28 February 2010


One of the basic problems we face today is that our appetites exceed our resources. Privately we are in debt, often to buy stuff we don’t really need, while publicly we are saddled with increasing public debt for things the government shouldn’t be doing. Americans at least have been paying down personal debt. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the federal government, which continues to run up record deficits. Many states are in even worse shape because unlike the feds, they cannot print money.

How have we arrived at this juncture? By allowing ourselves to be deluded by the sunshine scenario- that is that things are going well and will only get better so there will be more money in the future. This is how states like New York, California, Illinois, and others have gotten into trouble, along with countries like Greece and countless individuals who have overextended themselves. These states spent every penny of incoming revenue and then some at the height of an economic boom, then filling budget gaps with gimmicks to maintain a level of spending that never should have occurred in the first place. By taking the best case scenario as their baseline they have presumed that things will only get better with more growth generating more revenue. The logic here is that people are making more money so we should increase our cut. When revenues fall short their solution is ever higher taxes rather than spending cuts, which only drives people away if they are lucky enough to be able to move.

The great error here is using the sunshine scenario as a baseline by assuming that henceforth this is the minimum we will take in. As a result these states were thoroughly unprepared for a drop in revenues. The more prudent course would have been to baseline on more conservative assumptions, i.e. what current conditions yield, so that any further increase would ideally then go to tax reductions. The wise course would be to accept the current situation as the new normal, and use it as the baseline for future projections. There is a lesson to be learned here if politicians will adhere to it. Individuals in the U.S. are finally saving and cutting back, which in the real world ought to be a good thing, though some economists think it is bad. But financing the world economy on credit cards is as unsustainable as the current federal deficits we are running. These are also projected on the assumption of future growth. What we need is a zero baseline. That is the only way that government can be contained and get its fiscal house in order. Rather than projecting increasing deficits, we need a deficit reduction plan now. Then perhaps we can begin to align our appetites with our resources.

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