Thursday, August 4, 2011

Should Misleading Charts Accompany All Discussions of the Debt Ceiling?

Probably Not "Incoherent"

Useless Visual Aid

In a recent blog post, James Fallows, national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, asserts that one cannot both be concerned with structural budget deficits and simultaneously support the across the board tax cuts that President Bush convinced Congress to adopt early in his Administration. Fallows' main argument is a picture --- a chart, reproduced above, which originated in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times. The chart purports to quantify how various policy changes supported by Presidents Bush and Obama, respectively, have increased spending by the National Government and/or deprived the National Government of revenue it supposedly would have received. Among other things, Fallows claims that the chart "demonstrates the utter incoherence of being very concerned about the structural federal deficit but ruling out of consideration the policy that was the single largest contributor to that deficit, namely the Bush-era tax cuts." (emphasis in the original).

Fallows' assertion is unconvincing, to say the least. Here's why.

1. The chart inexplicably omits over $500 Billion --- the forgone revenue attributable to the two year extension of the Bush tax cuts to which President Obama agreed after the 2008 mid-term elections. (See this story.) Indeed, President Obama's own former director of the Office and Management and Budget, Peter Orzag, advocated such an extension shortly after he left the Administration. Fallows does not explain why we should ignore this forgone revenue.

2. The chart is also misleading in a more fundamental sense. In short, the chart is a gerrymandered portrayal of factors that drive spending, revenue and thus the deficit and resulting debt. In particular, the chart focuses exclusively on the fiscal impact of new programs adopted during the Bush and Obama administrations, respectively. Thus, the chart entirely ignores the cost of existing programs, adopted during previous administrations which, taken together, cost far more than the various programs and tax cuts portrayed in the chart. Indeed, according to one source, the National Government spent $28 Trillion in 2002-2010 alone. During 2002-2009, Fallows claims, the Bush tax cuts deprived the National Government of $1.8 Trillion in revenue, a figure that rises to about $2 Trillion if one includes the forgone revenue attributable to the cuts which Congress extended, with President Obama's agreement, after the 2010 mid-term elections. Thus, the Bush tax cuts equal a whopping 7.1 percent of the expenditures by the National Government during the period in question and are hardly the driving force in the current budget deficit, projected to reach $1.5 Trillion, or 10 percent of GDP, in 2011.

3. The chart ignores all sorts of tax deductions and loopholes, adopted before 2002, that, like the Bush-era tax cuts, deprive the National Government of revenue. Examples include the home mortgage interest deduction (including the deduction for second homes) and the tax exemption for employer-provided health insurance. (The former reduces annual tax revenue by $100 Billion per year.) Inclusion of these potential sources of revenue in the Fallows/New York Times Chart would reduce even further the apparent contribution of the Bush-era tax cuts to the deficit.

4. Finally, the chart and any arguments based upon it ignore entirely the long run link between structural deficits and economic growth (or lack thereof), a link emphasized by John F. Kennedy in his 1962 speech to the Economic Club of New York. As explained in an earlier post on this blog, JFK argued that across the board tax cuts during an economic downturn were the best way to encourage investment, work effort and economic growth and thereby, in the longer run, reduce the budget deficit. In JFK's own words:

"The purpose of cutting taxes now is not to incur a budget deficit, but to achieve the more prosperous, expanding economy which can bring about a budget surplus."

Of course, JFK did not believe that tax cuts alone would ultimately lead to a budget surplus. He also advocated spending restraint, arguing that reliance on government expenditures to stimulate the economy would "demoralize our government and the economy" and that government should not "spend more than can be justified on grounds of national need or spent with maximum efficiency."

In short, like Ronald Reagan two decades later, JFK believed that low tax rates were a precondition for economic growth and that tax cuts and spending increases had quite different impacts on the deficit over the longer run. Moreover, both Presidents advocated policies that helped innaugurate lengthy economic expansions and economic growth. Most Americans would gladly embrace the sort of "incoherence" that resulted in such strong and sustained economic growth and resulting job creation and economic opportunity.