Fiscal Fallacy

The Sequester Is Proof that Washington Thinks We Are All Idiots

The deficit is shrinking on its own, thanks to higher taxes and lower spending. So why is our government treating us like morons with this sequester nonsense, asks Daniel Gross.

The tales of sequester woe are starting to mount. Congressmen are complaining about cancelled White House tours, freaking out over potential furloughs of meat inspectors, and fretting over budget cuts in Yellowstone National Park. Republican officeholders are starting to realize that the parochial government services that businesses and consumers in their districts need and care about are getting hit.

And for what? We’ve argued that the primary deficit—the mismatch between the amount of money the government collects each year and the amount of money it spends each year—is melting away. We received further confirmation of this melting trend Wednesday, with the release of the latest Treasury Monthly Statement. It was overlooked, as it dropped just a couple hours before the new pope was announced. But it’s worth examining.

The headline was that February wasn’t a great month for the profit-and-loss sheet of the federal government. It took in $122.8 billion and spent $326 billion, notching a $203.5 billion deficit. That’s pretty grim. But February is always a bad month for receipts. And when you dig into the number, it is possible to see significant improvement.

Compared with February 2012, revenues in February 2013 were up an impressive 18.8 percent. Meanwhile, spending was actually down 2.6 percent from February 2012. So the February 2013 monthly deficit was 12 percent smaller than the February 2012 monthly deficit. This is not an anomaly. For the first five months of fiscal 2013, which started in October, revenues were $1.01 trillion, up 13 percent from the first five months of fiscal 2012, while spending was up just 2.1 percent. The deficit in the first five months of fiscal 2013 is $494 billion, down nearly 15 percent from the first five months of fiscal 2012.

To what do we owe this? Revenue is tied to growth. When the economy grows consistently, more people go to work, more people earn higher wages, and they pay more income and payroll taxes. Companies tend to make more profits, and even though they spend lots of time and effort dodging taxes, they still wind up paying more corporate income taxes. Meanwhile, as we’ve pointed out before, when jobs increase and the economy grows, spending on programs like unemployment benefits fall. That helps narrow the deficit, too. In February, spending on unemployment benefits was off 25 percent from the year before.

There’s another factor at play. And Republicans might want to avert their eyes for this next paragraph. On January 1, the government raised taxes. The payroll tax, which had been cut temporarily to 4.2 percent from 6.2 percent, went back up—a 48 percent increase. And so the 130 million or so Americans with payroll jobs have been paying higher federal taxes for the past two months. Meanwhile, as part of the fiscal cliff deal, higher income taxes were also put in place for high earners. They’re now paying more, too.

A funny thing happens when you raise taxes—you get more tax revenue.

Since the higher tax rates kicked in on January 1, Americans haven’t Gone Galt. They haven’t stopped working in protest of higher taxes and companies haven’t stopped hiring. In fact, they’ve been working more. As a result, revenue has been flooding into Washington. In the two months of the new tax regimen (January and February 2013), receipts are up 17 percent from the comparable period in 2012. Meanwhile, for all the charges of socialism, spending remains muted. A look at the daily Treasury statement suggests the higher revenue trend has continued through the first half of March.

The sequester, universally derided as a stupid way to get deficit reduction, is designed to bring $84 billion in deficit reduction in this fiscal year. Well, in the first five months of fiscal 2013, the deficit is already, wait for it, $85.8 billion smaller than it was in the first five months of fiscal 2012. And that’s all before the sequester takes full effect.

Quiet as it is kept, we are living in a great age of deficit reduction. If we project the numbers from the first five months of this fiscal year into the rest of it, it’s quite likely that the deficit will come in under $900 billion—even without the sequester. That’s high, and it is still a lot of money. But it would represent a deduction of nearly 20 percent from fiscal 2012. And with the economy continuing to grow steadily, the deficit as a percentage of GDP would shrink by an even larger margin.

Washington told itself it needed the sequester in order to make a significant dent in the annual deficit. With each passing month, and with each passing Treasury Monthly Statement, we’re learning that’s not true.