constitution–and the far larger number which represent unconstitutional political power grabs.

Keynesian Economics and the Wizard of Oz

When Dorothy and her friends finally reach Oz, they present themselves to the almighty Wizard, only to eventually discover that he is just an illusion maintained by a charlatan hiding behind a curtain. This seems eerily akin to to the state of Keynesian economics. It does not matter that Keynesianism isn’t working for Obama. It does not matter that it didn’t work for Bush, or for Japan in the 1990s, or for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. In the ultimate triumph of theory over reality, the Keynesians say all that matters is the macroeconomic model behind the curtain showing that more government spending leads to more jobs and growth. Consider the recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which claimed that Obama’s stimulus created at least one million jobs. As Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation noted:

CBO’s calculations are not based on actually observing the economy’s recent performance. Rather, they used an economic model that was programmed to assume that stimulus spending automatically creates jobs — thus guaranteeing their result. …The problem here is obvious. Once CBO decided to assume that every dollar of government spending increased GDP…, its conclusion that the stimulus saved jobs was pre-ordained.

But surely this can’t be true, you may be thinking. Our public servants in Washington would not make important policy decisions based on a model that automatically produces a certain result, would they? Peter Suderman of Reason pulls aside the curtain:

[T]hose reports rely on assumption-packed models that effectively predetermine their outcomes; what they say, in essence, is that the stimulus worked because we assume it did. …That’s especially true when estimating government spending’s productive effects, which is accomplished by plugging numbers into a formula that assumes that government spending produces a multiplier—an increased return for every government dollar spent. In other words, it extrapolates from how much money is put in rather than from what has actually come out. And it does so using a formula that dictates that if money is put in, even more money will come out. According to the CBO’s estimates, depending on how the money is spent, one dollar of government spending can produce total economic activity of up to $2.50. What a deal! …[F]or all practical purposes, the same multipliers that were used to predict how many jobs would be created are being used to estimate how many jobs have been created.

Interestingly, CBO’s analysis is completely schizophrenic. Its short-run budget numbers are based on free-lunch Keynesianism that assumes deficit-financed government spending boosts growth, while its long-run numbers are driven by an assumption that government borrowing is terrible for growth (which is why CBO actually claims higher taxes boost economic output — see, for example, Figure 3 of this CBO analysis). It is impossible to know whether the people at CBO actually believe their own work, or whether they are simply trying to please their political paymasters by producing results that (conveniently) match up with political preferences for more spending today and higher taxes tomorrow. You can draw your own conclusions, but keep in mind that CBO is now making the absurd claim that a giant new healthcare entitlement will reduce budget deficits.

But I digress. Let’s now give a defense of the Keynesian model. The folks at CBO and other Keynesians who publish estimates that inevitably turn out to be wrong (Mark Zandi comes to mind) will claim that they are right because they are predicting results compared to what otherwise would have happened. So when they claim that Obama’s so-called stimulus created jobs, they are really saying that the economy would have lost even more jobs if the government didn’t spend all that money. The problem with this approach is that there is no independent benchmark, but this is not why Keynesianism is wrong. Indeed, most of the economic profession relies on this kind of “counterfactual” analysis. Instead, the problem with Keynesianism is that it fails the empirical test. The Keynesians may be good at constructing models, but that doesn’t mean much if the models don’t match the real world. Here’s what Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise said in recent congressional testimony:

[M]ost economists learned in graduate school that models like those relied upon most heavily by the CBO provide nonsensical results. The reason the original large scale Keynesian Macro forecasting models were discarded by most of the profession is that they make a simple logical error in assuming that individuals do not change their behavior based on the expectation of future policy. …Professor Barro has been one of the primary contributors to the macroeconomic time series literature that has tried to estimate effects from observed economic data, rather than assume affects, as is done by the Keynesian models. …Barro’s analysis is based on econometric evidence, a reliance on experience. The CBO analysis is based almost exclusively on speculation within the context of Keynesian Macro models that were discredited decisively in the 1970s. …Dating at least back to the seminal work of Nelson (1972), economists have known that the empirical time series approach significantly outperforms macroeconomic models in forecasting competitions. …Ashley (1988) compares data-based time series forecasts to those from the large macro forecasters and concludes not only that the time series approach is superior, but that the macro forecasts were so bad that, “most of these forecasts are so inaccurate that simple extrapolation of historical trends is superior for forecasts more than a couple of quarters ahead.” …Finally, one should note that this literature, combined with an earlier public finance literature, raises questions concerning the welfare gain associated with short-term increases in spending. …Browning (1987) finds that the marginal cost ranges widely, between 10% and 300%. Thus, the welfare costs of paying the bill may be greater than the short-term boost to the economy from the most optimistic estimates. This literature would be consistent with Barro’s analysis that suggests the stimulus makes us worse off in the long run.

The Senate Bill Would Increase Health Spending

Ezra Klein quotes the Congressional Budget Office’s latest cost estimate of the Senate health care bill when he writes:

“CBO expects that the legislation would generate a reduction in the federal budgetary commitment to health care during the decade following 2019,” which is to say that this bill will cover 30 million people but the cost controls will, within a decade or so, leave us spending less on health care than if we’d done nothing.  That’s a pretty good deal. But it’s not a very well-understood deal.

Indeed, because that’s not what the CBO said.

First, the CBO said the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” would rise by $210 billion between 2010 and 2019 under the Senate bill.  Then, after 2019, it would fall from that higher level.  And it could fall quite a bit before returning to its current level.

Second, the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” is a concept that includes federal spending on health care and the tax revenue that the federal government forgoes due to health-care-related tax breaks, the largest being the exclusion for employer-sponsored insurance premiums.  If Congress creates a new $1 trillion health care entitlement and finances it with deficit spending or an income-tax hike, the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” rises by $1 trillion.  But if Congress funds it by eliminating $1 trillion of health-care-related tax breaks, the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” would be unchanged, even though Congress just increased government spending by $1 trillion.  That’s what the Senate bill’s tax on high-cost health plans does: by revoking part of the tax break for employer-sponsored insurance, it makes the projected growth in the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” appear smaller than the actual growth of government.

Third, the usual caveats about the Senate bill’s Medicare cuts, which the CBO says are questionable and Medicare’s chief actuary calls “doubtful” and “unrealistic,” apply.  If those spending cuts don’t materialize, the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” will be higher than the CBO projects.

Fourth, Medicare’s chief actuary also contradicts Klein’s claim that the Senate bill would “leave us spending less on health care than if we’d done nothing.”  The actuary estimated that national health expenditures would rise by $234 billion under the Senate bill.

And really, Klein’s claim is a little silly.  Even President Obama admits, “You can’t structure a bill where suddenly 30 million people have coverage and it costs nothing.”

Lessons from the Greek Budget Debacle

Fiscal crises have a predictable pattern.

Step 1 occurs when the economy is prospering and tax revenues are growing faster than forecast.

Step 2 is when politicians use the additional money to increase government spending.

Step 3 is that politicians do not treat the extra tax revenue like a temporary windfall and budget accordingly.Instead, they adopt policies - more entitlements, more bureaucrats - that permanently expand the burden of the public sector.

Step 4 occurs when the economy stumbles (in part because more resources are being diverted from the productive sector to the government) and tax revenues stagnate. If the resulting fiscal gap is large enough, as it is in places such as Greece and California, a crisis atmosphere is created.

Step 5 takes place when politicians solemnly proclaim that “tough measures” are necessary, but very rarely does that mean a reversal of the policies that caused the mess. Instead, the result in higher taxes.

Greece is now at this stage. I’ve already argued that perhaps bankruptcy is the best option for Greece, and I showed the data proving that Greece has a too-much-spending crisis rather than a too-little-revenue crisis. I’ve also commented elsewhere about the feckless behavior of Greek politicians. Sadly, it looks like things are getting even worse. The government has announced a huge increase in the value-added tax, pushing this European version of a national sales tax up to 21 percent. On the spending side of the ledger, though, the government is only proposing to reduce bonuses that are automatically given to bureaucrats three times per year. Here’s an excerpt from the Associated Press report, including a typically hysterical responses from a Greek interest group:

Government officials said the measures would include cuts in civil servant’s annual pay through reducing their Easter, Christmas and vacation bonuses by 30 percent each, and a 2 percentage point increase in sales tax to bring it to 21 percent from the current 19 percent. …One government official, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the official announcement, said…that “we have exhausted our limits.” …”It is a very difficult day for us … These cuts will take us to the brink,” said Panayiotis Vavouyious, the head of the retired civil servants’ association.

Now, time for some predictions. It is unlikely that higher taxes and cosmetic spending restraint will solve Greece’s fiscal problem. Strong global growth would make a difference, but that also seems doubtful. So Greece will probably move to Step 6, which is a bailout, though it is unclear whether the money will come from other European nations, the European Commission, and/or the European Central Bank.

Step 7 is when politicians in nations such as Spain and Italy decide that financing spending (i.e., buying votes) with money from German and Dutch taxpayers is a swell idea, so they continue their profligate fiscal policies in order to become eligible for bailouts. Step 8 is when there is no more bailout money in Europe and the IMF (i.e., American taxpayers) ride to the rescue. Step 9 occurs when the United States faces a fiscal criss because of too much spending.

For Step 10, read Atlas Shrugged.

Before Administering the Lethal Injection, Dr. Obama Offers to Sterilize the Needle

In a letter to congressional leaders, President Obama wrote of his openness to including Republican proposals in his health care legislation.

Dropping a few Republican ideas into a government takeover of health care is like sterilizing the needle before a lethal injection: a nice thought, but the ultimate outcome is the same.

This is not bipartisanship.  President Obama is creating the illusion of bipartisanship while taking the most partisan route possible: forcing his legislation through Congress via reconciliation.

(Cross-posted at National Journal’s Health Care Arena.)

Son of the Stimulus

Like the sequel to a horror film, the politicians in Washington just passed another stimulus proposal. Only this time, they’re calling it a “jobs bill” in hopes that a different name will yield a better result.

But if past performance is any indicator of future results, this is bad news for taxpayers. By every possible measure, the first stimulus was a flop. But don’t take my word for it. Instead, look at what the White House said would happen.

The Administration early last year said that doing nothing would mean an unemployment rate of nine percent. Spending $787 billion, they said, was necessary to keep the unemployment rate at eight percent instead.

So what happened? As millions of Americans can painfully attest, the jobless rate actually climbed to 10 percent, a full percentage point higher than Obama claimed it would be if no bill was passed.

The President and his people also are arguing that the so-called stimulus is responsible for two million jobs. Yet according to the Department of Labor, total employment has dropped significantly – by more than three million – since the so-called stimulus was adopted. The White House wants us to believe this sow’s ear is really a silk purse by claiming that the economy actually would have lost more than five million jobs without all the new pork-barrel spending. This is the infamous “jobs saved or created” number. The advantage of this approach is that there are no objective benchmarks. Unemployment could climb to 15 percent, but Obama’s people can always say there would be two million fewer jobs without all the added government spending.

To be fair, this does not mean that Obama’s supposed stimulus caused unemployment to jump to 10 percent. In all likelihood, a big jump in unemployment was probably going to occur regardless of whether politicians squandered another $787 billion. The White House was foolish to make specific predictions that now can be used to discredit the stimulus, but it’s also true that Obama inherited a mess – and that mess seems to be worse than most people thought.

Moreover, it takes time for an Administration to implement changes and impact the economy’s performance. Reagan took office in early 1981 during an economic crisis, for instance, and it took about two years for his policies to rejuvenate the economy. It certainly seems fair to also give Obama time to get the economy moving again.

That being said, there is little reason to expect good results for Obama in the future. Reagan reversed the big-government policies of his predecessor. Obama, by contrast, is continuing Bush’s big-government approach. Heck, the only real difference in their economic policies is that Bush was a borrow-and-spender and Obama is a borrow-and-tax-and-spender.

This raises an interesting question: Since last year’s stimulus was a flop, isn’t the Administration making a big mistake by doing the same thing all over again?

The President’s people actually are being very clever. Recessions don’t last forever. Indeed, the average downturn lasts only about one year. And since the recession began back in late 2007, it’s quite likely that the economic recovery already has begun (the National Bureau of Economic Research is the organization that eventually will announce when the recession officially ended).

So let’s consider the political incentives for the Administration. Last year’s stimulus is seen as a flop. So as the economy recovers this year, it will be difficult for Obama to claim that this was because of a pork-filled spending bill adopted early last year. But with the passing of a supposed jobs bill, that puts them in a position to take credit for a recovery that was already happening anyway.

That may be smart politics, but it’s not good economics. The issue has never been whether the economy would climb out of recession. The real challenge is whether the economy will enjoy good growth once the recovery begins. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration policies of bigger government – combined with the Bush Administration policies of bigger government – will permanently lower the baseline growth of the United States.

If America becomes a big-government welfare state like France, then it’s quite likely that we will suffer from French-style stagnation and lower living standards.

Monday Links

  • Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron: “Economists find weak or contradictory evidence that higher government spending spurs the economy. Substantial research, however, does find that tax cuts stimulate the economy and that fiscal adjustments—attempts to reduce deficits by raising taxes or lowering expenditure—work better when they focus on tax cuts.”