Posts Tagged ‘Deficit’

Libertarians tend to like – or at least have a grudging respect for – the underground economy.

For instance, even if we’re personally very straight-laced, we don’t like government prohibitions against gambling, drugs, and prostitution. This is why we’re not upset when these things happen in spite of the laws enacted by the political class.

But this isn’t just about victimless crimes. We also dislike high taxes, so you won’t find libertarians shedding many tears when we read about tax avoidance and tax evasion in nations (such as France and Greece) with punitive tax systems.

Politicians tend to have a different perspective. They generally get very upset if we’re not following their societal diktats and acquiescing to their fiscal demands.

But now we’re suddenly seeing that some politicians have a new-found appreciation for the underground economy.

The New York Times reports that European nations want to add these activities to their estimates of GDP.

As of September, all European Union countries will be required to take fuller accounting of trade in sex, drugs and other underground businesses as part of an overhaul of economic measurements by Eurostat, the European statistics agency. The point of counting everything, including the wages of sin, is to get a more accurate reading of each country’s gross domestic product.

Sounds reasonable, right? Who objects, after all, to more accurate numbers?

But it’s always good to be suspicious of governments.

And why is suspicion warranted in this case? Well, it appears that this effort to re-measure GDP may give politicians more ability to spend.

With European Union governments obliged to reduce debt as a percentage of their economies, the changes are also expected to make growth rates from Spain to Sweden look better, possibly also making debt ratios seem rosier. …In Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, …G.D.P. could increase by as much as 2 percent, Eurostat estimates, while Germany and France could see expansions of as much as 3 percent. Britain might show a gain of 3 to 4 percent, Eurostat said.

To elaborate, there are “Maastricht rules” in the European Union that (at least in theory) obligate governments to keep deficits from rising about 3 percent of GDP and to keep debt from climbing above 60 percent of GDP.

So if politicians and bureaucrats can figure out ways to make GDP appear bigger, that means they can have more red ink. Which means, of course, that they can spend more money.

So now it should be abundantly clear why governments have an incentive to add the underground economy to their GDP estimates.

But there’s one little problem with this approach. The whole purpose of the Maastricht rules was to keep nations from spending themselves into a fiscal crisis. The rules obviously didn’t work very well (perhaps because they focused on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much government spending), but there presumably would have been even more profligacy if they didn’t exist.

So what’s the point of adding the underground economy to GDP when that simply gives politicians more leeway to spend?

Indeed, the NYT article notes that some of the bean-counting bureaucracies in Europe are concerned that this new approach won’t work because there won’t be any new tax revenue to accompany the new spending.

Statistics agencies, though, say that whatever the improved ratios, debt will not be easier to service, because governments cannot collect taxes from illegal underground activity.

And just in case you don’t trust the New York Times, here’s a blurb from Money News making the same point.

No country is supposed to let their annual deficits exceed 3 percent of GDP or accumulated debt exceed 60 percent of GDP. Countries that don’t comply with the debt limits are to be penalized — 0.2 percent of GDP, plus a “variable component” that can range up to 0.5 percent of GDP annually as long as the breach continues. Boosting GDP helps lower the debt ratio.

The bottom line is that these changes will enable Europe’s politicians to postpone much-needed fiscal discipline.

In other words, they’ll have the ability to spend themselves deeper into a hole.

And as you can see from these sobering IMF, OECD, and BIS estimates, the hole is already enormous.

Not that America is any different. Our economy may be doing better (or less worse) today, but our future fiscal outlook is worse than many other nations thanks to a combination of poorly designed entitlement programs and changing demographics.

And just as is the case for Europe, counting our underground economy would not be a substitute for the reforms needed to save the nation.

Read Full Post »

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.


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.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

So how do we deal with this problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden Rule Examples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swedish Fiscal Restraint

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

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

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

Real progress.

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

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

Swedish Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Europe Heaven Hell

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

Read Full Post »

Germany isn’t exactly a fiscal role model.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

German Fiscal Restraint

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

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

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

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

German Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

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

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

That’s the good news.

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

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

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

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

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

The Canadian example is particularly impressive.

Read Full Post »

Self awareness is supposed to be a good thing, so I’m going to openly acknowledge that I have an unusual fixation on the size of government.

I don’t lose a wink of sleep thinking about deficits, but I toss and turn all night fretting about the overall burden of government spending.

My peculiar focus on the size and scope of government can be seen in this video, which explains that spending is the disease and deficits are just a symptom.

Moreover, my Golden Rule explicitly targets the spending side of the budget. And I also came up with a “Bob Dole Award” to mock those who mistakenly dwell on deficits.

With all this as background, you’ll understand why I got excited when I started reading Robert Samuelson’s column in today’s Washington Post.

Well, there’s a presidential whopper. Obama is right that the role of the federal government deserves an important debate, but he is wrong when he says that we’ve had that debate. Just the opposite: The White House and Congress have spent the past five years evading the debate. They’ve argued over federal budget deficits without addressing the underlying issues of what the government should do, what programs are unneeded, whether some beneficiaries are undeserving… The avoidance is entirely bipartisan. Congressional Republicans have been just as allergic to genuine debate as the White House and its Democratic congressional allies.

By the way, I have mixed feelings about the final sentence in that excerpt. Yes, Republicans oftentimes have displayed grotesque levels of fiscal irresponsibility. Heck, just look at the new farm bill. Or the vote on the Export-Import Bank. Or the vote on housing subsidies. Or…well, you get the point.

On the other hand, GOPers have voted for three consecutive years in favor of a budget that restrains the growth of federal spending, in large part because it includes much-needed reforms to major entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

But Republican inconsistency isn’t our focus today.

I want to address other parts of Samuelson’s column that left a bad taste in my mouth.

He argues that you can’t balance the budget merely by cutting discretionary programs. That’s technically untrue, but it’s an accurate assessment of political reality.

I’m much more worried about his assertion that you can’t balance the budget even if entitlement spending also is being addressed.

Let’s look at what he wrote and then I’ll explain why he’s wrong.

Eliminating many programs that are arguably marginal — Amtrak, subsidies for public broadcasting and the like — would not produce enough savings to balance the budget. The reason: Spending on Social Security, Medicare and other health programs… But even plausible benefit trims for affluent retirees would still leave deficits. There would still be a need for tax increases.

This is wrong. Not just wrong, but demonstrably inaccurate.

The Ryan budget, for instance, balanced the budget in 2023. Without a single penny of tax hikes.

Senator Rand Paul and the Republican Study Committee also have produced balanced budget plans. Even as scored by the statists at the Congressional Budget Office.

By the way, you don’t even need to cut spending to balance the budget. Spending cuts would be desirable, of course, but the key to eliminating red ink is simply making sure that government spending climbs at a slower rate than revenues.

And since revenues are expected to grow by about 6 percent per year, it shouldn’t take advanced knowledge of mathematics to realize that the deficit will fall if spending grows by less than 6 percent annually.

Indeed, we could balance the budget as early as 2018 if spending merely was restrained so that the budget grew at the rate of inflation.

But never forget that the goal of fiscal policy should be shrinking the size and scope of the federal government, not fiscal balance.

Ask yourself the following questions. If $1 trillion floated down from Heaven and into the hands of the IRS, would that alter in any way the argument for getting rid of wasteful and corrupt parts of the federal leviathan, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development?

If the politicians had all that extra money and the budget was balanced, would that mean we could – or should – forget about entitlement reform?

If there was no red ink, would that negate the moral and economic imperative of ending the welfare state?

In other words, the first part of Samuelson’s column is right. We need a debate about “the underlying issues of what the government should do, what programs are unneeded, whether some beneficiaries are undeserving.”

But we’re not going to come up with a good answer if we don’t understand basic fiscal facts.

Read Full Post »

Keynesian economics is the perpetual motion machine of the left. You build a model that assumes government spending is good for the economy and you assume that there are zero costs when the government diverts money from the private sector.

With that type of model, you then automatically generate predictions that bigger government will “stimulate’ growth and create jobs. Heck, sometimes you even admit that you don’t look at real world numbers.

Which perhaps explains why Keynesian economics has a long track record of failure. It didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. It didn’t work for Nixon, Ford, and Carter in the 1970s. It didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. And it hasn’t worked this century for either Bush or Obama.

But politicians love Keynesian theory because it tells them that their vice is a virtue. They’re not buying votes with other people’s money, they’re “stimulating” the economy!

Given this background, you won’t be surprised to learn that Keynesians are now arguing that the recent partial government shutdown hurt growth.

Here’s some of what Standard and Poor’s wrote about that fight and why the shutdown supposedly reduced economic output, along with their warning of economic cataclysm if politicians had been forced to balance the budget in the absence of an increase in the debt ceiling.

…the shutdown has shaved at least 0.6% off of annualized fourth-quarter 2013 GDP growth, or taken $24 billion out of the economy. …the resulting sudden, unplanned contraction of current spending could see government spending cut by about 4% of annualized GDP. That would put the economy in a recession and wipeout much of the economic progress made by the recovery from the Great Recession. …The bottom line is the government shutdown has hurt the U.S. economy.

Part of me wonders whether the bottom line is that S&P was simply looking for an excuse for having made a flawed economic prediction earlier in the year. They basically admit they goofed (though, to be fair, all economists are lousy forecasters), as you can see from this excerpt, but we’re supposed to blame the lower GDP number on insufficient government spending.

In September, we expected 3% annualized growth in the fourth quarter… Since our forecast didn’t hold, we now have to lower our fourth-quarter growth estimate to closer to 2%.

Unsurprisingly, the Obama Administration has been highlighting S&P’s analysis.

A number of private sector analyses have estimated that the shutdown reduced the annualized growth rate of GDP in the fourth quarter by anywhere from 0.2 percentage point (as estimated by JP Morgan) to 0.6 percentage point (as estimated by Standard and Poor’s)… Most of the private sector analyses are based on models that predict the impact of the shutdown based on the reduction in government services over that period.

And the establishment press predictably carried water for the White House, echoing the S&P number. Here’s an example from Time magazine.

The financial services company said the shutdown, which ended with a deal late Wednesday night after 16 days, took $24 billion out of the U.S. economy, and reduced projected fourth-quarter GDP growth from 3 percent to 2.4 percent.

If nothing else, this is a good example of how a number gets concocted and becomes part of the public policy discussion.

Let’s take a step back,however, and analyze whether that $24 billion number has any merit.

The Keynesian interpretation is that the shutdown took money “out of the economy.” According to the theory, money apparently disappears if government doesn’t spend it.

In reality, though, less government spending means that more funds are available in credit markets for private spending. This video explains why Keynesian theory is misguided.

And if you want to dig further into the issue, you can click here for a video that explains why we might get better decisions if policy makers focused on how we earn income rather than how we allocate income.

Now that I’ve shared the basic arguments against Keynesian economics, let me give two caveats.

First, resources don’t get instantaneously reallocated when the burden of government spending is reduced. So I’ve always been willing to admit there could be a few speed bumps as some additional labor and capital get absorbed into the productive sector of the economy.

Second, a nation can artificially enjoy more consumption for a period of time by borrowing from overseas. So if deficit spending is financed to a degree by foreigners, overall spending in the economy will be higher and people will feel more prosperous.

But these caveats aren’t arguments for more spending. The ongoing damage of counterproductive government outlays is much larger and more serious than the transitory costs of redeploying resources when spending is reduced. And overseas borrowing at best creates illusory growth that will be more than offset when the bills come due.

Ultimately, the real-world evidence is probably the clincher for most people. As noted above, it’s hard to find a successful example of Keynesian spending.

Yet we have good evidence of nations growing faster when government outlays are being controlled, including Canada in the 1990s and the United States during both the Reagan years and Clinton years.

And the Baltic nations imposed genuine spending cuts and are now doing much better than other European countries that relied on either Keynesian spending or the tax-hike version of austerity.

P.S. Here’s a funny video on Keynesian Christmas carols. And everyone should watch the famous Hayek v Keynes rap video, as well as its equally clever sequel.

P.P.S. Switching to another topic, we have an encouraging update to the post I wrote last year about an Australian bureaucrat who won a court decision for employment compensation after injuring herself during sex while on an out-of-town trip. Showing some common sense, the Australian High Court just ruled 4-1 to strike down that award.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

If this blog was an episode of Jeopardy, the response to the title of this post would be “Name three things that Dan Mitchell doesn’t like.”

But this blog isn’t a game show. It’s a serious forum* for discussing how we protect freedom and prosperity from ever-expanding government.

That’s why, in this interview with John Stossel, I reiterate my mantra that government spending is the problem and that deficits and debt are symptoms of the problem.

I usually use the analogy that government spending is a brain tumor and red ink is the headache caused by the tumor when seeking to help people understand that it’s important to focus on the disease and not the symptom. But to show that I’m not just a single-analogy kind of guy, this time I said that government spending was like lung cancer and that deficits are akin to the resulting cough.

I also concocted an analogy about government goodies being akin to heroin. If you’re an addict, it may feel good to put more junk in your veins, but you’ll be much better off if you endure the short-run discomfort of going clean. Just as it may cause angst among interest groups if we stop the federal gravy train, but they’ll be better off in the long run if we reduce the burden of government spending and restore robust growth.

And nobody will be surprised to see that I made my usual points that there was no risk of default and that it’s actually surprisingly simple to balance the budget with modest spending restraint.

Speaking of analogies, I also modified Senator Durbin’s analogy so that he and his colleagues are a bunch of drug dealers trying to buy votes by addicting people to big government.

*Okay, given all the political humor I share, perhaps it’s a semi-serious forum, but my analysis of fiscal policy is not a joking matter.

Read Full Post »

I haven’t written much about the budget fights over a government shutdown, Obamacare, the continuing resolution, and the debt limit for the simple reason that the battles are mostly about politics and strategy rather than policy.

At the risk of oversimplifying, here’s what’s happening.

On one side are those who want to use the debt limit (legislation allowing additional borrowing) and the continuing resolution (a spending bill for the fiscal year that starts October 1) as leverage to weaken Obamacare and restrain spending.

On the other side are those who say big confrontations are too politically risky, particularly since good changes are impossible with Harry Reid controlling the Senate and Obama in the White House.

In this “insurgents” vs “establishment” fight, I think it’s possible for good people to have opposing positions, but my sympathies are with the former over the latter. Here are a couple of observations to illustrate why I think the insurgents are correct.

1. The biggest fiscal policy victory of the 21st Century – sequestration – was only possible because of hard-ball tactics on the debt limit in 2011.

2. It’s always better to be on offense. If folks like Senator Ted Cruz weren’t making the President’s unpopular healthcare law the focus of attention, the crowd in Washington might be busy right now trying to do something destructive such as class-warfare tax hikes. Or repealing sequestration.

3. It’s common sense in any negotiation to ask for more than you think you’ll get and to appear as inflexible as possible. While I think many of the “establishment” types are willing to do the right thing (as evidenced by near-unanimous votes for the Ryan budgets), they sometimes lead with their fallback position, which means the final result will be even further to the left.

4. The “political risks” of a shutdown fight or a debt limit fight are greatly overblown. As I explained in an article for National Review back in 2011, Republicans achieved a policy victory and – at worst – a political draw in the big shutdown fights of 1995-1996. And my recent testimony to the Joint Economic Committee explained why there’s no risk of default if there’s a fight on the debt limit.

All this being said, the insurgent strategy can backfire. The media serves as an echo chamber for proponents of bigger government, so expect story after story about how a government shutdown threatens the economy (even though we’ve had plenty of shutdowns in recent decades with no negative impact).

And expect stories about how a debt limit fight could mean default, even though that’s preposterously inaccurate.

But that echo chamber can be effective, particularly when statist GOPers such as Karl Rove mimic those left-wing talking points.

So the real issue is whether we can get some incremental progress – such as a one-year delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate – when a deal finally is reached.

The main thing to understand, though, is that no progress would be possible if the insurgents weren’t forcing the issue.

P.S. If you want to end on a lighter note, there are some good one-liners about the debt limit at the bottom of this post, and you can enjoy some good debt limit cartoons by clicking here and here.

Read Full Post »

As we get closer to the debt limit, the big spenders in Washington are becoming increasingly hysterical about the supposed possibility of default if politicians lose the ability to borrow more money.

I testified yesterday to the Joint Economic Committee on “The Economic Costs of Debt-Ceiling Brinkmanship” and I explained (reiterating points I made back in 2011) that there is zero chance of default.

Why? Because, as I outline beginning about the 3:10 mark of the video, annual interest payments are about $230 billion and annual tax collections are approaching $3 trillion.

I actually made five points in my testimony. The first three should be quite familiar to regular readers.

First, America’s main fiscal problem is that government is too big. That’s the disease  Deficits and debt are symptoms of that underlying problem.

Second, you achieve good fiscal policy by following “Mitchell’s Golden Rule” so that government grows slower than private sector economic output.

Third, we’ve made some progress in the last two years thanks to genuine fiscal restraint, and we can balance the budget in a very short period of time if lawmakers impose a very modest bit of spending discipline in the future.

The fourth point, which I already discussed above, is that there’s no risk of default – unless the Obama Administration deliberately wants that to happen. But that’s simply not a realistic possibility.

My fifth and final point deserves a bit of extra discussion. I explained that Greece is now suffering through a very deep recession, with record unemployment and harsh economic conditions. I asked the Committee a rhetorical question: Wouldn’t it have been preferable if there was some sort of mechanism, say, 15 years ago that would have enabled some lawmakers to throw sand in the gears so that the government couldn’t issue any more debt?

Debt limit jokesYes, there would have been some budgetary turmoil at the time, but it would have been trivial compared to the misery the Greek people currently are enduring.

I closed by drawing an analogy to the situation in Washington. We know we’re on an unsustainable path. Do we want to wait until we hit a crisis before we address the over-spending crisis? Or do we want to take prudent and modest steps today – such as genuine entitlement reform and spending caps – to ensure prosperity and long-run growth.

Seems like the answer should be simple…at least if you’re not trying to get reelected by bribing voters with their own money.

P.S. My argument for short-term fighting today to avoid fiscal crisis in the future was advanced in greater detail by a Wall Street expert back in 2011.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some good debt limit cartoons by clicking here and here.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

I want to augment on a couple of my points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

I’m thinking of inventing a game, sort of a fiscal version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Only the way it will work is that there will be a map of the world and the winner will be the blindfolded person who puts their pin closest to a nation such as Australia or Switzerland that has a relatively low risk of long-run fiscal collapse.

That won’t be an easy game to win since we have data from the BIS, OECD, and IMF showing that government is growing far too fast in the vast majority of nations.

We also know that many states and cities suffer from the same problems.

A handful of local governments already have hit the fiscal brick wall, with many of them (gee, what a surprise) from California.

The most spectacular mess, though, is about to happen in Michigan.

The Washington Post reports that Detroit is on the verge of fiscal collapse.

After decades of sad and spectacular decline, it has come to this for Detroit: The city is $19 billion in debt and on the edge of becoming the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. An emergency manager says the city can make good on only a sliver of what it owes — in many cases just pennies on the dollar.

This is a dog-bites-man story. Detroit’s problems are the completely predictable result of excessive government. Just as statism explains the problems of Greece. And the problems of California. And the problems of Cyprus. And the problems of Illinois.

I could continue with a long list of profligate governments, but you get the idea. Some of these governments are collapsing at a quicker pace and some at a slower pace. But all of them are in deep trouble because they don’t follow my Golden Rule about restraining the burden of government spending so that it grows slower than the private sector.

Detroit obviously is an example of a government that is collapsing sooner rather than later.

Why? Simply stated, as the size and scope of the public sector increased, that created very destructive economic and political dynamics.

More and more people got lured into the wagon of government dependency, which puts an ever-increasing burden on a shrinking pool of producers.

Meanwhile, organized interest groups such as government bureaucrats used their political muscle to extract absurdly excessive compensation packages, putting an even larger burden of the dwindling supply of taxpayers.

But that’s not the main focus of this post. Instead, I want to highlight a particular excerpt from the article and make a point about how too many people are blindly – perhaps willfully – ignorant of the Laffer Curve.

Check out this sentence.

Property tax collections are down 20 percent and income tax collections are down by more than a third in just the past five years — despite some of the highest tax rates in the state.

This is a classic “Fox Butterfield mistake,” which occurs when someone fails to recognize a cause-effect relationship. In this case, the reporter should have recognized that tax collections are down because Detroit has very high tax rates.

The city has a lot more problems than just high tax rates, of course, but can there be any doubt that productive people have very little incentive to earn and report taxable income in Detroit?

And that’s the essential insight of the Laffer Curve. Politicians can’t – or at least shouldn’t – assume that a 20 percent increase in tax rates will lead to a 20 percent increase in tax revenue. They also have to consider the degree to which a higher tax rate will cause a change in taxable income.

In some cases, higher tax rates will discourage people from earning more taxable income.

In some cases, higher tax rates will discourage people from reporting all the income they earn.

In some cases, higher tax rates will encourage people to utilize tax loopholes to shrink their taxable income.

In some cases, higher tax rates will encourage migration, thus causing taxable income to disappear.

Here’s my three-part video series on the Laffer Curve. Much of this is common sense, though it needs to be mandatory viewing for elected officials (as well as the bureaucrats at the Joint Committee on Taxation).

P.S. Just in case it’s not clear from the videos, we don’t want to be at the revenue-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve.

P.P.S. Amazingly, even the bureaucrats at the IMF recognize that there’s a point when taxes are so onerous that further increases don’t generate revenue.

P.P.P.S. At least CPAs understand the Laffer Curve, probably because they help their clients reduce their tax exposure to greedy governments.

P.P.P.P.S. I offered a Laffer Curve lesson to President Obama, but I doubt it had any impact.

Read Full Post »

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the United States has a terrible long-run fiscal outlook. Assuming we don’t implement genuine entitlement reform, the only countries in worse shape are the United Kingdom and Japan.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, meanwhile, also has a grim fiscal outlook for America. According to their numbers, the only nations in worse shape are New Zealand and Japan.

But I’ve never been happy with these BIS and OECD numbers because they focus on deficits, debt, and fiscal balance. Those are important indicators, of course, but they’re best viewed as symptoms.

The underlying problem is that the burden of government spending is too high. And what the BIS and OECD numbers are really showing is that the public sector is going to get even bigger in coming decades, largely because of aging populations. Unfortunately, you have to read between the lines to understand what’s really happening.

But now I’ve stumbled across some IMF data that presents the long-run fiscal outlook in a more logical fashion. As you can see from this graph (taken from this publication), they show the expected rise in age-related spending on the vertical axis and the amount of needed fiscal adjustment on the horizontal axis.

In other words, you don’t want your nation to be in the upper-right quadrant, but that’s exactly where you can find the United States.

IMF Future Spending-Adjustment Needs

Yes, Japan needs more fiscal adjustment. Yes, the burden of government spending will expand by a larger amount in Belgium. But America combines the worst of both worlds in a depressingly impressive fashion.

So thanks to FDR, LBJ, Nixon, Bush, Obama and others for helping to create and expand the welfare state. They’ve managed to put the United States in a worse long-run position than Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and other failing welfare states.

Read Full Post »

In my never-ending crusade to push for the right kind of austerity, I appeared on RT to pontificate on the merits of limited government.

We got to cover a lot of material, so here’s some augmenting material.

1. The right kind of “austerity” is less government spending, which is why I’m very frustrated that the fight in Europe is largely between Keynesians who support more spending and IMF types who advocate higher taxes.

2. I explain why Keynesian economics is misguided, in part because government can’t spend money without taking resources from the productive sector of the economy and in part because politicians never follow through on Keynesian prescriptions for fiscal restraint when the economy is strong..

3. In an example of how to damn with faint praise, I give the International Monetary Fund credit for understanding that 2+2=4, though I also criticize the IMF for shifting from one bad approach (higher taxes) to another bad approach (Keynesian spending).

4. We discuss how many European nations got in trouble and then looked at how various governments responded to the crisis. Not surprisingly, I praise Switzerland for never getting in trouble and I commend the Baltic nations for rectifying their mistakes with genuine spending cuts.

5. I even give the “PIIGS” credit for slowing the growth of spending, albeit only after they had exhausted every possible bad policy option.

6. Not all government spending is created equal and I explain that Europe’s problem is that far too much money is spent on the welfare state.

7. I close with some analysis of the data fight between Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and the Heritage Foundation. As I’ve already explained, the Senator was the one relying on speculative data.

Showing that I have a tiny bit of non-economic knowledge, I even quoted Saint Augustine, though I’m sure he would be horribly offended that I indirectly equated him with politicians.

Read Full Post »

I’ve received several requests to comment on the controversy surrounding the famous Rogoff-Reinhart study on government debt and economic performance.

For those who haven’t followed this issue, Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart wrote an influential paper in 2010 arguing that government debt above 90 percent of GDP was associated with weaker economic performance.

It turns out that the Rogoff and Reinhart made a mistake in their excel spreadsheet and this error was publicized in a recently unveiled article by three other economists.

This has led to a renewed debate about “austerity,” with R&R cast in the role of fiscal hawks and various critics saying that the mistake in their paper discredits that approach and that it’s time for Keynesian policies.

If you’re interested in the broader debate, here’s what Rogoff and Reinhart wrote in the New York Times to defend themselves, and here’s Paul Krugman’s criticism.

But if you want to know my opinion, I’m not a fan of either side. Unlike the Keynesians, I don’t think debt is good for growth. But I also think it doesn’t make sense to myopically focus on red ink.

Which explains why I’m very frustrated by the debate in Europe. On one side, you have the Keynesians advocating higher spending and on the other side you have “austerians” advocating higher taxes.*

No wonder I want both sides to lose!

As I’ve repeated over and over again, the real fiscal problem in most nations is the size of government. Excessive government spending is bad for prosperity, regardless of whether it is financed by taxes or borrowing.

To be sure, governments can accumulate so much debt that investors will get suspicious and demand very high interest rates before lending more money (sometimes referred to as an attack by “bond vigilantes”).

But it’s important to realize that debt is the symptom. The underlying disease is a bloated public sector. That’s true in Greece, Spain, Italy, and other nations that have had trouble borrowing money.

By the way, it’s also true in nations such as France and Belgium. Those countries also have governments that are far too big. They haven’t been hit (at least not yet) by the bond vigilantes, but they’re suffering from economic stagnation as well.

In other words, deficits are bad, but the real problem is spending. I elaborate in this Center for Freedom and Prosperity video.

The wise fiscal policy, needless to say, is to follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule. If the burden of government spending grows slower than the private economy, any nation can climb out of a fiscal ditch. Especially if they lower tax rates and avoid class-warfare tax policy.

*In theory, the “austerians” ” also advocate less spending, but you won’t be surprised to learn which option politicians select when given a choice between higher taxes and less spending.

P.S. You also won’t be surprised that Paul Krugman doesn’t do his homework when he writes about “austerity” in Estonia and the United Kingdom.

P.P.S. Please do not confuse “austerian” economics with “Austrian economics.” The former is a political rationale for tax hikes. The latter is a sensible school of economic thought.

Read Full Post »

I’m a bit of a nag on getting people to realize that deficits are not the nation’s main fiscal problem. Government borrowing isn’t desirable, to be sure, but our real concern should be a government that is too big and spending too much.

I even created a Bob Dole Award to chastise people who mistakenly focus on red ink when they should be worried about the overall burden of government spending.

But I may have to give myself the award because I very much enjoyed these two cartoons.

Here’s one from Jerry Holbert, showing Obama blithely unconcerned about the looming debt catastrophe.

Cartoon Debt Zombie

Except it’s really an entitlement problem, which is why I would have given the zombies names like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

And this Ken Catalino cartoon sort of makes the same point, but focusing specifically on the fiscal boondoggle known as Obamacare.

Cartoon Obamacare Debt

For those who don’t get the “mint” reference, it comes from a disgustingly amusing scene in a Monty Python movie.

And since I’ve already linked to scenes in another Monty Python movie, that gives you an idea of the type of humor I appreciate.

But the serious point to this post is that we will face a fiscal crisis at some point if government isn’t put on a diet.

Waiting for the crises to actually occur is a recipe for wretched consequences, as we can see from Greece, Italy, Spain, etc.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

As part of the silly budget debate in Washington, President Obama is claiming that an increase in the debt limit wouldn’t authorize higher spending.

That’s technically true, but it sure would enable higher spending.

This Chuck Asay cartoon offers an amusing perspective on the battle.

Asay Debt Limit Bills Cartoon

In the interest of accuracy, however, it should show President Bush having already gone through the checkout line with an equally big cart full of handouts.

After all, government spending imposes a heavy cost on the economy regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are the ones in charge of policy.

Read Full Post »

In an ideal world, Congress would not raise the debt limit.

This would force – automatically and immediately – a balanced budget. More important, it would produce a meaningful reduction in the burden of government spending.

Debt Limit FWAnd contrary to hyperbole from defenders of the status quo, it doesn’t mean default since the federal government collects about ten times as much revenue as needed to pay interest on the debt.

But even though that seems like a fantasy outcome for people like me from the Cato Institute, I actually don’t think libertarians, fiscal conservatives, and other advocates of smaller government should make the debt limit a do-or-die battle.

As I say in this interview on Fox Business News, the “continuing resolution” is a much better vehicle.

To elaborate, my concern is that the White House will be able to whip up too much hysteria on the debt limit, particularly since the media will serve as an echo chamber and Bernanke will act as a lackey for the White House.

And if the Fed Chairman is able to rattle Wall Street and cause a big drop in the stock market, it’s quite likely that Republicans will buckle rather than run the risk of being blamed for causing a financial calamity.

But the Obama Administration has less leverage when the “CR” expires on March 27. Like the debt limit, the continuing resolution is a must-pass piece of legislation. Heck, it’s even important since it’s the only way of funding the non-entitlement portions of the federal government for the rest of the 2013 fiscal year.

This is where advocates of small government should draw a line and demand fiscal restraint. They should pass a CR, but only after eliminating some egregious waste from the federal budget.

Yes, the President can object to fiscal reforms. He can even veto such a bill. But the worst thing that happens under a stalemate is a “government shutdown.”

And not even a real shutdown. Things that actually have some value, like the military and the air traffic control system, continue operating. All that happens is that “non-essential” programs, agencies, and department are shuttered. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is a good example.

Let’s now think about leverage. Who will care more about reopening HUD and other non-essential parts of the government? The answer, quite obviously, is that bureaucrats and interest groups are the only ones who will care, and this means the pressure will be on the left.

Indeed, this is exactly what happened in 1995 when Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton had their famous shutdown battle. The Democrats were anxious to cut a deal to get the gravy train rolling again, and Republicans used that leverage to achieve a significant policy victory.

This doesn’t mean a CR fight and potential government shutdown is free of political risk. Indeed, Newt Gingrich lost popularity as a result of that fight. But that was probably more a reflection of his political style.

In any event, a CR battle definitely has less downside risk than a debt limit battle. So if folks on Capitol Hill actually want to fight to save the country from becoming Greece, why not pick the battle that’s easier to win?

Read Full Post »

I’ve frequently commented on Europe’s fiscal mess and argued that excessive government spending is responsible for both the sovereign debt crisis and the economic stagnation that plagues the continent.

But it does seem that things have calmed down, so the readers who have submitted questions about whether the fiscal crisis has ended obviously are paying attention.

I have two responses.

  • My first answer is very mature and thoughtful: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, are you ;@($&^#’% kidding me?
  • My second answer is a bit more guarded and circumspect: No. To be more specific, the immediate crisis may have slightly abated, but I have no confidence that the long-run problem has been solved.

But let me start with some good news. Most of the hard-hit European nations have finally begun the cut spending. And when I say cut spending, I mean they actually spent less in 2011 than they did in 2010 (unlike the fake version of spending cuts that you find in the U.S. and U.K., where spending simply grows at a slower pace).

We don’t have data for 2012, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the PIIGS nations also cut spending last year as well.

Now for some bad news. Unlike the Baltic nations, the PIIGS dragged their feet and didn’t reduce the burden of government spending until they had no choice.

Moreover, they all imposed crippling tax hikes. Indeed, the tax increases in Greece were so severe that even the International Monetary Fund warned that the country might be past the Laffer Curve revenue-maximizing point.

So while long-overdue reductions in spending meant less money was being diverted from the economy’s productive sector, higher tax rates have discouraged entrepreneurs and investors from creating jobs and wealth.

So what’s the net effect?

From an optimistic perspective, the fiscal situation should stabilize if governments keep spending under control. Some additional spending cuts would be very desirable since government spending consumes 45 percent-50 percent of GDP in these nations, which is at least double  the growth-maximizing level.

“I’m going back in my bottle if you don’t cut spending!”

But even if these nations merely abide by Mitchell’s Golden Rule and restrain spending so that it grows slower than the private sector, that would be progress.

The reason I’m not optimistic, though, is that I don’t sense any commitment to smaller government. I fear governments will let the spending genie out of the bottle at the first opportunity. And we’re talking about a scary genie, not Barbara Eden.

And to make matters worse, Europe faces a demographic nightmare. These charts, reproduced from a Bank for International Settlements study, show that even the supposedly responsible nations in Europe face a tsunami of spending and debt over the next 25-plus years.

So you can understand why I don’t express a lot of optimism about European economic policy in this interview with Canadian TV.

The ostensible topic was European-wide financial regulation, but that topic is really a proxy for the fact that some nations want to bail out their financial sectors. But they’re in such lousy fiscal shape that they can’t borrow the money that would be needed to prop up their dodgy banks.

So I pointed out that European-wide regulation wasn’t the right answer. It wouldn’t make banks safer (since it would be based upon the deeply flawed Basel regulations), but could become a vehicle for nations such as Germany to further subsidize countries such as Spain.

But I hope I got across my main point, which is that these nations are burdened with too much government and their problems won’t be solved with more handouts, regulation, or bureaucracy.

In other words, there’s no substitute for genuine spending cuts implemented by the nation states of Europe.

P.S. Just in case you’re under the impression that only cranky libertarians think government is too big in Europe, I invite you to peruse this research from the European Central Bank, World Bank, and National Bank of Finland.

P.P.S. To close with some European-themed humor, we have three videos: 1) A romantic comedy involving Mr. Greece and Ms. Germany, 2) Hitler learning about the European downgrade, and 3) A Greek perspective on Germany.

P.P.P.S. Heck, I can’t resisting sharing this cartoon, this Dave Barry mockery, and the non-PC map of Europe as well.

Read Full Post »

It’s never a good idea to display weakness during negotiations. Your opponent will sense your fear and up his demands.

That’s certainly what we’re seeing in Washington. The cartoon at this link captures the GOP’s wobbly attitude on taxes, and this interview is about the ever-increasing demands of the Obama Administration.

It’s rather galling, by the way, to be lectured on taxes by a tax cheat like Tim Geithner.

But my key point is that the GOP’s preemptive surrender emboldened the White House, and helped move the debate even further to the left.

Let me elaborate on two points from the interview.

  1. We don’t need a tax increase. We can balance the budget simply by limiting spending so that it grows by “only” 2.5 percent annually. As I say to Cavuto, the White House is pushing higher taxes in order to enable a bigger burden of government spending.
  2. It’s important to define austerity correctly. To provide an analogy, we have to drink liquid to survive, but that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea to guzzle paint thinner. Likewise, we need austerity, but that shouldn’t mean higher taxes. We need to be like Estonia and tighten the belts of the public sector, not the private sector.

It’s not my job to give Republicans political advice, but I also want to expand upon the arguments I made a couple of days ago, when I wrote a post giving five policy reasons and five political reasons why the GOP shouldn’t surrender on tax increases.

A couple of readers correctly pointed out that I forgot to mention that tax increases are political poison because middle-class voters turn against the GOP once “revenue” is on the table. They are completely right, and my oversight is inexplicable since I’ve actually made that point in the past. Here’s some of what I wrote last year.

If Republicans put tax increases on the table, however, the politics get turned upside down. Instead of being united against all tax increases, voters realize somebody is going to get mugged and they have an incentive to make sure they’re not the ones who get victimized. That’s when soak-the-rich taxes become very appealing. Democrats, for all intents and purposes, can appeal to average voters by targeting the so-called rich. And even though voters will be skeptical about what Democrats really want, they don’t want to be the primary target of the political predators in Washington. Think of it this way. You’re a wildebeest running away from a pack of hyenas, but you know one member of your herd will get caught and killed. You despise hyenas, but at that critical moment, you’re main goal is wanting another member of the herd to bite the dust. This is why surrendering to tax increases put Republicans in a no-win situation. They oppose class-warfare taxes because they understand the disproportionately damaging impact of higher top income tax rates and increased double taxation of dividends and capital gains. So when GOPers get bullied into agreeing to raise taxes, they want to target less destructive sources of revenue. But that usually means…taxes that are more likely to hit the middle class. Needless to say, Democrats almost always win if there is a fight on whether to tax the middle class or to tax the rich.

I have to pat myself on the back for that passage, particularly the analogy that equates politicians with hyenas (though in the past I’ve apologized to hyenas for that unfair comparison).

Let’s close with a very good cartoon, which points out the foolishness of the media for wanting to send more money to Washington when even they understand that the town is filled with clowns and buffoons. That’s actually a very serious point, as I note about halfway through the interview included in my five-political-reasons-five-policy-reasons post.

Cartoon Beat the Press Tax Hikes

But it’s hard to laugh when you contemplate what’s happening. Obama is bullying the GOP, and the Republicans are in the process of surrendering to his class-warfare demands.

That will lead to bad policy, but it will also result in an emasculated, compliant, and house-broken GOP for at least the next two years, and perhaps even Obama’s entire second term. So even though the fiscal cliff tax hike is bigger than what Obama’s currently demanding, the long-run policy damage of surrender almost surely will be far greater.

Republicans don’t have many options in this fight. But they can show some cojones and tell Obama that the only way he’ll get a tax hike is if he wants to take the nation over the cliff.

P.S. If you like the Henry Payne cartoon in this post, you can enjoy some of his other work here, here, here, herehereherehere, and here.

Read Full Post »

I’ve been arguing against higher taxes because of my concerns that more revenue will simply lead to a bigger burden of government spending.

Yes, I realize it is theoretically possible that a tax hike could be part of a political deal that produces a good outcome, such as entitlement reform.

But that doesn’t seem to happen in the real world. Indeed, I pointed out almost exactly one year ago that the only budget deal that gave us a surplus was the 1997 pact that cut taxes instead of raising them.

But maybe there’s evidence from other parts of the world showing that tax hikes lead to balanced budgets. Perhaps we can learn something from European nations.

Let’s start with this chart I put together after digging through historical data from the United Nations, European Commission, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It shows tax burden for the 15 nations of the pre-2004-expansion European Union, minus Luxembourg which didn’t collect this kind of data in the 1960s. Basically, we’re looking at the average tax burden in Western Europe for 1965-1969 and for 2006-2010.

Euro tax debt 1

Not surprisingly, it shows that the tax burden has jumped significantly. I suspect the adoption of the value-added tax deserves a good bit of the blame, but that’s  a separate issue.

For this post, we’re wondering whether this big jump in taxes resulted in more red ink or less red ink.

This second chart looks at the burden of government debt, which averaged 45 percent of GDP for the 1965-1969 period. And we see a stick figure wondering whether the debt for 2006-2010 will be higher or lower. In other words, did politicians use the additional revenue to pay down the debt, did they spend it, or did they spend all the added revenue and then borrowed even more?

Euro tax debt 2

Well, knock me over with a feather. The next chart shows that debt is much higher today, averaging about 60 percent of GDP.

Euro tax debt 3

In other words, every penny of new tax revenue got spent. Not only that, but Europe’s politicians accumulated even more red ink because they increased spending even faster than they increased revenue.

What’s the moral of this story? Well, President Obama claims his class-warfare tax policy will reduce deficits as part of a “balanced approach.”

But what he’s actually proposing is that the United States should emulate our friends on the other side of the Atlantic. And it seems their idea of a “balanced approach” simply means higher taxes, as you can see from this shocking chart. Gee, what a coincidence.

Based on what we know about the evidence in Europe, and based on what we know about the proclivities of American politicians, anybody want to guess what will happen to U.S. government debt if Obama prevails?

P.S. The pre-2004-expansion European Union nations were Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

P.P.S. The figures in this post are for central government taxes and debt.

P.P.P.S. There are some good lessons to be learned from other nations, as shown in this video. And if you pay attention to the details in that video, you’ll notice that the key to good fiscal policy is…drumroll please…following Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

Read Full Post »

I’m very concerned about both the fiscal cliff and its possible replacements. It will be bad news if we get an automatic tax hike on January 1, and it will be bad news if that tax increase is replaced by an even more odious plan concocted by the White House.

Fiscal Cliff Cartoon RamirezBut the cliff is not our biggest fiscal problem.

Here’s some of what I wrote for today’s New York Post about the fiscal cliff, along with a warning that we have a much bigger problem down the road.

…it’s a fight that has important implications, particularly since some of the tax increases will have a significantly harmful impact on incentives to work, save, invest and create jobs. In a competitive global economy, for instance, it is bizarrely self-destructive to increase the double taxation of dividends and capital gains. …This is all bad news, but it is not a crisis. If we go over the cliff, it simply means the economy will grow a bit slower and politicians will spend a bit more money. And the sequester actually would be (modest) good news, since it means the burden of government spending would be “only” $2 trillion higher 10 years from now, rather than $2.1 trillion higher. And even if Obama prevails in the fight, that simply means that we get a different mix of tax hikes and spending rises at a faster rate. Sure, that’s bad for the economy, but it’s not the end of the world. The real crisis is the ticking time bomb of entitlement programs and the welfare state. This bomb won’t explode this year or next year. It may not even explode for another 20 years. But at some point America will experience a Greek-style fiscal collapse if these programs are not reformed.

Just how bad is this future problem? Gee, I’m glad you ask.

A lot of people get upset about the national debt, which is somewhere between $11 trillion and $16 trillion, depending on whether you include money the government owes itself. Those are big numbers — but if you add up the amount of money that the government is promising to spend for entitlement programs in the future and compare that figure to the amount of revenue that the government projects it will collect for those programs, the cumulative shortfall is more than $100 trillion. And that’s after adjusting for inflation. Some politicians claim this huge, baked-into-the-cake expansion of government isn’t a problem, because we can raise taxes. But that’s exactly what Europe’s welfare states tried — and it didn’t work. Simply stated, even huge tax hikes won’t stem the flow of red ink in the long run if government keeps growing faster than the private economy. This is the fiscal problem that demands attention. Absent real entitlement reform, such as block-granting Medicaid to the states, the burden of government spending will consume ever-larger shares of our economic output with each passing year.

In other words, the solution is to follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule. That’s the only way to make sure that the burden of government spending shrinks relative to economic output.

Fortunately, that simply requires some modest spending restraint to address the short run problem and some intelligently designed entitlement reform to solve the long run challenge.

P.S. If my only choice is surrendering to Obama or going over the fiscal cliff, I’ll take the plunge without a second’s hesitation. At least we get the sequester if we go off the cliff, so there’s a tiny bit of spending restraint. Moreover, if the GOP capitulates to Obama on this fight, it will set the stage for additional bad policy over the next two years (much as the acquiescence to Obama during the March 2011 “government shutdown” fight was a sign of things to come for the last years, but at least we resuscitated two good cartoons and got some good jokes out of that debacle).

P.P.S. In addition to the Ramirez cartoon above, you can enjoy this bunch of amusing fiscal cliff cartoons. Or I should say they’re amusing so long as you don’t think about the implications.

Read Full Post »

If done well, an image can say a thousand words. Here are some of my favorites.

We can add another one to the list. The Heritage Foundation shows us what Obama has in mind when he talks about a “balanced” plan.

Heritage Fiscal Cliff

This chart, while horrifying and visually powerful, actually understates the case against Obama.

The President is not proposing to cut spending by $400 billion. He’s only proposing to reduce future spending growth by that amount. In other words, his “spending cut” is only a cut if you play the dishonest DC game of measuring “cuts” against a baseline of ever-expanding government.

To give you an idea of what this really means, here’s my chart showing the CBO projection of what will happen to spending if the budget is left on autopilot. That’s the blue line.

The red line, by contrast, shows the impact of Obama’s supposed $400 billion cut. Feel free to pull out a magnifying glass to examine the difference between the two lines.

Obama Fake $400 Billion Cut

All you need to know is that the burden of government spending will climb by about $2 trillion over the next 10 years without Obama’s budget plan.

But if we enact Obama’s plan, the burden of spending will climb by…drum roll please…about $2 trillion over the next 10 years. In other words, it’s not much more than a rounding error.

P.S. Don’t forget that revenues also are projected to rise dramatically over the next 10 years, even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent. All that’s actually needed to balance the budget is modest spending restraint, restraining outlays so they grow by an average of 2.5 percent. In other words, good things happen if policy makers comply with Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

Read Full Post »

It’s not easy to find some humor in the European fiscal crisis, though this Hitler parody video surely is a classic.

We now have a new video to enjoy.

There are some naughty words, so be forewarned.

And speaking of Greek-related humor, this cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

P.S. If you like Greek-related humor, I have two more posts that have been very popular. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one has some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

CBO economist prepares another Keynesian estimate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

You have to give President Obama credit for chutzpah. He pushed through a faux stimulus in his first year and Obamacare in his second year, both of which significantly increased the burden of government spending.

In the past two years, he’s basically punted, proposing budgets that are so laughably unserious that they received zero votes in both the House and Senate. Including zero votes from Democrats.

But now he wants us to believe he favors a moderate-sounding deal that supposedly would reduce spending by $2.50 for every $1 of tax hikes.

This is utter fantasy and even leftists admit the President is engaging in gimmickry far beyond the smoke-and-mirrors chicanery that you normally find in Washington. Here’s some of what Reason’s Peter Suderman wrote about the topic.

President Obama described what he thought were the prospects for a big budget deal in the early part of a potential second term. “It will probably be messy,” he said. “It won’t be pleasant. But I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that essentially I’ve been offering to the Republicans for a very long time, which is $2.50 worth of cuts for every dollar in spending, and work to reduce the costs of our health care programs.” The president went on to suggest that such a deal could help the federal government start digging its way out of the deep debt hole it’s currently in. “And we can easily meet — ‘easily’ is the wrong word — we can credibly meet the target that the Bowles-Simpson Commission established of $4 trillion in deficit reduction…” Here’s the thing. That $4 trillion debt plan he’s offered so far? It doesn’t actually reduce deficits by $4 trillion. That’s because it’s packed with budget savings gimmicks. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) explains: “To reach his $4.3 trillion in savings through 2021, the President’s budget counts $1.6 trillion (excluding interest) of already-enacted savings…” This isn’t a lonely opinion either. As The Washington Post‘s Fact Checker Glenn Kessler wrote in September, “virtually no serious budget analyst” accepts the president’s $4 trillion deficit reduction figure. …What about the $2 trillion in deficit reduction the plan can claim to put on the scoreboard? It comes almost entirely tax increases. As James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute shows, the plan would result in about $1.735 trillion in tax hikes — and just $230 billion in spending cuts, the vast majority of which are cuts to health care provider reimbursements of dubious long-term value. That’s Obama’s idea of a grand bargain. Not $4 trillion in deficit reduction weighted toward spending cuts, but $2 trillion worth deficit reduction produced almost entirely by tax hikes.

The last part is the key. A $2 trillion package that is almost 87 percent tax hikes.

But I think Peter is being too kind, because even the changes in reimbursement rates for health care providers (which, as Peter notes, almost surely will evaporate in a very short period of time) are simply reductions in increases. In other words, spending will still grow, just not as fast as previously planned. In other words, the spending cuts are only cuts if you accept dishonest Washington terminology.

Something else that’s worth noting is that Obama pretends to embrace the Bowles-Simpson proposal, but we need to do some Clintonian parsing of what he actually said. The President carefully states that he wants to meet the “target that the Bowles-Simpson Commission established.” But that simply means a $4 trillion number, not the specifics of the Bowles-Simpson plan.

This is important because the Bowles-Simpson plan is a bad place to start, largely because it dramatically increases the double-tax burden on income that is saved and invested and it fails to include real entitlement reform.

Well, Obama clearly is signally that he wants to move this bad plan even further to the left, most notably with class-warfare increases in top tax rates, which is contrary to one of the few good features in the Bowles-Simpson plan.

If Obama is re-elected, GOPers should not get seduced into a phony budget summit that invariably would produce a bad plan. It’s not simply that I’m against higher taxes. It’s that I don’t want to give the clowns and crooks in Washington even more of our money when we won’t get any reforms that might justify that sacrifice.

It’s better to do nothing than it is to make a bad situation even worse.

Read Full Post »

If you want some serious analysis about government spending and red ink, watch my video (part of my series on the economics of government spending).

But if you want to enjoy some laughs as the politicians spend us into fiscal crisis, you should watch this video. But only watch it if you’re okay with PG-13 titillation.

If you want to graduate to R-rated debt humor with several mentions of the F word, you can click here for another video.

And if you like the F word and don’t like the IRS, you’ll enjoy this video even more.

Read Full Post »

Many people want to believe in Unicorns, the Loch Ness Monster, and Bigfoot. I think those people are rational and reasonable compared to the folks in Washington that spend their days dreaming of “bipartisan” and “balanced” plans to fix the budget mess.

Here are the two things you should understand. First, you need to grab your Washingtonese-to-English dictionary so you can learn that “bipartisan” and “balanced” are almost always code words for “higher taxes.” Second, budget deals with higher taxes (as the New York Times accidentally admitted) don’t “fix” anything.

The Simpson-Bowles budget plan is a good example of why taxpayers should be quite skeptical. Put together by a former Republican Senator from Wyoming and Bill Clinton’s former Chief of Staff as part of President Obama’s Fiscal Commission, the Simpson-Bowles proposal is viewed by the inside-the-beltway crowd as fiscal Nirvana.

Unsurprisingly, Simpson and Bowles are quite fond of their plan. Here’s their key assertion from a column they recently wrote for USA Today.

The Simpson-Bowles commission offered a reasonable, responsible, comprehensive and bipartisan solution that won the support of a majority of Democrats and Republicans on the commission. Most importantly, it would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade — enough to put the debt on a clear downward path relative to the economy.

Gee, sounds nice, but let’s look at the details, all of which can be seen by downloading their report.

A main problem is that Simpson and Bowles misdiagnose the problem. I think it’s fair to say that their focus, as they explicitly state in their report, is to “…stabilize and then reduce the national debt.” But as I explain in this video, the real problem is a federal government that is too big and spending too much. Red ink is just a symptom of that problem.

Moreover, the report even includes Keynesian policy, stating that “…budget cuts should start gradually so they don’t interfere with the ongoing economic recovery.”

But let’s set aside rhetorical sins and grade the plan.

Restraining Spending: C+

But the components of the plan make me think they won’t even achieve the plan’s anemic targets.

Eliminating Departments and Programs: D

  • The Simpson-Bowles plan does not call for shutting down a single program, agency, or department. Not even cesspools of waste and inefficiency such as the Department of Education or Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Reforming Entitlements: C-

Reducing Bureaucratic Bloat: B

  • In terms of controlling spending, this is the part of the report that is most admirable. It calls for a three-year freeze on excessive compensation and urges reductions in bureaucratic bloat – albeit only through attrition.

Controlling the Tax Burden and Reforming the Tax Code: C-

The best policy, needless to say, is getting rid of the corrupt tax system and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax. That obviously wasn’t what Simpson and Bowles decided to propose, but the flat tax is a benchmark that allows us to judge the components of their plan.

They basically get two policies right and two policies wrong. If they were major league baseball players, a .500 average would make them superstars. In Dan Mitchell’s policy world, they’re below average.

Lowering Tax Rates: A-

  • This is the best feature of all the revenue provisions. The Simpson-Bowles report proposes a top tax rate of between 23 percent-28 percent, significantly below the current top rate of 35 percent (and well below the 39.6 percent top rate that is part of President Obama’s class-warfare proposal). The corporate tax rate also would be reduced.

Reducing Double Taxation: D

  • The plan would increase the double taxation of dividends and capital gains. The U.S. already has a very anti-competitive system and this would be a step in the wrong direction (though ameliorated by a lower corporate tax rate).

Limiting the Tax Burden: D-

  • The plan assumes that laws should be changed to increase the federal tax burden to 21 percent of GDP from the long-run average of 18 percent of economic output. That’s unfortunate, but it’s even worse than it seems since the tax burden already is scheduled to rise to record levels because of what’s called “real bracket creep.” The Simpson-Bowles tax hikes would be an additional burden on taxpayers.

Eliminating Corrupt Loopholes: B

  • The good news is that some deductions are curtailed and a few are eliminated. The best components are the repeal of the deduction for state and local income and property taxes. So no more indirect preferences that reward profligate states such as California and Illinois. The healthcare exclusion also is capped, which would be a nice step on the long – but important – task of dealing with the third-party payer crisis in the healthcare sector.

I’m not a fan of the Simpson-Bowles plan, but I do give them credit. They decided to focus on the wrong variable and they have some bad policies, but at least it’s a real proposal.

It’s not anywhere close to the Ryan budget, but it’s a heck of a lot better than what the Senate Democrats have produced (nothing) and what the President has proposed (kicking the can down the road).

But doing a better job than the remedial students is damning with faint praise. Just in case you’re tempted to grade them on a curve, just remember that balancing the budget without tax increases doesn’t require any heavy lifting. All policymakers have to do is limit the growth of spending so it grows by an average of 2.5 percent annually over the next decade.

Other nations, such as New Zealand and Canada, got great results when imposing multi-year periods of fiscal restraint. Certainly it’s not asking too much to expect American lawmakers to exercise similar levels of prudence?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,399 other followers

%d bloggers like this: