Real vs. nominal dollars for discretionary spending

Matt Yglesias tweets:

Did every libertarian in America suffer mass amnesia about the difference between real and nominal dollars yesterday?

Others complain as well.  Keep in mind a few things:

1. The spending forecast itself is made in terms of nominal dollars and that is what I, and others, reported.  Bloggers report nominal dollar magnitudes all the time, without pretending to be tricking anybody.  Reporting real dollars would mix in the base information with someone’s forecast of future expected inflation and in general that is not considered to be more enlightening, all the more during a period where people disagree radically about inflation forecasts.  Graph viewers can make their own real vs. nominal adjustments ex post, as indeed they are used to doing.

2. For the Keynesian argument, it is often nominal dollars which matter most.  And also, in Keynesian terms, it is the reaction of the Fed which will be of paramount importance.  Even a not very potent version of QEIII could easily undo whatever mild contractionary effects this spending change might have.

3. Inflationary pressures are not very strong and arguably there are deflationary pressures.  That’s bad, but it means the nominal is not going to be so far off from the real.

4. On top of all that, it is far, far from obvious that those specified spending changes are actually going to take place.  The tendency is for promised spending slowdowns to be ignored or reversed.

Some MR commentators raise the issue of per capita measures of discretionary spending and whether they will decline.  It might be nice to have growing public sector per capita quality with growing population and growing wealth.  But if the good in question is a public good (and is it not supposed to be?), adding extra people to the mix, ceteris paribus with no spending boost, is compatible with those additional people getting more or less the same services as the previous consumers.  Falling per capita expenditures on public goods, if it is not too big a fall, still means a greater real quantity of public goods enjoyed, given non-rivalry of consumption.

The correct response to all this information about future projected spending is still “I guess that’s not much of a spending cut, is it?”

By the way, entitlement reform is MIA.

Instead what I see is a lot of people adding up the entire fiscal gap — ignoring that the stimulus is ending anyway and was going to end anyway — and proclaiming that Tea Party extortion is causing the economic heavens to fall.  Ross Douthat nails it.

Here’s a big “ouch” for some of you:

Sixty five percent approve of deal’s spending cuts. But it gets worse. Of the 30 percent who disapprove, 13 percent think the cuts haven’t gotten far enough, and only 15 percent think the cuts go too far. One sixth of Americans agree with the liberal argument about the deal.

The final effects of the deal are hardly a Ron Paul world and so we are seeing massive exaggeration, driven by the fallacies of mood affiliation, excess sensitivity to social information (“who won the showdown?”) and us vs. them thinking.  What we have is a weak, vacillating postponement of all the hard decisions.  In hindsight, the decision to allow no revenue increases will be seen as a huge blunder, by conservatives most of all.


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