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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Commission’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restraining Spending: C+

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

Eliminating Departments and Programs: D

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

Reforming Entitlements: C-

Reducing Bureaucratic Bloat: B

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

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

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

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

Lowering Tax Rates: A-

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

Reducing Double Taxation: D

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

Limiting the Tax Burden: D-

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

Eliminating Corrupt Loopholes: B

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

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

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

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

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

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I feel like a pendulum this election season. Something will happen that makes me want to eviscerate Obama’s statist policies and I’ll write a foaming-at-the-mouth post warning that the President is turning America into Greece.

But then Romney will do something odious and I’ll sound the warning sign with a we-don’t-need-another-big-spender-like-Bush post.

Today, it’s Obama’s turn on the chopping block. I went on Neil Cavuto’s Fox Business News program and commented on the fact that the President doesn’t have a fiscal plan.

We started by discussing the President’s failure to embrace the findings of his own Fiscal Commission and then shifted to the big-picture issue of whether the American people have become ensnared by the dependency mindset and are willing to vote for Greek-style fiscal policy.

One thing I should have added is that Obama actually does have a fiscal plan. He’s just not willing to be as honest as the leftists who have admitted that you need to screw the middle class with higher taxes to fund big government.

My own personal guess is that he would impose a value-added tax if he thought it was politically feasible. Not that I’m showing any great insight. After all, Obama already has made the ridiculous statement that a VAT is “something that has worked for other countries.”

But because he’s running for reelection, he’d rather just demagogue the Ryan plan rather than show his own cards.

P.S. Even the cartoonist for the Washington Post doesn’t think the VAT is something that is working for other countries. This cartoon is a classic and definitely worth sharing. And you can enjoy other VAT cartoons here and here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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