It’s no secret that the Ryan-Murray budget deal (a.k.a., the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013) is modest. Many think that was the only way such a deal could be struck, and I am sympathetic to that view. However, I have now had the time to look over the numbers – and more importantly, the assumptions behind them – and as a result, I consider it a bad deal.
The top-line numbers seem beneficial, however minimally: $31 billion in increased defense spending over two years, $22 billion in net deficit reduction, and no explicit tax increases. However, the numbers simply don’t hold up to scrutiny. To understand why, one has to look at the particulars of the deficit reduction in the deal (CBO).
You’ll save how much? You sure about that?
We’ll start with the increase in the airline security fee. I am something of an agnostic on fee increases (if the government is providing services to individual customers, those customers should cover that cost; anything less subsidizes those customers and crowds out private sector competition where applicable). However, fee increase do have price effects: i.e., if you raise the price of air travel, you’ll have fewer air travelers. As this effect never seems to make it to Congressional score-keeping, the deficit reduction figure cited for this ($12.6 billion) is out of date and overestimated the moment it’s published.
A similar malady affects the $731 million estimated for the repeal of cost reimbursement for American-registered ships (if you know someone who makes Liberian flags, invest in the business) and the $2.1 billion for reduction in fees to lenders who “rehabilitate” (CBO’s word) student loans from default (fewer fees means fewer rehabs). All in all, over $15.4 billion in deficit reduction is ripe for economic erosion.
Hide the spending
Next up, we have cuts that aren’t really cuts, such as the $3.1 billion supposedly saved from ending mandatory payments to non-profit student loan servicers. There is only one problem (CBO):
Although this provision would reduce direct spending by an estimated $3.1 billion over the 2014-2023 period, those loans would still need to be serviced. As a result, CBO estimates that implementing this provision would require additional discretionary appropriations of roughly the same magnitude as the mandatory funding that would be eliminated.
In other words, that $3.1 billion still has to be spent, but since it’s being move to appropriations (which is still under the sequester), the deal’s supporters can pretend they made a cut, when all they really did was make a dodge.
A plan to revamp health benefits for federal employees ($2.8 billion) has the same chicanery, because spending on retirees would fall, but spending for active employees would rise:
The provision would reduce direct spending because the government contribution for health benefits for federal retirees is classified as direct spending. On the other hand, implementing the provision would increase spending subject to appropriation, assuming appropriation of the necessary funds, because the government contribution for health benefits for active federal employees is classified as discretionary spending.
That’s roughly $5.9 billion in phantom “cuts.” Added to the $15.4 billion from problematic assumptions, and we have $21.3 billion in “deficit reduction” that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Unfortunately, it’s even worse than that.
Don’t forget your discount!
One thing those of us in economics know is that a dollar today is more valuable than a dollar in, say, 2023. If you have to borrow that dollar today, you still have ten years of interest payments. In fact, the interest rate is a decent way to compare today’s dollar with 2023′s discounted version; hence the term discount rate.
I could go into a deep discussion about how even a spent dollar you don’t have to borrow is affected by the discount rate (since you can’t lend or invest it). However, since this is the federal government, we know every new dollar spent is borrowed. Even better, the discount rate standard is Treasury notes, which is exactly what the government would use to borrow the money. Thus the justification for discounting future savings makes perfect sense.
The effect of discounting is profound: the $22 billion in nominal deficit reduction plummets to $14 billion in present-value savings. Meanwhile, the questionable deficit reductions and dodges are barely discounted at all, to $19.7 billion. In other words, this deal is a bad one.
Now, you may wonder why the top-line deficit reduction fell so far when the discounting was applied, but the questionable figures didn’t. The reason is that the overall deficit reduction was mainly in the “out years,” where discounting (interest rate compounded) has the greatest effect. The dodges and question marks, by contrast, are mainly “front-loaded” in more immediate years. In other words, the riskiest and shadiest “deficit reduction” pieces are immediate, while the more certain savings are further off in the future, and thus less valuable. As a result, any real reduction in deficits is unlikely in this deal.
But there’s more defense spending! Yeah, about that
What is more likely to win conservatives and Republicans over on this deal is the increase in defense spending vis a vis the sequester. However, even that is far less than meets the eye. The $31 billion in higher defense spending over two years is less than 3% of the biennial overall defense budget. More importantly, the increase ends in 2016, meaning any new Pentagon projects funded by the $31 billion will have a sustainment tail with no money to back it up. If anything, this short-term blip could merely encourage people to make permanent obligations with temporary money.
So, in the end, I would opine that even the temporary increase in defense spending is less than advertised. It certainly isn’t worth a “deficit reduction” that is based on questionable assumptions, parlor games, and a hope that nobody notices interest payments and their effect on the value of money.
At the end of the day, the numbers in this budget deal just don’t hold up.