Structural Spending Reform, Part 1

I have drawn some ire from fellow libertarians for my criticism of their fiscal policy priorities. My review of the book Trumponomics by Steve Moore and Art Laffer, which concluded that tax cuts have become ineffective, rendered a couple of surprising comments from fellow libertarian economists. Nevertheless, as I explained in my series Tax Cuts or Spending Cuts, facts are facts; cutting taxes to close the budget gap in a big welfare state is about as futile as ignoring gravity.

The only way to close the budget gap is by means of structural spending reductions. Since such reforms are no longer being discussed in the public discourse, nor being given attention by leading libertarian thinkers, pundits and scholars, starting today I am rolling out a series of articles on how to structurally reform away the welfare state.

In this the first installment we will condense the case for structural spending reform. I find it necessary to do so, partly – again – in response to the conventional wisdom that tax cuts can save us, but partly also in response to another idea being floated around among conservatives and libertarians: fiscal rule making.

Many people with influence have suggested that all Congress needs in order to end our deficits and prevent a debt crisis, is to follow a set of fiscal rules. A new book from the Cato Institute offers a collection of 20 essays centered around this notion; as I explained in my review of the book, for two reasons fiscal rule-making does not work:

  1. The rules are “Pippi rules”, i.e., they are self enforced with impunity for non-compliance;
  2. Without exception, the rules rely on healthy levels of GDP growth in order to work.

The last point applies not only to fiscal rule-making but also to the unending pursuit of tax cuts. In the case of rule-making, the prevailing wisdom is that GDP growth is exogenous to fiscal policy, in other words that it is not affected by the enforcement of a fiscal rule. However, as we will see in a coming article, fiscal rules can actually undermine the very basis for their own enforcement.

In other words, GDP growth is not exogenous, but endogenous to fiscal policy.

Proponents of tax cuts recognize this: in fact, the endogenity of GDP is the very life blood of the tax-cut argument. The problem here, though, is that tax cutters limit the endogenity to taxes; there is no explicit consideration of the effects of government spending on GDP growth. Right there we have the mistake that prevents the tax cutters from seeing how their budget-balancing strategy has run its course and no longer works.

It is essential for any attempt to save us from a debt crisis, that we understand why GDP growth is affected by the size of government spending. Before we get to the analytical explanation, let us start with empirical evidence. Figure 1 summarizes what this evidence says, namely:

  1. When government spending as share of GDP increases, i.e., when G/Y goes up (horizontal axis), initially the growth rates of taxes (t) and government spending (g) are largely similar;
  2. As the size of government passes a certain point, the growth rates of t and g divert, with the former declining and the latter increasing;
  3. when government spending grows faster than tax revenue, we get a structural budget deficit.

Figure 1

Let us review some data that confirm the image in Figure 1. First, Figure 2 reports data from Europe on the relationship between government spending as share of GDP, G/Y, and real GDP. Covering 31 countries, almost all of them over a 25-year period (1995-2019), it paints a stark image of the negative relationship between economic growth and the size of the welfare state:

Figure 2

Source of raw data: Eurostat

Next up: numbers from the U.S. economy, which gives us an opportunity to link the size of government to the root cause of the budget deficit: the welfare state.

Government growth in America can be divided into five distinct phases. The first era runs from 1950 to 1963. This is the first phase of stability (Stability 1 in Figure 3 below). During this phase the welfare state was still ideologically conservative and did not engage in economic redistribution. It was, simply, confined to the provision of a safety net for the poor and needy. This was the welfare state that Congress and the Franklin Roosevelt administration created in response to the Great Depression.

The second phase of government growth begins with President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union speech in 1964. There, he declares his War on Poverty and marks the beginning of a fundamental overhaul and expansion of the welfare state. New entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid are created, others revamped for much more comprehensive purposes.

At the heart of the War on Poverty is a new, relative definition of poverty. A person is no longer poor because he lives below a certain, fixed standard of living. A person is now poor because he earns below a certain percentage of median income. When median income rises – as it does when the economy is doing well – the poverty limit rises as well. More people qualify for government handouts.

As I explained in my book The Rise of Big Government, the significance of this welfare-state metamorphosis cannot be understated.

After this roll-out phase for the new, socialist welfare state, it was time for the implementation phase: government needed to consolidate its new spending programs. Fiscally, this meant that government grew to the new, larger proportions that all the War-on-Poverty legislation prescribed. During this phase, which essentially coincided with the 1970s, government spending increased significantly.

This is also the phase during which government spending outpaced tax revenue on a permanent basis. The structural budget deficit was born.

Once the new welfare state was consolidated, government went into a new phase of relative stability. It lasted from 1980 to 2007, the year before the Great Recession started. During this Stability 2 phase (again, see Figure 3 below), government spending remained largely constant as share of GDP, but that stability was attainable thanks only to two tax reforms. Government spending was still small enough to let tax cuts work – there was a Laffer effect to be counted on.

If it had not been for the Reagan tax cuts fundamentally overhauling the tax code, there would not have been a long, stable growth period through the 1990s; the Bush tax cuts generated a more limited, yet visible growth spurt that helped carry the economy through most of his presidency.

With their growth record, these two tax reforms generated enough growth to essentially keep steady the ratio of government spending to GDP.

It is easy to get the impression from this long phase of stability that America had struck a golden balance between the welfare state and free-market capitalism. That was not the case, as evidenced by the perpetuated deficit. The Reagan and Bush tax reforms were not enough to close the budget gap, and the difference in effect of the two, with the first having stronger effects than the second, remains unrecognized in the literature.

The reason why the two reforms failed to fully fund the welfare state is simply that this structure of government spending grows by its own volition. Government spending is exogenous to economic growth, a fact that originates in the very ideological design of the welfare state.

Phase five, the Stagnation phase in Figure 3, is when the welfare state has grown big enough to permanently depress economic growth. This phase provides ample evidence of how the welfare state overpowers its host economy. During this phase, which begins in 2008 with the Great Recession, total government outlays average more than 37 percent of GDP. Economic growth is so poor that its annual average for the entire period is only 1.7 percent:

Figure 3

Source of raw data: Bureau of Economic Analysis

Predictably, the decline in growth has taken a toll on government revenue. When taxes have not delivered sufficient money to fund the growing welfare state, government – especially states and municipalities – have resorted to non-tax revenue. As Figure 4 explains, the rise of fees, charges and other revenue sources has coincided in time with the transformation, implementation and growth of the socialist welfare state. However, not even the rise of non-tax revenue has been enough: the deficit reported in Figure 4 (red) is mostly federal but also includes overspending by state governments.

De facto, deficits have become a permanent source of government funding:

Figure 4

Source of raw data: Bureau of Economic Analysis

It is worth noting that as taxes become less important as a revenue source for government, the effectiveness of tax cuts also declines.

With declining GDP growth under an increasingly burdensome welfare state, government debt keeps rising. Figure 5 compares the debt-to-GDP ratio to real GDP growth. To highlight trends, the numbers are reported as five-year moving averages:

Figure 5

Sources: Office of Management and Budget (Debt); Bureau of Economic Analysis (GDP)

Let us now add together everything we have learned so far about the interaction between government spending, GDP growth and tax revenue, and add one more twist to the tax-or-spending-cuts debate. Figure 6 reports a total of 262 quarterly observations of annual growth rates in all three variables, from 1954 to Q2 of 2019. The observations are not reported chronologically, but are instead organized by GDP growth, from high to low (blue).

Tax revenue correlates positively with GDP growth (black dashed), which is not surprising. What does stand out, however, is the turn upward of government spending growth (red dashed) when GDP growth falls below three percent per year. As GDP growth gets weaker, government spending accelerates:

Figure 6

Sources of raw data: Bureau of Economic Analysis

We have now learned three important things about the government budget:

  1. As spending grows, GDP growth declines;
  2. As GDP growth declines, spending growth accelerates; and
  3. With declining GDP growth, tax revenue slacks off as well.

There is more to be said about the first two points; for now, let us note the conspicuous divergence between GDP and government spending toward the right end of Figure 6. That gap alone explains our structural budget deficit.

However, first, we need to add one last point about taxes. As Figure 6 tells us, tax revenue fluctuates with GDP growth, but the fluctuation is higher in tax revenue. This means, plainly, that tax revenue is a volatile source of revenue. Figure 7 extracts the equations defining the trend lines in Figure 6 and plots them strictly as analytical representations of how these two variables correlate:

Figure 7

The problem with Figure 7 is that the volatility in tax revenue has increased with each supply-side tax reform. This means, in turn, that tax revenue plunges more violently in recessions, but since the long-term growth trajectory for GDP – and therefore the tax base – is lower than it used to be, this volatility is not symmetrical. We don’t get enough of a compensating “Keynesian” surge in tax revenue at the peak of the business cycle.

In other words, we are left with a structural deficit.

But why, then, do we actually have this structural deficit? This question is of course essential to our discussion of structural spending reform. Figure 8 has the answer. It reports the share of the federal budget that is dedicated to entitlement spending, i.e., the welfare state. The blue function represents the welfare state’s share of the budget in 1964, when the War on Poverty began. Today, two thirds of all federal spending goes toward entitlements, from education to Social Security, from the Earned Income Tax Credit to Medicaid and Medicare:

Figure 8

Source of raw data: Office of Management and Budget

To highlight, Figure 9 divides the 2019 federal budget by major program category. Notice the share that goes to national defense: in 1960 that share was 50 percent.

Figure 9

Source of raw data: Office of Management and Budget

Spending on entitlement programs grows for reasons that are inherent to the programs themselves. This growth causes a depression in GDP growth, which in turn causes a structural budget deficit. The only way we can close the budget deficit is by reforming away the welfare state.

How? Please proceed to Part 2.

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[1] For a more detailed discussion of the ideological character of the American welfare state, see Larson (2018) and Larson (2020f).