The 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty has led to a flurry of articles and debates about whether that war succeeded. That debate has been reenergized by Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book, Capital in the Twenty First Century, which argues that inequality is rising because returns to capital have risen relative to average economic growth. A solution to this inexorable force, Piketty claims, lies in some form of worldwide wealth tax.
In both cases, I find the political debate largely unproductive. Many conservatives and liberals pick at pieces of data and history to support their own forgone conclusions. Rather than seek practical margins for making progress, much of the discussion turns to thumbs up/thumbs down rhetoric or totally impractical solutions.
Here’s how the data play out. Since the late 1970s, market-based measures of poverty and the distribution of income (that is, measures of income before taking account of government redistribution through taxes and transfers) improved very little in the first case and got worse in the second. Both did much better a few decades earlier, including up to the mid-1970s. PIketty bases his broad historical conclusions about growing inequality largely on market measures. In turn, researchers ranging from Gary Burtless at Brookings to Tim Smeeding at Wisconsin to Richard Burkhauser at Cornell to Diana Furchgott-Roth and Scott Winship at the Manhattan Institute have shown greater reductions in poverty and less growth in inequality of income or consumption when market-based income is adjusted for government taxes and transfers.
These two different ways of looking at the data make for strange bedfellows as the debate turns political. Conservative critics of the War on Poverty combine with liberal world-always-getting-worse warriors, who like to cite Piketty, to form conclusions based largely on the before-tax, before-transfer measures. They unite to attack the status quo, with one suggesting fewer transfers (the war failed) and the other higher taxes on the rich (the tax system failed). Liberal defenders of social welfare programs and conservative opponents of higher tax rates, in turn, conclude that on an after-tax, after-transfer basis the world is a lot better off than the other side asserts. They defend the status quo.
Here are the statistics that I ponder. In real terms, social welfare spending averaged about $7,500 per household at the time the War on Poverty was declared. By the time that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, spending per household had grown to $15,000. And today it has doubled again from the start of the Reagan administration to about $32,000. (These figures do not even include tax expenditures for social welfare, such as pension, housing, and wage subsidies, which averaged about $7,000 per household in 2013.) Meanwhile, GDP per household grew from about $70,000 in 1964 to nearly $140,000 today.
Over this same 50 years the official thresholds for measuring who is in poverty have not grown one dollar in real terms. These measures, adjusted only for inflation, in a sense, are based on absolute poverty, unadjusted for the new goods and services a growing economy provides or, said another way, for whether a household’s income keeps up with average or median income in the economy. For a family of four, for instance, the nonfarm poverty threshold is crossed when a household’s income falls below roughly $23,550 today, essentially the same level as in 1964. For a single person, the poverty threshold equals $11,490
“Wait a second,” you may think. The government spends far more on social welfare than would be required to give every household support above poverty levels. And in almost every year there have been substantial real increases in the amount of transfers made. Why, then, has the poverty rate not fallen more?
There is no single answer. Here are four pieces of the puzzle:
Huge gains at the top. Inequality in market-based income DID grow substantially since the late 1970s, the period when progress against poverty slowed. The ability of high-income individuals at the top of a winner-take-all economy to capture much of the extra rewards that derive from monopoly or oligopoly settings does help explain some of the stagnation in earnings growth for those with average or low earnings.
It doesn’t explain why the public supports, which have continued to grow, haven’t made greater headway in improving the skills of the population enough that their market incomes would rise more. That brings us to the next three pieces of the puzzle: the extent to which the public money has been spent to help providers, help the middle class, and pay for health care.
Providers. Beneficiaries include providers who have captured large portions of government, not just private market, money. Before you start looking elsewhere, just remember that providers include, among others, doctors, drug manufacturers, social workers, lawyers, lenders, other financial intermediaries, builders, housing officials, software developers, tax preparers, government contractors, and, for that matter, researchers like myself.
The Middle Class. The middle class rather than the poor has also captured very large portions of the social welfare budget, largely in ways that have for decades encouraged them to retire and work less for greater portions of their lives. Early growth in Social Security benefits, for instance, did a good deal to reduce poverty, but in more recent decades has made less progress because growth—the marginal increase in payments—has been concentrated preponderantly on more years of support and higher levels of benefits for everyone, from rich to poor alike. Remember that a program can on average be successful in meeting some objectives, yet still target its incremental budget poorly. Incremental spending in our public retirement programs in the modern age increasingly operates to decrease the market incomes of the middle class and, despite billions of additional dollars spent each and every year, only modestly increases the transfers received by the poor.
Health Care. A large share of the growth in the income of almost everyone but the rich has come not in cash but in the form of government and employer-provided health care and insurance. One-third of per capita income growth in our economy from 1990 to 2010, for instance, went simply to pay for real increases in health care, as average annual health care spending per household from all sources ballooned to approximately $24,000. Measures of both market income (e.g., Piketty) and most measures of after-transfer income (e.g., the official poverty measure) fail altogether to count this major source of income. Yet for many, particularly those below median income, that item has dominated the way their income has grown for perhaps three decades. The CBO has tried very recently to count health insurance received as income in some of their work, but its efforts are an exception to the rule.
These four pieces interlock in various ways. For instance, more years and money in Social Security support, particularly as people live longer, has encouraged the average worker to retire for more than a decade longer than in 1940, when benefits were first paid, thus reducing their market income. Because many of the government’s expenditures on health care have been captured by providers, the public’s gain in benefits comes out to only a fraction of each additional $1 the government spends, while in the private sector cash compensation stagnates to pay for higher costs of health insurance.
In sum, the debate over poverty and inequality deserves renewed attention. However, it provides a quandary to many in both major political parties, who are largely mired in mid-20th century debates and fighting the thumbs-up, thumbs-down battles that blocks improvement from either side. The times beg for a 21st century agenda (an issue I try to address in my new book, Dead Men Ruling).
A personal note to you, my readers and friends.
My latest book, Dead Men Ruling, is in many ways the most important that I have ever written. I try not only to diagnose the disease that underlies so many of our economic and political problems today, but also to attack the wrong-headed notion that we live in an age of austerity and limited possibility.
Consider: the gross domestic product per household is $141,000 today and is projected, even with slower growth, to reach $168,000 in 10 years. Over that same period under Republican and Democratic budgets alike, government at all levels is likely to increase spending and tax subsidies from $55,000 to around $65,000 per household. Our budget may be terribly allocated, and the way we tax and spend can be quite inequitable, but do these numbers suggest a nation that must continue to turn its back to the ocean of possibilities that lie right at our feet?
I hope you will read Dead Men Ruling. Even more, I hope that you recommend it to friends and elected officials who want to move beyond yesteryear’s stale debates toward a 21st-century agenda—particularly when it comes to promoting opportunity and mobility, prioritizing children and their future, and creating a government that can be both effective and lean.
If you cover the news, are organizing an event, or have a group interested in the book, I can help. Please contact me.
Because I make no money on the book, my motivation is purely aspirational. I strongly believe that the country is at an inevitable turning point, requiring honest leadership. Though it will take time, together we can make that turn well.
At DeadMenRuling.com, you can order copies directly and find many related recommendations, videos, and interviews. As a Government We Deserve reader, you can use discount code KCD4. Or you can use various book venders (including Amazon).
To tease your interest a bit further, I include the preface below.
Low or zero growth in employment… inadequate funds to pay future Social Security and Medicare bills…declining rates of investment… cuts in funding for education and children’s programs…arbitrary sequesters or cutbacks in good and bad programs alike… underfunded pension plans…bankrupt cities…threats not to pay our nation’s debts… inability to reach political compromise…political parties with no real vision for 21st century government.
I’ve come to a strong belief that these and a whole host of seemingly separable economic and political problems are symptoms of a common disease, one unique to our time and shared widely throughout the developed world. Unless that disease and the history of how it spread over time is understood, it’s easy to fall prey to believing in simple but ineffective nostrums, hoping that a cure lies merely in switching political parties or reducing the deficit, expanding our favorite program, or hunkering down to protect it. My first purpose in writing this book is to accurately diagnose that disease so we can attack it at its roots
But my fonder hope is that we reawaken to the extraordinary possibilities that lay right at our feet and restore the American can-do spirit that has prevailed over most of our history. Despite the despairing claims of many, we no more live in an age of austerity than did Americans at the turn into the 20th century with the demise of the frontier. Conditions are ripe to advance opportunity in ways never before possible, including doing for children and the young in this century what the 20th did for senior citizens, yet without abandoning those earlier gains. Recognizing this extraordinary but checked potential is also the secret to breaking the political logjam that, as I will show, was created largely by now dead (and retired) men.
This post originally appeared on TaxVox, the Tax Policy Center blog.
By proposing a far-reaching and detailed rewrite of the Revenue Code, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-MI) did something very few elected officials have done in recent years: He stuck out his neck and proposed radical reform. The initial press response has focused on politics and concluded that neither Republicans nor Democrats will be able to take on the special interests, that there is too much partisan gridlock, and that the plan is going nowhere.
But such responses largely ignore the history of successful reforms and forget that some policymakers do care about policy. If the goal is to conquer a mountain, someone has to start by building a common basecamp.
Almost any major systemic reform that does more than give away money creates losers. Someone always has to pay for whatever new use of resources the reform seeks—in this case, tax rate reduction and a leaner code with fewer complications. But politicians hate identifying losers. We voters punish them for their candor, which is why they nearly always increase deficits to achieve their goals and leave it to a future Congress to identify the losers who pay the bill.
With his full-blown tax reform proposal, Chairman Camp decided to lead and proposed repealing many popular tax breaks. There’s a lot I like and some things I don’t like in his proposal, but the simple fact is that a well-designed comprehensive alternative to current law can change the burden of proof. Change a few items, and each interest group argues that it was unfairly picked on. Put forward an alternative that takes on almost all preferences, and each interest then needs to justify why it deserves special treatment not accorded others.
The prospect for any reform is nil if no leaders do what Camp did and step up to the plate. The process is not one of instant epiphany. Rather it slowly builds support. Those who first propose change may increase the odds of success from 5 percent to 10 percent. Others who follow further improve those odds. If we reject out of hand all ideas that start with less than a 50 percent chance of success, we’d probably never reform anything.
It often takes modest support by others to move the process forward. In 1985, President Reagan and House Ways & Means Committee chair Dan Rostenkowski started the legislative process that yielded the Tax Reform Act of 1986 by simply agreeing not to criticize each other while the measure went through committee. Like Speaker Boehner today, Speaker O’Neill wasn’t enthusiastic about reform then, but Rostenkowski was able to proceed anyway.
In 1985, Rostenkowski knew he could pass a Democratic bill. But he knew it would go next to the GOP-controlled Senate Finance Committee. Each party would have a turn and a final agreement would come from a bipartisan conference committee. If House GOP leaders let Camp mark-up his bill now, Democrats would have their turn, at least this year, in the Senate. At least so far, both President Obama and senior Ways & Means Democrat Sandy Levin (D-MI) have avoided any major criticism of Camp’s plan, but one wonders if Democrats aren’t going to forego an opportunity, once again joining Republicans in deciding in advance that nothing substantial can be done, so it won’t.
Leadership is seldom about achieving results that can be predicted with certainly. More often it requires using your clout to change the process or reframe the debate in ways more likely to serve the public. It’s certainly about more than protecting your party’s incumbents in the next election regardless of the policy consequences.
When I served as economic coordinator and original organizer of the 1984 Treasury study that led to the ’86 Act, it was a time when books declared major tax reform the “impossible dream.” Sound familiar? In the face of that dispiriting commentary, I tried to encourage the Treasury staff with what I call the “hopper theory” of democracy: the more good things you put in the hopper, the more good things are likely to come out. By this reckoning, Chairman Camp has already won.
In a recent Washington Post article, I characterized any forthcoming budget deal as two parties who had dug a hole for themselves deciding to stop throwing shovels at each other. Despite this skepticism, I must admit that this December 2013 agreement is certainly better than throwing shovels—or, more formally, threatening another government shutdown, along with its attendant costs on the workings of government, the well-being of citizens, and economic growth.
This budget agreement also takes a couple of baby steps forward. For the first time in a while, it includes modest reforms to mandatory programs, not just discretionary programs. It cuts back slightly on the silly sequester. Perhaps more important, it gets the two budget committees functioning again. Traditionally, members of these committees have had to fight with the rest of Congress as much, if not more, than with their opponents within the committees—partly because committee members, regardless of affiliation, shared the objective of getting the budget into some sort of order.
If the committee members have really decided to restore their status, and if they are constrained by other congressional leaders from making significant headway on the budget in the months leading to the next election, I hope at least they will start working on bipartisan budget process reforms, such as reducing the game-playing in future budget agreements. One example is greater constraints on future legislation that increases long-term deficits. A trick still possible (but not used in this deal) is to avoid scoring or counting costs against a bill when they fall outside an arbitrary ten-year budget window.
Dateline: January 2014. Federal government shuts down completely.
Day 1. Mall, Washington, DC. Park Police decide shutdown again requires barring access to war memorials and the grounds of the Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson monuments. Veterans rise up in anger and push back barricades. “If you’re furloughed, how can you keep us from entering the parks?” asks Joe Laploski, an Iraqi veteran from New Rochelle, NY. Park Police assign unpaid legal interns to determine whether Park Police should arrest themselves for working.
Day 2. White House. In hastily called press conference, President Obama announces major plan to deal with the national emergency. Enforcement on malls will be sustained, lest someone fall in the Tidal Basin and sue the government. Government debt will thereby be reduced, since Park Police cost less than those future lawsuits, at least on an expected basis.
Day 3. Capitol. Lights go out. Speaker Boehner lost underground. Democrats offer to fund search party, but, invoking the Hastert rule (requiring agreement by a majority of the majority party to act) and unable to decide whether they want to find him, Tea Party refuses.
Day 4. Longworth House Office Building. Democrats send search party after Boehner anyway. Find flasks of aged whiskey hidden by the late former Ways and Means Committee Chair Wilbur Mills two levels below the committee room where he presided. Debate ensues over whether imbibing is an essential government function. Inspired by former Occupy Wall Street supporters, Democrats decide to represent the activity as unity with the “99 percent,” who normally can’t afford such expensive booze.
Day 5. Treasury Department. Electronic payments of billions of government checks and bills stop. Secretary Lew called to emergency meeting at the White House to determine how much blame to assign to Republicans.
Day 6. Oklahoma City. Local Tea Party members claim the IRS is targeting them, citing delayed refund checks as proof. Back in Washington, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee decides to hold hearings in the dark.
Day 7. Near Capitol. Republican staffers gather at a local bar to debate how to get work done during the impasse. Consider asking the guy in charge of the lights for help, until they discover that position no longer exists because of the sequester. Boehner still missing.
Day 8. White House. President Obama plans national address during primetime. He asks the Democratic Party to pay for the speechwriters. Local TV stations refuse to broadcast the president’s speech unless their invoices for airing “Army Strong” recruiting commercials are paid.
Day 9. Treasury Department. Secretary Lew tries to issue checks to TV stations. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court bars him from doing so until he lays out the precise legal priority for billions of unpaid bills.
Day 10. Princeton, NJ. Despite the worldwide recession induced by the shutdown, foreigners still flock to outstanding US obligations, and interest rates on US government securities tumble instead of rise. In a New York Times op-ed, Paul Krugman argues that at this low rate we should borrow all we can—unless it would pay for a Republican tax cut.
Day 11. Treasury Department. In response to the House Oversight Committee’s hearings, Treasury’s Inspector General issues report that Republicans were indeed targeted, indicating as proof that their delayed refund checks were bigger on average than those for Democrats. However, no crime was committed, he asserts.
Day 12. White House. President issues a statement that IRS targeting of Republicans is inexcusable. Fires top IRS data processing personnel and replaces commissioner with top executive from Avon Products with an unblemished record in taxes and data processing because she has never worked in either field.
Day 13. Sacramento. Governor Brown announces that millions of Californians are now insured under Obamacare. He asks that no penalties be assessed on those getting thousands of dollars in excess benefits since recordkeeping was impossible. On Meet the Press, Senator Cruz expresses amazement that the shutdown he favored affects every government program but Obamacare.
Day 14. White House. President Obama launches new peace initiative. He asks Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Bashar al-Assad of Syria to hire their own nuclear and chemical weapons inspectors, claiming that the U.S. shouldn’t have to pay to clean up other countries’ messes. President Putin offers to mediate and contribute Russian oil revenues.
Day 15. Capitol. Boehner found. Claims, like always, he knew exactly where he stood. Negotiates agreement with president on a continuing resolution to fund government until after congressional elections. Congress then shuts itself down until December 2014.
Day 16. Russell Senate Office Building. Before departing, Chairman Camp of the Ways and Means Committee and Chairman Baucus of the Senate Finance Committee issue a 6,700-page document with complex details on how to structure a major tax reform. Congressional leaders promise to take up issue immediately…in the next Congress.
The 50th anniversary of “the March on Washington”—so famous and, in many ways, so successful that “the” is sufficient to define it—brought forth a gusto of stories about what had been achieved since then, including some very interesting blog posts by my colleagues. Several turned to data on the distribution of wealth, including some studies in which I participated, noting the lack of gains—especially in the past few decades—in the wealth and income of blacks and Hispanics relative to whites.
Those aggregate, raw figures on wealth and income act as a form of performance test on one aspect of government policy. They state rather emphatically that, whatever its merits, such policy was not sufficient to move the needle on wealth mobility across and among racial and other classes. Some simply draw the conclusion that we must redouble our efforts on programs that they have favored for a long time. Spend more on Medicare or Medicaid or cut tax rates or whatever. But what if that focus is wrong? What if the dominant liberal and conservative agendas over the past 50 years, at least when it came to social policy and taxes, never really had much to with mobility? What if the data compel us to adopt more dynamic, yet realistic, policies that put mobility and opportunity more at the forefront of policy in the 21st century?
Over these past few decades, liberal agendas have focused largely on the positive effects of ensuring that people had adequate income, food, health care, and so on—that is, consumption. Conservative agendas have focused largely on the negative effects of high income tax rates, particularly at the top of the income distribution. Often raising legitimate concerns about poverty or incentives, respectively, in many ways, each side has won its battle. Redistributive and other social welfare policies now dominate the $55,000 in federal, state and local spending, including tax subsidies, now spent on average per household, while tax rates at the top tend to be about half what they were from World War II to the early 1960s.
Relative to 50 years ago, fewer people are without food or food assistance, people can now retire on Social Security for many more years, health care has become far more life-sustaining, more people go to college, and, while economic growth hasn’t been great lately, we’re still about three times richer than we were. So the record isn’t all that bad, despite current travails. But, once again, those successes largely did not carry over to mobility among and across classes.
Here are just a few examples of how policies have given limited attention to mobility:
- Current welfare policy helps feed and house people, but it often discourages work by imposing very high costs on moderate-income households with children, as they can lose hundreds of dollars of benefits for each $1,000 they earn.
- Even while single parenthood remains a major source of poverty for many, that same welfare policy now penalizes—on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars—low-income couples with children who decide to get or remain married.
- Although investing in quality early childhood education appears to have a high payoff, the means testing of Head Start and other programs re-segregates our schools, with poorer kids often clustered together in classrooms separate from middle-class kids.
- Housing rental subsidies help people live in decent housing, but they also discourage home-buying and paying off a mortgage along the way, keeping lower-income families away from that classic and, for large segments of the population, most important mechanism for saving.
- Our retirement policies help most Americans live their later years in some comfort. But by encouraging early retirement, Social Security and other programs lead to an increased wealth gap among the elderly as richer classes retire later—hence, work and save longer—than poorer classes.
- Low tax rates may encourage entrepreneurship, but when they don’t raise enough revenue to pay our bills, they add to interest costs on the debt, gradually eroding support for investments in people, education, and similar efforts.
It’s not that liberals and conservatives advocating these older agendas don’t care about mobility. They’ll tell you that people with more sustenance will be able to work and study harder and entrepreneurs facing lower tax rates will create more jobs. But they try to claim too much for agendas that, though successful on some fronts, did not improve mobility in recent decades. The proof is in the pudding.
Raising these issues threatens those who fear that acknowledging failure on any front merely empowers those who advocate for the opposing agenda. And in today’s chaos that passes for policymaking, that is probably true. I don’t even know in what galaxy to place debates over previously nonpartisan issues like extending the debt ceiling so Congress can pay off its bills.
For me, it isn’t about abandoning the past. It’s simply about moving on.
Until recently, few Americans knew the names of these three Treasury officials, long-time public servants whose talent and many years of hard work elevated them to prestigious government positions. But many now recognize, if not their names, the issues with which they have been intimately associated. Each has moved into the spotlight recently after putting out a statement, report, or blog dealing with a very controversial aspect of tax administration: employer mandates under the new health care reform law, or Obamacare, in the first case; and tax exemption for social welfare organizations with such labels as “tea party” or “progressive” in the last two.
What Mazur, Lerner, and George also hold in common is the forced assumption of greater responsibility than is warranted, as elected officials and their top appointees—those who wrote or failed to fix the laws in the first place—scramble to secure a position of innocence and fault-finding in the blame game known as Washington, DC.
Mazur is the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury who first revealed in a blog posting the delayed implementation of one important feature of Obamacare, the mandate on larger employers to pay a penalty if they don’t offer health insurance to their full-time employees. Lerner is the IRS official, now threatened with criminal charges by politicians, who first noted that some of those under her had inappropriately targeted “tea party” and other groups for extra review when they applied for tax exemption as social welfare organizations. George is the Treasury Inspector General whose report on the IRS targeting of tea party groups is now being lambasted by Democrats for failing to note sufficiently that the IRS was simultaneously scrutinizing other applicants, such as progressives.
Should we focus so much attention on the talents of Mark Mazur in regulating, Lois Lerner in enforcing, or J. Russell George in inspecting? (I may be influenced by that fact that I know two of them, but I can assure you that many others would say that each is well above average in integrity, ability, and devotion to the public.) Or should we instead turn our attention to how the government turns inward when it functions poorly, the system creaks, and officials remain at an impasse to fix things everyone has long known are broken?
Every expert on nonprofit tax law will tell you that providing tax exemption for organizations operated for social welfare purposes (“exclusively” under Code section 501(c)(4), but “primarily” under the IRS’s more lenient regulations) does not mesh easily with organizations set up to engage in significant political activity. Also, delays in getting exemption have been an issue for years for nonprofits in general because of lack of IRS staffing, extensive abuse of the law, and the difficult-to-enforce boundary lines between exempt and nonexempt activities, the latter including political campaigning. And if there were an easy way to figure out which organizations really devote themselves to social welfare, why hasn’t the White House or any member of Congress come up with one? If things go amuck in some IRS Cincinnati office, wasn’t error built into the system a long time ago?
As for the health care reform law’s employer mandates, of course these were going to put extraordinary pressures on employers to hire part-time rather than full-time employees, on payroll and other reporting systems to devise ways to measure hours of work (however inaccurately), and on an understaffed IRS to somehow enforce the law’s requirements. If things go amuck, how much responsibility rests with Treasury and IRS versus a political system that can only vote thumbs up or thumbs down on Obamacare?
Rest assured, when new benefits are bestowed on citizens, messages spew forth from elected officials and their spokespersons in the White House and Congress. “Look what we have done for you,” they pronounce. Can you remember top White House and Treasury officials ever deferring preferentially to Mark Mazur to make one of these more politically appealing types of announcements?
When things unravel a bit, however, roles reverse. Elected officials and their top cadre quickly disassociate themselves from both the creation of the problem and their past failure to address it.
Wouldn’t it be a lot more honest to share responsibility for successes and failures, more helpful to reveal rather than hide the limits on tax administration, and more productive to spend more time on fixing than blaming? As long as every difficult issue threatens to become political high theatre, the Mazurs, Lerners, and Georges of long government service will be asked to play the role of clown or villain for scripts they can, at best, edit but not write.
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.