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Archive for the ‘Deficit’ Category

The Congressional Budget Office has just released the 2016 version of its Long-Term Budget Outlook.

It’s filled with all sorts of interesting data if you’re a budget wonk (and a bit of sloppy analysis if you’re an economist).

If you’re a normal person and don’t want to wade through 118 pages, you’ll be happy to know I’ve taken on that task.

And I’ve grabbed the six most important images from the report.

First, and most important, we have a very important admission from CBO that the long-run issue of ever-rising red ink is completely the result of spending growing too fast. I’ve helpfully underlined that portion of Figure 1-2.

And if you want to know the underlying details, here’s Figure 1-4 from the report.

Once again, since I’m a thoughtful person, I’ve highlighted the most important portions. On the left side of Figure 1-4, you’ll see that the health entitlements are the main problem, growing so fast that they outpace even the rapid growth of income taxation. And on the right side, you’ll see confirmation that our fiscal challenge is the growing burden of federal spending, exacerbated by a rising tax burden.

And if you want more detail on health spending, Figure 3-3 confirms what every sensible person suspected, which is that Obamacare did not flatten the cost curve of health spending.

Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and other government health entitlements are projected to consume ever-larger chunks of economic output.

Now let’s turn to the revenue side of the budget.

Figure 5-1 is important because it shows that the tax burden will automatically climb, even without any of the class-warfare tax hikes advocated by Hillary Clinton.

And what this also means is that more than 100 percent of our long-run fiscal challenge is caused by excessive government spending (and the Obama White House also has confessed this is true).

Let’s close with two additional charts.

We’ll start with Figure 8-1, which shows that things are getting worse rather than better. This year’s forecast shows a big jump in long-run red ink.

There are several reasons for this deterioration, including sub-par economic performance, failure to comply with spending caps, and adoption of new fiscal burdens.

The bottom line is that we’re becoming more like Greece at a faster pace.

Last but not least, here’s a chart that underscores why our healthcare system is such a mess.

Figure 3-1 shows that consumers directly finance only 11 percent of their health care, which is rather compelling evidence that we have a massive government-created third-party payer problem in that sector of our economy.

Yes, this is primarily a healthcare issue, especially if you look at the economic consequences, but it’s also a fiscal issue since nearly half of all health spending is by the government.

P.S. If these charts aren’t sufficiently depressing, just imagine what they will look like in four years.

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I wrote last year about why Puerto Rico got into fiscal trouble.

Like Greece and so many other governments, it did the opposite of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Instead of a multi-year period of spending restraint, it allowed the budget to expand faster than the private sector for almost two decades.

As the old saying goes, that’s water under the bridge. Since we can’t un-ring the bell of excessive spending in the past, what’s the best option for the future?

The House of Representatives has approved a rescue plan that is getting mixed reviews.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute is supportive but not enthusiastic about the proposal.

The proposed Puerto Rican Restructuring Bill is to be welcomed as a first step towards resolving the island’s chronic debt problem… However, …the bill will be little more than a stop-gap measure to get us through the U.S. election cycle without a full blown Puerto Rican economic and financial crisis before November.

The legislation creates a board with some power to force fiscal and economic reforms.

…a seven-member oversight board…is to have exclusive control to ensure that Puerto Rico’s fiscal plans are enacted and enforced as well as to ensure that necessary reforms are undertaken to help the island regain fiscal solvency. The bill also includes a stay on debt-related litigation to create an environment for consensual negotiations with creditors. It is explicit that it will not involve taxpayer money to bail out the island.

So if there’s no taxpayer money involved, why do people say the legislation is a bailout?

Because the proposal allows Puerto Rico to defer payments on existing debt and then to restructure at least some of that debt. And “restructure” is a politically correct way of saying “partial default.”

So Puerto Rico will be bailed out to the extent that it will be able to stiff bondholders to some degree.

…it would afford the island with a temporary stay on debt principal repayments to allow more time for the voluntary restructuring of its debt mountain. That stay would forestall an otherwise disorderly Puerto Rican default as early as July 1, when some $2 billion in debt repayments come due.

Lachman views that as the least worst of the possible options, so this indirect bailout is not an argument against the legislation. At least from his perspective.

He’s more worried about the fact that much more needs to be done to restore growth on the island.

…it should be obvious that if the island’s economy were to continue to contract at its present rate of around 1 percent a year and if 2 percent of its able-bodied population were to continue to migrate to the mainland each year as is presently the case, the island would become progressively less capable of servicing its $72 billion in public debt or honoring its $45 billion in pension liabilities. A lack of restoring economic growth would also mean that the island would probably need a series of debt write-downs over time.

Writing for Forbes, Ryan Ellis has a much more optimistic assessment of the overall deal.

…the bill is a big win for limited government conservatives. It has no taxpayer bailout of Puerto Rico–not a single dime of taxpayer money is sent down there. …Puerto Rico will have to work their own way out of $72 billion in debt and defaults. They will be helped by an “oversight board”…modeled after the D.C. control board from the 1990s and 2000s, and their job is to approve fiscal plans and budgets, conduct audits, etc.

But Ryan acknowledges that “work their own way out of” is just another way of saying that there is likely going to be a partial default.

The oversight board…will first try to get the 18 classes of bondholders to agree to a voluntary debt restructuring with the Puerto Rican government and government sponsored enterprises. If that fails, the control board will recommend a debt restructuring plan to be enforced by a non-bankruptcy federal judge.

That being said, he’s confident that the legislation won’t be a template for profligate states such as Illinois and California.

Congress is exercising its Constitutional authority to provide all “needful and useful” laws to govern possessions, which is a separate power from the federal bankruptcy clause. There’s no risk of “contagion” to other states.

Though he agrees with Lachman that there’s very little hope for a growth spurt.

It lacks the necessary pro-growth reforms needed for Puerto Rico to get out of its decade-long depression, reverse migration back to the island, attract capital, and create jobs.

Which is why Ryan likes the ideas being pushed by Congressman McArthur of New Jersey. He’s especially fond of territorial taxation for American companies that do business on the island.

The solution is to enact the same type of international tax reform we want to do in the rest of the world–the U.S. companies pay tax in Puerto Rico, but don’t have to pay a second tax to the IRS just to bring the money home. That’s what the rest of the world does, and it’s called “territoriality.” It’s a basic principle of conservative tax reform to move from our outdated “worldwide” tax system to a “territorial” one. There is no better place to start than Puerto Rico.

That would be a good step, and it would be a nice bookend to the very good law Puerto Rico already has for high-income taxpayers from the mainland.

Other conservatives have a less sanguine view of the legislation. Here are excerpts from a coalition statement.

People, companies, states, and territories don’t just “go” broke. Willful prior activity is required. …Puerto Rico has a long history of financial mismanagement brought about by progressive politics and crony capitalism.

Amen. Puerto Rico got in trouble because of bad policy. And the bad policy wasn’t just excessive spending. There have also been grossly misguided interventions such as price controls.

So it’s quite understandable that signatories to this statement are not overly excited that Puerto Rico will have a route for partial default.

Progressive politicians, who are already seeking an indirect bailout – in the form of upending the existing legal structure to allow bankruptcy ‐‐ in the U.S. Congress, argue that a bailout or bankruptcy will help the people of Puerto Rico.

They correctly list several procedural reforms and also point out that there are some obvious policy reforms that should be undertaken.

Sensible economic reforms include allowing Puerto Rico (1) to set its own minimum wage law, including not having a minimum wage law; (2) to be exempt from U.S. overtime rules (which have just been greatly expanded by presidential fiat); and (3) to be exempt from the Jones Act, a protectionist measure that regulates U.S. shipping practices.

Sadly, the legislation is very tepid on these non-fiscal reforms.

So what’s the bottom line? Should the law get three cheers, as Ryan Ellis argues? Two cheers as Desmond Lachman prefers? Or only one cheer (or maybe no cheer), which seems to be the position of some conservative activists?

My answer depends on my mood. When I’m going through a fire-breathing-libertarian phase, I’m with the conservatives. Puerto Rico spent itself into a ditch so they should suffer the consequences.

But when I’m in my long-time-observer-of-Washington mode, I try to imagine the best possible (or least-worst possible) outcome, then I think Paul Ryan and the Republicans did a decent job.

In other words, this is like the fiscal cliff deal back in late 2012. Disappointing in many respects, but not as bad as I would have predicted.

The key question now is whether Republicans insist on putting good people on the oversight board.

And that’s not a trivial concern. I remember thinking the 2011 debt limit fight led to a decent outcome because we got sequester-enforced caps on discretionary spending (not as good as a comprehensive spending cap, but still a good step).

And we even got a sequester in early 2013. But then later that year, and last year as well, Republicans joined with Democrats to bust the spending caps.

That doesn’t bode well for any policy that requires long-run fiscal discipline. Though maybe GOPers will be tougher this time since the spending restraint will be imposed on people who don’t vote in congressional elections.

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As a general rule, I’m not overly concerned about debt, even when looking at government red ink.

I don’t like deficit and debt, to be sure, but government borrowing should be seen as the symptom. The real problem is excessive government spending.

This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of a balanced budget amendment, Based on the experiences of American states and European countries, I fear politicians in Washington would use any deficit-limiting requirement as an excuse to raise taxes.

I much prefer spending caps, such as those found in Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Colorado. If you cure the disease of excessive government, you automatically ameliorate the symptom of too much borrowing.

That being said, the fiscal chaos plaguing European welfare states is proof that there is a point when a spending problem can also become a debt problem. Simply stated, the people and institutions that buy government bonds at some point will decide that they no longer trust a government’s ability to repay because the public sector is too big and the economy is too weak.

And even though the European fiscal crisis no longer is dominating the headlines, I fear this is just the calm before the storm.

For instance, the data in a report from Citi about the looming Social Security-style crisis are downright scary.

…the total value of unfunded or underfunded government pension liabilities for twenty OECD countries is a staggering $78 trillion, or almost double the $44 trillion published national debt number.

And the accompanying chart is rather appropriate since it portrays this giant pile of future spending promises as an iceberg.

And when you look at projections for ever-rising spending (and therefore big increases in red ink) in America, it’s easy to see why I’m such a strong advocate of genuine entitlement reform.

But it’s also important to realize that government policies also can encourage excessive debt in the private sector.

Before digging into the issue, let’s first make clear that debt is not necessarily bad. Households often borrow to buy big-ticket items like homes, cars, and education. And businesses borrow all the time to finance expansion and job creation.

But if there’s too much borrowing, particularly when encouraged by misguided government policies, then households and businesses are very vulnerable if there’s some sort of economic disruption and they no longer have enough income to finance debt payments. This is when debt becomes excessive.

Yet this is what the crowd in Washington is encouraging.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, George Melloan warns that misguided “stimulus” and “QE” policies have created a debt bubble.

…while Mr. Bernanke and Ms. Yellen were trying to prevent deflation, the federal government was engineering its cause, excessive debt. And the Fed abetted the process by purchasing trillions of dollars of government paper, aka quantitative easing. Near-zero interest rates also have encouraged consumers and business to releverage. Cars are now financed with low or no-interest five-year loans. With the 2008 housing debacle forgotten, easier mortgage terms have made a comeback. Corporations also couldn’t let cheap money go to waste, so they have piled up debts to buy back their own stock. Such “investment” produces no economic growth, but it has to be paid back nonetheless. Amid the Great Recession, many worried that the entire economy of the U.S., or even the world, would be “deleveraged.” Instead, we have a new world-wide debt bubble.

The numbers he shares are sobering.

Global debt of all types grew by $57 trillion from 2007 to 2014 to a total of $199 trillion, the McKinsey Global Institute reported in February last year. That’s 286% of global GDP compared with 269% in 2007. The current ratio is above 300%.

Professor Noah Smith writes in Bloomberg about research showing that debt-fueled bubbles are especially worrisome.

…since debt bubbles damage the financial system, they endanger the economy more than equity bubbles, which transmit their losses directly to households. Financial institutions lend people money, and if people can’t pay it back — because the value of their house has gone down — it could cause bank failures. …Economists Oscar Jorda, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor recently did a historical study of asset price crashes, and they found that, in fact, debt seems to matter a lot. …To make a long story short, they look at what happened to the economy of each country after each large drop in asset prices. …bubbles make recessions longer, and credit worsens the effect. …the message is clear: Bubbles and debt are a dangerous combination.

To elaborate, equity and bubbles aren’t a good combination, but there’s far less damage when an equity bubble pops because the only person who is directly hurt is the person who owns the asset (such as shares of a stock). But when a debt bubble pops, the person who owes the money is hurt, along with the person (or institution) to whom the money is owed.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute adds his two cents to the issue.

…the world is presently drowning in debt. Indeed, as a result of the world’s major central banks for many years having encouraged markets to take on more risk by expanding their own balance sheets in an unprecedented manner, the level of overall public and private sector indebtedness in the global economy is very much higher today than it was in 2008 at the start of the Great Economic Recession. Particularly troublesome is the very high level of corporate debt in the emerging market economies and the still very high public sector debt levels in the European economic periphery. …the Federal Reserve’s past policies of aggressive quantitative easing have set up the stage for considerable global financial market turbulence. They have done so by artificially boosting asset prices and by encouraging borrowing at artificially low interest rates that do not reflect the likelihood of the borrower eventually defaulting on the loan.

In other words, artificially low interest rates are distorting economic decisions by making something (debt) seem cheaper than it really is. Sort of financial market version of the government-caused third-party payer problem in health care and higher education.

And Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal makes the very important point that debt is encouraged by bailouts and subsidies.

Big banks aren’t automatically bad or badly managed because they are big, but it’s hard to believe big banks would exist without an explicit and implicit government safety net underneath them. …None of this has changed since Dodd-Frank, none of it is likely to change. …we know where the crisis will come from and how it will be transmitted to the financial system. The Richmond Fed’s “bailout barometer” shows that, since the 2008 crisis, 61% of all liabilities in the U.S. financial system are now implicitly or explicitly guaranteed by government, up from 45% in 1999. …Six years after a crisis caused by excessive borrowing, McKinsey estimates that even visible global debt has increased by $57 trillion, while in the U.S., Europe, Japan and China growth to pay back these liabilities has been slowing or absent.

The bottom line is that government spending programs directly cause debt, but we should be just as worried about the private debt that is being encouraged and subsidized by other misguided government policies.

And surely we shouldn’t forget to include the pernicious role of the tax code, which further tilts the playing field in favor or debt.

P.S. Let’s briefly divert to another issue. I wrote last Christmas that President Obama may have given the American people a present.

But the Washington Examiner reports that gift has turned into a lump of coal.

The Department of Justice announced this week that it is resuming its Equitable Sharing program…that allows state and local police to get around tough state laws that limit how much property can be taken from citizens without being charged with wrongdoing, let alone convicted of a crime. …money-hungry police departments can exploit these lax federal rules about confiscating people’s property. The feds like this because they get a cut of the loot. …there is no presumption of innocence. …civil forfeitures by the feds amounted to $4.5 billion in 2014, which is more than the $3.9 billion that all of America’s burglars stole that year. It’s hard to imagine more compelling evidence of gross wrong.

Wow, so the government steals more money than burglars. I guess I’m not surprised.

But if you really want to get upset, check out real-world examples of asset forfeiture by clicking here, here, here, here, and here.

Thankfully, some states are seeking to curtail this evil practice.

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With both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders agitating for higher taxes (and with more than a few Republicans also favoring more revenue because they don’t want to do any heavy lifting to restrain a growing burden of government), it’s time to examine the real-world evidence on what happens when politicians actually do get their hands on more money.

Is it true, as we are constantly told by the establishment, that higher tax burdens a necessary and practical way to reduce budget deficits and lower debt levels?

This is an empirical question rather than an ideological one, and the numbers from Europe (especially when looking at the data from the advanced nations that are most similar to the US) are especially persuasive.

I examined the European fiscal data back in 2012 to see whether the big increase in tax revenue starting in the late 1960s led to more red ink or less red ink.

You won’t be surprised to learn that giving more money to politicians didn’t lead to fiscal probity. The burden of taxation climbed by about 10-percentage points of economic output over four decades, but governments spent every single penny of the additional revenue.

They actually spent more than 100 percent of the additional revenue. The average debt burden in these Western European nations jumped from 45 percent of GDP to 60 percent of GDP.

I often share this data when giving speeches since it is powerful evidence that tax increases are not a practical way of dealing with debt and deficits.

But in recent years, audiences have begun to ask why I compare numbers from the late 1960s (1965-1969) with the data from the last half of last decade (2006-2010). What would the data show, they’ve asked, if I used more up-to-date numbers.

So it’s time to re-calculate the numbers using the latest data and share some new charts about what happened in Europe. Here’s the first chart, which shows on the left that there’s been a big increase in the tax burden over the past 45 years and shows on the right average debt levels at the beginning of the period. And I ask the rhetorical question about whether higher taxes led to less red ink.

Now here’s the updated answer.

What we find is that debt levels have soared. Not just from 45 percent of GDP to 60 percent of GDP, as shown by the 2012 numbers, but now to more than 80 percent of economic output.

In other words, we can confirm that the giant increase in the tax burden over the past few decades has backfired. And we can also confirm that the big income tax hikes and increases in value-added taxes in more recent years have made matters worse rather than better.

I can’t imagine that anyone needs any additional evidence that tax increases are misguided.

But just in case, let’s look at the findings in some newly released research from the European Central Bank.

Since the start of the sovereign debt crisis, in early 2010, many Euro area countries have adopted fiscal consolidation measures in an attempt to reduce fiscal imbalances and preserve their sovereign creditworthiness. Nonetheless, in most cases, fiscal consolidation did not result.

That doesn’t sound like good news.

I wonder whether it has anything to do with the fact that “fiscal consolidation” in Europe almost always means higher taxes? And, indeed, the ECB number crunchers have confirmed that the tax-hike approach is bad news.

The aim of this paper is to investigate the effects of fiscal consolidation on the general government debt-to-GDP ratio in order to assess whether and under which conditions self-defeating effects are likely to materialise… In the case of revenue-based consolidations the increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to be larger and to last longer than in the case of spending-based consolidations. The composition also matters for the long term effects of fiscal consolidations. Spending-based consolidations tend to generate a durable reduction of the debt-to-GDP ratio compared to the pre-shock level, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not produce any lasting improvement in the sustainability prospects as the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to revert to the pre-shock level.

The two scholars at the ECB then highlight the lessons to be learned.

…strategy is more likely to succeed when the consolidation strategy relies on a durable reduction of spending, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not appear to bring about a durable improvement in debt sustainability. Moreover, delaying fiscal consolidation until financial markets pressures threaten a country’s ability to issue debt, may have a cost in terms of a less sizeable reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio for given consolidation effort, even if it is undertaken on the spending side. This is an important policy lesson also in view of the fact that revenue-based consolidations tend to be the preferred form of austerity, at least in the short run, given also the political costs that a durable reduction in government spending entail.

In other words, the bottom line is a) that tax hikes don’t work, b) reform is harder if you wait until a crisis has begun, and c) the real challenge is convincing politicians to do the right thing when they instinctively prefer tax hikes.

P.S. It’s worth pointing out that the value-added tax has generated much of the additional tax revenue (and therefore enabled much of the added burden of government spending) in Europe.

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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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