Tag: federal spending

Strength vs. Stupidity

The New York Times weighs in this morning with a timely and sensible editorial on military spending. The main focus is on the increasingly outdated pay and benefits system for the nation’s troops. Some choice excerpts:

Military pay, benefit and retirement costs rose by more than 50 percent over the…decade (accounting for inflation). Leaving aside Afghanistan and Iraq, those costs now account for nearly $1 out of every $3 the Pentagon spends.

Much of that is necessary to recruit and retain a high-quality, all-volunteer military….But current military pay, pension systems and retiree health care benefits are unsustainable and ripe for reform.

[…]

The retirement system is both unfair and increasingly expensive. Most veterans, including many who have served multiple combat tours, will never qualify for even a partial military pension or retiree health benefits. These are only available to those who have served at least 20 years. Those who do qualify can start collecting their pensions as soon as they leave service, even if they are still in their late 30s, making for huge long-term costs.

So far, so good. Two essential points bear repeating.

First, the rise in military spending over the past decade has not been driven solely by the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon costs are growing, and the rate of growth is rising. Programmatic reform is needed to reign in those costs; avoiding stupid wars won’t solve the problem (although it won’t hurt).

Second, the current system disproportionately rewards individuals who stay in the service for 20-plus years, and undercompensates those men and women who serve several tours, but who do not qualify for military retirement. A better system would allow anyone who has served to retain some of what they paid (or what taxpayers paid for them) into a portable retirement account that they control. Private industry has been steadily moving away from a fixed-benefit, pension-style system for years. I have heard the arguments against such a move, but I don’t find them particularly convincing.

One point from the Times editorial, however, calls out for clarification. The editors claim on two separate occasions that current military spending patterns are “unsustainable.” They conclude:

The United States already has a comfortable margin of [military] dominance….The Pentagon’s ambitions expanded without limit over the Bush era, and Congress eagerly wrote the checks. The country cannot afford to continue this way, and national security doesn’t require it. (emphasis added)

The latter point, “national security doesn’t require it,” is crucial, correct, and should be repeated at every opportunity. The former assertion, “the country cannot afford” it, is false. Repeating that claim plays into the hands of the inveterate hawks who never saw a war, or a weapon system, that wasn’t deserving of more lives/money.

The hawks are correct to point out that the United States has in the past, and could in the future, choose to spend as much or more on our military. Current spending levels amount to about five percent of GDP (when including the costs of the wars), and military spending as a share of total government spending has been falling steadily for years. According to the hawks, it is other spending, or too little revenue, that is putting our children and grandchildren into debt.

I wish that the Times had spent more time hammering the point that such spending is unnecessary. Contrary to anecdote and the evening news, the international system is remarkably stable and peaceful. The United States need not spend more than we did at the height of the Cold War in order to be secure from most threats. And those few genuine threats to our security could be handled with a smaller, more efficient military—if we offloaded some responsibilities to other countries that have sheltered under the U.S. security umbrella for decades.

The Times doesn’t directly address that last point. By focusing most of their attention on programmatic reforms to pay and benefits, and a bit on costly procurement of unnecessary weapons, but not enough to the underlying flawed assumptions that drive military spending, the editors contribute to the misconception that the U.S. military should continue to be the world’s policeman, and find ways to do this on the cheap.

That is unfortunate. Spending more than we need to doesn’t make us stronger. Ignoring our favorable strategic circumstances is simply stupid. We spend too much on our military because we ask our troops to do too much. To spend less, we must do less. The good news is that we can. The bad news is that too few people understand that.

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing the Federal Government, we focused on the following issues this past week:

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Federal Spending Hits $4.1 Trillion

If you looked at the new CBO report on the budget, you may have noticed that federal spending this year will be $3.6 trillion.

In fact, federal spending this year will top $4 trillion. But virtually all reporters and budget wonks (including me) routinely use the lower number when discussing total federal spending. I don’t think the higher $4 trillion number even appears anywhere in the CBO report.

The $3.6 trillion figure is “net” outlays. But “gross” outlays, or total spending, is quite a bit higher. The difference is caused by “offsetting collections” and “offsetting receipts.” These are revenue inflows to the government that are netted against spending at the program level, agency level, or government-wide level. Some examples are national park fees, Medicare premiums, and royalties earned on mineral deposits. There are hundreds of these cash inflows to the government that offset reported spending.

Details on these revenue offsets can be found in Chapter 16 of OMB’s Analytical Perspectives (pdf). In fiscal year 2010, net federal outlays were $3.456 trillion, but gross outlays were $4.057 trillion. Thus, gross outlays were 17 percent larger than widely reported net outlays.

In FY 2011, OMB expects gross outlays to be about 15 percent larger than net outlays. Thus, gross outlays this year will be $4.1 trillion, compared to net outlays of $3.6 trillion. As a share of GDP, gross outlays will be about 27.3 percent of GDP, compared to net outlays of 23.8 percent.

Accounting for offsets in this manner is a long-standing convention, but it is one of the sneaky ways that Washington tries to hide its large intrusion into the economy. Certainly, the CBO and OMB should include more prominent presentations of gross outlays in their regular budget updates.

For citizens and reporters, a rule-of-thumb to remember is that total federal spending is 3 to 4 percentage points of GDP larger than usually reported by officials.

End the Mortgage Interest Deduction

The mortgage interest income tax deduction is popular among homeowners (read: likely voters) despite its role in distorting housing and related markets, its contribution to the housing bubble and its enabling of additional household debt. Never mind that there isn’t much evidence that the deduction boosts home ownership in the United States. Consider also that the tax break largely benefits affluent homeowners living in expensive urban areas.

As Mark Calabria notes in today’s Cato Daily Podcast, it’s well past time for the mortgage interest deduction to be replaced by lower marginal tax rates for all earners.

A Turning Point?

Greg Sargent cites a CNN poll question:

As you may know, the agreement would cut about one trillion dollars in government spending over the next ten years with provisions to make additional spending cuts in the future. Regardless of how you feel about the overall agreement, do you approve or disapprove of the cuts in government spending included in the debt ceiling agreement?

Approve 65

Disapprove 30

Sargent continues:

Sixty five percent approve of deal’s spending cuts. But it gets worse. Of the 30 percent who disapprove, 13 percent think the cuts haven’t gotten far enough, and only 15 percent think the cuts go too far. One sixth of Americans agree with the liberal argument about the deal.

About 20 percent of Americans self-identify as liberals. This would suggest that all non-liberal Americans and one-fourth of self-identifying liberals approve of the deal or think the cuts have not gone far enough. It could also mean that some non-liberal Americans disapprove of the deal and more than one-quarter of liberals approve of it. Either interpretation will not encourage those who believe government should be larger.

Still, the political agenda is defined as cuts, and the public seems willing to go along. 2008 seems like a generation ago.

Thoughts on the Boehner Plan

These are the times that try budget analysts’ souls—especially budget analysts who’d like to see Washington dramatically cut spending. The debate over lifting the debt ceiling has produced a number of proposals from Capitol Hill—none of them have been worth celebrating. We can now add House Speaker John Boehner’s latest proposal to the pile.

Boehner’s proposal boils down to the following: cap discretionary spending over 10 years to achieve $1.2 trillion in savings; have (another) bipartisan group of policymakers come up with $1.8 trillion in “deficit reductions” over ten years; and get a vote on a balanced budget amendment. In exchange, the president would get to increase the deficit by $900 billion this year and by another $1.6 trillion next year.

Here are some thoughts on Boehner’s plan:

  • Under the Congressional Budget Office’s optimistic spending baseline, the federal government will spend $46 trillion over the next ten years. Obviously, reducing spending by $1.2 trillion oven ten years is relatively small.
  • The same dysfunctional congress that treats entitlement programs like lit sticks of dynamite is supposed to come up with $1.6 trillion in “deficit reduction.” Note that we’re not even talking specifically about spending cuts here, so that figure would likely include tax increases assuming they’re able to even come up with something.
  • Under the Boehner plan, spending and debt will continue to rise. At the most, the plan would produce an average of $300 billion a year in cuts in exchange for increasing the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion over the next two years.
  • Boehner’s bill includes language that tightens up the definition of what constitutes “emergency” spending. Congress regularly slaps the “emergency” designation on all sort of non-emergency spending bills. I have no faith that the new language will stop the foxes guarding the henhouse from continuing to devour chickens.
  • Where are the immediate spending cuts? Once again, we have the promise of cuts but no specifics. Even if the discretionary caps hold the line on that portion of spending, total federal spending (and debt) will continue its unsustainable upward climb. Entitlement spending is the biggest driver of our long-term budgetary problems but entitlement spending isn’t capped under the Boehner plan.

In sum, this plan is another stinker. But with Harry Reid controlling the Senate and Barack Obama sitting in the White House, the votes just aren’t there to get a plan passed that sufficiently addresses our fiscal mess by reining in the size and scope of government.

Senate Finance Hearing on Debt

I testified to the Senate Finance Committee today regarding federal spending and debt.

Here are some of the points I made:

  • Last night, President Obama called for a “balanced solution” to our fiscal problems, including tax increases and spending cuts. However, CBO projections do not indicate that we face a “balanced” problem. Instead, projections show that the deficit problem is caused all on the spending side of the budget.
  • The United States has sadly become a big-government country. Until recently, government spending in this country was about 10 percentage points less than the average of OECD countries. That smaller-government advantage has now shrunken to just 4 percentage points.
  • In recent years, policymakers have given us the largest deficit-spending “stimulus” since World War II, yet we are suffering from the slowest economic recovery since World War II.
  • Rising government spending suppresses GDP because the government’s “leaky bucket” gets leakier and leakier as spending increases.
  • Leaders in Congress are talking about cutting spending by $3 trillion over 10 years, or roughly $300 billion per year. The result would be that spending would rise from $3.6 trillion this year to $5.4 trillion in 2021, rather than the currently projected $5.7 trillion. That would be only a 5 percent cut. Interest savings would reduce spending a little more—but, come on Congress, you can do better than that!