FISCAL policy debates often focus on technocratic questions about how much money the government should spend and when, yet the actual course of events depends not on the experts but on politics. The more that our government runs up unfunded obligations and debt, the more we are setting a trap for ourselves.
James M. Buchanan, a Nobel laureate in economics — and my former colleague and now professor emeritus at George Mason University — argued that deficit spending would evolve into a permanent disconnect between spending and revenue, precisely because it brings short-term gains. We end up institutionalizing irresponsibility in the federal government, the largest and most central institution in our society. As we fail to make progress on entitlement reform with each passing year, Professor Buchanan’s essentially moral critique of deficit spending looks more prophetic.
We are fooling ourselves most of all. United States government debt in public hands is now more than $9 trillion, but most people still don’t realize what it will take to pay that off.
Here’s an example: Say that you have $20,000 in Treasury bills. You probably believe that you own $20,000 in wealth. This will encourage you to spend and come up with ambitious plans. Yet someone — quite possibly you — will be taxed in the future to pay off the government debt. The $20,000 may be needed in order to do that.
The illusion is this: A government bond represents both a current asset and a future liability, yet for most people, those future tax payments feel less concrete and less real than the dollars they’re holding in a money market account.
The field of behavioral economics analyzes imperfections in market decision-making, but the biggest practical problems often involve our inaccurate perceptions of what the public sector is up to and how much it will affect us.
In this case, the sorry truth is that our savings aren’t worth as much as many of us think, and a rude awakening is coming. One way or another, some of our savings will be taxed away to make good on governmental commitments, like future Medicare benefits, which we currently are framing as personal free lunches.
Keynesian economics talks of the “fiscal illusion” created by government debt: the issuance of such debt can stimulate the economy in the short run by encouraging a false perception of wealth and thus bolstering consumer spending. But, eventually, the books must balance. There is then a fiscal crunch, a sudden retrenchment of plans and great rancor over budgets, as we have been seeing lately at both the federal and the state level.
The famous Keynesian rejoinder, “In the long run we are all dead,” is less comforting when that long run comes into sight. Short-run planning is a hard carousel to stop, especially when there are frequent election cycles, but the federal government must act soon. Limiting Medicare and Social Security spending involves re-indexing benefits, adjusting eligibility ages, shifting the growth rates of costs and making other changes that have their full fiscal impact only over the longer run.
Yet we are postponing even these actions. Experts’ recommendations might lead us toward a fiscal smooth landing, but at this point the fiscal illusion — and not the advice of experts — is in control. So Professor Buchanan’s argument is ringing true.
The technocratic Keynesian recommendation was to run deficits in bad times and surpluses in good times. But except for one stretch during the Clinton administration, this notion has been broken since the early 1980s. In the United States, at least, Keynesian economics has failed to find the necessary political institutions to enact and sustain a wise version of the theory.
Now that fiscal constraints are starting to bite, many politicians are afraid to reform or even to discuss changes in the largest problem areas: Medicare and Medicaid. Yes, some laudable cost controls on Medicare are embedded in the new health care law, but they’re not enough. Most likely, we will end up making other spending cuts that won’t solve our fiscal problems — and in areas that could instead benefit from Keynesian employment stimulus. These kinds of knee-jerk, poorly reasoned decisions are what happens when fiscal illusion reigns.
Fiscal austerity may sometimes sound like a dogmatic religion, but fixed principles often help us do the right thing, especially when temptation beckons. Professor Buchanan argued that the real choice was between a religion of budget balance and a rule of illusion. Seeking an optimal technocratic path is not on the menu.
SO, given this mess, what should be done?
As Matthew Yglesias from the Center for American Progress has proposed, President Obama could pledge to veto any budget that increases the projected medium-term deficit, relative to the status quo. He should include in that veto threat any deficit increases that arise from annual budgetary gimmicks like patches to the alternative minimum tax or the “doc fix” adjustment of Medicare reimbursement rates.
Such an announcement would not fix health care costs, but it would force us to recognize them, and would move us away from purely short-term planning. It would force the government to consider both spending cuts and tax increases.
In any case, the rigor of the numbers will soon sweep away the fiscal illusion. The only question is whether we will end the charade on our own terms or continue to play the fool.