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Posts Tagged ‘Balanced Budget’

What happens when you mix something good with something bad?

To be more specific, what happens when you have a big success story, like the spending cap in Switzerland that has dramatically slowed the growth of government, and then expect intelligent and coherent coverage by a government-run media outfit that presumably wants a bigger public sector?

Well, the answer is that you get a very muddled story.

Here’s some of what Swiss Info, which is part of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, wrote about that nation’s “debt brake.”

The mind-boggling…debt racked up by governments…has turned some heads towards Switzerland’s successful track record… Swiss voters approved a so-called ‘debt brake’ on federal public finances in 2001, which was put into operation in 2003. A decade later, the mountain of government debt – that soared to dangerous levels during the 1990s and early 2000s – has been reduced by CHF20 billion ($23 billion) from its 2005 peak. The ratio of debt to annual economic output (gross domestic product or GDP)…fell from 53% to 37% between 2005 and the end of 2012.

There’s nothing wrong with that passage. Indeed, you could almost say that Swiss Info was engaging in boosterism.

Moreover, the story points out that other nations have been going in the wrong direction while Switzerland was enjoying success.

…as Switzerland was chipping away at its mountain of debt, other countries were building theirs up. …Since the middle of 2007 public sector debt alone has soared 80% to $43 trillion, according to the Bank for International Settlements.

And the story even notes that other nations are beginning to copy Switzerland.

The Swiss debt brake is the perfect model for other countries to embrace… Germany applied its own version of the Swiss debt brake in 2009, followed by Spain and other European countries.  …“Switzerland came up with the blueprint for what I am sure will be the standard fiscal model of the future,” said Müller-Jentsch.

So why, then, do I think the story has a muddled message?

The answer is that there is no explanation of how the debt brake works and therefore no explanation of why it is a success.

A reader will have no idea, for instance, that the debt brake is actually a spending cap. Readers also will have no way of knowing that red ink has been controlled because the law properly focuses on limiting the growth of spending.

By the way, it wouldn’t have required much research for Swiss Info to include that relevant data. If you do a Google search for “Swiss debt brake,” the first item that appears is the column I wrote in 2012 for the Wall Street Journal.

In that piece, I explained that “Switzerland’s debt brake limits spending growth to average revenue increases over a multiyear period” and I added that “Before the law went into effect in 2003, government spending was expanding by an average of 4.3% per year. Since then it’s increased by only 2.6% annually.”

So why didn’t Swiss Info mention any of this very relevant information? Is it because it tilts to the left like other government-owned media outfits, and the journalists didn’t want to acknowledge that spending restraint is a successful fiscal policy?

I have no idea whether that’s the case, but there is a definite pattern. When I appear on PBS, the deck is usually stacked in favor of statism. Moreover, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve had similar experiences with government-run TV in France. And it goes without saying that the BBC in the United Kingdom also leans left (though at least they seem to believe in fair fights).

This video from Swiss Info is similarly vague. It’s a favorable portrayal, but people who watch the video won’t know how the debt brake works or why it has been successful.

P.S.  I don’t know the details about the German version of the debt brake, but it’s probably having some positive impact. The burden of government spending has not increased in that nation since 2009, at least when measured as a share of GDP. Though the Germans also weren’t as profligate as other nations (including the United States) in the years before they adopted a debt brake, so I’ll have to do more research to ascertain whether the German approach is as good as the Swiss approach.

P.P.S. In any event, the moral of the story is that good fiscal policy should be based on the Golden Rule of having government grow slower than the productive sector of the economy.

P.P.S. The Princess of the Levant and I continued our tour of the French Riviera. This photo is from Les Jardins Exotiques at Chateau d’Eze.

photo1(5)

As part of my travels, I’ve learned that the unluckiest people in the world are from Menton and Roquebrune in France. That’s because they were part of Monaco until 1860.

So now, instead of enjoying an income tax of zero under Monegasque rule, they are part of France’s wretched fiscal system.

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Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican Chairman of the House Budget Committee, has unveiled the GOP’s latest budget plan.

Is this proposal deserving of applause or criticism? The answer is yes and yes, with a bit of emphasis on the former.

Let’s start with some depressing news. The Ryan budget has gotten weaker each year.

Three years ago, he put forth a budget that limited spending so that it grew 2.8 percent per year.

Two years ago, he put forth a budget that limited spending so that it grew 3.1 percent per year.

Last year, he put forth a budget that limited spending so that it grew 3.4 percent per year.

His latest budget continues this slide in the wrong direction. Here are the numbers from the new budget, showing that the burden of government spending will rise by an average of 3.5 percent annually over the next 10 years.

And this is during a time when inflation is projected to be about 2 percent per year!

Ryan FY2015 Budget

Since it would be foolish to ever expect perfection from the political process, let’s now look at the positive features of the Ryan budget.

1. Spending may be growing, but it would grow at a slower rate than the President’s proposed budget.

2. Spending may be growing, but it would grow at a slower rate than nominal economic output, thus satisfying Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

3. Perhaps most important, the budget contains genuine and structural reform of both Medicare and Medicaid, so it at least partially solves the long-run fiscal crisis.

4. The budget also foresees tax reform, including lower tax rates for households, a 25 percent corporate tax rate, and a move toward territorial taxation.

Now let’s close with some hard-to-judge news.

The tax reform would be “revenue neutral,” so it’s difficult to accurately assess the proposal without knowing the “revenue raisers” that would offset the “revenue losers” listed above (particularly since lawmakers would be bound by static scoring).

If lower tax rates are financed by getting rid of distortions such as the healthcare exclusion, the net effect is very positive.

But if lower tax rates are financed with increased double taxation (a major shortcoming of the Cong. Camp tax plan), then it’s unclear whether policy has improved.

One final comment. I’m disappointed that the House Budget Committee’s report approvingly cites Congressional Budget Office analysis to suggest that the Ryan budget would boost economic performance.

I think that’s a tactically and morally dubious approach. It’s tactically misguided because the Ryan budget supposedly hurts growth from 2015-2017 according to CBO’s short-term Keynesianism.

And it’s morally dubious because it’s wrong to use bad arguments to advance good policy. The supposed added growth beginning in 2018 is based on the assumption that interest rates are the significant determinant of economic growth – which is the same thinking displayed in the left-wing debt video I shared yesterday.

Paul Ryan and the House GOP can legitimately claim that the proposed budget is good for growth. But improved economic performance would be the result of a smaller burden of government spending and a potentially less destructive tax system. Those are the policies that free up labor and capital for the productive sector and boost incentives to utilize those resources efficiently.

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A just-released report from the bean counters at the Congressional Budget Office is getting lots of attention because the bureaucrats are now admitting that Obamacare will impose much more damage to the economy than they previously predicted.

Of course, many people knew from the start that Obamacare would be a disaster and that it would make the healthcare system even more dysfunctional, so CBO is way behind the curve.

Moreover, CBO’s deeply flawed estimates back in 2009 and 2010 helped grease the skids for passage of the President’s failed law, so I hardly think they deserve any applause for now producing more realistic numbers.

But today’s post isn’t about the Obamacare fiasco. I want to focus instead on some other numbers in the new CBO report.

The bureaucrats have put together their new 10-year “baseline” forecast of how much money the government will collect based on current tax laws and the latest economic predictions.

These numbers show that tax revenue is projected to increase by an average of 5.4 percent per year.

As many readers already know, I don’t fixate on balancing the budget. I care much more about reducing the burden of government spending and restoring the kind of limited government our Founding Fathers envisioned.

But whenever the CBO publishes new numbers, I can’t resist showing how simple it is to get rid of red ink by following my Golden Rule of fiscal restraint.

Here’s a chart showing projected revenue over the next 10 years, along with lines showing what happens if spending (currently $3.54 trillion) follows various growth paths.

Balancing the Budget Is Easy

The two biggest takeaways are that a spending freeze (similar to what we got in 2012 and 2013) would almost balance the budget in 2016 and would definitely produce a budget surplus in 2017.

I also highlight what would happen if politicians merely limited spending so it grew at the rate of inflation, about 2.3 percent per year. Under that scenario, the budget would be balanced in 2019 (actually a $20 billion surplus, but that’s an asterisk by Washington standards).

In other words, there is no need to raise taxes. It’s very simple to balance the budget without extracting more money from taxpayers.

This means the Simpson-Bowles people are wrong. The Domenici-Rivlin folks are wrong. Senator Patty Murray is wrong. Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham are wrong. And (here’s a surprise) the Obama Administration is wrong.

And we have some additional evidence. It’s a chart taken directly from the CBO report and it shows that revenues over the next 10 years will be above the long-run average. This is because even weak growth slowly but surely produces more revenue for Washington, in part because it gradually pushes people into higher tax brackets.

CBO Above-Average Revenues

And this chart just looks at the next 10 yeas. If you peruse the long-run fiscal projections, you’ll see that the tax burden is projected to increase dramatically over the next several decades.

The moral of the story is that there should be tax cuts (ideally as part of tax reform), not tax increases.

P.S. Just in case you think I was being unfair in my description of the Congressional Budget Office, keep in mind that these are the bureaucrats who advise Congress that economic performance increases when taxes go up.

P.P.S. And even though CBO is finally admitting some of the flaws in Obamacare, the bureaucrats are still unrepentant Keynesians. Check out this excerpt from a story in yesterday’s Washington Post.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the top Democrat on the committee, cited the CBO’s finding that the law will “boost overall demand for goods and services over the next few years,” This is because people benefiting from its expansion of Medicaid and insurance subsidies will likely have extra money to spend, which “will in turn boost demand for labor over the next few years,” the report says.

So CBO would like us to believe that the more money the government redistributes, the more growth we’ll get. I guess this explains why France is such an economic dynamo.

More seriously, this is the same flawed analysis that allowed CBO to claim the so-called stimulus was creating jobs as employment was falling.

You can understand why I’ve written that Keynesian economics is the left’s perpetual motion machine.

P.P.P.S. Here’s a Center for Freedom and Prosperity video that I narrated back in 2010, which explains why it is simple to balance the budget. The numbers in the video obviously need to be replaced with the ones I shared above, but the analysis is still right on the mark.

P.P.P.P.S. And if you want to know how to achieve the modest spending restraint needed to balance the budget, the Swiss “debt brake” would be a good place to start.

It’s really a spending cap, and it’s worth noting that the Swiss budget has increased by only 2 percent per year since voters imposed the law back in 2001.

Or maybe we could somehow hope that politicians would simply be responsible, like lawmakers in Canada and New Zealand in the 1990s. Or we could reincarnate Reagan. Or even bring back Clinton.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Since we started this post by talking about how Obamacare is undermining the economy, let’s close with a great example of Obamacare humor.

Remember Pajama Boy? Well, he’s back for an encore performance thanks to some very clever people at Americans for Prosperity.

There’s no update, by the way, on whether being without a job impacts his chances of getting a date with Julia. They’d make such a good couple.

Pajama Boy Jobless

This is amusing, but it surely isn’t as funny as President Obama’s Chief Economist, who actually argued with a straight face that it was a good sign that Obamacare was leading people to drop out of the labor force because unemployment  “might be a better choice and a better option than what they had before.”

Sort of reminds me of this Chuck Asay cartoon, or this famous set of wagon cartoons.

Dependency for more and more people. Such an inviting concept…until this happens.

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I’m testifying tomorrow to the Joint Economic Committee about “The Economic Costs of Debt-Ceiling Brinkmanship.”

I won’t give away what I’m going to say (though you can probably figure out my views rather easily by reading this, this and this), but I do want to share a chart from my testimony.

It shows that it is remarkably simple to balance the budget with a modest amount of spending restraint.

Based on Congressional Budget Office data, we can balance the budget in just three years if spending grows by “only” 1 percent per year.

Balanced Budget with Spending Restraint

The chart also shows that you can balance the budget in just four years if spending is allowed to grow “just” 2 percent annually.

And if you for some reason think that the burden of government spending should rise faster than inflation, then we can balance the budget in seven years by restraining spending so that it grows 3 percent each year.

Here are a couple of relevant observations.

There’s no need to raise taxes. Indeed, there’s amply room to lower the tax burden and reform the corrupt tax code.

If you use honest budget numbers, there’s no need to impose steep spending cuts, though that actually would be desirable.

Good things happen when you follow my Golden Rule for fiscal policy.

Our main goal should be reducing the burden of government relative to private output, not balancing the budget.

That being said, one of the reasons that it’s so simple to balance the budget is that we’ve actually enjoyed two consecutive years of government spending being lower than it was the year before. Something to keep in mind just in case you thought the Tea Party didn’t make a difference or if you didn’t think sequestration was a big victory.

Here’s the video I keep recycling that explains why it’s important to restrain the growth of spending and also shows that when you address the disease of spending, you easily deal with the symptom of deficits.

If it worked for Bill Clinton, it could also work for Barack Obama.

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I wrote about the Ryan budget two days ago, praising it for complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule and reforming Medicare and Medicaid.

But I believe in being honest and nonpartisan, so I also groused that it wasn’t as good as the 2011 and 2012 versions.

Now it’s time to give the same neutral and dispassionate treatment to the budget proposed by Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

But I’m going to focus on a theme rather than numbers.

One part of her budget got me particularly excited. Her Committee’s “Foundation for Growth” blueprint makes a very strong assertion about the fiscal and economic history of the Clinton years.

The work done in the 1990s helped grow the economy, create jobs, balance the budget, and put our government on track to eliminate the national debt.

As elaborated in this passage, the 42nd President delivered very good results.

President Bill Clinton entered office in 1993 at a time when the country was facing serious deficit and debt problems. The year before, the federal government was taking in revenue equal 17.5 percent of GDP, but spending was 22.1 percent of the economy—a deficit of 4.7 percent. …The unemployment rate went from 7 percent at the beginning of 1993 to 3.9 percent at the end of 2000. Between 1993 and 2001, our economy gained more than 22 million jobs and experienced the longest economic expansion in our history.

And the Senate Democrats even identified one of the key reasons why economic and fiscal policy was so successful during the 1990s.

…federal spending dropped from 22.1 percent of GDP to 18.2 percent of GDP.

I fully agree with every word reprinted above. That’s the good news.

So what, then, is the bad news?

Well, Senator Murray may have reached the right conclusion, but she was wildly wrong in her analysis. For all intents and purposes, she claims that the 1993 tax hike produced most of the good results.

President Clinton’s 1993 tax deal…brought in new revenue from the wealthiest Americans and…our country created 22 million new jobs and achieved a balanced budget. President Clinton’s tax policies were not the only driver of economic growth, but our leaders’ ability to agree on a fiscally sustainable and economically sound path provided valuable certainty for American families and businesses.

First, let’s dispense with the myth that the 1993 tax hike balanced the budget. I obtained the fiscal forecasts that were produced by both the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget in early 1995 because I wanted to see whether a balanced budget was predicted.

As you can see in the chart, both of those forecasts showed perpetual deficits of about $200 billion. And these forecasts were made nearly 18 months after the Clinton tax hike was implemented.

So if even the White House’s own forecast from OMB didn’t foresee a balanced budget, what caused the actual fiscal situation to be much better than the estimates?

The simple answer is that spending was restrained. You can give credit to Bill Clinton. You can give credit to the GOP Congress that took power in early 1995. You can give the credit to both.

But regardless of who gets the credit, the period of spending restraint that began at that time was the change that produced a budget surplus, not the tax hike that was imposed 18 months earlier and which was associated with perpetual red ink.

But spending restraint tells only part of the story. With the exception of the 1993 tax hike, the Clinton years were a period of shrinking government and free market reform.

Clinton RecordTake a look at my homemade bar chart to compare the good policies of the 1990s with the bad policies. It’s not even close.

You may be thinking that my comparison is completely unscientific, and you’re right. I probably overlooked some good policies and some bad policies.

And my assumptions about weighting are very simplistic. Everything is equally important, with a big exception in that I made the government spending variable three times as important as everything else.

Why? Well, I think reducing the burden of government spending during the Clinton years was a major achievement.

But maybe we shouldn’t rely on my gut instincts. So let’s set aside my created-at-the-spur-of-the-moment bar chart and look at something that is scientific.

This chart is taken directly from Economic Freedom of the World, which uses dozens of variables to measure the overall burden of government.

As you can see, the United States score improved significantly during the Clinton years, showing that economic freedom was expanding and the size and scope of government was shrinking.

In other words, Patty Murray is correct. She is absolutely right to claim that Bill Clinton’s policies “helped grow the economy, create jobs, balance the budget.”

Now she needs to realize that those policies were small government and free markets.

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New 10-year budget projections have been released by the Congressional Budget Office, so it’s time once again for me to show how easy it is to balance the budget with modest spending restraint (though never forget that our goal should be smaller government, not fiscal balance).

The new numbers show the path is even easier. The budget can be balanced in 5 years if spending grows at the rate of inflation (the green line) and in just 10 years if spending is limited so that it grows 3.4 percent annually (the light blue line).

Budget Balance CBO 2013

Today’s path to balance is even easier because of better 10-year growth numbers, and also because of projections that the recent tax increase will generate more revenue (the dark blue line shows total projected revenue over the decade).

Because of Laffer Curve reasons, I’m skeptical about whether all that additional revenue will materialize, so both the chart and the underlying numbers are a bit speculative.

But what they do show is that the nation’s fiscal problems easily can be addressed with some modest spending restraint. Sort of a practical application of Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

Here’s my video explaining the importance of spending restraint. The numbers are now outdated, but the concept is still completely relevant.

As noted at the beginning of the post, I’m much more concerned about reducing the burden of government spending. Balancing the budget is a secondary concern.

That’s why we should impose genuine budget cuts and not just restrain the growth of spending. That would also make it easier to adopt good tax policy.

Maybe, in a parallel universe where politicians are motivated by liberty, we can even get entitlement reform and a flat tax.

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Now that new numbers have been released by the Congressional Budget Office, it’s time once again for me to show how easy it is to balance the budget with modest spending restraint (though please remember our goal should be smaller government, not fiscal balance).

  • I first did this back in September 2010, and showed that we could balance the budget in 10 years if federal spending was limited so it grew by 2 percent annually.
  • I repeated the exercise in January 2011 after new CBO numbers were released, and re-confirmed that a spending cap of 2 percent would eliminate red ink in just 10 years.
  • In August of that year, following the release of the CBO Update, I showed again that the budget could be balanced by limiting spending so it climbed by 2 percent per year.
  • Most recently, back in January after CBO produced the new Economic and Budget Outlook, I crunched the numbers again and showed how a spending cap of 2 percent would balance the budget.

I’m happy to say that the new numbers finally give me some different results. We can now balance the budget if spending grows 2.5 percent annually.

In other words, spending can grow faster than inflation and the budget can be balanced with no tax hikes.

And here’s the video I narrated almost two years ago on this topic. The numbers have changed a bit, but the analysis is exactly the same.

In other words, ignore the politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and special interests when they say we have to raises taxes because otherwise the budget would have to be cut by trillions of dollars. They’re either stupid or lying (mostly the latter, deliberately using the dishonest version of Washington budget math).

Modest fiscal restraint is all that we need, though it would be preferable to make genuine cuts in the burden of government spending.

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In a debate on CNBC, I point out that America is in fiscal trouble because of the reckless spending of the Bush-Obama years.

Amazingly, my opponent at first claimed that taxes have no impact on the economy, though he then modified his statement to acknowledge some effect.

I think the best part of the interview was when I explained that there are several policies that impact economic performance, but that it’s always better to have lower tax rates rather than higher tax rates.

The worst part of the interview is that I got frozen out of the final part of the discussion.

I would have liked to make two final points. First, that all of our long-run fiscal challenge is the result of built-in growth of government spending, and second, that balancing the budget is easily achievable in just 10 years if policy makers limit the growth of spending to just 2 percent yearly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Chairman of the House Budget Committee has produced a new budget plan which contrasts very favorably with the tax-heavy, big-spending proposal submitted by the President last month.

Perhaps most important, Congressman Ryan’s plan restrains spending growth, allowing the private sector to grow faster than the burden of government, thus satisfying Mitchell’s Golden Rule so that spending falls as a share of GDP.

The most important detail in the proposal is that the federal budget, which currently consumes 24 percent of GDP, would fall to less than 20 percent of GDP beginning in 2016.

That’s the good news. There are three pieces of not-so-good news.

1. Ryan’s plan allows spending to grow by an average of 3.1 percent annually over the next 10 years, with is faster than the 2.8 percent average annual growth in last year’s budget.

2. His proposed Medicare reform, while far better than current law, also is not as good as what was proposed last year.

3. The federal budget would still consume a greater share of the economy’s output than it did when Bill Clinton left office.

I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that Ryan’s proposal isn’t as good as Rand Paul’s budget. Spending only climbs 2.2 percent yearly under the plan put together by the Kentucky Senator, and he also abolishes several useless cabinet-level departments.

But the very good shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. As noted already, Congressman Ryan’s plan meets the most important test, which is restraining spending so that the federal budget grows slower than the private economy. And, as the chart shows, he obviously imposes more fiscal restrain then President Obama.

Regular readers know that I generally show no mercy to jelly-spined Republicans, but I praised GOPers for approving last year’s Ryan budget. The same will be true if they approve this year’s version.

P.S. I am frustrated and nauseated by all the people who are fixating on whether Congressman Ryan’s plan balances the budget in 10 years, 20 years, or whenever. What matters is shrinking the burden of government. I hereby bestow the Bob Dole Award on all the people who are mistakenly focusing on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of bloated government.

P.P.S. I’m happy to report that there is no value-added tax in the revenue portion of Congressman Ryan’s budget. There is a VAT in his Roadmap plan, and I endlessly worry that this poison pill will re-emerge and ruin other good fiscal plans put forth by the Wisconsin lawmaker.

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Last year, while lounging on the beach in the Caribbean…oops, I mean while doing off-site research, I developed the first iteration of a rule to describe how fiscal policy should operate.

Good fiscal policy exists when the private sector grows faster than the public sector, while fiscal ruin is inevitable if government spending grows faster than the productive part of the economy.

My motivation was to help people understand that America’s fiscal problem is excessive government spending, not red ink. Deficits and debt are undesirable, of course, but they are best understood as symptoms. The underlying disease is a bloated federal budget that diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy and subsidizes dependency.

But after getting feedback, I realized that the rule was too wordy. So, after a bit of tweaking and market testing, I came up with “Mitchell’s Golden Rule.”

The purpose of this rule isn’t to make me famous, like Art Laffer with the Laffer Curve. Instead, I’m hoping that this simple construct will help policymakers focus on the most important variable.

Countries that follow the Golden Rule, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, enjoy long-run prosperity. But the Golden Rule also shows how nations in fiscal trouble can get back on the right track with periods of spending restraint, as shown in this video featuring Canada, Slovakia, New Zealand, and Ireland. And this video shows how the United States made progress during both the Reagan years and the Clinton years.

Governments that take the opposite approach, however, eventually wind up in fiscal chaos. Just look at the data from Greece. Or other crumbling welfare states.

All this discussion about how to measure good fiscal policy may seem esoteric, but it provides the foundation to understand why Senator Rand Paul’s new budget proposal is so admirable. Joined by Senators Jim DeMint and Mike Lee, Senator Paul has a comprehensive proposal to curtail big government.

1. An immediate cut of $500 billion of wasteful spending.

2. A five-year freeze on total government spending.

3. Limiting average annual spending growth to 2.2 percent over the next ten years.

Last but not least, taxpayers get a big reward from Senator Paul’s budget with a simple and fair 17 percent flat tax. This pro-growth policy is desperately needed to boost the economy and improve competitiveness. And while a flat tax theoretically could be enacted without accompanying spending restraint, it’s far more likely to happen if lawmakers show they’re serious about restraining the federal behemoth.

The accompany chart shows the 10-year projections for spending and revenue if Senator Paul’s budget is enacted.

A few additional thoughts. Senator Paul and his colleagues are highlighting the fact that the plan generates a balanced budget in just five years. That’s a good outcome, but it should be a secondary selling point. All the good results in the plan – including the reduction in red ink and the flat tax – are made possible because the overall burden of federal spending is lowered. That should be the main selling point.

This doesn’t mean that Senator Paul is in any danger of winning a Bob Dole Award, but it’s nonetheless unfortunate since a focus on deficits gives an opening for leftists to claim that they can achieve the same outcome with tax increases. This is why sponsors should focus on the importance of spending restraint, and then add explanations of how this eliminates red ink. This is the approach I took in this video showing how limits on the growth of spending would lead to a balanced budget.

Also, I have two minor disagreements with Senator Paul’s budget proposal.

1. He does not modernize Social Security system with personal retirement accounts. He does have reforms to rein in the program’s long-run outlays, thus addressing the system’s fiscal crisis. But this generally means workers will pay more and get less, thus exacerbating the system’s other crisis, which is the anemic ratio of benefits received compared to taxes paid.

2. He retains the home mortgage interest deduction in the flat tax plan. This may sound like nit-picking since I should be happy to get 99 percent of what I want, but I worry that allowing one deduction will pave the way for more deductions. Remember the old advertisement by Lay’s potato chips (at least I think) with the saying that “I bet you can’t eat just one”? Well, that’s how politicians would be with a flat tax. Once they allowed one horse out of the barn (I realize I’m mixing my metaphors here, but you get the point), it would be just a matter of time before the entire herd escaped.

But I’m not here to make the perfect the enemy of the very, very good. I wrote a lot last year about the Ryan budget, which was quite an achievement (particularly since it actually passed the House).

The Paul budget is the Ryan budget, but even better.

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Back in 2010, I crunched the numbers from the Congressional Budget Office and reported that the budget could be balanced in just 10 years if politicians exercised a modicum of fiscal discipline and limited annual spending increases to about 2 percent yearly.

When CBO issued new numbers early last year, I repeated the exercise and again found that the same modest level of budgetary restraint would eliminate red ink in about 10 years.

And when CBO issued their update last summer, I did the same thing and once again confirmed that deficits would disappear in a decade if politicians didn’t let the overall budget rise by faster than 2 percent each year.

Well, the new CBO 10-year forecast was released this morning. I’m going to give you three guesses about what I discovered when I looked at the numbers, and the first two don’t count.

Yes, you guessed it. As the chart illustrates, balancing the budget doesn’t require any tax increases. Not does it require big spending cuts (though that would be a very good idea).

Even if we assume that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent, all that is needed is for politicians to put government on a modest diet so that overall spending grows by about 2 percent each year. In other words, make sure the budget doesn’t grow faster than inflation.

Tens of millions of households and businesses manage to meet this simple test every year. Surely it’s not asking too much to get the same minimum level of fiscal restraint from the crowd in Washington, right?

At this point, you may be asking yourself whether it’s really this simple. After all, you’ve probably heard politicians and journalists say that deficits are so big that we have no choice but to accept big tax increases and “draconian” spending cuts.

But that’s because politicians use dishonest Washington budget math. They begin each fiscal year by assuming that spending automatically will increase based on factors such as inflation, demographics, and previously legislated program changes.

This creates a “baseline” and if they enact a budget that increases spending be less than the baseline, that increase magically becomes a cut. This is what allowed some politicians to say that last year’s Ryan budget cut spending by trillions of dollars even though spending actually would have increased by an average of 2.8 percent each year.

Needless to say, proponents of big government deliberately use dishonest budget math because it tilts the playing field in favor of bigger government and higher taxes.

There are two important caveats about these calculations.

1. We should be dramatically downsizing the federal government, not just restraining its growth. Even if he’s not your preferred presidential candidate, Ron Paul’s proposal for an immediate $1 trillion reduction in the burden of federal spending is a very good idea. Merely limiting the growth of spending is a tiny and timid step in the right direction.

2. We should be focusing on the underlying problem of excessive government, not the symptom of too much red ink. By pointing out the amount of spending restraint that would balance the budget, some people will incorrectly conclude that getting rid of deficits is the goal.

Last but not least, here is the video I narrated in 2010 showing how red ink would quickly disappear if politicians curtailed their profligacy and restrained spending growth.

Other than updating the numbers, the video is just as accurate today as it was back in 2010. And the concluding message – that there is no good argument for tax increases – also is equally relevant today.

P.S. Some people will argue that it’s impossible to restrain spending because of entitlement programs, but this set of videos shows how to reform Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

P.P.S. Some people will say that the CBO baseline is unrealistic because it assumes the sequester will take place. They may be right if they’re predicting politicians are too irresponsible and profligate to accept about $100 billion of annual reductions from a $4,000 billion-plus budget, but that underscores the core message that there needs to be a cap on total spending so that the crowd in Washington isn’t allowed to turn America into Greece.

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Welcome Instapundit readers! Canada’s fiscal restraint (relative to the U.S., at least) is not the only positive development. Canada also has privatized its air traffic control system and fought against European schemes for bank taxes. No wonder Canada now ranks above America in both the Economic Freedom of the World Index and the Index of Economic Freedom.

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Since I’ve written before about Canada’s remarkable period of fiscal restraint during the 1990s, I am very pleased to see that the establishment press is finally giving some attention to what our northern neighbors did to reduce the burden of government spending.

Here are some key passages from a Reuters story.

“Everyone wants to know how we did it,” said political economist Brian Lee Crowley, head of the Ottawa-based think tank Macdonald-Laurier Institute, who has examined the lessons of the 1990s. But to win its budget wars, Canada first had to realize how dire its situation was and then dramatically shrink the size of government rather than just limit the pace of spending growth. It would eventually oversee the biggest reduction in Canadian government spending since demobilization after World War Two. …The turnaround began with Chretien’s arrival as prime minister in November 1993, when his Liberal Party – in some ways Canada’s equivalent of the Democrats in the U.S. – swept to victory with a strong majority. The new government took one look at the dreadful state of the books and decided to act. “I said to myself, I will do it. I might be prime minister for only one term, but I will do it,” said Chretien. …The Liberals thought their first, rushed budget – delivered in February 1994, three months after taking office, was tough. It reformed unemployment insurance entitlements, and cut defense and foreign aid… The upstart Reform Party, then the main national opposition party, had campaigned on “zero-in-three” – balance the budget in three years. “We were always trying to go faster,” said Reform’s leader at the time, Preston Manning. …The Liberals were stung by the criticism and, at first reluctantly but then with gusto, they got out the chain saws. …Cutting government spending programs went against the Liberal grain. Contrary to the Reform Party, the Liberals saw a more important role for government. Paul Martin now has a lasting reputation as the finance minister who slayed Canada’s deficit, but the conversion from spender to cutter was painful. His father, also called Paul, had helped create Medicare, Canada’s publicly funded health care system, and suddenly here was Paul Junior contemplating massive cuts.

This is a remarkable story. My only real quibble is that the fiscal restraint actually started the year before the Liberal Party took power, as the chart (click to enlarge) illustrates.

But the key thing to understand is that Canada enjoyed a five-year period when government spending increased by an average of only 1 percent each year.

There are more good passages in the story. Can anybody imagine Obama doing this?

At one 1994 cabinet meeting, Martin announced a spending freeze. A minister put forward a project that needed funding but Chretien cut him off, reminding him of Martin’s freeze. A second minister raised his hand to ask for funding, and a testy Chretien told the cabinet that the next minister to ask for new money would see his whole budget cut by 20 percent. …The ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes was seven-to-one. Asked why, Chretien said simply: “There was more need on one side than the other.” …Cuts ranged from five percent to 65 percent of departmental budgets.

By the way, while there were a few tax hikes implemented, they were trivial. Tax revenue as a share of GDP rose from 44.2 percent of GDP to 44.5 percent a GDP, an increase that probably was going to happen anyhow as Canada’s economy recovered.

So what were the results of Canada’s spending freeze?

The following passage has some numbers, but the second chart (click to enlarge) shows that the burden of government spending in Canada (right axis) fell from 53 percent of GDP to 44 percent of GDP in just five years. And red ink (left axis) completely disappeared.

The deficit disappeared by 1997 and the debt-to-GDP ratio began a rapid decline – it is now at about 34 percent. …After wrestling the deficit to the ground, Canada enjoyed what Crowley calls the payoff decade, outperforming the rest of the G7 on growth, job creation and inward investment. From 1997 to 2007, it averaged 3.3 percent economic growth. while U.S. growth averaged 2.9 percent.

The most important thing to understand is that Canada’s economy improved because the burden of government spending was reduced. And because the underlying disease was being treated, this meant two of the symptoms of excessive government – deficits and debt – also became less of a problem.

Last but not least, there are rewards for good policy. Just as Reagan enjoyed a landslide in 1984 after sticking to his guns, Canada’s Liberal Party also reaped the benefits of doing the right thing.

The final lesson is that you can impose painful spending cuts and still win elections. Chretien went on to win two more back-to-back to form majority governments, a rare feat. ,,,Drummond, who later moved to the private sector and is now an advisor helping the Ontario provincial government slash its deficit, noted that governments on the right and left in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario won more voter support after their own budget cuts in the 1990s.

Here’s a video I narrated that looks at the Canadian experience, as well as similar good reforms in New Zealand, Ireland, and Slovakia.

Last but not least, let’s put all of this in context. As demonstrated here, the U.S. would enjoy a balanced budget in just eight years if politicians could be convinced to limit spending so that it increased by 1 percent each year.

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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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Do not watch this if you disapprove of the F-word. But you’ll probably laugh if you click the video.

Even though I’m posting this video solely for the humor value, I feel compelled to nag everybody with a reminder that the balance-the-budget message is misguided. We should be striving to shrink the the burden of government.

And if you address the disease of too much spending, you automatically solve the symptom of too much red ink.

But I’m a fair-minded person and I’ll post political humor promoting non-libertarian perspectives. If it’s funny, it makes the cut.

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Here’s a new video from the Cato Institute, featuring my pearls of wisdom, along with equally sage commentary from my colleague Chris Edwards.

We make two simple points. First, America faces a Greek-style fiscal crisis if we leave the federal budget on autopilot (actually, it will be worse since we won’t get a bailout from the IMF).

Second, the country can be saved from this fate with relatively modest spending restraint. Genuine spending cuts would be preferable, of course, but merely slowing the growth of spending can put America on a sustainable path.

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The President has issued an ultimatum that more tax revenue must be part of budget negotiations. Indeed, he endlessly repeats his desire for a “balanced approach,” implying that as much as 50 percent of the deficit reduction in any agreement should come from higher revenues.

Because I am a thoughtful, middle-of-the-road, pragmatic guy, I’m willing to accept the President’s ultimatum. I do have one tiny request, however, and that is for any such deal to be based on honest math.

What I mean by this is that I don’t want politicians to approve a budget that results in more spending, but then claim that they “cut spending” because the budget didn’t grow even faster. I want a spending cut to mean less spending (gee, what a novel idea).

And when they talk about new revenue, I want to see how much revenue the IRS is collecting this year, and measure revenue increases against that number. After all, the crowd in Washington should be happy to get more money, even if it is the result of benign factors such as more jobs being created, companies earning higher profits, and people getting more pay.

I assume these are reasonable requests. After all, this is how businesses and households operate their budgets, and I’m sure the political insiders wouldn’t want to use dishonest numbers to mislead voters (perish the thought!).

So what would a balanced approach look like, assuming we want to use honest math? The answer isn’t that complicated. I started with the latest estimates from the Congressional Budget Office for spending and revenues for this fiscal year (FY2011). I then assume, in the interest of a “balanced approach,” that spending should be cut by 5 percent each year and that revenues should climb by 5 percent each year.

The results, as illustrated by the graph, are remarkable. If we use a 50-50 deal of higher revenue and lower spending, we balance the budget in just five years. The President is right!

Taxpayers will be happy to know the “balanced approach” gets rid of red ink and also leaves enough room to make the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent. Heck, there would be enough left-over revenue to enact additional tax cuts. After all, since we’re looking for balance, there’s no need to let revenues grow by 7 percent or 8 percent each year.

So, Mr. President, do we have a deal? Should we use your “balanced approach” and eliminate today’s big deficit by cutting spending and raising revenue by equal amounts? You were serious about your request, right? Hello, is anybody there?

As you already realize, I don’t think the President actually means what he says about a “balanced approach.” Or, to be more specific, I think he’s happy to do a 50-50 deal, but only if “spending cuts” and “revenue increases” are defined in ways that enable the growth of government.

Inside the beltway, this is known as “baseline budgeting” or “current services budgeting.” But whatever it’s called, it is a dishonest way of presenting information to the American people, as explained in this video.

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There’s a lot of buzz about a Wall Street Journal interview with Stanley Druckenmiller, in which he argues that a temporary delay in making payments on U.S. government debt (which technically would be a default) would be a small price to pay if it resulted in the long-term spending reforms that are needed to save America from becoming another Greece.

One of the world’s most successful money managers, the lanky, sandy-haired Mr. Druckenmiller is so concerned about the government’s ability to pay for its future obligations that he’s willing to accept a temporary delay in the interest payments he’s owed on his U.S. Treasury bonds—if the result is a Washington deal to restrain runaway entitlement costs. “I think technical default would be horrible,” he says from the 24th floor of his midtown Manhattan office, “but I don’t think it’s going to be the end of the world. It’s not going to be catastrophic. What’s going to be catastrophic is if we don’t solve the real problem,” meaning Washington’s spending addiction. …Mr. Druckenmiller’s view on the debt limit bumps up against virtually the entire Wall Street-Washington financial establishment. A recent note on behalf of giant banks on the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee warned of a “severe and long-lasting impact” if the debt limit is not raised immediately. …This week more than 60 trade associations, representing virtually all of American big business, forecast “a massive spike in borrowing costs.” On Thursday Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke raised the specter of a market crisis similar to the one that followed the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. As usual, the most aggressive predictor of doom in the absence of increased government spending has been Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. In a May 2 letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Mr. Geithner warned of “a catastrophic economic impact” and said, “Default would cause a financial crisis potentially more severe than the crisis from which we are only now starting to recover.”

Mr. Druckenmiller is not overly impressed by this hyperbole. The article continues with this key passage.

“Here are your two options: piece of paper number one—let’s just call it a 10-year Treasury. So I own this piece of paper. I get an income stream obviously over 10 years . . . and one of my interest payments is going to be delayed, I don’t know, six days, eight days, 15 days, but I know I’m going to get it. There’s not a doubt in my mind that it’s not going to pay, but it’s going to be delayed. But in exchange for that, let’s suppose I know I’m going to get massive cuts in entitlements and the government is going to get their house in order so my payments seven, eight, nine, 10 years out are much more assured,” he says. Then there’s “piece of paper number two,” he says, under a scenario in which the debt limit is quickly raised to avoid any possible disruption in payments. “I don’t have to wait six, eight, or 10 days for one of my many payments over 10 years. I get it on time. But we’re going to continue to pile up trillions of dollars of debt and I may have a Greek situation on my hands in six or seven years. Now as an owner, which piece of paper do I want to own? To me it’s a no-brainer. It’s piece of paper number one.” …”Russia had a real default and two or three years later they had all-time low interest rates,” says Mr. Druckenmiller. In the future, he says, “People aren’t going to wonder whether 20 years ago we delayed an interest payment for six days. They’re going to wonder whether we got our house in order.”

This is a very compelling argument, but it overlooks one major problem – the complete inability of Republicans to succeed in forcing fiscal reform using this approach.

Here’s a sure-fire prediction, assuming GOPers in the House actually are willing to engage in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Obama on the debt limit.

o There will be lots of political drama.

o We will get to a point where the federal government exhausts its borrowing authority.

o At that point, either Geithner or Bernanke (or probably both) will make some completely dishonest statements designed to rattle financial markets.

o The establishment media will echo those statements.

o The stock market and/or bond market will have a negative reaction.

o Republican resolve will evaporate like a drop of water in the Mojave Desert.

o The debt limit will be increased without any meaningful fiscal reform.

For all intents and purposes, this is what happened with the TARP vote in 2008. There were basically two choices of how to deal with the financial crisis. The establishment wanted a blank-check bailout, while sensible people wanted the “FDIC-resolution” approach (similar to what was used during the savings & loan bailouts about 20 years ago, which bails out retail customers but wipes out shareholders, bondholders and senior management). Republicans initially held firm and defeated the first TARP vote, but then they folded when the Washington-Wall Street establishment scared markets.

I hope I’m wrong in my analysis, but I don’t see how Republicans could win a debt limit fight. At least not if they demand something like the Ryan budget. The best possible outcome would be budget process reform such as Senator Corker’s CAP Act, which would impose caps on future spending, enforced by automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Because it postpones the fiscal discipline until after the vote, that legislation has a chance of attracting enough bipartisan support to overcome opposition from Obama and other statists.

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Many of the politicians in Washington, including President Obama during his State-of-the-Union address, piously tell us that there is no way to balance the budget without tax increases. Trying to get rid of red ink without higher taxes, they tell us, would require “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts.

I would like to slash the budget and free up resources for private-sector growth, so that sounds good to me. But what’s the truth?

The Congressional Budget Office has just released its 10-year projections for the budget, so I crunched the numbers to determine what it would take to balance the budget without tax hikes. Much to nobody’s surprise, the politicians are not telling the truth.

The chart below shows that revenues are expected to grow (because of factors such as inflation, more population, and economic expansion) by more than 7 percent each year. Balancing the budget is simple so long as politicians increase spending at a slower rate. If they freeze the budget, we almost balance the budget by 2017. If federal spending is capped so it grows 1 percent each year, the budget is balanced in 2019. And if the crowd in Washington can limit spending growth to about 2 percent each year, red ink almost disappears in just 10 years.

These numbers, incidentally, assume that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent (they are now scheduled to expire in two years). They also assume that the AMT is adjusted for inflation, so the chart shows that we can balance the budget without any increase in the tax burden.

I did these calculations last year, and found the same results. And I also examined how we balanced the budget in the 1990s and found that spending restraint was the key. The combination of a GOP Congress and Bill Clinton in the White House led to a four-year period of government spending growing by an average of just 2.9 percent each year.

We also have international evidence showing that spending restraint – not higher taxes – is the key to balancing the budget. New Zealand got rid of a big budget deficit in the 1990s with a five-year spending freeze. Canada also got rid of red ink that decade with a five-year period where spending grew by an average of only 1 percent per year. And Ireland slashed its deficit in the late 1980s by 10 percentage points of GDP with a four-year spending freeze.

No wonder international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary fund and European Central Bank are producing research showing that spending discipline is the right approach.

This video provides all the details.

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There’s been a lot of heated discussion about various preferences, deductions, credits, shelters, and other loopholes in the tax code. Some of this debate has revolved around whether it is legitimate to refer to these provisions as “tax expenditures” or “subsidies.”

My Cato colleague Michael Cannon vociferously argues that subsidies and expenditures only occur when the government takes money from person A and gives it to person B. On the other side of the debate are people like Josh Barro of the Manhattan Institute, who argues that tax preferences are akin to subsidies or expenditures since they can be just as damaging as government spending programs when looking at whether resources are efficiently allocated.

Since I’m a can’t-we-all-get-along, uniter-not-divider kind of person, allow me to suggest that this debate should be set aside. After all, we all agree that tax preferences can lead to inefficient outcomes. So let’s call them “tax distortions” and focus on the real issue, which is how best to eliminate them.

This is an important issue because both the Domenici-Rivlin Task Force and the Chairmen of the Simpson-Bowles Commission have unveiled plans that would reduce or eliminate many of these tax distortions and also lower marginal tax rates. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that their plans result in more revenue going to Washington. In other words, the tax increase resulting from fewer tax distortions is larger than the tax decrease resulting from lower tax rates. To put it bluntly, the plans would increase the overall tax burden.

Some argue that this is an acceptable price to pay. They point out, quite correctly, that lower tax rates will help the economy by improving incentives for productive behavior. And they also are right in arguing that fewer tax distortions will help the economy by improving efficiency. Seems like a win-win situation. What’s not to like?

The problem is on the spending side of the fiscal ledger. The Simpson-Bowles Commission and the Domenici-Rivlin Task Force were charged with figuring out how to reduce red ink. We already know from Congressional Budget Office data, however, that we can balance the budget fairly quickly by limiting the growth of government spending. As the chart illustrates, the deficit disappears by 2016-2017 with a hard freeze and goes away by 2019-2020 if spending increases by two percent each year (and this assumes all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent).

If tax revenue is increased, that simply means that the budget gets balanced at a higher level of spending. And since government spending, at current levels and composition, hinders economic growth by diverting labor and capital to less productive (or unproductive) uses, any proposal that enables higher levels of government spending will further undermine economic performance.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that this analysis is overly optimistic since it assumes that politicians actually will balance the budget. In all likelihood, as explained in today’s Wall Street Journal, any tax increase would probably be followed by even more spending. So if politicians raise the tax burden, we might still have a deficit of $685 billion in 2020 (CBO’s most-recent estimate assuming  all programs are left on auto-pilot), but the overall levels of both spending and taxes would be higher. This modified cartoon captures this real-world effect.

This is why revenue-neutral tax reform, like the flat tax, is the only pro-growth way of eliminating tax distortions.

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I have many pet peeves, but one that causes me endless frustration is the Washington “spending cut” scam. This happens when politicians increase spending, but claim that they’re cutting spending because they previously had planned to make government even bigger.

The proposal unveiled yesterday by the Co-Chairman of President Obama’s Fiscal Commission is a good example. If you read through their report, it sounds like there are lots of spending cuts. But they never explain that these supposed cuts are really just reductions in previously-planned increases.

Here’s the bottom line. As shown in the graph, it is quite simple to balance the budget (and permanently extend all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts) if politicians simply limit spending growth. You can balance the budget within a few years with an overall cap on spending at current-year levels. But if you prefer a more moderate approach, you can let spending increase 2 percent each year and balance the budget by the end of the decade.

The proposal from the Fiscal Commission, incidentally, does not balance the budget – even though they have a big tax increase (which they assume will have zero negative impact on economic performance).

So what does this mean? Well, we know that the budget can be balanced (with the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts) if spending grows two percent each year. And we also know that the Fiscal Commission increases the tax burden, yet still doesn’t achieve fiscal balance. So this means that they must be letting spending grow much faster than 2 percent each year. I’m guessing 4-5 percent annual spending growth.

In other words, the Fiscal Commission is asking us to pay higher taxes so that government spending can grow at twice the rate of inflation. That’s not a good deal.

Moreover, that’s almost certainly a ridiculously naive best-case scenario. If past behavior is any indication (and it is), politicians will spend any additional tax revenue. Whenever there’s a budget summit, the folks who want higher taxes make all sorts of empty promises about spending discipline. And when the other side caves in on taxes, they grab the money and have a party.

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Our fiscal policy goal should be smaller government, but here’s a video for folks who think that balancing the budget should be the main objective.

The main message is that restraining the growth of government is the right way to get rid of red ink, so there is no conflict between advocates of limited government and supporters of fiscal balance.

More specifically, the video shows that it is possible to quickly balance the budget while also making all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent and protecting taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax. All these good things can happen if politicians simply limit annual spending growth to 2 percent each year. And they’ll happen even faster if spending grows at an even slower rate.

This debunks the statist argument that there is no choice but to raise taxes.

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John Podesta of the Center for American Progress had a column in Politico yesterday asserting that “closing the budget gap entirely on the spending side would require draconian programmatic cuts.” He went on to complain that there are some people who “refuse to look at the revenue side of the ledger – while insisting that we dig the hole $830 billion deeper over the next decade by extending the Bush tax cuts.”
 
Not surprisingly, Mr. Podesta is totally wrong. It’s actually not that challenging to balance the budget. And it doesn’t even require any spending cuts, though it would be a very good idea to dramatically downsize the federal government. Here’s a chart showing this year’s spending and revenue totals. It then shows the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of how much revenues will grow, assuming all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent and assuming that the alternative minimum tax is adjusted for inflation. As you can see, balancing the budget is a simple matter of limiting the annual growth of federal spending.
 

So how is it that Mr. Podesta can spout sky-is-falling rhetoric about “draconian” cuts when all that’s needed is fiscal restraint? The answer is that politicians in Washington have concocted a self-serving budget process that automatically assumes that all previously-planned spending increases should occur. So if the politicians put us on a path to make government 8 percent bigger next year and there is a proposal to instead limit spending growth to 3 percent, that 3 percent increase gets portrayed as a 5 percent cut.
 
This is a great scam, at least for the political class. They get to buy more votes by boosting the burden of government spending, but they get to tell voters that they’re being fiscally responsible. And they get to claim that they have no choice but to raise taxes because there’s no other way to balance the budget. In the real world, though, this translates into bigger government and puts us on a path to a Greek-style fiscal nightmare.
 
The goal of fiscal policy should be smaller government, not fiscal balance. Deficits are just a symptom of a government that is too large, as I have explained elsewhere. But the good news is that spending discipline is the right answer, regardless of the objective. I explained this in more detail for a piece in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Here’s an excerpt.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government this year is spending almost $3.5 trillion. Tax receipts are estimated to be less than $2.2 trillion, which means a projected deficit of about $1.35 trillion. So can we balance the budget when there is that much red ink? And is it possible to eliminate deficits while also extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts? The answer is yes. …It’s a simple matter of mathematics. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that tax revenue will grow by an average of 7.3 percent annually over the next 10 years. Reducing the budget deficit is easy – so long as politicians increase overall spending by less than that amount. And with inflation projected to be about 2 percent over the same period, this is an ideal environment for some long-overdue fiscal discipline. If spending is simply capped at the current level with a hard freeze, the budget is balanced by 2016. If we limit spending growth to 1 percent each year, the budget is balanced in 2017. And if we allow 2 percent annual spending growth – letting the budget keep pace with inflation, the budget balances in 2020. …Interest groups that are used to big budget increases will be upset if spending growth is limited to 1 or 2 percent each year. It means entitlements will need to be reformed. It means we might need to get rid of programs and departments that are not legitimate functions of the federal government. You better believe that these changes will cause a lot of squealing by lobbyists and other insiders. But that complaining will be a sign that fiscal policy is finally heading in the right direction. The key thing to understand is that there is no need for tax increases. Politicians might not balance the budget if we say no to all tax increases. But the experience in Europe shows that oppressive tax burdens are not a recipe for fiscal balance either. Milton Friedman was correct many years ago when he warned that, “In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.”

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