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Posts Tagged ‘Debt Limit’

One of the few theoretical constraints on Washington is that politicians periodically have to raise a “debt ceiling” or “debt limit” in order to finance additional spending with additional red ink.

I have mixed feelings about this requirement. I like that there is some limit on spending, even if it’s only a potential restraint.

On the other hand, fights over the debt limit are mostly just opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to engage in posturing and finger pointing rather than adopt positive reforms.

Moreover, the scholarly research clearly suggests that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule, so what’s the point of having a debt limit if potential spending restraint never turns into actual spending restraint?

Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post looks at the current fight and opines that we shouldn’t even have a debt limit.

The government is about to run out of money because of an arbitrary cap on how much it can borrow… Lawmakers and the White House are haggling over  the conditions under which they will, once again, temporarily raise that cap, known as the debt ceiling. But the better solution would be to abolish it entirely… Most recently, the government hit the official debt limit on March 1 . Since then, the Treasury Department has engaged in “extraordinary measures” to shift money around and continue paying its bills… Initially Treasury predicted that its extraordinary measures would get us to October, but more recent forecasts suggest we will hit the wall as soon as early September. Which means the drop-dead deadline before we become global deadbeats could happen while Congress is away on summer vacation.

She worries that a failure to raise the debt ceiling could have very negative consequences.

So what happens if we default on our debt obligations? Well, for one, it would violate the Constitution, which says the “validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned.” No small thing. …U.S. debt instruments are currently considered the safest of safe assets because creditors believe they’ll be paid back on time and in full. …Calling our creditworthiness into question could therefore set off a chain reaction of global financial panic.

I agree.

Defaulting on the debt (i.e., not paying bondholders what they’ve been contractually promised) would be very damaging to financial markets.

In reality, however, what we’re really talking about is potentially a delay in making promised payments. Which would be harmful, though presumably not nearly as bad as long-run default.

And even a delay in payments might not happen if the Treasury Department made sure that tax revenue was set aside to make all promised payments to bondholders.

Though Ms. Rampell doesn’t like this idea, which is sometimes called “prioritization.”

Some right-wingers…have in the past suggested  that defaulting is no big deal, perhaps even desirable. They (mistakenly) think that a debt default would allow those in charge to unilaterally decide which bills deserve payment and which don’t, bypassing the democratic budget process.

I’m not sure why she says prioritization is a “mistaken” view.

I testified to Congress about this issue in 2013 and in 2016. If the debt limit isn’t raised, meaning no ability to issue new debt, that would be the same as an overnight balanced budget requirement (i.e., spending could only equal current tax revenue).

If that happened and Treasury made sure to prioritize interest payments (to avoid the potentially bad results Ms. Rampell and others warn about), who would have the power to stop that from happening?

I’m guessing lawsuits would be filed, but I can’t imagine a judge would issue an injunction to require a default.

Let’s dig deeper into this issue. Back in 2017, when a similar fight occurred, Heather Long of the Washington Post identified five reasons to worry.

Unless Trump and Congress pass a law raising the U.S. debt limit — a legal cap on how much the U.S. government is allowed to borrow — the Treasury Department will soon run out of money to pay its bills, triggering a first-in-modern-U.S.-history default that threatens to turn the world economy on its head. …The danger…is that at some point someone will miscalculate and the government will actually hit the debt limit, sparking a default, intentional or otherwise. Here are five reasons that would cause global panic.

How persuasive are these reasons?

First, it would trigger a wild ride for stocks and bonds. Wall Street doesn’t like bad surprises. …There would probably be an immediate, negative reaction in the markets.

If there’s an actual default, that would be horrible news.

If there’s a temporary default, that also would be bad news, though presumably far less catastrophic than a permanent default (though some will fan the flames of hysteria).

Second, America’s cheap funding source would end. …As soon as the United States actually defaults, investors would start suing the country, and they would almost certainly insist on much higher interest rates in the future.

Interest rates surely would climb because of the perception of added risk for investors.

Though I wonder by how much. I think Italy is heading toward a fiscal/financial crisis, yet investors are buying up plenty of that government’s debt at very low interest rates.

Third, real people won’t get paid. …The Trump administration would have to either stop payments to everyone or they would have to pick who gets paid and who does not. That means deciding between bondholders, Social Security recipients, welfare recipients, …etc.

Interesting, Ms. Long accepts that prioritization would happen.

For what it’s worth, I’m guessing bondholders and Social Security recipients would be at the front of the line.

Fourth, America’s global power would decline. …The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency. People carry dollars and hold U.S. bonds all over the world because they believe America is their best and safest bet. A default would probably cause the value of the dollar to drop and global investors to shift some money out of U.S. assets.

This is an interesting claim.

The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

Does drama over the debt limit, or even a temporary default, lead investors to shift, en masse, to another currency?

Perhaps, though I don’t see an alternative. The euro is compromised because the European Central Bank surrendered its independence by engaging in indirect bailouts of some of Europe’s decrepit welfare states.

The Chinese financial system is too debt ridden and too opaque to give investors confidence in that nation’s currency. And other nations are simply too small.

Fifth, a recession is possible. …hitting the debt limit could cause a sharp drop in markets and sentiment around the world as everyone worries that if the United States defaults, who’s next? Investors might start panicking and ditching bonds of other countries in Europe and Asia, too.

These are all reasonable concerns.

It all depends, of course, whether there’s a temporary default and how long it lasts.

And since we may be in the midst of a debt bubble fueled by easy money, any triggering event could lead to very bad outcomes.

Which is why it would make sense for lawmakers to embrace prioritization. There has been legislation to make that happen.

For what it’s worth, it should be quite feasible to prioritize.

Here’s the latest 10-year forecast from the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see from the parts I’ve circled, the government is projected to collect far more revenue than would be needed to fulfill obligations to bondholders.

To be sure, prioritization means that some recipients of federal largesse would have to wait in line. This would be unseemly and unwelcome, but it already happens in profligate states such as Illinois without causing any economic or fiscal disarray.

Who knows, maybe politicians would even decide that it’s time to jettison some federal programs. But since I understand “public choice,” I won’t be holding my breath awaiting that outcome.

I’ll close with two observations.

The first, which I’ve already discussed, is that a failure to increase the debt limit should not result in default. Unless, of course, the Treasury Department wants that to happen. But that’s inconceivable, which is why I fully expect prioritization if we ever get to that point.

The second is that debt limit fights are messy and counterproductive, but I don’t want it abolished since there’s a chance that one of these battles eventually may force politicians to deal with our fiscal mess – thus saving the country from a future Greek-style economic and fiscal meltdown.

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There are some charming traditions, like the swallows returning every year to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano.

But other traditions are far less impressive, most notably the make-believe hysteria that occurs every time the federal government approaches its “debt limit.”

High-level government officials will publicly fret that a failure to increase the limit will produce an unprecedented calamity because the Treasury Department will be forced to default on U.S. government debt, thus triggering a global panic.

And this triggers anxiety in predictable quarters.

A story in USA Today is representative of the sky-is-falling mentality.

Congress will confront a potentially devastating financial crisis in September as lawmakers scramble to…prevent the nation from defaulting on its debt for the first time in history. …The debt limit, set by Congress, is the legal amount the U.S. Treasury can borrow to pay the government’s existing bills, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, tax refunds, interest on the national debt, and other obligations. The government has never defaulted on its debt before, and no one knows for sure what the impact would be. However, economists warn that it could plunge the U.S. back into recession and spark a global economic crisis.

Paul Krugman is predictably hysterical about the prospect.

The odds of a self-inflicted US debt crisis now look pretty good: hard-line Republicans are eager to hold the economy hostage… So it looks fairly likely that by October or so there will come a day when the U.S. government stops paying some of its bills, including interest on debt. How bad will that be? The truth is that we don’t know.. Until now, US debt has played a special role in the world economy, because it is — or was — the ultimate safe asset, the thing people can use to secure transactions with no questions about it retaining its value. …Taking away that role could be very nasty.

Even some establishment voices are fanning the flames, including Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Our economic standing is too sterling and the global economy too important to imperil over the disagreements of American domestic politics — as fundamental as they may be. It is the height of recklessness — a view held for decades reflected in the fact that raising the debt ceiling was once a mundane piece of housekeeping that garnered no attention. It was practically automatic.

And Professor Edward Kleinbard of the University of Southern California also thinks the apocalypse is nigh.

Sometime in October, the United States is likely to default on its obligation to pay its bills as they come due, having failed to raise the federal debt ceiling. This will cost the Treasury tens of billions of dollars every year for decades to come in higher interest charges and probably trigger a severe recession. …almost all economists and policy makers agree on the enormous fiscal, economic and reputational costs of default. That’s why, in the past, we’ve always managed to avoid it.

Sounds ominous, right?

And I agree that it would be very bad news if the U.S. government didn’t pay all interest and principal to bondholders, as scheduled.

But here’s the good news. The odds of that happening are about the same as the odds of me being the keynote speaker at the next convention of the Socialist Party.

As I’ve said over the years in television interviews, at press conferences, and in congressional testimony (on more than one occasion), there won’t be a default for the simple reason that the federal government collects far more money than needed to pay all bondholders without any delay.

And nothing has happened to the budget numbers to change that analysis.

Here are the latest CBO projections on major budget aggregates. I’ve circled total tax receipts for the next three years, as well as annual net interest payments. As you can see, the Treasury will be collecting more than 10 times as much revenue as needed to fulfill obligations to the folks who have lent money to Uncle Sam.

By the way, some of you may be thinking I’m a cranky libertarian who is blind to the danger of default.

Well, I am a libertarian, and I do get cranky about the various shenanigans in Washington, so let me engage in what’s known as an “appeal to authority.”

Here’s what the Congressional Budget Office said in its recent report on the debt limit.

When Would the Extraordinary Measures and Cash Run Out, and What Would Happen Then? If the debt limit is not increased above the amount that was established on March 16, 2017, the Treasury will not be authorized to issue additional debt that increases the amount outstanding. …That restriction would ultimately lead to delays of payments for government programs and activities, a default on the government’s debt obligations, or both.

In other words, the government can choose to pay interest on the debt and defer other bills. As I’ve repeatedly said in all my public pronouncements, a default will occur only if an administration wants it to occur.

But that’s not going to happen. Just as Obama’s various Treasury Secretaries would have “prioritized” payments to bondholders, Trump’s Treasury Secretary will do the same thing if push comes to shove.

Some budget experts on the left know this is true so they try to blur the issue by stating that it is “default” to postpone payment on any type of government spending. Here’s some of what Kleinbard wrote in his column.

…some conservative policy makers besides Mr. Mulvaney have convinced themselves that crashing into the debt ceiling won’t be a big deal because the government can “prioritize” its bill payments, so that interest on Treasury debt will be paid on a current basis, while other bills sit unpaid. Understanding the false allure of prioritization requires a little background. …there are profound doubts as to whether the Treasury could even implement prioritization, beyond ring fencing interest payments, because its payment systems are designed to pay all claims as they are due, regardless of their origin. More important, prioritization is default by another name. The consequences are the same, regardless of which i.o.u.s Treasury chooses to dishonor. All valid claims against the United States are backed by the credit of the United States… The deliberate nonpayment of billions of dollars of uncontested claims every month thus constitutes default, even if the Treasury is paying some of its other debts.

The last sentence in the above excerpt is bunk. Postponing or deferring bills is not good budget policy. It’s basically what happens in poorly governed places like Greece and Illinois. But it’s not default. There wouldn’t be any risk to financial markets if the Treasury Department was late in disbursing farm subsidy checks or Medicaid reimbursements.

Let’s close by indulging one of my fantasies. If Donald Trump wanted to force good policy from Congress, he could threaten to veto any debt limit that wasn’t accompanied by something desirable such as a spending cap or entitlement reform. The politicians on Capitol Hill would balk of course, but Trump could shrug his shoulders and start “prioritization” once the debt limit was reached. So long as all bondholders received promised payments, there would be no danger to financial markets. By contrast, however, the various interest groups feeding at the federal trough would begin to squeal once their checks started slowing down. At some point, Congress would be forced to capitulate.

In other words, Trump has the capacity to score a big victory on the debt limit, just like he has the unilateral ability to score a big victory on Obamacare repeal and/or the 2018 spending bills.

I’m not holding my breath for this to happen, but it’s nice to dream. Especially since a big fight over the debt limit today (if successful) could save us from something far worse in the future.

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Whenever there’s a fight over raising the debt limit, the political establishment gets hysterical and makes apocalyptic claims about default and economic crisis.

For years, I’ve been arguing that this Chicken-Little rhetoric is absurd. And earlier this week I testified about this issue before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee.

By the way, when I first showed up, my placard identified me as Ms. Mitchell.

Since I work at a libertarian think tank, I reckon nobody would object if I wanted to change my identity. But since I’m the boring rather than adventurous kind of libertarian, I guess it’s good that I wound up being Dr. Mitchell.

More important, here’s some elaboration and background links to some of the information from my testimony.

America’s long-run fiscal problem isn’t debt. That’s just a symptom. The real challenge is a rising burden of government spending, largely because of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Measured as a share of economic output, the tax burden already is above historical levels. Moreover, taxes are projected to rise even further, so there is zero plausible evidence for the notion that America’s future fiscal crisis is the result of inadequate tax revenue.

International bureaucracies such as the IMF, BIS, and OECD show America in worse long-run shape than Europe, but the U.S. is actually in a better position since a spending cap easily would prevent the compounding levels of debt that are driving the terrible long-run outlook in the United States.

It’s good to have debt limit fights today if such battles enhance the possibility of averting a future Greek-style economic calamity.

Arguments against using the debt limit as an action-forcing event usually are based on the bizarre claim that an inability to borrow more money would cause a default and wreck the “full faith and credit” of the United States. Nonsense. Treasury would be able to avoid default in the absence of a higher debt limit for the simple reason that tax receipts are far greater than what’s needed to pay interest on the debt.

This last point is worth some extra attention. I’ve been arguing for years that debt limit fights are harmless since there’s no risk of default. I even explained to the Senate Budget Committee a few years ago that it would be easy for the Treasury Department to “prioritize” payments to ensure that bondholders would never be adversely impacted.

The Obama Administration routinely denied that it was sufficiently competent to engage in “prioritization” and even enlisted the then-Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to dishonestly fan the flames of economic uncertainty.

Well, thanks to the good work of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, we now have a report outlining how the White House was prevaricating. Simply stated, of course there were and are contingency plans to prioritize in the event of a standoff on the debt limit.

By the way, I didn’t get the chance to mention it in my oral testimony, but my full written testimony addressed the silly assertion that any delay in a government payment is somehow a “default.”

I will close by noting the utterly disingenuous Administration tactic of trying to…make it seem as if delaying payments of things like crop subsidies and Medicaid reimbursements is somehow equivalent to default on interest payments.

One final point. Let’s imagine that we’re four years in the future and political events somehow have given us a Republican president and a Democratic Congress. Don’t be surprised if the political parties then reverse their positions and the GOPers argue for “clean” debt limits and make silly claims about default and Democrats argue the opposite.

That’s why I’m glad I’m at the Cato Institute. I can simply tell the truth without worrying about partisanship.

P.S. Here are some jokes about the debt limit, and you can find some additional humor on the topic here and here.

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During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan famously said “there you go again” when responding to one of Jimmy Carter’s attacks.

Well, the Gipper’s ghost is probably looking down from Heaven at the new budget deal between congressional leaders and the Obama Administration and saying “there they go again.”

That’s because we basically have a repeat of the distasteful 2013 budget deal.

The new agreement, like the 2013 deal, busts the budget caps. In this case, the politicians in DC have approved $50 billion of additional spending for the 2016 fiscal year (which started on October 1) and $30 billion of additional spending in the 2017 fiscal year (starting October 1, 2016).

Which means that the President gets to further undo his biggest fiscal defeat.

And what do Republicans get in exchange?

Many of them want higher defense spending, of course, and some of them doubtlessly are happy to have more domestic spending as well. Those politicians are presumably happy, at least behind closed doors.

So let’s rephrase the question: What do advocates of fiscal restraint get in exchange?

Well, if you peruse the agreement, it’s apparent they don’t get anything. Sure, there are some promises of future restraint. But if the 2013 deal and the current agreement are any indication, those promises don’t mean much.

The deal has a handful of back-door revenue increases, including an assumption that the IRS will be more aggressive in squeezing money out of taxpayers. And there are some budget gimmicks, along with some tinkering with entitlement programs, especially the fraud-riddled disability program, that ostensibly will lead to some modest savings.

The net result is that we have a pact that leads to guaranteed spending increases over the nest few years, combined with some nickel-and-dime proposals that will probably offset each other in the future.

So the bad news – assuming the goal is enforceable spending restraint – is that policy has moved in the wrong direction.

In other words, I was right to worry that Republicans would fumble away a guaranteed victory.

And this deal probably sets the stage for another bad deal two years in the future since more spending in 2016 and 2017 will make it harder to meet the spending caps for 2018 and beyond.

Now for the good news…

Ooops, there isn’t any good news.

About the only positive thing to say is that this new agreement is not a huge defeat. There will still be budget caps, which is better than no spending caps.

And the new spending, while wasteful and counterproductive, is relatively small in the context of an $18 trillion economy.

Moreover, the deal only partially unwinds the fiscal discipline that already has been achieved thanks to the spending caps.

Last but not least, nothing in this deal precludes a better and more comprehensive spending cap, perhaps modeled after Switzerland’s very successful debt brake, once Obama is out of the White House.

P.S. This new deal also increases the debt limit. Some view this as a defeat, but it more properly should be viewed as a missed opportunity to get some much-needed reforms.

That being said, I can’t resist commenting on the deliberately dishonest scare tactics from our statist friends. They routinely claim that the United States government would have to default on its debt and cause a global crisis unless there is approval for more borrowing.

For instance, exuding an air of faux hysteria, one writer for the Washington Post asserted that, “Failure to raise the debt ceiling would unleash hell on the U.S. economy.” Another Washington Post columnist fanned the flames of fake despair, writing, “The chaos…is about to have some very serious effects on the entire country.” And a third Washington Post reporter falsely fretted that not raising the debt limit by November 3rd, “could plunge the United States into default, an outcome that…could lead to economic catastrophe.”

Oh, please, we’ve heard this song and dance before. But it’s utter nonsense.

Here’s some of what I said as part of my testimony to the Joint Economic Committee in 2013.

…there is zero chance of default. Why? Because…annual interest payments are about $230 billion and annual tax collections are approaching $3 trillion. …there’s no risk of default – unless the Obama Administration deliberately wants that to happen. But that’s simply not a realistic possibility.

But some folks may wonder whether my analysis is accurate. After all, maybe I’m some sort of nihilistic libertarian who fantasizes about laying waste to Washington.

And other than the nihilistic part, that’s actually a good description of my long-run goals.

But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. So for backup, let’s look at some identical analysis from an ultra-establishment source, as reported in The Hill.

Moody’s Investors Service announced Monday that, despite dire warnings from the Treasury Department, the government would find a way to pay money owed on its debt, regardless of whether lawmakers agree to raise the $18.1 trillion borrowing cap. …”Even if the debt limit is not raised, …the government will order its payment priorities to allow the Treasury to continue servicing its debt obligations,” says Moody’s Senior Vice President Steven Hess.

Gee, maybe all the mouth-breathing partisans at the Washington Post are the ones who are wrong. Along with the partisan and status-quo voices from the political establishment.

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Remember the big debt limit fight of 2013? The political establishment at the time went overboard with hysterical rhetoric about potential instability in financial markets.

They warned that a failure to increase the federal government’s borrowing authority would mean default to bondholders even though the Treasury Department was collecting about 10 times as much revenue as would be needed to pay interest on the debt.

And these warnings had an effect. Congress eventually acquiesced.

I thought it was a worthwhile fight, but not everyone agrees.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), for instance, recently released a report about that experience and they suggest that there was a negative impact on markets.

During the 2013 debt limit impasse, investors reported taking the unprecedented action of systematically avoiding certain Treasury securities—those that matured around the dates when the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) projected it would exhaust the extraordinary measures that it uses to manage federal debt when it is at the limit. …Investors told GAO that they are now prepared to take similar steps to systematically avoid certain Treasury securities during future debt limit impasses. …industry groups emphasized that even a temporary delay in payment could undermine confidence in the full faith and credit of the United States and therefore cause significant damage to markets for Treasury securities and other assets.

The GAO even produced estimates showing that the debt limit fight resulted in a slight increase in borrowing costs.

GAO’s analysis indicates that the additional borrowing costs that Treasury incurred rose rapidly in the final weeks and days leading up to the October 2013 deadline when Treasury projected it would exhaust its extraordinary measures. GAO estimated the total increased borrowing costs incurred through September 30, 2014, on securities issued by Treasury during the 2013 debt limit impasse. These estimates ranged from roughly $38 million to more than $70 million, depending on the specifications used.

I confess that these results don’t make sense since it is inconceivable to me that Treasury wouldn’t fully compensate bondholders if there was any sort of temporary default.

But GAO included some persuasive evidence that investors didn’t have total trust in the government. Here are a couple of charts looking at interest rates.

Both of them show an uptick in rates as we got closer to the date when the Treasury Department said it would run out of options.

Given this data, the GAO argues that it would be best to eviscerate the debt limit.

The bureaucrats propose three options, all of which would have the effect of enabling automatic or near-automatic increases in the federal government’s borrowing authority.

GAO identified three potential approaches to delegating borrowing authority. …Option 1: Link Action on the Debt Limit to the Budget Resolution …legislation raising the debt limit to the level envisioned in the Congressional Budget Resolution would be…deemed to have passed… Option 2: Provide the Administration with the Authority to Increase the Debt Limit, Subject to a Congressional Motion of Disapproval… Option 3: Delegating Broad Authority to the Administration to Borrow…such sums as necessary to fund implementation of the laws duly enacted by Congress and the President.

So is GAO right? Should we give Washington a credit card with no limits?

I don’t think so, but I’m obviously not very persuasive because I actually had a chance to share my views with GAO as they prepared the report.

Here are the details about GAO’s process for getting feedback from outside sources.

…we hosted a private Web forum where selected experts participated in an interactive discussion on the various policy proposals and commented on the technical feasibility and merits of each option. We selected experts to invite to the forum based on their experience with budget and debt issues in various capacities (government officials, former congressional staff, and policy researchers), as well as on their knowledge of the debt limit, as demonstrated through published articles and congressional testimony since 2011. …we received comments from 17 of the experts invited to the forum. We determined that the 17 participants represented the full range of political perspectives. We analyzed the results of the forum to identify key factors that policymakers should consider when evaluating different policy options.

Given the ground rules of this exercise, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to share details of that interactive discussion.

But I will share some of my 2013 public testimony to the Joint Economic Committee.

Here’s some of what I told lawmakers.

I explained that Greece is now suffering through a very deep recession, with record unemployment and harsh economic conditions. I asked the Committee a rhetorical question: Wouldn’t it have been preferable if there was some sort of mechanism, say, 15 years ago that would have enabled some lawmakers to throw sand in the gears so that the government couldn’t issue any more debt? Yes, there would have been some budgetary turmoil at the time, but it would have been trivial compared to the misery the Greek people currently are enduring. I closed by drawing an analogy to the situation in Washington. We know we’re on an unsustainable path. Do we want to wait until we hit a crisis before we address the over-spending crisis? Or do we want to take prudent and modest steps today – such as genuine entitlement reform and spending caps – to ensure prosperity and long-run growth.

In other words, my argument is simply that it’s good to have debt limit fights because they create a periodic opportunity to force reforms that might avert far greater budgetary turmoil in the future.

Indeed, one of the few recent victories for fiscal responsibility was the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which only was implemented because of a fight that year over the debt limit. At the time, the establishment was screaming and yelling about risky brinksmanship.

But the net result is that the BCA ultimately resulted in the sequester, which was a huge victory that contributed to much better fiscal numbers between 2009-2014.

By the way, I’m not the only one to make this argument. The case for short-term fighting today to avoid fiscal crisis in the future was advanced in greater detail by a Wall Street expert back in 2011.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some good debt limit cartoons by clicking here and here.

 

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It’s time to puncture the myth that libertarians are congenitally dour and pessimistic.

We’re going to look at some fiscal data that must be very depressing for President Obama and other advocates of big government.

But that means this information must be very good news for American taxpayers!

Here’s a chart looking at annual federal spending since 2000. You’ll notice that spending skyrocketed from 2000-2009 (a time when libertarians were justifiably glum), but look at how the growth of government came to a screeching halt after 2009.

Here are some specific numbers culled from the OMB data and CBO data. In fiscal year 2009, the federal government spent about $3.52 trillion. In fiscal year 2014 (which ended on September 30), the federal government spent about $3.50 trillion.

In other words, there’s been no growth in nominal government spending over the past five years. It hasn’t received nearly as much attention as it deserves, but there’s been a spending freeze in Washington.

When I’ve argued in favor of an overall cap on government outlays in the past, my leftist friends always said this would produce catastrophic consequences. They had lots of rhetoric about “unmet needs” and “human costs,” so let’s contemplate societal outcomes since 2009:

Did children starve? Nope.

Did widows die in the snow? Nope.

Did planes fall from the sky? Nope.

Did poisoned food plague the country? Nope.

Did sick people get turned away from hospitals? Nope.

Did the North Koreans take over the world? Nope.

Gee, it appears that spending restraint doesn’t result in chaos. Not that we should be surprised, based on research on “public sector efficiency” from the European Central Bank.

So we can logically conclude that spending restraint doesn’t lead to societal disarray. Now let’s look at what does happen when government is put on a diet.

I’ve periodically discussed my Golden Rule, which says that good fiscal policy takes place when government spending grows slower than the private sector.

And even though we haven’t had impressive growth during the Obama years, there have been modest increases in both nominal GDP as well as inflation-adjusted (real) GDP.

In other words, the Golden Rule has been in effect since 2009. As a result, the burden of government spending, relative to the economy’s productive sector, has been declining.

Here’s another chart that will be very depressing for the President and other statists.

What’s really remarkable is that we’ve seen the biggest drop in the burden of government spending since the end of World War II.

Heck, the fiscal restraint over the past five years has resulted in a bigger drop in the relative size of government in America than what Switzerland achieved over the past ten years thanks to the “debt brake.”

At this point, some readers may be wondering who or what deserves credit for this positive development. I’ll offer a couple of explanations.

The first two points are about why we shouldn’t overstate what’s actually happened.

1. The good news is somewhat exaggerated because we had a huge spike in federal spending in 2009. To use an analogy, it’s easy to lose some weight if you first go on a big eating binge for a couple of years.

2. Some of the fiscal discipline is illusory because certain revenues that flow to the Treasury, such as TARP repayments from banks, actually count as negative spending. I explained this phenomenon when measuring which Presidents have been the biggest spenders.

But there also are some real reasons why we’ve seen genuine spending restraint.

3. The “Tea Party” election of 2010 resulted in a GOP-controlled House that was somewhat sincere about controlling federal outlays.

4. The spending caps adopted as part of the debt limit fight in 2011 have curtailed spending increases as part of the appropriations process.

5. In the biggest fiscal loss President Obama has suffered, we got a sequester that reduced the growth of federal spending.

6. Many states have refused to expand Medicaid, notwithstanding the lure of temporary free money from Uncle Sam.

7. Government shutdown fights may be messy, but they tend to produce a greater amount of fiscal restraint.

And there are surely other reasons to list, including the long-overdue end of seemingly permanent unemployment benefits and falling defense outlays as forces are withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bottom line is that the past five years have been a victory for advocates of limited government.

But now for the bad news. All this progress will be wiped out very quickly if there’s not genuine entitlement reform.

The long-run fiscal forecasts, whether from the Congressional Budget Office or from international bureaucracies such as the IMF, BIS, and OECD, show that America will become a European-style welfare state over the next couple of decades in the absence of reform.

So let’s enjoy our temporary victory but work even harder to avert a future fiscal crisis.

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Notwithstanding the landslide rejection of Obama and his policies in the mid-term election, I don’t think this will produce big changes in policy over the next two years.

Simply stated, the GOP does not have the votes to override presidential vetoes, so there’s no plausible strategy for achieving meaningful tax reform or genuine entitlement reform.

But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be important fiscal policy battles. I’m especially worried about whether we can hold on to the modest fiscal restraint (and sequester enforcement) we achieved as part of the 2011 debt limit fight.

Part of that victory was already negotiated away as part of the Ryan-Murray budget deal, to be sure, but there are still remaining budget caps that limit how fast politicians can increase so-called discretionary spending.

According to the Congressional Research Service, budget authority for defense is allowed to rise from $552 billion in 2014 to $644 billion in 2021. And budget authority for domestic programs is allowed to climb from $506 billion to $590 billion over the same period.

I think that’s too much spending, but the interest groups, lobbyists, cronyists, politicians, bureaucrats, and other insiders in Washington would like much bigger increases. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the Obama Administration also wants to bust the spending caps.

This is why I’m very worried that some Republicans are undercutting their negotiating position by saying that there will be no government shutdowns.

Let me explain how these issues are connected. At some point next year, Republicans on Capitol Hill will be responsible for putting together spending bills for the following fiscal year. They presumably (or am I being too optimistic?) will put together budget bills that comply with the existing spending caps.

Obama will then say he will veto such legislation and demand that Republicans unilaterally surrender by enacting bigger spending increases and also gutting sequestration. The GOP will then have two options:

A) they can surrender.

B) they can continue to send the President spending bills that comply with the law.

But if they go with option B and the President uses his veto pen, then the government shuts down. And even though the shutdown only occurs because the President wants to renege on the deal he signed in 2011, Republicans are afraid they’ll get blamed.

The Washington Post reports on this fearful attitude, citing the anti-shutdown perspective of the incoming Senate Majority Leader.

A day after he won reelection and Republicans retook the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) left no doubt… “Let me make it clear: There will be no government shutdowns…,” McConnell said in a valedictory news conference in Louisville.

But that view irks some lawmakers who worry Obama will then have a blank check.

The first battle may revolve around immigration amnesty, but – as noted above – I’m more focused on fiscal fights.

But McConnell could be tripped up by the same conservative forces that have undercut Boehner since he became speaker in 2011. The issue this time is Obama’s expected executive action to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.conservatives…have urged McConnell and Boehner to fight back by allowing only a short-term budget bill that would keep government agencies open until early next year. These conservatives believe that once Republicans hold both chambers of Congress next year, they can force Obama to accept a budget bill that would prohibit him from implementing his executive order on immigration.

At this point in the article, the reporter, Paul Kane, engages in some anti-factual editorializing.

…the days of brinkmanship could return with a vengeance, and the government could once again be shut down. That could provide a devastating blow to Republicans, hurting their chance to win back the White House and hold on to their relatively slim Senate majority in 2016.

Huh?!? Republicans just won a landslide, so why are we supposed to believe last year’s shutdown was “a devastating blow”?

Mr. Kane also refers to a shutdown later in the article as a “fiscal calamity” even though he shows no evidence (because there wasn’t any) that government shutdowns cause any damage.

But there is at least one person who is convinced by this narrative. And that person, Senator McConnell, is preemptively trying to convince other GOP Senators to give Obama the upper hand in any fiscal negotiations.

McConnell’s advisers are worried enough that by Friday evening they were circulating a memo showing how damaging last year’s shutdown was to the Republican Party — an effort designed to counter conservatives who point to this month’s triumphant election as proof that the shutdown did little damage. …The memo showed that in Gallup polling from late 2012 until this month, …Republicans held steady just a couple of points lower through 2012 and most of 2013 — until the 16-day shutdown of the federal government in October 2013. In just a few weeks, the McConnell chart shows, Republican favorability plummeted 10 points. It has taken a year for it to climb back to where it was before the shutdown.

But who cares about “favorability” ratings. The poll that really matters is the one that takes place on election day.

And here’s some of what I wrote in my post about lessons that could be learned from the 2014 elections.

Back in 2011, I explained that Republicans could play hard ball, largely based on what really happened during the 1995 government shutdown. And in 2013, I again defended a shutdown, pointing out that voters probably wouldn’t even notice that some government offices were closed, but they would remember that the GOP was branding itself as the anti-Obamacare party. The establishment, by contrast, thought the shutdown was a disaster for Republicans. …many…Republicans felt the same way, excoriating Senator Cruz and others who wanted a line-in-the-sand fight over government-run healthcare. The moral of the story isn’t that shutdowns necessarily are politically desirable, but rather that it’s very important for a political party to find visible ways of linking itself to popular causes (such as ending Obamacare, fighting big government, etc).

At least one person agrees with me. Jeffrey Lord, writing for the American Spectator, points out the GOP establishment was wrong about the political impact of the 2013 government shutdown.

The whole event was giving prominent Republicans in and out of office the political willies. …Republican senators, congressmen, governors, ex-office holders, potential presidential candidates, lobbyists and pundits…were spreading the word. That word? …it was some version of curtains for the GOP. The party would be toast. …they all got it wrong. Not just wrong, but Big Time Wrong. A week ago the Republican Party — barely a year away from the government shut down these folks were bewailing in various terms as bad strategy that “will lose more” for Republicans than Democrats — won a blowout election. …Will Republicans learn anything here?Do you think Mitch McConnell makes the connection between the government shutdown of 2013 and the fact that he is about to become Senate Majority Leader?

To be fair, we don’t know what would have happened if there wasn’t a shutdown in 2013, so maybe the GOP still would have taken the Senate.

But there’s also no doubt that the GOP benefited by having a big public fight about Obamacare. Voters didn’t remember the shutdown, but they did remember that Republicans were against the President’s government-run healthcare scheme and they remembered that Democrats were for it.

I have no idea whether that made a difference in one Senate race of six Senate races, but Obamacare clearly was an albatross for Democrats.

In closing, I want to point out that there are limits to a shutdown strategy.

Picking a fight (or, more accurately, refusing to surrender to Obama) in 2015 is almost surely a winning strategy. But having the same fight in October of 2016 probably wouldn’t be very smart, particularly since the establishment press would do everything possible to spin the fight in ways that advance Hillary Clinton (or some other Democrat presidential nominee).

In other words, context matters. Pick the right fight.

But the bottom line is that Republicans – assuming they don’t intend to acquiesce on every single issue – must be prepared to let Obama veto spending bills and shut down the government.

Returning to the American Spectator story, Ted Cruz may not be very popular with some of his colleagues, but I think he made an unassailable point about what happens if the GOP unilaterally disarms.

Cruz…asked them for their alternative. Cruz paused, then said that the response he got was “the sound of crickets chirping.”

P.S. One reason why Republicans are skittish about shutdowns is that they think they last the 1995 fight with Bill Clinton. But if you lived through that battle (or if you look at contemporaneous news reports), it’s clear the Republicans had the upper hand.

P.P.S. Here are the five lessons I shared immediately after the 2013 shutdown fight.

P.P.P.S. If you want to enjoy some shutdown humor, click herehere, here, and here. And if you prefer sequester cartoons, click here, here, here, here, here, and (my favorite) here.

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…Well, I’m not sure what it means. But it sure doesn’t make sense when you look at the big picture. A credit card company wouldn’t increase a deadbeat’s credit limit, so why is it a sign of fiscal prudence to give Uncle Sam more borrowing authority?

That being said, I never thought it was realistic to block a debt limit increase. Indeed, I fully expected an unsatisfactory result.

But this cartoon is a pretty good summary of how Washington thinks.

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Here’s the video that won the lucrative Powerline prize. Perhaps not as catchy as the entry I posted a couple of days ago, but very well done, with a proper focus on excessive government.

And here’s a video just released by Cato on why the debt deal – at best – is a holding action that postpones the real fights until later. I give some analysis, along with my colleagues Chris Edwards and Jagadeesh Gokhale.

And here’s some of what I wrote in a column for CNN. My basic messages is that establishment politicians of both parties got what they wanted – which was no heavy lifting and all tough choices postponed. (I also wrote it early yesterday on the assumption that the bill would pass both the House and Senate, so I’m glad I didn’t look like a fool)

…politicians of both parties were the victors and taxpayers are the ones left in the cold. In other words, the budget deal was a victory for the political establishment. Here’s why Republicans are winners. They get to tell their tea party activists that they forced Obama to cut spending. It doesn’t matter that federal spending will actually be higher every year and that the cuts were based on Washington math (a spending increase becomes a spending cut if outlays don’t climb as fast as some artificial benchmark). They also get to tell their anti-tax activists that they held the line. Perhaps most important, the supercommittee must use the “current law” baseline, which assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire at the end of 2012. But why are GOPers happy about this, considering they want those tax cuts extended? For the simple reason that Democrats on the supercommittee therefore can’t use repeal of the “Bush tax cuts for the rich” as a revenue raiser. This means that most Republican incumbents are well-positioned to win re-election. Here’s why Democrats are winners. Thanks to the magic of government math, despite all the talk of budget cuts, discretionary spending will be more than $100 billion higher in 2021 than it is this year. And since defense spending in Iraq and Afghanistan presumably is winding down, this means even more money will be available for domestic programs. In addition to telling the pro-spending lobbies that the gravy train is still on the tracks, they also get to tell the class-warfare crowd that there’s an improved likelihood of higher taxes for corporate jet owners and other “rich” people. Notwithstanding GOP assertions, nothing in the agreement precludes the supercommittee from meeting its $1.5 trillion target with tax revenue. The 2001 and 2003 tax legislation is not an option, but everything else is on the table. This means that most Democratic incumbents are well-positioned to win re-election.

But don’t forget that postponing a fight doesn’t make it go away. We’ll have at least two more big fiscal fights this year – the spending bills for fiscal year 2012 (which begins October 1) and the “super committee,” which has to make recommendations by Thanksgiving. I’ll have more to say on those issues soon.

Last but not least, here’s an entry in the Powerline contest from my Cato colleague Caleb Brown. I like the huckster theme.

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Considering the Democrats control the Senate and the White House, I actually think the Republican leadership did a decent job in the debt negotiations. Of course, I had low expectations, but did anybody expect miracles with Obama in the White House?

As you might expect, this means the agreement is – at best – a tiny step on a long journey.

I’ve already looked at the revenue part of the deal, so let’s turn our attention to the spending side of the fiscal ledger. Specifically, the supposed spending cuts for the “discretionary” part of the budget.*

This chart shows you everything you need to understand about the budget deal. The top line (fuchsia, I’m told) is the “discretionary baseline,” which is an estimate of how fast spending would increase to keep pace with factors such as inflation. The next line shows how fast discretionary spending will grow under the budget agreement.

The good news is that discretionary spending does not grow as fast with the budget agreement. The bad news is that it still grows. In other words, the supposed “budget cuts” are based on Washington math, where a spending increase is called a spending cut simply because outlays didn’t rise even faster.

But the really bad news is that the burden of discretionary spending – over the entire 10-year period – will be more than twice as large as it was in 2000. In other words, the budget deal basically leaves unchallenged the entire Bush-Obama spending binge.

But, as the old saying goes, a journey of 14.3 trillion miles begins with a first step.

*By way of background, the federal budget has three types of spending. Entitlements, which are “permanently appropriated” and increase automatically. Net interest, which is the one part of the budget that truly is uncontrollable. And discretionary, which are the parts of the budget funded by annual appropriations bills.

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Politicians last night announced the framework of a deal to increase the debt limit. In addition to authorizing about $900 billion more red ink right away, it would require immediate budget cuts of more than $900 billion, though “immediate” means over 10 years and “budget cuts” means spending still goes up (but not as fast as previously planned).

But that’s the relatively uncontroversial part. The fighting we’re seeing today revolves around a “super-committee” that’s been created to find $1.5 trillion of additional “deficit reduction” over the next 10 years (based on Washington math, of course).

And much of the squabbling is about whether the super-committee is a vehicle for higher taxes. As with all kiss-your-sister budget deals, both sides can point to something they like.

Here’s what Republicans like:

The super-committee must use the “current law” baseline, which assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire at the end of 2012. But why are GOPers happy about this, considering they want those tax cuts extended? For the simple reason that Democrats on the super-committee therefore can’t use repeal of the “Bush tax cuts for the rich” as a revenue raiser.

Here’s what Democrats like:

There appears to be nothing in the agreement to preclude the super-committee from meeting its $1.5 trillion target with tax revenue. The 2001 and 2003 tax legislation is not an option, but everything else is on the table (notwithstanding GOP claims that it is “impossible for Joint Committee to increase taxes”).

In other words, there is a risk of tax hikes, just as I warned last week. Indeed, the five-step scenario I outlined last week needs to be modified because now a tax-hike deal would be “vital” to not only “protect” the nation from alleged default, but also to forestall the “brutal” sequester that might take place in the absence of an agreement.

But you don’t have to believe me. Just read the fact sheet distributed by the White House, which is filled with class warfare rhetoric about “shared sacrifice.”

This doesn’t mean there will be tax increases, of course, and this doesn’t mean Boehner and McConnell gave up more than Obama, Reid, and Pelosi.

But as someone who assumes politicians will do the wrong thing whenever possible, it’s always good to identify the worst-case scenario and then prepare to explain why it’s not a good idea.

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Welcome Instapundit readers. Thanks, Glenn.

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Two of my rules for fiscal policy are:

1) The details of any budget agreement will be to the left of what is first announced, and,

2) The “spending cuts” in any budget agreement will evaporate within two years.

With this in mind, I’m not expecting to be overjoyed when we get the details of the supposed agreement.

So let’s pass the time with some debt-ceiling entertainment (who knew such a genre even existed?).

We’ll start with one of the entries in Powerline’s debt contest. This video didn’t win a prize, but I urge you to share this post widely because the creator highlighted excessive spending and redistribution, thus putting the focus on the real problem of too much government rather than just looking at the symptom of too much red ink.

And the video also is entertaining.

And for downright cleverness, let’s look at the horrible things that happen, if Iowahawk’s predictions are accurate, if the government shuts down.

Beltway policy experts begin living by own wits; after 45 minutes there are no survivors.

Roving bands of outlaws stalk our streets, selling incandescent bulbs to vulnerable children.

Unregulated mohair prices at the whim of unscrupulous mohair speculators.

NPR news segments no longer buffered by soothing zither interludes.

Breadlines teeming with jobless Outreach Coordinators, Diversity Liaisons, and Sustainability Facilitators.

Cowboy poetry utterly lacking in metre.

General Motors unfairly forced to build cars that people want, for a profit.

Chaos reigns at Goldman Sachs, who no longer knows who to bribe with political donations.

Mankind’s dream of high speed government rail service between Chicago and Iowa City tragically dies.

Sesame Street descends into Mad Maxian anarchy; Oscar the Grouch fashions shivs out the letter J and the number 4

No longer protected by government warning labels, massive wave of amputations from people sticking limbs into lawn mowers

New York devolves into a dystopian hellscape of sugared cola moonshiners, salty snackhouses and tobacco dens.

At-risk Mexican drug lords forced to buy own machine guns.

Chevy Volt rebate checks bounce, stranded owners more than 50 miles from outlet.

WH communications office reduced to sending talking points to Media Matters via smoke signals and log drums.

Potential 5-year old terrorists head to boarding gates ungroped.

Defenseless mortgage holders forced to live in houses they can actually afford.

Without college loan program, America loses an entire generation of Marxist Dance Theorists.

Embarrassing state dinners, as Obamas are forced to downgrade from Wagyu to Kobe beef.

President Obama places tarp over Washington Monument to conceal from Chinese repo men.

With the Dept of Ed shuttered, national school quality plummets to 1960s levels.

Anthony Weiner is forced to pay for own sex addiction therapy.

Displaced teenaged policy wonks organize under Supreme Warlord Ezra Klein.

Nation’s freeway exits croweded with desperate bureaucrats waving ‘will regulate for food’ signs.

State Department diplomacy becomes 38% less diplomatic.

WH holds rummage sale Rose Garden; all HOPE merchandise, styrofoam Greek columns 95% off.

Iowahawk, by the way, is the creator of the funniest public policy video ever produced. You will watch it more than one time.

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In the spirit of the budget battle, readers have to eat their peas (i.e., endure my analysis) before getting to the dessert menu of jokes from the late-night comics.

The big news today is that Speaker Boehner had to cancel a vote on his “Budget Control Act” last night. But other than the political-drama angle, I’m not sure why this is newsworthy.  Senate Democrats were united against the plan, with all 53 members signing a letter of opposition.

In other words, this was just a symbolic vote.

But I must admit that I’m puzzled why the GOP leadership decided to even bother going down this path. Republicans were beginning to make progress with the theme of “We’ve passed two proposals, where’s Reid’s plan or Obama’s plan?”

So why did they let the Democrats off the hook by launching an intra-party fight over a proposal that Senate Dems already have rejected? Beats the heck out of me.

In my conversations with folks on the Hill, I’ve suggested that GOPers should do three things.

1. Explain that they’ve passed a debt limit increase as part of cut, cap, and balance.

2. Explain that they look forward to hammering out a compromise deal in a conference committee as soon as the Senate approves its version of a debt limit increase.

3. Express disappointment that the Senate has failed to act, especially with time running out, and also reiterate that the White House has never put forward a plan.

These three steps won’t lead to anything wonderful. I’ve always been realistic about the GOP not having the power at this point to win a policy victory. But this approach sounds – and is – very reasonable and might help pressure the left into a reasonable deal.

Last but not least, I’m also curious about how the anemic growth numbers released today – flat in the first quarter and only 1.3 percent growth in the second quarter – will impact the debate. Given the low quality of debate in DC, I won’t be surprised if some hacks argue that the GOP’s failure to fully surrender on the debt limit issue somehow is responsible for how the economy performed in the first half of the year. Maybe time machines.

The only thing I can say for sure is that there is no risk of default, which is what I told the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

Now, for a bit of levity, here are a few jokes from the talk shows. I’ll give Conan the edge for this batch.

Leno

  • They say “Captain America” is successful because it takes place in a time when America could fight a war and get out of a depression at the same time. A whole different thing from today.
  • The Kardashian sisters made $65 million. Maybe they should be running the country.
  • Iowa Congressman Steve King says that if the country falls into default, President Obama could be impeached. Obama could stop that with three words: “President Joe Biden.”

Conan:

  • The government is less than a week away from not being able to pay its bills. We may have to move in with Canada for a while.
  • The debt ceiling debate is such a mess right now, al-Qaida is desperately trying to find a way to take credit for it.
  • If the debt ceiling isn’t raised by Aug. 2, the whole country can go into default and we won’t be able to pay our bills. Then we’ll have to ask our parents for money, which will be very embarrassing.
  • President Obama urged the American people to call Congress and demand that both parties work together on a compromise. The calls are 99 cents for the first minute, and a trillion dollars for each additional minute.

Kimmel:

  • John Boehner told Republicans to “get in line.” He was very angry. His face turned from orange to mandarin orange.
  • They say that the United States might default on its loans and China might foreclose. We’ll have to move into a cheap rental country or something.

Letterman:

  • The NFL lockout is over. All the parties agreed and we have a compromise. It’s too bad the national debt isn’t as important as football.

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In an ideal world, GOPers would hold firm and not pass any debt limit until Democrats agreed to enact something like the Ryan plan/Cut-Cap-Balance.

But I’ve never thought that was a realistic strategy. When we got to the drop-dead point, Obama would have Geithner or Bernanke give an inflammatory speech designed to panic financial markets – at which point the White House would prevail because enough Republicans would panic (remember TARP?) and surrender.

This is why, even though there are several things I would have done differently, I think it’s reasonable to cut some slack for Speaker Boehner and House Republicans. They are trying to win a debt-limit fight when they can’t use the nuclear option and the other side controls both the Senate and the White House.

Moreover, the media is in the tank for the White House and is willing to regurgitate palpably false narratives (i.e., failure to raise the debt limit equals default). As such, from the beginning of this battle, I’ve assumed Republicans will lose.

And this also explains why I haven’t criticized the new “Budget Control Act” proposed by Speaker Boehner. Yes, it’s grossly inadequate. Yes, it’s a bit gimmicky. And, yes, it basically kicks the can down the road. But is anybody under any illusion that something good can get past Harry Reid’s Senate and the Obama White House?

But there is one aspect of the Boehner plan that is causing me considerable angst. The plan would create a new super-committee of six Senators and six Representatives, and this bi-partisan group (equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans) would be responsible for proposing $1.8 trillion of additional “deficit reduction.” Congress would be obliged to vote on the package, and approval of that package would enable a further increase in the debt limit.

This sets off alarm bells. I hope I’m wrong, but here’s the scenario I envision:

1. The joint committee proposes a terrible package of fake spending cuts and real tax increases (just like the Gang of Six).

2. Since only one Republican vote will be needed to approve the package (and because Senate Republicans are genetically incapable of saying no to awful deals), this package will be approved.

3. Harry Reid, recognizing a good deal (from his perspective) will immediately push the package through the Senate.

4. Republicans control the House, so theoretically the bad package can be stopped, but here’s where the trap exists. Failure to approve the awful tax-hike package will be portrayed as being critical in order to raise the debt limit and save America from default.

5. GOPers will capitulate, giving the Democrats more money to waste and dispiriting the Tea Party in an election year.

You can see why I’m a very dour person.

Speaking of the debt limit, here are two recent interviews on the topic. In the first clip, I talk with Neil Cavuto about debt-limit demagoguery.

And in this interview for Bloomberg Asia, I explain the debt limit fight in the context of the American political system.

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As a Washington policy wonk somewhat involved in the current debt-limit fight, I will confess that it is very frustrating that the White House has never produced a deficit-reduction plan. I’d much prefer a spending-restraint plan, of course, but I’m flummoxed that Obama has gotten away with doing nothing other than deliver some speeches filled with hollow platitudes.

So how does the GOP respond? Instead of loudly repeating “we’ve passed two plans and we’re waiting for Obama and/or Reid to put some cards on the table,” Republicans have been lulled into negotiations where the White House seems solely focused on getting GOPers to feed the spending beast (and undermine their own political prospects) by surrendering to a tax increase.

To make matters worse, Obama’s negotiating position was just strengthened by the so-called Gang of Six, which undercut GOP negotiators and enabled Obama to move even farther to the left.

Mark Steyn seems similarly frustrated and has an article that focuses on the absurd dishonesty of the White House. Here’s part of what he wrote for National Review.

Obama has done his best to pretend to take them seriously. He claimed to have a $4 trillion deficit-reduction plan. The court eunuchs of the press corps were impressed, and went off to file pieces hailing the president as “the grown-up in the room.” There is, in fact, no plan. No plan at all. No plan whatsoever, either for a deficit reduction of $4 trillion or $4.73. As is the way in Washington, merely announcing that he had a plan absolved him of the need to have one. So the president’s staff got out the extra-wide teleprompter and wrote a really large number on it, and simply by reading out the really large number the president was deemed to have produced a serious blueprint for trillions of dollars in savings. …The only “plan” Barack Obama has put on paper is his February budget. Were there trillions and trillions of savings in that? Er, no. It increased spending and doubled the federal debt. How about Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader? Has he got a plan? No. The Democrat Senate has shown no interest in producing a budget for two-and-a-half years. …The domestic media coverage of this story has been almost laughably fraudulent: To the court eunuchs, a failure to raise the debt ceiling by a couple of trillion would signal to the world that American government was embarrassingly dysfunctional. In reality, raising the debt ceiling by a couple of trillion without any spending cuts would confirm to the world that American government is terminally dysfunctional.

But while the short-term political maneuvering may be frustrating, the long-term implications are sobering, if not terrifying.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute wonders whether the United States is condemned to become either Sweden or Greece.

First, this is not a political fight between Republicans and Democrats; it is a fight against 50-year trends toward statism. Second, it is a moral fight, not an economic one. …Consider a few facts. The Bureau of Economic Analysis tells us that total government spending at all levels has risen to 37% of gross domestic product today from 27% in 1960—and is set to reach 50% by 2038. The Tax Foundation reports that between 1986 and 2008, the share of federal income taxes paid by the top 5% of earners has risen to 59% from 43%. Between 1986 and 2009, the percentage of Americans who pay zero or negative federal income taxes has increased to 51% from 18.5%. …despairing souls have concluded there are really only two scenarios. In one, we finally hit a tipping point where so few people actually pay for their share of the growing government that a majority become completely invested in the social welfare state, which stabilizes at some very high level of taxation and government social spending. (Think Sweden.) In the other scenario, our welfare state slowly collapses under its weight, and we get some kind of permanent austerity after the rest of the world finally comprehends the depth of our national spending disorder and stops lending us money at low interest rates. (Think Greece.) In other words: Heads, the statists win; tails, we all lose.

Sadly, I think the answer is Greece, for reasons Mr. Brooks already identifies. America is becoming a society where the top 20 percent pay a lot and the bottom 50 percent pay very little. When combined with demographic change, this is an unsustainable and unstable dynamic, very much akin to Greece. In Sweden, by contrast, the people paying the taxes and collecting the benefits tend to be the same. And even though taxes and spending are far too high, thus dampening growth, the rest of the economy is very free market and the entitlements are designed to be somewhat sustainable.

Let’s close this depressing post with a bit of gallows humor. Here’s a clever cartoon from Mike Ramirez at Investor’s Business Daily.

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There are rumors that Obama may do a bit Clinton-era triangulation and agree to a GOP-friendly increase in the debt limit. That means no tax increases and as much as $3 trillion of so-called spending cuts.

I’m skeptical, and even if it happens, I suspect that most of the spending cuts will be ephemeral (like the junk we got during the government-slowdown fight earlier this year), and that’s even assuming that we should accept Washington’s dishonest definition of a budget cut. As I explained to Investor’s Business Daily:

In Washington-speak, a spending cut means a government program that is projected to grow, say, 5% next year will rise just 3%. “If I told you I was starting a diet and a month later I told you I was successful because I only gained five pounds instead of 10 pounds, you’d probably call me a stupid jerk,” said Dan Mitchell, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. “But if I was a congressman you’d call me a frugal, fiscally responsible lawmaker.”

And I also wouldn’t be surprised if some of the spending cuts turn out to be back-door revenue increases. Under Washington budget-scoring rules, if the government makes us pay higher Medicare premiums or Fannie Mae loan fees, those revenues are counted as “offsetting receipts” and counted as “negative spending.” I’m not joking.

Notwithstanding these potential concerns, a budget deal with no explicit tax increases and a multi-trillion spending cut number (however exaggerated) would be a much better outcome than I’ve been expecting.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The GOP may win a political victory, but that doesn’t mean America’s fiscal problems will be solved. Something like the Ryan budget would be a real step in the right direction. But that’s not what we can expect, even in a best-case scenario.

As such, we’ll still be heading for a Greek-style fiscal nightmare, as I note in these two recent interviews.

Here’s my interview for the Willis Report on Fox Business.

And here’s what I had to say for Larry Kudlow’s CNBC program.

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Here’s a new video from the Cato Institute, featuring my pearls of wisdom, along with equally sage commentary from my colleague Chris Edwards.

We make two simple points. First, America faces a Greek-style fiscal crisis if we leave the federal budget on autopilot (actually, it will be worse since we won’t get a bailout from the IMF).

Second, the country can be saved from this fate with relatively modest spending restraint. Genuine spending cuts would be preferable, of course, but merely slowing the growth of spending can put America on a sustainable path.

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Welcome Instapundit readers. Check out this post for additional info on Obama’s disingenuous rhetoric.

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Appearing on Freedom Watch, I explain that the White House is very flexible. The President will be happy if GOPers cut their own wrists and agree to a tax increase. That means Obama can tax and spend.

But he’ll also be satisfied if Republicans approve a “clean debt limit increase,” meaning Obama can borrow and spend.

The unifying theme, in case it’s not obvious, is that the Administration will go along with any outcome that enables more spending and bigger government.

In the second half of the video, the discussion shifts to whether the government has the right to seize children if parents allow them to get too chubby. Not surprisingly, I’m leery of giving bureaucrats that kind of power.

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There are three reasons why I’m not very hopeful about the outcome of the debt-limit battle.

1. There is no unity in the GOP camp.

Republicans have been all over the map during this fight. Some of them want a balanced budget amendment. Some want a one-for-one deal of $2 trillion of spending cuts in exchange for a $2 trillion increase in the debt limit. Others want some sort of spending cap, akin to Senator Corker’s CAP Act. Some want to mix all these ideas together in a cut-cap-balance package. Others want Obamacare repeal.  And the latest proposal is Sen. McConnell’s proposal to let Obama unilaterally raise the debt limit.

These are mostly good ideas, but the failure to coalesce around one proposal – preferably one that is easy to understand – has made the Republican position difficult to define, defend, or advance.

2. The fear of demagoguery is high.

As I explained months ago, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner are trying to spook financial markets with hyperbolic warnings about a risk of default. This is blatant dishonesty and demagoguery, but Republicans are nervous that this tactic might be successful if there is a high-stakes showdown as the government’s borrowing authority runs out.

For those with short memories, this is what happened with TARP back in 2008. The initial bailout proposal was rejected, leading to short-run market gyrations, and many Republicans panicked and switched their votes to yes.

3. Republicans don’t control the Senate or the White House.

I’m stating the obvious, of course, but people seem to forget that any debt limit increase will need to get through the Senate and get signed by Obama.

Imagine you are Harry Reid or Barack Obama. Is there any reason why you would acquiesce to Republican demands? Yes, you need to at least pretend to care about big government, wasteful spending, and red ink, but why not hold firm and then strike a deal based on make-believe spending cuts. That’s exactly what happened during the “government-shutdown” debate earlier this year.

This post, incidentally, is not an attack on Republicans. I’m very willing to attack GOPers when they do the wrong thing, but I’m not sure they deserve to get hammered in this case.

Simply stated, I don’t think there’s a winning strategy, so I don’t see any point in going nuclear.

If nothing else, at least Republicans resisted the siren song of tax increases, which is not a trivial achievement since Democrats clearly were hoping to trick GOPers into giving up one of their strongest political positions.

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Ben Bernanke is definitely trying hard to overtake Arthur Burns and G. William Miller (those wonderful guys who helped give us the 1970s) as the worst Fed Chairman of the modern era. But unlike Burns and Miller, who “earned” their poor reputations with bad monetary policy, Bernanke is trying to cement his place in history by being a stooge for the big-government policies of the Washington establishment (he also is getting lots of criticism for QE2 and other monetary policy actions, but let’s give Bernanke the benefit of the doubt and assume all those decisions will somehow work out for the best).

Bernanke frequently pontificates about the supposed horrors of deficits and debt (I write “supposed” because the real problem is spending, with red ink being a symptom of a government that is far too large). Yet he endorsed Obama’s failed stimulus. He’s also asserted that reducing the burden of government spending would hurt the economy. And he was an avid supporter of the TARP bailout.

Now he’s trying to discourage GOPers from seeking budgetary savings as part of a proposed increase in the debt limit. Here’s a blurb from the AP report.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Tuesday urged Republicans to support raising the nation’s borrowing limit. He said threatening to block the increase to gain deeper federal spending cuts could backfire and worsen the economy. Even a short delay in making payments on the nation’s debt would cause severe disruptions in financial markets, damage the dollar and raise serious doubts about the nation’s creditworthiness, Bernanke said.

By the way, I’ve previously debunked Bernanke’s demagoguery about disrupted financial markets. The federal government this year will collect 10 times as much revenue as needed to service the national debt.

Let’s close with a thought experiment. What do you think Bernanke would say if Senate Republicans got suckered into a tax increase and that tax hike was attached to a debt limit, but House GOPers were refusing to go along? It’s just a guess, of course, but I’m quite confident that Bernanke would completely reverse his position about the debt limit and suddenly say something like “it is critical to include such a measure to demonstrate seriousness about fixing the fiscal mess in DC.”

What it would actually demonstrate, though, is that Bernanke is a tool for big government.

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I spoke yesterday at a press event put together by some of the Tea Party groups. Here’s what I said about the debt limit.

I debunked the notion that a higher debt limit was needed to avoid default and explained that the problem is too much spending and that deficits and debt are the symptoms of that profligacy.

During the Q&A session, I talked about Senator Corker’s spending-cap legislation as one possible way of solving the problem.

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There will be several pivotal fiscal policy battles this year and the fight over the debt limit may be the most crucial.

This is a “must-pass” piece of legislation, so it will be a rare opportunity for fiscal conservatives in the House to impose some much-needed spending restraint.

But it’s also a high-stakes game. If Obama (or Reid) refuse to accept the fiscal reforms approved by the House and there is a stalemate, the federal government ultimately would lose its ability to borrow from private credit markets. And while that notion has some appeal for many of us, it almost certainly would require more fiscal discipline than the political system is willing to accept (i.e., actual deep cuts rather than just restraining the growth of spending).

In a bit of reckless demagoguery, the Treasury Secretary even says it would mean default – which could cause instability in financial markets.

To preclude that possibility, Senator Toomey of Pennsylvania has a proposal to protect the “full faith and credit” of the United States by requiring the federal government to make interest payments a top priority. Writing for Bloomberg, I opine about the Senator’s proposal.

…the federal government is expected to collect more than $2.1 trillion of tax revenue this year, while interest payments on the publicly held debt will only be about $200 billion. So even without an increase in the debt limit, the Treasury Department will have more than enough revenue to cover its interest obligations and avoid a default. That being said, financial markets are sometimes spooked by uncertainty. And since Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner began making some irresponsible statements about the risks of default, there is growing interest in legislation by Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican of Pennsylvania, to alleviate the market’s fears. Quite simply, Toomey’s bill would require the federal government to fulfill obligations to bondholders before making any other disbursements. …If the Toomey legislation is adopted, fiscal reformers will have a powerful weapon at their disposal. Secure in the knowledge that default no longer is a possibility, they can be much tougher in their negotiations with the politicians who favor the status quo. This explains the attacks against the Toomey plan. Some even argue that the law requires the government to pay Chinese bondholders (gasp!) before it pays Social Security recipients. This is demagoguery. The federal government will collect more than enough revenue to finance the majority of budgeted outlays. Social Security checks will be disbursed, unless the Treasury secretary decides otherwise. In any event, the attack is rather hollow since it’s almost always made by people who say that default would be a cataclysmic event. What they really mean, it seems, is that deficits, debt and default are bad, and only higher taxes are the solution. That’s what this debate is all about. We have a fiscal crisis caused by too much spending, not too little taxes. Restraining the size and scope of government is contrary to the interests of the iron quadrangle of politicians, interest groups, lobbyists and bureaucrats who benefit from ever- expanding government.

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