Tag: State of the Union

Nondefense Discretionary Spending Freezes

When it comes to reining in federal spending, House Republicans and the president have one idea in common: freezing nondefense discretionary spending. That category accounts for about 18 percent of total spending, so let’s see how such a freeze would affect the overall budget.

Today the Congressional Budget Office released updated budget figures and baseline projections of federal spending through fiscal 2021. Projecting the budgetary future is obviously an inexact science, and the CBO’s baseline reflects unrealistic assumptions. However, it does allow us to get an idea of the impact of a nondefense discretionary freeze on total federal spending.

Three proposals have been put forward:

  • In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed freezing nondefense discretionary spending for five years, beginning in fiscal 2012, at fiscal 2010 levels.
  • The conservative House Republican Study Committee and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) recently proposed freezing nondefense discretionary spending for ten years, beginning in fiscal 2012, at fiscal 2006 levels.
  • Ever since the release of its “Pledge to America,” the House Republican leadership has been talking about returning spending to fiscal 2008 levels. They apparently have non-security discretionary spending in mind, which is an even smaller category than nondefense discretionary. It’s not clear if they intend to freeze it at the new lower level.

Using the CBO’s latest figures, I calculated baseline spending from fiscal 2012-2021 under ten year freezes in nondefense discretionary spending at fiscal 2006, 2008, and 2010 levels:

Note:   To make an apples-to-apples comparison, I extended the proposed Obama freeze at fiscal 2010 levels from five years to ten years, and I assumed a ten year freeze at fiscal 2008 levels for the House Republicans. Also, projected annual interest payments on the debt are excluded. Therefore, the chart refers to “baseline program spending,” which is the sum of nondefense discretionary, defense, and entitlement spending.

The chart makes it excruciatingly clear that freezing nondefense discretionary spending at the levels specified or implied by Republicans and Democrats is only a start toward needed reforms in the federal budget. Congress also needs to cut defense spending, and spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs.

Krugman (Both of Them) on Competitiveness

When it became clear that President Obama would make “competitiveness” a theme of his SOTU address, I looked forward to seeing Paul Krugman’s statement pointing out how much nonsense that is. Here he is, after all, in his excellent 1997 book, Pop Internationalism (MIT Press):

…International trade, unlike competition among businesses for a limited market, is not a zero-sum game in which one nation’s gain is another’s loss. It is [a] positive-sum game, which is why the word “competitiveness” can be dangerously misleading when applied to international trade.

Sure enough, President Obama’s speech last night was peppered with references to “the competition for jobs,” “new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else, “the competion for jobs is real,” etc. And of course there was a healthy dose of the usual mercantalist obsession with exports.

Although written before the President’s address was delivered, what would Paul Krugman 2.0 think of this sort of talk? The title of his column Sunday was certainly encouraging: “The Competition Myth.” But the substance of the column went in a … er… different direction from that which I had anticipated/hoped:

…talking about “competitiveness” as a goal is fundamentally misleading. At best, it’s a misdiagnosis of our problems. At worst, it could lead to policies based on the false idea that what’s good for corporations is good for America

So what does the administration’s embrace of the rhetoric of competitiveness mean for economic policy?

The favorable interpretation, as I said, is that it’s just packaging for an economic strategy centered on public investment, investment that’s actually about creating jobs now while promoting longer-term growth. The unfavorable interpretation is that Mr. Obama and his advisers really believe that the economy is ailing because they’ve been too tough on business, and that what America needs now is corporate tax cuts and across-the-board deregulation. [emphasis mine]

In other words, Krugman’s objections to the “competitiveness” rhetoric are based on his fear that it will lead to policies favorable to corporations, not that the whole concept is flawed.

[Disclaimer: the above is by no means an exhaustive analysis of the problematic parts of the column]

I yield to no-one in my admiration for Paul Krugman, trade economist. He made a real contribution to the discipline I’ve loved since I was a teenager. But Paul Krugman, columnist…not so much.

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White House Backs Off of Obama Earmarks Pledge

In the state of the union speech last night, President Obama said with great force:

[I]f a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.

This appeared to settle the earmark question once and for all. The Republican House and Republicans in the Senate had already sworn off earmarks. Senate Democrats, who may have been holding out hope for preserving this prerogative, will not get to do earmarks. So says the president of the United States, veto pen in hand.

But late last night the White House may have begun to modify the president’s pledge. A “government reform factsheet” circulated by White House staff says, “The President intends to veto bills with special interest earmarks.” (emphasis added) This appears to create a class of earmarks that will bring the president’s veto, special interest earmarks, and a class that will not—national interest earmarks, one supposes.

Defining what is an “earmark” is difficult, though not impossible, as the groups that have worked on the earmarking problem can tell you. But the distinction between “special interest earmarks” and “national interest earmarks” appears to be something the president would make for himself. This withdraws a great deal of force from the “no earmarks” pledge.

It’s certainly possible that the “special interest” language in the fact sheet is surplussage simply meant to illustrate that earmarks are a “special interest” problem. But we will have to watch and see whether the president walks away from his statements about controlling earmarks, as he has done before.

Cato Live Blog of President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address and GOP Response

Please join us at 9:00pm Eastern on Tuesday, January 25, 2011 for live commentary during President Obama’s State of the Union address and the response given by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.). Here is our panel of expert bloggers (click each name for their respective Cato@Liberty archives):

Other Cato scholars may also be contributing.

Come back to this page at 9:00pm Eastern on Tuesday, January 25, 2011 to join us–we look forward to having you, and to sharing our insights with you.

Also, don’t forget to tune into our Facebook page immediately following this live blogging event for live video reaction to the speeches from Vice President Gene Healy and Research Fellow Julian Sanchez.


Our Brave Leaders

The Washington Post reports: “Obama has decided not to endorse his deficit commission’s recommendation to raise the retirement age, and otherwise reduce Social Security benefits, in Tuesday’s State of the Union address.”

When I read this, I thought of a song from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Brave Sir Robin ran away
Bravely ran away, away
When danger reared its ugly head
He bravely turned his tail and fled
Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about
And gallantly he chickened out
Bravely taking to his feet
He beat a very brave retreat
Bravest of the brave, Sir Robin.

In the movie, Sir Robin and the other knights are galloping along on horseback, except when you look closely you see that their aides are banging coconuts together only simulating the sounds of brave mounted knights.

Isn’t that what’s going on in Washington? A giant fiscal disaster looms over the nation, and our leaders are only simulating leadership. Republican leaders can’t name a single program that they would cut, and President Obama runs away from a reform to the nation’s most costly program that should be a no-brainer.

Rather than chasing the Holy Grail of “investment” spending, the president needs to sit down with his congressional knights at a roundtable and get the kingdom’s finances under control with major spending cuts.

Weekend Links

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Post-State of the Union Links

  • Time for the SOTU fact check:  Cato experts put some of President Obama’s core State of the Union claims to the test. Here’s what they found.
  • During this year’s SOTU, President Obama criticized the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. Today’s podcast examines the Court’s ruling.