Archive for the ‘Deficit’ Category

I have a very mixed view of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is an organization representing self-styled deficit hawks in Washington.

They do careful work and I always feel confident about citing their numbers.

Yet I frequently get frustrated because they seem to think that tax increases have to be part of any budget deal, regardless of the evidence that such an approach will backfire.

So when CRFB published a “Fiscal FactChecker” to debunk 16 supposed budget myths that they expect during this campaign season, I knew I’d find lots of stuff I would like…and lots of stuff I wouldn’t like.

Let’s look at what they said were myths, along with my two cents on CRFB’s analysis.

Myth #1: We Can Continue Borrowing without Consequences

Reality check: CRFB’s view is largely correct. If we leave policy on autopilot, demographic changes and poorly structured entitlement programs  will lead to an ever-rising burden of government spending, which almost surely will mean ever-rising levels of government debt (as well as ever-rising tax burdens). At some point, this will lead to serious consequences, presumably bad monetary policy (i.e., printing money to finance the budget) and/or Greek-style crisis (investors no longer buying bonds because they don’t trust the government will pay them back).

The only reason I don’t fully agree with CRFB is that we could permanently borrow without consequence if the debt grew 1 percent per year while the economy grew 3 percent per year. Unfortunately, given the “new normal” of weak growth, that’s not a realistic scenario.

Myth #2: With Deficits Falling, Our Debt Problems are Behind Us

Reality check: The folks at CRFB are right. Annual deficits have dropped to about $500 billion after peaking above $1 trillion during Obama’s first term, but that’s just the calm before the storm. As already noted, demographics and entitlements are a baked-into-the-cake recipe for a bigger burden of government and more red ink.

That being said, I think that CRFB’s focus is misplaced. They fixate on debt, which is the symptom, when they should be more concerned with reducing excessive government, which is the underlying disease.

Myth #3: There is No Harm in Waiting to Solve Our Debt Problems

Reality check: We have a spending problem. Deficits and debt are merely symptoms of that problem. But other than this chronic mistake, CRFB is right that it is far better to address our fiscal challenges sooner rather than later.

CRFB offers some good analysis of why it’s easier to solve the problem by acting quickly, but this isn’t just about math. Welfare State Wagon CartoonsIt’s also important to impose some sort of spending restraint before a majority of the voting-age population has been lured into some form of government dependency. Once you get to the point when more people are riding in the wagon than pulling the wagon (think Greece), reform becomes almost impossible.

Myth #4: Deficit Reduction is Code for Austerity, Which Will Harm the Economy

Reality check: The folks at CRFB list this as a myth, but they actually agree with the assertion, stating that deficit reduction policies “have damaged economic performance and increased unemployment.” They even seem sympathetic to “modest increases to near-term deficits by replacing short-term ‘sequester’ cuts”, which would gut this century’s biggest victory for good fiscal policy!

There are two reasons for CRFB’s confusion. First, they seem to accept the Keynesian argument about bigger government and red ink boosting growth, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary. Second, they fail to distinguish between good austerity and bad austerity. If austerity means higher taxes, as has been the case so often in Europe, then it is unambiguously bad for growth. But if it means spending restraint (or even actual spending cuts), then it is clearly good for growth. There may be some short-term disruption since resources don’t instantaneously get reallocated, but the long-term benefits are enormous because labor and capital are used more productively in the private economy.

Myth #5: Tax Cuts Pay For Themselves

Reality check: I agree with the folks at CRFB. As a general rule, tax cuts will reduce government revenue, even after measuring possible pro-growth effects that lead to higher levels of taxable income.

But it’s also important to recognize that not all tax cuts are created equal. Some tax cuts have very large “supply-side” effects, particularly once the economy has a chance to adjust in response to better policy. So a lower capital gains tax or a repeal of the death tax, to cite a couple of examples, might increase revenue in the long run. And we definitely saw a huge response when Reagan lowered top tax rates in the 1980s. But other tax cuts, such as expanded child credits, presumably generate almost no pro-growth effects because there’s no change in the relative price of productive behavior.

Myth #6: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Taxing the Top 1%

Reality check: The CRFB report correctly points out that confiscatory tax rates on upper-income taxpayers would backfire for the simple reason that rich people would simply choose to earn and report less income. And they didn’t even include the indirect economic damage (and reductions in taxable income) caused by less saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Ironically, the CRFB folks seem to recognize that tax rates beyond a certain level would result in less revenue for government. Which implies, of course, that it is possible (notwithstanding what they said in Myth #5) for some tax cuts to pay for themselves.

Myth #7: We Can Lower Tax Rates by Closing a Few Egregious Loopholes

Reality check: It depends on the definition of “egregious.” In the CRFB report, they equate “egregious” with “unpopular” in order to justify their argument.

But if we define “egregious” to mean “economically foolish and misguided,” then there are lots of preferences in the tax code that could – and should – be abolished in order to finance much lower tax rates. Including the healthcare exclusion, the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable giving deduction, and (especially) the deduction for state and local taxes.

Myth #8: Any Tax Increases Will Cripple Economic Growth

Reality check: The CRFB folks are right. A small tax increase obviously won’t “cripple” economic growth. Indeed, it’s even possible that a tax increase might lead to more growth if it was combined with pro-growth policies in other areas. Heck, that’s exactly what happened during the Clinton years. But now let’s inject some reality into the conversation. Any non-trivial tax increase on productive behavior will have some negative impact on economic performance and competitiveness. The evidence is overwhelming that higher tax rates hurt growth and the evidence is also overwhelming that more double taxation will harm the economy.

The CRFB report suggests that the harm of tax hikes could be offset by the supposed pro-growth impact of a lower budget deficit, but the evidence for that proposition if very shaky. Moreover, there’s a substantial amount of real-world data showing that tax increases worsen fiscal balance. Simply stated, tax hikes don’t augment spending restraint, they undermine spending restraint. Which may be why the only “bipartisan” budget deal that actually led to a balanced budget was the one that lowered taxes instead of raising them.

Myth #9: Medicare and Social Security Are Earned Benefits and Should Not Be Touched

Reality check: CRFB is completely correct on this one. The theory of age-related “social insurance” programs such as Medicare and Social Security is that people pay into the programs while young and then get benefits when they are old. This is why they are called “earned benefits.”

The problem is that politicians don’t like asking people to pay and they do like giving people benefits, so the programs are poorly designed. The average Medicare recipient, for instance, costs taxpayers $3 for every $1 that recipient paid into the program. Social Security isn’t that lopsided, but the program desperately needs reform because of demographic change. But the reforms shouldn’t be driven solely by budget considerations, which could lead to trapping people in poorly designed entitlement schemes. We need genuine structural reform.

Myth #10: Repealing “Obamacare” Will Fix the Debt

Reality check: Obamacare is a very costly piece of legislation that increased the burden of government spending and made the tax system more onerous. Repealing the law would dramatically improve fiscal policy.

But CRFB, because of the aforementioned misplaced fixation on red ink, doesn’t have a big problem with Obamacare because the increase in taxes and the increase in spending are roughly equivalent. So the organization is technically correct that repealing the law won’t “fix the debt.” But it would help address America’s real fiscal problem, which is a bloated and costly public sector.

Myth #11: The Health Care Cost Problem is Solved

Reality check: CRFB’s analysis is correct, though it would have been nice to see some discussion of how third-party payer is the problem.

Myth #12: Social Security’s Shortfall Can be Closed Simply by Raising Taxes on or Means-Testing Benefits for the Wealthy

Reality check: To their credit, CRFB is basically arguing against President Obama’s scheme to impose Social Security payroll taxes on all labor income, which would turn the program from a social-insurance system into a pure income-redistribution scheme.

On paper, such a system actually could eliminate the vast majority of Social Security’s giant unfunded liability. In reality, this would mean a huge increase in marginal tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners, which would have a serious adverse economic impact.

Myth #13: We Can Solve Our Debt Situation by Cutting Waste, Fraud, Abuse, Earmarks, and/or Foreign Aid

Reality check: Earmarks (which have been substantially curtailed already) and foreign aid are a relatively small share of the budget, so CRFB is right that getting rid of that spending won’t have a big impact. But what about the larger question. Could our fiscal mess (which is a spending problem, not a “debt situation”) be fixed by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse?

It depends on how one defines “waste, fraud, and abuse.” If one uses a very narrow definition, such as technical malfeasance, then waste, fraud, and abuse might “only” amount to a couple of hundred billions dollars per year. But from an economic perspective (i.e., grossly inefficient misallocation of resources), then entire federal departments such as HUD, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, etc, should be classified as waste, fraud, and abuse.

Myth #14: We Can Grow Our Way Out of Debt

Reality check: CRFB is correct that faster growth won’t solve all of our fiscal problems. Unless one makes an untenable assumption that economic growth will be faster than the projected growth of entitlement spending. And even that kind of heroic assumption would be untenable since faster growth generally obligates the government to pay higher benefits in the future.

Myth #15: A Balanced Budget Amendment is All We Need to Fix the Debt

Reality check: CRFB accurately explains that a BBA is simply an obstacle to additional debt. Politicians still would be obliged to change laws to fulfill that requirement. But that analysis misses the point. A BBA focuses on red ink, whereas the real problem is that government is too big and growing too fast. State balanced-budget requirement haven’t stopped states like California and Illinois from serious fiscal imbalances and eroding competitiveness. The so-called Maastricht anti-deficit and anti-debt rules in the European Union haven’t stopped nations such as France and Greece from fiscal chaos.

This is why the real solution is to have some sort of enforceable cap on government spending. That approach has worked well in jurisdictions such as Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado. And even research from the IMF (a bureaucracy that shares CRFB’s misplaced fixation on debt) has concluded that expenditure limits are the only effective fiscal rules.

Myth #16: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Cutting Welfare Spending

Reality check: The federal government is spending about $1 trillion this year on means-tested (i.e., anti-poverty) programs, which is about one-fourth of total outlays, so getting Washington out of the business of income redistribution would substantially lower the burden of federal spending (somewhat offset, to be sure, by increases in state and local spending). And for those who fixate on red ink, that would turn today’s $500 billion deficit into a $500 billion surplus.

That being said, there would still be a big long-run problem caused by other federal programs, most notably Social Security and Medicare. So CRFB is correct in that dealing with welfare-related spending doesn’t fully solve the long-run problem, regardless of whether you focus on the problem of spending or the symptom of borrowing.

This has been a lengthy post, so let’s have a very simple summary.

We know that modest spending restraint can quickly balance the budget.

We also know lots of nations that have made rapid progress with modest amounts of spending restraint.

And we know that the tax-hike option simply leads to more spending.

So the only question to answer is why the CRFB crowd can’t put two and two together and get four?

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I wrote last month that the debt burden in Greece doesn’t preclude economic recovery. After all, both the United States and (especially) the United Kingdom had enormous debt burdens after World War II, yet those record levels of red ink didn’t prevent growth.

Climbing out of the debt hole didn’t require anything miraculous. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom had great economic policy during the post-war decades. They didn’t even comply with Mitchell’s Golden Rule on spending.

But both nations managed to at least shrink the relative burden of debt by having the private sector grow faster than red ink. And the recipe for that is very simple.

…all that’s needed is a semi-sincere effort to avoid big deficits, combined with a semi-decent amount of economic growth. Which is an apt description of…policy between WWII and the 1970s.

Greece could achieve that goal, particularly if politicians would allow faster growth. The government could reduce red tape, which would be a good start since the nation ranks a miserable #114 for regulation in Economic Freedom of the World.

But Greece also should try to reverse some of the economy-stifling tax increases that have been imposed in recent years.

That may seem a challenge considering the level of red ink, but good tax policy would be possible if the Greek government was more aggressive about reducing the burden of government spending.

And if that’s the goal, then the Baltic nations are a good role model, as explained by Anders Aslund in the Berlin Policy Journal. With Latvia being the star pupil.

…austerity policies have not been attempted most aggressively in Greece: all three Baltic countries pursued more aggressive fiscal adjustments, especially Latvia. The Latvian government faced the global financial crisis head-on. …The Latvian government carried out a fiscal adjustment of 8.8 percent of GDP in 2009 and 5.9 percent of GDP in 2010, amounting to a fiscal adjustment of 14.7 percent of GDP over the course of two years, totaling 17.5 percent of GDP over four years, according to IMF calculations. Greece did the opposite. According to the IMF, its fiscal adjustment in the initial crisis year of 2010 was a paltry 2.5 percent of GDP, and in 2011 only 4.1 percent, a total of only 6.6 percent of GDP over two years. Greece’s total fiscal adjustment over four years was only 11.1 percent of GDP.

In other words, Latvia (like the other Baltic nations) did more reform and did it faster.

And it’s also worth noting that the reforms were generally the right kind of austerity, meaning that expenditure commitments were reduced.

Whereas Greece has implemented some expenditure reforms, but has relied far more on tax increases.

Better policy, not surprisingly, meant better results.

In 2008-10 Latvia suffered an output decline of 24 percent, as much as Greece did in the six-year span from 2009-14. However, thanks to its front-loaded fiscal adjustment, Latvia was able to restore its public finances after two years. The country has shown solid economic growth, averaging 4.3 percent per year from 2011-14, according to Eurostat. …The consequences of tepid Greek fiscal stabilization have been a devastating six years of declining output, even as the Latvian economy has revived. In 2013 Latvia’s GDP at constant prices was 4 percent lower than in 2008, while Greece’s was 23 percent less than in 2008, according to the IMF. A cumulative difference in GDP development of 19 percentage points over six years cannot be a statistical blip – it is real.

The bottom line is that Latvia and the other Baltics were willing to endure more short-term pain in order to achieve a quicker economic rebound.

That was a wise choice, particularly since the alternative, as we see in Greece, is seemingly permanent stagnation.

Anders Paalzow of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga also suggests, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, that Latvia is a good role model.

Professor Paalzow starts by explaining that Latvia is now enjoying good growth after enduring a dramatic boom-bust cycle last decade.

In 2008, Europe’s most overheated economy, which had been fuelled by cheap credit and rapidly raising wages and real estate prices, collapsed. GDP dropped by 20 percent and unemployment rose to more than 20 percent. But here’s where things take an unexpected turn. By late 2010, the first glimmers of recovery became apparent. Today, the economy is among Europe’s fastest growing, and its GDP is back at pre-crisis levels. So how did Latvia, the hero of this story, do it?

The first thing to understand is that Latvia was determined to join the eurozone, so that meant it wasn’t going to devalue its currency in hopes of inflating away its problems. Which meant the only other choice was “internal devaluation.”

…the Latvian government’s only real option was fiscal policy adjustment, the details of which it unveiled in its supplementary budget for 2009 and its budget for 2010. Both of these saw substantial reductions in social benefits accompanied by long overdue cuts in public employment with close to 30 percent of civil servants laid off. Those who remained in the public sector saw their salaries cut by 25 percent, on average, whereas salaries in the private sector fell by on average ten percent. …the reductions made during the crisis years amounted to approximately 11 percent of GDP. Most of the fiscal consolidation was done on the expenditure side of the public budget… The fiscal consolidation program continued into 2011 and the years following, even though the economy started to grow again.

Not only did the economy grow, but the government was rewarded for making tough choices.

…in 2010, the government responsible for austerity was reelected.

But here’s the challenge. Professor Paalzow warns that fiscal reforms won’t mean much unless the chronic dysfunction of the Greek government is somehow addressed.

The importance of the institutional framework cannot be overestimated. …it seems like a fool’s errand to try to sell off the public assets of a country riddled with high corruption… Furthermore, with a legal system incapable of enforcing current legislation and characterized by slow judicial processes, inefficient courts, and weak investor protection, legal reform will be a necessary condition for an economic turnaround.

So he suggests that Latvian-type fiscal reforms should be accompanied by Nordic-style institutional reforms.

Greece should look further north to Finland and Sweden, which overcame their own crises in the early 1990s. …The three to four years following the initial economic disaster saw remarkable institutional reform…substantial changes in both welfare systems. …both countries pursued austerity…, a remedy that both nations had frequently tried in the 1970s and 1980s without any success. What made the difference this time was that the institutional, and hence the fundamental roots, of the problems were addressed.

While I like his prescription, I suspect Paalzow is being too optimistic.

You can’t turn the Greeks into Finns or Swedes, at least not without some sort of massive jolt.

Which is why my preferred policy is to end bailouts, even if it means that Greece repudiates its existing debt. If the Greeks no longer got any handouts, that necessarily would mean an immediate end to deficit spending (assuming the government doesn’t ditch the euro in order to finance spending by printing drachmas).

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsAnd that might be a very sobering experience that would teach the Greek people about the dangers of having too many people trying to ride in the wagon of government dependency.

That might not turn the Greeks into Nordics, but it presumably would help them understand that you can’t (at least in the long run) consume more than you produce.

That’s also a lesson that some American politicians need to learn!

P.S. I wonder if Paul Krugman will attack Latvia’s good reforms. When he went after Estonia for adopting similar policies, he wound up with egg on his face.

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The conventional wisdom, pushed by the IMF and others, is that Greece’s economy will never recover unless there is substantial debt relief.

Translated into English, that means the Greek government should be allowed to break the contracts it made with the people and institutions that lent money to Greece. That may mean a “haircut,” which would mean lenders (often called creditors) only get back some of what they’ve been promised, or a “default,” which would mean they get none of the money they were promised.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Greece has a full or partial default. And that actually might not be a bad result if it meant an end to bailouts and Greece was immediately forced to balance its budget.

But let’s set that issue aside and look at the specific issue of whether Greece’s debt is unsustainable. Here’s a look at Greek government debt, measured as a share of economic output.

As you can see, when the crisis started in Greece, government debt was about 100 percent of GDP.

Was Greece doomed at that point?

Well, if the situation was hopeless, then someone needs to explain why the United States didn’t collapse after World War II.

As you can see from this chart, debt climbed to more than 100 percent of economic output because of the heavy expense of defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Yet the American economy rebounded after the war (notwithstanding dire predictions from Keynesians) and the debt burden shrank.

So maybe the more interesting issue is to look at how America reduced its debt burden after 1945, which may give us some insights into what should happen (or should have happened) in Greece.

Here’s one question to consider: Did the burden of the federal debt drop between the end of World War II and the 1970s because of big budget surpluses?

Nope. If you look at Table 7.1 of OMB’s Historical Tables, you’ll see that there was a steady increase in the amount of government debt in America after 1945. Yes, there were a few years with budget surpluses, but those surpluses were more than offset by years with budget deficits.

The reason that the national debt shrank as a share of economic output was completely the result of the economy growing faster than the debt.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine you graduate from college and you have $20,000 of credit card debt. That might be a very big burden relative to your income.

But in your 50s and (hopefully) earning a lot more money, you might have $40,000 of credit card debt, yet be in a much stronger financial position.

So the real issue for Greece (and Spain, and Japan, and the United States, etc) is not so much whether the amount of debt shrinks. It’s whether debt is constrained compared to private-sector growth.

That doesn’t require any sort of miracle. Yes, it would be nice if Greece and other nations decided to become like Hong Kong and Singapore, high-growth economies thanks to small government and non-interventionism.

But all that’s needed is a semi-sincere effort to avoid big deficits, combined with a semi-decent amount of economic growth. Which is an apt description of U.S. policy between WWII and the 1970s.

Is it unreasonable to ask Greece to follow that model?

Some may say Greece is now in a different situation because debt levels have climbed too high. Debt in the United States peaked a bit above 100 percent of GDP at the end of World War II, whereas government debt in Greece is now closer to 200 percent of GDP.

It’s certainly true that today’s debt burden in Greece is higher than America’s post-WWII debt burden. So let’s look at another example.

Government debt in the United Kingdom jumped to almost 250 percent of economic output by the end of the World War II.

Did that cause the U.K. economy to collapse? Did Britain have to default?

The answer to both questions is no.

The United Kingdom simply did what America did. It combined a semi-sincere effort to avoid big deficits with a semi-decent amount of economic growth.

And the result, as you can see from the above graph, is that debt fell sharply as a share of GDP.

In other words, Greece can fulfill its promises and pay its bills. And the recipe isn’t that difficult. Simply impose a modest bit of spending restraint and enact a modest amount of pro-growth reforms.

Unfortunately, prior bailouts have given Greece an excuse to avoid reforms. Though the IMF, ECB and European Commission (the so-called troika) have learned somewhat from those mistakes and are now making greater demands of the Greek government as a condition of another bailout.

The problem is the troika doesn’t seem to understand what’s really needed in Greece. They’re pushing for lots of tax increases, which will make it hard for Greece’s private sector to generate growth. The only good news (or, to be more accurate, less bad news) is that the troika doesn’t want as many tax hikes as the Greek government would like.

In other words, don’t be too optimistic about the long-run outcome. Which is basically what I said in this interview on Canadian TV.

The bottom line is that a rescue of the Greek economy is possible. But so long as nobody with any power wants to make the right kind of reforms, don’t hold your breath waiting for good results.

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There’s an old saying that states are the laboratories of democracy. But since I’m a policy wonk, I focus more on the lessons we can learn from the states about public policy.

Such as the importance of limiting the destructive nature of taxes.

Such as the economic benefits of not having an income tax.

Such as the horrible consequences of adopting an income tax.

Such as the negative effects of excessive compensation of bureaucrats.

Such as better job creation in states with less government.

But it’s always good to have more data and evidence.

So I was very interested to see that the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has a new report that ranks states based on their fiscal solvency.

Here are some of the details.

Budgetary balance is only one aspect of a state’s fiscal health, indicating that revenues are sufficient to cover a desired level of spending. But a balanced budget by itself does not mean the state is in a strong fiscal position. State spending may be large relative to the economy and thus be a drain on resources. …How can states establish healthier fiscal foundations? And how can states guard against economic shocks or identify long-term fiscal risks? Before taking policy or budgetary action, it is important to identify where states may have fiscal weaknesses. One approach to help states evaluate their ongoing fiscal performance is to use basic financial indicators that measure short- and long-run fiscal position.

Here are some of the findings.

The five dimensions (or indexes) of solvency in this study—cash, budget, long-run, service-level, and trust fund—are…combined into one overall ranking of state fiscal condition. …States with large long-term debts, large unfunded pension liabilities, and structural budgetary imbalances continue to hover near the bottom of the rankings. These states are Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. Just as they did last year, states that depend on natural resources for revenues and that have low levels of debt and spending place at the top of the rankings. The top five states are Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Florida.

And here’s a map so you can see the rankings of each state. Dark green is good and yellow is bad.

I’m shocked and amazed to see California, Illinois, and New York near the bottom of the list.

Here’s the same information, but in a table so you can see the specific scores for each state.

So what should we learn from these rankings?

According to an editorial from Investor’s Business Daily, there are some very obvious lessons.

What do the most fiscally sound states have in common? Good weather? Oil? Blind luck? Or is it conservative policies such as keeping taxes low, regulations reasonable and spending under control? …There’s only one factor these fiscal winners and losers share in common. And that’s their political leanings. …if you look at the 25 best-performing states, only three could be considered reliably liberal. …There’s only one factor these fiscal winners and losers share in common. And that’s their political leanings. Of the top 10 states in the Mercatus ranking, just two — Florida and Ohio — voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in the past four elections, and just one — Montana — has a Democratic governor. Even if you look at the 25 best-performing states, only three could be considered reliably liberal.

Now let’s shift from policy lessons to political implications. There are several governors and former governors running for President.

Based on the Mercatus ranking, can we draw any conclusions about whether these candidates are in favor of taxpayers? Or do they support big government instead?

We’ll start with the current governors.

Kasich – Ohio ranks surprisingly high on the list, particularly given the Ohio governor’s expansion of Obamacare in the state. Maybe the state’s #7 ranking is due to fiscal restraint by his predecessors.

Christie – New Jersey ranks low on the list, and this isn’t a surprise. The relevant question is whether Christie can argue, based on some of the fights he’s had, that the state legislature is an insurmountable impediment to pro-growth reforms.

Jindal – The governor of Louisiana has proposed some big reforms, but the state’s #35 ranking doesn’t give him any bragging rights on fiscal policy (though the state is leading the way on education reform).

Walker – Thanks to his high-profile fight with unionized bureaucrats, Walker has a very strong reputation. But his state doesn’t rank very high, and he can’t blame the legislature because it’s GOP-controlled as well. But perhaps the low ranking is a legacy of the state’s historically left-wing orientation.

What about former governors?

Well, there’s probably not much we can say because we don’t have long-run data. There was a similar Mercatus study last year, but that obviously doesn’t help with the analysis of governors that left office years ago.

Nonetheless, here are a few observations.

Bush – I’m very suspicious of politicians who express an openness to tax hikes, and Bush is in that group. But he did govern Florida for a couple of terms and never flirted with imposing an income tax. And former governors, particularly from recent history, presumably can take some credit for Florida’s relatively high ranking.

Pataki – Since New York is one of the worst states, Pataki has guilt by implication. But he did lower a few taxes during his tenure, and you also have the same issue that exists with Christie, which is whether a governor should be blamed when the state legislature is hostile to good policy.

Perry – It’s hard to argue with the success Texas has enjoyed in recent years, and Perry (like Bush) never even hinted at the imposition of a state income tax. Though the #19 ranking shows that there are issues that should have been addressed during Perry’s several terms in office.

Huckabee – There aren’t many conclusions to draw about Arkansas and Huckabee. He’s been out of office for a while and the state is in the middle of the pack.

The bottom line is that the Mercatus study is very helpful in identifying well-governed (and not-so-well-governed) states, but the newness of the project means we can’t make any sweeping statements about governors because of limited data.

Fortunately, the Cato Institute for years has been publishing a Report Card that grades governors based on fiscal policy. So fans (or opponents) of different candidates can peruse past issues to see the degree to which governors pushed policy in the right or wrong direction.

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I’m a long-time advocate of “dynamic scoring,” which means I want the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation to inform policy makers about how fiscal policy changes can impact overall economic performance and therefore generate “feedback” effects.

I also think the traditional approach, known as “static scoring,” creates a bias for bigger government because it falsely implies that ever-higher tax rates and an ever-growing burden of government spending don’t have any adverse impact on prosperity.

There’s a famous example to show the lunacy of static scoring. Back in late 1980s, former Oregon Senator Bob Packwood asked the Joint Committee on Taxation to estimate the revenue impact of a 100 percent tax rate on income over $200,000.

When considering such a proposal, any normal person with even the tiniest amount of common sense is going to realize that successful people quickly will figure out it makes no sense to either earn or report income about that level. As such, the government won’t collect any additional revenue.

Heck, it’s not just that the government won’t collect additional revenue. Our normal person with a bit of common sense is going to take the analysis one step further and conclude that revenues will plunge, both because the government will lose the money it collected with the old income tax rates on income above $200,000 (i.e., the income that will disappear) and also because there will be all sorts of additional economic damage because of foregone work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

But the JCT apparently didn’t have any bureaucrats with a shred of common sense. Because, as shown in Part II of my video series on the Laffer Curve, they predicted that such a tax would raise $104 billion in 1989, rising to $299 billion in 1993.

The good news is that both CBO and JCT are now seeking to incorporate some dynamic scoring into their fiscal estimates. Most recently, the CBO (with help from the JCT) released a report on the fiscal impact of repealing Obamacare.

Let’s look at what they did to see whether the bureaucrats did a good job.

I’ll start with something I don’t like. This new CBO estimate is fixated on the what will happen to deficit levels.

Here’s the main chart from the report. It compares what will happen to red ink if Obamacare is repealed, based on the static score (no macro feedback) and the dynamic score (with macro feedback).

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with this type of information. But making deficits the focus of the analysis is akin to thinking that the time of possession is more important than the final score in the Super Bowl.

What matters for more is what happens to the economy, which is affected by the size and structure of government. As such, here’s the most important finding from the report.

Repeal of the ACA would raise economic output…the resulting increase in GDP is projected to average about 0.7 percent over the 2021–2025 period.

There are two reasons the bureaucrats expect better economic performance if Obamacare is repealed. First, people will have more incentive to work because of a reduction in handouts.

CBO and JCT estimate that repealing the ACA would increase the supply of labor and thus increase aggregate compensation (wages, salaries, and fringe benefits) by an amount between 0.8 percent and 0.9 percent over the 2021–2025 period. …the subsidies and tax credits for health insurance that the ACA provides to some people are phased out as their income rises—creating an implicit tax on additional earnings—and those subsidies, along with expanded eligibility for Medicaid, generally make it easier for some people to work less or to stop working.

Second, the analysis also recognizes that there would be positive economic results from repealing the tax hikes in Obamacare, especially the ones that exacerbate the tax code’s bias against saving and investment.

Implementation of the ACA is also expected to shrink the capital stock, on net, over the next decade, so a repeal would increase the capital stock and output over that period. In particular, repealing the ACA would increase incentives for capital investment, both by increasing labor supply (which makes capital more productive) and by reducing tax rates on capital income. …repealing the ACA also would eliminate several taxes that reduce people’s incentives to save and invest—most notably the 3.8 percent tax on various forms of investment income for higher-income individuals and families. The resulting increase in the incentive to save and invest—relative to current law—thus would gradually boost the capital stock; consequently, output would be higher.

And here’s the most important table from the report. And it’s important for a reason that doesn’t get sufficient attention in the report, which is the fact that repeal of Obamacare will reduce the burden of spending and the burden of taxation. I’ve circled the relevant numbers in red.

Returning to something I touched on earlier, the CBO report gives inordinate attention to the fact that there’s a projected increase in red ink because the burden of spending doesn’t fall as much as the burden of taxation.

My grousing about CBO’s deficit fixation is not just cosmetic. To the extent that the report has bad analysis, it’s because of an assumption that the deficit tail wags the economic dog.

Here’s more of CBO’s analysis.

Although the macroeconomic feedback stemming from a repeal would continue to reduce deficits after 2025, the effects would shrink over time because the increase in government borrowing resulting from the larger budget deficits would reduce private investment and thus would partially offset the other positive effects that a repeal would have on economic growth. …CBO and JCT…estimate that repealing the act ultimately would increase federal deficits—even after accounting for other macroeconomic feedback. Larger deficits would leave less money for private investment (a process sometimes called crowding out), which reduces output. …The same macroeconomic effects that would generate budgetary feedback over the 2016–2025 period also would operate farther into the future. …the growing increases in federal deficits that are projected to occur if the ACA was repealed would increasingly crowd out private investment and boost interest rates. Both of those developments would reduce private investment and thus would dampen economic growth and revenues.

Some of this is reasonable, but I think CBO is very misguided about the importance of deficit effects compared to other variables.

After all, if deficits really drove the economy, that would imply we could maximize growth with 100 percent tax rates (or, if JCT has learned from its mistakes, by setting tax rates at the revenue-maximizing level).

To give you an idea of why CBO’s deficit fixation is wrong, consider the fact that its report got a glowing review from Vox’s Matt Yglesias. Matt, you may remember, recently endorsed a top tax rate of 90 percent, so if he believes A on fiscal policy, you can generally assume the right answer is B.

Here’s some of what he wrote.

Let us now praise Keith Hall. …his CBO appointment was bound up with a push by the GOP for more “dynamic scoring” of tax policy. …Yet today Hall’s CBO released its first big dynamic score of something controversial, and it’s … perfectly sensible.

Yes, parts of the report are sensible, as I wrote above.

But Matt thinks it’s sensible because it focuses on deficits, which allows his side to downplay the negative economic impact of Obamacare.

…the ACA makes it less terrible to be poor. By making it less terrible to be poor, the ACA reduces the incentive to do an extra hour or three at an unpleasant low-wage job in order to put a little more money in your pocket. CBO’s point is that when you do this, you shrink the overall size of GDP and thus the total amount of federal tax revenue. …The change…is big enough to matter economically (tens of billions of dollars a year are at stake) but not big enough to matter for the world of political talking points where the main question is does the deficit go up or down.

Yes, you read correctly. He’s celebrating the fact that people now have less incentive to be self-reliant.

Do that for enough people and you become Greece.

P.S. On a totally different topic, it’s time to brag about America having better policy than Germany. At least with regard to tank ownership.

I’ve previously written about legal tank ownership in the United States. But according to a BBC report, Germans apparently don’t have this important freedom.

The Panther tank was removed from the 78-year-old’s house in the town of Heikendorf, along with a variety of other military equipment, including a torpedo and an anti-aircraft gun, Der Tagesspiegel website reports. …the army had to be called in with modern-day tanks to haul the Panther from its cellar. It took about 20 soldiers almost nine hours to extract the tank… It seems the tank’s presence wasn’t much of a secret locally. Several German media reports mention that residents had seen the man driving it around town about 30 years ago. “He was chugging around in it during the snow catastrophe in 1978,” Mayor Alexander Orth was quoted as saying.

You know what they say: If you outlaw tanks, only outlaws will have tanks.

I’m also impressed the guy had an anti-aircraft gun. The very latest is self defense!

And a torpedo as well. Criminals would have faced resistance from the land, air, and sea.

If nothing else, he must have a big house.

One that bad guys probably avoided, at least if they passed the famous IQ test for criminals and liberals.

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Back in 2010, I described the “Butterfield Effect,” which is a term used to mock clueless journalists for being blind to the real story.

A former reporter for the New York Times, Fox Butterfield, became a bit of a laughingstock in the 1990s for publishing a series of articles addressing the supposed quandary of how crime rates could be falling during periods when prison populations were expanding. A number of critics sarcastically explained that crimes rates were falling because bad guys were behind bars and invented the term “Butterfield Effect” to describe the failure of leftists to put 2 + 2 together.

Here are some of my favorite examples, all of which presumably are caused by some combination of media bias and economic ignorance.

  • A newspaper article that was so blind to the Laffer Curve that it actually included a passage saying, “receipts are falling dramatically short of targets, even though taxes have increased.”
  • Another article was entitled, “Few Places to Hide as Taxes Trend Higher Worldwide,” because the reporter apparently was clueless that tax havens were attacked precisely so governments could raise tax burdens.
  • In another example of laughable Laffer Curve ignorance, the Washington Post had a story about tax revenues dropping in Detroit “despite some of the highest tax rates in the state.”
  • Likewise, another news report had a surprised tone when reporting on the fully predictable news that rich people reported more taxable income when their tax rates were lower.

Now we have a new example for our collection.

Here are some passages from a very strange economics report in the New York Times.

There are some problems that not even $10 trillion can solve. That gargantuan sum of money is what central banks around the world have spent in recent years as they have tried to stimulate their economies and fight financial crises. …But it has not been able to do away with days like Monday, when fear again coursed through global financial markets.

I’m tempted to immediately ask why the reporter assumed any problem might be solved by having governments spend $10 trillion, but let’s instead ask a more specific question. Why is there unease in financial markets?

The story actually provides the answer, but the reporter apparently isn’t aware that debt is part of the problem instead of the solution.

Stifling debt loads, for instance, continue to weigh on governments around the world. …high borrowing…by…governments…is also bogging down the globally significant economies of Brazil, Turkey, Italy and China.

So if borrowing and spending doesn’t solve anything, is an easy-money policy the right approach?

…central banks like the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank have printed trillions of dollars and euros… Central banks can make debt less expensive by pushing down interest rates.

The story once again sort of provides the answer about the efficacy of monetary easing and artificially low interest rates.

…they cannot slash debt levels… In fact, lower interest rates can persuade some borrowers to take on more debt. “Rather than just reflecting the current weakness, low rates may in part have contributed to it by fueling costly financial booms and busts,” the Bank for International Settlements, an organization whose members are the world’s central banks, wrote in a recent analysis of the global economy.

This is remarkable. The reporter seems puzzled that deficit spending and easy money don’t help produce growth, even though the story includes information on how such policies retard growth. It must take willful blindness not to make this connection.

Indeed, the story in the New York Times originally was entitled, “Trillions Spent, but Crises like Greece’s Persist.”

Wow, what an example of upside-down analysis. A better title would have been “Crises like Greece’s Persist Because Trillions Spent.”

The reporter/editor/headline writer definitely deserve the Fox Butterfield prize.

Here’s another example from the story that reveals this intellectual inconsistency.

Debt in China has soared since the financial crisis of 2008, in part the result of government stimulus efforts. Yet the Chinese economy is growing much more slowly than it was, say, 10 years ago.

Hmmm…, maybe the Chinese economy is growing slower because of the so-called stimulus schemes.

At some point one might think people would make the connection between economic stagnation and bad policy. But journalists seem remarkably impervious to insight.

The Economist has a story that also starts with the assumption that Keynesian policies are good. It doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the downsides of debt and easy money, but it implicitly shows the shortcomings of that approach because the story focuses on how governments have less “fiscal space” to engage in another 2008-style orgy of Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy

The analysis is misguided, but the accompanying chart is useful since it shows which nations are probably most vulnerable to a fiscal crisis.

If you’re at the top of the chart, because you have oil like Norway, or because you’re semi-sensible like South Korea, Australia, and Switzerland, that’s a good sign. But if you’re a nation like Japan, Italy, Greece, and Portugal, it’s probably just a matter of time before the chickens of excessive spending come home to roost.

P.S. Related to the Fox Butterfield effect, I’ve also suggested that there should be “some sort of “Wrong Way Corrigan” Award for people like Drum who inadvertently help the cause of economic liberty.”

P.P.S. And in the same spirit, I’ve proposed an “own-goal effect” for “accidentally helping the other side.”

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I detest writing about Greece. I suggested back in 2010 that the best outcome was default, which would have been the most likely outcome of a no-bailouts approach.

And for the past five years, events have confirmed – over and over again – that this was the right approach.

So you can understand how frustrating it is to comment again on this issue.

But sometimes the policy proposals from national governments and international bureaucracies are so blindly insane that I feel compelled to restate obvious points.

Consider what is happening now. The various members of the Troika (the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank) are pressuring Greece to make reforms in exchange for additional subsidies, handouts, and bailouts.

But since the Greek government is run by lunatics, the net result of “reforms” is more and more bad policy. To be blunt, the Troika crowd is subsidizing and encouraging a process that is resulting in suicidal tax hikes in Greece.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the EU Observer.

Greece edged closer to a last-ditch agreement with her eurozone creditors on Monday (22 June), after Alexis Tsipras’ government promised to raise an extra €8 billion over the next two years. Under the proposal submitted to eurozone ministers, the Greek government would raise just under €2.7 billion in extra revenue this year, followed by a further €5.2 billion in 2016. …Tsipras’ government has proposed to raise €645 million over the next two years by increasing health contributions to 5 percent. …As expected, the remaining proposals are almost exclusively based around new tax increases, the most significant of which is a new 12 percent levy on all corporate profits over €500,000, which the Greek government expects to bring in €1.35 billion in extra revenue. …together with €100 million per year from a new TV advertisements tax. It also wants to widen the scope of a so-called ‘luxury’ tax to cover private swimming pools, planes and boats.

Here’s a look at the breakdown of the new deal, which I got off Twitter from a pro-liberty Greek citizen (i.e., an endangered species).

So the latest deal is 93 percent tax hikes and 7 percent spending cuts. And I’m sure those so-called spending cuts are probably make-believe reductions in previously planned increases instead of genuine reductions.

That’s so imbalanced that it makes President George H.W. Bush’s disastrous 1990 tax-hike deal seem good by comparison.

And just in case you wonder whether there’s no fat in the Greek budget, consider this shocking sentence from the EU Observer story.

Public spending on pensions currently amounts to 16 percent of Greece’s GDP.

To give you an idea of how crazy that number is, Social Security outlays in the United States consume “only” 4.9 percent of GDP.

And don’t forget the Greeks also squander money on a bloated bureaucracy and a preposterous regulatory regime (click here and here to see I’m actually understating the problem).

Yet rather than change any of these anti-growth policies, the government wants more and more revenue to prop up a bloated government.

The bottom line is that Greek politicians and interest groups are trying to impose an upside-down version of my Golden Rule.

But while my Rule says that the private sector should grow faster than the government, their version is that the tax burden should grow faster than the private sector.

Needless to say, that’s an approach that is guaranteed to produce economic ruin.

Productive people leave the country or operate in the underground economy. And many others decide that it’s far more comfortable to climb into the wagon of government dependency.

The situation is utterly ludicrous, as explained by George Will.

…a nation that chooses governments committed to Rumpelstiltskin economics, the belief that the straw of government largesse can be spun into the gold of national wealth? Tsipras…thinks Greek voters, by making delusional promises to themselves, obligate other European taxpayers to fund them.

But George sees a silver lining to the dark cloud of Greece’s economic illiteracy.

Greeks bearing the gift of confirmation that Margaret Thatcher was right about socialist governments: “They always run out of other people’s money.” …This protracted dispute will result in desirable carnage if Greece defaults, thereby becoming a constructively frightening example to all democracies doling out unsustainable, growth-suppressing entitlements.  …It cannot be said too often: There cannot be too many socialist smashups. The best of these punish reckless creditors whose lending enables socialists to live, for a while, off of other people’s money.

I fully agree with this final point. Just like it’s good to have positive examples (think Hong Kong, Switzerland, Texas, or Singapore), it’s also good to have bad examples (such as France, Italy, California, and Illinois).

Though it’s unclear whether politicians even care about learning any lessons.

P.S. Don’t forget that some American politicians want America to be more like Greece, as illustrated by this Henry Payne cartoon.

P.P.S. Also keep in mind that Greece is just the tip of the iceberg. Other European welfare states are making the same mistakes and will soon suffer similar fates.

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