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Archive for the ‘fiscal policies’ Category

This week the Congressional Budget Office released The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014-2024. From the press coverage, one would have guessed the report was either entitled Obamacare: the Job Killer that is Almost as Bad as Benghazi or Obamacare: Ending the “Job Lock” and Opening the Door to Leisure. In reality, the impact of the Affordable Care Act was only a small part of the report—largely restricted to the appendix—and arguably the least troublesome.

Here are a few highlights. I will quote from the CBO report, since most of the media coverage will only address the shiny objects connected to the Affordable Care Act (for an exception, see Ron Fournier’s piece in National Journal).

Economic Growth

  • “[T]he economy will grow at a solid pace in 2014 and for the next few years…Beyond 2017, CBO expects that economic growth will diminish to a pace that is well below the average seen over the past several decades. That projected slowdown mainly reflects long-term trends—particularly, slower growth in the labor force because of the aging of the population.” (p. 1)
  • “The unemployment rate is expected to edge down from 5.8 percent in 2017 to 5.5 percent in 2024.” (p. 5)

The Debt

  • “[T]he deficit is projected to decrease again in 2015—to $478 billion, or 2.6 percent of GDP. After that, however, deficits are projected to start rising—both in dollar terms and relative to the size of the economy— because revenues are expected to grow at roughly the same pace as GDP whereas spending is expected to grow more rapidly than GDP.” (p. 1)

The Consequences (p. 18)

  • “The nation’s net interest costs would be very high (after interest rates moved up to more typical levels) and rising.”
  • “National saving would be held down, leading to more borrowing from abroad and less domestic investment, which in turn would decrease income in the United States compared with what it would be otherwise.”
  • “Policymakers’ ability to use tax and spending policies to respond to unexpected challenges—such as economic downturns, natural disasters, or financial crises—would be constrained. As a result, unexpected events could have worse effects on the economy and people’s well-being than they would otherwise.”
  • “The likelihood of a fiscal crisis would be higher. During such a crisis, investors would lose so much confidence in the government’s ability to manage its budget that the government would be unable to borrow funds at affordable interest rates.”

Beyond 2024, things only get worse

  • “Although long-term budget projections are highly uncertain, the aging of the population and rising costs for health care would almost certainly push federal spending up significantly relative to GDP after 2024 if current laws remained in effect. Federal revenues also would continue to increase relative to GDP under cur- rent law, reaching significantly higher percentages of GDP than at any time in the nation’s history—but they would not keep pace with outlays. As a result, public debt would reach roughly 110 percent of GDP by 2038, CBO estimates, about equal to the percentage just after World War II. Such an upward path would ultimately be unsustainable.” (pp. 25-26)

Of course,  the core driver in these projections is the aging of the population.  Policymakers have the ability to reform key policies to reduce the long-term impact of the demographic shift, and the earlier these reforms are introduced, the less dramatic they need to be. But given the endless campaign and the struggle over the news cycle, who can even contemplate serious entitlement and tax reform.  It is far easier to focus on the shiny objects than to acknowledge the core message of the CBO’s report.

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The news has been ripe with administration scandals as of late and will likely be for some time (Memo to BHO: There may be no better way to keep scandals in the news than to use the Justice Department to go after the Associated Press). But soon attention will turn to the issue of fiscal sustainability (or at least one hopes).

I have been updating some charts for a second edition of a book I wrote a while back. One of my favorite charts presents inflation-adjusted spending per capita. I focused on domestic spending in this chart not because I discount the importance of defense spending, but because it was in support of an argument I was making. To give you a flavor of the numbers, consider the following (all figures are in 2005 dollars):

  • Starting at the New Deal, the peak level of domestic spending before US entry into WWII was $865 per capita (1940).
  • Let us leap forward to the 1960s. The highest level of domestic spending per capita under LBJ was $2,265 (1968).
  • Peak domestic spending during the Reagan presidency was $4,950 (1987).  That is 218 percent of the Great Society levels (Don’t fight the urge to cheer “LBJ, All the Way”).
  • President Clinton assured us that we were witnessing the end of Big Government. While federal spending as a percentage of GDP fell to 18.6 percent (2000), per capita domestic spending stood at $6,206.
  • George W. Bush increased that figure to a peak of $7,215 (2007). And Barack Obama made history in 2010, when domestic spending per capita hit $8,631 (it stood at $8,141 in 2012).

Real Spending

A couple of thoughts: First, while many may associate “big government” and FDR,   “that man” (as Grover often calls him) was a piker. In inflation adjusted terms, the Reagan Revolution entailed spending 5.72 times that sum. In 2010, the federal government was spending almost 10 times that amount. Second, these numbers grossly understate overall domestic spending. State and local governments expenditures are 11.3 percent of GDP—a larger share of GDP than the federal government spent in any year during the domestic phase of the New Deal (the peak was 10.3 percent in 1939). If we combine federal domestic, state and local spending for 2012, it stands at $13,034 per capita. Third, the big driver is the combination of demographic trends and mandatory spending on entitlements programs.

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The Economist provides a concise discussion of the debates surrounding the impact of debt on economic growth. The focus is on the work of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, drawing on some of the research they conducted for their fine book This Time is Different.  The Reinhart/Rogoff paper (link here) had a simple takeaway point: debt seems to have little impact until it reaches 90 percent of GDP, at which point there appears to be a sharp reduction in the rate of growth.  As one might guess, this conclusion attracted a good deal of attention given the implications for fiscal policy decisions and the stakes in stabilizing debt (e.g., Paul Ryan cited it when framing his case for the GOP budget). Critiques have engaged issues ranging from coding errors (acknowledged by the authors) to the direction of causality.

The debate is by no means over and it may prove of some interest as the budget battles heat up and policymakers turn their attention to the vexing issue of entitlement reform. For a recent installment in the discussion over the growth-debt relationship, see Martin Wolf’s column (“Austerity loses an article of faith”) in the Financial Times.

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The Washington Post reports on some of the details of the Obama administration’s budget proposal, which is to be released next Wednesday. There are several important proposals (the largest of which have appeared before in the negotiations with the Speaker). Although the devil is in the details, a few salient points:

  • $200 billion cut from defense and domestic budgets
  • $400 billion cut from Medicare and other health programs via negotiation over pharmaceuticals and means testing
  • $230 billion (combined cuts and revenues) in Social Security via changes in the formula for calculating cost of living adjustments (from CPI-W to chained CPI)
  • $200 billion from farm subsidies and federal retirement benefits
  • Elimination of a loophole that allows people to simultaneously collect unemployment and disability payments.

All of this (and more) in exchange for $580 billion in new tax revenues largely through ending various tax expenditures. As the Washington Post notes: “The budget is more conservative than Obama’s earlier proposals, which called for $1.6 trillion in new taxes and fewer cuts to health and domestic spending programs.”

If one were serious about achieving long-term fiscal stability, this would appear to be a proposal worth serious consideration. Of course, there will be predictable challenges from the Left and the Right.

  • On the Left, entitlement reform is simply off the table. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is quoted as proclaiming: “Millions of working people, seniors, disabled veterans, those who have lost a loved one in combat, and women will be extremely disappointed if President Obama caves into the long-standing Republican effort to cut Social Security.” The same might be said of Medicare. And one can expect the claims that one should not pursue austerity when economic recovery has proven so elusive.
  • On the Right, many in the House GOP will scoff at any more taxation, even if it is accompanied by major concessions on entitlements.  After all, that $580 billion will be stripped from the corporate welfare larded on the oil and gas industry and tax expenditures that currently place no cap on the size of retirement funds (the administration wants to cap tax subsidized retirement accounts at $3 million).

Presidents’ budgets rarely survive the congressional budget process, so the document to be released on Wednesday might be little more that a symbolic gesture that will allow the administration to signal its commitment to fiscal restraint under the assumption that it will be declared DOA before the ink is dry.  But what if the President is serious?

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As we approach midnight February 28 (tick..tick…tick…) and March 1st arrives, the nation appears to be headed toward a cataclysm. There is an ever-growing number of stories informing us how bad things could get.

The sequestration will force a sharp drop in the economy. It will kill the surging stock market. It will delay tax refunds. It will prevent entrepreneurs from starting new small businesses. It will compromise meat inspection. It will hamper airport safety and Homeland Security more generally. It will prevent assistance for Hurricane Sandy victims.  It will disproportionately harm women, and poor women in particular. Mother Jones expands on this claim to note that it will simply “screw the poor” (e.g., by undermining education, Title I finding, rural rental assistance, the processing of Social Security disability claims, unemployment benefits, veterans services, nutritional assistance, special education…you get the idea).

The Washington Post has provided a user-friendly guide to the White House data on how sequestration will effect each state . Of course, the categories have been nicely selected to construct a politically useful alternative universe (i.e., one where government is seemingly restricted to supporting teachers and schools, Head Start, job-search assistance, child care, vaccines for children, preventing violence against women, etc., etc).  Core message: what government does is universally good and necessary. There is no room for cuts.

Things seem quite dire, until one recalls that the $85 billion will not be sucked out of the economy as the clock turns to 12:00:01 on March 1 and, more than likely, there will be some agreement in the waning moments of February or the first few days of March to avoid this self-inflicted sequestration.

But even if there isn’t, one might question whether $85 billion is all that significant when the President’s budget request for 2013 is $3.803 trillion. Subtract that $85 billion, and the budget would fall to $3.745 trillion.  Placing things in historical context, that would be the largest budget since…(insert drum roll here)… 2012.

Placing things in a broader historical context, the budget (in nominal terms) would be over 160 percent of what it was a decade earlier, around 135 percent if we adjust for inflation.

The most striking thing to contemplate: If this is the political firestorm that arises out of a $85 billion reduction in discretionary spending out of a $3.8 trillion budget, imagine what will occur when focus turns—as it must—to the issue of entitlements.

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Now that the fiscal cliff has been averted  delayed, we move on to the debt ceiling. Critics are correct in noting that there is no principled reason not to raise the debt ceiling, since it is nothing more than the sum of past spending and taxing decisions.  One can hardly blame the credit card bill for the patterns of spending that created it. Nonetheless, the House GOP skillfully used the debt ceiling in 2011 to extract the agreement that led to the fiscal cliff (and we all know how well that worked out for the GOP).

In the wake of the fiscal cliff, President Obama struck a hard position regarding the debt ceiling. As he proclaimed:

“I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up through the laws that they passed, Let me repeat: We can’t not pay bills that we’ve already incurred. If Congress refuses to give the United States government the ability to pay these bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy would be catastrophic — far worse than the impact of a fiscal cliff.”

Of course, the President will bargain. As George Sargent notes in todays Plum Line:

The idea appears to be that the White House and Democrats will only engage in conversations over the sequester, tax reform, and spending cuts, and simply won’t confer any legitimacy on GOP threats not to raise the debt ceiling. But it’s unclear to me how this will work in practical terms. Unless Obama is prepared to go into default — or to pull some other ace out of his back pocket, such as the 14th amendment or “platinum coin” options — he will inevitably be negotiating over the debt ceiling. And he doesn’t appear prepared to do any of those things.

One can doubt that the President would be willing to go into default, so he will bargain (or more correctly, he will proclaim, campaign, disengage, and send in Biden). But is there any reason to take the House GOP seriously at this point regarding its willingness to stand its ground?  Given its recent track record, does the President have any reason to believe that the House won’t blink?

I remain skeptical.

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Small-government types have often debated whether the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, establishing direct election of senators, is in part responsible for the decline of federalism in the U.S. I have long been skeptical of the 17th Amendment repeal movement, because Germany has a system in which states (Länder) elect senators (members of the Bundesrat), and Germany has within a few decades moved from a stronger system of federalism than the U.S. enjoys to a much weaker federalism than the U.S. enjoys. I’ve recently been reading Fiscal Decentralization and the Challenge of Hard Budget Constraints, edited by Jonathan Rodden, Gunnar Eskeland, and Jennie Litvack, and it turns out this arrangement or something like it is more common than I realized — and with even worse consequences.
First, here is Rodden on Germany (p. 174): (more…)

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