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In an article in the Wall Street Journal, “The Right Way to Balance the Budget,” Andrew Biggs, Kevin Hassett and Matt Jensen report that new research of 21 countries over the past 37 years shows that to reduce government debt, a major reduction of spending must be adopted instead of higher taxes. On average, successful fiscal consolidations consisted of 85 percent cuts in spending and anything less runs a high probability of failure.
The federal debt is at its highest level since the aftermath of World War II—and it’s projected to rise further. Simply stabilizing debt levels would require an immediate and permanent 23% increase in all federal tax revenues or equivalent cuts in government expenditures, according to Congressional Budget Office forecasts. What’s clear is that to avoid a crisis, the federal government must undergo a significant retrenchment, or fiscal consolidation. The question is whether to do so by raising taxes or reducing government spending.
Rumors have it that President Obama will propose steps to address growing deficits in his next State of the Union address. The natural impulse of a conciliator might be to split the difference: reduce the deficit with equal parts spending cuts and tax increases. But history suggests that such an approach would be a recipe for failure.
In new research that builds on the pioneering work of Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna, we analyzed the history of fiscal consolidations in 21 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development over 37 years. Some of those nations repaired their fiscal problems; many did not. Our goal was to establish a detailed recipe for success. If the United States were to copy past consolidations that succeeded, what would it do?
This is an important question, because failed consolidations are more the rule than the exception. To be blunt, countries in fiscal trouble generally get there by making years of concessions to their left wing, and their fiscal consolidations tend to make too many as well. As a result, successful consolidations are rare: In only around one-fifth of cases do countries reduce their debt-to-GDP ratios by the relatively modest sum of 4.5 percentage points three years following the beginning of a consolidation. Finland from 1996 to 1998 and the United Kingdom in 1997 are two examples of successful consolidations.
The data also clearly indicate that successful attempts to balance budgets rely almost entirely on reduced government expenditures, while unsuccessful ones rely heavily on tax increases. On average, the typical unsuccessful consolidation consisted of 53% tax increases and 47% spending cuts.
By contrast, the typical successful fiscal consolidation consisted, on average, of 85% spending cuts. While tax increases play little role in successful efforts to balance budgets, there are some cases where governments reduced spending by more than was needed to lower the budget deficit, and then went on to cut taxes. Finland’s consolidation in the late 1990s consisted of 108% spending cuts, accompanied by modest tax cuts.
Consistent with other studies, we found that successful consolidations focused on reducing social transfers, which in the American context means entitlements, and also on cuts to the size and pay of the government work force. A 1996 International Monetary Fund study concluded that “fiscal consolidation that concentrates on the expenditure side, and especially on transfers and government wages, is more likely to succeed in reducing the public debt ratio than tax-based consolidation.” For example, in the U.K’s 1997 consolidation, cuts to transfers made up 32% of expenditure cuts, and cuts to government wages made up 21%. . . .
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