national debt

The Current Budget Crisis Illustrates James Buchanan’s Concerns About Politics

Nobel laureate James Buchanan has been in the news lately, especially because of a book that seeks to link his 7000 pages of economic writing to both Dixiecrat segregationists and Charles Koch’s secret plan “to radically alter our government in ways that will be devastating to millions of people.” The thesis of Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean is that public choice economics is a radical plan to “shackle the people’s power,” “to put democracy in chains.” Oddly, she claims (without evidence), he set out on this project because he resented the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education – which of course used “undemocratic” means to overturn the democratic decisions of legislatures in various states.

Buchanan certainly was concerned with how to achieve justice, efficiency, and “prevention of discrimination against minorities” in the context of majority rule. Throughout his work he explored how to design constitutional rules to bring about optimal outcomes, including a balanced budget requirement, supermajorities, and constitutional protection of individual rights. He worried that both majorities and legislatures would be short-sighted, economically ignorant or inefficient, and indifferent to the imposition of burdens on others.

And today a Washington Post column by Dana Milbank illustrates one of the big problems that Buchanan sought to solve: the temptation of legislatures to spend money with little regard for what two of his students called “deficits, debt, and debasement.” Looking outward from Hurricane Harvey to the upcoming congressional session, Milbank wrings his hands:

Harvey makes landfall in Washington as soon as next week, when President Trump is expected to ask for what could be tens of billions of dollars in storm relief. And paying for storm recovery — probably with few offsetting spending cuts — will be but the first blow to fiscal discipline in what looks to be a particularly active, and calamitous, spending season.

It’s not just disaster relief. The Pentagon is hoping for tens of billions of additional dollars. And Republicans may pivot from “tax reform” to mere tax cuts. It’s easier just to spend money and cut taxes than to reform the flood insurance program, make the tax system more efficient, and focus military spending on actual defense needs, much less to think about the national debt and the next generation.

Presidential Spending

President Obama has issued his final federal budget, which includes his proposed spending for 2017. With this data, we can compare spending growth over eight years under Obama to spending growth under past presidents.

Figures 1 and 2 show annual average real (inflation-adjusted) spending growth during presidential terms back to Eisenhower. The data comes from Table 6.1 here, but I made two adjustments, as discussed below.

Figure 1 shows total federal outlays. Ike is negative because defense spending fell at the end of the Korean War. LBJ is the big-spending champ. He increased spending enormously on both guns and butter, as did fellow Texan George W. Bush. Bush II was the biggest spender since LBJ. As for Obama, he comes out as the most frugal president since Ike, based on this metric.

Figure 2 shows total outlays other than defense. Recent presidents have presided over lower spending growth than past presidents. Nixon still stands as the biggest spender since FDR, and the mid-20th century was a horror show of big spenders in general. The Bush II and Obama years have been awful for limited government, but the LBJ-Nixon tag team was a nightmare—not just for rapid spending during their tenures, but also for the creation of many spending and regulatory programs that still haunt us today.

OMB Director Sets a Low Bar for Deficit Reform

Jonathan House reported [$] in the Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. government’s budget deficit narrowed in its 2014 fiscal year to its lowest level in six years, as an improving economy boosted tax revenues.

The annual deficit for fiscal year 2014 fell 29% to $483.35 billion, the Treasury Department said Wednesday… the lowest deficit since 2008. …

The Real Dysfunction: A $17 Trillion National Debt

Gentlemen may cry default, default, but there will be no default. (With apologies to Patrick Henry.)

Once again the media are full of talk about dysfunction and default, as the partial government shutdown threatens to linger until the federal government hits the limit of its borrowing capacity, possibly on Oct. 17. The parties in Congress are still far apart on passing a budget bill to keep the government running, and Republicans are also promising not to raise the debt ceiling without some spending reforms.

If in fact Congress doesn’t raise the ceiling by mid-October—or by November 1 or so, when the real crunch might come—then the federal government would be forbidden to borrow any more money beyond the legal limit of $16.699 trillion. But it would still have enough money to pay its creditors as bonds come due. The government will take in something like $225 billion in October, but it wants to spend about $108 billion more than that. You see the problem. If it can’t borrow that $108 billion—to cover its bills for one month—then it will have to delay some checks. 

Now the U.S. Treasury isn’t full of stupid people. Back in 2011, when the debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion was about to be reached, the Washington Post reported:

The Treasury has already decided to save enough cash to cover $29 billion in interest to bondholders, a bill that comes due Aug. 15, according to people familiar with the matter.

You can bet they’re making similar plans today.

Back in that summer of discontent I talked to a journalist who was very concerned about the “dysfunction” in Washington. So am I. But I told her then what’s still true today: that the real problem is not the dysfunctional process that’s getting all the headlines, but the dysfunctional substance of governance. Congress and the president will work out the debt ceiling issue, if not by October 17 then a few days later. The real dysfunction is a federal budget that doubled in 10 years, unprecedented deficits as far as the eye can see, and a national debt bursting through its statutory limit of $16.699 trillion and heading toward 100 percent of GDP.

The Fiscal Cliff and Congress’s Dysfunction

The words “default” and “dysfunction” are again showing up on the front pages as the debt ceiling suddenly looms along with the Taxmageddon deadline. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s letter to Congress, raising the specter of “default” and “extraordinary measures,” set off much of the new hand-wringing. Journalists and pundits lecture Congress about its “dysfunctional” failure to raise taxes and promise to cut spending.

But as I told a journalist who was very concerned about dysfunction the last time the debt ceiling began to bite, the real problem is not the dysfunctional process that’s getting all the headlines, but the dysfunctional substance of governance. The real dysfunction is a federal budget that has doubled in 10 years, an annual deficit of some $1.5 trillion, and a national debt bursting through its statutory limit of $14.3 trillion and approaching 70 percent of GDP.

We’ve become so used to these unfathomable levels of deficits and debt—and to the once-rare concept of trillions of dollars—that we forget how new all this debt is. In 1981, after 190 years of federal spending, the national debt was “only” $1 trillion. Now, just 30 years later, it’s more than $16 trillion – and all that debt rung up during a period without a major war or Great Depression. Here’s a graphic representation of dysfunction (through mid-2011; now you can visualize the blue line bursting through the $16 trillion level at the top of the chart):

National debt

Those are the kinds of numbers that caused the rise of the Tea Party and the election of members of Congress who vowed to stop out-of-control spending and debt. It’s too bad that Congress hasn’t been able to rein in spending without the pressure of a debt ceiling or a “fiscal cliff.” But it hasn’t. And so if fiscal conservatives in Congress can use those deadlines to put some caps on the money-shoveling, more power to them. 

CBO on Obama Debt Orgy

This week the Congressional Budget Office released its analysis of the president’s FY2011 budget. The CBO projects that combined deficits for 2011-2020 under the president’s budget will be $1.2 trillion (for a total of $9.7 trillion) higher than the Office of Management & Budget’s forecast.

The CBO projects that debt held by the public as a percentage of GDP will be significantly higher:

Debt Ceiling: Political Games

Back in January I noted that some analysts believe that the statutory debt ceiling should be eliminated. They view the potential for political brinksmanship as creating an unnecessary risk that financial markets will get rattled if there’s a chance the government won’t make good on its debt obligations in a timely manner.

Subscribe to RSS - national debt