Free Markets, Free People
Mark Steyn makes an interesting—indeed, vitally important—point about government spending. The Left is always keen on telling us that we are under-taxed, or that the "rich" aren’t paying their fair share, or some such nonsense. We’ve argues long and hard here that what we face is not a revenue problem, but a spending problem. Mr. Steyn pithily sums up an important bit of evidence for that assertion.
The total combined wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans is $1.5 trillion. So, if you confiscated the lot, it would barely cover one Obama debt-ceiling increase.
That’s really the problem in a nutshell. This week, the President asked for a $1.2 trillion debt increase. We could pay for it, I suppose, by confiscating all the wealth of the Forbes 400, and have a nice $300 billion left over…but there won’t be too many people left that we can soak to cover the next debt ceiling increase. Also, as a point of academic interest, President Obama’s debt ceiling increase is $200 billion more than the entire national debt was in 1980.
To the extent we do have a revenue problem, perhaps it’s not that the rich pay too little, but rather that the poor do. 47% of American’s don’t pay any income tax at all. Which means that the "soak the rich" argument can really be boiled down to the 47% of Americans that don’t pay income taxes think the remaining 53% aren’t paying their fair share.
Well, someone isn’t, at any rate.
At the deepest levels within our governing structures, we are committed to living beyond our means on a scale no civilization has ever done. Our most enlightened citizens think it’s rather vulgar and boorish to obsess about debt. The urbane, educated, Western progressive would rather "save the planet," a cause which offers the grandiose narcissism that, say, reforming Medicare lacks.
And reforming Social Security, while we’re at it. Which we aren’t. And which, combined, will eat up the entire Federal budget in the not-too-distant future.
Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. It’d be great to have a first-class military, generous Medicare and Social Security benefits. Along with all the rest of the coddling state that supports in the grand manner to which we’ve become accustomed. But the future won’t allow us to be that generous. You see, we’re heading to a $16.5 trillion national debt, because, instead of being prudent with our money in order to meet all those future obligations, we blew it.
We spent money we didn’t have to build carrier groups and JDAMs, No Child left Behind and Medicare Part D. At the current rate, the federal government will, sometime this century, consist of a single department that does nothing but collect taxes and issue Social Security checks, because there won’t be one red cent left over for Defense, Justice, State, Commerce, Agriculture, or Treasury. And, we probably won’t be able to afford even that.
Mainly, because we won’t be able to produce much of anything.
Last January, the BBC’s Brian Milligan inaugurated the New Year by driving an electric Mini from London to Edinburgh, taking advantage of the many government-subsidized charge posts en route. It took him four days, which works out to an average speed of 6 mph — or longer than it would have taken on a stagecoach in the mid-19th century. This was hailed as a great triumph by the environmentalists. I mean, c’mon, what’s the hurry?
What indeed? In September, the 10th anniversary of a murderous strike at the heart of America’s most glittering city was commemorated at a building site: The Empire State Building was finished in 18 months during the Depression, but in the 21st century the global superpower cannot put up two replacement skyscrapers within a decade.
The 9/11 memorial museum was supposed to open on the 11th anniversary, this coming September. On Thursday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced there is "no chance of it being open on time." No big deal. What’s one more endlessly delayed, inefficient, over-bureaucratized construction project in a sclerotic republic?
This is—as hard as it may be to believe—the same country that, in 1940, had an army smaller than Rumania, and by 1945, had the military power to, had we wanted, rule the globe. Now, we’re the country that can’t replace the World Trade Center in 10 years. This is not emblematic of a can-do country with the willingness to attack and solve problems with a vengeance.
But the president thinks that if we can only tax millionaires more, we can fix this place up quick.
Mark Steyn, writing in Investors Business Daily, isn’t pulling any punches about what the near future holds for us if the Federal government keeps spending like there is no tomorrow. There won’t be.
[B]y 2020 just the interest payments on the debt will be larger than the U.S. military budget. That’s not paying down the debt, but merely staying current on the servicing — like when you get your MasterCard statement and you can’t afford to pay off any of what you borrowed but you can just about cover the monthly interest charge.
Except in this case the interest charge for U.S. taxpayers will be greater than the military budgets of China, Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, India, Italy, South Korea, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Spain, Turkey and Israel combined.
When interest payments consume about 20% of federal revenues, that means a fifth of your taxes are entirely wasted. Pious celebrities often simper that they’d be willing to pay more in taxes for better government services.
But a fifth of what you pay won’t be going to government services at all, unless by "government services" you mean the People’s Liberation Army of China, which will be entirely funded by U.S. taxpayers by about 2015…
And even those numbers presuppose interest rates will remain at their present historic low. Last week, the firm of Macroeconomic Advisors, one of the Obama administration’s favorite economic analysts, predicted that interest rates on 10-year U.S. Treasury notes would be just shy of 9% by 2021. If that number is right, there are two possibilities:
The Chinese will be able to quintuple the size of their armed forces and stick us with the tab. Or we’ll be living in a Mad Max theme park. I’d bet on the latter myself.
And we all know who’ll be running Bartertown.
Look, there’s no way to sugar-coat this. What’s coming isn’t gonna be pretty. Too many politically powerful groups have their fingers stuck too deeply into the DC pie to let it all just slip away without fighting tooth and nail. There are too many people who believe the gravy train of benefits coming out of DC should be endless to kiss that goodbye without a fight.
Look at what has been happening in Greece. They’ve built up two generations of people who cannot and will not accept that they’re simply out of money. Despite the fact that system has been thoroughly looted, they are adamant that the looting should continue.
If we don’t cut spending—and I mean real cuts, not cuts to some imaginary baseline that has $9 trillion is spending increases baked in—and some sort of serious tax reform that widens the tax base to raise more revenue, we’re done.
And don’t come back at me with some lame "Our GDP:Debt ratio was 120% at the end of WWII" silliness. Yes it was. And you know how we fixed it? We cut Federal spending from $92 billion in 1945 to $38 billion in 1949. For 2011, 40% of the federal budget was financed with borrowed money: We’ll spend $3.818 trillion, of which $1.645 trillion is borrowed. If we funded only defense, Medicare/Medicaid, and Social Security, and interest on the debt, we’d still have a deficit of $673 billion. Just to balance the budget this year—forget paying off any debt—we’d have to cut an additional ~25% from Health, Defense, and Pensions. Follow the link and download the CSV file, open it up in Excel, and run the numbers yourself. The magic number to balance the budget this year is the revenue of $2.174 trillion.
There’s no big mystery as to why we got a downgrade from S&P. The mystery is why Fitch and Moody’s haven’t downgraded US debt yet.
To begin paying down the debt will require massive cuts in government spending, substantially widening the tax base, and some healthy economic growth—and good luck with that as we add another couple hundred k government workers to the unemployment roles, lay off 1/3 of government contractors to boot, and start asking the bottom 50% of taxpayers to actually, you know, pay taxes, along with everyone else.
If you’re under 50, and reach retirement age with any modicum of personal wealth, you can forget seeing a dime in Social Security or Medicare benefits when you retire. You’ll be means-tested right out of all that.
You think the debt ceiling battle was disruptive? Well, hold on to your hats, folks.
The other day Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, addressed a meeting of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council. During his speech, he did something Fed chairmen don’t usually do. He spoke about US fiscal policy. His words don’t really relay anything most of us don’t really know, but it is the fact that he felt compelled to say them that make them newsworthy. After I read them, I felt his uneasiness and, like many Americans, his frustration that the political leadership doesn’t seem to understand the problem or its urgency.
A few excerpts from his speech:
[I]n the United States, governments at all levels are grappling not only with the near-term effects of economic weakness, but also with the longer-run pressures that will be generated by the need to provide health care and retirement security to an aging population. There is no way around it–meeting these challenges will require policymakers and the public to make some very difficult decisions and to accept some sacrifices. But history makes clear that countries that continually spend beyond their means suffer slower growth in incomes and living standards and are prone to greater economic and financial instability.
Whether you agree or not that government must address health care and “retirement security”, there’s not much to argue with in the highlighted last sentence. This is Econ 101 stuff. This is something Americans running their own households know almost instinctively. The problem – and frustration- is that Americans suppose this point must be just as obvious to their elected leaders, yet with the wild spending continues. While politicians talk about fiscal sanity and pass bills like PAYGO (that they then promptly ignore or make exceptions too), nothing is really being done about the looming economic and financial instability in the debt load brought on by excessive and persistent government spending.
Failing to address our unsustainable fiscal situation exposes our country to serious economic costs and risks. [...] In the longer term, a rising level of government debt relative to national income is likely to put upward pressure on interest rates and thus inhibit capital formation, productivity, and economic growth. Larger government deficits increase our reliance on foreign lenders, all else being equal, implying that the share of U.S. national income devoted to paying interest to foreign investors will increase over time. Income paid to foreign investors is not available for domestic consumption or investment. And an increasingly large cost of servicing a growing national debt means that the adjustments, when they come, could be sharp and disruptive. [...]
Again, almost everyone recognizes the truth of Bernanke’s words. If you run household, you know that if you amass huge credit card debt you are going to see an increasing amount of your income stream going to service that debt and less of it available for your use. That means less consumption because you are sending that money to a “foreign lender” – the credit card company. That in turn may translate into less of a house than you wanted, a smaller car or no college for the kids. If you run a business you know that increasing the amount of debt you carry and service means an increasing limit to your ability to expand, invest, hire new employees, improve benefits or give raises. At some point, your priorities take second place to the priority of paying back what you owe.
That’s where we’re headed as a country and more quickly than we might want to admit. Most would like to believe that this problem is understood and a high priority for our leaders. But that doesn’t seem to be the case and we see budget projections out 10 years that pile more and more debt on our already staggering economy.
The politicians continue to tell us it is necessary. They assure us that once the crisis passes they’ll address this problem in earnest. But will it then be too late? James Bacon Jr. addressed that recently in the Washington Examiner, discussing the “tipping point” in which the percentage of debt to the GDP hurts economic growth. According to a paper he cites by the World Bank, that assumed tipping point occurs when public debt equals around 77% of the country’s GDP.
Where are we?
According to International Monetary Fund calculations, the U.S. debt/GDP ratio in 2009 was 83.2%, above the tipping point, and will climb to 109.7% by 2015. […] That implies that the U.S. is experiencing a small growth penalty today: about one-tenth of a percentage point yearly. By mid-decade, however, the growth penalty could swell to 0.56% yearly — more than a half percentage point.
Unfortunately there’s no end to deficit spending in sight. Part of that is because politicians in this culture are not rewarded for doing tough and unpopular things. They’re usually turned out of office. And with the rise of career politicians who enjoy the trappings and perks of power and don’t want to give them up, most politicians are risk averse. Their preferred method of dealing with the “difficult decisions” and “sacrifices” Bernanke says need to be made is to kick the can down the road.
The point Bernanke is making is we can no longer afford to do that. Which brings me to the final excerpt from his speech:
Herbert Stein, a wise economist, once said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." One way or the other, fiscal adjustments sufficient to stabilize the federal budget will certainly occur at some point. The only real question is whether these adjustments will take place through a careful and deliberative process that weighs priorities and gives people plenty of time to adjust to changes in government programs or tax policies, or whether the needed fiscal adjustments will be a rapid and painful response to a looming or actual fiscal crisis.
We have a choice right now – but either way, this is going to hurt. We can take charge and attempt a controlled crash landing to try and save as many as we can, or we can fly this problem until it naturally runs out of gas and deal with the consequences then. Unfortunately, it appears the latter choice is likely to be the only choice, given the current fiscal policy of this administration.
I really don’t know how to actually characterize my reaction to this nonsense from Paul Krugman except to say if you thought he was in bizarro land before, check this out. The irony is he calls others stupid and invokes "Economics 101" when it’s clear … well you take a look. Here he’s talking about the proposed $50 billion "stimulus" focused on infrastructure. And he begins to pontificate:
Beyond all that, the new initiative is a chance for me to air one of my pet peeves: the stupidity of the claim, which you hear all the time — and you’ll hear again now — that it’s always better to provide stimulus in the form of tax cuts, because individuals know better than the government what to do with their money.
Why is this claim stupid? Because Econ 101 tells us that there are some things the government must provide, namely public goods whose benefits can’t be internalized by the market.
I had a friend who would accuse people like Krugman of being like a goose and waking up in a new world everyday. Apparently in today’s new world Krugman has forgotten that we just spent most of a trillion borrowed dollars on infrastructure stimulus. And then there was TARP, cash for clunkers, home buyers tax credit, mortgage payment relief and unending unemployment benefits. But it’s all too small now and it’s the fault of the usual suspects.
What Krugman doesn’t want you to remember, of course is his own recommendation on the size of the stimulus package:
All indications are that the new administration will offer a major stimulus package. My own back-of-the-envelope calculations say that the package should be huge, on the order of $600 billion.
In fact, the administration added 30% to his number and now, suddenly, it’s all too small. Not only that, it failed miserably. And, when you add it all up, it’s about 3 trillion in spending for “public goods” over two years added to the federal debt.
Result? 14.9 Americans unemployed, the economy in a shambles and consumers afraid to spend. And Krugman, in his new world today, demands more spending and has the temerity to call those opposing it stupid and his approach “econ 101”.
To add to the Krugman madness, we have him essentially pining for the good old days of spending like we did during WWII. Despite the fact that it all but destroyed the world and did destroy about 80 million lives, that’s the level of spending he now thinks is needed.
From an economic point of view World War II was, above all, a burst of deficit-financed government spending, on a scale that would never have been approved otherwise. Over the course of the war the federal government borrowed an amount equal to roughly twice the value of G.D.P. in 1940 — the equivalent of roughly $30 trillion today.
Had anyone proposed spending even a fraction that much before the war, people would have said the same things they’re saying today. They would have warned about crushing debt and runaway inflation. They would also have said, rightly, that the Depression was in large part caused by excess debt — and then have declared that it was impossible to fix this problem by issuing even more debt.
But guess what? Deficit spending created an economic boom — and the boom laid the foundation for long-run prosperity. Overall debt in the economy — public plus private — actually fell as a percentage of G.D.P., thanks to economic growth and, yes, some inflation, which reduced the real value of outstanding debts. And after the war, thanks to the improved financial position of the private sector, the economy was able to thrive without continuing deficits.
This is possibly the most blinkered and absurd bit of revisionist history I’ve read in a long time. There’s a "rest of the story" that makes this so much word salad that Krugman obviously studiously ignores in order to attempt this absurd plea to what, spend the equivalent of 30 trillion in deficit dollars (or to drive home the point that 3 trillion isn’t nearly enough)?
Victor Davis Hanson handily disassembles Krugman’s “work” and shows it up for the dishonesty that it is:
As WWII ended and the clean-up began, there was an enormous amount of pent-up global demand for goods. Given the wreckage in Europe, Japan, and Russia and the underdevelopment of India, Asia, and South America, we were about the only ones with the industrial and commercial wherewithal to supply the world rebound — often receiving cheap oil, gas, minerals, and interest in exchange, which supplemented our own vast supplies of comparatively cheap and easily recoverable resources. Nor should we forget the psychological element: Americans, after winning two wars, were enormously confident about their newfound international stature and influence.
At home, four years of consumer deprivation during the war and the weak demography of the 1930s had combined to create huge demand, all while society was increasingly leaving the farm for good and becoming suburbanized. The result was that in the late 1940s and 1950s, the birth rate soared and consumers enthusiastically made first-time purchases of washers, dryers, fridges, cars, etc. Thus, the American economy grew by leaps and bounds.
Today’s situation is not comparable: We are in hock to foreign creditors for trillions and have not been a net creditor since the 1980s. A China, Brazil, South Korea, Taiwan, or India is as or more likely to supply recovering demand for food, steel, or electronics. One can read Krugman-like arguments in Greek newspapers today — that only more massive borrowing can stimulate Greek demand, provide jobs, and grow Greece out of its recession. As if present-day deficits and aggregate debt with soon-to-be-rising interest payments don’t really matter.
It is always an indication that you probably shouldn’t pay much attention to a certain economist when it takes an expert in history to tell the economist his business.
But then that’s to be expected if you wake up in a new world everyday as it appears Paul Krugman does.
Randall Hoven, over at American Thinker, provides us with one of the most succinct and powerful posts I’ve seen is quite a while.
Remember this quote?
“If we do nothing to slow these skyrocketing costs, we will eventually be spending more on Medicare and Medicaid than every other government program combined. Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem.” President Obama, September 2009.
That was the “promise” that Obama made – pass health care reform and pass deficit reduction. Except, as usual with this man, it appears the opposite is actually true. And that is to be found in a CBO graph.
So the projection shown in the graph is that if we were to spend on those programs at the March 2010 baseline (as the law reads now) from now till 2020 we’d spend about 400 billion, but with the new and improved ObamaCare, that goes to over 600 billion? Yup, real “deficit reduction” in that package, huh?
We’re also seeing the stirrings of a move from the left to dramatically and drastically cut military spending. Already the war in Afghanistan has gone from the “good and necessary war” per Democrats to one they don’t want to fund anymore. Apparently the military is the area of choice within which the Democrats want to “cut spending”. Again, Hoven, looking at CBO numbers, provides some context to the debate:
Hoven’s Index for July 26, 2010
Medicare and Medicaid spending as percent of GDP:
Defense spending as percent of GDP:
The bottom line is, of course, that ObamaCare is the biggest “deficit reduction” hoax foisted upon the citzenry of the US since the debate about income tax which claimed it would never rise above 2%. And, in fact, it is the rise of entitlement spending – not military spending – where our problem lies.
And for those of you who bought into the monstrosity of ObamaCare under the “deficit reduction” premise – shame on you. Why is it you demonstrate common sense when email scammers from Nigeria try to get your bank account number, but you fall right into the largest legislative scam in recent history based on vague and nonsensical promises that most 5th graders could see through?
Of course you’re most likely among the same people who bought into the hype surrounding this empty suit we now have as a president, so I shouldn’t be that suprised I suppose.
President Obama is about to do what the pundits love to describe as a “hard pivot”. What that really means is he’s going to try to change th subject enough to divert attention from his troubles and give the impression he’s doing something for the people that they actually want. The first part of the hard pivot was his attack on banking and Wall Street. Meeting with a modicum of populist success there and in the wake of the message from Massachusetts, he’s decided it is now time to focus on jobs, the middle class and, of all things, spending.
Well sort of. He’s going to address run-away spending fostered by a Democratic Congress (don’t forget – its been a Democratic Congress for the last 4 years that has increased spending by $900 billion over the last 3 years) by asking for a 3 year spending freeze. Wait. A 3 year spending freeze on non-security discretionary spending.
Make sure you understand that. Congress is quietly trying to raise the debt ceiling another 1.9 trillion dollars and Mr. Obama decides for a symbolism over substance move to address the deficit spending. The result?
The payoff in budget savings would be small relative to the deficit: The estimated $250 billion in savings over 10 years would be less than 3 percent of the roughly $9 trillion in additional deficits the government is expected to accumulate over that time.
Or put another way, we will “save” less over 10 years than we’re presently running up a month in deficit spending.
Don’t get me wrong here – any spending reduction is good news. But this spending cut – or spending freeze, because it isn’t really a cut – doesn’t at all address the problem of runaway deficit spending. It is another example of the smoke and mirrors for which this administration has become so famous. No one who is seriously concerned about the depth of our deficit spending habit is going to take this piddling $25 billion a year freeze on spending as a serious attempt to cut the deficit. This is a reaction to public concern over the debt. And while it may sound good to the uninformed in the State of the Union address, it is a trivial drop in the public spending bucket.
Obama likes to say that he doesn’t want to “kick the can down the road” when it comes to domestic issues. Well he’s not only kicking the can down the road when it comes to domestic deficit spending, he’s making it bigger too boot. While he’ll tout the “savings” on this end, the spending on the other end will increase dramatically. You are required to “suspend disbelief”, ignore the increased spending and pretend this is an earnest attempt to reign in the deficit.
If he wants to be seen as serious about this, he can cancel the rest of the stimulus, which had done next to nothing to help relieve joblessness. He can ask Congress to cancel the omnibus spending bill which was passed earlier this year and return the money that hasn’t been spent. And he can return what is left of the TARP money to the Treasury. And if he’s really interested in not kicking the can down the road, he can address the real drains on the budget – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. But we all know that’s not going to happen – in fact, he and the Democrats are trying to grow two of those three programs as we speak.
So while this will be described by the adoring media as part of that “hard pivot” to address the public’s concerns, it’s really a bone (and a tiny one at that) thrown to try to buy off those who really don’t pay close attention and to give the impression he’s serious about the deficit and the debt. Don’t be fooled – he’s serious about neither, and that’s been obvious since he was the junior Senator from Illinois. Nothing has changed since he ascended to the presidency.