Cut And Grow Fail: CBO Schools Tea Party Freshman In Basic Economics

This story was updated at 4:40 p.m. to include text from Huelskamp’s letter

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), a Tea Party-backed freshman who voted against the final debt limit bill, recently asked to hear from the Congressional Budget Office about the impact of government spending on economic growth. It’s an article of faith on the right that vastly shrinking government will unleash the forces of private enterprise, and faced with CBO’s opposing view, Huelskamp wanted to know the answer to two questions:

1). What current federal departments, agencies, programs, or portions thereof do not contribute to economic growth?

2). In the programs that CBO believes do contribute to economic growth, what level of spending cuts would amount to a level you believe would be significant enough to “probably slow the economic recovery”?

But if the newly elected member of the Budget Committee was hoping the non-partisan CBO would buy into his premise, he’ll be sorely disappointed.

In a response letter Thursday, CBO-chief Doug Elmendorf gives Huelskamp a layman’s lesson in Keynesian economics: Under current economic circumstances, new federal spending would help economic growth, and current and future cuts could stymie it, particularly if they hit key government investment.

“When demand for goods and services falls short of the economy’s ability to produce them, as is the case currently, increasing government spending can increase aggregate demand and thereby narrow the gap between the economy’s actual and potential levels of output,” Elmendorf writes.The precise details matter. The more robust the economy, the lower the impact. But, according to Elmendorf, “when the Federal Reserve’s ability to lower short-run interest rates is constrained because those rates are already near zero, as they are currently, the short-run effects of changes in government spending on output tend to be larger than usual.”

To illustrate the point, Elmendorf notes that deficit reduction measures that cut spending by $100 billion next fiscal year, and hundreds of billions more over the coming decade “would decrease real (inflation-adjusted) gross national product (GNP) in 2012, 2013, and 2014 by amounts ranging from roughly 0.1 percent to 0.6 percent depending on the year and the assumptions used.” In other words, the GOP’s current governing theory is damaging the economy and, by implication, costing jobs. And for those Republicans who want to cut more, ” a reduction in primary deficits that followed the same gradual time path but was twice as large would produce macroeconomic effects that were roughly twice as large.”

There are important growth-related reasons to reduce deficits if and when the economy improves — it reduces the extent to which government spending “crowds out” private investment, by undertaking functions the private sector can do more efficiently. But we’re not there yet and, according to CBO, won’t be until the end of the decade. Spending cuts like the ones describe above, “[a]t the turn of the decade, from 2019 through 2021…would increase [GNP] by roughly 0.5 percent to 1.4 percent.”

But again the specifics matter, and if the GOP wants to slash across the board, they’ll do damage anyhow.

“Some types of spending, such as funding for improvements to roads and highways, may add to the economy’s potential output in much the same way that private capital investment does,” Elmendorf writes. “Other policies, such as funding for grants to increase access to college education may raise long-term productivity by enhancing people’s skills. The positive longer-term impact of deficit reduction on GNP would be smaller if the policies that reduced deficits included cuts in productive government investments.”

Huelskamp’s original letter is here. Read Elmendorf’s response here.

The letters stem from the below exchange between Huelskamp and Elmendorf at a recent Budget committee hearing. Elmendorf and Huelskamp are arguing two different points. Huelskamp would like to see big cuts to federal safety net programs and other spending. Elmendorf argues that while the macroeconomic consequences of slashing some of those programs might be minimal in the long run, the near-term impact would be significant, given the current downturn.

Unfortunately, this is less likely to change Tea Party views than it is to convince them that the non-partisan CBO is in cahoots with big spending Washington liberals. C’est la vie.