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Archive for the ‘Fiscal Policy’ Category

Public finance experts sometime differ in how to describe a value-added tax.

  • Is it a hidden form of a national sales tax, imposed at each stage of the production process?
  • Is it a hidden withholding tax on income, imposed at each stage of the production process?

Both answers are actually correct. The VAT is both a tax on consumption and a tax on income because – notwithstanding its other flaws – it has the right “tax base.”

In other words, like the flat tax, a VAT taxes all economic activity, but only one time (i.e., no double taxation of income that is saved and invested). And it usually has a single rate, which is another feature of a flat tax.

That’s why a VAT (in theory!) would be acceptable if it was used to finance the complete abolition of the income tax.

But that’s not a realistic option. Heck, it’s not even an unrealistic option.

Instead, many politicians in the United States want to keep the income tax and also impose a VAT so they can finance a bigger burden of government – which is exactly what’s been happening in Europe.

Unfortunately, they’re getting some support from the American Enterprise Institute. Alan Viard, a resident scholar at AEI, has a new column urging the adoption of a VAT.

Let’s review what he wrote and explain why he’s wrong.

The U.S. faces a large long-term imbalance between projected federal tax revenue and federal spending… To narrow the fiscal imbalance, we should follow the lead of 160 other countries by adopting a value-added tax (VAT), a consumption tax that is economically similar to a retail sales tax. …Adopting a VAT would significantly curb the debt buildup.

I’ve never been impressed with the argument that the U.S. should adopt a policy simply because other nations have done the same thing.

The United States is much richer than other countries in large part because we haven’t replicated their mistakes. So why start now?

But let’s deal with Viard’s assertion that a VAT would “significantly curb the debt buildup.”

I recently showed the opposite happened in Japan. They adopted a VAT (and have repeatedly increased the VAT rate), but debt has increased.

But I think the strongest evidence is from Europe since we have several additional decades of data. Those nations started imposing VATs in the late 1960s and they now all have very high VAT rates.

And what’s happened to debt?

Well, as you can see from the chart, big increases in the tax burden were matched by even bigger increases in government debt.

The moral of the story is that Milton Friedman was right when he warned that, “History shows that over a long period of time government will spend whatever the tax system raises plus as much more as it can get away with.”

So why would Viard support a VAT when the evidence overwhelmingly shows that a big tax increase will worse a nation’s fiscal outlook?

He argues that a VAT would be the least-worst way to finance bigger government.

Although tax increases on the affluent place the burden on those with the most ability to pay, they impede long-run economic growth by penalizing saving and investment and distorting business decisions. The economic costs become larger as tax rates are pushed higher. …The VAT is more growth-friendly than high-income tax increases because it does not penalize saving and investment and poses fewer economic distortions.

He’s right that a VAT doesn’t do as much damage as class-warfare tax, but he’s wildly wrong to assert that it is “growth-friendly.”

Simply stated, a VAT will drive a further wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. That not only will discourage work. It also will discourage saving and investment.

The only positive thing to say is that a VAT doesn’t discourage those good things as much as some other types of tax increases.

But that’s sort of like saying that it’s better to lose your hand in an accident instead of losing your entire arm. Call me crazy, but I think the best outcome is to avoid the accident in the first place.

In other words, the bottom line is that we shouldn’t have any tax increase. Especially since 100 percent of America’s fiscal problem is the consequence of excessive government spending.

I’ll close by debunking the notion that a VAT is a simple tax.

As you can see from this European map, VATs can impose huge complexity burdens on businesses.

Yes, the map shows that some nations have relatively simple VATs, but American politicians already have shown with the income tax that they can’t resist turning a tax system into a Byzantine nightmare. Of course they would do the same with the VAT, creating special loopholes and penalties to please their donors.

P.S. Here’s my video from 2009, which explains how a VAT works and why it would be a bad idea.

Everything I said back then is even more true today.

P.P.S. The clinching argument is that one of America’s best presidents opposed a VAT and one of America’s worst presidents supported a VAT. That tells you everything you need to know.

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT by clicking here, here, and here.

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Back in July, I wrote a three-part series designed to identify the states with the greediest politicians.

The results sometimes matched expectations. Florida generally looked very responsible, for instance, while New York looked rather profligate.

But other results were mixed. In particular, Alaska and Wyoming have very good tax systems, but they use energy taxes to finance bloated public sectors.

Today, let’s build on that research by reviewing two new reports than rank state economic policy.

First, we have the American Legislative Exchange Council’s 2020 Report on Economic Freedom. It’s based on several factors, but I can’t help but notice that the 10-best-ranked states include five with no income tax and three with flat taxes.

If you look at the 10 states at the bottom of the rankings, by contrast, they almost all have so-called progressive taxes. The only exceptions are Alaska, which (as noted above) finances a big government with energy taxes, and Illinois, which has a flat tax that currently is under assault by the state’s big spenders.

Now let’s look at the Tax Foundation’s newly released State Business Tax Climate Index.

As you can see, the top 10 is dominated by states that either don’t tax income, or have flat taxes, and the one state (Montana) with a so-called progressive tax compensates by having no sales tax.

Every state in the bottom 10, meanwhile, has a discriminatory income tax.

The two reports cited above measure different things. But both use good data and rely on sound methodology, so it’s very interesting to see which states score well (and score poorly) in both.

The states that crack the top 10 in both reports are South Dakota, Florida, New Hampshire, Utah, and Indiana.

And the states that languish in the bottom 10 in both reports are Louisiana (they should have adopted Bobby Jindal’s plan when they had a chance) and New Jersey (not exactly a surprise).

P.S. I recently wrote about Chris Edwards’ Report Card on America’s Governors. So if we mesh those results (New Hampshire was in the top category while New Jersey was in the bottom category) with today’s results, the folks in the Granite State get the triple crown while the folks in the Garden State get a booby prize.

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One of the problems with state balanced budget requirements is that tax revenues are very sensitive to economic conditions.

Boom Years: When there’s robust economic growth, politicians collect unanticipated revenue because more people have good jobs and more businesses are earning money.

And what do politicians do when this happens? They spend a big chunk of that unanticipated tax revenue.

Bust Years: When there’s a recession and tax revenues unexpectedly decline, state politicians are in a tough position because they’ve made lots of promises to spend money, including for the extra spending that took place when the economy was growing.

And what do politicians do when this happens? They usually respond with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.

This boom-bust budgeting is unwise for many reasons, but I don’t like it because it leads to a long-run expansion in the size of government (the spending increases in the boom years almost always are greater than the cutbacks in the bust years).

Indeed, one of the reasons why I prefer a spending cap instead of a balanced budget requirement is that you avoid this “ratchet effect.”

Now let’s look at some real-time data on why this matters. Given what’s happened with the coronavirus, we’re currently in a “bust year” and many governors and state legislators claim that they’re dealing with special conditions that necessitate a bailout from Washington.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Williams of the American Legislative Exchange Council and Dave Trabert of the Kansas Policy Institute explore the topic.

Many governors now seek a federal bailout, but borrowing trillions more will only make matters worse for taxpayers… Every state provides the same basic services, but some do it at much lower cost, which allows them to have lower taxes. ……high-spending states are at the front of the line for a federal bailout. …Too many elected officials would rather have taxpayers submit to a tax increase now, or pay off bailout debt later, than do the hard work of eliminating unnecessary spending.

Their column includes plenty of hard data showing that the states clamoring for the bailouts wouldn’t be facing any fiscal problems if they weren’t spending so much money.

…The 41 states with an income tax spent 55% more per resident in 2018 than did the nine states without an income tax. Florida, which doesn’t have an income tax, spent the least, at $2,327 per resident. Texas and New Hampshire, also without income taxes, have the next lowest spending at $2,585 and $2,773, respectively. New Hampshire is frugal enough to avoid a sales tax. …New York, which has an income tax, spends $5,231 per resident. Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatens to cut services unless he gets a $60 billion bailout over two years. If New York spent at Florida’s level per resident, the Empire State would save $56.7 billion each year. If Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker were to trim his state’s per resident spending to match Texas’, he would save his taxpayers $22.3 billion a year—and there would be no need for any income-tax increase. Gov. Gavin Newsom could save Californians $64.6 billion annually if his state matched New Hampshire’s spending.

Here’s the map that accompanied the column, showing per-capita spending levels in each state.

Earlier this year, I looked at state data, but also included spending by local governments.

But slicing the numbers in a different way doesn’t change the fact that some states spend much more (and without delivering more and/or better services).

Some people portray this as a battle of red states vs. blue states, but I prefer to avoid the politics and simply compare big-spending states to modest-spending states. For instance, compare New York and Florida. If that’s not enough, also compare Texas and California.

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On election day, most people focus on the big-ticket partisan battles, such as this year’s contest between Trump and Biden.

Let’s not forget, though, that there are sometimes very important referendum battles at the state (or even local) level.

This year, the most important referendum will be in Illinois, where hypocritical Governor J.B. Pritzker wants voters to approve an initiative to replace the state’s flat tax with a discriminatory progressive tax.

I’ve already explained that the flat tax is the only thing saving Illinois from going further and faster in the wrong direction. Let’s add some additional evidence, starting with excerpts from this editorial in the Wall Street Journal.

The last state to adopt a progressive income tax was Connecticut in 1996, and we know how that turned out. Now Democrats in Illinois want to follow Connecticut down the elevator shaft with a referendum replacing the state’s flat 4.95% income tax with progressive rates… Public unions have long wanted to enact a progressive tax to pay for increased spending and pensions, and they think the political moment has finally arrived. Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker says a progressive tax will hit only the wealthy… Don’t believe it. There aren’t enough wealthy in the state to pay for his spending promises, so eventually Democrats will come after the middle class. …Illinois has no fiscal room to fail. Since 2015 Illinois’s GDP has grown a mere 1% annually, about half as fast as the U.S. and slower than Ohio (1.4%), Indiana (1.7%), Wisconsin (1.7%) and Michigan (2.1%). About 11% of Illinois residents have left since 2001, the second biggest state exodus after New York. Taxpayer flight has been accelerating as income and property taxes have risen. …A progressive tax would be a gift to Florida and Texas.

The head of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Todd Maisch, also worries that other states will benefit if voters make the wrong choice. Here are excerpts from his column in the Chicago Sun-Times.

The rest of the nation’s states are cheering on Illinois’ efforts to enact a progressive income tax. That’s because they know it will be one more self-inflicted blow to our state’s economy, certain to drive dollars, jobs and families into their waiting arms. …The reality is that this proposal is intended to do just one thing: Make it easier to raise taxes on all Illinoisans. …the spenders in Springfield are coming for you too, sooner or later. Proponents of the progressive tax know something they don’t want to tell you. Taxing millionaires will in no way meet their appetite for state spending. There simply isn’t enough money at the higher income levels to satisfy their demands. Tax rates will go up and tax brackets will reach lower and lower incomes. …Other states already are benefiting from the outmigration of Illinoisans and their money. Illinois passing the progressive tax is exactly what they are hoping for.

Amen. We already have lots of evidence showing that taxpayers move from high-tax states to low-tax states. And Illinois already has been bleeding taxable income to other states, so it’s very likely that a progressive tax would dramatically worsen the state’s position.

Illinois voters can and should learn from what’s happened elsewhere.

For instance, Orphe Divounguy of the Illinois Policy Institute shares evidence from California about the adverse impact of class-warfare taxation.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker finds himself in the same place as then-California Gov. Jerry Brown was in back in 2012 – trying to convince voters that a progressive state income tax hike will fix state finances in crisis. Brown claimed the burden of those tax hikes would only harm those earning $250,000 or more – the top 3% of earners. That’s exactly what Pritzker promises with his “fair tax” proposal. Brown was wrong. …Here are the main findings of the new study… The negative economic effects of the tax hike wiped out nearly half of the expected additional tax revenue. Among top-bracket California taxpayers, outward migration and behavioral responses by stayers together eroded 45% of the additional tax revenues from the tax hike… The “temporary” income tax hike, which has now been extended through 2030, made it about 40% more likely wealthy residents would move out of California, primarily to states without income taxes.

Illinois voters also should learn from the painful experiences of taxpayers in Connecticut and New Jersey.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized this morning about their negative experiences.

Illinois is the nation’s leading fiscal basket case, with runaway pension liabilities and public-union control of Springfield. But it has had one saving grace: a flat-rate income tax that makes it harder for the political class to raise taxes. Now that last barrier to decline is in jeopardy on the November ballot. …the pattern of other blue states is instructive. Democratic governors have often lowballed voters with modest rates when introducing a new tax, only to ratchet up the levels in each administration. …New Jersey first taxed individual income in 1976 amid a national revenue slump, with a top rate of 2.5%. …Democratic Gov. James Florio raised the tax to 7%… A decade later Democrats raised the top rate to 8.97%, and last year Gov. Murphy added the 10.75% rate… Or take Connecticut… For decades its lack of an income tax lured New York workers and businesses, but Gov. Lowell Weicker introduced the tax in 1991…and the original 1.5% rate has since been raised five times to today’s 6.99%.

And here’s the chart that every taxpayer should memorize before they vote next month.

And never forget that ever-increasing tax rates on high earners inevitably are accompanied by ever-increasing tax rates on everyone else – exactly as predicted by the Sixth Theorem of Government.

So if middle-class Illinois voters approve the so-called Fair Tax initiative, they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves when their tax rates also climb.

P.S. If voters in very-blue Illinois reject Pritzker’s class-warfare tax referendum, I wonder if that will discourage Democrats in Washington from embracing Biden’s class warfare agenda next year (assuming he wins the election)?

P.P.S. There’s a debate whether ballot initiatives and other forms of “direct democracy” are a good idea. Professor Garett Jones of George Mason University persuasively argues we’ll get better governance with less democracy. On the other hand, Switzerland is a very successful, very well-governed nation where voters directly decide all sorts of major policy issues.

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I identified four heroes from the “Battle of Ideas” video I shared in late August – Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher. Here’s one of those heroes, Milton Friedman, explaining what’s needed to control big government.

For all intents and purposes, Friedman is pointing out that there’s a “public choice” incentive for government to expand.

To counteract that disturbing trend, he explains that we need a high level of “societal capital.” In other words, we need a self-reliant and ethical populace – i.e., people who realize it’s wrong to use the coercive power of government to take from others.

Sadly, I don’t think that’s an accurate description of today’s United States.

So how, then, can we get control of government?

Since politicians are unlikely to control spending in the short run (their time horizon is always the next election), our best hope is to get them to agree to a rule that constrains what can happen in the future.

I’ve repeatedly argued in favor of a spending cap. Such a policy has a proven track record, and is far more effective than a balanced budget requirement.

That’s what should happen.

Now let’s focus on what shouldn’t happen. As Milton Friedman famously observed in 2001, tax increases are never the solution because politicians will simply spend any additional revenue (and the tax increases also will hurt the economy and cause Laffer-Curve feedback effects).

P.S. You can enjoy more wisdom from Friedman on issues such as the role of the firm, spending other people’s money, and so-called Robber Barons.

P.P.S. On the issue of spending other people’s money, here’s an example of Jay Leno channeling Friedman.

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With the election less than two months away, there’s a lot of discussion and debate about Trump’s performance.

I put together a report card last year showing that his economic policies have been a mixed bag, with good grades on tax and regulation, but bad grades on trade and spending.

Today, let’s focus specifically on fiscal issues and try to identify the best and worst changes that have occurred during his presidency.

Let’s start with the good news.

For what it’s worth, I’m somewhat conflicted between two different provisions of the 2017 tax reform.

I’m a huge fan of the cap on the state and local tax deduction. For years, I had been arguing that it was very foolish for the federal tax system to subsidize high-tax states.

So I was delighted that the 2017 law restricted this subsidy (and I’m further delighted that we’re already seeing a positive impact with people “voting with their feet” against states such as New York, Illinois, and California).

However, that reform is not permanent. Like many other provisions of that law, it automatically expires at the end of 2025.

Which is why I’m going to choose the lower corporate tax rate as Trump’s best policy. Not only is that reform permanent (at least until/unless Joe Biden takes office), but it was enormously important for American competitiveness since the United States used to have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

And the rate is still too high today, especially if you include the impact of state corporate tax rates, but at least the 2017 reform took a big step in the right direction.

And that big step is good news for jobs, wages, investment, and competitiveness.

Now for the bad news.

I could make the case that Trump’s overall spending increase is the problem.

Indeed, in a column for Reason, Matt Welch points out that Trump has not been a fiscal conservative.

The most traditional way to measure the size of government is to count how much money it spends. In Barack Obama’s last full fiscal year of 2016…, the federal government spent $3.85 trillion… In fiscal year 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic triggered a record amount of spending, the federal government was on course to cough up $4.79 trillion… So under Trump’s signature, before any true crisis hit, the annual price tag of government went up by $937 billion in less than four years—more than the $870 billion price hike Obama produced in an eight-year span… You can argue plausibly that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party will grow the government more. But the fact is, the guy railing against socialism…has grown spending faster than his predecessor and shown considerably less interest in confronting the entitlement bomb.

All of this is true, but I want to focus on specific policies, not just the overall spending performance.

Which is why I would argue that Trump’s worst fiscal policy is captured by this table from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

It shows what Trump promised compared to what he delivered and I’ve highlighted his awful record on non-defense discretionary spending (which is basically domestic spending other than entitlements). He promised $750 billion of reductions over 10 years and instead he saddled the American economy with $700 billion of additional increases.

P.S. Click here if you want background info on the different types of federal spending. But all you probably need to know is that many parts of the federal government that shouldn’t exist (Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, etc) get much of their funding from the non-defense discretionary budget.

P.P.S. Trump has failed to address entitlements, which is reckless, but that’s a sin of omission. The increase in non-defense discretionary is a sin of commission.

P.P.P.S. I also thought about listing Trump’s failure to follow through on his proposal to get rid of taxpayer subsidies for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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New York is in trouble from bad economic policy, especially excessive taxing and spending.

This is one of the reasons why there’s been a steady exodus of taxpayers from the Empire State.

The problem is especially acute for New York City, which has been suffering from Mayor Bill De Blasio’s hard-left governance.

To be sure, not all of the city’s problems are self-inflicted. The 2017 tax reform removed the IRS loophole for state and local tax payments, which means people living in places such as NYC no longer can artificially lower their tax liabilities. And the coronavirus hasn’t helped, either, particularly since Governor Cuomo bungled the state’s response.

The net result of bad policy and bad luck is that New York City has serious economic problems. And this leads, as one might expect, to serious fiscal problems.

What’s surprising, however, is that the normally left-leaning New York Times actually wrote an editorial pointing out that fiscal restraint is the only rational response.

New York is facing…a budget hole of more than $5 billion… Mayor Bill de Blasio has asked the State Legislature to give him the authority to borrow… But borrowing to meet operating expenses is especially hazardous. Cities that do so over and over again are at greater risk of the kind of bankruptcy faced by New York in the late 1970s and Detroit in 2013. …Before Mr. de Blasio adds billions to the city’s debt sheet…he needs to find savings. …The city’s budget grew under Mr. de Blasio, to $92 billion last year from about $73 billion in 2014, his first year in office. Complicating matters, the mayor has hired tens of thousands of employees over his tenure, adding significantly to the city’s pension and retirement obligations. …the mayor will have to be creative, make unpopular decisions and demand serious cost-saving measures… One way to begin is with a far stricter hiring freeze. …The mayor will need to do something he has rarely been able to: ask the labor unions to share in the sacrifice. …There are other cuts to be made.

Wow, this may be the first sensible editorial from the New York Times since it called for abolishing the minimum wage in 1987.*

Mayor De Blasio, needless to say, doesn’t want any form of spending restraint. Depending on the day, he either wants to tax-and-spend or borrow-and-spend.

Both of those approaches are misguided.

Kristin Tate explained in a column for the Hill that the middle class suffers most when class-warfare politicians such as De Blasio impose policies that penalize the private sector.

Finance giant JPMorgan is…slowly relocating many of its operations and jobs to lower tax locations in Ohio, Texas, and Delaware. The Lone Star State currently hosts 25,000 of its employees, and Texas will likely surpass the New York portion in coming years. The resulting move will harm the middle earners of New York far more than that of the wealthy… The exodus is part of a trend sweeping traditionally Democratic states over the last several years. …A whopping 1,800 businesses left California in 2016 alone, while manufacturing firm Honeywell moved its headquarters from New Jersey to greener pastures in North Carolina. …the primary losers in this formula are middle class workers. Between the loss of jobs and revenue, these states and cities press even harder on millions of middle income taxpayers to make up the difference. …Many of the Democrats…who are in charge of the blue state economic models…love to preach that their proposals will make the economy fairer by targeting the most productive members of their states and cities. However, the encompassing butterfly effect spells bad news for people like you and me. Every time you vote for a proposition or a candidate promising a repeat of bad policy, just remember that it will ultimately be the middle class that will pay the largest share.

My contribution to this discussion is to point out that New York City’s fiscal problems are the entirely predictable result of politicians spending too much money over an extended period of time.

In other words, they violated my Golden Rule.

Indeed, the burden of government spending has climbed more than three times faster than inflation during De Blasio’s time in office.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because excessive spending is the cause of every fiscal crisis (as I’ve noted when writing about Cyprus, Alaska, Ireland, Alberta, Greece, Puerto Rico, California, etc).

My final observation is that New York City’s current $5 billion budget shortfall would be a budget surplus of more than $6 billion if De Blasio and the other politicians had adopted a spending cap back in 2015 and limited budget increases to 2 percent annually.

*The New York Times also endorsed the flat tax in 1982, so there have been rare outbursts of common sense.

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There are two reasons why I generally don’t write much about government debt.

  • First, red ink is not desirable, but it’s mostly just the symptom of the far more important problem of excessive government spending.
  • Second, our friends on the left periodically try to push through big tax increases by hypocritically exploiting anxiety about red ink.

The one thing I can state with full certainty, however, is that tax increases are guaranteed to make a bad situation worse.

We’ll get a weaker economy (perhaps much weaker since the left is now fixated on pushing for the kinds of tax increases that do the most damage).

Equally worrisome, the biggest impact of a tax increase is that politicians won’t feel any need to control spending or reform entitlements. Indeed, it’s quite likely that they’ll respond to the expectation of higher revenue by increasing the spending burden.

To complicate matters further, any tax increase probably won’t generate that much additional revenue because of the Laffer Curve.

All of which explains why budget deals that include tax increases usually lead to even higher budget deficits.

This analysis is very timely and relevant since advocates of bigger government somehow claim that the new fiscal forecast from the Congressional Budget Office is proof that we need new taxes.

So I’m doing the same thing today I did back in January (and last August, and in January 2019, and many times before that starting back in 2010). I’ve crunched the numbers to see what sort of policies would be needed to balance the budget without tax increases.

Lo and behold, you can see from this chart that we wouldn’t need draconian spending cuts. All that’s needed for fiscal balance is to limit spending so that it grows slightly less than 1 percent per year (and this analysis even assumes that they get to wait until 2022 before imposing a cap on annual spending increases).

To be sure, politicians would not want to live with that kind of limit on their spending. So I’m not optimistic that we’ll get this type of policy in the near future.

Especially since the major parties are giving voters a choice between big-spender Trump and big-spender Biden.

But the last thing that we should do is worsen the nation’s fiscal outlook by acquiescing to higher taxes.

P.S. It’s worth noting that there was a five-year nominal spending freeze between 2009 and 2014 (back when the Tea Party was influential), so it is possible to achieve multi-year spending restraint in Washington.

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Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office released updated budget projections. The most important numbers in that report show what’s happening with the overall fiscal burden of government – measured by both taxes and spending.

As you can see, there’s a big one-time spike in coronavirus-related spending this year. That’s not good news, but more worrisome is the the longer-run trend of government spending gradually climbing as a share of economic output (and the numbers are significantly worse if you look at CBO’s 30-year projection).

Most reporters and fiscal wonks overlooked the spending data, however, and instead focused on the CBO’s projection for government debt.

Since government spending is the problem and borrowing is merely a symptom of that problem, I think it’s a mistake to fixate on red ink.

That being said, Figure 3 from the CBO report shows that there’s also an upward-spike in federal debt.

And it is true (remember Greece) that high levels of debt can, by themselves, produce a crisis. This happens when investors suddenly stop buying government bonds because they think there’s a risk of default (which happens when a government is incapable or unwilling to make promised payments to lenders).

I think some nations are on the verge of having that kind of crisis, most notably Italy.

But what about the United States? Or Japan? And how’s the outlook for Europe’s welfare states?

In other words, what nations are approaching a tipping point?

A new study from the European Central Bank may help answer these questions. Authored by Pablo Burriel, Cristina Checherita-Westphal, Pascal Jacquinot, Matthias Schön, and Nikolai Stähler, it uses several economic models to measure the downside risks of excessive debt.

The 2009 global financial and economic crisis left a legacy of historically high levels of public debt in advanced economies, at a scale unseen during modern peace time. …The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a different type of shock that has dramatically affected global economic activity… Fiscal positions are projected to be strongly hit by the crisis…once the crisis is over and the recovery firmly sets in, keeping public debt at high levels over the medium term is a source of vulnerability… The main objective of this paper is to contribute to the stabilisation vs. sustainability debate in the euro area by reviewing through the lens of large scale DSGE models the economic risks associated with regimes of high public debt.

Here’s what they found, none of which should be a surprise.

…we evaluate the economic consequences of high public debt using simulations with three DSGE models… Our DSGE simulations also suggest that high-debt economies…can lose more output in a crisis…have less scope for counter-cyclical fiscal policy and…are adversely affected in terms of potential (long-term) output, with a significant impairment in case of large sovereign risk premia reaction and use of most distortionary type of taxation to finance the additional public debt burden in the future.

Here’s a useful chart from the study. It shows some sort of shock on the left (2008 financial crisis or coronavirus being obvious examples), which then produces a recession (lower GDP) and rising debt.

That outcome isn’t good for nations with “low” levels of debt, but it can be really bad for nations with “high” debt burdens because they have to deal with much higher interest payments, much bigger tax increases, and much bigger reductions in economic output.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the study actually gives us any way of determining which nations are near the tipping point. That’s because “low” and “high” are subjective. Japan has an enormous amount of debt, yet investors don’t think there’s any meaningful risk that Japan’s government will default, so it is a “low” debt nation for purposes of the above illustration.

By contrast, there’s a much lower level of debt in Argentina, but investors have almost no trust in that nation’s especially venal politicians, so it’s a “high” debt nation for purposes of this analysis.

The United States, in my humble opinion, is more like Japan. As I wrote last year, “We probably won’t even have a crisis in the next 10 years or 20 years.” And that’s still my view, even after all the spending and debt for coronavirus.

The study concludes with some common-sense advice about using spending restraint and pro-market reforms to create buffers (some people refer to this as “fiscal space“).

Overall, once the COVID-19 crisis is over and the economic recovery firmly re-established, further efforts to build fiscal buffers in good times and mitigate fiscal risks over the medium term are needed at the national level. Such efforts should be guided by risks to debt sustainability. High debt countries, in particular, should implement a mix of fiscal discipline and wide-ranging growth-enhancing reforms.

Needless to say, there’s an obvious and successful way of achieving this goal.

P.S. Here’s another chart from the ECB study that is worth sharing because it confirms that not all tax increases do the same amount of economic damage.

We see that consumption taxes (red line) are bad, but income taxes on workers (green line) are even worse.

And if the study included an estimate of what would happen if there were higher income taxes on saving and investment, there would be another line showing even more economic damage.

P.P.S. History shows that nations can reduce very large debt burdens if they follow my Golden Rule.

P.P.P.S. There’s a related study from the IMF that shows how excessive spending is a major warning sign that nations will be vulnerable to fiscal crisis.

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If Donald Trump wins the 2020 election, I don’t expect any serious effort to rein in the burden of government spending.

And if Joe Biden wins the 2002 election, I don’t expect any serious effort to rein in the burden of government spending.

At the risk of understatement, this is rather unfortunate since fiscal policy in the United States is on a very worrisome path.

Thanks to demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs, the federal budget – assuming it is left on autopilot – is going to consume an ever-larger share of the nation’s economic output.

And that means fewer resources for the economy’s productive sector.

In a new study from the Hoover Institution, Professor John F. Cogan, Daniel L. Heil, and Professor John B. Taylor investigate the potential consequences of bigger government – and the potential benefits of spending restraint.

In this paper we consider an illustrative fiscal consolation proposal that restrains the growth in federal spending. The policy is to hold federal expenditures as a share of GDP at about the 20 percent ratio that prevailed before the pandemic hit. We estimate the policy’s impact using a structural macroeconomic model with price and wage rigidities and adjustment costs. The spending restraint avoids a potentially large increase in future federal taxes and prevents the outstanding debt relative to GDP from rising from its current level. The simulations show that the consolidation plan boosts short-run annual GDP growth by as much as 10 percent and increases long-run annual GDP growth by about 7 percent.

The authors believe that there will be some tax increases over the next few decades – an assumption that I fear will be accurate.

…our baseline assumes that future Congresses will enact tax increases to finance a portion of rising future federal spending. Specifically, we have assumed that Congress will finance half of the projected higher baseline outlays with higher tax rates. The tax rate increases are assumed to be gradually phased-in and are in the form of equi-proportionate increases in personal income tax rates, corporate income tax rates, and social insurance tax rates. Under these assumptions, tax rates will be about 20 percent higher in 2045 than in 2022.

Here are their projection over the next 25 years.

The authors then create an alternative scenario based on spending restraint, including entitlement reform.

To illustrate the potential positive impact of a fiscal consolidation plan on economic growth, we have chosen a stylized long-term budget policy that reduces the growth in federal spending, maintains federal tax rates at their current levels, and limits the outstanding federal debt relative to GDP to its pandemic high level. …the spending side of the plan has three essential elements. One, reductions in government spending from the baseline which come exclusively from permanent changes in entitlement programs; the principal source of the federal government’s long-term fiscal imbalance. …Two, the plan contains an immediate one-time reduction in entitlement program spending that permanently lowers the overall level of government spending. Three, the plan permanently reduces the growth in entitlement spending thereafter from this lower level.

They then estimate what happens to the fiscal burden of government if policy makers choose spending restraint instead of bigger government and tax increases.

In 2033, ten years from the initiation of the policy, total federal spending as a percent of GDP, including interest on the debt, would be 3.3 percent lower than baseline expenditures. In twenty years, it would be 5.7 percent lower. …the consolidation plan would maintain all federal tax rates.at their current statutory levels. …revenue as a share.. of GDP would rise slightly over time due to real bracket creep. Thus, the plan is designed to prevent the approximately 15 percent tax rate increases that are presumed in the budget baseline.

Here’s a chart from the study that shows how the burden of redistribution spending and social insurance programs is significantly smaller with the restraint approach.

Now we get to key results.

Cogan, Heil, and Taylor use a model of the U.S. economy to estimate what happens if there is spending restraint instead of bigger government.

Unsurprisingly, there’s more prosperity when there’s a smaller burden of spending.

The impact of the consolidation strategy is shown in Figure 4. Observe that there is a substantial increase in real GDP in the short run, and that this positive change occurs throughout the simulation through 2045. The short-run increase of about 0.5 percent in the first two years following the policy’s implementation amounts to about a 10 percent increase in the real GDP growth rate. Over the longer-term, GDP increases by about 3.7 percent after 25 years. This is equivalent to a 7 percent increase in the economy’s real growth rate.

This chart from the study shows the economic benefits of spending restraint.

These results are consistent with what other economists have produced.

Heck, even economists at left-leaning international bureaucracies such as OECD, World Bank, and IMF have acknowledged that smaller government is better for prosperity.

P.S. The unanswered question, of course, is how to convince self-interested politicians to choose spending restraint instead of buying votes with other people’s money. A spending cap is probably a necessary but not sufficient condition (it’s an approach that has been very successful in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado – and which was recently adopted in Brazil).

P.P.S. Even small differences in economic growth have a significant long-run impact on living standards.

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Two weeks ago, I shared some video from a presentation to the New Economic School of Georgia (the country, not the state) as part of my “Primer on the Laffer Curve.”

Here’s that portion of that presentation that outlines the principles of sensible taxation.

Just in case you don’t want to watch me pontificate for nearly 14 minutes, here’s the slide from the presentation that most deserves attention since it captures the key principle of good tax policy.

Simply stated, the more you tax of something, the less you get of that thing.

By the way, I had an opportunity earlier this year to share some similar thoughts about the principles of sound tax policy with the United Nations’ High-Level Panel on Financial Accountability Transparency & Integrity.

Given my past interactions with fiscal people at the U.N., I’m not overflowing with optimism that the following observations with have an impact, but hope springs eternal.

The ideal fiscal environment is one that has a vibrant and productive economy that generates sufficient revenue with modest tax rates that do not needlessly penalize productive behavior. Public finance experts generally agree on the following features

  • Low marginal tax rates. A tax operates by increasing the “price” of whatever is being taxed. This is most obvious in the case of some excise taxes –such as levies on tobacco –where governments explicitly seek to discourage certain behaviors. …but there should be a general consensus in favor of keeping tax rates reasonable on the behaviors –work, saving, investment, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship –that make an economy more prosperous.
  • A “consumption-base.” Because of capital gains taxes, death taxes, wealth taxes, and double taxation of interest and dividends, many nations impose a disproportionately harsh tax burden on income that is saved and invested. This creates a bias against capital formation, which is problematical since every economic theory –including various forms of socialism –share the view that saving and investment are necessary for rising wages and higher living standards.
  • Neutrality. Special preferences in a tax system distort the relative “prices” of how income is earned or how income is spent. Such special tax breaks encourage taxpayers to make economically inefficient choices simply to lower their tax liabilities. Moreover, loopholes, credits, deductions, exemptions, holidays, exclusions, and other preferences reduce tax receipts, thus creating pressure for higher marginal tax rates, which magnifies the adverse economic impact.
  • Territoriality. This is the simple notion that governments should not tax activity outside their borders. If income is earned in Brazil, for instance, the Brazilian government should have the authority over how that income is taxed.The same should be true for all other nations.

By the way, “consumption-base” is simply the jargon used by public-finance economists when referring to a tax system that doesn’t impose double taxation (i.e., extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested).

Here’s a flowchart I prepared showing the double taxation in the current system compared to what happens with a flat tax.

P.S. At the risk of understatement, it’s impossible to have a good tax system with a bloated public sector, which means it’s not easy to be optimistic about future fiscal policy in the United States.

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Speculating about tax policy in 2021, with Washington potentially being controlling by Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi, there are four points to consider.

  1. The bad news is that Joe Biden has endorsed a wide range of punitive tax increases.
  2. The good news is that Joe Biden has not endorsed a wealth tax, which is one of the most damaging ways – on a per-dollar raised basis – for Washington to collect more revenue.
  3. The worse news is that the additional spending desired by Democrats is much greater than Biden’s proposed tax increases, which means there will be significant pressures for additional sources of money.
  4. The worst news is that the class-warfare mentality on the left means the additional tax increases will target successful entrepreneurs, investors, innovators, and business owners – which means a wealth tax is a very real threat.

Let’s consider what would happen if this odious example of double taxation was imposed in the United States.

Two scholars from Rice University, John Diamond and George Zodrow, produced a study for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity on the economic impact of a wealth tax.

They based their analysis on the plan proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, which is probably the most realistic option since Biden (assuming he wins the election) presumably won’t choose the more radical plan proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders.

They have a sophisticated model of the U.S. economy. Here’s their simplified description of how a wealth tax would harm incentives for productive behavior.

The most direct effect operates through the reduction in wealth of the affected taxpayers, including the reduction in accumulated wealth over time. Although such a reduction in wealth is, for at least some proponents of the wealth tax, a desirable result, the associated reduction in investment and thus in the capital stock over time will have deleterious effects, reducing labor productivity and thus wage income as well as economic output. …A wealth tax would also affect saving by changing the relative prices of current and future consumption. In the standard life-cycle model of household saving, a wealth tax effectively increases the price of future consumption by lowering the after-tax return to saving, creating a tax bias favoring current consumption and thus reducing saving. … we should note that the apparently low tax rates under the typical wealth tax are misleading if they are compared to income tax rates imposed on capital income, and the capital income tax rates that are analogous to wealth tax rates are often in excess of 100 percent. …For example, with a 1 percent wealth tax and a Treasury bond earning 2 percent, the effective income tax rate associated with the wealth tax is 50 percent; with a 2 percent tax rate, the effective income tax rate increases to 100 percent.

And here are the empirical findings from the report.

We compare the macroeconomic effects of the policy change to the values that would have occurred in the absence of any changes — that is, under a current law long run scenario… The macroeconomic effects of the wealth tax are shown in Table 1. Because the wealth tax reduces the after-tax return to saving and investment and increases the cost of capital to firms, it reduces saving and investment and, over time, reduces the capital stock. Investment declines initially by 13.6 percent…and declines by 4.7 percent in the long run. The total capital stock declines gradually to a level 3.5 percent lower ten years after enactment and 3.7 percent lower in the long run… The smaller capital stock results in decreased labor productivity… The demand for labor falls as the capital stock declines, and the supply of labor falls as households receive larger transfer payments financed by the wealth tax revenues… Hours worked decrease initially by 1.1 percent and decline by 1.5 percent in the long run. …the initial decline in hours worked of 1.1 percent would be equivalent to a decline in employment of approximately 1.8 million jobs initially. The declines in the capital stock and labor supply imply that GDP declines as well, by 2.2 percent 5 years after enactment and by 2.7 percent in the long run.

Here’s the table mentioned in the above excerpt. At the risk of understatement, these are not favorable results.

Other detailed studies on wealth taxation also find very negative results.

The Tax Foundation’s study, authored by Huaqun Li and Karl Smith, also is worth perusing. For purposes of today’s analysis, I’ll simply share one of the tables from the report, which echoes the point about how “low” rates of wealth taxation actually result in very high tax rates on saving and investment.

The American Action Forum also released a study.

Authored by Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Gordon Gray, it’s filled with helpful information. The part that deserves the most attention is this table showing how a wealth tax on the rich results in lost wages for everyone else.

Yes, the rich definitely lose out because their net wealth decreases.

But presumably the rest of us are more concerned about the fact that lower levels of saving and investment reduce labor income for ordinary people.

The bottom line is that wealth taxes are very misguided, assuming the goal is a prosperous and competitive America.

P.S. One obvious effect of wealth taxation, which is mentioned in the study from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, is that some rich people will become tax expatriates and move to jurisdictions (not just places such as Monaco, Bermuda, or the Cayman Islands, but any of the other 200-plus nations don’t tax wealth) where politicians don’t engage in class warfare.

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Compared to most of the world, Japan is a rich country. But it’s important to understand that Japan became rich when the burden of government was very small and there was no welfare state.

Indeed, as recently as 1970, Japan’s fiscal policy was rated by Economic Freedom of the World as being better than what exists today in Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, the country has since moved in the wrong direction. Back in 2016, I shared the “most depressing chart about Japan” because it showed that the overall tax burden doubled in just 45 years.

As you might expect, that rising tax burden was accompanied by a rising burden of government spending (fueled in part by enactment of a value-added tax).

And that has not been a good combination for the Japanese economy, as Douglas Carr explains in an article for National Review.

From 1993 to 2019, the U.S. averaged 2.6 percent growth, …far ahead of Japan’s meager 0.9 percent. …What happened? Big government happened… Japanese government spending was just 17.5 percent of the country’s GDP in 1960 but has grown, as illustrated below, to 38.8 percent of GDP today. …the island nation’s growth never recovered. The theory that government spending boosts long-term growth has failed… What government spending does is crowd out investment.

Amen. Japan has become a parody of Keynesian spending.

Here’s a chart from Mr. Carr’s article, which could be entitled “the other most depressing chart about Japan.”

As you can see, the burden of government spending began to climb about 1970 and is now represents a bigger drag on their economy than what we’re enduring in the United States.

Unfortunately, the United States is soon going to follow Japan in that wrong direction according to fiscal projections from the Congressional Budget Office.

Carr warns that bigger government in America won’t work any better than big government in Japan.

Rather than a problem confined to the other side of the world, Japan’s death spiral is a pointed warning to the U.S. The U.S. and Japanese economies are on the same trajectory; Japan is simply further along the big-government, low-growth path. …The United States is at risk of entering a Japanese death spiral.

Here’s another chart from the article showing the inverse relationship between government spending and economic growth.

Moreover, the U.S. numbers may be even worse because of coronavirus-related spending and whatever new handouts that might be created after the election.

The negative relationship of government spending with growth and investment holds with adjustments for cyclical influences such as using ten-year averages or the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates of cyclically adjusted U.S. government spending. CBO data highlight how close the U.S. is to a Japanese-style death spiral. …Of course, CBO’s recent forecast was prepared before the coronavirus shock and does not incorporate spending by a new Democratic government, so this dismal outlook is likely to worsen.

So what’s the solution? Can the United States avoid a Greek-style future?

The author explains how America can be saved.

Boosting growth means restraining government. Restraining government means reengineering entitlements… Economically, it shouldn’t be too difficult to do better. We have an insolvent, low-return government-retirement program along with an insolvent retiree-health program — part of a Rube Goldberg health-care system.

He’s right. To avoid stagnation and decline, we desperately need spending restraint and genuine entitlement reform in the United States.

Sadly, Trump is on the wrong side on that issue and Biden wants to add fuel to the fire by making the programs even bigger.

P.S. Here’s another depressing chart about Japan.

P.P.S. Unsurprisingly, the OECD and IMF have been cheerleading for Japan’s fiscal decline.

P.P.P.S. Japan’s government may win the prize for the strangest regulation and the prize for the most useless government giveaway.

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Largely because of my support for jurisdictional competition, I’m a big fan of federalism.

Simply stated, our liberties are better protected when there’s decentralization since politicians are less like to over-tax and over-spend when they know potential victims of plunder have the option of moving across a border.

Indeed, I cited some academic research back in 2012 which showed that there as less economy-weakening redistribution in nations with genuine federalism (see, for instance, how Vermont politicians were forced to backtrack when they try to impose government-run healthcare).

Now let’s look at some additional scholarly evidence. A study published by the OECD, authored by Hansjörg Blöchliger, Balázs Égert and Kaja Fredriksen, investigates the impact of federalism on outcomes in developed nations.

Here are the key findings from the abstract.

This paper presents empirical research on the potential effects of fiscal decentralisation on a set of outcomes such as GDP, productivity, public investment and school performance. The results can be summarised as follows: decentralisation, as measured by revenue or spending shares, is positively associated with GDP per capita levels. The impact seems to be stronger for revenue decentralisation than for spending decentralisation. Decentralisation is strongly and positively associated with educational outcomes as measured by international student assessments (PISA). While educational functions can be delegated either to sub-central governments (SCG) or to schools, the results suggest that both strategies appear to be equally beneficial for educational performance. Finally, investment in physical and – especially – human capital as a share of general government spending is significantly higher in more decentralised countries.

Here’s some detail from the body of the paper about the pro-growth impact of decentralization (especially when sub-national governments are responsible for raising their own funds).

Across countries, sub-central fiscal power, as measured by revenue or spending shares, is positively associated with economic activity. Doubling sub-central tax or spending shares (e.g. increasing the ratio of sub-central to general government tax revenue from 6 to 12%) is associated with a GDP per capita increase of around 3%. …Revenue decentralisation appears to be more strongly related with income gains than spending decentralisation. This empirical finding may reflect that “true” fiscal autonomy is better captured by the sub-central revenue share, as a large part of sub-central spending may be mandated or regulated by central government. … the estimated relationship never becomes negative and is not hump-shaped, i.e. “more decentralisation always tends to be better”.

The part of “more decentralisation always tends to be better” is a good result.

But it’s also a sad result since the United States has moved in the wrong direction in recent decades.

Though we’re still less centralized than most nations, as you can see from this chart from the OECD study.

Kudos to Canada and Switzerland for leading the world in federalism.

Here are some additional details from the study. I’m especially interested to see that the authors acknowledge how jurisdictional competition helps to explain why nations with federalism perform better.

Decentralised fiscal frameworks can raise TFP through an increase in the efficiency and productivity of the public sector… Public sector productivity is influenced by competition between SCGs and inter-jurisdictional mobility. Most SCGs aim at attracting and retaining mobile production factors, in order to promote investment and economic activity. They can do so by using fiscal policy, among other instruments. Since firms are choosing their location based on where they expect the highest returns on investment, and since returns depend (partly) on public inputs, SCGs have an incentive to raise the productivity of their public sector. SCGs may also try to improve the relationship between taxation and public service levels, by lowering taxes… The more decentralised a country, the stronger these competitive forces could be. Competition and inter-jurisdictional mobility could be weakened by large intergovernmental transfer systems, in particular fiscal equalisation.

As a aside, it’s rather ironic that that the professional economists at the OECD produce rigorous studies (here’s another one) showing the benefits of jurisdictional competition while the political appointees push for anti-growth policies such as tax harmonization.

Let’s close by looking at the study’s estimates of how nations would enjoy more prosperity by shifting in the direction of decentralization.

…an assessment of what a country might gain in terms of higher GDP if it moved to the benchmark of the most decentralised country. To be more specific, the gains were calculated for each federal country if it moved tax decentralisation to the level of Canada, and for each unitary country if it moved tax decentralisation to the level of Sweden (Figure 6). Further decentralisation could potentially be associated with an average increase of GDP of around 1% to 2% for federal countries and 3% to 4% for unitary countries, with values for more centralised countries being larger.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

Since the U.S. still has some federalism, our gain isn’t very large, but nations such as Austria, Belgium, Slovakia, Ireland, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom could get big boosts.

P.S. I didn’t focus on the findings about better educational outcomes in decentralized nations. But I can’t resist pointing out that this is an additional reason to abolish the Department of Education.

P.P.S. Here’s a video discussing how Switzerland benefits from federalism.

P.P.P.S. And here’s what scholars from the Austrian school of economics wrote about federalism.

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Because of changing demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs, the burden of government spending in the United States (in the absence of genuine reform) is going to increase dramatically over the next few decades.

That bad outlook will get even worse thanks to all the coronavirus-related spending from Washington.

This is bad news for America since more of the economy’s output will be consumed by government, leaving fewer resources for the private sector. And that problem would exist even if all the spending was magically offset by trillions of dollars of unexpected tax revenue.

Many people, however, think the nation’s future fiscal problem is that politicians will borrow to finance  that new spending. I think that’s a mistaken view, since it focuses on a symptom (red ink) rather than the underlying disease (excessive spending).

But regardless of one’s views on that issue, fiscal policy is on an unsustainable path. And that means there will soon be a fight between twho different ways of addressing the nation’s grim fiscal outlook.

  • Restrain the growth of government spending.
  • Divert more money from taxpayers to the IRS.

Fortunately, we now have some new evidence to help guide policy.

A new study from the Mercatus Center, authored by Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon, examines what actually happens when politicians try to control debt with spending restraint or tax increases.

Here’s what the authors wanted to investigate.

Fiscal consolidation can take two forms: (1) adopting a debt-reduction package driven primarily by tax increases or (2) adopting a package mostly consisting of spending restraint. …What policymakers might not know is which of these two forms of consolidation tend to be more effective at reining in debt levels and which are less harmful to economic performance: tax-based (TB) fiscal consolidation or expenditure-based (EB) fiscal consolidation.

Here’s their methodology.

Our analysis focuses on large fiscal consolidations, or consolidations in which the fiscal deficit as a share of GDP improves by at least 1.5 percentage points over two years and does not decrease in either of those two years. …A successful consolidation is defined as one in which the debt-to-GDP ratio declines by at least 5 percentage points three years after the adjustment takes places or by at least 3 percentage points two years after the adjustment. …Episodes in which the consolidation is at least 60 percent revenue increases are labeled TB, and episodes in which the consolidation is at least 60 percent spending decreases are labeled EB.

And here are their results.

…of the 45 EB episodes, more than half were successful, while of the 67 TB episodes, less than 4 in 10 were successful. …The results in table 2 show that while in unsuccessful adjustments most (74 percent) of the changes are on the revenue side, in successful adjustments most (60 percent) of the changes are on the expenditure side. In successful adjustments, for every 1.00 percent of GDP increase in revenues, expenditures are cut by 1.50 percent. By contrast, in unsuccessful adjustments, for every 1.00 percent of GDP increase in revenues, expenditures are cut by less than 0.35 percent. From these findings we conclude that successful fiscal adjustments are those that involve significant spending reductions with only modest increases in taxation. Unsuccessful fiscal adjustments, however, typically involve significant increases in taxation and very modest spending reductions.

Table 2 summarizes the findings.

As you can see, tax increases are the least effective way of dealing with the problem. Which makes sense when you realize that the nation’s fiscal problem is too much spending, not inadequate revenue.

In my not-so-humble opinion, I think the table I prepared back in 2014 is even more compelling.

Based on IMF data, it shows nations that imposed mutli-year spending restraint and how that fiscally prudent policy generated very good results – both in terms of reducing the spending burden and lowering red ink.

When I do debates at conferences with my left-wing friends, I almost always ask them to show me a similar table of countries that achieved good results with tax increases.

Needless to say, none of them have ever even attempted to prepare such a list.

That’s because nations that repeatedly raise taxes – as we’ve seen in Europe – wind up with more spending and more debt.

In other words, politicians pull a bait-and-switch. They claim more revenue is needed to reduce debt, but they use any additional money to buy votes.

Which is why advocates of good fiscal policy should adamantly oppose any and all tax increases.

Let’s close by looking at two more charts from the Mercatus study.

Here’s a look at how Irish politicians have mostly chose to restrain spending.

And here’s a look at how Greek politicians have mostly opted for tax increases.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that the Greek approach has been very unsuccessful.

P.S. For fiscal wonks, one of the best parts of the Mercatus study is that it cites a lot of academic research on the issue of fiscal consolidation.

Scholars who have conducted research find – over and over again – that spending restraint works.

In a 1995 working paper, Alberto Alesina and Roberto Perotti observe 52 efforts to reduce debt in 20 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries between 1960 and 1992. The authors define a successful fiscal adjustment as one in which the debt-to-GDP ratio declines by at least 5 percentage points three years after the adjustment takes place. In successful adjustments, government spending is reduced by almost 2.2 percent of gross national product (GNP) and taxes are increased by less than 0.5 percent of GNP. For unsuccessful adjustments, government expenditure is reduced by less than 0.5 percent of GNP and taxes are increased by almost 1.3 percent of GNP. These results suggest that successful fiscal adjustments are those that cut spending and include very modest increases in taxation.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) economists John McDermott and Robert Wescott, in a 1996 paper, examine 74 episodes of fiscal adjustment in which countries attempted to address their budget gaps. The authors define a successful fiscal adjustment as a reduction of at least 3 percentage points in the ratio of gross public debt to GDP by the second year after the end of an adjustment. The authors then divide episodes of fiscal consolidation into two categories: those in which the deficit was cut primarily (by at least 60 percent) through revenue increases, and those in which it was reduced primarily (by at least 60 percent) through expenditure cuts. Of the expenditure-based episodes of fiscal consolidation, almost half were successful, while of the tax-based episodes, less than one out of six met the criteria for success.

Jürgen von Hagen and Rolf Strauch observe 65 episodes in 20 OECD countries from 1960 to 1998 and define a successful adjustment as one in which the budget balance stands at no more than 75 percent of the initial balance two years after the adjustment period. …it does find that successful consolidations consist of expenditure cuts averaging more than 1.2 percent of GDP, while expenditure cuts in unsuccessful adjustments are smaller than 0.3 percent of GDP. The opposite pattern is true for revenue-based adjustments: successful consolidations consist of increases in revenue averaging around 1.1 percent, while unsuccessful adjustments consist of revenue increases exceeding 1.9 percent.

American Enterprise Institute economists Andrew Biggs, Kevin Hassett, and Matthew Jensen examine over 100 episodes of fiscal consolidation in a 2010 study. The authors define a successful fiscal adjustment as one in which the debt-to-GDP ratio declines by at least 4.5 percentage points three years after the first year of consolidation. Their study finds that countries that addressed their budget shortfalls through reduced spending burdens were far more likely to reduce their debt than countries whose budget-balancing strategies depended upon higher taxes. …the typical successful adjustment consists of 85 percent spending cuts and just 15 percent tax increases.

In a 1998 Brookings Institution paper, Alberto Alesina and coauthors reexamined the research on the economic effects of fiscal adjustments. Using data drawn from 19 OECD countries, the authors assess whether the composition of fiscal adjustments results in different economic outcomes… Contrary to the Keynesian view that fiscal adjustments are contractionary, the results of this study suggest that consolidation achieved primarily through spending reductions often has expansionary effects.

Another study that observes which features of fiscal adjustments are more or less likely to predict whether the fiscal adjustment is contractionary or expansionary is by Alesina and Silvia Ardagna. Using data from 20 OECD countries during 1960 to 1994, the authors label an adjustment expansionary if the average GDP growth rate in the period of adjustment and in the two years after is greater than the average value (of G7 countries) in all episodes of adjustment. …The authors conclude, “The composition of the adjustment appears as the strongest predictor of the growth effect: all the non-expansionary adjustments were tax-based and all the expansionary ones were expenditure-based.”

French economists Boris Cournède and Frédéric Gonand adopt a dynamic general equilibrium model to compare the macroeconomic impacts of four debt reduction scenarios. Results from the model suggest that TB adjustments are much more costly than spending restraint when policymakers are attempting to achieve fiscal sustainability. Annual consumption per capita would be 15 percent higher in 2050 if consolidation were achieved through spending reductions rather than broad tax increases.

In a review of every major fiscal adjustment in the OECD since 1975, Bank of England economist Ben Broadbent and Goldman Sachs economist Kevin Daly found that “decisive budgetary adjustments that have focused on reducing government expenditure have (i) been successful in correcting fiscal imbalances; (ii) typically boosted growth; and (iii) resulted in significant bond and equity market outperformance. Tax-driven fiscal adjustments, by contrast, typically fail to correct fiscal imbalances and are damaging for growth.”

Economists Christina and David Romer investigated the impact of tax changes on economic activity in the United States from 1945 to 2007. The authors find that an exogenous tax increase of 1 percent of GDP lowers real GDP by almost 3 percent, suggesting that TB adjustments are highly contractionary.

…the IMF released its annual World Economic Outlook in 2010 and included a study on the effects of fiscal consolidation on economic activity. The results of studying episodes of fiscal consolidation for 15 OECD countries over three decades…reveals that EB fiscal adjustments tend to have smaller contractionary effects than TB adjustments. For TB adjustments, the effect of a consolidation of 1 percent of GDP on GDP is −1.3 percent after two years, while for EB adjustments the effect is just −0.3 percent after two years and is not statistically significant. Interestingly, TB adjustments also raise unemployment levels by about 0.6 percentage points, while EB adjustments raise the unemployment rate by only 0.2 percentage points.

…a 2014 IMF study…estimates the short-term effect of fiscal consolidation on economic activity among 17 OECD countries. The authors of the IMF study find that the fall in GDP associated with EB consolidations is 0.82 percentage points smaller than the one associated with TB adjustments in the first year and 2.31 percentage points smaller in the second year after the adjustment.

Focusing on the fiscal consolidations that followed the Great Recession, Alesina and coauthors…find that EB consolidations are far less costly for economic output than TB adjustments. They also find that TB adjustments result in a cumulative contraction of 2 percent of GDP in the following three years, while EB adjustments generate very small contractions with an impact on output not significantly different from zero.

A study by the European Central Bank in 2018…finds that macroeconomic responses are largely caused by differences in the composition of the adjustment plans. The authors find large and negative multipliers for TB adjustment plans and positive, but close to zero, multipliers for EB plans. The composition of adjustment plans is found to be the largest contributor to the differences in economic performance under the two types of consolidation plans.

The bottom line is that nations enjoy success when they obey fiscal policy’s Golden Rule. Sadly, that doesn’t happen very often because politicians focus mostly on buying votes in the short run rather than increasing national prosperity in the long run.

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Back in 2011, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released this video citing four nations – Canada, Ireland, Slovakia, and New Zealand – that achieved very good results with multi-year periods of genuine spending restraint.

Today, let’s focus on what’s been happening with government spending in Canada.

As explained in the video, America’s northern neighbor enjoyed a five-year period in the 1990s when government spending increased by an average of just 1 percent annually, with most of that progress occurring when the Liberal Party was in charge.

This fiscal probity – an example of my Golden Rule before I even invented the concept – paid big dividends.

The overall burden of government spending, measured as a share of economic output, declined substantially.

And because Canadian lawmakers dealt with the underlying problem of too much spending, that automatically solved the symptom of red ink.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Canada’s current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has been spending a lot of money.

Jon Hartley, in an article for National Review, looks at his fiscal policy.

In June, Fitch downgraded Canada’s sovereign debt, revoking its prized AAA status. …Canadian finance minister Bill Morneau recently revealed that Canada’s projected 2020 deficit is now C$343 billion, a whopping 16 percent of GDP. …The Trudeau government now finds itself in a quandary over how to get to grips with its increased government spending. …This won’t be the first time that Canada has had to wrestle with its federal debt… Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been speculation that the Trudeau government is now looking to institute a controversial federal housing-equity tax on primary residences… Canada now has high middle-class tax rates and, if federal and provincial taxes are combined, a top marginal tax rate of over 53 percent in the most populous province, Ontario. …Simply printing money to pay for Canadian sovereign debt is probably not on the cards either. …What’s lacking for now is any obvious policy path to return the country to economic normality and restore a semblance of control to the nation’s finances.

This is helpful analysis, especially when thinking about how Canada will try to climb back out of the fiscal hole caused by the coronavirus.

But I think it’s more revealing to see Trudeau’s track record before the virus.

So I went to the database for the IMF’s World Economic Outlook, which was released late last year before the disease wreaked havoc with government finances.

Here’s the data showing the spending burden has grown almost twice as fast under Trudeau (2016-2020) as it did in the previous five years (2011-2015).

Since Canada has a federal system, this data includes spending increases by sub-national governments. So it’s not clear how much Trudeau should be blamed compared to his predecessor.

But surely we can conclude that fiscal policy has deteriorated during his reign.

Also, the IMF data for the Trudeau years is preliminary. But since we want to see what was happening before the coronavirus, these numbers are actually the ones we want to use.

The bottom line is that Canada was moving in the wrong direction before the coronavirus and the spending burden has jumped dramatically since the disease hit.

This does not bode well for Canada’s long-run economic health.

P.S. Notwithstanding fiscal deterioration under Trudeau, Canada is still a surprisingly pro-market country, ranked #8 in the world. Moreover, it has some very sensible policies involving school choice, welfare reformcorporate tax reform, bank bailoutsregulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of saving, and privatization of air traffic control.

P.P.S. Here’s my early assessment (from 2016) of Trudeau’s agenda, and here’s what I wrote last year about his misguided tax policy.

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I participated in a debate yesterday on “tax havens” for the BBC World Service. If you read last month’s two-part series on the topic (here and here), you already know I’m a big defender of low-tax jurisdictions.

But it’s always interesting to interact with people with a different perspective (in this case, former Obama appointee David Carden and U.K. Professor Rita de la Feria).

As you might imagine, critics generally argue that tax havens should be eliminated so politicians have greater leeway to increase tax rates and finance bigger government. And if you listen to the entire interview, that’s an even bigger part of their argument now that there’s lots of coronavirus-related spending.

But for purposes of today’s column, I want to focus on what I said beginning at 49:10 of the interview.

I opined that it’s reasonably to issue debt to finance a temporary emergency and then gradually reduce the debt burden afterwards (similar to what happened during and after World War II, as well as during other points in history).

The most important part of my answer, however, was the discussion about how revenues didn’t decline when tax rates were slashed beginning in 1980.

Let’s first take a look at what happened to top tax rates for 24 industrialized nations from North America, Western Europe, and the Pacific Rim. As you can see, there’s been a big reduction in tax rates since 1980.

In the interview, I mentioned OECD data about taxes on income and profits, which can be found here (specifically data series 1000). So let’s see what happened to revenues during the period of falling tax rates.

Lo and behold, it turns out that revenue went up. Not just nominal revenues. Not just inflation-adjusted revenues. Tax revenues even increased as a share of gross domestic product.

In part, this is the Laffer Curve in action. Lower tax rates meant better incentives to engage in productive behavior. That meant higher levels of taxable income (the variable that should matter most).

For what it’s worth, I suspect that the lower tax rates – by themselves – did not cause tax revenue to rise. After all, there are many policies that determine the overall vitality of an economy.

But there’s no question that there’s a lot of “revenue feedback” when tax rates are changed.

The bottom line is that the folks advocating higher tax rates shouldn’t expect a windfall of tax revenue if they succeed in imposing class-warfare tax policy.

P.S. For the folks on the left who are motivated by spite rather than greed, it doesn’t matter if higher tax rates generate more money.

P.P.S. Interestingly, both the IMF and OECD have admitted, at least by inference, that lower corporate tax rates don’t result in lower tax revenues.

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Before our depressing discussion today about the fiscal impact of entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, EITC, Food Stamps, welfare, and Obamacare, etc), here’s a video of how it all began.

I think this is a great introduction to the issue, particularly since you learn how “public choice” (i.e., politicians engaging in self-serving behavior) played a key role in the development of today’s welfare state.

But if you don’t have the time to watch a long video, here are four key things to understand.

  1. Entitlements (budget geeks sometimes use the term “mandatory spending”) are programs that automatically give people money if they meet certain requirements (such as reaching a certain age or having income below a certain level).
  2. Since these programs automatically give people money, they are not part of the annual appropriations process (the “discretionary spending” parts of the budget that are determined on a yearly basis).
  3. Some entitlement programs are “means tested” and designed to funnel money to low-income individuals. This type of spending is sometimes referred to as “unearned benefits.”
  4. Some entitlement programs are “social insurance” since people pay specific tax in exchange for specific benefits. This type of spending is sometimes referred to as “earned benefits” (though in many cases recipient receive much more than they paid).

By the way, there’s one additional thing to understand.

Indeed, it may be the most important thing to understand if you care about America’s fiscal and economic future.

5.  Entitlement programs are a slow-motion fiscal train wreck.

Let’s look at a new study authored by James Capretta of the America Enterprise Institute. He also has some sobering observations on the history of entitlement programs.

The growing expense of entitlement programs has occurred steadily for more than a half century and is reflected in the shifting distribution of federal spending activity. …by the early 1960s, two-thirds of all spending continued to require approval by the House and Senate appropriations committees each year, and less than a third was spent on entitlement programs. … By 2019, nearly two-thirds of all spending in the budget was for entitlement programs, and less than a third went to annually appropriated accounts.

If you prefer this information visually, here are a couple of pie charts from the study.

While there are dozens of entitlement programs, the big three are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The largest entitlement programs are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Together, they now make up nearly half of all federal spending. Their combined growth over the past half century is the primary source of intensifying fiscal pressure. …In 2019, combined federal spending on them was 9.8 percent of GDP, up from 3.7 percent in 1970. CBO expects them to cost 17.2 percent of GDP in 2050, which is almost equal to the average annual revenue collected by the federal government from 1970 to 2019.

And here’s how they’ve been consuming ever-larger shares of America’s economic output.

What’s driving this ever-increasing fiscal burden?

In part, it’s because we have more and more old people and they are living longer.

So what does all this mean?

Capretta points out that uncontrolled entitlement spending may lead to a debt crisis.

I don’t disagree, but I think that’s a secondary concern. The real problem is that government spending will become an ever-larger economic burden. And that will hinder growth whether it’s financed by borrowing or taxes.

Speaking of taxes, here’s the chart from the study that deserves our close attention. It shows the relationship between demographics, benefit generosity, and tax burdens.

Here’s how Capretta describes the relationship.

…for each of the stipulated replacement rates (25, 50, and 75 percent), the tax rate necessary to keep the program solvent rises with increases in the aged dependency ratio. This explains why social insurance taxes in many aging societies have been increased to high levels in recent decades.

I’ve taken the liberty of augmenting the chart to show how these factors interact (though the order of #1 and #2 doesn’t matter).

The bottom line is that the United States is on track to become a high-tax, European-style welfare state if fiscal policy is left on autopilot.

In other words, unless there’s genuine entitlement reform, future Americans will be condemned to lower living standards.

P.S. Here’s some more history. In a column for the American Institute for Economic Research, Richard Ebeling looked at British history to explain how the private sector played a role in social insurance before being displaced by government.

Throughout the 19th century, a primary means for the provision of what today we call the “social safety nets” was by the private sector outside of government. The British Friendly Societies were mutual assistance associations that emerged to provide death benefits for the wives and children of the breadwinner who had passed away. But they soon offered a wide array of other mutual insurance services, including health care coverage, retirement pension programs, unemployment insurance, savings clubs to purchase a family house, and a variety of others. …by the end of the 19th century around two-thirds to three-quarters of the entire British population was covered by one or more of their programs and insurances. The research also discovered that a large majority of the subscribers were in the lower income brackets of the time… What stands out is that these were all private and voluntary associations and exchanges, in which the government paid little or no role.

On a related note, here’s an excellent short video on the English “poor laws” from the 1800s.

P.P.S. In addition to the fiscal burden of entitlement programs, there’s also a major problem in the way these programs discourage work.

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The good news is that Joe Biden has not embraced many of Bernie Sanders’ worst tax ideas, such as imposing a wealth tax or hiking the top income tax rate to 52 percent..

The bad news is that he nonetheless is supporting a wide range of punitive tax increases.

  • Increasing the top income tax rate to 39.6 percent.
  • Imposing a 12.4 percent payroll tax on wages above $400,000.
  • Increasing the double taxation of dividends and capital gains from 23.8 percent to 43.4 percent.
  • Hiking the corporate tax rate to 28 percent.
  • Increasing taxes on American companies competing in foreign markets.

The worst news is that Nancy Pelosi, et al, may wind up enacting all these tax increases and then also add some of Crazy Bernie‘s proposals.

This won’t be good for the U.S. economy and national competitiveness.

Simply stated, some people will choose to reduce their levels of work, saving, and investment when the tax penalties on productive behavior increase. These changes give economists the information needed to calculate the “elasticity of taxable income”.

And this, in the jargon of economists, is a measure of “deadweight loss.”

But now there’s a new study published by the Federal Reserve which suggests that these losses are greater than traditionally believed.

Authored by Brendan Epstein, Ryan Nunn, Musa Orak and Elena Patel, the study looks at how best to measure the economic damage associated with higher tax rates. Here’s some of the background analysis.

The personal income tax is one of the most important instruments for raising government revenue. As a consequence, this tax is the focus of a large body of public finance research that seeks a theoretical and empirical understanding of the associated deadweight loss (DWL). …Feldstein (1999) demonstrated that, under very general conditions, the elasticity of taxable income (ETI) is a sufficient statistic for evaluating DWL. …It is well understood that, apart from rarely employed lump-sum taxes and…Pigouvian taxes, revenue-raising tax systems impose efficiency costs by distorting economic outcomes relative to those that would be obtained in the absence of taxation… ETI can potentially serve as a perfect proxy for DWL…this result is consistent with the ETI reflecting all taxpayer responses to changes in marginal tax rates, including behavioral changes (e.g., reductions in hours worked) and tax avoidance (e.g., shifting consumption toward tax-preferred goods). …a large empirical literature has provided estimates of the individual ETI, identified based on variation in tax rates and bunching at kinks in the marginal tax schedule.

And here are the new contributions from the authors.

… researchers have fairly recently come to recognize an important limitation of the finding that the ETI is a sufficient statistic for deadweight loss… we embed labor search frictions into the canonical macroeconomic model…and we show that within this framework, a host of additional information beyond the ETI is needed to infer DWL …once these empirically observable factors are controlled for, DWL can be calculated easily and in a straightforward fashion as the sum of the ETI and additional terms involving these factors. … We find that…once search frictions are introduced, …DWL can be between 7 and 38 percent higher than the ETI under a reasonable calibration.

To give you an idea of what this means, here are some of their estimates of the economic damage associated with a 1 percent increase in tax rates.

As you peruse these estimates, keep in mind that Biden wants to increase the top income tax rate by 2.6 percentage points and the payroll tax by 12.4 percentage points (and don’t forget he wants to nearly double tax rates on dividends, capital gains, and other forms of saving and investment).

Those are all bad choices with traditional estimates of deadweight loss, and they are even worse choices with the new estimates from the Fed’s study.

So what’s the bottom line?

The political impact will be that “the rich” pay more. The economic impact will be less capital formation and entrepreneurship, and those are the changes that hurt the vast majority of us who aren’t rich.

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As indicated by one of my columns last week, I’m a big believer in federalism.

Indeed, I’ve even proposed that Washington shouldn’t operate any social programs. No food stamps. No Medicaid. No redistribution programs of any kind.

Such programs, to the extent they should exist, should be handled by state and local governments.

The welfare reform legislation under Bill Clinton is an example of how to move in the right direction. A top-down program from Washington was turned into a block grant, and then state and local governments got the freedom to choose policies that might actually help the poor become self-sufficient instead of being trapped in dependency.

Not pure libertarianism, of course, but still an example of progress. And we got good results.

Given this track record, I was very interested to see a column in today’s New York Times by Ezekial Emanuel and Rahm Emanuel on the topic of federal-state fiscal relations.

Medicaid and unemployment insurance…need permanent institutional reform and modernization. …the next stimulus package…should then be…a…federal-state Grand Bargain would solve festering problems in health care and unemployment assistance Years of political experience show that no matter how imperative and sensible, a policy’s chances of success are diminished unless it delivers political benefits. This bargain would create a victory for both parties.

This sounds intriguing. And potentially even desirable.

There’s no question, after all, that the current Medicaid system desperately needs reform. And the unemployment program also is a mess, luring people into joblessness.

So what exactly are the Emanuel brothers proposing? What is the “Grand Bargain” that offers benefits for both sides?

Sadly, it turns out that their bipartisan rhetoric is just an excuse for bigger government.

The bargain, which we call American Modernization Initiative…the federal government to assume the costs and administration of Medicaid and unemployment insurance, the states would have to agree to use freed up resources — a quarter of a trillion dollars per year — to invest in education and infrastructure. …The Grand Bargain is not only good policy, but good politics. …Governors would no longer be responsible for large programs… With the American Modernization Initiative, the constant, bitter battles over cutting state programs to fund growing Medicaid costs will disappear.

Yes, you read correctly. Their idea of a “bargain” is that the federal government agrees to spend more money so that that state governments will then have the ability to spend more money.

Even Republicans aren’t stupid enough to go along with that kind of deal.

So I’ll propose an alternative.

According to Chris Edwards, there are now nearly 1,400 programs involving some sort of link or overlap between the federal government and state governments.

The biggest of these programs is Medicaid, accounting for 56 percent of the overall spending.

So why not give the states a choice: They either take full responsibility for Medicaid – including the financing after some transition period. Or they take responsibility for the other 1,385 programs (probably more by now) programs – assuming, again, they are responsible for the financing after a transition period.

Regardless of their choice, the end result would be a system where there’s a reasonably significant shift toward federalism. And perhaps we would add a bit of clarity to the blurry line that currently sets the boundary between what’s Washington’s job and what’s the role of state governments.

And maybe, just maybe, there wouldn’t be as much wasteful leakage as we have now.

P.S. For what it’s worth, there’s strong academic evidence that decentralized governments produce better outcomes.

P.P.S. Federalism doesn’t only apply to income-redistribution programs. We also should eliminate any role for Washington in areas like education and transportation.

P.P.P.S. Here’s the data on the history of redistribution spending in developed nations.

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Should high-tax states such as California and New York get a bailout?

I explained last month why that would be a mistake, in large part because bailouts would reward states for irresponsible fiscal policy (similar to my argument that countries like Austria and the Netherlands shouldn’t be bullied into providing bailouts for Italy and Spain).

And I’ve shared two videos (here and here) for those who want more information about how bailouts encourage “moral hazard.” And this is true for banks (think TARP) as well as governments.

Today, though, I want to focus on some numbers that show what’s really causing fiscal problems in some states.

Adam Michel and David Ditch of the Heritage Foundation have generated some startling data on state government finances.

Instead of waiting on a handout from Washington, states should clear the way for a more robust economic recovery by addressing their unsustainable finances. States and local government spending has increased over the recent past… After adjusting for inflation and increases in population, state and local spending (in constant 2019 dollars) has grown from $5,596 per person in 2000 to $7,268 per person in 2019. That amounts to a 30% increase in the real cost of state and local government over just two decades, even without the thousands of dollars per person the federal government sends to states and localities through a wide variety of programs. …not all states spend equally. As of 2017, Florida, Georgia, and Arizona spent about $5,800 per person on state and local governments, but New York spent more than $11,700 per person.

The most important number is the above excerpt is that there’s been a 30 percent increase in per-capita state spending after adjusting for inflation.

That’s a very worrisome trend.

But not all states are created equal. Or, to be more precise, they’re not all equally profligate. Here’s the chart that starkly illustrates why some states are in trouble.

At the risk of understatement, California and New York have not complied with the Golden Rule for fiscal policy.

Needless to say, there’s no justification for the notion that taxpayers in well-run states such as Texas and Florida should be coerced into providing bailouts for politicians in poorly run states.

And now we have a compelling visual that settles the argument.

P.S. Over the past several years, I’ve done multiple columns comparing Texas and California and also several columns comparing New York and Florida, all of which underscore that blue states have created their own problems by taxing too much and spending too much.

P.P.S. Thankfully, people can vote with their feet by moving from high-tax states to low-tax states. Let’s hope that Congress doesn’t enact a bailout so they’re forced to subsidize the states that drove them away.

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Margaret Thatcher was the British version of Ronald Reagan, a leader who resuscitated a nation by rolling back the size and scope of government.

She also is famous for one of the most accurate observations ever made about fiscal policy.

Her warning proved prophetic when the Soviet Bloc collapsed.

Her wise words also could be applied to what happened about a decade ago in Greece. And what’s about to happen in Italy.

But let’s not forget that the United States isn’t immune to the problem of excessive government. The Wall Street Journal has a sobering editorial on the pro-spending sentiment that dominates the nation’s capital.

…in Washington the politicians are debating how to spend another few trillion dollars in the name of virus relief. …Mrs. Pelosi’s House bill promises another $3 trillion for her various constituencies on top of the $2.7 trillion or so Congress has already spent on the pandemic. The goal is income redistribution… This political strategy may work since Republicans, as usual, are divided and defensive. …Mr. Trump…seems torn about what to support and is thinking only as far as November. This is a recipe for another deal on Democratic terms… Sooner or later the pandemic will end. The question is what kind of economy will be left. A second Cares Act would leave a legacy of vastly larger government that would mean slower growth and take years to overcome.

Yes, the spending binge will mean slower growth.

But I’m even more worried about what will happen in the future. Here are three things to keep in mind.

  1. Largely because of Bush, Obama, and Trump, the federal budget has tripled since 1980 (Reagan and Clinton were comparatively frugal). Keep in mind that the increase in the accompanying chart shows the growth in spending after adjusting for inflation.
  2. The burden of federal spending is projected to skyrocket in future years because of the combination of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs. In other words, our fiscal outlook is grim even if politicians don’t approve an additional penny of new spending.
  3. However, politicians are spending more money. A lot more.  As shown in the accompanying chart, this has caused a huge spike in per-capita outlays. And the crowd in Washington wants to make the red portion much bigger.

Given all this bad news, does Thatcher’s warning about running out “of other people’s money” apply to the United States?

As bad as the numbers are, my two cents is that the U.S. won’t suffer a fiscal crisis anytime soon. As I noted at the end of this interview, Washington can probably continue with business-as-usual fiscal policy for several more decades (Adam Smith observed that it usually takes a lot of bad policy over a long period of time to cause economic ruin).

But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to travel down that path.

Here’s an analogy. Smoking three packs of cigarettes a day presumably won’t kill someone within the first 10 years, but it’s definitely not a recipe for long-run health and vitality. Sooner or later, there will be consequences.

A mature and sensible people (like the Swiss) take steps to avoid the fiscal version of those bad consequences.

For what it’s worth, similar reforms have been proposed for the United States. Unfortunately, too many American politicians and consumed by self-interest and don’t think past the next election.

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The good news is that there will be a record reduction next year in the burden of government spending. Unfortunately, the bad news is that this reduction will only occur because of gigantic spending increases this year.

In this webinar, I explain how fiscal policy is being affected by coronavirus, and then explain why a spending cap is the way to restore fiscal sanity.

You can watch the full webinar, organized by Lebanon’s Modern University for Business and Science, by clicking here.

But if you don’t want to watch the entire event, or even my 11-minute presentation, all you really need to understand is that red ink is exploding this year. Not just in the United States, but in other nations as well.

The fiscal wreckage, as illustrated in this chart I shared for the audience, is greater than the world experienced during the financial crisis/great recession.

For what it’s worth, I wish the chart specified how much of the debt is caused by additional spending and how much is caused by declining tax revenues.

It’s also worth noting that these numbers will probably deteriorate even further over the next few months. Politicians are likely to approve more handouts and subsidies. And if there’s not a rapid economic recovery (I express doubt about that outcome in my remarks), tax revenue will continue to fall far short of baseline estimates.

The sad reality is that we don’t know the full degree of the coronavirus-caused fiscal wreckage. That being said, it’s safe to assume that – sooner or later – there will be a big debate in Washington over how to reverse the damage. And in other nations as well.

In my presentation, I explained why a Swiss-style spending cap is the right approach. In other words, simply impose a limit so that government grows slower than the private economy – i.e., fiscal policy’s Golden Rule.

I’d like to be able to specifically show how a spending cap would undo the current mess, but that’s not possible because we can only make wild guesses about the full extent of the fiscal fallout.

That being said, I’ll share two pieces of evidence to show the value of a spending cap.

First, here’s an estimate I prepared earlier this year to show how America’s fiscal situation would have been much stronger today if a spending cap had been imposed back in 2000.

Needless to say, it would have been nice if the U.S. had big surpluses when the coronavirus hit.

Our second piece of evidence is the experience of the U.S., France, and the U.K. in the decades before World War I.

All three nations had enormous debt burdens as a result of previous conflicts.

And all three countries dramatically reduced debt by using the same strategy of long-run spending restraint.

The bottom line is that spending restraint has worked in the past and it can work in the future.

Unfortunately, I doubt that either Donald Trump or Joe Biden is interested in that approach.

P.S. One thing we can say for certain is that responding with tax increases almost surely will make a bad situation even worse.

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I’ve explained the economics of taxation, which is based on the common-sense notion that you get less productive economic activity when taxes drive a bigger wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

Simply stated, the more you tax of something, the less you get of it, and this applies to taxes on labor and taxes on capital.

Today, let’s examine some empirical evidence. I’ve done that before (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but it’s always good to expand the collection.

Three Italian professors, in a new working paper for the Centre for Economic and International Studies, investigated the relationship between taxes and growth.

We’ll start with a description of the methodology.

In this paper, we revisit a traditional issue in the empirics of growth and economic policy: whether taxation has long-lasting effects on real GDP dynamics. …we focus on the impact that taxes may have on the rates of physical and human capital accumulation. …our main departure from the existing literature is the use of a semi-parametric technique, which allows for countries’ unobserved heterogeneity in the input effects on per capita GDP. …we test our model, using a sample of 21 OECD countries over the period 1965-2010.

Here are the key findings.

Our main finding is that taxation negatively affect per capita GDP growth rates, both directly and indirectly, via physical and human capital saving rates. …Our cross-country analysis makes a clear point on this, at least for our sample of OECD countries: on average, tax cuts produce a beneficial impact on GDP dynamics but of modest size. In our baseline specification, a cut by 10% in personal income tax rate generates an change in the real per capita GDP growth rate of +1% while a cut by 10% in corporate income tax rate increases the rate of growth of real per capita GDP by 0.9%. …The main message of our empirical exercise is that, across various samples and specifications, taxes are harmful for growth.

These are very strong results.

Though I find it very interesting that the authors say they are “of modest size.”

I guess that depends on expectations and perspective. I’ll simply repeat the point I made two years ago about the importance of even small increases in the long-run growth rate.

The bottom line is that future Americans would enjoy significantly greater prosperity with better tax policy.

That’s a desirable outcome at any point in time, and it’s even more important today as we consider how to recover from the economic wreckage caused by the coronavirus.

Interestingly, the study ends with some interesting estimates on the impact of lower tax rates on labor and capital.

Table 10 reports the results of a “what if”exercise, in which we compute the change in GDP growth rate generated by a ceteris paribus cut by 10 % in τw and τk.

And here is the aforementioned Table 10 (“τw” is the tax rate on labor and “τk” is the tax rate on capital).

There are two big takeaways from this research.

First, it’s further evidence that Trump’s tax reform, which lowered the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, was a very good step for the American economy.

Second, it’s further evidence that it’s a big mistake for Biden and other folks on the left to push for higher tax rates, including big increases in tax rates on personal income.

P.S. Just in case those last two sentences sound overly favorable to Trump, I’ll remind people that reckless spending increases – sooner or later – will lead to punitive tax increases. In other words, if Biden wins and there are big tax hikes, Trump will deserve some of the blame (just as Bush’s irresponsible policies set the stage for some of Obama’s irresponsible policies).

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I’ve warned that the budgetary impact of the coronavirus may trigger another fiscal crisis in Europe.

Especially Italy.

But what about the United States? Will we reach a point, as Margaret Thatcher famously warned, of running out of other people’s money?

We probably still have a couple of decades before that happens, as I speculated at the end of a recent interview, but that doesn’t mean we should continue down our current path.

The Wall Street Journal opined on this topic yesterday, citing newly released estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

Friday’s Congressional Budget Office report on the federal fisc for April…usually a surplus month as tax payments roll in, but the Treasury postponed tax day this year until July 15. We are grateful for such small government favors. Spending more than doubled in April from the year before and revenue fell by 55%. …we are all apparently supposed to be converts to Modern Monetary Theory. This is the view that governments can spend whatever they like because the Federal Reserve can monetize it without economic harm. We may get to test this proposition. …the damage from so much spending will come in two ways. First, in resources misallocated to government rather than into private hands to invest. Second, in the tax increases that the political class will eventually impose, perhaps starting as early as 2021.

As is so often the case, the WSJ is correct in its analysis.

The fiscal crisis won’t be too much red ink. That’s merely the symptom of the real disease, which is that government is getting far too big.

As the editorial warns, this undermines prosperity because resources get diverted from the economy’s productive sector.

And as that spending burden increases, it means more and more pressure for tax increases, which further penalize growth. I’ve already noted that politicians will try to exploit the crisis by imposing a wealth tax, but I think the real prize – in the mind of statists – is a money-gobbling value-added tax.

I’ll close by sharing a chart from Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute, which estimates the per-capita burden of inflation-adjusted federal spending in the United States.

The red portion of the chart is coronavirus-related spending, plus future interest payments on the additional borrowing for all that spending, and the blue portion is spending in prior years plus estimates of future spending (already on an upward trajectory because of poorly designed entitlement programs).

That chart does not paint a pretty picture, but Brian’s numbers may be too optimistic. He assumes that the coronavirus-related emergency spending is just temporary and that additional interest on a bigger debt is the only long-run impact.

But if politicians make some of that spending permanent (which will be in their self-interest), then we’ll be traveling even faster in the wrong direction.

All the more reason to impose a spending cap, which is the only major fiscal reform with a track record of success.

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I’m not an optimist about Europe’s economic future.

Most nations have excessive welfare states and punitive taxes, which is hardly good news. You then have to consider demographic trends such as aging populations (i.e., more people relying on government) and falling birthrates (i.e., fewer future taxpayers).

That’s a very grim combination.

Indeed, this is a big reason why I favored Brexit. Yes, it was largely about escaping an increasingly dirigiste European bureaucracy in Brussels, but it was also about not being chained to a continent with a dismal long-run outlook.

More than one year ago, before there were any concerns about a coronavirus-instigated economic crisis, Vijay Victor, an economist from Szent Istvan University in Hungary, expressed concern about Europe’s fiscal future in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education.

The debt crisis in the Eurozone is getting no better, even in the wake of the new year. The five countries in the Eurozone with the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the third quarter of 2018 were Greece, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, and Spain. The total debt of Greece is around 182.2 percent of its GDP and that of Italy is 133 percent… Dawdling economic growth coupled with low-yield investment options are dragging these indebted economies toward insolvency… Unemployment rates, for example, are still very high in most of these highly indebted European economies. Despite the recurrent monetary assistance and policy support, job creation is weak, which might imply that the debt financing is channelized in a nonproductive direction.

By the way, I can’t resist taking this opportunity to remind people that debt is a problem, but it also should be viewed as a symptom of en even-bigger problem, which is an excessive burden of government spending.

A bloated welfare state is a drag on economic performance, whether it’s financed by borrowing or taxes.

Though nations that try to finance big government with red ink eventually spend their way into crisis (as defined by potential default).

And we may be reaching that point.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise has authored a very grim assessment, focusing primarily on Italy, for the National Interest.

Today, with Italy at the epicenter of the world coronavirus epidemic, it would seem to be only a matter of time before the durability of the Euro is again tested by another full-blown Italian sovereign debt crisis. …even before the coronavirus epidemic struck its economy was weak while its public finances and banking system were in a state of poor health. After having experienced virtually no economic growth over the past decade, the Italian economy again entered into a recession by end-2019. At the same time, at 135 percent its public debt to GDP ratio was higher than it was in 2012 while its banks’ balance sheets remained clogged with non-performing loans and Italian government bonds. …the coronavirus epidemic will seriously damage both Italy’s public finances and its banking system…by throwing the country into its deepest economic recession in the post-war period. That in turn is bound to cause Italy’s budget deficit to balloon and its banking system’s non-performing loans to skyrocket as more of its households and companies file for bankruptcy. …all too likely that the Italian economy will shrink by at least 10 percent in 2020.

All this matters because the people and institutions that purchase government debt may decide that Italy’s outlook is so grim that they will be very reluctant to buy the country’s bonds (i.e., they’ll be very hesitant about lending money to the Italian government because of a concern that they won’t get paid back).

This means that the Italian government will have to pay much higher interest rates in order to compensate lenders for the risk of a potential default.

So what are the implications? Will Italy default, or will there be some sort of bailout?

If the latter, Lachman predicts it will be huge.

One way to gauge the amount of public money that might be needed to prop up Italy is to consider that over the past decade it took around US$300 billion in official support to keep Greece in the Euro. Given that the Italian economy is around ten times the size of that of Greece, this would suggest that Italy might very well need around $3 trillion in official support to keep Italy in the Euro. …Meanwhile, Italy’s US$4 trillion banking system could very well need at least US$1 trillion in official support to counter the capital flight and the spike in non-performing loans that are all too likely to occur in the event of a deep Italian recession.

For what it’s worth, Lachman thinks a bailout would be desirable.

I disagree. Default is a better choice because it will discipline the Italian government (it would mean an overnight balanced budget requirement since nobody will lend money to the government) and also discipline foolish lenders who thought Italian politicians were a good bet.

Simply stated, we should minimize moral hazard.

I also think it’s worth noting that Italy isn’t the only government at risk of fiscal crisis. Here’s the OECD data for major nations, including a few non-European examples.

Japan wins the prize for the most red ink, though this doesn’t mean Japan is most vulnerable to a default, at least in the short run.

A fiscal crisis is driven by investor sentiment (i.e., when will people and institutions decide they no longer trust a government to pay back loans). And that depends on a range of factors, including trust.

The bottom line is that investors trust the Japanese government and they don’t trust the Italian government.

That being said, I think all of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain) are very vulnerable.

And politicians in Ireland, Belgium, and France should be nervous as well.

I’ll close by sharing some calculations, based on the aforementioned OECD data, showing which nations used last decade’s economic recovery to improve their balance sheets.

Congratulations to Germany and Switzerland for fiscal responsibility, and mild applause for the Netherlands and Sweden.

I’ve highlighted (in red) the nations that were most reckless.

Though keep in mind that you want to look at both the trend for debt (far-right column) and the existing level of debt (the next-to-far-right column). So I’m not overly worried about Australia. Debt is still comparatively low, even though it almost doubled last decade.

But all of the PIGS are in trouble.

So if economic conditions deteriorate in Europe, the fallout could be significant.

P.S. The United Kingdom, like Japan, benefits from a high level of trust – presumably in part because the country paid off enormous debts from the Napoleonic wars and World War II. That being said, the numbers for the U.K. are worrisome, which hopefully will lead to a renewed commitment to spending restraint by Boris Johnson’s government.

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The race for the Democratic nomination is very depressing. All the candidates – even supposed moderates such as Biden and Buttigieg – are openly advocating a much bigger burden of government.

I’m hoping some of their proposals are simply election-year pandering, that they really don’t believe in statism, and that they would be reasonable if they got to the White House.

We got a good bit of economic liberalization under Bill Clinton, for instance, even though he didn’t campaign as any sort of libertarian.

Some people speculate that Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, might be this year’s closet moderate. A few people have even sent me this CNN article as proof of his underlying rationality.

…when he was mayor of New York City, Bloomberg twice compared Social Security to a “Ponzi scheme” and repeatedly said cuts to that program as well as Medicare and Medicaid had to be part of any serious solution to reducing the federal deficit. …if there’s ever a Ponzi scheme, people say Madoff was the biggest? Wrong. Social Security is, far and away,” Bloomberg said in a January 2009 appearance… “We are giving monies out with the next guy’s money coming in and at the end of — when the music stops — it’s just not gonna be enough chairs for everybody,” Bloomberg said. …Bloomberg’s past comments are at odds with the mainstream positions within the Democratic Party. …During other radio appearances, Bloomberg called for passing Simpson-Bowles, the deficit cutting plan named after former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles.

I have mixed feelings after reading that article.

The good news is that Bloomberg at one point was semi-rational about entitlements.

  • He understood Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, meaning that the system is only made possible by having new people enter the scheme to finance promises made to people who joined earlier.
  • He recognized that some sort of corrective action was needed on entitlements because of enormous unfunded promises, driven by demographic change and poorly designed programs.

The bad news is that Bloomberg never supported the right policies that would address both Social Security’s gigantic fiscal shortfall and the fact that the program is a really bad deal for younger workers. Instead, he supported plans such as Simpson-Bowles that would merely make people pay more to get less.

The worst news is that Bloomberg has abandoned his semi-rational view and is now urging higher taxes and program expansions. He’s presumably not as bad as some of the other candidates, but that’s damning with faint praise.

Here’s a simple way of thinking about Social Security. First, are people actually connected to reality? Do they understand math and demographics? If yes, they’re on the rational (left) side of this 2×2 matrix.

But even if people are rational and recognize there’s a problem, do they support the right type of reform (top half), which is personal retirement accounts?

As you can see, Bloomberg used to be in the bottom-left quadrant, which is bad but rational. Now he’s in the bottom-right quadrant, which is bad and irrational.

A politician who is good and rational will be in top-left quadrant.

P.S. Social Security technically isn’t a Ponzi scheme. That’s because people have the freedom to reject a con artist peddling a pyramid scam. With Social Security, by contrast, participants are legally required to be part of the scheme.

P.P.S. The logical assumption is that the top-right quadrant is empty other than a question mark. After all, any politicians who supports good policy presumably would also recognize there’s a problem. That being said, Trump could be the exception. He doesn’t think we have an entitlement problem, so he obviously belongs on the right side of the matrix. But if he decided to support individual accounts (Trump is very inconsistent on policy, but that does mean he is good on some issues), he could replace the question mark.

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This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity is nearly 10 years old, so some of the numbers are outdated, but the seven reasons to reject tax increases are still very relevant.

I’m recycling the video because the battle over tax increases is becoming more heated.

Indeed, depending on what happens in November, we may be fighting against major tax-hike proposals in less than one year.

Every single candidate seeking the Democratic nomination (such as Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, etc) wants Washington to have much more of our money.

And there are plenty of cheerleaders for a bigger welfare state who favor this outcome. Some of them urge class-warfare tax increases. Other admit that lower-income and middle-class people will need to be pillaged to finance bigger government.

The one unifying principle on the left, as illustrated by this column for The Week by Paul Waldman, is the belief that Americans are under-taxed.

…as an American, when it comes to taxes you’ve got it easy. …we pay much lower taxes than most of our peer countries. In the United States, our tax-to-GDP ratio is about 26 percent, far below the 34 percent average of the advanced economies in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and drastically less than some European countries (Denmark tops the list at 46 percent). …We have chosen — whether we did it consciously or not — to create a system that makes it easier for a small number of people to get super-rich, but also makes life more cruel and difficult for everyone else. …We could all pay more, and in return get more from government than we’re getting now. We just have to decide to do it.

This is a very weak argument since a cursory investigation quickly reveals that Americans have much higher living standards than people in other developed nations.

That’s a good thing, not a “cruel and difficult” consequence, though I’m not surprised that folks on the left are impervious to real-world evidence.

However, I am surprised when otherwise sensible people throw in the towel and say it’s time to surrender on the issue of taxes.

The latest example is James Capretta of the American Enterprise Institute.

Here’s some of what he wrote on the topic.

…the GOP commitment, implied and explicit at the same time, to never, ever support a net tax increase, under any circumstance, is making sensible lawmaking far more difficult than it should be. It’s time to break free of this counterproductive constraint. …The no tax hike position got its start in the 1986 tax reform effort. Several business and policy advocacy organizations began asking members of the House and Senate, as well as candidates for seats in those chambers, to sign a pledge opposing a net increase in income tax rates. …The pledge became politically salient in 1992, when then President George H.W. Bush lost his bid for reelection. His loss is widely assumed to have been caused, at least in part, by his acceptance of a large tax hike…after having pledged never to increase taxes… Retaining the GOP’s absolutist position on taxes might be defensible if the party were advancing an agenda that demonstrated it could govern responsibly without new revenue. Unfortunately, Republicans have proved beyond all doubt that they have no such agenda. In fact, the party has gladly gone along with successive bipartisan deals that increased federal spending by hundreds of billions.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Jim is theoretically wrong.

Heck, even I offered up three scenarios where a tax increase could be an acceptable price in order to achieve much-needed spending reforms. And I’ll even add a fourth scenario by admitting that I would trade a modest tax increase for a Swiss-style spending cap.

But every one of my options is a meaningless fantasy.

In the real world, those acceptable scenarios are not part of the discussion. Instead, two very bad things inevitably happen when tax increases are on the table.

  1. The automatic default assumption is that tax increases should be 50 percent of any budget deal. That’s bad news, but the worse news is that the other 50 percent of the budget deal isn’t even genuine spending cuts. Instead, all we get is reductions (often illusory or transitory) in previously planned increases. The net result is bigger government (and it’s even worse in Europe!). This is why every budget deal in recent history has backfired – except the one that cut taxes in 1997.
  2. Budget deals result in the worst types of tax increases for the simple reason that budget deals get judged by their impact on “distribution tables.” And since the make-believe spending cuts ostensibly will reduce benefits for lower-income and middle-class people, the crowd in Washington demands that the tax increases should target investors, entrepreneurs, business owners, and others with above-average incomes. Yet these are the tax hikes that disproportionately hinder growth.

The bottom line is that tax increases should be a no-go zone. If Washington gets more of our money, that will “feed the beast.”

At the risk of under-statement, Grover Norquist’s no-tax-hike pledge is good policy (and good politics for the GOP). Americans for Tax Reform should double down in its opposition to tax increases.

P.S. I’ve shared five previous “Fiscal Fights with Friends”:

  • In Part I, I defended the flat tax, which had been criticized by Reihan Salam
  • In Part II, I explained why I thought a comprehensive fiscal package from the American Enterprise Institute was too timid.
  • In Part III, I disagreed with Jerry Taylor’s argument for a carbon tax.
  • In Part IV, I highlighted reasons why conservatives should reject a federal program for paid parental leave.
  • In Part V, I warned that “Hauser’s Law” would not protect America from higher taxes and bigger government.

P.P.S. There’s great wisdom on tax policy from these four presidents.

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Back in 2012, when America had a budget deficit above $1 trillion, Investor’s Business Daily opined that America’s fiscal mess could have been avoided if politicians had simply adopted a TABOR-style spending cap starting in 1998.

As illustrated by the accompanying chart, IBD showed how a giant deficit would have become very manageable if politicians simply limited spending so it grew no faster than population plus inflation.

What makes this alternative history so bittersweet is that there are places – such as Switzerland and Hong Kong – that already have successful spending caps that deliver positive results.

Indeed, spending caps have such a good track record that even left-leaning international bureaucracies like the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have acknowledged that they are the most effective fiscal rule.

To understand the benefits of spending caps, especially since we’re now back in an environment of $1 trillion-plus deficits, let’s replicate the IBD exercise.

Here’s a chart showing actual spending (orange line) and revenue (blue line) over the past 20 years, along with what would have happened to spending with a 3-percent cap on annual spending increases (grey line).

The net result is that today’s $1 trillion surplus would be a budget surplus of nearly $500 billion.

More important, the burden of spending today would be much lower, which means more resources being allocated by the productive sector of the economy. And that would mean more jobs and more prosperity.

P.S. While a spending cap is simple and effective, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Abiding by a cap would force politicians to set priorities, which is a constraint they don’t like. In the long run, complying with a cap also would require some much-need entitlement reform, which also won’t be popular with the interest groups that control Washington.

P.P.S. We would need a spending cap of 1.7 percent to balance the budget over the next 10 years.

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Trump’s new budget was released yesterday and almost every media outlet wrote about supposed multi-trillion dollar spending cuts when, in reality, the President’s budget actually calls for nearly $2 trillion of additional spending over the next 10 years.

The bottom line is that Trump is more akin to a big-government Republican rather than a Reagan-style conservative.

Today, let’s take a look at Table 3.2 of the Historical Tables of the Budget to assess how Trump’s record on spending compares to other modern presidents.

I’ve done this exercise in the past, starting in 2012 and most recently in 2017, but this is the first year we have enough data to include Trump’s performance.

And if we simply look at overall spending numbers (adjusted for inflation, of course), we get the shocking result that Obama increased spending at the slowest rate.

This surprising outcome is due in part to factors such as falling interest rates, a slowdown in military expenditures, and the fiscal impact of the 2010 elections (in other words, gridlock can be beneficial).

Trump, meanwhile, is near the bottom of the list (though not as bad as George W. Bush and LBJ).

What happens, though, if we remove interest payments from the data? After all, those outlays truly are uncontrollable (barring a default) and they mostly reflect spending decisions of prior administrations.

So if we want to judge a president’s fiscal policy, we should look at “primary spending,” which is the term used by budget geeks when looking at non-interest spending.

This measure doesn’t radically alter the results, but some presidents wind up looking better and others fall.

Another way of looking at the numbers is to remove the fiscal impact of bailouts, such as TARP (and also the savings & loan bailouts of the late 1980s).

The reason for this alteration is that the bailouts cause a big spike in spending when they occur, and then cause a drop afterwards because repayments actually are considered “negative spending,” as are the premiums that banks pay each year (I’m not kidding).

So presidents who are in office when the bailouts occur wind up looking worse, even though their policies may not have contributed to the problem. And the presidents who are in office when the repayments occur (remember, those count as negative spending) wind up looking better than they really are.

Here are the adjusted rankings (calculated by subtracting rows 46, 50, and 51 of Table 3.2). As you can see, Obama takes a bit of a tumble and Reagan is now the most fiscally prudent president.

Last but not least, now let’s also remove defense spending so we can see which presidents did the best (and the worst) when it comes to social welfare spending.

This is the most important category for those of us who believe the federal government should get out of the business of income redistribution and social insurance.

Reagan easily tops the list, limiting outlays to 0.5 percent annual growth. The other thing that’s remarkable is that every other Republican was worse than Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.

For what it’s worth, Trump is the best of the non-Reagan Republicans, though that is damning with very faint praise.

The first President Bush was awful on spending, and Nixon was catastrophically terrible.

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