Politicians who advertise themselves as “fiscal conservatives” sometimes campaign on crowd-pleasing pledges to cut taxes and simultaneously reduce budget deficits. These are difficult promises to deliver on in practice, since the budget deficit equals government spending minus tax revenue.
Aspiring fiscal conservatives may be interested in learning four innovative tricks that are commonly used by American politicians who like to promise what seems impossible. Each of these feats has been perfected over three decades or more. Indeed they first acquired their colorful names in the early years of the Ronald Reagan presidency:
Every pundit agrees that President Obama did badly in the first debate. But I can’t help wondering whether he (and VP Joe Biden) would have been able to come out swinging as freely as they have in the subsequent debates, if it were not for what happened in Denver. Obama must have been afraid of sounding unpresidential. But because his initial performance was so roundly criticized for passivity, he was licensed after that to argue aggressively: “What you are saying is not true, Governor Romney.” And it helps that he was right, each time. (My morning-after talking-head comments can be viewed:“Re-cap of 1st Presidential Debate,” Oct.4; and “Re-cap” of 2nd Presidential Debate, Oct.17.)
Mitt Romney, presidential candidate, said in now-infamous comments that 47% of the American electorate is dependent on the federal government, that he will never be able to teach them to take personal responsibility for their lives, and that they are certain to vote for Barack Obama in November. He continues a tradition in his party that goes back at least three decades: building political campaigns around the proposition that folks in the heartland exhibit the American virtues of self sufficiency and personal responsibility and the implication that other, more urban, regions display decadent social values and dependency on government.
I have argued that the best way to think of “black swan” events is as developments that, even though low-probability, can in fact be contemplated ahead of time. Even if they are the sort of thing that has never happened before within an analyst’s memory, similar things may have happened before in the distant past or in other countries.
What current possible shocks have probabilities that, even if fairly low, are high enough to warrant thinking about now? Some have been discussed ad infinitum, others hardly at all.
Throughout history, big economic and political shocks have often occurred in August, when leaders had gone on vacation in the belief that world affairs were quiet. Examples of geopolitical jolts that came in August include the outbreak of World War I, the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and the Berlin Wall in 1961. Subsequent examples of economic and other surprises in August have included the Nixon shock of 1971 (when the American president enacted wage-price controls, took the dollar off gold, and imposed trade controls), 1982 eruption in Mexico of the international debt crisis, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the 1991 Soviet coup, 1992 crisis in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and US subprime mortgage crisis of 2007. Many of these shocks constituted events that had previously not even appeared on most radar screens. They were considered unthinkable.
My preceding post bemoaned the tendency for many US politicians to exhibit a procyclicalist pattern: supporting tax cuts and spending increases when the economy is booming, which should be the time to save money for a rainy day, and then re-discovering the evils of budget deficits only in times of recession, thus supporting fiscal contraction at precisely the wrong time. Procyclicalists exacerbate the magnitude of the swings in the business cycle.
This is not just an American problem. A similar unfortunate cycle — large fiscal deficits when the economy is already expanding anyway, followed by fiscal contraction in response to a recession — has also been visible in the United Kingdom and euroland in recent years. Greece and Portugal are the two most infamous examples. But the larger European countries, as well, failed to take advantage of the expansionary period 2003-07 to strengthen their public finances, and instead ran budget deficits in excess of the limits (3% of GDP) that they were supposed to obey under the Stability and Growth Pact. Then, over the last few years, politicians in both the UK and the continent have made their recessions worse by imposing aggressive fiscal austerity at precisely the wrong time.
The world is in the grip of a debate between fiscal austerity and fiscal stimulus. Opponents of austerity worry about contractionary effects on the economy. Opponents of stimulus worry about indebtedness and moral hazard.
Is austerity good or bad? It is as foolish to debate this proposition as it would be to debate whether it is better for a driver to turn left or right. It depends where the car is on the road. Sometimes left is appropriate, sometimes right. When an economy is in a boom, the government should run a surplus; other times, when in recession, it should run a deficit.
Any solution to the euro crisis must meet two objectives. One is short run and the other is long run. Unfortunately they tend to conflict.
The first necessary objective is to put Greece, Portugal, and other troubled countries back on a sustainable debt path, defined as a long-term trajectory where the ratio of debt to GDP is declining rather than rising. Austerity won’t restore debt sustainability. It has raised debt/GDP ratios, not lowered them. A write-down would do it. New bigger bail-outs might too, or might not. But either write-downs or bailouts would then create moral hazard and thus make even it even harder to satisfy the second necessary objective.
Why do so many countries so often wander far off the path of fiscal responsibility? Concern about budget deficits has become a burning political issue in the United States, has helped persuade the United Kingdom to enact stringent cuts despite a weak economy, and is the proximate cause of the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, which has grown to engulf the entire eurozone. Indeed, among industrialized countries, hardly a one is immune from fiscal woes.
Clearly, part of the blame lies with voters who don’t want to hear that budget discipline means cutting programs that matter to them, and with politicians who tell voters only what they want to hear. But another factor has attracted insufficient notice: systematically over-optimistic official forecasts.
Obama’s slogan for the SOTU last night, “An Economy Built to Last,” was a way of referring to one of the accomplishments of his first years: successfully reviving the auto industry, which many had said couldn’t be done without nationalizing it. References to other accomplishments were stated more quickly, such as national security (withdrawal from Iraq, disposing of Osama bin Laden) or more obliquely, such as health care reform, financial reform, and arresting the freefall of the economy that Obama inherited in January 2009 (via fiscal stimulus and TARP – both of which are not especially popular programs).