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Archive for the ‘CBO’ Category

I’m frequently baffled at the stupidity of Republicans.

When they took control of Congress back in 1994, for instance, they had unrestricted ability to get rid of the bureaucrats that generated bad economic analysis at both the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office.

Yet notwithstanding more than a decade of congressional power, GOPers did almost nothing to neutralize the bureaucrats who produced shoddy research that helped the left push for more spending and higher taxes.

Sort of like a football team allowing the opposing coach to pick the refs and design game plans for both teams.

Another painful example is that Republicans never used their majority status to defund the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

This international bureaucracy is infamous for pushing policies to expand the power of government. That’s not too surprising since it’s dominated by European welfare states. But it is amazing that Republicans seem to think it’s perfectly fine to send about $100 million each year to subsidize the OECD’s agenda.

Particularly when the OECD so often pushes policies that are directly contrary to American interests.

It has allied itself with the nutjobs from the so-called Occupy movement to push for bigger government and higher taxes in the United States.

The bureaucrats are advocating higher business tax burdens, which would aggravate America’s competitive disadvantage.

The OECD is pushing a “Multilateral Convention” that is designed to become something akin to a World Tax Organization, with the power to persecute nations with free-market tax policy.

It supports Obama’s class-warfare agenda, publishing documents endorsing “higher marginal tax rates” so that the so-called rich “contribute their fair share.”

The OECD advocates the value-added tax based on the absurd notion that increasing the burden of government is good for growth and employment.

It even concocts dishonest poverty numbers to advocate more redistribution in the United States.

Let’s elaborate on the last item dealing with poverty in the United States. According to the OECD, poverty is more sever in the United States than it is in relatively poor nations such as Greece, Portugal, and Hungary.

Indeed, the bureaucrats in Paris even put together a chart showing how “bad” America ranks in this category.

But it’s all bunk. Utterly dishonest garbage. Here’s some of what I wrote last year on this topic.

…if you read the fine print, you may notice one itsy-bitsy detail. The chart isn’t a measure of poverty. Not even close. Indeed, the chart wouldn’t change if all of the people of any nation (or all nations) suddenly had 10 times as much income. That’s because the OECD is measuring is relative income distribution rather than relative poverty. And the left likes this measure because coerced redistribution automatically leads to the appearance of less poverty. Even if everybody’s income is lower!

But the OECD isn’t letting up. In a new “Society at a Glance” look at the United States last month, here’s what the OECD claimed.

The relative poverty rate in the U.S. is 17.4%, compared to an OECD average of 11.1%. Only Chile, Israel, Mexico and Turkey have higher poverty rates than the U.S.

But unlike in other publications, the OECD didn’t bother to include any fine print admitting that its poverty measure has nothing to do with poverty.

That’s grotesquely dishonest and morally corrupt.

And since we’re on the topic of corruption, let’s broaden our discussion. National Review’s Kevin Williamson has an article on the rampant corruption among elected officials.

But what caught my attention weren’t the parts about pro-gun control politicians trying to help sell weapons to terrorists. Instead, I especially appreciated the broader lesson he provides for readers.

James Madison famously observed that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But he also understood that men do not become angels once they win elections, become police, or are appointed to positions of power. Our constitutional order strikes an elegant balance between policing the non-angels outside of government and constraining the non-angels within government, setting the ambitions of the three branches against one another and subdividing the legislative branch against itself. …Adam Smith’s formula for prosperity — “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice” — is the very modest ambition that conservatives aim for. Limited government is the tool by which government can be made to do good without necessarily being good, or being composed of good men. …The corruptibility of the political classes is fenced in by limiting the power of the political classes per se. You cannot expand the scope and scale of government without expanding in parallel the scope and scale of government corruption.

Amen to that. That’s the core message of this video I narrated, which explains that shrinking the size and scope of government is the only effective way to reduce corruption.

Remember the lesson of this superb poster: If more government is the answer, you’ve asked a very strange question.

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I asked back in September whether all the bad news about Obamacare meant it was time to feel sorry for President Obama and other statists.

Some people apparently didn’t realize I was being sarcastic, so I got some negative feedback.

I’ve since learned to be more careful with my language, and subsequent columns about Obamacare developments have used more direct rhetoric such as Obamacare disaster, Obamacare Schadenfreude, and the continuing Obamacare disaster.

Well, I don’t even know if there are words that can describe the latest bit of bad news about Obamacare. The Congressional Budget Office, which usually carries water for those who favor bigger government, has been forced to acknowledge that Obamacare is going to wreak havoc with America’s job market.

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a column on the topic, giving considerable and deserved credit to Casey Mulligan, an economics professor at the University of Chicago who has produced first-rate research on implicit marginal tax rates and labor supply incentives.

Rarely are political tempers so raw over an 11-page appendix to a dense budget projection for the next decade. But then the CBO—Congress’s official fiscal scorekeeper, widely revered by Democrats and Republicans alike as the gold standard of economic analysis—reported that by 2024 the equivalent of 2.5 million Americans who were otherwise willing and able to work before ObamaCare will work less or not at all as a result of ObamaCare. As the CBO admits, that’s a “substantially larger” and “considerably higher” subtraction to the labor force than the mere 800,000 the budget office estimated in 2010. The overall level of labor will fall by 1.5% to 2% over the decade, the CBO figures. Mr. Mulligan’s empirical research puts the best estimate of the contraction at 3%. The CBO still has some of the economics wrong, he said in a phone interview Thursday, “but, boy, it’s a lot better to be off by a factor of two than a factor of six.”

That’s a lot of lost jobs, which is going to translate into lower levels of economic output and reduced living standards.

By the way, I can’t resist quibbling with the assertion that CBO is “widely revered” and that it’s the “gold standard of economic analysis.”

Utter nonsense. CBO helped grease the skids for Obamacare by producing biased numbers when the law was being debated.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. CBO also produces “analysis” which implies that you maximize growth with 100 percent tax rates. And the bureaucrats at CBO also are reflexive advocates of Keynesian economics, which is why they claimed that Obama’s so-called stimulus was creating jobs even though unemployment was rising.

So you can understand why I don’t like citing CBO numbers, even when they happen to support my position.

As far as I’m concerned, the bureaucracy should be shut down. And if Republicans win the Senate in the 2014 elections, it will be interesting to see whether they have the brains to at least reform CBO to limit future damage.

But I’ve digressed long enough. Let’s get back to the WSJ column about the latest Obamacare disaster.

Our friends on the left are in a very tough position.

…liberals have turned to claiming that ObamaCare’s missing workers will be a gift to society. Since employers aren’t cutting jobs per se through layoffs or hourly take-backs, people are merely choosing rationally to supply less labor. Thanks to ObamaCare, we’re told, Americans can finally quit the salt mines and blacking factories and retire early, or spend more time with the children, or become artists. Mr. Mulligan reserves particular scorn for the economists making this “eliminated from the drudgery of labor market” argument, which he views as a form of trahison des clercs. …A job, Mr. Mulligan explains, “is a transaction between buyers and sellers. When a transaction doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. We know that it doesn’t matter on which side of the market you put the disincentives, the results are the same. . . . In this case you’re putting an implicit tax on work for households, and employers aren’t willing to compensate the households enough so they’ll still work.” Jobs can be destroyed by sellers (workers) as much as buyers (businesses).

By the way, just in case you’re an unsophisticated rube like me, Wiktionary says that trahison des clercs means “a compromise of intellectual integrity by members of an intelligentsia.”

Which is a pretty good description of leftists who are twisting themselves into pretzels trying to rationalize that joblessness and government dependency are good things.

And Prof. Mulligan makes the right analogy.

He adds: “I can understand something like cigarettes and people believe that there’s too much smoking, so we put a tax on cigarettes, so people smoke less, and we say that’s a good thing. OK. But are we saying we were working too much before? Is that the new argument? I mean make up your mind. We’ve been complaining for six years now that there’s not enough work being done. . . . Even before the recession there was too little work in the economy. Now all of a sudden we wake up and say we’re glad that people are working less? We’re pursuing our dreams?” The larger betrayal, Mr. Mulligan argues, is that the same economists now praising the great shrinking workforce used to claim that ObamaCare would expand the labor market. He points to a 2011 letter organized by Harvard’s David Cutler and the University of Chicago’s Harold Pollack, signed by dozens of left-leaning economists including Nobel laureates, stating “our strong conclusion” that ObamaCare will strengthen the economy and create 250,000 to 400,000 jobs annually.

Gee, that “strong conclusion” about an increase in jobs somehow turned into a cold reality that the economy might lose the equivalent of 2.5 million jobs.

This is very grim news. We can be happy that there’s now even more evidence that big government doesn’t work, but we should never forget that there are real victims when statist policies lead to less growth and more joblessness.

So let’s try to bring some cheer to a dismal situation with some new Obamacare cartoons.

Our first entry is from Chip Bok, who is mocking the New York Times for writing that fewer jobs was “a liberating result of the law.”

Gary Varvel’s analysis of the job impact has a seasonal theme.

And the great Michael Ramirez points out that the death panel has been very busy.

Lisa Benson picks up on the same theme, pointing out that at least Granny is still safe.

And Henry Payne makes a subtle, but superb point about labor supply incentives.

Just like this Chuck Asay cartoon, this Wizard-of-Id parody., and this Robert Gorrell cartoon.

Let’s now look at another Lisa Benson cartoon. It’s not about the job losses, but the underlying foolishness of how Obamacare is designed.

And if you like cartoons with sharks, here’s a classic one about Keynesian economics.

Let’s close with a couple of cartoons that look at the big picture.

Glenn McCoy shares a warning label.

And Steve Breen also has a warning label about Obamacare, but it’s much quicker to read.

Last but not least, Scott Stantis looks at one of the side effects of Obamacare.

Stantis Obamacare Cartoon

Stantis, by the way, produced the best-ever cartoon about Keynesian economics.

P.S. If you want to learn more about how redistribution programs such as Obamacare trap people in dependency and discourage them from the job market, click here.

There are even some honest leftists who recognize this is a serious problem.

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As a long-time advocate of tax reform, I’m not a fan of distortionary loopholes in the tax code. Ideally, we would junk the 74,000-page internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax – meaning one low rate, no double taxation, and no favoritism.*

The right kind of tax reform would generate more growth and also reduce corruption in Washington. Politicians no longer would have the ability to create special tax breaks for well-connected contributors.

But we won’t get to the right destination if we have the wrong map, and this is why a new report about “tax expenditures” from the Congressional Budget Office is so disappointing.

As you can see from this excerpted table, CBO makes the same mistake as the Tax Policy Center and assumes that there should be double taxation of income that is saved and invested. As such, they list IRAs and 401(k)s as tax expenditures, even though those provisions merely enable people to avoid being double-taxed.

Likewise, the CBO report assumes that there should be double taxation of dividends and capital gains, so provisions to guard against such destructive policies also are listed as tax expenditures.

CBO Tax Expenditure List

The CBO report says that tax expenditures will total about $12 trillion over the next 10 years, but about one-third of that amount (which I’ve marked with a red X) don’t belong on the list.

By the way, at least the Tax Policy Center has an excuse for putting its thumb on the scale and issuing a flawed estimate of tax expenditures. It’s a project of the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute, both of which are on the left side of the political spectrum. So it’s hardly a surprise that they use a benchmark designed to promote punitive tax policy.

But what’s CBO’s excuse?

To be fair, at least CBO admitted in the report that there’s a different way of seeing the world.

…tax expenditures are measured relative to a comprehensive income tax system. If tax expenditures were evaluated relative to an alternative tax system—for instance, a comprehensive consumption tax, such as a national retail sales tax or a value-added tax—some of the 10 major tax expenditures analyzed here would not be considered tax expenditures. For example, because a consumption tax would exclude all savings and investment income from taxation, the exclusion of net pension contributions and earnings would be considered part of the normal tax system and not a tax expenditure.

But admitting the existence of another approach doesn’t let CBO off the hook. At the very least, the bureaucracy should have produced a a parallel set of estimates for tax expenditures assuming no double taxation. That basic competence and fairness.

By the way, the Government Accountability Office is worse than CBO. When GAO did a report on corporate tax expenditures, that bureaucracy didn’t even acknowledge that there was an alternate way of looking at the data.

*Actually, the ideal approach would be to dramatically reduce the burden of government spending, shrinking the size and scope of the federal government back to what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Under that system, there presumably wouldn’t be a need for any broad-based tax.

P.S. This new report is not even close to being the worst thing produced by CBO. The bureaucrats on several occasions have asserted that higher taxes are good for growth, even to the point of implying that the growth-maximizing tax rate is 100 percent! And CBO is slavishly devoted to Keynesian economics, notwithstanding several decades of evidence that you can’t make an economy richer by taking money out of one pocket and putting it in another pocket.

Yet for inexplicable reasons, Republicans failed to deal with CBO bias back when they were in charge.

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Because I’ve been sharing good news recently – which definitely is not my normal style, I joked the other day I must be on coke, in love, or rolling in money. For example:

Well, the drugs, love, and money must still be in my system because I’m going to share some more good news. Our lords and masters in Washington have taken a small step in the direction of recognizing the Laffer Curve.

Here are some details from a Politico report.

Here’s one Republican victory that went virtually unnoticed in the slew of budget votes last week: The Senate told the Congressional Budget Office it should give more credit to the economic power of tax cuts. It won’t have the force of law, but it was a big symbolic win for conservatives — because it gave them badly needed moral support in an ongoing war to get Washington’s establishment number crunchers to take their economic ideas more seriously. The amendment endorsed a model called “dynamic scoring,” which assumes that tax cuts will pay for at least part of their cost by generating more economic activity. The measure by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) called on CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation to include “macroeconomic feedback scoring” in all future estimates of tax legislation. …Portman eked out a narrow 51-48 victory in the final series of budget votes that started around 3 a.m. on Saturday.

Just in case you missed it, this modest victory for common sense took place in the Senate. You know, the place controlled by Harry Reid of Cowboy Poetry fame.Laffer Curve

To be sure, it’s not quite time to pop open the champagne.

The vote was a symbolic victory for the think tanks and lawmakers on the right who have been fighting for years to force CBO and JCT to officially endorse the idea that people spend more and invest more when they owe the government less. …Conservatives’ ideas, including revenue-generating tax cuts and a more market-oriented health care system, can only work if tax policy changes people’s behavior — and that’s just not how CBO views the world.

I’ve been very critical of both CBO and JCT, so I’m one of the people in “think tanks” the article is talking about.

P.S. Chuck Asay has a good cartoon mocking the CBO.

P.P.S. I’ll repeat, for the umpteenth time, that we want to recognize the insights of the Laffer Curve in order to facilitate lower tax rates, not because we want to maximize revenue for the government.

P.P.P.S. Dynamic scoring is a double-edged sword. If the statists control everything, they’ll use the process to justify more spending using discredited Keynesian economics.

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I’ve commented before how the fiscal fight in Europe is a no-win contest between advocates of Keynesian deficit spending (the so-called “growth” camp, if you can believe that) and proponents of higher taxes (the “austerity” camp, which almost never seems to mean spending restraint).

That’s a left-vs-left battle, which makes me think it would be a good idea if they fought each other to the point of exhaustion, thus enabling forward movement on a pro-growth agenda of tax reform and reductions in the burden of government spending.

That’s a nice thought, but it probably won’t happen in Europe since almost all politicians in places such as Germany and France are statists. And it might never happen in the United States if lawmakers pay attention to the ideologically biased work of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

CBO already has demonstrated that it’s willing to take both sides of this left-v-left fight, and the bureaucrats just doubled down on that biased view in a new report on the fiscal cliff.

CBO economist prepares another Keynesian estimate

For all intents and purposes, the CBO has a slavish devotion to Keynesian theory in the short run, which means more spending supposedly is good for growth. But CBO also believes that higher taxes improve growth in the long run by ostensibly leading to lower deficits. Here’s what it says will happen if automatic budget cuts are cancelled.

Eliminating the automatic enforcement procedures established by the Budget Control Act of 2011 that are scheduled to reduce both discretionary and mandatory spending starting in January and maintaining Medicare’s payment rates for physicians’ services at the current level would boost real GDP by about three-quarters of a percent by the end of 2013.

Not that we should be surprised by this silly conclusion. The CBO repeatedly claimed that Obama’s faux stimulus would boost growth. Heck, CBO even claimed Obama’s spending binge was successful after the fact, even though it was followed by record levels of unemployment.

But I think the short-run Keynesianism is not CBO’s biggest mistake. In the long-run, CBO wants us to believe that higher tax burdens translate into more growth. Check out this passage, which expresses CBO’s view the economy will be weaker 10 years from now if the tax burden is not increased.

…the agency has estimated the effect on output that would occur in 2022 under the alternative fiscal scenario, which incorporates the assumption that several of the policies are maintained indefinitely. CBO estimates that in 2022, on net, the policies included in the alternative fiscal scenario would reduce real GDP by 0.4 percent and real gross national product (GNP) by 1.7 percent.  …the larger budget deficits and rapidly growing federal debt would hamper national saving and investment and thus reduce output and income.

In other words, CBO reflexively makes two bold assumption. First, it assumes higher tax rates generate more money. Second, the bureaucrats assume that politicians will use any new money for deficit reduction. Yeah, good luck with that.

To be fair, the CBO report does have occasional bits of accurate analysis. The authors acknowledge that both taxes and spending can create adverse incentives for productive behavior.

…increases in marginal tax rates on labor would tend to reduce the amount of labor supplied to the economy, whereas increases in revenues of a similar magnitude from broadening the tax base would probably have a smaller negative impact or even a positive impact on the supply  of labor.  Similarly, cutting government benefit payments would generally strengthen people’s incentive to work and save.

But these small concessions do not offset the deeply flawed analysis that dominates the report.

But that analysis shouldn’t be a surprise. The CBO has a track record of partisan and ideological work.

While I’m irritated about CBO’s bias (and the fact that it’s being financed with my tax dollars), that’s not what has me worked up. The reason for this post is to grouse and gripe about the fact that some people are citing this deeply flawed analysis to oppose Obama’s pursuit of class warfare tax policy.

Why would some Republican politicians and conservative commentators cite a publication that promotes higher spending in the short run and higher taxes in the long run? Well, because it also asserts – based on Keynesian analysis – that higher taxes will hurt the economy in the short run.

…extending the tax reductions originally enacted in 2001, 2003, and 2009 and extending all other expiring provisions, including those that expired at the end of 2011, except for the payroll tax cut—and indexing the alternative minimum tax (AMT) for inflation beginning in 2012 would boost real GDP by a little less than 1½ percent by the end of 2013.

At the risk of sounding like a doctrinaire purist, it is unethical to cite inaccurate analysis in support of a good policy.

Consider this example. If some academic published a study in favor of the flat tax and it later turned out that the data was deliberately or accidentally wrong, would it be right to cite that research when arguing for tax reform? I hope everyone would agree that the answer is no.

Yet that’s precisely what is happening when people cite CBO’s shoddy work to argue against tax increases.

It’s very much akin to the pro-defense Republicans who use Keynesian arguments about jobs when promoting a larger defense budget.

To make matters worse, it’s not as if opponents lack other arguments that are intellectually honest.

So why, then, would anybody sink to the depths necessary to cite the Congressional Budget Office?

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Many of us know that Obamacare will be very expensive and that supporters, aided and abetted by the Congressional Budget Office, deliberately low-balled the cost estimates.

I’ve also cited my Cato colleague Chris Edwards, who has made a more comprehensive (and well-documented) claim that government officials systematically lie about the cost of new projects.

Now we have a rather remarkable example of this fiscal prevarication from across the ocean.

In 2002, the British government estimated the cost of hosting the Olympic Games at $2.8 billion. Ten years later, the price has passed $15 billion and is still rising. When everything is added up — lost business, as many as 13,500 British soldiers patrolling the streets of London (more than are in Afghanistan) — the expenses may come to $38 billion.

Wow, cost overruns of somewhere between 500 percent and 1300 percent. That’s bad, even by government standards.

Though I imagine that moronic advocates of Keynesian economics will argue that the $15 billion-$38 billion is a form of stimulus that will percolate through the economy – conveniently forgetting that the money had to be taxed and borrowed from the private economy in the first place.

P.S. The top cartoon in this post is a good description of how government officials come up with their fiscal estimates.

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Washington is filled with people who exaggerate, prevaricate, dissemble, and obfuscate. And those are the people I like. The ones I don’t like are much worse.

That’s why, during the Obamacare debate, I warned that the numbers were utterly dishonest.

We were told, if you remember those grim days, that adopting a giant new entitlement somehow was going to lead to less red ink, but I doubt anybody with an IQ above room temperature actually believed that nonsense, notwithstanding the supposedly non-partisan estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Well, Obamacare was enacted and we’ve already seen evidence that supporters were being less than truthful.

"I'm shocked, shocked, that Obamacare is more expensive than the original forecasts"

And now there are additional re-estimates suggesting the problem is much worse than even critics feared.

One wonders whether supporters of the legislation will now imitate Inspector Renault from Casablanca and pretend that they are surprised about this outcome.

Here are some excerpts from an Associated Press report about these “surprise” findings.

Cost estimates for a key portion of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul law have ballooned by $111 billion from last year’s budget… the estimated cost of helping millions of middle-class Americans buy health insurance has jumped by about 30 percent for an eight-year period, from 2014-2021. Administration officials say the explanation lies in budget technicalities and that there are no significant changes in the program that would raise concerns. …Cost overruns for the health care overhaul could create new political problems for Obama by undermining the law’s promise to reduce federal deficits. The revised health care numbers, buried deep in the president’s budget, stumped lawmakers and some administration officials earlier in the week. At a congressional hearing Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is in charge of carrying out the health care law, indicated she was unaware of the changes. …Last year’s budget estimated the cost of the aid to be $367 billion from 2014-2021. This year’s budget puts it at $478 billion over the same period.

A mature and dignified person would resist the temptation to say “I told you so.” But I’m neither mature nor dignified, so here’s an encore edition of my video on the Obamacare cost estimates.

This is a case, though, where I wish I had been wrong. Unfortunately, if you’re predicting bad results from government intervention, you’re on firm ground – especially if politicians are trying to deal with a mess caused by previous forms of government intervention.

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About this time last year, with the White House about to release a new budget, the press was filled with stories about President Obama being a tough-minded budget cutter.

Once the budget was released, I looked at the real numbers and explained how the burden of government spending would jump by $2 trillion in just 10 years if the President’s plan was enacted.

So why is there such a disconnect? Why does the establishment media report about “cuts” that would “slash” the budget, when actual spending is rising?

I explain this scam to John Stossel.

I made similar points last year in this interview with Judge Napolitano.

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Never let it be said I back down from a fight, even when it’s the other team’s game, played by the other team’s rules, and for the benefit of the wrong person.

And that definitely went through my mind when U.S. News & World Report asked me to contribute to their “Debate Club” on the topic of “Should Mitt Romney pay higher taxes?”

I’m not a Romney fan, and it irks me to defend good tax policy on behalf of someone who is incapable and/or unwilling to make the same principled arguments.

But my job is to do the right thing and bring truth to the economic heathens, so I agreed to participate. And I’m glad I did, because it gave me a chance to try out a new argument that I hope will educate more people about the perverse impact of double taxation.

Let me know what you think of this approach, which asks people whether they would think it would be fair if they couldn’t take credit for withheld taxes when filling out their 1040 tax return.

Capital gains taxes and dividend taxes are both forms of double taxation. That income already is hit by the 35 percent corporate income tax. So the real tax rate for people like Mitt Romney is closer to 45 percent. And if you add the death tax to the equation, the effective tax rate begins to approach 60 percent.  Here’s a simply analogy. Imagine you make $50,000 per year and your employer withholds $5,000 for personal income tax. How would you feel if the IRS then told you that your income was $45,000 and you had to pay full tax on that amount, and that you weren’t allowed to count the $5,000 withholding when you filled out your 1040 form? You would be outraged, correctly yelling and screaming that you should be allowed to count those withheld tax payments.  Welcome to the world of double taxation.

By the way, if you like my argument, feel free to vote for my entry, which you can do on this page.

I won my previous debate for U.S. News, so I’m hoping the keep a good thing going. As they say in Chicago, vote early and vote often.

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I’ve criticized the Congressional Budget Office for generating biased and inaccurate numbers. These are the clowns, after all, who say deficit spending stimulates the economy in the short run but they also rely on a model which seemingly predicts 100 percent tax rates maximize growth in the long run.

About the only nice thing that can be said about this collection of bureaucrats is that they’re consistent, though I’m not sure being wrong all the time is something to brag about – especially when even cartoonists start to make fun of CBO’s flawed approach.

This is why I’ve argued it may be best to shut down CBO, and also written that – at a minimum – sweeping reform of the Capitol Hill bureaucracy is a test of GOP seriousness.

I’m not alone in my disdain for CBO. In a column for The Hill, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center makes two excellent points about the Congressional Budget Office: 1) the general inability of economists to predict (we’d be rich if we knew how to do that) and 2) the use of inaccurate models.

The CBO’s consistently flawed scoring of the cost of bills is used by Congress to justify legislation that rarely performs as promised and drags down the economy. Whether it scores the recent healthcare bill or the cost of the Capitol Hill Visitor Center, an ambitious three-floor underground facility, the price for taxpayers always ends up larger than originally predicted. …Like many economists, its analysts suffer from a misplaced belief in their forecasting prowess. …CBO relies heavily on Keynesian economic models, like the ones it used during the stimulus debate. Forecasters at the agency predicted the stimulus package would create more than 3 million jobs. …But unemployment stubbornly remained around 10 percent. What was wrong with the CBO’s numbers? …the stimulus and the ACA should serve as yet more evidence that Congress should take budget scores and economic projections with a grain of salt. What looks good in the spirit world of the computer model may be very bad in the material realm of real life because people react to changes in policies in ways unaccounted for in these models.

Let’s now move from the general to the specific. Peter Suderman reports from Reason on new research suggesting that costs for just one provision of Obamacare may be far higher than predicted by the jokers at CBO.

The Congressional Budget Office’s official cost estimate for last year’s health care overhaul projected that the law would cost a little less than $950 billion over its first decade. About half of that cost came from the law’s Medicaid expansion, which was projected to enroll 16 million new individuals in the joint federal-state health care program for the poor and disabled. But researchers at Harvard University are now warning that policymakers should be prepared for substantial uncertainty about the true enrollment effects of the Medicaid expansion. In a paper published in the journal Health Affairs earlier this week, a team of health economists estimated that, under the law, new Medicaid enrollment could be as low as 8.5 million people, but also as high as 22.4 million people—with additional costs to match…meaning that a full decade of the Medicaid expansion alone could end up costing nearly $1 trillion—more than the entire law was supposed to cost in its first ten year out of the gate.

The article does note that it’s possible that costs also might be lower than forecast, but Peter explains why the upper-bound estimate is more likely to be accurate because the law creates perverse incentives.

Indeed, CBO’s failure to recognize that new programs will lure people into greater dependency is one of the biggest reasons that the bureaucracy routinely under-estimates the cost of new programs. This is a point I stressed in my video explaining why Obamacare will be far more costly than CBO predicted.

Heck, even CBO is beginning to acknowledge that Obamacare will be more expensive than forecast, and most of the legislation hasn’t even been implemented.

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The Congressional Budget Office has just released the update to its Economic and Budget Outlook.

There are several things from this new report that probably deserve commentary, including a new estimate that unemployment will “remain above 8 percent until 2014.”

This certainly doesn’t reflect well on the Obama White House, which claimed that flushing $800 billion down the Washington rathole would prevent the joblessness rate from ever climbing above 8 percent.

Not that I have any faith in CBO estimates. After all, those bureaucrats still embrace Keynesian economics.

But this post is not about the backwards economics at CBO. Instead, I want to look at the new budget forecast and see what degree of fiscal discipline is necessary to get rid of red ink.

The first thing I did was to look at CBO’s revenue forecast, which can be found in table 1-2. But CBO assumes the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts will expire at the end of 2012, as well as other automatic tax hikes for 2013. So I went to table 1-8 and got the projections for those tax provisions and backed them out of the baseline forecast.

That gave me a no-tax-hike forecast for the next 10 years, which shows that revenues will grow, on average, slightly faster than 6.6 percent annually. Or, for those who like actual numbers, revenues will climb from a bit over $2.3 trillion this year to almost $4.4 trillion in 2021.

Something else we know from CBO’s budget forecast is that spending this year (fiscal year 2011) is projected to be a bit below $3.6 trillion.

So if we know that tax revenues will be $4.4 trillion in 2021 (and that’s without any tax hike), and we know that spending is about $3.6 trillion today, then even those of us who hate math can probably figure out that we can balance the budget by 2021 so long as government spending does not increase by more than $800 billion during the next 10 years.

Yes, you read that correctly. We can increase spending and still balance the budget. This chart shows how quickly the budget can be balanced with varying degrees of fiscal discipline.

The numbers show that a spending freeze balances the budget by 2017. Red ink disappears by 2019 if spending is allowed to grow 1 percent each years. And the deficit disappears by 2021 if spending is limited to 2 percent annual growth.

Not that these numbers are a surprise. I got similar results after last year’s update, and also earlier this year when the Economic and Budget Outlook was published.

Some of you may be thinking this can’t possibly be right. After all, you hear politicians constantly assert that we need tax hikes because that’s the only way to balance the budget without “draconian” and “savage” budget cuts.

But as I’ve explained before, this demagoguery is based on the dishonest Washington practice of assuming that spending should increase every year, and then claiming that a budget cut takes place anytime spending does not rise as fast as previously planned.

In reality, balancing the budget is very simple. Modest spending restraint is all that’s needed. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, particularly in a corrupt town dominated by interest groups, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and politicians.

But if we takes tax hikes off the table and somehow cap the growth of spending, it can be done. This video explains.

And we know other countries have succeeded with fiscal restraint. As is explained in this video.

Or we can acquiesce to the Washington establishment and raise taxes and impose fake spending cuts. But that hasn’t worked so well for Greece and other European welfare states, so I wouldn’t suggest that approach.

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I praised Michael Ramirez a few days ago for his clever political cartoons, so it’s time to “spread the wealth” and draw attention to a couple of superb cartoons by Chuck Asay (I think his hometown paper is the Colorado Springs Gazette).

Since I’ve bashed the biased and inaccurate work of the Congressional Budget Office, I found this cartoon very amusing.

And this cartoon on business taxation is very appropriate after yesterday’s post about a potential corporate tax rate reduction from the Obama Administration.

By the way, Obama at one point did say that “no business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top.”

Unfortunately, he made that statement in Ghana and I assumed he only had supply-side feelings while outside of America. But I’m a believer in redemption, so maybe his corporate tax proposal will be good and the beginning of a journey in the right direction.

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I commented yesterday about the silly idea, being promoted by a few politicians, to impose a tax on toilet paper. That post mostly was an opportunity to have some fun mocking greedy government because even a dour pessimist like me doesn’t expect that idea to get very far.

But there’s a new tax idea that sounds equally absurd, but actually is a much greater threat to taxpayers. The bureaucrats at the Congressional Budget Office have issued a report suggesting a tax based on the number of miles driven. Since such a tax almost surely (despite initial assertions to the contrary) would be in addition to existing gas taxes, this would be a way for politicians to grab more of our money.

But that’s not the only thing we should worry about. To impose such a tax, the government obviously would need the ability to track our vehicle usage. At the risk of stating the obvious, my driving patters are not the government’s business.

Here’s a blurb from a report in The Hill.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) this week released a report that said taxing people based on how many miles they drive is a possible option for raising new revenues and that these taxes could be used to offset the costs of highway maintenance at a time when federal funds are short. The report discussed the proposal in great detail, including the development of technology that would allow total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to be tracked, reported and taxed, as well as the pros and cons of mandating the installation of this technology in all vehicles. …The report was requested by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who held a hearing on transportation funding in early March. In that hearing, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the Obama administration is hoping to spend $556 billion over the next six years, much of which would go to federal transportation improvement projects. Conrad said in response that federal funds are tight, and in asking for recommendations on how to raise that money, he noted the possibility of a VMT tax as a way to solve the problem of collecting less in taxes as people move to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

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This won’t surprise anyone with a pulse, but Obama, Reid, Pelosi, et al, were disingenuous about the costs of Obamacare. The Congressional Budget Office has released revised numbers and government-run healthcare will cost 8.6 percent more than what was projected in last year’s forecast. This doubtlessly is just the first of many “re-estimates” that will occur, with each one showing the program to be far more costly than initially projected.

This obviously shows the mendacity of Democrat politicians, but let’s also make sure that CBO takes a lot of the blame. The bureaucrats deliberately low-balled expenditure estimates to please their political masters. If Republicans had any brains, they would fire all of them.

Here’s a brief blurb from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial on the topic.

CBO says the entitlement’s health insurance subsidies will cost $1.13 trillion between 2012 and 2021, not $1.04 trillion, the prior estimate. This 8.6% jump is the result of revised assumptions, the so-called technical factors in CBO’s budget model. The bill’s total cost now stands at $1.445 trillion, according to another recent CBO estimate. Remember that all of these are fictitious numbers that reflect Congressional gaming of CBO conventions to make it seem as if ObamaCare “saves” money. But now, even under these conventions, CBO is conceding that it significantly underestimated the bill’s cost. If the propeller heads decide to add a few more trillion dollars in new spending, they might get somewhat closer to the bill’s true cost.

And because I like to brag when I get something right (to be fair, everyone knew the CBO numbers were dishonest and wrong, so I wasn’t exactly making a brilliant observation), I invite people to re-watch my video explaining how the politicians and their minions were lying to us.

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Grousing about the GOP’s timidity in the battle against big government will probably become an ongoing theme over the next few months, and  let’s start with two items that don’t bode well for fiscal discipline.

First, it appears that Republicans didn’t really mean it when they promised to cut $100 billion of so-called discretionary spending as part of their pledge. According to the New York Times,

As they prepare to take power on Wednesday, Republican leaders are scaling back that number by as much as half, aides say, because the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, will be nearly half over before spending cuts could become law.

This is hardly good news, particularly since the discretionary portion of the budget contains entire departments, such as Housing and Urban Development, that should be immediately abolished.

That being said, I don’t think this necessarily means the GOP has thrown in the towel. The real key is to reverse the Bush-Obama spending binge and put the government on some sort of diet so that the federal budget grows slower than the private economy. I explain in this video, for instance, that it is simple to balance the budget and maintain tax cuts so long as government spending grows by only 2 percent each year.

It is a good idea to get as many savings as possible for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, to be sure, but the real key is the long-run trajectory of federal spending.

The other item for discussion is the GOP’s apparent interest in retaining Douglas Elmendorf, the current Director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Many of you will remember that the CBO cooked the books last year to help ram through Obamacare. Under Elmendorf’s watch, CBO also was a relentless advocate and defender Obama’s failed stimulus. And CBO under Elmendorf published reports saying higher taxes would improve economic performance.

But Elmendorf’s statist positions apparently are not a problem for some senior Republicans, as reported by The Hill.

The new House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), gave a very public endorsement of the embattled head of the Congressional Budget Office during his first major speech as committee head Wednesday night. …“You’re doing a great job at CBO, Doug,” Ryan said after receiving the first annual Fiscy Award for his efforts at tackling the national debt. He added that he looked forward to crunching budget numbers with him in the future.

In the long run, the failure to deal with the problems at CBO (as well as the Joint Committee on Taxation) may cause even more problems than the timidity about cutting $100 billion of waste from the 2011 budget. Given the rules on Capitol Hill, it makes a huge difference whether CBO and JCT are putting out flawed numbers.

I’ve already written that fixing the mess at CBO and JCT is a critical test of GOP resolve, and I actually thought this would be a relatively easy test for them to pass. It is an ominous sign that Republicans aren’t even trying to clean house.

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 I’ve already written about the terrible work of the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO did an awful job on the stimulus, for instance, repeatedly asserting that diverting money from the private sector to government somehow would create jobs. CBO also was a disaster on Obamacare, claiming that a giant new entitlement program would reduce budget deficits. And the legislative bureaucracy even has argued that higher tax rates boost growth.

That sounds absurd (and it is), but CBO is not the only taxpayer-funded bureaucracy on Capitol Hill producing this kind of nonsensical analysis. The Congressional Reserach Service just published a new report asserting that higher tax rates will boost economic performance. Here’s an excerpt from that CRS publication.

…it is ambiguous whether tax cuts lead to more or less work, saving, and investment. The expiration of the tax cuts would nevertheless reduce the budget deficit, absent other policy changes, which economic theory predicts would have a positive effect on the economy in the long run.

To be fair, CRS doesn’t actually claim higher taxes are good for growth. And neither does CBO. But CRS and CBO both assert that there is no clear evidence that higher taxes hurt growth. Budget deficits, however, supposedly have a very negative impact on economic performance according to these Capitol Hill bureaucrats. More specifically, CRS and CBO believe that government borrowing leads to higher interest rates, and they think that higher interest rates reduce investment. And since investment is a key to long-run growth, this leads them to endorse any policy – including higher taxes – that reduces red ink.

Taking the CRS and CBO analysis to its logical extreme (and neither bureaucracy has stated that there are limits to their methodology), tax rates of 100 percent would be the most effective way of maximizing prosperity.

This video explains that the real problem is spending, and that deficits are just a symptom of a government that is too big. This is not to say that CRS and CBO are completely wrong. We have record budget deficits and very low interest rates today, but it’s possible that interest rates might be even lower without all the red ink. And it’s certainly true that interest rates are one of the many factors that determine investment choices, so there’s nothing wrong with including them in the equation.

But magnitudes matter. For all intents and purposes, CRS and CBO want us to believe that more government borrowing will have a very significant impact on interest rates and that those higher interest rates will have a very negative impact on investment. Yet neither bureaucracy offers any evidence for these linkages, in large part because the academic research shows that the relationships between deficits, interest rates, and investment are weak.

By contrast, CRS and CBO have no problem supporting higher tax rates – including more double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Yet there is considerable evidence that punitive tax rates have a significant impact not only on decisions to earn income and be productive, but also on decisions whether to consume today or to save and invest (and thus consume in the future). CRS and CBO also assume, rather naively, that politicians would use any additional revenue for deficit reduction instead of new spending.

Let’s call this the triumph of left-wing theory over real-world evidence. To add insult to injury, the sloppy analysis at CRS and CBO is financed by our tax dollars. So we pay bureaucrats so they can tell politicians to seize more money from us. Gee, what’s not to love about a scam like that?

P.S. If Republicans are actually serious about restraining government spending, CRS and CBO are target-rich environments. Just saying.

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While I’m glad Republicans are finally talking about smaller government, I’ve expressed some disappointment with the GOP Pledge to America. Why “reform” Fannie and Freddie, I asked, when the right approach is to get the government completely out of the housing sector. Jacob Sullum of Reason is similarly underwhelmed. He writes:
In the “Pledge to America” they unveiled last week, House Republicans promise they will “launch a sustained effort to stem the relentless growth in government that has occurred over the past decade.” Who better for the job than the folks who ran the government for most of that time? …Republicans, you may recall, had a spending spree of their own during George W. Bush’s recently concluded administration, when both discretionary and total spending doubled — nearly 10 times the growth seen during Bill Clinton’s two terms. In fact, says Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, “President Bush increased government spending more than any of the six presidents preceding him, including LBJ.” Republicans controlled the House of Representatives for six of Bush’s eight years.
Redemption is a good thing, however, so maybe the GOP actually intends to do the right thing this time around. One key test is whether Republicans do a top-to-bottom housecleaning at both the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation.
 
These Capitol Hill bureaucracies are not well known, but they have enormous authority and influence. As the official scorekeepers of spending (CBO) and tax (JCT) bills, these two bureaucracies can mortally wound legislation or grease the skids for quick passage.
 
Unfortunately, that clout gets used to dramatically tilt the playing field in favor of bigger government. It was CBO that claimed that Obama’s stimulus created jobs, even though the head of CBO was forced to admit that the jobs-created number was the result of a Keynesian model that was rigged to show exactly that result . You would think that would shame the bureaucrats into producing honest numbers, but CBO continues to produce absurd job creation estimates regardless of the actual rate of unemployment.
 
CBO favors deficits and debt when it is asked to analyze proposals for more spending, but it rather conveniently changes its tune when the discussion shifts to tax increases. Since we’re on the topic of twisted economic analysis, CBO actually relies on a model which, for all intents and purposes, predicts that economic performance is maximized with 100 percent tax rates.
 
The Joint Committee on Taxation, meanwhile, is infamous for its assumption that taxes have no impact – at all – on economic output. In other words, instead of showing a Laffer Curve, JCT would show a straight line, with tax revenues continuing to rapidly climb even as tax rates approach 100 percent.  This creates a huge bias against good tax policy, yet JCT is impervious to evidence that its approach is wildly flawed.
 
And don’t forget that CBO and JCT both bear responsibility for Obamacare since they cranked out preposterous estimates that a giant new entitlement would lead to lower budget deficits
 
Not that we need additional evidence, but the head of the CBO just repeated his higher-taxes-equal-more-growth nonsense in testimony to the Senate Budget Committee. With this type of mindset, is it any surprise that fiscal policy is such a mess?
Douglas Elmendorf said extending breaks due to expire at year’s end would increase demand in the next few years by putting more money in consumers’ pockets. Over the long term, he said, the tax cuts would hurt the economy because the government would have to borrow so much money to finance them that it would begin competing with private companies seeking loans. That, in turn, would drive up interest rates, Elmendorf said.
I’ve already written once about how the GOP sabotaged itself when it didn’t fix the problems with these scorekeeping bureaucracies after 1994. If Republicans take power and don’t raze CBO and JCT, they will deserve to become a permanent minority party.

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One of the many disappointing things about Republicans is that they fail to correct problems when they get power. After the 1994  “Gingrich Revolution,” the GOP had complete control of Capitol Hill. This meant complete authority over the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation. Did Republicans use this power to fire the old staff and put in people who understood economics? Of course not. I don’t know if this is because Republicans are stupid or if it’s because they’re too timid to take steps that would generate complaints from their enemies. Regardless, what really matters is that CBO and JCT are just as biased today as they were 20 years ago. Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Hudson Institute exposes CBO’s latest shoddy Keynesian analysis. She is correct, and the people making these same arguments 20 years ago were correct. And I’m afraid people will be saying the same things 20 years from now. Which leads me to think that maybe the best approach is to get rid of these bureaucracies. 
…on Tuesday the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued a report showing that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 increased the number of people employed by between 1.4 and 3.3 million people in the second quarter of 2010 and lowered unemployment by 0.7 to 1.8 percentage points. CBO concludes that without the Recovery Act unemployment, which stood at 9.5% in July, might exceed 10% and possibly be above 11%. There’s just one problem. CBO’s latest figures are inconsistent with its claims of the effects of the stimulus bill when it was passed in February 2009. If its models failed to accurately predict the effects of the stimulus bill then, why should we believe the models now? This is important because some are taking the CBO report as proof that the stimulus bill is working and so we need…more stimulus. …After passage of the stimulus bill, in a March 2009 letter to Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, CBO predicted that the unemployment rate in the last quarter of 2009 would rise to 9% without the stimulus package, from its then-current level of 8.2%. With the stimulus, CBO said, the unemployment rate would range from 7.8% to 8.5%. The actual rate in December, 11 months after enactment of the stimulus, was 10%, far higher than CBO said it would be absent the stimulus. …If Americans had known in February of 2009 that the $787 billion stimulus package (whose cost CBO later raised to $862 billion) would not lead to declines in unemployment, but instead a substantial increase in the unemployment rate to 9.5%, opposition to the spending would have been practically universal. Put it another way – if Americans were asked now whether they would prefer today to have back the February 2009 unemployment rate of 8.2% and the $862 billion spent on stimulus, they would say yes. Some say things would have been worse if the stimulus funds had not been spent. They assume that more government spending, including the $862 billion stimulus, must be good for the economy. This form of Keynesian economics fell out of fashion decades ago everywhere, except in the halls of power in Washington. If more government spending always helped the economy, why stop at $862 billion? Why not give each American an unlimited bank account? Then the unemployment rate would likely rise to 100%. But some economists would still offer unverifiable models to “prove” the benefit to the American public.

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I hope the title of this post is an exaggeration, but it’s certainly a logical conclusion based on what is written in the Congressional Budget Office’s updated Economic and Budget Outlook. The Capitol Hill bureaucracy basically has a deficit-über-alles view of fiscal policy. CBO’s long-run perspective, as shown by this excerpt, is that deficits reduce output by “crowding out” private capital and that anything that results in lower deficits (or larger surpluses) will improve economic performance – even if this means big increases in tax rates.

CBO has also examined an alternative fiscal scenario reflecting several changes to current law that are widely expected to occur or that would modify some provisions of law that might be difficult to sustain for a long period. That alternative scenario embodies small differences in outlays relative to those projected under current law but significant differences in revenues: Under that scenario, most of the cuts in individual income taxes enacted in 2001 and 2003 and now scheduled to expire at the end of this year (except the lower rates applying to high-income taxpayers) are extended through 2020; relief from the AMT, which expired after 2009, continues through 2020; and the 2009 estate tax rates and exemption amounts (adjusted for inflation) apply through 2020. …Under those alternative assumptions, real GDP would be…lower in subsequent years than under CBO’s baseline forecast. …Under that alternative fiscal scenario, real GDP would fall below the level in CBO’s baseline projections later in the coming decade because the larger budget deficits would reduce or “crowd out” investment in productive capital and result in a smaller capital stock.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with CBO’s concern about deficits, but looking at fiscal policy through that prism is akin to deciding who wins a baseball game by looking at what happened during the 6th inning. Yes, government borrowing drains capital from the productive sector of the economy. And nations such as Greece are painful examples of what happens when governments go too far down this path. But taxes also undermine economic performance by reducing incentives to work, save, and invest. And nations such as France are gloomy reminders of what happens when punitive tax rates discourage productive behavior.

What’s missing for CBO’s analysis is any recognition or understanding that the real problem is excessive government spending. Regardless of whether spending is financed by borrowing or taxes, resources are being diverted from the private sector to government. In other words, government spending is the disease and deficits are basically a symptom of that underlying problem. Indeed, it’s worth noting that there’s not much evidence that deficits cause economic damage but plenty of evidence that bloated public sectors stunt growth. This video is a good antidote to CBO’s myopic focus on budget deficits.

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Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the Congressional Budget Office follows a predictable pattern of endorsing policies that result in bigger government. During the debate about the so-called stimulus, for instance, CBO said more spending and higher deficits would be good for the economy. It then followed up that analysis by claiming that the faux stimulus worked even though millions of jobs were lost. Then, during the Obamacare debate, CBO actually claimed that a giant new entitlement program would reduce deficits. Now that tax increases are the main topic (because of the looming expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax bills), CBO has done a 180-degree turn and has published a document discussing the negative consequences of too much deficits and debt.
…persistent deficits and continually mounting debt would have several negative economic consequences for the United States. Some of those consequences would arise gradually: A growing portion of people’s savings would go to purchase government debt rather than toward investments in productive capital goods such as factories and computers; that “crowding out” of investment would lead to lower output and incomes than would otherwise occur. …a growing level of federal debt would also increase the probability of a sudden fiscal crisis, during which investors would lose confidence in the government’s ability to manage its budget, and the government would thereby lose its ability to borrow at affordable rates. …If the United States encountered a fiscal crisis, the abrupt rise in interest rates would reflect investors’ fears that the government would renege on the terms of its existing debt or that it would increase the supply of money to finance its activities or pay creditors and thereby boost inflation.
At some point, even Republicans should be smart enough to figure out that this game is rigged. Then again, the GOP controlled Congress for a dozen years and failed to reform either CBO or its counterpart on the revenue side, the Joint Committee on Taxation (which is infamous for its assumption that tax policy has no impact on overall economic performance).

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You don’t need to watch old Gunsmoke episodes if you want to travel into the past. Just read the latest Congressional Budget Office “research” claiming that Obama’s so-called stimulus “increased the number of full-time-equivalent jobs by 1.8 million to 4.1 million.” CBO’s analysis is a throwback to the widely discredited Keynesian theory that assumes you can enrich yourself by switching money from your left pocket to right pocket. For all intents and purposes, CBO wants us to believe their Keynesian model and ignore real world data. This is akin to the famous line attributed to Willie Nelson, who was caught with another woman by his wife and supposedly said, “Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?”

Using its own Keynesian model, the White House last year said that wasting $800 billion was necessary to keep the unemployment rate from rising above 8 percent. Yet the joblessness rate quickly jumped to 10 percent and remains stubbornly high. We’ve already beaten this dead horse (here, here, here, here, and here), in part because the White House has embarrassed itself even further with silly attempts to find some way of turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. This is why Obama Administration estimates have evolved from “jobs created” to “jobs saved” to “jobs financed.”

The CBO’s most recent “calculations” are just another version of the same economic alchemy. But don’t believe me. Buried at the end of the report is this passage, where CBO basically admits that its new “research” simply plugged new spending numbers into its Keynesian formula. This sounds absurd, and it is, but don’t forget that these are the same geniuses that predicted that a giant new healthcare entitlement would reduce long-run budget deficits.

CBO’s current estimates of the impact of ARRA on output and employment differ slightly from those presented in its February 2010 report primarily because the agency has revised its estimates of ARRA’s impact on federal spending on the basis of new information. Outlays resulting from ARRA in the first quarter of calendar year 2010 were higher than the amount that CBO projected in February 2010 in preparing its estimate of the law’s likely impact on output and employment, primarily because a larger-than-expected amount of refundable tax credits was disbursed in the first quarter rather than later in the year. That change makes the estimated impact of ARRA on output and employment in the first quarter slightly higher than what CBO projected in February.

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I have a column in the Washington Times speculating on ways we could lower our tax bills if we could use the same creative accounting that the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation used to help impose Obamacare on the nation. Lots of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm:

If you’re still struggling over your tax return, wondering why you pay so much to finance a dysfunctional and wasteful government, maybe it’s time you adopted the same rules used by government number crunchers. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) helped push the health bill across the finish line by forecasting that (don’t laugh) a giant new entitlement program for government-run health care would reduce long-run budget deficits. A closer look at what they did suggests that as we approach April 15, taxpayers could save a bundle of money if they used the same creative accounting as CBO and JCT. For example: When CBO and JCT concoct their official scores about increases or decreases in government spending or revenue, they use “base-line” math. So when CBO said Medicare spending would be cut by several hundred billion dollars over the next 10 years, the first thing you need to understand is that Medicare spending actually will be increasing during that time period from $528 billion this year to about $1 trillion in 2020. But CBO says Medicare spending will be “cut” because it is not increasing even faster. Imagine if you got to do the same thing with your tax return. Not many of us received raises last year because of an economy weakened by bad government policy. But let’s say you were one of the lucky ones (a government employee, perhaps?) and you got a $5,000 raise. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam is going to want a big chunk of that additional money. Here’s where CBO accounting would be a big help. Why don’t you assume that you were going to get a raise of $10,000. Because your pay “only” went up by $5,000, you can claim your pay was reduced. The IRS will come down on you like a ton of bricks, but you can tell the agents as they cart you away that you were following official government methodology. (Maybe they’ll go easy on you when you tell them that an identical approach helped push the IRS budget up to $12 billion.)

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Since we’re already depressed by the enactment of Obamacare, we may as well wallow in misery by looking at some long-term budget numbers. The chart below, which is based on the Congressional Budget Office’s long-run estimates, shows that federal government spending will climb to 45 percent of GDP if we believe CBO’s more optimistic “baseline” estimate. If we prefer the less optimistic “alternative” estimate, the burden of federal government spending will climb to 67 percent of economic output. These dismal numbers are driven by two factors, an aging population and entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. For all intents and purposes, America is on a path to become a European-style welfare state.

If these numbers don’t depress you enough, here are a couple of additional observations to push you over the edge. These CBO estimates were produced last year, so they don’t count the cost of Obamacare. And as Michael Cannon repeatedly has observed, Obamacare will cost much more than the official estimates concocted by CBO. And speaking of estimates, the long-run numbers in the chart are almost certainly too optimistic since CBO’s methodology naively assumes that a rising burden of government will have no negative impact on the economy’s growth rate. Last but not least, the data above only measures federal spending. State and local government budgets will consume at least another 15 percent of GDP, so even using the optimistic baseline, total government spending will be about 60 percent of GDP, higher than every European nation, including France, Greece, and Sweden. And if we add state and local spending on top of the “alternative” baseline, then we’re in uncharted territory where perhaps Cuba and North Korea would be the most appropriate analogies.

So what do we do? There’s no sure-fire solution. Congressman Paul Ryan has a reform plan to reduce long-run federal spending to less than 20 percent of GDP. This “Roadmap” plan is excellent, though it is marred by the inclusion of a value-added tax. Bill Shipman of CarriageOaks Partners put forth a very interesting proposal in a Washington Times column to make the federal government rely on states for tax revenue. And I’ve been an avid proponent of tax competition as a strategy to curtail the greed of the political class since it is difficult to finance redistribution if labor and capital can escape to jurisdictions with better tax law. Any other suggestions?

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While admitting that spending restraint is the ideal approach, Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution asks whether a value-added tax (VAT) might be the most desirable of all realistic options for dealing with an unsustainable budget situation.

Read his post for yourself, but I think a fair summary is that he is basically saying that a) there will be a crisis if we don’t do something about future deficits, b) a crisis will result in very bad policy, and c) if we support a VAT now, we will at least be able to extract concessions from the other side.

I have no idea whether there will be a future crisis, but I think the rest of Tyler’s argument is wrong.

But before explaining my position, let’s start by stating what I assume to be our mutual objective, which is to control the size of government. We all agree that there is a problem because government is too big now, and it is projected to get even bigger because of the built-in growth of entitlement programs. One symptom of growing government is deficits, which are very large today and will be even bigger in the near future as more and more baby boomers retire and push up costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Our side (broadly speaking) wants to solve the budgetary situation by restraining the growth of government. One proposed solution is Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap plan, which would reform entitlements and curtail other programs so that the long-term burden of federal spending is reduced to less than 20 percent of GDP. Since long-term federal tax revenues under current law – even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent – are expected to be about 19 percent of GDP, this solves the budet problem  (the tax reform component of the Roadmap includes a VAT, which is a poison pill in an otherwise excellent plan, but let’s set that aside for another day).

The left, by contrast, generally wants to let federal spending consume ever-larger shares of economic output, and they believe that increasing the tax burden is the right way of keeping the deficit from getting too large. No statist has put forth a detailed plan to match Rep. Ryan, but several high-ranking Democrats have made no secret about their desire for a VAT (see here, here, and here). And everyone agrees that a VAT is capable of extracting a lot of money from the productive sector of the economy.

These two visions are fundamentally incompatible, which helps to explain why there is a standoff. The bad guys do not want to control the size of government and the good guys do not want to raise taxes. But now we have to add one more piece to the puzzle. While gridlock normally is a good result, inaction to some degree favors the other side because entitlement programs automatically expand. The helps to explain why Tyler (with reluctance) thinks that it may be best to acquiesce to a VAT now rather than to wait for a fiscal crisis.

Now let’s explain why Tyler is wrong. First, it is far from clear that surrendering to a VAT now will result in better (less worse) policy than what will happen during a crisis. It certainly is true that some past crises have led to terrible policy, such as the failed policies of Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s or the more recent Bush-Paulson-Obama-Geithner TARP debacle. But at other points in time, a crisis atmosphere has paved the way for better policy, with Reagan’s presidency being the most obvious example.

The wait-for-a-crisis strategy clearly is a bit of a gamble, but even if we lose, we get a VAT in the future rather than a VAT today. So what’s the downside? Tyler and others might say that the future legislation in the midst of a crisis could be a vehicle for other bad provisions, but he offers no evidence for this proposition. And it may be the case that the other side would be forced to add good provisions instead. Moreover, the lack of a VAT in the period between today and the future crisis might help lead to some much-needed spending restraint.

What about Tyler’s argument that the good guys could extract some concessions from the other side by putting a VAT on the table. This is horribly naive. Even though George Mason University is less than 20 miles from Washington, and even though Tyler is a renassaince man with many talents, he does not understand how Washington really works.

Imagine there is a budget summit where politicians from both sides get together to work on this supposed deal. Here are the inevitable ground rules – and the consequences they will produce:

1. The deal will be 50 percent spending cuts and 50 percent tax increases, but the supposed spending “cuts” will be nothing more than reductions in already-legislated increases. The tax increases, by contrast, will be on top of all the additional revenue that is already exepected under current law (not a trivial matter since receipts will be $1.5 trillion higher in 2015 than they are today according to OMB). For proponents of limited government, using the “current services baseline” as a benchmark in budget negotiations is like playing a five-minute basketball game after spotting the other team a 20-point lead.

2. All spending and revenue decisions will be examined through the prism of CBO income distribution tables, and the left will successfully insist that nothing is done to make the tax code less progressive. But since a VAT is a proportional tax, the only way of preserving overall progressivity is to raise tax rates on those wicked and evil rich people and/or to massively increase “refundable” tax credits (what normal people call income redistribution). Any proposal to lower income tax rates or eliminate the corporate income tax, as Tyler envisions, would be laughed out of the room (though Democrats will offer a fig leaf or two in order to seduce a sufficient number of gullible Republicans into supporting a terrible agreement, and that might include a cosmetic change to the corporate tax regime).

3. Many of the supposed spending cuts, for all intents and purposes, will be back-door tax increases on saving and investment. More specifically, a big chunk of the supposed spending cut portion of a budget deal will be from means-testing entitlement programs. This sounds good. After all, who wants to send a Social Security check to Bill Gates when he retires? But consider how such a system actually will work. The government will say that people with income (and/or assets) above a certain level are ineligible for some or all of the benefits available to less-fortunate retirees. From an economic persepective, this is very much akin to a higher tax rate on people who save and invest during their working years. And since means testing would only generate substantial budgetary savings if it applied to millions of regular people in addition to Bill Gates, we would wind up with a system that created big penalties on middle-class families that were dumb enough to save and invest.

I’ve already pontificated enough for one blog post, so let me summarize by stating that Tyler’s approach, while not unreasonable, is about how to lose gracefully. Even if his strategy works perfectly, the result is bigger government. I’d much rather fight. If you want some inspiration for the battle, watch this video. If you haven’t had enough of me already, here’s my video explaining why the VAT is a horrible idea.

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Even though the American people don’t want government-run healthcare, and even though Democrats are very nervous after losing a supposedly-safe Senate seat in Massachusetts, Obamacare is not dead. The Democrats still have huge majorities in the House and Senate and the White House clearly is trying to put the GOP back on the defensive. Exhibit A is the President’s invitation for a televised healthcare summit on February 25. Exhibit B is the fact that the Congressional Budget Office has greased the skids by concocting preposterous estimates that government-run healthcare will reduce the budget deficit. This may seem like meaningless wonkery, but it could allow the Democrats to use the “reconciliation” process to impose Obamacare with just 51 votes in the Senate. Here are two reminders of why it is utterly absurd to think that a giant new entitlement program will reduce red. First, we have an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal column about how the “cost curve” is bending up rather than down. Second, we have a Center for Freedom and Prosperity video that looks at the evidence confirming that government-run healthcare will be a budget buster:

Richard Foster, the chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, reports that under his analysis national health spending will rise under the bills by $222 billion over the next 10 years. In other words, ObamaCare really does “bend the cost curve”—up. Even that estimate exists only on paper, as Mr. Foster has the honesty to admit. Because “most of the coverage provisions would be in effect for only six of the 10 years of the budget period, the cost estimates shown in this memorandum do not represent a full 10-year cost for the proposed legislation,” he writes. The report is punctuated by phrases like “unrealistic” and “doubtful,” and Mr. Foster adds that “the scope and magnitude of these changes are such that few precedents exist for use in estimation.” …ObamaCare is “paid for” only in the sense that Medicare’s payments to doctors are assumed in the bill to be cut by more than 20% this spring and even deeper after that, which will never happen in practice. …As for the White House’s promise that it will reduce health spending painlessly by cutting “waste,” Mr. Foster isn’t buying it. He writes that “we find the language as it now reads is not sufficiently specific to provide estimates.” The report also calls out the new entitlement program for long-term care, which is included only because it will start collecting premiums five years before it starts paying benefits. In return for this accounting gimmick, the fisc will be saddled with a program that Mr. Foster estimates will be bankrupt by 2025.

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This video provides 12 reasons in less than 7 minutes.

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The indispensable editorial page of the Wall Street Journal blasts the phony spending “cuts” that are supposed to offset some of the new spending in the Senate health care bill. Sadly, the Congressional Budget Office has compromised its independence to help the left foist a fiscal fraud on the nation:

Washington spent the week waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to roll in with its new cost estimates of the Senate health-care bill, and what a carnival. Behold: a new $829 billion entitlement that will subsidize insurance for tens of millions of people—and reduce deficits by $81 billion at the same time. In the next tent, see the mermaid and a two-headed cow. …The irony is that the CBO’s guesstimate exposes the fraudulence and fiscal sleight-of-hand underlying this whole exercise. Anyone who reads beyond the top-line numbers will find that the bill creates massive new spending commitments that will inevitably explode over time, and that this is “paid for” with huge tax increases plus phantom spending cuts that will never happen in practice. …Liberals are demanding heftier subsidies, and once people see the deal their neighbors are getting on “free” health care, they too will want in. Even CBO seems to find this unrealistic, noting “These projections assume that the proposals are enacted and remain unchanged throughout the next two decades, which is often not the case for major legislation.” Scratch “often.” Then there are the many budget gimmicks. Take the “failsafe budgeting mechanism” that would require automatic cuts in exchange spending if it increases the deficit. CBO expects 15% reductions in exchange subsidies each year from 2015 to 2018, even though the exchanges don’t open until 2014. That kind of re-gifting should have been laughed out of the committee room, but the ruse helps to move future spending off the current budget “score.” Mr. Baucus spends $10.9 billion to eliminate the scheduled Medicare cuts to physician payments—but only for next year. In 2011, he assumes they’ll be reduced by 25%, with even deeper cuts later. Congress has overridden this “sustainable growth rate” every year since 2003 and will continue to do so because deeper cuts in Medicare’s price controls will cause many doctors to quit the program. Fixing this alone would add $245 billion to the bill’s costs, according to an earlier CBO estimate. The Baucus bill also expands ailing Medicaid by $345 billion—even as it busts state budgets by imposing an additional $33 billion unfunded mandate. …the bill piles on new taxes, albeit on health-care businesses so the costs are hidden from customers. Insurance companies offering policies that cost more than $8,000 for individuals and $21,000 for families will pay $201 billion per a 40% excise tax, which will be passed down to all policy holders in higher premiums. Another $180 billion will hit the likes of drug and device makers, including $29 billion because companies won’t be allowed to deduct these “fees” from their corporate income taxes. Then there’s the $4 billion in penalty payments on those who don’t buy insurance because all of ObamaCare’s other new taxes and mandates have made it more expensive.

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