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An Unbalanced Budget: Fiscal Pollution

by Matt Mitchell on October 5, 2011

in Balanced Budget, Institutions

Yesterday I appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to talk about a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The other witnesses were Former Governor and Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, Former CBO Director and current president of the American Action Forum, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Professor Philip Joyce of the University of Maryland.

I began by pointing out the enormity of the problem: CBO projects that absent policy change, the nation’s debt will be 90 percent of GDP in just seven years. This is an important figure because research suggests that when national debt levels get much above this point, their growth rates tend to slow. In the median case, they slow by 1 percentage point and in the mean case, their growth rates are cut in half.

This may not sound like much, but to put it in perspective, I used the following chart.

What would current national income be if—in 1975—the U.S. had accumulated the sort of debt that we are about to accumulate and the nation’s growth rate had slowed by 1 percentage point? This is indicated by the dashed line in the middle. Today’s GDP would be about 1/3rd smaller than it actually is. And what would national income be if we had grown at half our actual pace? This is indicated in the bottom line. Today’s income would be 45 percent smaller than it actually is. To get a feel for this magnitude, notice the blip in the top right corner of the actual GDP line. That is the Great Recession that began in 2008. As I told the Judiciary Committee:

The most calamitous economic contraction in decades pales in comparison to the lost income associated with persistently anemic economic growth from too much debt.

In my view, the nation’s fiscal problems owe much to the incentives that politicians face. Around 1:27:45 I make this point:

The basic problem here is one of externalities. This is a problem that is familiar to environmental economists.  If a factory…in the process
of making a product for consumers, is allowed to bilge smoke into the air, that’s an externality. And they will make too much of the product unless it is internalized. So here, what’s happening is that this current generation is allowed to externalize the costs of government onto the next generation….The costs of reform, the costs of avoiding this kind of economic contraction that we are staring at will be borne by people like me, the median voter. But the costs of the status quo will be borne by my daughter. She cannot vote. Until we can internalize that externality, I think we are going to continue to make the wrong choice because none of you have the incentive to make the right choice. It’s not your fault; you are all good people, you are servants of the public and you are listening to what your constituents and your median voters are saying. But the incentives that they offer you are not right.

A balanced budget amendment, by internalizing this externality, would correct these misaligned incentives. Simply put, it would “make each generation that benefits from government services pay for the costs of producing them.”

The video is here (my testimony begins at 54:30). Here is my written statement.

Unfortunately, despite the ardent wishes of my 7th grade civics teacher, these sorts of hearings are not, primarily, about weighing the evidence and changing minds. Instead, they have much more to do with scoring political points and solidifying already-hardened positions. Nevertheless, I found that most of the Congress-people who disagreed with me were polite. And I hope that this leads to opportunities for more fruitful exchanges down the line.

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