Ryan's spending cuts aren't just big, they are impossible

What would you cut?

Yesterday, we touched on why Paul Ryan's budget will inevitably lead to skyrocketing deficits. But one part of that in particular deserves unpacking: Ryan wants to cut almost all of the discretionary federal budget down to just 0.75 per cent of GDP. That is, bluntly, impossible.

The (simplified) argument against Ryan's "fiscal credibility" is that he wants to cut taxes and spending. But while no-one ever argues with tax cuts, the spending cuts he has laid out are implausible. As a result, his plan would result in lower taxes but the same spending, creating a budgetary black hole which will rapidly increase the deficit.

The claim about spending cuts, however, deserves some unpacking. Leaving aside for the moment Ryan's plans for Medicare, Medicaid and social security, he wants to reduce spending on everything else to 3.75 per cent of GDP by 2050.

That "everything else" includes defence spending, which Mitt Romney has separately promised to guarantee receives 4 per cent of GDP, and which has in fact never fallen below 3 per cent of GDP. Given even Ryan doesn't plan to fund federal services with negative money, lets assume that his plan calls for 3 per cent of GDP to be spent on defence, leaving 0.75 per cent of GDP to be spent on everything in the federal budget which is not Medicare, Medicaid, social security or defence.

America's GDP for 2011 was $15.09trn, which means Ryan's discretionary budget has a little over $113bn to allocate. What costs $113bn?

The administration for children and families is a centralised agency under the aegis of the Department of Health & Human Services which provides most welfare services aimed at children and families. It takes up $16.2bn of federal funding.

Food and nutrition assistance distributed by the Department of Agriculture stops people starving. It costs $7.8bn.

The National Science Foundation spends $1.4bn on Maths and Physics research, its largest single spending area (largely due to the fact that health research is given to the National Institutes of Health instead).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – NOAA – is roughly the equivalent of the Met Office. It costs $5.5bn a year.

The Department of Energy spends $0.5bn on advanced computing research, $0.8bn on High Energy Physics, and $2.0bn on basic energy research, all of which ensure that American energy supplies are fit for the future.

NASA cost $18.7bn in 2012, and managed to land a rover on Mars this year, which has got to count towards some value for money.

The Internal Revenue Service – although mostly concerned with bringing money in, rather than spending it – required a budget of $13.3bn to do just that.

$2.4bn was spent on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment domestically and $5.6bn on the same overseas. $2bn was spent on public health responses and dealing with infectious diseases, and $4.6bn was spent on the Indian Health Service, which provides healthcare to Native Americans.

The Postal Service cost $5.9bn and the Federal Aviation Administration spent $13.1bn. Proving, yet again, that trains rule and planes drool, the Federal Railroad Administration cost just $3bn.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – which, yes, sounds less like a government department and more like the best party shop ever – had a budget of $1.1bn in 2012.

The two highest resourced Institutes of Health were the Cancer Institute, and Allergy and Infectious Diseases. They got $5.2bn and $5.0bn respectively.

Those programs alone – some big, some small - spend, between them, $114.1bn a year. That is $900m more than what Paul Ryan wants to spend on the entire non-defence discretionary budget.

Or, to put it another way, we have used up the US budget on projects which are entirely valuable, and which would cause real pain if cut, without even touching on:

The FBI ($8.1bn), Elementary and Secondary Education ($41.4bn), Financial Aid to university students ($31.4bn), the entire legislative, judicial and presidential branches ($12.3bn), public housing and housing assistance ($35bn), the FDA ($2.7bn), the EPA ($9.0bn) and FEMA ($6.8), the highway administration ($43.6bn) and the entire department of the interior ($12.0bn).

(Those departments, by the way, have a budget totalling $202bn. So even if everything else in the entire discretionary budget didn't exist, they would still have to lose almost half their budgets to stay within Ryan's spending limits)

Oh, and that's not even mentioning the smaller agencies, which would likely come under the knife in an attempt to squeeze out every last cent. Agencies like the FTC, Holocaust Memorial Museum, FCC, Smithsonian Institution, SEC and the entire District of Columbia may have budgets which amount to little more than rounding errors in the grand scheme of things, but you can be sure some of them will go as well.

But all of this assumes that Paul Ryan will be able to get defence spending down to its historic minimum of 3 per cent of GDP. Right now, the National Security budget is $754bn, and the Department of Defense alone commands $671bn. That is 5.0 per cent, and 4.4 per cent, of GDP, which Ryan would need to slash.

The spending cuts he desires are impossible. They will not materialise, and never could be expected to. And so Ryan will either have to abandon his plan entirely, or pass unfunded tax cuts. If he really is a deficit hawk, that has got to qualify him as one of the most incompetent ever

See an infographic on Ryan's budget here

Paul Ryan speaks during a campagin stop in Des Moines, Iowa. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?