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Archive for April 24th, 2012

Even though I favor radical reductions in the burden of government, I’ve made the point that good fiscal policy merely requires that government spending grow slower than the private sector – what I call Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

And if lawmakers simply cap the growth of spending, so that it grows by about 2 percent annually, the budget deficit disappears in a decade.

It’s even better to impose more restraint, of course, which is why I’ve said favorable things about Senator Rand Paul’s plan.

There’s also a “Penny Plan” that would reduce primary spending (non-interest spending) by 1 percent each year. As James Carter and Jason Fichtner explain, this degree of fiscal restraint would reduce the burden of government spending to about 18 percent of economic output.

Any viable solution must cut spending growth. Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Rep. Connie Mack of Florida have introduced legislation in their respective chambers to do just that. Their “Penny Plan” – recently updated to reflect the latest budget developments – calls for reducing federal spending (excluding interest payments) 1 percent a year for five years, balancing the budget in the fifth year. To maintain balance once it’s reached, Mr. Enzi and Mr. Mack would cap federal spending at 18 percent of GDP. By no small coincidence, 18 percent of GDP roughly matches the U.S. long-run average level of taxation since World War II. Is it realistic to think Congress could limit federal spending to 18 percent of GDP? Actually, there is precedent. Federal spending fell as a share of GDP for nine consecutive years before bottoming out at 18.2 percent of GDP in fiscal 2000 and 2001. The Penny Plan would return federal spending, expressed as a share of GDP, near the level achieved during the last two years of the Clinton administration.

The various interest groups that infest Washington would complain about this degree of spending discipline, but Carter and Fichtner make a good point when they say that this simply means the same size government – as a share of GDP – that we had when Bill Clinton left office.

I realize I’m getting old and my memory may not be what it used to be, but I don’t recall people starving in the streets and grannies being ejected from hospitals during the Clinton years. Am I missing something?

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President Obama imposed a big-spending faux stimulus program on the economy back in 2009, claiming that the government needed to squander about $800 billion to keep the unemployment rate from rising above 8 percent.

How did that work out? One possible description is that the so-called stimulus became a festering pile of manure. About three years have passed, and the joblessness rate hasn’t dropped below 8 percent. But the White House has been sprinkling perfume on that pile of you-know-what and claiming that the Keynesian spending binge was good policy.

But not every politician is blindly ideological like Obama. Vitor Gaspar, Portugal’s Finance Minister, is willing to admit error. Here are some relevant excerpts from a New York Times report.

Unlike Obama, willing to admit mistakes

Mr. Gaspar, speaking to The New York Times last week, has a message for observers who say Europe needs to substantially relax its austerity approach: We tried stimulus and it backfired. Like some other European countries, Portugal tried what Mr. Gaspar called “a Keynesian style expansion” in 2008, referring to a theory by economist John Maynard Keynes. But it didn’t turn things around, and may have made things worse.

Why does the Portuguese Finance Minister have this view? Well, for the simple reason that the economy got worse and more spending put his country in a deeper fiscal ditch.

The yield on Portuguese government bonds – more than 11 percent on longer-term bonds — is substantially higher than the yields on debt issued by Ireland, Spain or Italy. …The main fear among investors is that Portugal is going to have to ask for a second bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, which committed $103 billion of financial aid in 2011.

Maybe the big spenders in Portugal should import some of the statist bureaucrats at Congressional Budget Office. The CBO folks could then regurgitate the moving-goalposts argument that they’ve used in the United States and claim that the economy would be even weaker if the government hadn’t wasted more money.

But perhaps the Portuguese left doesn’t think that will pass the laugh test.

Amazingly, the Germans, who have a disturbing affinity for powerful government, decided against Keynesianism and that’s paid dividends for their economy.

In any event, some of us can say we were right from the beginning about this issue.

Not that being right required any keen insight. Keynesian policies failed for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. So-called stimulus policies also failed for Japan in 1990s. And Keynesian proposals failed for Bush in 2001 and 2008.

Just in case any politicians are reading this post, I’ll make a point that normally goes without saying: Borrowing money from one group of people and giving it to another group of people does not increase prosperity.

But since politicians probably aren’t capable of dealing with a substantive argument, let’s keep it simple and offer three very insightful cartoons: here, here, and here.

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