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Archive for December, 2015

Time for some holiday spirit.

Last year, our night-before-Christmas story featured a very happy story about the benefits of deregulating air cargo.

In 2011, Larry the Cable Guy read a politically correct version of the night-before-Christmas story.

This year, we have Ted Cruz’s rendition of the night-before-Christmas story.

Needless to say, I especially enjoy the digs at Obamacare and Lois Lerner.

And it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that I’m one of the few people who defend government shutdowns (indeed, as Jay Leno famously joked, the real problem is when it re-opens!).

But let’s not get distracted by real policy issues.

So to rekindle the spirit of the season, let’s share an adaptation of the night-before-Christmas classic from Merrill Matthews of the Institute for Policy Innovation.

‘Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the House,

All the liberals were stirring, while conservatives groused.

The wish lists were hung on the approps bill with care,

In hopes that Obama would bless it with flair.

The Members were nestled all smug in their heads,

While visions of donors danced in their heads.

As Ryan the new Chief, and Nancy the shill,

Agreed they would stick us with a huge spending bill.

They went to the House floor with most in cahoots,

One trillion and more and tax breaks to boot.

It took some arm-twisting to get enough votes,

While hapless taxpayers must carry the note.

Then on the House floor there came so much chatter,

That Members looked up to see what was the matter.

Away to their cell phones they flew like a flash,

To make sure their pet projects hadn’t been slashed.

They spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,

To pass all the goodies, while big-spenders smirked.

And laying restraint aside for the time,

Said let’s spend some money, put it all on the line.

Now, Ryan!, Now, Nancy!, Now, Hoyer and all;

On, Schumer!  On, Harry!  Cried Mitchell, “roll call.”

To the front of the room, and let gavel fall,

Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!

Their eyes—how they twinkled!  Their dimples how merry!

Their cheeks were like roses, from wine and the sherry!

They all slapped their backs and most had a smile,

Though taxpayers will feel the pain for a while.

But some raised a ruckus and said it’s not right,

“We promised the voters that we would be tight.”

“Who cares?” came the answer, “It’s Christmas, don’t fear,

We’ll just tell the voters we’ll do better next year.”

Then they sprang to their limos, with drivers inside,

And away they all flew, all filled up with pride.

And I heard them exclaim as they drove out of sight,

Happy Christmas to all, we spent trillions tonight!

In the interest of fairness, let’s also share the Bernie Sanders’s version of the story.

Of course, that’s not where the story really ends. The cartoon needs a few more frames to commemorate the 100 million-plus people butchered by communism.

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I’ve put together a collection of political cartoons that show government as a bloated, clumsy, and sometimes malicious person.

This isn’t because of any special animus, but rather because the unintended consequences of government intervention are almost always harmful.

Consider the issue of higher education. Politicians start with the warm and fuzzy notion that it would be good to help more people go to college. So they create loans and grants to help them pay for tuition.

Sounds nice and noble, right? And just think of the votes that can be harvested from grateful parents!

So is this a win-win situation for both politicians and students? Well, let’s look at the real-world results.

As explained in this video, there’s a lot of evidence that these loans and grants are the reason that higher education is now far more expensive (just as there is powerful data showing that subsidies lead to higher costs in other areas as well).

And additional research is confirming this concern. A new study by Professor Grey Gordon of Indiana University and Professor Aaron Hedlund of the University of Missouri finds that government subsidies for higher education wind up benefiting colleges and universities and hurting students.

Here are the key findings.

We develop a quantitative model of higher education to test explanations for the steep rise in college tuition between 1987 and 2010. …We measure how much changes in underlying costs, reforms to the Federal Student Loan Program (FSLP), and changes in the college earnings premium have caused tuition to increase. All these changes combined generate a 106% rise in net tuition between 1987 and 2010, which more than accounts for the 78% increase seen in the data. Changes in the FSLP alone generate a 102% tuition increase.

Robby Soave of Reason reports on the new research.

…skyrocketing college tuition costs are the result of all-too-generous student loan policies. The study, authored by Grey Gordon and Aaron Hedlund, used a computer model to measure the effects of various economic forces on college costs. According to the model, no factor had more to do with rising tuition prices than loan subsidies. “Looking at individual factors, we find that expansions in borrowing limits drive 40% of the tuition jump and represent the single most important factor,” wrote the study’s authors. In fact, the “Bennett hypothesis”—the idea, first proposed by President Ronald Reagan’s Education Secretary William Bennett, that increasing student aid encourages colleges to jack up prices—fully explains all the tuition increases between 1987 and 2010, according to the study. …A recent study by the New York Federal Reserve reached a similar, albeit less dramatic, conclusion regarding the link between loans and tuition.

Regarding the study from the N.Y. Fed, here’s Robby’s report on that research.

The bottom line is that politicians want us to believe that subsidies are needed because college is getting more expensive. But what’s really happening is that college is getting more costly because of the subsidies!

Now let’s move to a separate question. We know that colleges and universities are getting a big windfall as a result of students loans and other subsidies. So how are they spending the money?

Not very well, according to researchers.

And that’s probably because much of this money is mostly being wasted on more bureaucracy. Here’s a chart showing trends in recent years.

Even more depressing, the research also shows that all this spending doesn’t improve human capital, so there’s a negative impact on overall economic performance.

P.S. Politicians who complain about “cuts” in spending for higher education are either dishonest or ignorant.

P.P.S. Speaking of which, Hillary Clinton’s plan for higher education is a recipe to enable even higher costs for colleges and universities.

P.P.P.S. Some folks hope that there’s a soon-to-pop bubble in higher education, which means that tuition will soon become more affordable. But I’m worried that higher education is more like health care rather than housing, which means that prices will climb even higher over time.

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Because of the budgetary implications, I think it’s more important to deal with Medicaid and Medicare than it is to address Social Security.

If left on autopilot, Social Security will eventually consume an additional 2 percent of the private economy.

That’s not good news, but Medicaid (which now includes a big chunk of Obamacare) and Medicare are much bigger threats.

Hopefully, though, we don’t need to engage in fiscal triage and we can reform all the big entitlement programs.

So let’s look at why Social Security needs to be modernized.

First and foremost, the programs is about $40 trillion in the red. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

Moreover, the longer we wait, the more difficult reform will be. I don’t always agree with the policy prescriptions of the Committee for a Responsible Budget, but they are very sober-minded in their analysis. And this chart from one of their recent publications shows that waiting until 2026 or 2034 will require more radical changes.

So it should be obvious we need reform, but now the question is what kind of reform.

Some people think the key goal is making the program solvent, but that’s the wrong focus. Sort of like making balance the goal of budgetary policy.

Instead, the goal should be creating a freer society and smaller footprint for government. And that’s why I think personal retirement accounts are the right goal.

And to understand the implications, consider these excerpts from a column in today’s Wall Street Journal. Professor Jeremy Siegel of the University of Pennsylvania explains how the Social Security system has made his retirement less comfortable.

Last month I turned 70 and, thanks to my earnings, became entitled to Social Security’s maximum benefit, currently $3,500 a month, or $42,000 a year. And so, if I live to 90, I will receive $840,000 worth of (inflation-adjusted) benefits. Over the past 50 years, according to the Social Security Administration, the combined taxes paid into the system by me and my employers equaled $329,640. This sounds like a good deal… But the benefits are only about one-third the $2.27 million I would have accumulated had the taxes instead been invested, over time, in a stock index fund. …the benefits I would collect are even less than the $1.28 million I would have accumulated if my “contributions,” as Social Security taxes are euphemistically called, had been placed in U.S. Treasury bonds. …are affluent seniors making out like bandits? Not at all. The bandit is the federal government, which provides benefits that are millions of dollars short of what anyone whose earnings are at or above the tax cap easily could have accumulated on his own.

In effect, Professor Siegel has been forced to pay for a steak and he’s getting a hamburger. Which is a good description of how all entitlement programs operate.

And it’s not just high-income people who get a bad deal. Social Security is particularly bad for young people. And many minorities also are disadvantaged because of their shorter life lifespans.

Moreover, everyone will pay more for their steak and get even less hamburger if politicians deal with the program’s giant shortfall by imposing the wrong type of reform.

But it’s not just that Social Security is bad for individuals. It’s also a burden on the overall economy.

Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute looks at how private savings is impacted by government-run retirement schemes

fixing Social Security by raising taxes – or, going further, expanding Social Security as many progressives favor – won’t increase retirement income so much as shift it from households to government. …A new report from Canada’s Fraser Institute looks at how Canadian households’ personal saving habits responded to increases in the tax rates used to finance the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). …The Fraser study, authored by Charles Lammam, François Vaillancourt, Ian Herzog and Pouya Ebrahimi,  found that for each dollar of additional CPP contributions, Canadian households reduced their personal saving by around 90 cents. As a result, total saving – and thus total future retirement income – would increase by a lot less than you’d think. Households would receive more income from the CPP but less from their own saving.

These results are similar to what’s been found in other nations.

I found a similar result across OECD countries: when a country’s government provided an additional dollar of retirement benefits, retirees provided for themselves about 93 cents less in income from savings and work in retirement. …a 2003 analysis by Suzanne Rohwedder and Orazio Attanasio which found that, for the United Kingdom’s earnings-related pension system, individuals reduced personal saving by 65 to 75 cents for each dollar of benefits they expected to receive from the government.

Here’s a very powerful chart on the relationship between private savings and government retirements benefits from another one of Andrew’s articles.

Wow, that’s a powerful relationship. And Biggs isn’t the only expert to produce these results.

All of which underscores why I think we should have a system similar to what they have in Australia or Chile (or even the Faroe Islands).

Here’s my video making the case for personal retirement accounts.

P.S. Two economists at the Federal Reserve produced a study examining why Social Security was first created. It might seem obvious that it was a case of politicians trying to buy votes by creating dependency, but they actually go through the calculations in order to explain how it made sense (from the perspective of people alive at the time) to create a program that now undermines the well-being of the nation.

A well-established result in the literature is that Social Security tends to reduce steady state welfare in a standard life cycle model. However, less is known about the historical effects of the program on agents who were alive when the program was adopted. …we estimate that the original program benefited households alive at the time of the program’s adoption with a likelihood of over 80 percent, and increased these agents’ welfare by the equivalent of 5.9% of their expected future lifetime consumption. …Overall, the opposite welfare effects experienced by agents in the steady state versus agents who experienced the program’s adoption might offer one explanation for why a program that potentially reduces welfare in the steady state was originally adopted.

Gee, what a shocker. Ponzi schemes benefit people who get in at the beginning of the scam.

P.P.S. Speaking of Ponzi schemes, here’s the case for reform, as captured by cartoons. And you can enjoy other Social Security cartoons here, here, and here, along with a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

P.P.P.S. I’m not sure whether Hillary’s plan or Obama’s plan for Social Security would be worse.

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Based on my writings, some people may think I’m 100 percent against higher taxes.

But that’s not exactly true. In some cases, I like punitive taxation. Or, to be more precise, I sometimes take pleasure when punitive tax policy backfires on bad people.

Here’s an example. An interesting article in Slate, authored by Adam Chodorow of Arizona State University Law School, looks at how a terrorist group’s attempt to form a government is being stymied by an inability to collect taxes.

Revolution is easy. Governing is hard. And there are few things more difficult than taxes. Operating a country requires money, and that typically requires taxes. … The population in this area is estimated to be between 7 million and 8 million, about the same as the population of Washington state. While ISIS currently collects about $1 billion annually, countries of similar size collect about $16 billion, suggesting that ISIS has a long way to go if it wants to operate like a real state.

But the comparatively low levels of tax are not because of a Hong Kong-type commitment to limited government.

Instead, the terror group is discovering that people don’t like giving their money to politicians and bureaucrats, even ones motivated by Islamic fundamentalism.

…taxes aren’t a great way to ingratiate oneself with the governed. …More than one government has fallen because of its tax policy. ISIS must face these challenges just as any emerging polity does… ISIS may have displayed prowess on the battlefield, but it has revealed that it is as stymied and constrained by the complexities of taxation as the rest of us. …ISIS’s taxes appear to be…no more popular in the territory it controls than they would be here in the U.S. As the Times reported, ISIS’s taxes are now so onerous that large numbers of people, who were apparently willing to tolerate ISIS’s religious authoritarianism, are fleeing Syria and Iraq to escape them. At some point people will either rise up or leave, threatening ISIS’s internal revenue source.

So taxes are becoming so onerous that taxpayers (and taxable income) are escaping.

Hmmm…, excessive taxation leading to less taxable economic activity. That seems like a familiar concept.

Something I’ve written about one or two times. Or maybe 50 or 100 times.

Ah, yes, our old friend, the Laffer Curve!

ISIS is…constrained by a lack of administrative resources and the simple reality once sketched on the back of a cocktail napkin by the economist Arthur Laffer: that tax rates can only get so high before they actually drive down government revenues. Given current conditions, ISIS may be near or at the limits of its ability to tax, even if it can recruit jihadi tax accountants to its cause. Thus, …it’s not clear how much room the group has to grow internal revenues. More important, its efforts to do so may do more to damage its prospects than outside forces can accomplish.

This sounds like the tax equivalent of War of the Worlds, the H.G. Wells’ classic in which alien invaders wreak havoc on earth until they are felled by bacteria.

Tom Cruise was the star of a 2005 movie adaptation of this story, but I’m thinking I could rekindle my acting career and star in a movie of how the Laffer Curve thwarts ISIS!

But to have a happy ending, ISIS has to be defeated. And Professor Chodorow closes his article with a very helpful suggestion.

Rather than send in ground troops, …view our tax code as a weapon of mass destruction… We could make full use of it in the war on ISIS, perhaps by translating it into Arabic in the hopes that the group adopts it.

Sounds like the advice I gave about threatening Assad with Obamacare.

P.S. If they do decide to make a movie about the Laffer Curve and ISIS, maybe Obama could star as tax adviser for ISIS. At least if he’s not too busy in some of the other movie roles people have envisioned.

P.P.S. I like excessive taxes when they lead to the downfall of terrorist thugs. But I also take perverse pleasure when class-warfare tax hikes backfire in places such as France and the United Kingdom. I feel sorry for the taxpayers of those nations, to be sure, but it sometimes helps to have examples of what not to do.

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Normally I’m very happy to work for the Cato Institute, both because it is a principled and effective organization.

But I wondered about my career choices last night because I was stuck with the very unpleasant task of live-tweeting the Democrat presidential debate. Cleaning out septic tanks would have been a more enjoyable way to spend my time.

Of all the crazy things that were discussed (you can see my contemporaneous reactions on my Twitter feed), the Clinton-Sanders-O’Malley support for so-called Paycheck Fairness legislation would be at the top of my list.

Yes, I was irked by the myopic fixation on income inequality, the support for class-warfare taxation, and the reflexive advocacy for more government spending, but messing around with the price system – because of an assertion that women are paid 77 cents for every $1 received by men – is an entirely different level of foolishness.

Here’s some of what I wrote in 2012, for instance, when discussing proposals to give politicians power over wage levels.

…what’s really at stake is whether we want resources to be allocated by market forces instead of political edicts. This should be a no-brainer. If we look at the failure of central planning in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, a fundamental problem was that government officials – even assuming intelligence and good intentions – did not have the knowledge needed to make decisions on prices. And in the absence of a functioning price system, resources get misallocated and growth suffers. So you can imagine the potential damage of giving politicians, bureaucrats, and courts the ability to act as central planners for the wage system.

In other words, higher taxes and more spending will dampen growth, and that’s no good, but pervasive intervention in the price system can screw up an entire economy. Indeed, I suspect only bad monetary policy is capable of inflicting a greater level of damage.

Moreover, the left’s theory is based on the assumption that greedy businesses and investors are deliberately sacrificing profits by choosing to pay men more when they could hire equally qualified women for less money.

To use a highly technical economic phrase, that’s friggin’ nuts.

Yet our leftist friends want to replace market-based compensation with coercion-based wages.

Consider, for instance, a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts about initiatives on the state level.

…the California Legislature…sent Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown a “pay equity” bill… California isn’t alone in acting. …the governors of Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, North Dakota and Oregon have signed equal pay laws this year. New York legislators unanimously passed a bill that Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has indicated he will sign. And Massachusetts has two bills pending. Equal pay bills also were introduced in 21 other states.

The article cited my unflattering remarks on the issue.

…some critics, such as Daniel Mitchell of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, said that the new legislation would put a “catastrophic burden” on businesses. “The notion that there’s some widespread discrimination in the marketplace, there’s just no real-world evidence for it,” Mitchell said. “They’re trying to give the government widespread authority to make very abstract judgments about the value of a job in the private sector.”

And I’m not the only critic.

Here are some excerpts from a recent column in the Wall Street Journal by Sarah Ketterer.

When it comes to economically foolish laws, California is second to none. A good example is the California Fair Pay Act… Like its national counterpart, it is an aggressive attempt to eradicate a wage gap between men and women that is allegedly due to discrimination in the workplace. But this wage gap is illusory, and the legislation will have unintended consequences, including for women.

She’s right. Policy that is bad when implemented by a state can cause widespread damage if imposed nationally.

Ms. Ketterer elaborates on why the proposal is misguided.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that its analysis of wages by gender does “not control for many factors that can be significant in explaining earnings differences.” What factors? Start with hours worked. …Men are significantly more likely than women to work longer hours, according to the BLS. And if we compare only people who work 40 hours a week, BLS data show that women then earn on average 90 cents for every dollar earned by men. Career choice is another factor. …Of the 10 lowest-paying majors—such as “drama and theater arts” and “counseling psychology”—only one, “theology and religious vocations,” is majority male. Conversely, of the 10 highest-paying majors—including “mathematics and computer science” and “petroleum engineering”—only one, “pharmacy sciences and administration,” is majority female. Eight of the remaining nine are more than 70% male. Other factors that account for earnings differences include marriage and children, both of which cause many women to leave the workforce for years.

And here’s the amazing part.

One of Obama’s top economic advisers, to maintain her academic credibility, admitted that the 77 cents number is fraudulent.

It’s unclear whether Clinton-Sanders-O’Malley know (or even care) that the number is garbage.  But what is clear is that legislation based on this dishonest data could cause massive economic distortions.

Though, to be fair, Ms. Ketterer points out that trial lawyers will enjoy more business.

What California’s Fair Pay Act will do, however, is make the state, already notorious for regulation and red tape, a more difficult place to do business. Companies must now ensure that every penny of wage differential between the men and women they employ is attributable to bona-fide differences in education, training, experience, quantity or quality of work, and so on. …even attempting to do so will only add to companies’ already substantial regulatory-compliance budgets. Some of these factors—quality of work, for instance—are inevitably subjective, yet trial lawyers will swoop in to turn every conceivable pay difference into a lawsuit.

A bunch of lawsuits would actually be the least-worst outcome.

What scares me far more is pervasive controls on wages, which is what our leftist friends ultimately prefer.

P.S. You probably won’t be surprised, given their history of mendacity, to learn that the left-wing bureaucrats at the Paris-based OECD also are peddling dishonest numbers to advance this ideological agenda.

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On rare occasions, our government-loving friends let their guard down and say things that reveal the true nature of leftism as a punitive philosophy that subjugates the individual to the state.

An English leftist named Richard Murphy, for instance, actually argued that private income is the “rightful property” of government.

An American statist named Matt Yglesias openly expressed a desire for ultra-high tax rates solely for reasons of spite rather than to finance bigger government.

We now have another leftist who deserves recognition for openly embracing the notion that people should be pawns of government. The Governor of California, Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown, has bragged that coercion is the core of modern leftism.

Here are some excerpts from a recent Los Angeles Times story.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been…been making an explicit case for the power of government. …Brown said politicians need to be willing to use the blunt force of government intervention… “You need the coercive power of government to say, do this,” the governor said during a panel discussion… “Never underestimate the coercive power of a central state…,” he said.

Kudos to Gov. Brown. He didn’t use fatuous rhetoric about “government is just a word for things we do together.”

He openly acknowledges that statism is force, backed up by men with guns, based on what politicians want other people to do.

Now let’s look at another politician who deserves credit for honesty.

Though, rather ironically, we’re talking in this case about a politician who generally is known for mendacity and prevarication, so this belongs in the stopped-clock-is-right-twice-a-day category.

That’s because the Daily Caller reports that Hillary Clinton accidentally stumbled into a bit of honesty when discussing the economic impact of Obamacare.

Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton inadvertently slammed President Barack Obama’s signature piece of domestic legislation, the Affordable Care Act, as a full-time job killer. …a women stood up and asked, “I just want to know why there’s like discrimination against the part-time workers… Clinton said. “That…Affordable Care Act.” …Clinton continued, “…we have built in some unfortunate incentives that discourage full-time employment.”

But these excerpts from the story don’t fully capture what Hillary said.

Watch this short video and it will be very clear that she’s admitting that Obamacare has undermined full-time work.

Wow, this sounds like she’s actually aware that Obama’s failed policy is pushing people into part-time work.

And maybe she’s even familiar with the research, from both private scholars and the Congressional Budget Office, on Obamacare having a negative impact on employment.

In any event, I think you’ll agree with me that Hillary deserves recognition for recognizing that there are real-world consequences to statist policy.

Sort of like these other leftists who have admitted that big-government policies backfire.

Nicholas Kristof wrote on the problem of government-caused dependency.

Jeffrey Goldberg admits gun ownership reduces crime.

Justin Cronin explains how he became a left-wing supporter of gun rights.

Jamelle Bouie pours cold water on Obama’s gun control agenda.

Though we shouldn’t be overly impressed that Hillary recognize a problem since it’s quite possible – indeed, probably nearly certain – that her solution will be to expand the size and scope of government and make the situation even worse.

In other words, she’ll probably combine the sentiments in this poster with the sad reality of Mitchell’s Law.

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The fact that there’s widespread support for spending caps from groups that support limited government is hardly a surprise.

After all, we have lots of real world evidence that limits on the growth of government spending – if sustained for multi-year periods – can quickly shrink the burden of government and reduce red ink.

So the real key is figuring how to impose rules that ensure long-run spending restraint. That’s why, for instance, the Swiss Debt Brake is attracting so much positive attention.

But what’s really remarkable is that there’s also growing support for spending caps (sometimes called “expenditure limits”) from establishment organizations that normally lean to the left.

I’ve already highlighted how both the International Monetary Fund (twice!) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have acknowledged that spending caps are the most, if not only, effective fiscal rule.

By the way, these international bureaucracies are not motivated by a desire for limited government. Instead, they focus on fiscal balance. In other words, they want to control deficits and debt, which I think is a misguided focus since red ink is merely the symptom of the real problem of excessive spending.

Yet regardless of their focus, research from the IMF and OECD has shown that spending caps are the only approach that works (hardly a surprise since symptoms go away if underlying problems are addressed).

Now we can add another establishment voice to the chorus. The European Central Bank (ECB) has just published a study on the efficacy of fiscal rules for countries in the European Union. Let’s look at some excerpts to see what was found.

First, it was discovered that balanced budget rules aren’t very effective since they allow too much spending when the economy is growing and generating lots of tax revenue. Moreover, such rules are difficult to sustain during downturns when revenues fall.

…during a boom phase fiscal rules do not prevent fiscal policy from turning expansionary, while at times of a recession fiscal policy is potentially restrictive as governments need to comply with the rules’ requirements. This effect is assumed to be particularly pronounced in periods of limited fiscal space, while it might be less obvious in an environment of high fiscal space.

By the way, “fiscal space” refers to the maneuvering room politicians have. A government with a budget surplus, for instance, has “fiscal space” under a balanced-budget requirement.

But if a budget is balanced, then a government doesn’t have “fiscal space” if something happens (like a downturn) that causes lower revenues and higher spending.

Anyhow, the ECB study found that expenditure rules were the most effective.

We find strong evidence for fiscal rules being associated with higher fiscal space, i.e. the fiscal room for manoeuvre is higher in those countries which have established fiscal rules. This may not be surprising as fiscal rules are implemented to keep primary balances under control… When splitting the results by different types of fiscal rules, we find significant coefficients for expenditure and, to a lesser extent, balanced budget rules, but none for debt rules.

Here are some of the details about spending caps.

Regarding the different types of fiscal rules, we find particularly strong coefficients for expenditure rules, possibly reflecting the fact that expenditure rules are easier to monitor and are thereby more credible. …If a country had a fiscal rule in place for the past ten years the average fiscal space for those years is around 22% of GDP higher. The coefficient is proportional to the number of years in which a fiscal rule has been in place.

All this makes sense. The longer a spending cap is in place, the better the results. Which may be why more and more nations are moving in this direction.

The study highlights a very important reason why spending caps are successful. They make it difficult for politicians (as we’ve seen in Greece, Alberta, Puerto Rico, California, and Alaska) to increase spending when there is fiscal space (i.e., extra revenue).

…if governments have fiscal rules in place, the results suggest that governments can no longer fully use their fiscal space and (on average) are even forced to reduce their current expenditures.

Last but not least, the study also generated some findings that should be of considerable interest to fans of Keynesian economics. These are the folks who think an extra burst of government spending can stimulate an economy, so they are strongly opposed to balanced budget rules that are perceived to be “procyclical” since they require belt-tightening when there’s a recession and revenues shrink (while also allowing more spending when the economy is strong and revenues are growing).

But as you can see, spending caps generally avoid this problem.

…an increase in fiscal space indeed seems to be associated with fiscal policy being more procyclical. Yet if fiscal rules are in place, this positive link seems to be significantly smaller. …balanced budget rules…and expenditure rules…are correlated with a lower coefficient for fiscal space on procyclicality. This is in line with our findings above that expenditure rules might restrict discretionary expenditures.

This makes perfect sense. If you look at what’s happened with the Swiss Debt Brake (which is actually a spending cap), government spending has increased about 2 percent annually. That’s a frugal approach when the economy is growing and revenues are increasing, so advocates of small government can applaud.

But when the economy is weak and revenues are flat, Keynesians can applaud because government is still allowed to grow by 2 percent each year.

And since spending grows by less than the private sector over the long run, the net result is not only a smaller burden of government spending, but also shrinking debt levels, which is why we’re also getting applause from the OECD, IMF, and now the ECB.

P.S. Not all spending caps are created equal. There are very successful spending caps in places such as Switzerland and Hong Kong, in large part because these caps are explicitly designed to keep government from consuming ever-larger shares of economic output.

But I was recently in Texas as part of a program to discuss spending caps, organized by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Texas has a spending cap, but as you can see from this slide presented by State Senator Van Taylor, it’s not exactly working as well as the Swiss Debt Brake.

You can watch a video of the event by clicking here.

My message was that a spending cap is like a speed limit in a school zone. If the limit is 90 MPH, it doesn’t do any good.

The goal – at the very least – should be to prevent government from consuming ever-larger shares of economic output. This is the giant challenge in the developed world.

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