Tag Archives: budget deficit

What Is Obama Getting?

By James Kwak

Nothing, as far as I can tell.

The media are reporting the potential Obama-Boehner deal as $3 trillion in spending cuts and $1 trillion in unspecified future revenue increases. But as far as I can tell (details are vague), the baseline for that $1 trillion tax increase is a world in which all of the Bush/Obama tax cuts are extended.*

President Obama can personally guarantee that none of those tax cuts will be extended, simply by promising to veto any bill that extends them. That would increase tax revenues by $3-4 trillion over ten years, not $1 trillion. That is enormous bargaining leverage against a Republican Party that only cares about one thing: tax cuts.

So as far as I can tell, Obama is handing the Republicans $3 trillion in spending cuts, and also handing them $3 trillion in tax cuts. There are only two possible interpretations that I can think of. One: Obama thinks this is the best deal he can get — but if that’s the case, then you have to ask why his starting point wasn’t letting all of the tax cuts expire. Two: Obama thinks this is a good outcome.

But this certainly isn’t a progressive outcome. And giving up $3 trillion in revenues isn’t a fiscally responsible outcome, either. So what does that say?

* That’s how Ezra Klein reads it.

The Weirdness of 10-Year Deficit Reduction

By James Kwak

The Gang of Six plan proposes to reduce the cumulative deficit by $3.6-3.7 trillion over ten years relative to the CBO’s March 2011 baseline. Everyone’s excited about it. Four trillion dollars! Hooray!

The weird thing is that if you are claiming deficit reductions against the CBO’s baseline, I think intellectual honesty requires you to point out that, according to the CBO’s baseline, there is no deficit problem. The projected 2021 deficit is $729 billion, but net interest spending is $807 billion (Table 1-5). That means that the primary budget is running a surplus of $78 billion, the entire deficit is due to interest payments on the debt, and the debt has stabilized around 75 percent of GDP. This is not a great situation, but it’s no emergency, either.

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Gene Sperling, Then and Now

By James Kwak

Mike Konczal points out Gene Sperling’s recent performance on MSNBC, arguing that uncertainty about long-term deficits is weighing on the economy.

What surprised me is that I was just (re-)reading about the early days of the Clinton economic team, and back then Sperling was on the other side of the debate. In Robert Rubin’s account of the famous January 7, 1993 meeting (well, famous if you’re into economic policy debates from two decades ago), the deficit hawks were Al Gore, Lloyd Bentsen, Leon Panetta, and Rubin. The people who wanted more stimulus and less deficit reduction were Robert Reich, Laura Tyson, George Stephanopoulos, and Sperling. (See In an Uncertain World, pp. 123-24.) In Clinton’s memoir, Sperling was also on the side of stimulus and investment: “Gene Sperling made a presentation of options for new investments, arguing for the  most expensive one, about $90 billion, which would meet all my campaign commitments immediately.” (My Life, p. 461.)

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Hoisted from the Archives

By James Kwak

What was the budget debate about eleven years ago?

 

As you can see, that is the cover of the CBO’s March 2000 Budget Options report. (You can get it online, but without the cover.*) For most of the 1980s and 1990s, this report was called Reducing the Deficit: Spending and Revenue Options; this year’s version has reverted to that title.

The context for the picture above was the budget surpluses of the late 1990s. At the time, the CBO was projecting surpluses for at least the next twenty years, amounting to over $3 trillion in the first decade of the twenty-first century. (See the 2000 Budget and Economic Outlook, Summary Table 1.) And although most of the surpluses were off-budget (surpluses of Social Security payroll tax revenues over benefit payouts), there were supposed to be ten years of on-budget surpluses as well.

We all know what happened next: a (mild) recession, the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, among other things. But the question for now is: did those surpluses really exist?

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Long-Term Budget Forecasts for Beginners

By James Kwak

In this season of debate over long-term deficits, this is ground zero:

That’s the key chart from the Congressional Budget Office’s Long-Term Budget Outlook, published just last month, which I read from cover to cover. The CBO is generally considered the authoritative source of budget projections, and CBO “scoring” has been an important aspect of legislative debates over the past few years. Although politicians from both sides criticize the CBO when they don’t like its results, I think it’s fair to say that it is generally both respected and nonpartisan.

Now, when people say that the federal government faces a long-term budget gap, they (including me) are generally starting from the bottom half of this picture: the CBO’s “alternative fiscal scenario.” The alternative scenario is widely considered the most likely path the budget will follow under current policy (although the CBO itself makes no such claim*). That’s probably a close enough approximation for most purposes. But if you’re going to think hard about long-term budgetary paths, you need to be a bit more careful about what it means.

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What Is This “Washington”?

By James Kwak

(Warning: Very elementary post ahead. Most of you probably know all this already.)

Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican Leader, quoted in Bloomberg: “We have seen the consequences of giving Washington a blank check. My message to the president is simple: It’s time for Washington to focus on fixing itself. It’s time Washington take the hit, not the taxpayers.”

That sounds good (if you don’t like “Washington,” that is), but what does it mean? McConnell wants people to think that their tax dollars go to feed some animal named “Washington,” and therefore our budget problems can be solved by simply feeding Washington less — without “taxpayers” taking the hit.

That might be true if “Washington” simply consumed money for its own sake, but the problem is that most of the federal budget isn’t consumed by the federal government.

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Who Created This Mess?

By James Kwak

Not us, say the Republicans. “We didn’t create this mess,” a Republican said to Tim Geithner in a meeting recently, referring to the national debt and the need to raise the debt ceiling this summer. Yet, as the Times continues,

“Independent analyses have shown that more than half of the $14.3 trillion debt is from policies enacted during the past decade when Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress, and much of the rest from lost revenues and stimulus spending and tax cuts since Mr. Obama took office at the height of the financial crisis and recession.”

I did one of those “independent analyses” (although not one that has made it into the media) myself a few months ago.

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The Silliness of Spending Caps

By James Kwak

One of the new old ideas floating around Washington these days is an aggregate spending cap for the federal government. For example, both the House Republicans’ budget and one of those “moderate bipartisan” Senate proposals calls for limiting total government spending at around 21 percent of GDP. This is silly for at least two reasons.

First, and less controversially, the number of dollars that flow from the federal government to entities that are not the federal government is not an economically significant number*. The most obvious example of this is tax expenditures: subsidies that are implemented through the tax code, usually as deductions or credits. For example, let’s say the government wants to promote renewable energy. It can increase taxes and write checks to companies that produce solar panels; or it can keep taxes the same and enact tax breaks for companies that produce solar panels. Same difference — except that the former “counts” as government spending and the latter doesn’t. So a spending cap simply motivates Congress to spend money through tax credits rather than by writing checks, which is bad for all sorts of reasons. (It is harder to target, it reduces the tax base, etc.).

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What’s a Big Government?

By James Kwak

One thing that all parties seem to be able to agree on is that big government is bad. It was President Clinton, after all, who said, “The era of big government is over.” And the current Republican budget-slashing wave seems motivated by the idea that our government is too big.

But what is the size of government, anyway?* When a typical anti-government person thinks of government, she probably has in mind the EPA, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the “jack-booted government thugs” at the the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, OSHA, and all those government agencies that prevent businesses and individuals from getting on with their lives. The idea here is that government intervention in the free market makes the economy less efficient and therefore reduces aggregate societal welfare.

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Taxes and Spending for Beginners

By James Kwak

Over the long term, we are projected to have large and growing federal budget deficits. Assuming that is a problem, which most people do, there seem to be two ways to solve this problem: raising taxes and cutting spending. Today, the political class seems united around the idea that spending cuts are the solution, not tax increases. That’s a given for Republicans; Paul Ryan even proposes to reduce the deficit by cutting taxes. But as Ezra Klein points out, President Obama and Harry Reid are falling over themselves praising (and even seeming to claim credit for) the spending cuts in Thursday night’s deal. And let’s not forget the bipartisan, $900 billion tax cut passed and signed in December.

The problem here isn’t simply the assumption that we can’t raise taxes. The underlying problem is the belief that “tax increases” and “spending cuts” are two distinct categories to begin with. In many cases, tax increases and spending cuts are equivalent — except for the crucial issue of who gets hurt by them.*

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Not Clear on the Concept

By James Kwak

From Congressman Spencer Bachus’s Media Center (these are the actual titles of four consecutive press releases):

Does The U.S. Really Have A Fiscal Crisis?

By Simon Johnson

The United States faces some serious medium-term fiscal issues, but by any standard measure it does not face an immediate fiscal crisis.  Overindebted countries typically have a hard time financing themselves when the world becomes riskier – yet turmoil in the Middle East is pushing down the interest rates on US government debt.  We are still seen as a safe haven.

Yet leading commentators and politicians today repeat the line “we’re broke” and argue there is no alternative other than immediate spending cuts at the national and state level.

Which view is correct?  And what does this tell us about where our political system is heading? Continue reading

Conventional Meaninglessness

By James Kwak

David Brooks may be a wonderful person, but I don’t like his columns (and I didn’t like Bobos in Paradise, either). It’s hard to put my finger on why, but he helped me out with yesterday’s column. For one thing, he has this annoying habit of trying to claim the reasonable center, often by making false equivalences between the two things he is trying to sound more reasonable than. So, for example:

“No place is hotter than Wisconsin. The leaders there have done everything possible to maximize conflict. Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, demanded cuts only from people in the other party. The public sector unions and their allies immediately flew into a rage, comparing Walker to Hitler, Mussolini and Mubarak.”

Comparing the other side to Hitler is bad.* Pushing for legislation that hurts the other side is something else. In the abstract, that legislation may be justified; Walker did just win an election, after all. But it’s a completely different category from making stupid signs to hold at rallies, and it’s a classic David Brooks false equivalence.

But that’s just a minor peeve. It’s when Brooks adopts his pseudo-reasoned “everybody knows” tone that I get really mad.

“Everybody now seems to agree that Governor Walker was right to ask state workers to pay more for their benefits. Even if he gets everything he asks for, Wisconsin state workers would still be contributing less to their benefits than the average state worker nationwide and would be contributing far, far less than private sector workers.”

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Shape-Shifting Deficit Hawks

By James Kwak

We appear to be a week way from an election that, while really about persistent high unemployment, on the talking-point level is largely about deficits, with the Republicans continuing their usual posturing about cutting deficits without raising taxes or explaining what spending programs they are going to cut. Robert Pollin has contributed an analysis of the deficit hawks’ argument that is valuable for pointing out that there actually four deficit hawk arguments. In his words:

“1. The traditional view. Large fiscal deficits will cause high interest rates, large government debts, and inflation.

“2. Declining business confidence is the real danger. Even if the current deficits have not caused high interest rates and inflation, they are eroding business confidence. When business confidence is low, the economy is highly vulnerable to small changes in conditions, what some economists call ‘non-linearities.’

“3. Fiscal stimulus policies never work. New Classical economists, Robert Barro most notably, have long argued that the multiplier for fiscal stimulus policies is zero or thereabouts.

“4. A long-term fiscal train-wreck is coming. Regardless of short-term considerations, we are courting disaster in the long-run with structural deficits that the recession has only worsened.

Pollin also has the grace to point out that, for the deficit hawks to be correct, only one of these arguments has to be correct.

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Why Won’t “Fiscal Hawks” Discuss The Real Issues?

By Simon Johnson and James Kwak

During this hot summer of fitful economic growth, high unemployment and an oil slick visible from space, Washington is obsessed with…deficits. The resurgence of this periodic fascination is not entirely surprising, given our historically large current deficits. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the 2010 deficit will come in at $1.3 trillion, almost 10 percent of our gross domestic product and, along with the deficit of 2009, the highest level since World War II.

Imminent fiscal collapse has even become a theme for literary novelists – in Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story,” American fiscal policy has become a bad joke and the Chinese threaten to stop buying our government debt. And the overextension of government is again a big theme; sales of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” are up sharply, although the book was first published more than 50 years ago (it is in and out of the Top 100 list on Amazon).

Deficit fears do have a real foundation. But it is not, as some assume, simply that government spending is out of control. Our current deficits result from the recent financial crisis and recession, and they will recede as the economy recovers. But the federal government also faces a long-term, structural gap between its revenues and its spending commitments – a gap due to policies established decades ago. Continue reading