Tag Archives: deficit

Does Debt Matter?

 
“Does Debt Matter?” is the question posed by The International Economy to 20 commentators:
“The recent scrutiny of the popularized version of the Rogoff-Reinhart thesis (that growth plummets when debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP) makes clear there are no simple formulas for determining the risks in the level of a nation’s debt. …Can a realistic guide be fashioned for determining whether a nation’s debt has reached a danger zone? Or are countries from here on expected to pursue fiscal reforms only if and when a crisis sets in?”

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McKinnon’s Claim that RMB-$ Appreciation Would Not Reduce Trade Imbalances

The International Economy magazine (Winter 2013) asks 16 authorities, “Can Changes in Exchange Rate Valuations Affect Trade Imbalances?”   It is referring to the claim in a recent book by Stanford economist Ron McKinnon that pressure on China to let the renminbi appreciate against the dollar is fundamentally misconceived because such a movement in the exchange rate would not reduce China’s trade surplus nor American’s trade deficit.  This is part of an old debate that pre-dates the rise of the China trade problem.  Ron has long claimed that exchange rates don’t determine trade balances because they are “instead” determined by national saving versus investment.   I thought Paul Krugman demolished the argument pretty effectively 25 years ago, with a textbook graph of internal balance versus external balance.   But evidently many still fall for the argument (including some of the experts in the TIE symposium).   So I try again:

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Can the Euro’s Fiscal Compact Cut Deficit Bias?

     Europe’s fiscal compact went into effect January 1, as a result of its ratification December 21 by the 12th country, Finland, a year after German Chancellor Angela Merkel prodded eurozone leaders into agreement.   The compact (technically called the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union) requires  member countries to introduce laws limiting their structural government budget deficits to less than ½ % of GDP.  A limit on the “structural deficit” means that a country can run a deficit above the limit to the extent — and only to the extent — that the gap is cyclical, i.e., that its economy is operating below potential due to temporary negative shocks.   In other words, the target is cyclically adjusted.  The budget balance rule must be adopted in each country, preferably in their national constitutions, by the end of 2013.

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Four Magic Tricks for Aspiring Fiscal Conservatives

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:

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Bias in Government Forecasts

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.

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Who is Screwing Up More: Europe or the US?

US News and World Report asks, Who is handling its debt crisis better: Europe or the United States?”   My answer follows.

  In both Europe and the United States, the current public debt woes are attributable to mistakes made by political leaders going back more than a decade.  In both cases the tremendous magnitude of the long-term debt problems has only become evident for all to see recently, by which time it was too late for the straightforward policy solutions that were viable options previously. 

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The Federal Government Races to the Cliff

In the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean and a teenage rival race two cars to the edge of a cliff in a game of chicken.  Both intend to jump out at the last moment.  But the other guy miscalculates, and goes over the cliff with the car.

This is the game that is being played out in Washington this month over the debt ceiling.  The chance is at least 1/4 that the result will be similarly disastrous.    

It is amazing that the financial markets continue to view the standoff with equanimity.   Interest rates on US treasury bonds remain very low, 3% at the ten-year maturity.   Evidently it is still considered a sign of sophistication to say “This is just politics as usual.  They will come to an agreement in the end.”  Probably they will.  But maybe not.   (I’d put a ½ probability on an agreement that raises the debt limit, but just muddles through in terms of the genuine long term fiscal problem.  That leaves at most a ¼ probability of a genuine long-term solution of the sort that President Obama apparently proposed last week – described as worth $4 trillion over ten years.)

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Democrats should not rise to the bait of “fiscal conservatives”

I never cease to be frustrated that the current public policy debate is described as a contest of ideas: fiscal conservatives versus liberals.   It is not just Republicans or Tea Partiers who believe that they are fiscal conservatives, no doubt sincerely.   Democrats and liberals seem to accept this characterization at face value, as does most of the media.  

The problem is that a heavy majority of the supposed fiscally conservative congressmen, although passionate about cutting government spending in the abstract, are in truth no better able to find specific dollars of budget cuts that they can support or defend to their constituents than are the Democrats.   Factoring in their immutable desire to cut taxes, I believe that if the Republicans were in full control, we would have larger budget deficits in the coming years than if the Obama crowd retained power.  This is what happened in a big way when Presidents Reagan and GW Bush took office promising to cut the debt while also cutting taxes.   Spending, deficits, and debt soared during their terms, relative to their respective Democratic predecessors.  There is no reason to think anything has changed. 

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The Tea Party protestors really mean whiskey, not tea

Evidently the four-word slogan “No Taxation Without Representation” is too complicated to fit on some people’s bumper stickers.  They have chopped off the last two words.  They don’t want taxation period.

The “Tea Partiers” revere the Constitution. But some might lack the knowledge of early American history that they claim.  In honor of George Washington’s birthday, February 22, I would like to recall a bit of that history.

The Boston Tea Party is not in fact the most appropriate historical precedent for the grass roots protests that have received so much attention over the last year.  The famous slogan motivating the patriots in Boston Harbor in 1773 was “No Taxation Without Representation.”  But democratic representation was achieved with the American Revolution. The Whisky Rebellion of 1794 is a much closer parallel for today’s protestors.   Or the earlier Shays’ Rebellion of 1787, the episode of anarchy to which many Americans reacted by seeking a federal constitution.    The pitchfork-carriers in these rebellions were protesting against taxation with representation.   They did not want to pay the taxes necessary to fund the government services they enjoyed — which at that time meant servicing the debt from the Revolutionary War. (Sound familiar?)  President George Washington, not the rebels, was defending the Constitution against its first severe test, when he personally put down the Whiskey Rebellion with force.   

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