Nothing better exemplifies our gridlock over the future of 21st century government, as well as how to recover from the Great Recession, than the false dichotomy of austerity versus stimulus.
The austerity thesis, reduced to its simplest form, suggests that government has been living beyond its means for some time, only exacerbated by the actions that accompanied the recent economic downturn. Sequesters, tax increases, and spending cuts become the order of the day.
The stimulus hypothesis, reduced also to simplest form, suggests that more government spending and lower taxes puts money in people’s pockets and helps cure a country’s economic doldrums. Once the economy is doing better, government spending will naturally fall and taxes rise.
The debate then plays out largely over deficits: do you want larger or smaller ones?
But reduced to this form, the debate is a fallacy, for several reasons.
First, one must define larger or smaller relative to something. Last year’s spending or taxes or deficits? What’s scheduled automatically in the law? The public debate often glosses over these issues. Which is more expansionary when keeping taxes at the same level: an economy whose growth in spending is cut from 6 to 4 percent or one whose growth is increased from 1 to 3 percent?
Second, a country’s ability to run deficits depends on its level of debt. A recent debate over whether at some point higher debt starts to slow economic growth doesn’t change the fact that lenders want to be repaid. People won’t loan to Greece now, but they still find the U.S. Treasury securities a safe haven for their money.
Third, and by far the most important, what timeframe is involved? Is the Congressional Budget Office pro-austerity or pro-stimulus when it concludes that sequestration hurts the economy in the short run, but is better in the long run than doing nothing about deficits? No one on either side suggests that debt can grow forever faster than the economy. Everyone implicitly or explicitly believes that to accommodate recessions when debt grows faster there are times when debt must grow slower.
So where’s the rub? Here you must understand the emotional systems, usually veiled, that lie behind those on both sides trying to force the problem to an either/or solution.
Start with hardline austerity advocates. Many of them don’t just want smaller deficits. They want smaller government—or, at the very least, they want to prevent the government from taking ever larger shares of the economy, even given changing demographics. Essentially, austerity advocates don’t trust their pro-stimulus adversaries, some of whom can almost always find an economy going into a recession, in a recession, coming out of a recession, or attaining a lower-than-average growth rate and, therefore, needing some form of stimulus. Austerity advocates have learned from long experience that once government spending is increased, it’s hard to reduce. So they feel they have to get what deficit reduction they can now that the public’s attention to recent large debt accumulations is creating pressure to act.
Now for many the hardline stimulus advocates, their support for additional temporary government intervention cannot be entirely disentangled from their sympathy for a larger future government. Else why not agree to cut back now on the scheduled acceleration of entitlement programs, particularly fast-growing health and retirement programs? That would bring the long-run budget, at least as currently scheduled, back toward balance. It would simultaneously please many of their austerity opponents and allow for more current stimulus.
The hidden agendas are complicated further by inconsistencies on both sides. Many hardline austerity advocates, at least in the United States, don’t want cuts to apply to defense spending. For their part, many hardline stimulus advocates would be glad to pare growth in tax subsidies.
Regardless, the dichotomy falls apart once one realizes that a solution can involve a slowdown in scheduled growth rates in spending and a higher rate of growth of taxes, accompanied by less short-run deficit reduction and an abandonment of poorly targeted mechanisms such as sequesters.
Consider the buildup of debt during World War II, the last time we saw U.S. levels above where they are today. Debt-to-GDP fell fairly rapidly after the war all the way until the mid-1970s. While the growing economy certainly helped, tax rates that were raised substantially during the war were largely maintained afterward, and spending had essentially no built-in growth (actually huge declines when the troops came home). Just the opposite holds now even with recovery: there are limited tax increases to pay for past accumulations of debt or wartime spending, and spending is scheduled to grow long-term, even after temporary recession-led spending and defense spending on Afghanistan declines.
Both sides—pro-austerity and pro-stimulus—want desperately to control an unknown future, either by not paying our current bills with adequate taxes or by maintaining built-in growth rates in various programs, mainly in health and retirement. The false dichotomy between austerity versus stimulus has fallen by the wayside, and what we see through the veil are two sides in mutual embrace trying to control our future, whatever the cost to the present.
Knowing how many of us economists toil away in obscurity on most research, I’m always intrigued by what catches the press’s and public’s attention. Take, for example, the significant attention paid to a 2010 study by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that concluded that countries with debt levels above 90 percent of GDP began showing slower rates of growth. When Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin, scholars at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, recently had trouble replicating Reinhart and Rogoff’s results, the debate played out in national news outlet.
Unfortunately, this discussion quickly devolved from substance to politics to arguments ad hominem. Without getting into the extent to which I or others can validate Reinhart and Rogoff’s (R&R’s) original findings, I offer six cautions for anyone witnessing this or a similar statistical debate with significant policy implications: (1) statistics should never be interpreted as showing more than simple but potentially useful correlations; (2) healthy skepticism is required for all social science research, which seldom gets replicated for validity; (3) all empirical economic work is based on history that will not repeat in the exact same form; (4) research can certainly contradict conventional wisdom but not reason; (5) arguments ad hominem, particularly by those with their own agendas, are unhelpful; and (6) be careful with labels and straw men.
- Correlation versus causation. It’s long been stressed that statistical tests never prove causation, not simply because they can’t but because researchers make many choices and assumptions, often of statistical convenience. This doesn’t mean statistics are useless. Just accept that any result merely shows that A and B seem to occur together even after trying to account for other influences under a huge range of never-fully-tested assumptions.
- Skepticism. A growing body of “research on research” shows that few social science experiments, and even many medical studies, are replicated. Also, positive results get published; negative results usually do not. R&R’s study was replicated mainly because it got an unusual amount of attention.
- History. The past never repeats itself exactly—or, as Heraclitus warns, “You could not step twice into the same river.” That historical interpretations are contained and sometimes couched in data analyses doesn’t mitigate this well-known caution.
- Reason versus conventional wisdom. The R&R debate mainly revolves around two reasonable notions. One is the simple arithmetic conclusion that debt can’t rise forever relative to national income, along with the related economic conclusion that higher levels of debt can and have been shown in many places to have consequences for investment, interest rates, ability to borrow, and how government revenues are spent. The other is that institutions, times, places, and circumstances matter greatly, and they affect how one should interpret past data, such as those presented by both R&R and their critics.
- Ad hominem arguments. R&R published some of their work with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, so some of those who attacked R&R may have considered the authors guilty by association because of Peter George Peterson’s concern about deficits and his contributions to that Institute. Peterson’s own “guilt” on budget issues seems to be that he became rich on Wall Street, although he favors higher taxes on what he calls “fat cats” like himself. Still, while many of those who engage in these attacks themselves fail to represent their own or their institution’s sources of funding, let’s be honest. Much social science research is funded in ways that doesn’t necessarily bias how the research is done, but rather what is researched in the first place. So, unless one fully engages and thoroughly analyzes every study, even the careful academic reader must often try to determine trustworthiness in other ways, such as whether the researchers report results only consistent with some special interest or political party.
- Labels and “straw men.” While we all use labels and straw men at times to set up the stories we tell, they at best simplify greatly. In this case, R&R are identified as advocates of “austerity” and their opponents as “Keynesians” advocating stimulus, both of which are nothing more than labels. Most budget analysts I know worry about deficits but vary widely in whether they would engage in more short-term stimulus or in how strongly they believe that a path toward long-term balance even requires austerity. For instance, is reducing some rate of growth of spending, no matter what its level, austerity? Is the Congressional Budget Office an advocate of austerity or Keynesian when it asserts that sequestration hurts the economy in the short run, but has long-run benefits relative to doing nothing about deficits?
The bottom line: use extreme caution no matter which economist you read or believe.
Full disclosure: I have spent most of my career at the Urban Institute or the Treasury Department, brief periods each at the Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute, and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation (which differs from the Peterson Institute for International Economics). I also serve or have served on many advisory groups and boards for such organizations as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Comptroller General of the United States. As a consequence, je m’accuse of being among the many economists limited more than I would like by what research is supported by those institutions or their funders.
I would like to offer two simple plans, one for Republicans and one for Democrats, to avoid a blunt, across-the-board sequester with no realistic assessment of priorities. Each plan gives both parties something they want without abandoning their core principles. Each also strengthens the party making the proposal by putting the other one on the spot if it fails to move toward a moderate compromise.
First, Republicans. They should offer to empower the president, within fairly broad limits, to reallocate the direct spending cuts required by sequester and include entitlements in the offer. Yes, they would cede some power over a relatively moderate share of total spending, but they would retain their primary goal: forcing Democrats to tackle the spending side of the budget.
Next, Democrats. They should replace their demand that the sequester include tax increases with a simpler demand that the rich pay a fair share of any burden. Yes, they would give up their requirement of balancing tax increases with spending cuts, but they would retain their more basic goal: maintaining or enhancing progressivity.
To understand why these strategies would work, we have to go back to the root causes of the impasse. Both parties are fiercely fighting to compel the other one to ask the middle class for the inevitable—to give up something, at least long term, to restore reasonable balance to the budget. Each party considers it political suicide to take the lead itself. Just think back to the presidential campaign, when each candidate indicated support for Medicare cuts, only to be viciously attacked by the other.
At the same time, both parties feel trapped and confused by years of mutual dissembling about subsidies that are put into the tax code.
Given that the American Tax Relief Act increased tax rates just last month, neither party is suggesting higher taxes. The debate now is over the tax base. Republican, Democratic, and independent economists all agree that subsidies in the tax code can be made to look just like direct spending. Therefore, any reasonable debate should be over whether all subsidies and spending programs work well and are worth every dime they cost, or whether they should be reformed—not on which side of the ledger they sit.
For Republicans, the subtext is that direct spending also needs to be tackled, and much of that direct spending lies in so-called mandatory or entitlement spending, which occurs automatically with no new vote required by Congress. The push to enact yet more “tax increases,” just after tax rate were raised, they consider unfair and imbalanced.
For Democrats, the subtext is that the rich have made out quite well in recent decades, so they should bear a significant portion of any deficit reduction. Excluding tax subsidies, which tend to be a bit more top-heavy and favor taxpayers with above-average incomes, they consider unfair and imbalanced.
As I noted, to an economist of any stripe, deciding which programs to fix according to the label we place on them—direct spending or tax subsidy—is silly. But this logic belies a long history where both Democrats and Republicans were quite happy increasing tax subsidies since they could then claim smaller government (through lower taxes) when they were actually increasing the scope of government activity (through more interference, along with deficits or higher tax rates to support the subsidies). Now that we have to cut back on automatic growth in direct spending, or tax subsidies, or (most likely) both, it’s harder to change the terms of the debate.
In truth, Republicans should be just as happy cutting back on tax subsidies as on direct spending, as both mean less government interference in the economy. By the same token, Democrats should be just as happy with direct spending cuts as with cuts in tax subsidies. Since Democrats, too, end up with smaller government either way, they should focus on progressivity, not the more semantic debate over cuts in tax subsidies versus direct subsidies.
That’s where my compromise proposals come in. If Republicans would simply empower the president to reallocate the spending cuts, then the bluntness of the sequester would be eliminated. Yes, they would be giving up some power, but come on, they control only one house of Congress. Look how they came out of the last debate, with only tax rate increases and a bloody nose to boot. Forcing the president to choose also enables Republicans to run later on how they would have chosen better. And if the president really cares about progressivity, he should want to extend those cuts to entitlements, many of which also provide more benefits to the rich than the poor.
As for Democrats, why not aim their sights at their real target: progressivity? If the Republicans would allocate spending cuts as progressively as the Democrats could ever expect tax base increases to come out, then they, too, will have achieved their principal objective. Moreover, if Republicans couldn’t balance the burden of deficit reduction with spending cuts alone, they would be forced to admit that they have to go to the tax code to search for additional options, including tax subsidies.
A similar type of compromise might also be used to change the timing of the sequester, an issue beyond the scope of this brief column.
Simply put, to move beyond budgetary impasses, each party must figure out what it can give up to get what it really wants, while putting the other party on the spot for not responding to a reasonable offer of compromise. Neither of my suggestions is perfect, by any means, but I think either one or both could remove the bluntness of the sequestration.
Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, set the bar very high. The Senate is about to begin debate over President Obama’s nomination of Jack Lew to be Treasury Secretary. Lately, confirmation hearings have often focused on either the personal foibles of candidates or relatively evanescent policy disputes that are soon forgotten. But at a time when fiscal policy is so critical to the nation’s well-being, the Senate should not forget the critical role Treasury has played in forging that agenda.
The key question for the Senate: will Treasury continue to play that powerful role under Lew’s stewardship?
While Hamilton could be mercurial and even buffoonish in his monarchial tendencies and late military ambitions, he was extraordinarily visionary in molding institutions and organizations to meet the fiscal needs of the new nation. Whether writing Federalist Papers or engaging in the nation’s first Grand Bargain on the budget—to pay off Revolutionary War debt in exchange for the establishment of the capital in the District of Columbia—his prescient gaze stretched far into the future, finding limitless possibility for this great nation.
Perhaps nowhere is his legacy more embodied than in the Treasury Department that he helped create and nurture to handle the nation’s debt obligations, taxes, and its budget. That legacy has been threatened by a modern department weakened by the usurpation of its functions.
Remember that the president is the only elected official our founders explicitly tasked to represent the nation as a whole. We expect partisanship among members of Congress because they represent different constituencies, though today the influence of special interests transcends congressional boundaries. The Chamber of Commerce, AARP, National Rifle Association, and AFL-CIO each understand the levers of power, even to the point of knowing how to scare an entire legislature to inaction with a few million dollars of campaign contributions or “scare” leaflets to their membership. I’m not saying that these groups don’t have views worthy of consideration, but they do not—I repeat, do not—represent the “general welfare” that our Constitution explicitly mentions in its preamble and its taxing and spending clause.
The executive branch is no longer organized along a few simple lines such as treasury, state, defense (or war), and justice—departments dedicated to what might be considered general welfare functions. The branch is now dominated by departments dedicated to special constituencies or tasks that generate special interest pleading such as agriculture, commerce, labor, housing, health and human services, and education. In turn, the White House is full of individuals whose jobs revolve around placating these constituencies, as well as pollsters and political advisors whose jobs center more on sound bites than sound policy.
Interestingly, one of the earliest fights between our political parties was over whether the federal government should get involved in arenas like agriculture or education. While Hamilton, was on the side of those favoring those efforts, both sides agreed that if such spending took place, it should still favor the general interest and not favor any specific section of the country over another. Today, particular constituencies are the dominant beneficiaries of many of our spending and tax subsidy programs. Does anyone really think that subsidies for sugar growers or early retirees or owners of oil companies and expensive vacation homes serve the general welfare?
When it comes to spending, taxing, and budgeting in the modern era—especially when the government has made too many promises to too many people—the Treasury Department remains the only agency that can restore order by offering broad reform packages centered on the general welfare.
Other arms of government simply lack the tools to deal with today’s unique fiscal challenges. If we set aside those mainly focused on special constituencies or tasks, the options are limited. The White House can and should help the president agree to propose what should be built, but it doesn’t have the personnel to figure out its plumbing and engineering. The only two budget competitors might be the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). CBO serves the Congress and not the President, and it abstains from proposing policy, partly to protect its now-ascendant role as neutral scorekeeper. Neither CBO nor OMB puts together cross-cutting packages the way that Treasury has done, when allowed. They do provide laundry lists of options, but that tends to foreclose, say, adopting an efficiency improvement in one area and offsetting its potentially regressive effects in another. OMB, in turn, has few economists on staff and has little tradition in issuing reports.
Treasury also sits in the unique position of having to worry about the ways and means of paying for things. It alone must deal with what I call the “take-away” side of the budget ledger. Constantly confronting how to administer taxes or float bonds, it’s in its very blood to balance potential benefits with costs and reduce politicians’ incentive to operate on the “give-away” side of the budget by enacting tax cuts and spending increases for which future generations will have to pay.
One other part to solving our fiscal puzzle involves understanding the role of committees or assemblies of politicians. The role of these groups is to approve, not design, policy, and delegating that latter function to them neglects the role of the executive in both business and government. There was a reason fiscal policy shifted to a strong Treasury and away from the committees operating under the weak Articles of Confederation.
In assuming the executive role of Treasury Secretary, will Jack Lew follow Hamilton’s example by leaving a stronger Treasury as a legacy? Will he help move us down a viable path for getting out of our current fiscal mess? I suggest he is unlikely to succeed at one without accomplishing the other.
The fiscal cliff–averting American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) significantly changed the policy landscape for what looks to be an extended budget debate over the year. For one, most (though not all) policy uncertainty over expiring tax cuts and credits was settled for the foreseeable future. Congress is very unlikely to pick up any new revenue measures this year.
But the bill also highlights how far we are from meaningful deficit reduction. My colleagues and I at the Tax Policy Center have examined what happens to both spending and revenue paths, under the new law and under a scenario that incorporates other likely policies, including the permanent extension of current payment rates to Medicare physicians and a failure to abide by the spending sequester (which, you’ll recall, was a result of the super committee’s failure to reach a budget agreement in late 2011).
We also make an important assumption about the direction of discretionary spending in the long run. Under current law, discretionary spending, on both the defense and domestic sides of the budget, is scheduled to drop to historic lows. Under our “plus likely policies” scenario, we assume that discretionary spending doesn’t fall below its historical lows of 3 percent of GDP for defense and 3.2 percent of GDP for domestic spending. Those lows occurred in 1999 following a period of relative peace, rapid economic expansion, and few of the demographic pressures we now face.
Ben Harris over at TaxVox has more.