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Archive for the ‘Debt’ Category

The Congressional Budget Office just released its new long-run fiscal forecast.

Most observers immediately looked at the estimates for deficits and debt. Those numbers are important, especially since America has an aging population, but they should be viewed as secondary.

What really matters are the trends for both taxes and spending.

Here are the three things that you need to know.

First, America’s tax burden is increasing. Immediately below are two charts. The first one shows that revenues will consume an addition three percentage points of GDP over the next three decades. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, our long-run problem is not caused by inadequate revenue.

The second of the two charts shows that most of the increase is due to “real bracket creep,” which is what happens when people earn more income and wind up having to pay higher tax rates.

So even if Congress extends the “Cadillac tax” on health premiums and extends all the temporary provisions of the 2017 Tax Act, the aggregate tax burden will increase.

Second, the spending burden is growing even faster than the tax burden.

And if you look closely at the top section of Figure 1-7, you’ll see that the big problems are the entitlements for health care (i.e., Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare).

By the way, the lower section of Figure 1-7 shows that corporate tax revenues are projected to average about 1.3 percent of GDP, which is not that much lower than what CBO projected (about 1.7 percent of GDP) before the rate was reduced by 40 percent.

Interesting.

Third, we have our most important chart.

It shows that the United States is on a very bad trajectory because the burden of government spending is growing faster than the private economy.

In other words, Washington is violating my Golden Rule.

And this leads to all sorts of negative consequences.

  • Government consumes a greater share of the economy over time.
  • Politicians will want to respond by raising taxes.
  • Politicians will allow red ink to increase.

The key thing to understand is that more taxes and more debt are the natural and inevitable symptoms of the underlying disease of too much spending.

We know the solution, and we have real world evidence that it works (especially when part of a nation’s constitution), but don’t hold your breath waiting for Washington to do the right thing.

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The folks at USA Today invited me to opine on fiscal policy, specifically whether the 2017 tax cut was a mistake because of rising levels of red ink.

Here’s some of what I wrote on the topic, including the all-important point that deficits and debt are best understood as symptoms of the real problem of too much spending.

Now that there’s some much needed tax reform to boost American competitiveness, we’re supposed to suddenly believe that red ink is a national crisis. What’s ironic about all this pearl clutching is that the 2017 tax bill actually increases revenue beginning in 2027, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. …This isn’t to say that America’s fiscal house is in good shape, or that President Donald Trump should be immune from criticism. Indeed, the White House should be condemned for repeatedly busting the spending caps as part of bipartisan deals where Republicans get more defense spending, Democrats get more domestic spending and the American people get stuck with the bill. …The real lesson is that red ink is bad, but it’s only the symptom of the real problem of a federal budget that is too big and growing too fast.

I also pointed out that the only good solution for our fiscal problems is some sort of spending cap, similar to the successful systems in Hong Kong and Switzerland.

Heck, even left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF have pointed out that spending caps are the only successful fiscal rule.

Now let’s look at a different perspective. USA Today also opined on the same topic (I was invited to provide a differing view). Here are excerpts from their editorial.

…more than anyone else, Laffer gave intellectual cover to the proposition that politicians can have their cake and eat it, too. …Laffer argued — on a cocktail napkin, according to economic lore, and elsewhere — that tax reductions would pay for themselves. These “supply side” cuts would stimulate growth so much, revenue would rise even as tax rates declined. This is, of course, rubbish. In the wake of the massive 2017 tax cuts, …the budget deficit is projected to run a little shy of $1 trillion… To run such large deficits a decade into a record economy recovery, is a massive problem because they will soar to dangerous heights the next time a recession strikes.

I think the column misrepresents the Laffer Curve, but let’s set that issue aside for another day.

The editorial also goes overboard in describing the 2017 tax cut as “massive.” As I noted in my column, that legislation actually raises revenue starting in 2027.

That being said, the main shortcoming of the USA Today editorial is that it doesn’t acknowledge that America’s long-run fiscal challenge (even for those who fixate on deficits and debt) is entirely driven by excessive spending growth.

Indeed, all you need to know is that nominal GDP is projected to grow by an average of about 4.0 percent annually over the next 30 years while the federal budget is projected to grow 5.2 percent per year.

This violates the Golden Rule of sensible fiscal policy.

And raising taxes almost certainly would make this bad outlook even worse since the economy would be weaker and politicians would jack up spending even further.

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Every year, the Social Security Administration issues a “Trustees Report” that summarizes the program’s financing. So every year (see 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, etc) I cut through all the verbiage and focus the numbers that really matter.

First, here’s the data from Table VI.G9 showing annual spending and annual revenue, and the numbers are adjusted for inflation. Everything to the left of the vertical red line is historical data. Everything to the right is an estimate based on “intermediate” economic and demographic projections.

The bad news is that there’s a never-ending increase in the program’s fiscal burden.

The only good news is that country presumably will be much richer in the future, so we’ll have more income to pay all those taxes and finance all that spending.

That being said, the fiscal burden is projected to increase faster than our income, so the economic burden of Social Security will increase over time.

But there’s also a wild card to consider. Simply stated, we have more data from Table VI.G9 that shows the program has a giant, ever-expanding deficit.

Here are the grim numbers (though not quite as grim as last year when the cumulative shortfall was $43.7 trillion). Once again, everything to the left of the line is historical data and everything to the right is a projection.

The obvious takeaway is that the program is bankrupt.

Indeed, a private pension fund with these numbers would have been shut down a long time ago. And its executives would be in prison for running a Ponzi Scheme.

Politicians won’t put themselves in prison, of course, but they eventually will be forced to address Social Security’s huge shortfall. If nothing else, the so-called Trust Fund (which isn’t a real Trust Fund since it is filled with IOUs) runs out of money in 2035.

The interesting question is what sort of “solution” they choose when the crisis occurs.

Sadly, many politicians are gravitating to a plan to impose ever-higher taxes to prop up the system.

A far better approach is personal retirement accounts. I’ve written favorably about the Australian system, the Chilean system, the Hong Kong system, the Swiss system, the Dutch system, the Swedish system. Heck, I even like the system in the Faroe Islands.

The bottom line is that there’s been a worldwide revolution in favor of private savings and the United States is falling behind.

P.S. If you have some statist friends and family who get confused by numbers, here’s a set of cartoons that shows the need for Social Security reform.

P.P.S. As I explain in this video, reform does not mean reducing benefits for current retirees, or even older workers.

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Iceland is a tiny little country with just 338,000 people (about the population of Santa Ana, CA), but that doesn’t mean it can’t teach us lessons about public policy.

I wrote about the nation’s approach to fisheries in 2016, and explained that the property rights-based system is the best way of protecting fish stocks from over-harvesting.

And in 2013, I wrote about how modest spending restraint was helping to solve fiscal problems created by the financial crisis.

Today, I want to further explore Iceland’s fiscal policy, largely because of this remarkable chart that accompanied a Bloomberg report on the country’s budget strategy.

As you can see, debt skyrocketed during the financial crisis and has since plummeted at a very rapid rate.

This shows debt reduction is possible. Indeed, there can be huge reductions in a very short period of time.

So there may be hope for nations that are in the midst of fiscal crisis (such as Greece), nations that are about to suffer fiscal crisis (Italy is a prime candidate), and nations that will suffer a crisis if there isn’t reform (most developed nations, including the United States).

But what are the specific policy lessons?

Here are some excerpts from the accompanying article, which basically tells us that the government is focused on spending restraint.

Iceland will continue to reduce public debt and sustain a budget surplus even as it lowers taxes in the next five years, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson said. The plan is part of a financial road map… The balancing act between austerity and the proposed fiscal concessions means less room for the government to…step up other spending… “We will need to impose certain measures of restriction,” Benediktsson said. The government may have to seek cost savings of as much as 5 billion kronur ($42 million), he said. …The financial plan projects a decrease in taxes as well as the Treasury’s debt levels and interest burden. It also expects the bank tax to be lowered in four steps.

But the article didn’t tell us why Iceland’s debt fell so quickly.

So I dug into the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database and crunched some numbers. I specifically wanted to find out why debt fell, both before and after the 2008 crisis.

And I focused on three sets of numbers.

  • Annual inflation rate
  • Annual growth of government spending burden
  • Annual increase in nominal gross domestic product

Here are those numbers, both for the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, as well as what happened starting in 2009.

For both the 2001-07 period and 2009-19 period, Iceland followed my Golden Rule. Government spending (the orange bars) grew slower than the economy (the grey bars).

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that debt fell during both eras.

But debt fell much faster starting in 2009 for the simple reason that the gap between spending growth and GDP growth was very significant over the past 10 years. This is the reason for the big reduction in debt.

And this spending restraint also generated some data that’s even more important – the burden of government spending has dropped from more than 48 percent of economic output in 2009 to less than 41 percent of GDP this year.

During the 2001-2007 period, by contrast, Iceland only barely satisfied the Golden Rule. Indeed, one could argue that spending was growing much too fast since the economy was in an unsustainable boom (Ireland was similarly profligate during the same period).

P.S. I recently shared an excellent IMF study showing three examples of big debt reductions in the pre-World War I era.

P.P.S. Unsurprisingly, the OECD has been pushing for higher taxes in Iceland.

P.P.P.S. If you want to read about all of Iceland’s pro-market economic, Prof. Hannes Gissurarson has a must-read article in Econ Journal Watch.

P.P.P.P.S. Voters in Iceland had an opportunity to vote on bank bailouts and 93 percent said no.

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In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, the United States at some point is going to suffer from a debt crisis.

But red ink is merely a symptom. I used numbers from Greece in this interview to underscore the fact that the real problem is government spending.

The discussion was triggered by comments from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Wednesday that reducing the federal debt needs to return to the forefront of the agenda, warning that the government’s finances are unsustainable. “I do think that deficits matter and do think it’s not really controversial to say our debt can’t grow faster than our economy indefinitely — and that’s what it’s doing right now,” Powell said.

As I noted in my comments, Powell is right, but he’s focusing on the wrong variable.

The real crisis is that spending is growing faster than the private sector (Powell needs to learn the six principles to guide spending policy).

To be more specific, politicians are violating my Golden Rule.

Spending grew too fast under Bush. It grew too fast under Obama (except for a few years when the “Tea Party” was in the ascendancy). And it’s growing too fast under Trump.

Most worrisome, the burden of spending is expected to grow faster than the private sector far into the future according to the long-run forecast from the Congressional Budget Office.

That doesn’t mean we’ll have a crisis this year or next year. We probably won’t even have a crisis in the next 10 years or 20 years.

But I cited Greek data in the interview to point out that excessive spending eventually does create a major problem.

Here’s the data from International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database. To make matters simple (I should have done this for the interview as well), I adjusted the numbers for inflation.

So how can America avoid a Greek-style fiscal nightmare?

Simple, just impose a spending cap. At the end of the interview, I added a plug for the very successful system in Switzerland, but I’d also be happy if we copied Hong Kong’s spending cap. Or the Taxpayer Bill of Rights from Colorado.

The bottom line is that spending restraint works and a constitutional spending cap is the best way to achieve permanent fiscal discipline.

P.S. By contrast, proponents of “Modern Monetary Theory” argue governments can finance ever-growing government by printing money. For what it’s worth, nations that have used central banks to finance big government (most recently, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) are not exactly good role models.

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The long-run fiscal outlook for most developed nations is very grim thanks to demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

For all intents and purposes, we’re all destined to become Greece according to long-run projections from the International Monetary Fund, Bank for International Settlements, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Are there any solutions to this “most predictable crisis“?

Politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders would like us to believe the answer involves never-ending tax increases. But such an approach is a recipe for more debt because the economy will weaken and governments will spend more money (look at what’s been happening in Europe, for instance).

A more sensible approach is a spending cap. I’ve pointed out, for instance, how Swiss government debt has plummeted ever since voters imposed annual limits on budgetary growth.

We also can learn lessons from history according to new research from the International Monetary Fund.

The report contains some very interesting economic history and the evolution of government finance, including the Bank of England being created and given a monopoly so the government would have a vehicle for borrowing money (as I observed in my video on central banking).

But it mostly tells the story of how governments and public finance simultaneously evolved.

Although the written record points to instances of public borrowing as long as two thousand years ago, recent scholarship points to 1000-1400 A.D. as when borrowing agreements with states were concluded with regularity and debt contracts entered into by sovereigns were standardized. …The supply of loans from city-states and territorial monarchies was driven by the need to finance military campaigns and secure borders. …From the 16th century, Europe’s political geography coalesced into the nation states recognized at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In parallel, many European states evolved from absolutist regimes to more limited government. …Fiscal states thus evolved in response to the efforts of rulers to secure borders, expand territory and survive. After 1650, larger, more centralized states increasingly possessed the fiscal machinery to raise revenue in uniform ways and had a veto player, such as a parliament, to monitor and discipline public expenditure.

There’s also lots of information in the report about how some governments, primarily outside of Europe, began to borrow money.

In many cases, this produced bad results, with defaults and economic crisis. As the authors wrote, “Debasement and restructuring also have a long history.”

But the part of the report that caught my eye was the description of how three advanced nations – the United Kingdom, the United States, and France – successfully dealt with large debt burdens before World War I.

…we describe three notable debt consolidation episodes before World War I: Great Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, the United States in the last third of the 19th century, and France in the decades leading up to 1913. While the colorful debt crises and defaults of the first era of globalization have been much discussed, less attention has been paid to these successful consolidation episodes. We focus on these three cases because they involved three of the largest economies of the period, but also because their debt burdens were among the heaviest. British public debt as a share of GDP was higher in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, for example, than Greek public debt in 2018. But in all three cases, high public debts were successfully reduced relative to GDP.

In each case, war-time spending was the cause of the debt buildup.

The Napoleonic Wars, Franco-Prussian War and U.S. Civil War were the three most expensive conflicts of the 19th century. …debt accounted for the single largest share of wartime financing.

Here’s a table showing that these nations dramatically reduced their debt burdens.

To be sure, there were differences in the three nations.

The reduction in the British debt-GDP ratio was by far the largest and longest: the debt ratio fell from 194 percent in 1822 to 28 percent nine decades later. …The French public-debt-GDP ratio fell from 96 percent in 1896 to 51 percent in 1913… This case ranks second in size but first in pace. U.S. (federal or union) government debt was not as high at the end of the Civil War, and the subsequent consolidation was more leisurely; however, the process is notable for having reduced the debt-GDP ratio to virtually zero by World War I.

When the authors investigated how these nations reduced their debt burdens, they found that limited government was a common answer.

This was true in the United Kingdom.

Britain achieved the impressive feat of maintaining an average primary surplus of 1.6 percent of GDP for nearly a century (the only deficit in Figure 2 is at the time of the Boer War). One of the political legacies of Peel and Gladstone was a fiscal theory or philosophy of “sound finance” emphasizing budget surpluses, low taxes and minimal government expenditure. …demands for spending on welfare relief from the disenfranchised masses were kept in check. In exchange, the self-taxing class of income-tax-paying electors relieved the non-electors from the burden of direct taxation… Budget surpluses then made feasible further reductions in tariffs and taxes, which reduced the cost of living for the working class

It was true in the United States.

In the U.S., primary surpluses were consistently achieved… Southern states opposed an expansive role for the federal government, while entitlements limited to Civil War pensions contained pressure for public spending.

And it was true even in France.

In France, debt reduction was entirely accounted for by primary surpluses. Those surpluses exceeded British levels, reaching 2.5 percent of GDP on average, albeit over a shorter period.

Remember, this was a period when total government spending only consumed about 10 percent of economic output.

And this was a period when there was no welfare state. Redistribution was virtually nonexistent. Not even in France.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that debt quickly fell in all three countries.

The common thread was small government.

…in all three of these large-scale debt consolidations, governments and societies went to great lengths to service and repay heavy debts. …it reflected prevailing conceptions of the limited functions of government, and limited popular pressure for public programs, entitlements and transfers.

What’s equally important is to note what didn’t happen.

No default. No inflation. No indirect confiscation.

…there was no restructuring or renegotiation of official or privately-held debts in these cases. Nor was there financial repression, i.e., measures artificially depressing interest rates. …Governments for their part did little to bottle up savings at home or to otherwise use regulation and legislation to artificially depress yields. …None of these three governments undertook involuntary restructurings despite the inheritance of heavy debt.

Now let’s shift from the past to the future

The authors point out how debt is rising today because of the welfare state rather than war.

The end of the last century also saw, for the first time, a secular increase in public-debt-to-GDP ratios in a variety of countries in conjunction not with wars and crises but in response to popular demands on governments for pensions, health care, and other often unfunded social services.

Given the demographic changes I mentioned at the beginning of the column, this does not bode well.

So what are the likely implications? As the authors note, there are two ways of dealing with high debt levels.

Countries have pursued two broad approaches to debt reduction. The orthodox approach relies on growth, primary surpluses, and the privatization of government assets. In turn this encourages long debt duration and non-resident holdings. Heterodox approaches, in contrast, include restructuring debt contracts, generating inflation, taxing wealth and repressing private finance.

At the risk of understatement, I fear Robert Higgs is right and that today’s politicians (and today’s voters!) will choose the latter approach.

Given that those policies will make a bad situation even worse, I’m not overflowing with confidence about the future.

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Back in January, I wrote about the $42 trillion price tag of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.

To pay for this massive expansion in the burden of government spending, some advocates have embraced “Modern Monetary Theory,” which basically assumes the Federal Reserve can finance new boondoggles by printing money.

I debated this issue yesterday on CNBC. Here’s a clip from that interview.

Wow, this Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) reminds me of the old joke about “I can’t be out of money. I still have checks in my checkbook.”

I don’t know how far Ms. Kelton would go with this approach. I know from previous encounters that she’s a genuine Keynesian and thus willing to borrow lots of money to finance a larger public sector. But her answer at 2:45 of the interview also suggests she’s okay with using the Federal Reserve to finance bigger government.

In either case, our debate is really about the size of government.

And anybody who wants a bigger burden of government is at least semi-obliged to say how it would be financed. The MMT crowd stands out because they basically say the Federal Reserve can print money.

To help understand the various options, I’ve created a helpful flowchart.

It’s possible, of course, for my statist friends to say “all of the above,” so these are not mutually exclusive categories.

Though the MMT people who select “Print money!” are probably the craziest.

And I hope that they are not successful. After all, nations that have used the printing press to finance big government (most recently, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) are not exactly good role models.

I noted in the interview that MMT is so radical that it is opposed by conventional economists on the right and left.

For instance, Michael Strain of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute opines that the theory is preposterous and nonsensical.

…modern monetary theory…freshman Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke favorably about it earlier this month. …MMT is…sometimes a theory of money. MMT is also being discussed in the context of a political program to justify huge increases in social spending. Finally, there is its role as a prescription for macroeconomic policy. …The bedrock observation of MMT is correct: Any government that issues its own currency can always pay its bills. …this is about all that can be said favorably regarding modern monetary theory. …it is in its ideas about macroeconomic policy that MMT fully earns its place on the fringe. …what does MMT have to say about inflation when it does materialize? …it falls to the institution with authority over tax and budget policy — the U.S. Congress — to make sure prices are stable by raising taxes… MMT seems to call for tax increases in order to restrain inflation. …Modern monetary theory…if enacted it could cause great harm to the U.S. economy.

From the left side of the spectrum, here’s some of what Joseph Minarik wrote on the topic.

MMT rests on simplistic observations that have just enough truth to take in those who need to believe. Believers in MMT see crying societal needs… By common reckoning, government lacks the resources to address all of those needs immediately. MMT solves that problem with a simple and (literally) true observation: The federal government can just print the money. …And that is what willing policymakers choose to hear: Anything. Without limit. It is so convenient —  “too good to check.” …to MMT adherents, the Federal Reserve and all other inflation “Chicken Littles” are and forever have been totally wrong. There has not been rapid inflation for 20 years or so. Therefore, there never will be inflation again. …Yes, inflation is low. But it always is before it rises. And once inflation begins, slowing it is hard and painful. MMT is the perfect theory for the video game generation, which never saw the 1960s economic miscalculations so much like what MMT advocates today, and apparently believes that such mistakes can be reversed painlessly by just hitting the reset button. …the consequences could be catastrophic.

Catastrophic indeed.

Letting the inflation genie out of the bottle is not a good idea. And the policies of the MMT crowd presumably would lead to something far worse than what America experienced in the 1970s.

Rescuing the economy from that inflation was painful, so it’s not pleasant to imagine what would be needed to salvage the country if the MMT people ever got their hands on the levers of power.

Let’s wrap this up. Earlier this week, I presented a guide to fiscal policy based on six core principles.

If Modern Monetary Theory gains more traction, I may have to add a postscript.

P.S. If ever imposed, I suspect MMT would be very good news for people with a lot of gold and/or a lot of Bitcoin.

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