That is the title of a 2003 New York Times column by economist Paul Krugman. The gist of his column was that the Bush tax cuts and future entitlement program liabilities would usher in calamitous deficits. Setting aside the tax cut and entitlements issue, Krugman’s comments on the dangers of deficits are interesting considering seven years later Krugman is one of the most prominent supporters of massive deficit spending to stimulate the economy.
Here are some selected Krugman quotes from the column:
With war looming, it's time to be prepared. So last week I switched to a fixed-rate mortgage. It means higher monthly payments, but I'm terrified about what will happen to interest rates once financial markets wake up to the implications of skyrocketing budget deficits.
Two years ago the administration promised to run large surpluses. A year ago it said the deficit was only temporary. Now it says deficits don't matter. But we're looking at a fiscal crisis that will drive interest rates sky-high. A leading economist recently summed up one reason why: ‘When the government reduces saving by running a budget deficit, the interest rate rises.’ Yes, that's from a textbook by the chief administration economist, Gregory Mankiw.
But my prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the 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. It won't happen right away. With the economy stalling and the stock market plunging, short-term rates are probably headed down, not up, in the next few months, and mortgage rates may not have hit bottom yet. But unless we slide into Japanese-style deflation, there are much higher interest rates in our future.
Although this shouldn’t be construed as an endorsement of George Bush’s fiscal policies, the deficit for fiscal year 2003 when Krugman wrote his column was $378 billion. The Congressional Budget Office just reported that the deficit for the first quarter of FY 2010 was $434 billion.
The following chart shows the annual deficits from fiscal years 2002 through 2010 (projected). For 2009 and 2010 the first quarter deficit is also shown. In short, the two most recent first quarter deficits have been about $100 billion higher than the average annual deficits run from 2002 to 2008.
In FY2003, the deficit was 3.4 percent of GDP – for FY2010 it’s projected to be 10.6 percent. According to the President’s optimistic FY2011 budget, annual deficits won’t fall below 3.6 percent of GDP at any point in the next ten years.
Yes, Krugman believes that large deficit spending is necessary to turn the economy around. But that doesn’t change the fact that his dire warnings about deficits in 2003 should apply to today’s even larger deficits, especially now that we’re even closer to an entitlement crisis. However, Krugman recently penned a column warning against “deficit hysteria” in which he makes comments that are more than just a little at odds with his 2003 column:
These days it’s hard to pick up a newspaper or turn on a news program without encountering stern warnings about the federal budget deficit. The deficit threatens economic recovery, we’re told; it puts American economic stability at risk; it will undermine our influence in the world. These claims generally aren’t stated as opinions, as views held by some analysts but disputed by others. Instead, they’re reported as if they were facts, plain and simple.
Yet they aren’t facts. Many economists take a much calmer view of budget deficits than anything you’ll see on TV. Nor do investors seem unduly concerned: U.S. government bonds continue to find ready buyers, even at historically low interest rates. The long-run budget outlook is problematic, but short-term deficits aren’t — and even the long-term outlook is much less frightening than the public is being led to believe.
Scratching your head? I am too.
Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:
- Will Obama's deficits turn out to be as low-balled as Bush's?
- Obama blames Bush for his problems, but his new budget is worse.
- Obama's budget would kill the Constellation program, but his budget still goes to the moon.
- The Federal Housing Administration bailout watch continues.
- There's nothing "fiscally responsible" about Sen. Kent Conrad.
- The government is creating jobs — federal government jobs.
Exactly two years ago, George W. Bush released his final budget. Here’s what the Washington Post had to say:
[T]he president's budget envisions a big jump in the budget deficit, from $163 billion in 2007 to about $400 billion in 2008 and 2009. Much of that increase will be the result of a slowing economy and a stimulus package expected to cost about $150 billion.
Today’s release of President Obama’s FY 2011 budget shows that those deficit prognostications were way off:
Instead of a “big jump” to $400 billion in 2009, the actual deficit turned about to be a trillion dollars higher. Bush deserves most of the blame for that deficit, but the 2010 and 2011 deficits will be on Obama.
The frightening prospect is that, like Bush, Obama’s future budget projections will also turn out to be low-balled. Whether it has been war, natural disasters, or a recession, Bush and Obama have both responded to any “crisis” by spending gobs of money. Given that even Obama is projecting annual deficits still in the trillion dollar range by 2020, taxpayers had better hope the Taliban, Mother Nature, and the economy start cooperating.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the Obama Administration will propose a three-year freeze for a portion of the budget known as "non-defense discretionary" spending. Many critics will correctly note that this is like going on a drunken binge in Vegas and then temporarily joining Alcoholics Anonymous. Others will point out that more than 80 percent of the budget has been exempted, which also is an accurate criticism. Nonetheless, even a partial freeze would be a semi-meaningful achievement.
But don't get too excited yet. It is not clear whether the White House is proposing a genuine spending freeze, meaning "budget outlays" for these programs stay at $447 billion for three years, or a make-believe freeze that applies only to "budget authority." This is an enormously important distinction. Budget outlays matter because they represent the actual burden of government spending. Budget authority, by contrast, is a bookkeeping measure that -- at best -- signals future intentions. During the profligate Bush years, for instance, apologists for the Administration tried to appease fiscal conservatives by asserting that budget authority was growing at ever-slower rates. In some cases, they were technically correct, but their arguments were deceptive because real-world spending kept climbing to record levels. And needless to say (but I'll say it anyhow), future intentions never became reality.
Domestic discretionary spending soared from less than $350 billion to more than $600 billion during the Bush years (and rose almost another $100 billion in Obama's first year!). If the Obama Administration proposes a genuine outlay freeze, he will be taking a genuine (albeit small) step in the right direction. If the "freeze" applies only to budget authority, however, that will be another indication we are in George W. Bush's third term.
To attack the $1.4 trillion deficit, the White House will propose limits on discretionary spending unrelated to the military, veterans, homeland security and international affairs, according to senior administration officials. Also untouched are big entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The freeze would affect $447 billion in spending, or 17% of the total federal budget, and would likely be overtaken by growth in the untouched areas of discretionary spending. It's designed to save $250 billion over the coming decade, compared with what would have been spent had this area been allowed to rise along with inflation. ...administration officials acknowledged the freeze is directed at only a small part of overall spending, but that fiscal discipline has to start somewhere. President Obama had requested a 7.3% increase last year in the areas he now seeks to freeze.
Reckless spending increases under both Bush and Obama have resulted in unprecedented deficits. Congress will soon be forced to increase the nation's debt limit by an astounding $1.8 trillion. Government borrowing has become such a big issue that some politicians are proposing a deficit reduction commission, which may mean they are like alcoholics trying for a self-imposed intervention.
But all this fretting about deficits and debt is misplaced. Government borrowing is a bad thing, of course, but this video explains that the real problem is excessive government spending.
Fixating on the deficit allows politicians to pull a bait and switch, since they can raise taxes, claim they are solving the problem, when all they are doing is replacing debt-financed spending with tax-financed spending. At best, that's merely taking a different route to the wrong destination. The more likely result is that the tax increases will weaken the economy, further exacerbating America's fiscal position.
I caught a lot of flack from my Republican friends for my post blaming the FY2009 deficit on Bush instead of Obama. Well, I must be a glutton for punishment because I can't resist jumping (albeit reluctantly) to Obama's defense again. I'm venting my spleen for two reason. First, FoxNews.com posted a story headlined "Obama Shatters Spending Record for First-Year Presidents" and noted that:
President Obama has shattered the budget record for first-year presidents -- spending nearly double what his predecessor did when he came into office and far exceeding the first-year tabs for any other U.S. president in history. In fiscal 2009 the federal government spent $3.52 trillion ...That fiscal year covered the last three-and-a-half months of George W. Bush's term and the first eight-and-a-half months of Obama's.
This story was featured on the Drudge Report, so it has received a lot of attention. Second, Bush's former Senior Adviser wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal eviscerating Obama for big budget deficits. Given Bush's track record, this took considerable chutzpah, but what really nauseated me was this passage:
When Mr. Obama was sworn into office the federal deficit for this year stood at $422 billion. At the end of October, it stood at $1.42 trillion.
I'm a big fan of criticizing Obama's profligacy, but it is inaccurate and/or dishonest to blame him for Bush's mistakes. At the risk of repeating my earlier post, the 2009 fiscal year began on October 1, 2008, and the vast majority of the spending for that year was the result of Bush Administration policies. Yes, Obama did add to the waste with the so-called stimulus, the omnibus appropriation, the CHIP bill, and the cash-for-clunkers nonsense, but as the chart illustrates, these boondoggles only amounted to just a tiny percentage of the FY2009 total -- about $140 billion out of a $3.5 trillion budget.
There are some subjective aspects to this estimate, to be sure. Supplemental defense spending could boost Obama's share by another $25 billion, but Bush surely would have asked for at least that much extra spending, so I didn't count that money but individual readers can adjust the number if they wish. Also, Obama used some bailout money for the car companies, but I did not count that as a net increase in spending since the bailout funds were approved under Bush and I strongly suspect the previous Administration also would have funneled money to GM and Chrysler. In any event, I did not give Obama credit for the substantial amount of TARP funds that were repaid after January 20, so the net effect of all the judgment calls certainly is not to Bush's disadvantage.
Let's use an analogy. Obama's FY2009 performance is like a relief pitcher who enters a game in the fourth inning trailing 19-0 and allows another run to score. The extra run is nothing to cheer about, of course, but fans should be far more angry with the starting pitcher. That having been said, Obama since that point has been serving up meatballs to the special interests in Washington, so his earned run average may actually wind up being worse than his predecessor's. He promised change, but it appears that Obama wants to be Bush on steroids.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis has released its annual data on compensation levels by industry (Tables 6.2D, 6.3D, and 6.6D here). The data show that the pay advantage enjoyed by federal civilian workers over private-sector workers continues to expand.
The George W. Bush years were very lucrative for federal workers. In 2000, the average compensation (wages and benefits) of federal workers was 66 percent higher than the average compensation in the U.S. private sector. The new data show that average federal compensation is now more than double the average in the private sector.
Figure 1 looks at average wages. In 2008, the average wage for 1.9 million federal civilian workers was $79,197, which compared to an average $50,028 for the nation’s 108 million private sector workers (measured in full-time equivalents). The figure shows that the federal pay advantage (the gap between the lines) is steadily increasing.
Figure 2 shows that the federal advantage is even more pronounced when worker benefits are included. In 2008, federal worker compensation averaged a remarkable $119,982, which was more than double the private sector average of $59,909.
What is going on here? Members of Congress who have large numbers of federal workers in their districts relentlessly push for expanding federal worker compensation. Also, the Bush administration had little interest in fiscal restraint, and it usually got rolled by the federal unions. The result has been an increasingly overpaid elite of government workers, who are insulated from the economic reality of recessions and from the tough competitive climate of the private sector.
It’s time to put a stop to this. Federal wages should be frozen for a period of years, at least until the private-sector economy has recovered and average workers start seeing some wage gains of their own. At the same time, gold-plated federal benefit packages should be scaled back as unaffordable given today’s massive budget deficits. There are many qualitative benefits of government work—such as extremely high job security—so taxpayers should not have to pay for such lavish government pay packages.
Update: I respond to some criticisms of this post here.
Update 2: Compensation data for federal workers vs. other industries here.
Update 3: In September, the government revised the data for private sector workers. On 9/30/09, Figure 1 and the related text were updated to reflect this change.