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Posts Tagged ‘Bush’

I got involved in a bit of a controversy last year about presidential profligacy.

Some guy named Rex Nutting put together some data on government spending and claimed that Barack Obama was the most frugal President in recent history.

I pointed out that Mr. Nutting’s data left something to be desired because he didn’t adjust the numbers for inflation.

Moreover, most analysts also would remove interest spending from the calculations since Presidents presumably shouldn’t be held responsible for servicing the debt incurred by their predecessors.

But even when you make these adjustments and measure inflation-adjusted “primary spending,” it turns out that Nutting’s main assertion was correct. Obama is the most frugal President in modern times.

When you look at the adjusted numbers, though, Reagan does a lot better, ranking a close second to Obama.

I also included Carter, Nixon, and LBJ in my calculations, though it’s worth noting that none of them got a good score. Indeed, President Johnson even scored below President George W. Bush.

Some of you may be thinking that I made a mistake. What about the pork-filled stimulus? And all the new spending in Obamacare?

Most of the Obamacare spending doesn’t begin until 2014, so that wasn’t a big factor. And I did include the faux stimulus. Indeed, I even adjusted the FY2009 and FY2010 numbers so that all of stimulus spending that took place in Bush’s last fiscal year was credited to Obama.

So does this mean Obama is a closet conservative, as my misguided buddy Bruce Bartlett has asserted?

Not exactly. Five days after my first post, I did some more calculations and explained that Obama was the undeserved beneficiary of the quirky way that bailouts and related items are measured in the budget.

It turns out that Obama supposed frugality is largely the result of how TARP is measured in the federal budget. To put it simply, TARP pushed spending up in Bush’s final fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008) and then repayments from the banks (which count as “negative spending”) artificially reduced spending in subsequent years.

And when I removed TARP and other bailouts from the equation, Obama plummeted in the rankings. Instead of first place, he was second-to-last, beating only LBJ.

But this isn’t the end of the story. My analysis last year only looked at the first three years of Obama’s tenure.

We now have the numbers for his fourth year. And if you crank through the numbers (all methodology available upon request), you find that Obama’s numbers improve substantially.

Pres Spending 2013 - PrimaryAs the table illustrates, inflation-adjusted non-interest spending has grown by only 0.2 percent per year. Those are remarkably good numbers, due in large part to the fact that government spending actually fell in nominal terms last year and is expected to shrink again this year.

We haven’t seen two consecutive years of lower spending since the end of the Korean War!

Republicans can argue, of course, that the Tea Party deserves credit for recent fiscal progress, much as they can claim that Clinton’s relatively good numbers were the result of the GOP sweep in the 1994 elections.

I’ll leave that debate to partisans because I now want to do what I did last year and adjust the numbers for TARP and other bailouts.

In other words, how does Obama rank if you adjust for the transitory distorting impact  of what happened during the financial crisis?

Well, as you can see from this final table, Obama’s 2013 numbers are much better than his 2012 numbers. Pres Spending 2013 - Primary Minus BailoutsInstead of being in second-to-last place, he’s now in the middle of the pack.

I used a slightly different methodology this year to measure the impact of TARP and related items, so all of the numbers have changed a bit, but Reagan is still the champ and everyone else is the same order other than Obama.

So what does all this mean?

As I constantly remind people, good fiscal policy occurs when the burden of government spending is falling as a share of economic output.

And this happens when policy makers follow my Golden Rule and restrain spending so that it grows slower than the private economy.

That’s actually been happening for the past couple of years. Even after you adjust for the quirks of how TARP repayments get measured.

I’m normally a pessimist, but if advocates of small government can maintain the pressure and get some concessions during the upcoming fights over  spending levels for the new fiscal year and/or the debt limit, we may even see progress next year and the year after that.

And if we eventually get a new crop of policymakers who are willing to enact genuine entitlement reform, the United States may avoid the future Greek-style fiscal crisis that is predicted by the BIS, OECD, and IMF.

That would almost be as good as a national championship for the Georgia Bulldogs!

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Even though I’m a staunch libertarian, I’m not under any illusion that everyone is open to our ideas. Particularly since, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, we get falsely stereotyped as being heartless, hedonistic, anti-social, and naively isolationist.

That’s why I’m willing to accept incremental reforms. Compared to my libertarian dream world, for instance, the entitlement reforms in the Ryan budget are very modest. But they may be the most we can achieve in the short run, so I don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

But I do make the bad the enemy of the good. Politicians who expand the size and scope of government get on my wrong side, regardless of whether they are Republicans or Democrats.

Which explains why I haven’t approved of any Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan.

With this in mind, you can imagine my shock when I read Robert Patterson’s recent column that blames recent GOP presidential woes on…you guessed it, “far-right libertarians.”

…in the political big leagues, …the GOP strikes out with the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections… That familiar lineup shares one big liability: libertarian economics, which has been undermining the Republican brand… That message represents the heart and soul of a party that started sleeping with far-right libertarians in 1990. …In the libertarian universe, “economic freedom” trumps everything: civilization, nation, statecraft, patriotism, industry, culture and family. This “economic freedom,” however, diverges greatly from the liberty that transformed the United States into an industrial, financial and military colossus.

What the [expletive deleted]!

Let’s go down the list of  recent GOP presidential candidates and assess whether they were captured by “far-right libertarians” and their dangerous philosophy of “economic freedom.”

  • George H.W. Bush – He increased spending, raised tax rates, and imposed costly new regulations. If that’s libertarian, I’d hate to see how Patterson defines statism.
  • Do you see any libertarians? Me neither.

    Robert Dole – All you need to know is that he described his three proudest accomplishments as the creation of the food stamp program, the imposition of the costly Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Social Security bailout. I don’t see anything on that list that’s remotely libertarian.

  • George W. Bush – I’ve written several times about Bush’s depressing record of statism. Yes, we got some lower tax rates, but that policy was easily offset by new spending, new intervention, new regulation, and bailouts. No wonder economic freedom declined significantly during his tenure. Not exactly a libertarian track record.
  • No libertarians here, either

    John McCain – His track record on spending is somewhat admirable, but he was far from libertarian on key issues such as tax rates, global warming, bailouts, and healthcare.

  • Mitt Romney – He was sympathetic to a VAT. He criticized personal retirement accounts. He supported corrupt ethanol subsidies. And he said nice things about the TARP bailout. And I don’t need to remind anybody about Obamacare’s evil twin. Is that a libertarian agenda?

I also disagree with several of the policies that Patterson advocates, such as protectionism and industrial subsidies.

But that’s not the purpose of this post. Libertarians already face an uphill battle. The last thing we need is to be linked to a bunch of big-government Republicans when we share almost nothing in common on economic policy.

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I almost feel sorry for the Obama Administration’s spin doctors. Every month, they probably wait for the unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics with the same level of excitement that people on death row wait for their execution date.

This has been going on for a while and today’s new data is another good example.

As this chart indicates, the White House promised that the unemployment rate today would be almost down to 5 percent if we enacted the so-called stimulus back in 2009. Instead, the new numbers show that the jobless rate is 7.9 – almost 3.0 percentage points higher.

Obama Unemployment

I enjoy using this chart to indict Obamanomics, in part because it’s a two-fer. I get to criticize the Administration’s overall record, and I simultaneously get to take a jab at Keynesian spending schemes.

What’s not to love?

That being said, I don’t think the above chart is completely persuasive. The White House argues, with some justification, that this data simply shows that they underestimated the initial severity of the recession. There’s some truth to that, and I’ll be the first to admit that it wouldn’t be fair to blame Obama for a bleak trendline that existed when he took office (but I will blame him for continuing Bush’s policies of excessive spending and costly intervention).

That’s why I think the data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve is more damning. It looks at all the recessions and recoveries in the post-World War II era, and presumably provides a more neutral benchmark.

As you can see from this chart of job creation during all post-World War II recoveries, there’s one period that stands out for having the worst performance. Take a wild guess which line includes the Obama years.

Feb 2013 Minn Fed Employment Recession Data

An Obama defender will argue that this chart is unfair because the recession began during the Bush years.

Since there’s no significant difference between Bush’s policies and Obama’s policies, I don’t think that’s a strong defense, but let’s bend over backwards and instead look at job creation during recovery periods.

Feb 2013 Minn Fed Employment Recovery Data

These numbers are a bit more favorable (or less damning) to Obama, but you can see that job creation for this recovery has been far below the average. Indeed, it only surpasses Bush’s job numbers coming out of the 2001 recession.

But I’m not surprised that the job numbers for Bush and Obama are both dismal. As stated above, they both pursued a statist agenda (though a Bush defender doubtlessly will point out that unemployment didn’t drop that much in 2001, so it would have been impossible to have a strong post-recession bounce).

The real lesson to be learned is that we live in an era of higher taxes on productive activity, a heavier burden of government spending, and more costly government regulation and intervention. And since we’re now more like Europe, the “new normal” is to have weak European-style economic numbers.

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People in the political world say that President Obama threw Secretary of State Clinton under the bus in an attempt to protect himself from political fallout from Libya.

I don’t follow those issues, so I can’t comment about the veracity of that charge, but I find it very interesting that some conservatives are urging Mitt Romney to throw former President George W. Bush under the bus.

More specifically, they’re urging him to condemn Bush’s statism and to attack Obama for continuing Bush’s failed policies.

Since I’ve attacked Bush for expanding the burden of government spending and reducing economic freedom, this resonates with me.

Phil Kerpen of American Commitment nails the issue in a column for Fox News.

Romney’s biggest missed opportunity in the second debate wasn’t on Libya…he should have connected the dots between Obama and Bush to illustrate the accurate point that on the most significant dimensions of economic policy, Obama has accelerated Bush’s policy errors rather than reversing them. In the crucible of the 2008 financial crisis, President Bush famously remarked that “I chucked aside my free-market principles .” He was referring to TARP, his infamous big bank bailout. Obama supported the bill and voted for it. …On government spending, it’s the same story. Bush racked up one of the most disastrous records of out-of-control spending and debt the country had ever seen. Every aspect of the federal budget jumped under Bush. …Obama came in and continued spending recklessly. Bush’s $152 billion stimulus bill failed and so did Obama’s $821 billion stimulus bill. Bush flushed $25 billion in bailout funds to Chrysler and General Motors, and Obama added another $20 billion before finally recognizing that the companies would inevitably file for bankruptcy. All of the pre-bankruptcy bailout dollars were lost. …On the biggest economic policy questions, the Bush/Geithner/Bernanke approach is almost indistinguishable from the Obama/Geithner/Bernanke approach. It hasn’t worked. Obama’s failed policies of the present are all too similar to Bush’s failed policies of the past.

Amen. Bush was a statist, period.

Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute made similar points in an article for the Weekly Standard.

Obama’s claim that Bush’s policies caused the recession resonates with American voters. Almost four years after George W. Bush left office, polls show the American people continue to blame him—more than Obama—for the recession that created today’s dismal economic conditions. Throughout the fall and in their debates, it’s a sure thing that Obama will continue to argue that Romney is just another George W. Bush. How can Romney respond? …Romney should not deny Bush’s error. Although Clinton began the process of forcing low mortgage underwriting standards, Bush continued and enhanced it. Instead, Romney should point out that the government should never have been in the housing finance business, and that he will eliminate Fannie and Freddie to restore a functioning housing market—something Obama has failed to do in almost four years.

But here’s where I disagree with Kerpen and Wallison, or at least where I would add a big caveat to their analysis. What makes them think that Romney would be any different that Bush or Obama?

This post highlights a few of Romney’s policies that would undermine free markets and expand the public sector.

If all one cares about is whether politicians have an “R” or a “D” after their names, then my concerns don’t matter.

But if you’re actually interested in making America a better place, then policy matters a lot.

I’ll close with a final point. I have no idea whether Romney is a closet statist or a closet Reaganite. All I’m saying is that, if Romney wins, people who value limited government and freedom should begin working on November 7 to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent Romney from becoming another RINO such as Bush or Nixon.

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Wow. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the United States dropped in the new rankings unveiled today in Economic Freedom of the World.

But I’m somewhat shocked to learn that we fell from 10th last year all the way down to 18th this year, as can be seen on the chart (click to enlarge).

Last year, the U.S. fell from 7th to 10th, and I though dropping three spots was bad. But falling by eight spots this past year is a stunning decline.

Who would have thought that Scandinavian welfare states such as Denmark and Finland would rank higher than the United States? Or that Ireland, with all its problems, would be above America?

But since I’m not a misery-loves-company guy, I’m happy to see some nations doing well. I’ve previously highlighted the good policies in Hong Kong and Singapore. And I’ve trumpeted the good policies in Switzerland and Australia, as well as Canada, Chile, and Estonia.

So kudos to the leaders in those nations.

American politicians, by contrast, deserve scorn. Let’s update the chart I posted when last year’s report was issued.

As you can see, it’s an understatement to say that the United States is heading in the wrong direction. We’re still considerably ahead of interventionist welfare states such as France and Italy, though I’m afraid to think about what the U.S. score will be five years from now.

Here’s what the authors of the report had to say about America’s decline.

The United States, long considered the standard bearer for economic freedom among large industrial nations, has experienced a substantial decline in economic freedom during the past decade. From 1980 to 2000, the United States was generally rated the third freest economy in the world, ranking behind only Hong Kong and Singapore. After increasing steadily during the period from 1980 to 2000, the chainlinked EFW rating of the United States fell from 8.65 in 2000 to 8.21 in 2005 and 7.70 in 2010. The chain-linked ranking of the United States has fallen precipitously from second in 2000 to eighth in 2005 and 19th in 2010 (unadjusted ranking of 18th).

For those interested in why the United States has dropped, the “size of government” score has fallen from 8.65 in 2000 to 7.70 in the latest report. That’s not a surprise since the burden of government spending has exploded during the Bush-Obama years.

But the trade score also dropped significantly over the same period, from 8.78 to 7.65. So the protectionists should be happy, even though the rest of us have less prosperity.

The most dramatic decline, though, was the in the “legal system and property rights” category, where the U.S. plummeted from 9.23 in 2000 down to 7.12 in the new report. We’re not quite Argentina (3.76!), to be sure, but the trend is very troubling.

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The burden of federal spending in the United States was down to 18.2 percent of gross domestic product when Bill Clinton left office.

But this progress didn’t last long. Thanks to George Bush’s reckless spending policies, the federal budget grew about twice as fast as the economy, jumping by nearly 90 percent in just eight years This pushed federal spending up to about 25 percent of GDP.

President Obama promised hope and change, but he has kept spending at this high level rather than undoing the mistakes of his predecessor.

This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation uses examples of waste, fraud, and abuse to highlight President Obama’s failed fiscal policy.

Good stuff, though the video actually understates the indictment against Obama. There is no mention, for instance, about all the new spending for Obamacare that will begin to take effect over the next few years.

But not everything can be covered in a 5-minute video. And I suspect the video is more effective because it closes instead with some discussion of the corrupt insider dealing of Obama’s so-called green energy programs.

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Statism is a bad idea, regardless of which political party is promoting bigger government. And it’s a really bad idea when people who should know better decide to increase the burden of government spending.

Consider, for example, the supposedly pro-marriage programs adopted last decade by Republicans. It turns out that millions of dollars were wasted and there was no positive impact on relationships.

Here are some excerpts from a story in Mother Jones.

With congressional Republicans beating the drum about profligate and wasteful government spending, they may want to take a hard look at a federal program pushed by a host of top GOPers during the Bush-era… Originally championed by Republican lawmakers including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and current Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a federal initiative to promote marriage as a cure for poverty dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into programs that either had no impact or a negative effect on the relationships of the couples who took part, according to recent research by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). …Starting in 2006, millions of dollars were hastily distributed to grantees… The money went to such enterprises as “Laugh Your Way America,” a program run by a non-Spanish speaking Wisconsin minister who used federal dollars to offer “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage” seminars to Latinos. It funded Rabbi Stephen Baars, a British rabbi who’d been giving his trademarked “Bliss” marriage seminars to upper-middle-class Jews in Montgomery County, Maryland, for years. …when the federal government started dumping million of poverty dollars into marriage education, there was virtually no research on how such programs would fare with poor, inner-city single moms. Now, though, the data is in, and it doesn’t look good for proponents of taxpayer funded marriage education. This month, HHS released the results of several years of research about the performance of the marriage programs, and it indicates that the Bush-era effort to encourage Americans (straight ones, at least) to walk down the aisle has been a serious flop. …Take the Building Healthy Families program…, couples in the eight pilot programs around the country actually broke up more frequently than those in a control group who didn’t get the relationship program. The program also prompted a drop in the involvement of fathers and the percentage who provided financial support.

Isn’t that wonderful? Taxpayers are financing programs that undermine marriage. Not that we should be surprised by that results. The federal government declared a “War on Poverty” and wound up increasing dependency and destitution.

And even when researchers found results that vaguely could be interpreted in a positive fashion, the cost was absurd.

…married couples who participated in a government-funded relationship class reported being somewhat happier and having slightly warmer relationships with their partners. But the cost of this slight bump in happiness in the Supporting Healthy Marriage program was a whopping $7,000 to $11,500 per couple. Imagine how much happier the couples would have been if they’d just been handed with cash.

One would hope that this evidence of government failure would motivate GOPers to eliminate this example of waste. But I wouldn’t recommend holding your breath until that happens.

Given the underwhelming track record of the federal marriage program, it would seem a ripe target for GOP budget hawks, especially given that many of the original proponents of the program are no longer in Congress to defend it. Instead, in November 2010, Congress allocated another $150 million for healthy marriage and fatherhood related programs, with another $150 million budgeted for 2013. And this fall HHS doled out $120 million worth of grants.

What really irks me is that a former Bush Administration official defends the marriage handouts because we waste even more money on a Head Start program that doesn’t produce good results.

Ron Haskins, a marriage program supporter who is a former adviser to Bush on welfare issues and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, thinks Obama did the right thing. He points out that research on poverty programs beloved by liberals, such as Head Start, doesn’t look so good either, but that doesn’t mean the government should simply get rid of it. “When there’s tremendous pressure on the budget, there is a reason for reducing the spending,” he says. “The exception is, if it’s a new program you ought to try to figure out if you can improve it.” Haskins notes that in the grand scheme of the federal budget, the marriage program is but a blip. “We don’t spend a lot of money on these programs. [We spend] $7 billion on Head Start, but not even a $100 million on these [marriage] programs.”

I realize this is heresy in Washington, but what would be wrong with saying, “Neither marriage programs nor Head Start generate positive results, so let’s get rid of both and save $7.1 billion.”

No wonder we’re likely going to be another Greece in just a few decades.

P.S. I shouldn’t have to write this (especially since I’ve already explained my socially conservative inclinations), but allow me to deflect foolish attacks by saying that being against federal programs to subsidize marriage doesn’t make me anti-marriage. I like softball, apple pie, chocolate milk shakes, and the Georgia Bulldogs football team, but I don’t want the federal government subsidies for any of those things either. Indeed, I fear subsidies and handouts will have a negative impact.

P.P.S. The conservatives who support these programs are making the mistake of legislating based on good intentions. They correctly understand that stable marriages are a good thing (as Walter Williams has explained, an intact family is a sure-fire way of avoiding poverty if accompanied by a high school education, any sort of job, and obeying the law), but they erroneously jump to the conclusion that a good thing can be made better with money from the federal government.

P.P.P.S. Conservatives who want stronger marriages and healthier families should concentrate on ending the pernicious welfare handouts that, for all intents and purposes, replace fathers with government programs. I won’t pretend that’s a full solution because it’s not easy to put toothpaste back in a tube, but it can’t hurt given the strong correlation between the growth of the welfare state and the decline in stable low-income families.

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A couple of weeks ago, I debunked the myth that Obama is a fiscal conservative by showing how TARP masks his real record.

I then followed up that post by showing that Obama is a traditional leftist who spends on social welfare programs, but also did a final post showing that Bush was similarly profligate.

Now we have some additional research confirming these points. Art Laffer and Steve Moore investigate Obama’s claim in today’s Wall Street Journal.

They start with an acknowledgement that the burden of spending declined during the Clinton years.

Here’s the picture. In the chart nearby we’ve plotted federal government spending on a National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) basis as a share of total U.S. GDP from 1990 to the present. …The stories the chart tells are amazing. …The first is how much government spending fell during President Bill Clinton’s eight years in office and how low it was when he left office. When he became president in 1992, government spending was 23.5% of GDP, and when he left in 2001 it was 19.5% of GDP. President Clinton, in conjunction with a solid Republican Congress, cut government spending by more than any other president in modern times, and oversaw one of the greatest periods of economic growth and prosperity in U.S. history.

Since I’ve done a video highlighting the good fiscal record of both Reagan and Clinton, this is music to my ears.

Unfortunately, policy moved in the wrong direction once Bush got to the White House – and Laffer and Moore specifically highlight the negative impact of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

 …the biggest surge in government spending came during the last two years of President George W. Bush’s eight years in office (2007-2008). A weakened Republican president dealing with a strident Democratic Congress, led by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, resulted in an orgy of spending. Mr. Bush and Republicans in Congress capitulated to and even promoted each and every government bailout and populist redistribution canard put before them. It’s a long list, starting with the 2003 trillion-dollar Medicare prescription drug benefit and culminating with the actions taken to stem the 2008 financial meltdown—the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bailout of insurance giant AIG and government-sponsored lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the ill-advised 2008 $600-per-person tax rebate, the stimulus add-ons to 2007′s housing and farm bills, etc.

Needless to say, Obama decided to double down on Bush’s failed policies.

After taking office in 2009, with spending and debt already at record high levels and the deficit headed to $1 trillion, President Obama proceeded to pass his own $830 billion stimulus, auto bailouts, mortgage relief plans, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and the $1.7 trillion ObamaCare entitlement (which isn’t even accounted for in the chart).

Adding injury to injury, the so-called stimulus didn’t work. And the authors are right about the looming fiscal nightmare of Obamacare.

It’s also worth noting that Keynesian spending didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt back in the 1930s, and Laffer and Moore also explain how those two supporters of statism exacerbated the damage with class-warfare tax policy.

Like President Obama, President Hoover proposed massive tax increases. Unlike Mr. Obama, Hoover was successful. The highest marginal income tax rate jumped to 63% from 24% on Jan. 1, 1932. That November, Hoover lost the election to Franklin D. Roosevelt in a landslide. As if Hoover’s tax increases weren’t enough, on Jan. 1, 1936, FDR raised the highest marginal income tax rate to 79% with further rate increases up to 83% coming later. Estate and gift taxes, taxes on retained earnings, state and local taxes were also raised. This is why the Great Depression was the Great Depression—massive deficit spending and tax rate increases.

But that’s a separate issue. The key takeaway from the Laffer/Moore column is that government spending undermines prosperity.

…the most amazing feature of the nearby chart, which is rarely ever noted, is that when spending declined sharply the economy boomed under President Clinton, and when spending soared under Presidents Bush and Obama, the economy tanked.

P.S. For those who appreciated a more humorous look at Obama’s record, here are two amusing cartoons.

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Last week, I jumped into the surreal debate about whether Obama has been the most fiscally conservative president in recent history.

I sliced the historical data from the Office of Management and Budget a couple of ways, showing that overall spending has grown at a relatively slow rate during the Obama years. Adjusted for inflation, both total spending and primary spending (total spending minus interest payments) have been restrained.

So does this make Obama a fiscal conservative?

And how can these numbers make sense when the President saddled the nation with the faux stimulus and Obamacare?

Good questions. It turns out that Obama supposed frugality is largely the result of how TARP is measured in the federal budget. To put it simply, TARP pushed spending up in Bush’s final fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008) and then repayments from the banks (which count as “negative spending”) artificially reduced spending in subsequent years.

The combination of those two factors made a big difference in the numbers. Here’s another table from my prior post, looking at how the presidents rank when you subtract both defense and the fiscal impact of deposit insurance and TARP.

All of a sudden, Obama drops down to the second-to-last position, sandwiched between two of the worst presidents in American history. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

But this ranking is incomplete. At that point, I was trying to gauge Obama’s record on domestic spending, and the numbers certainly provide some evidence that he is a stereotypical big-spending liberal.

But the main debate is about which president was the biggest overall spender. So I’ve run through the numbers again, and here’s a new table looking at the rankings based on average annual changes in inflation-adjusted primary spending, minus the distorting impact of deposit insurance and TARP.

Obama is still in the second-to-last position, but spending is increasing by “only” 5.5 percent per year rather than 7.0 percent annually. This is obviously because defense spending is not growing as fast as domestic spending.

Reagan remains in first place, though his score drops now that his defense buildup is part of the calculations. Clinton, conversely, stays in second place but his score jumps because he benefited from the peace dividend after Reagan’s policies led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Let’s now look at these numbers from a policy perspective. Rahn Curve research shows that government is far too big today, so the goal of fiscal policy should be to restrain the burden of government spending relative to economic output.

This means that policy moves in the right direction when government grows more slowly than the private sector, as it did under Reagan and Clinton.

But if government spending is growing faster than the productive sector of the economy, as has been the case during the Bush-Obama years, then a nation eventually will become Greece.

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A financial columnist named Rex Nutting recently triggered a firestorm of controversy by claiming that Barack Obama is not a big spender.

Here’s the chart he prepared, which certainly seems to indicate that Obama is a fiscal conservative. Not only that, it shows that Republicans generally are the big spenders, while Democrats are frugal with other people’s money.

In some ways, these numbers don’t surprise me. I’ve explained before that Bush bears a lot of blame for the big expansion in the burden of government this century, and I’ve specifically pointed out that he deserves the blame for most of the higher spending from the 2009 fiscal year (which began October 1, 2008).

That being said, Nutting’s numbers seemed a bit nutty. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Nutting’s numbers actually seem accurate, including the fact that he decided that Obama should be responsible for $140 billion of the spending in Bush’s last fiscal year (a number he may have taken from one of my posts).

But sometimes accurate can be misleading, so I decided to dig into the data.

I went to the Historical Tables of the Budget from the Office of Management and Budget, and I calculated all the numbers for every President since LBJ (with the exception of Gerald Ford, whose 2-year reign didn’t seem worth including).

But I corrected a big mistake in Nutting’s analysis. I adjusted the numbers for inflation, using OMB’s GDP deflator.

As you can see, this changes the results. My chart isn’t as pretty, but based on the inflation-adjusted average annual growth of outlays, it shows that Clinton was the most frugal president, followed by the first President Bush and Obama.

With his guns-n-butter Keynesianism, it’s no big surprise that LBJ ranks last. And “W” also gets a very low grade.

But then I figured we should take interest payments out of the budget and focus on inflation-adjusted “primary spending.” After all, Presidents shouldn’t be held responsible for the national debt that existed before they took office.

Looking at these numbers, it turns out that Obama does win the prize for being the most fiscally conservative president in recent memory. Reagan jumps to second place. Clinton is in third place, which won’t surprise people who watched this video, while W and LBJ again are in last place.

But I don’t want my Republican friends to get too angry with me, so let’s expand our analysis. Just as we don’t want to blame Presidents for net interest payments on debt that was accrued before their tenure, perhaps we should make sure they don’t get credit or blame for defense outlays that often are dictated by external events.

There’s obviously room for disagreement, but most people will agree that the Cold War and 9/11 meant higher defense spending, regardless of which party controlled the White House. Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet Empire inevitably meant lower military expenditures, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats were in charge.

So let’s now look at primary spending after subtracting defense outlays (still adjusting for inflation, of course). All of a sudden, Reagan jumps to the top of the list by a comfortable margin. LBJ and W continue to score poorly, but Nixon takes over last place.

But it’s also worth noting that Obama still scores relatively well, beating Clinton for second place. Inflation-adjusted domestic spending (which is mostly what we’re measuring) has grown by 2.0 percent annually during his three years in office.

So does that mean Obama deserves re-election? Well, before you answer, I want to make one final calculation. Just as there are good reasons to exclude interest payments because they’re not something a president can control, we also should take a look at what spending would be if we don’t count the cost of bailouts.

To be sure, these types of expenditures can be controlled, but if we go with the assumption that the federal government was going to re-capitalize the banking system (whether using the good FDIC-resolution approach or the corrupt TARP approach), then it seems that Presidents shouldn’t get arbitrary blame or credit simply because some financial institutions failed during their tenure.

So let’s take the preceding set of numbers and subtract out the long-run numbers for deposit insurance, as well as the TARP outlays since 2009. And keep in mind that repayments of TARP monies (as well as deposit insurance premiums) show up in the budget as “negative spending.”

As you can see, this produces a remarkable result. All of a sudden, Obama drops from second to second-to-last.

This is because there was a lot of TARP spending in Bush’s last fiscal year (FY2009), which created an artificially high benchmark. And then repayments by banks during Obama’s fiscal years counted as negative spending.

When you subtract out the big TARP spending surge, as well as the repayments, then Bush 43 doesn’t look quite as bad (though still worse than Carter and Clinton), while Obama takes a big fall.

In other words, Obama’s track record does show that he favors an expanding social welfare state. Outlays on those programs have jumped by 7.0 percent annually. And that’s after adjusting for inflation! Not as bad as Nixon, but that’s not saying much since he was one of America’s most statist presidents.

Allow me to conclude with some caveats. None of the tables perfectly captures what any president’s fiscal record. Even my first table may be wrong if you want to blame or credit presidents for the inflation that occurs on their watch. And there certainly are strong arguments that bailout spending and defense spending are affected by presidential policies rather than external events.

And keep in mind that presidents don’t have full power over fiscal policy. The folks on Capitol Hill are the ones who actually enact the bills and appropriate the money.

Moreover, the federal government is akin to a big rusty cargo ship that is traveling in a certain direction, and presidents are like tugboats trying to nudge the boat one way or the other.

But enough equivocating. The four different tables at least show more clearly which presidents presided over faster-growing government or slower-growing government. More importantly, the various tables provide a good idea of where most of the new spending was taking place.

We can presumably say Reagan and Clinton were comparatively frugal, and we can also say that Nixon, LBJ, and Bush 43 were relatively profligate. As for Obama, I think his tugboat is pushing in the wrong direction, but it’s only apparent when you strip out the distorting budgetary impact of TARP.

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On this day last year, I posted two charts that I developed using the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank’s interactive website.

Those two charts showed that the current recovery was very weak compared to the boom of the early 1980s.

But perhaps that was an unfair comparison. Maybe the Reagan recovery started strong and then hit a wall. Or maybe the Obama recovery was the economic equivalent of a late bloomer.

So let’s look at the same charts, but add an extra year of data. Does it make a difference?

Meh…not so much.

Let’s start with the GDP data. The comparison is striking. Under Reagan’s policies, the economy skyrocketed.  Heck, the chart prepared by the Minneapolis Fed doesn’t even go high enough to show how well the economy performed during the 1980s.

Under Obama’s policies, by contrast, we’ve just barely gotten back to where we were when the recession began. Unlike past recessions, we haven’t enjoyed a strong bounce. And this means we haven’t recovered the output that was lost during the downturn.

This is a damning indictment of Obamanomics

Indeed, I made this point several months ago when analyzing some work by Nobel laureate Robert Lucas. And it’s been highlighted more recently by James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute and the news pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Unfortunately, the jobs chart is probably even more discouraging. As you can see, employment is still far below where it started.

This is in stark contrast to the jobs boom during the Reagan years.

So what does this mean? How do we measure the human cost of the foregone growth and jobs that haven’t been created?

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, former Senator Phil Gramm and budgetary expert Mike Solon compare the current recovery to the post-war average as well as to what happened under Reagan.

If in this “recovery” our economy had grown and generated jobs at the average rate achieved following the 10 previous postwar recessions, GDP per person would be $4,528 higher and 13.7 million more Americans would be working today. …President Ronald Reagan’s policies ignited a recovery so powerful that if it were being repeated today, real per capita GDP would be $5,694 higher than it is now—an extra $22,776 for a family of four. Some 16.9 million more Americans would have jobs.

By the way, the Gramm-Solon column also addresses the argument that this recovery is anemic because the downturn was caused by a financial crisis. That’s certainly a reasonable argument, but they point out that Reagan had to deal with the damage caused by high inflation, which certainly wreaked havoc with parts of the financial system. They also compare today’s weak recovery to the boom that followed the financial crisis of 1907.

But I want to make a different point. As I’ve written before, Obama is not responsible for the current downturn. Yes, he was a Senator and he was part of the bipartisan consensus for easy money, Fannie/Freddie subsidies, bailout-fueled moral hazard, and a playing field tilted in favor of debt, but his share of the blame wouldn’t even merit an asterisk.

My problem with Obama is that he hasn’t fixed any of the problems. Instead, he has kept in place all of the bad policies – and in some cases made them worse. Indeed, I challenge anyone to identify a meaningful difference between the economic policy of Obama and the economic policy of Bush.

  • Bush increased government spending. Obama has been increasing government spending.
  • Bush adopted Keynesian “stimulus” policies. Obama adopted Keynesian “stimulus” policies.
  • Bush bailed out politically connected companies. Obama has been bailing out politically connected companies.
  • Bush supported the Fed’s easy-money policy. Obama has been supporting the Fed’s easy-money policy.
  • Bush created a new healthcare entitlement. Obama created a new healthcare entitlement.
  • Bush imposed costly new regulations on the financial sector. Obama imposed costly new regulations on the financial sector.

I could continue, but you probably get the  point. On economic issues, the only real difference is that Bush cut taxes and Obama is in favor of higher taxes. Though even that difference is somewhat overblown since Obama’s tax policies – up to this point – haven’t had a big impact on the overall tax burden (though that could change if his plans for higher tax rates ever go into effect).

This is why I always tell people not to pay attention to party labels. Bigger government doesn’t work, regardless of whether a politician is a Republican or Democrat. The problem isn’t Obamanomics, it’s Bushobamanomics. But since that’s a bit awkward, let’s just call it statism.

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The 2012 Index of Economic Freedom has just been released. This is my favorite publication from the Heritage Foundation, and second only to the Economic Freedom of the World Index as a measure of global public policy.

The news scores for 2012 are not pretty. We have bad news, we have worse news, and we have worst news.

Economic Freedom Declines in America

The bad news is that the score for the United States dropped from 77.8 to 76.3, which caused America to drop from 9th place to 10th place in the global rankings.

The worse news is that the U.S. dropped only one spot because other nations also adopted more statist policies. America would be in 12th place if Denmark and Bahrain simply maintained their positions from last year.

The worst news is that America’s decline is not just a one-year phenomenon. The chart shows how the U.S. has dropped from being a “free” nation to being a “mostly free” nation over a four-year period.

But it’s not just the past couple of years. The second chart, using data from the Economic Freedom of the World Index, shows that the United States has declined over the past 11 years thanks to Bush-Obama statism.

In other words, America is paying a real prices for bad government policy. As jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore continue to liberalize their economies and maintain high levels of economic freedom, jobs and investment will leave the United States in search of friendlier policy.

The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that other major economies – especially in Europe – are deteriorating at a faster rate. So America will benefit from flight capital in the short run even though our long-run prospects are equally dismal.

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I’ve been a relentless critic of Obama’s policies of redistributionism, class warfare, and cronyism, so I didn’t feel I had anything new to say after Obama gave what’s being called his “Teddy Roosevelt speech” in Kansas earlier this week.

But David Harsanyi has an insightful column at Reason that is worth sharing. Here’s my favorite passage.

Obama’s mimicking Teddy Roosevelt’s end-of-career hard left turn tells us a lot about the president’s worldview. In his speech in Osawatomie, Kan., Obama dropped almost all pretenses and made the progressive case against an American free market system, which he called “a simple theory…one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government….And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work.” Obama, after all, is such a towering economic mind that in Osawatomie, he once again blamed ATMs (and the Internets) for job losses. This is a man we can trust. “Less productivity! More jobs!”

The only part that of the excerpt that might not be accurate is the jab about Obama’s  “towering economic mind.”

It’s not that I object to insults and name calling, especially if the target is someone who routinely demonizes his opponents and questions their motives.

But I do think there’s another interpretation. Instead of assuming Obama is clueless, might it not be more reasonable to think he simply doesn’t care?

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine you are President and you want to curry favor with special interest groups and buy support from various voting blocs. Wouldn’t that explain a lot of Obama’s policies?

In other words, maybe Obama’s making government bigger in response to the same short-term political pressures that motivated the Bush Administration to make government bigger.

This doesn’t excuse the bad policy, to be sure. It just means politicians do the wrong thing because they are often guided by something other than what’s best for America.

By the way, this is also why I disagree with those who think Obama is trying to deliberately destroy the nation. Why make such a radical assumption? Do you also think Bush was trying to wreck America? Do you think Greek politicians have been trying to cripple their nation? Or French politicians, Spanish politicians, and Japanese politicians?

As a general rule, I think politicians are contemptible, self-serving, corrupt, and hypocritical. But that doesn’t mean they’re stupid and/or deliberately destructive.

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I’ve pointed out on several occasions that Herbert Hoover was a big-spending Keynesian. Heck, Hoover was pursuing failed Keynesian policies several years before Keynes produced his most well-known book, The General Theory.

Hoover’s big spending was so pronounced that it generated this cartoon in 1932.

Sadly, this cartoon applies just as well today.

Except Bush and Obama take the place of Hoover and Roosevelt – with the same dismal results.

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Have you ever tried to run in waist-high water? It’s not easy, but it’s a useful exercise if you want to experience what it’s like to comply with government rules, regulation, paperwork, and red tape. Especially if you want to understand why it’s getting harder for American companies to compete against firms from other nations.

The Wall Street Journal reports on some new numbers released by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The effort needed to comply with federal bureaucracy now has a number. According to new government estimates released this week, Americans spent 8.8 billion hours filling out government forms in fiscal 2010. …In all, the paperwork burden has increased by around 19% over the past decade, up from 7.4 billion hours in fiscal 2000, the White House Office of Management and Budget said.

The article explains that there is plenty of blame to go around, showing that politicians of both parties seem perfectly happy to bury Americans under a mountain of red tape.

Between 2002 and 2005, federal agencies reported significant increases in paperwork demands. Republicans controlled Congress and the White House for almost all that period. In 2005, laws including the Bush administration’s Medicare prescription-drug overhaul, created what is now estimated to be an extra 250 million paperwork hours. At the same time, the biggest single-year jump in the past decade came in 2010, when individuals and businesses spent an extra 352 million hours responding to paperwork requests from agencies prompted by new statutory requirements.

Some of the example will help you understand why the economy is having trouble creating jobs.

Last year, employers needed almost 70 million additional hours to claim a new credit for hiring more workers, and restaurants spent 14.5 million hours to display calorie counts for their menus, according to figures submitted to OMB by the departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services. In fact, the Treasury was the source of most of the paperwork burden in 2010, hitting 6.4 billion hours, or 73%. …The winner of the largest year-on-year increase was the Securities and Exchange Commission, which decided it actually took twice as long to complete its forms than it previously thought, upping its estimates to 361 million hours from 168 million. A spokesman declined to comment.

The real cost of all this regulation is measured in lost economic output, jobs not created, and mandated inefficiency. According to the Small Business Administration, that amounts to a whopping $1.75 trillion per year.

But if you just want to measure the cost of the man-hours required, the Administration has an estimate.

The OMB said it hadn’t attempted to put a financial cost on the paperwork requests, but noted in its report that “it is clear that the monetary equivalent would be very high. For example, if each hour is valued at $20, the monetary equivalent would be $176 billion.”

Considering much of the compliance burden falls on the business community, the $20 per-hour figure is obviously way too low.

But whatever the actual total, remember that the man-hours are just one small slice of the burden.

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The 2011 edition of Economic Freedom of the World, published by Canada’s Fraser Institute (with help from groups like Cato), has been released.

Covering data through 2009, the new report provides damning evidence of the negative impact of the Bush-Obama policies of bigger government and more intervention.

Here’s a relevant passage from the Executive Summary.

The world’s largest economy, the United States, has suffered one of the largest declines in economic freedom over the last 10 years, pushing it into tenth place. Much of this decline is a result of higher government spending and borrowing and lower scores for the legal structure and property rights components. Over the longer term, the summary chain-linked ratings of Venezuela, Zimbabwe, United States, and Malaysia fell by eight-tenths of a point or more between 1990 and 2009, causing their rankings to slip.

This chart, taken directly from the book, shows how the United States has been of the world’s five-worst performers over the past decade, putting America in a very unfortunate category.

The previous chart shows the decline in America’s absolute ranking. And here’s a chart I created showing how the United States has declined relative to other nations. Simply stated, America is on the verge of falling out of the top 10, after being the 3rd-freest economy in the world at the end of the Clinton Administration.

Thanks George and Barack.

By the way, Hong Kong and Singapore are the top two nations, where they’ve ranked for quite some time. Here is the full top-10 list.

1. Hong Kong

2. Singapore

3. New Zealand

4. Switzerland

5. Australia

6. Canada

7. Chile

8. United Kingdom

9. Mauritius

10. United States

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Congressman Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, has a rather persuasive column in the Washington Post about the negative impact of President Obama’s big-government agenda.

… the Obama administration’s anti-business, hyper-regulatory, pro-tax agenda has fueled economic uncertainty and sent the message from the administration that “we want to make it harder to create jobs.” There is no other conclusion for policies such as the new Environmental Protection Agency regulations, including the “Transport Rule,” which could eliminate thousands of jobs, or the ozone regulation that would cost upward of $1 trillion and millions of jobs in the construction industry over the next decade. The administration’s new maximum achievable control technology standards for cement are expected to affect nearly 100 cement plants, setting over-the-top requirements resulting in increased costs and possibly thousands of jobs being offshored. There is the president’s silence as the National Labor Relations Board seeks to prevent Boeing from opening a plant in South Carolina that would create thousands of jobs. Such behavior, coupled with the president’s insistence on raising the top tax rate paid by individuals and small businesses, has resulted in a lag in growth that has added to the debt crisis, contributing to our nation’s credit downgrade.

The Congressman’s criticisms certainly are substantive and accurate, but I can’t help but wonder why he didn’t write this column years ago. Or, more important, why didn’t he object to big government when Bush was in the White House.

And, most important, why did he vote for all the wasteful spending and increased regulation of the Bush years. Such as:

Congressman Cantor voted for the no-bureaucrats-left-behind bill that further centralized education.

He voted for the Sarbanes-Oxley regulatory regime that dramatically raised the cost of red tape and drove business out of America.

He voted for the Medicare prescription drug entitlement that did more to increase long-term debt than Obamacare.

And he voted for the TARP bailout, exacerbating moral hazard and facilitating the corrupt mix of Wall Street and Washington.

I’m not trying to pick on Cantor. Most other GOPers were equally guilty of going along with big-government conservatism.

And I actually give Cantor a bit of credit for acknowledging that Republicans bear some of the blame for the current mess. The second sentence of his column refers to “decades of fiscal mismanagement by both political parties.”

All I’m really saying is that big government is the wrong approach, regardless of which party is in charge.

So while I’m glad Republicans are opposing Obama’s statist agenda, they would have more credibility if they also had opposed Bush’s statist agenda.

But the real purpose of this post is to wonder what will happen if we somehow wind up with a President Romney. Will congressional Republicans continue to do the right thing and oppose big government?

Or will they once again decide that the Washington cesspool is really a hot tub and join with Romney in making government even bigger and more wasteful? The experience of the Bush years does not give me much cause for optimism.

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It was a strange experience to read the comments and emails generated by yesterday’s post on the “Obama downgrade.”

Democrats and liberals were upset that I blamed Obama for the downgrade, as you might expect. Republicans and conservatives, however, were agitated that my first sentence pointed out that Bush bore significant responsibility for the spending binge that created the fiscal crisis.

This got me thinking about the underlying causes of America’s long-term fiscal problems and whether it might be possible to come up with some sort of reasonable estimate on which Presidents are most responsible for fiscal crisis.

So I decided to look at the most recent long-run forecast from the Congressional Budget Office. As you might suspect, entitlement programs are THE reason why the United States is in deep trouble.

What does this allow us to say about various presidents? Well, it turns out that Social Security is a relatively minor part of the problem, so even though President Roosevelt’s policies exacerbated and extended the Great Depression, the program he created is only responsible for a small share of the fiscal crisis. To give the illusion of scientific exactitude, let’s assign FDR 13.2 percent of the blame.

The health care numbers are much harder to disentangle because it’s not apparent how much of the increase is due to Medicare, Medicaid, Bush’s prescription drug entitlement, and Obamacare. A healthcare policy wonk may know these numbers, but the CBO long-run forecast didn’t provide much detail.

So with a big caveat that these are just wild estimations, I feel reasonably comfortable in saying that both Bush and Obama made matters worse with their reckless entitlement expansions, but that they merely deepened a fiscal hole that was created when President Johnson imposed Medicare and Medicaid.

With that in mind (and ignoring, for the sake of simplicity, the role of other Presidents – such as Nixon – who expanded the size and scope of health entitlements), here is my ranking of presidential responsibility for America’s fiscal decline.

This does not mean, however, that it was unfair yesterday to apply the “Obama Downgrade” label.

In part, he is responsible because the downgrade from Standard & Poor happened on his watch. But the real reason he earned that label is that he doubled down on the reckless policies of his predecessors and demagogued against lawmakers such as Cong. Paul Ryan who actually have tried to solve the problem.

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I don’t have my finger on the pulse of black America, and I don’t pretend to understand the emotional and symbolic value of a black President to the African-American community.

But I do know that the big-government policies of the Obama Administration have not been good news for blacks. Here’s an excerpt from a new Associated Press story about the growing wealth gap between white and black America.

The wealth gaps between whites and minorities have grown to their widest levels in a quarter-century. The recession and uneven recovery have erased decades of minority gains, leaving whites on average with 20 times the net worth of blacks and 18 times that of Hispanics, according to an analysis of new Census data. The analysis shows the racial and ethnic impact of the economic meltdown, which ravaged housing values and sent unemployment soaring.

To be fair, the numbers started turning in the wrong direction under Bush, and Obama is right when he says he inherited a bad situation. On the other hand, Obama has continued the big-government and interventionist policies of his predecessor, so it’s not clear that this is much of an excuse.

The unemployment data also shows bad news for blacks. This chart uses data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and it shows unemployment among African-Americans has nearly doubled in recent years.

Once again, it’s worth pointing out that the numbers were heading in the wrong direction as Obama took office. But as I note above, I’m not sure that matters since Obama has continued Bush’s approach of higher spending and more intervention. But even if you can’t accept that analysis because you’re a partisan Democrat or Republican, all that really matters is that the black unemployment rate has increased dramatically and is now stubbornly high.

The moral of the story, needless to say, is that free markets and small government are the right policies. That’s the best approach to improve living standards for all Americans.

But lower-income Americans are especially vulnerable to economic fragility, so better economic performance disproportionately helps people on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

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I’ve pointed out on several occasions that the burden of federal spending fell significantly during the Clinton years. Indeed, if we did nothing other than bring federal spending back down to 18.2 percent of GDP (where it was when Clinton left office), we’d have a budget surplus before the end of the decade (even with all the tax cuts made permanent).

Here’s a debate from a couple of months ago, but the issues haven’t changed. I debate Pat Choate (the 1996 running-mate of Ross Perot) about fiscal policy. I explain that spending is the problem and we could solve that problem by unwinding all the counterproductive spending of the Bush-Obama years.

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There’s an interesting debate in the blogosphere about whether President George W. Bush was a conservative (here’s a good summary of the discussion, along with lots of links, though I especially like this analysis since it cites my work.).

I’ve already explained that Bush was a statist rather than a conservative, and you can find additional commentary from me here, here, here, and here.

Simply stated, any President who doubles the burden of federal spending in just eight years is disqualified from being a conservative – unless the term is stripped of any meaning and conservatives no longer care about limited government and constitutional constraints on Washington.

But if you don’t want to read the blog posts I linked above, this chart should make clear that Bush was a big spender, not only when compared to Reagan, but also compared to Clinton. Moreover, we’re only looking at overall domestic spending, so this doesn’t include Iraq, Afghanistan, and other defense expenditures. And these are inflation-adjusted dollars, so we’re comparing apples to apples.

But let’s also examine the burden of domestic spending as a share of GDP. As you can see, there actually was progress during the Clinton years, and significant progress during the Reagan years. But all that was completely wiped out during the Bush presidency.

These numbers should not be a surprise. During Bush’s tenure, we got the no-bureaucrat-left-behind education bill, two corrupt farm bills, a new prescription drug entitlement, two pork-filled transportation bills, an auto company bailout, and a TARP bailout for banks.

This was a time of feasting for special interest groups and lobbyists, to put it mildly.

If that’s conservative, then Ronald Reagan was a liberal.

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America faces a fiscal crisis. The burden of federal spending has doubled during the Bush-Obama years, a $2 trillion increase in just 10 years. But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs, the federal budget is going to consume larger and larger shares of America’s economic output in coming decades.

For all intents and purposes, the United States appears doomed to become a bankrupt welfare state like Greece.

But we can save ourselves. A previous video showed how both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton achieved positive fiscal changes by limiting the growth of federal spending, with particular emphasis on reductions in the burden of domestic spending. This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity provides examples from other nations to show that good fiscal policy is possible if politicians simply limit the growth of government.

These success stories from Canada, Ireland, Slovakia, and New Zealand share one common characteristic. By freezing or sharply constraining the growth of government outlays, nations were able to rapidly shrinking the economic burden of government, as measured by comparing the size of the budget to overall economic output.

Ireland and New Zealand actually froze spending for multi-year periods, while Canada and Slovakia limited annual spending increases to about 1 percent. By comparison, government spending during the Bush-Obama years has increased by an average of more than 7-1/2 percent. And the burden of domestic spending has exploded during the Bush-Obama years, especially compared to the fiscal discipline of the Reagan years. No wonder the United States is in fiscal trouble.

Heck, even Bill Clinton looks pretty good compared to the miserable fiscal policy of the past 10 years.

The moral of the story is that limiting the growth of spending works. There’s no need for miracles. If politicians act responsibly and restrain spending, that allows the private sector to grow faster than the burden of government. That’s the definition of good fiscal policy. The new video above shows that other nations have been very successful with that approach. And here’s the video showing how Reagan and Clinton limited spending in America.

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Since February is the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth and I still haven’t gotten over my man-crush on the Gipper, I figured it would be interesting to look at Reagan’s fiscal record, particularly to see whether he was successful in restraining the growth of domestic spending.

There is lots of good information in the Historical Tables of the Budget, which is produced by the Office of Management and Budget. I was particularly fascinated by the data on inflation-adjusted total domestic spending (discretionary and entitlements), which can be obtained by adding columns E and H of Table 8.2.

As you can see in this chart, Reagan managed to limit average domestic spending increases to less than one percent per year. These figures, which are adjusted for inflation, show that spending has grown more than five times as rapidly during the Bush-Obama years.

The comparison is even more dramatic if we examine the average annual increase in inflation-adjusted domestic spending. In other words, we’re looking at how much spending increased each year, not the percentage change. During the Reagan years, overall domestic spending grew less than $10 billion per year, while spending has soared more than $100 billion per year during the Bush-Obama era. Remember that we’re using inflation-adjusted dollars, so this is an apples-to-apples comparison.

The final chart maps annual domestic spending (in constant 2005 dollars) for Reagan’s eight fiscal years on the right vertical axis and the 10 fiscal years of Bush-Obama on the left vertical axis. Two things stand out. First, the bailout dramatically affected outlays in recent years, both because of a huge jump in fiscal year 2009 and an artificial dampening in the past two years (because repayments from banks and other bailed-out institutions count as “negative spending” rather than revenues).

Second, you can’t blame the poor record of Bush and Obama on bailouts. The chart axes are designed to give a similar starting point for Reagan’s spending and Bush-Obama spending, and it is obvious that Bush’s approach of so-called compassionate conservatism meant a bigger and more wasteful budget for domestic spending. Obama promised hope and change, of course, but he grabbed the big-spending baton from Bush and continued in the same direction, though TARP payments and repayments make it more challenging to discern the precise impact of the “stimulus” and other Obama initiatives (Tables 8.6 and 8.8 of the Historical Tables have program-by-program data for those who want the gory details).

Last but not least, don’t forget that FY2009 began October 1, 2008, nearly four months before Obama took office, and the bad numbers for that fiscal year generally should be attributed to Bush. Yes, Obama added to FY2009 spending with an omnibus appropriations bill and the faux stimulus, but I’ve estimated that 96 percent of that year’s spending was the result of Bush Administration decisions.

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President Obama unveiled his fiscal year 2012 budget today, and there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that there’s no major initiative such as the so-called stimulus scheme or the government-run healthcare proposal. The bad news, though, is that government is far too big and Obama’s budget does nothing to address this problem.

But perhaps the folks on Capitol Hill will be more responsible and actually try to save America from becoming a big-government, European-style welfare state. The solution may not be easy, but it is simple. Lawmakers merely need to restrain the growth of government spending so that it grows slower than the private economy.

Actual spending cuts would be the best option, of course, but limiting the growth of spending is all that’s needed to slowly shrink the burden of government spending relative to gross domestic product.

Fortunately, we have two role models from recent history that show it is possible to control the federal budget. This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity uses data from the Historical Tables of the Budget to demonstrate the fiscal policy achievements of both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Some people will want to argue about who gets credit for the good fiscal policy of the 1980s and 1990s.

Bill Clinton’s performance, for instance, may not have been so impressive if he had succeeded in pushing through his version of government-run healthcare or if he didn’t have to deal with a Republican Congress after the 1994 elections. But that’s a debate for partisans. All that matters is that the burden of government spending fell during Bill Clinton’s reign, and that was good for the budget and good for the economy. And there’s no question he did a much better job than George W. Bush.

Indeed, a major theme in this new video is that the past 10 years have been a fiscal disaster. Both Bush and Obama have dramatically boosted the burden of government spending – largely because of rapid increases in domestic spending.

This is one of the reasons why the economy is weak. For further information, this video looks at the theoretical case for small government and this video examines the empirical evidence against big government.

Another problem is that many people in Washington are fixated on deficits and debt, but that’s akin to focusing on symptoms and ignoring the underlying disease. To elaborate, this video explains that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending rather than too much debt.

Last but not least, this video reviews the theory and evidence for the “Rahn Curve,” which is the notion that there is a growth-maximizing level of government outlays. The bad news is that government already is far too big in the United States. This is undermining prosperity and reducing competitiveness.

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Somebody emailed me this t-shirt. Rather amusing, but fairness requires me to suggest two changes, as explained underneath.

First, the writing on the t-shirt should be expanded to state “January 20, 2001-January 20, 2013.” In other words, people who dislike Obama’s reflexive statism should be just as disappointed and upset about what Bush did to make government bigger as they are about what Obama is doing to make government bigger.

Second, the t-shirt should include “…and the start of another” as a disclaimer since the GOPers jockeying for the 2012 nomination seem to be a dismal gaggle of big-government types who will continue the bad policies of Bush and Obama.

Other than that, a great t-shirt!

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Gallup just released a poll showing that 46 percent of Americans view the federal government as an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary Americans. My first reaction was to wonder why the number was so low. After all, we have a political elite that wants to do everything from control our health care to monitor our financial transactions.

But a secondary set of numbers is even more remarkable. As seen in this chart, both Republicans and Democrats tend to view the federal government as a threat mostly when the White House is controlled by the other party.

This complacency is very unfortunate. Republicans presumably want to limit government control over the economy, yet it was the Bush Administration that put in place policies such as Sarbanes-Oxley, the banana-republic TARP bailout, the corrupt farm bills, and the pork-filled transportation bills. Democrats, meanwhile, presumably want to protect our civil liberties, yet the Obama Administration has left in place virtually all of the Bush policies that the left was upset about just two years ago. There has been no effort to undo the more troublesome provisions of the PATRIOT Act. And shouldn’t honest liberals be upset that the Obama Administration is going to such lengths to defend the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy?

The lesson to be learned is that there is an unfortunate tendency for politicians to misbehave when they get control of the machinery of government. Lord Acton warned that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s almost as if Republicans and Democrats do their best every day to confirm this statement.

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Jonah Goldberg writes in National Review that President Obama is beginning to look like the next Herbert Hoover. This is rather ironic since the left wanted him to become the next Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ushering in a new era of politically-popular statism.
…the Great Depression discredited laissez-faire economics for a generation or more. Hoover, who was hardly the “market fundamentalist” FDR made him out to be, suffered largely from the (bad) luck of the draw, giving Democrats a chance to argue for a new deal of the cards. For reasons fair and unfair, Obama, who inherited a bad recession and made it worse, every day looks more like a modern-day Hoover, whining about his problems, rather than an FDR cheerily getting things done. Inadequate to the task, Obama is discrediting the statism he was elected to restore. 
Jonah makes a compelling case, particularly from a political perspective. But if we look just at economic policy, the Obama-as-FDR analogy is more accurate. Hoover was a big-government interventionist with failed policies. That’s a pretty good description of Bush. FDR got elected in 1932 by promising to fix the mess, which is akin to Obama’s hope and change message in 2008. And, just like FDR, Obama then continued the big-government interventionist policies of his predecessor. The only difference is that Roosevelt somehow was able to remain popular even though his policies kept the nation mired in depression for another decade. Obama, by contrast, is veering dangerously close to becoming another Jimmy Carter. Tom Sowell has some key details about the timing and impact of the Hoover-Roosevelt policies.
The history of the United States is full of evidence on the negative effects of government intervention. For the first 150 years of this country’s existence, the federal government did not think it was its business to intervene when the economy turned down. All of those downturns ended faster than the first downturn where the federal government intervened big time– the Great Depression of the 1930s. …if you look at the facts, they go like this: Unemployment never hit double digits in any of the 12 months following the big stock market crash of 1929 that is often blamed for the massive unemployment of the 1930s. Unemployment peaked at 9 percent, two months after the October 1929 crash, and then began drifting downward. Unemployment was down to 6.3 percent by June 1930, when the first big federal intervention occurred. Within six months, the downward trend in unemployment reversed and hit double digits for the first time in December 1930. What were politicians to do? Say “We messed up”? Or keep trying one huge intervention after another? The record shows what they did: President Hoover’s interventions were followed by President Roosevelt’s bigger interventions– and unemployment remained in double digits in every month for the entire remainder of the decade. There is another set of facts: The record that was set in 1929 for the biggest stock market decline in one day was broken in 1987. But Ronald Reagan did nothing– and the media clobbered him for it. Then the economy rebounded and there were 20 years of sustained economic growth with low inflation and low unemployment. Can you imagine Barack Obama doing another Ronald Reagan?

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After being in 1st place in 2007 and 2008, America dropped behind Switzerland in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report in 2009. The 2010 ranking was just released, and the United States has tumbled two more spots to 4th place, behind Switzerland, Sweden, and Singapore. I’m not a complete fan of the World Economic Forum’s methodology (the Economic Freedom of the World rankings are the best measure of sound economic policy), but it’s almost surely a bad sign when a country moves down in the rankings.  The timing of the fall will lead some to blame Barack Obama, and I certainly agree that his policies are making America less competitive, but Bush also deserves blame for increasing the burden of government and compromising America’s economic vitality. Here’s a blurb from the Associated Press.
The U.S. has slipped down the ranks of competitive economies, falling behind Sweden and Singapore due to huge deficits and pessimism about government, a global economic group said Thursday. Switzerland retained the top spot for the second year in the annual ranking by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum. It combines economic data and a survey of more than 13,500 business executives. Sweden moved up to second place while Singapore stayed at No. 3. The United States was in second place last year after falling from No. 1 in 2008.

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If you saw the Wall-E movie, you may remember how people morphed into helpless blobs because all their needs were being fulfilled by something called BNL. I realize I’m a quirky libertarian, but the movie made me think about how excessive government is doing something similar to people who get seduced by dependency.

This was one of the topics covered in my recent interview on Fox News with Neil Cavuto. We began by talking about America’s unfortunate drift in the direction of being a nanny state, but also covered other fiscal and economic issues.

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I don’t agree with all the points in this column from Real Clear Markets, but I fully agree with the overall theme that the GOP would be wise to cut Bush out of the Party’s history. Like Nixon, he was a failed, big-government statist.

The sour economy is presenting Republicans with a golden opportunity to retake both houses of Congress. The Democrats will try to defend their seats by attacking Bush’s record on the economy. Republican candidates should counter this move by acknowledging the economic errors made during the Bush years. This will help restore the credibility of the Republican brand with respect to the economy and free up the candidates to move on to what really matters-the future. …Was Bush 43 the worst post-1952 president in terms of the economy? No, he was the second-worst. Jimmy Carter managed to drive the Real Dow down by 78% in just four years, 1976-1980. If considered as one presidency, Nixon/Ford was the third-worst… So, what were the mistakes that made Bush 43 the second-worst president since 1952 with respect to the economy? The biggest single economic error Bush made was his “weak dollar” policy. While the president has no direct control over monetary policy, it is said that a president always gets the monetary policy he wants. Bush (and his Treasury Secretaries) wanted a weak dollar, and they got one. The dollar lost 69% of its value against gold during the Bush years. This accounted for almost 80% of the decline in the Real Dow during his presidency. The unstable dollar during the Bush years was the root cause of the financial crisis of 2008. The dollar fell almost continuously during the first seven years of his term. By February 2008, it had lost 72% of its value. …The third biggest economic error under Bush was the design of the 2001 tax cuts, which phased in the reductions in the top income tax rate over 5 years. As we learned in 1981-1982, phased-in tax cuts guarantee economic sluggishness, because people defer income until the lower rates take effect. The result was a “jobless recovery”, slow growth, and escalating deficits. The 2001 tax cuts also wasted $58 billion on futile Keynesian “stimulus”, an error that Bush was to repeat in 2008. If Bush had gotten his 2001 tax cuts right, and economic growth in fiscal years 2002 and 2003 had averaged 3.5% instead of 1.6%, the “Bush deficits” would have peaked at 2.5% of GDP in FY2004, rather than at 3.5%. A continuation of 3.5% real growth would have put the budget in surplus by FY2007, despite the massive spending. …Because the Democrats have “doubled down” on Bush’s economic errors, Democrat-held House and Senate seats are ripe for the picking. During the first 18 months of the Obama administration (i.e., through June, 2010), the Real Dow fell by another 11% to 7.86, which was the level of June 1952. After 16 months of massive government “stimulus”, total employment in June 2010 was 6.0 million below what the administration predicted it would be if the stimulus bill passed, and 3.2 million lower than they said it would be if the stimulus bill didn’t pass. If the labor force participation rate had not unexpectedly declined, June’s unemployment rate would have been reported at 11%.

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