Tag: national debt

Bush Deception Points

Former President George W. Bush’s book Decision Points is apparently selling quite well. The book includes a defense of the president’s fiscal record, and a table on page 447 compares Bush to prior presidents on spending and debt (you can see the table on Amazon’s search inside feature).

One problem with the table is that Bush claims credit for the low spending and debt of President Clinton’s last year, fiscal 2001. The first budget Bush crafted was for fiscal 2002. Here are the data reported by Bush, and data recalculated to better reflect the budgets that each president had some control over. Figures are averages over the fiscal year periods, measured as a share of GDP:

Decision Points Comparison: Clinton (1993-2000) 19.8%, Bush (2001-2008) 19.6%.
More Accurate Comparison: Clinton (1994-2001) 19.4%, Bush (2002-2009) 20.4%.

The book makes Bush look better on spending, but a more accurate comparison shows Clinton to have a better record.

It’s true that Bush was not responsible for some of fiscal 2009 spending, and if we take that year out Bush would have average spending of 19.8%. But consider the direction of spending under the two presidents–spending fell under Clinton from 21.4% to 18.2%, but it increased under Bush from 18.2% to 20.7% by fiscal 2008 (and even higher in fiscal 2009). (Spending data are here). 

The table in Decision Points also shows Bush looking better than Clinton on public debt as a share of GDP, averaged over each president’s tenure. But the debt data has the same time period problem as the spending data. More importantly, Clinton delivered surpluses his last four years in office, which handed Bush a budget with very low debt and low interest costs. The low interest costs helped mask the spending-increase policies of Bush for a number of years. But Bush’s profligacy eventually became clear to analysts and the public alike, and this autobiography cannot undo his record as the biggest spender since LBJ.

Final note: yes, I understand that Congress plays a large role in federal budgeting, but so do presidents. Presidents propose annual budgets, they twist arms and use the bully pulpit to increase or cut programs, they support legislation to expand or contract entitlement programs, and they sign or veto appropriation and authorization bills.

The President’s Fiscal Commission: It’s a Start

Today POLITICO Arena asks

Will implementing President Obama’s Fiscal Commission recommendations require that everyone take a hit?

My response (with tax insights from Jagadeesh Gokhale):

President Obama’s Fiscal Commission Report offers a useful start in reducing our budget deficits and national debt, but it hardly goes far enough. As several of my Cato colleagues have just noted here, here, here, and here, the report recognizes, to its credit, that our corporate income tax structure puts U.S. corporations at a considerable competitive disadvantage against their foreign competitors. And the report keeps military spending cuts on the table, even if there is much more to be cut. Yet by proposing a reduction in government spending from 24.3 percent of GDP today to 21.8 percent over the next 15 years – total federal spending as recently as 2000 was just 18.4 percent of GDP – it plays the old Washington game of calling a slower increase than previously projected a “cut.”

As for taxes, this report should be read in the context of a powerful argument in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal to the effect that over the past six decades, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP have averaged just under 19 percent, regardless of the top marginal personal income tax rate or whether taxes were cut or raised. What this suggests is that low tax rates spur income growth to leave the government’s revenues undiminished over the long-term. High tax rates do the opposite. It doesn’t take a large leap of faith to believe that this effect would be stronger for those who earn more and pay more in taxes. Indeed, among high earners are the nation’s business leaders – innovators who create new products and jobs – who would respond positively to the growth opportunity provided by a stable, low-tax-rate environment.  So those who believe that we help ourselves by more heavily taxing the rich need to ask themselves whether it might not be better to cut rates and keep them stable instead. Wouldn’t that promote a robust economy and lift all boats – with the government continuing to generate 19 percent in revenues?

None of this has anything to do, of course, with whether our current out-of-control federal government is constitutionally authorized to do all it is doing. But it’s a start toward returning the government to within its constitutional limits. Had those limits been respected – as the Framers understood, unlike New Deal progressives – we wouldn’t be in this mess.

A Budget Plan: Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford

Some 75 new Republican members of Congress got there by promising to stop the federal government’s massive overspending. And as Chris Edwards noted, there have been a number of lists of budget cuts proposed recently.

Saturday Night Live did a sketch back in 2007 that might be useful to Tea Partiers and new members of Congress. It’s about a self-help plan called “Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford.” Since the federal government is running deficits well over a trillion dollars a year, I’d say this plan would be good advice:

Hat tip to Jonathan Witt at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog, who points out that if this were a perfect analogy, the book author would be more agitated because “the couple has been spending the author’s money using a credit card he had idiotically loaned them a few years before.”

Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law

At more than 2,500 pages and 500,000 words long, the new health care bill — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — is the most significant transformation of the American health care system since Medicare and Medicaid.

The bill’s complexity has created confusion, frustration, false expectations, and conflicts about its coverage and impact. An incisive new report by Cato scholar Michael D. Tanner provides an authoritative and deeply revealing explanation of its provisions.

The diagnosis: the bill is bad medicine. It is likely to make Americans less healthy, less prosperous, less able to direct their own health care decisions, and places huge burdens on our economy and already massive national debt. It is now certain that the debate over health care reform will be with us for much longer.

Update: Printed copies are now available for purchase for $10.

Weak Defenses of Teacher Bailout

As the Obama administration continues to send mixed signals about the proposed $23 billion public-school bailout, rescue advocates are offering some very wimpy defenses of their cause. That is, except for the National Education Association, which has launched a PR blitz for the bailout in its grandest – and most shameless – tradition of using cute kids to get lots of dues-paying members:

OK, enough of the NEA. The more numerous defenses of the bailout try to offer more reasoned and less emotional arguments for the bailout than does the NEA. But not much more reasoned.

Case in point, the The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, who takes issue with an op-ed I had in the New York Post yesterday making clear that even cutting 300,000 public-school employees – the worst-case scenario – would hardly be the “catastrophe” people like U.S. Secretary of Arne Duncan say it would be. As I wrote, even that cut would only constitute a 4.8 percent reduction in the public K-12 workforce. More important, we have seen decades of huge per-pupil spending and staffing increases in education with essentially no accompanying improvement in academic achievement. In other words, even far bigger cuts than the worst-case scenario would likely have little adverse effect on achievement.

So the worst cuts wouldn’t actually be that big, and they’d likely have little negative effect on achievement. But to Thompson, they’d be akin to the suffering of cold-turkey drug rehab:

At the risk of invoking a cliche, our education system is a bit like a painkiller junkie who just had his wisdom teeth pulled. In the long term, we probably want to wean the patient off drugs. In the short term, the patient happens to be in dire need of some drugs.

Perhaps more troubling than this overwrought analogy is that Thompson dismisses my complaint that the $23 billion bailout would, in addition to being educationally worthless, add to our staggering national debt.  $23 billion, Thompson essentially says, is just too small a piece of federal change to complain about its debt implications.

“Well,” he writes, “if we’re playing the put-it-in-context game, $23 billion is ‘only’ 0.6% of the 2010 budget. An unfortunate bailout, perhaps, but hardly catastrophic…”

OK. If the game we’re supposed to be playing is the “this-expenditure-isn’t-all-that-big” game, then we can forget about ever cutting the $13 trillion debt. Heck, the Defense Department’s budget in FY 2010 was “only” about $693 billion, a mere 5.3 percent of the national debt.

Joining the bailout defense today is White House Council of Economic Advisors chair Christina Romer, who pushes for it in the Washington Post.

In addition to repeating the usual, now thoroughly debunked proclamations of impending educational disaster, Romer rolls out boilerplate about the government needing to maintain high employment in order to keep people spending and paying taxes:

Because unemployed teachers have to cut back on spending, local businesses and overall economic activity suffer. And the costs of decreased learning time and support for students will be felt not just in the next year or two but will reduce our productivity for decades to come…

Furthermore, by preventing layoffs, we would save on unemployment insurance payments, food stamps and COBRA subsidies for health insurance, and we would maintain tax revenue.

Given the at-best highly dubious short-term positive effects of the “stimulus,” it is hard to believe that too many people at this point will find these arguments persuasive. Worse yet, Romer glosses right over the fact that the mammoth debt will eventually have to be repaid, and that that will have huge negative effects for local businesses and everyone else as their money goes from useful pursuits to government debt repayment.

In light of how flaccid the arguments are for the bailout, it’s really no surprise that the Obama administration is sending mixed signals about how much it really wants the rescue. By offering some support – including having the Education Secretary appear at the launch of the NEA’s PR blitz – the administration keeps on the good side of the teachers unions. But by not going all out, the administration doesn’t end up too closely connected to a debt-be-damned expenditure that neither addresses a real emergency, nor has any meaningful connection to education quality.

The Greek Model

It was a good idea to get science and democracy from the ancient Greeks. It’s not such a good idea to get fiscal policy from the modern Greeks.

But that’s the way we’re headed.

Greece has a budget deficit of 13.6 percent. We’re not in that league – ours is only 10.6 percent, the highest level since 1945.

Greece has a public debt of 113 percent of GDP. We’re not there yet. But the 2009 Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports show the combined unfunded liability of these two programs has reached nearly $107 trillion.

Under President Obama’s budget, debt held by the public would grow from $7.5 trillion (53 percent of GDP) at the end of 2009 to $20.3 trillion (90 percent of GDP) at the end of 2020. It could rise to 215 percent of GDP in 30 years. Welcome to Greece.

Here’s a graphic presentation of the official debt and real net liabilities of various countries, including the United States and Greece at the right. (From the Telegraph, apparently based on Jagadeesh Gokhale’s report.)

offbalancesheet

And here’s a Heritage Foundation chart on where the national debt is headed in the coming decade:

Paul Krugman wrote, “My prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the [fiscal] crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt. And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar.” Now he was writing in 2003, when a different president was in office, but he was also warning about the possibility of a ten-year deficit of $3 trillion. Presumably the same warnings apply to today’s much larger deficit projections. And he was absolutely right to fear that government would turn to inflation as a supposed solution.

CBO on Obama Debt Orgy

This week the Congressional Budget Office released its analysis of the president’s FY2011 budget. The CBO projects that combined deficits for 2011-2020 under the president’s budget will be $1.2 trillion (for a total of $9.7 trillion) higher than the Office of Management & Budget’s forecast.

The CBO projects that debt held by the public as a percentage of GDP will be significantly higher:

One major reason why the CBO projects higher deficits than the OMB is because the CBO projects that cumulative revenue over the period will be lower (its economic growth assumptions aren’t as rosy as the OMB’s).

But a lack of revenues isn’t the big problem. The CBO projects that revenues as a percentage GDP would rebound from 14.5 percent in FY2010 to 19.6 percent in FY2020. The big problem is that spending as a percentage of GDP is projected to remain at post-war record highs throughout the decade: