Monday, October 29, 2007

Avoiding U.S. Fiscal Ruin - David Romer in 2007

Washington’s Out-of-Control Budgets - Notes on a Lecture by Prof. David Romer. (The following report is abbreviated with his permission from notes on the lecture taken by Bill Batt, staff political scientist in the New York State Assembly's Legislative Tax Study Commission, 1982-1992.)

On October 25, 2007, Scranton University held its 22nd Annual Henry George Lecture  and Romer was the Lecturer. [Henry George was a self-taught, widely read economist who favored taxing land rather than labor; he ran with labor support for the mayoralty of New York City in 1886, coming in second, ahead of Theodore Roosevelt, and again in 1897, dying at the height of the campaign. - JTM] The city of Scranton, Pa. itself was wild that day, as it played host to fans of the NBC hit serial, "The Office", set in Scranton. 

David H. Romer is the Herman Royer Professor of Political Economy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a member of the American Economic Association Executive Committee, co-director of the Program in Monetary Economics at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a member of the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee – the so-called “wise men” who decide when national business cycles begin and end.

The lecture title was "Avoiding Fiscal Ruin: Failed Strategies and New Approaches to US Budget Policies." Professor Romer posed three questions: (1) How did we get here? (2) What are the likely consequences? and (3) What are some possible solutions? He showed simple PowerPoint bullets and graphics describing the past history and looming fiscal crises the nation faces in the next few decades:

History of the U.S. Budget

  • The United States ran a small budget surplus throughout the years 1791-1929, except for support of the Civil War and World War I.
  • The U.S. budget had an annual surplus in the early 1950s, and a deficit every year since then except for the final years of the Clinton administration.
  • We are now running a $200 billion deficit, some 2 percent of GDP, which will grow enormously in the next two decades if most assumptions are borne out about health care, social security and other demographic trends. (He did not comment on the budgetary impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.)

The nation got into this position because we have in recent years stopped thinking of taxes and spending as going hand-in-hand. Moreover, beliefs about appropriate budget policy have changed. The prevailing view in the 1950s was that budgets should be in balance, at least averaged over a few years. Truman, in this regard, was a fiscal conservative, even though he favored government support of services. In the 1960s, a view took hold that balancing the budget was less important than maintaining economic growth. Hence deficits were sometimes necessary as a stimulus at certain points in the economic cycle. Nixon remarked, in 1971 [quoting Milton Friedman in 1965 - JTM], "we are all Keynesians now."

Reagan, in the 1980s, wanted to shrink government, as he believed that "government is the problem." It was possible, he argued, to do so according to a strategy of cutting back on domestic programs, called "starving the beast" [the original use of the term is attributed to David Stockman, Reagan's first budget director - JTM]. It followed to his adherents that cutting taxes would lead to a fall in government spending.

Cutting taxes doesn't have much impact on expenditure levels. Revenues, he argues, change for many reasons, and by tracing the history and motivation for tax changes, he has shown that the cause and effect relationships are very complex, and that correlation and causation should not be confused. He has looked at speeches, news conferences, reports, votes, and events such as wars and recessions, and concluded that it might even be that invoking "starve the beast" rhetoric actually leads to increases in tax and expenditure. Moreover, so many factors are involved in tax policy changes that there is typically shared fiscal responsibility – blame and credit for any policies are quite diffuse.

Problem. When the two sides, revenues and expenditures, are not viewed together it becomes difficult to focus policy. All indications are that U.S. taxes will soon need to increase, but little attention is being given to revenue designs.

With baby-boomers retiring, medical expenses increase, debt service increases, infrastructure renewal demands grow, and so on. Some leaders are already calling for such increases. But all the forecasts are necessarily based on existing law, which will need to be changed. The phase-out of tax measures in the year 2010 will lead to new initiatives, and these will call for new assumptions.

Likely Scenarios. Only three scenarios are possible:

  1. Lower national saving, which will mean less reinvestment, slower growth and a lower standard of living.
  2. A national economic crisis in anticipation of what is in reality a "Ponzi scheme".
  3. Pay off the debt, either by raising taxes or printing more dollars. His comparison with past experiences in nations in Latin America was not lost on the audience. Nor did he see the United States abandoning care for its elderly.

Solutions. Professor Romer argues that we need to:

  • Educate the public to a level where a solution is politically possible. He said that we need to link taxes and spending together once again as was the case prior to the 1960s. The political appetite for such policies are not presently on the horizon, but he suggested that perhaps some kind of "mutual disarmament pact" could be devised such as was set up earlier to address the Social Security crisis in the 1980s, and as exists now for closing military bases.
  • Improve accounting practices by the federal government and for the U.S. economy.
  • Introduce strong "pay as you go" rules such as were attempted in the Gramm-Rudman approach two decades ago.
  • More radically, introduce a stringently fashioned "balanced-budget amendment."
  • In addition, or alternatively, create a separate agency, comparable perhaps to the Federal Reserve System, that would be granted powers to impose fiscal and budgetary requirements.

Professor Romer was not sanguine that any solution was within sight, even though we are on a "potentially ruinous fiscal path." He argued that we need to contemplate major changes to address the problem.