By Murray N. Rothbard
If the federal government’s economists have been good for nothing else in recent years, they have made great strides in what might be called “creative economic semantics.” First they redefined the seemingly simple term “budget cut.” In the old days, a “budget cut” was a reduction of next year’s budget below this year’s. In that old-fashioned sense, Dwight Eisenhower’s first two years in office actually cut the budget substantially, though not dramatically, below the previous year. Now we have “budget cuts” which are not cuts, but rather substantial increases over the previous year’s expenditures. “Cut” became subtly but crucially redefined as reducing something else. What the something else might be didn’t seem to matter, so long as the focus was taken off actual dollar expenditures. Sometimes it was a cut “in the rate of increase,” other times it was a cut in “real” spending, at still others it was a percentage of GNP, and at yet other times it was a cut in the sense of being below past projections for that year. The result of a series of such “cuts” has been to raise spending sharply and dramatically not only in old-fashioned terms, but even in all other categories. Government spending has gone up considerably any way you slice it. As a result, even the idea of a creatively semantic budget cut has now gone the way of the nickel fare and the Constitution of the United States.
Another example of creative semantics was the “tax cut” of 1981-1982, a tax cut so allegedly fearsome that it had to be offset by outright tax increases late in 1982, in 1983, in 1984, and undoubtedly on and on into the future. Again in the old days, a cut in income taxes meant that the average person would find less of a slice taken out of his paycheck. But while the 1981-82 tax changes did that for some people, the average person found that the piddling cuts were more than offset by the continuing rise in the Social Security tax, and by “bracket creep”—a colorful term for the process by which inflation (generated by the federal government’s expansion of the money supply) wafts everyone into higher money income (even though a price rise might leave them no better off) and therefore into a higher tax bracket. So that even though the official schedule of tax rates might remain the same, the average man is paying a higher chunk of his income.
The much-vaulted and much-denounced “tax cut” turns out, on old-fashioned semantics, to be no cut at all but rather a substantial increase. In return for the dubious pleasure of this non-cut, the American public will have to suffer by paying through the nose for years to come in the form of “offsetting,” though unfortunately all-too-genuine, tax increases. Of course, government economists have been doing their part as well to try to sugar-coat the pill of tax increases. They never refer to these changes as “increases.” They have not been increases at all; they were “revenue enhancement” and “closing loopholes.” The best comment on the concept of “loopholes” was that of Ludwig von Mises. Mises remarked that the very concept of “loopholes” implies that the government rightly owns all of the money you earn, and that it becomes necessary to correct the slipup of the government’s not having gotten its hands on that money long since.
Despite promises of a balanced budget by 1984, we find that several years of semantically massaged “budget cuts” and “tax cuts” as well as “enhancements” have resulted in an enormous, seemingly permanent, and unprecedented deficit somewhere around $200 billion. Once again, creative semantics have come to the rescue. One route is to use time-honored methods to redefine the deficit out of existence. The Keynesians used to redefine it by claiming that in something called a “full employment budget” there was no deficit, that is, that if one subtracts the spending necessary to achieve full employment, there would be no deficit, perhaps even a surplus. But while such a sleight-of-hand might work with a deficit of $20 billion, it is a puny way to wish away a gap of $200 billion. Still, the government’s economists are trying. They have already redefined the “deficits” as a “real increase” in debt, that is, a deficit discounted by inflation. The more inflation generated by the government, then, the more it looks as if the deficit is washed away. On the very same semantic magic, the apologists for the disastrous runaway German inflation of 1923 claimed that there was no inflation at all, since in terms of gold, German prices were actually falling! And similarly, they claimed, that since in real terms the supply of German marks was falling, that the real trouble in Germany was that there was too little money being printed rather than too much.
There is no general acceptance for the idea that, based on some legerdemain, the deficit doesn’t really exist. But there is acceptance of the view that a tax increase constitutes a “down payment” on the deficit. Again, in the old days, a “down payment” on a debt meant that part of the debt was being paid off. Washington’s creative economists have managed to redefine the term to mean a hoped-for reduction of next year’s increase in the debt—a very different story indeed.