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Archive for the ‘Mitchell’s Golden Rule’ Category

Which nation is richer, Belarus or Luxembourg?

If you look at total economic output, you might be tempted to say Belarus. The GDP of Belarus, after all, is almost $72 billion while Luxembourg’s GDP is less than $60 billion.

But that would be a preposterous answer since there are about 9.5 million people in Belarus compared to only about 540,000 folks in Luxembourg.

It should be obvious that what matters is per-capita GDP, and the residents of Luxembourg unambiguously enjoy far higher living standards than their cousins in Belarus.

This seems like an elementary point, but it has to be made because there have been a bunch of misleading stories about China “overtaking” the United States in economic output. Look, for instance, at these excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

China is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy earlier than expected, possibly as soon as this year… The latest tally adds to the debate on how the world’s top two economic powers are progressing. Projecting growth rates from 2011 onwards suggests China’s size when measured in PPP may surpass the U.S. in 2014.

There are methodological issues with PPP data, some of which are acknowledged in the data, and there’s also the challenge of whether Chinese numbers can be trusted.

But let’s assume these are the right numbers. My response is “so what?”

I’ve previously written that the Chinese tiger is more akin to a paper tiger. But Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute put together a chart that is far more compelling than what I wrote. He looks at the per-capita numbers and shows that China is still way behind the United States.

To be blunt, Americans shouldn’t worry about the myth of Chinese economic supremacy.

But that’s not the main point of today’s column.

Instead, I want to call attention to Taiwan. That jurisdiction doesn’t get as much attention as Hong Kong and Singapore, but it’s one of the world’s success stories.

And if you compare Taiwan to China, as I’ve done in this chart, there’s no question which jurisdiction deserves praise.

China v Taiwan

Yes, China has made big strides in recent decades thanks to reforms to ease the burden of government. But Taiwan is far above the world average while China has only recently reached that level (and only if you believe official Chinese numbers).

So why is there a big difference between China and Taiwan? Well, if you look at Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll see that Taiwan ranks among the top-20 nations while China ranks only 123 out of 152 countries.

By the way, Taiwan has a relatively modest burden of government spending. The public sector only consumes about 21.5 percent of economic output. That’s very good compared to other advanced nations.

Moreover, Taiwan is one of the nations that enjoyed considerable progress by adhering to Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Between 2001 and 2006, total government spending didn’t grow at all.

Taiwan Spending Freeze

During this period of fiscal restraint, you won’t be surprised to learn that the burden of government spending fell as a share of GDP.

And it should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that because politicians addressed the underlying disease of government spending, that also enabled big progress is dealing with the symptom of government borrowing.

Look at what happened to spending and deficits between 2001 and 2006.

Taiwan Fiscal Restraint Benefits

P.S. You probably didn’t realize that it was possible to see dark humor in communist oppression.

P.P.S. But at least some communists in China seem to understand that the welfare state is a very bad idea.

P.P.P.S. Some business leaders say China is now more business-friendly than the United States. That’s probably not good news for America, but my goal is to have a market-friendly nation, not a business-friendly nation.

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My tireless (and probably annoying) campaign to promote my Golden Rule of spending restraint is bearing fruit.

The good folks at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal allowed me to explain the fiscal and economic benefits that accrue when nations limit the growth of government.

Here are some excerpts from my column, starting with a proper definition of the problem.

What matters, as Milton Friedman taught us, is the size of government. That’s the measure of how much national income is being redistributed and reallocated by Washington. Spending often is wasteful and counterproductive whether it’s financed by taxes or borrowing.

So how do we deal with this problem?

I’m sure you’ll be totally shocked to discover that I think the answer is spending restraint.

More specifically, governments should be bound by my Golden Rule.

Ensure that government spending, over time, grows more slowly than the private economy. …Even if the federal budget grew 2% each year, about the rate of projected inflation, that would reduce the relative size of government and enable better economic performance by allowing more resources to be allocated by markets rather than government officials.

I list several reasons why Mitchell’s Golden Rule is the only sensible approach to fiscal policy.

A golden rule has several advantages over fiscal proposals based on balanced budgets, deficits or debt control. First, it correctly focuses on the underlying problem of excessive government rather than the symptom of red ink. Second, lawmakers have the power to control the growth of government spending. Deficit targets and balanced-budget requirements put lawmakers at the mercy of economic fluctuations that can cause large and unpredictable swings in tax revenue. Third, spending can still grow by 2% even during a downturn, making the proposal more politically sustainable.

The last point, by the way, is important because it may appeal to reasonable Keynesians. And, in any event, it means the Rule is more politically sustainable.

I then provide lots of examples of nations that enjoyed great success by restraining spending. But rather than regurgitate several paragraphs from the column, here’s a table I prepared that wasn’t included in the column because of space constraints.

It shows the countries that restrained spending and the years that they followed the Golden Rule. Then I include three columns of data. First, I show how fast spending grew during the period, followed by numbers showing what happened to the overall burden of government spending and the change to annual government borrowing.

Golden Rule Examples

Last but not least, I deal with the one weakness of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. How do you convince politicians to maintain fiscal discipline over time?

I suggest that Switzerland’s “debt brake” may be a good model.

Can any government maintain the spending restraint required by a fiscal golden rule? Perhaps the best model is Switzerland, where spending has climbed by less than 2% per year ever since a voter-imposed spending cap went into effect early last decade. And because economic output has increased at a faster pace, the Swiss have satisfied the golden rule and enjoyed reductions in the burden of government and consistent budget surpluses.

In other words, don’t bother with balanced budget requirements that might backfire by giving politicians an excuse to raise taxes.

If the problem is properly defined as being too much government, then the only logical answer is to shrink the burden of government spending.

Last but not least, I point out that Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas has legislation, the MAP Act, that is somewhat similar to the Swiss Debt Brake.

We know what works and we know how to get there. The real challenge is convincing politicians to bind their own hands.

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When I first started working on fiscal policy in the 1980s, I never thought I would consider Sweden any sort of role model.

It was the quintessential cradle-to-grave welfare state, much loved on the left as an example for America to follow.

But Sweden suffered a severe economic shock in the early 1990s and policy makers were forced to rethink big government.

They’ve since implemented some positive reforms in the area of fiscal policy, along with other changes to liberalize the economy.

I even, much to my surprise, wrote a column in 2012 stating that it’s “Time to Follow Sweden’s Lead on Fiscal Policy.”

More specifically, I’m impressed that Swedish leaders have imposed some genuine fiscal restraint.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing that the country enjoyed a nine-year period where the burden of government spending grew by an average of 1.9 percent per year.

Swedish Fiscal Restraint

From a libertarian perspective, that’s obviously not very impressive, particularly since the public sector was consuming about two-thirds of economic output at the start of the period.

But by the standards of European politicians, 1.9 percent annual growth was relatively frugal.

And since Mitchell’s Golden Rule merely requires that government grow slower than the private sector, Sweden did make progress.

Real progress.

It turns out that a little bit of spending discipline can pay big dividends if it can be sustained for a few years.

This second chart shows that the overall burden of the public sector (left axis) fell dramatically, dropping from more than 67 percent of GDP to 52 percent of economic output.

Swedish Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

By the way, the biggest amount of progress occurred between 1994 and 1998, when spending grew by just 0.27 percent per year. That’s almost as good as what Germany achieved over a four-year period last decade.

It’s also worth noting that Sweden hasn’t fallen off the wagon. Spending has been growing a bit faster in recent years, but not as fast as overall economic output. So the burden of spending is now down to about 48 percent of GDP.

And for those who mistakenly focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much spending, you’ll be happy to know that spending discipline in the 1990s turned a big budget deficit (right axis) into a budget surplus.

Now let’s get the other side of the story. While Sweden has moved in the right direction, it’s still far from a libertarian paradise. The government still consumes nearly half of the country’s economic output and tax rates on entrepreneurs and investors max out at more than 50 percent.

And like the United Kingdom, which is the source of many horror stories, there are some really creepy examples of failed government-run health care in Sweden.

Though I suppose if the third man grew new legs, maybe we would all reassess our views of the Swedish system. And if the first guy managed to grow a new…oh, never mind.

But here are the two most compelling pieces of evidence about unresolved flaws in the Swedish system.

First, the system is so geared toward “equality” that a cook at one Swedish school was told to reduce the quality of the food she prepared because other schools had less capable cooks.

Second, if you’re still undecided about whether Sweden’s large-size welfare state is preferable to America’s medium-size welfare state, just keep in mind that Americans of Swedish descent earn 53 percent more than native Swedes.

In other words, Sweden might be a role model on the direction of change, but not on the level of government.

P.S. On a separate topic, regular readers know that I’m a fan of lower taxes and a supporter of the Second Amendment. So you would think I’d be delighted if politicians wanted to lower the tax burden on firearms.

This is not a hypothetical issue. Here’s a passage from a local news report in Alabama about a state lawmaker who wants a special sales tax holiday for guns and ammo.

Rep. Becky Nordgren of Gadsden said today that she has filed legislation to create an annual state sales tax holiday for gun and ammunition purchases. The firearms tax holiday would occur every weekend prior to the Fourth of July. Alabama currently has tax holidays for back-to-school shopping and severe weather preparedness. Nordgren says the gun and ammunition tax holiday would be a fitting way to celebrate the anniversary of the nation’s birth and Alabama’s status as a gun friendly state.

I definitely admire the intent, but I’m enough of a tax policy wonk that the proposal makes me uncomfortable.

Simply stated, I don’t want the government to play favorites.

For instance, I want to replace the IRS in Washington with a simple and fair flat tax in part because I don’t want the government to discriminate based on the source of income, the use of income, or the level of income.

And I want states to have the lowest-possible rate for the sales tax, but with all goods and services treated equally. Alabama definitely fails on the first criteria, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it also granted a lot of loopholes.

So put me in the “sympathetic skepticism” category on this proposal.

Though I imagine this Alabama lass could convince me to change my mind.

P.P.S. A few days ago, the PotL noticed that I shared some American-European humor at the end of a blog post. She suggests this would be a good addition to that collection.

Europe Heaven Hell

I can’t comment on some of the categories, but I will say that McDonald’s in London is just as good as McDonald’s in Paris, Milan, Geneva, and Berlin.

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Germany isn’t exactly a fiscal role model.

Tax rates are too onerous and government spending consumes about 44 percent of economic output.

That’s even higher than it is in the United States, where politicians at the federal, state, and local levels divert about 39 percent of GDP into the public sector.

Germany also has too much red tape and government intervention, which helps to explain why it lags other European nations such as Denmark and Estonia in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But I have (sort of) defended Germany a couple of times, at least on fiscal policy, explaining that the Germans didn’t squander much money on Keynesian spending schemes during the downturn and also explaining that Paul Krugman was wrong in his column on Germany and austerity.

Today, though, I’m going to give Germany some unambiguous praise.

If you look at last decade’s fiscal data, you’ll see that our Teutonic friends actually followed my Golden Rule on fiscal policy for a four-year period.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF numbers, showing total government spending in Germany from 2003-2007. As you can see, German policy makers basically froze spending.

German Fiscal Restraint

I realize that I’m a libertarian and that I shouldn’t be happy unless the burden of spending is being dramatically reduced, but we’re talking about the performance of European politicians, so I’m grading on a curve.

By that standard, limiting spending so it grows by an average of 0.18 percent is rather impressive. Interestingly, this period of fiscal discipline began when the Social Democrats were in power.

And because the economy’s productive sector was growing at a faster rate during this time, a bit more than 2 percent annually, the relative burden of government spending did fall.

The red line in this next chart shows that the public sector, measured as a share of economic output, fell from almost 49 percent of GDP to less than 44 percent of GDP.

German Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

It’s also worth noting that this four-year period of spending restraint also led to a balanced budget, as shown by the blue line.

In other words, by addressing the underlying problem of too much government, the German government automatically dealt with the symptom of red ink.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the German government wasn’t willing to sustain this modest degree of fiscal discipline. The Christian Democrats, who took office in mid-2005, allowed faster spending growth beginning in 2008. As I noted above, the budget increases haven’t been huge, but there’s been enough additional spending that Germany no longer is complying with the Golden Rule and the burden of the public sector is stuck at about 44 percent of GDP.

The moral of the story is that Germany shows that good things happen when spending is restrained, but long-run good performance requires long-run spending discipline.

That’s why I’m a fan of Switzerland’s spending cap. It’s called the “debt brake,” but it basically requires politicians to limit spending so that the budget doesn’t grow much faster than inflation plus population.

And that’s why Switzerland has enjoyed more than a decade of good policy.

To see other examples of nations that have enjoyed fiscal success with period of spending restrain, watch this video.

The Canadian example is particularly impressive.

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Jay Leno had the all-time best Christmas joke and the school bureaucrats in Haymarket, VA, win the prize for the all-time worst example of anti-Christmas lunacy.

But I must win the prize for being the biggest Christmas policy dork. I make this confession freely because there’s no other explanation for being very happy about this present from my girlfriend.

Golden Rule Christmas

The Golden Rule, for those who have not endured my haranguing on the topic, is the common-sense notion that good fiscal policy is achieved when the burden of government spending shrinks compared to the size of the private sector.

And that occurs, needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), when government spending increases slower than the growth of private output.

Ideally, it would be even better to actually cut government spending – which actually did happen in the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years (thanks to the Tea Party and sequestration).

Unfortunately, I fear government will grow far too fast in 2014, in part because of the Murray-Ryan budget deal that replaced automatic spending cuts with back-door tax hikes.

Compared to the size of the federal budget, the additional spending isn’t that large, so my real concern is that the pact sets the stage for bigger moves in the wrong direction at some point in the near future.

But let’s not dwell on potential bad news at this time of year.

Instead, let’s close with a better way of selling Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Here’s the Princess of the Levant showcasing the gift she made.

Abir Golden Rule

Since she gave this gift to me, it’s now my job to implement the Golden Rule as a gift to the entire nation.

That should be a simple achievement. If we simply limit government spending so it grows at the rate of inflation (about 2 percent per year), the burden of government spending will fall as a share of gross domestic product.

And even though I’m much more interested in reducing the size of the public sector than I am in fiscal balance, it’s worth noting that you can balance the budget by 2018 with this amount of modest spending restraint.

But even though this should be simple, it definitely won’t be easy. Convincing politicians not to spend is very analogous to convincing ticks not to suck your blood.

Actually, I apologize. That’s a very unfair analogy. The only really bad thing we get from ticks is Lyme Disease.

With politicians, by contrast, we get taxes, spending, and red tape on good days and war, genocide, and totalitarianism on bad days.

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Being a glass-half-full kind of guy, I look for kernels of good news when examining economic policy around the world. I once even managed to find something to praise about French tax policy. And I can assure you that’s not a very easy task.

I particularly try to find something positive to highlight when I’m a visitor. While in the Faroe Islands two days ago, for instance, I wrote about that jurisdiction’s new system of personal retirement accounts.

And now that I’m in Iceland, I want to focus on spending restraint.

As you can see from this chart, lawmakers in this island nation have done a reasonably good job of satisfying Mitchell Golden Rule over the past couple of years. Nominal economic output has been growing by 6.1 percent annually, while government spending has risen by an average of 2.8 percent per year.

Iceland Spending Restraint

If Iceland continues to enjoy this level of growth and can maintain this modest degree of fiscal discipline, the burden of government spending will soon drop below 40 percent of GDP.

As I’ve noted before, fiscal progress can occur very rapidly if spending is curtailed. Consider what’s happened, for example, over the past two years in America. Total federal spending didn’t grow in 2011 or 2012, and that de facto two-year spending freeze has led to a big reduction in the size of the public sector relative to GDP.

And because policymakers addressed the underlying disease of excessive spending, it’s no surprise that the symptom of red ink became much less of a problem with the deficit falling by almost 50 percent in those two years.

And nations such as New Zealand and Canada also have enjoyed quick benefits when limiting the growth of government.

Now let’s take a glass-half-empty look at Icelandic fiscal policy.

First, Iceland isn’t really moving in the right direction. Policy makers are merely undoing the damage that occurred in the latter part of last decade. As recently as 2006, the burden of government spending was less than 42 percent of GDP. So the current period of fiscal discipline is like going on a diet after spending several years at an all-you-can-eat dessert shop.

Second, three years of spending restraint could be a statistical blip rather than a long-run trend, especially since the 2014 numbers from the IMF are an estimate and the 2012 and 2013 numbers aren’t even finalized.

What Iceland needs is some sort of Swiss-style spending cap to impose long-run limits on the growth of government spending. As you can see from this second chart, Switzerland’s “debt brake” has produced more than ten years of spending restraint. Government generally has been growing slower than the private sector, which means that burden of government spending has been falling in Switzerland while other European nations are moving in the wrong direction.

Swiss Debt Brake

By the way, it’s not just Iceland that would benefit from this type of spending cap. I explained last year that America would never have experienced trillion-dollar deficits if we had something similar to the Swiss debt brake.

Though it’s important not to overstate the benefits of this policy. A Swiss-type spending cap presumably wouldn’t have stopped the Fed’s easy-money policy. Nor would it have prevented Fannie-Mae and Freddie Mac from subsidizing a housing bubble. So we presumably still would have suffered a financial crisis.

But that’s not an argument against a spending cap. We lock our doors and latch our windows even though we realize that determined crooks can still break in. But at least we want to make our homes a less inviting target. Likewise, a spending cap doesn’t preclude all bad policies. But at least it makes it harder for politicians to increase spending.

The ultimate challenge, of course, is figuring out how to convince politicians to tie their own hands. The academic research suggests that spending caps need to be well designed if we want to limit the greed of the political class.

Iceland has made some progress, but Switzerland at this point is a better role model because the debt brake has been very durable.

P.S. If we’re going to copy Switzerland, we also should take a close look at their tax laws. Switzerland has the best ranking in the Tax Oppression Index, while the United States languishes in the bottom half of nations measured.

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Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. How to fix the mess at the IRS is a fiscal policy question, and that requires tax reform rather than spending restraint.

But allow me a bit of literary license. We just had a big debt limit battle in Washington and, after a lot of political drama, politicians kicked the can down the road.

So we need to ask ourselves whether that fight accomplished anything?

It did focus attention on the flaws of Obamacare, and I suppose there’s some value in that.

But the debt limit was not a vehicle – as has been the case in the past – for changes in fiscal policy. We didn’t get something good, like the sequester which resulted from the 2011 debt limit legislation. And we didn’t get something bad, like the tax hike in the 1985 debt limit legislation

Some are asking whether we should even have a debt limit. A number of critics have suggested we should get rid of the borrowing cap because it creates the risk of default. I think those concerns are very overblown.

I’m more persuaded by those who argue that the debt limit diverts attention from better options to improve fiscal policy.

Professors Gary Becker and Edward Lazear write in the Wall Street Journal that the debt ceiling is not a very good tool for restraining the growth of government. They look at evidence from the states to warn that fiscal rules that seek to limit borrowing are ineffective.

Many states are required to have “balanced” budgets, but the growth in spending and the size of state governments continues apace. During good times, when tax revenues are high, states “balance” their budgets by spending at the high levels consistent with large revenues. When times get tough, it is difficult if not impossible to eliminate programs that had been initiated during the fat years. Instead, the states resort to budgetary gimmicks, like delaying shortfalls until next year’s “balanced” budget.

Gimmicks are bad, of course, but politicians also respond to fiscal squeezes by raising taxes.

And that can be even worse as the prospect of more revenue leads to a ratchet effect, with periodic tax hikes used to maintain or expand the gravy train of spending. The fiscal mess in Europe is an obvious case study, but if you want a painful example from America, just look at data from Connecticut. The state did quite well without an income tax from the 1600s until 1991.

But then an income tax was imposed, in part to deal with the fiscal shortfall caused by an economic downturn. And, as critics warned, that new tax has produced dismal results. The top rate has jumped from 4.5 percent to 6.5 percent and inflation-adjusted per-capita state government spending has doubled. And there have been zero net private-sector jobs created since the income tax was implemented.

So what’s the answer? Becker and Lazear explain that lawmakers should target the underlying problem of spending rather than the symptom of red ink.

Better than a debt-ceiling rule would be one that controls spending directly, not the debt that results from it. The specifics are less important than the general principle, which is that spending growth should be limited in a way that brings government outlays back down to historic ratios relative to GDP. This would place the attention where it belongs, on spending rather than on the difference between outlays and receipts. Increased spending, coupled with even larger increases in taxes, might bring the deficit down, but it would damage economic growth and well-being.

Well stated. Reducing the overall burden of government spending – measured as a share of economic output – should be the goal of fiscal policy. That’s simply another way of stating my Golden Rule. And there’s a growing body of academic evidence showing that reducing the size of government is a good way of improving economic performance.

I’ve been highlighting the example of Switzerland, which has successfully strengthened its economy and fiscal policy with a spending cap (which, ironically, is called a “debt brake” even though the real effect of the law is to limit how fast spending can increase over time).

Other countries that have limited spending also have achieved some very impressive results. The video at this link looks at evidence from nations such as New Zealand and Canada in the 1990s, and there’s a more recent data about the positive effects of spending restraint in the Baltic nations.

There has been some interest in spending caps on Capitol Hill. Congressman Brady of Texas has proposed a MAP Act that is somewhat similar to Switzerland’s debt brake and Senator Corker of Tennessee has introduced a CAP Act that also would restrain annual spending increases.

Perhaps if some of their colleagues read today’s Becker-Lazear column, they’ll also understand why it’s better to focus on the underlying problem of government spending rather than getting distracted by the symptom of red ink.

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