Tag Archives: WWII

Don’t like the fiscal cliff? You’ll hate the fiscal future.

Absent an eleventh-hour deal—which may yet be possible—the Federal government will cut spending and raise taxes in the New Year. In a town that famously can’t agree on anything, nearly everyone seems terrified by the prospect of going over this fiscal cliff.

Yet for all the gloom and dread, the fiscal cliff embodies a teachable moment. At the risk of mixing metaphors, we should think of the fiscal cliff as the Ghost of the Fiscal Future. It is a bleak lesson in what awaits us if we don’t get serious about changing course.

First, some background. Over the last four decades, Federal Government spending as a share of GDP has remained relatively constant at about 21 percent. This spending was financed with taxes that consumed about 18 percent of GDP and the government borrowed to make up the difference.

After a decade of government spending increases and anemic economic growth, federal spending is now about 24 percent of GDP (a post WWII high, exceeded only by last year’s number) and revenues are about 15 percent of GDP (the revenue decline can be attributed to both the Bush tax cuts and to the recession).

But the really telling numbers are yet to come.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office now projects that, absent policy change, when my two-year-old daughter reaches my age (32), revenue will be just a bit above its historical average at 19 percent of GDP while spending will be nearly twice its historical average at 39 percent of GDP. This is what economists mean when they say we have a spending problem and not a revenue problem: spending increases, not revenue decreases, account for the entirety of the projected growth in deficits and debt over the coming years.

Why is this so frightful? The Ghost of the Fiscal Future gives us 3 reasons:

1) As spending outstrips revenue, each year the government will have to borrow more and more to pay its bills. We have to pay interest on what we borrow and these interest payments, in turn, add to future government spending. So before my daughter hits college, the federal government will be spending more on interest payments than on Social Security.

2) When the government borrows to finance its spending, it will be competing with my daughter when she borrows to finance her first home or to start her own business. This means that she and other private borrowers will face higher interest rates, crowding-out private sector investment and depressing economic growth. This could affect my daughter’s wages, her consumption, and her standard of living. In a vicious cycle, it could also depress government revenue and place greater demands on the government safety net, exacerbating the underlying debt problem.

This is not just theory. Economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have examined 200-years’ worth of data from over 40 countries. They found that those nations with gross debt in excess of 90 percent of GDP tend to grow about 1 percentage point slower than otherwise (the U.S. gross debt-to-GDP ratio has been in excess of 90 percent since 2010)

If, starting in 1975, the U.S. had grown 1 percentage point slower than it actually did, the nation’s economy would be about 30 percent smaller than it actually is today. By comparison, the Federal Reserve estimates that the Great Recession has only shrunk the economy by about 6 percent relative to its potential size.

3) Things get worse. The CBO no longer projects out beyond 2042, the year my daughter turns 32. In other words, the CBO recognizes that the whole economic system becomes increasingly unsustainable beyond that point and that it is ludicrous to think that it can go on.

What’s more, if Congress waits until then to make the necessary changes, it will have to enact tax increases or spending cuts larger than anything we have ever undertaken in our nation’s history. As Vero explains:

By refusing to reform Social Security, lawmakers are guaranteeing automatic benefit cuts of about 20-something percent for everyone on the program in 2035 (the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2035, the combined retirement and disability trust funds will run dry in 2033, and both will continue to deteriorate).

In other words, if we fail to reform, the fiscal future will make January’s fiscal cliff look like a fiscal step. I’ve never understood why some people think they are doing future retirees a favor in pretending that entitlements do not need significant reform.

You might think that we could tax our way out of this mess. But taxes, like debt, are also bad for economic growth.

But it is not too late. Like Scrooge, we can take ownership of the time before us. We can make big adjustments now so that we don’t have to make bigger adjustments in a few years. There is still time to adopt meaningful entitlement reform, to tell people my age to adjust our expectations and to plan on working a little longer, to incorporate market incentives into our health care system so that Medicare and Medicaid don’t swallow up more and more of the budget.

Some characterize these moves as stingy. In reality, these types of reforms would actually make our commitments more sustainable. And the longer we wait to make these inevitable changes, the more dramatic and painful they will have to be.

For all the gloom and dread, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was Scrooge’s savior. In revealing the consequences of his actions—and, importantly, his inactions—the Ghost inspired the old man to take ownership of the “Time before him” and to change his ways.

Let us hope that Congress is so enlightened by the Ghost of the Fiscal Cliff.

“The last thing we can do is go back to the same failed policies that got us into this mess in the first place.”

I’ve heard this a great deal lately. I suspect I’ll hear it even more over the next three months. Whatever could it mean? Presumably, the speaker is worried about the sorts of micro and macro policies that were pursued in the years prior to the Great Recession:

  • Perhaps he thinks it was bad policy for federal spending as a share of GDP to leap from 18.2 percent in 2001 to 25.2 percent in 2009 (this was the largest such increase in ANY 8 year period since WWII).
  • Or perhaps he thinks it was bad that net federal debt went from 32.5 percent of GDP in 2001 to 54.1 percent of GDP in 2009 (a post WWII high).
  • Or maybe the speaker thinks it was ill advised for the Bush Administration to be far more aggressive than its predecessors in pursuing discretionary, Keynesian-style countercycle fiscal policy. There were no fewer than four such measures during the Bush years: cash rebates in 2001, investment incentives known as “bonus depreciation” in early 2002, tax rebates in 2003, and of course, the 2008 stimulus bill which included more rebates.
  • Perhaps the speaker thinks it was a bad idea for the Bush Administration to impose 30 percent tariffs on imported steel.
  • Or maybe he thinks it was bad for the Bush Administration to introduce (an unfunded) Medicare prescription drug benefit, the first major entitlement program since the Great Society.
  • Perhaps he thinks it was bad for the Bush Administration to reintroduce industrial policy by signing the Energy Policy Act of 2005, creating the Department of Energy loan program that ramped-up the government’s adventures in venture capitalism.
  • Perhaps the speaker thinks that in the years leading up to the crisis, monetary policy became unhinged from a restrained, rules-based approach?
  • Or perhaps the speaker thinks that the government sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, systematically encouraged over-leveraging in the housing industry?
  • Or maybe that capital requirements encouraged investors to load up on mortgage-backed securities.
  • Or maybe he thinks that, once the crisis hit, the Bush Administration shouldn’t have undertaken the most comprehensive and far-reaching bailout of private industry in U.S. history, one that resulted in the federal government buying stake in or bailing out hundreds of financial firms.
  • It must be that the speaker was worried that in aggregate these policies had seriously undermined the economic freedom of the U.S., as evidenced by the precipitous fall in measured economic freedom from 2001 to 2009:

If this is what the speaker was getting at, then I couldn’t agree more! Hopefully, he’s proposing ideas to reverse course: spending reductions to bring spending in line with taxation, entitlement reform to put the nation’s budget on a sustainable course, tax reform to close loopholes and reduce rates such as the corporate tax rate, financial reforms to finally end too big to fail, regulatory reforms to reduce distortions in the marketplace, health care reforms so that market forces can actually operate in that industry, and other economic reforms to restore a level playing field in American business.

….Or, maybe the speaker is just focusing on one policy that marginally moved the nation in a market direction, the temporary reduction of all personal income tax rates, including the top marginal rate from 39.6 percent to (gasp!) 35 percent. And maybe the speaker is hoping that no one will notice that on just about every other policy dimension, the previous administration was anything but laissez faire.

Do More Revenues Lead to More or Less Spending?

This, I think, is (literally) the trillion dollar question.

As you can see from the animated chart below, ours really is a spending problem in the sense that revenue is set to remain fairly constant while non-interest spending is set to skyrocket.  That, in turn, causes interest payments to skyrocket, adding to the amount we spend and causing the whole thing to go to…you get the drift.

One hopes that at least some of the members of the Super-Committee recognize this. If so, they will draw a hard line in the sand demanding meaningful spending reforms in the entitlement programs that are at the heart of the long-term problem.

But a question remains: should they also draw a hard line in the sand against any and all revenue increases?  I believe this question turns on the one above: do more revenues lead to more spending?

If the answer is yes, then a hard line in the sand against revenue increases may be warranted.  But if the answer is no, then negotiators would be wise to focus all of their energies on reforming entitlement spending and should perhaps be willing to give some ground on revenue if it buys more support for spending cuts.  Interestingly, there are good “free market” economists on both sides of this debate.

Milton Friedman exemplifies the view that more revenue will only encourage more spending (see “The Limitations of Tax Limitation,” 1978; I wasn’t able to find a link).  Those who subscribe to his view may point to Reagan’s 1982 “TEFRA” deal with Democrats.  The president agreed to raise some tax revenue, mostly by closing loopholes, in exchange for spending cuts.  But, say critics, the tax increases materialized while the spending cuts never did.

On the other hand, James Buchanan, another Nobel-laureate with free market bona fides, takes the opposite view.  He argues that the ability to deficit spend biases policy makers to favor more spending.  He believes that if you make policy makers charge current taxpayers for what they spend, the current taxpayers will demand less spending.  Ironically, this leads to the conclusion that revenue increases will lead to less spending.  Advocates of this view might point to the 1990s.  Then, revenues as a share of GDP rose while spending as a share of GDP actually fell for the first time in post-WWII history.

As an empirical matter, I don’t think this is settled.  James Payne (2003) has studied the issue at the state level and has concluded that, at least in a plurality of states, spending does seem to respond to revenue, corroborating the Friedman view.  Thus, he concludes that, “any policy to reduce budget deficits via revenues may not result in deficit reduction.”

On the other hand, Andrew Young has studied the matter at the federal level and concludes:

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the findings suggest that tax increases—even temporary—may serve to decrease expenditures by forcing the public to reckon with the cost of government spending.  The findings suggest that the electorate has to be clearly presented with the bill to recognize the cost of government, rather than being allowed to run up a tab.

It makes some sense that the Friedman view would be corroborated at the state level while the Buchanan view would hold at the federal level.  Most states have an obligation to balance their books (more or less), while the Feds have no obligation whatsoever.  Thus, current state taxpayers tend to be the ones to pay for current state spending while current federal taxpayers can more-easily foist their costs onto the next generation.

If you do subscribe to the Buchanan view, what sort of revenue increases should be on the table?  The answer is almost certainly not rate increases on those who are current taxpayers.  They, presumably, are already resistant to more spending (we also know that these are the most inefficient sorts of tax increases).  Instead, revenue increases ought to be focused on closing loopholes and broadening the tax base (about half of all Americans have no income tax liability).  In a new Mercatus working paper, economists Jody Lipford and Bruce Yandle examine what happens to spending when large numbers of Americans have little or no income tax liability, leaving the rest (and future generations) to pick up the tab.


Update: Josh Barro rightly noted that large numbers of Americans don’t have an income tax liability; they still pay other taxes including payroll taxes.

Dog Bites Man: Politicians are Interested in Politics, Not Policy

Yesterday Vero testified before the House Ways and Means Committee. The topic was “Impediments to Job Creation.” The other witnesses were Stanford Professor Edward Lazear, AEI Resident Scholar Andrew Biggs, and Center for American Progress Senior Economist Heather Boushey.

All of the witnesses, I thought, did an excellent job. But Vero was particularly good.

Politicians on both sides seemed keen to establish that the economy was healthy when their guy was in the White House and unhealthy when the other guy was in (nevermind that no serious macroeconomist would argue that it is ever this simple). This put Democrats in the awkward position of extolling the virtues of the Clinton Administration’s economic policies. It is true, of course, that the 1990s were a prosperous time. But does it matter to these Democrats that—comparatively speaking—the policies that emerged when Clinton was in office were significantly more market-friendly than those that have characterized the last twelve years? Consider:

Arguably, the most-significant anti-market policy of the Clinton years was the 1993 marginal income tax hike. But just to put that in perspective, recall that this legislation raised the top marginal rate by 8.6 percentage points from 31 percent to 39.6 percent. Now recall that Reagan had lowered it over 40 percentage points from 70 percent (!) to 28 percent.

On balance, it is hard to characterize the Clinton years as anything but a marginal improvement in economic freedom (indeed, that’s what the data show).

Why, again, were Democrats so eager to remind us of the prosperity of the Clinton years?

Oh yeah, because their guy was in power. Which brings me to the Republicans. For their part, they were eager to defend the Bush record. Never mind that during that presidency:

  • Spending as a share of GDP rose from 18.2 percent to 25 percent.
  • The president pushed, and got, the first new entitlement—Medicare prescription drug benefits—in nearly half a century.
  • The president imposed steel tariffs as high as 30 percent.
  • No fewer than FOUR countercyclical fiscal policy measures were undertaken: cash rebates in 2001, countercyclical investment incentives known as “bonus depreciation” in early 2002, tax rebates in 2003, and more rebates in the 2008 stimulus bill (it is seldom remembered that Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill was the second such bill during the Great Recession).
  • Congress passed and the president signed a sweeping and wholly-unprecedented bailout of hundreds of financial firms (prompting the president to acknowledge that he had “abandoned free-market principles.”).

Against this backdrop, politicians of both parties seem obsessed over the Bush tax cuts. Nevermind the fact that they were temporary, that they only reduced the top rate by 4.6 percentage points, and that they did not coincide with concomitant reductions in spending.

Does that sound like a strikingly free-market record to you? Indeed, the data show that it is not.

Why, again are Republicans so eager to remind us of the good-ol’ Bush years?

Spending Projections and Spending Reality

The President’s budget was released this week. Since 2009, spending as a share of the economy has been at an all-time, post-WWII high. As a share of the economy, spending averaged 20.8 percent from 1970 to 2010. In FY2011, it is projected to be 25.3 percent (or 22 percent above average). According to the CBO’s alternative fiscal scenario, it will reach 35.2 percent by 2035.

Not to worry, though, the White House Office of Management and Budget projects that—starting around 2012—things will turn around. Through a combination of rapid economic expansion (they assume nominal GDP will grow at an average annual rate of 5.6 from 2012 to 2016) and “responsible” budget cuts, they plan to get spending as a share of the economy down to around 22.5 percent by 2013. (They do not foresee spending ever returning to its historical average).

What are the odds they will succeed?

As one data point, the curious may want to see what the OMB was projecting two years ago when the spending spree began. My colleague, Jakina Debnam, and I do just that with this chart. Two years ago, they were promising that the spending increase would be “timely, targeted, and temporary.” As such, they projected that in 2011, spending as a share of the economy would already have fallen to 23.4 percent.

This is nearly 2 percentage points lower than they now are willing to countenance.