James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

How Greek debt crisis could save America

May 24, 2010 22:21 UTC

It’s absurd. Uncle Sam is likely to run up an additional $11 trillion in debt over the next decade. But Washington only replies with minor budgetary tweaks. First, the Obama administration says it wants to freeze some domestic spending for three years. Then it creates a new healthcare entitlement program “paid for” through tax increases and unlikely spending cuts. Next up, the Obama administration creates a deficit reduction panel that not even its members think will work. And now the Obama administration wants new “rescission” authority to cut billions from congressional spending bills — excepts it’s “trillions” that are the problem. None of these measures favorably alters the budget’s perilous trajectory.

Little wonder that many observers think Washington will do nothing substantial about the exploding debt problem without some sort of financial market crisis. It is the bond market vigilantes that will come to the rescue and enforce fiscal discipline. Here is one scenario devised by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget:

Under this scenario, at some point financial markets or foreign lenders decide we are no longer a good credit risk, possibly due to debt affordability concerns. They conclude the United States cannot escape basic economic and financial “laws of gravity” forever. They stop buying our debt securities or demand dramatically higher interest rates due to increased perceived risk. With the sudden shift and large rise in interest rates, the economy goes into a severe recession. … Unlike the past two years, we cannot, however, borrow to stimulate the economy because the crisis was caused by excessive debt and lost confidence. … Creditors concerned with hyperinflation or even default will not buy U.S. debt.

Presumably, that would be the moment when Democrats unveil their “emergency fiscal plan” to calm markets through a massive value-added tax. It would be TARP all over again. But the costs would be many magnitudes higher. But I think the conventional political wisdom is deeply flawed. First, Americans intuitively understand that there is something deeply wrong about running trillion-dollar budget deficits as far as the eye can see. Maybe deficits didn’t politically matter in the 1980s, but debt as a share of GDP was only 50 percent. Now it is 60 percent only its way to 100 percent in a decade.

This is why we didn’t see a second trillion-dollar stimulus. Although plenty of liberal economists though it was needed, even congressional Democrats understood that Stimulus 2.0 would not fly with voters freaked  by all the red ink.

Second, America doesn’t need a domestic debt crisis. Voters can easily track the one happening with Greece and the EU. Runaway spending. Overpaid civil servants. A loss of confidence. Trillion-dollar bailouts. Falling standards of living. National decline.

That all adds up to a pretty compelling case for action in America. And Republicans (along with fiscally responsible Democrats) who want to see true spending reform — of the sort outlined in Rep. Paul Ryan’s Roadmap for America — would do well to frequently mention Greece on the campaign trail. Kind of a “don’t let this happen to us” sort of thing. They should also note that lower spending plus smart tax cuts to boost growth are the best recipe for restoring fiscal order — not massive tax increases which politicians will only divert to more spending.

COMMENT

When will Jesus and his Magical Unicorns save us from our horribly flawed fiscal policies?

Posted by bryanX | Report as abusive

New Obama budget knife a dull blade

May 24, 2010 19:41 UTC

If I was a U.S. taxpayer or holder of U.S. Treasuries, I would not take much comfort from President Barack Obama’s proposed Reduce Unnecessary Spending Act. Points for effort, I suppose. But fast tracking and streamlining the current fiscal process that allows the White House to submit proposed budget cuts from spending bills would do little.

1. As the Heritage Foundation notes, since 1990, presidents have proposed clawing back only $20 billion of legislated spending, with Congress approving just $6 billion of these rescissions. That’s just .01 percent of all federal spending.

2. A study by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office, found that an even tougher measure, a line item veto, has a poor track record — at least at the state level. (Here is a good summary of research on the topic via the NY Fed.)

Holtz-Eakin noted that in studying the effect of line-item vetoes at the state level, he found they produced mixed results. He found no major differences in spending between states where governors had this power and states where they did not.

3. Some two-thirds of the budget — mandatory entitlement spending would be off limits.

4. Such expanded powers might work in reverse. It would give the White House power to cajole Congress into supporting its spending policies by threatening to cut the pet projects of individual members.

5. To be fair, this new proposal is just another step in controlling spending – not a solution in and of itself. Obama has already proposed a temporary freeze in some domestic programs and created a deficit panel to suggest more comprehensive solutions. The move also keeps the danger of deficits firm in the public consciousness, though Europe’s woes should be reminder enough. But the White House must be careful about deluding the electorate into thinking that current efforts by the government to trim waste will be sufficient. Investors in Treasuries surely expect bolder fiscal action.

COMMENT

An easy way to rout government spending would be a 10-year surge of inflation. For example, between 1973 and 1982 inclusive the US experienced an 85% aggregate increase in the CPI, which translates into sharp cuts in national debt and entitlements spending. Moreover, a national referendum is not even required. More at:

http://wjmc.blogspot.com/2010/05/student -recently-remarked-to-me-that.html

Thank you for the opportunity to comment…

Posted by mckibbinusa | Report as abusive

Mind the (budget) gap

May 24, 2010 19:33 UTC

This Strategas chart shows just how badly things have gone off track:

mindthegap

Will seniors nix spending cuts to fix deficit?

May 24, 2010 17:08 UTC

My pal Bruce Bartlett says U.S. demographics support his position that America will need massive tax increases rather than massive entitlement cuts to get its fiscal house in order:

In short, what we see is that over the next ten years the percentage of the population that benefits from Social Security and Medicare is going to rise significantly and that this group of the population votes in higher percentages than those that pay for these programs. And those that will, over their lifetimes, bear the heaviest burden of paying for entitlement programs–the young–vote at the lowest rate of any age group.

Me: He might well be correct. Then again, most of the reform plans I have seen pretty much leave the current system in place for those who are, says over 50 or 55. I also don’t understand why a broad-based tax increase would be any more palatable to people than getting their expected benefits cuts. Not to mention that getting spending under control is a better way to restore solvency than tax hikes.

Best of the blogosphere

May 11, 2010 19:50 UTC

The best bits of the best stuff I have read today:
Larry Kudlow, CNBC, on the European bailout:

And in addition to Western Europe’s failure to enforce real welfare-state reductions, there really is no flat-tax reform — such as adopted in Eastern Europe — to promote growth. Ironically, the countries of Western Europe, including the southern tier of Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, have a lower corporate tax rate than the United States. That is good. But they could build on that with real flat-tax reform, rather than jacking up value-added taxes.

So there are no enforced spending cuts, there is no flat tax, and there is plenty of political upheaval. (Angela Merkel just lost an important regional election.) So right now, on the day after a big relief rally in stock and bond markets, a sober assessment of the so-called rescue package doesn’t look so great. Actually, the real winner looks to be gold, which is up $20 this morning and is almost at its all-time high of $1,226. That’s a sign of no confidence in the European story. The euro currency has been compromised and the European welfare state continues. Not good.

Josh Barro, RealClearMarkets, on California debt problems:

California’s permanent budget crisis stems from institutional failures. Ballot measures have made it nearly impossible to raise taxes or cut spending, and have cemented the idea in voters’ minds that they can get government services without paying for them. The state has repeatedly failed to reform its inefficient tax code (which relies too much on highly volatile taxes on high-income people, and not enough on property taxes) or to tackle the problem of runaway public employee compensation. … The trouble with California is that it has a Mediterranean budget to match its Mediterranean climate. April’s numbers show that rosy tax receipts aren’t likely to improve matters any time soon. Like any Mediterranean EU member, California desperately needs an aggressive fiscal adjustment if it is to remain solvent.

Veronique de Rugy, Reason, on inflation:

The Federal Reserve is unwilling to take the inflationary route today. But investors know that other central banks have done so in the past and that the scenario could happen again. … If these growing deficits aren’t addressed by immediately and dramatically slashing spending—and there’s zero indication that such a shift will happen anytime soon—we are about to embark on the most massive transfer of wealth from younger taxpayers to older ones in American history. It will be not just unprecedented but unfair: Our children will have to pay for the decisions we make today.

Eileen Norcross, NY Post, on Chris Christie and NJ:

The governor is also directly challenging the monopoly hold of the NJEA. He backs a bipartisan bill to create a voucher program for students in the worst-school districts, and he supports the expansion of charter schools. Each reform would expose the teachers unions to competition, bringing down the cost of public schools while releasing students from some of New Jersey’s highest-spending and worst-performing schools. Christie inherited an unenviable budgetary framework, strangled with court-ordered school-spending formulas. He’s responding to voter anger over property taxes, but he knows that capping one source of revenue without capping total state spending only shifts the bill. Most important, he understands that New Jersey doesn’t have a revenue problem — it has a spending problem.

COMMENT

Gaius, you must be a true believer! Sorry, though, your facts are false. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s a picture for you to study closely before repeating your lie about “Bush…running up greater deficits than Obama….”
http://blog.heritage.org/2010/02/05/past -deficits-vs-obamas-deficits-in-pictures  /
Not that I actually think you’ll repent, but there’s always hope for redemption.

Posted by OldBull | Report as abusive

US debt woes could explode in just three years

May 7, 2010 18:35 UTC

The great Jed Graham over at Investor’s Business Daily writes an important piece on America’s debt problems. It is not a long-term or intermediate-term issue, it is a short-term issue:

In the wake of the financial crisis and recession, Moody’s Investors Service has brought new transparency to its sovereign ratings analysis — so much so that 2018 lights up as the year the U.S. could be in line for a downgrade if Congressional Budget Office projections hold.

The key data point in Moody’s view is the size of federal interest payments on the public debt as a percentage of tax revenue. For the U.S., debt service of 18%-20% of federal revenue is the outer limit of AAA-territory, Moody’s managing director Pierre Cailleteau confirmed in an e-mail.

Under the Obama budget, interest would top 18% of revenue in 2018 and 20% in 2020, CBO projects.

But under more adverse scenarios than the CBO considered, including higher interest rates, Moody’s projects that debt service could hit 22.4% of revenue by 2013.

Has the Obama deficit panel already failed?

Apr 28, 2010 17:02 UTC

Well, if you define success as having the commission come up with solutions that can pass Congress, then yes. I am watching several commission members at the Peterson Foundation Fiscal Summit.  They are all downplaying what the commission can accomplish, saying that as long as the panel educates the American public on the debt problem, they will consider it a success.  But will bondholders of U.S. debt agree? Downplaying expectations may avoid an adverse financial market reaction to failure, but I am not sure it should. We won’t cut spending. We won’t raise taxes broadly. And we ignore policies that would boost economic growth. What else is there?

COMMENT

re-freelove
your comments on just who pays the taxes in the usa, and how much they pay….is quite interesting.
you see, it reflects just how little you know about who really pays the bills in this country.
you want a middle class?
you want some of the money brought back to the lower levels of society?
heres a tip…it already is being distributed.
our govt is engaged in a social engineering experiment whereas they take billions from the top 10% of wage earners and disperse it to the lower 47% of wage earners in the form of tax refunds or earned income credits.

how about…instead…the lower 47% pay their fair share of taxes and not rely on the top 10% to pay the majority of the taxes for this country.

in other words…if you aint paying anything …then you dont really have the right to say anything.

Posted by JayWx | Report as abusive

Obama’s deficit commission and the politics of crisis

Apr 27, 2010 16:30 UTC

Good luck to the Obama deficit commission. In my heart, I do not believe Congress will pass huge entitlement cuts (preferable)  or tax increases without a  crisis.  (There needs to be a focus on boosting economic growth.) To quote Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom:

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

Here is one crisis scenario, as outlined by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget:

If low interest rates lead to continued debt accumulation and then suddenly, creditor preferences shift, we could experience a “catastrophic budget failure” as set out in a recent paper by Len Burman of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and his colleagues at the Tax Policy Center.

Under this scenario, at some point financial markets or foreign lenders decide we are no longer a good credit risk, possibly due to debt affordability concerns. They conclude the United States cannot escape basic economic and financial “laws of gravity” forever. They stop buying our debt securities or demand dramatically higher interest rates due to increased perceived risk. With the sudden shift and large rise in interest rates, the economy goes into a severe recession. (“The longer it takes for the crisis to occur, the worse it will be.”) Unlike the past two years, we cannot, however, borrow to stimulate the economy because the crisis was caused by excessive debt and lost confidence. “In the extreme case, the U.S. may not be able to borrow at any interest rate.” Creditors concerned with hyperinflation or even default will not buy U.S. debt.

COMMENT

wait!
What happens after that? The Road Warrior – Hilly Have Eyes scenario?

Seriously. What would the landscape look like after the “unthinkable” happens? I’m curious.

Posted by bryanX | Report as abusive

Growth is the key to US fiscal recovery

Apr 21, 2010 18:50 UTC

The Obama deficit commission has its first meeting next week. And when the panel  finally releases its report after the election, I am sure it will contain an unsurprising mix of tax increases and spending  cuts as a way of dealing with the deficit. But a new report from the  wealth management group at UBS  looking at public sector debt dismissed that policy prescription:

Although fiscal discipline is important, on its own it has rarely been enough to lower a country’s debt ratio. Fo example, since 1980 some 30 countries have undergone exercises in fiscal discipline and many of them have achieved significant reductions in their debt-to-GDP ratios.

However, the overall level of debt hardly ever diminished. At best, fiscal austerity helped to slow down the increase in debt, the actual reduction of the debt ratio was in practically all cases attributable to higher economic growth (often helped by falling interest rates and privatizations). Unfortunately, the growth outlook for the advanced economies is anything but encouraging over the medium to longer term, especially in comparison with the past two decades.

Now the UBS piece argues that the US will try to inflate its way out of its debt problems. Yet I think the report too easily dismisses the prospect for faster-than-expected economic growth. Remember that all those scary CBO deficit forecasts assume long-term growth of around 2 percent, less than two-thirds its historical average. That ability to generate high growth (or hinder it) is the lens though which every new government policy needs to be examined.

COMMENT

CDNrebel, good points, there are still dividend rates that can fall, it is called ‘ploughback’, another name for going on a financial diet.

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive

Andy Stern can now fix a problem he helped cause

Apr 13, 2010 15:10 UTC

Multiple reports suggest Andy Stern will be leaving his job as head of the politically powerful SEIU. The union, which represents healthcare and public employees, was instrumental in passing healthcare reform. In other words, he has contributed in two ways to America’s fiscal woes. First, health reform may prove a budget fiasco since its tax hikes and spending cuts  were used to expand coverage rather than cut the budget deficit. Second,  fat pay and benefit packages for public sector unions are a big reason so many states like California have long-term fiscal woes. As this David Feddoso story found:

Among states whose government workers are less than 40 percent unionized, median per capita state debt is $2,238. Among states with between 40 and 60 percent of their government workers in public sector unions, the average debt is $3,609. Among states with more than 60 percent of the government workforce unionized, the average (median) per capita debt is $6,380.

Interestingly, Stern will be a member of Obama’s deficit commission. So there are at least a couple of issues that need addressing that he will be an expert on.

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