This blog is about the major fiscal and economic problems of our country and specifically our stagnant economy (2% real growth for the past six years) and massive federal debt (the public debt, on which we pay interest, is 74% of GDP, the highest since WWII). My major sources of information are the New York Times and Wall Street Journal but I also make use of reports from various think tanks. Today’s source is the recent report, “Why the Federal Government Fails,” by the Cato Institute’s Chris Edwards. According to Mr. Edwards, there are five main reasons for this:
Top-Down Coercion. Federal agencies impose more than 3,000 regulations each year. Total regulations now span 168,000 pages. Benefits are distributed through more than 2,300 programs. Federal policies are often based on guesswork. Failed policies are seldom weeded out because they are funded by taxes and are not contingent on performance.
Lack of Knowledge. Private markets operate efficiently on the basis of price information. Government subsidies and regulations throw a monkey wrench into the price mechanism.
Political Incentives. Congress focuses on the benefits of programs but does not consider the full costs because benefits are delivered to narrow groups while the costs are spread widely. There are too many fiscal illusions to hide costs such as: paying with debt rather than higher taxes, taxing businesses which then just raise prices, conferring benefits by regulation (e.g. requiring employers to provide healthcare) rather than direct subsidy.
Bureaucratic Incentives. There are too many rewards for inertia and not enough for the creation of value such as the absence of profits and losses, rigid compensation, lack of firing, red tape, agency capture, etc.
Hugh Size and Scope. The $4 trillion annual budget is 100 times the average state budget of $40 billion. It is simply too vast for members of Congress, and other top officials, to understand what is going on. The more programs the government has, the more likely they will work at cross-purposes.
Mr. Edwards concludes that “the most important way to improve federal performance would be to greatly cut the government’s size” and to do this by shifting federal activities back to the states. With this recommendation I heartily agree!
The Budget Committees for both the House of Representatives and the Senate have now passed plans to achieve balanced budgets within a ten year period. My last two posts have discussed the compelling need to get deficit spending under control and an overall rationale for how to approach this difficult task. Today I will take a look at the major differences between the Obama budget and the House and Senate budgets. The two congressional budgets are quite similar and will surely be reconciled into a single budget. Here are the major differences:
Revenue. The President wants to raise taxes by $3 trillion over 10 years to pay for more spending while the Republicans wants revenue-neutral tax reform in order to increase economic growth.
Spending. Under current policy the government will spend $48.6 trillion over the next ten years which represents a 5.1% annual rate of spending increase over the present. The President wants to spend an additional $1 trillion over this time period on new initiatives. The Republicans propose spending about $5.4 trillion less, or $43.2 trillion, which still works out to a 3.3% annual rate of increase over the present.
Deficits. Under current policy the deficit would start to increase, as a percentage of GDP, in 2018. The President proposes to stabilize the deficit at 2.5% of GDP. The Republicans would balance the budget within ten years by shrinking the deficit down to zero.
Public Debt. Under current policy the public debt (on which interest is paid) will increase to 79% of GDP by 2025. The President’s budget would stabilize the debt at the current level of 73% of GDP. The Republican’s balanced budget would shrink the debt to 57% of GDP by 2025.
There are stark differences between the President’s proposed budget and the Republican alternative. Which is the better route to progress and prosperity? Is it to raise taxes, increase government spending and only stabilize the debt or is it to streamline taxes, slow down the growth of spending and shrink the debt? This is a fundamental question of government policy which will not be quickly resolved. But at least the question is being raised in a dramatic way!
President Obama has proposed a $3.99 trillion budget for next year, a $340 billion increase from the current 2015 budget year. As shown in the charts below, it projects deficits of about 2.6% over the next ten years equal to its (optimistic in comparison to the CBO) growth projections for GDP. This means that the debt would stabilize at about 73% of GDP. And, of course, achieving his predicted stabilization of debt will require big tax increases over this ten year period. Here are the major weaknesses in the budget:
Sequestration. The President declares that “I’m not going to accept a budget that locks in sequestration going forward.” Everyone deplores the mindlessness of sequestration but the only responsible alternative is to make targeted cuts throughout the budget. The President makes no attempt to do this. And he wants to add spending for various new education and research initiatives, as well as an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers.
Infrastructure. Spending over the next six years would increase by $238 billion to be raised from a 14% repatriation tax on the $2 trillion in foreign earnings held overseas by American multinational corporations. The problem is that any repatriation tax should be tied in with overall corporate and business tax reform, exchanging lower tax rates in return for closing loopholes and deductions, in order to make U.S. business taxes competitive with those of other countries. Fundamental tax reform is the key to getting our economy growing faster.
Entitlements. The President’s budget does not even mention the biggest threat to long-term fiscal sustainability, namely the rapidly increasing spending for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It will be very difficult to make progress on this critical issue without presidential leadership.
Stabilization of the Debt. The President’s budget, with quite optimistic revenue and growth projections, stabilizes the debt over ten years. But this is not nearly good enough. To be satisfied with a public debt of 73% of GDP indefinitely into the future is simply too risky. What’s going to happen when we have another financial crisis, as we surely will? How are we going to cope with our growing rivalry with China with very little budget flexibility? And one can imagine any number of other possible emergencies which might occur. Putting the debt on a clear downward trajectory is the only prudent thing to do!