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Archive for the ‘Fiscal Policy’ Category

I try not to get too agitated about media bias, but I sometimes get “triggered” when the deliberate inaccuracies involve economic issues. And I get really irked when reporters write about non-existent spending cuts.

I’ve previously mocked the New York Times on this topic, so today let’s go after the Washington Post, based on this story which was republished by the Boston Globe.

House Republicans released a budget proposal Tuesday that would balance in nine years — but only by making large cuts to entitlement programs, including Medicare and Social Security… Along with other changes, the budget proposes to squeeze $537 billion out of Medicare over the next decade. …Changes to Medicaid and other health programs would account for $1.5 trillion in savings.

As a libertarian, this sounds like good news.

I want “large cuts” in government. I would like to go back to what America’s Founders envisioned, with a very tiny central government.

But it turns out that the reporter is peddling garbage. There are no cuts. And the story’s headline is especially inaccurate.

If you look at the 10-year details, you find that Social Security spending will climb by more than $700 billion, Medicare spending will increase by $500 billion, and spending on other health programs such as Medicaid will rise by $115 billion. Here are the numbers from the House GOP’s proposed budget.

 

Now let’s look at total spending. That’s the grey row at the bottom of the aforementioned table.

And let’s put those numbers into a 10-year chart.

As you can see, we still can’t find any “large cuts” for the simple reasons that none exist. Total spending is projected to climb by almost $1.5 trillion. Indeed, the House Republican budget would let spending grow much faster than projected inflation.

When confronted by this data, budget wonks on the left will quickly say that there are “budget cuts” when comparing the GOP numbers to what would happen if government policy was left on autopilot.

But if a budget doesn’t grow as fast as previously planned, that’s still not a cut.

I tell my leftist friends that it’s perfectly legitimate for them to argue that spending should increase rapidly because politicians in the past made promises to various interest groups. But it’s wrong for them to say that an increase is a cut simply because outlays don’t grow as fast as they would prefer.

Which is the point I made in interviews with Judge Napolitano and John Stossel.

P.S. The House GOP budget certainly is better than the status quo, especially since it assumes genuine reform of Medicaid and Medicare. But I prefer Rand Paul’s budget, which actually cuts spending in the first year (gasp!) and then limits spending in subsequent years so it grows by 1 percent annually.

P.P.S. For those who think modest spending restraint is impossible, don’t forget that we actually had a de facto five-year nominal spending freeze during the Obama years.

P.P.P.S. Here’s a previous example of budget inaccuracy in the Washington Post.

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I’ve half-joked in the past that spending restraint is the answer to every fiscal problem.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the right answer to 98 percent of fiscal problems. Some fiscal discipline is what we need in America, for instance, and it’s certainly an approach that works whenever and wherever it is tried.

Could it also be the answer in Jordan, which has stumbled into a fiscal crisis and is now facing domestic unrest?

The trouble began in January when the government announced a big IMF-supported tax increase. Here’s some of what was reported by Reuters.

Jordans cabinet announced on Monday a major package of IMF-guided tax hikes… The package announced on state media includes removing exemptions on general sales tax and unifying low 4 to 8 percent rates on a large number of items at 10 percent while leaving it at 16 percent ceiling for others, alongside raising special taxes on tobacco, premium gasoline and streamlining customs duties.

Interestingly, the article acknowledged that the country got in a fiscal mess because of too much spending.

The debt is at least in part due to successive governments adopting an expansionist fiscal policy characterized by job creation in the bloated public sector, and by lavish subsidies for bread and other staple goods. …Economists said Jordans ability to maintain a costly subsidy system and a large state bureaucracy was increasingly untenable in the absence of large foreign capital inflows or infusions of foreign aid.

But politicians almost always prefer tax hikes rather than spending restraint (even though – or perhaps because – higher taxes are not an effective way of controlling red ink).

The victims of those tax increases are not happy. As reported earlier this month, they took to the streets.

Jordanians took to the streets of the capital Amman on Sunday in a fourth day of nightly protests against IMF-backed price increases that have shaken the kingdom, witnesses said. …demonstrators who converged near the cabinet office chanted slogans calling for the sacking of Prime Minister Hani Mulki and saying they would disband only if the government rescinded a tax bill it sent to parliament last month which critics say worsens living standards. …Public anger over IMF-driven government policies has grown since a steep general sales tax hike earlier this year… The government says it needs more funds for public services and argues that tax reforms reduce social disparities by placing a heavier burden on high earners.

And the protests worked.

The New York Times has the cheerful news.

The government of Jordan announced on Thursday that it would withdraw a divisive tax bill after nationwide protests rocked the country, leading to the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet. The newly appointed prime minister, Omar Razzaz, said in a statement that he had consulted members of both houses of Parliament, and that there was a consensus that the tax bill should be withdrawn. …The decision to withdraw the bill, which proposed increasing the tax rate on workers by at least five percentage points and on businesses by 20 to 40 percentage points, was lauded by many in Jordan.

Incidentally, taxpayers in the United States have been subsidizing Jordanian profligacy.

In 2015, the Obama administration and Jordan signed a three-year agreement in which the United States pledged $1 billion in assistance annually, subject to the approval of Congress. More recently, Washington pledged $6.3 billion in aid through 2022, making Jordan one of the top recipients of American foreign assistance.

These three news reports were interesting, but I wondered if they told the full story.

Maybe, just maybe, the IMF is right and tax increases are necessary because there is no leeway to reduce the burden of government spending. Perhaps the government already has been complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule and has slashed the budget, meaning that higher revenues are the only feasible option still on the table.

So I decided to check the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database. Lo and behold, I discovered that the budget has soared from 2 billion dinar in 2000 to more than 9 billion dinar this year. What’s especially remarkable is that government spending has grown far faster than needed to keep pace with inflation.

In other words, what happened in Jordan is exactly what happened in Greece. Government grew too fast. But not just Greece. The mess in Jordan is a repeat of what happened in Western Australia. In Puerto Rico as well. And don’t forget Alberta and Alaska. The list could go on and on.

It’s sort of like the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. Or the swallows returning to Capistrano.

And for those who value predictability, it’s no surprise to once again see the IMF pushing for higher taxes. Those bureaucrats are the Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy and there’s only one medicine they prescribe.

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Better economic performance is the most important reason to adopt pro-growth reforms such as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

Even small increases in economic growth – especially if sustained over time – can translate into meaningful improvements in living standards.

But there are several reasons why it won’t be easy to “prove” that last year’s tax reform boosted the economy.

And there are probably other factors to mention as well.

The takeaway is that the nation will enjoy good results from the 2017 tax changes, but I fully expect that the class-warfare crowd will claim that any good news is for reasons other than tax reform. And if there isn’t good news, they’ll assert this is evidence against “supply-side economics” and totally ignore the harmful effect of offsetting policies such as Trump’s protectionism.

That being said, some of the benefits of tax reform are already evident and difficult to dispute.

Let’s start by looking at what’s happening Down Under, largely driven by American tax reform.

The Australian government announced Monday that the Senate will vote in June on cutting corporate tax rates after an opinion poll suggested the contentious reform had popular public support. …Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s conservative coalition wants to cut the corporate tax rate by 5 percent to 25 percent by 2026-27… Cormann said the need to reduce the tax burden on businesses had become more pressing for future Australian jobs and investment since the 2016 election because the United States had reduced its top corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. “Putting businesses in Australia at an ongoing competitive disadvantage deliberately by imposing higher taxes in Australia … puts Australian workers at an oncoming disadvantage and that is clearly the point that more and more Australians are starting to fully appreciate,” Cormann told reporters. Cormann was referring to a poll published in The Australian newspaper on Monday that showed 63 percent of respondents supported company tax cuts.

Wow.

What’s remarkable is not that Australian lawmakers are moving to lower their corporate rate. The government, after all, has known for quite some time that this reform was necessary to boost wages and improve competitiveness.

The amazing takeaway from this article is that ordinary people understand and support the need to engage in tax competition and other nations feel compelled to also cut business tax burdens.

All last year, I kept arguing that this was one of the main reasons to support Trump’s proposal for a lower corporate rate. And now we’re seeing the benefits materializing.

Now let’s look at a positive domestic effect of tax reform, with a feel-good story from New Jersey. It appears that the avarice-driven governor may not get his huge proposed tax hike, even though Democrats dominate the state legislature.

Why? Because the state and local tax deduction has been curtailed, which means the federal government is no longer aiding and abetting bad fiscal policy.

New Jersey’s new Democratic governor is finding that, even with his party in full control of Trenton, raising taxes in one of the country’s highest-taxed states is no day at the beach. Gov. Phil Murphy…has proposed a $37.4 billion budget. He wants to raise $1.7 billion in new taxes and other revenue… But some of his fellow Democrats, who control the state legislature, have balked at the governor’s proposals to raise the state’s sales tax and impose a millionaires tax. State Senate President Steve Sweeney has been particularly vocal. …Mr. Sweeney previously voted for a millionaire’s tax, but said he changed his mind after the federal tax law was passed in December. The law capped previously unlimited annual state and local tax deductions at $10,000 for individual and married filers, and Mr. Sweeney said he is concerned an additional millionaire’s tax could drive people out of the state. “I think that people that have the ability to leave are leaving,” he said.

Of course they’re leaving. New Jersey taxes a lot and it’s the understatement of the century to point out that there’s not a correspondingly high level of quality services from government.

So why not move to Florida or Texas, where you’ll pay much less and government actually works better?

The bottom line is that tax-motivated migration already was occurring and it’s going to become even more important now that federal tax reform is no longer providing a huge de facto subsidy to high-tax states. And that’s going to have a positive effect. New Jersey is just an early example.

This doesn’t mean states won’t ever again impose bad policy. New Jersey probably will adopt some sort of tax hike before the dust settles. But it won’t be as bad as Governor Murphy wanted.

We also may see Illinois undo its flat tax after this November’s election, which would mean the elimination of the only decent feature of the state’s tax system. But I also don’t doubt that there will be some Democrats in the Illinois capital who warn (at least privately) that such a change will hasten the state’s collapse.

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I wrote two days ago about how the country of Georgia has achieved impressive economic performance thanks to major reforms to reduce the size and scope of government.

Indeed, Georgia jumped from #56 to #8 in Economic Freedom of the World between 2004 and 2015, a remarkable climb.

Today, I want to focus on what the country has achieved with regard to fiscal policy.

In part, this is an opportunity to highlight that Georgia is one of many nations to adopt a flat tax. Georgia’s 20 percent flat tax not only has a single rate, but also doesn’t have destructive forms of double taxation like a death tax or capital gains tax (it also has an Estonian-style corporate tax).

But my main goal is to draw attention to the fiscal rules in Georgia. Both the nation’s Constitution and its Organic Law have provisions that are designed to limit the growth of government.

First, let’s look at Article 94 of the Georgian Constitution, which states that no new taxes are allowed unless approved by a vote of the people.

The Organic Law also has good provisions on taxation, most notably a prohibition on using a referendum to adopt a discriminatory “progressive” tax (too bad we don’t have such a provision in America!).

Here’s the part that I really like.

There’s an aggregate spending cap. The government’s budget can’t consume more than 30 percent of economic output.

It also includes European Union-style “Maastricht” limits on deficits and debt, though I’ll simply observe that those rules are irrelevant if there’s a limit on overall spending.

In any event, the burden of spending in Georgia does comply with the spending cap, according to IMF data. Though I’ll be curious to see what happens if there’s ever a serious recession. If that happens, GDP falls, which could make it politically difficult to obey the cap.

Which is why I prefer the Swiss approach of simply allowing government to grow by a small amount every year. That seems more politically sustainable. But I’m happy with anything to fulfills my Golden Rule.

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As a general rule, we worry too much about deficits and debt. Yes, red ink matters, but we should pay more attention to variables such as the overall burden of government spending and the structure of the tax system.

That being said, Greece shows that a nation can experience a crisis if investors no longer trust that a government is capable of “servicing” its debt (i.e., paying interest and principal to people and institutions that hold government bonds).

This doesn’t change the fact that Greece’s main fiscal problem is too much spending. It simply shows that it’s also important to recognize the side-effects of too much spending (if you have a brain tumor, that’s your main problem, even if crippling headaches are a side-effect of the tumor).

Anyhow, it’s quite likely that Italy will be the next nation to travel down this path.

This in in part because the Italian economy is moribund, as noted by the Wall Street Journal.

Italy’s national elections…featured populist promises of largess but neglected what economists have long said is the real Italian disease: The country has forgotten how to grow. …The Italian economy contracted deeply in Europe’s debt crisis earlier this decade. A belated recovery now under way yielded 1.5% growth in 2017—a full percentage point less than the eurozone as a whole and not enough to dispel Italians’ pervasive sense of national decline. Many European policy makers view Italy’s stasis as the likeliest cause of a future eurozone crisis.

Why would Italy be the cause of a future crisis?

For the simple reason that it is only the 4th-largest economy in Europe, but this chart from the Financial Times shows it has the most nominal debt.

So what’s the solution?

The obvious answer is to dramatically reduce the burden of government.

Interestingly, even the International Monetary Fund put forth a half-decent proposal based on revenue-neutral tax reform and modest spending restraint.

The scenario modeled assumes a permanent fiscal consolidation of about 2 percent of GDP (in the structural primary balance) over four years…, supported by a pro-growth mix of revenue and expenditure reforms… Two types of growth-friendly revenue and spending measures are considered along the envisaged fiscal consolidation path: shifting taxation from direct to indirect taxes, and lowering expenditure and shifting its composition from transfers to investment. On the revenue side, a lower labor tax wedge (1.5 percent of GDP) is offset by higher VAT collections (1 percent of GDP) and introducing a modern property tax (0.5 percent of GDP). On the expenditure side, spending on public consumption is lowered by 1.25 percent of GDP, while productive public investment spending is increased by 0.5 percent of GDP. The remaining portion of the fiscal consolidation, 1.25 percent of GDP, is implemented via reduced social transfers.

Not overly bold, to be sure, but I suppose I should be delighted that the IMF didn’t follow its usual approach and recommend big tax increases.

So are Italians ready to take my good advice, or even the so-so advice of the IMF?

Nope. They just had an election and the result is a government that wants more red ink.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page is not impressed by the economic agenda of Italy’s putative new government.

Five-Star wants expansive welfare payments for poor Italians, revenues to pay for it not included. Italy’s public debt to GDP, at 132%, is already second-highest in the eurozone behind Greece. Poor Italians need more economic growth to generate job opportunities, not public handouts that discourage work. The League’s promise of a pro-growth 15% flat tax is a far better idea, especially in a country where tax avoidance is rife. The two parties would also reverse the 2011 Monti government pension reforms, which raised the retirement age and moved Italy toward a contribution-based benefit system. …Recent labor-market reforms may also be on the block.

Simply stated, Italy elected free-lunch politicians who promised big tax cuts and big spending increases. I like the first part of that lunch, but the overall meal doesn’t add up in a nation that has a very high debt level.

And I don’t think the government has a very sensible plan to make the numbers work.

…problematic for the rest of Europe are the two parties’ demand for an exemption from the European Union’s 3% GDP cap on annual budget deficits. …the two parties want the European Central Bank to cancel some €250 billion in Italian debt.

Demond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute suggests this will lead to a fiscal crisis because of two factors. First, the economy is weak.

Anyone who thought that the Eurozone debt crisis was resolved has not been paying attention to economic and political developments in Italy…the recent Italian parliamentary election…saw a surge in support for populist political parties not known for their commitment to economic orthodoxy or to real economic reform. …To say that the Italian economy is in a very poor state would be a gross understatement. Over the past decade, Italy has managed to experience a triple-dip economic recession that has left the level of its economy today 5 percent below its pre-2008 peak. Meanwhile, Italy’s current unemployment level is around double that of its northern neighbors, while its youth unemployment continues to exceed 25 percent. …the country’s public debt to GDP ratio continued to rise to 133 percent, making the country the most indebted country in the Eurozone after Greece. …its banking system remains clogged with non-performing loans that still amount to 15 percent of its balance sheet…

Second, existing debt is high.

…having the world’s third-largest government bond market after Japan and the United States, with $2.5 trillion in bonds outstanding, Italy is simply too large a country for even Germany to save. …global policymakers…, it would seem not too early for them to start making contingency plans for a full blown Italian economic crisis.

Since he writes on issues I care about, I always enjoy reading Lachman’s work. Though I don’t always agree with his analysis.

Why, for instance, does he think an Italian fiscal crisis threatens the European currency?

…the Italian economy is far too large an economy to fail if the Euro is to survive in anything like its present form.

Would the dollar be threatened if (when?) Illinois goes bankrupt?

But let’s not get sidetracked.3

To give you an idea of the fairy-tale thinking of Italian politicians, I’ll close with this chart from L’Osservatorio on the fiscal impact of the government’s agenda. It’s in Italian, but all you need to know is that the promised tax cuts and spending increases are on the left side and the compensating savings (what we would call “pay-fors”) are on the right side.

Wow, makes me wonder if Italy has passed the point of no return.

By the way, Italy may be the next domino, but it’s not the only European nation with fiscal problems.

P.S. No wonder some people want Sardinia to secede from Italy and become part of “sensible” Switzerland.

P.P.S. Some leftists genuinely think the United States should emulate Italy.

P.P.P.S. As a fan of spending caps, I can’t resist pointing out that anti-deficit rules in Europe have not stopped politicians from expanding government.

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During the election season, I speculated Trump was a big government Republican, and he confirmed my analysis this past February when he acquiesced to an orgy of new spending and agreed to bust the spending caps.

That awful spending spree gave huge increases to almost every part of the budget, and I pointed out that the deal probably will create the conditions for future tax hikes.

I got so upset at profligate GOPers that I crunched the numbers and revealed that (with the notable exception of Reagan) Republican presidents are even bigger spenders than Democrats.

Well, Senate Republicans recently had a chance to atone for their sins by voting for a proposal from Rand Paul to balance the budget.

So what did they do? Rejected it, of course.

In a column for Reason, Eric Boehm justly condemns Republicans for being big spenders.

The Senate on Thursday resoundingly rejected the Kentucky Republican’s plan to balance the federal budget by 2023, voting 76 to 21 against a bill that would have required a $400 billion cut in federal spending next year, followed by 1 percent spending increases for the rest of the next decade. …Paul’s proposal never really had a chance of passing, coming as it did just months after Congress approved enormous spending hikes that busted Obama-era caps once championed by Republicans as necessary for fiscal restraint. …Paul’s plan would have balanced the budget by 2023, as long as revenue met current CBO projections. By 2028, his proposal envisioned a $700 billion surplus instead of the $1.5 trillion deficit currently projected by the CBO.

A Lifezette column by Brendan Kirby was even more critical of big-government Republicans.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was hoping his Republican colleagues would be embarrassed by their vote to jack up federal spending earlier this year and support his plan to phase in a balanced budget. Few were. Paul got 20 other Republican senators on Thursday — less than half of the Senate GOP caucus — to vote for his “penny plan,” which would balance the federal budget over five years… No Democrats back the proposal. …Even though Paul’s bid failed, it did pick up the support of some senators who voted for the spending bill in February, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). The others were Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). …Paul also got more votes than he did for a similar proposal last year.

Kirby’s article ended on an upbeat note based on voting patterns.

I also want to close on an upbeat note, but for an entirely different reason. Here are the annual numbers from the CBO baseline (what will happen to spending and revenue if government continues on its current path) and the numbers for Senator Paul’s proposal.

And why do these depressing numbers leave me with a feeling of optimism?

For the simple reason that they show how simple it is to make progress with some modest spending restraint. The lower set of number show that Senator Paul quickly gets to a balanced budget by imposing an overall reduction of about 2 percent on spending in 2019, followed by annual increases of about 1 percent until 2025.

I think that’s a great plan, but I’d also be happy with a plan that allows spending to grow by 1 percent each year. Or even 2 percent each year.

My bottom line is that we need some sort of spending cap so that the burden of government spending grows slower than the productive sector of the economy. In other words, comply with the Golden Rule.

And what’s especially remarkable is that solving our fiscal problems is still quite feasible notwithstanding the reckless spending bill that was recently approved (Paul’s proposal, incidentally, leaves in place the small – and temporary – tax cut from the recent reform legislation).

P.S. Senator Paul would achieve a balanced budget in just five years by letting spending grow during that period by a bit less than 4/10ths of 1 percent per year. Does that sound impossibly radical? Well, it’s what Republicans managed to achieve during the heyday of the Tea Party revolution, when they actually produced a five-year nominal spending freeze. In other words, zero spending growth! If they could impose that level of discipline with Obama in the White House, why not do the same with Trump (who quasi-endorsed the Penny Plan) at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue?

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Even though I wrote about proposed tax increases in Illinois just 10 days ago, it’s time to revisit the issue because the Tax Foundation just published a very informative article about the state’s self-destructive fiscal policy.

It starts by noting that the aggregate tax burden is higher in Illinois than it is in adjoining states.

Just what are Illinois’ neighbors doing on taxes? They’re taxing less, for starters. In Illinois, state and local taxes account for 9.3 percent of state income. The state and local taxes in Illinois’ six neighboring states account, in aggregate, for 8.0 percent of the income of those states.

Here’s the table showing the gap between Illinois and its neighbors. And it’s probably worth noting that the tax gap is the largest with the two states – Indiana and Missouri – that have the longest borders with Illinois.

While the aggregate tax burden is an important measure, I’ve explained before that it’s also important to focus on marginal tax rates. After all, that’s the variable that determines incentives for productive behavior since it measures how much the government confiscates when investors and entrepreneurs generate additional wealth.

And this brings us to the most important point in the article. Illinois politicians want to move in the wrong direction on marginal tax rates while neighboring jurisdictions are moving in the right direction.

Except for Iowa, all of Illinois’ neighbors have cut their income taxes since Illinois adopted its “temporary” income tax increases in 2011—and Iowa is on the verge of adopting a tax reform package that cuts individual income tax rates… Over the same period, Illinois’ single-rate income tax was temporarily raised from 3 to 5 percent, then allowed to partially sunset to 3.75 percent before being raised to the current 4.95 percent rate. A 1.5 percent surtax on pass-through business income brings the rate on many small businesses to 6.45 percent. Now there are calls to amend the state constitution to allow graduated-rate income taxes, with proposals circulating to create a top marginal rate as high as 9.85 percent (11.35 percent on pass-through businesses).

Here’s the chart showing the top rate in various states in 2011, the top rates today, and where top tax rates could be in the near future.

What’s especially remarkable is that Illinois politicians are poised to jack up tax rates just as federal tax reform has significantly reduced the deduction for state and local taxes.

For all intents and purposes, they’re trying to drive job creators out of the state (a shift that already has been happening, but now will accelerate).

Normally, when I write that a jurisdiction is committing fiscal suicide, I try to explain that it’s a slow-motion process. Illinois, however, could be taking the express lane. No wonder readers overwhelmingly picked the Land of Lincoln when asked which state will be the first to suffer a fiscal collapse.

P.S. Illinois politicians claim they want to bust the flat tax so they can impose higher taxes on the (supposedly) evil rich. High-income taxpayers doubtlessly will be the first on the chopping block, but I can say with 99.99 percent certainty that class-warfare tax increases will be a precursor to higher taxes on everybody.

P.P.S. Illinois residents should move to states with no income taxes. But if they only want to cross one border, Indiana would be a very good choice. And Kentucky just shifted to a flat tax, so that’s another potential option.

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