central planning, crowding out, Dead Weight Loss, Debt Financing, Economic Rents, Government Waste, Inflation tax, Price Incentives, Ricardian Equivalence, Tax Cuts & Jobs Act, TCJA, Trump Budget Proposal
One thing’s clear with respect to President Trump’s budget proposal and the ongoing debate over appropriations: federal spending will increase and add to future budget deficits. This follows the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) enacted late last year, which many expect to add upwards of $1 trillion to deficits over the next 10 years. I have offered mixed praise of some of the reforms and rate cuts in the TCJA, though it does not accomplish much in the way of tax simplification and it will almost certainly require a large increase in federal borrowing. Ultimately, however, dollar for dollar, a tax cut giving rise to a deficit inflicts lower (or even negative) costs on the private sector than an unfunded spending binge, which is costly in the most basic terms: resources devoured by government.
Cost of Spending
The cost of an extra dollar of government spending at the most basic level is the value of lost opportunities to which the resources absorbed by government otherwise could have been put. When the government spends an extra dollar, and if the government pays a competitive market price, the goods and services exchanged for that dollar by private party “A” would be valued at more than one dollar by other private parties who lost the opportunity to trade with “A” for those same goods and services.
There might be a strong case for incremental spending in any particular instance, of course. Can we benefit from more national defense? Infrastructure? Grants of foreign aid? Subsidies for this industry or that? This technology or that? This cultural program or that? Public aid? Primary research? Regulatory budgets? I’d favor very few of those as general spending priorities. However, there are many subcategories and so many special interests that it is difficult to control spending as long as compromise is needed to accomplish anything.
The Trump budget is a mix of cuts in non-defense spending and large increases in defense, infrastructure outlays, and border security. On balance, it would lead to substantially higher budget deficits over the next ten years. He won’t get all of what he wants, but it would be astonishing if larger deficits are not an outcome.
Unfortunately, government is typically inefficient in the execution of its tasks and it is less responsive to price incentives than private buyers, who are fully vested in “ownership” of the dollars they spend. Government agents, no matter how honorable, simply do not have the same kind of stake in the outcome as a private owner. Obviously, spending by federal agencies is influenced by the political process, which creates opportunities for side rewards for those who direct or influence spending and those who receive the payments. These side rewards are pure private rents arising from public largess. For a private party, the profitability of transacting with government may well exceed the normal return to capital or entrepreneurship. The efficiency of government spending is compromised by its political nature and the uneconomic behavior of government agents. I therefore have strong doubts about the cost-benefit comparison of almost any public initiative.
The government ultimately acquires its funds from taxes enforced via coercive power. After all, tax collection requires a considerable enforcement effort. A tax payment of one dollar requires the sacrifice of things that would have been acquired, now or in the future, in voluntary, private transactions valued more highly than one dollar by the taxpayer. That is the nature of gains from voluntary trade foregone. The result is that one dollar of taxation extracts more than one dollar of value from the private sector. Conversely, a reduced tax liability of one dollar means that private parties can engage in an extra dollar of voluntary trade and benefit from the surplus.
There are few forms of taxes that don’t distort incentives in the private market. Taxes may blunt incentives for work, saving, and deployment of capital in productive uses. To the extent that these private decisions are twisted by taxes in ways that differ from fully voluntary decisions, there is a further loss of value and resource waste. Eliminating these distortions is always a worthy goal.
Government has ways other than immediate taxation of paying for excess spending. One is to borrow from the public, domestic or foreign. Those who purchase the government’s debt, loaning their money to the government, do so voluntarily. That debt carries an interest obligation by the government, and it must repay the principle some day. That will require new taxes and their attendant distortions, even more borrowing, and/or some other method of extracting value from the private sector. A principle known as Ricardian equivalence holds that the effects of government outlays are the same whether financed by taxes or borrowing, because taxpayers know that future taxes will be owed to pay off government debt, and so they discount that liability into their behavioral calculus.
Additional borrowing can create an unstable financial environment if borrowing occurs at interest rates higher than the economy’s rate of growth. Borrowing might also “crowd out” private borrowers, absorbing saving that would otherwise be used to finance investment in the economy’s productive capacity. In other words, the resources acquired with that extra dollar of government spending will lead to less private investment and a sacrifice of future production.
Sneaky Inflation Tax
Another way that government can pay for spending is by imposing an inflation tax. This amounts to a devaluation of privately-held assets accomplished by inducing unexpected inflation. It allows government debt to be extinguished in the future with dollars having reduced purchasing power. Essentially, more currency (or its electronic equivalent) is placed into circulation: money printing, if you like. That sets up the “too-much-money-chasing-too-few-goods” inflation cycle. But like any other tax, the inflation tax is involuntary and creates waste by inducing the public to respond to distorted incentives.
An additional dollar of government spending absorbs a dollar of resources, and destroys more value than that given lost surplus to those who would otherwise have benefited from those resources. Moreover, the spending often fails to return a full dollar in benefits, often lining the pockets of elite grifters in the process. Ultimately, the funding for incremental spending must be commandeered from private parties via taxes or an inflationary taking of assets. Public borrowing might conceal the reality of taxes for a time, but it may crowd out productive investment that would otherwise enhance economic growth. So a case against incrementally larger government can be made in terms of resource costs as well as the distortionary effects of taxes and dissipation of future private growth.
By the same token, an ostensible reduction in taxes might be illusory, to the extent that future taxes or an inflationary taking will be necessary to cover the debt one day. On the other hand, there is no direct resource cost involved, and a tax reduction unbinds constraints and distortions on private incentives, which is unambiguously beneficial. And that’s true as long as the tax reductions aren’t targeted to benefit particular sectors, parties or technologies in any new misadventures in government central planning.
Deficits, in and of themselves, are either irrelevant or possibly damaging to long-term economic growth. You’ll get them with either tax cuts or spending hikes. But spending hikes absorb real resources, whereas tax cuts release resources by transforming a dead weight loss in private markets into proper gains from trade. If deficits are a problem, and if eliminating them requires costly tax distortions, then the real problem is the expanse of the state.