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Archive for July, 2013

President Obama made a much-hyped pivot-to-the-economy speech yesterday in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

I already explained, immediately following the speech, why his “grand bargain” on corporate taxes was not a good deal because of all the hidden taxes on new investment and international competitiveness.

But I also had a chance to dissect the President’s overall track record on the economy for today’s Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Here’s some of what I wrote.

…he didn’t say anything new or different. His audience was treated to the same tax-spend-and-regulate boilerplate that the President has been dispensing ever since he entered political life. …with Obamanomics, not only has America failed to enjoy the traditional period of four-to-five percent growth at the start of a recovery, the economy hasn’t even gotten close to the long-run average of 3 percent. That’s a damning indictment. But it gets worse. The data on employment is downright depressing. A look at the numbers reveals that the nation is suffering from the worst period of job creation since the Great Depression. Most startling, we still haven’t recovered the jobs we lost during the recession.

That’s some strong rhetoric, but there are plenty of numbers to back up my assertions.

Let’s take a look at the interactive website maintained by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank. This site allows users to compare all business cycles since World War II.

Let’s start by comparing the current business cycle to what happened under Reaganomics.

AFP Reagan v Obama GDP

As you can see, we’ve had a very sluggish recovery compared to the boom we enjoyed in the 1980s.

Not all of this is Obama’s fault, by the way. Here’s some more of what I wrote for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

…all of these problems started before President Obama ever got to the White House. President Bush also was guilty of too much spending and excessive regulation, and his policies helped push the economy into a ditch. Unfortunately, even though he promised “change,” President Obama has been adding to Bush’s mistakes — and also raising taxes.

Some people may be wondering whether it’s fair to compare Reaganomics to Obamanomics. Maybe I’m cherry-picking data to make Obama (and Bush) look bad.

Since I’ve already admitted that it’s good to be suspicious of all people who work in Washington, I don’t begrudge folks who are skeptical of what I write.

So let’s now look at the Minneapolis Fed’s data for every business cycle since the end of World War II. As you can see, we’re currently mired in the most anemic recovery on record.

AFP GDP

The employment data is even worse than the GDP data.

The comparison of Reaganomics with BushObamanomics is startling. There was a jobs boom in the 1980s, while today we haven’t even recovered all the jobs lost during the downturn.

AFP Reagan v Obama Jobs

And if we look at the current “recovery” compared to all other business cycles, it becomes even more apparent that big government is generating very bad results for the American people.

AFP Jobs

Here’s how I conclude my column.

…what’s the bottom line? The world is a laboratory, and the lessons are very clear. Jurisdictions with small government and free markets, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, grow rapidly. Nations with bloated welfare states, such as France, Italy and Greece, suffer from stagnation and decline. The United States historically has been somewhere between these two camps, which is why we had average growth of about 3 percent. We’ve become a lot more like Europe during the Bush-Obama years. That helps to explain why our growth numbers and jobs data are now so disappointing. Unfortunately, the President’s speech shows that he wants to step on the gas rather than turn the car in the right direction.

In other words, if we want more prosperity, we need to follow the recipe of free markets and small government.

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In his latest pivot to jobs and the economy, the President spoke earlier today in Tennessee.

Much of his speech was tax-spend-and-regulate boilerplate, but he did repackage some of his ideas into a so-called grand bargain.

He said he’s willing to cut the corporate tax rate in exchange for a bunch of new spending on things such as infrastructure (he didn’t specify whether it would be “shovel ready” this time) and dozens of “innovation institutes” (as if the notoriously sluggish and inefficient federal government can teach the private sector about being entrepreneurial.

In theory, however, such a deal might be worthwhile. It’s not a good idea to add to the burden of federal spending, of course, but if there’s a big enough reduction in the corporate tax rate, it might be worth the cost.

Worse than France? Worse than Greece?

After all, America has the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world and is ranked 94 out of 100 on other measures of business taxation.

But here’s why it’s important to read the fine print. The President wants to give with one hand and take away with the other. Yes, the corporate tax rate would come down, perhaps from 35 percent to 28 percent, but the White House has signaled that businesses would have to accept higher taxes on new investment (because of bad “depreciation” policy) and on international competitiveness (because of misguided “worldwide taxation” policy).

To cite a very simple example, is it a good deal for companies if the corporate tax rate is lowered by 20 percent but then other changes force companies to overstate their income by 25 percent?

In reality, it’s more complex, with some companies probably coming out ahead and others getting hit with a bigger tax bill.

I dig into some of these details in a debate on Larry Kudlow’s CNBC program.

The moral of the story is that it’s not clear whether the tax system would get better or worse under Obama’s proposal.

And if he wants the “grand bargain” to be a net tax increase, then the odds of seeing an improvement drop from slim to none.

So why trade more spending for – at best – sideways movement on tax policy?

P.S. Republicans hopefully learned important lessons about the risks of tax-hike budget deals from the debacles in 1982 and 1990. But if they need a helpful reminder, this chart from the New York Times reveals that the only successful budget agreement was the one in 1997 that cut taxes.

By the way,

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In an interview last week about Detroit’s bankruptcy, I explained that the city got in trouble because of growing dependency and an ever-rising burden of government spending.

I also warned that the federal government faces the same challenge. Washington is in trouble mostly because of poorly designed entitlement programs rather than excessive compensation for a bloated bureaucracy, but the end result is the same. Or, to be more accurate, the end result will be the same in the absence of genuine entitlement reform.

As I said in the interview, fiscal crisis was “the most predictable crisis in the world for Detroit [and] it’s the most predictable crisis for America.”

The Washington Examiner has the same assessment. Here’s how they conclude a recent editorial.

More than anywhere else in America (with the possible exception of Chicago) Detroit has been a one-party union city. Democratic politicians backed by the United Auto Workers and public employees unions have ruled virtually as they pleased. Along the way, many of the politicians ended up in jail on corruption charges and the bureaucrats made out with sweetheart deals on pensions and health benefits. Those sweetheart deals now account for most of the $20 billion in debt that put the city into bankruptcy. There are too many disturbing parallels between Detroit and America. The national debt of $17 trillion gets a lot of attention, but the reality is the government’s actual debt, counting the unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare and federal employee and retiree benefits, exceeds $86 trillion, according to former congressmen Chris Cox and Bill Archer. As they say, things that can’t go on forever, won’t.

I used to warn that America was on a path to becoming Greece, but maybe now I should use Detroit as an example.

Some of America’s best political cartoonists already are using this theme.

Here’s one from Glenn McCoy. Since I’m not overly optimist about either Illinois or California, I also think it’s just a matter of time before this happens.

Detroit Cartoon 1

Keep in mind, however, that there was plenty of wasteful spending in both Illinois and California under Republican governors, so this is a bipartisan problem.

Speaking of California, here’s a good cartoon by Lisa Benson.

Detroit Cartoon 2

Amazingly, some people think California’s no longer in trouble because a retroactive tax hike collected more tax revenue. Yeah, good luck with that.

Next we have a cartoon by Rob Rogers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Detroit Cartoon 3

And last but not least, Eric Allie weighs in with a cartoon comparing Texas and Detroit.

Detroit Cartoon 4

On a serious note, it would be interesting to see how Detroit looks compared to cities in Texas, such as Dallas and Houston.

But let’s end with something that’s really hilarious, albeit by accident rather than on purpose.

A few people want to enable Detroit’s profligacy. Here are some excerpts from a story in The Hill about union bosses wanting a federal-state bailout of Detroit.

Union leaders are calling on Congress and President Obama to provide a federal bailout to the city of Detroit. The executive council of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, called for an “immediate infusion of federal assistance for Detroit” to be matched by Michigan, which they say has not done enough to keep the city from going through bankruptcy. …“It appears that Governor [Rick] Snyder and [Emergency Financial Manager] Kevyn Orr are pushing Detroit into bankruptcy to gut the modest benefits received by Detroit’s retired public service employees,” the AFL-CIO’s statement reads.

I suppose I could make some snarky comments, but I’ll close with two vaguely sympathetic responses.

First, there’s no way a bailout of Detroit goes through the House of Representatives. Heck, I don’t even think it could make it through the Senate. So some folks on the left would be justified if they asked why the high rollers on Wall Street supposedly deserved a bailout a few years ago but they don’t get one today.

The answer, of course, is discrimination by color. But I’m not talking black vs white. The color that matters in politics is green. The financial industry dispenses huge campaign contributions to both sides of the aisle, and the bailout was their payoff. Public employee unions, by contrast, give almost every penny of their money to Democrats, so there’s no incentive for GOPers to do the wrong thing.

Second, I have no idea whether retired bureaucrats in Detroit get “modest benefits.” I’m skeptical for very obvious reasons, but the real problem is that the city screwed up by having too many people riding in the wagon without paying attention to whether there were enough people producing in the private sector to pull the wagon.

Is that the fault of the garbage men, clerks, secretaries, and other municipal employees? That’s a hard question to answer. They obviously weren’t calling the shots, but they were happy to go along for the ride.

At some point, they should have paid attention to the message in this Chuck Asay cartoon.

P.S. For readers in New Jersey (and also New York City), I’ll be speaking this Wednesday, July 31, at the Friedman Day luncheon sponsored by Americans for Prosperity.

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There are lots of despicable people in Washington engaged in a lot of unsavory behavior, so it would be very difficult to get agreement if you asked regular people to select the most odious feature of the political class.

HypocrisyMany people would probably choose corruption as the defining characteristic of Washington, and it would be hard to argue with that choice, but I think hypocrisy is an even better choice.

There’s something fundamentally wrong when people push for policies while making sure they don’t have to abide by the results. Yet it happens all the time in government.

1. It galls me that the pro-tax bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries while pushing for higher taxes on everyone else.

2. Or how about rich left wingers who bleat about compassion but who are stingy with their own money.

3. And the wealthy leftists who use tax havens while trying to deny others from protecting their money.

4. There are members of the Washington elite who don’t have to live under the gun control laws they impose on others.

5. What about the politically connected business types who endorse higher taxes in exchange for favors from Washington.

6. Or the politicians who evade the taxes they impose on ordinary citizens.

7. How about Canadian politicians who support government-run healthcare but then come to America when they need treatment.

8. To close this list on a humorous note, we also have Occupy Wall Street protesters who fight “The Man” while wanting to make “The Man” more powerful.

But if you want a really powerful example of hypocrisy, nothing stands out more than politicians trying to exempt themselves from Obamacare.

Crocodile TearsThey’ve even been complaining that the law is so bad that they may quit their jobs. And they’re so disconnected from reality that they think we’ll be upset at the loss of their “seniority” and “experience” – as if taxpayers value their ability to squander money.

But it’s not just politicians who are being hypocritical. The bureaucrats at the IRS also don’t want to live under Obamacare – even though they’re the ones who will be forcing us to live under that misguided law!

Here are some excerpts from a report in the Washington Examiner.

IRS employees have a prominent role in Obamacare, but their union wants no part of the law. National Treasury Employees Union officials are urging members to write their congressional representatives in opposition to receiving coverage through President Obama’s health care law. …Like most other federal workers, IRS employees currently get their health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which also covers members of Congress. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp offered the bill in response to reports of congressional negotiations that would exempt lawmakers and their staff from Obamacare. …Camp spokeswoman Allie Walker said. “If the Obamacare exchanges are good enough for the hardworking Americans and small businesses the law claims to help, then they should be good enough for the president, vice president, Congress and federal employees,” she also said.

To augment the remarks of Rep. Camp’s spokeswoman, it also would be good to somehow figure out a way to make the lobbyists and other Washington insiders participate in the Obamacare exchanges.

There aren’t many “sure things” in life, but one of them is that Obamacare would be repealed almost instantaneously if the bigwigs in Washington actually had to live under the law designed for peasants like you and me.

Unfortunately, that’s why Congressman Camp’s legislation will never get approved.

So let’s end this post with a bit of dark humor from Bob Gorrell.

Obamacare Cartoon July 2013 6

You can enjoy more Obamacare cartoons by clicking here, herehereherehere, and here.

P.S. For readers in New Jersey (and also New York City), I’ll be speaking this upcoming Wednesday, July 31, at the Friedman Day luncheon sponsored by Americans for Prosperity.

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I suggested last year that President Obama adopt “my work here is done” as a campaign slogan.

Admittedly, that was merely an excuse to share this rather amusing poster (and you can see the same hands-on-hips pose, by the way, in this clever Michael Ramirez cartoon).

But I want to make a serious point.

For those of us who want the prosperity and liberty made possible by smaller government and free markets, it would be ideal if the President actually did think his work was done. If that was the case, presumably he wouldn’t propose new schemes to expand the size and scope of the public sector.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Indeed, he bragged about providing handouts, subsidies, and bailouts for housing in his recent pivot-to-the-economy speech and he specifically stated “We’re not done yet.”

As I said in this interview on FBN, that phrase could replace “I’m from Washington and I’m here to help you” as the most frightening sentence in the English language.

Obama’s phrase is particularly distressing since he wants more intervention in housing markets – yet it was misguided government intervention that caused the housing bubble and financial crisis in the first place!

Simply stated, you don’t solve the problems caused by the Fed’s easy-money policy with more government. And you don’t solve the problems caused by corrupt Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac subsidies with more government.

The right approach is to get government out of housing altogether. That means getting rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It means privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It even means eliminating preferences for housing in the tax code as part of a shift to a simple and fair system like the flat tax.

Once we achieve all these goals, then we can say “we’re done”…and move on to our other objectives, like dealing with the damage caused by government in the health sector, the education sector, the financial markets sector, etc, etc…

P.S. Some people doubtlessly will complain that bad things will happen if the government no longer is involved in housing, but I think we’ll survive just fine without bureaucrats screwing over poor people and mandating “emotional support” animals in college dorms.

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There are all sorts of ways to measure the burden of government spending.

The most obvious approach is to look at the share of economic output consumed by the public sector. That’s what I did, for instance, when comparing fiscal policy in France and Switzerland. And it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that Switzerland’s comparative frugality helps to explain why its economy is much stronger than the French economy.

It’s also good to know whether a country is heading in the wrong direction or right direction. If one country has a bigger government but has implemented reforms that slow the growth of the public sector, it may have a better future than another country where government currently is a smaller burden but the long-term fiscal outlook is grim.

For this reason, I was very interested in the data showing that most European nations actually increased the size of government in recent years – notwithstanding all the hyperbole about “savage” and “draconian” austerity.

That’s why the “exceptions to the rule” in Europe – such as Estonia and Germany – are so noteworthy. While their neighbors are doing the wrong thing, these countries are being at least semi-responsible and trying to rein in the burden of government spending.

The same thing is true for state governments, which is why this new map from the Tax Foundation is worth sharing. It shows how fast spending has increased in each state over the past 10 years.

Louisiana gets the worst grade for profligacy, followed by Wyoming and New Jersey, while Alaska has been the most frugal, followed by West Virginia and South Carolina.

State Spending Map

It would be interesting to see annual numbers. Is Louisiana’s poor performance due to Governor Jindal, for instance, or in spite of him? Likewise, has Chris Christie made any difference in New Jersey?

Looking at states that have done well, did Governor Palin make a difference in Alaska? And did Governor Sanford make a difference in South Carolina? Again, without seeing the annual data, there’s no way of answering these questions.

Moreover, it might be interesting to also know what has happened to local government spending, particularly since some states may have artificially low or high numbers depending on whether there have been changes in how overall spending is allocated.

Last but not least, we should remember that the key goal of fiscal policy is – or should be – to have government grow slower than the private sector. To determine whether states are satisfying my Golden Rule, you need the Tax Foundation data on spending, but it needs to be augmented by similar data for economic output.

And if you look at personal income growth on a state-by-state basis, adjust it for inflation, and then compare it to spending growth, you get some interesting results.

It turns out that North Dakota is the state that most satisfies Mitchell’s Golden Rule, followed by South Dakota and Alaska. West Virginia and South Carolina stay in the top 10, but they drop to 4 and 9, respectively.

New Jersey, meanwhile, takes over as the worst state, followed by Arizona and Louisiana.

Not only has New Jersey been the biggest failure based on my Golden Rule, it also doesn’t have a lot of breathing room. If you look at this info-graph on state debt, you can see that it has the nation’s 7th biggest debt load. In other words, the Garden State’s politicians have been making a bad situation even worse.

And since New Jersey also has a punitive death tax, the obvious message is that productive people should flee the state. Which is exactly what’s been happening. Thanks to migration, about $70 billion of wealth escaped between 2004 and 2008 alone.

But be careful where you move. Other states that get black marks on both spending and debt are Ohio, Illinois (gee, what a surprise), and New Mexico.

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About two weeks ago, while making an important point about the Laffer Curve, here’s what I wrote about the fiscal disaster in Detroit.

Detroit’s problems are the completely predictable result of excessive government. Just as statism explains the problems of Greece. And the problems of California. And the problems of Cyprus. And the problems of Illinois. …Simply stated, as the size and scope of the public sector increased, that created very destructive economic and political dynamics. More and more people got lured into the wagon of government dependency, which puts an ever-increasing burden on a shrinking pool of producers. Meanwhile, organized interest groups such as government bureaucrats used their political muscle to extract absurdly excessive compensation packages, putting an even larger burden of the dwindling supply of taxpayers.

And in this Fox News interview, I elaborate on these arguments and warned that federal government profligacy – if unchecked – will lead to similarly dismal results for the entire United States.

I want to augment on a couple of my points.

First, I explained that Detroit’s bankruptcy won’t have any major and long-lasting ripple effects – assuming politicians on the state or national level don’t encourage more bad policy with bailouts. If you’re a creditor, it’s not good news that the city owes you money, and it’s also not a cheerful time if you’re a retired bureaucrat hoping for years and years of pension payments and healthcare subsidies, but there’s no reason to expect that Detroit’s problems will impose significant damage on Michigan – particularly compared to the harm that would be caused if Detroit was allowed to continue with business as usual.

Similarly, the United States wouldn’t suffer major consequences if (probably when) California no longer can pay its bills. On the other hand, the European Union and the euro currency are being weakened by the mess in Greece, though that’s because they’ve been subsidizing bad fiscal policy with bailouts.

Second, I made the argument for entitlement reform, specifically the “pre-funding” version of Social Security reform that’s been adopted in nations as diverse as Australia and Chile.

Incidentally, this approach is even bolder than the Medicaid and Medicare reforms in the GOP budgets.

Third, I expressed some optimism that the United States has a chance to implement these much-needed reforms, in part because countries such as France and Japan will blow up before America.

And each time another nation, state, or city gets into trouble, it will strengthen our arguments to put the federal government on a long-overdue diet.

Big problems for America if politicians leave government on auto-pilot

Having a strong argument, though, is not the same as having an argument that will prevail. So even though America still has some breathing room, and even though the economic and moral case for spending restraint is very powerful, we’re in the unfortunate situation of having to rely on politicians in Washington.

So keep places such as Australia in mind just in case you need to escape when America’s fiscal chickens come home to roost.

In conclusion, I can’t resist drawing your attention to something I wrote back in 2011, when I showed the eerie similarity of Detroit’s collapse with the “blighted areas” in Ayn Rand’s classic novel, Atlas Shrugged.

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