Is there a federal deficit?

Walter E. Williams

4/19/2006 12:05:00 AM - Walter E. Williams
Let's push back the frontiers of ignorance about the federal deficit. To simplify things, I'll use round numbers that are fairly close to the actual numbers.

The nation's 2005 gross domestic product (GDP), what the American people produced, totaled $13 trillion. The federal government consumed $2.4 trillion, but it only received $2 trillion in tax revenues, leaving us with what's said to be a $.4 trillion budget deficit.

By the way, it's sheer constitutional ignorance to say that President Bush spends or lowers taxes. Article I, Sections 7 and 8, of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress authority to spend and tax. The president only has veto power that Congress can override.

Getting back to deficits, my question to you is this: Is there truly a deficit? The short answer is yes, but only in an accounting sense -- not in any meaningful economic sense. Let's look at it. If Congress spends $2.4 trillion but only takes in $2 trillion in taxes, who makes up that $.4 trillion shortfall that we call the budget deficit? Neither the Tooth Fairy, Santa nor the Easter Bunny makes up the difference between what's spent in 2005 and what's taxed in 2005.

Some might be tempted to answer that it's future generations who will pay. That's untrue. If the federal government consumes $2.4 trillion of what Americans produced in 2005, it must find ways to force us to spend $2.4 trillion less privately in 2005. In other words, the federal government can't spend today what's going to be produced in the future.

One method to force us to spend less privately is through taxation, but that's not the only way. Another way is to enter the bond market. Government borrowing drives the interest rate to a level that it otherwise wouldn't be without government borrowing. That higher interest puts the squeeze on private investment in homes and businesses, thereby forcing us to spend less privately.

Another way to force us to spend less privately is to inflate the currency. Theoretically, Congress can consume what we produce without enacting a single tax law; they could simply print money. The rising prices, which would curtail our real spending, would act as a tax. Of course, an important side effect of doing so would be economic havoc.

Some Americans have called for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution as a method to rein in a prolific Congress. A balanced budget is no panacea. For example, suppose Congress spent $6 trillion and taxed us $6 trillion. We'd have a balanced budget, but we'd be far freer with today's unbalanced budget. The fact of business is that the true measure of the impact of government on our lives is not the taxes we pay but the level of spending.

The founders of our nation would be horrified by today's level of American servitude to their government. From 1787 to the Roaring '20s, federal government spending, as a percentage of GDP, never exceeded 4 percent, except in wartime, compared to today's 20 percent.

The average taxpayer, depending on the state in which he lives, works from Jan. 1 to May 3 to pay federal, state and local taxes. That means someone else decides how four months' worth of the fruits of the average taxpayer's labor will be spent. The taxpayer is forcibly used to serve the purposes of others -- whether it's farm or business handouts, food stamps or other government programs where the earnings of one American are taken and given to another.

This situation differs only in degree, but not in kind, from slavery. After all, a working description of slavery is the process where one person is forcibly used to serve the purposes of another. The difference is a slave has no rights to what he produces each year, instead of just four months.