Normative Narratives


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Military Spending and “Moral Hazard”

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The ONE thing I have always agreed with President Trump about is that our NATO allies need to spend more on defense. But while Trump has certainly talked this talk, his actions have actually had the opposite effect by reinforcing a “moral hazard”.

You may be thinking, what is a moral hazard? It is “a situation in which one party gets involved in a risky event knowing that it is protected against the risk and the other party will incur the cost.”

In the case of the U.S. and our NATO allies, the “risky event” is NATO countries underinvesting in defense spending. Our allies are able to do this because they know they are protected by the U.S., who is the other party that will “incur the cost” through our massive defense budget.

I invoke this argument because the GOP often uses moral hazard as a justification when it proposes slashing spending on safety net programs (particularly healthcare programs). While I will not wade into that argument, hopefully framing my argument this way will resonate with some people who otherwise would not agree with my prescription for getting our allies to spend more on defense–by reducing (or at very least not increasing) our own defense spending. 

If anything, defense spending is better positioned for a moral hazard argument than safety net programs are. Moral hazard implies a choice is being made by a rational party based on cost, benefit, and risk. So what happens with the same choices when a person or country’s income rises? Wealthy people typically do not forgo health insurance, but wealthy nations sometimes do forgo adequate military spending, which is the crux of this whole issue. All this is not to say that a moral hazard does exist for military spending but not for safety net programs–I leave the reader to draw their own conclusions on that. The point of this little digression, rather, is to say that if you believe a moral hazard exists for safety net programs, it is hard to argue that one does not also exist for defense spending.

Regardless of your beliefs, this is not the first time that differentials in defense spending between the U.S. and our allies have been identified as a moral hazard. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a similar claim, as highlighted in an Op-Ed written about his final speech to NATO in 2011:

“Gates’s frustration was no doubt sparked by the realization that his department has become the victim of moral hazard. The United States provides a free security guarantee to Europe. Europeans, meanwhile, have responded in an economically rational way by taking greater risk with their external defense. With the collapse of the Soviet Union removing the last plausible military threat, it was logical for European policymakers to avoid spending on expensive space, communications, and intelligence systems that the United States was largely providing for free. 

Gates concluded his speech by warning Europe’s leaders that the next generation of U.S. leaders lacks nostalgia for the Cold War struggle and could walk away from the NATO alliance. In the future, Europe will undoubtedly have to do more for its external defense. That doesn’t seem like a problem now [2011] since there is no apparent external threat. But should they have to more fully insure themselves, European defense planners should consider how they would rebuild their defenses. They should consider how much time it would take to mobilize political and budgetary authority to prepare for these threats and how long it would take to rebuild the required military forces.”

Since that speech [June 2011] many of the external threats to our NATO allies, which Gates noted were then not present, have since emerged. Absent adequate European military capabilities to deter and/or respond to a threat, the Syrian Civil War metastasized from a seemingly containable conflict to the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII. Refugees from the war and other regional conflicts have shaken the E.U. to its foundations, leading to Brexit and increasing Euroscepticism across the continent. More directly, a European (albeit non NATO) country, Ukraine, was invaded and had territory annexed by Russia.

It is, therefore, past time that European countries started taking greater ownership of their collective military capabilities. As Gates correctly noted, mobilizing sufficient public support–a necessary initial step for policy change in democracies–takes time and political ability. Recognizing this fact, it seems that European politicians are far behind where they should be in terms of reconciling their respective electorates with this reality.

Even that U.S. leader who “lacks nostalgia for the Cold War struggle and could walk away from the NATO alliance” is now in power in President Trump. While Presidents Obama and Bush also pressured NATO countries to spend more on defense, they did so more diplomatically. Perhaps surprisingly, I do not think that was necessarily the right approach when it comes to the issue at hand; sometimes difficult things just have to be said candidly, and proper incentives provided, to get a desired outcome (especially when large sums of money are involved, and speaking diplomatically has continuously failed to produce the desired outcome).

I’m sure Donny would tell you, in his usual egomaniacal hyperbole, that “no one has been tougher on NATO spending than me”. While Trump’s words have been the toughest, just like his predecessors his policies are reinforcing this longstanding moral hazard. To see how, just follow the money; the U.S. continues to increase its defense spending (over $100 billion increase since Trump took office, up to $716 billion dollars in fiscal year 2019), sending the message that we will keep making up for the rest of NATOs shortfall–after all, actions speak louder than words.

In order to end this moral hazard, Trump has to not put taxpayer money where his mouth is by not increasing defense spending. Of course the military-industrial complex (and his bases’ blind support for military spending) won’t allow him to do that, regardless of what moral hazard or–much more importantly–the other needs of our nation demand. 

If we continue on this course we will ultimately be left with more military spending both now and in the future, as we decrease pressure on our NATO allies to build up their military capabilities. 

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Economic Outlook: Magic Asterisks v. Cross-Country Analysis

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The Great Debate Continues–The Austerity v. Stimulus Referendum of 2014:

It has been over 6 years since the beginning of “The Great Recession”. As the stimulus vs. austerity debate rages on, it is worthwhile to evaluate the efficacy of these competing economic ideologies, as they are essentially up for referendum in the 2014 U.S. midterm elections.

It is almost impossible to find truly neutral economic analysis; there are experts and spin-doctors across the political spectrum, people whose jobs are to cherry-pick facts and provide anecdotes to vindicate their positions. I try my best to be objective, but I am sure that my progressive biases are evident to my readers.

One thing that cannot be faked, at least in modern democracies, is macroeconomic history (thanks to advances in data collection, government budgetary transparency / accountability and communications technologies). So what have the past 6 years taught us?

On one hand, the doctrine of “expansionary austerity” relies on “magic asterisks“–the math doesn’t add up. This is not just a liberal claim, it is backed up by the [absence of] economic growth in countries and states that have tried / been force-fed the bitter pill of “expansionary austerity”.

On the other hand, robust, cross-country analyses of post-Great Recession economic policies, carried out by the IMF, have [slowly] acknowledged the damage caused by austerity / benefits of stimulus spending (and this is the IMF here, not exactly a pro-poor institution).

The Case For Austerity–Magic asterisks:

At the state level, Republican governors — and Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, in particular — have been going all in on tax cuts despite troubled budgets, with confident assertions that growth will solve all problems. It’s not happening, and in Kansas a rebellion by moderates may deliver the state to Democrats. But the true believers show no sign of wavering.

the nature of the budget debate means that Republican leaders need to believe in the ways of magic. For years people like Mr. Ryan have posed as champions of fiscal discipline even while advocating huge tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations. They have also called for savage cuts in aid to the poor, but these have never been big enough to offset the revenue loss. So how can they make things add up?

Well, for years they have relied on magic asterisks — claims that they will make up for lost revenue by closing loopholes and slashing spending, details to follow. But this dodge has been losing effectiveness as the years go by and the specifics keep not coming…

The Case For Stimulus–IMF Cross Country Analysis:

The International Monetary Fund, showing heightened concern over a slowing world economy, said on Tuesday that cash-rich countries like Germany needed to step up large public investments to help keep the flagging global recovery on track.

Its estimate for United States growth in 2015, 3.1 percent, outpaces all major industrialized countries and exceeds as well a number of emerging markets, which in theory are supposed to grow at a substantially more rapid clip.

The fund unveiled this week a paper arguing that large-scale infrastructure investments, if properly undertaken, could bring relatively quick growth benefits — a message that seemed to be directed at deficit-obsessed eurozone governments, including Germany.

“Infrastructure investment, even if debt-financed, may well be justified,” Olivier Blanchard, the fund’s senior economist, said at the news conference on Tuesday.

Mr. Blanchard pointed out that with interest rates at modern-day lows — Germany can borrow money for 10 years at below 1 percent — taking on extra debt to stimulate the economy need not be seen as profligacy.

He offered up a brief economic primer to underscore his point. “It is an irony of macroeconomics,” he said with a small smile, “that for countries with too much debt, sometimes the solution is to create more debt.”

Mr. Blanchard, who oversees economic research at the I.M.F., was behind the fund’s public recognition two years ago that heavy-handed austerity policies in Europe had a larger-than-expected impact on economic growth.

Now, it seems, the global watchdog seems to be going one step further by urging eurozone officials to relax their rigid austerity measures.

What Does “American Exceptionalism” Mean to You?:

In America, those who oppose stimulus spending–fiscal conservatives–also tend to believe in “American Exceptionalism”. What happens in other countries is not relevant to America; “we’re special”, they claim.

These same opponents of stimulus spending may also argue (with negative connotation) that “the U.S. is turning into Europe”. However,  as you can see from the graphs at the top of the post, the U.S. has far lower spending and unemployment rates than other wealthy economies.

The great irony, which I am sure is lost on those who worry about the “eurofication” of America, is that it was in large part our ability to pursue policies that they would consider “European” (the ARRA, QE), that enabled the U.S. to lead the global economic recovery.

I too believe in “American Exceptionalism”. To me, however, this exceptionalism is more about the extra-territorial obligations that come with being the world’s strongest economy, military, and reserve currency, than an heir of hubris which precludes considering the experiences of other countries when drafting policy. But that’s just my opinion.

Debt Sustainability, MMT, and Context Sensitive Macroeconomics:

The issue of debt sustainability, however, is far less subjective. America’s relatively high growth rates, and historically low interest rates (thanks to central bank independence and a sterling history of honoring our debts), make stimulus spending both feasible and fiscally responsible.

I am not fully sold on the merits of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), it seems too radical to me. I am, however, a proponent of context sensitive macroeconomics; expansionary fiscal policy (stimulus spending) is appropriate now, but may not always be. However, the temporal nature of democratic politics makes offering future deficit reductions in exchange for stimulus spending, impracticable (which is unfortunate, as this approach is just what the doctor ordered). 

Government spending need not take the form of “paying people to dig holes and then refill them”, a picture anti-government proponents love to paint. There are glaring infrastructure weaknesses that pose serious problems from both public safety and economic perspectives.

Furthermore, in the current context, government spending would not “crowd out” private investment. In fact, if properly enacted, stimulus spending should increase private spending. Governments around the world are increasingly embracing public private partnerships (PPP)–leveraging public money to raise private funds when it serves both sectors interests (such as infrastructure spending, job training, etc).

Corporate cash hording, despite very low interest rates, suggests that private companies are able and would be willing to spend more if either a) the government contributes funding (PPP), or b) aggregate demand increased (which in the short run can be catalyzed either by increasing government spending, or by putting more money in the hands of those with the highest marginal propensity to consume–poorer people).

Of course, there are limits to what stimulus spending can achieve. The “multiplier” effect of a stimulus program depends on the necessity, targetability, efficiency, and accountability of its components. Beyond government spending, major policy changes, such as tax reform and minimum wage increases, are also desperately needed.

Liberal economic policies in the U.S. cannot fix the world’s problems, but they can increase American growth, set our economy up for higher future growth rates, and rekindle “The American Dream”. The U.S can lead both by action and example, serving as a model for other countries to emulate as best they can.