The time bomb keeps ticking

Last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal (US edition) carried an essay by David Wessel, author of the forthcoming book, “Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget”. It provides an excellent breakdown of the budget crisis looming over the US federal government.

Perhaps the most striking fact contained in the essay is that 63 percent of the US federal budget is on auto-pilot: “Social Security benefits get deposited. Health-care bills for Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor are paid. Food stamps are issued. Farm-subsidy checks are written. Interest payments are dutifully made to holders of Treasury bonds.” In technical jargon, this is non-discretionary spending – unless Congress actively stops it, such spending continues every year without the need for any further authorization. Throw in an ageing population and inexorably rising healthcare costs, and it becomes clear that such spending is only heading in one direction – skywards.

What is most worrying is that the US federal government currently only funds 66 percent of its spending through taxes. For the rest, it has to borrow. And while that may be bearable in the short-term, as nervous investors around the world pile into US Treasuries and push bond yields to record lows, it spells big trouble in the medium- to long-term. Every cent the government borrows now means more debt interest payments – and even more non-discretionary spending – in the future.

For an idea of just how bad it could get, take a look at this 2010 working paper from the Bank of International Settlements (BIS). Its projections indicate that without a policy shift, US public debt would rise to more than 400 percent of GDP by 2040. That would translate into annual debt interest payments equaling 23 percent of GDP – well in excess of total federal tax revenues, which have averaged a little over 18 percent of GDP since the Second World War. Such a scenario is plainly impossible: the US would be forced to default on its obligations long before things reached that point.

The policy implication here is straightforward enough: non-discretionary spending programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid need urgent, drastic reform to put them on a more sustainable footing. The problem is politics: neither party is really serious about dealing with this fiscal time-bomb. Politicians’ electorally-driven time horizons are just too short to permit the sort of significant, structural changes that are required.  Perhaps a rise Treasury yields will force the issue. Maybe another showdown over the debt ceiling will do the trick. But I won’t be holding my breath. As Detlev Schlichter puts it, when it comes to debt, governments around the world are determined to “extend and pretend”.  Sadly, it is only a matter of time before reality catches up with them.

Tom Clougherty is managing editor at Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank with offices in Los Angeles and Washington, DC. This article was originally published at reason.org.

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Cheerio, not goodbye

As some readers will already know, I am moving on from the Adam Smith Institute. Friday was my final day as Executive Director here, and in June I will be moving to the United States. I'm heading for Washington, DC, where I am going to be Managing Editor at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank which also publishes Reason Magazine and produces Reason TV.

I'm very excited about this new opportunity, but, needless to say, I am also very sad to be leaving the Adam Smith Institute. It has been a great five years, and I have so many wonderful memories to look back on. I will miss all the people I have worked with enormously.

We have done so much since I started in 2007, that it is hard to pick favourites. But here are few personal highlights: unveiling the Adam Smith statue back in 2008; running Freedom Week in 2011; filling the LSE with libertarians for last year's Hayek v Keynes debate. I have also hugely enjoyed establishing a top-notch ASI lecture series over the last few years. Tour de force talks by Tara Smith and Kevin Dowd stand out as particularly memorable moments.

More broadly, there are a handful of overarching themes that have characterized my time here: the resurgence of Austrian school economics in response to the financial crisis; the emergence of unabashed libertarianism as a distinct voice in the political debate; and the creation of a fast-growing libertarian youth movement in the form of the UK Liberty League and European Students for Liberty. I will always be very proud of the role we have played in these developments.

My final words, though, must go to Madsen and Eamonn – who gave me an opportunity few people fresh out of university could dream of – and to the Adam Smith Institute's friends, supporters, and donors, who make everything we do here possible. Thank you, and farewell.

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Kevin and Detlev explain it all

If you want to understand why we're back in recession, these two videos are a good place to start.

Here's Kevin Dowd on The Decapitalization of the West:

And here's Detlev Schlichter on Paper Money Collapse:

The return of the recession

So it’s official: Britain has double-dipped. Is anyone really surprised?

Of course, today’s number are relatively insignificant in statistical terms, and there is every chance that the Office of National Statistics will revise them a few months down the line. So we shouldn’t put too much faith in the details of today’s announcement or try to draw lessons that aren’t there to be drawn.

But it has been obvious right from the start that this was not your average, run-of-the-mill, cyclical downturn. The financial crisis and the recession that followed it was and is the result of severe, deep-seated structural problems in Western economies. And Britain has bigger structural problems than most.

Put simply, we are addicted to debt and constant monetary expansion. This has eroded our capital base and undermined our productive capacity, and has skewed the economy disastrously towards those sectors that thrive on credit and easy money: namely housing, finance, and big government. The boom years inflated huge bubbles in these sectors; the bust years have revealed how much of that growth was unsustainable, or even illusory.  

The situation we are in now can be summarized as follows. The economy remains heavily distorted: the prices of houses and financial assets are artificially inflated by government policy; banks which would have failed in the market have been kept on life support; gigantic, hugely inefficient public sectors are being sustained by money-printing and growth-sapping taxation. The savings needed to support investment aren’t there, and we’re weighed down with one of the highest levels of public-private debt in the industrialized world.

The astonishing thing is that every single one of those distortions is consciously, willfully being pursued by the government as a matter of policy. Quite frankly, it is surprising we aren’t doing worse than we are.

Not that there is all that much governments can do to create growth in situations like this. Yes, tax cuts and deregulation would give the private sector a sorely needed boost. And yes, reforming / privatizing / abolishing the public sector (as appropriate) would do wonders for Britain’s productivity. But what really matters is what governments don’t do. They have to allow the mistakes of the boom years to be unwound. They have to let markets adjust. They have to let new patterns of sustainable specialization and trade develop spontaneously, without bureaucratic interference.

That is a process – and it takes time. But unless we go through it, we won’t be returning to robust, real growth any time soon. The road we are on leads to a zombie economy. It’s time we took a different one.

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Individuals matter

Allister Heath’s ‘Editor’s Letter’ in City AM is one of my daily must-reads. Even if you can’t pick up a copy of City AM in the morning, you can catch up on Allister’s latest thoughts here.

He’s been on top form this week. Yesterday’s piece on inflation was excellent, but the pièce de résistance was Tuesday’s letter – ‘UK is wrong to have turned its back on individual freedom’. This is, quite simply, one of the best things I’ve read in a newspaper for a very long time:

Our country is dominated by busybodies and collectivists who believe that they and the state have the right and duty to tell us all what to do, to spend our money for us and to control what we can eat, drink, trade or say. It’s all gone too far. Individual freedom and its twin sister personal responsibility are the cornerstones of successful Western, liberal capitalist societies; yet these are being relentlessly undermined…

So this is my plea: let’s put the emphasis back on the individual. Let’s stop trying to ban everything. Let’s stop describing a tax cut as a “cost” to the government or – even worse – as morally identical to public spending. Let’s stop assuming adults should no longer have the right to eat fast food, or smoke, or drink, or paint their walls bright green, or build a conservatory in their back garden, or whatever it is they wish to do with their own bodies and with their own private property. Let’s once again speak up for the rights of consenting adults to choose how to live their own lives, even if we disapprove. Let’s allow people to hold, discuss or display their beliefs freely, especially if we disagree.

Here at the Adam Smith Institute, we couldn’t agree more.