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Posts Tagged ‘Deficits’

With all the fiscal troubles in Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy, there’s not much attention being paid to Cyprus.

But the Mediterranean island nation is a good case study illustrating the economic dangers of big government.

For all intents and purposes, Cyprus is now bankrupt, and the only question that remains to be answered is whether it will get handouts from the IMF-ECB-EC troika, handouts from Russia, or both. Here’s some of what has been reported by AP.

Cyprus’ president on Thursday defended his government’s decision to seek financial aid from the island nation’s eurozone partners while at the same time asking for a loan from Russia, insisting that the two are perfectly compatible. …Cyprus, with a population of 862,000 people, last week became the fifth country that uses the euro currency to seek a European bailout… The country is currently in talks with the so-called ‘troika’ — the body made up of officials from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — on how much bailout money it will need and the conditions that will come attached. Locked out of international markets because of its junk credit rating status, Cyprus is paying its bills thanks to a €2.5 billion ($3.14 billion) Russian loan that it clinched last year. But that money is expected to run out by the end of the year.

So what caused this mess? Is Cyprus merely the helpless and innocent victim of economic turmoil in nearby Greece?

That’s certainly the spin from Cypriot politicians, but the budget data shows that Cyprus is in trouble because of excessive spending. This chart, based on data from the International Monetary Fund, shows that the burden of government spending has jumped by an average of 8.3 percent annually since the mid-1990s.

My Golden Rule of fiscal policy is that government spending should grow slower than economic output. Nations that follow that rule generally enjoy good results, while nations that violate that rule inevitably get in trouble.

Interestingly, if Cypriot politicians had engaged in a very modest amount of spending restraint and limited annual budgetary increases to 3 percent, there would be a giant budget surplus today and the burden of government spending would be down to 21.4 percent of GDP, very close to the levels in the hyper-prosperous jurisdictions of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Actually, that’s not true. If the burden of government spending had grown as 3 percent instead of 8.3 percent, economic growth would have been much stronger, so GDP would have been much larger and the public sector would be an ever smaller share of economic output.

Speaking of GDP, the burden of government spending in Cyprus, measured as a share of GDP, has climbed dramatically since 1995.

A simple way to look at this data is that Cyprus used to have a Swiss-sized government and now it has a Greek-sized government. Government spending is just one of many policies that impact economic performance, but is anyone surprised that this huge increase in the size of the public sector has had a big negative impact on Cyprus?

Interestingly, if government spending had remained at 33.9 percent of GDP in Cyprus, the nation would have a big budget surplus today. Would that have required huge and savage budget cuts? Perhaps in the fantasy world of Paul Krugman, but politicians could have achieved that modest goal if they had simply limited annual spending increases to 6 percent.

But that was too “draconian” for Cypriot politicians, so they increased spending by an average of more than 8 percent each year.

What’s the moral of the story? Simply stated, the fiscal policy variable that matters most is the growth of government. Cyprus got in trouble because the burden of government grew faster than the productive sector of the economy.

That’s the disease, and deficits and debt are the symptoms of that underlying problem.

Europe’s political elite doubtlessly will push for higher taxes, but that approach – at best – simply masks the symptoms in the short run and usually exacerbates the disease in the long run.

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I’ve argued, ad nauseam, that the single most important goal of fiscal policy is (or should be) to make sure the private sector grows faster than the government. This “golden rule” is the best way of enabling growth and avoiding fiscal crises, and I’ve cited nations that have made progress by restraining government spending.

But what’s the best way of actually imposing such a rule, particularly since politicians like using taxpayer money as a slush fund?

Well, the Swiss voters took matters into their own hands, as I describe in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Americans looking for a way to tame government profligacy should look to Switzerland. In 2001, 85% of its voters approved an initiative that effectively requires its central government spending to grow no faster than trendline revenue. The reform, called a “debt brake” in Switzerland, has been very successful. 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 how does this system work?

Switzerland’s debt brake limits spending growth to average revenue increases over a multiyear period (as calculated by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance). This feature appeals to Keynesians, who like deficit spending when the economy stumbles and tax revenues dip. But it appeals to proponents of good fiscal policy, because politicians aren’t able to boost spending when the economy is doing well and the Treasury is flush with cash. Equally important, it is very difficult for politicians to increase the spending cap by raising taxes. Maximum rates for most national taxes in Switzerland are constitutionally set (such as by an 11.5% income tax, an 8% value-added tax and an 8.5% corporate tax). The rates can only be changed by a double-majority referendum, which means a majority of voters in a majority of cantons would have to agree.

In other words, the debt brake isn’t a de jure spending cap, but it is a de facto spending cap. And capping the growth of spending (which is the underlying disease) is the best way of controlling red ink (the symptom of excessive government).

Switzerland’s spending cap has helped the country avoid the fiscal crisis affecting so many other European nations. Annual central government spending today is less than 20% of gross domestic product, and total spending by all levels of government is about 34% of GDP. That’s a decline from 36% when the debt brake took effect. This may not sound impressive, but it’s remarkable considering how the burden of government has jumped in most other developed nations. In the U.S., total government spending has jumped to 41% of GDP from 36% during the same time period.

Switzerland is moving in the right direction and the United States is going in the wrong direction. The obvious lesson (to normal people) is that America should copy the Swiss. Congressman Kevin Brady has a proposal to do something similar to the debt brake.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R., Texas), vice chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, has introduced legislation that is akin to the Swiss debt brake. Called the Maximizing America’s Prosperity Act, his bill would impose direct spending caps, but tied to “potential GDP.” …Since potential GDP is a reasonably stable variable (like average revenue growth in the Swiss system), this approach creates a sustainable glide path for spending restraint.

In some sense, Brady’s MAP Act is akin to Sen. Corker’s CAP Act, but the use of “potential GDP” makes the reform more sustainable because economic fluctuations don’t enable big deviations in the amount of allowable spending.

To conclude, we know the right policy. It is spending restraint. We also know a policy that will achieve spending restraint. A binding spending cap. The problem, as I note in my oped, is that “politicians don’t want any type of constraint on their ability to buy votes with other people’s money.”

Overcoming that obstacle is the real challenge.

P.S. A special thanks to Pierre Bessard, the President of Switzerland’s Liberales Institut. He is a superb public intellectual and his willingness to share his knowledge of the Swiss debt brake was invaluable in helping me write my column.

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A couple of weeks ago, I offered some guarded praise for Paul Ryan’s budget, pointing out that it satisfies the most important requirement of fiscal policy by restraining spending – to an average of 3.1 percent per year over the next 10 years – so that government grows slower than the productive sector of the economy (I call this my Golden Rule).

I was more effusive in my comments about Senator Rand Paul’s budget, which limited the growth of the federal budget over the next 10 years to an average of 2.2 percent each year.

Now the Republican Study Committee from the House of Representatives has put forth a plan that also deserves considerable applause. Like Senator Paul, the RSC plan would impose immediate significant fiscal discipline such that spending in 2017 would be about the same level as it is this year.

Think of this as being similar to the very successful fiscal reforms of New Zealand and Canada in the 1990s.

After the initial period of spending restraint, the budget would be allowed to grow, but only about as fast as the private economy. This chart shows spending levels for the Obama budget, the Paul Ryan budget, the Rand Paul budget, and the RSC budget.

A couple of final points.

1. For all the whining and complaining from the pro-spending lobbies, the RSC budget is hardly draconian. Federal spending, measured as a share of GDP, would only drop to where it was when Bill Clinton left office.

2. One preferable feature of the Rand Paul budget is that the Kentucky Senator eliminates four needless and wasteful federal departments – Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development. As far as I can tell, no departments are eliminated in the RSC plan. Also, Senator Paul’s plan is bolder on tax reform, scrapping the corrupt internal revenue code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax.

3. The RSC comes perilously close to winning a Bob Dole Award. The first chapter of their proposal fixates on symptoms of debt and deficits rather than the real problem of excessive government spending. Indeed, the first six charts all relate to deficits and debt, creating an easy opening for leftists to say they can solve the mis-defined problem with higher taxes.

There are lots of other details worth exploring, but the main lesson is that restraining spending is the key to good fiscal policy.

And that’s what’s happening.  Indeed, the good news is that policymakers have proposed several budget plans that would shrink the burden of spending as a share of GDP. It’s refreshing to debate the features of several good plans (rather than comparing the warts in the competing plans during the big-government Bush years).

The bad news is that Harry Reid and Barack Obama will succeed in blocking any progress this year, so America will move ever closer to becoming another Greece.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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President Obama’s budget proposal was unveiled today, generating all sorts of conflicting statements from both parties.

Some of the assertions wrongly focus on red ink rather than the size of government. Others rely on dishonest Washington budget math, which means spending increases magically become budget cuts simply because outlays are growing at a slower rate than previously planned.

When you strip away all the misleading and inaccurate rhetoric, here’s the one set of numbers that really matters. If we believe the President’s forecasts (which may be a best-case scenario), the burden of federal spending will grow by $2 trillion between this year and 2022.

In all likelihood, the actual numbers will be worse than this forecast.

The President’s budget, for instance, projects that the burden of federal spending will expand by less than 1 percent next year. That sounds like good news since it would satisfy Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

But don’t believe it. If we look at the budget Obama proposed last year, federal spending was supposed to fall this year. Yet the Obama Administration now projects that outlays in 2012 will be more than 5 percent higher than they were in 2011.

The most honest assessment of the budget came from the President’s Chief of Staff, who openly stated that, “the time for austerity is not today.”

With $2 trillion of additional spending (and probably more), that’s the understatement of the century.

What makes this such a debacle is that other nations have managed to impose real restraints on government budgets. The Baltic nations have made actual cuts to spending. And governments in Canada, New Zealand, Slovakia, and Ireland generated big improvements by either freezing budgets or letting them grow very slowly.

I’ve already pointed out that the budget could be balanced in about 10 years if the Congress and the President displayed a modest bit of fiscal discipline and allowed spending to grow by no more than 2 percent annually.

But the goal shouldn’t be to balance the budget. We want faster growth, more freedom, and constitutional government. All of these goals (as well as balancing the budget) are made possible by reducing the burden of federal spending.

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I’m getting very frustrated. I  spend too much time reminding my supposed allies that America’s fiscal problem is too much government. Deficits and debt, I constantly explain, are best understood as symptoms, whereas a bloated public sector is the underlying disease.

Even people who are very solid on fiscal policy make the mistake of sometimes focusing too much on red ink rather than the size of government, including Senator Jim DeMint, Mark Steyn of National Review, Representative Paul Ryan, and my old friends at the Heritage Foundation.

So I’ve decided to create a new award. But unlike my other awards, which are exercises in narcissism (Mitchell’s Law, Mitchell’s Golden Rule), I’m naming this award after former Senator Bob Dole.

The message is very simple. Whenever people complain about red ink, even if they are genuine advocates of small government, they give leftists an opportunity to say that higher taxes are a solution.

That’s bad politics and bad policy. And since Bob Dole excelled in both those ways, you can understand why his name is linked to the award.

Naming the award after Bob Dole also is appropriate since he was never a sincere advocate of limited government. The Kansas lawmaker was a career politician who said in his farewell speech that his three greatest achievements were a) creating the food stamp program, b) increasing payroll taxes, and c) imposing the Americans with Disabilities Act (no wonder I wanted Clinton to win in 1996).

For all of these reasons, and more, no real conservative should want to win an award linked to Bob Dole.

So I’m putting the policy world on notice. If you say the wrong thing – even if your heart is in the right place, you may win this booby prize.

This video has further information on why the real fiscal problem is excessive government spending. Deficits also are bad, the video explains, but they are best understood as a bad consequence of big government (with high taxes being the other bad consequence).

One last point, for those who are still fixated on red ink, is that nations that do the right thing on spending also tend to be the ones who reduce deficits and debt.

Not that this should come as a surprise. The best way to get rid of symptoms is to cure the disease that causes them.

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…Well, I’m not sure what it means. But it sure doesn’t make sense when you look at the big picture. A credit card company wouldn’t increase a deadbeat’s credit limit, so why is it a sign of fiscal prudence to give Uncle Sam more borrowing authority?

That being said, I never thought it was realistic to block a debt limit increase. Indeed, I fully expected an unsatisfactory result.

But this cartoon is a pretty good summary of how Washington thinks.

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Republicans say (and do) lots of stupid things, but the current fiscal debate has me focused on two specific statements. Both get me very agitated. Indeed, I’m so irritated that all Republican politicians should be fitted with shock collars and then zapped when they utter either one of these statements.

GOP Training Device

Dumb Remark #1: “We shouldn’t raise taxes in a recession.”

This statement, or variations of that statement, gets me agitated because it implies that it’s okay to raise taxes when the economy is doing better. If we want to restrain the size of government, we should never increase the flow of revenue to Washington. Not now, not ever.

I can understand that GOPers want to make the strongest possible argument against tax hikes, so it does make sense to exploit unease about a weak economy. But there’s a better way to do it.

Smart Remark #1: “It’s always a bad idea to raise taxes, but raising taxes in a recession is especially foolish.”

Sure, it adds an extra clause to the sentence, and politicians sometimes have trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time, but I don’t think this is asking too much.

Dumb Remark #2: “We need to solve America’s debt crisis.”

This sentence (or its inbred cousin: “we need to solve America’s deficit crisis”) is like a cheese grater against my skin. It implies that big government is okay so long as we have an onerous tax system that collects lots of money.

Once again, I understand the desire of GOPers to make some reference to government borrowing. The establishment press endlessly refers to debt and deficits, and many Americans views red ink as symptoms of something amiss in Washington, but why not seize the opportunity to highlight the real problem?

Smart Remark #2: “We need to address Washington’s spending problem to avoid a Greek-style debt crisis.”

Yes, I’m asking politicians to put together a sentence that contains more words, but maybe this video will help them understand that spending is the disease and deficits are a symptom.

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All the talk of spending cuts in Washington is fictitious. Even the House Republican Study Committee budget allows spending to increase, on average, by 1.7 percent each year for the next decade. The Ryan budget, which critics deride for its “savage” cuts, allows spending to rise by an average of 2.8 percent each year. And Obama’s budget allows spending to climb, on average, by 4.7 percent each year – which is more than twice the projected rate of inflation.

Too bad American policymakers can’t copy the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Like the United States, these nations got in fiscal trouble, thanks to the combination of excessive spending and an economic downturn triggered by falling real estate prices.

But unlike the United States, these nations didn’t follow the Keynesian policy of more deficit spending. Lawmakers in the Baltic nations recognized, to borrow the words of Dan Hannan, that “you cannot spend your way out of recession or borrow your way out of debt.”

So they reduced spending. Not in the Washington sense, where politicians get to increase spending and call it a cut because outlays didn’t rise even faster. The Baltic nations imposed real cuts. And not just for one year, but in both 2009 and 2010. Here’s the data from the European Union for the Baltic nations.

Interestingly, it appears that fiscal restraint has been very successful for the Baltic nations. After suffering a steep downturn, economic growth has returned. Amazingly, Estonia is even back to having a budget surplus.

It’s also worth noting that other nations have enjoyed great success with fiscal restraint. This video shows how Canada, Ireland, Slovakia, and New Zealand dramatically reduced the burden of government spending by freezing or capping outlays. Not quite as impressive as what’s happened in the Baltics, but definitely very good compared to what’s been happening in the United States.

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I recently took part in a symposium on “The Budget Deficit and U.S. Competitiveness.” Put together by the Council on Foreign Relations, five of us were asked to concisely explain our thoughts on the issue.

Here’s some of what I wrote:

Excessive government spending can slow growth by diverting labor and capital from more productive uses. Punitive tax rates can hinder prosperity by discouraging work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. And large budget deficits can undermine competitiveness by “crowding out” private capital and building negative expectations of future tax increases. In extreme cases, high budget deficits can destabilize entire economies, either because a government resorts to the printing press to finance deficits or because investors lose faith in a government’s ability to service debt, thus leading to a sovereign debt crisis. …The best way to control this red ink while also boosting competitiveness is to cap the growth of government spending. If revenues increase by an average of 7 percent each year (as the president’s budget projects, even without tax increases), then we can reduce deficits by making sure spending grows by less than 7 percent annually.

Not surprisingly, the other participants in the symposium did not share my views.

Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget wrote that, “Revenues will have to go up to deal with the deficit” and also wrote that, “Consumption taxes could help promote savings; a carbon tax could help lead to improved energy policies.”

She’s wrong on consumption taxes, by the way. A consumption tax hits both current consumption and future consumption, so the incentive to save is left unaltered. And if you want to get technical, something like a VAT would be anti-savings since it would reduce after-tax income for households, resulting in less consumption and less saving.

Greg Ip of the Economist (I’m always mystified some people think that magazine is for less government) wrote that “…taxes will have to rise” and specifically called for, “a broad-based consumption tax or, more narrowly, by raising the gasoline tax.”

While I disagree with Maya and Greg, I should point out that they are not nearly as misguided as  Obama, Reid, Pelosi. Unlike those politicians, both of them explicitly warn against class-warfare tax increases such as higher marginal tax rates on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. These are the types of tax increases that have the worst impact on economic performance.

On other hand, a consumption tax (i.e., a value-added tax) would be the worst possible result since such a levy would be a giant money machine for big government. So while a VAT does not do as much damage, per dollar raised, as higher income tax rates, it would impose considerable damage by financing much bigger government. So McGuineas and Ip aren’t too bad on economics, but they’re really bad on political economy.

This video explains why a VAT is a terrible idea and the other video looks at the empirical evidence against big government.

Sebastian Mallaby of the Council on Foreign Relations and C. Fred Bergsten of  the Peterson Institute for International Economics also took part in the symposium. But they only wrote that deficits are a threat to competitiveness and did not suggest any solutions.

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Responding to widespread criticism of his AWOL status on the budget fight, President Obama today unveiled a fiscal plan. It already is being criticized for its class warfare approach to tax policy, but the most disturbing feature may be a provision that punishes the American people with higher taxes if politicians overspend.

Called a “debt failsafe trigger,” Obama’s scheme would automatically raise taxes if politicians spend too much. According to the talking points distributed by the White House, the automatic tax increase would take effect “if, by 2014, the projected ratio of debt-to-GDP is not stabilized and declining toward the end of the decade.”

Let’s ponder what this means. If politicians in Washington spend too much and cause more red ink, which happens on a routine basis, Obama wants a provision that automatically would raise taxes on the American people.

In other words, they play and we pay. The last thing we need is a perverse incentive for even more reckless spending from Washington.

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Washington is filled with groups that piously express their devotion to balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility, so it is rather revealing that some of these groups have less-than-friendly responses to Congressman Ryan’s budget plan.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, for instance, portrays itself as a bunch of deficit hawks. So you would think they would be doing cartwheels to celebrate a lawmaker who makes a real proposal that would control red ink. Yet Maya MacGuineas, president of the CRFB, basically rejects Ryan’s plan because it fails to increase the tax burden.

…while the proposal deserves praise for being bold, the national discussion has moved beyond just finding a plan with sufficient savings to finding one that can generate enough support to move forward. All parts of the budget, including defense and revenues, will have to be part of a budget deal… Now that both the White House and House Republicans have made their opening bids, this continues to reinforce our belief that a comprehensive plan to fix the budget like the one the Fiscal Commission recommended has the best hope of moving forward.

I’m mystified by Maya’s reference to an “opening bid” by the White House. What on earth is she talking about? Obama punted in his budget and didn’t even endorse the findings of his own Fiscal Commission. But I digress.

Another example of a group called Third Way, which purports to favor “moderate policy and political ideas” and “private-sector economic growth.” Sounds like they should be cheerleaders for Congressman Ryan’s plan, but they are even more overtly hostile to his proposal to reduce the burden of government.

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget is a deep disappointment. There is a serious framework on the table for a bipartisan deal on our long term budget crisis. It’s the Bowles-Simpson blueprint, now being turned into legislation by the Gang of Six. It puts everything on the table – a specific plan to save Social Security, significant defense cuts, large reductions in tax expenditures and reforms to make Medicare and Medicaid more efficient, not eliminate them.

That sounds hard left, not third way. But it’s not unusual. Many of the self-proclaimed deficit hawks on Capitol Hill also have been either silent or critical of Ryan’s plan.

Which leaves me to conclude that what they really want are tax increases, and they simply use rhetoric about debt and deficits to push their real agenda.

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London was just hit by heavy riots as part of a protest against the “deep” and “savage” budget cuts of the Cameron government. This is not the first time the U.K. has endured riots. The welfare lobby, bureaucrats, and other recipients of taxpayer largesse are becoming increasingly agitated that their gravy train may be derailed.

The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, but some hooligans took the opportunity to wreak havoc. These nihilistic punks apparently call themselves anarchists, but are too dense to understand the giant disconnect of adopting that title while at the same time rioting for bigger government and more redistribution. My anarcho-capitalist friends must be embarrassed by the potential linkage with these angry morons.

Speaking of rage, Paul Krugman is equally dismayed with Prime Minister Cameron’s ostensibly penny-pinching budget. Summoning the ghost of John Maynard Keynes, he asserts that such frugality is misguided when an economy is still weak and people are unemployed. Indeed, Krugman argues that the U.K. economy is weak today precisely because of Cameron’s supposed austerity.

Not surprisingly, the purpose of his argument is to discourage similar policies from being adopted in the United States.

Here’s part of what Krugman wrote as part of his column on “The Austerity Delusion.”

Austerity advocates predicted that spending cuts would bring quick dividends in the form of rising confidence, and that there would be few, if any, adverse effects on growth and jobs; but they were wrong. …Like America, Britain is still perceived as solvent by financial markets, giving it room to pursue a strategy of jobs first, deficits later. But the government of Prime Minister David Cameron chose instead to move to immediate, unforced austerity, in the belief that private spending would more than make up for the government’s pullback. As I like to put it, the Cameron plan was based on belief that the confidence fairy would make everything all right. But she hasn’t: British growth has stalled, and the government has marked up its deficit projections as a result.

At first I wondered if Krugman was playing an April Fool’s joke, but this is consistent with his long-held views about the magical impact of government spending. Besides, his piece is dated March 25, so I think we can safely assume he actually believes that Cameron’s supposed budget cutting is crippling the U.K.’s recovery.

There are two problems with Krugman’s column. The obvious problem is his unwavering support for Keynesian economics. I’ve addressed that issue here, here, here, here, and here, so I don’t feel any great need to rehash all those arguments. I’ll just ask why the policy still has adherents when it failed for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, failed for Japan in the 1990s, failed for Bush in 2008, and failed for Obama in 2009.

But the really amazing thing this is that both Krugman and the rioters are wrong, not just in their opinions and ideology, but also about basic facts. Government spending has skyrocketed in the United Kingdom in recent years. And, as the chart shows, spending is even increasing by about twice as fast as inflation in the current fiscal year. But don’t believe me. Look on page 102 of the U.K.’s latest budget.

Maybe that’s austerity to the looters and moochers who think they have an unlimited claim on the production and income of other people, but it’s hard to see how a 4 percent increase can be characterized as “brutal” and “vicious” spending cuts.

Moreover, Cameron also has been a disappointment on the tax issue. He left in place Gordon Brown’s election-year, 10-percentage point increase in the top income tax rate. But then he imposed an increase in the VAT rate and implemented a higher capital gains tax.

To be sure, Cameron’s budget promises a bit of fiscal restraint in upcoming years, with spending supposedly growing at about 1 percent annually over the next three years. That would actually be somewhat impressive, roughly akin to what Canada and Slovakia achieved in recent decades. But promises of future spending restraint (which may never materialize) surely are not the same as present-day austerity.

One final comment. While I obviously disagree with much of what Krugman wrote, he does make some sound points. Many Republicans and Democrats claim that changes in deficits and debt have a big impact on interest, for instance, but Krugman correctly notes that there is no evidence for this assertion. Nations such as Portugal and Greece may face high interest rates, but that’s because investors don’t trust those governments to pay their debts, not because the borrowing of these states is having an impact on credit markets.

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There’s a significant debate now taking place in Washington – largely behind closed doors, but sometimes covered by the media – on whether fiscal conservatives should maintain a rigid no-tax-increase position. One side of the debate features Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, which is the organization that maintains the no-tax increase pledge. The other side features Senator Coburn of Oklahoma, who is part of a small group of GOP Senators who might be willing to increase the tax burden as part of a deal that supposedly reduces deficits.

I’m a huge fan of Senator Coburn, who was in favor of cutting wasteful spending before it became fashionable. His office, for instance, releases a “Pork Report” every couple of days. But you shouldn’t read it if you have high blood pressure, because it will confirm (and reconfirm, and reconfirm, ad nauseum) your worst fears about tax dollars getting wasted.

Nonetheless, I’m on Grover’s side on this tax debate for two reasons.

First, we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem or a deficit/debt problem. Red ink is undesirable, to be sure, but it is a symptom of the underlying problem of a government that is too big and spending too much.

But don’t believe me. Here is a chart from the House Budget Committee showing long-run projections for spending and revenues over the next 70 years. As you can see, the long-run fiscal shortfall is completely caused by higher spending. In other words, 100 percent of red ink is due to government spending. So why put taxes on the table?

But this chart actually understates the case against tax increases. It uses revenue numbers from the Congressional Budget Office’s “alternative” forecast, which shows taxes steady at 19.3 percent of GDP. That’s more than the historical average of about 18 percent of GDP, which surely indicates that revenues are not the problem.

However, that 19.3 percent estimate is completely artificial. As CBO states in its long-run forecast, “the alternative fiscal scenario also incorporates unspecified changes in tax law that would keep revenues constant as a share of GDP after 2020.”

I’ll actually be delighted if we can permanently keep federal revenues below 20 percent of GDP, but I’m not overly optimistic because the tax burden is projected to automatically increase over time. And I’m not talking about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts or the alternative minimum tax. Yes, those factors would push up tax revenues (at least based on static revenue estimates), but the tax burden also is expected to climb because even modest economic growth slowly but surely pushes more and more people into higher tax brackets.

This second chart shows CBO’s estimate of personal income tax revenue based on current policy (as opposed to estimates based on current law, which includes already legislated tax hikes). To be more specific, it shows how much revenue the government will collect from the individual income tax even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent and the AMT is indexed.

As you can see, the aggregate individual income tax burden will increase by roughly 5 percentage points of GDP when compared to the long-run average of about 8 percent of GDP (the CBO estimate only goes to 2035, so I extrapolated to show the same time period as the first chart). And remember, this is the forecast of what will happen to income tax revenues even if politicians don’t impose any new laws to coercively extract more revenue.

This might not be too bad if other taxes were falling, but that’s not what CBO is projecting. As such, this big increase in revenue from the individual income tax means that the overall tax burden will climb by approximately the same amount.

In other words, revenue likely will rise close to 25 percent of GDP as we approach the next century. So if we use this more realistic baseline, we can say that more than 100 percent of the long-run deficit problem is because spending is out of control.

The second reason for a firm no-tax increase position is that higher taxes are a very ineffective way of reducing budget deficits. Indeed, tax increases generally backfire and lead to more red ink. To understand why, it’s important to put away the calculator and instead consider the real world of politics and public policy. For instance:

o  Tax increases rarely raise as much revenue as predicted by government forecasters. This is because of “Laffer Curve” effects, as taxpayers change their behavior to earn less income and/or report less income. Simply stated, people respond to incentives, and this means taxable income falls as tax rates increase.

o  Tax increases erode pressure to control spending. Why would politicians want to make tough decisions and upset special interest groups, after all, when there is going to be more revenue (or at least the expectation of more revenue)? Using more colloquial language, trying to control spending with higher taxes is like trying to cure alcoholics by giving them keys to a liquor store.

o  Milton Friedman was right when he said that, “In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.” In other words, if politicians think they can get away with deficits averaging, say, 5 percent of GDP in the long run, then the the only impact of higher taxes is an equal amount of additional spending – while still retaining deficits of 5 percent of GDP.

The real-world evidence certainly points in this direction. We’ve seen “bipartisan budget summits” several times in Washington, and the result is more spending rather than lower deficits. Americans for Tax Reform has a good analysis of what happened after the two big budget summits in 1982 and 1990, but I think the problem is best captured by my adaptation of a famous Peanuts cartoon strip.

Every year, if my aging memory is correct, Lucy would ask Charlie Brown if he wanted to kick the football. At first, Charlie was skeptical. But Lucy always managed to trick him into giving it a try. And the inevitable result was Charlie Brown lying on his back wondering why he had been so foolish.

In the Washington version of this cartoon, Democrats hypnotize gullible Republicans with ostensibly sincere promises of future spending restraint. Republicans eventually acquiesce, naively assuming that Democrats will be their new best-friends-forever in the fight against big government.

Needless to say, that’s not the way the story ends.

Ronald Reagan is reported to have said that the 1982 tax increase was the “biggest mistake” of his presidency. And since Congress never followed through on commitments to reduce spending by $3 for every $1 of higher taxes, he wryly remarked that, “I’m still waiting on those three dollars of spending cuts I was promised from Congress.”

Like Ronald Reagan, Tom Coburn wants to do the right thing. But good intentions are not the same as good policy. America’s fiscal challenge is too much spending. Government is too big and it is wasting too much money. Taking more money from the American people is not the way to solve that problem.

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Fiscal policy wonks (like me, I’m forced to admit) sometimes miss the forest because we focus too much on individual trees.

So while I think my posts on the spending and revenue sides of Obama’s new budget contained lots of useful information, I didn’t pay any attention to the elephant in the room (I’m really going overboard with metaphors, huh?).

The most important number in Obama’s budget is that he is proposing $5.7 trillion of spending in 2021, about $2 trillion more than is being spent this year, according to table S-1 of the budget.

Here’s everything you need to know about Obama’s budget, in one chart.

It’s important to make three additional observations. First, Obama’s budget is based on all sorts of optimistic assumptions and rosy scenarios, as explained by Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation. When CBO produces a re-estimate of the President’s budget, it almost certainly will show hundreds of billions of dollars of additional spending.

Second, the slope of the line if the graph is very revealing. The first two years look very impressive, with almost no change in spending, but the goal of fiscal policy, to borrow a phrase from the health care debate, should be “bending the cost curve” of government. Short-run gimmicks, to put it mildly, don’t have any long-run impact. That’s why the most important number in Obama’s budget is the $5.7 trillion burden of spending in 2021. That’s a mark of fiscal failure, and it exists because Obama’s budget increases spending at twice the rate of inflation between 2013 and 2021.

Third, many people have appropriately criticized the White House for moving the fiscal goalposts (oops, another metaphor) and focusing on a technical budget concept known as “primary deficit” or “primary balance” instead of traditional budget measures. This is an arcane issue involving the difference between total spending compared to overall spending minus interest payments. Yes, the White House is being slippery, even earning a false rating from PolitiFact, but this is red herring (there I go again) issue. What really matters is the size of government, not regular deficits or primary deficits. Too many Republicans are fixating on the symptom of too much borrowing and paying insufficient attention to the underlying disease of too much spending. This video explains further.

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President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 has been released and there is lots of rhetoric in Washington about “budget cuts.”

At first glance, this seems warranted. According to the just-released fiscal blueprint, the federal government is spending about $3.8 trillion this year and the President is proposing to spending a bit more than $3.7 trillion next year. In other words, the White House is going beyond a budget freeze and is actually proposing to spend $90 billion less next year than is being spent this year.

That certainly seems consistent with my proposal to solve America’s fiscal problems by restraining the growth of spending.

But you won’t find a smile on my face. This new budget may be better than Obama’s first two fiscal blueprints, but that’s damning with faint praise. The absence of big initiatives such as the so-called stimulus scheme or a government-run healthcare plan simply means that there’s no major new proposal to accelerate America’s fiscal decline.

But neither is there any plan to undo the damage of the past 10 years, which resulted in a doubling in the burden of government spending during a period when inflation was less than 30 percent.

Moreover, many of the supposed budget savings (such as nearly $40 billion of lower jobless benefits) are dependent on better economic performance. I certainly hope the White House is correct about faster growth and more job creation, but they’ve been radically wrong for the past two years and it might not be wise to rely on optimistic assumptions.

Some of the fine print in the budget also is troubling, such as Table 4.1 of OMB’s Historical Tables of the Budget, which shows that some agencies are getting huge increases, including:

o     17 percent more money for International Assistance Programs;

o     24 percent more money for the Executive Office of the President;

o     13 percent for the Department of Transportation; and

o     12 percent more for the Department of State.

But these one-year changes in outlays are dwarfed by the 10-year trend. Since 2001, spending has skyrocketed in almost every part of the budget. Even with the supposed “cuts” in Obama’s budget, there will be:

o     112 percent more spending for the Department of Agriculture;

o     100 percent more spending for the Department of Education;

o     154 percent more spending for the Department of Energy;

o     110 percent more spending for the Department of Health and Human Services;

o     175 percent more spending for the Department of Labor; and

o     82 percent for the Department of Transportation.

And remember that inflation was less than 30 percent during this period.

The budget needs to be dramatically downsized, yet the President has proposed that we tread water.

But even that’s too optimistic. America’s real fiscal challenge is that the burden of government spending will dramatically increase in coming decades, thanks largely to an aging population and poorly designed entitlement programs. Barring some sort of change, the United States will suffer the same problems that are now afflicting failed welfare states such as Greece and Portugal.

On the issue of entitlement reform, however, the President is missing in action. He’s not even willing to embrace the timid proposals of his own Fiscal Commission.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the tax side of the President’s budget.

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I’m not a big fan of central banks, and I definitely don’t like multilateral bureaucracies, so I almost feel guilty about publicizing two recent studies published by the European Central Bank. But when such an institution puts out research that unambiguously makes the case for smaller government, it’s time to sit up and take notice. And since these studies largely echo the findings of recent research by the International Monetary Fund, we may have reached a point where even the establishment finally understands that government is too big.

The first study looks at real-world examples of debt reduction in 15 European nations and investigates the fiscal policies that worked and didn’t work. Entitled, “Major Public Debt Reductions: Lessons From The Past, Lessons For The Future,” the report unambiguously concludes that spending restraint is the right way to reduce deficits and debt. Tax increases, by contrast, are not successful. The study doesn’t highlight this result, but the data clearly show that, “revenue increases do not seem to have induced debt reductions, whereas cuts in primary expenditure seem to have contributed significantly in the case of major debt reductions.” Here’s a key excerpt.

…this paper estimates several specifications of a logistic probability model to assess which factors determine the probability of a major debt reduction in the EU-15 during the period 1985-2009. Our results are three-fold. First, major debt reductions are mainly driven by decisive and lasting (rather than timid and short-lived) fiscal consolidation efforts focused on reducing government expenditure, in particular, cuts in social benefits and public wages. Revenue-based consolidations seem to have a tendency to be less successful. Second, robust real GDP growth also increases the likelihood of a major debt reduction because it helps countries to “grow their way out” of indebtedness. Here, the literature also points to a positive feedback effect with decisive expenditure-based fiscal consolidation because this type of consolidation appears to foster growth, in particular in times of severe fiscal imbalances.

The last part of this passage is especially worth highlighting. The authors found that reducing spending promotes faster economic growth. In other words, Obama did exactly the wrong thing with his so-called stimulus. The U.S. economy would have enjoyed much better performance if the burden of spending had been reduced rather than increased. One can only hope the statists at the Congressional Budget Office learn from this research.

Equally interesting, the report notes that reducing social welfare spending and reducing the burden of the bureaucracy are the two most effective ways of lowering red ink.

The estimation results indicate that expenditure-based consolidation which mainly concentrates on cuts in social benefits and government wages is more likely to lead to a major debt reduction. A significant decline in social benefits or public wages vis-a-vis the overall decline in the primary expenditure will increase the probability of a major debt reduction by 31 and 26 percent, respectively.

The other study takes a different approach, looking at the poor fiscal position of European nations and showing what would have happened if governments had imposed some sort of cap on government spending. Entitled, “Towards Expenditure Rules And Fiscal Sanity In The Euro Area,” this report finds that restraining spending (what the study refers to as a “neutral expenditure policy”) would have generated much better results.  Here are the main findings.

…the study assesses the impact of the fiscal stance on primary expenditure ratios and public debt ratios and, thus, provides a measure of prudence or imprudence of past expenditure policies. The study finds that on the basis of real time rules, expenditure and debt ratios in 2009 for the euro area aggregate would not have been much different with neutral expenditure policies than actually experienced. …Primary expenditure ratios would have been 2-3½ pp of GDP lower for the euro area aggregate, 3-5pp of GDP for the euro area without Germany and up to over 10 pp of GDP lower in certain countries if expenditure policies had been neutral.

There’s a bit of academic jargon in that passage, but the authors are basically saying that some sort of annual limit on the growth of government spending is a smart fiscal strategy. And such rules, depending on the country, would have reduced the burden of government spending by as much as 10 percentage points of GDP. To put that figure in context, reducing the burden of government spending by that much in America would balance the budget overnight.

There are several ways of achieving such a goal. The report suggests a rule based on the growth of the overall economy, which is similar to a proposal being developed in the United States by Senator Corker of Tennessee. But it also could mean something akin to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, but intelligently revised to focus on annual spending rather than annual deficits. Some sort of limit on annual spending, perhaps based on population plus inflation like the old Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) in Colorado, also could be successful.

There are a couple of ways of skinning this cat. What’s important is that there needs to be a formula that limits how much spending can grow, and this formula should be designed so that the private sector grows faster than the public sector. And to make sure the formula is successful, it should be enforced by automatic spending cuts, similar to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings sequester provision.

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There is a very bizarre race happening in Illinois. The Governor and the leaders of the State Senate and General Assembly are trying to figure out how to ram through a massive tax increase, but they’re trying to make it happen before new state lawmakers take office tomorrow. The Democrats will still control the state legislature, but their scheme to fleece taxpayers would face much steeper odds because of GOP gains in last November’s elections.

As a result, the Illinois version of a lame-duck session has become a nightmare, sort of a feeding frenzy of tax-crazed politicians. Here’s the Chicago Tribune’s description of the massive tax hike being sought by the Democrats.

The 3 percent rate now paid by individuals and families would rise to 5 percent in one of the largest state tax increases in Illinois history. …Also part of the plan is a 46 percent business tax increase. The 4.8 percent corporate tax rate would climb to 7 percent… In addition, lawmakers are looking at a $1-a-pack increase in the state’s current 98-cent tax on cigarettes. …Democrats will still control the new General Assembly that gets sworn in Wednesday, their numbers were eroded by Republicans in the November election. With virtually no Republican support for higher taxes, Democratic leaders contend it will be easier to gain support for a tax hike in a legislature with some retiring members no longer worried about facing the voters.

If Governor Quinn and Democratic leaders win their race to impose a massive tax hike, that will then trigger another race. Only this time, it will be a contest to see how many productive people “go Galt” and leave the state. John Kass, a columnist for the Tribune, points out that the Democrats’ plan won’t work unless politicians figure out how to enslave taxpayers so they can’t escape the kleptocracy known as Illinois.

The warlords of Madiganistan — that bankrupt Midwestern state once known as Illinois — are hungry to feed on our flesh once again. This time the ruling Democrats are planning a…state income tax increase, with more job-killing taxes on corporations… A few tamed Republicans also want to join in and support a tax deal, demonstrating their eagerness to play the eunuch in the court of the pasha. And though they’ve been quite ingenious, waiting for the end of a lame-duck legislative session to do their dirty work, they forgot something important. They forgot to earmark some extra funds for that great, big wall. You know, that wall they’re going to need, 60 feet high, the one with razor wire on top and guard towers, equipped with police dogs and surrounded by an acid-filled moat. The wall they’re going to have to build around the entire state, to keep desperate taxpayers from fleeing to Indiana, Wisconsin and other places that want jobs and businesses and people who work hard for a living. …With the state billions upon billions in debt, and the political leaders raising taxes, borrowing billions more and not making any substantive spending cuts, we’ve reached a certain point in our history. The tipping point. Taxes grow. Employers run. The jobs leave. High-end wage earners have the mobility to escape. What’s left are the low-end workers who are stuck here. …the Democrats aren’t about to disappoint their true constituents. So they don’t cut, they tax. Because the true constituents of the Democratic warlords are the public service unions and the special interests that benefit from all that spending. Why should politicians make cuts and anger the people that give them power, the power that allows them access to treasure? …we reach another tipping point: The point at which those who are tied to government, either through contracts or employment, actually outnumber those who are not tied to government. Do the math on Election Day.

Illinois is America’s worst state, based on what it costs to insure state debt. The greedy politicians in Springfield think a tax hike will give them enough money to pay bondholders and reward special-interest groups. But that short-sighted approach is based on the assumption that people and businesses will cheerfully bend over and utter the line made famous by Animal House: “Thank you, sir! May I have another?”

Moving across state lines is generally not something that happens overnight. But this giant tax hike is sure to be the tipping point for a few investors, entrepreneurs, rich people, and employers. Each year, more and more of them will decide they can be more successful and more profitable by re-domiciling in low-tax states. When that happens, Illinois politicians will get a lesson about the Laffer Curve, just as happened in Maryland, Oregon, and New York.

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Thanks to decades of reckless spending by European welfare states, the newspapers are filled with headlines about debt, default, contagion, and bankruptcy.

We know that Greece and Ireland already have received direct bailouts, and other European welfare states are getting indirect bailouts from the European Central Bank, which is vying with the Federal Reserve in a contest to see which central bank can win the “Most Likely to Appease the Political Class” Award.

But which nation will be the next domino to fall? Who will get the next direct bailout?

Some people think total government debt is the key variable, and there’s been a lot of talk that debt levels of 90 percent of GDP represent some sort of fiscal Maginot Line. Once nations get above that level, there’s a risk of some sort of crisis.

But that’s not necessarily a good rule of thumb. This chart, based on 2010 data from the Economist Intelligence Unit (which can be viewed with a very user-friendly map), shows that Japan’s debt is nearly 200 percent of GDP, yet Japanese debt is considered very safe, based on the market for credit default swaps, which measures the cost of insuring debt. Indeed, only U.S. debt is seen as a better bet.

Interest payments on debt may be a better gauge of a nation’s fiscal health. The next chart (2011 data) shows the same countries, and the two nations with the highest interest costs, Greece and Ireland, already have been bailed out. Interestingly, Japan is in the best shape, even though it has the biggest debt. This shows why interest rates are very important. If investors think a nation is safe, they don’t require high interest rates to compensate them for the risk of default (fears of future inflation also can play a role, since investors don’t like getting repaid with devalued currency).

Based on this second chart, it appears that Italy, Portugal, and Belgium are the next dominos to topple. Portugal may be the best bet (no pun intended) based on credit default swap rates, and that certainly is consistent with the current speculation about an official bailout.

Spain is the wild card in this analysis. It has the second-lowest level of both debt and interest payments as shares of GDP, but the CDS market shows that Spanish government debt is a greater risk than bonds from either Italy or Belgium.

By the way, the CDS market shows that lending money to Illinois and California is also riskier than lending to either Italy or Belgium.

The moral of the story is that there is no magic point where deficit spending leads to a fiscal crisis, but we do know that it is a bad idea for governments to engage in reckless spending over a long period of time. That’s a recipe for stifling taxes and large deficits. And when investors see the resulting combination of sluggish growth and rising debt, eventually they will run out of patience.

The Bush-Obama policy of big government has moved America in the wrong direction. But if the data above is any indication, America probably has some breathing room. What happens on the budget this year may be an indication of whether we use that time wisely.

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There are two crises facing Social Security. First the program has a gigantic unfunded liability, largely caused by demographics. Second, the program is a very bad deal for younger workers, making them pay record amounts of tax in exchange for comparatively meager benefits. This video explains how personal accounts can solve both problems, and also notes that nations as varied as Australia, Chile, Sweden, and Hong Kong have implemented this pro-growth reform.

Social Security reform received a good bit of attention in the past two decades. President Clinton openly flirted with the idea, and President Bush explicitly endorsed the concept. But it has faded from the public square in recent years. But this may be about to change. Personal accounts are part of Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap proposal, and recent polls show continued strong support for letting younger workers shift some of their payroll taxes to individual accounts.

Equally important, the American people understand that Social Security’s finances are unsustainable. They may not know specific numbers, but they know politicians have created a house of cards, which is why jokes about the system are so easily understandable.

President Obama thinks the answer is higher taxes, which is hardly a surprise. But making people pay more is hardly an attractive option, unless you’re the type of person who thinks it’s okay to give people a hamburger and charge them for a steak.

Other nations have figured out the right approach. Australia began to implement personal accounts back in the mid-1980s, and the results have been remarkable. The government’s finances are stronger. National saving has increased. But most important, people now can look forward to a safer and more secure retirement. Another great example is Chile, which set up personal accounts in the early 1980s. This interview with Jose Pinera, who designed the Chilean system, is a great summary of why personal accounts are necessary. All told, about 30 nations around the world have set up some form of personal accounts. Even  Sweden, which the left usually wants to mimic,  has partially privatized its Social Security system.

It also should be noted that personal accounts would be good for growth and competitiveness. Reforming a tax-and-transfer entitlement scheme into a system of private savings will boost jobs by lowering the marginal tax rate on work. Personal accounts also will boost private savings. And Social Security reform will reduce the long-run burden of government spending, something that is desperately needed if we want to avoid the kind of fiscal crisis that is afflicting European welfare states such as Greece.

Last but not least, it is important to understand that personal retirement accounts are not a free lunch. Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system, so if we let younger workers shift their payroll taxes to individual accounts, that means the money won’t be there to pay benefits to current retirees. Fulfilling the government’s promise to those retirees, as well as to older workers who wouldn’t have time to benefit from the new system, will require a lot of money over the next couple of decades, probably more than $5 trillion.

That’s a shocking number, but it’s important to remember that it would be even more expensive to bail out the current system. As I explain at the conclusion of the video, we’re in a deep hole, but it will be easier to climb out if we implement real reform.

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The news is going from bad to worse for Ireland. The Irish Independent is reporting that the Swiss Central Bank no longer will accept Irish government bonds as collateral. The story also notes that one of the world’s largest bond firms, PIMCO, is no longer purchasing debt issued by the Irish government.

And this is happening even though (or perhaps because?) Ireland received a big bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (and the IMF’s involvement means American taxpayers are picking up part of the tab).

I’ve already commented on Ireland’s woes, and opined about similar problems afflicting the rest of Europe, but the continuing deterioration of the Emerald Isle deserves further analysis so that American policy makers hopefully grasp the right lessons. Here are five things we should learn from the mess in Ireland.

1. Bailouts Don’t Work – When Ireland’s government rescued depositors by bailing out the nation’s three big banks, they made a big mistake by also bailing out creditors such as bondholders. This dramatically increased the cost of the bank bailout and exacerbated moral hazard since investors are more willing to make inefficient and risky choices if they think governments will cover their losses. And because it required the government to incur a lot of additional debt, it also had the effect of destabilizing the nation’s finances, which then resulted in a second mistake – the bailout of Ireland by the European Union and IMF (a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which occurs when one bad government policy leads to another bad government policy).

American policy makers already have implemented one of the two mistakes mentioned above. The TARP bailout went way beyond protecting depositors and instead gave unnecessary handouts to wealthy and sophisticated companies, executives, and investors. But something good may happen if we learn from the second mistake. Greedy politicians from states such as California and Illinois would welcome a bailout from Uncle Sam, but this would be just as misguided as the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland. The Obama Administration already provided an indirect short-run bailout as part of the so-called stimulus legislation, and this encouraged states to dig themselves deeper in a fiscal hole. Uncle Sam shouldn’t be subsidizing bad policy at the state level, and the mess in Europe is a powerful argument that this counterproductive approach should be stopped as soon as possible.

By the way, it’s worth noting that politicians and international bureaucracies behave as if government defaults would have catastrophic consequences, but Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that there have been more than 200 sovereign defaults in the past 200 years and we somehow avoided Armageddon.

2. Excessive Government Spending Is a Path to Fiscal Ruin – The bailout of the banks obviously played a big role in causing Ireland’s fiscal collapse, but the government probably could have weathered that storm if politicians in Dublin hadn’t engaged in a 20-year spending spree.

The red line in the chart shows the explosive growth of government spending. Irish politicians got away with this behavior for a long time. Indeed, government spending as a share of GDP (the blue line) actually fell during the 1990s because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector. This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

Eventually, however, the house of cards collapsed. Revenues dried up and the banks failed, but because the politicians had spent so much during the good times, there was no reserve during the bad times.

American politicians are repeating these mistakes. Spending has skyrocketed during the Bush-Obama year. We also had our version of a financial system bailout, though fortunately not as large as Ireland’s when measured as a share of economic output, so our crisis is likely to occur when the baby boom generation has retired and the time comes to make good on the empty promises to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

3. Low Corporate Tax Rates Are Good, but They Don’t Guarantee Economic Success if other Policies Are Bad – Ireland used to be a success story. They went from being the “Sick Man of Europe” in the early 1980s to being the “Celtic Tiger” earlier this century in large part because policy makers dramatically reformed fiscal policy. Government spending was capped in the late 1980 and tax rates were reduced during the 1990s. The reform of the corporate income tax was especially dramatic. Irish lawmakers reduced the tax rate from 50 percent all the way down to 12.5 percent.

This policy was enormously successful in attracting new investment, and Ireland’s government actually wound up collecting more corporate tax revenue at the lower rate. This was remarkable since it is only in very rare cases that the Laffer Curve means a tax cut generates more revenue for government (in the vast majority of cases, the Laffer Curve simply means that changes in taxable income will have revenue effects that offset only a portion of the revenue effects caused by the change in tax rates).

Unfortunately, good corporate tax policy does not guarantee good economic performance if the government is making a lot of mistakes in other areas. This is an apt description of what happened to Ireland. The silver lining to this sad story is that Irish politicians have resisted pressure from France and Germany and are keeping the corporate tax rate at 12.5 percent. The lesson for American policy makers, of course, is that low corporate tax rates are a very good idea, but don’t assume they protect the economy from other policy mistakes.

4. Artificially Low Interest Rates Encourage Bubbles – No discussion of Ireland’s economic problems would be complete without looking at the decision to join the common European currency. Adopting the euro had some advantages, such as not having to worry about changing money when traveling to many other European nations. But being part of Europe’s monetary union also meant that Ireland did not have flexible interest rates.

Normally, an economic boom drives up interest rates because the plethora of profitable opportunities leads investors demand more credit. But Ireland’s interest rates, for all intents and purposes, were governed by what was happening elsewhere in Europe, where growth was generally anemic. The resulting artificially low interest rates in Ireland helped cause a bubble, much as artificially low interest rates in America last decade led to a bubble.

But if America already had a bubble, what lesson can we learn from Ireland? The simple answer is that we should learn to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Easy money is a recipe for inflation and/or bubbles. Simply stated, excess money has to go someplace and the long-run results are never pleasant. Yet Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have launched QE2, a policy explicitly designed to lower interest rates in hopes of artificially juicing the economy.

5. Housing Subsidies Reduce Prosperity – Last but not least, Ireland’s bubble was worsened in part because politicians created an extensive system of preferences that tilted the playing field in the direction of real estate. The combination of these subsidies and the artificially low interest rates caused widespread malinvestment and Ireland is paying the price today.

Since we just endured a financial crisis caused in large part by a corrupt system of housing subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, American policy makers should have learned this lesson already. But as Thomas Sowell sagely observes, politicians are still fixated on somehow re-inflating the housing bubble. The lesson they should have learned is that markets should determine value, not politics.

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Here are a few predictions for next year. It will be hot in Dallas in July, it will be cold in Stockholm in February, and Governor Jerry Brown of California will ask Uncle Sam for some sort of bailout.

I’m actually not sure about the first two predictions, but I think the last one is as close to a sure thing as you can get. Sven Larson is one of America’s top experts on state fiscal issues (his blog is an excellent resource for people who want to keep informed about the shenanigans of governors and state legislatures), and here’s his assessment of the mess in California.

California state spending has outgrown the state’s tax base by 1.3 percentage points annually for 25 years. Simple arithmetic dictates that in lieu of constant tax increases, this perpetuates a deficit. From 1985 to 2009 state GDP in California grew by 5.5 percent per year, on average (not adjusted for inflation). Annual growth in state spending was 6.8 percent, on average. Three spending categories have dominated this spending spree: public schools, cash assistance and Medicaid. Making up half of state spending, they are outlets for traditional redistributive welfare state policy. …Of the three aforementioned spending categories, two have grown faster than state GDP, i.e., the tax base, throughout the past quarter-century: • Public school spending grew at 6.5 percent per year on average, one full percent faster than state GDP • Medicaid grew at 10.7 percent per year on average, approximately twice the rate of state GDP.

In other words, California is in a fiscal mess because spending has grown too rapidly. It’s unclear why taxpayers in other states should be ripped off so that Golden State politicians can maintain an unsustainable vote-buying racket – particularly when the state goes out of its way to punish economic growth and discourage job creation.

To make matters worse, bailouts (or even the expectation of bailouts) send a terrible signal. Matt Mitchell (no relation) of the Mercatus Center looked at precisely this issue and concluded that state politicians would be even more profligate if they got any indication that they could shift the tax burden to people in other states. He even found an interesting study showing how sub-national governments in Germany responded to this kind of perverse incentive structure. Here’s an excerpt from that research.

States with a softer budget constraint [i.e., greater expectation that the German national government will bail them out], have higher deficits and debts and receive more bailout funds. …The larger the expectation of a bailout, the higher the amount spent in a number of spending categories, and special interests are most likely to benefit from this additional spending. We also find that bailout expectations lead to less efficient state government service provision.

By the way, I don’t want to imply that this is solely a California issue. There are several states that have taxed and spent themselves into fiscal ditches. Indeed, it’s quite likely that Illinois may be the first state to experience a fiscal collapse.

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Appearing on Bloomberg TV, I pontificate about the good, the bad, and the ugly in the recent tax deal. I also make what I hope are good points about the Laffer Curve and the meaning of deficits.

The video won’t embed, but just click below and you can watch it on youtube. As always, feedback is welcome.

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When big-spending politicians in Washington pontificate about “deficit reduction,” taxpayers should be very wary. Crocodile tears about red ink almost always are a tactic that the political class uses to make tax increases more palatable. The way it works is that the crowd in DC increases spending, which leads to more red ink, which allows them to say we have a deficit crisis, which gives them an excuse to raise taxes, which then gives them more money to spend. This additional spending then leads to more debt, which provides a rationale for higher taxes, and the pattern continues – sort of a lather-rinse-repeat cycle of big government.

Fortunately, it looks like the American people have figured out this scam. By a 57-34 margin, they say that reducing federal spending should be the number-one goal of fiscal policy rather than deficit reduction. And since red ink is just a symptom of the real problem of too much spending, this data is very encouraging.

Here are some of the details from a new Rasmussen poll, which Mark Tapscott labels, “evidence of a yawning divide between the nation’s Political Class and the rest of the country on what to do about the federal government’s fiscal crisis.”

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 57% of Likely U.S. Voters think reducing federal government spending is more important than reducing the deficit. Thirty-four percent (34%) put reducing the deficit first.  It’s telling to note that while 65% of Mainstream voters believe cutting spending is more important, 72% of the Political Class say the primary emphasis should be on deficit reduction. …Seventy-four percent (74%) of Republicans and 50% of voters not affiliated with either of the major parties say cutting spending is more important than reducing the deficit. Democrats are more narrowly divided on the question. Most conservatives and moderates say spending cuts should come first, but most liberals say deficit reduction is paramount. Voters have consistently said in surveys for years that increased government spending hurts the economy, while decreased spending has a positive effect on the economy.

I wouldn’t read too much into the comparative data, since the “political class” in Rasmussen’s polls apparently refers to respondents with a certain set of establishment preferences rather than those living in the DC area and/or those mooching off the federal government, but the overall results are very encouraging.

Oh, and for those who naively trust politicians and want to cling to the idea that deficit reduction should be the first priority, let’s not forget that spending restraint is the right policy anyhow. As I noted in this blog post, even economists at institutions such as Harvard and the IMF are finding that nations are far more successful in reducing red ink if they focus on controlling the growth of government spending.

In other words, the right policy is always spending restraint – regardless of your goal…unless you’re a member of the political class and you want to make government bigger by taking more money from taxpayers.

So we know what to do. The only question is whether we can get the folks in Washington to do what’s right. Unfortunately, the American people are not very optimistic. Here’s one more finding from Rasmussen.

Most voters are still not convinced, even with a new Republican majority in the House, that Congress will actually cut government spending substantially over the next year.  GOP voters are among the most doubtful.

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There are plenty of reason to like and dislike the tax deal between President Obama and congressional leaders. On the plus side, we dodge a big tax increase for the next two years. We also replace a goofy and ineffective “make work pay” tax credit with a supply-side oriented reduction in the payroll tax rate (albeit only for one year, so there probably won’t be much economic benefit).

On the negative side, the deal extends unemployment benefits, which has the perverse effect of subsidizing unemployment. The deal is also filled with all sorts of corrupt provisions for various interest groups such as ethanol producers.

Then there are provisions such as the 35 percent death tax. Is this bad news, because it is an increase from zero percent this year? Or is it good news because it is much lower than the 55 percent rate that was scheduled to take effect beginning next year? That’s hard to answer, though I know the right rate is zero.

But here’s one bit of good news that has not received much attention. The tax deal ends the “Build America Bonds” tax preference, which was one of the most destructive provisions of Obama’s so-called stimulus. Here’s an excerpt from a Bloomberg report.

Senate Democrats backing the subsidy, which has helped finance bridges, roads and other public works, fell short in a bid to get the program added to a bill extending the 2001 and 2003 income-tax cuts. That failure was the latest in efforts to keep the Build America program alive beyond its scheduled end on Dec. 31. …While Obama and Democrats have supported prolonging the program, they have run into opposition from Republicans critical of the stimulus package. Extensions have twice passed the Democratic-controlled House only to stall in the Senate, where the Republican minority has sufficient power to block legislation. The U.S. government pays 35 of the interest costs on Build America bonds. …State and local governments, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and representatives of the construction industry are among the program’s advocates.

Build America Bonds are a back-door handout for profligate state and local governments, allowing them to borrow more money while shifting some of the resulting interest costs to the federal government.

But states already are in deep trouble because of too much spending and debt, so encouraging more spending and debt with federal tax distortions was a very bizarre policy.

Moreover, the policy also damaged the economy by creating an incentive for investors to allocate funds to state and local governments rather than private sector investments.That’s a very bad idea, unless you somehow think (notwithstanding all the evidence) that it is smart to make the public sector bigger at the expense of the private sector.

In one fell swoop, Build America Bonds increased the burden of the federal government, encouraged a bigger burden of state and local government, and drained resources from the productive sector of the economy.

That’s stupid, even by Washington standards. So whatever we think of the overall package, let’s savor the death of this destructive provision.

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Compared to ideal policy, the deal announced last night between congressional Republicans and President Obama is terrible.

Compared to what I expected to happen, the deal announced last night is pretty good.

In other words, grading this package depends on your benchmark. This is why reaction has been all over the map, featuring dour assessments from people like Pejman Yousefzadeh and cheerful analysis from folks such as Jennifer Rubin.

With apologies to Clint Eastwood, let’s review the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

The good parts of the agreement is the avoidance of bad things, sort of the political version of the Hippocratic oath – do no harm. Tax rates next year are not going to increase. The main provisions of the 2001 and 2003 tax acts are extended for two years – including the lower tax rates on dividends and capital gains. This is good news for investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other “rich” taxpayers who were targeted by Obama. They get a reprieve before there is a risk of higher tax rates. This probably won’t have a positive effect on economic performance since current policy will continue, but at least it delays anti-growth policy for two years.

On a lesser note, Obama’s gimmicky and ineffective make-work-pay credit, which was part of the so-called stimulus, will be replaced by a 2-percentage point reduction in the payroll tax. Tax credits generally do not result in lower marginal tax rates on productive behavior, so there is no pro-growth impact.  A lower payroll tax rate, by contrast, improves incentives to work. But don’t expect much positive effect on the economy since the lower rate only lasts for one year. People rarely make permanent decisions on creating jobs and expanding output on the basis of one-year tax breaks.

Another bit of good news is that the death tax will be 35 percent for two years, rather than 55 percent, as would have happened without an agreement, or 45 percent, which is what I thought was going to happen. Last but not least, there is a one-year provision allowing businesses to “expense” new investment rather than have it taxed, which perversely happens to some degree under current law.

The Bad

The burden of government spending is going to increase. Unemployment benefits are extended for 13 months. And there is no effort to reduce spending elsewhere to “pay for” this new budgetary burden. A rising burden of federal spending is America’s main fiscal problem, and this agreement exacerbates that challenge.

But the fiscal cost is probably trivial compared to the human cost. Academic research is quite thorough on this issue, and it shows that paying people to remain out of work has a significantly negative impact on employment rates. This means many people will remain trapped in joblessness, with potentially horrible long-term consequences on their work histories and habits.

The agreement reinstates a death tax. For all of this year, there has not been a punitive and immoral tax imposed on people simply because they die. So even though I listed the 35 percent death tax in the deal in the “good news” section of this analysis because it could have been worse, it also belongs in the “bad news” section because there is no justification for this class-warfare levy.

The Ugly

As happens so often when politicians make decisions, the deal includes all sorts of special-interest provisions. There are various special provisions for politcally powerful constituencies. As a long-time fan of a simple and non-corrupt flat tax, it is painful for me to see this kind of deal.

Moreover, the temporary nature of the package is disappointing. There will be very little economic boost from this deal. As mentioned above, people generally don’t increase output in response to short-term provisions. I worry that this will undermine the case for lower tax rates since observers may conclude that they don’t have much positive effect.

To conclude, I’m not sure if this is good, bad, or ugly, but we get to do this all over again in 2012.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced this morning that the unemployment rate jumped to 9.8 percent last month. As you can see from the chart, the White House claimed that if we enacted the so-called stimulus, the unemployment rate today would be about 7 percent.

It’s never wise to over-interpret the meaning on a single month’s data, and it’s also a mistake to credit or blame any one policy for the economy’s performance, but it certainly does seem that the combination of bigger government and more intervention is not a recipe for growth.

Maybe the President should reverse course and try free markets and smaller government. Here’s a helpful six-minute tutorial.

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The Chairmen of President Obama’s Fiscal Commission have a new draft proposal that is filled, according to Reuters, with “sharp spending and benefit cuts.”

That’s music to my ears, so I quickly flipped to the back of the report in hopes of finding hard numbers showing that the federal government will be smaller in future years.

Much to my chagrin, it turns out that the federal government will increase by about $1.5 trillion between 2010 and 2020 according to the Commission’s numbers. Here’s a chart based on the data from page 57.

As I explained in the video below, this disconnect between supposed spending cuts and actual spending increases is the result of politicians creating a system where a spending increase can be called a “spending cut” if outlays don’t climb as fast as previously planned. This “baseline” or “current services” budgeting is a great gimmick for the politicians since they can simultaneously give more money to special interest groups while also telling voters that they are cutting the budget.

This does not mean that the folks at the Fiscal Commission are being deliberately dishonest. This process has been in use for decades and many budget wonks routinely rely on this common practice without giving any thought to whether it misleads voters.

And there are good reasons to collect “current services” data. Those numbers tell lawmakers how much spending has to increase if they, for instance, leave entitlement programs on autopilot (i.e., more senior citizens automatically leading to more Social Security spending).

Nonetheless, the debate about federal budget policy should be honest. If the Fiscal Commission thinks spending should increase at about twice the rate of inflation, and they want higher taxes to finance that spending growth, they should openly argue for that position. And if the hard left wants spending to increase three times faster than inflation, as it has during the era of Bush-Obama profligacy, they should openly make the case for why America should be more like France.

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I’ve already commented on the proposal from the Chairmen of President Obama’s Fiscal Commission (including a very clever cartoon, if it’s okay to pat myself on the back).

Now we have a similar proposal from the so-called Debt Reduction Task Force. Chaired by former Senator Pete Domenici and Clinton Administration Budget Director Alice Rivlin, the Task Force proposed a series of big tax increases to finance bigger government. I have five observations.

1. Notwithstanding a claim of $2.68 trillion of “spending cuts” during the 2012-2020 period, government gets a lot bigger during the decade. All of the supposed “cuts” are measured against an artificial baseline that assumes bigger government. In other words, the report is completely misleading in that spending increases get portrayed as spending cuts simply because government could be growing even faster. Interestingly, nowhere in the report does it show what total spending is today and what it will be in 10 years, presumably because the authors realized that the fiction of spending cuts would be hard to maintain if people could see real-world numbers showing the actual size of government now and in the future.

This chart shows what it would actually take to balance the budget over the next 10 years – and these numbers assume all of the tax cuts are made permanent and that the alternative minimum tax is extended.

2. The Task Force proposes a value-added tax, which is estimated to generate more than $3 trillion between 2012 and 2020. They call this new tax a “debt reduction sales tax” and I can just imagine the members giggling as they came up with this term. They may think the American people are a bunch of yokels who will get tricked by this language, but one can only wonder why they think making our tax system more like those in Europe will lead to anything other than more spending and less growth.

3. The Task Force proposes to dramatically increase the scope of the Social Security payroll tax. Since this is something Obama called for in the campaign and also something endorsed by the President’s Fiscal Commission, this proposed tax hike should be viewed as a real threat. I’ve explained elsewhere why this is bad tax policy, bad fiscal policy, bad entitlement policy, and bad Social Security policy.

4. To add “stimulus” to the package, the Task Force proposes a one-year payroll tax holiday. The good news is that they didn’t call for more spending. The bad news is that temporary tax cuts have very little pro-growth impact, especially if a tax cut will only last for one year. Unfortunately, the Task Force relied on the Congressional Budget Office, which blindly claimed that this gimmicky proposal will create between 2.5 million-7.0 million jobs. But since these are the geniuses who recently argued that higher tax rates boost growth and also claimed that Obama’s faux stimulus created jobs, those numbers have very little credibility.

5. While the Task Force’s recommendations are unpalatable and misleading, there is a meaningful distinction between this plan and the Obama Administration’s fiscal policy. The Task Force assumes that government should get even bigger than it is today, but the Obama Administration wants government to grow at a much faster rate. The Task Force endorses massive tax hikes, but generally tries to avoid marginal tax rate increases that have especially large negative supply-side consequences. The Obama White House, by contrast, is fixated on a class-warfare approach to fiscal policy. And the Task Force proposes real entitlement reform, unlike either the Obama White House or the Simpson-Bowles Fiscal Commission. One way of characterizing the different approaches is that the Task Force represents the responsible left while the Obama Administration represents the ideological left.

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I have a column in today’s New York Post, where I pull no punches as I comment on how the rest of the world is increasingly worried about Obama’s policies of easy money and deficit spending. I note that other nations often are guilty of the same mistakes, but that’s no excuse for America sinking to that level.

Along with countries such as Germany, Brazil and South Africa, China’s worried that President Obama and Bernanke will destabilize the global economy by dumping too much money into the system. This distorts trade, creates bubbles and may prompt other nations to engage in similar devaluations. The fact that China is probably guilty of the same thing doesn’t change the fact that America is on the wrong path. …The monetary move is isn’t the only Obama policy causing unease around the globe. Having seen the destructive impact of too much deficit spending in nations such as Greece, Ireland and Spain, policymakers worldwide increasingly recognize that countries need to reduce the burden of government spending to prevent a spread of sovereign-debt crises. Nations such as Germany and the United Kingdom haven’t approached this issue in the best way. Too often, they’re using the fiscal crisis as an excuse to raise taxes rather than make long-overdue reductions in bloated budgets. But at least they recognize that the time has come to back away from the abyss of too much red ink. The United States, by contrast, is on a spending binge of historic proportions. …Some of these fears are overblown. Yes, the Bush-Obama years have dramatically boosted the burden of government, and one obvious symptom of this fiscal excess is a much bigger national debt. But America’s red ink, as a share of GDP, is lower than the comparable levels in many European nations, as well as Japan. But that’s hardly an excuse. We all tell our kids that their friends’ misbehavior is no excuse for them to the wrong thing as well. This is a good rule for the global economy. If China is keeping its currency artificially weak, that doesn’t mean we should do the same thing. If European nations have bigger governments and more debt, that doesn’t mean we should copy their mistakes.

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