Few economists preach spending cuts as a cure for high unemployment. Yet that’s exactly what Congress decided when it imposed, starting March 1, across-the-board spending cuts (the “sequester”). Despite Friday’s mildly upbeat jobs numbers, the economy remains limp, with 15 million or so unemployed individuals who want to work. Federal spending cuts won’t make their plight any better.
Congress has known for quite some time that the federal budget will turn sour in 10 to 15 years, with expected outlays far outstripping expected revenue. For complicated, if not odd, reasons, Congress now feels compelled to do what it ordinarily shuns: cut federal programs and raise taxes. That might seem politically brave and responsible. But brushed up against facts, the case for Congress taking swift action wobbles, hitting wrong targets at the wrong time.
Of the many reasons politicians offer for cutting federal spending during economically straitened times, two cry out for attention. First, many liberals and conservatives say, Congress needs to stanch soaring federal spending. Second, conservatives say, federal programs are growing ever more intrusive, ever more threatening to private initiative.
Those are the theories. What are the facts?
Fact No. 1: Federal spending relative to the size of the economy is not, Congressional Budget Office reports show, spiraling out of control once the temporary impact of economic recession is factored out of the calculation. Federal spending relative to the size of the economy is expected to hover between 20 percent and 25 percent over the next few years – setting off no alarm bells during the time that the economy is expected to struggle.
Fact No. 2: Federal debt has risen to about 75 percent of national income and is on course to hit 90 percent over the next decade. Is that alarming? Alan Auerbach, director of the Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance at the University of California, Berkeley, makes the hard-to-dispute point that economists have no hard evidence that the economy will operate significantly worse with a federal debt overhang of 90 percent rather than 75 percent.