Sunday, November 20, 2011

Why the Congressional Supercommittee Can't Reach a Budget Deal

Today, news services report that the Congressional supercommittee tasked with the responsibility for reaching a $1.2 trillion budget deficit reduction deal has a snowball's chance in a convection oven of success. That's really not surprising. Even though last summer's debt ceiling debacle taught every member of Congress that fooling around with the federal government's financial standing is reckless, the problem is that the American electorate doesn't want a deal. We have a Democratic President and Senate, and a Republican House. We want fiscal stimulus to combat with the nation's economic woes, but we also want fiscal conservatism to constrain long term debt growth. In other words, we want to have it both ways. That's not how to reach the compromises needed for a deficit deal. That's a formula for failure.

Look at California. The Golden State is the home of the no new taxes movement. In 1978, an amendment to the California Constitution severely limiting real estate taxes was approved by the state's voters in a referendum called Proposition 13. The antitax sentiment that propelled Proposition 13 to success set down deep roots in the state, and today California is a fiscal mess. Voters want good public services and schools. But they don't want to pay for them. To accommodate voters that want to have it both ways, California's state and local governments made fools of themselves with budgetary and borrowing shenanigans that accomplished little except kick the can down the road while schools and other public services deteriorated. Everyone--voters, politicians, public sector unions, and government employees--are to blame. There's no meaningful solution in sight. California has governmental gridlock that makes the federal government look somewhat functional even on bad days.

California, first in so many trends, will be America's fiscal future, unless we make up our minds to grow up. We have to pay for what we want, which could mean raising taxes. We also have to live within our means, which could mean cutting back on federal expenditures. We have to elect a government that can and will make decisions. But today, in Washington and across the nation, we are a house divided. That does not portend well for the future.

Of course, if there is no debt deal and the financial markets panic, all eyes will turn toward the Federal Reserve. This moment, if it occurs, will reveal the fallacy in the Federal Reserve's policy of endless accommodation. Because the Fed has been there when everything else failed, everyone now assumes that the Fed will always be there for us. Neither Congress nor the President have the incentive to actually do anything. Doing things in Washington necessarily means you will make enemies. And elected politicians always prefer to avoid making enemies. So it's better to do nothing and wait for the appointed officials and career civil servants at the Fed bail us out, because we know they will try. Of course, a few disheveled Cassandras foam at the mouth about moral hazard and the limitations of monetary policy. But ebullient pronouncements by inflation doves on the Federal Reserve Board allow the rest of the government to hear what it wants to hear and rationalize inaction. So Washington bubbles along, believing six impossible things before breakfast, and peering through the looking glass for the imminent arrival of prosperity that won't cost us anything.

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