FT167: “When we lived more austerely there was no need for painful austerity to cure a bloated government.” —Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 26th, 2013

Fundamental Truth

Wise Men in Governments can Do Anything but Pay for their Nanny States

Economics changed in the early Twentieth Century.  America once again had a central bank.  Progressives were expanding the role of government.  And a new economist entered the scene that the progressives just loved.  For he was a macroeconomist who said government should have an active role in the economy.  A role where government tweaked the economy to make it better.  Stronger.  While avoiding the painful corrections on the downside of a business cycle.  Something laissez-faire capitalism caused.  And could not prevent.  But if wise men in government had the power to tweak the private sector economy they could.  At least this is what the progressives and Keynesian economists thought.

That economist was, of course, John Maynard Keynes.  Who rewrote the book on economics.  And what really excited the progressives was the chapter on spending an economy out of a recession.  Now there were two ways to increase spending in an economy.  You can cut tax rates so consumers have bigger paychecks.  Or the government can spend money that they borrow or print.  The former doesn’t need any government intervention into the private sector economy.  While the latter requires those wise men in government to reach deep into that economy.  Guess which way governments choose to increase spending.  Here’s a hint.  It ain’t the one where they just sit on the sidelines.

Governments changed in the Twentieth Century.  Socialism swept through Europe.  And left social democracies in its wake.  Not quite socialism.  But pretty close.  It was the rise of the nanny state.  Cradle to grave government benefits.  A lot of free stuff.  Including pensions.  Health care.  College educations.  And a lot of government jobs in ever expanding government bureaucracies.  Where wise men in government made everything better for the people living in these nanny states.  And armed with their new Keynesian economic policies there was nothing they couldn’t do.  Except pay for their nanny states.

According to John Maynard Keynes raising Tax Rates reduces New Economic Activity

The problem with a nanny state is things change.  People have fewer babies.  Health care and medicines improve.  Increasing lifespans.  You put this together and you get an aging population.  The death knell of a nanny state.  For when those wise men in government set up all of those generous government benefits they assumed things would continue the way they were.  People would continue to have the same amount of babies.  And we would continue to die just about the time we retired.  Giving us an expanding population of new workers entering the workforce.  While fewer people left the workforce and quickly died.  So the tax base would grow.  And always be larger than those consuming those taxes.  In other words, a Ponzi scheme.

But then change came.  With the Sixties came birth control and abortion.  And we all of a sudden started having fewer babies.  While at the same time advances in medicine was increasing our lifespans.  Which flipped the pyramid upside down.  Fewer people were entering the workforce than were leaving it.  And those leaving it were living a lot longer into retirement.  Consuming record amounts of tax money.  More than the tax base could provide.  Leading to deficit spending.  And growing national debt.

Now remember those two ways to increase spending in the economy?  You either cut tax rates.  Or the government borrows and spends.  So if cutting tax rates will generate new economic activity (i.e., new spending in the economy) what will a tax increase do?  It will decrease spending in the economy.  And reduce new economic activity.  Which caused a problem for these nanny states with aging populations.  As the price tag on their nanny state benefits eventually grew greater than their tax revenue’s ability to pay for it.  So they increased tax rates.  Which reduced economic activity.  And with less economic activity to tax their increase in tax rates actually decreased tax revenue.  Forcing them to run greater deficits.  Which added to their national debts.  Increasing the interest they paid on their debt.  Which left less money to pay for those generous benefits.

President Obama’s Non-Defense Spending caused a Huge Spike in the National Debt not seen since World War II

It’s a vicious cycle.  And eventually you reach a tipping point.  As debts grow larger some start to question the ability of a government to ever repay their debt.  Making it risky to loan them any more money.  Which forces these countries with huge debts to pay higher interest rates on their government bonds.  Which leaves less money to pay for those generous benefits.  While their populations continue to age.  Taking you to that tipping point.  Like many countries in the Eurozone who could no longer borrow money to pay for their nanny states.  Who had to turn to the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund for emergency loans.  Which did provide those emergency loans.  Under the condition that they cut spending.  Money in exchange for austerity.  Something that just galls those Keynesian economists.  For despite all of their financial woes coming from having too much debt they still believe these governments should spend their way out of their recessions.  And never mind about the deficits.  Or their burgeoning debts.

But these Keynesians are missing a very important and obvious point.  The problem these nations have is due to their inability to borrow money.  Which means they would NOT have a problem if they didn’t need to borrow money.  So austerity will work.  Because it will decrease the amount of money they need to borrow.  Allowing their tax revenue to pay for their spending needs.  Without excessive tax rates that reduce economic activity.  Making the nanny state the source of all their problems.  For had these nations never became social democracies in the first place they never would have had crushing debt levels that cause sovereign debt crises.  But they did.  And their populations aged.  Making it a matter of time before their Ponzi schemes failed.  Something no nation with a growing nanny state and an aging population can avoid.  Even the United States.  Who kept true to their limited government roots for about 100 years.   Then came the progressives.  The central bank.  And Keynesian economics.  Putting the Americans on the same path as the Europeans (see US Federal Debt As Percent Of GDP).

Debt as Percent of GDP and Wars R2

With the end of the Revolutionary War they diligently paid down their war debt.  Which was pretty much the entire federal debt then.  As the federal government was as limited as it could get.  Then came the War of 1812 and the debt grew.  After the war it fell to virtually nothing.  Then it soared to pay for the Civil War.  Which changed the country.  The country was bigger.  Connected by a transcontinental railroad.  And other internal improvements.  Which prevented the debt from falling back down to pre-war levels.  Then it shot up to pay for World War I.  After WWI the Roaring Twenties replaced progressivism and quickly brought the debt down again.  Then Herbert Hoover brought back progressivism and killed the Roaring Twenties.  FDR turned a bad recession into the Great Depression.  By following all of that Keynesian advice to spend the nation out of recession.  From the man himself.  Keynes.  The massive deficit spending of the New Deal raised the debt higher than it was during World War I.  Changing the country again.  Introducing a state pension.  Social Security.  A Ponzi scheme that would struggle once the population started aging.

Then came World War II and the federal debt soared to its highest levels.  After the war a long decline in the debt followed.  At the end of that decline was the Vietnam War.  And LBJ’s Great Society.  Which arrested the fall in the debt.  Its lowest point since the Great Depression.  Which was about as large as the debt during the Civil War and World War I.  Showing the growth in non-defense spending.  Then came Reagan’s surge in defense spending to win the Cold War.  Once the Americans won the Cold War the debt began to fall again.  Until the Islamist terrorist attacks on 9/11.  Halting the fall in the debt as the War on Terror replaced the Cold War.  Then came the Great Recession.  And President Obama.  Whose non-defense spending caused a huge spike in the national debt.  Taking it to a level not seen since World War II.  When an entire world was at war.  But this debt is not from defense spending.  It’s from an expanded nanny state.  As President Obama takes America into the direction of European socialism.  And unsustainable spending.  Which can end in only but one way.  Austerity.  Painful austerity.  Not like the discomfort of the sequester cuts that only were cuts in the rate of future growth.  But real cuts.  Like in Greece.

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