Normative Narratives

Economic Outlook: “Starve the Beast”, MMT, Debt Sustainability and the Debt Limit

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I have, like many an economist, been preoccupied by the possibility of a U.S. debt default. How could our politicians willingly do something that is so obviously detrimental to American and global economic interests? Is there any precedent or historical clue which may shed some light on this phenomenon? It is possible, I would argue, that such a default is the current (and most heinous) manifestation of “starve the beast” political theory:

Starving the beast” is a political strategy employed by American conservatives in order to limit government spending[1][2][3] by cutting taxes in order to deprive the government of revenue in a deliberate effort to force the federal government to reduce spending. The short and medium term effect of the strategy has dramatically increased the United States public debt rather than reduce spending

On July 14, 1978, economist Alan Greenspan gave testimony to the U.S. Finance Committee: “Let us remember that the basic purpose of any tax cut program in today’s environment is to reduce the momentum of expenditure growth by restraining the amount of revenue available and trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending.”[5]

The earliest use of the actual term “starving the beast” to refer to the political-fiscal strategy (as opposed to its conceptual premise) was in a Wall Street Journal article in 1985 where the reporter quoted an unnamed Reagan staffer.[7]

Since 2000

The tax cuts and deficit spending of former US President George W. Bush‘s administration were attempts to “starve the beast.” Bush said in 2001 “so we have the tax relief plan […] that now provides a new kind—a fiscal straightjacket [sic] for Congress. And that’s good for the taxpayers, and it’s incredibly positive news if you’re worried about a federal government that has been growing at a dramatic pace over the past eight years and it has been.”[8]

Historian [Economist] Bruce Bartlett, former domestic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan, has called Starve the Beast “the most pernicious fiscal doctrine in history”, and blames it for the increase in US government debt since the 1980s.[18]

For a historical look at government revenue and expenditure, please see here. The most useful number (IMO), is the % GDP comparisons.

But what is the connection between “starve the beast” and the “debt limit”? The answer lies in a simple analysis of Modern Monetary Theory:

A pivotal issue in our discussion turns out to be whether the central bank can or should hold the nominal rate of interest on government debt, R, below the rate of growth of nominal GDP, G. (We could frame the discussion in real terms instead by subtracting the rate of inflation, ΔP, from both sides; it makes no difference.) If R is held below G, then essentially any level of the government’s budget deficit is “mathematically sustainable,” a term we have been using to mean that the debt-to-GDP ratio does not grow without limit over time. On the other hand, if R exceeds G, the budget balance must show a primary surplus, on average over the business cycle, to achieve mathematical sustainability of the debt. (See the first of the posts referenced above for a detailed discussion of the conditions for mathematical sustainability.) 

The essential argument of MMT is that if growth rates are greater than interest rates, debt is sustainable and a government can run a budget deficit indefinitely (governments, unlike households, do not die). Japan, with its Debt/GDP ratio almost twice as high as the U.S., is a primary example the difference between debt sustainability versus total debt. Many of Europe’s “trouble countries” have trouble with much lower debt / GDP ratios (than Japan); without control of printing money, they are at the mercy of markets to borrow. These markets have been charging troubled countries a higher “risk premium”, pushing these countries into damaging austerity policies in the face of depressed demand. It is not the level of debt, but the interest that needs to be paid on it, that determines debt sustainability in a MMT model. 

In order to truly starve the beast, it is not enough to deny the U.S. government of tax revenue; the obstructionist must also increase the governments borrowing cost. This is exactly what a debt default would do, lead to higher borrowing costs. In fact, one of the main arguments by liberal economists for stimulus spending–other than the social and economic benefits of employing a substantial portion an idle workers and stimulating demand–is that the cost for doing so is for all intents and purposes the same as if we were running a government surplus! True the Fed can set the interest rate it pays by expanding it’s balance sheet, but this is an extraordinary role for the Fed to use only the most dire liquidity trap, not a viable long-term policy (due to inflationary effects of increasing the money supply when the economy is near or at full capacity).

There is certainly no proof that this is specifically anyone’s agenda. However, the same ideologies are behind “starve the beast” policies are behind holding the debt-limit hostage for fiscal concessions. We have to at least question the motives of these politicians; they are “rational” people, and until now I have heard no rational reason for such an unprecedented default. If the goal is to convince their opponents, who are likely to have Post-Keynesian if not MMT views of political economy, that certain policies are unsustainable, a default is–an irreversible way–to achieve such goals.

As the self-proclaimed party of fiscal responsibility, the GOP is leading America down the road of ballooning interest payments. Interest payments  already make up a substantial portion of total expenditure (8% and growing, twice as much as the federal government spends on education). A default would cause these payments to be substantially bigger, further constricting fiscal space for important social programs. We wouldn’t be getting more for less, or even the same for the same amount, we would receive less services for the same levels of expenditure. It is not fiscally responsible, but then again “starve the beast” and their contemporary “Tea Party” advocates were never really about fiscal responsibility.

Furthermore, follow a debt default the ensuing global recession would greatly raise the unemployment rate, driving up the spending on “automatic stabilizer” welfare programs that would otherwise be trending downwards in tandem with a growing economy.

You may say that no elected official would ever act so heinously and against the interests of the government and the American people; I would say read up on the history of the “starve the beast” political philosophy. It should also be noted that a default does not actually need to pass in order to result in higher borrowing costs / lower growth (making borrowing unsustainable based on a MMT framework); the specter of a default is enough to achieve these goals (the next debt-limit debate is set for February 2014). 

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