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A Washington Post Not-So-Much-Lovefest on the Bush Tax Cuts

July 31st, 2010 . by economistmom

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(Graphic above from Washington Post online:  Should Congress extend the Bush tax cuts?)

It’s a big “rag on the Bush tax cuts” week in the Washington Post–I think because this is one of the biggest looming issues Congress and the Administration will be coming back to after August “recess.”

It began with Ruth Marcus’ column on Wednesday, where she wrote:

…Which takes us back to the matter of whether it would be risky to let any of the Bush tax cuts expire. As a practical matter, Democrats and Republicans agree that the cuts should remain in place, at least temporarily, for families making less than $250,000 a year. That’s a debatable point. Former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, whose blessing was responsible for propelling the tax cuts forward in the first place, said recently that Congress should let them lapse.

The real disagreement is over extending the high-end tax cuts, and on this even some supposedly fiscally responsible Democrats — I’m talking to you, Kent Conrad — have gone wobbly. The no-new-taxes-now crowd cautions against raising taxes in a recession — a fair point, except that there are more efficient ways to spur the economy than giving more money to those least likely to spend it. Alternatively, they cite — and inflate — the supposed impact on small business of raising the upper-end rates.

This would be more convincing if the Republican line were something other than “no new taxes, ever.” The economic and fiscal circumstances may change, but the prescription remains the same. And the patient is too ill to tolerate another dose of this quack medicine.

And in the Sunday paper (already available online as of Friday), the Bush tax cuts are the focus of the “5 Myths” series as well as “Topic A.”  Bill Gale of the Brookings Institution writes about “5 myths about the Bush tax cuts”.  My favorite myths of the five are #1 (on the tax cuts as “stimulus”) and #5 (on the effect of the tax cuts on the longer-term fiscal outlook)–because Bill argues there’s not much to “love” in either case:

1. Extending the tax cuts would be a good way to stimulate the economy.

As a stimulus measure, a one- or two-year extension has one thing going for it — it would be a big intervention and would provide at least some boost to the economy. But a good stimulus policy can’t just be big; it should also offer a lot of bang for the buck. That is, each dollar of government spending or tax cuts should have the largest possible effect on the economy. According to the Congressional Budget Office and other authorities, extending all of the Bush tax cuts would have a small bang for the buck, the equivalent of a 10- to 40-cent increase in GDP for every dollar spent.

Why? As the CBO notes, most Bush tax cut dollars go to higher-income households, and these top earners don’t spend as much of their income as lower earners. In fact, of 11 potential stimulus policies the CBO recently examined, an extension of all of the Bush tax cuts ties for lowest bang for the buck…The government could more effectively stimulate the economy by letting the high-income tax cuts expire and using the money for aid to the states, extensions of unemployment insurance benefits and tax credits favoring job creation…

5. Continuing the tax cuts won’t doom the long-term fiscal picture; entitlements are the real problem.

One theory holds that the country’s long-term budget shortfall is “just” an entitlements problem, the result of rising costs associated with growing Social Security rolls and increased health-care spending (via Medicare and Medicaid). Republicans like this idea because it plays down tax increases as a potential solution. Democrats like it because it makes the recent health-care package seem like even more of a triumph.

But it just isn’t true. The deficits we face over the next decade reflect a fundamental imbalance between spending and revenue, one that goes beyond entitlements. Based on projections by the CBO, Alan Auerbach of the University of California at Berkeley and myself, among others, even if the economy returns to full employment by 2014 and stays there for the rest of the decade, the continuation of current fiscal policies, including the Bush tax cuts, would lead to a national debt in the range of 90 percent of GDP by 2020. That’s already the highest rate since just after World War II — and Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security aren’t expected to hit their steepest spending increases until after 2020.

According to these same projections, the yearly deficit would rise to 6 to 7 percent of GDP by 2020. The Bush tax cuts would account for a significant chunk of this, considering that in each year they are in effect, the revenue lost because of them amounts to nearly 2 percent of GDP.

Compounding the problem: By increasing the government’s debt, the tax cuts have already led to higher interest payments on that debt. So even if all of the cuts expire on Dec. 31, we will still be paying for them for years to come.

And under this Sunday’s “Topic A,” it seems that no matter where fiscal policy economists fall on the ideological spectrum, it’s hard to find one who thinks permanent extension of all of the Bush tax cuts is a good idea.  My response (just because this is my blog):

DIANE LIM ROGERS

Chief economist at the Concord Coalition and blogger at EconomistMom.com

President Obama will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to simultaneously keep two major policy promises: maintain the generously defined “middle class” portions of the Bush tax cuts and begin to restore fiscal sustainability by reducing the deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2015.

At the same time, current economic conditions suggest a continued need for deficit spending to assist in the recovery. Even if the Bush tax cuts are far from the most effective form of additional fiscal stimulus we could come up with, it may be all we can get right now, politically.

So one way Obama can avoid simply rubber-stamping the Bush tax cuts — and turning the policy he has labeled “fiscally irresponsible” into his own — while saving face on his promises would be to temporarily extend only those portions of the cuts he has proposed to permanently extend in his past two budgets. A one- or two-year extension would buy time for the economy to further recover, while providing policymakers with a realistic deadline to permanently reform the tax system to raise adequate revenue in a more efficient and equitable manner — in other words, to come up with a tax plan Obama would be proud to put his name on.

And in the informal survey of readers conducted on the page with Ruth’s column, as of Saturday 6 pm, 57 percent of respondents (out of nearly 1000) said we should let all the Bush tax cuts expire as scheduled.  (Snapshot above.)

UPDATE (Saturday night):  Stephen Colbert’s take on the issue.  (Thanks to Len Burman for calling this to my attention via Facebook.)

Peter Orszag on the False Debate

July 29th, 2010 . by economistmom

Peter Orszag, President Obama’s budget director, gave a “farewell speech” of sorts yesterday at the Brookings Institution (his former professional “home”). Although an incident with a protester stole most of the media attention, Peter’s point about the “false debate” between those concerned about the deficit and those concerned about jobs–shown in the video clip above–was probably the most significant message to take away from the event. If only someone could write an opera song to go along with it.

In the Q and A that followed, the Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery and Ruth Marcus made for a dynamic duo–trying valiantly yet playfully to get Peter to answer questions about another great Obama Administration debate: what to do about the expiring Bush tax cuts. Ruth had just published this column with her opinion on the issue, which I agree wholeheartedly with.

EconomistMom Merchandise! (Without Even Trying)

July 28th, 2010 . by economistmom

economistmom-tshirt-cafepress

CafePress will make anything in virtually any theme imaginable. So when I did a quick google search on “EconomistMom” to check for articles linking to my blog, the link to the CafePress “Economist Mom” merchandise came up at the top of page 2! Pretty cool. I guess I should at least get a bumper sticker for my car.  And note the 30% off sale until this Friday!   ;)

CBO: How the Long-Term Budget Outlook Can Affect the Short-Term Economy

July 27th, 2010 . by economistmom

Nice issue brief just released by the Congressional Budget Office.  It explains that besides the “gradual consequences” of the gradual worsening of the fiscal outlook, there are these shorter-term risks to the economy:

Beyond those gradual consequences, a growing level of federal debt would also increase the probability of a sudden fiscal crisis, during which investors would lose confidence in the government’s ability to manage its budget, and the government would thereby lose its ability to borrow at affordable rates. It is possible that interest rates would rise gradually as investors’ confidence declined, giving legislators advance warning of the worsening situation and sufficient time to make policy choices that could avert a crisis. But as other countries’ experiences show, it is also possible that investors would lose confidence abruptly and interest rates on government debt would rise sharply. The exact point at which such a crisis might occur for the United States is unknown, in part because the ratio of federal debt to GDP is climbing into unfamiliar territory and in part because the risk of a crisis is influenced by a number of other factors, including the government’s long-term budget outlook, its near-term borrowing needs, and the health of the economy. When fiscal crises do occur, they often happen during an economic downturn, which amplifies the difficulties of adjusting fiscal policy in response.

If the United States encountered a fiscal crisis, the abrupt rise in interest rates would reflect investors’ fears that the government would renege on the terms of its existing debt or that it would increase the supply of money to finance its activities or pay creditors and thereby boost inflation. To restore investors’ confidence, policymakers would probably need to enact spending cuts or tax increases more drastic and painful than those that would have been necessary had the adjustments come sooner.

In other words (or in “EconomistMom words”), the more we put off coming up with a sensible weight-loss program which combines a reasonable diet (spending restraint) with a decent amount of exercise (revenue increases), the more likely we’ll end up binging and purging–which is never a sustainable strategy.

And speaking of that optimal weight-loss program, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities makes a recommendation for letting the upper-income Bush tax cuts immediately expire as scheduled, but permanently extending the “middle-class” portions proposed by President Obama.  My reaction is that’s still not enough exercise as well as not the most effective exercise.  More on what I mean by that later this week.

Bruce Bartlett on the Inevitability of Tax Increases

July 26th, 2010 . by economistmom

Here’s an excellent interview of Bruce Bartlett on The Economist.  Like the point I tried to make at the Paul Ryan event, Bruce says it’s ridiculous–or even worse–to claim the deficit must be reduced entirely on the spending side of the budget (you know, all diet and no exercise):

Republicans have a completely indefensible position on taxes. In their view, deficits cannot arise from tax cuts. No matter how much taxes are cut, no matter how low revenues go as a share of GDP, tax cuts are never a cause of deficits; they result ONLY AND EXCLUSIVELY from spending—and never from spending put in place by Republicans, such as Medicare Part D, TARP, two unfunded wars, bridges to nowhere, etc—but ONLY from Democratic efforts to stimulate growth, help the unemployed, provide health insurance for those without it, etc…

Unfortunately, I don’t think Democrats have the guts or the stamina to put forward a meaningful deficit-reduction programme because they know—as I do—that it will require higher revenues. But facing big losses in the elections this fall I can’t blame them. That leaves us facing political gridlock between the sensible but cowardly party and the greedy, sociopathic party. Not a pleasant choice for those of us in the sensible, lets-do-what-we-have-to-do-for-the-good-of-the-country independent centre…

The key area where Republicans and conservatives continue to live in a fantasy world relates to the inevitability of higher taxes to the long-run solution to our fiscal problem. At present, they all live in a dream world in which massive spending cuts that don’t hurt average Americans are the only solution to the deficit that they will entertain. But sooner or later, they will realise that this is simply not possible and that tax increases are not the worst thing in the world—Ronald Reagan raised taxes 11 times, including in 1982 when the economy was still in recession, and contrary to right-wing predictions Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax increase did not send the economy into a tailspin…

Eventually, we will have to enact measures to reduce the deficit. These measures will necessarily have to include higher revenues. Initially, they may be called user fees, offsetting receipts or other euphemisms, but they will raise revenues…

Read the whole interview for many more quotable Bruce-isms.  He’s a little heavy on the Republican bashing than I would be (his line above about the “cowardly” Democrats is really his only critique of them here), but I pretty much agree with all his substance on tax and budget policy.

Shhhh… The Midsession Review Came Out Today

July 23rd, 2010 . by economistmom

The Obama Administration’s Midsession Review for Fiscal Year 2011 came out this (Friday) afternoon around 3 pm, but it might as well have come out in the dead of night during August recess, as silently as it was presented.  No press conference, no press release, no blog post from OMB director Peter Orszag.  Only the pdf file posted on the OMB website, if you knew to look for it there.

Of course, the news wasn’t good, but it wasn’t unexpectedly bad either.  (I guess it just wasn’t much news all around.)  Deficits are now expected to be higher over the next few years (although slightly lower for the current year) than the Administration projected back in February, largely due to lower revenue estimates.  What was a 3.9 percent of GDP deficit for fiscal year 2015 is now a 4.0 percent of GDP deficit, so the President’s deficit-reduction commission is still expected to come up with an extra around-1-percent of GDP in policies to reduce the deficit.

More later this weekend if in digesting the report more completely, I find some more newsworthy tidbits.

Alice Rivlin: Reform Social Security to Save Social Security

July 22nd, 2010 . by economistmom

rivlina_portrait

And speaking of that dirty word, “entitlements,” and the gross misconceptions about what deficit hawks really want to do about those programs by referring to them as “entitlements” and talking about reforming them…Here’s a very nice column by Alice Rivlin (senior fellow at the Brookings Institution), who happens to be a member of the President’s deficit reduction commission, on why the best reason for reforming Social Security is not to reduce the deficit, but to sustain the program itself:

As a member of the Presidents Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which is charged with producing a bipartisan plan to rein in future budget deficits, I get to hear the favorite deficit reduction schemes of friends, acquaintances and strangers. A surprising number lead with Social Security. Some begin, “The first thing is to raise the retirement age in Social Security, which would fix a big part of the problem, right?” (Wrong). Others are afraid the Commission will recommend cutting the benefits of elderly widows living on the edge of subsistence (absurdly unlikely). Many insist that Social Security, because of its separate funding, plays no part in projected federal deficits (also wrong), and therefore should be exempt from the deficit-cutting exercise. As usual, the real story is more complex.

The right reason for saving Social Security is to reassure all Americans that this hugely successful program is solidly funded and will be there for the millions who depend on it when they need it. That such action will make a modest contribution to reducing long run deficits is a serendipitous by-product, not the central motivation…

If no crisis is projected in the Social Security fund itself for 27 years, why should Social Security be part of the current deficit discussion? I see at least three reasons. First, this is the best time to put Social Security on a sound sustainable track. The only better time would be last year or any year before that. Workers need to know that Social Security will be there when they need it so that they can make other retirement plans on top of a secure base…[T]he sooner we act, the smaller the adjustments need be, whether they are benefit reductions, tax increases or some of each, because small changes cumulate over time…

Second, fixing Social Security now would not only reassure future retirees. It would build confidence both at home and abroad that our political system can still function to solve important problems. It is true, as we keep telling ourselves, that the United States is not Greece. But our public debt is on a dangerous trajectory with no end in sight. World markets have a tendency to plunge rapidly when confidence erodes…

Third, the interaction of an aging population with rising health care spending is the reason federal spending is projected to rise faster than the economy can grow over the foreseeable future…The fact that programs for seniors are driving projected spending increases doesn’t mean they should bear the brunt of the cuts (surely an aging democracy will spend relatively more on older people than a younger one). But neither should programs for the aging be immune. In particular, do we want to allow rapid growth in programs supporting seniors (including Social Security) to drive out spending for education or scientific research or improving infrastructure that might contribute more to future economic growth? Strong growth will ease the economic burden of an aging population, and weak growth will compound it. Fixing Social Security in the context of broader deficit reduction allows us to debate those competing priorities. Those who believe that slowing federal spending growth is necessary to curb future deficits, but want to exempt programs for the aged, need to say why, for example, it is more important to continue increasing benefits for upper-income retirees than to nourish low-income children…

[P]utting Social Security on a sound fiscal footing is not “punishing” the system or its beneficiaries. The bonds held by Social Security are obligations of the United States and will be paid. But current and future workers need to know that Social Security will be there for them, and the way to reassure them is to act now to adjust the future benefits, revenues or both. Immediate action is best for Social Security. That such action will also modestly reduce long run deficits and show the world that our political system is not totally gridlocked is just icing on the cake.

And speaking of plans to reform the entitlement programs being discussed around Brookings, today Alice Rivlin posed the first question to Congressman Paul Ryan at the event focused on Ryan’s “Roadmap” plan.  (I was one of the panelists who followed the congressman’s presentation.)  On this event page you can listen to the audiotape–and download Rep. Ryan’s Powerpoint presentation, which (tell me if my hunch is right) seems very strangely similar to Obama White House graphics in the particular style of white font over blue background.  (It also seems to match the Brookings logo…)

Can We Help the Economy (Right Now) Without Growing the Deficit?

July 21st, 2010 . by economistmom

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Ezra Klein says “yes.” How so?

[A]t this point, [deficit-neutral emergency spending is] worth trying. It’s best to do jobs legislation using deficit dollars. That way you’re not taking money out of one part of the economy to put it into another. But as Dylan Matthews wrote yesterday, money spent in different places does provide different levels of stimulus. It’s plausible that you could move cash from, say, tax cuts for the wealthy, which tend to get saved, and use it instead for a payroll tax holiday, or infrastructure projects, or a tier of unemployment benefits for people in states with unemployment rates above 9 percent and who’ve been out of a job for more than 99 weeks.

This is pretty close to what I wrote in a comment to my own post on Greenspan’s apparent reversal on the Bush tax cuts (emphasis added):

[I]t’s all about: (i) timing, and (ii) distribution. Considering both, I think we can address both the short-term and long-term economic concerns by extending only the middle-class portions of the Bush tax cuts only temporarily. And yes, unemployment benefits still have more stimulative bang per buck than even “middle class” tax cuts in terms of immediately boosting demand for goods and services, because unemployed people have even less income (are more cash-constrained and hence will immediately spend all that you give them) than “middle class” working people.

As for any offsets one might use to “pay” for stimulus (vs. deficit finance it), the distribution of the burden of those offsets affects how detrimental to the stimulus effort the added costs to households or businesses would be. For the purely short-term goal of immediately boosting aggregate demand, if I pay for extended unemployment benefits by immediately raising taxes on the rich, or cutting government spending that is purely wasteful (as if it is thrown away and benefits no one), such offsets would not “harm” the stimulative effect as much as if I pay for those benefits by cutting some other spending that truly benefits/assists low-income households (and hence would undo the helpful effect of additional unemployment benefits).

Most economists assume an effective stimulus requires that on net the spending be deficit financed, because we presume that a “Robin Hood” deficit-neutral policy (where we would take from the rich to give to the poor) would not be politically viable. Still, that is an example of a deficit-neutral policy that would effectively boost aggregate demand. If it continued too long, however, that effective stimulus would turn into a policy very harmful to longer-term economic growth via the effects on the aggregate supply (labor supply, saving–the inputs that add to our economy’s productive capacity) of a full-employment economy.

And later in his same blog post, Ezra mentions “stimulus” as another “bad word.” I agree, not just for the knee-jerk, visceral reactions it might incite from people who don’t like typical “stimulus” policies, but because it’s somewhat inaccurate and pretty insufficient in describing short-term countercyclical fiscal policy even among economists who support such policies.  Way back when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was first passed in February of last year, I explained that what the recovery act sought to accomplish seemed to me to be a variety of very different (and very ambitious) economic goals.  “Stimulus”–what I interpret as policies designed to provide an immediate boost to (aggregate) GDP–was just one of the goals.  “Assistance”–providing help to households suffering from severe drops in their economic well-being–was another, and that was regardless of whether such assistance at the household level boosted (aggregate) GDP effectively or not.  Fortunately, with spending on extended unemployment benefits, it does both, so the fact that we are deficit financing perhaps the final bit of this recession’s deficit-financed “stimulus” spending, seems a reasonable–and decent–thing to do.  (I tried to suggest so in my short live radio interview with Marketplace Morning Report’s Steve Chiotakis yesterday morning.)

Why Is “Entitlement” A Dirty Word?

July 20th, 2010 . by economistmom

tmwretirement

On the San Francisco public radio show I did yesterday, the host kept informing me that she was getting many calls and emails (and maybe “tweets”) complaining about my use of the word “entitlements” when I referred to the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs.  No one actually explained to me why they found the word offensive, but one hint I got was the one caller who suggested that my organization was part of a “libertarian” effort to end/dismantle/destroy Social Security.  (I was not given the opportunity nor had enough time to explain that our goals are precisely the opposite; if someone like Erskine Bowles, a co-chair of the President’s fiscal commission, compares the fiscal unsustainability of the federal budget to a “cancer,” it is because they want to get rid of the cancer, not let it kill the patient.)

So I started wondering why the term “entitlement” was viewed with such hostility as a value-laden, judgment-laden term.  I looked up “entitlement” on dictionary.com and found these definitions:

From the Random House dictionary:

The right to guaranteed benefits under a government program, as Social Security or unemployment compensation.

From the American Heritage dictionary:

A government program that guarantees and provides benefits to a particular group: “fights . . . to preserve victories won a generation ago, like the Medicaid entitlement for the poor” (Jason DeParle).

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary of law:

A government program that provides benefits to members of a group that has a statutory entitlement; also : the benefits distributed by such a program.

So I still don’t “get” what’s so bad about the term, but I guess in a time when even the word “taxes” is a “dirty” word (and “rationing” a nasty one as well), the ugliness of the word is in the ear of the listener, and listeners often listen through their ideological ear plugs (while bound in their ideological straitjackets).

What would readers suggest is a better label for these government programs?  How about something like my AmEx card uses for their bonus points program:  “Membership Rewards”?  (Does that sound more deserving?)  Regardless (and carrying this analogy a little further), it’s still the case that we are not charging enough in membership fees to cover the cost of our (federal) “rewards” program.  If I were to suggest charging higher fees (don’t say “taxes”) or reducing the generosity of the rewards (don’t say “entitlements”) or some combination of both, it’s not to suggest we get rid of the rewards program altogether, but because I like the rewards program and don’t want it to go away.

Your ideas?  (Use the above cartoon by Tom Tomorrow as inspiration.)

Greenspan Breaks Free from an “Ideological Straitjacket”

July 19th, 2010 . by economistmom

In an op-ed by my boss, Bob Bixby, which ran in yesterday’s Boston Globe, Bob mentions how “ideological straitjackets” have been preventing us from effectively treating either of our two largest economic ailments:

We have two distinct problems. The economy remains shaky in the near-term, and fiscal policy remains unsustainable in the long-term. These problems can, and should, be treated with different remedies.

The good news is that we can treat both problems at once if we set aside rigid ideological straitjackets. Fiscal stimulus need not have an adverse impact on economic growth over the long term, and long-term discipline need not have an adverse impact on economic activity in the short term. We don’t need to sacrifice one to achieve the other, but we need to be clear about the trade-offs.

This suggests that deficit-financed initiatives may still be appropriate for policies with the highest propensity to support the near-term recovery. Items that fit into this category include extended unemployment benefits and further, but temporary, aid to state and local governments. These policies would directly address serious needs created by the severe recession without adding to the long-term structural deficit.

At the federal level, we can hold down the size of near-term deficits and help engender public trust that tax dollars are not being wasted, by making every effort to identify savings from unnecessary programs.

That includes cutting narrowly targeted tax breaks that add to the complexity of the tax code without producing meaningful economic benefits. Such provisions divert resources from more pressing national needs and increase public cynicism about the fairness of the federal budget.

Again, there is no inconsistency in cutting some under-performing programs while boosting spending (or cutting taxes) in areas where it will do more good.

Even with a robust recovery in the next few years, the pre-existing mismatch between future benefit promises and current levels of taxation would leave us on an unsustainable path. No amount of fiscal stimulus will solve that problem. This makes it all the more important to combine near-term deficit spending with a credible plan to bring our long-term structural deficit under control.

Balancing the risks, we should keep assistance flowing in those areas where it is most needed and can take effect most swiftly, and, as soon as possible, begin a planned phase-in of spending cuts and tax increases that will bring the structural deficit under control.

Of course, this will require some compromise.

Can we handle that?

Kevin Williamson of the National Review seems to be screaming over his frustration with the conservative straitjacketed position that deficit-financed tax cuts are somehow fiscally responsible:

You know what? Kyl is right: The money does belong to the taxpayer. You know what else? The money Jon Kyl and his colleagues are spending belongs to the taxpayer, too. Jon Kyl’s been known to pork up a highway bill in 2008 — even as he voted against one of the worst of them in 2005. (And Kyl’s one of the good ones.) If you spend the taxpayer’s money, you have to tax the taxpayer, at some point. You cannot magic that money into existence. As I’ve been arguing — ad nauseam, forgive me — taxes are a secondary issue. The primary issue is spending. As ye spend, so shall ye tax. The rate of spending is the rate of taxation; debt and deficits only push the date of tax collection into the future. You can collect the taxes today or you can collect the taxes tomorrow — but what you spend, you will have to collect.

Tax cuts without spending cuts, spending increases without tax increases: These are not merely irresponsible, they are impossible — unless you think that nobody is going to pay the debt. You might make a reasonable case that tax cuts without spending cuts are, in some cases, preferable to deficit stimulus spending, especially since the stimulus spending has been channeled to a lot of dumb and wasteful projects. But, broadly speaking, the two things are equivalent. The Democrats prefer unfunded spending, the Republicans unfunded tax cuts. And almost nobody is serious about reducing spending, because spending is where power dwells in Washington.

But on a very positive note, this weekend former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan seemed to be busting loose from his long-worn, but perhaps often misunderstood, ideological straitjacket of the Bush tax cuts, when, in an interview with Judy Woodruff (see a clip here), he said the best thing we could do with the expiring Bush tax cuts is to simply let them go (emphasis added):

WOODRUFF: You embraced the tax cuts of former President Bush, George W. Bush, in 2001, with the caveat that this hinged on keeping the deficit under control. In retrospect, do you wish that you would have spoken out any louder as it became clear that that deficit was growing?

GREENSPAN: Well, I thought I did. In fact, there are all sorts of hearings. I remember conversations between Barney Frank and myself, where he was saying, in a sense that, do I understand you essentially saying that effectively unless the second tranche of the tax cut — which was then occurring in the context of deficits — was adjusted by pay-go — meaning financed — that you would not support it. And the answer was I would not support it. And I did not support it.

The trouble is, there is a very selective reading of history out there. I mean, I find it unfortunate, but there are a lot of things that happened which I discussed in great detail and it sort of is — my main concern myself is the fact that we ought to go back and look at the records.

WOODRUFF: On those tax cuts, they are due to expire at the end of this year. Should they be extended? What should Congress do?

GREENSPAN: I should say they should follow the law and let them lapse.

WOODRUFF: Meaning what happens?

GREENSPAN: Taxes go up. The problem is, unless we start to come to grips with this long-term outlook, we are going to have major problems. I think we misunderstand the momentum of this deficit going forward.

This argument of stimulus versus non-stimulus, in my judgment, is not a critical issue, in one sense. We are going to be doing very well if we can keep the deficit to where we are now projecting it. The notion that we are somehow going to bring it in far more sharply is just utterly, politically unrealistic.

So it is not a question, do you have more stimulus now or do you have basically a significant contraction in the deficit? We are going to have continued expansion in government spending and increasing debt, because there is no evidence that we are closing the debt — the gap between receipts and expenditures yet. And it is going to be very tough to go up against the momentum that is currently going on.

WOODRUFF: So to those interests who say but wait a minute, if you let these taxes go my taxes go up, it is going to depress growth?

GREENSPAN: Yes, it probably will, but I think we have no choice in doing that, because we have to recognize there are no solutions which are optimum. These are choices between bad and worse.

Greenspan suggests at the end that raising taxes will (unfortunately) mean economic growth will be harmed–just by not as much as if we let the deficit swell by the cost of extending the Bush tax cuts.  But I’d remind readers that raising revenue to keep taxes at current-law levels does not necessarily mean sticking to current tax law and allowing marginal tax rates to come back up.  What Greenspan is saying is that we need more revenue (and in particular, the level dictated by the current-law baseline looks pretty appropriate), and that however we come up with it looks good relative to not coming up with it.  But some ways of coming up with the extra revenue are still going to be better than others.  That’s why tax reform has to be part of our overall strategy to get back to fiscal sustainability, along with reform of the entitlement programs and greater discipline in our discretionary spending.

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