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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Policy’

I’m very worried about the burden of government spending.

Moreover, I’m quite concerned that poorly designed entitlement programs will lead to fiscal disaster.

And I’m especially irked that Obama made the problem worse by ramming through yet another misguided and costly health care entitlement.

Given this background, you can imagine that I was very interested (and depressed) to see that Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center put together some very important charts and analysis based on new fiscal policy projections.

After crunching the new numbers from CBO, here’s her bottom line conclusion.

…data from the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) recently released update to its Budget and Economic Outlook to show the trends and components of projected revenue and outlay increases. …growing entitlement obligations and net interest payments are projected to push outlays (spending) to grow faster than revenues over much of the next decade.

She also produced a chart showing the ever-rising burden of both taxes and spending. Pay close attention to how the numbers get worse at a rapid rate over the next 10 years.

There are two important takeaways from this data.

First, it should be abundantly clear that Washington is not suffering from inadequate tax revenue. Receipts are projected to rise in nominal dollars, in inflation-adjusted dollars, and as a share of GDP.

In other words, America’s long-run fiscal problems are solely a result of a rising burden of government spending.

Second, on the topic of government spending, it’s important to understand that the problem is overwhelmingly caused by entitlement programs. Social Security is part of the problem, but the real issue is government-run healthcare.

The President claimed Obamacare would “bend the cost curve.” But he wasn’t truthful since the White House implied the legislation would bend the curve down rather than up.

Here’s a second chart showing the breakdown of various spending categories.

As you can see, the problem is entitlements. And the healthcare entitlements deserve the lion’s share of the blame.

If this chart isn’t sufficiently depressing, then keep in mind that the numbers get even worse after 2024.

Simply states, the United States is doomed to become another Greece in the absence of genuine entitlement reform.

But let’s focus just on the next 10 years. Ms. de Rugy adds some detail.

…CBO projects three large budget categories—major health care programs (consisting of Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and subsidies for health insurance), Social Security, and net interest payments on the debt—will account for 85 percent of the total increase in outlays from 2014 to 2024. Total outlays are projected to increase from roughly $3.5 trillion in 2014 to $5.8 trillion in 2024, for a total increase of $2.3 trillion. Major health care programs are projected to grow by $816 billion, which accounts for 32 percent of the total. Social Security spending will grow by $654.9 billion over the next decade, which constitutes 28 percent of the total increase in outlays.

Let’s close, though, with some good news.

The numbers in the previous charts are all based on what happens if government policy is left on autopilot.

But what happens if politicians impose a modest bit of spending restraint?

According to the latest CBO forecast, inflation is supposed to average almost 2 percent over the next 10 years. So if some sort of spending cap is imposed and outlays “only” grow by a commensurate amount, it turns out that there’s a remarkably quick change in America’s fiscal profile.

As seen in this chart, there’s a budget surplus by 2019. And more important, government spending by 2024 is about $1.5 trillion lower than it would be with the budget left on autopilot.

Here’s a video from a few years ago. The numbers are out of date, but the underlying analysis is still completely appropriate. Simply stated, it’s very easy to balance the budget if politicians simply follow the Golden Rule of spending restraint.

P.S. Since this was a somewhat depressing topic, let’s close with some humor.

A few years ago, I shared a satirical application form for bailout money from Uncle Sam. Well, the New Yorker has an application quiz for Syrian rebels seeking American dollars.

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I’m a pessimist about public policy for two simple reasons:

1) Seeking power and votes, elected officials generally can’t resist making short-sighted and politically motivated choices that expand the burden of government.

2) Voters are susceptible to bribery, particularly over time as social capital (the work ethic, spirit of self reliance, etc) erodes and the entitlement mentality takes hold.

Actually, let me add a third reason.

The first two reasons explain why countries get into trouble. Our last reason explains why it’s oftentimes so hard to then fix the mess created by statism.

3) Once a nation adopts big government, reform is difficult because too many voters are riding in the wagon of dependency and they reflexively oppose good policy.

Or they’re riding in the party boat, but you get the idea.

Now that I’ve explained why I’m a Cassandra, let me try to be a Pollyanna.

And I’m going to be Super Pollyanna, because my task is to explain how Greece can be saved.

I’ll start by pointing out that government spending has actually been cut in recent years. And we’re talking about genuine spending cuts, not the make-believe cuts you find in Washington, which occur when spending doesn’t grow as fast as previously planned.

This chart, based on IMF data, shows that the budget increased dramatically in Greece from 1980-2009. But once the fiscal crisis started and Greek politicians no longer had the ability to finance spending with borrowed money, they had no choice but to reduce the burden of government spending.

This seems like great news, but there’s one minor problem and one major problem.

The minor problem is that there hasn’t been nearly enough structural reform of the welfare state in Greece. For long-run fiscal recovery, it’s very important to save money by reducing handouts that create dependency, while also shrinking the country’s bloated bureaucracy. By comparison, it’s less important (or perhaps even harmful) to save money by letting physical infrastructure deteriorate.

The major problem is that controlling government spending is just one piece of the puzzle. There are five major factors that determine economic performance, with experts assigning equal importance to fiscal policy, trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and rule of law.

Moreover, not only is fiscal policy just 20 percent of the puzzle, it’s also important to understand that spending is just part of that 20 percent. You also have to consider the tax burden.

And the progress Greece has made on the spending side of the budget has been offset by a bunch of destructive tax increases.

But there is a glimmer of hope because Greek politicians apparently realize that this is a problem.

Here are some excerpts from the Wall Street Journal’s coverage.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras promised tax-relief measures to help jump-start the country’s economy and boost the government’s popularity as it faces a series of political challenges in the months ahead. “The overtaxation has to end,” Mr. Samaras said Saturday during a speech.

It’s easy to see why there’s a desire to boost economic performance.

Since entering recession in 2008, Greece’s economy has shrunk by more than a quarter… This year, however, the country is expected to emerge from recession and post growth of 0.6%. But the recovery has yet to trickle down to ordinary Greeks who continue to face a jobless rate of more than 27% and higher taxes imposed during the past few years.

However, don’t get too excited. The Premier isn’t talking about sweeping reforms.

Instead, it appears that the proposed changes will be very minor.

In his remarks, the Greek premier announced a number of tax changes, including a 30% reduction in the levy on home heating oil and amendments to a new unified property tax that has been so far marred by errors and miscalculations in implementation.

Geesh, talk about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Indeed, at least one of the tax cuts may be designed to bring in more money for the government. The New York Times, for instance, reports that the energy tax didn’t generate any extra tax revenue.

That levy, which was introduced in 2012, raised the tax on heating oil 450 percent. But it has failed to bring in additional revenue and has led to environmental damage as Greeks turned to burning wood for heat.

I guess it’s progress that both the Greek government and the New York Times are acknowledging the Laffer Curve, but this is a perfect example of why it’s important to be on the growth-maximizing point of the curve rather than the revenue-maximizing point.

So why am I expressing a tiny sliver of optimism when the Greek government’s tax agenda is so timid?

Well, there’s at least some hope of bigger and more pro-growth reforms.

He also announced a reduction to a so-called solidarity tax on income, the size of which is to be determined when the state budget for 2015 is drafted in October. The changes would be part of a “road map” for lowering taxation with cuts to the property tax, income tax and corporate tax to come later, he said. “Overtaxation may have been necessary, but now it must stop,” he said.

And the Greek press is reporting further details indicating that the government wants to reduce marginal tax rates

Samaras said that it his ultimate aim to reduce the top income tax rate to 32 percent and for business to pay no more than 15 percent.

If these policies actually took place, then I suspect Greece’s economy would enjoy robust growth.

Particularly if policy makers also dealt with the major problem of excessive regulation (see here and here to get a flavor of the awful nature of red tape in Greece).

In other words, any nation can prosper if good policy is adopted.

Including Greece, though I must admit in closing that I suspect that there’s a less-than-15-percent chance that my optimistic scenario will materialize. And if you read this Mark Steyn column, you’ll understand why the pessimistic scenario is much more likely.

P.S. Click here and here for two very funny (or sad) cartoons about Obama and Greece. And here’s another cartoon about Greece that’s worth sharing.

P.P.S. Click here and here for some amusing Greek policy humor.

P.P.P.S. The IMF also has admitted that Greece is on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve.

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Remember when Paul Krugman warned that there was a plot against France? He asserted that critics wanted to undermine the great success of France’s social model.

I agreed with Krugman, at least in the limited sense that there is a plot against France. But I explained that the conspiracy to hurt the nation was being led by French politicians.

Simply stated, my view has been that the French political elite have been taxing the nation into stagnation and decline and there is every reason to think that the nation is heading toward a severe self-inflicted fiscal crisis.

But it turns out I may have been too optimistic. Let’s look at some updates from Krugmantopia.

We’ll start with a report from the Financial Times, which captures the nation’s sense of despair.

…if the country’s embattled socialist president was hoping for some respite from what has been a testing year, he can probably think again. … the French economy barely expanded during the second quarter of this year after stagnating in the first. …the result will make it all but impossible to achieve the government’s growth forecast for 2014 of 1 per cent… Bruno Cavalier, chief economist at Oddo & Cie, the Paris-based bank, says one reason is the huge constraint on disposable income posed by France’s tax burden, which has risen from 41 per cent of GDP in 2009 to 45.7 per cent last year – one of the highest in the eurozone.

The government has responded by rearranging the deck chairs on the political Titanic.

French President Francois Hollande dissolved the government on Monday after open feuding among his Cabinet over the country’s stagnant economy. …France has had effectively no economic growth this year, unemployment is hovering around 10 percent and Hollande’s approval ratings are sunk in the teens. …Hollande’s promises to cut taxes and make it easier for businesses to open and operate have stalled, in large part because of the divisions among his Socialist party.

For what it’s worth, Hollande’s commitment to tax cuts and deregulation is about as sincere and genuine as my support for the Florida Gators.

After all, he’s the guy who imposed a new top tax rate of 75 percent (which he said was “patriotic”)

And that’s just the personal income tax. When you add other taxes to the mix, you get a system that is so onerous that more than 8,000 households paid more than 100 percent of their income to the French government!

No wonder successful people are escaping to other nations.

By the way, if you’re wondering why Hollande is appointing new people to his government, it’s because some of his ministers were complaining that so-called austerity was inhibiting Keynesian spending policies that would make government even bigger!

Austerity measures being pursued by France and elsewhere in the euro zone are quashing growth, FrenchEconomy Minister Arnaud Montebourg was quoted saying on Saturday… The outspoken minister, a fierce critic of budget austerity, is known for frequent attacks on big business and the European Commission, which he accuses of strangling economic recovery with its prioritization of deficit reduction. …While not as strident as the comments by Montebourg, French Finance Minister Michel Sapin similarly argued for moderated deficit reduction in an interview published in Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “The euro zone is at risk of getting stuck in a spiral of weak or negative growth. We absolutely must slow down the rate of deficit reduction,” Sapin was quoted as saying.

In other words, the French policy debate is between the far left and the crazy left.

Which is why this dour assessment from across the English Channel probably understates the depth of the problem.

Since Francois Hollande was elected President in 2012, French GDP per capita has fallen. Its economy is expected to grow by just 0.7 per cent this year. …the country now looks set for stagnation – with its unemployment rate entrenched above 10 per cent (and youth unemployment double that). …the problems are obvious. The French government accounts for a massive 57.1 per cent of the economy in state spending and transfers. The tax burden is so high at 57 per cent for French employees (the sum of income, payroll taxes, VAT, and social security contributions as a proportion of the gross employment cost)… The World Economic Forum says that France is near the worst performer on a host of measures: positioned 130 out of 148 countries for its regulatory burden, 134 for the tax rates on profits, 135 on cooperation in labour-employer relations, and 144 on hiring and firing practices. …No wonder investors have voted with their wallets. FDI into France is estimated to have fallen by 95 per cent in the last decade.

Wow. No wonder the French people are so glum about the economy, as reported by the EU Observer.

…in France, the eurozone’s second biggest economy, eight percent felt the country’s economy was good. …Only 34 percent feel the jobs crisis has peaked compared with 60 percent who are bracing themselves for a darker economic future.

Which raises a good question. If the French people are so pessimistic about the future, why do they keep electing socialists?!?

Particularly when they tell pollsters they support smaller government!

Last but not least, we have a story from the New York Times about the mind-boggling regulation and protectionism that , mostly because it illustrates the pervasive statism that is strangling France.

Alexandre Chartier and Benjamin Gaignault work off Apple computers and have no intention of ever using the DVD player tucked in the corner of their airy office. But French regulations demand that all driving schools have one, so they got one. Mr. Chartier, 28, and his partner, Mr. Gaignault, 25, are trying to break into the driving school business here… But they are not having an easy time. The other driving schools have sued them, saying their innovations break the rules. …their struggle highlights how the myriad rules governing driving schools — and 36 other highly regulated professions — stifle competition and inflate prices in France.

And what are these rules and regulations, other than the bizarre requirement to own a DVD player?

“The system is absurd,” said Mr. Koenig, who was a speechwriter for Christine Lagarde when she was the French finance minister. …he has been campaigning for changes, including calling for an overhaul of the written test, which he says goes far beyond making sure that a person knows the rules of the road. Instead, he said, it seems intended to trip students up with ridiculous questions, such as: If you run headlong into a wall, would you be safer if you were in a tank or in a car? (The answer: a car, because it has air bags.) …Some studies have concluded that the French are probably paying 20 percent more than they should for the services they get from regulated professions, which include notaries, lawyers, bailiffs, ambulance drivers, court clerks, driving instructors and more. …Francis Kramarz, an economist who has studied the French licensing system, says that barriers to getting a license are so high that about one million French people, who should have licenses, have never been able to get them. …Mr. Kramarz said that it often costs 3,000 euros, or about $3,900, to get a license. But others said the average was closer to 1,500 to 2,000 euros.

Gee, isn’t big government wonderful!

The statists say it helps the less fortunate, but it seems the poor are the ones most hurt by regulations that push the cost of getting a license to $2,000 or above.

P.S. In an uncharacteristic expression of mercy, President Hollande has announced that he wants to limit the fiscal burden so that no taxpayer has to surrender more than 80 percent  of their income to the government.

P.P.S. No wonder Obama will never make America as bad as France, regardless of how hard he tries.

P.P.P.S. Here’s the best-ever cartoon about French economic policy, though this cartoon deserves honorable mention.

P.P.P.P.S. Even the establishment, as indicated by stories in Newsweek and the New York Times (as well as The Economist and the BBC), is noticing that the French economy is dismal.

P.P.P.P.P.S. No matter how much I mock France, there are places in Europe with even worse economic policy.

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It’s remarkable to read that European politicians are agitating to spend more money, supposedly to make up for “spending cuts” and austerity.

To put it mildly, their Keynesian-based arguments reflect a reality-optional understanding of recent fiscal policy on the other side of the Atlantic.

Here’s some of what Leonid Bershidsky wrote for Bloomberg.

Just as France’s and Italy’s poor economic results prompt the leaders of the euro area’s second and third biggest economies to step up their fight against fiscal austerity, it might be appropriate to ask whether they even know what that is.

An excellent question. As I’ve already explained, austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint).

But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

As a result, the real problem of bloated government keeps getting worse.

Government spending in the European Union, and in the euro zone in particular, is now significantly higher than before the 2008 financial crisis. …Among the 28 EU members, public spending reached 49 percent of gross domestic product in 2013, 3.5 percentage points more than in 2007.

Here’s a chart showing how the burden of government spending has become more onerous since 2007.

As you can see, all the big nations of Western Europe have moved in the wrong direction.

Only a small handful of countries in Eastern Europe that have trimmed the size of the public sector.

Bershidsky does explain that the numbers today are slightly better than they were at the peak of the economic downturn, though not because of genuine fiscal restraint.

The spending-to-GDP-ratio first ballooned by 2009, exceeding 50 percent for the EU as a whole, and then shrank a little… That, however, was not the result of government’s austerity efforts: Rather, the spending didn’t go down as much as the economies collapsed, and then didn’t grow in line with the modest rebound.

Here are some examples he shared.

I suppose France deserves a special shout out for managing to expand the size of government between 2009 and 2013. That’s what you call real commitment to statism!

The article also cites an example that is both amusing and tragic, at least in the sense that there’s no genuine seriousness about reforming hte public sector.

Even when spending cuts are made…, the whole public spending system’s glaring inadequacy is not affected. …The ushers at the Italian Parliament, whose job is to carry messages in their imposing gold-braided uniforms, made $181,590 a year by the time they retired, but will only make as much as $140,000 after Renzi’s courageous cut. If you wonder what on earth could be wrong with getting rid of them altogether and just using e-mail, you just don’t get European public expenditure.

I particularly embrace Bershidsky’s conclusion.

There is no rational justification for European governments to insist on higher spending levels than in 2007. The post-crisis years have shown that in Italy, and in the EU was a whole, increased reliance on government spending drives up sovereign debt but doesn’t result in commensurate growth. The idea of a fiscal multiplier of more than one — every euro spent by the government coming back as a euro plus change in growth — obviously has not worked. In fact, increased government interference in the economy, in the form of higher borrowing and spending as well as increased regulation, have led to the shrinking of private credit.  …Unreformed government spending is a hindrance, not a catalyst for growth.

Amen.

Politicians will never want to hear this message, but government spending undermines economic performance by diverting resources from the the economy’s productive sector.

Here’s my video on the theoretical evidence against government spending.

And here’s the video looking at the empirical evidence against excessive spending.

P.S. Other Europeans who have correctly analyzed Europe’s spending problem include Constantin Gurdgiev and Fredrik Erixon.

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I’m in Australia for Consilium, an annual conference which is hosted by the Centre for Independent Studies.

I spoke on fiscal policy and pontificated on the need for nations to restrain government spending.

That’s an important message (at least in my humble option), but I thought it was more interesting to learn more about the tax and spending policies of Australia’s current government, which is led by the supposedly right-of-Center Liberal Party (Aussies still use “liberal” in the European sense of classical liberalism).

Unfortunately, I learned that the Australian Liberals (like British Tories) need some remedial work on fiscal policy.

Prime Minister Abbott and his team, for instance, have proposed to increase Australia’s top tax rate. Here’s some of what’s been reported by the Australian Financial Review.

The Abbott government’s deficit tax means top earners will face a 49 per cent marginal tax rate, the eighth ­highest among developed countries. …. Australia already holds one of the highest personal income and company tax rates in the OECD. The 30 per cent corporate tax rate and 45 per cent personal income tax rate are higher than the average of 25.32 per cent for companies and 41.51 per cent for individuals. A personal tax increase will worsen the impact of “bracket creep”. …a higher income tax rate could also make Australia less competitive globally.

And the AFR also reports that a visiting scholar has thrown cold water on the idea of mimicking European fiscal policy.

Professor Prescott, who won the Nobel Prize for ­economics in 2004, …said that at 49 per cent the top marginal tax rate would hurt growth and the government should redouble its efforts to bring down expenditure instead. “It’s too high,” said Professor Prescott, who has written on the negative impact of increased taxes on economic growth in Europe. “You’re killing the goose that lays the golden egg.” …Lamenting “as sad” the standard of public and academic debate over budget deficits – both here and abroad – Professor Prescott said the focus should be on productivity and ­government spending. “What matters is expenditure. To spend is to tax and to tax is to depress.”

So why is an ostensibly right-of-center government copying Obama’s class warfare tax policy?

Beats me, though I’m told it’s because the politicians in Canberra (the nation’s capital) thinks this will appease the left and show “fairness.”

I imagine that strategy will be a flop, just like the first President Bush didn’t win any friends when he capitulated to a tax hike in 1990.

In any event, the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance warns that the tax hike may lose revenue because of Laffer Curve effects.

“The idea of increasing the top marginal tax rate in Australia is unlikely to raise any revenue, and may actually decrease government revenue due to a shrinking in the tax base, as high-income people reduce their labour supply, investment, innovation and tax compliance,” said John Humphreys, the deputy director of the Australian Taxpayers Alliance and an economics lecturer at the University of Queensland. …“Based on mainstream estimates of the high-income elasticity of taxable income, it is fairly straight forward to calculate the tax rate that will raise the maximum amount of revenue, and in Australia that is about 45%. If tax is increased beyond that level, then it is unlikely to raise revenue, and may actually cause a drop in revenue.…” The modeling by Humphreys is due to be published in Policy Journal in the coming months.

I’m skeptical about the finding that the revenue-maximizing rate for the personal income tax is 45 percent, particularly when there is very rigorous analysis suggesting that 20 percent is much closer to the mark.

But I definitely agree that pushing the rate to 49 percent will backfire on the Australian government.

And the folks at the ATA do make the very sound point that politicians shouldn’t try to set the top rate at the revenue-maximizing level regardless.

“There is no logical argument for increasing marginal tax rates about the revenue-maximising level, and indeed there is no good argument for having tax rates anywhere near the revenue-maximising level since those taxes raise very little money but cause significant economic damage.”

Amen. Indeed, allow me to call your attention to some very impressive academic work on this issue.

Now let’s shift to the spending side of Australian fiscal policy.

The good news is that the Abbott government isn’t proposing big increases in the burden of government spending.

The bad news, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be any commitment to a short-term or long-term effort to shrink the public sector.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, looking at what’s happened to Australian government spending over the past 20-plus years. The purple-ish line is nominal government spending (left axis) and the blue line is government spending as a share of economic output (right axis).

Australia Spending

In the long run, the trend of the blue line is the most important variable.

Unfortunately, the burden of government spending has climbed since the late 1980s. It’s still much lower than the burden of spending in places such as France, but the line is moving in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, if you look at the data since 2000, you could accurately say that Australian policy makers have succeeded in keeping the burden of spending from climbing above 34 percent of GDP (there was some foolish stimulus spending beginning back in 2009, but it didn’t lead to a permanent expansion in the size of government).

But let me share some remarkable data showing Australia’s missed fiscal opportunity. If you look at the IMF’s annual government spending and do the calculations, you’ll find that government spending since 1988 has grown by an average of 6.8 percent each year.

Since nominal GDP also has increased at a good pace, the actual burden of government has “only” risen from about 30 percent to 34 percent of economic output.

But imagine if Australian policy makers had merely imposed some version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule and limited spending so that it grew by, say, 3 percent annually.

If they had engaged in that modest level of fiscal restraint, the burden of the public sector today would be only about half its current size. In other words, government spending in Australia would be less than 17 percent of economic output, which would be even better than Hong Kong and Singapore.

This explains why I’m so fixated on expenditure limitations. You can make big progress over just a couple of decades if politicians somehow can be convinced to restrain the rate of growth of government spending.

Or, as the people of Switzerland figured out, you can enjoy that progress if you impose a spending limit on the politicians.

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Some folks on the right in Washington, generally known as reformicons (short for reform conservatives), want the Republican Party to de-emphasize marginal tax rate reductions and instead focus on providing tax relief to parents.

There are many leaders in this movement and, if you want to learn more about the tax proposals being discussed, I specifically recommend the writings of Robert Stein, James Capretta, James Pethokoukis, Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin, Charles Blahous, Jason Fichtner, and Reihan Salam (and I’m sure I’m unintentionally leaving off many other worthy contributions).

I explained last year what I like (and don’t like) about reform conservatism, but I haven’t specifically analyzed the tax agenda of the reformicons.

Time to rectify that oversight. The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to give me some space so I could share my thoughts on this topic.

I start by outlining the debate, albeit in simplified form because of space constraints.

There’s a policy debate among conservatives in Washington about the best way to cut taxes and reform the tax code. The supply-siders want to replicate the success of Reaganomics with lower marginal tax rates. But there’s also a camp who call themselves “reform conservatives” who want income tax credits or payroll tax cuts explicitly for the purpose of reducing tax liabilities for middle-class parents. The supply-siders argue that if you want to encourage more work, saving, investment and entrepreneurship, then it is a good idea to reduce marginal tax rates on productive behavior. …Those in the other camp…don’t necessarily disagree with the supply-siders. They note that it was important to lower marginal tax rates in 1980 when the top personal tax rate was a confiscatory 70%. But now that the top rate is “only” about 40%, they argue, lower tax rates won’t deliver nearly as much bang for the buck.

The reformicons are right. Dropping the top tax rate from 40 percent will help the economy, but the pro-growth effect won’t be enormous. At least not compared to what happened during the Reagan years when the top tax rate was slashed from 70 percent to 28 percent.

And, as this leftist cartoon suggests, many Republicans act as if across-the-board tax rate reductions are an elixir for every ill.

But can reformicons suggest a better way of cutting and/or reforming taxes?

I’m not convinced that their agenda of child-oriented tax relief is the right answer.

In my column, I note that many of their policies have already been implemented, yet there’s little if any evidence that these tax cuts have generated positive outcomes.

…reform conservatives say it’s time for new ideas. That’s a nice concept, but Republicans already have enacted many of their proposed policies. The child tax credit was adopted in the 1990s and expanded during the Bush years. The earned income credit also funnels a lot of money (in the form of tax relief or cash payments) to families with children, and that provision also has been significantly expanded over the years. These policies have worked, at least in the sense that households with children now face lower tax liabilities. There is little evidence, though, to suggest positive economic or social outcomes. Were families strengthened? Did the economy grow faster? Did middle-income households feel more secure?

The reformicons often argue that their tax proposals are politically more appealing.

That may be true, but that doesn’t mean they are political winners, particularly if reformicons are trying to appease the class-warfare left, which will simply argue that tax cuts targeted at families making less than, say, $100,000 will be even “fairer” if they are targeted at families making less than $50,000.

Or maybe targeted at households who pay no tax, which means more transfer spending through the tax code!

The tax-credit reformers also argue that their proposals are much less susceptible to class-warfare demagoguery that is the supply-side approach, since tax relief flows to lower- and middle-income voters. …But here’s the downside: Conservatives can bend over backward to appease the class-warfare crowd, but they can never outflank them. …Once conservatives have accepted the left’s premise that tax policy should be based on static distribution tables, they won’t have a ready answer for the left’s gambit.

But as far as I’m concerned, the real issue is how to raise take-home pay.

The reformicons want to make families more secure by reducing how much the IRS takes from their paychecks.

I certainly like the idea of boosting post-tax income, but I contend that it would be even better to focus on policies that increase pre-tax income.

The most commonly cited reason for family-based tax relief is to raise take-home pay. That’s a noble goal, but it overlooks the fact that there are two ways to raise after-tax incomes. Child-based tax cuts are an effective way of giving targeted relief to families with children… The more effective policy—at least in the long run—is to boost economic growth so that families have more income in the first place. Even very modest changes in annual growth, if sustained over time, can yield big increases in household income. … long-run growth will average only 2.3% over the next 75 years. If good tax policy simply raised annual growth to 2.5%, it would mean about $4,500 of additional income for the average household within 25 years. This is why the right kind of tax policy is so important.

In other words, our economy is under-performing and that is the greatest threat to the financial security of families.

Folks on the left say it is the fault of “secular stagnation” and that the burden of government should be further expanded, but both reformicons and supply-siders agree that we’ll get far better results by focusing on tax cuts.

But which tax cuts?

I end my column with some glass-half-full analysis. The reformicons may not be thrilled by lower income tax rates and the supply-siders may not be excited by child-oriented tax cuts, but both camps are quite sympathetic to tax reforms that address the punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

While the camps disagree on lower individual income tax rates vs. child-oriented tax relief, both agree that the tax code’s bias against capital formation is very misguided. The logical compromise might be to focus on reforms that boost saving and investment, such as lowering the corporate tax rate, reducing the double taxation of dividends and capital gains, and allowing immediate expensing of business investment. These reforms would have strong supply-side effects. And since more saving and investment will lead to increased productivity, workers will enjoy higher wages, including households with children.

To be sure, some critics will say this type of tax agenda is too “business friendly,” which is an indirect way of saying that average voters may not understand how they benefit from tax reforms that don’t have a big and fast impact on their paychecks.

So maybe the right answer is to rip up the entire tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

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With all the controversy over the failed and costly Obamacare program, it’s understandable that other entitlements aren’t getting much attention.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious problems with Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

Indeed, the annual Social Security Trustees Report was released a few days ago and the updated numbers for the government-run retirement program are rather sobering.

Thanks in part to sloppy journalism, many people only vaguely realize that Social Security is actuarially unsound.

In reality, the level of projected red ink is shocking. If you look at the report’s annual projections and then adjust them for inflation (so we get an idea of the size of the problem based on the value of today’s dollars), we can put together a very depressing chart.

How depressing is this chart? Well, cumulative deficits over the next 75 years will total an astounding $40 trillion. And keep in mind these are inflation-adjusted numbers. In nominal dollars, total red ink will be far more than $150 trillion.

That’s a lot of money even by Washington standards.

Just as worrisome, the trend is in the wrong direction. Last year, the cumulative inflation-adjusted shortfall was $36 trillion. The year before, the total amount of red ink was $30 trillion. And so on.

But regular readers know I’m not fixated on deficits and debt. I’m much more worried about the underlying problem of too much spending. So let’s look at the annual data showing how much payroll tax will be generated by Social Security and how much money will be paid out to beneficiaries.

As you can see, the problem is not inadequate tax revenue. Indeed, revenues will climb to record levels. The problem is that spending is projected to increase at an even faster rate.

Once again, don’t forget that these are inflation-adjusted numbers. In nominal dollars, the numbers are far bigger!

Why is the program becoming an ever-larger fiscal burden? The answer boils down to demographics. Simply stated, we will have more and more old people and fewer and fewer younger workers.

So if we do nothing, we’ll be Greece in 20 or 30 years.

That’s not a happy thought, so let’s close on a humorous note. Here’s a joke about how Social Security works, and you can enjoy some Social Security-themed cartoons here, here, and here.

P.S. I’m confident that few people will be surprised to learn that Obama’s supposed solution to this mess involves a huge tax increase.

P.P.S. The real solution is personal retirement accounts. I think Australia is the best role model, but Chile also is a big success.

P.P.S. The good news is that the American people are quite sympathetic to personal retirement accounts.

P.P.P.S. Statists try to scare people by claiming private investments are too risky, but one of my Cato colleagues showed that workers would be better off even if they retired after a stock market crash.

P.P.P.P.S. By the way, Social Security is a really bad deal for blacks and other minorities with lower-than-average life expectancies.

P.P.P.P.P.S. In the interests of fairness, I’ll admit the biggest weakness in the argument for personal accounts is that we might not be able to stop politicians from confiscating the money at some point in the future.

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