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We need a balanced budget amendment

Despite claims made in a Wichita Eagle op-ed by its former editor Davis Merritt, we desperately need a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution. (Balanced-budget amendment is unworkable, August 2, 2001)

Merritt calls the promise of a balanced budget amendment a “cruel deception” that “limits imagination and progress.” He gives three reasons as to why we should not adopt such an amendment:

First: “It would need to define exactly and in detail what constitutes a balanced budget, and that’s unwieldy and impossible.” He cites the gimmickry that is often used to hide the reality of what’s in a budget. This, no doubt, would be a difficult problem to solve — but it’s not a reason to fail to try. Some things we could do would be to reduce the complexity of the budget so that we actually understand how much and on what we’re spending. Requiring a high hurdle for the treasury to borrow funds would also be a signal that spending is being hidden in the budget.

Second: “It would destroy the constitutional tripartite balance of powers, the core of our system, and would strip citizens of their only leverage, their votes.” Here Davis raises problems with enforcement of such an amendment, noting the delay in bringing court cases and giving judges too much power to decide how to balance the budget. But cases can be fast-tracked to the Supreme Court, and a judicial remedy could be to simply refuse to let the government spend any money until Congress and the president produce a balanced budget.

Third: “It would leave the most crucial fiscal decisions in the hands of congressional minorities, a profoundly undemocratic idea.” Davis mentions the need to spend for national emergencies like Hurricane Katrina. Also: “… less than 15 percent of the House of Representatives paralyzed that body while the nation hurtled toward default and collapse.” I would counter that our nation is hurtling towards collapse precisely because of spending and resultant debt that politicians of both parties have approved for decades. Without the opposition of this small group, it would have likely been business as usual, and that business has been harmful.

(At least Davis didn’t mention war as justification for deficit spending. Forcing politicians to pay for wars now rather than later might help keep peace.)

As for national emergencies, a few thoughts: First, people might decide to take care of themselves through advance planning and the purchase of insurance. Second, along with a balanced budget the government could establish “rainy day” or contingency funds for these types of disasters, should the federal government decide to still have a role in these matters. Or, the federal government might buy insurance to cover its costs for handling these disasters. Then, that expense becomes an annual budget item that is known in advance.

Davis also mentioned a recession cutting into revenues. Again, a rainy day fund can help. While not Davis’ argument, many opponents of a balanced budget amendment cite the need for the federal government to engage in counter-cyclical spending to manage the economy. This, of course, is the Keynesian formula that has been proven many times to be a failure. A policy that prevents our government from engaging in Keynesianism is a plus, not a minus.

Unless restrained by constitutional rules, legislators will run budget deficits and spend excessively

One of the best arguments for a balanced budget amendment is found in the book Common Sense Economics: What Everyone Should Know About Wealth and Prosperity by James D. Gwartney, Richard L. Stroup, Dwight R. Lee, and Tawni H. Ferrarini, in a section titled “Unless restrained by constitutional rules, legislators will run budget deficits and spend excessively.” That title says it all, and it is exactly what has been happening. Despite the debt ceiling deal reached this week — a deal denounced by liberals as one that will ruin the country and its economy — huge deficits will still happen, and debt will increase.

Before 1960, the authors tell us, there was “widespread implicit agreement” that the budget should be balanced, except in times of war. And, the deficits and surpluses that did occur were small relative to the economy. But enter Keynes:

The Keynesian revolution changed all of this. Keynesians — those accepting the views of English economist John Maynard Keynes — believed that changes in government spending and budget deficits could help promote a more stable economy. They argued that, rather than balancing the budget, the government should run a budget deficit during periods of recession and shift toward a budget surplus when there was concern about inflation. In short, the Keynesian revolution released political decision makers from the discipline imposed by a balanced budget. Freed from this constraint, politicians consistently spent more than they were willing to tax.

Imagine if Lord Keynes had called upon politicians to fix the economy by doing something other than what they like to do: He would be merely a curiosity of economic history. But Keynes calls for government deficit spending to fix the economy, and spending is what nearly all politicians and bureaucrats like to do. They just don’t like to pay for it, as Common Sense Economics explains:

The political attractiveness of spending financed by borrowing rather than taxation is not surprising. It reflects what economists call the short-sightedness effect: the tendency of elected political officials to favor projects that generate immediate, highly visible benefits at the expense of costs that can be cast into the future and are difficult to identify. Legislators have a strong incentive to spend money on programs that benefit the voters in their district and special-interest groups that will help them win reelection. They do not like to tax, since taxes impose a visible cost on voters. Debt is an alternative to current taxes; it pushes the visible cost of government into the future. Budget deficits and borrowing allow politicians to supply voters with immediate benefits without having to impose a parallel visible cost in the form of higher taxes. Thus, deficits are a natural outgrowth of unrestrained democratic politics.

Then, the realities of public choice economics are cited: the well-known problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs:

The unconstrained political process plays into the hands of well-organized interest groups and encourages government spending to gain rich patronage benefits for a few at the expense of many. Each representative has a strong incentive to fight hard for expenditures beneficial to his or her constituents and has little incentive to oppose spending by others. In contrast, there is little incentive for a legislator to be a spending “watchdog.” A legislative watchdog would incur the wrath of colleagues who find it more difficult to deliver special programs for their districts and retaliate by providing little support for spending in the watchdog’s district. More important, the benefits of spending cuts and deficit reductions that the watchdog is trying to attain (for example, lower taxes and lower interest rates) will be spread so thinly among all voters that the legislator’s constituents will reap only a small part of these benefits.

This is another reason why earmark spending, while a small part of the total federal budget, is harmful. We need to watch to make sure the promised earmark reform is meaningful and lasts.

A numerical example helps illustrate what happens when there’s a disconnect between receiving something and paying for it in a collective manner:

Perhaps the following illustration will help explain why it is so difficult for the 415 representatives and 100 senators to bring federal spending and the budget deficit under control. Suppose these 535 individuals go out to dinner knowing that after the meal each will receive a bill for l/535th of the cost. No one feels compelled to order less because his or her restraint will exert little impact on the total bill. Why not order shrimp for an appetizer, entrees of steak and lobster, and a large piece of cheesecake for dessert? After all, the extra spending will add only a few pennies to each person’s share of the total bill. For example, if one member of the dinner party orders expensive items that push up the total bill by $10, his share of the cost will be less than 2 cents. What a bargain! Of course, he will have to pay extra for the extravagant orders of the other 534 diners. But that’s true no matter what he orders. The result is that everyone ends up ordering extravagantly and paying more for extras that provide little value relative to cost.

The section goes on to explain how large debt leads to higher borrowing costs, which make it even more difficult to control spending. Eventually the result is a financial crisis.

The authors conclude that spending must be controlled, and that rule changes are needed: “It is vitally important for the federal government to control its spending and borrowing in the years ahead. This is unlikely to happen without a change in the political rules. The rules need to be changed so it will be more difficult for politicians to spend more than they are willing to tax.”

As for rule changes that would work, the authors mention a balanced budget amendment or requirement for supermajorities for spending proposals and increases in the debt ceiling.

While I’m encouraged about some of the new members elected to Congress last year, there are still many members — and their constituents — who believe more spending and more debt is the way to go. Relying on people to do the right thing is different from relying on systems to be correct. This is why we must have a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Consitution.

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