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The future US fiscal crisis and how to avert it w/ Romina Boccia, Cato Institute – EP159

The Cato Institute’s Romina Boccia explains why she’s concerned about a future US fiscal crisis. She explains how entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare are the source of the problem. 

This episode’s guest Romina Boccia is Director of Budget and Entitlement Policy at the Cato Institute, where she specializes in federal spending, budget process, economic implications of rising debt, and Social Security and Medicare reform.

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation

Romina’s Cato Institute profile

Romina’s first post for the Cato Institution: Joining Cato to Restrain the Federal Budget Leviathan

Council on Foreign Relations article containing deficit projections which Gene mentions: The National Debt Dilemma

U.S. News article: How Much You Will Get From Social Security

Transcript: The future US fiscal crisis and how to avert it w/ Romina Boccia, Cato Institute – EP159

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on economics explored,

Romina Boccia  00:04

The better solution is to realise that we are on a highly precarious fiscal trajectory even under the best circumstances. And now is the time to adjust our fiscal scenario to reduce the growth in spending.

Gene Tunny  00:21

Welcome to the economics explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is episode 159 on the US federal budget and debt. My guest is Romina Boccia, Director of budget and entitlement policy at the Cato Institute. Romina is concerned that the US is on a path toward a fiscal crisis. We chat about why this is so and what can be done about it. Please check out the show notes, relevant links and details of how you can get in touch. You can send me an email or a voice message. Please get in touch and let me know what you think about what either Romina or I have to say in this episode, I’d love to hear from you. Right now for my conversation with Romina Boccia about the US federal budget. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. Hope you enjoy it. Romina Boccia, a director of budget and entitlement policy at the Cato Institute. Romina, great to be speaking with you today.

Romina Boccia  01:26

Thanks so much for having me on your show, Gene.

Gene Tunny  01:29

Oh, it’s, it’s excellent. So you’ve joined Cato in recent months, haven’t you Romania. And I read one of your pieces in which you are introducing yourself at Cato. And you wrote that, today I am joining the Cato Institute, to do my part to prevent a severe US fiscal crisis by restraining the federal budget Leviathan. I’ll write and speak about federal spending, the budget process, the economic implications of rising debt, and Social Security and Medicare reform. So really big topics there. To start off with, could I ask you, what do you mean by a fiscal crisis? Just how bad do you think things currently are? How bad could they get in the US?

Romina Boccia  02:26

Yes, you know, the thing with a fiscal crises is a bit like when, whether you’re entering a recession or not that you don’t quite know if you’re in it until you’re in it. And in the United States scenario, there are quite a few factors that make it even more difficult to predict if our when a fiscal crisis might occur, because the United States, of course, as you’re aware, provides the US dollar, which is a world, the primary world reserve currency, which allows the United States government to get away with a lot worse fiscal policy than another nation state might. But that doesn’t mean that lawmakers in the United States can just rest on those laurels. And think that they can spend and borrow as much as they would like in order to satisfy their constituent spending demands, without facing any consequences for that. So what I mean by fiscal crises, and we’ve seen this in various countries over the course of roughly 800 to 1000 years of history. Carmen, Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart did an excellent book on this, that, despite a small mistake they made in a research paper, which was corrected later on, still stands in its lessons. And that was over 800 years of history of public debt, and how that affects the countries that accumulate that debt. And so, in, in the scenario of US fiscal crisis, we could potentially face a sudden and very high rise in interest rates, much higher and much more sudden than we’re currently experiencing. And that could result in disrupting productive investments severely lead us into a significant recession. And this could also potentially precede an episode of hyperinflation, which is something that other countries have lived through in the past. I’m originally from Germany, that has a history of hyperinflation after World War Two. And, and that type of rapid accelerating out of control inflation would be very, very damaging to the country, disrupting employment, markets and causing a tremendous pain for US households. And even just, you know, the recent bout of inflation, which was quite severe and not something that the US population has experienced in a long time. Even that doesn’t come close to what we might potentially face in a hyperinflationary scenario. And in the long run, if the US is fiscal standing were to change significantly if the dollar were to lose its prominent status as a world reserve currency, if markets employment investment were severely disrupted, if inflation got out of control, and the Fed wasn’t able to put this genie back in the bottle, it could also have other unforeseen ramifications affecting the security and global standing of the United States as an economic powerhouse as a foreign powerhouse. And also, its, its attractiveness as a destination for immigrants, investment, etc. My point is that lawmakers are playing with fire. And the sooner they come to reckon with that fact and start making amends, the higher the likelihood that we will be able to avert such a fiscal crisis. But it’s it’s a tough pill to swallow because the programmes that are driving us into this large and rising debt, and that could potentially precipitate a fiscal crisis in the future, who knows when those are also the most popular federal government programmes, namely, Social Security and Medicare, which is why in my work, I want to be focused on making reforms to those drivers of growing spending.

Gene Tunny  06:57

Right. Okay, so you mentioned hyperinflation, and we had a, I had a conversation in the last episode about hyperinflation and you refer to the hyperinflation. So Germany had very extreme, it had hyperinflation after the First World War, when the Weimar Republic, and, I mean, there’s a certain set of circumstances that lead to hyperinflation, I mean, a breakdown of your economic system, really your tax, the ability to raise taxes, and then the government turns on the printing press. So that’s the worst case. But short of that your, I think, uh, you’re, you’re concerned about them? Are you concerned about them having to make rapid adjustments, cutting other programmes to be able to service the interest bill or having to raise taxes? Is that the type of scenario you have in mind.

Romina Boccia  07:54

I think that in a, in a lower severity scenario, what we’ve, what we’ll see is much higher tax rates in the United States in the future, which will negatively impact growth and standards of living, and could also undermine the United States as a, as a, as an innovation powerhouse. There’s also a scenario where the debt continues to rise, lawmakers avoid tax increases, and we find ourselves in more of a Japan like stagnation where the economy barely grows, or maybe growth is even negative for some period of time. That’s another, that’s another alternative, which is also not very desirable. Or in, a in a worst scenario. You know, I don’t, I don’t see lawmakers making rapid changes to Social Security and Medicare unless they had no other options left. Yeah, because their primary interest is to get reelected. So I could see us more likely entering into a high inflation scenario in an attempt to continue to pay these benefits, despite there not being the revenue for it. And, you know, the United States can, can and does print its own money. And we’ve seen several bouts of so-called quantitative easing, which are a version of that, where that unfortunately, to me seems more likely than significant changes to entitlement programmes unless we can strike some kind of a grand bargain, which has happened in other nations before. One scenario found quite illustrative is, Sweden went through some significant budgetary reforms. Many of its means tested and other social insurance programmes. And while Sweden still has much higher tax rates than the United States, they’ve, they’ve been able to get to a place where they’re roughly balancing their budget over time. And that is certainly a more stable scenario than the rapid. And at times accelerating increase in the deficit that we’ve seen in the United States. Of course, we’re coming out of a very highly unusual period of time, with massive supplemental spending bills due to the COVID pandemic, and unprecedented deficits. And those are now declining, because we’re not spending as much as we did during the pandemic, but still, us spending as a steep upward trajectory. And most of it, most of that growth will be financed by additional borrowing, which is, which is quite troubling.

Gene Tunny  10:50

Yeah. So you’ve got deficits projected out for the next few decades, if I remember correctly, I think there was a CBO. Or actually, yeah, Office of Management and Budget, congressional and Congressional Budget Office, there’s a chart from the Council on Foreign Relations, I’ll put a link in the show notes. But it’s got the federal deficit, going from several percentage points of GDP, wherever it is now. And then over the next 30 years, it goes, this is all business as usual, if you just assume nothing changes, and I mean, hopefully something changes, they’ve got it getting up to over 13% of GDP, this is the deficit by 2050. Are these the types of projections you’re looking at Romina. And that’s what’s informing your commentary on this?

Romina Boccia  11:42

Yes, so the Congressional Budget Office is a very reliable primary source in the US Congress. It’s a nonpartisan agency that provides information to Congress. However, they are somewhat limited in how they do projections as well. And there have been some questions about some of their assumptions pertaining to fertility and growth, and at times under estimating the potential increase in higher interest rates. So there are some alternative scenarios as well that we consider as fiscal scholars. So we have a range of potential outcomes that we look at. None of them are very good. The current Congressional Budget Office projections are also in many ways, too optimistic. Because the Congressional Budget Office is, is tasked with projecting the deficit and debt and spending levels based on assumptions of current policy. Now, there are many policies, especially tax policies, but also some spending policies in the US context that have been intentionally adopted for a temporary period of time, like certain middle class tax cuts that are slated to expire that were put in place by the Trump administration by 2025. And it seems highly unlikely that Congress will allow those to expire. Because of the families and individuals, middle class families and individuals that would be affected, it would seem like that would not be very politically popular. So if we run alternative assumptions, where those tax cuts get extended, the, the debt scenario going forward looks a lot worse. We’re going from 185% of GDP and publicly held debt over the next 30 years from the current 110% level, to more than doubling to 260% of GDP, and that, again, over 30 years doesn’t take into account that there might be natural disasters, that there could be another war, or the US might get involved in a current active war more so than it has in the past. Or that there could be another pandemic. I mean, lots of things can happen over the next 30 years. And none of those are taken into account with those projections. So again, the better solution is to realise that we are on a highly precarious fiscal trajectory, even under the best circumstances, and now is the time to to adjust our fiscal scenario to reduce the growth in spending. And because that’s what’s driving it, you know, tax revenues are above their historical average level, even with the economy slowing down. And so that’s not what’s driving the growth in the debt and the deficit. It’s it’s very much on spending and primarily spending on so called entitlement programmes and their entitlement programmes, because you don’t have to be poor, you don’t have to. Yeah, you don’t have to be in grave need in order to qualify. Medicare and Social Security are primary or really old age entitlements, with some contributions made by individuals over their lifetimes, but not contributions in the sense of contributions made to say a 401 K, which is the US retirement account that individuals contribute to, they make their defined contributions, and then they own those assets in those accounts. That’s not how these programmes work. There are tax and spend programmes or pay as you go programmes where current workers have financing benefits, health care and retirement benefits for the retire generation. And, of course, lawmakers were able to make promises to these individuals without concerning themselves with how those benefits would be paid. No provision was made to pay those benefits, even social security in the United States context where for some time, there were surpluses, that the programme was accumulating, but they were spend immediately on other federal government priorities. They weren’t saved for Social Security. So now that those bills are coming due, Social Security is already running deficits. Those those those, those prior surplus funds there, they don’t they don’t exist anymore. They would just spend on other priorities. And now Congress would need to raise taxes, or in this case, they’re borrowing more to make up for, for that discrepancy and what they’ve promised current beneficiaries, current retirees, and what they’re able to collect from current workers.

Gene Tunny  17:00

Yeah, I remember reading in the 80s. Or maybe I read the book in the early 90s, that the last time people were worried about the US deficit and debt. This was before the 90s, before Clinton and Gingrich struck some sort of accommodation struck, struck some sort of deal and then managed to get the budget under control for a while. I remember there was a book by Benjamin Friedman, who was at Harvard and day of reckoning. And, and the concern there was because of the tax cuts in the 80s, and the big spending on the, the defence, all of the defence spending, which I mean, arguably lead to the demise of the Soviet Union. So big tick there, but did blow out the deficit. I think the way Friedman described it was that there was a Social Security Trust Fund and the government just took the money out of it and put IOUs in it. So is that right that? Is that roughly right there there? What the I think this is what you were talking about. There was a surplus, but then that money was spent on other purposes?

Romina Boccia  18:12

Yes, the, that’s roughly right. The Social Security trust fund is mainly it’s an accounting mechanism. But it isn’t a trust fund, like you would think about it in the economic or investment sense. Because those trust, investment trust funds would hold real economic assets, could be a portfolio of stocks and bonds. Treasury securities, cash, you name it. The Social Security trust fund is an accounting mechanism for internal governmental purposes. It’s basically is a provision in law that allows Social Security to continue to pay benefits, even when current taxes are no longer sufficient to pay for those benefits. And to find the money elsewhere, in this case, from the Treasury through borrowing by selling more US debt in, in open markets. But those Yeah, those assets, there were no assets in it ever. The way it works is when employers pay payroll taxes or self employed individuals pay their payroll taxes, they go to the Treasury just with, with their income taxes and every and all other tax revenue that the Treasury is collecting. There’s no distinction made, whether those are payroll taxes that are supposed to be designated for Social Security or income taxes or, or corporate taxes. It all gets muddled at that point. And then that money just goes out for current government spending. The US federal government doesn’t have a policy of, say, of saving. And, and so that never happened. Now, the best way in my view, to establish financial security in old age for individuals, if you’re going to have mandatory government programme to, let’s say, help individuals to save for their, for the later years, because apparently, we don’t trust individuals to be able to do that for themselves, then the best way to do it is to do it in a defined contribution way, rather than the current system, which is more akin to a defined benefit system, where you qualify for certain benefit, regardless of what you paid into the system or, or how much money is in the system to pay out those benefits. So a defined contribution system, you would actually set up a savings mechanism, you might invest those funds in the market. Now, I’m not really comfortable with the federal government getting involved in that to a great degree, I would be much more comfortable with individuals being able to own and control the funds in their own accounts. Because the government, as always is subject to special interest pressure, we’re seeing this in the United States with pension funds in the state local level right now, where you have special interest groups, especially the environmental left pushing to disinvest, from fossil fuels and, and other areas of the economy that they disagree with, where there’s more concern for pushing a political agenda through these public investments, then the primary consideration which should be gains for the beneficiaries of these accounts, and I would see a very similar risk if the US government adopted a system of private social security accounts, but actually controlled the investments in those so much better for individuals to be able to control and own their own retirement funds. Though in the big picture, I don’t even think that that is necessary anymore in a way for the federal government to get involved with. I think that the best role the government could play as just to provide a minimum level of security in old age, with the goal of protecting older individuals from falling into poverty if they run out of their own, own resources because they live longer than perhaps they were expecting, or they had low incomes all their lives, and were never really able to save a whole lot, or maybe they fell on hard times their business went went bankrupt, you name it, there’s all sorts of scenarios why individuals can find themselves in need of help. But in terms of private retirement savings, we live in an era where it is so simple to set up auto enrolment savings, to have automatic investments through Target Date retirement funds and other index funds where you don’t have to be a financial whiz to manage your own retirement investments. You can, you can do so much more easily than was the case 85 years ago, when a Social Security first originated. So I questioned the need for a forced, a government based force mechanism for individuals to provide for their own security in old age. I think a minimum poverty level benefit, combined with private individual savings that are owned and controlled by individuals themselves, make much more sense and also take those funds out of the hands of the government which of course, spent the money when it was collecting Social Security funds. They didn’t go towards social security in the end, they went to defence, they went to other social programmes. They went to subsidies and corporate welfare and all sorts of places, but not for their intended use.

Gene Tunny  24:03

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

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Gene Tunny  24:37

Now back to the show. Can I ask about Social Security? So your ,Are you suggesting that the level of social security in the US it’s too generous and that those benefits should be cut? Is that what you’re suggesting? So and that would encourage people to, to save in their own way retirement accounts.

Romina Boccia  25:02

Yes, I’m very much suggesting this. And the benefits are too generous in a number of ways, one of which is that the eligibility age for Social Security has barely budged in light of significant increases in life expectancy. That means that the number of years that have been that individuals are eligible to collect social security benefits has risen significantly. While the number of years that they have to, they’re required to work to qualify for those benefits has not. And so you get an imbalance there, where when Social Security was first launched, the eligibility age was actually above the life expectancy of, of that age, such that very few individuals were expected to ever claim that benefit, it was primarily set aside for those lucky or poor souls who outlive their peers. But today, the Social Security aged early claiming ages is still 62. Right? And, and individuals now live to be roughly 78, which is the current roughly the current life expectancy in the United States. And so there’s many, many more years that individuals can claim those benefits, but they don’t have to work any longer. So that has made the programme more generous over time. And also more unaffordable. Another factor is that the highest income earners receive the highest benefits from Social Security. And they need those benefits the lease. Yeah, so one way to fix the financial picture and also focus benefits on those individuals who need the most. If that was the original intent of old age income support programme, would be to Means test those benefits. Now, I think a fairer way to do this would be by adjusting the benefit formula. So the Means Test doesn’t apply once individuals are in retirement, especially if they’ve done the right thing. They, they work their, their whole lives, they set aside their own funds, so they could enjoy a comfortable retirement. We don’t want to penalise those individuals for doing the right thing for saving for their own needs. But there are ways of making the benefit formula more progressive, that acts as a means test as well. Except it considers lifetime earnings rather than just income in retirement.

Gene Tunny  27:48

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. Romina. It didn’t occur to me that was the case that the more you earn, the more the government pays you in Social Security after when you retire. So I was just looking on the web. And I’ll put links in the show notes regarding this. So the average social, social security benefit is $1,657 per month, that was in January 2022. So conceivably, there are people getting more than that from the federal government each month as in Social Security. And, yeah, I can see the logic in, in changing that formula.

Romina Boccia  28:31

You’re correct about the average Social Security benefit, but there are some higher income earners can collect up closer to $3,300 per month in Social Security benefits. And that doesn’t account for if you’re looking at a married couple, an additional spousal benefit, that, that would bring their security benefit more than 4500 to $5,000 per month range.

Gene Tunny  29:02

Yeah. And some of these households probably don’t need it because they’ve got other assets, they own their own home, they’ve got investments, etc. Okay. Now, that’s, that’s Social Security. Is that the big? That’s the big programme driving the future deficits, is it or to what to what extent is it Medicare and Medicaid? Do they play a role too?

Romina Boccia  29:25

Yes, Medicare is actually the elephant in the room. Because with Social Security, you’re primarily looking at a fairly predictable benefit formula where you consider demographic factors like fertility rates, the number of new workers in the United States, including immigrants, and then when do, when do people reach the eligibility age roughly in their mid 60s, and what is their life expectancy? And so right now we’re going through a big growth spurt in Social Security as the baby boomers started retiring at, at significant rates, I want to say it was 11,000 per day. 10,000 per day, I think it was 10,000 per day starting in 2011. And over a 20 year period of time, we’re moving through this big bubble of baby boomers entering the Social Security and Medicare systems. Once we’re through that baby boom, bubble, there’s a decline in fertility after that baby boom. And so Social Security roughly levels out at 6% of GDP. And then, you know, fluctuates around around there. But with Medicare, because you’re looking at a health insurance programme, and health care costs are rising steeply, and don’t seem to be slowing down. And what we also know is that health care is a luxury good, where as societies become wealthier, they desire to consume more health care. So wealthier societies tend to increase the portion of their budgets that they spend on health care, not all of which is is very well spend, we also know that much of healthcare expenditures are going towards the signalling or showing that you care, and paying for medical treatments for conditions that that don’t respond well to those treatments for a number of incentives. And that were spending the most during individuals final years of their lives, where perhaps that additional dollar of healthcare spending isn’t doing that much good anymore. But all of those factors are driving up the growth in health care spending. And that seems to be just going up with that with none of that leaving and inside, if you will, for where it will taper off, we can’t we don’t know when or if it will taper off. And so Medicare is the big elephant in the room. And there too, you have very similar issues where, again, the eligibility age is roughly 65 hasn’t gone up, as individuals are living longer. So increasing the retirement age and then indexing the age of eligibility to increases in life expectancy is a very common sense, change that would help alleviate some of the cost drivers. And the other one, again, is that you should consider how much of a health care subsidy you should be giving, if any, to to high income earners. Those individuals who are capable of paying for their own health care, and retirement should pay for a larger share of it. So that you can focus benefits on those individuals who need them to most means testing is one very, very common sense way of adjusting how much you know, the programme spends and who would spend that money on and to get more in line with what incoming revenues and not to drive up the deficit too much. But in the big picture, I think we we’ve come to over rely on a third party payment system where there’s a lot of treatments and even administrative costs are skyrocketing. Because there’s very little consumer interaction in this marketplace. So much is paid. The vast majority of health care expenditures are paid through insurance systems, I think the best use of an insurance system is to pay for catastrophic health care to pay for very expensive chronic conditions to pay for, you know, a big accidents that, that incur large medical costs for individuals, but not for routine healthcare needs. And that’s that’s where we’ve ended up over over several decades of shifting towards a system of third party payment. And, and one of the big reasons in the United States for that is after World War Two, the health care tax exclusion for employer provided health care has really driven up the cost of health care in the United States. And we should have fairer treatment for individuals who are self employed or who choose not to use their employer’s health care to be able to at least get the same tax treatment as their employer. Better yet. My colleague Michael Tanner at Cato has put forth a proposal where instead of employers buying health insurance for their employees, they could provide the funds that they would spend on their employees health insurance through a health savings account, and then the employees themselves could decide how much of that they want to allocate towards health insurance and how much of that they might want to keep in those health savings accounts to pay for out of pocket costs, such as getting A high deductible health insurance plan that’s primarily focused on those catastrophic expenses, while paying for routine health care needs, out of their health savings accounts, that would bring more consumer involvement into this marketplace, which would also help with price transparency, as consumers become more educated as healthcare consumers, and especially for routine treatments start shopping around. Of course, it’s not possible if you are being picked up in an ambulance because you just suffered from an emergency. But there are, there are other scenarios where becoming a more cost conscious patient and healthcare consumer makes a lot of sense and can help to reduce costs.

Gene Tunny  35:47

Hmm, I’ll have to look at Michael’s work. So Michael Tanner, you mentioned his work. Yeah. But I’ll have to, I’ll have to come back to health in a future episode, because I know it’s a very complicated area to look at. On Medicare Romina, do you have any figures on that? I mean, you mentioned it was at US Social Security will get up to about 6% of GDP. Did I hear that right? And do you have any comparable figures for Medicare?

Romina Boccia  36:17

I’m not going to top of my head, but the Congressional Budget Office provides those in their budget and economic outlook. I’m more focused on Social Security, because as you just mentioned, Medicare has its own complex bag of a variety of different policies. So we have a scholar solely dedicated to that.

Gene Tunny  36:41

Yeah, yeah. Fair enough. And I mean, my understanding is that the Social Security’s that’s the, that’s the big one. But then you’re saying that yeah, Medicare is a, it’s an important issue.

Romina Boccia  36:52

It’s approaching, yeah, the size of Social Security. So between Medicare and Social Security, more than half of the federal government’s budget goes towards these two programmes. Okay, gotcha. So they make up the vast majority of federal spending now, and they’re projected to grow significantly.

Gene Tunny  37:10

Right, do you have any concerns about defence spending at all? I mean, often one thing that’s often pointed out as well, I mean, the US spends much more than any other country on defence, of course, you’ve got an important role in the, the world economic or the world geopolitical order, or however you’d like to describe it. So have you looked at that? And do you have any thoughts on defence?

Romina Boccia  37:34

No, not just the fence. But so the way that the budget is, is allocated in the US context is that there’s a so called discretionary spending, which makes up roughly 1/3. And then there’s the so called mandatory or autopilot spending and the key differences that discretionary spending has to be voted on each and every year. For example, this week, the US Congress is voting on defence and non defence discretionary spending to avert a government shutdown because we’re at the end of the fiscal year. That is not the case for programmes like Medicare and Social Security and even Medicaid, which which which have authorizations, which have spending allocations that don’t expire, so they can just continue spending even when the resources aren’t there. But both non defence and defence discretionary spending has seen a large increases, especially during the pandemic, there’s been large increases in in nondefense discretionary spending for varieties of things including support for state and local government to weather the pandemic. Various handouts for special interest groups. We just recently saw the chips act pass for the semiconductor industry in the United States. And then the inflation Reduction Act, which had a lot of green New Deal policies to subsidise green energy and electric vehicles, etc. So there’s been a while that spending, it doesn’t get projected out over the extended periods, 30 years 50 or 75 years in the case of Social Security, Medicare, because Congress, allocates, appropriates it every single year. We are seeing a rise in discretionary spending also in the area of emergency and disaster relief with no budget or notional account to control that spending. So it’s often used as a as a loophole to fund other priorities without going through the regular budget process. And, yes, overall, I’m concerned about most aspects of the federal government being on a growth trajectory and defence and non defence discretionary spending very much in that in that sphere. are as well. One of one solution there is to adopt us spending caps and the US has adopted those, with some success in the past, with little less success in the recent past. But discretionary spending caps that set a goal or a level that then lawmakers have to fight over or the public can hold them to account for can be very helpful. We don’t have any discretionary spending caps right now. And I think it sets up a good discussion when you have those to say, Okay, if you truly believe that, that is not sufficient, you need to spend more, what can we cut instead. And then in more likely scenario, lawmakers are not going to want to cut anything. So instead, we get some discussion over offsetting spending cuts elsewhere, say in the mandatory portion of the budget. Or if they increase, it agreed to a spending increase, at least now we have something we can hold them to. So I do think it sets up a productive debate around the purpose of spending limits priorities for the federal government, what are true priorities and what they’re just want to have spore favourite lobbying groups, so that the public can do a better job also of holding their lawmakers accountable. And there is an opportunity for the US Congress, the new Congress in the next year to impose more spending restraint. The debt limit will approach again likely next summer and the summer of 2023. And the debt limit is often a very effective action forcing mechanism for fiscal restraint. Basically, lawmakers can make demands that they won’t increase the debt limit, unless there are offsetting spending cuts or a budget plan is put in place. And I think a spending caps over the entire federal budget would be, would be best so that Congress can budget within so called Unified budget, consider all priorities and needs within context and and make those necessary trade offs. But one, one good start and those are easy to implement would be discretionary spending caps on defence and non defence.

Gene Tunny  42:16

Right. Okay, I’ll have to look back and see some, look for some examples of those spending caps in the past that sounds really interesting.

Romina Boccia  42:28

So yes, we had the, the Budget Control Act of 2011, that imposed spending caps for a period of roughly 10 years, but they were, they were circumvented several times. But there were also some offsetting spending cuts to allow for those increases in defence and non defence. The other thing that has become sort of gimmicky in the US context, under President Obama and the Democrats are continuing to try and push this, this this idea of parity that the defence account and the non defence, domestic discretionary accounts should be getting the same amount of money, which is just a goal that they have set as if it this was some kind of a political game without any consideration for real needs, either in the domestic economy or on the defence side, the threats that the United States face, it’s just an arbitrary target, we just want to get as much money as the other guys. And that just doesn’t make any sense at all. And I think I think the public should, should call lawmakers out for that apparently doesn’t make any sense we should not be allocating any more spending than is, is necessary. And it should also be within the within the bounds of the US Constitution. Because that document has a has a purpose, which is to restrain the government and protect the rights of the, of the individual. And so that should be our guidance for what to spend money on and how much to spend not some arbitrary goal of we just want parody because it’s political.

Gene Tunny  44:06

Yeah, yeah. Okay, final question. Romina. Have you looked at what we do here in Australia or what’s done in New Zealand with retirement savings? Have you looked at our we have a compulsory.

Romina Boccia  44:18

A little bit? Yeah, I was reading up recently on, on the superannuation, I think it’s called. Yeah, I mean, I like the defined contribution aspect, but I also recognise that there’s a push to increase the amount that employers have to pay for their employees superannuation and, and that can create distortionary incentives for how many individuals to employ because you’re driving up the cost of labour, I would see, I would think that that would be an issue, but what are your thoughts on how how the system’s working?

Gene Tunny  44:53

Oh, well, I think overall, it’s, it’s better to have it than not have it. So we did have the problem that people were too reliant on the aged pension here. So you’re, well, what our Social Security programme for the elderly, although there are differences in the, in the the rate and it doesn’t. It’s not, it doesn’t increase if you contribute more over your, your lifetime. So if you have higher earnings over your lifetime, so it’s different in that regard. And yeah, so I think it’s, it’s good that we’ve got a system that takes some of the pressure off the age pension, but we’ve still got rising age pension costs, it hasn’t removed that problem entirely, the future imposed on the budget of our age pension is a lot lower than your Social Security system from what I can just from my quick, the quick look, I’ve had the figures. Yep. So I think it’s good in that regard. But yeah, you’re right, there is that issue of the fact that in the short run the can hit employers, so we’ve had an increase in the contribution rate, it was 9%. And they’ve been increasing it, I think half a percent every couple of years. And now it’s up at 10 and a half percent, if I remember correctly. And so initially, the employer has to pay more each quarter to the Australian Tax Office, I’m an employer. So this is something I’m very conscious of. So I’ve had to increase the superannuation contributions. But over the long term, I think what the expectation is that it will come out of wages of the employees, so the employees will end up paying for it, because it is a form of compensation. That’s how it was initially sold in the 90s, when it was introduced. So it was a trade off. The treasurer at the time, Paul Keating, who was on, he was part of the Labour Party, he was on the, on the left of politics, but it was a very sensible, very moderate government, and highly praised around the world for economic reforms. And the way that he sold it was that you will get this super so you’re getting the super, but it means you have to have wage restraint at the same time. So that trade off was explicitly recognised. So yeah, but in the short run, there’s a, there’s certainly an impact on employers. But there’s a recognition that over the longer term, it really is the employees who will be paying for it. Look, there are a couple of issues with the, the design of, of super, there’s a concern that these industry super funds control, they have too much control or they’re controlling too much money and they’re too dominated by unions. There are people who are concerned about that. There are other people that are arguing that oh, look, it’d be better if people had access to this money. So they could buy a house, there’s a big debate about whether people should be able to withdraw from Super to buy a house. What else? Yeah, and clearly, some people might be better off if they were able to use that money while they, were while they were young. And when we had COVID. During the COVID period, the government did allow people to withdraw from their super accounts. And we saw a lot of people take that up. And I think they pulled 10 or $20,000 out, if I remember correctly, that was very popular. So yeah, overall, I think it’s a good thing, even though, as a someone who’s very sympathetic to classical, liberal views, I think, Oh, well, it’s not good that the government saying you’ve got to do this, but on the other hand, I recognise that for a lot of people, they might not be saving enough for retirement, and therefore in that case, the government would have to pay for it. So look on balance, I think it’s good. We’ve got it there and are some issues with it. Sure. Yep. So that’s my general, Yeah, that all make sense or any questions.

Romina Boccia  49:17

It’s, it’s certainly an improvement over the US Social Security system where it’s the government handling the entire thing, even though there are contributions by workers and their employers. I did read that individuals who pulled funds from their super accounts during COVID on average, spend longer unemployed than individuals who didn’t choose to tap their super accounts. So it indicates just like in the US, we saw that extended unemployment benefits tend to incentivize people to stay home longer and go back to work later. Even in the context of super, that seems to have had a similar effect.

Gene Tunny  50:07

Yeah, I think that’s that’s probably true. We’ll have to look up that, that evidence of that sounds right to me. Right. Oh, well, remember, this has been fantastic. I think that’s been a great overview of the fiscal challenges facing the US. I hope that you’re, they’re inviting you to appear before Congress at some time to testify to get your views because I think they’re really well informed and important views. So that’s terrific. So yeah, if there’s any final points, anything else to add?

Romina Boccia  50:42

Thank you. I just wanted to just looked up Medicare as a percentage of GDP and it’s roughly 4% right now. Going up.

Gene Tunny  50:49

Okay, gotcha. Right. So that is a big deal. Okay Romina Boccia from the Cato Institute. Thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate your insights and really enjoyed the conversation.

Romina Boccia  51:02

Yeah, so fun chatting with you, Gene. Thanks so much for inviting me on your show.

Gene Tunny  51:06

Okay, thanks Romina. Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.

Credits

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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Podcast episode

EP68 – COVID and Wartime: Comparison of economic impacts

Economics Explored episode 68 COVID and Wartime features a conversation on whether COVID can be compared to wartime, which considers the different scales and scopes of the shocks, and what it all means for prospects for economic recovery. Economics Explored host Gene Tunny, an Australian professional economist and former Treasury official, speaks with businessman Tim Hughes, also based in Brisbane, Australia.

Gene and Tim conclude that a comparison of COVID to wartime isn’t valid. One reason is that World War II required a complete reorganisation of the economy to maximise production for the war effort, while COVID has involved restrictions that have reduced economic activity. 

Links relevant to the conversation include:

Comparing COVID-19 to past world war efforts is premature — and presumptuous

US Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder on The National Debt Dilemma

Brookings on What’s the Fed doing in response to the COVID-19 crisis? What more could it do?

Australia’s Boldest Experiment (excellent book on Australia’s wartime economy)

Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth (outstanding book by a leading US economist containing a great discussion of America’s wartime economy)

Aussies over-confident after being over-compensated by Gov’t for COVID-recession

Mint security lapse amazes judge (story about theft from the Australian Mint in early-to-mid 2000s)

Finally, the word Gene got stuck on at 6:55, irredentist, means, “a person advocating the restoration to their country of any territory formerly belonging to it”, according to Oxford Languages.

If you’d like to ask a question for Gene to answer in a future episode or if you’d like to make a comment or suggestion, please get in touch via the website. Thanks for listening.