Opinion

The Great Debate

Britain’s austerity experiment is faltering

It was the Welsh sage Alan Watkins who remarked that a budget that looked good the day it was delivered to the British Parliament was sure to look terrible a week later, and vice versa. The avalanche of new information dumped by the Treasury is simply too much to grasp at a single sitting, and governments tend to bury bad news in a welter of statistics. And so it proved with finance minister George Osborne’s budget served up last week.

The immediate headlines stressed that rich Brits would pay less income tax – down from 50 percent to 45 percent – but it only took a day before even traditional Conservative cheerleaders like the Daily Mail were condemning Osborne for funding tax breaks for bankers and billionaires by stealing from those living in retirement. The paper’s cover screamed: “Osborne picks the pockets of pensioners.”

Osborne insists he is sticking to his “Plan A” to reduce the public deficit by sharply cutting state spending by 25 percent over the five-year parliament and imposing severe austerity. Because he believes his “Plan A” is on target, all he needed was a touch on the tiller. He therefore designed his budget to be fiscally neutral – that is, for every tax cut there was a corresponding tax increase. He put up tobacco and alcohol duties and sliced a little off corporation tax.

Osborne’s broader economic experiment, however, is fast faltering. If it were a drug trial, doctors would be urgently taking patients off the snake oil and feeding them the placebo. In 2010, he inherited from Gordon Brown’s Labour government a fast-rising recovery in economic growth, but now, after two years, GDP is headed south, and Britain is teetering on the edge of a government-inspired double-dip recession. In the last quarter of last year, GDP shrank by 0.3 percent.

As predicted, “Plan A” is not working. The number of jobless is 2.67 million (8.4 percent) and rising, the highest rate for 17 years, and the cost of paying the unemployed to do nothing is soaring. Inflation is running at 3.7 percent. Most galling of all, no doubt, for Cameron and Osborne, who were rushed into taking drastic measures when Bank of England Governor Mervyn King spooked them into believing the markets would punish them if they did not tackle the deficit right away, the rating agencies Moody’s and Fitch have warned that notwithstanding the debt-reduction efforts, Britain could soon lose its AAA status.

Ryan’s budget frames 2012 election around Medicare

This week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan released what amounts to the most substantive roadmap for fiscal policy that any Republican is likely to offer in 2012. Many political pundits and policy analysts, especially those on the left, are eager to dig into the details to alert the public about the potential (negative) impacts of a budget that slices off $5 trillion in total federal spending compared with the plan offered by President Obama in February.

Providing 100 pages of budget and policy detail in an election year is considered political suicide by many. Democrats fully intend to use the plan to campaign against Republicans in the fall, hoping to gain an advantage not only in select House or Senate races but also in the presidential contest.

Ryan, though, sees this as the only responsible path forward: So what if his plan won’t get enacted into law this year. Should Ryan’s House colleagues, or the candidates for president, avoid taking a detailed position on our country’s fiscal future? As Ryan explains: “If we simply operate based on political fear, nothing is ever going to get done.”

Paul Ryan’s weak case for a strong defense

One aspect of Paul Ryan’s new budget that hasn’t drawn much attention is that it is a big love letter to the Pentagon. Ryan rejects the idea that budgetary pressures should have any effect on defense spending, which he argues should be dictated purely by “strategic” calculations. Among other things, the Ryan budget would reverse $55 billion in defense cuts mandated for 2013 by the “trigger” agreed to in last year’s budget ceiling deal – and cut this same amount from domestic programs instead.

Ryan says we shouldn’t worry about military spending, even amid a supposed fiscal emergency, because such outlays are “shrinking as a share of government spending and as a share of the national economy.” America may have a spending problem, Ryan and the House Budget Committee believe, but the Pentagon is not part of that problem: “This category of spending is clearly not driving the unsustainable fiscal trajectory that is threatening the nation’s future.”

That’s strange to hear, since soaring security costs since 9/11 have been a key driver of deficits – accounting for about $1.4 trillion in new debt since 2001 by one widely cited non-partisan estimate. And, looking ahead, it’s hard to see a path to fiscal discipline that doesn’t include sharp cuts to the defense budget, which constitutes over half of all discretionary federal spending.

The fast track to a balanced budget

The state of the union, fiscally speaking, is perilous. Despite record deficits and dire warnings from Europe as to the consequences of sustained fiscal imbalance, our leaders have been unable to find common ground. The Simpson-Bowles Commission in 2010, the Gang of Six last summer and the misnamed Super Committee of this past fall were all bipartisan efforts to cut through the Gordian knot of budgetary gridlock. And all of them failed. Miserably.

Yet despite these failures, Congress now has the opportunity to move us onto a path toward prompt national consensus on fiscal reform. Congressional leaders are this week debating legislation to extend the payroll tax cut. If they are smart, they will include in that bill a small, but important, provision that grants the winner of the 2012 presidential election something called fast-track authority. This authority would allow the president — whoever he is — to submit fiscal reform legislation for an up-or-down vote in both the House and Senate on Jan. 21, 2013, the day after Inauguration Day. Indeed, fast-track authority would be a worthy quid pro quo for members of Congress reluctant to sign off on extending the payroll tax cut without some assurance of future progress on deficit reduction.

What’s promising about this proposal is not just what fast-track authority might deliver in 2013, but what its very existence could do to the presidential race. With fast-track authority granted, President Obama and his Republican challenger could each be expected to put forward during the presidential race a coherent and credible plan to move toward a balanced budget.

To bridge the deficit, collect some taxes

By David Callahan

The views expressed are his own.

At a time when the U.S. government needs every dollar of revenue it can get, alarm bells should be sounding in Washington about a new IRS study showing that the Treasury is losing a fortune to tax evasion.

The study, released last Friday, found that the government missed out on $385 billion in uncollected taxes in 2006, the most recent year for which the IRS has complete data. If we extrapolate the IRS’s assumption that the U.S. government only collects about 85 percent of total tax liabilities, the revenue lost by the Treasury in the past decade exceeds $3 trillion.

That is serious money–nearly equal to all the new federal debt incurred during the Bush years. And without tougher action against tax cheats, the U.S. government stands to lose trillions more over the next decade.

Obama’s power grab at the Pentagon

President Barack Obama’s decision last week to cut the defense budget by $487 billion over the next 10 years was met with cries of derision from his critics (“inexcusable,” said GOP front-runner Mitt Romney) and shrugs of acceptance from his supporters. The reduction’s two headlines: 1. One hundred thousand troops are being chopped from the Marine Corps and Army; 2. The entire U.S. foreign policy focus will begin to shift from the Near East to the Far East (anxieties about China having replaced—or at least settled alongside—our permanently ingrained fears of Middle Eastern terror). The cuts themselves, though, are less significant as fiscal policy than as a statement about President Obama’s relationship with the Pentagon: Barack is taking it over.

That President Obama wasn’t really in charge of the Defense Department might come as something of a shock. He is, after all, the commander in chief. But considering the size of the nation’s defense apparatus, it shouldn’t. The Pentagon has become the 51st state—America’s largest bureaucracy, employing three times more people than the population of Vermont and Wyoming combined. Its capital is the Five-Sided Puzzle Palace, as my journalist friends fondly call it, where 23,000 work daily. Its other residents are the 3.2 million military, intelligence and civilian personnel who live inside its borderless confines around the globe. And since the attacks of September 11th, the influence of the Pentagon’s constituency has grown exponentially, its budget increasing from $295 billion to $549 billion, sucking up some 54 percent of federal tax dollars.

The Pentagon has found plenty of ways to spend all that cash. In 2011, the DoD blew $20.2 billion on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan, equivalent to the entire NASA budget. There are more members of the U.S. military bands—and more sailors on a single aircraft carrier—than in the State Department’s entire foreign service. Up close, the largesse of the Pentagon is hard to miss as well: When top generals visit a country overseas, they often travel in their own private jets, with an entourage of dozens. Top diplomats fly commercial, business–or first-class, if they’re lucky. (Meanwhile, in Foggy Bottom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton forbade business-class travel for State officials traveling to Afghanistan in 2010, citing budgetary concerns, department officials have told me privately.)

We won’t save money by cutting education

By David Callahan
The views expressed are his own.

Nearly every day, if not every hour, some politician proclaims that taming America’s budget deficit requires “hard choices.” Strangely, though, few talk about perhaps the toughest dilemma facing the supercommittee, and the rest of Congress: How to reconcile the needs of old and young Americans.

Both groups have urgent and growing claims on the public purse. Four million seniors live below the official poverty line and millions more hover just above that line – contrary to the popular image of well-heeled retirees. And because the Baby Boom generation hasn’t saved nearly enough for retirement, such hardship is likely to get worse. Deficit hawks talk about cutting Social Security benefits and limiting Medicaid payments for nursing homes, but the truth is that seniors will need a more generous safety net in coming decades than what the U.S. now has.

Meanwhile, a new report on the “State of Young America” by Demos (where I work), argues that America is way under-investing in the next generation. Too many young people who graduate from our under-funded public schools aren’t ready for college and can’t earn a living in today’s low-wage economy. Those who do go to college often can’t afford to finish their degrees, and debt among college graduates has soared to record levels. Young adults trying to start a family also struggle with sky high costs for childcare, housing, and healthcare. At the same time, median earnings for young adult men with college degrees have barely budged since 1980.

Mindless tax slogans dominate our debate

By Robert Frank
The opinions expressed are his own.

What do the following slogans have in common?

“All taxation is theft.”

“It’s your money and you know how to spend it better than any bureaucrat in Washington.”

“It’s unjust to tax some people more heavily than others.”

“Taxing the rich kills the geese that lay the golden eggs.”

Although each has been repeated so often by conservatives during recent decades as to have acquired an air of settled truth, each is also either clearly false or conveys no useful information. A more troubling shared feature of these slogans is that they are causing serious harm. Their enthusiastic embrace by Tea Party members and large
factions of the Republican Party now threatens to transform the United States economy, once the envy of the world, into an economic backwater.

Let’s consider them in turn.

“All taxation is theft” is easily the most mindless of the batch. Functionally, it’s equivalent to the “It’s your money…” entry, since the ostensible point of each is that meddlesome government officials shouldn’t be allowed to confiscate the hard-won fruits of our own talent and effort. But there isn’t much economic value to confiscate in countries that lack well-defined and enforced systems of property rights and the public infrastructure required for highly developed and specialized markets. None of that could exist unless government could levy mandatory taxes. No informed person would seriously consider living in a society whose government lacked that power—think Somalia, or the Sudan—even apart from the concern that it would quickly be conquered by an army supported by a neighboring country’s mandatory taxation.

Tea Party cools as Keynes makes a comeback

By Nicholas Wapshott
The opinions expressed are his own.

Is the Tea Party running out of steam? I ask because there appears to be growing evidence that the Mad Hatters’ wild ride, culminating in Obama’s defeat last month over the debt ceiling at the hands of the Tea Party in Congress, has slowed to a trot. Exhibit one, the entrails of the most recent Pew poll where there is a startling finding. Just two months ago, those who believed trimming the deficit was the nation’s top priority outnumbered those who wanted more spending “to help the economy recover” by ten percent. Today, the number who advocate more government spending to fix the lackluster economy are neck and neck with those who wish to cut the budget deficit without delay.

Why the shift? Well, it seems that some Americans have changed their minds over the issue that lies at the heart of our politics. Today’s great political debate divides along the lines established eighty years ago by John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. In 1932, when one in four Americans was out of work, Keynes suggested a mixture of policies to pump money into the economy to increase demand and get people back into jobs: keep the cost of borrowing cheap so that businesses could expand; invest in public works that directly employs the jobless; and cut taxes to put cash into people’s pockets. Hayek countered that such expansionist policies were unlikely to work and would have unintended consequences. At the very least they would in the long run fuel inflation and, when the government took its foot off the gas, cause businesses artificially boosted by the measures to go bust.

When Obama was elected in November 2008 he faced an economy that was teetering on disaster. His answer was a Keynesian stimulus package that meant plunging the nation even deeper into debt than George W. Bush had left it after bailing out the banks, enacting a huge tax cut and funding two overseas wars. No sooner had Obama adopted a Keynesian remedy than some of his opponents demanded a Hayekian antidote: paying down the debt as soon as possible. This outbreak of electors’ remorse gave rise to the Tea Party whose argument appeared to be that if a family has to pay off its overdrafts and credit card borrowings when it is going bankrupt, surely a nation should do the same. The 2010 midterms saw the election of a wave of Tea Party candidates, most of whom had pledged not to agree to anything that would either raise taxes or fail to address the national deficit. The raising of the debt ceiling, which had always been a routine matter between the two parties, became a pitched battle, with the president having to bow to the Tea Party’s principles or allow America to default on its debts.

Take advantage of today’s low costs

By Robert H. Frank
The opinions expressed are his own.

Reuters invited leading economists to reply to Lawrence Summers’ op-ed on his reaction to the debt ceiling deal. We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Franks’s reply. Here are responses from Laura Tyson, Benn Steil, Russ Roberts, Donald Boudreaux and James Pethokoukis as well.

I’m in general agreement with Larry Summers’ piece. If it had been my column to write, I’d have been more emphatic about how much more important the unemployment problem is than the deficit problem. Deficits need to be reduced, yes, but not in the midst of a deep downturn. If we could put just half of the people who are either unemployed or underemployed back to work, for example, national income would be larger by more than ten times the interest we’re paying on the 2011 deficit. The extra income tax revenue alone would be enough to cover the interest on last year’s debt.

I’d also have hit harder on the claim by ostensible deficit hawks that extra spending right now would impoverish our grandchildren. Some of the most vivid and easily understood counterexamples involve infrastructure maintenance. According to the Nevada Department of Transportation, repairing a damaged 10-mile stretch of Interstate 80 would cost $6 million if we did the work today. But if we postpone repairs, weather and traffic will continue to damage the roadbed. If we wait just two years, the cost of bringing that same stretch of road up to par rises to $30 million. There are thousands of similar projects crying out to be done.

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