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Archive for the ‘Fiscal Crisis’ Category

A couple of days ago, I wrote about Clemens Schneider’s hypothesis, presented at the European Students for Liberty regional conference in Maastricht, that 1356 was a very important year in European history because of two events that promoted decentralization and federalism.

I also participated in the event and was asked to speak about “Ensuring Sustainable Prosperity in Europe.”

But I spent 90 percent of my speech saying there was very little hope of that happening. I highlighted three points.

  1. Europe is suffering from anemic growth and is falling further behind the United States.
  2. Demographic changes in Europe will likely cause even further economic stagnation.
  3. An ever-rising burden of government spending will further cripple economic performance.

To tie all these points together, I pointed out that worsening fiscal policy doesn’t necessarily mean economic decline. If nations make sufficient improvements in other policy areas (regulation, monetary policy, trade, rule of law and property right), then it is still possible to have more overall freedom and a stronger economy. Indeed, that’s basically what happened in developed nations after World War II.

But that hasn’t been happening in the 21st Century. Here’s a chart I prepared for the students showing changes in overall economic freedom in the major nations of Western Europe from 2000-present.

As you can see, other than Austria’s tiny increase and Greece’s unchanged (but still lowest on the list) score, economic freedom in Europe has been eroding. Indeed, the average decline is about .2 on a 0-10 scale, which isn’t trivial.

I also included the United States, which unfortunately has experienced the biggest decrease of all nations (thanks Bush and Obama!). And I’m disappointed that Switzerland (one of my favorite nations) also has moved in the wrong direction.

To conclude, there was a reprehensible American journalist named Lincoln Steffens who made a trip to the Soviet Union in 1919 and then told American audiences that, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Some might argue we shouldn’t judge him too harshly since it took time for the barbarity of communism to become apparent, but any ideology that puts the state over the individual is a priori evil in my humble opinion.

But I’m digressing. I cite Steffens’ infamous quote because I, too, have seen the future. It’s Europe. And it doesn’t work.

P.S. I did point out that the outlook for European is not theoretically hopeless. Even Greece could climb out of its statist malaise with sustained spending restraint and other market reforms.

P.P.S. My indictment of Europe, I explained, should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the United States. I explained that our long-run outlook was similarly grim (and will probably accelerate in the wrong direction because of the election).

P.P.P.S. Which is why I told the students in my conclusion that they should apply for Australian visas.

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In 2008, government spending consumed 50.9 percent of economic output in Greece according to OECD fiscal data. That same year, Greece’s score from Economic Freedom of the World was 7.12 (on a 0-10 scale), which was rather poor for a supposedly developed country and only #60 for all nations.

Then the fiscal crisis hit and Greece supposedly has atoned for its profligacy and gone through a tough period of “austerity” to reduce the burden of government spending and cut back on onerous levels of bureaucracy and red tape.

How much progress has occurred? Have Greek politicians, with the help of the European Commission, International Monetary Fund, and European Central Bank (the infamous “troika”), scaled back government and freed up the private sector?

Nope.

The OECD data shows that the burden of government spending is now 53.1 percent of economic output. And the latest data from Economic Freedom of the World shows that Greece’s score has dropped to 6.93 (dropping the country to #86 in the rankings).

In other words, Greece suffered a crisis caused by too much government and too much statism and the politicians (along with outside “experts”) decided that the solution was to….drum roll, please…increase the relative size and scope of government.

As one Greek observer noted in a column for CapX, this has not been a very successful recipe.

…how has the Troika been performing? 3 adjustment programs, 12 reviews, 220 billion Euros and 7 years down the road, the results are abysmal: 179% debt, 0% growth, 25.1% unemployment.

To be fair, there has been some spending restraint since the crisis began. In some years, the budget even shrank. The problem, though, is that the private sector has been battered by huge tax increases, thus crippling incentive to create jobs and growth.

If you want to get a sense of what’s happening, this New York Times story is a very sobering example. Apparently the tax burden is so oppressive that people don’t want to inherit property.

At law courts throughout Greece, people are lining up to file papers renouncing their inheritance. …they are turning their backs on what used to be a pillar of Greece’s economy and society: real estate. …In 2013, two years after a property tax was introduced (previously, real estate tax revenue came mainly from transfers or conveyance taxes), 29,200 people declined to accept their inheritance, according to the Justice Ministry. In 2015, the number had climbed to 45,627, an increase of 56 percent in two years. Reports from across the country suggest that this year, too, large numbers of people are refusing to inherit. …People once hoped that if they came into property they could sell it and live easier; now they fear that they will be unable to sell it and the taxes will drag them down. …After many years in which only very valuable properties were taxed, many Greeks went from paying almost no taxes on real estate to not having enough money to pay. In 2010, property taxes accounted for 0.26 percent of gross domestic product, while this year they are around 2 percent, according to state budget figures. …Arrears in tax payments at the end of September were at 92.8 billion euros and keep increasing by about 1 billion each month.

But give Greek politicians credit for a perverse form of perseverance. They’re doing everything they can to squeeze even more money from oppressed taxpayers. Indeed, the U.K.-based Times reports that they’re even spying on social media to see if people have lifestyles that seem extravagant compared to the income they report to tax police.

Finance ministry officials said that an operation named “24 hours” will monitor about 1.8 million Greeks believed to be declaring an income inconsistent with their lavish lifestyles they enjoy and display on websites. Trifon Alexiades, the deputy finance minister, said: “It may sound ludicrous, but this is a serious effort to crosscheck information about those suspected of concealing wealth.” Tax authorities will begin operating software in September for a month-long trial. “Under this new scheme, auditors will be able to access taxpayers’ Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts to extract information and details of assets that may not have declared,” a Greek news site reported.

Ugh, I guess this is the kind of policy you get with you mix French-style economic advice and German-style tax enforcement. Geesh, maybe the IRS isn’t so bad after all.

And it doesn’t seem the current left-wing government is learning from all these mistakes. The EU Observer reports that it wants to make the nation’s infamous bureaucracy even bigger.

Alexis Tsipras’ Greek government plans to hire 20,000 civil servants over the next year to help Greece’s austerity hit education and health services. Government officials believe that the hiring will not run into objections from representatives of Greece’s international creditors, Kathimerini newspaper reports.

By the way, Greek politicians think more spending is the right recipe, even if it means more spending in other nations. Here’s some of what was reported back in June by Bloomberg.

Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos urged Germany to take advantage of record-low borrowing costs and invest more to spur the economy, saying Europe should seize the chance to modernize its infrastructure. …Failure to provide the euro area with a Keynesian-type stimulus would risk leaving the region with insufficient infrastructure, said Tsakalotos, whose country has the biggest ratio of debt to gross domestic product in Europe. European Union budget rules should be changed so that investment spending is excluded when calculating whether countries have met deficit targets, he said.

I guess this could be called an example of misery-loves-company economic advice. Germany has actually been complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule in recent years (and part of last decade also) and its economy is in decent shape.

But Greek politicians are basically saying, “Hey, you should be more like us.”

Heck, the Prime Minister of Greece already is trying to create a coalition of fiscally mismanaged nations.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras on Thursday invited leaders of six southern EU states to meet…in a bid to form a strong southern alliance and counter the stance of countries in Northern Europe. Athens News Agency reports the states invited will include France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta.

The article doesn’t say what this alliance would accomplish, though presumably Tsipras hopes it will be a unified voice for more handouts. Maybe it can agitate for something really crazy such as eurobonds.

I’m also amused that Greek officials think businesses will invest in a highly-taxed economy merely if politicians promise not to raise taxes even further. I’m not joking. Here are some excerpts from a Reuters report.

Greece is offering big investors more than a decade of no increases in their taxes, in an effort to promote entrepreneurship in a country struggling to return to growth after almost seven years of recession. …Under the law, investment plans exceeding 20 million euros and creating at least 40 new jobs could choose a stable tax regime with no tax increases for 12 years once the investment is concluded.

By the way, just in case you think promising not to go even further in the wrong direction is akin to a step in the right direction, you need to keep reading the article because you’ll discover the plan is based on cronyism.

Alternatively, they can apply for a subsidy, amounting to 10 percent of the plan and up to 5 million euros.

And if you want to understand why Greece is hopeless, check out what the Economy Minister said about how any new investments will get “quick” approval.

Stathakis said that Athens will seek to shorten approval time for investment plans to three months instead of the two to three years it takes now.

Needless to say, the approval time in a market economy is zero because people don’t have to get permission from bureaucrats before creating jobs and investing money.

But in Greece, if you curry favor with the mandarins, you’ll “only” have to wait three months. I guess that’s to be expected in a nation where bureaucrats demand stool samples before you can set up an online company.

And since we’re on the topic of regulation and red tape, this is a good time to point out that the Greek government apparently is good at passing laws to liberalize the economy but not very good at implementing them.

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the European Liberals and Democrats, is very critical… “Greece is passing a lot of legislation, but is not implementing it. It is shocking to see that 74% of the legislation that has been adopted since the first bailout package has never been implemented.”

But let’s look at the bright side. This means 26 percent has been implemented. Of course, that 26 percent presumably includes all the tax increases.

In any event, Greece has a miserable track record when it comes to following through on commitments to reduce state intervention. The government was supposed to engage in sweeping privatizations, but the gap between projections and performance is enormous.

Last but not least, I’ve always thought the ultimate sign of incompetence is when a government can’t even waste money effectively. I’ve already noted that Japan and the U.K. have met this test, and now I can add Greece to the list.

Hundreds of millions of available EU funds have yet to be used by the Greek state to help migrants and refugees. Administrative bottlenecks on the Greek side mean that…The European Commission…will soon be sending someone to Athens to help the government resolve its issues in an effort to better spend the money.

You may be wondering what’s the purpose of today’s attack on Greece. Is it because I think poorly of Greeks? Well, I despise Greek moochers, but I have the same view of French moochers and American moochers, so that’s not the answer.

You also may be thinking this is just another excuse for me to say “I told you so” about the failure of bailouts. Sure, I’m happy to pat myself on the back, even though any non-comatose person should have known bad things were going to happen.

My real goal is to warn that the miserable results in Greece will be replicated if we try the same policy in America. There are several states that are on a very bad trajectory, such as California and Illinois. I don’t know if things will blow up during the next recession or afterwards, but if there’s any hope of forcing politicians to make sensible choices in Sacramento and Springfield, it will be very important for Washington to reject all pleas for handouts.

Likewise, pension funds for state and local government bureaucrats are ticking time bombs. Once again, prudent reforms will only be possible if politicians conclude that there’s no hope for bailouts from Uncle Sam.

The bottom line is that politicians will continue to make mistakes if they can make other people pay the price. That’s today lesson.

P.S. Even though Greece’s debt is sustainable, I would prefer a default if it meant no more bailouts. Yes, Greek politicians would be reneging on their past obligations, but the good news is that they wouldn’t be able to borrow any more money and (hopefully) would have no choice but to copy Latvia and adopt good policy.

P.P.S. Though it’s an open question whether Greece can be saved. Many productive people already have escaped the nation and most of the ones who have stayed are part of the problem.

P.P.P.S. To offset the grim message of today’s column, let’s close with some Greek-related humor.

This cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.

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When I tell journalists and politicians that the European fiscal situation is worse today than it was immediately prior to the crisis, they don’t believe me. What about all the spending cuts, they ask? What about the draconian austerity? And the Troika-imposed fiscal restraint?

I tell them it’s mostly been a mirage. It turns out that “austerity” in Europe is simply another way of saying massive tax increases. National governments have boosted tax burdens substantially, but there hasn’t been much spending restraint.

This is a topic I spoke about earlier today at a conference in Prague, which was hosted by the European Conservatives and Reformers bloc of the European Parliament.

My panel’s topic was “Current Challenges to the Transatlantic Partnership” and I focused on economic stagnation and fiscal crisis.

Regarding economic stagnation, I pointed out that there’s very little growth in Europe and substandard growth in the United States.

By itself, that’s a problem but not a crisis.

The crisis (or at least what I argue is a looming crisis) is that Europe’s fiscal situation is worse today than it was when last decade’s fiscal chaos began.

To put this in concrete terms, I crunched the data for both the “eurozone” nations (those using the common currency) and for the overall European Union.

And here are the numbers showing how the burden of government spending has increased in Europe between 2007 and 2015.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there hasn’t been any overall spending restraint on the other side of the Atlantic. This is the chart I will now share with politicians and journalists (as well as anyone else) who is under the illusion that there have been big spending cuts in Europe.

But just as slow growth is a problem rather than a crisis, the same can be said about bigger government. Yes, a larger fiscal burden saps an economy’s vitality and weakens national competitiveness, but it presumably doesn’t by itself produce a crisis.

The crisis, at least if last decade is any indication, materializes when investors decide they don’t want to buy a nation’s government debt because they fear they won’t get repaid (i.e., a default). And that happens when a nation’s debt level is perceived to have reached an unsustainable level when compared to the ability of that country’s economy to generate enough output to support that debt.

And I suspect it’s just a matter of time before Europe experiences another such crisis. Here are the numbers, both for euro-using nations as well as the entire European Union, showing that government debt is substantially higher today than it was at the dawn of last decade’s meltdown.

I should point out that there’s no reason why a crisis need occur. If European governments copied Switzerland and put in place some sort of spending cap (a good one that ensures that the burden of government expanded slower than the private sector), then red ink quickly would fall and investors would be much less fearful of a default.

Unfortunately, all the pressure is in the other direction. Indeed, to the limited degree there was any spending restraint after the last crisis, it has largely evaporated.

A story in the New York Times from two years ago illustrates why the mess in Europe is so intractable.

The reporters who authored the story were correct that there was disagreement between Germany and other nations.

…many of the largest European countries are now rebelling against the German gospel of belt-tightening and demanding more radical steps to reverse their slumping fortunes.

But they naively reported that there were genuine cutbacks and they also believed the silly Keynesian argument that smaller government somehow reduces growth.

…eurozone nations buckled under to German demands to slash budget deficits and roll back public services, and then watched in dismay as unemployment rates shot into the double digits and growth collapsed.

In any event, Europe’s self-styled elite decided on a return to the types of bad policy that led to last decade’s fiscal crisis.

Now, France, Italy and the European Central Bank have coalesced into a bloc against Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and they are insisting that Berlin change course. …France, which has in modern times been Germany’s indispensable partner in European crisis management, is now in near revolt, and President François Hollande has joined forces with Mr. Renzi, who has presented an expansionary 2015 budget that will cut taxes despite pressure from Brussels to meet deficit targets. Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, has pressed Germany to temper its insistence on budgetary discipline and to spend more on public works to stimulate the eurozone economy. The French have cheered him on

For what it’s worth, I would have been on Merkel’s side if she was actually pushing for meaningful spending restraint.

But that was not the case. She myopically focused on fiscal balance rather than the size of government, which is bad enough since higher taxes are always the first (and second, and third, …) resort of politicians. But to make matters worse, her motives have always been suspect because of fears that she’s mostly concerned about protecting German banks that foolishly lent a lot of money to profligate governments.

Though that presumably shouldn’t be a major concern today since the European Central Bank is now buying lots of government bonds as part of 1) a foolish experiment in monetary Keynesianism, and 2) an indirect bailout of dodgy governments. Any banks with competent management will have used this opportunity to sell their holdings so the risk of sovereign defaults is borne by the general public.

But let’s set aside speculation on Merkel’s motives. All that really matters is that government in Europe is now bigger and more expensive, with lots of additional red ink. And the European Central Bank is helping to build the house of cards even higher.

This won’t end well, though I very much hope my fears are misplaced.

P.S. Anybody who wants to argue that Europe’s fiscal problems can be solved with higher taxes first needs to explain this set of charts.

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Remember Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, the 1993 comedy classic about a weatherman who experiences the same day over and over again?

Well, the same thing is happening in Japan. But instead of a person waking up and reliving the same day, we get politicians pursuing the same failed Keynesian stimulus policies over and over again.

The entire country has become a parody of Keynesian economics. Yet the politicians make Obama seem like a fiscal conservative by comparison. They keep doubling down on the same approach, regardless of all previous failures.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the details of the latest Keynesian binge.

Japan’s cabinet approved a government stimulus package that includes ¥7.5 trillion ($73 billion) in new spending, in the latest effort by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to jump-start the nation’s sluggish economy. The spending program, which has a total value of ¥28 trillion over several years, represents…an attempt to breathe new life into the Japanese economy… The government will pump money into infrastructure projects… The government will provide cash handouts of ¥15,000, or about $147, each to 22 million low-income people… Other items in the package included interest-free loans for infrastructure projects…and new hotels for foreign tourists.

As already noted, this is just the latest in a long line of failed stimulus schemes.

The WSJ story includes this chart showing what’s happened just since 2008.

And if you go back farther in time, you’ll see that the Japanese version of Groundhog Day has been playing since the early 1990s.

Here’s a list, taken from a presentation at the IMF, of so-called stimulus plans adopted by various Japanese governments between 1992-2008.

And here’s my contribution to the discussion. I went to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database and downloaded the numbers on government borrowing, government debt, and per-capita GDP growth.

I wanted to see how much deficit spending there was and what the impact was on debt and the economy. As you can see, red ink skyrocketed while the private economy stagnated.

Though we shouldn’t be surprised. Keynesian economics didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt, or Bush and Obama, so why expect it to work in another country.

By the way, I can’t resist making a comment on this excerpt from a CNBC report on Japan’s new stimulus scheme.

Abe ordered his government last month to craft a stimulus plan to revive an economy dogged by weak consumption, despite three years of his “Abenomics” mix of extremely accommodative monetary policy, flexible spending and structural reform promises.

In the interest of accuracy, the reporter should have replaced “despite” with “because of.”

In addition to lots of misguided Keynesian fiscal policy, there’s been a radical form of Keynesian monetary policy from the Bank of Japan.

Here are some passages from a very sobering Bloomberg report about the central bank’s burgeoning ownership of private companies.

Already a top-five owner of 81 companies in Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average, the BOJ is on course to become the No. 1 shareholder in 55 of those firms by the end of next year…. BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda almost doubled his annual ETF buying target last month, adding to an unprecedented campaign to revitalize Japan’s stagnant economy. …opponents say the central bank is artificially inflating equity valuations and undercutting efforts to make public companies more efficient. …the monetary authority’s outsized presence will make some shares harder to buy and sell, a phenomenon that led to convulsions in Japan’s government bond market this year. …the BOJ doesn’t acquire individual shares directly, it’s the ultimate buyer of stakes purchased through ETFs. …investors worry that BOJ purchases could give a free ride to poorly-run firms and crowd out shareholders who would otherwise push for better corporate governance.

Wow. I don’t pretend to be an expert on monetary economics, but I can’t image that there will be a happy ending to this story.

Just in case you’re not sufficiently depressed about Japan’s economic outlook, keep in mind that the nation also is entering a demographic crisis, as reported by the L.A. Times.

All across Japan, aging villages such as Hara-izumi have been quietly hollowing out for years… Japan’s population crested around 2010 with 128 million people and has since lost about 900,000 residents, last year’s census confirmed. Now, the country has begun a white-knuckle ride in which it will shed about one-third of its population — 40 million people — by 2060, experts predict. In 30 years, 39% of Japan’s population will be 65 or older.

The effects already are being felt, and this is merely the beginning of the demographic wave.

Police and firefighters are grappling with the safety hazards of a growing number of vacant buildings. Transportation authorities are discussing which roads and bus lines are worth maintaining and cutting those they can no longer justify. …Each year, the nation is shuttering 500 schools. …In Hara-izumi, …The village’s population has become so sparse that wild bears, boars and deer are roaming the streets with increasing frequency.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), even modest-sized welfare states eventually collapse when you wind up with too few workers trying to support an ever-growing number of recipients.

Now maybe you can understand why I’ve referred to Japan as a basket case.

P.S. You hopefully won’t be surprised to learn that Japanese politicians are getting plenty of bad advice from the fiscal pyromaniacs at the IMF and OECD.

P.P.S. Maybe I’m just stereotyping, but I’ve always assumed the Japanese were sensible people, even if they have a bloated and wasteful government. But when you look at that nation’s contribution to the stupidest-regulation contest and the country’s entry in the government-incompetence contest, I wonder whether the Japanese have some as-yet-undiscovered genetic link to Greece?

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I’ve written (some would say excessively) about the fact that America has too many bureaucrats and that they’re paid too much.

That’s true in Washington. That’s true at the state level. And it’s true for local governments.

But since I’m a big believer in beating a dead horse, let’s revisit this issue. We’ll narrow our focus today and look solely at the issue of retirement benefits for state and local bureaucrats.

Why? Because, as explained by Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, the unfunded liability for these schemes has mushroomed into a giant $5 trillion problem.

If the Actuarial Standards Board enacts recommendations from its Pension Task Force, actuarial valuations for state and local government pensions will report unfunded liabilities of over $5 trillion and funding ratios of just 39 percent. The public pensions industry will hate it, but those figures are the best available measures of the costs of public employee retirement plans. …That $5.2 trillion is the number most economists would think is most relevant to considering the costs of public sector pensions. …The simple reality is that public pension underfunding is a significant problem that can only really be addressed by increasing contributions or by lower pension benefits, choices that pretty much everyone involved in the pension world would prefer to avoid.

You won’t be surprised to learn that some states are more irresponsible than others.

CNBC reports that Nebraska is the most prudent and Alaska is the worst (politicians can’t resist squandering oil revenue). Several blue states rank poorly (think Illinois, Connecticut, California, and New Jersey), but there also are red states (such as Louisiana and Kentucky) that have made very foolish promises.

In Nebraska, for example, the pension liability amounts to about $386 per person, the lowest in the nation. That compares with Alaska ($19,394 per person: the highest in the country), Illinois ($15,158 per person) and Connecticut ($14,769). The average pension shortfall in 2014 amounted to $4,383.

The Wall Street Journal has an interactive table that allows readers to see which states have the biggest shortfall.

Meanwhile, Governing has an interactive map showing which states have the biggest gaps.

In other words, state and local bureaucrats have been promised a lot of money when they retire.

Much more money than is available.

And when you add Social Security benefits to the mix, as Andrew Biggs has calculated, you wind up having lots of bureaucrats enjoying very lavish levels of retirement income.

I tabulated the pension benefits paid to full-career “regular” state government employees (meaning, non-public safety) retiring in 2012. For states in which public employees participated in Social Security, I estimated the Social Security benefit the retiree would be eligible to receive. And finally, I compared total retirement benefits to the worker’s earnings immediately preceding retirement. …Mississippi paying the lowest replacement rate of 54% of final earnings. …West Virginia paid the most generous benefits, equal to 115% of final earnings, followed by New Mexico (113%), Oregon (105%), California (102%) and, yes, conservative Texas (101%).

Here’s a map that accompanied the article.

But maybe big numbers, maps and tables are too abstract.

To give some examples of how this is leading to a fiscal crisis, consider these recent news reports.

A story from the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

Nevadans should brace for reduced services, higher taxes or both — the necessary consequence of the Public Employee Retirement System of Nevada (PERS) having badly missed its investment target last year…PERS has now missed its target over the past five, 10, 15, 20 and 25 years — suggesting that another taxpayer-rate hike is on its way. Remarkably, this shortfall has occurred even though markets have nearly tripled from their 2009 lows, and currently sit at or near all-time highs. Nevada’s soaring pension costs — ranked third-highest in the nation at 9.8 percent of own-source revenue, according to 2013 data from the Public Plans Database — aren’t just due to overly optimistic investment assumptions, however. Another factor is the extraordinarily generous nature of the benefits.

A column from the Orange County Register:

…in the world of public sector pensions – among the biggest institutional investors in global markets – politicians…pretend they can count on big investment returns every year, while disregarding warning signs, mounting debts and increasingly unsustainable pension systems. We’re seeing the latest pension fund returns come in, and almost uniformly, it was a terrible year for states – and thus taxpayers. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest U.S. public pension fund, logged a paltry annual return of 0.6 percent. …CalPERS is currently only 76 percent funded, a figure that will inevitably drop given the latest weak returns.

A report from the Portland Tribune:

Oregon’s major business groups want lawmakers to start dealing with rising public pension costs as early as the session that opens Feb. 1. Although those costs start to kick in with the 2017-19 budget cycle — 18 months away — advocates say it’s not too early to whittle down an unfunded liability projected at $18 billion over the next few decades. …projected increases in contributions to PERS, which covers about 95 percent of Oregon’s public workers, will eat deeply into what they can spend over the next several two-year budget cycles. Cheri Helt, co-chair of the Bend-La Pine School Board, says pension costs will jump from the current 16 percent of payroll to 20 percent in 2017-19, and to 25 percent in the cycle afterward. …Jamie Moffitt, vice president and chief financial officer for the University of Oregon, says rising pension costs will eat up 40 percent — about 2 percentage points — of the 5.5 percent average annual increase in tuition.

An editorial about New Jersey in the Wall Street Journal:

New Jersey’s Senate president is in a Brando-like fight with government unions that he says are trying to extort or bribe legislators into doing their bidding. …At issue is the woefully underfunded state pension system. The teachers union wants to put a measure on the November ballot to amend the state constitution to require quarterly state pension payments of increasing amounts. …government unions have so much political sway over politicians that they often call the shots on their own pensions and benefits. …New Jersey’s public pensions are underfunded to the tune of $82 billion. Thomas Healey of the state’s bipartisan Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission notes that pensions and health care now eat up 11% of New Jersey’s budget, and without reform this will grow to 28% by 2025. …The pension commission has proposed reforms—including a shift to a hybrid retirement plan that includes features more akin to a 401(k)—but unions have blocked them. They now want voters to rewrite the state constitution so pension reform would be all but impossible.

A column about the corrupt system in Illinois:

Illinois’s government, says [Gov.] Rauner, “is run for the benefit of its employees.” Increasingly, it is run for their benefit when they retire. Pension promises [are] unfunded by at least $113 billion… The government is so thoroughly unionized (22 unions represent almost all government employees), that “I can’t,” Rauner says, “turn on a light switch without permission.” He exaggerates, somewhat, but the process of trying to fire someone is a career, not an option. …high-tax Illinois will continue bleeding population and businesses, but with one contented cohort — the Democratic political class, for whom the system is working quite well.

The crux of the problem is that most state and local governments have “defined-benefit” plans for bureaucrats, which means that taxpayers are on the hook to provide retiring bureaucrats a specific amount of benefits (not just retirement income, but other goodies such as health care) based on formulas that count years in the workforce, highest salary levels, and other factors. That may not sound totally unreasonable, but politicians realize they can buy votes by cutting deals with government unions and providing retirement benefits that are extremely generous, especially compared to what’s available for workers in the private sector.

But that’s simply one part of the problem. The other part of the problem is the employers with defined-benefit plans (usually referred to as “DB plans”) are supposed to set aside money in investment funds so that there’s a growing pool of assets that can be used to pay for the lavish benefits promised to the bureaucracy. But as we’ve already learned, politicians often are reluctant to take this step. They like committing lots of future money to bureaucrats, but when putting together annual budgets, they generally can buy more votes by allocating money to things like schools and roads rather than depositing money into a pension fund.

So the net result is that there’s a big unfunded liability, meaning that the amount that politicians have promised to give bureaucrats is larger than what’s set aside in the pension funds. And to make matters worse, the pension funds usually have dodgy accounting (they assume the investments will earn more money than is realistic). Which is why the actual shortfall is about $5.2 trillion, as noted above.

Given this ticking time bomb, some of you may be wondering why the title says there’s a libertarian quandary. Surely the answer is to cauterize this fiscal wound with immediate cuts and to avoid an even bigger long-run disaster by shifting newly hired bureaucrats to a defined-contribution system such as IRAs or 401(k)s. This type of reform automatically eliminates any liability for taxpayers since retirement benefits for bureaucrats would be solely a function of contributions to retirement accounts and the investment performance of those funds (most state and local bureaucrats also are part of the Social Security system).

Yes, that is the answer, but the quandary (to add to my collection) is whether the federal government should force, or even encourage, this type of reform. Don’t state and local governments, after all, have the right to make stupid decisions?

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Ed Bachrach argues that Uncle Sam should limit these suicidal policies.

The pensions of states and local governments are, collectively, trillions of dollars in the hole. This debt is crippling budgets and will dump an enormous burden on future generations. Yet state and local politicians have proven that they cannot, or will not, solve the problem. The federal government ought to step in. But how? Instead of bailing out these pensions, Congress should pass a law allowing states and local governments to reduce promised benefits—something that is now illegal under some states’ statutes or constitutions. …Many pensions allow retirement at age 55; states and local governments could mandate that benefits cannot be drawn until age 65. Payments could be capped at 150% of the median income in the local jurisdiction. Automatic cost-of-living increases that now exceed expected inflation could instead be tied to increases in the median income. …Local governments must also be required to terminate their defined-benefit plans. These should be replaced with defined-contribution plans, like 401(k)s or 403(b)s… Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) proposed withholding federal aid to government entities that don’t accurately report pension funding. That would be a step forward but would not solve the problem of underfunding.

I obviously agree that there should be no bailouts, but I’m still not convinced that Washington should mandate good policy by state and local governments.

Federalism means the freedom to adopt good policy…but also the leeway to commit fiscal suicide.

Though Andrew Biggs points out that the part about accurate reporting certainly sounds reasonable.

Congress has a tremendous opportunity to require state and local government employee pension plans to accurately disclose their multi-trillion dollar unfunded liabilities. …For years, economists and government agencies like the Congressional Budget Office have called for so-called “fair market valuation,” which both more accurately calculates the value of public pension liabilities and accurately tells those plans that taking more investment risk doesn’t make their plans cheaper. …there’s legislative language already written: Rep. Devin Nunes’s Public Employee Pension Transparency Act (PEPTA), which has a number of Congressional co-sponsors including House Speaker Paul Ryan, would require state and local plans to accurately disclose their liabilities using fair market valuation. The federal government would respect state and local rights by not forcing any changes to how pensions are funded, but Nunes’s plan would require that state and local governments to tell the public – including people thinking of purchasing municipal bonds – how much they really owe to their pensions.

P.S. By the way, advocates of limited government don’t experience many victories, but there actually was a very good reform of the pension system for federal bureaucrats during the Reagan years. Yes, federal bureaucrats are still over-compensated, but it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be. Yet another example of how Reaganomics was a success.

P.P.S. Shifting to bad news (or laughable news), the hacks in California tried to argue that lavish pensions for bureaucrats boost the economy. Andrew Biggs does a great job of debunking this nonsense.

The California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) issued a report in July claiming that its benefit payments to retired government employees in 2013-2014 “supported 104,974 jobs throughout California and generated more than $15.6 billion in additional economic output.” …To reduce pension benefits for public employees, the study implies, would harm the overall California economy. …This study is nothing short of propaganda that wouldn’t get a passing grade in a freshman economics course. …the CalPERS study lacks one important component, called “counting both sides of the equation.” It needs to count economic costs as well as economic benefits. …CalPERS doesn’t create money out of thin air. Every single dollar of CalPERS benefits comes from a dollar that taxpayers or government employees contributed to the program or from the interest earned on those contributions.

Sounds like the bureaucrats at CalPERS should be working for the Congressional Budget Office.

P.P.P.S. The focus of this column is on the inherent instability of defined-benefit pension plans for bureaucrats, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the underlying issue is that bureaucrats are ripping off taxpayers. Here are some blurbs from a Reason report by Eric Boehm on how this scam works in California.

If public service truly is a sacrifice, then join me in shedding a tear for the 20,900 public workers in California who pulled down more than $100,000 in retirement benefits during 2015. …Leading the way for 2015 was Michael Johnson. The former Solano County administrator received a $388,407 pension last year. …Rounding out the top three are Stephen Maguin, a former Los Angeles County Sanitation District general manager who pulled down $340,811 in 2015 and Joaquin Fuster, a former UCLA professor who got a pension worth $338,412 last year. …Curtis Bowden, a former member of the California Highway Patrol…retired all the way back in 1947, which means he’s been collecting pension checks for 68 years, after working just 5.3 years for the state. He got $24,800 from CalPERS in 2015.

Wow, I’m not sure what’s more impressive, Getting an annual pension of nearly $400K after being a country bureaucrat or working for just a bit over five years and getting 68 years worth of retirement checks?

Seems like both of them should be part of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

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I’m like a broken record when it comes to entitlement spending. I’ve explained, ad nauseam, that programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and Social Security must be reformed.

In part, genuine entitlement reform is a good idea because you get better economic performance when you replace tax-and-transfer schemes with private savings and competitive markets.

Demographic 2030But reform also is desperately needed because of changing demographics. Simply stated, leaving all the entitlement programs on autopilot is a recipe for a Greek-style fiscal crisis.

If you want a rigorous explanation of the issue, my colleague Jeff Miron has a must-read monograph on the topic. You should peruse the entire study, but here’s the key conclusion if you’re pressed for time.

…this paper projects fiscal imbalance as of every year between 1965 and 2014, using data-supported assumptions about gross domestic product (GDP) growth, revenue, and trends in mandatory spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs. The projections reveal that the United States has faced a growing fiscal imbalance since the early 1970s, largely as a consequence of continuous growth in mandatory spending. As of 2014, the fiscal imbalance stands at $117.9 trillion, with few signs of future improvement even if GDP growth accelerates or tax revenues increase relative to historic norms. Thus the only viable way to restore fiscal balance is to scale back mandatory spending policies, particularly on large health care programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Jeff’s report is filled with sobering charts. I’ve picked out three that deserve special attention.

First, here’s a look back in history at the growing fiscal burden of entitlement programs.

Second, here’s a look forward at how the fiscal burden of entitlement programs will get even worse in coming decades.

Keep in mind, by the way, that the two above charts only show the fiscal burden of entitlement programs (sometimes referred to as “mandatory spending” since the laws “mandate” that money be given to anyone who is “entitled” based on various criteria).

When you add discretionary (annually appropriated) spending to the mix, as well as interest that is paid on the national debt, the numbers get even more grim.

Jeff adds everything together and shows, for each year between 1965 and 2014, the “present value” of the gap between what the government is promising to spend and how much revenue it is projected to collect.

These numbers are especially horrific because “present value” is a measure of how much money the government would have to somehow obtain and set aside in order to have a nest egg capable of offsetting future deficits.

Needless to say, the federal government did not have access to $118 trillion (yes, trillion with a “t”) in 2014. And if there were updated numbers for 2015 and 2016 (which would probably be even higher than $118 trillion), the federal government still wouldn’t have access to that amount of money either.

Especially since the total annual output of the American economy is about $18 trillion.

So now you can understand why international bureaucracies like the IMF, BIS, and OECD estimate that the fiscal challenge in the United States may be even bigger than the problems in decrepit welfare states such as France and Italy.

Let’s get another perspective on the issue. James Capretta of the Ethics and Public Policy Center warns about the scope of the problem.

Despite what presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have been saying on the campaign trail, the need to reform the nation’s major entitlement programs cannot be wished away. The primary cause of the nation’s fiscal problems, now and in the future, is the rapid rise in entitlement spending. In 1970, spending on Social Security and the major health care entitlement programs was 3.6 percent of GDP. In 2015, spending on these programs was 10.3 percent of GDP. By 2040, CBO expects spending on these programs to reach 14.2 percent of GDP. …entitlement reform is needed to put the federal government’s finances on a more stable foundation.

He outlines his preferred reforms, some of which I heartily embrace and some of what I think are too timid, but the key point is that he succinctly explains the need to act soon to avoid a giant long-term problem.

…reforms are not intended to create budgetary balance in the short-run. Large-scale change cannot be implemented in the major programs without significant transition periods, which means the reforms need to be enacted soon to reduce costs in fifteen, twenty, and twenty-five years. Skeptics may say it’s pointless to worry about fiscal problems that are more than twenty years off. They’re wrong. …The result is a misallocation of resources that undermines long-term economic growth. …Entitlement reform is an absolute necessity, as will soon become evident to everyone, one way or another.

The recent testimony by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute also is must reading.

In just two generations, the government…has effectively become an entitlements machine. …transfers have become a major component in the family budget of the average American household-and our dependence on these government transfers continues to rise. …Fifty years into our great social experiment of massive expansion of entitlement programs, there is ample evidence to indicate that the unintended consequences of this reconfigutation of American political and economic life have been major and adverse.

You should read the entire testimony, which is a comprehensive explanation of how entitlements are eroding American exceptionalism.

And I’ve previously shared some of Eberstadt’s work on the growing dependency crisis in America.

In effect, our “social capital” of self reliance and the work ethic is being replaced by an entitlement mentality.

At the risk of understatement, that won’t end well. Heck, I don’t know which part is more depressing, the ever-growing burden of spending or the fact that more and more Americans think it’s okay to live off the labor of others.

All I can say for sure is that this combination never was, is not now, and never will be a recipe for national success.

Let’s conclude with some sage observations by George Melloan of the Wall Street Journal. He summarizes the problem as being a combination of too much spending and too little political courage. Here’s the too-much-spending part.

…we seem richer than we actually are because we have borrowed so heavily from future generations. …the nation’s slow growth and rising debt are already reducing the opportunities for upward mobility. …Recent projections of the future cost of current government obligations certainly won’t relieve…people’s worries. Those promises have expanded far beyond any reasonable projection of the government’s ability to extract enough revenue to cover them. …The Congressional Budget Office projects a steady rise in “mandatory” (i.e., entitlement) costs as a share of GDP out into the distant future. …The upshot: Americans are deep in debt, mainly thanks to government excesses.

And here’s the too-little-political-courage part.

The only real answer is that the entitlement programs will have to be reformed, and sooner better than later, because the longer reform is postponed the greater the fiscal imbalance will become and the greater its drain will be… Donald Trump is out to lunch on this issue, as he is on most questions that require more than a fatuous sound-bite answer. As for Hillary…, forget about it.

Sigh, how depressing. It seems like America will be “Europeanized.”

For additional background on the issue of debt, unfunded liabilities, and present value, this video is a great tutorial.

P.S. I must have taken LSD or crack earlier this year. That’s the only logical explanation for saying I was optimistic about entitlement reform.

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The Social Security Administration has released the 2016 Trustees Report, which shines a spotlight on the overall fiscal condition of the program.

In previous years (2012, 2013, 2014), I’ve used this opportunity to play Paul Revere. But instead of warning that the British are coming, I sound the alarm about a future fiscal crisis resulting from demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Which is what I did in this interview on Fox Business.

It wasn’t a long interview, but I had the opportunity to touch on four very important issues.

First, I explained that the Social Security Trust Fund is nothing but a pile of IOUs. It’s money the government owes itself, which means that the bonds in the Trust Fund can only be turned into real money by taking more from the private sector.

But if you don’t trust me, perhaps you’ll believe the Clinton Administration, which admitted back in 1999 (see page 337) that the Trust Fund is just a bookkeeping gimmick.

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures–but only in a bookkeeping sense. …They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury, that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.

In other words, the Trust Fund is like putting IOUs to yourself in a college fund. When it’s time for junior to start his freshman year, you’ll have to find the money to cash those IOUs.

Second, Social Security already is in the red and the rising burden of spending for the program will lead to huge fiscal shortfalls.

Here’s a chart, based directly on the data from Table VI.G9 of the Trustees Report, showing the annual deficit in the program based on today’s dollars.

Third, it’s grossly irresponsible for politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton to agitate for higher spending in the program.

Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute weighed in on this issue earlier this year. Here’s some of what he wrote in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

Mrs. Clinton would raise retirement payments for widows as well as provide Social Security credits for individuals who take time out of the workforce to care for a child or an infirm adult.

Andrew points out that Hillary also has expressed support for increases in the payroll tax rate and letting the government impose the tax on a greater share of income.

Mrs. Clinton…has recently spoken in favor of both approaches.

By the way, the latter option is especially dangerous for the economy, as explained in this video.

Fourth, Social Security is in bad shape, but the main long-run entitlement challenge comes from health-related programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

In other words, we need comprehensive long-run entitlement reform if we don’t want to become Greece.

P.S. For reasons that I’ve already covered, I didn’t like being called a “deficit hawk” by the host.

P.P.S. While proponents deserve credit for being serious, I think the Simpson-Bowles plan leaves a lot to be desired.

P.P.P.S. Here’s the right way to fix Social Security.

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