Sammenhengen er som følger: I USA har statene et balansert-budsjett krav. New York og Ohio og Navada og de andre 40 kan ikke bruke mer enn de får inn (det er bare 7 stater som kan overføre et underskudd til neste års budsjett).
Få er klar over at dette bare gjelder for den operative-delen av budsjettet – og ikke for kapital-delen av budsjettet.
Det operative budsjettet er for lønninger og pensjoner, for helseordninger og overføringer til kommuner.
Kapitalbudsjettet er for veibygging, til skolebygninger og politi/brannvesen.
Hvis du behandler budsjettet som en enhet, vil du – hvis du hadde vært en husholdning – aldri fått lov til å kjøpe et hus eller en bil. Og det er mange som har problemer med å definere konsum og investering.
Of course, families could draw down savings to buy homes and cars. But that’s an option not available to the government because it has no savings, only a large debt. Treating it and private individuals the same way, as balanced-budget supporters propose, would require the entire national debt to be paid off and a surplus accumulated before it would be permitted to make new investments in roads, bridges, buildings and other long-lived assets.
Of course, no one actually believes that. But it follows logically from arguments one often hears about why the government should balance its cash income and outlays annually, because that is supposedly how families and the states are said to operate. In fact, they don’t.
The distinction between capital spending and consumption spending also affects the way economists interpret the rate of saving. The standard measure, produced by the Commerce Department, calculates personal income and personal outlays. The difference between these two figures is assumed to be personal saving. Thus saving is not calculated directly, but is merely a residual between income and spending.
An alternative measure of saving that treats consumer durables, like autos, as investments would raise the measured rate of saving considerably. Alternatively, one could measure saving directly from financial institutions and other sources, as the Federal Reserve does (see Page 17). This yields a much higher measure of saving. In 2011, the last full year available, the Commerce Department estimated the personal saving rate at 4.2 percent, while the Fed put it at 10.3 percent.
Periodically, administrations have suggested creating a capital budget, both to give clearer picture of the economic effects of federal spending and to shield investments from budget cuts that should be limited to consumption outlays. The Reagan administration floated the idea in 1986, and the Clinton administration created a commission to study it.
A common criticism has always been that the definition of “capital” is too slippery and could too easily become a loophole through which consumption spending could escape. The obvious answer is to assign some entity, like the Government Accountability Office, to audit investment spending and ensure that it truly represents investment and not consumption.
Many economists say they believe that the best thing the federal government can do to raise the long-term economic growth rate is increase infrastructure spending. It would have the double benefit of mobilizing idle resources, especially unemployed workers, while low interest rates permit capital projects to be financed very cheaply.
One main barrier to achieving this double benefit is the confusion between investment spending and consumption spending, which is distorted by the way the budget is presented and the way we calculate saving.