Even the liberal New York Times has journalists who see the big picture.
It’s Time to Face the Fiscal Illusion
FISCAL policy debates often focus on technocratic questions about how much money the government should spend and when, yet the actual course of events depends not on the experts but on politics. The more that our government runs up unfunded obligations and debt, the more we are setting a trap for ourselves.
James M. Buchanan, a Nobel laureate in economics — and my former colleague and now professor emeritus at George Mason University — argued that deficit spending would evolve into a permanent disconnect between spending and revenue, precisely because it brings short-term gains. We end up institutionalizing irresponsibility in the federal government, the largest and most central institution in our society. As we fail to make progress on entitlement reform with each passing year, Professor Buchanan’s essentially moral critique of deficit spending looks more prophetic.
We are fooling ourselves most of all. United States government debt in public hands is now more than $9 trillion, but most people still don’t realize what it will take to pay that off.
Keynesian economics talks of the “fiscal illusion” created by government debt: the issuance of such debt can stimulate the economy in the short run by encouraging a false perception of wealth and thus bolstering consumer spending. But, eventually, the books must balance. There is then a fiscal crunch, a sudden retrenchment of plans and great rancor over budgets, as we have been seeing lately at both the federal and the state level.
The famous Keynesian rejoinder, “In the long run we are all dead,” is less comforting when that long run comes into sight. Short-run planning is a hard carousel to stop, especially when there are frequent election cycles, but the federal government must act soon. Limiting Medicare and Social Security spending involves re-indexing benefits, adjusting eligibility ages, shifting the growth rates of costs and making other changes that have their full fiscal impact only over the longer run.
Yet we are postponing even these actions. Experts’ recommendations might lead us toward a fiscal smooth landing, but at this point the fiscal illusion — and not the advice of experts — is in control. So Professor Buchanan’s argument is ringing true.
Now that fiscal constraints are starting to bite, many politicians are afraid to reform or even to discuss changes in the largest problem areas: Medicare and Medicaid. Yes, some laudable cost controls on Medicare are embedded in the new health care law, but they’re not enough. Most likely, we will end up making other spending cuts that won’t solve our fiscal problems — and in areas that could instead benefit from Keynesian employment stimulus. These kinds of knee-jerk, poorly reasoned decisions are what happens when fiscal illusion reigns. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/busin ... odayspaper
Fiscal austerity may sometimes sound like a dogmatic religion, but fixed principles often help us do the right thing, especially when temptation beckons. Professor Buchanan argued that the real choice was between a religion of budget balance and a rule of illusion. Seeking an optimal technocratic path is not on the menu.