Last week, I jumped into the surreal debate about whether Obama has been the most fiscally conservative president in recent history.
I sliced the historical data from the Office of Management and Budget a couple of ways, showing that overall spending has grown at a relatively slow rate during the Obama years. Adjusted for inflation, both total spending and primary spending (total spending minus interest payments) have been restrained.
So does this make Obama a fiscal conservative?
And how can these numbers make sense when the President saddled the nation with the faux stimulus and ObamaCare?
Good questions. It turns out that Obama's supposed frugality is largely the result of how TARP is measured in the federal budget. To put it simply, TARP pushed spending up in Bush's final fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008) and then repayments from the banks (which count as "negative spending") artificially reduced spending in subsequent years.
The combination of those two factors made a big difference in the numbers. Here's another table from my prior post, looking at how the presidents rank when you subtract both defense and the fiscal impact of deposit insurance and TARP.
All of a sudden, Obama drops down to the second-to-last position, sandwiched between two of the worst presidents in American history. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
But this ranking is incomplete. At that point, I was trying to gauge Obama's record on domestic spending, and the numbers certainly provide some evidence that he is a stereotypical big-spending liberal.
But the main debate is about which president was the biggest overall spender. So I've run through the numbers again, and here's a new table looking at the rankings based on average annual changes in inflation-adjusted primary spending, minus the distorting impact of deposit insurance and TARP.
Obama is still in the second-to-last position, but spending is increasing by "only" 5.5 percent per year rather than 7.0 percent annually. This is obviously because defense spending is not growing as fast as domestic spending.
Reagan remains in first place, though his score drops now that his defense buildup is part of the calculations. Clinton, conversely, stays in second place but his score jumps because he benefited from the peace dividend after Reagan's policies led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
Let's now look at these numbers from a policy perspective. Rahn Curve research shows that government is far too big today, so the goal of fiscal policy should be to restrain the burden of government spending relative to economic output.
This means that policy moves in the right direction when government grows more slowly than the private sector, as it did under Reagan and Clinton.
But if government spending is growing faster than the productive sector of the economy, as has been the case during the Bush-Obama years, then a nation eventually will become Greece.
A financial columnist named Rex Nutting recently triggered a firestorm of controversy by claiming that Barack Obama is not a big spender.
Here's the chart he prepared, which certainly seems to indicate that Obama is a fiscal conservative. Not only that, it shows that Republicans generally are the big spenders, while Democrats are frugal with other people's money.
In some ways, these numbers don't surprise me. I've explained before that Bush bears a lot of blame for the big expansion in the burden of government this century, and I've specifically pointed out that he deserves the blame for most of the higher spending from the 2009 fiscal year (which began October 1, 2008).
That being said, Nutting's numbers seemed a bit nutty. Sorry, couldn't resist. Nutting's numbers actually seem accurate, including the fact that he decided that Obama should be responsible for $140 billion of the spending in Bush's last fiscal year (a number he may have taken from one of my posts).
But sometimes accurate can be misleading, so I decided to dig into the data.
I went to the Historical Tables of the Budget from the Office of Management and Budget, and I calculated all the numbers for every President since LBJ (with the exception of Gerald Ford, whose 2-year reign didn't seem worth including).
But I corrected a big mistake in Nutting's analysis. I adjusted the numbers for inflation, using OMB's GDP deflator.
As you can see, this changes the results. My chart isn't as pretty, but based on the inflation-adjusted average annual growth of outlays, it shows that Clinton was the most frugal president, followed by the first President Bush and Obama.
With his guns-n-butter Keynesianism, it's no big surprise that LBJ ranks last. And "W" also gets a very low grade.
But then I figured we should take interest payments out of the budget and focus on inflation-adjusted "primary spending." After all, Presidents shouldn't be held responsible for the national debt that existed before they took office.
Looking at these numbers, it turns out that Obama does win the prize for being the most fiscally conservative president in recent memory. Reagan jumps to second place. Clinton is in third place, which won't surprise people who watched this video, while W and LBJ again are in last place.
But I don't want my Republican friends to get too angry with me, so let's expand our analysis. Just as we don't want to blame Presidents for net interest payments on debt that was accrued before their tenure, perhaps we should make sure they don't get credit or blame for defense outlays that often are dictated by external events.
There's obviously room for disagreement, but most people will agree that the Cold War and 9/11 meant higher defense spending, regardless of which party controlled the White House. Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet Empire inevitably meant lower military expenditures, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats were in charge.
So let's now look at primary spending after subtracting defense outlays (still adjusting for inflation, of course). All of a sudden, Reagan jumps to the top of the list by a comfortable margin. LBJ and W continue to score poorly, but Nixon takes over last place.
But it's also worth noting that Obama still scores relatively well, beating Clinton for second place. Inflation-adjusted domestic spending (which is mostly what we're measuring) has grown by 2.0 percent annually during his three years in office.
So does that mean Obama deserves re-election? Well, before you answer, I want to make one final calculation. Just as there are good reasons to exclude interest payments because they're not something a president can control, we also should take a look at what spending would be if we don't count the cost of bailouts.
To be sure, these types of expenditures can be controlled, but if we go with the assumption that the federal government was going to re-capitalize the banking system (whether using the good FDIC-resolution approach or the corrupt TARP approach), then it seems that Presidents shouldn't get arbitrary blame or credit simply because some financial institutions failed during their tenure.
So let's take the preceding set of numbers and subtract out the long-run numbers for deposit insurance, as well as the TARP outlays since 2009. And keep in mind that repayments of TARP monies (as well as deposit insurance premiums) show up in the budget as "negative spending."
As you can see, this produces a remarkable result. All of a sudden, Obama drops from second to second-to-last.
This is because there was a lot of TARP spending in Bush's last fiscal year (FY2009), which created an artificially high benchmark. And then repayments by banks during Obama's fiscal years counted as negative spending.
When you subtract out the big TARP spending surge, as well as the repayments, then Bush 43 doesn't look quite as bad (though still worse than Carter and Clinton), while Obama takes a big fall.
In other words, Obama's track record does show that he favors an expanding social welfare state. Outlays on those programs have jumped by 7.0 percent annually. And that's after adjusting for inflation! Not as bad as Nixon, but that's not saying much since he was one of America's most statist presidents.
Allow me to conclude with some caveats. None of the tables perfectly captures what any president's fiscal record. Even my first table may be wrong if you want to blame or credit presidents for the inflation that occurs on their watch. And there certainly are strong arguments that bailout spending and defense spending are affected by presidential policies rather than external events.
And keep in mind that presidents don't have full power over fiscal policy. The folks on Capitol Hill are the ones who actually enact the bills and appropriate the money.
Moreover, the federal government is akin to a big rusty cargo ship that is traveling in a certain direction, and presidents are like tugboats trying to nudge the boat one way or the other.
But enough equivocating. The four different tables at least show more clearly which presidents presided over faster-growing government or slower-growing government. More importantly, the various tables provide a good idea of where most of the new spending was taking place.
We can presumably say Reagan and Clinton were comparatively frugal, and we can also say that Nixon, LBJ, and Bush 43 were relatively profligate. As for Obama, I think his tugboat is pushing in the wrong direction, but it's only apparent when you strip out the distorting budgetary impact of TARP.
On this day last year, I posted two charts that I developed using the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank's interactive website.
Those two charts showed that the current recovery was very weak compared to the boom of the early 1980s.
But perhaps that was an unfair comparison.
Maybe the Reagan recovery started strong and then hit a wall. Or maybe the Obama recovery was the economic equivalent of a late bloomer.
So let's look at the same charts, but add an extra year of data. Does it make a difference?
Meh... not so much.
Let's start with the GDP data. The comparison is striking. Under Reagan's policies, the economy skyrocketed. Heck, the chart prepared by the Minneapolis Fed doesn't even go high enough to show how well the economy performed during the 1980s.
I first met Bill when I went to the Council of Economic Advisers in mid-1982. Bill had come to the CEA in the spring of 1981 as one of the early appointees of the incoming Reagan administration. He had known the president and worked with him when he was governor of California.
Bill and I quickly became good friends. Whenever we were both in Washington, we would usually start the day with 20 minutes of chewing over what was going on in the economy and in public policy. Part of the bond that developed between us was a consequence of the unrelenting infighting within the administration. The infighting sometimes involved the CEA but Bill and I, most of the time, were able to stand clear and remain in neutral territory.
Of course, Bill understood how bureaucracies work, or failed to work, from both his research and his experience at Rand, Ford, OMB and, yes, at UCLA and Berkeley. His insights were a staple of our conversations both at the CEA and later. Very few scholars have such first-hand experience in these various sectors of the economy. That fact often shows in the work of academics who have policy ideas that are simply untenable in the context of how organizations and the political system actually work.
A wonderful sense of humor lubricated Bill’s interactions with others. Well, most of the time anyway. During the administration’s work that culminated in the Tax Reform Act of 1986, Bill cracked along the way that the Treasury proposal was one that Walter Mondale would be proud of. I had left the CEA and returned to Brown University by that time, but Bill’s crack so angered Treasury Secretary Don Regan (who was not renowned for a sense of humor) that Regan vetoed Bill’s path to become chairman of the CEA. He served as acting chairman for a short time and then joined Cato.
Bill was the most widely read person I have known. That, plus the breadth of his personal experience, made him a delightful conversationalist on almost any topic in almost any group.
Although it was a big loss to the Reagan administration for Bill to depart, it was a huge gain for Cato and for the nation for him to join Cato. His leadership there, working closely with Ed Crane, built Cato to what it is today—the premier libertarian think tank in the world. Bill’s scholarly work will influence future generations; so also, in equal or greater measure, will the Cato Institute that he helped to build.
There's an interesting debate in the blogosphere about whether President George W. Bush was a conservative. Here's a good summary of the discussion, along with lots of links. (I especially like this analysis since it cites my work.)
I've already explained that Bush was a statist rather than a conservative, and you can find additional commentary from me here, here, here, and here.
Simply stated, any president who doubles the burden of federal spending in just eight years is disqualified from being a conservative — unless the term is stripped of any meaning and conservatives no longer care about limited government and constitutional constraints on Washington.
But if you don't want to read the blog posts I linked above, this chart should make clear that Bush was a big spender, not only when compared to Reagan, but also compared to Clinton. Moreover, we're only looking at overall domestic spending, so this doesn't include Iraq, Afghanistan, and other defense expenditures. And these are inflation-adjusted dollars, so we're comparing apples to apples.
America faces a fiscal crisis. The burden of federal spending has doubled during the Bush-Obama years, a $2 trillion increase in just 10 years. But that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs, the federal budget is going to consume larger and larger shares of America's economic output in coming decades.
For all intents and purposes, the United States appears doomed to become a bankrupt welfare state like Greece.
But we can save ourselves. A previous video showed how both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton achieved positive fiscal changes by limiting the growth of federal spending, with particular emphasis on reductions in the burden of domestic spending. This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity provides examples from other nations to show that good fiscal policy is possible if politicians simply limit the growth of government.
Read the rest of this post »
President Obama unveiled his fiscal year 2012 budget today, and there's good news and bad news. The good news is that there's no major initiative such as the so-called stimulus scheme or the government-run healthcare proposal. The bad news, though, is that government is far too big and Obama's budget does nothing to address this problem.
But perhaps the folks on Capitol Hill will be more responsible and actually try to save America from becoming a big-government, European-style welfare state. The solution may not be easy, but it is simple. Lawmakers merely need to restrain the growth of government spending so that it grows slower than the private economy.
Actual spending cuts would be the best option, of course, but limiting the growth of spending is all that's needed to slowly shrink the burden of government spending relative to gross domestic product.
Fortunately, we have two role models from recent history that show it is possible to control the federal budget. This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity uses data from the Historical Tables of the Budget to demonstrate the fiscal policy achievements of both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Some people will want to argue about who gets credit for the good fiscal policy of the 1980s and 1990s.
Bill Clinton's performance, for instance, may not have been so impressive if he had succeeded in pushing through his version of government-run healthcare or if he didn't have to deal with a Republican Congress after the 1994 elections. But that's a debate for partisans. All that matters is that the burden of government spending fell during Bill Clinton's reign, and that was good for the budget and good for the economy. And there's no question he did a much better job than George W. Bush.
Indeed, a major theme in this new video is that the past 10 years have been a fiscal disaster. Both Bush and Obama have dramatically boosted the burden of government spending -- largely because of rapid increases in domestic spending.
This is one of the reasons why the economy is weak. For further information, this video looks at the theoretical case for small government and this video examines the empirical evidence against big government.
Another problem is that many people in Washington are fixated on deficits and debt, but that's akin to focusing on symptoms and ignoring the underlying disease. To elaborate, this video explains that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending rather than too much debt.
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. The bad news is that government already is far too big in the United States. This is undermining prosperity and reducing competitiveness.