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Declining Deficits

Economic growth is the imperative, not budget cuts.

May 27, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 35 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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The burgeoning deficit has stopped burgeoning, at least for now. So Republican plans to attack the profligate president and to use the debt ceiling as a weapon to get more spending cuts can be shelved. Conservative deficit hawks should turn to a more immediate and important task—devising policies that will help the economy to grow at a rate that ends middle-class malaise and gets the millions who are out of work back into the workforce.

Keynes: Heed him.

Keynes: Heed him.


The Congressional Budget Office, which only some 90 days ago forecast the deficit this fiscal year would hit $845 billion, has decided that $642 billion is the more likely total. Better still, the deficit is projected to be about 4 percent of GDP this year, down from 7 percent in the previous fiscal year, and reasonably close to a level that can be sustained if the economy grows as it should.

The lower-than-expected deficit comes partly from taxpayers having pushed dividend, capital gains, and other income they normally would receive in 2013 into 2012, to benefit from the Bush tax-cut rates that were due to expire. Taxes on that 2012 income are now flowing to the Treasury for a onetime gain. The other reason for the lower forecast is that the CBO now expects health care costs for the next few years to be lower than it had anticipated a few months ago. But, short on chagrin or embarrassment, it still says entitlement spending will consume half the budget by 2023.

There are important lessons here for Republicans whose new dinner and golfing partner is attempting to lure them into some grand bargain by which they give him higher taxes now, and he agrees to reduce entitlements after he has left office. It sails under the banner of tax reform.

Lesson One: Beware of forecasts, especially about the future. Mitt Romney based his campaign on forecasts that the economy would weaken and unemployment rise, and faced the monthly humiliation of reports about tens and hundreds of thousands of new jobs being created. Deficit forecasts are even more problematic: They are forecasts of a rather small difference between two very large numbers. A few percentage points’ revenue gain can produce a large swing in the deficit. Think about it this way. Assume you plan to spend $110, have income of only $100, and so face a deficit of 10 percent. Pick up a mere $2 (or 2 percent) in extra income, and the deficit falls from $10 to $8, a drop of 20 percent.

Lesson Two: Be wary of policies that promise pain now for gain at some future date. John Maynard Keynes, not a conservative but an economist with much to teach us, summed up the unwisdom of antagonizing the electorate by calling for entitlement cuts now to avoid a fiscal meltdown perhaps a decade hence: “It can seldom be right .  .  . to sacrifice a present benefit for a doubtful advantage in the future.” This is not “in the long run we are all dead” but a sensible statement of the need to weigh probabilities and to discount future gains: A hot fudge sundae now is worth more than a hot fudge sundae one year from now, especially if the promise of future delivery is as “ironclad” as most made in Washington.

Lesson Three: Beware the word reform, as in immigration reform and tax reform. Tax reform is the issue that now sets conservatives’ pulses racing. Because the deficit is a less compelling issue now that it is declining, and the battle over the debt ceiling has been postponed because it probably won’t be hit until October or November, and because House speaker John Boehner would very much like to avoid a showdown, with its charges of “default” and “government shutdown,” all Republican eyes have turned to tax reform. Not a bad thing, if they develop positions consistent with conservative principles.

They should, for instance, be certain that reforms labeled “revenue neutral” are not mislabeled. Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan, Nancy Pelosi is no Richard Gephardt, and Harry Reid is no Bill Bradley. The odds that the Obama team will come up with reforms that don’t raise total taxes are just about zero, even if the increase isn’t discovered until after some bill running thousands of pages becomes law (cf. Obamacare).

Republicans should also take care that even if revenue neutrality is built into any reforms, those reforms don’t violate two important conservative principles: that civil society, which stands as an alternative to and buffer against bigger government should be preserved, and that home ownership is an important source of social stability.

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