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Archive for the ‘Fiscal Policy’ Category

While speaking last year in Hawaii on the topic of good tax policy, I explained why it is misguided to impose extra layers of tax on saving and investment.

Regarding the problem of double taxation, I’ve addressed how various features of the tax code need to be fixed.

Today, we’re going to focus on the fixing the tax treatment of household savings. And the problem that needs fixing is that the federal government taxes you when you earn money and also taxes any interest you earn if you decide to save some of your after-tax income.

As you can see from the chart, this creates a tax wedge.

And that tax wedge distorts people’s decisions and makes them more likely to choose immediate consumption rather than savings (which can be viewed as deferred consumption).

As mentioned in the video, every economic theory recognizes that saving and investment (again, just another way of saying deferred consumption) are critical to future growth and rising living standards. So there are good reasons to fix the tax code.

The good news is that there are two ways to fix this problem.

  1. Tax income only one time when it is first earned.
  2. Tax income only one time when it is consumed.

In practical terms, the first option treats all savings like a “Roth IRA,”, which means you pay tax the year you earn your income, but the IRS does not get another bit at the apple if you save some of your after-tax income and it earns interest or otherwise grows in value.

The second option treats all savings like a 401(k), which means you are not taxed on any income that you place in a savings vehicle, but you are taxed on any money (including any interest or other returns) that you withdraw from the account.

As shown by Adam Michel of the Heritage Foundation, both of these approaches lead to the same long-run result (and thus are superior to what happens when people save without being protected from double taxation).

The good news is that Americans can protect their savings from double taxation by using either individual retirement accounts (IRAs) or 401(k)s.

The bad news is that those “qualified accounts” are restricted. Only people who are saving for retirement can protect themselves from double taxation.

That needs to change.

Here’s what I wrote back in 2012 and I think it’s reasonably succinct and accurate.

…all saving and investment should be treated the way we currently treat individual retirement accounts. If you have a traditional IRA (or “front-ended” IRA), you get a deduction for any money you put in a retirement account, but then you pay tax on the money – including any earnings – when the money is withdrawn. If you have a Roth IRA (or “back-ended” IRA), you pay tax on your income in the year that it is earned, but if you put the money in a retirement account, there is no additional tax on withdrawals or the subsequent earnings. From an economic perspective, front-ended IRAs and back-ended IRAs generate the same result. Income that is saved and invested is treated the same as income that is immediately consumed. From a present-value perspective, front-ended IRAs and back-ended IRAs produce the same outcome. All that changes is the point at which the government imposes the single layer of tax.

The key takeaways are in the first and last sentences. All savings should be protected from double taxation, not just what you set aside for retirement. And that means government can tax you one time, either when you first earn the income or when you consume the income.

This means we need universal savings accounts, sort of like they have in Canada.

Here’s what Robert Bellafiore of the Tax Foundation wrote about the idea back in 2019.

USAs do not penalize withdrawals on account of their purpose or timing. In contrast, some types of existing savings accounts are not neutral, penalizing people who withdraw their money for anything but approved purposes at approved times. For example, withdrawals from 529 accounts can only be made without penalty if they are used to fund education. If a parent has a 529 account for a child but must make a withdrawal to cover emergency expenses, he or she must pay income taxes on the earnings, plus a 10 percent penalty. Withdrawals from 401(k)s before the age of 59½ incur the same penalty, though there are certain exceptions. USAs’ neutrality would likely boost saving, for two reasons. First, when savings are not hit by multiple layers of taxation, savers can expect a higher return and are therefore likely to save more. Both IRAs and 401(k)s tax savings only once, and studies have estimated that roughly half of 401(k) balances, and roughly a quarter of all IRA contributions, constitute new saving—in other words, dollars that would have been spent are saved instead.

The bottom line is that we need to copy jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore that have little or no double taxation of any kind.

Especially since we now live in a world where inflation has become an issue, which acts as a hidden tax on saving and investment.

I’ll close with this chart from the OECD. It’s a few years old, so I’m sure some nations have changed their policies, but it gives one a good idea of how savings is treated around the world.

The bottom line is that it’s good to avoid Norway and the United States is unimpressive.

I’m very surprised to see that Argentina and Germany have good policy.

P.S. For some of our friends on the left, policies that protect from double taxation are akin to an entitlement.

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When leftists (or misguided rightists) tell me that Americans are under-taxed and that the government has lots of red ink because of insufficient revenue, I sometimes will direct them to the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables in hopes of changing their minds.

I’ll specifically ask them to look at the data in Table 1-3 so they can see what’s happened to federal tax revenue over time. As you can see from this chart, nominal tax revenues have skyrocketed.

The reason that I send them to Table 1-3 is that they can also peruse the numbers after adjusting for inflation.

On that basis, we see the same story. Inflation-adjusted federal tax revenues have grown enormously.

The two charts we just examined are very depressing.

So now let’s peruse at a chart that is just mildly depressing.

If you look at federal tax revenues as a share of economic output, you’ll see that Uncle Sam currently is collecting slightly more than 18 percent of economic output. Since the long-run average is about 17 percent of GDP, that’s not a horrific increase.

However, there are still some reasons to be quite concerned.

  • The Congressional Budget Office projects the tax burden as a share of GDP will expand even further over the next few decades.
  • That means that politicians in DC not only are getting more money because of inflation, but also because the economy is expanding.
  • Third, not only are politicians getting more money because the economy expanding, they’re slowly but surely expanding their share.

That’s very bad news for those of us who don’t like higher taxes and bigger government.

Some people, however, have a different perspective

In one of his columns for the New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum argues that Americans are undertaxed.

…the United States really does have a debt problem. …Americans need more federal spending. The United States invests far less than other wealthy nations in providing its citizens with the basic resources necessary to lead productive lives. …Measured as a share of G.D.P., public spending in the other Group of 7 nations is, on average, more than 50 percent higher than in the United States. …There is another, better way to fund public spending: collecting more money in taxes. …If the debt ceiling serves any purpose, it is the occasional opportunity for Congress to step back and consider the sum of all its fiscal policies. The nation is borrowing too much but not because it is spending too much. The real crisis is the need to collect more money in taxes.

I give Appelbaum credit for honesty. He openly advocates for higher taxes and bigger government, explicitly writing that “Americans need more federal spending.”

And he is envious that spending in other major nations is “more than 50 percent higher than in the United States.”

But this raises the very obvious point about whether we should copy other nations with their bigger welfare states and higher tax burdens. After all, European nations suffer from weaker economic performance and lower living standards.

Does Appelbaum think we’ll have “productive lives” if our living standards drop by 50 percent?

Does he think that “invest” is the right word for policies that lead to lower economic performance?

The bottom line is that I’m completely confident that Appelbaum would be stumped by the never-answered question.

P.S. Dishonest leftists claim tax increases will lead to less red ink while honest leftists like Appelbaum admit the real goal is a bigger burden of government.

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It’s fun to write about big-picture tax issues such as tax reform (for instance, should we have a flat tax or national sales tax?).

It’s also fun to write about contentious issues such as whether there should be tax increases or whether the tax code should be based on class warfare.

Many tax topics, however, are tedious and boring. But they nonetheless involve important issues.

  1. Depreciation vs. expensing for new business investment.
  2. International tax rules and the choice of worldwide taxation vs territorial taxation.
  3. The debate on consumption-base taxation vs. Haig-Simons taxation.
  4. Choosing the right way of treating prior-years business losses.
  5. The fight over whether border-adjustable taxation should be part of tax reform.

Building on that list, today we’re going to wade into the boring topic of “tax expenditures.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, tax expenditures are special preferences in the tax code. In other words, tax loopholes.

But here’s the challenge: In order to figure out what’s a loophole, you first need to define a neutral tax system. And that means the debate over tax expenditures is actually a fight over consumption-base taxation vs. Haig-Simons taxation (the third item in the above list).

At the risk of over-simplifying, here’s what both sides believe:

  • Proponents of consumption-base tax believe you get a neutral system by taxing all income one time, but only one time (i.e., there should be no discriminatory extra layers of taxation on income that is saved and invested).
  • Proponents of Haig-Simons taxation, by contrast, believe that a neutral tax system also requires double taxation of income that is saved and invested (for all intents and purposes, taxing income and changes in net worth).

I’m motivated to write about this topic because the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget put out a report last year entitled, “Addressing Tax Expenditures Could Raise Substantial Revenue.”

Since I don’t think our fiscal problem of excessive spending can be solved by giving politicians more revenue, I obviously disagree with the folks at CRFB about whether it would be desirable to “raise substantial revenue.”

For what it’s worth, I want to get rid of tax loopholes, but only if we use the revenues to facilitate lower tax rates. Indeed, that’s the goal of reforms such as the flat tax.

But let’s set aside that fight over tax increases and instead look at CRFB’s list of supposed tax expenditures. They rely on the Haig-Simons approach and thus include items (circled in red) that are not actually loopholes.

In a neutral tax system with no double taxation, there is no capital gains tax, no death tax, and no double taxation of dividends. In a neutral tax system, all savings is treated like IRAs and 401(k)s, which means the provisions circled above should be viewed as mitigations of penalties rather than loopholes.

Adam Michel of the Heritage Foundation illustrated the differences between consumption-base and Haig-Smons taxation in a 2019 report.

Here’s his table looking at what’s a loophole under both systems and the bottom part of the visual is where you will see the stark difference in how both systems treat saving and investment.

I’ll close by observing that my friends on the left generally support double taxation because they view such policies as a way of getting rich people to pay more (or as a way of punishing success, regardless of whether more revenue is collected).

I try to remind them that saving and investment is what leads to higher productivity, which means it is the most effective way of boosting wages for those of us who are not rich.

Sadly, it’s not easy to get them to understand that labor and capital are complementary factors of production (apologies for the economic jargon).

P.S. While CRFB uses the wrong definition when measuring tax loopholes, they are not alone. The Joint Committee on Taxation,  the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office make the same mistake. Heck, you even see Republicans foolishly use this flawed benchmark.

P.P.S. Here’s my award for the strangest tax loophole.

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Back in 2016, here’s what I said about the debt limit during some congressional testimony (and I made very similar points in some 2013 testimony).

Near the end of my testimony (about 4:55) I discuss “prioritization,” which is what would happen if the debt limit is not raised and the Treasury Department has to decide which payments are made (and which payments are delayed).

I then pointed out that federal tax revenues in 2017 were expected to be 11 times greater than annual interest payments.

As such, there obviously would have been plenty of cash available to make interest payments, as well as to finance other economically or politically sensitive items (I assume, for instance, that Treasury would have prioritized monthly Social Security benefits as well).

Would this have been messy? Yes. Would it have been uncharted territory not covered by the law? Yes. But would it have been better than default, which would have caused turmoil in financial markets? Another yes.

Which now brings us to the present day. We’re now in another debt limit fight, so I decided to look at the most-recent data from the Congressional Budget Office to see whether the federal government will still have plenty of cash so that interest payments on the debt can be prioritized.

Lo and behold, annual tax revenue this fiscal year is going to be more than 11 times greater than annual interest payments. Just like in 2017.

In other words, we presumably can sleep easy. There’s plenty of money to pay interest on the debt.

There would only be a default if Joe Biden or Janet Yellen (the Treasury Secretary) deliberately chose not to prioritize. And the odds of that happening presumably are way below 1 percent.

Some people may wonder why we should accept even that small risk? Why not simply increase the debt limit so that the odds of a default are 0 percent?

That’s a fair point, but it must be balanced by the recognition that the United States is on a path to long-run economic and fiscal chaos. So I can also understand why some lawmaker say the debt limit should only be raised if accompanied by some much-need spending restraint.

And, for those who care about real-world evidence, that’s what has happened in the past. Indeed, Brian Riedl notes that it’s the only plausible vehicle for altering the nation’s fiscal trajectory.

I’ll close by expressing pessimism that House Republicans will achieve anything in the current fight over the debt limit.

We won’t get something really good, like a spending cap. But I start with very low expectations, so I guess I’m happy that Republicans are at least pretending to care once again about excessive government spending.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step!

P.S. I partially disagree with Brian Riedl’s list. The 1990 Bush tax increase was not a “deficit-reduction law.” And it was post-1994 spending restraint that produced a balanced budget, not Clinton’s 1993 tax increase.

P.P.S. Remember that debt is bad, but it should be viewed as a symptom. The underlying disease is excessive government spending.

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Copying some self-styled national conservatives, Donald Trump this week endorsed major tax increases on lower-income and middle-class Americans.

But he embraced huge tax increases in an indirect fashion.

  • He did not say “let’s adopt money-siphoning value-added taxes” like they have in Europe.
  • Nor did he say “let’s impose very high income tax rates on ordinary people” like they do in Europe.
  • And he didn’t say “let’s have much higher payroll tax rates” like they have in Europe.

Instead, Trump embraced huge tax increases by default. He told congressional Republicans to ignore America’s slow-motion crisis of entitlement spending.

For all intents and purposes, that is the same as embracing huge tax increases.

To be more specific, if you endorse European-style government spending, you are necessarily and unavoidably endorsing European-style tax policy.

And that’s what Trump did. Here are some excerpts from a report in the Hill by Brett Samuels.

Former President Trump on Friday urged Republicans in Congress not to cut “a single penny” from Medicare or Social Security… “Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security…,” Trump said in a recorded video statement posted to Truth Social. …The former president’s message about protecting Social Security and Medicare is consistent with his previous comments on the issue as a candidate in 2016.

For what it’s worth, I’m not surprised at what Trump said.

He favored big government as a candidate in 2016 and he expanded the burden of spending when he was President.

But some of us don’t want to surrender and doom the United States to European-style economic stagnation.

Which is why I’ve decided to take a sentence I wrote last month and turn it into the 15th Theorem of Government.

Here’s the bottom line: Genuine patriots recognize America has a problem and they have the courage to advocate reforms that will actually solve the problem.

It will be interesting to see how many Republicans fit that definition.

P.S. I’m not a never-Trumper or anti-Trumper. For instance, I praised his tax policy and said nice things about his record on regulation. But I’m loyal to ideas, not to people, so I don’t hesitate to criticize any politician who pushes ideas that are bad for America.

P.P.S. Here are the other 14 Theorems of Government.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.
  • The “Sixth Theorem” explains an under-appreciated benefit of a flat tax.
  • The “Seventh Theorem” explains how bigger governments are less competent.
  • The “Eighth Theorem” explains the motives of those who focus on inequality.
  • The “Ninth Theorem” explains how politics often trumps principles.
  • The “Tenth Theorem” explains how politicians manufacture/exploit crises.
  • The “Eleventh Theorem” explains why big business is often anti-free market.
  • The “Twelfth Theorem” explains you can’t have European-sized government without pillaging the middle class.
  • The “Thirteenth Theorem” explains that people are unwilling to pay for bloated government.
  • The “Fourteenth Theorem” explains how poor people are hurt by big government.

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It is an understatement to declare that fiscal policy in France is terrible.

In recent years, France has had terrible presidents such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande.

But when Emmanuel Macron took over, I wondered whether he might push the nation in the right direction.

And he has pushed a few good ideas. But his achievements have been so meager that I was only half-joking when I wrote last year that his reelection meant that a socialist beat a socialist.

But maybe I’ll have to apologize for that column because Macron is pushing reforms to the country’s pay-as-you-go pension system.

In a column for CNN, David Andelman summarizes the plan and explains the motives.

…the French government announced plans to raise the official retirement age from 62 to 64 to qualify for a full pension. …The French budget risks floundering on pensions that are siphoning off nearly 14% of the nation’s GDP each year – roughly twice the drain than in the United Sates and behind only Italy and Greece in Europe. …Currently, all men and women in France can retire with full pensions at 62 – tied with Sweden and Norway for the lowest retirement age in western Europe. …there are special exemptions dating back to the time of Louis XIV. After performing on the stage for 10 years, actors of the Comédie Française…are entitled to claim a lifetime pension. This dates to the company’s creation in 1680. Dancers in the Paris Opera can retire with full pension at the age of 42, a custom that dates to 1689… Stagehands at both companies can still take their retirement at 57. Then there are train conductors who can bow out at age 52. …In all, there are at least 42 different pension schemes… “The French can count on our determination to block this unfair reform,” said Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, who Macron defeated in the presidential elections last April. At the other end of the spectrum, Mathilde Panot, from the far-left France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party tweeted that the plan was “archaic, unfair, brutal, cruel.”

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal opined last week in favor of Macron’s reform.

France currently has 42 different government-funded pension programs, which vary in retirement age and payout. Mr. Macron wants to wind down some of these programs and transition more French workers to a general pension scheme. That would make it easier for workers to change jobs, and it would also be a step toward a fairer pension system. This job mobility point is crucial and would benefit most workers and employers. …the French system scored a D grade, or 40.9 out of a possible 100, on financial sustainability on the Global Pension Index 2022, created by the consulting firm Mercer… The French system is a pay-as-you-go model in which current workers fund retiree pensions. Yet today there are only 1.7 workers for each retiree, compared to 3-to-1 in 1970 and headed to 1.4-to-1 by 2050. …Nothing short of French economic vitality is at stake. Mr. Macron twice won the Presidency with a vision of a more energetic, entrepreneurial France with more opportunity for young people. A more rational pension system is an essential part of the project.

The WSJ editorial is correct. Macron’s reform would give France a “more rational pension system.”

But it would not give the country a good pension system.

Macron is basically asking workers to pay more and get less. And it is true that his plan will prop up the government’s tax-and-transfer, pay-as-you-go scheme.

But that’s like patching the roof of a rotten house.

What France really needs is genuine reform so that younger workers can shift to a system of private savings. Which is something that already exists to varying degrees in other European nations such as Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

P.S. Back in 2010, France went through political turmoil to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

P.P.S. Sadly, most of the flaws of France’s government retirement system are the same as the ones that exist in the United States.

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Two days ago, I dug into the C-Span archives to share a 15-year old clip of me explaining the theoretical virtues of a national sales tax.

Let’s now go back more than 30 years for this segment from a 1990 interview.

So why am I sharing my thoughts on Washington’s use of misleading budget rhetoric?

Because while I’ve pontificated about this issue in the past (three times in 2011 and two times in 2012), it’s definitely time for a refresher course.

I’m motivated by this chart from the folks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. They want readers to believe that balancing the budget over the next 10 years would require drastic spending cuts.

To understand what’s wrong with this CRFB chart, let’s go to the latest 10-year forecast from the Congressional Budget Office.

You’ll notice that this year’s federal budget is $5.87 trillion. And you’ll also notice that revenues in 2032 are projected to climb above $6.66 trillion.

At the risk of showing off my amazing math skills, $6.66 trillion is more than $5.87 trillion. Indeed, nearly $800 billion higher.

And what does that mean? Well, it means that we can balanced the budget by 2032 so long as spending does not increase by more than $800 billion between now and 2032. As illustrated by this chart.

To be fair to the CRFB crowd, they didn’t use make-believe numbers.

Their estimate is based on what would happen if the federal budget is left on autopilot, which means the budget grows every year because of factors such as inflation, demographic change, and previously legislated program expansions.

They then compared that artificial “baseline” to projected revenues. That’s how they came up with an estimate of a 26 percent budget cut.

In reality, though, government would be spending more than 13 percent more in 2032 when compared to 2023.

Here’s the bottom line: If CRFB or anyone else wants to argue that the budget should grow by more than 13 percent over the next nine years, they can make that argument. They can say that various programs are important and that overall spending should increase because of inflation. Or demographics.

Heck, they can even say spending should grow at a rapid pace because AOC and Bernie want bigger government.

We can then have an honest and fair debate. I’ll argue we need a TABOR-style spending cap and they can argue we should be like Greece or Italy.

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I have a seven-part series (here, here, here, here, here, here and here) comparing Texas and California, mostly to demonstrate that the not-so-Golden State has hurt itself with excessive taxation and a bloated government.

Today, we’re going to augment our comparisons by looking at a very practical example of how California’s approach is much worse.

The National Association of State Budget Officers publishes an interesting document (at least if you’re a budget wonk) entitled State Expenditure Report.

And if you to to Table 2 of that report, you’ll find the most important measure of state fiscal policy, which shows how fast the burden of government spending increased over the past two years.

Lo and behold (but to no one’s surprise), California politicians increased the spending burden much faster than their Texas counterparts.

As you can see, both states were irresponsible the first year, thanks in large part to the all the pandemic-related handouts approved by Trump and Biden.

But California was twice as bad. Politicians in Sacramento used federal handouts to finance a grotesque spending binge (whereas the spending binge in Texas deserves a more mild adjective, such as massive).

Both states were better the second year, with California’s spending burden climbing by 2.2 percent in 2022 and Texas actually delivering a spending cut.

Remember, though, that the spending burden exploded between 2020 and 2021, so the 2022 numbers only look reasonable compared to the bloated trendline.

Now let’s consider whether California’s grotesque spending binge had negative consequences.

The answer is yes, according to a Wall Street Journal editorial.

Gov. Gavin Newsom last year touted a $100 billion budget surplus as evidence of California’s progressive superiority. He was less triumphant…when announcing a $22.5 billion deficit in the coming year, a contrast to Texas’s record $32.7 billion surplus. …California’s problem, as usual, is that Democrats baked too much spending into their budget baseline. They expanded Medicaid to undocumented immigrants over the age of 50, enacted universal pre-school and school lunches, extended paid family leave by two weeks, and boosted climate spending by $10 billion. …Much of Texas’s surplus this year owes to surging sales-tax revenue from inflation and population growth—i.e., Californians moving to Texas and spending their tax savings. Mr. Newsom claimed Tuesday that California has a more “fair” tax system than the Lone Star State and that Texans pay more in taxes. This is disinformation. According to the Census Bureau, California’s per capita state tax collections ($6,325) were second highest in the country in 2021 after Vermont. Texas’s ($2,214) were second lowest after Alaska. …California’s budget problems will grow as more of its rich and middle class move to lower-tax states like Texas.

Per-capita state tax collections are the most striking numbers in the editorial.  The average Californian is paying $6,325 for state government, nearly three times as much as the $2,214 that is paid by the average Texan.

Does anyone think that Californians are getting nearly three times as much value as their counterparts in the Lone Star State?

Based on how people are voting with their feet, the answer is obvious. But if you prefer more technical measures of state government value, California loses that contest as well.

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When I write about fiscal policy, there are two ever-present themes.

And both of these themes can be found in a comprehensive new report issued by the Maine Policy Institute.

The report provides lawmakers with a detailed analysis of the state’s fiscal status and it shows specific spending reforms that would save money and create “fiscal space” for pro-growth tax reforms.

I realize that readers from most places won’t care very much about some of the Maine-specific data, but the report contains some charts that teach a very important lesson that can be applied in other states, as well as in Washington and other national capitals.

Consider, for instance, this chart showing that Maine is getting in trouble because spending in recent years is growing significantly faster than inflation.

The same is true in Washington, except the problem is far worse.

And in other states. And various cities. And other nations.

In other words, governments at all levels and in almost all places have a hard time complying with fiscal policy’s Golden Rule.

That being said, spending caps are a universal solution to this universal problem. Let’s look at Figure 10 from the report, which shows how a TABOR-style spending cap would have produced very good results for Maine.

Once again, we can take this information and apply it very broadly.

A spending cap is the smart and effective way of dealing with irresponsible fiscal policy at all levels of government.

For instance, Switzerland is well know for its spending cap, known as the debt brake. This approach has yielded very good results for the nation’s finances, but less well know is the fact that many subnational governments in Switzerland’s federalist system have their own versions of a spending cap.

The bottom line is that good fiscal policy is universally applicable. And spending restraint is a necessary precondition for that to happen.

P.S. Some people ask whether a balanced budget amendment would be better than a spending cap. This question gives me an excuse to share one more chart from the study. As you can see from Figure 9, annual tax revenues are very unstable. Sometimes they grow rapidly, sometimes they grow slowly, and sometimes they actually shrink (and the same thing is true in Washington).

This means that a balanced budget requirement is very difficult to enforce and often does not produce good results. During boom years, when revenue is rapidly increasing, politicians have too much leeway to increase spending. And during downturns, when revenue if stagnant or falling, politicians claim that spending restraint would be too difficult and they raise taxes instead.

The advantage of a spending cap is that it targets the real problem of spending (rather than the symptom of red ink). Moreover, politicians are subject to a rule that is much easier to enforce (increasing spending by, say, 2 percent every year is very straightforward compared to the wild swings in spending that occur with a balanced budget rule).

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As part of my annual “Hopes and Fears” column, a rejuvenated interest in spending restraint was at the top of my list.

This clip from a recent interview summarizes the economic issues.

If you don’t want to watch the video, here are the three things to understand.

  1. Tax-financed spending is bad for prosperity.
  2. Debt-financed spending is bad for prosperity.
  3. Monetary-financed spending is bad for prosperity.

And if you understand those three things, then you realize that the real problem is spending.

At the risk of over-simplifying, taxes, borrowing, and printing money should be viewed as different ways of doing a bad thing.

Since I mentioned over-simplifying, I’ll close with a couple of observations that are somewhat contradictory.

  • First, I don’t worry very much about whether there is a surplus or a deficit in any particular year, but it is a good idea to have long-run fiscal balance (compared to the alternatives of financing the budget with borrowing or printing money).
  • Second, while taxes are the most appropriate way to finance spending, tax increases are a reckless and irresponsible option because we have so much evidence that politicians will respond with additional spending and additional debt.

Which brings us back to the main lesson, which is that spending is the problem and spending restraint is the solution.

Not just a solution. The only solution.

P.S. This video is a bit dated, but all of the economic analysis is still completely accurate.

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I don’t worry much about budget deficits. Simply stated, it is far more important to focus on the overall burden of government spending.

To be sure, it is not a good idea to have too much debt-financed spending. But it’s also not a good idea to have too much tax-financed spending. Or too much spending financed by printing money.

Other people, however, do fixate on budget deficits. And I get drawn into those debates.

For instance, I wrote back in July that Biden was spouting nonsense when he claimed credit for a lower 2022 deficit. But some people may have been skeptical since I cited numbers from Brian Riedl and he works at the right-of-Center Manhattan Institute.

So let’s revisit this issue by citing some data from the middle-of-the-road Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB). They crunched the numbers and estimated the impact, between 2021 and 2031, of policies that Biden has implemented since becoming president.

The net result: $4.8 trillion of additional debt.

By the way, this is in addition to all the debt that will be incurred because of policies that already existed when Biden took office.

If you want to keep score, the Congressional Budget Office projects additional debt of more than $15 trillion over the 2021-2031 period, so Biden is approximately responsible for about 30 percent of the additional red ink.

Some readers may be wondering how Biden’s 10-year numbers are so bad when the deficit actually declined in 2022.

But we need to look at the impact of policies that already existed at the end of 2021 compared to policies that Biden implemented in 2022.

As I explained back in May, the 2022 deficit was dropping simply because of all the temporary pandemic spending. To be more specific, Trump and Biden used the coronavirus as an excuse to add several trillion dollars of spending in 2020 and 2021.

That one-time orgy of spending largely ended in 2021, so that makes the 2022 numbers seem good by comparison.

Sort of like an alcoholic looking responsible for “only” doing 7 shots of vodka on Monday after doing 15 shots of vodka every day over the weekend.

If that’s not your favorite type of analogy, here’s another chart from the CRFB showing the real reason for the lower 2022 deficit.

I’ll close by reminding everyone that the real problem is not the additional $4.8 trillion of debt Biden has created.

That’s merely the symptom.

The ever-rising burden of government spending is America’s real challenge.

P.S. If you want to watch videos that address the growth-maximizing size of government, click herehereherehere, and here.

P.P.S. Surprisingly, the case for smaller government is bolstered by research from generally left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECDWorld BankECB, and IMF.

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I worry about big tax increases because of America’s grim long-run fiscal outlook.

The video clip is less than two minutes (taken from this longer discussion with Fergus Hodgson), but I can summarize my key point in just one very important sentence

Anybody who opposes entitlement reform is unavoidably in favor of big tax increases on lower-income and middle-class Americans.

There are three reasons for this bold (and bolded) statement.

  1. The burden of spending in the United States is going to dramatically expand in coming decades because of demographic change combined with poorly designed entitlement programs.
  2. There presumably is a limit to how much of this future spending burden can be financed by borrowing from the private sector (or with printing money by the Federal Reserve).
  3. Many politicians claim that future spending on entitlements (as well spending on new entitlements!) can be financed with class-warfare taxes, but there are not enough rich people.

My left-leaning friends almost surely would agree with the first two points. But some of them (particularly the ones who don’t understand budget numbers) might argue with the third point.

To confirm the accuracy of the argument, let’s look at this chart from Brian Riedl’s famous Chartbook.

As you can see, even confiscatory 100-percent taxes on the rich (which obviously would cripple the economy) would not be nearly enough to eliminate America’s medium-term fiscal gap.

Heck, even if we look at just the next 10 years and include every possible tax hike, it’s obvious that a class-warfare agenda (which also would have negative economic effects) would not be enough to finance all the spending that is currently in the pipeline.

Here’s another Riedl chart (which even includes some proposals that would hit the middle class).

I’ll conclude with two further observations.

  • First, there are plenty of honest leftists (the ones who understand budget numbers, including Paul Krugman) who openly admit that big tax increases will be needed if the burden of government spending is allowed to increase.
  • Second, there are plenty of disingenuous (or perhaps naive) folks on the right who oppose entitlement reform while not admitting that their approach means massive tax increases on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

Needless to say, genuine entitlement reform would be far preferable to any type of tax increase.

P.S. In the absence of entitlement reform, politicians will first choose class warfare taxes, of course, but that simply will be a precursor to higher taxes on the rest of us.

P.P.S. The bottom line is that you can’t have European-sized government without European-style taxes. Including a money-siphoning value-added tax.

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As we have seen in nations such as Greece and Argentina, voters sometimes cannot resist the temptation to support profligate politicians – a process that can lead to “goldfish government.”

In effect, voters choose fiscal suicide.

There’s even a quote, often mistakenly attributed to Ben Franklin, that this is the Achilles’ Heel of democratic governments (for what it’s worth, it appears that a Scottish historian, Alexander Fraser Tytler, was the real source).

Is the United States traveling down that path? Based on long-run fiscal projections, I’m not optimistic.

The good news is that there is still time to fix our problems.

The bad news is that the crowd in Washington is not interested in doing the right thing.

If you think I’m being unduly pessimistic, consider what House Republicans did earlier this week. As Kimberly Strassel explained in her Wall Street Journal column, they decided that the swamp is actually a hot tub.

Self-awareness isn’t one of the modern GOP’s strong suits, as House Republicans proved again this week. …Leader Kevin McCarthy in September unveiled to great fanfare the party’s Commitment to America, which vowed that Republicans would “curb wasteful government spending”… Then came Wednesday’s first test of whether this was all hot air… Rep. Tom McClintock moved to repeal the recent party rule allowing earmarks. The caucus routed his motion, voting it down 158-52. Commitment to America? More like Commitment to Spoils.

She added some historical context.

The GOP swore off earmarks in 2011, when it stood for something… But when a Democratic Congress in 2021 announced intentions to bring them back, GOP trough-feeders rushed to sign up. …And the addicts aren’t interested in rehab.

Her conclusion does not pull punches.

If Republicans can’t muster the backbone to get rid of earmarks that are an affront to spending discipline, good governance and federalism, voters won’t muster the enthusiasm to keep them in charge.

Back during the era of the Tea Party, Republicans did the right thing.

Nowadays, motivated by various forces such as big-government Trumpism and big-government national conservatism, Republicans do the wrong thing.

And if you wonder whether earmarks are wrong, here are some excerpts from a column in National Review by Romina Boccia.

Earmarking contributes to excessive spending and is a distraction from more fundamental governing responsibilities, such as reining in deficit spending… Supporters of earmarks insist that they are central to Congress’s exercising its constitutional power of the purse. …To the degree that Congress leaves too much discretion to the executive to determine federal funding allocations, it should address that issue directly… Looking at the details of where the money flows, it becomes clear that earmarks mostly authorize pork-barrel spending. …Such a misdirected focus inevitably invites fraud, waste, and abuse. …The 117th Congress included 4,963 earmarks worth a total of $9.1 billion in fiscal-year (FY) 2022 appropriations bills. From feral-swine management to aquarium subsidies to museum and theater funding to local bike paths, FY2022 earmark spending spanned the gamut of parochial interests. 

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), earmarks are directly linked to corruptions.

Politicians swap earmarks for campaign cash (and sometimes they even cut out the middleman!).

Defenders of this sleazy process sometimes claim we should not worry because earmarks represent just a small slice of a bloated federal budget.

But what they don’t realize – or what they don’t want the rest of us to understand – is that earmarks are a “gateway drug to big government addiction.”

So ask yourself a question: Do you think politicians who get lured into this oleaginous game will have any interest in controlling the overall burden of government spending?

P.S. Just in case everything I just wrote did not convince you that earmarks are a problem, then maybe this headline from September will be more compelling.

Such a depressing headline.

Such a depressing scam.

Such a corrupt system.

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Back in July, I made the case for the right kind of entitlement reform in a discussion with the folks at Live and Let Live.

Today, I want to underscore why it is important to focus on “the right kind” of reform.

On paper, you can save money with “means testing” of benefits, but that creates an indirect penalty on work, saving, and investment.

You can also, on paper, save money by imposing price controls on health care, but that policy has a long track record of failure.

At the risk of understatement, either of those approaches represents “the wrong kind” of entitlement reform. Indeed, those policies are not really reform. Instead, they are tinkering with systems that are fundamentally broken.

For what it is worth, most politicians do not support good reform or bad reform.

As predicted by “public choice,” their preferred approach is kicking the can down the road.

Which is what Greek politicians did for many years.

But they learned in Greece that ignoring a problem does not make it disappear. Instead, it is a recipe for fiscal crisis (and we will probably have to re-learn that lesson in Italy).

So my other goal today is to show why something needs to be done.

We’ll start with a look at Medicare from Brian Riedl’s chartbook.

That’s a very sobering image, so now I’ll share some very sobering words.

James Capretta of the American Enterprise Institute summarizes America’s grim fiscal future.

In 2001, the Treasury estimated the government’s net unfunded liabilities, in present value terms, at $6.5 trillion, or 61 percent of GDP, with federal debt accounting for $3.3 trillion of the measured obligations. …By 2021, the government’s net position had deteriorated to minus $29.9 trillion, or 128 percent of GDP, with federal debt accounting for $22.3 trillion of the liabilities. The government’s unfunded commitments beyond public debt had grown by $2.9 trillion over ten years. …The financial hole is actually deeper than these numbers reveal because they exclude the dramatic effects of Social Security and Medicare. …with Social Security and Medicare included in the assessment, the federal government’s unfunded liabilities in 2021 are $93.1 trillion, or nearly 400 percent of annual GDP. That compares with $11.1 trillion as calculated in the 2001 Treasury report, which was 105 percent of GDP. …The problem posed by unfunded public liabilities is a relatively new one in U.S. history. It has only been over the past half century that the combination of an aging population and the modern entitlement system has pushed the federal government toward a financial crisis.

Having shared all this depressing data, I’ll now close with a couple of observations.

As I said in the above video, we need the right kind of entitlement reform so that we save money and have better policy for old people and poor people.

P.S. Entitlements are a ubiquitous problem in developed nations.

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I was going to write about Argentina again today, following up on yesterday’s column.

But the National Association of State Budget Officers has released a new report about spending in the 50 states.

This is an opportunity to see how all the pandemic spending by Washington has encouraged bad fiscal policy at the sub-national level.

To be succinct, the answer is “a lot.”

Figure 1 shows that all the grants and handouts enabled reckless policy. For all 50 states, the burden of spending climbed 24.7 percent between 2020 and 2022.

But not all states are created equal.

So I went to Table 1 of the report to see how much spending increased in various states.

Here are some of the highlights. Special applause for Georgia (home of my beloved Bulldawgs!), which actually reduced the spending burden over the past two years. And honorary mention to North Carolina, which is further enhancing its reputation for sensible fiscal policy.

Colorado also was one of the best states, doubtlessly thanks to TABOR. And New Hampshire also deserves further plaudits for relative frugality.

The big states of Texas and Florida increased spending by less than the 24.7 percent average. As did New York, surprisingly.

I’m sure nobody is surprised to see such bad results from New Jersey and California. And Illinois deserves some sort of Booby Prize for its recklessness.

P.S. I’ll close by shifting to a different topic. As you can see from Figure 5, Medicaid (the government’s health entitlement for poor people) is consuming ever-larger shares of state budgets (and the federal budget).

Medicaid reform (block granting the program) is a very good idea to fix budget problems at the state level and to fix budget problems in Washington. And reduce fraud as well.

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Last week, I explained that “supply siders” need to be ardent advocates of spending restraint. After all, there is no chance of good tax policy in the future if the burden of federal spending continues to expand.

I also wrote about “national conservatives” and pointed out that their opposition to entitlement reform means they implicitly embrace massive tax increases.

The bottom line is that the United States has a built-in spending crisis. Democrats are not serious about addressing the problem. So if Republicans bail as well, the nation is doomed to become a decrepit, European-style welfare state.

What does that mean? Nothing good, at least for people in the productive sector of the economy.

In an article for National Review, Philip Klein speculates whether there is any appetite for spending restraint, even among self-described conservatives.

For much of the history of the American conservative movement, limiting the size and scope of government has stood as one of its central goals. …In 2022, such messages were barely anywhere to be found on the campaign trail…conservatives have largely moved on from making the case for reducing the size and power of Washington. In some cases, this shift has been passive. …It has become popular in some circles on the right to mock “zombie Reaganism” and insist that while it may have made sense back in the 1980s to argue for smaller government, such a message is now outdated. …the argument that the battle to limit government has already been lost also neglects to recognize that things could always get worse. That is, even though the federal government has gone through extraordinary growth since the New Deal, it would have grown even larger had there been no conservative movement to push back. One need only look at Europe, where conservative parties long ago made their peace with the welfare state, to see how government agencies have crowded out civil society… There is no way in which a nation with…a ballooning welfare state will be an accommodating place for conservatives in the long run, no matter how much some may fantasize about seizing the dragon and precisely aiming its fire at their enemies during the relatively brief windows in which Republicans have power. Conservatives…should not abandon the fight for limited government.

At the risk of understatement, I fully agree.

I wrote two days ago and also the previous week to make the case for spending restraint.

Those are easy columns to write since it is the same argument I’ve been making my entire life. But what is depressing now is that there is opposition from Republicans as well as Democrats.

Maybe they should all be forced to watch my video series on the economics of government spending.

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I explained last week that excessive government spending is responsible for about 97 percent of America’s fiscal deterioration in the 21st century.

I followed that column with two post-election pieces that explained how huge tax increases will be inevitable if there is no effort to deal with the spending problem.

Simply stated, lawmakers need to copy the fiscal restraint of the Reagan years and Clinton years.

Why? To help people enjoy better lives thanks to faster growth and more opportunity.

In the Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler explains that smaller government is the recipe for more growth.

Winston Churchill…said: “We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.” The U.S. should heed that advice… economic growth is going to come from efficient supply chains and productivity in manufacturing in the U.S. Tax and spending cuts are the cure. …Republicans must resist the urge to subsidize higher energy costs and instead help slay inflation and bring back a strong, productive economy.

Let’s look at some new academic research bolstering Kessler’s argument.

Megha Jain Aishwarya Nagpal, and Abhay Jain published a study last year in the South Asia Journal of Macroeconomics and Public Finance.

The key findings deal with the Armey-Rahn Curve and can be found in the abstract.

The current study attempts to examine the linkage between government (public) spending and economic growth in the broader framework of selected South Asian Nations (SANs), BRICS and other emerging nations by using two sets of empirical modelling over the period 2007–2016 by using inverted U-shaped hypothesis, propounded by Armey curve (1995). …The key findings signify the existence of an inverted U-shaped relationship for the selected data set of emerging nations and, therefore, support the Armey curve hypothesis. The projected threshold (tipping) levels (as a percentage of GDP) are 24.31% for the government total expenditures (GTotExp), 12.92% for consumption spending (GConExp) and 7.11% for investment spending (GInvExp). It has been observed that a rise in the public spending (size) resulted in a substantial…decrease…in the growth rate when the public spending was…after…the optimal threshold level, indicating a non-monotonic association.

For what it’s worth, I think the study is wrong and that the growth-maximizing level of government spending is much lower than 24.3 percent of economic output.

But since total government spending in the United States now consumes about 40 percent of GDP, at least we can all agree that there will be more prosperity if America’s fiscal burden is dramatically reduced.

If we ever bring the spending burden back down to 24.3 percent of economic output, we can then figure out whether the ultimate goal is even lower (as it was for much of America’s history).

There is one point from the study that merits further attention. The authors estimated not only the growth-maximizing level of total spending, but also how much the government should spend on “consumption” and “investment” outlays (an issue I addressed last month).

Here’s a chart from the study showing that consumption outlays should be less than 13 percent of economic output.

P.S. If you want to watch videos that address the growth-maximizing size of government, click here, here, here, here, and here.

P.P.S. Ironically, the case for smaller government is bolstered by research from normally left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECD, World Bank, ECB, and IMF.

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As part of a recent discussion at the Adam Smith Institute in London, I explained why advocates of sensible taxation in the U.S. and U.K. need to be serious about controlling government spending.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it will be almost impossible to achieve better tax policy if the spending burden continues to increase and we enter an era of endless deficits and debt.

We presumably won’t get needed policy reforms from the Democratic Party (the era of JFK is long gone, and Bill Clinton’s moderate approach also is a distant memory).

But what about Republicans?

In part I of this series, I argued that Trump’s big-government populism was bad politics as well as bad policy.

But I was not arguing for establishment Republicans such as Bush or Romney.

Instead, I think the GOP needs to return to the era of Reagan-style libertarianism.

That means some things that Trumpies want, such as lower tax rates, but it also means genuine spending restraint. Which we didn’t get during the Trump years.

In part II, let’s contemplate whether this is a realistic hope, at least once we get past the Biden years.

If history is any guide, the answer is yes. Here’s another video, from more than 10 years ago, that shows the fiscal discipline the nation enjoyed under both Reagan and Clinton.

If you want more recent evidence, we also had a five-year spending freeze after the so-called Tea Party Republicans took power in 2010.

What about today? Can Republicans sober up and once again become fiscal hawks, morphing into good supply-siders who want better tax policy and spending restraint?

Or are they the bad supply-siders, meaning they spout rhetoric about tax cuts but don’t take the tough steps (such as entitlement reform) that are needed to make lower tax rates realistic?

I’ll close with a very depressing observation. The current fiscal situation is bad, but remember that things will get much worse because of demographic changes such as population aging.

Those who oppose entitlement reform necessarily are embracing huge tax increases and perpetual economic stagnation. Not to mention handing more power to Democrats.

There is no alternative.

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I don’t spend much time worrying about why the United States has a big budget deficit. I’m much more concerned about the fact that the federal government is too big and that it is spending too much.

Moreover, there’s plenty of evidence that we can quickly get rid of deficits with some long-overdue spending restraint. In other words, deal with the underlying disease of excessive government and the symptom of red ink goes away.

But since many people focus first and foremost on fiscal balance, let’s take a look at why budget surpluses at the turn of the century have turned into big budget deficits.

I’m motivated to address this issue because of this chart from Brian Riedl’s impressive collection. It shows spending increases are responsible for 97.5 percent of the shift.

Some of you may be wondering if the chart is accurate. I can easily imagine my friends on the left exclaiming, “What about the Bush tax cuts and the Trump tax cuts?!?”

Those tax cuts did happen, but they were mostly offset by Obama’s “fiscal cliff” tax increase and real bracket creep (the tax burden tends to increase over time since even small increases in economic growth will push households into higher tax brackets).

So the net result of all these factors is that there has been a very small reduction (0.2 percentage points) in tax revenue as a share of economic output.

Others of you may be wondering if the spending numbers may be exaggerated because of pandemic-related spending.

That is a fair question since the crowd in Washington used the opportunity to spend a couple of trillion dollars. But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that it was almost entirely one-time spending that took place in 2020 and 2021 (for what it’s worth, budget experts have mocked Biden’s claim of deficit reduction this year since it is simply a result of expiring emergency outlays).

There is some one-time spending in 2022. As noted in the chart, Biden’s reckless student loan bailout is a big chuck of the increase in “other mandatory spending.”

As such, I suppose I should say that higher spending is “only” responsible for 96.8 percent of today’s higher deficits, not 97.5 percent.

The bottom line is that all 21st-century presidents (and Congresses) have been big spenders.

P.S. According to the long-run forecast from the Congressional Budget Office, a bad situation will get even worse over the next 30 years. And more than 100 percent of that future decline will be the result of excessive spending (something that’s been true for many years).

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If Republicans do as well as expected in next Tuesday’s mid-term elections, especially with regard to gubernatorial and state legislative contests, I expect that more states will enact and expand on school choice in 2023.

That will be great news for families.

But I also want great news for taxpayers, and that’s why I’m hoping that we also will see progress on fiscal policy. To be more specific, I want to see more states copy Colorado’s very successful spending cap.

Known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), it basically limits the growth of annual tax revenue to the growth of population-plus-inflation. Any revenue above that amount automatically must be returned to taxpayers.

And since the state also has a balanced-budget requirement, that means spending can only increase as fast as population-plus-inflation as well. A very simple concept.

Has TABOR been successful? Has it produced better fiscal policy and more economic prosperity?

The answer is yes. In a column for National Review, Jonathan Williams and Nick Stark say it is the “gold standard” for state fiscal policy.

TABOR is a state constitutional amendment that limits the amount of revenue Colorado lawmakers can retain and spend to a reasonable formula of population plus inflation growth. If the state government collects more tax revenue than TABOR allows, the money is returned to taxpayers as a refund. Just this year, Colorado taxpayers will receive nearly $4 billion in TABOR refund checks. If any government in Colorado intends to spend surplus revenue, increase taxes or fees, or increase debt, it must submit the proposed measure to the ballot and win the approval of a majority of voters. …Following the low-tax-plus-limited-government formula, Colorado developed into one of the most competitive business climates in the nation in the years following TABOR’s adoption. During the past three decades, Colorado has been one of the most competitive and fastest-growing economies in the nation. …Even in the face of this tremendous economic-success story, the tax-and-spend crowd have spent a tremendous amount of resources trying to demonize TABOR, often attempting to find work-arounds or suing to have TABOR declared unconstitutional. Why? In short, because it is an effective limit on the growth of government, and it restricts the wild spending increases that fund their constituencies — who generally favor big government. …Other states trying to implement meaningful checks and balances on the inexorable government-growth machine…should follow Colorado’s example.

Courtesy of Jon Caldera, here’s some of Colorado’s fiscal history, which began with a flat tax in the 1980s and then culminated with TABOR in the 1990s.

Colorado used to have a progressive income tax where people and companies would pay a higher tax rate the more money they earned. Thanks to the Independence Institute…and…economist Barry Poulson, the legislature was convinced to switch from the progressive tax to a flat one in the mid-1980s. Poulson urged that the new tax rate be 4.5% so that it would bring in the same amount of revenue as the system it was replacing. …So, of course, the legislature set the new rate at 5% to create a fine windfall, which it did. Even so, the flat income tax did what it was predicted to do. It lit the engine of Colorado’s economy. When productive people and their companies are looking to locate, they are attracted to states with low and stable tax policy. The flat tax began the Colorado boom. That boom resulted in massive tax receipts to the state. So much so that the legislature quickly felt the growing pressure of a tax rebellion. …So, we then passed the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in 1992. The combination of our flat tax and TABOR attracted more and more businesses and jobs to Colorado. So much so that in the late 1990s the state had to refund some $3.2 billion of surplus tax revenue to taxpayers. …The combination of our flat-rate income tax and TABOR has made for a sustainable gold rush which has turned Colorado into one of the most economically vibrant states in the country with one of the lowest unemployment rates.

I’ll close by explaining why folks on the left also should support TABOR-style spending caps.

Part of the reason is that they should care about future generations.

Part of the reason is that they should care about economic growth.

But another reason is that it may be politically beneficial. Check out these excerpts from a column in the Denver Post by Scott Gessler.

TABOR requires a vote of the people to raise taxes, incur debt, or spend excess government funds. Practically, it makes all three much harder. So Democrats hate TABOR. …conservatives love TABOR. They rarely support tax increases or additional borrowing, and for them TABOR imposes fiscal discipline and forces government to live within its means. And Colorado has avoided the ongoing fiscal crises that have plagued other states like Illinois or California. Plus, it’s hard to argue against the public’s right to vote on taxes and debt. …But what about Republicans? They’re the ones who have paid the political price. …Today, voters can oppose Republicans and support Democrats, with little fear taxes will go up. …So expect the continued irony, as Democrats attack TABOR with a unified voice, while Republicans usually support it, yet lose political strength.

Since I care about policy rather than partisanship, I hope lots of Democrats read this article and then embrace spending caps. If they don’t want to copy Colorado, they can opt for the Swiss version of a spending cap. So long as they choose something real, it will work.

That would be bad for Republicans, but good for prosperity.

P.S. Colorado is now a blue-leaning state, but voters in 2019 rejected an effort by the pro-spending lobbies to eviscerate TABOR.

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I was excited about the possibility of pro-growth tax policy during the short-lived reign of Liz Truss as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

However, I’m now pessimistic about the nation’s outlook. Truss was forced to resign and big-government Tories (akin to big-government Republicans) are back in charge.

As part of my “European Fiscal Policy Week,” let’s take a closer look at what happened and analyze the pernicious role of the Bank of England (the BoE is their central bank, akin to the Federal Reserve in the U.S.).

Let’s start with a reminder that the Bank of England panicked during the pandemic and (like the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank) engaged in dramatic monetary easing.

That was understandable in the spring of 2020, perhaps, but it should have been obvious by the late summer that the world was not coming to an end.

Yet the BoE continued with its easy-money policy. The balance sheet kept expanding all of 2020, even after vaccines became available.

And, as shown by the graph, the easy-money approach continued into early 2021 (and the most-recent figures show the BoE continued its inflationary policy into mid-2021).

Needless to say, all of that bad monetary policy led to bad results. Not only 10 percent annual inflation, but also a financial system made fragile by artificially low interest rates and excess liquidity.

So how does any of this relate to fiscal policy?

As the Wall Street Journal explained in an editorial on October 10, the BoE’s bad monetary policy produced instability in financial markets and senior bureaucrats at the Bank cleverly shifted the blame to then-Prime Minster Truss’ tax plan.

Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey is trying to stabilize pension funds, which are caught on the shoals of questionable hedging strategies as the high water of loose monetary policy recedes. …The BOE is supposed to be tightening policy to fight inflation at 40-year highs and claims these emergency bond purchases aren’t at odds with its plans to let £80 billion of assets run off its balance sheet over the next year. But BOE officials now seem confused about what they’re doing. …No wonder markets doubt the BOE’s resolve on future interest-rate increases. Undeterred, the bank is resorting to the familiar bureaucratic imperative for self-preservation. Mr. Cunliffe’s letter is at pains to blame Mr. Kwarteng’s fiscal plan for market ructions. His colleagues Jonathan Haskel and Dave Ramsden —all three are on the BOE’s policy-setting committee—have picked up the theme in speeches that blame market turbulence on a “U.K.-specific component.” This is code for Ms. Truss’s agenda. …Mr. Bailey doesn’t help his credibility or the bank’s independence by politicizing the institution.

In a column for Bloomberg, Narayana Kocherlakota also points a finger at the BoE.

And what’s remarkable is that Kocherlakota is the former head of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve and central bankers normally don’t criticize each other.

Markets didn’t oust Truss, the Bank of England did — through poor financial regulation and highly subjective crisis management. …The common wisdom is that financial markets “punished” Truss’s government for its fiscal profligacy. But the chastisement was far from universal. Over the three days starting Sept. 23, when the Truss government announced its mini-budget, the pound fell by 2.2% relative to the euro, and the FTSE 100 stock index declined by 2.2% — notable movements, but hardly enough to bring a government to its knees. The big change came in the price of 30-year UK government bonds, also known as gilts, which experienced a shocking 23% drop. Most of this decline had nothing to do with rational investors revising their beliefs about the UK’s long-run prospects. Rather, it stemmed from financial regulators’ failure to limit leverage in UK pension funds. …The Bank of England, as the entity responsible for overseeing the financial system, bears at least part of the blame for this catastrophe. …the Truss government…was thwarted not by markets, but by a hole in financial regulation — a hole that the Bank of England proved strangely unwilling to plug.

Last but not least, an October 18 editorial by the Wall Street Journal provides additional information.

When the history of Britain’s recent Trussonomics fiasco is written, make sure Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey gets the chapter he deserves. …The BOE has been late and slow fighting inflation… Mr. Bailey’s actions in the past month have also politicized the central bank…in a loquacious statement that coyly suggested the fiscal plan would be inflationary—something Mr. Kwarteng would have disputed. …Meanwhile, members of the BOE’s policy-setting committee fanned out to imply markets might be right to worry about the tax cuts. If this was part of a strategy to influence fiscal policy, it worked. …Mr. Bailey may have been taking revenge against Ms. Truss, who had criticized the BOE for its slow response to inflation as she ran to be the Conservative Party leader this summer. Her proposed response was to consider revisiting the central bank’s legal mandate. The BOE’s behavior the past month has proven her right beyond what she imagined.

So what are the implications of the BoE’s responsibility-dodging actions?

  • First, we should learn a lesson about the importance of good monetary policy. None of this mess would have happened if the BoE had not created financial instability with an inflationary approach.
  • Second, we should realize that there are downsides to central bank independence. Historically, being insulated from politics has been viewed as the prudent approach since politicians can’t try to artificially goose an economy during election years. But Bailey’s unethical behavior shows that there is also a big downside.

Sadly, all of this analysis does not change the fact that tax cuts are now off the table in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the new Prime Minister and his Chancellor of the Exchequer have signaled that they will continue Boris Johnson’s pro-tax agenda.

That’s very bad news for the United Kingdom.

P.S. There used to be at least one sensible central banker in the United Kingdom.

P.P.S. But since sensible central bankers are a rare breed, maybe the best approach is to get government out of the business of money.

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I discussed Italy’s looming fiscal crisis on Monday and then argued against a potential bailout on Tuesday.

Today, let’s focus on the rest of Europe.

I gave a presentation yesterday in Brussels about “Public Finances in the Eurozone” and used the opportunity to explain that governments are too big in Europe and to warn that demographic changes were going to lead to an even-bigger burden of government in the future.

My assessment is very mainstream, at least with regards to what will happen to national budgets in European nations.

A study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, authored by Yvan Guillemette and David Turner, examines the long-run fiscal position of member nations.

It warns that government debt levels will increase dramatically if they don’t change current policies.

… secular trends such as population ageing and the rising relative price of services will keep adding pressure on government budgets. Without policy changes, maintaining current public service standards and benefits while keeping public debt ratios stable at current levels would increase fiscal pressure in the median OECD country by nearly 8 percentage points of GDP between 2021 and 2060, and much more in some countries. …governments will need to re-assess long-run fiscal sustainability in the context of higher initial government debt levels…when considering expenditure pressures associated with ageing…, the OECD structural primary balance would deteriorate rapidly and net government debt would more than double as a share of GDP by 2050 (Figure 12).

Here is the aforementioned Figure 12. As you can see, both deficits (left chart) and debt (right chart) are driven by the cost of age-related entitlement programs.

The report also explains that the increase in red ink is being caused by a bigger burden of government spending.

Under a ‘business-as-usual’ hypothesis, in which no major reforms to government programmes are undertaken, public expenditure is projected to rise substantially in most countries… Public health and long-term care expenditure is projected to increase by 2.2 percentage points of GDP in the median country between 2021 and 2060… Public pension expenditure is projected to increase by 2.8 percentage points of GDP in the median country between 2021 and 2060… Other primary expenditures are projected to rise by 1½ percentage points of GDP in the median country between 2021 and 2060 (Figure 13, Panel A). This projection excludes potential new sources of expenditure pressure, such as climate change adaptation.

Here’s Figure 13, mentioned above. Notice the projected increases in spending in most European nations.

So what’s the best response to this slow-motion fiscal disaster?

Since more government spending is the problem, you might think the OECD would recommend ways to restrain budgetary expansion.

But that would be a mistake. As is so often the case, OECD bureaucrats think giving politicians more money is the best approach.

The present study…uses an indicator of long-run fiscal pressure that is premised on the idea that governments would seek to stabilise public debt ratios at projected 2022 levels by adjusting structural primary revenue from 2023 onward. … all OECD governments would need to raise taxes in this scenario to prevent gross government debt ratios from rising over time… The median country would need to increase structural primary revenue by nearly 8 percentage points of GDP between 2021 and 2060, but the effort would exceed 10 percentage points in 11 countries.

To be fair, the authors acknowledge that there might be some complications.

Raising taxes…appears feasible in some countries…, in other countries it may present a substantial challenge. In Belgium, Denmark, Finland and France, for instance, structural primary revenue is already around 50% of GDP… Pushing mainstream taxes on incomes or consumption further up, even by only a few percentage points of GDP, may be politically difficult and fiscally counter-productive if it means reaching the downward-sloping segment of the Laffer curve… Lundberg…identifies five OECD countries where top effective marginal tax rates (accounting for income, payroll and consumption taxes) are already beyond revenue-maximizing levels (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Sweden). Thus, if taxes are to rise, it might be necessary to look to other bases, such as housing, capital gains, inheritance or wealth. Recent international efforts to establish a minimum global corporate tax could also enable more revenue to be raised from corporate taxes.

I’m happy that the study acknowledges the Laffer Curve, though that is not much of a concession since even Paul Krugman agrees that it exists.

And even when OECD bureaucrats admit that it may be unwise to increase some taxes, their response is to suggest that other taxes can be increased.

Sigh.

Now you understand why I’ve argued that the OECD may be the world’s worst international bureaucracy. Especially since OECD bureaucrats get tax-free salaries while urging higher taxes on the rest of us.

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I wrote yesterday to speculate about a possible fiscal crisis in Italy.

Today, here are my thoughts on why there should not be a bailout if/when a crisis occurs.

I have moral objections to bailouts, but let’s focus in this column on the practical impact.

And let’s start with this chart, which shows debt levels in Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain (the so-called PIGS) ever since the misguided bailout of Greece about a dozen years ago.

As you can see, OECD data reveals that there’s been no change in these poorly governed nations. They have continued to over-spend and accumulate ever-higher levels of debt.

This certainly seems like evidence of failure, in part because of Greece’s continued bad policy.

But I’m equally concerned about how other Mediterranean nations did not change their behavior.

So why did those nations accumulate more debt, even though they had an up-close look at Greece’s fiscal collapse?

I suspect they figured they could get bailouts, just like Greece. In other words, the IMF and others created a system corrupted by moral hazard.

Defenders of bailouts assert that Greece was forced to engage in “austerity” as a condition of getting a bailout.

I have two problems with that argument.

  • First, notice how Greece’s debt has continued to go up. If that’s a success, I would hate to see an example of failure.
  • Second, the main effect of the so-called austerity is a much higher tax burden and a somewhat higher spending burden.

If there’s a bailout of Italy (or any other nation), I suspect we’ll see the same thing happen. Higher taxes, higher spending, and higher debt.

I’ll close by acknowledging that there are costs to my approach. If Italy is not given a bailout, the country may have a “disorderly default,” meaning the government simply stops honoring its commitments to pay bondholders.

That is bad for individual bondholders, but it also could hurt – or even bankrupt – financial institutions that foolishly decided to buy a lot of Italian government bonds.

But there should be consequences for imprudent choices. Especially if the alternative is bailouts that misallocate global capital and encourage further bad behavior.

The bottom line is that the long-run damage of bailouts is much greater than the long-run damage of defaults.

P.S. Just like it’s a bad idea to provide bailouts to national governments, it’s also a bad idea to provide bailouts to state governments. Or banks. Or student loan recipients.

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I’m in Europe to give a couple of speeches about fiscal policy, so I’m going to spend all week commenting on the continent’s (mostly miserable) fiscal policy.

Let’s start with comments about Italy, the nation most likely to suffer a crisis.

Normally, I tell people to focus on government spending rather than red ink. After all, the economy is hurt whether spending is financed by taxes or borrowing (or printing money).

But I’ve also noted that governments sometimes spend so much money and incur so much debt that investors decide it is very risky to buy or hold debt from those governments. In other words, they begin to fear default.

When investors (sometimes known as “bond vigilantes”) reach that stage, they probably try to get rid of their holdings and definitely refuse to buy more debt. The net result is that profligate governments have to offer much higher interest rates to compensate for the risk of a possible default.

That happened earlier this century in Greece.

And if peruse this data from the OECD, you find that Italian government debt has jumped to levels that may be unsustainable.

So why has Italy avoided a crisis?

As noted in this article by Desmond Lachman, published by Inside Sources, the nation is being propped up by the European Central Bank.

In Europe, when the European Central Bank (ECB) soon dials back its bond-buying program, we are likely to find out that it is the Italian economy that has been swimming naked. This should be of deep concern for the Eurozone and world economies. While the Italian economy might be too large for its Eurozone partners to allow it to fail, it also might prove to be too large for them to bail it out. …The main factor that has allowed the Italian government to finance its ballooning budget deficit on favorable terms has been the ECB’s massive government bond-buying…the ECB used its emergency bond-buying program to more than fully finance the Italian government’s borrowing needs. …it must be only a matter of time before we have another round of the Italian sovereign debt crisis. …no longer being able to count on ECB bond-buying, the Italian government will have to increasingly finance itself in the market. It will have to do so with its public finances in a worse state than they were in during the 2012 debt crisis.

In the article, Lachman thinks a crisis is all but inevitable because the ECB is unwinding its pandemic-era money creation.

I agree about the ECB’s harmful role, but I fear the central bankers in Frankfurt will continue to do the wrong thing.

P.S. I mentioned demographics at the start of the video. Here’s some more information about how aging populations are contributing to fiscal meltdown.

P.P.S. Italy can solve its problems, but I doubt it will choose the only effective solution.

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Most people don’t know how to define a “tax haven,” but we assume places with no income tax are on the list. And there’s a lot to admire when looking at jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands.

But what if we want to identify the opposite of a tax haven. What is a “tax hell” and how can they be identified?

A new study for the 1841 Foundation undertakes that task and it lists 12 nations that deserve this unflattering label. Belarus is the worst of the worst, followed by Venezuela, Argentina, and Russia.

But this isn’t just a list of places with high tax burdens.

To be a tax hell, a nation has to have punitive taxation and a lousy government. Here’s how the report describes the methodology.

The Tax Hells Index is an in-depth look at both the qualitative and quantitative data that is released annually by both the IMF and The World Bank. By drawing out critical insights from this data, The 1841 Foundation was able to create a comprehensive index and critically examine 94 countries against a stringent framework. …we believe that a “Tax Hell” is not only a country with high taxes, but rather a country with a weak rule of law and where the rights to privacy and property are not enforced or protected as required. …Therefore, when considering the results, countries with high government quality and economic and legal stability may have high taxes (i.e., Denmark), but are very far from being considered Tax Hells. In fact, there are countries with both low and high taxes in the Top-12 tax hells; all of them, however, have low quality of government, high levels of corruption and discretion, poor economic management, and weak institutions.

By the way, the report identified 12 tax hells, but also lists 14 other nations that are “risky.”

These are countries that should be perceived as high risk.

I’ll close by noting that the report only considers nations in North America, Europe, and South America. If subsequent editions include Asia and Africa, I’m sure there will be more tax hells and more risky jurisdictions.

P.S. The five best-scoring nations are Ireland, Denmark, San Marino, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. Remember, these are not necessarily low-tax jurisdictions. Indeed, Denmark is a high-tax nation. But all of these jurisdictions at least provide high-quality governance.

P.P.S. If you want a defense of tax havens, click here, here, and here.

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Domestic programs are the main reason that the burden of government spending is expanding, with so-called entitlement outlays deserving the lion’s share of the blame.

But this does not mean that advocates of limited government should give the Pentagon a free pass.

As with all types of spending, there should be a cost-benefit assessment of whether a particular program or activity makes sense.

One of the costs (of military spending and every other type of spending) is that resources are diverted from the productive sector of the economy.

That means that reducing the Pentagon’s budget – holding everything else equal – will boost growth.

By how much? Anthony Mayberry of the University of Oklahoma has some new research that measures the economic impact of lower military expenditures.

This paper analyzes the implications of demilitarization on economic growth. I create a new dataset of military transitions since 1960 and measure the effect of demilitarization in countries that reduced their military capabilities and subsided aggressive or violent behavior. Semiparametric difference-in-difference and instrumental variable estimates predict that on average, demilitarization is associated with a 1% higher annual GDP per capita than if the country had remained militarized. Dynamic analysis shows that on average, GDP per capita is 15-20% higher 20 years after transition. Increases in foreign direct investment and international trade flows, as well as a reallocation of resources to more economically productive outlets, following demilitarization are found to contribute to growth. These findings provide empirical evidence in support of a Peace Dividend.

And if the reduction in military spending is significant, as seen in Figure 5 from the study, the economic gains can be remarkably significant.

To be sure, there are caveats, some of which are discussed in the study.

One obvious complication is that a country may be able to lower military outlays because some external threat has dissipated.

In that scenario, how much of the subsequent growth is because the threat has diminished and how much is because there is a lower burden of government spending?

The answer presumably is different for every real-world case study. But the bottom line is that it is good to lower military spending just like it is good to reduce domestic spending.

I’ll close by acknowledging that advocates of military spending should base their arguments on cost-benefit analysis.

Don’t make silly Keynesian arguments about multiplier effects. Don’t make exaggerated claims about spin-off benefits. Instead, make a clear-headed case that the cost of military spending can be justified because it provides a national security benefit (against an imperialist Soviet Union forty years ago, or perhaps an expansionist China today).

P.S. It would be helpful if supporters of a strong military opposed some of the many ways that politicians insert waste, fraud, inefficiency, and pork in the Pentagon’s budget.

P.P.S. The U.S. experience after World War II is a good example of how lower military spending triggers more growth.

P.P.P.S. My three-part series on the economics of war can be read here, here, and here.

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What’s the reward for a governor who replaces a discriminatory and punitive system with a simple and fair flat tax, particularly in a year when many other states also are enacting better tax policy?

The reward for Kim Reynolds of Iowa is the top score in the Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors 2022, authored by Chris Edwards.

But it’s not just pro-growth tax reform. Iowa’s governor also scored highly because “Iowa general fund spending has risen at just a 2.3 percent annual average rate under Reynolds.”

Chris Sununu of New Hampshire was in second place, followed by the governors of Nebraska, Idaho, and Arizona (which also enacted sweeping tax reform).

And what’s the penalty for being a tax-hiking big spender?

Well, if “general fund spending expanded at an annual average rate of 6.3 percent between 2013 and 2022” and you were governor during those years, then you deserve to be known as the worst of the worst.

Especially if you also pushed big tax increases and you routinely try to sabotage your state’s constitutional ban on income taxes.

So “congratulations” to Jay Inslee. The governor of Washington definitely deserves his F.

Gavin Newsom of California is the nation’s second-worst governor (hardly a surprise).

The governors of Oregon, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota also received failing grades (I am surprised anytime New Jersey and Illinois avoid last place).

For those interested, here are the rest of the governors. Roy Cooper of North Carolina is the highest-scoring Democrat, followed by Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexco.

Bill Lee of Tennessee is the lowest-scoring Republican. Other Republicans with bad grades include the governors of Vermont, Alabama, and Missouri.

For those who follow high-profile officials, Governors Ron DeSantis, Kristi Noem, and Greg Abbott all received unremarkable C grades.

P.S. At the risk of stating the obvious, fiscal policy is not the only thing that matters. Readers who want to assess the overall level of economic liberty in different states should peruse Economic Freedom of North America and Freedom in the 50 States.

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At the end of last month, I wrote about the growth-maximizing size of government, citing a study that estimated that the public sector in Sudan should not consume more than 11.17 percent of the nation’s economic output.

I realize that very few people care about Sudanese fiscal policy, but the research gave me an opportunity to condemn the OECD, IMF, and UN for peddling the nonsensical argument that more government spending would promote faster growth in poor nations.

Today, I want to cite another study, in this case about the growth-maximizing size of government in India. But, once again, I’m citing some research to make a bigger point.

First, here are the findings from the study, written by Neha Jain and Niharika Sinha.

The present study aims to examine the relationship between government size and economic growth in India for the period from 1961 to 2018. Additionally, as a novel contribution, the current study also attempts to examine the existence of Armey curve and estimate the threshold level of government size in India. …The result of the study confirms…the existence of Armey curve and supports the Armey curve hypothesis in India. There exists a positive impact of government size till the threshold level, and beyond the threshold level, the coefficient of economic growth tends to decrease. The estimated optimal government size is 11.89% for India…the findings of the study also suggest that a large size of the government can be harmful for the efficiency of economic growth; thus, adjusting the government at its optimum is crucial to the economy.

By the way, the Armey Curve is the Rahn Cure and the Rahn Curve is the Armey Curve (there’s ongoing discussion of who was the first to visually depict the upside-down-U-shaped relationship between the size of government and economic performance).

But let’s set aside that discussion. Regardless of who deserves credit, it’s vitally important that policymakers understand that excessive government spending is very harmful for prosperity.

That’s true in India, and that’s true in the United States (especially since government is too big right now and is expected to become a bigger burden in the future).

But while it’s good to have a discussion on the quantity of government spending, let’s not forget that the quality of government spending also matters.

To be more precise, some types of government spending can be helpful to growth and other types of spending are usually harmful to growth.

  • Rule-of-law spending – If done effectively, spending for pure public goods such as administration of justice and enforcement of contracts can create a favorable environment for more growth.
  • Physical capital spending – The growth impact (or anti-growth impact) depends on whether money for ports, roads, etc, is spent efficiently, thus offsetting the cost of diverting resources from the economy’s productive sector.
  • Human capital spending – The growth impact (or anti-growth impact) depends on whether money for education, training, etc, is spent efficiently, thus offsetting the cost of diverting resources from the economy’s productive sector.
  • Defense/military spending – May be necessary for national survival, but otherwise bad for growth since labor and capital are diverted from the economy’s productive sector to government.
  • Social welfare spending – May be compassionate (or dependency inducing), but otherwise bad for growth since labor and capital are diverted from the productive sector to government.

The purpose of today’s column is to conceptually explain how different types of government spending may or many not affect economic performance, but I can’t resist noting that the United States does a terrible job of spending money on human capital and physical capital.

And I can’t resist observing that the vast majority of America’s federal budget is for social welfare spending.

P.S. Developing nations do a bad job of providing rule of law, but I have near-zero faith that more government spending will lead to improvements. Instead, more spending will be a vehicle for ruling elites to cement their power by buying votes.

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Most people have heard of the Laffer Curve, which shows that there is a non-linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenues (for instance, doubling tax rates won’t produce a doubling of tax revenue because people and businesses will have less incentive to earn and report income).

There’s something similar on the spending side of the budget. I call it the Rahn Curve and it shows there is a non-linear relationship between government spending and economic performance.

The concept is not controversial, just like the concept of a Laffer Curve is not controversial.

What does trigger disagreement, however, is figuring out the shape of the curve, especially the growth-maximizing size of government (or, in the case of the Laffer Curve, the revenue-maximizing tax rate).

Much of the academic literature suggests that is maximized when government spending consumes about 20-plus percent of economic output.

But I’ve questioned whether these studies are correct, based on data limitations that are inherent when doing research based on post-WWII numbers.

Those numbers tell us interesting things (the East Asian tiger economies have been star performers and have relatively small spending burdens), but does that mean government should consume 20 percent of GDP when we know from history that Western nations grew rapidly in the 1800s and early 1900s when there was no welfare state and the public sector consumed only about 10 percent of economic output?

Given my interest in these issues, I was intrigued to see a new study on the Social Science Research Network. Authored by Hisham Mohamed Hassan of the University of Khartoum, it estimates the growth-maximizing size of government in Sudan.

The bad news is that the study is in Arabic. The good news is that there is an abstract in English. Here are some of the findings.

Policies related to the level of government spending are considered one of the most important economic issues, and aspects that drew particular attention of its impact on economic growth. This paper aims to determine the size of the government of Sudan, which is reflecting positively on the optimal allocation of the resources and the level of public spending that maximizes economic growth. In addition to testing whether there is a long-run relationship between the size of the government and economic growth in Sudan? The findings show that the relationship between government size and economic growth in Sudan is nonlinear (Armey) curve, the ARDL model shows that there is a short and long-run relationship between the size of the government and economic growth in Sudan. The optimal size of the Sudanese government, based on the share of public spending, should not exceed 11.17% of GDP.

Since I can’t read the full study, there’s no way of assessing the quality of the research and/or if the conclusions are only appropriate for Sudan, or also appropriate for other developing nations, or universally applicable to all countries.

But even if the results are not applicable to rich countries, the conclusions are very useful since they debunk the absurd notion (peddled by the IMF, OECD, and UN) that developing nations should have bigger governments.

P.S. For those interested, here’s my video explaining the Rahn Curve (or Armey Curve if you prefer).

P.P.S. You can watch other videos on this topic by clicking here, here, here, and here).

P.P.P.S. Interestingly, some normally left-leaning international bureaucracies have acknowledged you get more prosperity with smaller government. Check out the analysis from the IMFECBWorld Bank, and OECD.

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It is disappointing that the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund routinely advocate for higher taxes and bigger government in nations from all parts of the world (for examples, see here, here, here, here, here, and here).

It is disturbing that the IMF engages in bailouts that encourage bad fiscal policy by governments and reckless lending policies by financial institutions.

And it is disgusting that those IMF bureaucrats get tax-free salaries and are thus exempt from the damaging consequences of those misguided policies.

One set of rules for the peasants and one set of rules for the elite.

The latest example of IMF misbehavior revolves around the bureaucracy’s criticism of recently announced tax cuts in the United Kingdom.

A BBC report by Natalie Sherman and Tom Espiner summarizes the controversy.

The International Monetary Fund has openly criticised the UK government over its plan for tax cuts…In an unusually outspoken statement, the IMF said the proposal was likely to increase inequality and add to pressures pushing up prices. …Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng unveiled the country’s biggest tax package in 50 years on Friday. But the £45bn cut has sparked fears that government borrowing could surge along with interest rates. …Lord Frost, the former Brexit minister and close ally of Prime Minister Liz Truss, criticised the IMF’s statement. …”The IMF has consistently advocated highly conventional economic policies. It is following this approach that has produced years of slow growth and weak productivity. The only way forward for Britain is lower taxes, spending restraint, and significant economic reform.” …Moody’s credit rating agency said on Wednesday that the UK’s plan for “large unfunded tax cuts” was “credit negative” and would lead to higher, persistent deficits “amid rising borrowing costs [and] a weaker growth outlook”. Moody’s did not change the UK’s credit rating.

So what should be done about the IMF’s misguided interference?

Writing for the Spectator in the U.K., Kate Andrews has some observations about the underlying philosophical and ideological conflict..

…the International Monetary Fund has weighed in on the UK’s mini-Budget, offering a direct rebuke of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s tax cuts. …its spokesperson said…‘Given elevated inflation pressures in many countries, including the UK, we do not recommend large and untargeted fiscal packages at this juncture’… But this rebuke from the IMF is the kind of battle the Truss camp might be happy to have. …The IMF takes a political stance on inequality, viewing its reduction as a good thing in itself. Truss and Kwarteng reject this premise – summed up in the Chancellor’s statement last Friday when he called for the end of redistribution politics – and think it’s far more important to focus on ‘growing the size of the pie.’ The IMF’s ‘intervention’ is likely to become an example of the ‘Treasury orthodoxy’ that Truss was so vocal about during the leadership campaign: her belief that a left-wing economic consensus will not tolerate any meaningful shake-up of the tax code or supply-side reform.

Truss and Kwarteng are correct to reject the IMF’s foolish – and immoral – fixation on inequality.

All you really need to know is that the IMF publishes research implying it is okay to hurt poor people if rich people are hurt by a greater amount.

Let’s close by addressing whether tax cuts are bad for Britain’s currency and financial markets

Paul Marshall explained the interaction (and non-interaction) of fiscal and monetary policy in a column for the U.K.-based Financial Times.

Since 2010, the G7 policy framework has been one of tight fiscal and loose monetary policy. …This combination of fiscal austerity and monetary largesse has not been a success. Austerity has not prevented government debt ratios steadily climbing to historic highs. …Meanwhile quantitative easing has fuelled asset inflation for the super-rich and has more or less abolished risk pricing in financial markets. And…it has produced inflation which is still out of control. But now the global policy consensus is in the process of pivoting… A distinctive feature of the UK’s fiscal pivot is the emphasis on reducing the burden of tax on work and business. This is sensible. …the bigger problem for Liz Truss’s government is the Bank of England. It seems that the governor, Andrew Bailey, did not get the memo. Our central bank has been behind the curve since inflation first started to rise sharply in 2021. …The Bank of England effectively lost control of the UK bond market last Thursday when it raised interest rates by 50 basis points, instead of the 75bp that the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank raised by. Its timidity is now having an impact on both the gilt market and sterling. That is the essential context for the market reaction to the mini-Budget. Once you lose market confidence, it is doubly hard to win it back. …a more muscular stance from the BoE to underpin financial market confidence in the UK, even at the expense of some short-term pain.

He is right.

The Bank of England should be focused on trying to unwind its mistaken monetary policy that produced rising prices. That’s the approach that will strengthen the currency.

And Truss and Kwarteng should continue their efforts for better tax policy so the economy can grow faster.

But better tax policy needs to be accompanied by much-need spending restraint, which is what the United Kingdom enjoyed not only during the Thatcher years, but also under Prime Ministers Cameron and May.

P.S. The IMF also interfered in British politics when it tried to sabotage Brexit.

P.P.S. One obvious takeaway is that the IMF should be eliminated.

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