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Posts Tagged ‘Mitchell’s Golden Rule’

Which nation is richer, Belarus or Luxembourg?

If you look at total economic output, you might be tempted to say Belarus. The GDP of Belarus, after all, is almost $72 billion while Luxembourg’s GDP is less than $60 billion.

But that would be a preposterous answer since there are about 9.5 million people in Belarus compared to only about 540,000 folks in Luxembourg.

It should be obvious that what matters is per-capita GDP, and the residents of Luxembourg unambiguously enjoy far higher living standards than their cousins in Belarus.

This seems like an elementary point, but it has to be made because there have been a bunch of misleading stories about China “overtaking” the United States in economic output. Look, for instance, at these excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

China is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy earlier than expected, possibly as soon as this year… The latest tally adds to the debate on how the world’s top two economic powers are progressing. Projecting growth rates from 2011 onwards suggests China’s size when measured in PPP may surpass the U.S. in 2014.

There are methodological issues with PPP data, some of which are acknowledged in the data, and there’s also the challenge of whether Chinese numbers can be trusted.

But let’s assume these are the right numbers. My response is “so what?”

I’ve previously written that the Chinese tiger is more akin to a paper tiger. But Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute put together a chart that is far more compelling than what I wrote. He looks at the per-capita numbers and shows that China is still way behind the United States.

To be blunt, Americans shouldn’t worry about the myth of Chinese economic supremacy.

But that’s not the main point of today’s column.

Instead, I want to call attention to Taiwan. That jurisdiction doesn’t get as much attention as Hong Kong and Singapore, but it’s one of the world’s success stories.

And if you compare Taiwan to China, as I’ve done in this chart, there’s no question which jurisdiction deserves praise.

China v Taiwan

Yes, China has made big strides in recent decades thanks to reforms to ease the burden of government. But Taiwan is far above the world average while China has only recently reached that level (and only if you believe official Chinese numbers).

So why is there a big difference between China and Taiwan? Well, if you look at Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll see that Taiwan ranks among the top-20 nations while China ranks only 123 out of 152 countries.

By the way, Taiwan has a relatively modest burden of government spending. The public sector only consumes about 21.5 percent of economic output. That’s very good compared to other advanced nations.

Moreover, Taiwan is one of the nations that enjoyed considerable progress by adhering to Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Between 2001 and 2006, total government spending didn’t grow at all.

Taiwan Spending Freeze

During this period of fiscal restraint, you won’t be surprised to learn that the burden of government spending fell as a share of GDP.

And it should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that because politicians addressed the underlying disease of government spending, that also enabled big progress is dealing with the symptom of government borrowing.

Look at what happened to spending and deficits between 2001 and 2006.

Taiwan Fiscal Restraint Benefits

P.S. You probably didn’t realize that it was possible to see dark humor in communist oppression.

P.P.S. But at least some communists in China seem to understand that the welfare state is a very bad idea.

P.P.P.S. Some business leaders say China is now more business-friendly than the United States. That’s probably not good news for America, but my goal is to have a market-friendly nation, not a business-friendly nation.

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My tireless (and probably annoying) campaign to promote my Golden Rule of spending restraint is bearing fruit.

The good folks at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal allowed me to explain the fiscal and economic benefits that accrue when nations limit the growth of government.

Here are some excerpts from my column, starting with a proper definition of the problem.

What matters, as Milton Friedman taught us, is the size of government. That’s the measure of how much national income is being redistributed and reallocated by Washington. Spending often is wasteful and counterproductive whether it’s financed by taxes or borrowing.

So how do we deal with this problem?

I’m sure you’ll be totally shocked to discover that I think the answer is spending restraint.

More specifically, governments should be bound by my Golden Rule.

Ensure that government spending, over time, grows more slowly than the private economy. …Even if the federal budget grew 2% each year, about the rate of projected inflation, that would reduce the relative size of government and enable better economic performance by allowing more resources to be allocated by markets rather than government officials.

I list several reasons why Mitchell’s Golden Rule is the only sensible approach to fiscal policy.

A golden rule has several advantages over fiscal proposals based on balanced budgets, deficits or debt control. First, it correctly focuses on the underlying problem of excessive government rather than the symptom of red ink. Second, lawmakers have the power to control the growth of government spending. Deficit targets and balanced-budget requirements put lawmakers at the mercy of economic fluctuations that can cause large and unpredictable swings in tax revenue. Third, spending can still grow by 2% even during a downturn, making the proposal more politically sustainable.

The last point, by the way, is important because it may appeal to reasonable Keynesians. And, in any event, it means the Rule is more politically sustainable.

I then provide lots of examples of nations that enjoyed great success by restraining spending. But rather than regurgitate several paragraphs from the column, here’s a table I prepared that wasn’t included in the column because of space constraints.

It shows the countries that restrained spending and the years that they followed the Golden Rule. Then I include three columns of data. First, I show how fast spending grew during the period, followed by numbers showing what happened to the overall burden of government spending and the change to annual government borrowing.

Golden Rule Examples

Last but not least, I deal with the one weakness of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. How do you convince politicians to maintain fiscal discipline over time?

I suggest that Switzerland’s “debt brake” may be a good model.

Can any government maintain the spending restraint required by a fiscal golden rule? Perhaps the best model is Switzerland, where spending has climbed by less than 2% per year ever since a voter-imposed spending cap went into effect early last decade. And because economic output has increased at a faster pace, the Swiss have satisfied the golden rule and enjoyed reductions in the burden of government and consistent budget surpluses.

In other words, don’t bother with balanced budget requirements that might backfire by giving politicians an excuse to raise taxes.

If the problem is properly defined as being too much government, then the only logical answer is to shrink the burden of government spending.

Last but not least, I point out that Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas has legislation, the MAP Act, that is somewhat similar to the Swiss Debt Brake.

We know what works and we know how to get there. The real challenge is convincing politicians to bind their own hands.

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When I first started working on fiscal policy in the 1980s, I never thought I would consider Sweden any sort of role model.

It was the quintessential cradle-to-grave welfare state, much loved on the left as an example for America to follow.

But Sweden suffered a severe economic shock in the early 1990s and policy makers were forced to rethink big government.

They’ve since implemented some positive reforms in the area of fiscal policy, along with other changes to liberalize the economy.

I even, much to my surprise, wrote a column in 2012 stating that it’s “Time to Follow Sweden’s Lead on Fiscal Policy.”

More specifically, I’m impressed that Swedish leaders have imposed some genuine fiscal restraint.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing that the country enjoyed a nine-year period where the burden of government spending grew by an average of 1.9 percent per year.

Swedish Fiscal Restraint

From a libertarian perspective, that’s obviously not very impressive, particularly since the public sector was consuming about two-thirds of economic output at the start of the period.

But by the standards of European politicians, 1.9 percent annual growth was relatively frugal.

And since Mitchell’s Golden Rule merely requires that government grow slower than the private sector, Sweden did make progress.

Real progress.

It turns out that a little bit of spending discipline can pay big dividends if it can be sustained for a few years.

This second chart shows that the overall burden of the public sector (left axis) fell dramatically, dropping from more than 67 percent of GDP to 52 percent of economic output.

Swedish Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

By the way, the biggest amount of progress occurred between 1994 and 1998, when spending grew by just 0.27 percent per year. That’s almost as good as what Germany achieved over a four-year period last decade.

It’s also worth noting that Sweden hasn’t fallen off the wagon. Spending has been growing a bit faster in recent years, but not as fast as overall economic output. So the burden of spending is now down to about 48 percent of GDP.

And for those who mistakenly focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much spending, you’ll be happy to know that spending discipline in the 1990s turned a big budget deficit (right axis) into a budget surplus.

Now let’s get the other side of the story. While Sweden has moved in the right direction, it’s still far from a libertarian paradise. The government still consumes nearly half of the country’s economic output and tax rates on entrepreneurs and investors max out at more than 50 percent.

And like the United Kingdom, which is the source of many horror stories, there are some really creepy examples of failed government-run health care in Sweden.

Though I suppose if the third man grew new legs, maybe we would all reassess our views of the Swedish system. And if the first guy managed to grow a new…oh, never mind.

But here are the two most compelling pieces of evidence about unresolved flaws in the Swedish system.

First, the system is so geared toward “equality” that a cook at one Swedish school was told to reduce the quality of the food she prepared because other schools had less capable cooks.

Second, if you’re still undecided about whether Sweden’s large-size welfare state is preferable to America’s medium-size welfare state, just keep in mind that Americans of Swedish descent earn 53 percent more than native Swedes.

In other words, Sweden might be a role model on the direction of change, but not on the level of government.

P.S. On a separate topic, regular readers know that I’m a fan of lower taxes and a supporter of the Second Amendment. So you would think I’d be delighted if politicians wanted to lower the tax burden on firearms.

This is not a hypothetical issue. Here’s a passage from a local news report in Alabama about a state lawmaker who wants a special sales tax holiday for guns and ammo.

Rep. Becky Nordgren of Gadsden said today that she has filed legislation to create an annual state sales tax holiday for gun and ammunition purchases. The firearms tax holiday would occur every weekend prior to the Fourth of July. Alabama currently has tax holidays for back-to-school shopping and severe weather preparedness. Nordgren says the gun and ammunition tax holiday would be a fitting way to celebrate the anniversary of the nation’s birth and Alabama’s status as a gun friendly state.

I definitely admire the intent, but I’m enough of a tax policy wonk that the proposal makes me uncomfortable.

Simply stated, I don’t want the government to play favorites.

For instance, I want to replace the IRS in Washington with a simple and fair flat tax in part because I don’t want the government to discriminate based on the source of income, the use of income, or the level of income.

And I want states to have the lowest-possible rate for the sales tax, but with all goods and services treated equally. Alabama definitely fails on the first criteria, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it also granted a lot of loopholes.

So put me in the “sympathetic skepticism” category on this proposal.

Though I imagine this Alabama lass could convince me to change my mind.

P.P.S. A few days ago, the PotL noticed that I shared some American-European humor at the end of a blog post. She suggests this would be a good addition to that collection.

Europe Heaven Hell

I can’t comment on some of the categories, but I will say that McDonald’s in London is just as good as McDonald’s in Paris, Milan, Geneva, and Berlin.

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Germany isn’t exactly a fiscal role model.

Tax rates are too onerous and government spending consumes about 44 percent of economic output.

That’s even higher than it is in the United States, where politicians at the federal, state, and local levels divert about 39 percent of GDP into the public sector.

Germany also has too much red tape and government intervention, which helps to explain why it lags other European nations such as Denmark and Estonia in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But I have (sort of) defended Germany a couple of times, at least on fiscal policy, explaining that the Germans didn’t squander much money on Keynesian spending schemes during the downturn and also explaining that Paul Krugman was wrong in his column on Germany and austerity.

Today, though, I’m going to give Germany some unambiguous praise.

If you look at last decade’s fiscal data, you’ll see that our Teutonic friends actually followed my Golden Rule on fiscal policy for a four-year period.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF numbers, showing total government spending in Germany from 2003-2007. As you can see, German policy makers basically froze spending.

German Fiscal Restraint

I realize that I’m a libertarian and that I shouldn’t be happy unless the burden of spending is being dramatically reduced, but we’re talking about the performance of European politicians, so I’m grading on a curve.

By that standard, limiting spending so it grows by an average of 0.18 percent is rather impressive. Interestingly, this period of fiscal discipline began when the Social Democrats were in power.

And because the economy’s productive sector was growing at a faster rate during this time, a bit more than 2 percent annually, the relative burden of government spending did fall.

The red line in this next chart shows that the public sector, measured as a share of economic output, fell from almost 49 percent of GDP to less than 44 percent of GDP.

German Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

It’s also worth noting that this four-year period of spending restraint also led to a balanced budget, as shown by the blue line.

In other words, by addressing the underlying problem of too much government, the German government automatically dealt with the symptom of red ink.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the German government wasn’t willing to sustain this modest degree of fiscal discipline. The Christian Democrats, who took office in mid-2005, allowed faster spending growth beginning in 2008. As I noted above, the budget increases haven’t been huge, but there’s been enough additional spending that Germany no longer is complying with the Golden Rule and the burden of the public sector is stuck at about 44 percent of GDP.

The moral of the story is that Germany shows that good things happen when spending is restrained, but long-run good performance requires long-run spending discipline.

That’s why I’m a fan of Switzerland’s spending cap. It’s called the “debt brake,” but it basically requires politicians to limit spending so that the budget doesn’t grow much faster than inflation plus population.

And that’s why Switzerland has enjoyed more than a decade of good policy.

To see other examples of nations that have enjoyed fiscal success with period of spending restrain, watch this video.

The Canadian example is particularly impressive.

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Jay Leno had the all-time best Christmas joke and the school bureaucrats in Haymarket, VA, win the prize for the all-time worst example of anti-Christmas lunacy.

But I must win the prize for being the biggest Christmas policy dork. I make this confession freely because there’s no other explanation for being very happy about this present from my girlfriend.

Golden Rule Christmas

The Golden Rule, for those who have not endured my haranguing on the topic, is the common-sense notion that good fiscal policy is achieved when the burden of government spending shrinks compared to the size of the private sector.

And that occurs, needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), when government spending increases slower than the growth of private output.

Ideally, it would be even better to actually cut government spending – which actually did happen in the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years (thanks to the Tea Party and sequestration).

Unfortunately, I fear government will grow far too fast in 2014, in part because of the Murray-Ryan budget deal that replaced automatic spending cuts with back-door tax hikes.

Compared to the size of the federal budget, the additional spending isn’t that large, so my real concern is that the pact sets the stage for bigger moves in the wrong direction at some point in the near future.

But let’s not dwell on potential bad news at this time of year.

Instead, let’s close with a better way of selling Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Here’s the Princess of the Levant showcasing the gift she made.

Abir Golden Rule

Since she gave this gift to me, it’s now my job to implement the Golden Rule as a gift to the entire nation.

That should be a simple achievement. If we simply limit government spending so it grows at the rate of inflation (about 2 percent per year), the burden of government spending will fall as a share of gross domestic product.

And even though I’m much more interested in reducing the size of the public sector than I am in fiscal balance, it’s worth noting that you can balance the budget by 2018 with this amount of modest spending restraint.

But even though this should be simple, it definitely won’t be easy. Convincing politicians not to spend is very analogous to convincing ticks not to suck your blood.

Actually, I apologize. That’s a very unfair analogy. The only really bad thing we get from ticks is Lyme Disease.

With politicians, by contrast, we get taxes, spending, and red tape on good days and war, genocide, and totalitarianism on bad days.

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Being a glass-half-full kind of guy, I look for kernels of good news when examining economic policy around the world. I once even managed to find something to praise about French tax policy. And I can assure you that’s not a very easy task.

I particularly try to find something positive to highlight when I’m a visitor. While in the Faroe Islands two days ago, for instance, I wrote about that jurisdiction’s new system of personal retirement accounts.

And now that I’m in Iceland, I want to focus on spending restraint.

As you can see from this chart, lawmakers in this island nation have done a reasonably good job of satisfying Mitchell Golden Rule over the past couple of years. Nominal economic output has been growing by 6.1 percent annually, while government spending has risen by an average of 2.8 percent per year.

Iceland Spending Restraint

If Iceland continues to enjoy this level of growth and can maintain this modest degree of fiscal discipline, the burden of government spending will soon drop below 40 percent of GDP.

As I’ve noted before, fiscal progress can occur very rapidly if spending is curtailed. Consider what’s happened, for example, over the past two years in America. Total federal spending didn’t grow in 2011 or 2012, and that de facto two-year spending freeze has led to a big reduction in the size of the public sector relative to GDP.

And because policymakers addressed the underlying disease of excessive spending, it’s no surprise that the symptom of red ink became much less of a problem with the deficit falling by almost 50 percent in those two years.

And nations such as New Zealand and Canada also have enjoyed quick benefits when limiting the growth of government.

Now let’s take a glass-half-empty look at Icelandic fiscal policy.

First, Iceland isn’t really moving in the right direction. Policy makers are merely undoing the damage that occurred in the latter part of last decade. As recently as 2006, the burden of government spending was less than 42 percent of GDP. So the current period of fiscal discipline is like going on a diet after spending several years at an all-you-can-eat dessert shop.

Second, three years of spending restraint could be a statistical blip rather than a long-run trend, especially since the 2014 numbers from the IMF are an estimate and the 2012 and 2013 numbers aren’t even finalized.

What Iceland needs is some sort of Swiss-style spending cap to impose long-run limits on the growth of government spending. As you can see from this second chart, Switzerland’s “debt brake” has produced more than ten years of spending restraint. Government generally has been growing slower than the private sector, which means that burden of government spending has been falling in Switzerland while other European nations are moving in the wrong direction.

Swiss Debt Brake

By the way, it’s not just Iceland that would benefit from this type of spending cap. I explained last year that America would never have experienced trillion-dollar deficits if we had something similar to the Swiss debt brake.

Though it’s important not to overstate the benefits of this policy. A Swiss-type spending cap presumably wouldn’t have stopped the Fed’s easy-money policy. Nor would it have prevented Fannie-Mae and Freddie Mac from subsidizing a housing bubble. So we presumably still would have suffered a financial crisis.

But that’s not an argument against a spending cap. We lock our doors and latch our windows even though we realize that determined crooks can still break in. But at least we want to make our homes a less inviting target. Likewise, a spending cap doesn’t preclude all bad policies. But at least it makes it harder for politicians to increase spending.

The ultimate challenge, of course, is figuring out how to convince politicians to tie their own hands. The academic research suggests that spending caps need to be well designed if we want to limit the greed of the political class.

Iceland has made some progress, but Switzerland at this point is a better role model because the debt brake has been very durable.

P.S. If we’re going to copy Switzerland, we also should take a close look at their tax laws. Switzerland has the best ranking in the Tax Oppression Index, while the United States languishes in the bottom half of nations measured.

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Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. How to fix the mess at the IRS is a fiscal policy question, and that requires tax reform rather than spending restraint.

But allow me a bit of literary license. We just had a big debt limit battle in Washington and, after a lot of political drama, politicians kicked the can down the road.

So we need to ask ourselves whether that fight accomplished anything?

It did focus attention on the flaws of Obamacare, and I suppose there’s some value in that.

But the debt limit was not a vehicle – as has been the case in the past – for changes in fiscal policy. We didn’t get something good, like the sequester which resulted from the 2011 debt limit legislation. And we didn’t get something bad, like the tax hike in the 1985 debt limit legislation

Some are asking whether we should even have a debt limit. A number of critics have suggested we should get rid of the borrowing cap because it creates the risk of default. I think those concerns are very overblown.

I’m more persuaded by those who argue that the debt limit diverts attention from better options to improve fiscal policy.

Professors Gary Becker and Edward Lazear write in the Wall Street Journal that the debt ceiling is not a very good tool for restraining the growth of government. They look at evidence from the states to warn that fiscal rules that seek to limit borrowing are ineffective.

Many states are required to have “balanced” budgets, but the growth in spending and the size of state governments continues apace. During good times, when tax revenues are high, states “balance” their budgets by spending at the high levels consistent with large revenues. When times get tough, it is difficult if not impossible to eliminate programs that had been initiated during the fat years. Instead, the states resort to budgetary gimmicks, like delaying shortfalls until next year’s “balanced” budget.

Gimmicks are bad, of course, but politicians also respond to fiscal squeezes by raising taxes.

And that can be even worse as the prospect of more revenue leads to a ratchet effect, with periodic tax hikes used to maintain or expand the gravy train of spending. The fiscal mess in Europe is an obvious case study, but if you want a painful example from America, just look at data from Connecticut. The state did quite well without an income tax from the 1600s until 1991.

But then an income tax was imposed, in part to deal with the fiscal shortfall caused by an economic downturn. And, as critics warned, that new tax has produced dismal results. The top rate has jumped from 4.5 percent to 6.5 percent and inflation-adjusted per-capita state government spending has doubled. And there have been zero net private-sector jobs created since the income tax was implemented.

So what’s the answer? Becker and Lazear explain that lawmakers should target the underlying problem of spending rather than the symptom of red ink.

Better than a debt-ceiling rule would be one that controls spending directly, not the debt that results from it. The specifics are less important than the general principle, which is that spending growth should be limited in a way that brings government outlays back down to historic ratios relative to GDP. This would place the attention where it belongs, on spending rather than on the difference between outlays and receipts. Increased spending, coupled with even larger increases in taxes, might bring the deficit down, but it would damage economic growth and well-being.

Well stated. Reducing the overall burden of government spending – measured as a share of economic output – should be the goal of fiscal policy. That’s simply another way of stating my Golden Rule. And there’s a growing body of academic evidence showing that reducing the size of government is a good way of improving economic performance.

I’ve been highlighting the example of Switzerland, which has successfully strengthened its economy and fiscal policy with a spending cap (which, ironically, is called a “debt brake” even though the real effect of the law is to limit how fast spending can increase over time).

Other countries that have limited spending also have achieved some very impressive results. The video at this link looks at evidence from nations such as New Zealand and Canada in the 1990s, and there’s a more recent data about the positive effects of spending restraint in the Baltic nations.

There has been some interest in spending caps on Capitol Hill. Congressman Brady of Texas has proposed a MAP Act that is somewhat similar to Switzerland’s debt brake and Senator Corker of Tennessee has introduced a CAP Act that also would restrain annual spending increases.

Perhaps if some of their colleagues read today’s Becker-Lazear column, they’ll also understand why it’s better to focus on the underlying problem of government spending rather than getting distracted by the symptom of red ink.

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As we get closer to the debt limit, the big spenders in Washington are becoming increasingly hysterical about the supposed possibility of default if politicians lose the ability to borrow more money.

I testified yesterday to the Joint Economic Committee on “The Economic Costs of Debt-Ceiling Brinkmanship” and I explained (reiterating points I made back in 2011) that there is zero chance of default.

Why? Because, as I outline beginning about the 3:10 mark of the video, annual interest payments are about $230 billion and annual tax collections are approaching $3 trillion.

I actually made five points in my testimony. The first three should be quite familiar to regular readers.

First, America’s main fiscal problem is that government is too big. That’s the disease  Deficits and debt are symptoms of that underlying problem.

Second, you achieve good fiscal policy by following “Mitchell’s Golden Rule” so that government grows slower than private sector economic output.

Third, we’ve made some progress in the last two years thanks to genuine fiscal restraint, and we can balance the budget in a very short period of time if lawmakers impose a very modest bit of spending discipline in the future.

The fourth point, which I already discussed above, is that there’s no risk of default – unless the Obama Administration deliberately wants that to happen. But that’s simply not a realistic possibility.

My fifth and final point deserves a bit of extra discussion. I explained that Greece is now suffering through a very deep recession, with record unemployment and harsh economic conditions. I asked the Committee a rhetorical question: Wouldn’t it have been preferable if there was some sort of mechanism, say, 15 years ago that would have enabled some lawmakers to throw sand in the gears so that the government couldn’t issue any more debt?

Debt limit jokesYes, there would have been some budgetary turmoil at the time, but it would have been trivial compared to the misery the Greek people currently are enduring.

I closed by drawing an analogy to the situation in Washington. We know we’re on an unsustainable path. Do we want to wait until we hit a crisis before we address the over-spending crisis? Or do we want to take prudent and modest steps today – such as genuine entitlement reform and spending caps – to ensure prosperity and long-run growth.

Seems like the answer should be simple…at least if you’re not trying to get reelected by bribing voters with their own money.

P.S. My argument for short-term fighting today to avoid fiscal crisis in the future was advanced in greater detail by a Wall Street expert back in 2011.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some good debt limit cartoons by clicking here and here.

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I want a smaller burden of government spending, so you can only imagine how frustrating it is for me to observe the fight in Europe.

On one side of the debate you have pro-spenders, who call themselves “growth” advocates, but are really just Keynesians. On the other side of the debate, you have pro-taxers, who claim to favor “austerity,” but actually just want big government financed by taxes rather than borrowing.

I had a chance to condemn these statist policy prescriptions in an appearance on the John Stossel show.

Here are 10 takeaways from the discussion, along with links to further information.

  1. The main point of the interview was to explain that government spending hasn’t been cut in Europe, with the United Kingdom being a poster child for bad policy (you won’t be surprised that Paul Krugman hasn’t bothered to look at the actual numbers).
  2. Austerity in Europe generally is just a code word for higher taxes. Governments only restrain spending as a last resort.
  3. Excessive spending is the problem, but many people mistakenly fixate on government borrowing.
  4. Keynesian spending doesn’t work, regardless of when it’s been tried.
  5. The Baltic nations are a rare good example of how to respond to a crisis (and another example of Krugman misreading the data), though I should have mentioned that Switzerland never got in trouble in the first place because of its admirable fiscal policy.
  6. We also discussed some historical examples of good policy, such as fiscal restraint in Canada and New Zealand, as well as a shrinking burden of government spending during the Clinton years.
  7. At the end of the interview segment, I say the goal should be to reduce the size of government relative to the productive sector of the economy. I wasn’t narcissistic enough to say “Mitchell’s Golden Rule” on air, but I did say that good fiscal policy occurs when government grows slower than the private sector.
  8. In the Q&A section at the end, I talked about the economic impact of different forms of government spending. Politicians and other defenders of statism like to highlight capital spending, which can have positive effects, but they overlook the fact that the vast majority of government outlays are for things that hinder growth.
  9. Most important, I made the key point about poor people are much better off in pro-market, small-government jurisdictions such as Singapore and Hong Kong, where at least they have opportunity, rather than France or Italy, where the best they can hope for is permanent dependency.
  10. Last but not least, I express some optimism about the possibility of genuine entitlement reform, though I should have acknowledged that nothing good will happen while Obama is in office.

It’s always great to do a show with Stossel since he genuinely care about freedom and wants to explore the details. In previous appearances on his show, I’ve discussed dishonest fiscal policy in Washington, the differences between Texas and California, and the reverse Midas touch of government.

P.S. There is at least one person in Europe who understands the real problem is too much spending.

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The main goal of fiscal policy should be to shrink the burden of government spending as a share of economic output. Fortunately, it shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve this modest goal. All that’s required is to make sure the private sector grows faster than the government.

But it’s very easy for me to bluster about “all that’s required” to satisfy this Golden Rule. It’s much harder to convince politicians to be frugal. Yes, it happened during the Reagan and Clinton years, and there also have been multi-year periods of spending discipline in nations such as Estonia, New Zealand and Canada.

But these examples of good fiscal policy are infrequent. And even when they do happen, the progress often is reversed when a new crop of politicians take power. Federal spending has jumped to about 23 percent of GDP under Bush and Obama, for instance, after falling to 18.2 percent of economic output at the end of the Clinton years.

This is why many advocates of limited government argue that some sort of external force is needed to somehow limit the tendency of politicians to over-tax and over-spend.

I’ve argued on many occasions that tax competition is an important mechanism for restraining the greed of the political class. But even in my most optimistic moments, I realize that it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Another option is budget process reform. If you can somehow convince politicians to tie their own hands (in the same way that alcoholics can sometimes be convinced to throw out all their booze), then perhaps rules can be imposed that improve fiscal policy.

But what sort of rules? Europe has “Maastricht” requirements that theoretically limit deficits and debt, and 49 states have some sort of balanced budget requirement, but these policies have been very unsuccessful – perhaps because they mistakenly focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of government spending.

Are there any budget process reforms that do work? Well, I’ve written about Switzerland’s “debt brake,” which has generated some good results over the past 10 years because it actually imposes an annual spending cap.

Some American states also impose expenditure limits. Have they been successful?

Unfortunately, they usually don’t seem to do a good job of controlling spending. Here are some key passages from a new study by Benjamin Zycher from the American Enterprise Institute.

…tax and expenditure limits (TELs) vary substantially in terms of their details, definitions, and underlying structures, but the empirical finding reported here is simple and powerful: TELs are not effective. …The ineffectiveness of TELs is unambiguous in terms of summary statistics, case-study examination of the records of several individual states, and estimation of an econometric model. This model was estimated for both state and local spending combined and state outlays considered alone.

The author finds some positive impact, but it’s unclear whether the results are meaningful…or durable.

In terms of the growth rates of per capita outlays, 20 of the 30 states display a decline in that growth rate during the periods when the respective TELs were effective, but none of those differences is statistically significant. …to the (highly limited) extent that spending limits prove effective, they are likely to be subject to erosion driven by the same political factors that yield the fiscal pressures.

Though three states seem to have generated genuine budgetary savings.

Among the 30 states with TELs in effect during 1970–2010, the econometric analysis finds that only three of those limits had the effect of reducing total outlays, by approximately 4–6.5 percent. This evidence does not provide grounds for optimism that an emphasis on spending limits would prove useful in terms of reducing long-term fiscal pressures.

Looking at all the evidence, Zycher is not very optimistic about expenditure limits, though he does recognize the valuable role of tax competition.

…a TEL is unlikely by itself to reverse the underlying conditions that yield expanding government. In particular, the incentives of interest groups to circumvent and neutralize the effects of TELs are unsurprising; that may be one central lesson from the California and Washington experiences. Future efforts to restrain the growth in government spending may find greater success if they are directed at increasing competition… One obvious way to achieve this is to strengthen the institutions of federalism, thus forcing states and localities to compete with each other.

Other researchers also have looked at tax and expenditure limits, so let’s see whether they have different perspectives.

Matt Mitchell (no relation) has a slightly more optimistic assessment. Here’s some of what he wrote in a study for the Mercatus Center.

…some varieties of TELs can decrease state spending as a share of state income, but the effect is small—in the range of about 2 to 3 percent. …Certain characteristics can make TELs more effective. These include constitutional (as opposed to statutory) codification, a focus on spending rather than on revenue, a provision that automatically and immediately refunds surpluses, and—of particular importance—a provision that requires either a supermajority vote or a public vote for override.

Here are some of his specific findings.

Weak TELs…tend not to impact state spending very much in either low or high-income states. At best, they decrease spending by about 1/10 of one percentage point in low-income states. At worst, they increase spending by less than 1/100 of one percentage point in high-income states. The most-stringent TELs, on the other hand, do have an appreciable impact on state spending. …Those TELs that limit budgets to inflation plus population growth seem to limit combined state and local spending. In states with this variety of TEL, state and local spending as a share of state income is about 6/10 of a percentage point less than in other states (this is a 3-percent difference relative to the average state and local spending share). …This variety of TEL is often favored by advocates of limited government because it is particularly restrictive (the sum of inflation and population growth is typically less than income growth).

Michael New of the University of Michigan-Dearborn also found that the design of a TEL makes a big difference. Here are some excerpts from his study, which was published in the State Politics and Policy Quarterly.

…most TELs have been enacted by state legislatures, and it is not clear that legislators have the incentive to reduce their autonomy by placing meaningful constraints on their own behavior. …Conversely, TELs enacted through citizen initiatives are likely to be drafted by interest groups that actually possess an interest in limiting state spending, giving them considerably greater potential for effectiveness.

Here are some of his results.

Why has Colorado’s TABOR been more effective than other fiscal limits? …the results of Models 2 and 4, which categorize TELs based on how they were adopted, lend considerable support to my hypothesis. These models indicate that TELs enacted by citizen initiative are the most effective at limiting the size of government. Model 2 predicts that after a TEL is passed by a citizen initiative, annual growth in per capita state and local expenditures will be reduced by $35.70. Similarly, Model 4 predicts that the annual growth in per capita state and local revenues will be reduced by $35.64. Both findings are statistically significant.

Professor New’s research shows that it is very important to limit spending so it grows at inflation plus population rather than letting it climb as fast as personal income.

…holding increases in expenditures to increases in personal income is a relatively easy threshold for a state to maintain. …During the early 1990s, however, two states enacted TELs with a lower limit. Both Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) and Washington state’s Initiative 601 (I-601) established a limit of inflation plus population growth. …Table 4 provides further evidence that strong TELs have been able to restrict government growth. Holding other factors constant, strong TELs annually reduce growth in both state expenditures and state revenues by over $100 per capita. …Both the coefficient for TABOR and the coefficient for I-601 are negative in all four regressions and statistically significant in three of the four. …My analysis provided solid evidence that these two TELs were even more effective at restraining expenditures and revenues as demonstrated by both statistical analysis and case studies.

Some people would conclude from the research of Zycher, Mitchell, and New that spending limits are not very effective. But that’s a hasty conclusion. The real lesson is that spending limits work, but only if they actually limit spending so that it grows slower than personal income, just as suggested by my Golden Rule.

In other words, spending limits are like speed limits in school zones. They are only effective if they’re set low enough to actually protect taxpayers and children.

This debate reminds me of the intellectual fight over the starve-the-beast hypothesis. Some have argued that tax cuts are not an effective way of limiting spending. But the research actually shows that tax cuts are an effective way of “starving the beast” if lawmakers don’t subsequently raise taxes.

The bottom line is that expenditure limits – if properly designed and enforced – are an effective way of controlling government spending. That doesn’t mean that politicians won’t figure out ways to over-spend, just like locks on doors don’t always stop burglars. But both are better than the alternative of no limits or no locks.

In prior posts, I’ve shared research showing that the United States today would be very close to a balanced budget if we had implemented something akin to the Swiss Debt Brake.

So far as I know, there’s no legislation to impose a spending cap specifically modeled on the Swiss system, but I’ve previously noted that Senator Corker’s CAP Act and Congressman Brady’s MAP Act both have sequester-enforced spending limits.

And the good news about sequestration is that the savings are real, unlike the gimmicks that you get when the politicians are in charge of “cutting” spending.

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I greatly admire Switzerland’s “debt brake” because it’s really a spending cap.

Politicians are not allowed to increase spending faster than average revenue growth over a multi-year period, which basically means spending can only grow at the rate of inflation plus population.

Theoretically, taxes could be hiked to allow more spending, but that hasn’t happened. The Swiss are very good about voting against tax increases, so the politicians don’t have much ability to boost the revenue trendline.

Since the debt brake first took effect in 2003, the burden of government spending has dropped from 36 percent of GDP to 34 percent of economic output – a rather remarkable achievement since most other European nations have moved in the wrong direction.

As part of my self-serving efforts to promote Mitchell’s Golden Rule, I’ve been advocating for spending caps in the United States, and I’ve favorably cited legislation proposed by Congressman Brady of Texas and Senator Corker of Tennessee.

Now I have some new evidence on my side. David Hogberg of Investor’s Business Daily looks at the current fiscal mess in America and discovers – gee, what a surprise – that spending has grown very rapidly since the late 1990s.

President Obama says he wants a “balanced” approach to the fiscal cliff. But critics argue the real problem is spending, which has far outstripped rising tax revenue as well as economic growth. Federal government revenue rose from $1.7 trillion to $2.4 trillion from fiscal 1998 to 2012, slightly exceeding inflation. Revenue growth averaged 2.9% annually, despite two recessions, bear markets — and tax cuts. But federal spending rose nearly twice as fast — 5.7% per year — surging from $1.6 trillion to $3.5 trillion over that same span. The spending spike also exceeds growth in the population.

What’s the solution to this mess? I make the argument for a spending cap.

Dan Mitchell, senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, says the U.S. government needs a spending cap. “It’s an issue of trendlines and that’s everything in fiscal policy,” Mitchell said. “If you are on a path where government spending grows faster than the private sector of the economy, which is your tax base, then in theory there is no level of taxation that will be enough to stabilize the system. … If we had kept government spending down to just increases for inflation and population growth, we wouldn’t be in the trouble we’re in now.” Limiting spending to increases in inflation and population growth over 1998-2012 (an annual average of about 3.3%) would have given dramatically different results. The U.S. would have spent $2.6 trillion in FY 12, about $900 billion less than what it actually did. The latest deficit would be $157 billion, a fraction of the actual $1.089 trillion.

I’ve crunched the numbers to show that we could balance the budget in just 10 years if we just limited spending so that it grew by “only” 2.5 percent annually.

David did the same thing, but looking backwards instead of forward. Here’s the chart included with his article. As you can see, the budget mess would be very manageable today if the Bush-Obama spending binge hadn’t occurred.

IBD Spending Cap

But politicians don’t like spending caps for the same reasons that burglars don’t like armed homeowners. As Veronique de Rugy notes, if we imposed a spending cap, they would be forced to reform entitlements.

While a spending cap would help, some analysts contend that it would need to be coupled with entitlement reform. “If you don’t reform Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, you’ll have a hard time staying within the cap,” said Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the libertarian Mercatus Center. …”To make it feasible and enforceable you’d have to do a constitutional amendment,” said Mitchell. “But even short of that, at least if you start talking about it and set it as your goal it would get people focusing on the real problem … which is government spending growing faster than the private sector.”

This brings us to the real challenge. How do we get politicians to impose reforms when they benefit from the current system. Barring a miracle, they’re not going to tie their own hands.

But I think our chances of success will be much higher if advocates of good fiscal policy kept reminding the crowd in Washington that the real problem is too much spending and that red ink is just a symptom of the underlying disease.

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I’m in Slovenia where I just finished indoctrinating educating a bunch of students on the importance of Mitchell’s Golden Rule as a means of restraining the burden of government spending.

And I emphasized that the fiscal problem in Europe is the size of government, not the fact that nations are having a hard time borrowing money. As explained in this video, spending is the disease and deficits are one of the symptoms.

This is also an issue in the United States, and Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal is worried that the GOP ticket is debt-obsessed and doesn’t have sufficient enthusiasm for lower tax rates and tax reform.

Stylistically, Paul Ryan’s Republican convention speech last night was a grand slam. …But was it the growth message that supply-siders wanted to hear, or debt-clock obsession? There were clearly apocalyptic claims. “Before the math and the momentum overwhelm us all, we are going to solve this nation’s economic problems,” said Mr. Ryan in reference to the federal rea ink. “I’m going to level with you; we don’t have that much time.” …In fact, he talked about turning around the economy with “tax fairness.” Ugh, that’s an Obama term. …Larry Kudlow of CNBC and a former Reagan economist tells me, “Paul’s speech just didn’t have the growth, tax-cutting message. We didn’t even get the words tax reform. I don’t know what happened, but it worries me.” It’s a question of priorities. Are Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan signaling that they will put spending cuts ahead of pro-growth tax-rate cuts?

I share Steve’s concern, but with a twist.

I’m not worried that the Republicans will put spending cuts ahead of tax cuts. I’m worried that they won’t do spending cuts at all (even using the dishonest DC definition) and therefore wind up getting seduced into some sort of tax-increase deal that facilitates bigger government.

As a general rule, it is always good to do spending cuts (however defined). And it is always good to lower tax rates. And if you can do both at the same time, even better.

But since I have low expectations, I’ll be delighted if we “merely” manage to get entitlement reform during a Romney-Ryan Administration. That would mean some progress on the spending side and presumably reduce the risk of bad things (like a VAT!) on the revenue side.

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Even though I’ve already made clear that I am less-than-overwhelmed by the thought of Mitt Romney in the White House, I worry that people will become to think I’m a GOP toady.

That’s because I’ve been spending a lot of time providing favorable analysis and commentary on the relative merits of the Ryan budget (particularly proposed reforms to Medicare and Medicaid) compared to President Obama’s statist agenda of class warfare and bigger government.

I’ve already done a couple of TV interviews on Ryanomics vs Obamanomics and the Wall Street Journal this morning published my column explaining the key features of the Ryan budget.

Here are some highlights. In one of my early paragraphs, I give Ryan credit for steering the GOP back in the right direction after the fiscal recklessness of the Bush years.

…the era of bipartisan big government may have come to an end. Largely thanks to Rep. Paul Ryan and the fiscal blueprint he prepared as chairman of the House Budget Committee earlier this year, the GOP has begun climbing back on the wagon of fiscal sobriety and has shown at least some willingness to restrain the growth of government.

I probably should have also credited the Tea Party, but I’ll try to make up for that omission in the future.

These next couple of sentences are the main point of my column.

The most important headline about the Ryan budget is that it limits the growth rate of federal spending, with outlays increasing by an average of 3.1% annually over the next 10 years. …limiting spending so it grows by 3.1% per year, as Mr. Ryan proposes, quickly leads to less red ink. This is because federal tax revenues are projected by the House Budget Committee to increase 6.6% annually over the next 10 years if the House budget is approved (and this assumes the Bush tax cuts are made permanent).

Some conservatives complain that the Ryan budget doesn’t balance the budget in 10 years. I explain how that could happen, but I then emphasize that what really matters is shrinking the burden of government spending.

To balance the budget within 10 years would require that outlays grow by about 2% each year. …There are many who would prefer that the deficit come down more quickly, but from a jobs and growth perspective, it isn’t the deficit that matters. Rather, what matters for prosperity and living standards is the degree to which labor and capital are used productively. This is why policy makers should focus on reducing the burden of government spending as a share of GDP—leaving more resources in the private economy. The simple way of making this happen is to follow what I’ve been calling the golden rule of good fiscal policy: The private sector should grow faster than the government.

Actually, I’ve been calling it Mitchell’s Golden Rule, but I couldn’t bring myself to be that narcissistic and self-aggrandizing on the nation’s most important and influential editorial page.

One final point from the column that’s worth emphasizing is that Ryan does the right kind of entitlement reform.

One of the best features of the Ryan budget is that he reforms the two big health entitlements instead of simply trying to save money. Medicaid gets block-granted to the states, building on the success of welfare reform in the 1990s. And Medicare is modernized by creating a premium-support option for people retiring in 2022 and beyond. This is much better than the traditional Beltway approach of trying to save money with price controls on health-care providers and means testing on health-care consumers. …But good entitlement policy also is a godsend for taxpayers, particularly in the long run. Without reform, the burden of federal spending will jump to 35% of GDP by 2040, compared to 18.75% of output under the Ryan budget.

The last sentence of the excerpt is critical. If the Golden Rule of fiscal policy is to have the private sector grow faster than government, then the Golden Goal is to reduce government spending as a share of GDP.

I’ve commented before how America will become Greece in the absence of reform. Well, that’s basically the Obama fiscal plan, as illustrated by this amusing cartoon.

What makes the Ryan budget so impressive is that it includes the reforms that are needed to avoid this fate.

No, it doesn’t bring the federal government back down to 3 percent of GDP, so it’s not libertarian Nirvana.

But we manage to stay out of fiscal hell, so that counts for something.

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What Do Greece, the United States, and the Cayman Islands Have in Common?

At first, this seems like a trick question. After all, the Cayman Islands are a fiscal paradise, with no personal income tax, no corporate income tax, no capital gains tax, and no death tax.

By contrast, Greece is a bankrupt, high-tax welfare state, and the United States sooner or later will suffer the same fate because of misguided entitlement programs.

But even though there are some important differences, all three of these jurisdictions share a common characteristic in that they face fiscal troubles because government spending has been growing faster than economic output.

I’ve written before that the definition of good fiscal policy is for the private sector to grow faster than the government. I’ve humbly decided to refer to this simple principle as Mitchell’s Golden Rule, and have pointed out that bad things happen when governments violate this common-sense guideline.

In the case of the Cayman Islands, the “bad thing” is that the government is proposing to levy an income tax, which would be akin to committing fiscal suicide.

The Cayman Islands are one of the world’s richest jurisdictions (more prosperous than the United States according to the latest World Bank data), in part because there are no tax penalties on income and production.

So why are the local politicians considering a plan to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? For the simple reason that they have been promiscuous in spending other people’s money. This chart shows that the burden of government spending in the Cayman Islands has climbed twice as fast as economic output since 2000.

Much of this spending has been to employ and over-compensate a bloated civil service (in this respect, Cayman is sort of a Caribbean version of California).

In other words, the economic problem is that there has been too much spending, and the political problem is that politicians have been trying to buy votes by padding government payrolls (a problem that also exists in America).

The right solution to this problem is to reduce the burden of government spending back to the levels in the early part of last decade. The political class in Cayman, however, hopes it can prop up its costly bureaucracy with a new tax – which euphemistically is being called a “community enhancement fee.”

The politicians claim the tax will only be 10 percent and will only be imposed on the expat community. But it’s worth noting that the U.S. income tax began in 1913 with a top rate of only 7 percent and it affected less than 1 percent of the population. But that supposedly benign tax has since become a monstrous internal revenue code that plagues the nation today.

Except the results will be even worse in Cayman because the thousands of foreigners who are being targeted easily can shift their operations to other zero-income tax jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Monaco, or the Bahamas. Or they can decide that to set up shop in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore, which have very modest income tax burdens (and the ability to out-compete Cayman in other areas).

As a long-time admirer of the Cayman Islands, I desperately hope the government will reconsider this dangerous step. The world already has lots of examples of nations that are following bad policy. We need a few places that are at least being semi-sensible.

By they way, I started this post with a rhetorical question about the similarities of Greece, the United States, and the Cayman Islands. Let’s elaborate on the answer.

Here’s a post that shows how Greece’s fiscal nightmare developed. But let’s show a separate chart for the burden of federal spending in the United States.

What’s remarkable is that the federal government and the Cayman Islands government have followed very similar paths to fiscal trouble. Indeed, Caymanian politicians have achieved the dubious distinction of increasing the burden of government spending at a faster rate than even Bush and Obama. No mean feat.

This data for the U.S. chart doesn’t include the burden of state and local government spending, so the Cayman Islands still has an advantage over the United States, but I’ll close with a prediction.

Cayman’s proposed income tax

If the Cayman Islands adopts an income tax – regardless of whether they call it a community enhancement fee (to misquote Shakespeare, a rotting fish on the beach by any other name would still smell like crap), it will be just a matter of time before the burden of government spending becomes even more onerous and Cayman loses its allure and drops from being one of the world’s 10-richest jurisdictions.

Which will be very sad since I’ll now have to find a different place to go when America suffers its Greek-style fiscal collapse.

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Last month, I exposed some major errors that Paul Krugman committed when he criticized Estonia for restraining the burden of government spending.

My analysis will be helpful since I am now in Estonia for a speech about economic reform, and I wrote a column that was published today by the nation’s main business newspaper.

But just in case you’re one of the few people in the world who isn’t fluent in the local language, the Mises Institute Estonia was kind enough to post an English version.

Here are some of the key points I made. I started by explaining one of Krugman’s main blunders.

Krugman’s biggest mistake is that he claimed that spending cuts caused the downturn, even though the recession began in 2008 when government spending was rapidly expanding. It wasn’t until 2009 that the burden of government spending was reduced, and that was when the economy began to grow again. In other words, Krugman’s Keynesian theory was completely wrong. The economy should have boomed in 2008 and suffered a recession beginning in 2009. Instead, the opposite has happened.

I then pointed out that Estonia’s long-run performance has been admirable.

…the nation’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. Economic output has doubled in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period – including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

But I’m not a mindless cheerleader (though I might become one if any of the local women gave me the time of day), so I took the opportunity to identify areas where public policy needs improvement.

This doesn’t mean Estonia’s policy is perfect. Spending was reduced in 2009 and 2010, but now it is climbing again. This is unfortunate. Government spending consumes about 40 percent of GDP, which is a significant burden on the private sector.

Being a thoughtful guy, I then made suggestions for pro-growth changes.

Estonia should copy the Asian Tiger economies of Singapore and Hong Kong. These jurisdictions have maintained very high growth for decades in part because the burden of the public sector is only about 20 percent of GDP. …Estonia already has a flat tax, which is very important for competitiveness. The key goal should be to impose a spending cap, perhaps similar to Switzerland’s very successful “debt brake.” Under the Swiss system, government spending is not allowed to grow faster than population plus inflation. And since nominal GDP usually expands at a faster rate, this means that the relative burden of government spending shrinks over time. By slowly but surely reducing the amount of GDP diverted to fund government, this would enable policymakers to deal with the one area where Estonia’s tax system is very unfriendly. Social insurance taxes equal about one-fourth of the cost of hiring a worker, thus discouraging job creation and boosting the shadow economy.

And I elaborated on why reform of social insurance is not just a good idea, but should be viewed as an absolute necessity.

Reducing the heavy burden of social insurance taxes should be part of a big reform to modernize programs for healthcare and the elderly. A major long-term challenge for Estonia is that the population is expected to shrink. The World Bank and the United Nations both show that fertility rates are well below the “replacement rate,” meaning that there will be fewer workers in the future. That’s a very compelling reason why it is important to expand personal retirement accounts and allow the “pre-funding” of healthcare. It’s a simple matter of demographic reality.

In other words, Estonia doesn’t have a choice. If they don’t reform their entitlement programs, the burden of government spending will rise dramatically, which would mean a higher tax burden and/or substantial government debt.

We also need entitlement reform in the United States. Our demographics aren’t as bad as Estonia’s, but we all know – as I explained in my post about Cyprus – that bad things happen sooner or later if government spending grows faster than the economy’s productive sector.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last week, I jumped into the surreal debate about whether Obama has been the most fiscally conservative president in recent history.

I sliced the historical data from the Office of Management and Budget a couple of ways, showing that overall spending has grown at a relatively slow rate during the Obama years. Adjusted for inflation, both total spending and primary spending (total spending minus interest payments) have been restrained.

So does this make Obama a fiscal conservative?

And how can these numbers make sense when the President saddled the nation with the faux stimulus and Obamacare?

Good questions. It turns out that Obama supposed frugality is largely the result of how TARP is measured in the federal budget. To put it simply, TARP pushed spending up in Bush’s final fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008) and then repayments from the banks (which count as “negative spending”) artificially reduced spending in subsequent years.

The combination of those two factors made a big difference in the numbers. Here’s another table from my prior post, looking at how the presidents rank when you subtract both defense and the fiscal impact of deposit insurance and TARP.

All of a sudden, Obama drops down to the second-to-last position, sandwiched between two of the worst presidents in American history. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

But this ranking is incomplete. At that point, I was trying to gauge Obama’s record on domestic spending, and the numbers certainly provide some evidence that he is a stereotypical big-spending liberal.

But the main debate is about which president was the biggest overall spender. So I’ve run through the numbers again, and here’s a new table looking at the rankings based on average annual changes in inflation-adjusted primary spending, minus the distorting impact of deposit insurance and TARP.

Obama is still in the second-to-last position, but spending is increasing by “only” 5.5 percent per year rather than 7.0 percent annually. This is obviously because defense spending is not growing as fast as domestic spending.

Reagan remains in first place, though his score drops now that his defense buildup is part of the calculations. Clinton, conversely, stays in second place but his score jumps because he benefited from the peace dividend after Reagan’s policies led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Let’s now look at these numbers from a policy perspective. Rahn Curve research shows that government is far too big today, so the goal of fiscal policy should be to restrain the burden of government spending relative to economic output.

This means that policy moves in the right direction when government grows more slowly than the private sector, as it did under Reagan and Clinton.

But if government spending is growing faster than the productive sector of the economy, as has been the case during the Bush-Obama years, then a nation eventually will become Greece.

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

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

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

Americans looking for a way to tame government profligacy should look to Switzerland. In 2001, 85% of its voters approved an initiative that effectively requires its central government spending to grow no faster than trendline revenue. The reform, called a “debt brake” in Switzerland, has been very successful. Before the law went into effect in 2003, government spending was expanding by an average of 4.3% per year. Since then it’s increased by only 2.6% annually.

So how does this system work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming that obstacle is the real challenge.

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

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The Chairman of the House Budget Committee has produced a new budget plan which contrasts very favorably with the tax-heavy, big-spending proposal submitted by the President last month.

Perhaps most important, Congressman Ryan’s plan restrains spending growth, allowing the private sector to grow faster than the burden of government, thus satisfying Mitchell’s Golden Rule so that spending falls as a share of GDP.

The most important detail in the proposal is that the federal budget, which currently consumes 24 percent of GDP, would fall to less than 20 percent of GDP beginning in 2016.

That’s the good news. There are three pieces of not-so-good news.

1. Ryan’s plan allows spending to grow by an average of 3.1 percent annually over the next 10 years, with is faster than the 2.8 percent average annual growth in last year’s budget.

2. His proposed Medicare reform, while far better than current law, also is not as good as what was proposed last year.

3. The federal budget would still consume a greater share of the economy’s output than it did when Bill Clinton left office.

I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that Ryan’s proposal isn’t as good as Rand Paul’s budget. Spending only climbs 2.2 percent yearly under the plan put together by the Kentucky Senator, and he also abolishes several useless cabinet-level departments.

But the very good shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. As noted already, Congressman Ryan’s plan meets the most important test, which is restraining spending so that the federal budget grows slower than the private economy. And, as the chart shows, he obviously imposes more fiscal restrain then President Obama.

Regular readers know that I generally show no mercy to jelly-spined Republicans, but I praised GOPers for approving last year’s Ryan budget. The same will be true if they approve this year’s version.

P.S. I am frustrated and nauseated by all the people who are fixating on whether Congressman Ryan’s plan balances the budget in 10 years, 20 years, or whenever. What matters is shrinking the burden of government. I hereby bestow the Bob Dole Award on all the people who are mistakenly focusing on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of bloated government.

P.P.S. I’m happy to report that there is no value-added tax in the revenue portion of Congressman Ryan’s budget. There is a VAT in his Roadmap plan, and I endlessly worry that this poison pill will re-emerge and ruin other good fiscal plans put forth by the Wisconsin lawmaker.

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Europe is in the midst of a fiscal crisis caused by too much government spending, yet many of the continent’s politicians want the European Central Bank to purchase the dodgy debt of reckless welfare states such as Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal in order to prop up these big government policies.

So it’s especially noteworthy that economists at the European Central Bank have just produced a study showing that government spending is unambiguously harmful to economic performance. Here is a brief description of the key findings.

…we analyse a wide set of 108 countries composed of both developed and emerging and developing countries, using a long time span running from 1970-2008, and employing different proxies for government size… Our results show a significant negative effect of the size of government on growth. …Interestingly, government consumption is consistently detrimental to output growth irrespective of the country sample considered (OECD, emerging and developing countries).

There are two very interesting takeaways from this new research. First, the evidence shows that the problem is government spending, and that problem exists regardless of whether the budget is financed by taxes or borrowing. Unfortunately, too many supposedly conservative policy makers fail to grasp this key distinction and mistakenly focus on the symptom (deficits) rather than the underlying disease (big government).

The second key takeaway is that Europe’s corrupt political elite is engaging in a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which is when one bad government policy is used to justify another bad government policy. In this case, they undermined prosperity by recklessly increasing the burden of government spending, and they’re now using the resulting fiscal crisis as an excuse to promote inflationary monetary policy by the European Central Bank.

The ECB study, by contrast, shows that the only good answer is to reduce the burden of the public sector. Moreover, the research also has a discussion of the growth-maximizing size of government.

… economic progress is limited when government is zero percent of the economy (absence of rule of law, property rights, etc.), but also when it is closer to 100 percent (the law of diminishing returns operates in addition to, e.g., increased taxation required to finance the government’s growing burden – which has adverse effects on human economic behaviour, namely on consumption decisions).

This may sound familiar, because it’s a description of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of the spending version of the Laffer Curve. This video explains.

The key lesson in the video is that government is far too big in the United States and other industrialized nations, which is precisely what the scholars found in the European Central Bank study.

Another interesting finding in the study is that the quality and structure of government matters.

Growth in government size has negative effects on economic growth, but the negative effects are three times as great in non-democratic systems as in democratic systems. …the negative effect of government size on GDP per capita is stronger at lower levels of institutional quality, and ii) the positive effect of institutional quality on GDP per capita is stronger at smaller levels of government size.

The simple way of thinking about these results is that government spending doesn’t do as much damage in a nation such as Sweden as it does in a failed state such as Mexico.

Last but not least, the ECB study analyzes various budget process reforms. There’s a bit of jargon in this excerpt, but it basically shows that spending limits (presumably policies similar to Senator Corker’s CAP Act or Congressman Brady’s MAP Act) are far better than balanced budget rules.

…we use three indices constructed by the European Commission (overall rule index, expenditure rule index, and budget balance and debt rule index). …The former incorporates each index individually whereas the latter includes interacted terms between fiscal rules and government size proxies. Particularly under the total government expenditure and government spending specifications…we find statistically significant positive coefficients on the overall rule index and the expenditure rule index, meaning that having these fiscal numerical rules improves GDP growth for these set of EU countries.

This research is important because it shows that rules focusing on deficits and debt (such as requirements to balance the budget) are not as effective because politicians can use them as an excuse to raise taxes.

At the risk of citing myself again, the number one message from this new ECB research is that lawmakers – at the very least – need to follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule and make sure government spending grows slower than the private sector. Fortunately, that can happen, as shown in this video.

But my Golden Rule is just a minimum requirement. If politicians really want to do the right thing, they should copy the Baltic nations and implement genuine spending cuts rather than just reductions in the rate of growth in the burden of government.

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I didn’t have the fun of dealing with the OccupyWashington protestors at the Americans for Prosperity conference, but I did speak to the audience about America’s looming fiscal nightmare.

The video quality isn’t perfect, though it came out better than the recording of my speech a few years ago for the National Taxpayers Union about entitlements.

I think I covered a lot of ground in about 10 minutes. The key message was that government is too big and that the only solution is to limit government so that it grows slower than the private sector.

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I’ve dinged Mitt Romney for his less-than-stellar record on healthcare, his weakness on Social Security reform, and his reprehensible support for ethanol subsidies, but I haven’t bothered to address his budget plan – in part because it seemed rather underwhelming.

Sounds like I haven’t missed much. Jacob Sullum has done the tedious work of reading through Romney’s plan, and he is unimpressed.

Mitt Romney said he wants to “eliminate every government program that is not absolutely essential.” That sounds good until you realize that Romney’s goal of cutting $500 billion from projected federal outlays in 2016 would, at best, leave the budget about 8 percent higher than it is now and only 11 percent lower than it would be without any attempt to restrain spending. The implication: Mitt Romney thinks 89 percent of what the federal government does is “absolutely essential.” And that’s what he says when he is trying to appeal to the fiscally conservative Republicans whose votes he will need to win his party’s presidential nomination. Who knows what he really thinks, assuming he has any firm convictions at all on this crucial question. …By contrast, the plan outlined by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), one of Romney’s rivals in the race for the Republican nomination, would balance the budget by 2015. Clearly, Paul’s idea of “absolutely essential” government programs is a bit narrower than Romney’s. But whose isn’t?

Jacob’s analysis is on the mark, and he doesn’t let Romney get away with the business-as-usual Washington scam of claiming that a reduction in the projected growth of spending is actually a spending cut. Using honest math rather than DC math, Romney’s budget plan (assuming he is serious) would increase spending by 8 percent over the next four years.

To be fair, a budget that allows federal spending to jump by 8 percent over the next four years would satisfy Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Barring an unexpected downturn, the private sector would be growing faster than the government.

The problem is that even good politicians usually fail to fulfill their campaign promises. So if a politician today is saying that he will let spending climb by about 2 percent each year, that probably means it will increase 5 percent each year.

And if he isn’t proposing to eliminate a single cabinet-level department, that doesn’t suggest a strong commitment to fiscal responsibility.

It also means Mitt Romney thinks the Department of Housing and Urban Development is “absolutely essential.”

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