Tag: spending

Should a Balanced Budget Amendment Also Determine the Size of Government?

The House of Representatives are set to debate and vote on introducing a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Such a move is almost certain to fail, as it requires a super-majority in both chambers of Congress, and three-quarters of the states—38 out of 50—would need to ratify it. Coming hot on the heels of the recent spending-cap busting omnibus bill, it’s difficult not to see this as a form of Republican fiscal virtue-signalling.

As I wrote in my recent paper on fiscal rules, the best way to build support for fiscal conservatism is to deliver it. That means constructing an argument about the supply and demand for government, getting public and political buy-in for a new fiscally responsible budgeting framework, and taking the necessary steps to get to a stage where the budget is balanced, ideally though spending cuts. Neither party has shown an appetite for this so far – in fact, quite the opposite.

Rule design is an incredibly important part of acceptance, and then adherence to a rule, too, though: critics and economists have a point about some of the downsides of a pure year-on-year BBA (as proposed). Evidence from around the world suggests rules that are too inflexible to changing circumstances and recessions prove less durable.

Big Spenders Dominate

Congressional leaders have agreed to a 2,232-page omnibus spending package that allocates federal discretionary spending for 2018. Defense and nondefense spending levels are jacked up, budget caps are blown through, and the deficit is soaring.

You could say that the (nominally spendthrift) Democrats took the (nominally frugal) Republicans to the cleaners. But the real problem is that the great majority of members in both parties love federal spending. They think it unambiguously helps people; they are oblivious to constitutional federalism; they are willing to load more debt onto young people; and they have no idea about the negative consequences of government spending, such as the crowding out of private-sector activities.

It is amazing how many liberal priorities are included in the omnibus, despite the Republicans having the White House and majorities in both chambers. The Democrats highlighted some of their big-spending wins here:

  • Nondefense discretionary spending up $63 billion in 2018.
  • More for Head Start.
  • More for the child care and development block grant.
  • More for K-12 subsidies.
  • More for college subsidies.
  • More for renewable energy subsidies.
  • More for Amtrak subsidies.
  • More for urban rail subsidies.
  • More for community development subsidies.
  • More for the EPA.
  • More for public housing subsidies.

Aside from these increases in traditionally liberal programs, there were spending increases on many other programs that are also not properly federal activities, such as state-local policing and state infrastructure. If we are ever going to tackle massive federal deficits, we have to start cutting federal subsidies for state-local activities. But those subsidies keep rising.

More evidence on the bipartisan spending disease came Tuesday as HUD Secretary Ben Carson defended the administration’s budget to the appropriations committee. Carson did a fine job. He had many facts at his disposal, he generally defended the administration’s proposed cuts, and he deflected seemingly unfair accusations about his office expenses.

What struck me was that in the hearing’s Q&A, not a single Republican member spoke out in favor of the administration’s proposed HUD budget cuts. This is a department chock full of 1960s-style liberal interventionist programs, such as public housing and community development. If Republican members were conservatives, they would have lauded the proposed HUD cuts, but they did not.

It is sad reality that we get much more resistance to spending on Capitol Hill when Republicans are in the minority.

The Wall Street Journal Declares “Creditor Emptor”

Last week the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page criticized the investors who lent money to Puerto Rico as being naive about political risks and suggested that they more or less deserve the massive haircuts currently being proposed.  However, this is a puzzling perspective that misconstrues the legal issue at hand—and bodes poorly for the next government that gets in such a mess.

Disregarding the Commonwealth’s constitutional requirement to prioritize general obligation debt above other obligations is not a regrettable necessity, as the Journal seems to suggest, but a violation of the law. Such a step is not only unnecessary but also portends long-run ramifications that would be to the detriment of the island’s residents.

The Journal mistakenly places its faith in the island’s recently announced fiscal plan, which bases its sparse debt repayments on the island’s supposedly ongoing economic contraction. In fact, Puerto Rico’s nominal GDP is at an all-time high (as are tax revenues), having grown 20% over the last decade. While the Journal praises the fiscal plan’s ostensible parsimony, spending actually grows by 12% over the next decade—it’s the 80% reduction in debt payments that makes it appear as if Puerto Rico’s government has restrained anything. To essentially forego any serious spending reforms when there is a fiscal oversight commission in place to take the political heat is mystifying—as is the Wall Street Journal’s facile praise of this approach. It’s also worth remembering that Puerto Rico’s government employs a much greater proportion of its workforce than any state in the union, so this notion that there’s nothing to cut in their budget doesn’t hold water.

If Puerto Rico does succeed in escaping its obligations to secured creditors, look for a stampede in the bond markets, as lenders come to realize there is no such thing as a safe government bond or an ironclad legal protection. What happens in Puerto Rico is going to be perceived by the bond markets as the model for Illinois—and Kentucky and California before too long.

What Puerto Rico threatens to establish is that regardless of any contractual agreements or constitutional pledges, all bets are off when a government not covered by Chapter 9 bankruptcy can’t pay its debts.

Infrastructure Investment: A Look at the Data

Hillary Clinton says that “we are dramatically underinvesting” in infrastructure and she promises a large increase in federal spending. Donald Trump is promising to spend twice as much as Clinton. Prominent wonks such as Larry Summers are promoting higher spending as well. But more federal spending is the wrong way to go.

To shed light on the issue, let’s look at some data. There is no hard definition of “infrastructure,” but one broad measure is gross fixed investment in the BEA national accounts. 

The figure below shows data from BEA tables 1.5.5 and 5.9.5 on gross investment in 2015. The first thing to note is that private investment at about $3 trillion was six times larger than combined federal, state, and local government nondefense investment of $472 billion. Private investment in pipelines, broadband, refineries, factories, cell towers, and other items greatly exceeds government investment in schools, highways, prisons, and the like.

One implication is that if policymakers want to boost infrastructure spending, they should reduce barriers to private investment. Cutting the corporate income tax rate, for example, would increase net returns to private infrastructure and spur greater investment across many industries.

How Growth Can Impact Spending and Why Spending Doesn’t Necessarily Drive Growth

The New York Times, in its infinite wisdom, has figured out how poor states can become rich states: simply put, they need only to increase taxes and spending. It recently publish a piece entitled “the Path to Prosperity is Blue” which suggested that the states that have maintained solid growth the last three decades largely owe that growth to high state government spending, and it suggested that the poor states follow that formula as well. 

The statistical derivation of this conclusion comes from the fact that the wealthiest states of the U.S. tend to be blue states, which have higher taxes and spending. By this logic, spending drives growth. 

While there is indeed a relationship between a state’s spending and its GDP, the causality is completely contrary to what the Times portrays. The reality is that states that become prosperous invariably spend more money. Some of that can represent more spending on public goods–Connecticut does seem to have better schools than Mississippi–but far more of it is simply captured by government interests. While California may have made have created a quality public university system in the 1950s and 1960s with its newfound wealth, the reason its taxes are so high today is because it has a ruinous public pension system it needs to finance. Their high spending isn’t doing its citizenry any good at all. 

New York City and California. two high tax regions, became prosperous in large part because they were (and remain) a hub for immigrants and ambitious, entrepreneurial Americans who helped create the industries that to this day drive the economies of each state. California’s defense and IT industry did benefit from public investment as well, of course, but it was investment from the federal government, and in each case it merely served as a catalyst for the development of industries that went far beyond the government’s initial investment. 

To tell Mississippi that it could become prosperous and pull its citizenry out of poverty if it only doubled taxes is an absurd notion that amounts to economic malpractice. What Mississippi has to do is figure out how to attract and retain talented individuals, which is easier said than done. Unfortunately, the Jacksons and Peorias of the world are not lures to the ambitious Indian engineer or Chinese IT professional, who’d rather take their chances in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, or anywhere else where the quality of life is good and jobs are plenty.

The lesson to take away from a comparison of the economic status of the fifty states is that economies of agglomeration is a vaguely-understood but critically important phenomenon, location matters, and that it is enormously difficult for states to pivot when their main industries falter. None of these can be said to be driven by government spending.

Balanced Budget Requirements Don’t Work as Well as Spending Limits

When I first came to Washington back in the 1980s, there was near-universal support and enthusiasm for a balanced budget amendment among advocates of limited government.

The support is still there, I’m guessing, but the enthusiasm is not nearly as intense.

There are three reasons for this drop.

  1. Political reality - There is zero chance that a balanced budget amendment would get the necessary two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. And if that happened, by some miracle, it’s highly unlikely that it would get the necessary support for ratification in three-fourths of state legislatures.
  2. Unfavorable evidence from the states - According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, every state other than Vermont has some sort of balanced budget requirement. Yet those rules don’t prevent states like California, Illinois, Connecticut, and New York from adopting bad fiscal policy.
  3. Favorable evidence for the alternative approach of spending restraint - While balanced budget rules don’t seem to work very well, policies that explicitly restrain spending work very well. The data from Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado is particularly persuasive.

Advocates of a balanced budget amendment have some good responses to these points. They explain that it’s right to push good policy, regardless of the political situation. Since I’m a strong advocate for a flat tax even though it isn’t likely to happen, I can’t argue with this logic.

Regarding the last two points, advocates explain that older versions of a balanced budget requirement simply required a supermajority for more debt, but newer versions also include a supermajority requirement to raise taxes. This means - at least indirectly - that the amendment actually is a vehicle for spending restraint.

The House Budget Proposal Leaves Much to Be Desired

House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) released his budget proposal this morning, which outlines spending priorities for 2016 through the next decade. The proposal is a mixed bag. It includes some reform steps, but also fails to aggressively confront the dire fiscal realities facing the nation with specific spending-cuts.

The positives:

Spending Restraint– The budget proposes $43.2 trillion of total spending over the next decade, which is $5.5 trillion below baseline projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Ten year projected deficits are also much lower than CBO projections; $1.3 trillion compared to $7.2 trillion. This proposal balances the budget within ten years, moving us closer to solving our long-term fiscal challenges.

ObamaCare Repeal– Price’s proposal includes full repeal of ObamaCare including all of its health care and tax provisions. This constitutes a large share of the spending cuts, $2 trillion of the $5.5 trillion.

The negatives:

Defense–The 2011 bipartisan Budget Control Act (BCA) set caps on defense and nondefense discretionary spending through 2021. Many Republicans have pushed Price to rescind the caps on defense spending, claiming that they are too draconian and will undermine America’s security. Other Republicans pushed to keep the BCA caps as an effective restraint on spending. The Price budget goes for the easy political solution: it retains the BCA caps for defense spending for fiscal year 2016, but it increases the “emergency” defense spending account, known as Overseas Contingent Operations (OCO), by $16 billion compared with fiscal year 2015. This allows Price to honor the BCA, while violating its spirit. Under this plan, the U.S. will spend $387 billion more on defense over the next decade than CBO baseline projections.

Entitlement Reform–CBO projects that 85 percent of spending growth over the next decade will be due to Social Security, Medicare, and net interest. The Price budget acknowledges the need to reform Social Security and Medicare, but fails to meet the challenge. The budget does not include a plan to reform Social Security, other than saying it needs a “long-term solution” from a “bipartisan commission.” Medicare reforms don’t start until 2024. Waiting up to a decade to reform these two programs is a dereliction of duty.

Tax Reform–The budget proposal is vague about this important topic. It urges Congress to consider tax reform, but does not detail any specific reforms, nor does it provide a timeline for considering proposals.

Overall, Price’s budget proposal would cut spending and balance the budget, but it still leaves much to be desired.

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