Deficit Spending


Originally published at on July 9, 2009

California government struggles.

Forced to match public spending with revenue (some monkey-business excluded), leaders have only two good options:  Cut spending or raise taxes.  You would think that this would be easy enough.  But either option takes money from people who feel it should be theirs. The conflict is so fierce, the interests so entrenched, that leaders will walk dangerously close to default, to failing to meet obligations, rather than give up what they defend.

In the federal government, we have a different problem.

The Bush administration did away with Clinton-era commitments to pay for spending increases or tax cuts by finding sources of revenue.  Without even that modest amount of discipline, legislators, who get elected by pleasing their constituents, consistently spent their way into incumbancy.

I do not fault the Bush or Obama administrations for their emergency efforts to buy off an economic Depression (or substantial risk thereof)through massive deficit spending on short-term stimulus.  It was the best judgment of the experts, and it seems to have worked.  A Depression is far more costly than the money spent on stimulus.  But neither does this deal with the underlying problems in long-term public spending.  How do we reverse course and begin to bring the long-term spending equation in line with the revenue picture?

It may be that our political system is able to solve the problem.  The public is aware and concern over public spending is growing.  President Barrack Obama has called for a return to “pay as you go” legislation. This will make it far more difficult for Congress to add new deficit spending.  Even the roughly one-trillion dollars discussed as a budget for health care reform is being treated as “pay as you go” spending requiring an offsetting spending cut or tax increase to protect the overall national budget.

However, we have traveled so far down the path of deficit spending, that we will have to do more than maintain our course.  Bloomberg podcast — “Rivlin Says Fed More Concerned About Deflation Than Inflation”

The nation has already made commitments to spending on Medicare and Medicaid that will dig us deeper in debt over the next ten years.  We would have to legislate cuts in Medicare and Medicaid in order to get out of those commitments, if we wanted to.  Therefore, new efforts must be made to raise revenue or cut spending in order to just maintain the level of deficit we have now.  We need courageous leadership, willing to ask for sacrifice from all parts of our society, and we need disciplined leaders, willing to put their careers on the line in order to do what is right.

The recession will end and revenue will therefore increase, but that does not mean we will be out of the woods.  If Congress is not able to legislate long-range fiscal responsibility we will need new solutions.  One approach, discussed in the past, is across-the-board spending cuts.  Another would be to create a deficit Czar or independent commission with responsibility for recommending spending cuts and revenue increases that would lead to a reasonable deficit.

We should think of the deficit as a percentage of the national economy, not a dollar figure.  When the percentage begins moving down, towards historic norms, we will be on the right track.

It might be that a group of leaders we trust, who are not elected officials, could do a better job giving us tough medicine than the people we pay to give us only good news.  In any case, the sooner we take the medicine, the sooner we will begin the road to recovery.

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