Tag Archives: deficit

Deficit Hawkoprite, Eric Cantor

By James Kwak

Eric Cantor, House Republican Majority Leader, said the Republicans will demand spending cuts in exchange for the votes necessary to raise the debt ceiling.

Eric Cantor, member of Congress, voted for:

  • The 2001 tax cut
  • The 2003 tax cut
  • The 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit
  • The 2010 tax cut

In other words, of the big five budget-busting measures of the past decade, the only one he didn’t vote for was the 2009 stimulus. In other words, he had the opportunity to vote for $3.1 trillion of the 2011 debt, and he voted for 75 percent, or $2.3 trillion — just like most Republicans who were in Congress for those five votes.

For explanation and sources, see this post.

The Deficit Problem Is a Political Problem

By James Kwak

By which I do not mean to say it is not a problem. As Paul Krugman reminds us,

“If bond investors start to lose confidence in a country’s eventual willingness to run even the small primary surpluses needed to service a large debt, they’ll demand higher rates, which requires much larger primary surpluses, and you can go into a death spiral.

“So what determines confidence? The actual level of debt has some influence — but it’s not as if there’s a red line, where you cross 90 or 100 percent of GDP and kablooie . . . Instead, it has a lot to do with the perceived responsibility of the political elite.

“What this means is that if you’re worried about the US fiscal position, you should not be focused on this year’s deficit, let alone the 0.07% of GDP in unemployment benefits Bunning tried to stop. You should, instead, worry about when investors will lose confidence in a country where one party insists both that raising taxes is anathema and that trying to rein in Medicare spending means creating death panels.”

The implication is that our deficits really are a serious problem. But what’s making them a serious problem is not just that they are big and getting bigger; it is that our political system seems incapable of dealing with them. So, ironically, deficit peacocks are right that the deficit is a problem, but only because they refuse to do anything about rising health care costs — since the long-term deficit problem is a health care cost problem.

More on Mankiw

By James Kwak

I recently criticized Greg Mankiw’s New York Times op-ed. I like the post on his blog better (hat tip Tyler Cowen). Basically he says that if conservatives on the deficit commission want to make the commission work (a big if — see my previous post), they “will have to agree to higher taxes as part of the bargain.” In exchange, they should ask for the following:

  1. Substantial cuts in spending.  Ensure that the commission is as much about shrinking government as raising revenue.  My personal favorite would be to raise the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare.  Do it gradually but substantially.  Then index it to life expectancy, as it should have been from the beginning.
  2. Increased use of Pigovian taxes.  Candidate Obama pledged 100 percent auctions under any cap-and-trade bill, but President Obama caved on this issue.  He should renew his pledge as part of the fiscal fix. A simpler carbon tax is even better.
  3. Use of consumption taxes rather than income taxes.  A VAT is, as I have said, the best of a bunch of bad alternatives.  Conservatives hate the VAT, more for political than economic reasons.  They should be willing to swallow a VAT as long as they get enough other things from the deal.
  4. Cuts in the top personal income and corporate tax rates.  Make sure the VAT is big enough to fund reductions in the most distortionary taxes around.  Put the top individual and corporate tax rate at, say, 25 percent.
  5. Permanent elimination of the estate tax.  It is gone right now, but most people I know are not quite ready to die.  Conservatives hate the estate tax even more than they hate the idea of the VAT.  If the elimination of the estate tax was coupled with the addition of the VAT, the entire deal might be more palatable to them.

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Greg Mankiw on the Deficit

By James Kwak

Broken record alert: Another post on the deficit ahead. Wouldn’t you rather look at funny pictures of cats? Why do I keep writing these? (Hint: The other side keeps writing them.) You have been warned.

Greg Mankiw, noted economics textbook author and former chair of Bush 43’s Council of Economic Advisers, has an op-ed on the deficit that is relatively sensible by the standards of recent debate. He points out that modest deficits can be sustainable, that taxes will probably need to go up, and that a value-added tax is a plausible option. He also points out that Obama’s projections are based on optimistic economic forecasts that very plausibly may not pan out, and that Obama’s main deficit-reduction strategy is to kick the problem over to a deficit-reduction commission, which are valid criticisms.

Unfortunately, his bottom line seems to be throwing more rocks at President Obama, under the general Republican principle that since he’s the president, everything is his fault:

“But unless the president revises his spending plans substantially, he will have no choice but to find some major source of government revenue. Ms. Pelosi’s suggestion of a VAT may be the best of a bunch of bad alternatives. Unfortunately, in this new era of responsibility, the president is not ready to face up to the long-term fiscal challenge.”

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Jeff Sachs on the Deficit

By James Kwak

Jeff Sachs:

“Policy paralysis around the US federal budget may be playing the biggest role of all in America’s incipient governance crisis. The US public is rabidly opposed to paying higher taxes, yet the trend level of taxation (at around 18% of national income) is not sufficient to pay for the core functions of government. As a result, the US government now fails to provide adequately for basic public services such as modern infrastructure (fast rail, improved waste treatment, broadband), renewable energy to fight climate change, decent schools, and health-care financing for those who cannot afford it.

“Powerful resistance to higher taxes, coupled with a growing list of urgent unmet needs, has led to chronic under-performance by the US government and an increasingly dangerous level of budget deficits and government debt.”

That’s part of a longer article, “Obama in Chains,” on the challenges presented by political polarization. Sachs seems generally sympathetic to Obama, although he criticizes him for his pledge of no new taxes on the “middle class” and ruling out a value-added tax.

Unfortunately, Sachs isn’t long on practical solutions: he prescribes an end to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, increased taxes, and lobbying reforms. But that’s in part because the problem is hard to solve.

Whose Fault?

To believe politicians in Washington and pundits in the media, the national debt has become the most important political issue of the day. (Whether it should be–as opposed to, say, jobs–is another question.) The Republican argument is, basically: “Big deficits! Democratic president! His fault!” The Obama administration argument, by contrast, is “No way! George W. Bush’s fault!”

I generally side with Obama on this one, mainly because of the two Bush tax cuts and the unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit. Keith Hennessey, Bush’s last director of the National Economic Council, has a counterargument. Some of his points are good. OK, well, one point–the fourth one down. Hennessey is right that what initially transformed the Clinton surplus into the Bush deficit was the 2001 recession, which was beyond Bush’s control–just like what transformed the large Bush deficits of 2007-2008 into the enormous Obama deficits of today was the 2007-2009 recession.

The other points are good debating, but I don’t buy them. This could take a while.

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Budget Sense and Nonsense

With the submission of the Obama administration’s budget today, fiscal silly season is opening. President Obama already launched an opening salvo last week with his proposed freeze on non-security-related military spending,which amounts to a rounding error on the ten-year budget projections, which are themselves a rounding error on the long-term budget projections– at a time when unemployment is running at 10.0%. Fortunately, there is a partial saving grace, which is that the freeze does not set until until fiscal year 2011 (which begins in October 2010), and in the meantime Obama has proposed $100 billion in tax cuts and government spending to create jobs. (Whether his proposals are the right way to spend $100 billion is a debate for another time.)

The midterm elections are looming already (note: do we have to be satisfied with a political system in which the legislature is preoccupied with upcoming elections half the time?), and the two big themes seem to be jobs and the deficit. With unemployment at levels not seen since the 1980s, it’s obvious why jobs are on the political agenda. With the federal budget deficit at record (nominal) levels, it also seems obvious that the deficit should be on the agenda, but this is really an unfortunate artifact of our political system. A government deficit is the result of insufficient government saving, and a period of high unemployment is absolutely the worst time to increase government saving. The sensible solution would be to use the urgency we currently feel to put in place long-term fiscal solutions, but the political system can’t handle that (see health care reform as Exhibit A). As a result, when deficits go up, we get lots of short-term politicking about the deficit–in Paul Krugman’s words, the “march of the deficit peacocks.”

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The Second Clinton?

On the one hand, last week’s Volcker-fest signaled that the Obama administration wants to get tough on Wall Street. Given that they almost certainly don’t have the votes in the Senate (and probably not the House, either), this may have been a purely political calculation, and it remains to be seen how much substance lies behind the marketing. But even so it was probably smart politics, since it forces Republicans to either go along (which ain’t gonna happen) or come out in favor of hedge funds and proprietary trading.

On the other hand, what the —-? The New York Times reports that Obama is planning to call for a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending, which means everything except Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the Defense Department, Homeland Security, and the VA–that is, everything except the vast majority of the budget. This at a time when the unemployment rate is at 10%.

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One More Thing . . .

. . . on that deficit commission. If I were Peter Orszag, I would be tearing my hair out. (Or maybe not, since he’s happily engaged to be married later this year.)

It’s obvious, and I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. The big long-term national debt problem is all about health care. This chart is from the January 2008 Budget and Economic Outlook of the Congressional Budget Office–for those keeping score, that’s one year before President Obama took office. It shows projected federal spending as a percentage of GDP.

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Commission to the Rescue!

It looks like President Obama is going to create the bipartisan commission to cut the deficit that Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg have been pitching–except that now Judd Gregg is against it.

According to the original Conrad-Gregg plan, the commission would have eighteen members–eight named by Congressional Democrats, eight by Congressional Republicans, and two by the administration, for a ten-eight split; if fourteen of the eighteen could agree on a deficit-reduction plan, Congress would have to vote it up or down without amendments. The Conrad-Gregg proposal is expected to be voted down in the Senate. So instead, Obama would appoint a commission by executive order, with six people named by Congressional Democrats, six named by Congressional Republicans, and six named by the administration, including at least two Republicans–for a ten-eight split; if fourteen of the eighteen could agree on a deficit-reduction plan, Congress would vote it up or down without amendments; however, Congress could separately choose to amend it. According to the Washington Post, Gregg “called a presidentially appointed panel ‘a fraud’ designed to do little more than give Democrats political cover.” Huh? I’m guessing Gregg’s objection is that Obama’s plan is based on an agreement with Congressional leaders, rather than actual legislation–but if you can’t pass the legislation, what else do you want Obama to do?*

More, important, is this a good thing? My prediction is that it will amount to exactly nothing, although there is a possibility it could turn out badly. I simply don’t see how any plan can get the agreement of fourteen commission members–meaning all the Democrats and four of eight Republicans, or all the Republicans and six of ten Democrats, or something in between.

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Taking Care of Our Grandchildren

There is a lot of rhetoric these days about making our grandchildren pay for our spending today. Like any “deficits are always bad” argument, this one doesn’t even meet the plausible metaphor test. That is, grandparents routinely spend money (thereby reducing their grandchildren’s eventual inheritances) on things that will make their grandchildren’s lives better.

As Nancy Folbre puts it in Economix (the New York Times blog):

Think of the United States economy as a family farm in need of modernization. Energy prices are going up, but all the tractors are gas guzzlers. Some of our fields have accumulated toxic levels of pesticide, and we need to develop new and better technologies of sustainable production. Our grandchildren want to run the farm, but will need good health and a college education to do it well.

Spending money on increased energy efficiency, research and development, health, and education could increase the value of their assets, helping them repay debt.

That’s just her closing metaphor; I recommend the entire article (it’s pretty short). There is a legitimate debate about what government spending actually benefits our grandchildren and what doesn’t, but it doesn’t make sense to say that every incremental dollar of current spending is hurting our grandchildren.

I tried to make this point on Planet Money, but I like Folbre’s story more.

By James Kwak

China and the U.S. Debt

I’m warming up for a longish Beginners-style article on government debt, which will come out next week or so. In the meantime, the New York Times has an article today about China’s diminishing demand for U.S. dollar-denominated debt. Theoretically this could make it harder for the U.S. to borrow money and thereby push up the interest rates on our debt (now at extremely low levels).

China’s voracious demand for American bonds has helped keep interest rates low for borrowers ranging from the federal government to home buyers. Reduced Chinese enthusiasm for buying American bonds will reduce this dampening effect.

However, the article doesn’t mention one compensating factor. The fall in China’s buildup of its foreign currency reserves is linked to the rise in the U.S. savings rate, which is projected to rise to as much as 6-10% (it was over 10% in the 1980s). Some of that new savings will go to pay down debt, but a lot will go into savings accounts, CDs, money market funds, and mutual funds – which means that depresses interest rates across the board. On the back of the envelope, 6% of personal income is about $600 billion a year in new domestic savings to compensate for reduced overseas investment. Whether this will be enough to compensate entirely I don’t know. But if we were all one global economy in the boom, we’re still one global economy in the bust.

Obama Doubles Down

Barack Obama did not actually predict trillion-dollar deficits indefinitely; more precisely, he said, “unless we take decisive action, even after our economy pulls out of its slide, trillion-dollar deficits will be a reality for years to come” (emphasis added). At the same time, the highly competent Congressional Budget Office projected a $1.2 trillion deficit for fiscal 2009 (year ending 9/30/09).

I was initially surprised by Obama’s forthrightness on the deficit question, but on reflection there are three good reasons for him to do it:

  1. He wants to lower expectations by making the case that we have a serious deficit problem before taking office.
  2. He wants to signal that he is aware of the deficit issue, to try to defuse the attacks he is going to get from fiscal conservatives regarding his stimulus plan.
  3. He wants to use the current crisis – and the political opportunity it gives him, as a new and generally popular president with significant majorities in both houses – to tackle the long-term retirement savings problem.

If you parse the sentence, in saying “even after our economy pulls out of our slide,” Obama is saying that the long-term deficit problem would exist with or without the current crisis – and he is right. A $1.2 trillion deficit, caused by a steep fall in tax revenues, partially by the costs of various bailouts, and a little bit by two ongoing wars, is small compared to the Social Security and Medicare funding gaps ahead. In signaling that he will announce some kind of approach to entitlement spending by next month, Obama is implying that he wants to take on not just the short-term recession, but also the long-term deficit problem.

This is good for two reasons. First, someone has to face the problem. President Bush “tried” (not very hard) to do something about Social Security in 2005, although the general direction of his proposal, in shifting from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution model, would have shifted risk from the government onto individuals.

Second, there are economic reasons why long-term sustainability should be addressed at the same time as short-term stimulus. Virtually everyone (even Martin Feldstein) favors a large, debt-financed government stimulus package. However, the more the government borrows, the more risk there is that lenders will worry about our ability to pay off the debt. While few people expect the U.S. to default, the more widespread fear is that we will print money (in a more sophisticated form, of course) to inflate away the debt. Because of those fears, large amounts of borrowing will drive up interest rates, especially as the economy recovers, both for the government (increasing our interest payments) and for the economy as a whole (undermining growth). The solution, if there is one, is to put forward a credible plan for dealing with the long-term retirement problem.

The risk, of course, is that Social Security and Medicare can be politically lethal, which is one reason President Bush backed off so fast. But I still think this is the right bet for Obama to make. Insofar as any solution is going to involve some pain (lower benefits, increased benefit age, higher taxes, increased control over health care), it is going to be easier to pass in a time of perceived collective crisis. And being willing to tackle the problem could also help gain support from fiscal conservatives for the stimulus that we need now.