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Posts Tagged ‘Federal Spending’

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

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

Budget Balance CBO 2013

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

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

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

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 The numbers are now outdated, but the concept is still completely relevant.

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

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

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

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President Obama supports higher taxes, but he usually claims he only wants higher tax rates on evil rich people as part of his class-warfare agenda. Heck, he promised back in 2008 that, “no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase.  Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.”

I guess we’re supposed to forget the higher tax burdens that were imposed on the middle class by Obamacare in 2010 and the SCHIP legislation in 2009.

Obama’s other rhetorical trick is to claim he wants a “balanced approach.” Translated from Washington-speak to English, that means he wants more of our money. But it’s a soothing way to demand more money. After all, who’s against “balance”?

I actually agree with Obama – but only if one uses honest math. Needless to say, Obama wants to use Washington math, where spending increases get redefined as spending cuts if the burden of government spending doesn’t rise as fast as was projected in some artificial baseline.

This is why the budget deals put together by politicians almost always are awful. In order to protect the goodies they hand out to various special interests, the politicians use fake numbers to pretend they’re restraining spending, but when the dust settles, it turns out that the only real result is that taxpayers are forking over more of their hard-earned cash to the clowns in Washington.

Actually, that statement is incomplete. We need to remember that taxpayers in other nations also get screwed by the political elite. Take a look at this stunning chart that was shown at yesterday’s Cato Institute conference on “Europe’s Crisis and the Welfare State.” Put together by Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center, it shows that politicians across the Atlantic have imposed nine euro of higher taxes for every one euro of spending cuts.

And keep in mind, as Veronique noted in her comments, that many of these so-called spending cuts were merely reductions in planned increases!

This matters because I’m getting increasingly worried that gullible Republicans will get seduced into some sort of budget summit designed to trick them into supporting the Simpson-Bowles tax-hike package.

As I’ve previously explained, this would be a terrible idea. It means a big tax hike with, particularly an increase in the double taxation of income that is saved and invested. It also relies on gimmicks rather than real entitlement reform.

I don’t like higher taxes, but I wouldn’t be completely upset if at least we got some permanent reforms to control the growth of government. But that’s definitely not the case with Simpson-Bowles. And, as Veronique showed, it’s not the case in Europe either.

P.S. It’s rather ironic that the New York Times inadvertently revealed that the only budget deal that worked was the one in 1997 that cut taxes rather than raising taxes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two important caveats about these calculations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There’s been a lot of discussion about Mitt Romney’s appeal – or lack thereof – among supporters of limited government.

To put it mildly, many libertarians and conservatives are underwhelmed by his less-than-stellar record on healthcare, his weakness on Social Security reform, his anemic list of proposed budget savings, and his reprehensible support for ethanol subsidies.

Notwithstanding this dismal track record, some advocates of free markets argue that anybody would be better than Obama.

But that’s not necessarily the case. Economic history shows that the burden of government often expands the most under Republicans, with Nixon and Bush (either one) being obvious examples.

On the other hand, even a skeptic like me has admitted that Romney’s record in Massachusetts is difficult to assess because he was governor of a very left-wing state and he had to deal with a state legislature with heavy Democratic majorities.

That being said, there’s a new development that suggests Romney may be an unacceptable alternative to Obama. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he basically said he is willing to consider a value-added tax for the United States. Here’s the relevant passage.

He says he doesn’t “like the idea” of layering a VAT onto the current income tax system. But he adds that, philosophically speaking, a VAT might work as a replacement for some part of the tax code, “particularly at the corporate level,” as Paul Ryan proposed several years ago. What he doesn’t do is rule a VAT out.

For those who are not familiar with a VAT, it is a version of a national sales tax, but imposed at every stage in the production process and embedded in the price of goods and services. Perhaps more important, it is despised by everyone who wants to limit the size of government. This video explains how it works and why it is a money machine for big government.

Simply stated, this is an awful tax. If it ever gets implemented in the United States, the battle will be over. America will descend to European-style stagnation, eventually leading to fiscal crisis.

Any politician that supports a VAT (or even hints at supporting a VAT) should not be allowed anywhere near the White House. That applies to Mitt Romney. And it should be the rule for Paul Ryan as well.

But what about Barack Obama, you may be asking. Hasn’t he said nice things about a VAT?

Not surprisingly, he has been sympathetic, appointing VAT sympathizers to high office and remarking that a VAT is “something that has worked for other countries.”

But there’s no way a VAT will happen if Obama gets reelected. Republicans will be overwhelmingly opposed, even if only for shallow reasons of partisanship.

But if Romney wins and decides to push a VAT, many Republicans will say yes because of loyalty (much as many GOPers went along with Bush’s statist agenda) and many Democrats will say yes in order to get a new source of revenue to expand government.

The consequences, as explained here, would be disastrous.

P.S. For a humorous – but accurate – perspective on the VAT, take a look at these clever cartoons (here, here, and here).

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I’m not a big fan of Senator Schumer of New York. As I’ve noted before, he’s a doctrinaire statist who wants the government to have control over just about every aspect of our lives.

But that describes a lot of people in Washington. I guess what also bothers me is his willingness to say anything, regardless of how divorced it is from reality, to advance his short-run political agenda (sort of a Democrat version of Karl Rove).

For example, here’s part of what the clownish Empire State  Senator recently had to say about fiscal policy, as reported by a Washington Post columnist.

Schumer said, “…Republicans came in and said, `We can solve your problem by shrinking government’…We tried their theory…The American people resent government paralysis, but most of them would say that government is doing too little to help them, not too much.”

What’s remarkable about this statement is that it’s so inaccurate that we can’t even decipher what he means. I’ve come up with three possible interpretations of what he might have been trying to say, and they’re all wrong.

1. He’s referring to GOP actions this year. This interpretation might make partial sense because the House Republicans have made a few semi-serious efforts to shrink government, but how can Schumer say “we tried their theory” when every Republican initiative was blocked by the Senate and Obama?

The Ryan budget died of malign neglect since the Senate didn’t even bother to produce a budget, and Republican efforts on the 2011 spending levels and the debt limit also were stymied, resulting at best in kiss-your-sister deals.

2. He’s referring to GOP actions during the Bush Administration. This interpretation might make some sense because the GOP did control the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, but does Schumer understand that “shrinking government” was not part of the Republican agenda during those years?

But don’t believe me. The numbers from the Historical Tables of the Budget unambiguously show that the federal budget almost doubled during the Bush years because of huge increases in domestic spending.

3. He’s referring to GOP actions during the 1990s. This interpretation actually does make sense because the burden of the public sector did shrink as a share of GDP during the Clinton years when Republicans controlled Congress, so it would be accurate to say “we tried their theory.”

But what was so bad about the era of spending restraint during the 1990s? The economy expanded and people were better off, in large part because, to quote Schumer, government was “doing too little to help them.”

Heck, the Clinton-GOP Congress years were so good that I even offered, during a debate on national TV, to go back to Clinton’s higher tax rates if it meant we also could undo all the reckless spending of the Bush-Obama years.

This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped caring about low marginal tax rates. It just means that I understand that the ultimate tax is the burden of the public sector. This video explains more, in case you’re wondering why I’d like to go back to the 1990s.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that it would be even better to combine Clinton’s spending levels with Reagan’s tax rates.

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Most people have a vague understanding that America has a huge long-run fiscal problem.

They’re right, though they probably don’t realize the seriousness of that looming crisis.

Here’s what you need to know: America’s fiscal crisis is actually a spending crisis, and that spending crisis is driven by entitlements.

More specifically, the vast majority of the problem is the result of Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, programs that are poorly designed and unsustainable.

America needs to fix these programs…or eventually become another Greece.

Fortunately, all of the problems can be solved, as these three videos demonstrate.

The first video explains how to fix Medicaid.

The second video shows how to fix Medicare.

And the final video shows how to fix Social Security.

Regular readers know I’m fairly gloomy about the future of liberty, but this is one area where there is a glimmer of hope.

The Chairman of the House Budget Committee actually put together a plan that addresses the two biggest problems (Medicare and Medicaid) and the House of Representatives actually adopted the proposal.

The Senate didn’t act, of course, and Obama would veto any good legislation anyhow, so I don’t want to be crazy optimistic. Depending on how things play out politically in the next six years, I’ll say there’s actually a 20 percent chance to save America.

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Welcome Instapundit readers (and everyone else, of course). I have a very depressing update to this post, which you can read here.

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According to news reports, Democrats and Republicans are unlikely to reach any sort of budget agreement before April 8, when a short-term spending bill for the current fiscal year expires.

Barring some new development, this could mean a shutdown of the non-essential parts of the government.

This makes both sides very nervous. Democrats don’t want the spending spigot turned off and are worried that voters might conclude that there’s no reason to ever re-open departments such as Housing and Urban Development. Republicans, meanwhile, mostly worry that they might look unreasonable and get blamed if certain parts of the government are mothballed and voters can’t get passports or visit national parks.

Given this state of play, what’s the best strategy for fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and other advocates of smaller government?

Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard thinks Republicans should continue with short-term spending bills.

…the incremental strategy is working. Republicans have passed two short-term measures to keep the government in operation since early March while slashing $10 billion in spending. At this rate, they would achieve the target of GOP congressional leaders of lopping off $61 billion from President Obama’s proposed budget in the final seven months of the 2011 fiscal year. There’s every reason to believe the incremental strategy would continue to succeed.

He’s worried that a more confrontational approach, where the GOP passes a take-it-or-leave-it spending bill, might backfire – even though any shutdown would exist solely because Senator Reid and/or President Obama refused to act.

Would a shutdown give Republicans more muscle in negotiating for cuts? …Maybe it would. But it might not. …So long as they control the Senate and White House, Democrats will reject massive cuts. Republicans also want to bar spending for Planned Parenthood, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Mr. Obama’s health-care program. Attach any of these prohibitions to a spending measure and Democratic opposition is certain. Should Republicans insist, we’ll get a government shutdown. This is a big gamble. …Indeed it might discredit Republicans and boost Mr. Obama in the same way the shutdown in 1995 hurt Republicans and lifted President Bill Clinton out of the doldrums. It could alienate independent voters so critical to the Republican triumph in 2010. True enough, the political atmosphere is more favorable to serious spending reductions than it was 16 years ago. …But why take a chance?

I think Barnes is a bit off in his portrayal of what happened in 1995, as I’ve previously explained, but these are all fair points. A “shutdown” fight could be considered uncharted territory.

Keith Hennessey, a former Hill staffer and Bush Administration official, also is skeptical of a confrontational approach. Instead, he suggests that the GOP increase the pressure on Democrats by slowly increasing the amount of weekly spending cuts.

While negotiating with the President’s team and Senate Democrats, in this variant House Republicans continue to pass short-term Continuing Resolutions as long as there is not an acceptable full-year deal. In these repeated future CRs, they ratchet up the spending cuts by the paltry figure of only $100 million each week. …Under this new variant, as April 8th approaches House Republicans would pass another three week CR, one which cuts $2.1 B in its first week, $2.2 B in its second week, and $2.3 B in its third week. …Such a tiny weekly increment would be nearly impossible for Democrats to reject. And yet if continued through the end of this fiscal year, $4.5 B of discretionary spending would be cut in the final week, that of September 23rd. This strategy…poses zero additional risk for Congressional Republicans. They would maintain the high ground on spending cuts and remain on the offensive for the next six months.

There’s a lot to like about Keith’s approach. If successful, he explains, GOPers could wind up with $82 billion of cuts rather than just $61 billion.

But here’s my concern about an incremental strategy. What makes anyone think that the left will go along with short-term spending bills, regardless of whether they cut $2 billion per week, or even more?

Democrats already have agreed to $10 billion of cuts, and even though that’s very trivial when compared to total spending (akin to a couple of french fries out of a Big Mac meal), the pro-spending lobbies and their allies on Capitol Hill are balking at the thought of additional cuts. So while it might be possible to push through a couple of additional short-term spending bills, there will come a point when Democrats refuse to play ball. And when that happens, we’re back to a partial shutdown.

Here’s how constitutional lawyer James Bopp, Jr., explained the issue in a piece for the Washington Times.

A government shutdown is inevitable because President Obama will insist on it. Nothing the Republicans do, short of total capitulation, will prevent this from happening. …With a three-week extension of government funding (which included $6 billion in cuts) expiring April 8, now is the time to escalate one’s bid. Demand $12 billion in cuts the next time. And when the shutdown occurs because of an Obama veto or a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate, the House should keep passing bills to reopen the government, coupling it with more spending cuts. …There is a fundamental contradiction in the Democrats’ shutting down the government. The Democrats are the party of government. It is like a bank robber, caught in the act, who threatens to pull the trigger on himself if arrested; what would the cop say but, “Go ahead”? The government shutdown threat defeats the Democrats own objective and is thus ultimately self-defeating, while the Republicans protect the bank depositors – the taxpayers – from the bank robber.

I think this is largely correct, particularly in that there almost certainly will be a shutdown fight. The only question is when it will happen. And if a shutdown battle is inevitable, advocates of smaller government should decide whether it’s better to have that fight sooner rather than later.

My instinct is that it would be better to fight now. GOP resolve presumably will decrease over time, particularly since the “easy” spending cuts get used up first. Moreover, it is quite likely that a strategy of short-term spending bills will complicate GOP efforts to get budget process reform in a couple of months in exchange for an increase in the debt limit.

Democrats surely don’t want the GOP to have another opportunity to restrain the size of government, so they would insist on an increase in the federal government’s borrowing authority as the price for approving whatever short-term spending bill is being considered around that time. Republicans presumably will balk at that demand. But that brings us back, once again, to a shutdown fight. Only this time, it will be complicated by demagogic assertions of a default.

So long as the final result is a smaller burden of government, there is no right or wrong answer about the process. It’s simply a question of which approach is more likely to achieve the desired outcome. I think fighting now is better than fighting later, but if the GOP chooses a strategy of short-term spending bills, I hope I’m wrong.

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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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Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peter Ferrara of the Institute for Policy Innovation explains that Washington budget deals don’t work because politicians never follow through on promised spending cuts. This is a very relevant argument since Obama’s so-called Deficit Reduction Commission supposedly is considering a deal featuring $3 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases (disturbingly reminiscent of what was promised – but never delivered – as part of the infamous 1982 TEFRA budget scam). 
Washington’s traditional approach to balancing the budget is to negotiate an agreement on a package of benefit cuts and tax increases. President Obama’s deficit commission seems likely to recommend just this strategy in December. The problem is that it never works. What happens is the tax increases get permanently adopted into law. But the spending cuts are almost never fully adopted and, even if they are, they are soon swept away in the next spendthrift budget. Then—because taxes weaken incentives to produce—the tax increases don’t raise the revenue that Congress initially projected and budgeted to spend. So the deficit reappears. In 1982, congressional Democrats promised President Ronald Reagan $3 in spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. Reagan went to his grave waiting for those spending cuts. Then there was the budget deal in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush agreed to violate his famous campaign pledge—”Read my lips, no new taxes,” he had said in 1988—in pursuit of a balanced budget. But after the deal, the deficit increased substantially: to $290 billion in 1992 from $221 billion in 1990. 
As the excerpt indicates, Peter’s column is solid and everything he writes is correct, but it suffers from one major sin of omission. He should have exposed the dishonest practice of using “current services” or “baseline” budgeting. This is the clever Washington practice of assuming that all previously planned spending increases should go into effect and categorizing any budget that increases spending by a lower amount as a spending cut. In other words, if the hypothetical “baseline” budget increases by 7 percent, and a budget is proposed that increases spending by 4 percent, that 4 percent spending increase magically gets transformed into a 3 percent spending cut.
 
Politicians love “current services” or “baseline” budgeting for two reasons. First, it allows them to have their cake and eat it too. They can simultaneously shovel more money to interest groups while telling voters they are “cutting” spending. Second, it rigs the process in favor of bigger government. This is because lawmakers who actually propose to restrain the growth of spending can be lambasted for wanting “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts totaling “trillions of dollars” when all they’re actually proposing is to have spending grow by less than the so-called baseline. But since people in the real world use honest math rather than “current services” math, they assume that spending is being reduced next year by some large amount compared to what is being spent this year. And if the phony budget cut numbers sound too big (especially for specific programs such as Medicare or Medicaid), they sometimes conclude that it would be better to raise taxes.
 
Speaking of which, the same misleading process works on the revenue side of the budget. The politicians automatically get to keep whatever additional revenue is generated by population growth and higher incomes, which is not trivial since revenue in a typical year grows faster than nominal GDP. But when they do a budget deal featuring X dollars of tax increases for every Y dollars of spending cuts, the additional taxes are always on top of the revenue increases that already are occurring. And since the supposed spending cuts invariably are nothing more than reductions in planned increases, it should come as no surprise that the burden of spending always seems to increase.
 
Defenders of “current services” or “baseline” budgeting will respond by arguing that spending should automatically increase because of factors such as inflation and demographic change (i.e., more seniors signing up for Medicare). Indeed, they will point out that the government is legally obligated to spend more money for entitlement programs based on current law.
 
But that’s not the point. The issue is whether the American people are being presented with honest numbers. If the fans of big government want to argue that spending should increase by 7 percent for various reasons, they should openly and honestly explain what they are trying to do. And if they disagree with lawmakers who want spending to increase by 4 percent, they should be forthright and tell voters that “this proposal does not increase spending by enough because of…” and list the reasons why they want spending to grow even faster.
 
Unfortunately, deceptive budget practices in Washington are a feature, not a bug. But if you pay close attention, they are very revealing. If the President’s Deficit Reduction Commission uses “baseline” or “current services” budgeting as a benchmark for determining spending “cuts” and tax increases, that’s a good sign that the crowd in Washington wants to pull a fast one on the American people.

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I’m sure if you read the Constitution with enough imagination, you’ll find (perhaps in invisible ink) the section stating that the federal government is supposed to provide subsidies to help specific companies market soap made out of goat milk. But my imagination isn’t that strong, so my reaction to this story is that the federal government already has too much money and that the crooks in Washington should not be allowed to raise taxes by even one penny.

A small business in Santa Fe has received a federal grant to help market its natural soaps and lotions. U.S. Senator Tom Udall, D-NM, and Terry Brunner, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, held a celebration ceremony for Milk and Honey Soap LLC to highlight the USDA’s Value Added Producer Grant program. The company received $12,500 to market its products. …Daven Lee, owner of Milk and Honey Soap, sells soaps and lotions made from goat milk and beeswax online and at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. She will use the funds to expand her marketing efforts, with the idea of growing it into a wholesale venture.

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Professor Larry Kotlikoff has some very sobering analysis of America’s fiscal status. Instead of just looking at current deficits, he examines the “present value” of all future expenditures and revenues. Simply stated, America is in worse shape than Greece because of the long-term burden of entitlement programs. Kotlikoff’s conclusion that America is “one foot away from a deep and permanent economic grave” may be a bit too strong, but he is certainly correct that unrestrained spending is going to cause serious damage.

Greek long-term government bond yields are running 700 basis points above comparable US Treasuries. The inference is that America is in far better fiscal shape than Greece. Nothing could be further from the truth. Greek debt totals 120 per cent of gross domestic product, twice the US figure. But debt alone tells us little about a country’s fiscal condition. …During the past half-century, the US has sold tens of trillions of unofficial IOUs, leaving it with liabilities to pay Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits that total 40 times official debt. …Fortunately, theory suggests a label-free measure of fiscal status: the fiscal gap, or the present value difference between all future expenditures and receipts. The Greek fiscal gap is staggering. Calculations developed with my colleagues at Freiberg University put it at 11.5 per cent of the value of Greece’s future GDP. And this huge figure already incorporates Greece’s recently legislated fiscal policy retrenchment. But the US figure, based on the Congressional Budget Office’s just-released projections, is even larger: 12.2 per cent. Clearly, Greece is in terrible fiscal shape. To get its books in order it would have to pull in its belt each year by another 11.5 per cent of GDP. This provides new meaning to the word draconian. But the US is in much worse shape, because the CBO’s projections that reveal the 12.2 per cent fiscal gap already assume a 7.2 per cent of GDP belt-tightening by 2020. …Wishing won’t fix America’s fiscal mess. The US is one foot away from a deep and permanent economic grave. It is far past time to do meaningful long-term fiscal planning, level with the public, and implement radical reforms that permanently put America’s fiscal house in order.

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Advocates of limited government generally focus on domestic spending, pork-barrel projects, and entitlement programs. This is target-rich territory, to be sure, and especially inviting because most of the relevant programs and department shouldn’t exist. But just because national defense is a legitimate function of the federal government, that doesn’t mean that national security outlays are somehow immune from waste, fraud, and abuse. Here’s an all-too-typical story from Federal News Radio about the Defense Department being unable to account for a staggering 95 percent-plus of the funds channeled through the Development Fund for Iraq.

The Defense Department is unable to account for $8.7 billion of the $9.1 billion in Development Fund for Iraq monies in received for reconstruction in Iraq. This according to a study published today by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. …The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) finds that only one Defense organization actually set up the accounts required by the Treasury. “The breakdown in controls left the funds vulnerable to inappropriate uses and undetected loss,” SIGIR says. The study recommends that the Secretary of Defense create new accounting and reporting procedures to avoid such mistakes in the future. It also recommends designating an executive agent to oversee progress, establishing measurable milestones, and determining whether any DoD organizations are still holding DFI funds.

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It’s rather symbolic of what’s wrong with Washington that a commission ostensibly created to promote deficit reduction is seeking a bigger budget, as noted in the Tax Notes story excerpted below. Rather than impose a bigger burden on taxpayers, though, I will generously suggest that they could easily fulfill their mandate by perusing Cato’s Downsizing Government website. And if they really want to do the right thing, they can always just look at Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution and get rid of existing programs and activities that are not enumerated powers of the federal government.

Saddled with a tight deadline and great expectations, members of President Obama’s deficit reduction commission say they may not have the resources necessary to meet their task. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which the president created through an executive order in February, is charged with developing a plan by December 1 that would stabilize the budget deficit by 2015 and reduce the federal debt over the long term. The group is widely expected to consider a combination of tax reforms and spending cuts. But despite the weighty demands, the panel has only a fraction of the staff and budget of standing congressional committees. The panel’s own cochairs and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have criticized the meager resources and called for more support. …The White House has set aside the resources to provide the equivalent of four full-time salaries and $500,000 in operating costs for the commission, fiscal commission Executive Director Bruce Reed told Tax Analysts.

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The government is wasting so much money in so many ways that it takes something really odd to shock me, but this story from the Federal Times certainly meets that test. The Office of Personnel Management is actually squandering money on a marketing campaign to improve the image of bureaucrats. Call me old fashioned, but I think the image of bureaucrats will increase if they spend some time figuring out ways to save money rather than coming up with innovative ways to waste it:

The Office of Personnel Management is working on a new marketing campaign intended to boost the public’s opinion of federal employees. OPM Director John Berry said his agency is surveying liberal and conservative citizens about their impressions of federal workers and issues most important to them. Once that survey is done, OPM will contract with a marketing firm to “come up with the right vocabulary, the right messaging and the right energy that we believe will re-polish the public servant’s image,” Berry said at the Excellence in Government conference in Washington this morning. Berry said that the government’s outreach efforts should focus on employees’ specific jobs to counter the perception of civil servants as bureaucrats. …Berry’s comments came a day after the Pew Research Center released a survey showing that the public’s trust in the federal government has reached historic lows. Just 22 percent of Americans say they can trust the government almost always or most of the time, the survey found. That’s down from 31 percent in January 2007, and down from 40 percent in February 2000. Surveys conducted by other organizations in late 2009 and early 2010 yielded similar numbers. The last time national polls consistently showed this level of mistrust was in the mid-1990s. Public discontent could hurt government agencies’ ability to recruit and retain employees, said Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service.

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Caroline Baum of Bloomberg has a good column against the value-added tax, in part because she quotes me, but more so because she effectively explains that a national sales tax like the VAT would be an add-on tax that would finance much bigger government:

As Americans awake to the 2009 tax-filing deadline today, they can look forward to working longer and harder for the government in the future — at least the dwindling share that pays individual income taxes. Enter the VAT, or value-added tax, a whole new source of revenue for the government. The VAT, a fixture in Europe for decades, is a broad-based consumption tax levied at each stage of production on the “value added,” as the name implies. Because government starts with a wish-list of new spending and entitlements and works backward to find a way to pay for them (when it’s trying to look responsible), raising more revenue without sinking the economy is an issue right now. “There is no way to finance all this new spending without an additional broad-based tax,” says Dan Mitchell, senior fellow at the Libertarian Cato Institute in Washington. Which is exactly why a VAT should be avoided, he says. “It’s akin to giving the keys to the liquor store to a bunch of alcoholics.” …Somehow I doubt the Obama administration or Congress would propose substituting a VAT for the income tax or lowering individual or corporate tax rates as an offset. The VAT would be an add-on. …Before you conclude that a VAT is the answer to all our fiscal problems, consider some facts. “Greece collapsed in spite of a 19 percent VAT adopted in 2005,” says Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. The additional revenue from the VAT did nothing to address Greece’s indebtedness. Does anyone think an out-of-control U.S. Congress would devote increased tax revenue to deficit reduction? (If you raised your hand, go back and reread this column from the beginning.)

P.S. Apologies for being out of touch. My laptop has crashed due to some form of virus attack. I am finally able to post again thanks to the kind people at the Montreal Economic Institute.

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I have a column in the New York Post this morning explaining that big government is a losing deal for taxpayers in the Empire State. I’m tempted to say they deserve to be over-taxed and over-regulated because they keep electing collectivists like Chuck Schumer, but I grew up in the area and still follow the Yankees, so I hope the people of New York wake up and begin fighting big government. Here’s an excerpt:

Federal spending has approximately doubled during the Bush-Obama years — great news for special-interest groups, but bad news for New Yorkers, who pay a disproportionate share of federal taxes because of higher-than-average incomes. Needless to say, the IRS code allows no compensation for New Yorkers’ higher-than-average living expenses. New Yorkers also lose on the spending side of the ledger. According to the Tax Foundation, the state gets back only about 80 cents for every $1 it sends to Washington. But the harm is actually greater — because Washington takes that dollar from the job-creating private sector and returns the 80 cents in the form of handouts, subsidies and pork of very dubious economic benefit. And things are going to get worse before they get better. President Obama wants higher tax rates on income, higher tax rates on capital gains and increased double taxation of dividends. That will tilt the overall tax burden even further against New York. The taxes on investment, in particular, will hurt Wall Street — on which the city’s economy depends.

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Since we’re already depressed by the enactment of Obamacare, we may as well wallow in misery by looking at some long-term budget numbers. The chart below, which is based on the Congressional Budget Office’s long-run estimates, shows that federal government spending will climb to 45 percent of GDP if we believe CBO’s more optimistic “baseline” estimate. If we prefer the less optimistic “alternative” estimate, the burden of federal government spending will climb to 67 percent of economic output. These dismal numbers are driven by two factors, an aging population and entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. For all intents and purposes, America is on a path to become a European-style welfare state.

If these numbers don’t depress you enough, here are a couple of additional observations to push you over the edge. These CBO estimates were produced last year, so they don’t count the cost of Obamacare. And as Michael Cannon repeatedly has observed, Obamacare will cost much more than the official estimates concocted by CBO. And speaking of estimates, the long-run numbers in the chart are almost certainly too optimistic since CBO’s methodology naively assumes that a rising burden of government will have no negative impact on the economy’s growth rate. Last but not least, the data above only measures federal spending. State and local government budgets will consume at least another 15 percent of GDP, so even using the optimistic baseline, total government spending will be about 60 percent of GDP, higher than every European nation, including France, Greece, and Sweden. And if we add state and local spending on top of the “alternative” baseline, then we’re in uncharted territory where perhaps Cuba and North Korea would be the most appropriate analogies.

So what do we do? There’s no sure-fire solution. Congressman Paul Ryan has a reform plan to reduce long-run federal spending to less than 20 percent of GDP. This “Roadmap” plan is excellent, though it is marred by the inclusion of a value-added tax. Bill Shipman of CarriageOaks Partners put forth a very interesting proposal in a Washington Times column to make the federal government rely on states for tax revenue. And I’ve been an avid proponent of tax competition as a strategy to curtail the greed of the political class since it is difficult to finance redistribution if labor and capital can escape to jurisdictions with better tax law. Any other suggestions?

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President Obama and many other politicians in Washington are big fans of pay-as-you-go budgeting, which means they want any new spending or tax relief offset (or “paid for”) with tax increases or spending cuts from other parts of the budget. Or at least that’s what they claim. But when Senator Bunning took them at their word and blocked a $10 billion spending bill because his colleagues were unwilling to make some tiny changes elsewhere, he was treated like a leper. Even his Republicans colleagues largely disapproved of his actions (so much for having learned any lessons from the drubbings they took at the polls in 2006 and 2008). Attacked from all sides, Bunning eventually relented in exchange for an offset vote (which was defeated, of course). What makes this episode interesting is not the specific policies that were being considered. As I posted earlier this week, Bunning was not even trying to shrink the size of government. Indeed, his “offset” was actually a tax increase (getting rid of a special tax break for paper manufacturing).

But this incident does expose the gross hypocrisy of the supposed deficit hawks in Washington. President Obama and the Democrats (and many Republicans) pretend they care about deficits, but their concerns magically disappear whenever there is a chance to buy votes by spending other people’s money. When tax cuts or tax increases are being debated, however, many of these same politicians piously declare their unwavering opposition to red ink (unless, of course, it’s a special tax break for a contributor). But perhaps it’s no surprise to discover that politicians think higher taxes are the solution to the over-spending problem in Washington.

What about the organizations that supposedly exist to fight deficits, such as the Concord Coalition and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (they should be fighting spending instead, but let’s set that issue aside). Folks from these groups often ask politicians to be courageous and make “tough choices.” So I want to the Concord Coalition’s homepage and was shocked, shocked to find nothing about Bunning’s effort. I checked the blog and the press releases and found lots of tough rhetoric, but not one word of praise (or one word of any sort) for a Senator who tried to put the Concord Coalition’s words into action. And what about the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget? Same song, second verse. Not a mention of Bunning on the homepage, blog, or in the press releases. [OOPS, CHECK MEA CULPA BELOW]

Anybody care to make any predictions whether these groups will be similarly silent when President Obama’s “Fiscal Responsibility Commission” unveils a big tax hike?

Mea Culpa: I am getting sloppy in my old age. Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget nailed me fair and square. CFRB did say something nice about Bunning on its blog back on February 26. I should have scrolled down farther. I did just check the Concord Coalition blog, all the way back to the beginning of the year, and was relieved (from a personal perspective, not on policy grounds) to find no mention of Bunning’s effort.

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Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky may be the most unpopular man in Washington right now. And, as you may surmise, this means he is doing something admirable (envision Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and you’ll have the right context).

Republicans and Democrats want to rush through a bill to spend more money on everything from highways to healthcare to joblessness. Senator Bunning is simply saying that the new spending should be financed by reallocating some of the unspent money from the so-called stimulus. For this modest proposal, Bunning is being treated like a porcupine at a nudist camp, with both Republicans and Democrats expressing irritation that he is making it harder for them to buy votes with other people’s money.

I am delighted that Senator Bunning is putting some roadblocks in the path of bigger government, but this episode also illustrates how our hopes and expectations have been eroded. For all intents and purposes, Sen. Bunning is saying that if we want to waste money on A, B, and C, then we should not waste as much money on X, Y, and Z.

Even in the unlikely event that he succeeds, all Bunning will have accomplished to keep a bloated federal government at its current size, which is about twice as big as it was when Bill Clinton left office about nine years ago.

Whatever happened to getting rid of the Department of Education and Department of Energy? Who has a proposal to get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development? Are any politicians even talking about getting rid of the Department of Transportation? Or Department of Commerce? I could go on, but I’m already getting suicidally depressed.

Three cheers for Senator Bunning, but it says a lot about the era of Bush-Obama profligacy that his very modest proposal is seen as a radical idea.

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On the one-year anniversary of Obama’s stimulus scam, I appeared on the Fox Business Network to explain why squandering $800 billion was bad for the economy.

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While admitting that spending restraint is the ideal approach, Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution asks whether a value-added tax (VAT) might be the most desirable of all realistic options for dealing with an unsustainable budget situation.

Read his post for yourself, but I think a fair summary is that he is basically saying that a) there will be a crisis if we don’t do something about future deficits, b) a crisis will result in very bad policy, and c) if we support a VAT now, we will at least be able to extract concessions from the other side.

I have no idea whether there will be a future crisis, but I think the rest of Tyler’s argument is wrong.

But before explaining my position, let’s start by stating what I assume to be our mutual objective, which is to control the size of government. We all agree that there is a problem because government is too big now, and it is projected to get even bigger because of the built-in growth of entitlement programs. One symptom of growing government is deficits, which are very large today and will be even bigger in the near future as more and more baby boomers retire and push up costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Our side (broadly speaking) wants to solve the budgetary situation by restraining the growth of government. One proposed solution is Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap plan, which would reform entitlements and curtail other programs so that the long-term burden of federal spending is reduced to less than 20 percent of GDP. Since long-term federal tax revenues under current law – even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent – are expected to be about 19 percent of GDP, this solves the budet problem  (the tax reform component of the Roadmap includes a VAT, which is a poison pill in an otherwise excellent plan, but let’s set that aside for another day).

The left, by contrast, generally wants to let federal spending consume ever-larger shares of economic output, and they believe that increasing the tax burden is the right way of keeping the deficit from getting too large. No statist has put forth a detailed plan to match Rep. Ryan, but several high-ranking Democrats have made no secret about their desire for a VAT (see here, here, and here). And everyone agrees that a VAT is capable of extracting a lot of money from the productive sector of the economy.

These two visions are fundamentally incompatible, which helps to explain why there is a standoff. The bad guys do not want to control the size of government and the good guys do not want to raise taxes. But now we have to add one more piece to the puzzle. While gridlock normally is a good result, inaction to some degree favors the other side because entitlement programs automatically expand. The helps to explain why Tyler (with reluctance) thinks that it may be best to acquiesce to a VAT now rather than to wait for a fiscal crisis.

Now let’s explain why Tyler is wrong. First, it is far from clear that surrendering to a VAT now will result in better (less worse) policy than what will happen during a crisis. It certainly is true that some past crises have led to terrible policy, such as the failed policies of Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s or the more recent Bush-Paulson-Obama-Geithner TARP debacle. But at other points in time, a crisis atmosphere has paved the way for better policy, with Reagan’s presidency being the most obvious example.

The wait-for-a-crisis strategy clearly is a bit of a gamble, but even if we lose, we get a VAT in the future rather than a VAT today. So what’s the downside? Tyler and others might say that the future legislation in the midst of a crisis could be a vehicle for other bad provisions, but he offers no evidence for this proposition. And it may be the case that the other side would be forced to add good provisions instead. Moreover, the lack of a VAT in the period between today and the future crisis might help lead to some much-needed spending restraint.

What about Tyler’s argument that the good guys could extract some concessions from the other side by putting a VAT on the table. This is horribly naive. Even though George Mason University is less than 20 miles from Washington, and even though Tyler is a renassaince man with many talents, he does not understand how Washington really works.

Imagine there is a budget summit where politicians from both sides get together to work on this supposed deal. Here are the inevitable ground rules – and the consequences they will produce:

1. The deal will be 50 percent spending cuts and 50 percent tax increases, but the supposed spending “cuts” will be nothing more than reductions in already-legislated increases. The tax increases, by contrast, will be on top of all the additional revenue that is already exepected under current law (not a trivial matter since receipts will be $1.5 trillion higher in 2015 than they are today according to OMB). For proponents of limited government, using the “current services baseline” as a benchmark in budget negotiations is like playing a five-minute basketball game after spotting the other team a 20-point lead.

2. All spending and revenue decisions will be examined through the prism of CBO income distribution tables, and the left will successfully insist that nothing is done to make the tax code less progressive. But since a VAT is a proportional tax, the only way of preserving overall progressivity is to raise tax rates on those wicked and evil rich people and/or to massively increase “refundable” tax credits (what normal people call income redistribution). Any proposal to lower income tax rates or eliminate the corporate income tax, as Tyler envisions, would be laughed out of the room (though Democrats will offer a fig leaf or two in order to seduce a sufficient number of gullible Republicans into supporting a terrible agreement, and that might include a cosmetic change to the corporate tax regime).

3. Many of the supposed spending cuts, for all intents and purposes, will be back-door tax increases on saving and investment. More specifically, a big chunk of the supposed spending cut portion of a budget deal will be from means-testing entitlement programs. This sounds good. After all, who wants to send a Social Security check to Bill Gates when he retires? But consider how such a system actually will work. The government will say that people with income (and/or assets) above a certain level are ineligible for some or all of the benefits available to less-fortunate retirees. From an economic persepective, this is very much akin to a higher tax rate on people who save and invest during their working years. And since means testing would only generate substantial budgetary savings if it applied to millions of regular people in addition to Bill Gates, we would wind up with a system that created big penalties on middle-class families that were dumb enough to save and invest.

I’ve already pontificated enough for one blog post, so let me summarize by stating that Tyler’s approach, while not unreasonable, is about how to lose gracefully. Even if his strategy works perfectly, the result is bigger government. I’d much rather fight. If you want some inspiration for the battle, watch this video. If you haven’t had enough of me already, here’s my video explaining why the VAT is a horrible idea.

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The White House recently released the Economic Report of the President. In a post at the White House blog, Christina Romer brags that the stimulus legislation was a big success.

This Act is the great unsung hero of the past year.  It has provided a tax cut to 95 percent of America’s working families and thousands of small businesses.  It has meant the difference between hanging on and destitution for millions of unemployed workers who had exhausted their conventional unemployment insurance benefits.  It has kept hundreds of thousands of teachers, police, and firefighters employed by helping to fill the yawning hole in state and local budgets.  And, it has made crucial long-run investments in our country’s infrastructure and jump-started the transition to the clean energy economy.  All told, the Recovery Act has saved or created some 1½ to 2 million jobs so far, and is on track to have raised employment relative to what it otherwise would have been by 3.5 million by the end of this year. 

Let’s set aside some of the disingenuous components of her post, such as categorizing income redistribution as tax relief, and focus on her claim that the legislation created at least 1.5 million new jobs when total employment has dropped by 3 million. Romer is not bad at math. Instead, she is saying that the economy would have lost 4.5 without the $787 billion increase in government spending. This what-might-have-been analysis is completely legitimate, assuming that there is good theory and evidence to back the assertion. Unfortunately (at least for the White House’s credibility), Ms. Romer and another colleague last year prepared a supposedly rigorous what-might-have-been report, where they estimated that the so-called stimulus would keep the unemployment rate at 8 percent and that failure to increase the burden of government spending would drive the unemployment rate to 9 percent. Yet as this chart from their paper indicates, when we add in the data for what actually has happened, in turns out that bigger government is not only theoretically misguided, but it also doesn’t work in the real world.

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The  Office of Management and Budget has released the President’s FY2011 budget and the Congressional Budget Office has released its semi-annual Budget and Economic Outlook. Much of the coverage of these documents has focused on deficit numbers. This is not a trivial concern, particularly since the Bush-Obama policies of bigger government have dramatically boosted red ink.

But the most important numbers in the budget documents are the estimates of what is happening to government spending. The good news is that burden of government spending is projected to decline over the next few years from about 25 percent of GDP to less than 23 percent of GDP.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that federal government outlays only consumed 18.2 percent of economic output when Bush took office. In other words, notwithstanding the good news cited above, the size and scope of government has increased dramatically since 2001. The worse news is that the long-run spending forecasts show a cataclysmic expansion in the burden of government. The “optimistic” estimate is that the federal government will consume more than 30 percent of GDP by 2050 and 40 percent of GDP by 2080.

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As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the Obama Administration will propose a three-year freeze for a portion of the budget known as “non-defense discretionary” spending. Many critics will correctly note that this is like going on a drunken binge in Vegas and then temporarily joining Alcoholics Anonymous. Others will point out that more than 80 percent of the budget has been exempted, which also is an accurate criticism. Nonetheless, even a partial freeze would be a semi-meaningful achievement. But don’t get too excited yet. It is not clear whether the White House is proposing a genuine spending freeze, meaning “budget outlays” for these programs stay at $477 billion for three years, or a make-believe freeze that applies only to “budget authority.” This is an enormously important distinction. Budget outlays matter because they represent the acutal burden of government spending. Budget authority, by contrast, is a bookkeeping measure that – at best – signals future intentions. During the profligate Bush years, for instance, apologists for the Administration tried to appease fiscal conservatives by asserting that budget authority was growing at ever-slower rates. In some cases, they were technically correct, but their arguments were deceptive because real-world spending kept climbing to record levels. And needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), future intentions never became reality. Domestic discretionary spending soared from less than $350 billion to more than $600 billion during the Bush years (and rose almost another $100 billion in Obama’s first year!). If the Obama Administration proposes a genuine outlay freeze, he will be taking a genuine (albeit small) step in the right direction. If the “freeze” applies only to budget authority, however, that will be a pretty clear indication we are in George W. Bush’s third term.

To attack the $1.4 trillion deficit, the White House will propose limits on discretionary spending unrelated to the military, veterans, homeland security and international affairs, according to senior administration officials. Also untouched are big entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The freeze would affect $447 billion in spending, or 17% of the total federal budget, and would likely be overtaken by growth in the untouched areas of discretionary spending. It’s designed to save $250 billion over the coming decade, compared with what would have been spent had this area been allowed to rise along with inflation. …administration officials acknowledged the freeze is directed at only a small part of overall spending, but that fiscal discipline has to start somewhere. President Obama had requested a 7.3% increase last year in the areas he now seeks to freeze.

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This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains how last year’s so-called stimulus was a flop – and also reveals why politicians are pushing for another big-government spending bill.

Interestingly, since last year’s stimulus was such a disaster, the redistributionists in Washington are calling their new proposal a “jobs bill.” But as I say in the video, this is akin to putting perfume on a hog.

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George Bush ranks as one of America’s most fiscally irresponsible presidents. He increased overall spending from $1.8 trillion to $3.5 trillion and most of that new spending was used to create or expand domestic programs (no-bureaucrat-left-behind education spending, pork-filled highway bills, sleazy Wall Street bailouts, corrupt farm spending, new Medicare entitlements, etc) that are not legitimate functions of the federal government. So it is galling to see his former senior adviser writing columns complaining about Barack Obama being a big spender. Many of the criticisms about the Obama Administration in his latest WSJ column are correct, to be sure, but Karl Rove has zero moral authority to make those arguments. Moreover, Rove once again engages in sloppy or dishonest (you choose) analysis by blaming Obama for some of Bush’s mistakes. In the excerpt below, he blames Obama for any of the Fiscal Year 2009 debt that was incurred after January 20 of last year. But as I’ve already explained, 96 percent of the spending in FY2009 is the result of Bush’s policies:

Consider that from Jan. 20, 2001, to Jan. 20, 2009, the debt held by the public grew $3 trillion under Mr. Bush—to $6.3 trillion from $3.3 trillion at a time when the national economy grew as well. By comparison, from the day Mr. Obama took office last year to the end of the current fiscal year, according to the Office of Management and Budget, the debt held by the public will grow by $3.3 trillion. In 20 months, Mr. Obama will add as much debt as Mr. Bush ran up in eight years. …Mr. Bush’s deficits ran an average of 3.2% of GDP, slightly above the post World War II average of 2.7%. Mr. Obama’s plan calls for deficits that will average 4.2% over the next decade. Team Obama has been on history’s biggest spending spree, which has included a $787 billion stimulus, a $30 billion expansion of a child health-care program, and a $410 billion federal spending bill that increased nondefense discretionary spending 10% for the last half of fiscal year 2009. Mr. Obama also hiked nondefense discretionary spending another 12% for fiscal year 2010.

Correction: In an earlier post on one of Rove’s columns, I incorrectly claimed that Bush never vetoed a bill because it spent too much.That was wrong. He did veto a handful of bills once Democrats took control of Congress.

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According to a Washington Post story, Obama wants to be the anti-Reagan, a President who permanently changes the American people’s attitude about big government. Obama’s efforts to make statism popular, however, are not exactly working out as he hoped. According to a new Washington Post-ABC poll, the American people have become much more libertarian when asked if that want a bigger government with more services or a smaller government with fewer services. But this is just part of the story. As David Boaz points out, more accurate polling data, which mentions that bigger government also means higher taxes, reveals that support for small government becomes even more pronounced. Here’s an excerpt from the Post story:

Could he restore confidence in government, even as he was proposing the biggest federal intervention in the domestic economy in a generation? …As Obama marks the first anniversary of his inauguration on Wednesday, that question remains one of the most politically charged of his presidency — and central to the politics of this election year — and will hinge on how Americans judge Obama and his policies. Will the public conclude that his policies worked, however much they may cost and however much they may entail more government intervention in the economy? Or will they regard his agenda as intrusive and ineffective big government? What steps may Obama take to alleviate public discontent over these first-year decisions? …Obama receives mixed reviews for his first-year performance, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. His approval rating stands at 53 percent, with 44 percent disapproving. Among independents, 49 percent approve, the lowest of any of his recent predecessors at this point in their presidencies. …The poll also shows how much ground Obama has lost during his first year of trying to convince the public that more government is the answer to the country’s problems. By 58 percent to 38 percent, Americans said they prefer smaller government and fewer services to larger government with more services. Since he won the Democratic nomination in June 2008, the margin between those favoring smaller over larger government has moved in Post-ABC polls from five points to 20 points.

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Even though I’ve been in Washington for almost 25 years, I still get shocked by the deceit and double-talk that characterizes this town. A perfect example can be found in today’s Wall Street Journal, which features a column by Karl Rove attacking President Obama for fiscal incontinence. I’m a big fan of condemning Obama’s big-government schemes, but Rove is the last person in the world who should be complaining about too much wasteful spending. After all, he was the top adviser to President Bush and the federal budget exploded during Bush’s eight years, climbing from $1.8 trillion to more than $3.5 trillion. More specifically, Rove was a leading proponent of the proposals that dramatically expanded the size and scope of the federal government, including the no-bureaucrat-left-behind education bill, the two corrupt farm bills, the two pork-filled transportation bills, and the grossly irresponsible new Medicare entitlement program.

Not surprisingly, Rove even tries to blame Obama for some of Bush’s overspending, writing that “…discretionary domestic spending now stands at $536 billion, up nearly 24% from President George W. Bush’s last full year budget in fiscal 2008 of $433.6 billion. That’s a huge spending surge, even for a profligate liberal like Mr. Obama.” This passage leads the reader to assume that Obama should be blamed for what happened in fiscal years 2009 and 2010, but as I’ve already explained, the 2009 fiscal year started about four months before Obama took office and 96 percent of the spending can be attributed to Bush’s fiscal profligacy. Yes, Obama is now making a bad situation worse by further increasing spending, but he should be criticized for continuing Bush’s mistakes.

Rove then has the gall to complain that Obama is “…growing the federal government’s share of GDP from its historic post-World War II average of roughly 20% to the target Mr. Obama laid out in his budget blueprint last February of 24%.” Yet a quick look at the budget data shows that the burden of federal spending jumped from 18.4 percent of GDP when Bush took office to more than 25 percent of economic output when he left office. Even if the (hopefully) temporary bailout costs are not counted, Bush and Rove are the ones who deserve most of the blame for today’s much larger burden of government. It should be noted, by the way, that none of the new spending under Bush was imposed over his objection. He did not veto any legislation because of excessive spending.

Finally, Rove concludes by writing that, “After a year of living in his fiscal fantasy world, Americans realize they have a record deficit-setting, budget-busting spender on their hands.” I’m almost at a loss for words after reading this sentence. All during the Bush years, I would complain to people in the Administation about wasteful spending. It didn’t matter whether I was talking to people at the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Treasury Department, or the National Economic Council. They almost always expressed sympathy for what I was saying, and then complained that the decisions were being made by the “White House political people.”

There’s an old joke about chutzpah and it features a guy who murders his parents and then asks the court for mercy because he’s an orphan. Karl Rove has taken the joke to the next level, but there’s nothing funny about the consequences for America.

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