Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Chicken-Little Debt Crisis - The U.S. Has a Revenue Problem Not the Fake Spending Crisis Cooked Up By Republicans

The Chicken-Little Debt Crisis - The U.S. Has a Revenue Problem Not the Fake Spending Crisis Cooked Up By Republicans

Whenever someone like me(Nobel economist Paul Krugman) or Bruce Bartlett points out how little Obama resembles the right’s portrait of a raging leftist, someone is sure to come back with the assertion that Obama has presided over a vast expansion of federal spending. Even people who really should know better, like John Taylor, do it.

So what’s the truth? I’ve written about this before, but here’s another take.

The fact is that federal spending rose from 19.6% of GDP in fiscal 2007 to 23.8% of GDP in fiscal 2010. So isn’t that a huge spending spree? Well, no.

First of all, the size of a ratio depends on the denominator as well as the numerator. GDP has fallen sharply relative to the economy’s potential; here’s the ratio of real GDP to the CBO’s estimate of potential GDP:

A 6 percent fall in GDP relative to trend, all by itself, would have raised the ratio of spending to GDP from 19.6 to 20.8, or about 30 percent of the actual rise.

That still leaves a rise in spending; but most of that is safety-net programs, which spend more in hard times because more people are in distress. The CBO breaks out “income security” (Table E-10 in Historical Budget Tables), which is unemployment insurance, food stamps, etc., and also gives us numbers on Medicaid; here’s what they look like as percentages of GDP:

That’s another 2 points of GDP, or about half the rise.

So we’re still left with a bit, around 1 point of GDP. That’s the stimulus, more or less. And there are two things you need to know about it. First, it’s temporary, and already fading out fast. Second, a large part of the stimulus “spending” was actually aid to state and local governments, intended not to expand spending but to avert a fall — that is, it was about maintaining government, not expanding it.

Now, pointing out the Obama spending binge is a myth generally produces rage: people know that it happened, because Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal say so. But that doesn’t make it true.
Safety net spending(chart with blue/red waves) because of the recession. The economy was shedding 700,000 jobs a month. It is only fair that people who had little to do with causing the recession, but were victims of it have some unemployment insurance benefits while they try to survive. Most of the spending that occured in 2009 was from polcies Republicans voted into law in 2008 - including TARP and the automakers bailout. Note in the graph at the very top that spending as a percent of GDP dropped back down to perfectly normal historical averages in 2010 and are predicted to remain at that level for years.

The Debt Ceiling Crisis And The Failure Of The Establishment( A crisis mind you invented by Republicans who raised the debt ceiling 7 times during the Bush administration when it was running up the largest deficit in US history)

The political assumptions here turned out to be badly wrong. The main problem is that the Republican Party does not actually care very much about the deficit. It cares about, in order: Low taxes for high-income earners; reducing social spending, especially for the poor; protecting the defense budget; and low deficits. The Obama administration and many Democrats actually do care about the deficit and are willing to sacrifice their priorities in order to achieve it, a desire that was on full display during the health care reform debate. Republicans care about deficit reduction only to the extent that it can be undertaken without impeding upon other, higher priorities. Primarily "deficit reduction" is a framing device for their opposition to social spending, as opposed to a genuine belief that revenue and outlays ought to bear some relationship to each other.

The Post has since published a series of increasingly terrified-sounding editorials pleading for a debt ceiling hike backing away from its bold hopes that the debt ceiling would produce a bipartisan compromise. In retrospect, they now see what should have been obvious: Increasing the political leverage of the Republican Party made a Grand Bargain less, not more, likely. Moreover, the deficit hawks who represent the center of Washington establishment thought badly underestimated the danger entailed by tying high stakes negotiations involving the Republican Party to a cataclysmic event. Happy visions of Bob Dole and Tip O'Neill danced in their heads, oblivious to the reality of what they were facing.