Monday, December 27, 2004

What Killed Off The GOP Deficit Hawks?

In his December 27, 2004 Business Week editorial "What Killed Off The GOP Deficit Hawks?," Robert Kuttner says "the Republicans are now the ones making excuses for big deficits."
Last month, I posed a rhetorical question: Whatever happened to fiscally prudent Republicans? The question deserves a proper answer. In the early 1990s the bipartisan, business-led Concord Coalition made the accumulated Reagan-Bush deficits a major public issue. George H.W. Bush had to break a pledge and raise taxes because of mounting concerns in financial markets. H. Ross Perot put the deficit center stage in the 1992 election, helping to defeat Bush I and elect Bill Clinton. He made fiscal responsibility his signature issue.

A decade later, Republican deficit hawks have all but vanished. "It's pretty astonishing," I was told by Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition. "We used to get a lot of Democrats saying: 'You're just a Republican front group.' Now it's almost the reverse. The change in the Republican Party has been astounding." Are we on the record? I asked. "Absolutely," he replied. "The Republicans are now the ones making excuses for big deficits."

The indefatigable Peter G. Peterson, a coalition mainstay, has become the remnant of an endangered species -- the fiscally responsible Republican. He has just a few allies in Congress, such as Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Olympia J. Snowe (R-Me.), and, on a good day, Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

HOW DID THIS SHIFT HAPPEN? Conversations with more than a dozen senior business leaders, including board members of the Concord Coalition, point to this progression: Since Ronald Reagan, a majority of Republican politicians have gradually come to conclude, as Vice-President Dick Cheney famously told former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, that "deficits don't matter." What's interesting and alarming, however, is that different Republican factions believe deficits don't matter for opposite and incompatible reasons.

Supply-siders believe deficits don't matter because tax cuts so boost investment and productivity that the economy grows its way out of debt. The opposite, "starve the beast" faction, epitomized by tax tactician Grover Norquist, hope tax cuts will indeed create deep deficits that will then force spending cuts. But both things can't be true.

Under George W. Bush, the merry ideology calls for tax cuts in all seasons for all reasons. Spending has increased faster than under Clinton, and deficits have ballooned, yet tax cutting marches on. This privately scares many Republican business leaders. But very few are speaking out, either because they don't want to burn bridges to the White House or because they are too pleased with their tax cuts.

There is one other group worth noting. A decade ago fiscally conservative Democrats, mostly Southern, often worked with Republicans to serve as a brake on fiscal excess. The near-extinction of Democrats in the mold of former senators Sam Nunn, Paul Tsongas, Fritz Hollings, and Representative Charles Stenholm, who was gerrymandered out of a job, has removed a crucial legislative counterweight to Republican recklessness. The days of bipartisan budget caps and pay-as-you-go rules are over. "Moments like the balanced-budget provision of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America were aberrational," says Steven Rattner, an influential Wall Street Democrat on the Concord Coalition board.

Inside the Administration, former deficit hawks have trimmed their views. Three senior economic officials are all men once well-known in private life as deficit critics. Stephen Friedman, who is stepping down as head of the President's economic council, was a Concord Coalition leader. Chief economist N. Gregory Mankiw, whose textbook correlates big deficits with higher interest rates, is leaving. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who once spoke out against fiscal imbalances, is keeping his job, barely.

Two factors could provoke Republican opposition to fiscal irresponsibility. The first is the risk of a dollar crash, directly related to big deficits. The second is the White House plan to borrow an additional $2 trillion to finance Social Security privatization. The Administration story is that borrowing $2 trillion in the short run will save the system up to $11 trillion in unfunded liabilities over the next 75 years. The problem is that the supposed shortfall is hypothetical, while $2 trillion of additional borrowing will affect real money markets now.

"I remain a Republican," Pete Peterson said, "but the Republicans have become a far more theological, faith-directed party, not troubling with evidence."

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect (

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

In Defense of Deficits

In the May 11, 2004 National Review article "In Defense of Deficits," contributing editor Thomas E. Nugent says "They’re not so bad, and at times they’re necessary."
Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, recently criticized President Bush’s fiscal policy in an article called, “A Conservative Case for Voting Democratic.” Wrote Bandow, “So how do we put Uncle Sam on a sounder fiscal basis? Vote Democratic.”

We’re in a tight presidential election race — in a year when the liberal press portrays Americans as the bad guys in the Iraq war, and at a time when the Democratic contender for the White House resembles Neville Chamberlain. The last thing the Republican party needs is the reckless suggestion that conservatives vote Democratic.

In his article, Bandow echoed several free-market economists who today belong to the “almost all non-defense spending is bad” school. “Given the generally woeful record (on deficits) of Republican presidents,” Bandow wrote, “the best combination may be a Democratic chief executive and a Republican legislature. Thus, the only way we can realistically keep Congress and the President in separate political hands is to vote for John Kerry in November.”

The problem with advocating a vote for Kerry on the implied basis that a split-party government will mitigate any wayward deficit spending is that such advocacy reflects a misunderstanding of the role of fiscal policy — i.e., budget deficits — in maintaining a viable economy during times of crisis. (This is likely one of those times.)

The current federal budget deficit is about 5 percent of gross domestic product. The reason for this deficit is twofold. First, deficit spending supported economic activity as the U.S. transitioned from a “bubble” economy back to a normal economy. The “bubble” was inflated beyond capacity as companies of all sizes updated computers to handle the Y2K event. Once the threat of this electronic dislocation passed, demand for computers and related equipment dropped dramatically. This decline rippled through the economy.

The government’s first response to falling economic activity was to lower interest rates. The Federal Reserve reduced its policy rate to near record lows, expecting a quick pick-up in business borrowing. Yet the expectation of a recovery in business spending was not forthcoming — businesses didn’t want the money so it didn’t really matter what the interest rates were. Subsequently, after the expected nine-month waiting period, a sustainable rally in the stock market and the economy failed to materialize.

However, the real boost to economic recovery was the fiscal-policy stimulus of tax-rate cuts and increased spending, part of President Bush’s second fiscal-stimulus package in 2003.

Few economists recognize that the budget surplus inherited by President Bush was an albatross around his political neck. In fact, the faster he got rid of it, the better off he and the economy would be. Unfortunately, politicians were gleeful that budget surpluses could be used to eliminate the national debt. However, the problem with budget surpluses is that they collapse private-sector savings. Budget surpluses are a sign of excess taxation, and when the government sector saves, the private sector saves less.

This relationship is taught in basic economics. For example, when the government buys back debt, the macro effect can be described as follows: The government buys back bonds from the public by effectively raising taxes to pay for the bonds. At the end of the day, the individual has no savings in the form of the bonds, but has a higher tax bill. The public response is probably to spend less.

Budget surpluses are contractionary. They shrink the economy. Yet many conservative economists demand a return to budget surpluses even though deficits provide the stimulus to avoid deep recessions.

Not until the implementation of the president’s second stimulus package in the second quarter of 2003 did the stock market surge and the economy get back on a sustainable growth path. If the expected growth of 4 to 5 percent in real GDP is maintained, the budget deficit may not get any bigger. However, it may not get any smaller.

The second reason for a record budget deficit is higher defense spending. During the 1990s, President Clinton contracted defense spending and avoided confronting terrorism. Now that the U.S. is fighting a global terrorist threat, the government must increase spending on defense and on waging a new type of war. During World War II, the U.S. budget deficit as a percent of GDP jumped to 45 percent. Compare that with our 5 percent level today. Few economists would have advocated reducing the deficit in those days — when the very fabric of American life was threatened. We should be spending more, not less on defense.

Given that there are viable economic and political reasons for a large budget deficit, arguing that there is a need to reduce the deficit makes little sense in today’s economy. Rising economic growth and booming corporate profits should mitigate the growth in the deficit — not a tax increase for the rich as proposed by Sen. Kerry and the Democrats in general.

While anyone can correctly make the argument that there is much government spending that is wasteful, it is unlikely that a Democratic president and a Republican Congress would dramatically reduce pork-barrel spending, as Cato’s Bandow has proposed. Instead, this twosome might be less inclined to make the right choices that are necessary to keep the economy on a sustainable growth path.

Republicans should think twice about voting Democratic to reduce government spending. And both parties should simply think a little harder about budget deficits: Had we hung onto the surpluses of the late 1990s, we’d be in a world of economic hurt today. If that prognosis seems counterintuitive, take a look at what happened to the economy right after the big budget surpluses of the 1920s.

— Thomas E. Nugent is executive vice president and chief investment officer of PlanMember Advisors, Inc. and chief investment officer for Victoria Capital Management, Inc.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Conservative Case for Voting Democratic

In the April 20, 2004 article "The Conservative Case for Voting Democratic," the Cato Institute's Doug Bandow argues against the fiscal irresponsibility of George W. Bush and the modern Republican Party.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He served as a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

Republicans have long claimed to be fiscal tightwads and railed against deficit spending. But this year big-spending George W. Bush and the GOP Congress turned a budget surplus into a $477 billion deficit. There are few programs at which they have not thrown money: massive farm subsidies, an expensive new Medicare drug benefit, thousands of pork-barrel projects, dubious homeland-security grants, expansion of Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps, even new foreign-aid programs. Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation reports that in 2003 "government spending exceeded $20,000 per household for the first time since World War II."

Complaints about Republican profligacy have led the White House to promise to mend its ways. But Bush's latest budget combines accounting flim-flam with unenforceable promises. So how do we put Uncle Sam on a sounder fiscal basis?

Vote Democratic.

Democrats obviously are no pikers when it comes to spending. But the biggest impetus for higher spending is partisan uniformity, not partisan identity. Give either party complete control of government, and the Treasury vaults are quickly emptied. Neither Congress nor the President wants to tell the other no. Both are desperate to prove they can "govern"—which means creating new programs and spending more money. But share power between parties, and out of principle or malice they check each other. Even if a President Kerry proposed more spending than would a President Bush, a GOP Congress would appropriate less. That's one reason the Founders believed in the separation of powers.

Consider the record. William Niskanen, former acting chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, has put together a fascinating analysis of government spending since 1953. Real federal outlays grew fastest, 4.8% annually, in the Kennedy-Johnson years, with Congress under Democratic control. The second-fastest rise, 4.4%, occurred with George W. Bush during Republican rule. The third-biggest spending explosion, 3.7%, was during the Carter administration, a time of Democratic control. In contrast, the greatest fiscal stringency, 0.4%, occurred during the Eisenhower years. The second-best period of fiscal restraint, 0.9%, was in the Clinton era. Next came the Nixon-Ford years, at 2.5%, and Ronald Reagan's presidency, at 3.3%. All were years of shared partisan control.

Bush officials argue that it is unfair to count military spending, but Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan also faced international challenges that impeded their domestic plans. Moreover, if you do strip out military spending and consider only the domestic record, GOP chief executives emerge in an even worse light. In terms of real domestic discretionary outlays, which are most easily controlled, the biggest spender in the past 40 years is George W. Bush, with expenditure racing ahead 8.2% annually, according to Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth. No. 2 on the list is Gerald Ford, at 8%. No. 3 is Richard Nixon. At least the latter two, in contrast to Bush, faced hostile Congresses.

Given the generally woeful record of Republican Presidents, the best combination may be a Democratic chief executive and Republican legislature. It may also be the only combination that's feasible, since in 2004 at least, it will be difficult to overturn Republican congressional control: Redistricting has encouraged electoral stasis in the House, while far more Democrats face reelection in the Senate. Thus, the only way we can realistically keep Congress and the President in separate political hands is to vote for John Kerry in November.

Returning to divided government would yield another benefit as well: Greater opportunity for reform, whether of the budget process, tort liability, Medicare, Social Security, taxes, or almost anything else. Niskanen has observed that the prospects for change "will be dependent on more bipartisan support than now seems likely in a united Republican government." He points out that tax reform occurred in 1986, and agriculture, telecommunications, and welfare reform a decade later, all under divided government.

The deficit can be cut in half if Congress "is willing to make tough choices," says President Bush. But GOP legislators are likely to make tough choices only if he is replaced by a Democrat. History teaches us that divided government equals fiscal probity, so vote Democratic for President if you want responsible budgeting in Washington.

This article originally appeared in Fortune on April 20, 2004.