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Archive for the ‘Bush’ Category

When I get my daily email from the editorial page of the New York Times, I scroll through to see whether there’s anything on economic issues I should read.

As a general rule, I skip over Paul Krugman’s writings because he’s both predictable and partisan. But every so often, his column will grab my attention, usually because the headline will include an assertion that doesn’t make sense.

The bad news is that this is usually a waste of time since most of his columns are ideological rants. But the good news is that I periodically catch Krugman making grotesque errors when he engages in actual analysis. Here are a few examples:

  • Earlier this year, Krugman asserted that America was outperforming Europe because our fiscal policy was more Keynesian, yet the data showed that the United States had bigger spending reductions and less red ink.
  • Last year, he asserted that a supposed “California comeback” in jobs somehow proved my analysis of a tax hike was wrong, yet only four states at the time had a higher unemployment rate than California.
  • And here’s my favorite: In 2012, Krugman engaged in the policy version of time travel by blaming Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

And if you enjoyed those examples, you can find more of the same by clicking here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

But perhaps he’s (sort of) learning from his mistakes. Today, we’re going to look at Paul Krugman’s latest numbers and I’ll be the first to say that they appear to be accurate.

But accurate numbers don’t necessarily lead to honest analysis. Krugman has a post featuring this chart, which is supposed to show us that GOP presidential candidates are wrong to pursue “Bushonomics.”

In looking at this chart and seeing how Krugman wants it to be interpreted, I can’t help but think of the famous zinger Reagan used in his debate with Jimmy Carter: “there you go again.”

Let’s consider why he’s wrong.

First, he asserts the chart is evidence that GOP candidates shouldn’t follow Bushonomics.

I actually agree. That’s because the burden of government spending jumped significantly during the Bush years and the regulatory state became more oppressive. All things considered, Bush was a statist.

Krugman, however, would like readers to believe that Bush was some sort of Reaganite. That’s where we disagree. And if you want to know which one of us is right, just check what happened to America’s rating in Economic Freedom of the World during the Bush years.

Second, Krugman would like readers to think that Presidents have total control over economic policy. Yet in America’s separation-of-powers system, that’s obviously wrong. You also need to consider what’s happening with the legislative branch.

So I added a couple of data points to Krugman’s chart. And, lo and behold, you can just as easily make an argument that partisan control of Congress is the relevant variable. As you can see, Republican control of Congress boosted job growth for Obama, whereas the Democratic takeover of Congress led to bad results during the Bush years.

By the way, I don’t actually think congressional control is all that matters. I’m simply making the point that it is misleading to assert that control of the White House is all that matters.

What is important, by contrast, are the policies that are being implemented (or, just as important, not being implemented).

And since the economic policies of Bush and Obama have been largely similar, the bottom line is that it’s disingenuous to compare job creation during their tenures and reach any intelligent conclusions.

Third, since Krugman wants us to pay attention to job creation during various administrations, we can play this game – and actually learn something – by adding another president to the mix.

Krugman doesn’t identify his data source, but I assume he used this BLS calculation of private employment (or something very similar).

So I asked that website to give me total private employment going back to the month Reagan was nominated.

And here’s what I found. As you can see, good private-sector job growth under Reagan and Clinton, but relatively tepid job growth this century.

Now let’s take a closer look at the total change in private employment for the first 81 months of the Reagan, Bush, and Obama Administrations. And you’ll see that Krugman was sort of right, at least in that Obama has done better than Bush.

And if there’s no recession before he leaves office, he’ll look even better than Bush than he does now. But Obama doesn’t fare well when compared against Reagan.

So does this mean Krugman will now argue GOP candidates should follow Reaganomics rather than Obamanomics or Bushonomics?

I’m not holding my breath waiting for him to make a correction. By the way, keep in mind what I said before. Presidents (along with members of Congress) don’t have magical job-creation powers. The best you can hope for is that the overall burden of government diminishes a bit during their tenure so that the private sector can flourish.

That’s what really enables job creation, and that’s the lesson that really matters.

But it’s not easy to find the truth if you put partisanship above analysis. Krugman erred by making a very simplistic Bush-Republican-bad/Obama-Democrat-good argument.

In reality, the past several decades show that it’s more important to look at policy rather than partisan labels. For instance, the fiscal policies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are relatively similar and are in distinct contrast to the more profligate fiscal policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

P.S. Paul Krugman’s biggest whopper was about healthcare rather than fiscal policy. In 2009, he said “scare stories” about government-run healthcare in Great Britain “are false.” But you can find lots of scary stories here.

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I’m pleasantly surprised by the tax plans proposed by Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump.

In varying ways, all these candidate have put forth relatively detailed proposals that address high tax rates, punitive double taxation, and distorting tax preferences.

But saying the right thing and doing the right thing are not the same. I just did an interview focused on Donald Trump’s tax proposal, and one of my first points was that candidates may come up with good plans, but those proposals are only worthwhile if the candidates are sincere and if they intend to do the heavy lifting necessary to push reform through Congress.

Today, though, I want to focus on another point, which I raised starting about the 0:55 mark of the interview.

For the plans to be credible, candidates also need to have concomitant proposals to restrain the growth of federal spending.

I don’t necessarily care whether they balance the budget, but I do think proposals to reform and lower taxes won’t have any chance of success unless there are also reasonable plans to gradually shrink government spending as a share of economic output.

As part of recent speeches in New Hampshire and Nevada, I shared my simple plan to impose enough spending restraint to balance the budget in less than 10 years.

But those speeches were based on politicians collecting all the revenue projected under current law.

By contrast, the GOP candidates are proposing to reduce tax burdens. On a static basis, the cuts are significant. According to the Tax Foundation, the 10-year savings for taxpayers would be $2.97 trillion with Rand Paul’s plan, $3.67 trillion under Jeb Bush’s plan, $4.14 trillion with Marco Rubio’s plan, all the way up to $11.98 trillion for Donald Trump’s plan.

Those sound like very large tax cuts (and Trump’s plan actually is a very large tax cut), but keep in mind that those are 10-year savings. And since the Congressional Budget Office is projecting that the federal government will collect $41.58 trillion over the next decade, the bottom line, as seen in this chart, is that all of the plans (other than Trump’s) would still allow the IRS to collect more than 90 percent of projected revenues.

Now let’s make the analysis more realistic by considering that tax cuts and tax reforms will generate faster growth, which will lead to more taxable income.

And the experts at the Tax Foundation made precisely those calculations based on their sophisticated model.

Here’s an updated chart showing 10-year revenue estimates based on “dynamic scoring.”

The Trump plan is an obvious outlier, but the proposals from Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio all would generate at least 96 percent of the revenues that are projected under current law.

Returning to the original point of this exercise, all we have to do is figure out what level of spending restraint is necessary to put the budget on a glide path to balance (remembering, of course, that the real goal should be to shrink the burden of spending relative to GDP).

But before answering this question, it’s important to understand that the aforementioned 10-year numbers are a bit misleading since we can’t see yearly changes. In the real world, pro-growth tax cuts presumably lose a lot of revenue when first enacted. But as the economy begins to respond (because of improved incentives for work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship), taxable income starts climbing.

Here’s an example from the Tax Foundation’s analysis of the Rubio plan. As you can see, the proposal leads to a lot more red ink when it’s first implemented. But as the economy starts growing faster and generating more income, there’s a growing amount of “revenue feedback.” And by the end of the 10-year period, the plan is actually projected to increase revenue compared to current law.

So does this mean some tax cuts are a “free lunch” and pay for themselves? Sound like a controversial proposition, but that’s exactly what happened with some of the tax rate reductions of the Reagan years.

To be sure, that doesn’t guarantee what will happen if any of the aforementioned tax plans are enacted. Moreover, one can quibble with the structure and specifications of the Tax Foundation’s model. Economists, after all, aren’t exactly famous for their forecasting prowess.

But none of this matters because the Tax Foundation isn’t in charge of making official revenue estimates. That’s the job of the Joint Committee on Taxation, and that bureaucracy largely relies on static scoring.

Which brings me back to today’s topic. The good tax reform plans of certain candidates need to be matched by credible plans to restrain the growth of federal spending.

Fortunately, that shouldn’t be that difficult. I explained last month that big tax cuts were possible with modest spending restraint. If spending grows by 2 percent instead of 3 percent, for instance, the 10-year savings would be about $1.4 trillion.

And since it’s good to reduce tax burdens and also good to restrain spending, it’s a win-win situation to combine those two policies. Sort of the fiscal equivalent of mixing peanut butter and chocolate in the famous commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

P.S. Returning to my interview embedded above, I suppose it’s worthwhile to emphasize a couple of other points.

P.P.S. Writing about the prospect of tax reform back in April, I warned that “…regardless of what happens with elections, I’m not overly optimistic about making progress.”

Today, I still think it’s an uphill battle. But if candidates begin to put forth good plans to restrain spending, the odds will improve.

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It’s been a challenge to assess Donald Trump’s fiscal policies since they’ve been an eclectic and evolving mix of good and bad soundbites.

Though I did like what he said about wanting to pay as little tax as possible because the government wastes so much of our money.

On the other hand, some of his comments about raising tax burdens on investors obviously rubbed me the wrong way.

But now “The Donald” has unveiled a real plan and we have plenty of details to assess. Here are some of the key provisions, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. We’ll start with the features that represent better tax policy and/or lead to lower tax burdens, such as somewhat lower statutory tax rates on households and a big reduction in the very high tax rate imposed on companies, as well as a slight reduction in the double tax on capital gains.

…no federal income tax would be levied against individuals earning less than $25,000 and married couples earning less than $50,000. The Trump campaign estimates that would reduce taxes to zero for 31 million households that currently pay at least some income tax. The highest individual income-tax rate would be 25%, compared with the current 39.6% rate. …Mr. Trump also would cut the top capital gains rate to 20%, from the current 23.8%. And he would eliminate the alternative minimum tax. …For businesses, Mr. Trump’s 15% rate is among the lowest that have been proposed so far.

But there are also features that would move tax policy in the wrong direction and/or raise revenue.

Most notably, Trump would scale back certain deductions as taxpayers earn more money. He also would increase the capital gains tax burden for partnerships that receive “carried interest.” And he would impose worldwide taxation on businesses.

To pay for the proposed tax benefits, the Trump plan would eliminate or reduce deductions and loopholes to high-income taxpayers, and would curb some deductions and other breaks for middle-class taxpayers by capping the level of individual deductions, a politically dicey proposition. Mr. Trump also would end the “carried interest” tax break, which allows many investment-fund managers to pay lower taxes on much of their compensation. …The Trump plan would raise revenues in at least a couple of significant ways. It would limit the value of individual deductions, with middle-class households keeping all or most of their deductions, higher-income taxpayers keeping around half of theirs, and the very wealthy losing a significant chunk of theirs. It also would wipe out many corporate deductions. …The plan also proposes capping the amount of interest payments that businesses can deduct now, a change phased in over a long period, and would impose a corporate tax on future foreign earnings of American multinationals.

Last but not least, there are parts of Trump’s plan that leave current policy unchanged.

Which could be characterized as “sins of omission” since many of these provisions in the tax code – such as double taxation, the tax bias against business investment, and tax preferences – should be altered.

…the candidate doesn’t propose to end taxation of individuals’ investment income… Mr. Trump would not…allow businesses to expense all their new equipment purchases, as some other Republicans do. …All taxpayers would keep their current deductions for mortgage-interest on their homes and charitable giving.

So what’s the net effect?

The answer depends on whether one hopes for perfect policy. The flat tax is the gold standard for genuine tax reform and Mr. Trump’s plan obviously falls short by that test.

But the perfect isn’t the enemy of the good. If we compare what he’s proposing to what we have now, the answer is easy. Trump’s plan is far better than the status quo.

Now that I’ve looked at the good and bad policies in Trump’s plan, I can’t resist closing with a political observation.  Notwithstanding his rivalry with Jeb Bush, it’s remarkable that Trump’s proposal is very similar to the plan already put forth by the former Florida Governor.

I’m not sure either candidate will like my interpretation, but I think it’s flattery. Both deserve plaudits for proposing to make the internal revenue code less onerous for the American economy.

P.S. Here’s what I wrote about the plans put forth by Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.

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In my 2012 primer on fundamental tax reform, I highlighted the three biggest warts in the current system.

1. High tax rates that penalize productive behavior such as work and entrepreneurship.

2. Pervasive double taxation that undermines saving and investment.

3. Corrupt loopholes and cronyism that lure people into using resources inefficiently.

These problems all need to be addressed, along with additional problems with the internal revenue code, such as worldwide taxation and erosion of constitutional freedoms and civil liberties.

Based on these criteria, I’ve already reviewed the tax reform plan put forth by Marco Rubio. And I’ve analyzed the proposal introduced by Rand Paul.

Now let’s apply the same treatment to the “Reform and Growth Act of 2017” that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has unveiled in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Bush identifies three main goals, starting with lower tax rates.

First, I want to lower taxes and make the tax code simple, fair and clear. …We will cut individual rates from seven brackets to three: 28%, 25% and 10%. At 28%, the highest tax bracket would return to where it was when President Ronald Reagan signed into law his monumental and successful 1986 tax reform.

This is a positive step, effectively wiping out the tax-rate increases imposed by Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Then Governor Bush takes aim at tax loopholes.

Second, I want to eliminate the convoluted, lobbyist-created loopholes in the code. For years, wealthy individuals have deducted a much greater share of their income than everyone else. We will retain the deductibility of charitable contributions but cap the deductions used by the wealthy and Washington special interests, enabling tax-rate cuts across the board for everyone.

This also is a step in the right direction, though it’s unclear what Bush is proposing – if anything – for other big tax loopholes such as the mortgage interest deduction, the healthcare exclusion, the state and local tax deduction, and the municipal bond exemption.

The final big piece of Jeb’s plan deals with America’s punitive treatment of business income.

Third, I believe that the tax code should no longer be an impediment to the nation’s competitiveness with China, Europe and the rest of the world. …To stop American companies from moving out of the country, I will cut the corporate tax rate from 35%—the highest in the industrial world—to 20%, which is five percentage points below China’s. We will end the practice of world-wide taxation on U.S. businesses, which fosters the insidious tactic called corporate “inversions.” …We will also allow businesses to fully and immediately deduct new capital investments—a critical step to increase worker productivity and wages.

All of these reforms are very good for growth.

A lower corporate tax rate, particularly combined with territorial taxation and “expensing” of investment expenditures, will make American companies far more competitive.

More important, these reforms will fix flaws in the tax code that reduce capital formation. And that will mean more investment and higher wages for American workers.

There are other positive features mentioned in the column that are worth celebrating. Governor Bush’s plan eliminates the death tax, which is an especially punitive form of double taxation.

His proposal also gets rid of the alternative minimum tax (AMT), which is a convoluted part of the tax code seemingly designed to grab more money from taxpayers in a very complicated fashion.

Now let’s move to a part of Bush’s plan that seems bad, but arguably is good. He’s proposing to get rid of interest deductibility for companies, which will increase double taxation (remember, investors who buy corporate bonds pay tax on the interest payments they receive from firms).

…we will eliminate most corporate tax deductions—which is where favor-seeking and lobbying are most common—and remove the deduction for borrowing costs. That deduction encourages business models dependent on heavy debt.

So why is this feature arguably good when one of the key goals of tax reform is eliminating double taxation?

For two reasons. First, we already have double taxation of dividends (i.e., equity-financed investment), so imposing double taxation on borrowing (i.e., debt-financed investment) creates a level playing field and addresses the bias for debt in the tax code.

To be sure, it would be best to level the playing field by having no double taxation of any kind, but presumably the Bush team also was paying attention to revenue constraints.

And this is the second reason why this portion of the plan arguably is good. The revenue implications of this change are non-trivial, so one could argue that it is helping to finance pro-growth changes such as a lower corporate tax rate and immediate expensing of business investment.

Let’s close by highlighting some unambiguously worrisome features of the Bush plan.

According to his column, an additional 15 million Americans no longer will have any income tax liability, largely because the plan almost doubles the standard deduction. It’s good for people not to have to pay tax, of course, but we already have a system where almost half of all households are exempt from the income tax. So the concern is that we have a growing share of the population that perceives government as a no-cost dispenser of goodies.

And one of those goodies is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is a form of income redistribution operated through the tax code. And Bush is proposing to expand the EITC, though there aren’t any details about this part of his plan.

Presumably Bush is including these provisions to somewhat fend off the class-warfare attack that his plan provides big tax cuts for the “rich” while not doing enough for the rest of the population. Yet upper-income taxpayers already pay the lion’s share of the income tax.

Even the IRS has acknowledged that the top 3 percent pay more than half the burden!

So a fair tax cut, by definition, will benefit the rich since they’re the ones who are carrying the load.

In any event, the purpose of good tax policy is to generate faster growth by improving incentives for work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship, and that’s where you get the big benefits for lower- and middle-income taxpayers.

Simply stated, the close you get to a Hong Kong-style flat tax, the closer you get to robust Hong Kong-type growth rates.

The bottom line is that Bush’s tax plan isn’t a touchdown. Like the Rubio plan and Paul plan, it’s not a Hall-Rabushka flat tax, which is the gold standard for tax reform. But it’s a big step in that direction. Bush takes the ball from the wrong side of the field and puts it on the right side of the field.

If implemented (and accompanied by the spending restraint needed to make the plan sustainable), Bush’s proposal would be a significant boost for the American economy and American taxpayers.

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If you took a poll of Washington’s richest and most powerful people, you would probably find more than 90 percent of them support tax increases.

At first glance, this doesn’t make sense. Why would a group of upper-income people want tax hikes? Are they self-loathing and guilt-ridden?

Perhaps, but there’s a better explanation. These are people whose lavish lifestyles are because of big government. And when government gets even bigger, they have more chances to obtain unearned wealth.

So it makes perfect sense for them to support tax increases. They may send an additional 5 percent of their income to the IRS, but their income will be 20 percent higher because of all the money sloshing around Washington.

Once you understand their motivations, it’s easy to understand why Washington insiders are so supportive of “bipartisan budget deals” and why they salivate so much for a value-added tax.

And you can also see why they’re so anxious to get a President who hasn’t signed the no-tax-hike pledge.

Which may explain why Jeremy Scott, the editor of Tax Notes, is upset that Governor Jeb Bush is now expressing opposition to tax hikes. Here’s some of what he wrote for Forbes, starting with a description of Bush’s original open-to-tax-hikes position.

Before announcing his candidacy, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he wouldn’t agree to Grover Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes, and he hinted that he would, in fact, trade $10 of spending cuts for $1 of tax increases. …he went out of his way earlier this year to talk about his flexibility on fiscal policy.

That part of Mr. Scott’s column is accurate.

I also noticed Gov. Bush’s stance at the time, albeit it caused me to worry because politicians will never impose meaningful spending restraint and reform entitlements if they think tax increases are feasible.

Anyhow, Scott then points out that Gov. Bush seems to have moved to an anti-tax hike position.

At an August 2 conference…, Bush flatly said no when asked if he would accept tax hikes as part of a budget deal. “We’ve raised taxes. What we need to be doing is entitlement reform, curbing the growth of spending, creating a high-growth scenario,” the former governor elaborated.

I’m not sure if what Bush said puts him firmly in the no-tax-hike camp, but it’s certainly true that his rhetoric has moved in the right direction.

Which doesn’t make Scott happy. And here’s where he veers from accurate reporting to sloppy and bizarre assertions.

If Jeb Bush needs to shore up his right flank on taxes, it reveals that the GOP has veered far from its positional flexibility that made the 1980s so successful for tax reform efforts. President Reagan was willing to accept tax increases as part of grand bargains on taxes and fiscal policy. …the GOP…won’t control 60 seats in the upper chamber. That means they will need at least some Democratic support. And no party will want to undertake tax reform without at least some bipartisanship. A Jeb Bush victory in 2016 seemed like the best-case scenario for people who want some kind of broad tax reform. His retreat on a willingness to compromise is a major blow to those hopes.

Wow, that’s a lot of misleading statements in a short excerpt.

Let’s correct some of Mr. Scott’s mistakes.

  1. The 1986 Tax Reform Act was revenue neutral. In other words, it was designed so that the government didn’t get any additional money. Scott is completely wrong to assert that a willingness to raise taxes is a prerequisite for tax reform.
  2. Scott is correct that Reagan acquiesced to some tax increases, but he conveniently fails to share the data showing that “grand bargains” with tax hikes invariably failed to produce good results. The only deal that led to a balanced budget was the 1997 agreement that lowered taxes.
  3. It is incorrect to assert that 60 votes are needed in the Senate to enact major fiscal legislation. Yes, the filibuster still exists, but budget rules explicitly allow “reconciliation” bills that don’t require supermajority support.
  4. A pro-tax hike candidate is only the “best-case scenario” if one thinks that voters should be tricked by using tax reform as a Trojan Horse for tax increases.

The final point is the one that really matters. To reiterate what I stated earlier, the Washington establishment is unified in its support of higher taxes for the obvious reason that more money flowing to Washington is good news for politicians, bureaucrats, consultants, lobbyists, cronyists, special interests, contractors, and other insiders.

Simply stated, a bigger government means they get richer (and they’ve been quite successful, as you can see from this depressing map).

Here’s the bottom line.

Using the term “grand bargain” also doesn’t change the fact that higher taxes will lead to weaker growth, more spending, and larger deficits.

And (mis)using the term “tax reform” doesn’t change the fact that higher taxes will lead to weaker growth, more spending, and larger deficits.

Nor does a reference to “flexibility” change the fact that higher taxes will lead to weaker growth, more spending, and larger deficits.

I could continue, but you get the point.

P.S. Let’s close by shifting to another topic. Many people express disbelief when I argue that politicians such as Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders are not socialists.

In my defense, I’m making a technical point about the economic definition of socialism, which means government ownership of the means of production. And the vast majority of American leftists don’t seem overly interested in having government steel companies, government banks, or government farms. They prefer instead to allow private ownership combined with high levels of taxation and regulation.

If you want to see a real socialist, look on the other side of the Atlantic, where the Labour Party appears poised to elect a complete loon as its leader. The U.K.-based Independent reports that Jeremy Corbyn favors “common ownership” of industry.

…the man who has set alight the leadership race says the party needs to reinstate a clear commitment to public ownership of industry in a move which would reverse one of the defining moments in Labour’s history. …Corbyn reveals that he wants to reinstate Clause Four, the hugely symbolic commitment to socialism scrapped under Tony Blair 20 years ago, in its original wording or a similar phrase that weds the Labour Party to public ownership of industry. …The old Clause Four stated that the party was committed to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”

I can’t think of any Democrats who admit to favoring similar language for their party platform.

Though I should acknowledge that we have a government-run rail company in America, a government-run postal service, a government-run retirement system, and a government-run air traffic control system, all of which would be better in the private sector. And I’m sure Obama, Sanders, and many other politicians would be opposed to privatization.

So maybe the most accurate way of describing leftist politicians in America is to say that they’re redistributionists with a side order of socialism.

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A few days ago, I had some fun by writing a tongue-in-cheek column about the world’s most misleading headlines.

Today, I want to share a strong contestant for the world’s most depressing headline.

It’s from The Hill, and it’s the lead to a story about giddy times for Washington’s lobbying community.

So why are lobbyists rolling in cash? What accounts for all the dollars flowing to the influence-peddling community?

The answer, as noted in the article, is that there’s been an end to gridlock.

Nearly all of Washington’s top lobby shops saw gains in revenue in the first half of 2015 as an uptick in activity within both Congress and the Obama administration translated to a boon for K Street. Following a period of relative stagnation in the two-year span preceding the 2014 elections, the Beltway’s biggest lobbying firms have broken through the malaise… “Corporations are a lot more optimistic about whether to invest in Washington,” said Marc Lampkin, a former aide to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)… K Street’s top firm — Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld — continued to bolster its advocacy revenue, earning $10.23 million in the second quarter. …“I think our success during the first half of 2015 reflects the…high degree of activity in Congress,” said Don Pongrace, head of the firm’s public law and policy practice.

In other words, an “uptick in activity” in what gives special interests an incentive to “invest in Washington.”

So the obvious lesson is that if you want to reduce lobbying in Washington, the best option is for Washington to do nothing. My personal preference is to make Congress a part-time legislature. That’s worked out quite well for Texas, so why not try it in the nation’s capital?

But if that option isn’t available, then I’m a big fan of gridlock. Simply stated, if my choices are for politicians to do nothing or to have politicians make government bigger, the answer is obvious.

Which is why I was initially very worried when I saw this headline from another story published by The Hill.

This sounds like my worst nightmare. The last thing we should want is productive politicians!

That’s sort of like having productive pickpockets.

But if you read the story, Governor Bush says he wants a lot of activity as part of an effort to shrink “the federal footprint.”

…the GOP presidential candidate said he’d announce tax and regulatory reform proposals over the “coming months,” as well as changes to entitlement programs and a replacement for ObamaCare. …”The overspending, the overreaching, the arrogance and the sheer incompetence in that city — these problems have been with us so long that they are sometimes accepted as facts of life…” Bush criticized Washington for operating on autopilot, ticking off a slew of pitches meant to push back against what he characterized as a needless expansion of the federal footprint.

And it’s true. Fixing all these problem will require lots of legislation.

So while I’m generally very uneasy with the notion of a “productive” Congress, I also realize that lots of reforms will be needed to restore economic vitality.

Now let’s consider one final headline. This one is from a report in the New York Times, and it also revolves around Jeb Bush and his campaign.

And here’s some of what’s in the article.

Jeb Bush…outlined a wide-ranging plan on Monday to rein in the size of the federal government and curb the influence of lobbyists who live off it. …His proposals, modeled on his record as a budget-cutting governor, amounted to…an assault on the culture of Congress

By and large, this sounds good.

But here’s the catch. You don’t need specific anti-lobbying reforms (such as Bush’s proposed six-year ban on lobbying when Senators and Representatives leave office) if you actually are serious about reducing the size and scope of the federal government.

Reducing the power of Washington is the best way of starving DC’s special-interest community.

Indeed, it’s the only genuinely effective way. I explain in this video that laws to control corruption in Washington don’t work because they don’t address the real problem of politicians having far too much influence over the economy.

I hope you noticed the balloon analogy at the end of the video. If you don’t like Washington’s parasite class, the only way to curtail their privileged existence is with smaller government.

By the way, I don’t want to imply that all lobbying is bad. It all depends on whether lobbyists are engaged in self-defense or extortion. Here’s some of what I wrote last year.

…lobbying is not necessarily bad. If a handful of business owners want to join forces to fight against higher taxes or more regulation, I’m all in favor of that kind of lobbying. They’re fighting to be left alone. But a big chunk of the lobbying in Washington is not about being left alone. It’s about seeking undeserved benefits by using the coercive power of government.

Moreover, I also pointed out two years ago that we need to respect what the Founding Fathers envisioned.

…the First Amendment protects our rights to petition the government and to engage in political speech.

So at the risk of repeating myself, I urge people to fix the real problem of big government and not get overly distracted by the symptom of favor-swapping and corruption in Washington.

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Two years ago, there was a flurry of excitement because some guy named Rex Nutting crunched annual budget numbers and concluded that Barack Obama was the most fiscally conservative President since at least 1980.

I looked at the data and found a few mistakes, such as a failure to adjust the numbers for inflation, but Nutting’s overall premise was reasonably accurate.

As you can see from the tables I prepared back in 2012, Obama was the third most frugal President based on the growth of total inflation-adjusted spending.

And he was in first place if you looked at primary spending, which is total spending after removing net interest payments (a reasonable step since Presidents can’t really be blamed for interest payments on the debt accrued by their predecessors).

So does this mean Obama is a closet conservative, as my old – but misguided – buddy Bruce Bartlett asserted?

Not exactly. A few days after that post, I did some more calculations and explained that Obama was the undeserved beneficiary of the quirky way that bailouts and related items are measured in the budget.

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.

So I removed TARP, deposit insurance, and other bailout-related items, on the assumption that such one-time costs distort the real record of various Administrations.

And that left me with a new set of numbers, based on primary spending minus bailouts. And on this basis, Obama’s record is not exactly praiseworthy.

Instead of being the most frugal President, he suddenly dropped way down in the rankings, beating only Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Which explains why I accused him in 2012 of being a big spender – just like his predecessor.

But the analysis I did two years ago was based on Obama’s record for his first three fiscal years.

So I updated the numbers last year and looked at Obama’s record over his first four years. And it turns out that Obama did much better if you look at the average annual growth of primary spending minus bailouts. Instead of being near the bottom, he was in the middle of the pack.

Did this mean Obama moved to the right?

That’s a judgement call. For what it’s worth, I suspect that Obama’s ideology didn’t change and the better numbers were the result of the Tea Party and sequestration.

But I don’t care who gets credit. I’m just happy that spending didn’t grow as fast.

2014 Spending TotalI’m giving all this background because I’ve finally cranked the most-recent numbers.  And if we look at overall average spending growth for Obama’s first five years and compare that number to average spending growth for other Presidents, he is the most frugal. Adjusted for inflation, the budget hasn’t grown at all. That’s a very admirable outcome.

But what about primary spending? By that measure, we have even better results. 2014 Spending PrimaryThere’s actually been a slight downward trend in the fiscal burden of government during the Obama years.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, to be sure, that Obama deserves credit. Maybe the recent spending restraint in Washington is because of what’s happened in Congress.

I’ve repeatedly argued, for instance, that sequestration was a great victory over the special interests. And Obama vociferously opposed those automatic budget cuts, even to the point of making himself a laughingstock.

But don’t forget that TARP-type expenses can mask important underlying trends. So now let’s look at the numbers that I think are most illuminating. 2014 Spending Primary Minus BailoutsHere’s the data for average inflation-adjusted growth of primary spending minus bailouts.

As you can see, Obama no longer is in first place. But he’s jumped to third place in this category, which is an improvement over prior years and puts him ahead of every Republican other than Reagan. Given that all those other GOPers were statists, that’s not saying much, but it does highlight that party labels don’t necessarily mean much.

My Republican friends are probably getting irritated, so I’ll share one last set of numbers that may make them happy.

I cranked the numbers for average spending growth, but subtracted interest payments, bailouts, and defense outlays. What’s left is domestic spending, and here are the rankings based on those numbers.

2014 Spending Primary - Defense - Bailouts

Reagan easily did the best job of restraining overall domestic discretionary and entitlement outlays. Bill Clinton came in second place, showing that Democrats can preside over reasonably good results. And Richard Nixon came in last place, showing that Republicans can preside over horrible numbers.

Obama, meanwhile, winds up in the middle of the pack. Which is probably very disappointing for the President since he wanted to be a transformational figure who pushed the nation to the left, in the same way that Reagan was a transformational figure who pushed the nation to the right.

Instead, Obama’s only two legacies may turn out to be a failed healthcare plan and a tongue-in-cheek award for being a great recruiter for the cause of libertarianism.

P.S. Historical numbers sometimes change slightly because the government’s data folks massage and re-measure both inflation and spending. Though I confess I’m not sure why the 2013 calculation for Nixon’s primary spending minus bailouts is somewhat different from the 2012 and 2014 numbers. Perhaps I screwed up when copying some of the numbers, which has been known to happen. But since Nixon’s performance isn’t the focus of this post, I’m not going to lose any sleep about the discrepancy.

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