Administrative State, Baseline Budget, Budget Reconciliation, Deficit Reduction, Double Counting, Dynamic Scoring, Lawrence Summers, Math Error, Obamacare, Office of Management and Budget, Repeal and Replace, Revenue Neutrality, Ryan McMaken, Spending Priorities, Static Scoring, Steve Bannon, Tax Reform, Trump Budget, Welfare reform
The innumerate left is unhappy over cuts in various categories of spending in the budget proposal submitted by the Trump Administration last week. However, they have adopted “talking points” that are incorrect in an effort to rail against the budget. There is no reduction in overall spending in the proposal. Instead, there is a reduction in the growth of total spending. Ryan McMaken calls the mistaken assertions about spending “the media version of ‘cuts’“. The budget plan calls for an increase in total spending of 41% ($1.7 trillion) by 2027, versus 63% ($2.6 trillion) under the baseline (based on current law). Many of the actual cuts and growth reductions are in so-called discretionary spending. However, in one key mandatory component, Medicaid, spending increases by 39% under the plan, or $146 billion, versus 82% under the baseline. That is not a spending cut.
Another issue over which the Trump budget has been attacked is the so-called “math error,” or “double counting” of economic growth, to which former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers alluded with apparent delight. The gist of it is that the proposal somehow double-counted the salutary effects of growth in eliminating the projected deficit over the next ten years. In other words, the tax cuts proposed by Trump would be not just revenue-neutral due to stronger growth; they would result in an increase in tax revenue sufficient to eliminate the deficit by 2027.
Thus far, the Trump tax reform plan has been revealed in only a one-page summary released in late April. In static terms, it implied a loss of revenue of $5 trillion over ten years, though the summary left many features unclear. There could be additional provisions to broaden the tax base that might bring the ten-year static revenue loss down to somewhere between $3 and $4 trillion. In dynamic terms, however, the impact of the tax cuts would be smaller. The cuts would stimulate the economy (yes, they would!), but the precise impact on growth is unknown. In the budget, economic growth is assumed to increase from 1.8% to 3.0% annually over most of the ten year period. That has been criticized as unrealistic, but such a boost would likely be enough to make the tax cuts revenue neutral.
Here is a summary of the budget from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The tables at the back of the document, on pages 27 and 29, provide enough information on the cumulative ten-year changes to evaluate Summers’ double-counting claim. Keep in mind that his claim applies to changes expressed relative to a baseline. The proposed budget shows a total ten-year deficit projection of $3.2 trillion, compared to baseline of $6.7 trillion. So the deficits are reduced by a total of $3.5 trillion over the full ten years.
Individual and corporate income tax receipts are virtually unchanged over the ten-year period. There’s our revenue neutrality. Other receipts are down by $0.9 trillion, however. Most of that decline is attributed to a $1 trillion “allowance for repeal and replacement of Obamacare”, presumably elimination of taxes on such things as medical devices, Cadillac insurance policies, and fines for failing to comply with insurance mandates. So increased tax revenues do not account for the decline in the budget deficit.
Total cumulative outlays are reduced by $4.6 trillion in the budget proposal relative to the baseline. That more than accounts for the ten-year deficit reduction. Like the policies or not, the decline in spending is sufficient, relative to the baseline, to fully explain the deficit reduction. Yes, the budget assumes that some of the spending reductions are afforded by the faster assumed rate of economic growth, such as welfare payments, but that is not double-counting.
Revenue neutrality of the tax cuts is certainly an assumption worth questioning, especially because the summary of the tax plan gave every impression of abandoning neutrality. Neutrality was probably imposed on the budget plan as a matter of convenience. In a sense, it made the job of presenting the Administration’s spending priorities (like them or not) a cleaner exercise. For another, while budget reconciliation rules do not require the tax plan to be revenue neutral, Senate leaders have stated their strong desire for neutrality. The Trump budget proposal thereby allows Congress’ budget process to get underway while deferring the introduction of a more detailed and potentially controversial tax plan, one that is obviously still in flux and is likely to involve a loss of revenue, even in a dynamic sense.
The assumed change in economic growth is not solely attributable to tax effects, however. It would be reasonable to expect some growth to be driven by deregulation and the “deconstruction of the administrative state“, as Steve Bannon described so eloquently. This intention is embodied in the budget proposal. In that sense, it was unnecessary for OMB to impose revenue neutrality of the tax plan to eliminate the budget deficit over ten years. The economic growth spurred by deregulation would generate some of the extra growth in tax revenue.
I happen to like many of the priorities expressed in the proposed budget, despite the document’s lack of specificity. This includes the deregulatory initiatives, Obamacare repeal and replacement (we’re waiting…), and some of the welfare reform proposals. I am not happy about the scale of the shift toward defense, and I am not happy that government continues to grow in the aggregate. And as for the still-incubating tax reform plan, I like many of the features originally described, though not all.
Many believe that the Administration’s economic growth assumptions are unrealistic, and many dislike the spending priorities. Those cannot be used as excuses for mischaracterizing the proposal, however. Reductions in some spending categories occur only relative to the baseline growth path. They are not real cuts in spending. Likewise, Summers’ double-counting allegation is false. The recovery of tax revenue via economic growth is not double counted, and there is no “math error”. The proposed reductions in spending relative to the baseline more than account for the deficit reduction. I suspect that Summers’ motives were strictly polemic and not grounded in a careful examination of the budget proposal. He is not innumerate. What’s worse, a number of economists swallowed the “double-counting” story hook, line, and sinker.