Tag Archives: spending

What Expanded Safety Net?

By James Kwak

In general, I think Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff’s article on how the same people oppose government handouts and take government handouts is very good. But I think their framing buys into a piece of conventional wisdom that just isn’t true.

Here it is, without any shortening (but emphasis is mine):

“The problem by now is familiar to most. Politicians have expanded the safety net without a commensurate increase in revenues, a primary reason for the government’s annual deficits and mushrooming debt. In 2000, federal and state governments spent about 37 cents on the safety net from every dollar they collected in revenue, according to a New York Times analysis. A decade later, after one Medicare expansion, two recessions and three rounds of tax cuts, spending on the safety net consumed nearly 66 cents of every dollar of revenue.

“The recent recession increased dependence on government, and stronger economic growth would reduce demand for programs like unemployment benefits. But the long-term trend is clear. Over the next 25 years, as the population ages and medical costs climb, the budget office projects that benefits programs will grow faster than any other part of government, driving the federal debt to dangerous heights.”

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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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To Buy or Not To Buy …

Judging by the traffic on the Planet Money blog, many people are wondering if now is the time to be spending money. On the one hand, we hear that the economy is crashing because of a decline in consumer spending. On the other hand, we hear that the economy is crashing, which frightens us to consuming less and saving more for the rainy days ahead. Real economists worry about these things, too – see Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen, for example. But at the end of the day, all economists can do is speculate and watch what happens, because aggregate consumption is just the sum of hundreds of millions of individuals making their own purchasing decisions.

I’m not a personal financial advisor, but I think this can be broken down logically. Let’s assume that, before the current downturn, you chose with your level of spending (and, by implication, your level of saving) rationally. Then there are three main reasons why you might want to reduce spending today: (1) you don’t have the purchasing power you need to maintain your spending; (2) you are going to lose your job (I know there’s a problem with that statement, and I’ll come back to it); or (3) the assets you are counting on for retirement have fallen enough that you need to increase savings in order to replenish them.

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