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Posts Tagged ‘Balanced Budget’

The Congressional Budget Office just released it’s annual Budget and Economic Outlook, and that means I’m going to do something that I first did in 2010 and most recently did last year.

I’m going to show that it’s actually rather simple to balance the budget with modest spending restraint.

This statement shocks many people because they’ve read about out-of-control entitlement spending, pork-filled appropriations bills, big tax cuts, and trillion-dollar deficits.

But  the first thing to understand when contemplating how to fix America’s fiscal problems is that tax revenues, according to the new CBO numbers, are going to increase by an average of nearly 5 percent annually over the next 10 years. And that means receipts will be more than $2.1 trillion higher in 2029 than they are in 2019.

And since this year’s deficit is projected to be “only” $897 billion, that presumably means that it shouldn’t be that difficult to balance the budget.

By the way, I don’t even think balance should be the goal. It’s far more important to focus on reducing the burden of government spending. After all, the economy is adversely affected if wasteful outlays are financed by taxes, just as the economy is hurt when wasteful outlays are financed by borrowing.

In other words, too much government spending is the disease. Deficits are best understood as a symptom of the disease.

But I’m digressing. The point for today is simply that the symptom of borrowing can be addressed if a good chunk of that additional $2.1 trillion of new revenue is used to get rid of the $897 billion of red ink.

Unfortunately, the CBO report projects that the burden of government spending also is on an upward trajectory. As you can see from our next chart, outlays will jump by about $2.6 trillion by 2029 if the budget is left on autopilot.

The solution to this problem is very straightforward.

All that’s needed is a bit of spending restraint to put the budget on a glide path to balance.

I’m a big fan of spending caps, so this next chart shows the 10-year fiscal outlook if annual spending increases are limited to 1% growth, 2% growth, or 2.5% growth.

As you can see, modest spending discipline is a very good recipe for fiscal balance.

Our final chart adds a bit of commentary to illustrate how quickly we could move from deficit to surplus based on different spending trajectories.

I’ll close with a video from 2010 that explains why spending restraint is the best way to achieve fiscal balance. Especially when compared to tax increases.

The numbers are different today, but the analysis hasn’t changed.

As I noted at the end of the video, balancing the budget with spending restraint may be simple, but it won’t be easy.

If we want spending to grow, say, 2% annually rather than 5% annually, that will require some degree of genuine entitlement reform. And it means finally enforcing some limits on annual appropriations.

Those policies will cause lots of squealing in Washington. But we saw during the Reagan and Carter years, as well as more recently, that spending discipline is possible.

P.S. The video also exposed the dishonest way that budgets are presented in Washington.

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During the election season, I speculated Trump was a big government Republican, and he confirmed my analysis this past February when he acquiesced to an orgy of new spending and agreed to bust the spending caps.

That awful spending spree gave huge increases to almost every part of the budget, and I pointed out that the deal probably will create the conditions for future tax hikes.

I got so upset at profligate GOPers that I crunched the numbers and revealed that (with the notable exception of Reagan) Republican presidents are even bigger spenders than Democrats.

Well, Senate Republicans recently had a chance to atone for their sins by voting for a proposal from Rand Paul to balance the budget.

So what did they do? Rejected it, of course.

In a column for Reason, Eric Boehm justly condemns Republicans for being big spenders.

The Senate on Thursday resoundingly rejected the Kentucky Republican’s plan to balance the federal budget by 2023, voting 76 to 21 against a bill that would have required a $400 billion cut in federal spending next year, followed by 1 percent spending increases for the rest of the next decade. …Paul’s proposal never really had a chance of passing, coming as it did just months after Congress approved enormous spending hikes that busted Obama-era caps once championed by Republicans as necessary for fiscal restraint. …Paul’s plan would have balanced the budget by 2023, as long as revenue met current CBO projections. By 2028, his proposal envisioned a $700 billion surplus instead of the $1.5 trillion deficit currently projected by the CBO.

A Lifezette column by Brendan Kirby was even more critical of big-government Republicans.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was hoping his Republican colleagues would be embarrassed by their vote to jack up federal spending earlier this year and support his plan to phase in a balanced budget. Few were. Paul got 20 other Republican senators on Thursday — less than half of the Senate GOP caucus — to vote for his “penny plan,” which would balance the federal budget over five years… No Democrats back the proposal. …Even though Paul’s bid failed, it did pick up the support of some senators who voted for the spending bill in February, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). The others were Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). …Paul also got more votes than he did for a similar proposal last year.

Kirby’s article ended on an upbeat note based on voting patterns.

I also want to close on an upbeat note, but for an entirely different reason. Here are the annual numbers from the CBO baseline (what will happen to spending and revenue if government continues on its current path) and the numbers for Senator Paul’s proposal.

And why do these depressing numbers leave me with a feeling of optimism?

For the simple reason that they show how simple it is to make progress with some modest spending restraint. The lower set of number show that Senator Paul quickly gets to a balanced budget by imposing an overall reduction of about 2 percent on spending in 2019, followed by annual increases of about 1 percent until 2025.

I think that’s a great plan, but I’d also be happy with a plan that allows spending to grow by 1 percent each year. Or even 2 percent each year.

My bottom line is that we need some sort of spending cap so that the burden of government spending grows slower than the productive sector of the economy. In other words, comply with the Golden Rule.

And what’s especially remarkable is that solving our fiscal problems is still quite feasible notwithstanding the reckless spending bill that was recently approved (Paul’s proposal, incidentally, leaves in place the small – and temporary – tax cut from the recent reform legislation).

P.S. Senator Paul would achieve a balanced budget in just five years by letting spending grow during that period by a bit less than 4/10ths of 1 percent per year. Does that sound impossibly radical? Well, it’s what Republicans managed to achieve during the heyday of the Tea Party revolution, when they actually produced a five-year nominal spending freeze. In other words, zero spending growth! If they could impose that level of discipline with Obama in the White House, why not do the same with Trump (who quasi-endorsed the Penny Plan) at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue?

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The Congressional Budget Office just released its annual Economic and Budget Outlook, and almost everyone in Washington is agitated (or pretending to be agitated) about annual deficits exceeding $1 trillion starting in the 2020 fiscal year.

All that red ink isn’t good news, but I’m much more concerned (and genuinely so) about this line from CBO’s forecast. In just 10 years, the burden of federal spending is going to jump from 20.6 percent of GDP to 23.6 percent!

Simply stated, we’ve entered the era of baby boomer retirement. And because we have some very poorly designed entitlement programs, that means the federal budget – assuming we leave it on autopilot – is going to consume an ever-growing share of our national economic output.

The bottom line is that Washington is violating my Golden Rule.

Let’s look at the underlying numbers. Federal spending is projected by CBO to grow by an average of about 5.5 percent per year over the next decade while nominal GDP is estimated to grow by just 4.0  percent annually.

And that unfortunate trend isn’t limited to the nest 10 years. CBO’s latest long-run forecast, which I discussed last year, shows a never-ending deterioration of America’s fiscal position.

Hello Greece.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this mess.

A modest amount of spending restraint can quickly reverse our fiscal troubles and put us on a path to a balanced budget. More importantly, limits on the growth of spending can slowly reduce the size of the federal government relative to the private sector.

Here’s a chart, based on CBO’s numbers, that shows how much Uncle Sam is spending this year (a bit over $4.1 trillion), along with a blue line showing projected tax revenues over the next 10 years (blue line). And I’ve shown what happens if spending is “only” allowed to increase by either 2 percent annually (orange line) or 3 percent annually (grey line) over the next decade.

This chart is basically everything you need to know. It shows that our fiscal situation is not hopeless. All we have to do is make sure government is growing slower than the productive sector of the economy.

A good rule of thumb, as suggested in the chart title, is that government shouldn’t grow faster than the rate of inflation.

And we’ve done it before.

  • During the Clinton years, the United States enjoyed a multi-year period of spending restraint. We got a balanced budget because of that frugality. More important, spending fell as a share of GDP.
  • During the Obama years, we benefited from a five-year de facto spending freeze. Deficits dropped dramatically and the nation experienced the biggest drop in the relative burden of spending since the end of World War II.

And many other nations also have also managed multi-year periods of spending restraint.

Let’s close with a video I narrated which illustrates how modest spending discipline generates good outcomes.

It’s from 2010, so the numbers are no longer relevant, but otherwise the analysis applies just as strongly today.

P.S. I’m not overly optimistic that President Trump is serious about solving this problem. His proposed a semi-decent amount of spending restraint in last year’s budget, but then he signed into law a grotesque budget-busting appropriations bill.

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I write constantly (some would say incessantly and annoyingly) about entitlement spending. And I occasionally write about discretionary spending.

It’s time to address the budget in a comprehensive fashion. Let’s look at five charts to put everything in context and to show how we got into our current mess.

Our first chart (based on Table 8.2 from the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables) shows what has happened to major spending categories from 1962 to 2017. And all the data is in inflation-adjusted dollars (2009 benchmark) to accurately gauge how and why the burden of federal spending has grown.

This next chart shows the actual percentage increases in the major spending categories during this time period. The two big takeaways are that 1) the defense budget is not the cause of our long-run fiscal problems (though that doesn’t mean it should be exempt from cuts), and 2) entitlement expenditures have exploded.

And if you look at the data I shared from the Congressional Budget Office’s long-run forecast, you would see that these same trends will prevail for the next three decades.

In other words, our fiscal problems start with entitlements and end with entitlements.

If you want to look at the problem with a broader lens, this next chart shows that the problem is domestic spending (i.e., the combination of entitlement and domestic discretionary outlays).

If you’re pressed for time, you can stop reading now. You have the key information already.

But if you want to get a bit wonky, here are two other charts that help explain the intricacies of how budgets work (or don’t work!) in Washington.

The first thing to realize is that there are two budget processes in Washington. There are entitlement programs, which basically operate on autopilot. For all intents and purposes, the President and Congress could go on vacation for the next three years and programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare would mechanically continue. But there is also “discretionary” spending for the Pentagon and various domestic programs, all of which is determined through an annual “appropriations” process. Whenever you read about a government shutdown, it’s because politicians can’t agree on the level of funding for the discretionary part of the budget.

Now let’s get to my favorite part, which is figuring out how to limit the size of the federal leviathan.

This last chart shows that net interest spending is genuinely untouchable (unless one wants a Greek-style or Argentine-style default). The rest of the budget, however, can be addressed. Entitlements can be changed through “reconciliation”, which is a legislative process designed to minimize procedural roadblocks (in general, tax bills also use reconciliation legislation). And discretionary programs can be changed via annual appropriations legislation.

I should add that net interest may not be directly touchable, but interest payments can be reduced by controlling spending and thus reducing red ink.

Another thing to understand is that the budget caps (yes, the ones that were weakened in 2013, 2015, and earlier this year) only apply to discretionary spending.

And the most important thing to realize is that the only solution to our budget mess is genuine entitlement reform. Which is why we need constitutional (and comprehensive) limits on total outlays. Politicians will only do what’s right if every other option is off the table.

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At some point in the next 10 years, there will be a huge fight in the United States over fiscal policy. This battle is inevitable because politicians are violating the Golden Rule of fiscal policy by allowing government spending to grow faster than the private sector (exacerbated by the recent budget deal), leading to ever-larger budget deficits.

I’m more sanguine about red ink than most people. After all, deficits and debt are merely symptoms. The real problem is excessive government spending.

But when peacetime, non-recessionary deficits climb above $1 trillion, the political pressure to adopt some sort of “austerity” package will become enormous. What’s critical to understand, however, is that not all forms of austerity are created equal.

The crowd in Washington reflexively will assert that higher taxes are necessary and desirable. People like me will respond by explaining that the real problem is entitlements and that we need structural reform of programs such as Medicaid and Medicare. Moreover, I will point out that higher taxes most likely will simply trigger and enable additional spending. And I will warn that tax increases will undermine economic performance.

Regarding that last point, three professors, led by Alberto Alesina at Harvard, have unveiled some new research looking at the economic impact of expenditure-based austerity compared to tax-based austerity.

…we started from detailed information on the consolidations implemented by 16 OECD countries between 1978 and 2014. …we group measures in just two broad categories: spending, g, and taxes, t. …We distinguish fiscal plans between those that are expenditure based (EB) and those that are tax based (TB)… Measuring the macroeconomic impact of a plan requires modelling the relationship between plans and macroeconomic variables.

Here are their econometric results.

There is a large and statistically significant difference between the effects on output of EB and TB austerity. EB fiscal consolidations have, on average, been associated with a very small downturn in output growth: a spending based plan worth one percent of GDP implies a loss of about half of a percentage point relative to the average GDP growth of the country, which lasts less than two year. Moreover, if an EB austerity plan is launched when the economy is not in a recession, the output costs are zero on average. …On the other hand TB plans are associated with large and long lasting recessions. A TB plan worth one per cent of GDP is followed, on average, by a two percent fall in GDP relative to its pre-austerity path. This large recessionary effect lasts several years.

Here’s a chart from the study showing that economic performance drops farther and farther to the extent taxes are part of an austerity package.

In addition to the core results, the authors explain why tax-based austerity packages are bad for capital…

…investment growth responds very differently following the introduction of the two types of austerity plans. It responds positively to EB plans and negatively to TB plans. …in their sample of OECD countries, business confidence increases immediately at the start of an EB consolidation plan, much more so that at the beginning of a TB plan.

…and why tax-based austerity packages are bad for labor.

…clearly tax hikes and spending cuts – beyond other effects – have different effects on labor supply. …EB plans are the least recessionary the longer lived is the reduction in government spending. Symmetrically, TB plans are more recessionary the longer lasting is the increase in the tax burden and thus in distortions.

Since capital and labor are the two factors of production, the obvious and inevitable conclusion is that the economy does worse when taxes are higher.

The study also make a critical point about the futility of tax increases when the burden of government spending is rising faster than the private sector. Simply stated, that’s a recipe for ever-increasing taxes, sort of like a dog chasing its tail.

…a TB plan which does not address the automatic growth of entitlements and other spending programs which grow over time if much less like likely to produce a long lasting effect on the budget. If the automatic increase of spending is not addressed, taxes will have to be continually increased to cover the increase in outlays.

That’s why spending restraint is the only way to successfully address red ink.

It doesn’t even require dramatic spending cuts, even though that would be desirable. All that’s needed is some modest fiscal restraint so that spending grows slower than the productive sector of the economy.

Nations that follow this approach for a multi-year period always get good results. But if you want examples of nations that have achieved good outcomes with tax increases, you’ll have to explore a parallel universe because there aren’t any on this planet.

P.S. I need to update the table because both the United States (between 2009-2014) and the United Kingdom (between 2010-2016) enjoyed dramatic improvements in fiscal outcomes in recent years because of spending restraint.

P.P.S. Politicians don’t like spending restraint, which is why most periods of good fiscal policy come to an end. To achieve good long-run outcomes, some sort of constitutional spending cap is probably necessary.

P.P.P.S. The study cited above builds upon research I cited in 2016.

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Back in April, I shared a new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that explained how poor nations can become rich nations by following the recipe of small government and free markets.

Now CF&P has released another video. Narrated by Yamila Feccia from Argentina, it succinctly explains – using both theory and evidence – why spending caps are the most prudent and effective way of achieving good fiscal results.

Ms. Feccia covers all the important issues, but here are five points that are worth emphasizing.

  1. Demographics – Almost all developed nations have major long-run fiscal problems because welfare states will implode because of aging populations and falling birthrates (Ponzi schemes need an ever-growing number of new people to stay afloat).
  2. Golden Rule – If government spending grows slower than the private sector, that reduces the relative burden of government spending (the underlying disease) and also reduces red ink (the symptom of the underlying disease).
  3. Success Stories – Simply stated, spending caps work. She lists the nations that have achieved very good results with multi-year periods of spending restraint. She points out that the U.S. made a lot of fiscal progress when GOPers aggressively fought Obama. And she shares the details about the very successful constitutional spending caps in Hong Kong and Switzerland.
  4. Better than Balanced Budget Amendments or Anti-Deficit Rules – The video explains why policies that try to target red ink are not very effective, mostly because tax revenues are very volatile.
  5. Even International Bureaucracies Agree – Remarkably, the International Monetary Fund (twice!), the European Central Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (twice!) have acknowledged that spending caps are the most, if not only, effective fiscal rule.

I touch on some of these issues in one of my chapters in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers. The entire chapter is worth reading, in my humble opinion, but I want to share an excerpt echoing Point #4 that I just shared from Ms. Feccia’s video.

There’s a very practical reason to focus on capping long-run spending rather than trying to balance the budget every year. Simply stated, the “business cycle” makes the latter very difficult. …when a recession occurs and revenues drop, a balanced-budget mandate requires politicians to make dramatic changes at a time when they are especially reluctant to either raise taxes or impose spending restraint. Then, when the economy is enjoying strong growth and producing lots of tax revenue, a balanced-budget requirement doesn’t impose much restraint on spending. All of which creates an unfortunate cycle. Politicians spend a lot of money during the good years, creating expectations of more and more money for various interest groups. When a recession occurs, the politicians suddenly have to slam on the brakes. But even if they actually cut spending, it is rarely reduced to the level it was when the economy began its upswing. Moreover, politicians often raise taxes as part of these efforts to comply with anti-deficit rules. When the recession ends and revenues begin to rise again, the process starts over—this time from a higher base of spending and with a bigger tax burden. Over the long run, these cycles create a ratchet effect, with the burden of government spending always reaching new plateaus.

It’s not that I want to belabor this point, but the bottom line is that it is very difficult to amend a country’s constitution (at least in the United States, but presumably in other nations as well).

So if there’s going to be a major campaign to put a fiscal rule in a constitution, then I think it should be one that actually achieves the goal. And whether people want to address the economically important goal of spending restraint or the symbolically important goal of fiscal balance, what should matter is that a spending cap is the effective way of getting there.

P.S. The narrator is from the soccer-mad country of Argentina, which has a big rivalry with the soccer-mad nation of Brazil. Like most Americans, I don’t quite get the appeal of that sport. That being said, I will cheer for Brazil the next time it plays against Argentina for the simple reason that it just adopted a constitutional amendment to cap government spending. If Ms. Feccia wants me to cheer for her country’s team, she needs to convince her government to do something similar.

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It’s both amusing and frustrating to observe the reaction to President Trump’s budget.

I’m amused that it is generating wild-eyed hysterics from interest groups who want us to believe the world is about to end.

But I’m frustrated because I’m reminded of the terribly dishonest way that budgets are debated and discussed in Washington. Simply stated, almost everyone starts with a “baseline” of big, pre-determined annual spending increases and they whine and wail about “cuts” if spending doesn’t climb as fast as previously assumed.

Here are the three most important things to understand about what the President has proposed.

First, the budget isn’t being cut. Indeed, Trump is proposing that federal spending increase from $4.06 trillion this year to $5.71 trillion in 2027.

Second, government spending will grow by an average of almost 3.5 percent per year over the next 10 years.

Third, because the private economy is projected to grow by an average of about 5 percent per year (in nominal terms), Trump’s budget complies with the Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

Now that we’ve established a few basic facts, let’s shift to analysis.

From a libertarian perspective, you can argue that Trump’s budget is a big disappointment. Why isn’t he proposing to get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development? What about shutting down the Department of Education? Or the Department of Energy? How about the Department of Agriculture, or Department of Transportation?

And why is he leaving Social Security basically untouched when taxpayers and retirees would both be better off with a system of personal retirement accounts? And why is Medicare not being fundamentally reformed when the program is an ever-expanding budgetary burden?

In other words, if you want the federal government to reflect the vision of America’s Founders, the Trump budget is rather disappointing. It’s far from a Liberland-style dream.

But for those who prefer to see the glass as half-full, here are a couple of additional takeaways from the budget.

Fourth, as I wrote yesterday, there is real Medicaid reform that will restore federalism and save money.

Fifth, domestic discretionary spending will be curtailed.

But not just curtailed. Spending in the future for this category will actually be lower if Trump’s budget is approved. In other words, a genuine rather than fake budget cut.

I’ll close with my standard caveat that it’s easy to put good ideas (or bad ideas) in a budget. The real test is whether an Administration will devote the energy necessary to move fiscal reforms through Congress.

Based on how Trump was defeated in the battle over the final spending bill for the current fiscal year, there are good reasons to be worried that good reforms in his budget won’t be implemented. Simply stated, if Trump isn’t willing to use his veto power, Congress will probably ignore his proposals.

P.S. You may have noticed that I didn’t include any discussion of deficits and debt. And I also didn’t address the Administration’s assertion that the budget will be balanced in 10 years if Trump’s budget is approved. That’s because a fixation on red ink is a distraction. What really matters is whether the burden of spending is falling relative to the private sector’s output. In other words, the entire focus should be on policies that generate spending restraint and policies that facilitate private sector growth. If those two goals are achieved, the burden of red ink is sure to fall. Whether it happens fast enough to balance the budget in 2027 is of little concern.

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