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Archive for April, 2012

I’ve complained endlessly that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending, and that deficits and debt are best understood as symptoms of that underlying disease.

So I’m obviously a big fan of this new video from the folks at Learn Liberty.

I like how they use several types of measurements to show that there’s plenty of tax revenue. Indeed, the best line, near the end of the video, is when the narrator points out that higher taxes will simply exacerbate the spending problem (as I have noted).

Two final items. First, the folks from the Institute for Humane Studies have a bunch of great videos as part of the Learn Liberty series. I’ve already highlighted the one on free trade vs. protectionism, and I include eight challenging questions for those who think it is a good idea to give politicians and bureaucrats power to interfere with our freedom of exchange.

Second, the video in this post focuses solely on the math question, for lack of a better term. If you want some economic analysis of the consequences of big government, here’s a link to a post with my videos that analyze that issue.

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I’m in Monaco for the 10th forum of the Convention of Independent Financial Advisors, a Swiss-based NGO that focuses on promoting an ethical and productive environment for private investment. I moderated a couple of panels on interesting topics, including the European fiscal crisis.

Matthieu Ricard

But I want to focus on the comments of another speaker, Monsieur Matthieu Ricard, a French-born Buddhist monk. As you can see from his Wikipedia entry, he’s a very impressive individual. In addition to his other accomplishments, he serves as the French translator for the Dalai Lama.

During one of the dinners, we got into a fascinating conversation about the Buddhist concept of altruism (or at least one strain of that tradition) and Ayn Rand’s concept of selfishness, both as general ideas and as they relate to happiness.

At the risk of sounding un-libertarian, I’m siding with the monk.

Even though I’m a big fan of Ayn Rand and periodically give away copies of Atlas Shrugged to unwary young people, I’ve always been puzzled by the Randian hostility to altruism.

Yes, coercive altruism is wrong. Indeed, it’s not even altruism, particularly if you think (like Michael Gerson or Barack Obama) it’s noble or selfless to forcibly give away other people’s money.

But Rand seemed to think (and some Randians definitely think) that voluntary acts of charity and compassion are somehow wrong. In some sense, these folks take an ultra-homo economicus view that people are relentless utility maximizers based on self interest.

If this is a correct interpretation of Randianism (perhaps I should say Objectivism?), then I think it is inadequate. Yes, people want money, and almost everybody would like more money, but I’m guessing that it is non-monetary things that make people happiest.

I don’t want to sound too warm and fuzzy and ruin my image, but aren’t children, friends, family, and love the things that make the world go ’round for most of us? Yes, we also value achievement, but even that can be unrelated to pecuniary considerations.

These are amateur ramblings on my part, and I’ve probably done a poor job of describing the views of Randians and Monsieur Ricard. Moreover, I’m sure that very intelligent people have examined this issue in a much more sophisticated fashion.

For a fiscal policy wonk like me, though, this conference and this encounter forced me to give some thought to how you can be a big fan of Ayn Rand while also feeling good about holding open doors for little old ladies.

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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 Social Security Board just released its Trustee’s Report, and it’s generated the usual hand wringing about the program’s long-term demise – much of which is perfectly appropriate for reasons I’ve already discussed.

But I’m usually unhappy about the press treatment of this issue.

Here’s some of what Stephen Ohlemacher and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar wrote for the Associated Press.

Social Security is rushing even faster toward insolvency, driven by retiring baby boomers, a weak economy and politicians’ reluctance to take painful action to fix the huge retirement and disability program. The trust funds that support Social Security will run dry in 2033 – three years earlier than previously projected – the government said Monday. …Unless Congress acts – and forcefully – payments to millions of Americans could be cut. …Potential options to reduce Social Security costs include raising the full retirement age, which already is being gradually increased to 67, reducing annual benefit increases and limiting benefits for wealthier Americans. Policymakers could also increase the amount of wages that are subject to Social Security taxes. Social Security is financed by a 6.2 percent tax on the first $110,100 in workers’ wages. It is paid by both employers and workers.

There are two flaws with what’s written in this story. One is a sin of commission, failing to expose the government’s dishonest accounting. The other is a sin of omission, analyzing the issue solely through the lens of government finances.

1. The sin of commission is that the story assumes the Social Security Trust Fund is real, when it is nothing but a collection of IOUs. When extra Social Security taxes are collected, the Treasury keeps those monies and spends them on other programs. In exchange, it engages in a bookkeeping exercise and credits the Social Security Trust Fund with some government bonds.

When one part of the government owes another part of the government some money, it is a wash. There’s no pile of assets to finance benefits. Those bonds simply represent a claim on future taxpayers.

This is why politicians can play dishonest games, such as approving a payroll tax holiday and declaring – by waving a magic wand – that this won’t affect the amount of IOUs in the Trust Fund. Just in case you think I’m joking, the AP story notes that “Congress temporarily reduced the tax on workers to 4.2 percent for 2011 and 2012, though the program’s finances are being made whole through increased government borrowing.”

Needless to say, that’s phoniness on top of phoniness. I guess the next step is for politicians to enact legislation adding several zeroes to all the existing IOUs. They can then declare that Social Security is solvent. Problem solved…other than the itsy-bitsy problem that there’s still no money.

2. The sin of omission in the story is that it focuses on the government’s finances and overlooks the implications for households. It is possible, at least on paper, to “save” Social Security by cutting benefits and raising taxes. But such “reforms” force people to pay more and get less – even though Social Security already is a very bad deal, particularly for younger workers.

My video on Social Security reform explains that personal retirement accounts are the only way to simultaneously deal with government finances and household finances in a constructive fashion.

Sadly, neither Obama nor Romney seem interested in this type of pro-growth reform.

By the way, I don’t mean to pick on the Associated Press. The report excerpted above simply happened to be the first one I read. You ‘ll find the same myopic analysis in the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, to cite just two of many examples.

In closing, Social Security reform is actually the least important of the entitlement reforms. The long-term fiscal problems caused by Medicare and Medicaid are much larger. This three-part video series looks at the reforms that could address all three programs.

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Many years ago, before it became associated with foreign intervention, neo-conservatism was simply a term for former liberals who migrated to the right. It was said that they had been “mugged by reality.”

We may need a new term, perhaps “Holly-tarians,” for folks in the entertainment industry who have begun to realize the downside of excessive government. I’ve already favorably cited Clint Eastwood for his pro-flat tax views and dismissed Arnold Schwarzenegger on national TV as a de facto statist, but there are other actors who deserve some attention.

I don’t know whether Jon Lovitz is a budding Hollywood libertarian, but (in addition to being a very funny character actor) he certainly seems a bit upset with Obama’s class-warfare approach to fiscal policy.

Since I couldn’t figure out how to embed the file, click on his image and it will take you to an audio file of him ripping Obama, high taxes, and occupy poseurs. Warning, there are plenty of naughty words, including ubiquitous F-bombs.

I will make one correction to his rant. He says that middle-income people have the same deductions that are available to rich people. That’s not really true. Rich people, as I have explained before, don’t rely on wage and salary income like the rest of us. Instead, they earn capital income and business income, which opens the door to a much larger degree of tax planning.

For what it’s worth, this is why Obama’s proposed tax increases won’t raise nearly as much money as projected.

But since politicians doubtlessly will increase spending in anticipation of higher receipts, the net effect will be bigger government and more red ink. In other words, business as usual in Washington.

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Even though I favor radical reductions in the burden of government, I’ve made the point that good fiscal policy merely requires that government spending grow slower than the private sector – what I call Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

And if lawmakers simply cap the growth of spending, so that it grows by about 2 percent annually, the budget deficit disappears in a decade.

It’s even better to impose more restraint, of course, which is why I’ve said favorable things about Senator Rand Paul’s plan.

There’s also a “Penny Plan” that would reduce primary spending (non-interest spending) by 1 percent each year. As James Carter and Jason Fichtner explain, this degree of fiscal restraint would reduce the burden of government spending to about 18 percent of economic output.

Any viable solution must cut spending growth. Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Rep. Connie Mack of Florida have introduced legislation in their respective chambers to do just that. Their “Penny Plan” – recently updated to reflect the latest budget developments – calls for reducing federal spending (excluding interest payments) 1 percent a year for five years, balancing the budget in the fifth year. To maintain balance once it’s reached, Mr. Enzi and Mr. Mack would cap federal spending at 18 percent of GDP. By no small coincidence, 18 percent of GDP roughly matches the U.S. long-run average level of taxation since World War II. Is it realistic to think Congress could limit federal spending to 18 percent of GDP? Actually, there is precedent. Federal spending fell as a share of GDP for nine consecutive years before bottoming out at 18.2 percent of GDP in fiscal 2000 and 2001. The Penny Plan would return federal spending, expressed as a share of GDP, near the level achieved during the last two years of the Clinton administration.

The various interest groups that infest Washington would complain about this degree of spending discipline, but Carter and Fichtner make a good point when they say that this simply means the same size government – as a share of GDP – that we had when Bill Clinton left office.

I realize I’m getting old and my memory may not be what it used to be, but I don’t recall people starving in the streets and grannies being ejected from hospitals during the Clinton years. Am I missing something?

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President Obama imposed a big-spending faux stimulus program on the economy back in 2009, claiming that the government needed to squander about $800 billion to keep the unemployment rate from rising above 8 percent.

How did that work out? One possible description is that the so-called stimulus became a festering pile of manure. About three years have passed, and the joblessness rate hasn’t dropped below 8 percent. But the White House has been sprinkling perfume on that pile of you-know-what and claiming that the Keynesian spending binge was good policy.

But not every politician is blindly ideological like Obama. Vitor Gaspar, Portugal’s Finance Minister, is willing to admit error. Here are some relevant excerpts from a New York Times report.

Unlike Obama, willing to admit mistakes

Mr. Gaspar, speaking to The New York Times last week, has a message for observers who say Europe needs to substantially relax its austerity approach: We tried stimulus and it backfired. Like some other European countries, Portugal tried what Mr. Gaspar called “a Keynesian style expansion” in 2008, referring to a theory by economist John Maynard Keynes. But it didn’t turn things around, and may have made things worse.

Why does the Portuguese Finance Minister have this view? Well, for the simple reason that the economy got worse and more spending put his country in a deeper fiscal ditch.

The yield on Portuguese government bonds – more than 11 percent on longer-term bonds — is substantially higher than the yields on debt issued by Ireland, Spain or Italy. …The main fear among investors is that Portugal is going to have to ask for a second bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, which committed $103 billion of financial aid in 2011.

Maybe the big spenders in Portugal should import some of the statist bureaucrats at Congressional Budget Office. The CBO folks could then regurgitate the moving-goalposts argument that they’ve used in the United States and claim that the economy would be even weaker if the government hadn’t wasted more money.

But perhaps the Portuguese left doesn’t think that will pass the laugh test.

Amazingly, the Germans, who have a disturbing affinity for powerful government, decided against Keynesianism and that’s paid dividends for their economy.

In any event, some of us can say we were right from the beginning about this issue.

Not that being right required any keen insight. Keynesian policies failed for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. So-called stimulus policies also failed for Japan in 1990s. And Keynesian proposals failed for Bush in 2001 and 2008.

Just in case any politicians are reading this post, I’ll make a point that normally goes without saying: Borrowing money from one group of people and giving it to another group of people does not increase prosperity.

But since politicians probably aren’t capable of dealing with a substantive argument, let’s keep it simple and offer three very insightful cartoons: here, here, and here.

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