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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Policy’

I generally focus on the profligate habits and abusive tactics of the federal government in Washington, but that doesn’t mean other levels of government are well behaved.

In a column for the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell outlines some of the reprehensible ways that state and local governments extract money from the citizenry.

Think of recent, infuriating stories on civil asset forfeiture, in which law enforcement seizes cash and other property from people who are never charged with crimes. Often the departments that do the seizing get to keep the proceeds, which leads to terrible incentives. …Onerous traffic fees and court fines — which have been blamed for long-simmering tensions in places like Ferguson, Mo. — often have a similarly mercenary motive.

She’s right to be infuriated.

Policies like asset forfeiture are disgusting ways of stealing money, particularly from the less fortunate. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the two first leaders of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office now say the practice should be ended because of rampant abuses.

But other revenue-raising policies also are objectionable.

…states and cities are also increasingly trying to monetize other behaviors seen as sinful or wayward, like marijuana use, strip club patronage, and gambling. Hence the explosion of state-sponsored lotteries, which prey on (mostly poor) people’s mathematical illiteracy… States have also been jockeying to expand casinos and other venues for legalized gambling, which voters seem to see as generating free money. …Then there are the expensive occupational licensure requirements for jobs that don’t seem to require state-level gatekeeping, like hair-braiding.

At this point, after reading various examples of greedy governments pillaging citizens, you may be thinking Ms. Rampell is a good libertarian.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Her anger is misdirected. Instead of holding politicians accountable, she blames voters for their unwillingness to acquiesce to tax hikes as a way of dealing with “widespread budget crunches.”

If the political toxicity of spending and tax hikes encourages obfuscation at the federal level, it has led to far more destructive and distortionary policies at the state and local levels. Voters hate taxes and will punish any politician who threatens to raise them (or, in many cases, does not accede to cutting them). But schools, roads, police forces, garbage collection, firefighters, jails and pensions still cost money, even when you cut them back as much as voters will tolerate. So instead of raising taxes, state and municipal governments have resorted to nickel-and-diming constituents through other kinds of piecemeal, non-tax revenue raisers, an outcome that is less transparent, and likely to worsen the economy, inequality and social injustice. …It’s time to take off the fiscal blinkers and start rewarding politicians who have the courage to advocate raising revenues the old-fashioned way: through taxes.

Reward a politician for raising taxes? Isn’t that like rewarding a mosquito for taking your blood?

But I shouldn’t be snarky. After all, maybe Ms. Rampell is right and that budgets for state and local governments have been cut as much as possible.

That being said, I noticed she didn’t include any figures on the trends in spending by state and local governments.

So I went to the Office of Management and Budget’s historical tables, specifically Table 15-2 which includes state and local government expenditures. And after adjusting the data for inflation, based on the composite deflator in Table 1-3, I put together a graph to determine whether there was a “budget crunch” for state and local government.

Um…not so much.

As you can see, state and local government spending has jumped dramatically, even when looking at inflation-adjusted dollars.

Indeed, the 164 percent increase in outlays since 1980 is four times greater than the 40 percent increase in the nation’s population over the same period.

In other words, the only “budget crunch” is the one being imposed on long-suffering taxpayers by state and local politicians.

Those officials are the folks who deserve Ms. Rampell’s ire.

P.S. Since this column corrects a big oversight in a Washington Post column, I suppose this would be a good time to point out other mistakes or misstatements I’ve noticed in that newspaper.

Such as the time it asserted in a news report that Germany is “fiscally conservative.”

Or the time the newspaper claimed a 0.158 percent cut would “slash” the federal budget.

And how about the time the Post said the tiny sequester would impose a “sledgehammer of budget cuts.”

P.P.S. On the other hand, the Washington Post has produced genuinely good editorials on school choice and postal service privatization, so it isn’t all bad.

P.P.P.S. And it presumably is better than the New York Times, which has a bigger list of preposterous stories (and I’m not even counting Paul Krugman’s mistakes, some of which can be seen here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

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Since I’ve accused the Congressional Budget Office of “witch doctor economics and gypsy forecasting,” it’s obvious I’m not a big fan of the organization’s approach to fiscal analysis.

I’ve even argued that Republicans shouldn’t cite CBO when the bureaucrats reach correct conclusions on policy (at least when such findings are based on bad Keynesian methodology).

So nobody should be surprised that I think the incoming Republican majority should install new leadership at CBO (and the Joint Committee on Taxation as well).

So why, then, are some advocates of smaller government – such as Greg Mankiw, Keith Hennessey, Alan Viard, and Michael Strain – arguing that Republicans should keep the current Director, Doug Elmendorf, who was appointed by the Democrats back in 2009?

Before answering that question, let’s look at some of what was written today for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

After a series of highly-regarded conservatives voiced their support for Doug Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office whose term is up in January, Elmendorf haters fired back on Friday, urging Republicans to jettison the Democratic appointee as soon as possible. …This argument is advanced most forcefully in an open letter to GOP congressional leaders by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who…is most famous as the author of the anti-tax pledge that binds virtually every Republican in Congress never to vote to raise taxes. So why is Norquist against Elmendorf? For one thing, because CBO, under Elmendorf, has not demonized higher taxes. Instead, the agency promotes a “Failed Keynesian Economic Analysis,” Norquist says, that asserts that “higher taxes are good for the economy, even to the point of implying that growth is maximized when tax rates are 100 percent.”

And where did Grover get the idea that CBO believes that ever-higher taxes lead to more growth?

Umm…well, from something I wrote.

As evidence, Norquist points to a 2010 post by the Cato Institute’s Dan Mitchell, titled “Congressional Budget Office Says We Can Maximize Long-Run Economic Output with 100 Percent Tax Rates.” “I hope the title of this post is an exaggeration,” Mitchell writes, “but it’s certainly a logical conclusion based on” CBO’s claim that paying down the national debt — regardless of whether it’s through higher taxes or lower government spending — would be a good thing for the economy. “There’s nothing necessarily wrong with CBO’s concern about deficits,” Mitchell goes on. But “what’s missing from CBO’s analysis is any recognition or understanding that the real problem is excessive government spending.” In other words, what’s missing is conservative ideology about fiscal policy.

I have two reactions, one minor and one major.

My minor point is that the author of the piece is supposed to be a neutral, even-handed reporter, yet she refers to opponents of Elmendorf as “haters” and she implies that we’re simply upset because CBO’s analysis is missing “conservative ideology about fiscal policy.”  Given that she was writing for Wonkblog, which is more akin to an editorial page, there’s nothing wrong with being opinionated. But ask yourself whether someone with such hostility can be impartial when doing straight news stories.

My major point is about policy. Why is my concern about the size of government characterized as “ideology” while we’re supposed to believe CBO’s analysis is “scrupulously impartial” even though it produced analysis which implies you maximize growth with 100 percent tax rates?!?

If my views are blind ideology, then why is there research showing the economic damage of excessive government from international bureaucracies such as the World Bank and European Central Bank? And why are there studies about the harmful economic impact of government spending from the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development? Nobody has ever accused these institutions of being hotbeds of libertarian thought.

But perhaps I’m not being fair to CBO. Did the bureaucrats really imply, as part of their analysis on what would happen to the economy if the Bush tax cuts were allowed to expire, that you maximize growth with 100 percent tax rates?

You can read my original post, which holds up very well four years later. And here’s some of what I wrote yesterday to someone who asked me to justify my views on the issue.

…let’s focus on the “subsequent years,” when CBO projectst that GDP would be lower with extended tax cuts. …I’m happy to be corrected, but my reading is that CBO was stating that fiscal balance is the tail that wags the economic dog. The extended tax cuts cause larger deficits, and CBO says that these larger deficits will divert national saving from productive investment and lead to lower output. But if the tax burden is higher, as in the baseline forecast, then deficits are lower and more saving is available for productive investment and output is higher. As far as I’m aware, CBO didn’t have any limiting language back then to suggest that higher tax rates led to growth, but only up to X point. So I think I was on solid ground in asserting the CBO’s analysis implied that ever-higher tax rates led to ever-higher growth.

Seems reasonable. Moreover, I strongly suspect the Wonkblog reporter would have found several people to condemn me had I over-stated the implications of CBO’s analysis.

Now let’s return to the issue of whether Mr. Elmendorf should be re-appointed. Which fiscal conservatives are correct, the ones who want to keep him or the ones who want him replaced?

I’m in the latter category, as explained here, but Elmendorf’s defenders make plenty of good points.

The bottom line is that he is a nice guy (based on my limited interactions), a thoughtful economist, and he has been a big improvement over his predecessor. Indeed, he’s almost certainly the best CBO Director ever appointed by Democrats.

Here’s an analogy that may help make sense of this issue. Elmendorf’s predecessor was a doctrinaire leftist named Peter Orszag. If Orszag’s policy views were a country, they would be France or Greece. By contrast, I’m guessing that Elmendorf would be like Sweden or Germany.

In other words, he wants more government than I do, but at least Elmendorf basically understands that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. He realizes 2+2=4, and he’s aware that there are tradeoffs. And since his arrival, CBO has been much better on issues such as the adverse impact of higher marginal tax rates and the debilitating effect of higher transfer payments.

That being said, while it’s much better to be Sweden rather than Greece, I obviously would prefer to be Hong Kong (or, even better, pre-1913 America).

Though, to continue the analogy, the best I can probably hope for is that Republicans appoint someone akin to Australia or Switzerland.

P.S. For more information about the economics of deficits and fiscal balance, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.P.S. The Congressional Research Service made the same argument about higher taxes being pro-growth, asserting in 2010 that “The expiration of the tax cuts would nevertheless reduce the budget deficit, absent other policy changes, which economic theory predicts would have a positive effect on the economy in the long run.”

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Tax competition is a very important tool for constraining the greed of the political class. Simply stated, politicians are less likely to impose bad tax policy if they are afraid that jobs and investment (and accompanying tax revenue) will move to jurisdictions with better tax policy.

This works to limit revenue grabs by politicians at the state level and it works to control the craving for money on the part of politicians at the national level.

But this doesn’t mean all forms of tax competition are equally desirable.

If a country lowers overall tax rates on personal income or corporate income in hopes of attracting business activity, that’s great for prosperity. If a jurisdiction seeks faster growth by reducing double taxation – such as lowering the tax rate on capital gains or abolishing the death tax, that’s also very beneficial.

Some politicians, however, try to entice businesses with special one-off deals, which means one politically well-connected company gets a tax break while the overall fiscal regime for other companies stays the same (or even gets worse).

That’s corrupt cronyism, not proper tax competition.

With this in mind, let’s consider the growing controversy about tax planning by multinational companies. There’s lot of controversy, both in the United States and in Europe, about whether companies are gaming the system.

The most recent kerfuffle deals with Luxembourg, which is accused of having a very friendly regime for business taxation.

Syed Kamall, a Tory member of the European Parliament, has a column in the Wall Street Journal Europe about the right kind of corporate tax competition.

It seems to have come as a great shock to many in the European Parliament that Luxembourg may have encouraged multinational companies to domicile there to pay lower taxes. I’m not sure where these members of parliament have been living for the past 20 years.

What worries Syed is that many European politicians want to use the news from Luxembourg as an excuse to push tax harmonization.

…an agenda of EU-wide tax harmonization…is rapidly gaining popularity in some quarters despite being exactly the wrong prescription for Europe. …tax harmonization…would hang the “Closed for Business” sign at Europe’s border. Tax competition across the single market helps keep tax rates competitive and drives inward investment. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has said that “the ability [of companies] to choose the location of economic activity offsets shortcomings in government budgeting processes, limiting a tendency to spend and tax excessively.”

By the way, the OECD is a big proponent of tax harmonization, so it’s especially noteworthy that even those bureaucrats admitted that tax competition constrains greedy government.

You can click here for further examples of OECD economists admitting that tax competition is necessary and desirable, notwithstanding the anti-market policies being advocated by the political appointees who run the institution.

And since we’re discussing the merits of tax competition, we should point out that Mr. Kamall also mentioned those benefits.

The clearest example of that came with the tax reductions enacted by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Those tax-rate cuts in the U.K. and U.S. forced other industrialized nations to cut their average top marginal rate for personal income to 42% today from more than 67% in 1980 simply to remain competitive, according to the Adam Smith Institute. Tax competition has driven down the average top rate for corporate income in the developed world to less than 27% today from 48% in 1980. Tax competition in Europe encouraged many EU members from the former Soviet bloc to enact flat taxes, which have benefitted them substantially. …it’s important for leaders to keep making the case that tax-policy competition within the single market has been good for Europe.

And he correctly warns that tax harmonization would be a vehicle for higher tax burdens.

Imposing uniform rates under a harmonized system would turn the EU into a convoy that can move only as fast as the slowest ship. Europe’s tax rate would be only as low as the highest-taxing member. …A harmonized tax system would encourage companies and investors to seek new solutions outside the EU in order to avoid paying what would inevitably be higher, French-style levels of European taxation.

And if you don’t believe Mr. Kamall, just look at what’s happened over the past couple of years in Europe.

Last but not least, Syed points out that there is a pro-growth way of improving tax compliance.

The best way to cut down on tax avoidance is to cut tax rates and simplify tax codes. That way people and companies would be willing and able to pay their money to Europe’s exchequers, rather than paying accountants to find loopholes.

But that would require politicians to be responsible, so don’t hold your breath.

So what’s the bottom line? Is there a good way of identifying the desirable forms of tax competition that should be defended.

The simple answer is that it’s always a good idea to compete with lower tax rates that apply to all taxpayers. That’s true for tax rates on companies and households.

The more complex (but equally important) answer is that it’s also good to compete by having a properly designed tax system. On the business side, that means expensing instead of depreciation and territorial taxation rather than worldwide taxation. For households, it means having the proper definition of income so that there’s no longer pernicious discrimination against saving and investment.

Misguided tax competition, by contrast, exists when there are very narrow preferences that apply to a small handful of powerful taxpayers.

For more information on the general topic, here’s my video on the virtues of tax competition.

P.S. My support for tax competition is so intense that I even try to bring the message to unfriendly audiences, such as Capitol Hill and the New York Times.

P.P.S. Heck, my support for tax competition is so intense that I almost got tossed in a third-world jail. That’s true dedication!

P.P.P.S. In you admire hypocrisy, you’ll be very impressed that many rich statists utilize tax havens to protect their money even though they want you to give more of your income to government.

P.P.P.P.S. Speaking of hypocrisy, the main anti-tax competition international organization gives its bureaucrats tax-free salaries.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Since I just mentioned the OECD, I should note that it has a project to curtail business tax competition. They claim that their intention is to go after misguided forms of tax competition, but I’m not surprised that the real goal is to simply extract more money from companies.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. I’m not sure how to classify this final bit of information, but it’s surely worth mentioning that Bill Clinton defends corporate tax competition. As does Bono.

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Notwithstanding the landslide rejection of Obama and his policies in the mid-term election, I don’t think this will produce big changes in policy over the next two years.

Simply stated, the GOP does not have the votes to override presidential vetoes, so there’s no plausible strategy for achieving meaningful tax reform or genuine entitlement reform.

But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be important fiscal policy battles. I’m especially worried about whether we can hold on to the modest fiscal restraint (and sequester enforcement) we achieved as part of the 2011 debt limit fight.

Part of that victory was already negotiated away as part of the Ryan-Murray budget deal, to be sure, but there are still remaining budget caps that limit how fast politicians can increase so-called discretionary spending.

According to the Congressional Research Service, budget authority for defense is allowed to rise from $552 billion in 2014 to $644 billion in 2021. And budget authority for domestic programs is allowed to climb from $506 billion to $590 billion over the same period.

I think that’s too much spending, but the interest groups, lobbyists, cronyists, politicians, bureaucrats, and other insiders in Washington would like much bigger increases. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the Obama Administration also wants to bust the spending caps.

This is why I’m very worried that some Republicans are undercutting their negotiating position by saying that there will be no government shutdowns.

Let me explain how these issues are connected. At some point next year, Republicans on Capitol Hill will be responsible for putting together spending bills for the following fiscal year. They presumably (or am I being too optimistic?) will put together budget bills that comply with the existing spending caps.

Obama will then say he will veto such legislation and demand that Republicans unilaterally surrender by enacting bigger spending increases and also gutting sequestration. The GOP will then have two options:

A) they can surrender.

B) they can continue to send the President spending bills that comply with the law.

But if they go with option B and the President uses his veto pen, then the government shuts down. And even though the shutdown only occurs because the President wants to renege on the deal he signed in 2011, Republicans are afraid they’ll get blamed.

The Washington Post reports on this fearful attitude, citing the anti-shutdown perspective of the incoming Senate Majority Leader.

A day after he won reelection and Republicans retook the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) left no doubt… “Let me make it clear: There will be no government shutdowns…,” McConnell said in a valedictory news conference in Louisville.

But that view irks some lawmakers who worry Obama will then have a blank check.

The first battle may revolve around immigration amnesty, but – as noted above – I’m more focused on fiscal fights.

But McConnell could be tripped up by the same conservative forces that have undercut Boehner since he became speaker in 2011. The issue this time is Obama’s expected executive action to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.conservatives…have urged McConnell and Boehner to fight back by allowing only a short-term budget bill that would keep government agencies open until early next year. These conservatives believe that once Republicans hold both chambers of Congress next year, they can force Obama to accept a budget bill that would prohibit him from implementing his executive order on immigration.

At this point in the article, the reporter, Paul Kane, engages in some anti-factual editorializing.

…the days of brinkmanship could return with a vengeance, and the government could once again be shut down. That could provide a devastating blow to Republicans, hurting their chance to win back the White House and hold on to their relatively slim Senate majority in 2016.

Huh?!? Republicans just won a landslide, so why are we supposed to believe last year’s shutdown was “a devastating blow”?

Mr. Kane also refers to a shutdown later in the article as a “fiscal calamity” even though he shows no evidence (because there wasn’t any) that government shutdowns cause any damage.

But there is at least one person who is convinced by this narrative. And that person, Senator McConnell, is preemptively trying to convince other GOP Senators to give Obama the upper hand in any fiscal negotiations.

McConnell’s advisers are worried enough that by Friday evening they were circulating a memo showing how damaging last year’s shutdown was to the Republican Party — an effort designed to counter conservatives who point to this month’s triumphant election as proof that the shutdown did little damage. …The memo showed that in Gallup polling from late 2012 until this month, …Republicans held steady just a couple of points lower through 2012 and most of 2013 — until the 16-day shutdown of the federal government in October 2013. In just a few weeks, the McConnell chart shows, Republican favorability plummeted 10 points. It has taken a year for it to climb back to where it was before the shutdown.

But who cares about “favorability” ratings. The poll that really matters is the one that takes place on election day.

And here’s some of what I wrote in my post about lessons that could be learned from the 2014 elections.

Back in 2011, I explained that Republicans could play hard ball, largely based on what really happened during the 1995 government shutdown. And in 2013, I again defended a shutdown, pointing out that voters probably wouldn’t even notice that some government offices were closed, but they would remember that the GOP was branding itself as the anti-Obamacare party. The establishment, by contrast, thought the shutdown was a disaster for Republicans. …many…Republicans felt the same way, excoriating Senator Cruz and others who wanted a line-in-the-sand fight over government-run healthcare. The moral of the story isn’t that shutdowns necessarily are politically desirable, but rather that it’s very important for a political party to find visible ways of linking itself to popular causes (such as ending Obamacare, fighting big government, etc).

At least one person agrees with me. Jeffrey Lord, writing for the American Spectator, points out the GOP establishment was wrong about the political impact of the 2013 government shutdown.

The whole event was giving prominent Republicans in and out of office the political willies. …Republican senators, congressmen, governors, ex-office holders, potential presidential candidates, lobbyists and pundits…were spreading the word. That word? …it was some version of curtains for the GOP. The party would be toast. …they all got it wrong. Not just wrong, but Big Time Wrong. A week ago the Republican Party — barely a year away from the government shut down these folks were bewailing in various terms as bad strategy that “will lose more” for Republicans than Democrats — won a blowout election. …Will Republicans learn anything here?Do you think Mitch McConnell makes the connection between the government shutdown of 2013 and the fact that he is about to become Senate Majority Leader?

To be fair, we don’t know what would have happened if there wasn’t a shutdown in 2013, so maybe the GOP still would have taken the Senate.

But there’s also no doubt that the GOP benefited by having a big public fight about Obamacare. Voters didn’t remember the shutdown, but they did remember that Republicans were against the President’s government-run healthcare scheme and they remembered that Democrats were for it.

I have no idea whether that made a difference in one Senate race of six Senate races, but Obamacare clearly was an albatross for Democrats.

In closing, I want to point out that there are limits to a shutdown strategy.

Picking a fight (or, more accurately, refusing to surrender to Obama) in 2015 is almost surely a winning strategy. But having the same fight in October of 2016 probably wouldn’t be very smart, particularly since the establishment press would do everything possible to spin the fight in ways that advance Hillary Clinton (or some other Democrat presidential nominee).

In other words, context matters. Pick the right fight.

But the bottom line is that Republicans – assuming they don’t intend to acquiesce on every single issue – must be prepared to let Obama veto spending bills and shut down the government.

Returning to the American Spectator story, Ted Cruz may not be very popular with some of his colleagues, but I think he made an unassailable point about what happens if the GOP unilaterally disarms.

Cruz…asked them for their alternative. Cruz paused, then said that the response he got was “the sound of crickets chirping.”

P.S. One reason why Republicans are skittish about shutdowns is that they think they last the 1995 fight with Bill Clinton. But if you lived through that battle (or if you look at contemporaneous news reports), it’s clear the Republicans had the upper hand.

P.P.S. Here are the five lessons I shared immediately after the 2013 shutdown fight.

P.P.P.S. If you want to enjoy some shutdown humor, click herehere, here, and here. And if you prefer sequester cartoons, click here, here, here, here, here, and (my favorite) here.

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The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) are congressional bureaucracies that wield tremendous power on Capitol Hill because of their role as fiscal scorekeepers and referees.

Unfortunately, these bureaucracies lean to the left. When CBO does economic analysis or budgetary estimates, for instance, the bureaucrats routinely make it easier for politicians to expand the burden of government spending. The accompanying cartoon puts it more bluntly.

And when JCT does revenue estimates, the bureaucrats grease the skids for anti-growth tax policy by overstating revenue losses from lower tax rates and overstating revenue gains from higher tax rates.

Here are some examples of CBO’s biased output.

The CBO – over and over again – produced reports based on Keynesian methodology to claim that Obama’s so-called stimulus was creating millions of jobs even as the unemployment rate was climbing.

CBO has produced analysis asserting that higher taxes are good for the economy, even to the point of implying that growth is maximized when tax rates are 100 percent.

Continuing a long tradition of under-estimating the cost of entitlement programs, CBO facilitated the enactment of Obamacare with highly dubious projections.

CBO also radically underestimated the job losses that would be caused by Obamacare.

When purporting to measure loopholes in the tax code, the CBO chose to use a left-wing benchmark that assumes there should be double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

On rare occasions when CBO has supportive analysis of tax cuts, the bureaucrats rely on bad methodology.

But let’s not forget that the JCT produces equally dodgy analysis.

The JCT was wildly wrong in its estimates of what would happen to tax revenue after the 2003 tax rate reductions.

Because of the failure to properly measure the impact of tax policy on behavior, the JCT significantly overestimated the revenues from the Obamacare tax on tanning salons.

The JCT has estimated that the rich would pay more revenue with a 100 percent tax rate even though there would be no incentive to earn and report taxable income if the government confiscated every penny.

This means the JCT is more left wing than the very statist economists who think the revenue-maximizing tax rate is about 70 percent.

Unsurprisingly, the JCT also uses a flawed statist benchmark when producing estimates of so-called tax expenditures.

Though I want to be fair. Sometimes CBO and JCT produce garbage because they are instructed to put their thumbs on the scale by their political masters. The fraudulent process of redefining spending increases as spending cuts, for instance, is apparently driven by legislative mandates.

But the bottom line is that these bureaucracies, as currently structured and operated, aid and abet big government.

Regarding the CBO, Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus hit the nail on the head.

The CBO’s consistently flawed scoring of the cost of bills is used by Congress to justify legislation that rarely performs as promised and drags down the economy. …CBO relies heavily on Keynesian economic models, like the ones it used during the stimulus debate. Forecasters at the agency predicted the stimulus package would create more than 3 million jobs. …What looks good in the spirit world of the computer model may be very bad in the material realm of real life because people react to changes in policies in ways unaccounted for in these models.

And the Wall Street Journal opines wisely about the real role of the JCT.

Joint Tax typically overestimates the revenue gains from raising tax rates, while overestimating the revenue losses from tax rate cuts. This leads to a policy bias in favor of higher tax rates, which is precisely what liberal Democrats wanted when they created the Joint Tax Committee.

Amen. For all intents and purposes, the system is designed to help statists win policy battles.

No wonder only 15 percent of CPAs agree with JCT’s biased approach to revenue estimates.

So what’s the best way to deal with this mess?

Some Republicans on the Hill have nudged these bureaucracies to make their models more realistic.

That’s a helpful start, but I think the only effective long-run option is to replace the top staff with people who have a more accurate understanding of fiscal policy. Which is exactly what I said to Peter Roff, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report.

…the new congressional leadership should be looking at ways to reform the way the institution does its business – and the first place for it to start is the Congressional Budget Office. Most Americans don’t know what the CBO is, how it was created or what it does. They also don’t know how vitally important it is to the legislative process, especially where taxes, spending and entitlement reform are concerned. As Dan Mitchell, a well-respected economist with the libertarian Cato Institute, puts it in an email, the CBO “has a number-crunching role that gives the bureaucracy a lot of power to aid or hinder legislation, so it is very important for Republicans to select a director who understands the economic consequences of excessive spending and punitive tax rates.”

Heck, it’s not just “very important” to put in a good person at CBO (and JCT). As I’ve written before, it’s a test of whether the GOP has both the brains and resolve to fix a system that’s been rigged against them for decades.

So what will happen? I’m not sure, but Roll Call has a report on the behind-the-scenes discussions on Capitol Hill.

Flush from their capture of the Senate, Republicans in both chambers are reviewing more than a dozen potential candidates to succeed Douglas W. Elmendorf as director of the Congressional Budget Office after his term expires Jan. 3. …The appointment is being closely watched, with a number of Republicans pushing for CBO to change its budget scoring rules to use dynamic scoring, which would try to account for the projected impact of tax cuts and budget changes on the economy.

So who will it be? The Wall Street Journal weighs in, pointing out that CBO has been a tool for the expansion of government.

…the budget rules are rigged to expand government and hide the true cost of entitlements. CBO scores aren’t unambiguous facts but are guesses about the future, biased by the Keynesian assumptions and models its political masters in Congress instruct it to use. Republicans who now run Congress can help taxpayers by appointing a new CBO director, as is their right as the majority. …The Tax Foundation’s Steve Entin would be an inspired pick.

I disagree with one part of the above excerpt. Steve Entin is superb, but he would be an inspired pick for the Joint Committee on Taxation, not the CBO.

But I fully agree with the WSJ’s characterization of the budget rules being used to grease the skids for bigger government.

In a column for National Review, Dustin Siggins writes that Bill Beach, my old colleague from my days at the Heritage Foundation, would be a good choice for CBO.

…few Americans may realize  that the budget process is at least as twisted as the budget itself. While one man can’t fix it all, Republicans who want to be taken seriously about budget reform should approve Bill Beach to head the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Putting the right person in charge as Congress’s official “scorekeeper” would be an important first step in proving that the party is serious about honest, transparent, and efficient government. …CBO has several major structural problems that a new CBO director should fix.

Hmm… Entin at JCT and Beach at CBO. That might even bring a smile to my dour face.

But it doesn’t have to be those two specific people. There are lots of well-regarded policy scholars who could take on the jobs of reforming and modernizing the work of JCT and CBO.

But that will only happen if Republicans are willing to show some fortitude. And that means they need to be ready to deal with screeching from leftists who want to maintain their control of these institutions.

For example, Peter Orszag, a former CBO Director who then became Budget Director for Obama (an easy transition), wrote for Bloomberg that he’s worried GOPers won’t pick someone with his statist views.

The Congressional Budget Office should be able to celebrate its 40th anniversary this coming February with pride. …The occasion will be ruined, however, if the new Republican Congress breaks its long tradition of naming an objective economist/policy analyst as CBO director, when the position becomes vacant next year, and instead appoints a party hack.

By the way, it shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness for someone like Orszag to complain about the possibility of a “party hack” heading up CBO.

In any event, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I fully expect we’ll also see editorials very soon from the New York Times, Washington Post, and other statist outlets about the need to preserve the “independence” of CBO and JCT.

Just keep in mind that their real goal is to maintain their side’s control over the process.

P.S. There’s another Capitol Hill bureaucracy, the Congressional Research Service, that also generates leftist fiscal policy analysis. Fortunately, the CRS doesn’t have any scorekeeper or referee role, so it doesn’t cause nearly as much trouble. Nonetheless, any bureaucracy that produces “research” about higher taxes being good for the economy needs to be abolished or completely revamped.

P.P.S. This video explains the Joint Committee on Taxation’s revenue-estimating methodology. Pay extra attention to the section beginning around the halfway point, which deals with a request my former boss made to the JCT.

P.P.P.S. If you want to see some dramatic evidence that lower tax rates don’t necessarily lead to less revenue, check out this amazing data from the 1980s.

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I don’t pretend that tax reform, by itself, will create economic Nirvana.

After all, the experts who measure economic policy and economic performance say that only about 20 percent of a nation’s prosperity is determined by fiscal policy.

Nonetheless, I’m a big fan of simple and fair tax systems such as the flat tax. Not only because I think we will get more growth, but also because I want to rein in the power of the IRS and reduce corruption in Washington.

So did the Republican wave in the mid-term elections make reform more likely?

Interestingly, the normally left-leaning Washington Post editorial page seems to have the right attitude about the issue.

There is broad agreement that the Internal Revenue Code is an unfair, inefficient mess and that the solution is to lower marginal rates and apply them to a broader base of income. A simpler code, purged of its market-distorting loopholes, would foster economic equality and economic growth, both of which the United States desperately needs.

So does the election make reform more likely?

Does the rise of a newly elected Republican Senate change that calculus? We’d say that it might… To be sure, Democrats want tax reform to raise money; Republicans want cuts. Still, a good deal of work has already been done on basic principles of a tax overhaul by Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress. …With a strong push from Mr. Obama, early in the new Congress, they might just be willing to finish the job their predecessors started.

I suspect the Washington Post is being far too optimistic about bipartisan compromise.

Not only would lawmakers have to overcome the big divide over whether reform should produce more revenue for Washington or less money for Washington, but there’s also a big divide on how to properly measure income.

And don’t forget that Obama (unlike the Washington Post) wants higher marginal tax rates because of his class-warfare ideology.

But maybe I’m just being a pessimist.

Scott Hodge of the Tax Foundation, for instance, also offers a semi-optimistic assessment about the possibility of reform.

One of the most obvious questions from Tuesday’s election results is: what does this mean for tax reform? I think it certainly enhances the prospects of Congress and the president reaching a grand bargain on overhauling the tax code… Starting in January 2015, expect the new chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee begin holding a series of hearings on various aspects of reforming the tax system and the numerous “off-the-shelf” options available to them—such as the Flat Tax, X-Tax, FairTax, Cash Flow Tax, and the Camp draft. …Considering the energy to reform the tax code in both the House and Senate, it is quite possible that lawmakers could deliver a comprehensive tax reform bill to President Obama’s desk in 2015.

Scott makes several other points, including the long-overdue need to reform the biased revenue-estimating methodology of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

However, he also acknowledges that President Obama very likely would veto good tax reform. So even though our economy needs a less-destructive tax code, folks shouldn’t hold their breath expecting it to happen in the next two years.

I also addressed the topic as part of a recent forum at the Heritage Foundation, and I outlined several issues that have to be addressed if there is a serious effort to pursue tax reform. Here’s my part of the presentation.

But if you don’t want to watch me pontificate for ten-plus minutes, particularly since the video quality isn’t that great, here are my key points:

1. The tax base matters. If you don’t fix the double taxation of saving and investment, you may as well not even bother.

2. Bold beats timid. This is why I think a pure flat tax actually is more realistic than a proposal, such as Lee-Rubio, that makes compromises in hopes of being more politically realistic.

3. Highlight international competitiveness. Simply stated, globalization increases the benefits of good policy and increases the costs of bad policy.

4. International bureaucracies hinder good policy. Good tax reform is based on taxing income only once and only taxing income earned inside national borders, yet the OECD wants to impose global rules based on extra-territorial double taxation.

5. Good tax reform is good health reform. The biggest genuine loophole in the tax code is for fringe benefits, and this is a big reason for the third-party-payer crisis in healthcare.

6. Fix the biased scorekeeping of the JCT. The Joint Committee on Taxation uses methodology that it farther to the left than Paul Krugman.

7. Growth trumps fairness. The left will always use class-warfare arguments against good policy and the only effective counter-argument is that economic growth benefits all taxpayers.

One final point. Folks often ask me about plans – such as the Fair Tax – that would abolish the income tax and instead collect revenue with a national sales tax.

That approach is theoretically sound, but I have some practical concerns based on my distrust of politicians.

P.S. Here’s some humorous fallout from the election. Hitler learns that Democrats lost the Senate.

Hitler parody videos have appeared many places in recent years. Here are my favorites.

The head of the National Socialist Workers Party gets a double-dose – here and here – of bad news about Obamacare.

Here’s Hitler learning about Europe being downgraded.

And here’s the Fuehrer finding out that Scott Walker prevailed in his fight against government bureaucrats in Wisconsin.

P.P.S. I shared some cartoons before the election with the theme that Obama has been bad news for the Democratic Party.

Now that the election is over, that theme is even more appropriate.  Here’s Glenn McCoy’s assessment of the change Obama delivered.

Robert Ariail has a similar perspective.

In other words, as I suggested back in 2012, lots of non-leftist people should be happy that Obama got reelected.

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I’ve argued that we’ll get better government if we make it smaller.

And Mark Steyn humorously observed, “our government is more expensive than any government in history – and we have nothing to show for it.”

But can these assertions be quantified?

I had an email exchange last week with a gentleman from Texas who wanted to know if I had any research on the efficiency of government. He specifically wanted to know the “ratio of federal tax dollars collected to the actual delivery of the service.”

That was a challenge. If he simply wanted examples of government waste, I could have overloaded his inbox.

But he wanted an efficiency measure, which requires apples-to-apples comparisons to see which jurisdictions are delivering the most output (government services) compared to input (how much is spent on those services).

My one example was in the field of education, where I was ashamed to report that the United States spends more per student than any other nation, yet we get depressingly mediocre results (though that shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who has looked at this jaw-dropping chart comparing spending and educational performance).

But his query motivated me to do some research and I found an excellent 2003 study from the European Central Bank. Authored by Antonio Afonso, Ludger Schuknecht, and Vito Tanzi, the study specifically examines the degree to which governments are providing value, and at what cost.

The objective of this paper is to provide a proxy for measuring public sector performance and efficiency. To do this we will put together a number of performance indicators in the government’s core functions. …We will set these indicators in relation to the costs of achieving them. We will, hence, derive simple performance and efficiency indicators for 1990 and 2000 for the public sectors of 23 industrialised OECD countries. …As a first step, we define 7 sub-indicators of public performance. The first four look at administrative, education, health, and public infrastructure outcomes. …The three other sub-indicators reflect the “Musgravian” tasks for government. These try to measure the outcomes of the interaction with and reactions to the market process by government. Income distribution is measured by the first of these indicators. An economic stability indicator illustrates the achievement of the stabilisation objective. The third indicator tries to assess allocative efficiency by economic performance.

Here’s a flowchart showing how they measured public sector performance.

I should explain, at this point, that I’m not a total fan of the PSP measure. Most of the indicators are fine, but some rub me the wrong way.

I think an even distribution of income is a nice theoretical concept, for instance, but I don’t think it can be mandated by government (unless the goal is to make everybody poor). Economic stability also isn’t necessarily a proper goal. I’d much rather live in a society that oscillates between 7 percent growth and -2 percent growth if the only other alternative was a society that had very stable 1 percent growth.

But enough nit-picking on my part. What did the study find when looking at public sector performance?

Indicators suggest notable but not extremely large differences in public sector performance across countries… Looking at country groups, small governments (industrialised countries with public spending below 40 % of GDP in 2000) on balance report better economic performance than big governments (public spending above 50 % of GDP) or medium sized governments (spending between 40 and 50 percent of GDP).

These are remarkable findings. Nations with small governments achieve better outcomes.

And that’s including some indicators that I don’t even think are properly defined.

But what’s most amazing if that the above findings are simply based on an examination of outputs.

So what happens if we also look at inputs so we can gauge the degree to which governments are delivering a lot of bang for the buck?

Public expenditure, expressed as a share of GDP, can be assumed to reflect the opportunity costs of achieving the public sector performance estimated in the previous section. …Public expenditures differ considerably across countries. Average total spending in the 1990s ranged from around 35 percent of GDP in the US to 64 percent of GDP in Sweden. The difference is mainly due to more or less extensive welfare programs. …we now compute indicators of Public Sector Efficiency (PSE). We weigh performance (as measured by the PSP indicators) by the amount of relevant public expenditure, PEX, that is used to achieve a given performance level.

And what did the experts discover? Here’s a chart showing the results.

There’s a lot of data, particularly if you’re looking at individual countries. But if you want the bottom-line results, look at the numbers circled in red.

As you can see, countries with small governments are far more productive and efficient.

We find significant differences in public sector efficiency across countries. Japan, Switzerland, Australia, the United States and Luxembourg show the best values for overall efficiency. Looking at country groups, “small” governments post the highest efficiency amongst industrialised countries. Differences are considerable as “small” governments on average post a 40 percent higher scores than “big” governments. …This illustrates that the size of government may be too large in many industrialised countries, with declining marginal products being rather prevalent.

The conclusion of the study makes some very important observations.

Unsurprisingly, countries with small public sectors report the “best” economic performance… Countries with small public sectors report significantly higher PSE indicators than countries with medium-sized or big public sectors. All these findings suggest diminishing marginal products of higher public spending. …Spending in big governments could be, on average, about 35 per cent lower to attain the same public sector performance.

Though I can’t help but wonder what the results would have been if Hong Kong and Singapore also were added to the mix.

After all, I don’t consider the United States to have a “small” government. Same for Japan, Switzerland, and Australia. Those are simply nations where government isn’t as big and bloated as it is in France, Italy, Sweden, and Greece.

Or imagine the results if you could measure public sector performance and public sector efficiency for the United States and other developed nations in the pre-World War I era, back when the burden of government spending averaged less than 10 percent of economic output.

I strongly suspect we got far more “bang for the buck” when government was genuinely small.

But I don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good, so let’s focus on the results of the study. The clear message is that big governments spend a lot more and deliver considerably less.

And that’s a very worrisome message since the burden of government is projected to increase substantially in the United States thanks to demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs.

So at the very least, we should do everything possible to reform those programs to keep America from becoming Greece.

And once we achieve that goal, then we can try to reduce the size and scope of government so we’re more like Hong Kong and Singapore., with only about 20 percent of GDP diverted to government.

Then, in my libertarian fantasy world, we can cut, prune, privatize, and eliminate until government once again only consumes about 10 percent of economic output.

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