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Archive for May 30th, 2012

I’m not quite ready to trade places with Canada, but it may just be a matter of time. Like Germany and Sweden, they seem to be slowly but surely trying to move in the right direction.

I’ve already commented on good Canadian fiscal policy (including a much-needed lesson for Paul Krugman), and I’ve also praised our northern neighbors for privatizing their air traffic control system and opposing global bank taxes.

But I’ve just been skating along the surface. My Cato colleague Chris Edwards (a Canadian transplant) has just written up a report with some of the key details.

Two decades ago Canada suffered a deep recession and teetered on the brink of a debt crisis caused by rising government spending. The Wall Street Journalsaid that growing debt was making Canada an “honorary member of the third world” with the “northern peso” as its currency. But Canada reversed course and cut spending, balanced its budget, and enacted various pro-market reforms. The economy boomed, unemployment plunged, and the formerly weak Canadian dollar soared to reach parity with the U.S. dollar. …[In] the early 1990s combined federal, provincial, and local spending peaked at more than half of gross domestic product (GDP). In the 1993 elections, Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s Liberals gained power promising fiscal restraint, but this was the party of Trudeau, and so major reforms seemed unlikely. In the first Liberal budget in 1994, Finance Minister Paul Martin provided some modest spending restraint. But in his second budget in 1995, he began serious cutting. In just two years, total noninterest spending fell by 10 percent, which would be like the U.S. Congress chopping $340 billion from this year’s noninterest federal spending of $3.4 trillion. When U.S. policymakers talk about “cutting” spending, they usually mean reducing spending growth rates, but the Canadians actually spent less when they reformed their budget in the 1990s. The Canadian government cut defense, unemployment insurance, transportation, business subsidies, aid to provincial governments, and many other items. After the first two years of cuts, the government held spending growth to about 2 percent for the next three years. With this restraint, federal spending as a share of GDP plunged from 22 percent in 1995 to 17 percent by 2000. The spending share kept falling during the 2000s to reach 15 percent by 2006, which was the lowest level since the 1940s. …The spending reforms of the 1990s allowed the Canadian federal government to balance its budget every year between 1998 and 2008. The government’s debt plunged from 68 percent of GDP in 1995 to just 34 percent today.

Total government spending, including sub-national units such as states and provinces, is still slightly higher in Canada than in the United States. But I suspect that will change within the next five years.

Not surprisingly, good spending policy leads to good tax policy, as Chris explains.

a slimmed-down Canadian government under the Liberals enjoyed large budget surpluses and pursued an array of tax cuts. The Conservatives continued cutting after they assumed power in 2006. During the 2000s the top capital gains tax rate was cut to 14.5 percent, special “capital taxes” on businesses were mainly abolished, income taxes were trimmed, and income tax brackets were fully indexed for inflation. Another reform was the creation of Tax-Free Savings Accounts, which are like Roth IRAs in the United States, except more flexible. The most dramatic cuts were to corporate taxes. The federal corporate tax rate was cut from 29 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2012. Most provinces also trimmed their corporate taxes, so that the overall average rate in Canada is just 27 percent today. By contrast, the average U.S. federal-state rate is 40 percent. …Canada’s federal corporate tax rate has been cut from 38 percent in the early 1980s to just 15 percent today. Despite the much lower rate, tax revenues have not declined. Indeed, corporate tax revenues averaged 2.1 percent of GDP during the 1980s and a slightly higher 2.3 percent during the 2000s.

The Laffer Curve effect of higher tax revenue shouldn’t be surprising, though American policymakers still operate in a fantasy world where taxes are assumed to have no impact on the economy and no impact on taxable income.

But that’s a secondary point. The main lesson of this research by Chris is that it is both possible and desirable to shrink the burden of government spending.

And it’s not just Canada that has done the right thing. This video outlines past reforms in Ireland, Slovakia, and New Zealand as well.

P.S. Other than the cold weather, another reason why I don’t quite yet want to trade places with Canada is the government-run healthcare system. Right now, high-ranking politicians from the frozen wastelands can escape to America when they fall ill. If we copy Canada (and we’re already pretty far down that path), then where will we be able to go to get high-quality and cutting-edge care?

P.P.S. The Canadians aren’t know for having a sense of humor, but the person who wrote this parody about emigrating American leftists definitely has a good sense of humor.

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In a post last week, I explained that Obama has been a big spender, but noted his profligacy is disguised because TARP outlays caused a spike in spending during Bush’s last fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008). Meanwhile, repayments from banks in subsequent years count as “negative spending,” further hiding the underlying trend in outlays.

When you strip away those one-time factors, it turns out that Obama has allowed domestic spending to increase at the fastest rate since Richard Nixon.

I then did another post yesterday, where I looked at total spending (other than interest payments and bailout costs) and showed that Obama has presided over the biggest spending increases since Lyndon Johnson.

Looking at the charts, it’s also rather obvious that party labels don’t mean much. Bill Clinton presided during a period of spending restraint, while every Republican other than Reagan has a dismal track record.

President George W. Bush, for instance, scores below both Clinton and Jimmy Carter, regardless of whether defense outlays are included in the calculations. That’s not a fiscally conservative record, even if you’re grading on a generous curve.

This leads Jonah Goldberg to offer some sage advice to the GOP.

Here’s a simple suggestion for Mitt Romney: Admit that the Democrats have a point. Right before the Memorial Day weekend, Washington was consumed by a debate over how much Barack Obama has spent as president, and it looks like it’s picking up again. …all of these numbers are a sideshow: Republicans in Washington helped create the problem, and Romney should concede the point. Focused on fighting a war, Bush — never a tightwad to begin with — handed the keys to the Treasury to Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert, and they spent enough money to burn a wet mule. On Bush’s watch, education spending more than doubled, the government enacted the biggest expansion in entitlements since the Great Society (Medicare Part D), and we created a vast new government agency (the Department of Homeland Security). …Nearly every problem with spending and debt associated with the Bush years was made far worse under Obama. The man campaigned as an outsider who was going to change course before we went over a fiscal cliff. Instead, when he got behind the wheel, as it were, he hit the gas instead of the brakes — and yet has the temerity to claim that all of the forward momentum is Bush’s fault. …Romney is under no obligation to defend the Republican performance during the Bush years. Indeed, if he’s serious about fixing what’s wrong with Washington, he has an obligation not to defend it. This is an argument that the Tea Party — which famously dealt Obama’s party a shellacking in 2010 — and independents alike are entirely open to. Voters don’t want a president to rein in runaway Democratic spending; they want one to rein in runaway Washington spending.

Jonah’s point about “fixing what’s wrong with Washington” is not a throwaway line. Romney has pledged to voters that he won’t raise taxes. He also has promised to bring the burden of federal spending down to 20 percent of GDP by the end of a first term.

But even those modest commitments will be difficult to achieve if he isn’t willing to gain credibility with the American people by admitting that Republicans helped create the fiscal mess in Washington. Especially since today’s GOP leaders in the House and Senate were all in office last decade and voted for Bush’s wasteful spending.

It actually doesn’t even take much to move fiscal policy in the right direction. All that’s required is to restrain spending so that is grows more slowly than the private sector (with the kind of humility you only find in Washington, I call this “Mitchell’s Golden Rule“). The entitlement reforms in the Ryan budget would be a good start, along with some much-needed pruning of discretionary spending.

And if you address the underlying problem by limiting spending growth to about 2 percent annually, you can balance the budget in about 10 years. No need for higher taxes, notwithstanding the rhetoric of the fiscal frauds in Washington who salivate at the thought of another failed 1990s-style tax hike deal.

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