Insufficient Spending Cuts triggers S&P Downgrade, not Insufficient Taxes

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 6th, 2011

Ah, the Good Old Days when Communists didn’t school Americans in Capitalism

It happened.  S&P downgraded the U.S.  Just like they said they would if we didn’t make $4 trillion in spending cuts.  And our patron is not pleased (see China attacks US debt ‘addiction’ after America loses AAA credit rating by Richard Blackden posted 8/6/2011 on The Telegraph).

“The US government has to come to terms with the painful fact that the good old days when it could just borrow its way out of messes of its own making are finally gone,” China said in a commentary carried by the Xinhua News Agency.

Ouch.  Strong words from a communist.  The Soviet Union never gave us lessons in capitalism when there was a Soviet Union.  Then again, we always had a AAA bond rating back then.  And their GDP growth wasn’t greater than ours.  Ah, the good old days.  When communists didn’t school Americans in capitalism.

Vince Cable, the British Business Secretary, said the downgrade was an “entirely predictable consequence of the mess that the Congress created a few weeks ago when they couldn’t agree on lifting the debt ceiling.”

Francois Baroin, France’s finance minister, said his country had total confidence in the US economy, while India called the “situation was grave” and Russia said it would keep the level of dollar investments in its national reserve funds, adding: “There is not a great difference between AAA and AA+.”

Those are some very supportive words from the Russians.  Which differ slightly from previous remarks when Putin said, “They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar.”  It’s subtle but it’s there.  On the one hand the downgrade is no big deal.  On the other we’re the scum of the earth.  It’s subtle but there is a distinct difference in these statements.  They resent us.  But they can’t live without us.  Kind of sweet.  In a bitter way.

In an explanation of the decision, S&P said that despite last week’s agreement, which raised the $14.3trillion debt ceiling and promised cuts of $2.5 trillion to the deficit over the next decade, the ratio of America’s public debt to the size of its economy may climb to 79pc in 2015 and 85pc by 2021. It is understood that an agreement that had delivered a $4 trillion reduction in the debt pile would have preserved the AAA rating.

S&P downgraded us, of course, for having too much debt.  Now debt grows from having annual deficits.  And deficits are caused by either taxing too little.  Or by spending too much.  S&P wanted to see the debt reduced by $4 trillion.  They only got $2.5 trillion.  Hence the downgrade. 

You can’t Reduce the Debt $4 Trillion by Raising Taxes, at least not Mathematically

Reducing the debt by $4 trillion won’t be easy.  That’s a lot of money.  About $333 billion each month.  Current tax revenue into Washington is about $200 billion each month.  So, to get this $4 trillion in deficit reduction with new taxes only would require raising monthly tax revenue from $200 billion to $533 billion (an increase of 166%).  Increasing taxes by 166% (income taxes, payroll taxes, capital gains taxes, etc.) is going to do some devastating economic damage.  The kind the economy is not going to get up and walk away from.  So it’s a non-solution.

But what about a balanced approach?  In addition to that $2.5 trillion in cuts we throw in $1.5 trillion in new taxes for a total $4 trillion in debt reduction.  $1.5 trillion is about $125 billion each month.  This would increase monthly tax revenue from $200 billion to $325 billion (an increase of 65%).  This will also do some serious economic damage.  So it’s a non-solution, too.

And sticking it to the ‘rich’ won’t work either.  For they can’t afford it.  Let’s look at the numbers.  The total adjusted gross income reported in 2009 was $7.626 trillion.  The percent of that total earned by the top 5% earners (earning $159,619 or more) is 31%.  So the total income of the top 5% in 2009 is $2.36 trillion.  Total federal income taxes paid in 2009 was $1.05 trillion.  The top 5% of earners pay 59% of all federal income taxes.  So the total they paid in income taxes in 2009 is $570 billion.  This leaves a balance of $1.79 trillion of their earnings they didn’t pay in federal income taxes, or about $150 billion each month.  Which is not enough to pay an additional $333 billion each month.  But it is enough to pay an additional $125 billion each month.  As long as these people are willing to pay an effective federal income tax rate of 87.6%.  Which I doubt.  For another 12.4% in taxes (state, country, local, property, gas, sales, etc.) and they’re working for free.  Like a slave.  Only without the free room and board.

You can’t reduce the debt enough by raising taxes a lot.  Or a little.  The rich people (those earning $159,619 or more) will run out of earnings before they can pay the $4 trillion in debt reduction.  It’s just mathematically impossible.  The only way you can do this is by cutting spending.  And they didn’t.  Hence the downgrade.

Paul Krugman ‘defends’ Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s Deficits

Meanwhile, while the S&P tragedy unfolds, Paul Krugman ‘defends’ Ronald Reagan‘s and George W. Bush‘s deficits.  Saying that big deficits aren’t a big deal.  And we don’t have to knock ourselves out trying to pay down the debt they create.  For depreciation of the dollar makes those once large numbers become trivial (see The Arithmetic of Near-term Deficits and Debt by Paul Krugman posted 8/6/2011 on The New York Times).

What matters for debt sustainability is the real interest rate, since what matters is keeping real debt, not nominal debt, from growing. (World War II debt never got paid off, it just eroded in real terms to the point where it was trivial). As of yesterday, the US government could lock in 30-year bonds at a real interest rate of 1.25%. That means that a trillion dollars in extra debt would mean $12.5 billion a year in additional real interest payments.

Meanwhile, the CBO estimates potential real GDP in 2021 at about $18 trillion in 2005 dollars, or around $19 trillion in 2011 dollars.

Put these together, and they say that an extra trillion in borrowing adds something like 0.07% of GDP in future debt service costs. Yes, that zero belongs there. The $4 trillion S&P said it needed to see clocks in at less than 0.3% of GDP.

Of course I’m extrapolating his remarks to apply them to the Reagan and Bush deficits.  For if they hold for a $1.6 trillion dollar deficit then they surely hold for a $200 billion (Reagan) and a $400 billion deficit (Bush).  The key is to make that old debt worth less by making the dollar worth less.  The more you devalue the dollar the less that debt held by the Chinese is worth.  As well as the debt held by pension funds and retirement accounts.  And our personal savings.  For inflation is a killer of dollar-denominated assets.  Which is good for the debtor (the seller of treasuries).  But bad for the creditor (the buyer of treasuries).

Further extrapolating Krugman’s remarks one must conclude that with the deficit being trivial he would endorse the economic boom of the Eighties.  And agree that Reaganomics was a success.  For the argument has always been that Reaganomics traded exceptional GDP growth for deficits.  But with deficits being trivial, there is no tradeoff for that exceptional GDP growth.

To Live within our Means we will have to Cut Spending 

True, inflation will make bonds easier to redeem 30 years later.  But too much inflation causes a lot of damage.  Especially to those living on fixed incomes.  No, a better solution would be to live within our means.  And that doesn’t mean raising taxes.  Besides, the rich don’t have much left to give.  No, if we’re going to live within our means we will have to cut spending.  As painful as that may be.  And the longer we wait to make those cuts the more painful those cuts will be.

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Obama Threatens Seniors and Veterans if he doesn’t get his Way in the Budget Debate to Raise the Debt Limit

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 13th, 2011

Hypocrisy is a Two Way Street

Arguing over debt limits is nothing new.  Neither is the hypocrisy.  It’s not about doing the right thing.  It’s about politics.  Always has been (see Debt Crisis Déjà Vu by Howard Kurtz posted 7/12/2011 on The Daily Beast). 

Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad is losing patience with arguments for raising the debt ceiling.

“The question is: Are we staying on this course to keep running up the debt, debt on top of debt, increasingly financed by foreigners, or are we going to change course?” he asked.

But Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley says there is no alternative, with lawmakers facing “a choice between breaking the law by exceeding the statutory debt limit or, on the other hand, breaking faith with the public by defaulting on our debt…”

“To pay our bills,” said John Kerry, who had just lost his presidential bid, “America now goes cup in hand to nations like China, Korea, Taiwan, and Caribbean banking centers. Those issues didn’t go away on Nov. 3, no matter what the results.”

And always will be.  Parties typically stand by their president.  As the Republicans stood with George W. Bush in 2006.  Who then made the same arguments that the Democrats are making now.  And the Democrats are making the same arguments now that the Republicans made then.  Nothing ever changes.  Just their principles change to suit the politics.

In fact, every Senate Democrat—including Barack Obama and Joe Biden—voted against boosting the debt ceiling, while all but two Senate Republicans voted in favor. It was Bush’s fourth debt-ceiling hike in five years, for a total of $3 trillion.

Eric Cantor and John Boehner voted then to raise the ceiling, and on other occasions during the Bush administration; now they’re leading the opposition. Obama, who warned Tuesday in a CBS interview that he can’t guarantee Social Security checks will go out after the August 2 deadline, has said his 2006 vote was a mistake.

Obama and Biden were against raising the debt limit then because it was fiscally irresponsible.  They’re for it now.  Even though the debt is higher.  And more fiscally irresponsible.

Obama said his 2006 vote was wrong?  I guess we can forgive him being that he was young and inexperienced coming into the U.S. Senate.  Of course, he was even more young and inexperienced as far presidents are concerned.  So perhaps his policy is wrong, too, like that 2006 vote.  The stimulus.  The auto bailout.  The Wall Street bailout.  All that Keynesian tax and spend.  Perhaps when he grows up and learns from experience he will be saying he was ‘wrong’ a lot more often.

Monetary Policy fails to Eliminate the Business Cycle

And speaking of all that Keynesian policy, how has it worked?  (see Bernanke: Fed May Launch New Round of Stimulus by Jeff Cox posted 7/13/2011 on CNBC). 

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress Wednesday that a new stimulus program is in the works that will entail additional asset purchases, the clearest indication yet that the central bank is contemplating another round of monetary easing…

Markets reacted immediately to the remarks, sending stocks up sharply in a matter of minutes. Gold prices continued to surge past record levels, while Treasury yields moved higher as well.

It hasn’t been working.  But never say die.  Just because QE1 and QE2 failed it doesn’t necessarily mean QE3 will fail.  But it will.  And it will further depreciate the U.S. dollar.  Which is why gold prices and Treasury yields are up.  They’re priced in dollars.  So when you make the dollar smaller, you need more of them to buy things priced in dollars.

The Fed recently completed the second leg of its quantitative easing program, buying $600 billion worth of Treasurys in an effort to boost liquidity and get investors to purchase riskier assets…

“The possibility remains that the recent economic weakness may prove more persistent than expected and that deflationary risks might reemerge, implying a need for additional policy support,” Bernanke told the House Financial Services Committee on the first of two days of Capitol Hill testimony.

Bernanke also said it was possible that inflationary pressures spurred by higher energy and food prices may end up being more persistent than the Fed anticipates.

So the Fed is looking at policy to fight both inflation and deflation.  Interesting.  Because you use monetary policy to fight one with the other.

This is the Business Cycle that Keynesian economics purportedly did away with.  As inflation starts rising you contract the money supply via higher interest rates.  As deflation reduces asset value you lower interest rates to stimulate borrowing and asset buying.  There’s only one problem to this Keynesian economics theory.  It doesn’t work.

Playing with interest rates to stimulate borrowing does stimulate borrowing.  People take advantage of low rates, take out loans and buy assets.  Like houses.  In fact, there is such a boon in the housing market from all this stimulated borrowing that house prices are bid up.  Into a bubble.  That eventually pops.  And a period of deflation sets in to correct the artificially high housing prices resulting from artificially low interest rates.

The Dollar Loses against the Embattled Euro

So how bad is the depreciation of the dollar (see Bernanke says more support possible if economy weakens posted 7/13/2011 on the BBC)? 

The dollar extended earlier losses against the euro following Mr Bernanke’s comments, with the euro rising more than a cent to $1.4088.

The Eurozone is teetering on collapse with the Greek crisis.  Especially if their problems spread to the larger economies of Italy and Spain.  Further pressuring the Euro.  The Euro had been falling against the dollar.  It’s not anymore.  Not because the Euro is getting stronger.  But because the dollar is getting weaker.

Tax, Borrow, Print and Spend Keynesians love to Spend Money

And the safe haven from a falling dollar?  Gold (see Gold hits record high on Bernanke, euro worries by Frank Tang posted 7/13/2011 on Reuters).

Gold surged to a record above $1,580 an ounce on Wednesday as the possibility of more Federal Reserve stimulus coupled with Europe’s deepening debt crisis gave bullion its longest winning streak in five years…

Gold benefits from additional U.S. monetary easing because such a move would likely weaken the dollar and stir inflation down the road.

“The worst thing for gold would be to have the economy doing well enough that the Federal Reserve starts to normalize monetary policy, or conditions in the European Community begin to settle down,” said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott, a broker/dealer with $54 billion in assets.

That’s right.  Gold loves bad monetary policy.  And it loves Keynesian economics.  Because the weaker the dollar gets the more expensive gold gets in U.S. dollars.  Gold says, “Print on, Chairman Bernanke.  Keep printing those dollars.  I’ve never felt so alive and powerful.”

Gold is a tangible asset.  Dollars are just pieces of paper.  Gold gets more valuable during periods of inflation because you can’t print gold.  That’s why Keynesian governments refuse to reinstitute the gold standard.  Because having the power to print dollars lets them spend more money than they have.  And tax, borrow, print and spend Keynesians love to spend money.

Democrats Screwing Seniors and Veterans to get their Way

One government advantage of printing money is reducing the value of dollar-priced assets.  Such as government debt.  Economists call it monetizing the debt.  By making the treasuries and bonds people invest their retirement in worth less, it costs less to redeem them.  This is bad for retirees who have to live their retirement on less.  But screwing retirees helps the government to spend more.

Despite this the debt is at a record level.  They still need to borrow more.  Screwing retirees just isn’t paying the bills anymore.  So President Obama, the Democrats and the Republicans have been bitterly arguing about raising the debt limit.  But making little progress (see Obama walks out of tense debt meeting: aide by Andy Sullivan, Reuters, posted 7/13/2011 on the Chicago Tribune).

President Barack Obama abruptly ended a tense budget meeting on Wednesday with Republican leaders by walking out of the room, a Republican aide familiar with the talks said.

The aide said the session, the fourth in a row, was the most tense of the week as House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, dismissed spending cuts offered by the White House as “gimmicks and accounting tricks.”

Gimmicks and accounting tricks are all the Democrats want to offer.  Because they just don’t want to cut back on spending.  It’s not who they are.  Big Government tax, borrow, print and spend Keynesians who love to spend money (see Eric Cantor: Obama abruptly walked out of debt meeting by Jonathan Allen posted 7/13/2011 on Politico).

President Barack Obama abruptly walked out of a debt-limit meeting with congressional leaders Wednesday, throwing into serious doubt the already shaky debt limit negotiations, according to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and a second GOP source.

Cantor said the president became “agitated” and warned the Virginia Republican not to “call my bluff” when Cantor said he would consider a short-term debt-limit hike. The meeting “ended with the president abruptly walking out of the meeting,” Cantor told reporters in the Capitol.

That bluff would be, off course, not printing Social Security checks or paying the military.  The Education Department will probably get paid.  But seniors will get screwed.  As those serving in the military.  And veterans.  Because when all else fails, take hostages.  Threaten their wellbeing unless you get what you want.

The Democrats believe it’s all their Money

Why is there such a divide between the Republicans and the Democrats?  It’s because of their underlying philosophies.  Republicans believe that this is a nation of ‘we the people’.  Whereas Democrats believe it’s a nation of ‘we the government’ (see We have a taxing problem, not just a spending problem by Ezra Klein posted 7/12/2011 on The Washington Post). 

The Bush tax cuts were not supposed to last forever. Alan Greenspan, whose oracular endorsement was perhaps the single most decisive event in their passage, made it very clear that they were a temporary solution to a temporary surplus. “Recent data significantly raise the probability that sufficient resources will be available to undertake both debt reduction and surplus-lowering policy initiatives,” Greenspan said in 2001.

Okay, so maybe he wasn’t so clear. But everyone knew what he meant. And, broadly speaking, they agreed. We had a big surplus. It was time to do something with it. Brad DeLong, a former Clinton administration official and an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, didn’t want to see the surplus spent on tax cuts. He wanted to see it spent on public investments. “Nevertheless,” he wrote in 2001, “it is hard to disagree with Greenspan’s position that — if our future economic growth is as bright as appears likely— it will be time by the middle of this decade to do something to drastically cut the government’s surpluses.”

The Democrats believe it’s all their money.  Any money they let us keep is ‘government spending’ in their world.  That’s why they call all ‘tax cuts’ government spending.  And not simply returning money to its rightful owners.

But the Republican Party refuses to let any of them expire. And forget admitting that tax cuts meant for surpluses don’t make sense during deficits; they refuse to admit that tax cuts have anything to do with deficits at all.

It’s this belief that stands in the way of a debt deal. “We have a spending problem, not a taxing problem,” Republicans say. If the federal government defaults on Aug. 2, that sentence will be to blame. What a shame, then, that the sentence is entirely, obviously, wrong.

Obviously?  What is obvious is that this person ignores the economic prosperity caused by JFK‘s tax cuts.  Ronald Reagan‘s tax cuts.  And George W. Bush’s tax cuts.  Tax cuts stimulate economic activity.  More economic activity means more tax dollars flowing into Washington.  As history has proven.  And yet the economically naive hang on to Keynesian theories despite their history of failure.  Because they think they are oh so smart.  When in reality they’re not.  Just lemmings unquestioningly following the party line.

The Democrats favor unlimited Taxing, Borrowing and Printing

The budget debate over raising the debt ceiling is not a financial debate.  It’s a political debate.  Currently, the politics have the Republicans opposing the increase.  And the Democrats favoring it.  This is actually more in line with their underlying philosophies.  Democrats believe it’s all their money and they want to keep more.  The Republicans believe the money belongs to the people who earned it and are trying to let them keep more of it.  So you would expect the Democrats to be in favor of unlimited taxing, borrowing and printing.  And Republicans in favor of less taxing, borrowing and printing.  Which is the case in the current budget debate.

The question now is who will blink first?  The Republicans fearing another 1995 government shutdown?  Or the Democrats who are doing the preponderance of bluffing?  (There’s almost $200 billion in cash coming into Washington each month.  If they don’t pay seniors and veterans, people will want to know who they felt was important enough to pay.)

The stakes have never been higher.  What happens in the current debate could very well determine the outcome of the 2012 election.  Oh, and the future of America.

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