Would a Balanced Budget Amendment Help or Hurt?

One component of the deal to raise the debt-ceiling is a requirement that Congress vote later this year on a “Balanced Budget Amendment” to the Constitution.  Is such an amendment a good idea?  At first glance, the idea seems attractive to a lot of people for whom the debt and deficits are seen as the key problem facing the economy (I am not one of these people).  After all, if you believe debt is bad, and debt comes from having deficits, then why not just pass a law amendment to the constitution that prohibits deficits, right? Well there are several problems with the idea.  Some are strategic – it’s really not a good idea to force a balanced budget every year.  But other problems are practical – the amendment, particularly as proposed now, simply wouldn’t work and would set up perverse incentives. Let’s look at these problems.

First off, there’s a bit of false advertising on the part of advocates of the “balanced budget amendment”.  The reality of what has been proposed goes beyond requiring a balanced budget.  A balanced budget would simply require government revenues to equal government expenditures each year.  The currently proposed amendment is really a “balanced budget with a strict cap on spending amendment”.  It has two parts. Not only would the budget have to be balanced each year, but the government spending would limited to 18% of GDP unless overridden by a 2/3 majority of Congress. The spending cap would limit government expenditures even if the budget were balanced.  The advocates of the balanced budget amendment, most of whom are Tea Party Republicans, are really proposing to re-write the Constitution to make it impossible for a majority of the duly elected Congress to expand the government beyond the limits they want.  It’s a rewrite of democracy.

The amendment and the spending cap in particular are totally unworkable in a practical sense.  First, the amendment and spending cap assumes that GDP and government spending are independent variables.  They aren’t.  In fact, government spending (G) helps determine GDP both directly since it  is a component of GDP and indirectly since the other components, consumption spending (C) and investment spending (I) and net exports (X-M) are themselves partially functions of government spending.  GDP = C + I + G + (X-M) by definition.  If you cut G, you cut GDP.  Suppose GDP = 100 and G = 20.  That’s government spending is 20% of GDP.  That would be too high under the amendment and would require a cut of government spending – revenue increase would not be allowed.  So suppose government cuts it’s spending to 18.  Keep in mind such a cut would be monumental. That would be a 10% (2/20) cut in government spending and we just had a paralyzing debate in Washington over how to cut spending by only 2-5%.  Imagine trying to cut 10%!   But even if the government did it, it wouldn’t work.  Because cutting government spending from 20 to 18 would take GDP down also.  The cuts would reduce both numerator and denominator.  If spending were cut to 18, then GDP would be no higher than 98, still leaving government spending as 18.37% of GDP. It would still be above the limit and require even deeper cuts which would then also cut GDP.  The reality would be even grimmer because C, I, and net exports all are partially influenced by government spending.  If you cut government spending for example, the people who got paid that government money, be they defense contractors, Social Security beneficiaries, teachers, or Medicare doctors, experience lower incomes.  They then cut their consumption spending and investment spending.  This is called the multiplier effect.

The practical problems are even greater when revenue is considered.  Government revenue, or taxes, are effectively a % of GDP.  That’s because virtually all the money collected by the government comes from GDP-related activity. Virtually all government revenue is either income taxes, payroll taxes, corporate profits taxes, or excise taxes on things that are used in production like gas.  If GDP goes up, then taxes collected goes up. If GDP goes down, then taxes go down also. Government spending goes in the opposite direction. When GDP goes up, many spending categories decline like unemployment compensation, welfare, Medicaid, etc. When GDP goes down, those spending items go up automatically.  These are called automatic stabilizers and they’re a major reason why recessions after World War II had been so mild compared to the depressions experienced routinely before WWII.  A balanced budget amendment means getting rid of automatic stabilizers and making mild recessions into worse recessions or even depressions. As  Simon Johnson at Baseline Conspiracy  put it:

 It makes no sense to target, as a matter of constitutional process, two numbers that are both outcomes of deeper economic processes.

A second very serious practical problem is with measurement.  GDP, while it’s commonly used and accepted, is only an economic concept, not a legal one.  The definition and calculation of GDP is subject to interpretation and depends on the prevailing views of statisticians and economists during any such era.  Simon Johnson at Baseline Conspiracy explains:

But GDP is not a legal concept – rather it is an economic measure, the details of which change all the time, subject to the prevailing view of best practice among statisticians.  Just to take one example, the flow value of housing services for people who own their houses is “imputed” to create a number that is roughly equivalent to what renters pay.  The goal is to more accurately measure a key component of consumption, which comprises the largest category of spending within GDP.  But the emphasis here is on “roughly” – the models used are sometimes called into question and must be revised from time to time.  And imputed spending on housing is a big number – probably around $1 trillion in today’s economy (with total GDP at about $15 trillion).

If an enterprising future administration wanted to lower spending relative to measured GDP, they could convene a panel of experts that could duly find that our current practice of not valuing household services – like cooking and taking care of children – is a statistical aberration as well as an affront to people who work very hard.  That should add at least $5 trillion to our annual GDP.  Alternatively, a statistical adjustment in the other direction would force real and painful spending cuts.  The constitution is the wrong place to pursue such details.

GDP is too fuzzy and imprecise of a measure, with too much estimation involved, to be enshrined in the constitution.  As an analogy, suppose we decided that we wanted to avoid the recent acrimonious debate over raising the debt-ceiling.  Suppose we thought too many Congresspeople acted too childishly.  Imagine if there were a proposal for a constitution amendment that required only “mature and intelligent ” adults “with an IQ above average” be allowed to run for Congress.  How would mature be defined?  How would it be measured?  We would make Congress dependent on a test, an IQ test, that itself is subject to revision and interpretation.  Later administrations would pressure psychologists to change the IQ test to satisfy the needs of their party.  The same happens if we enshrine GDP as a requirement in the Constitution.

In policy terms, the balanced budget amendment is a very bad idea. A balanced budget requirement forces the government to act pro-cyclically instead of counter-cyclically.  This means instead of fighting a recession, the government’s actions would make the recession worse.  Granted there are provisions in the amendment to waive the balanced budget requirement if GDP drops 10%, but keep in mind how severe that is.  The Great Recession/Financial Crisis of 2007-09 was only a 6% drop in GDP.  Government wouldn’t have been able to counter it.  The stimulus program, which was too small to trigger recovery but did successfully stop the free-fall, wouldn’t have happened until the crisis had indeed become as bad as the Great Depression.  A balanced budget amendment means a return to the old days before World War II when the U.S. routinely experienced severe depressions and financial crises. Again Simon Johnson:

.. sometimes it makes a great of sense to apply an economic stimulus to an economy in freefall.  One such moment was 1930 (and 1931 and 1932), when no stimulus was applied.  Other moments were 2008 and 2009; both President Bush and President Obama initiated stimulus packages.  When credit for and confidence in the private sector evaporates, do you really want the government sector to be forced to make quick cuts – or raise taxes?..

The second policy objection to this balanced budget amendment is that it is really a back-door attempt to circumvent democratic debate and decision-making.  The amendment proposes to limit government as part of the economy to 18%.  But why 18%?  Supporters claim that is what the U.S. has spent on average in recent decades.  But why is that the right number?  The size of government is a political, democratic choice that is up to the population at the time.  If today’s population wants a smaller government, they can elect politicians to do that.  And if some future generation should decide that 18% is not the right number, that maybe they want a different set of priorities and to devote a larger share of the nation’s resources to public goods, why shouldn’t they be able to do that?  Many nations devote a much higher % of GDP to public goods instead of private consumption goods.  Their economies are successful and their people are satisfied with it.  Having the current crop of legislators set a limit on what future generations may choose or do is not consistent with the concept of responsive democratic government.  It makes no more sense to enshrine an 18% limit on government spending in the constitution than it does to constitutionally enshrine a fixed limit on the number of soldiers the government may have.  It should be up to the representatives of each generation.

I’m not the only one who’s opposed to a balanced budget amendment.  And, the opposition isn’t all “Keynesian Democrats” (I don’t qualify as one of those either).  Simon Johnson, the author I’ve quoted above, is a former Chief Economist for the IMF.  The IMF has historically advocated and pushed for balanced budgets, yet it opposes this kind of handcuffs of economic policy.  Further, a Republican economist, Bruce Bartlett, has articulated many of these same problems with the amendment.

Washington Fiddles While Would-be Workers Get Burned

According to reports coming from Washington today, the Senate has failed to reach any agreement on extending unemployment benefits.  Next week benefits run out for hundreds of thousands of would-be workers and this economy is still not creating jobs.  So, as a stopgap, the Senate proposes a “15-day” extension.  Yes, you read that right:  15 DAY extension. We have levels of long-term unemployment not seen since the Great Depression, yet Washington cannot figure out how to do something basic.   Unemployment benefits are a critical counter-cyclical automatic stabilizer mechanism.  Born of the Great Depression, they have proved their value in moderating recessions since (as well as helping those most in need).  Now we’re just going to let them expire.

So WLNS Channel 6 came by today to ask what I thought of the 15 day extension.  Of course, 15 days is better than zero.  But if this all we get and we don’t an longer extension, we’re in trouble.  Those folks wanting to control the deficit – forget it. Keeping people unemployed and taking away their spending cash is the way you increase the deficit, not reduce it.  Every day the unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed go without jobs we are playing with fire.  It’s not just no income for those would-be workers, it’s no sales revenue for the companies and stores they can’t buy from.  It’s reduced tax revenue for state, local or fed governments too – thus making the deficit worse.  It’s an increase on demand for government services.  It’s a waste of potential resources.  It’s clear the private sector economy is still not ready, able, or willing to create enough jobs,  but in response we get indecision, dithering, and weak proposals from Washington.   The consequences could be nasty long-term: see my post here.