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Archive for the ‘Fiscal Policy’ Category

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) just released its new 10-year forecast. Unsurprisingly, it shows that Trump’s reckless spending policy is accelerating America’s descent to Greek-style fiscal profligacy.

Most people are focusing on the estimates of additional red ink, but I point out in this interview that the real problem is spending.

Some folks also are highlighting the fact that CBO isn’t projecting a recession, but I don’t think that’s important for the simple fact that all economists are bad at making short-run economic predictions.

That being said, I think CBO’s long-run fiscal forecasts are worthy of close attention (unfortunately, I didn’t state this very clearly in the interview).

And what worries me is that the numbers show that government spending will be consuming an ever-larger share of the nation’s economic output.

However, it’s not time to give up.

Modest spending restraint (i.e., obeying the Golden Rule of fiscal policy) generates very good results in a remarkably short period of time.

What matters most is reducing the burden of spending. But when you address the problem of government spending (as the chart shows), you also solve the symptom of red ink.

The challenge, of course, is convincing politicians that spending should be frozen. Or, at the very least, that it should only grow at a modest pace.

We have enjoyed periods of spending restraint, including a five-year spending freeze under Obama, as well as some fiscal discipline under both Reagan and Clinton.

But if we want long-run spending discipline, we need a comprehensive spending cap, sort of like the very successful systems in Hong Kong and Switzerland.

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I was interviewed yesterday about the possibility of a recession and potential policy options. You can watch the full interview here and get my two cents about economic forecasting, as well as Keynesian monetary policy.

In this segment, you can see that I’m also worried about a return of Keynesian fiscal policy.

Let’s examine the issue, starting with an analogy.

According to the Urban Dictionary, a bad penny is a “thing which is unpleasant, disreputable, or otherwise unwanted, especially one which repeatedly appears at a bad time.”

That’s a good description of Keynesian economics, which is the strange notion that the government can provide “stimulus” by borrowing money from some people, giving it to other people, and assuming that society is then more prosperous.

Keynesianism has a long track record…of failure.

Now the bad penny is showing up again.

Donald Trump already has been pushing Keynesian monetary policy, and the Washington Post reports that he is now contemplating Keynesian fiscal policy.

Several senior White House officials have begun discussing whether to push for a temporary payroll tax cut as a way to arrest an economic slowdown… The payroll tax was last cut in 2011 and 2012, to 4.2 percent, during the Obama administration as a way to encourage more consumer spending during the most recent economic downturn. …Payroll tax cuts have remained popular with Democrats largely because they are seen as targeting working Americans and the money is often immediately spent by consumers and not saved. …In the past, Democrats have strongly supported payroll tax cuts, while Republicans have been more resistant. Republicans have complained that such cuts do not help the economy.

As I wrote back in 2011, it’s possible that a temporary reduction in the payroll tax rate could have some positive impact. After all, the marginal tax rate on work would be lower.

But it wouldn’t be a large effect, and whatever benefit wouldn’t accrue for Keynesian reasons. Consumer spending is a symptom of a strong economy, not the cause of a strong economy.

Now let’s look at another nation.

Germany was actually semi-sensible during the last recession, resisting the siren song of Keynesianism.

But now politicians in Berlin are contemplating a so-called stimulus.

The Wall Street Journal opines against this type of fiscal backsliding.

The German Finance Minister said Sunday he might possibly…cobble together a Keynesian stimulus package for his recession-menaced country. …Berlin invites this stimulus pressure as the only large eurozone government responsible enough to live within its means. A balanced budget and government debt below 60% of GDP encourage the International Monetary Fund…to call for Berlin to “use” its fiscal headroom to avert a recession. …Germany’s record on delivering projects quickly is lousy, as with Berlin’s perennially delayed new airport. Too few projects would arrive in time to stimulate the new business investment proponents say would save Germany from an imminent downturn, if they stimulate business investment at all. …The worst idea, though one of the more likely, is some form of cash-for-clunkers tax handout to support the auto industry.

The right answer, as I said in the above interview, is to adopt sensible pro-market reforms.

The main goal is faster long-run growth, but such policies also help in the short run.

And the WSJ identifies some of those reforms for Germany.

Cutting taxes in Germany’s overtaxed economy would be a faster and more effective stimulus… The main stimulus Germany needs is deregulatory. In the World Bank’s latest Doing Business survey, Germany ranked behind France on time and cost of starting a business, gaining construction permits and trading across borders. Germany also lags on investor protections and ease of filing tax returns. A dishonorable mention goes to Mrs. Merkel’s Energiewende (energy transformation), which is driving up costs for businesses already struggling with trade war, taxes and regulation. …these problems don’t require €50 billion to fix, and scrapping the Energiewende would save Berlin and beleaguered businesses and households money. The bad news for everyone is that Berlin is more likely to fall for a quick-fix chimera and waste the €50 billion.

The bottom line is that Keynesian economics won’t work. Not in the United States, and not in Germany.

But politicians can’t resist this failed approach because they can pretend that their vice – buying votes by spending other people’s money – is actually a virtue.

In other words, “public choice” in action.

Let’s close by augmenting our collection of Keynesian humor. Here’s a “your mama” cartoon, based on the Keynesian notion that you can boost an economy by destroying wealth.

P.S. Here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally enjoyable sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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Spending caps are the most effective way of fulfilling my Golden Rule for fiscal policy.

And we have good evidence for this approach, as I explain in this FreedomWorks discussion.

I also discuss tax competition in the interview, as well as other topics. You can watch the entire discussion by clicking here.

But I’m sharing the part about spending caps because it fits perfectly with some new research from Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon of the Mercatus Center.

They point out that America faces a grim fiscal future, but suggest that fiscal rules may be part of the solution.

…the federal budget process as it exists today has proven inadequate…it is a great way to enable politicians to do what they want to do (cater to interest groups) while avoiding what they don’t want to do (living within their means). …The negative consequence emerging from this chaos and the resulting failure to follow budget rules is an unremitting expansion of the size and scope of government… With countries around the world experiencing growing debt-to-GDP ratios, resultant stagnation in economic growth, and, in extreme cases, default on debts, academics have been paying an increasing amount of attention to the potential of rules toward restraining unsustainable deficit spending. …The good news is that the evidence suggests that these fiscal rules are broadly effective at restraining deficit spending. …The bad news is that not all fiscal rules are effective in restraining government profligacy and curtailing debt growth.

The authors are right. Some fiscal rules don’t work very well.

As I stated in the interview, balanced budget requirements tend to be ineffective.

Spending caps, by contrast, have a decent track record.

The Mercatus study looks at Hong Kong.

Hong Kong…might actually represent the gold standard of good fiscal policy. …Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary, Mr. John Tsang, explained, “Our commitment to small government demands strong fiscal discipline. . . . It is my responsibility to keep expenditure growth commensurate with growth in our GDP.” …in Hong Kong it’s actually a constitutional requirement: Article 107 requires that the government should strive to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficit, and more importantly, make sure government spending doesn’t grow faster than the growth of the economy. …Hong Kong’s spending-to-GDP ratio has fluctuated between 14 and 20 percent since the 1990s, its debt as a share of GDP is zero, social welfare spending remains steady at less than 3 percent of GDP.

Amen.

I’ve also praised Hong Kong’s fiscal policy.

Now let’s look at what the authors wrote about Switzerland.

Swiss politicians are not allowed to increase spending faster than average revenue growth over a multiyear period (as calculated by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance), which confines spending growth to a rate no higher than the rate of inflation plus population growth. The Swiss debt brake rule is significant in that it appeals to economists and policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Advocates for fiscal restraint support this rule because it is effectively a spending cap, while social democrats support the rule as it allows for deficit spending during recessionary periods. …There’s no arguing with the results: Annual spending growth fell from an average of 4.3 percent to 2.5 percent since the rule was implemented. Also, in 10 out of the past 14 years, Switzerland has had budget surpluses, while deficits have remained rare and small… At the same time, the Swiss debt-to-GDP ratio has fallen from almost 60 percent in 2003 to around 42 percent in 2017.

Once again, I say amen.

Switzerland’s spending cap is a big success.

Here’s Figure 1 from the study, which shows a big drop in Swiss government debt. I’ve augmented the chart with OECD data to focus on something even more important – which is that the burden of spending (which started very low by European standards) has declined since the debt brake was implemented.

Last but not least, let’s look at the Danish example.

In 2014 Denmark implemented The Budget Act to ensure more efficient management of public expenditures. The act is aimed at ensuring a balance or surplus on the general government balance sheet, as well as appropriate expenditure management at all levels of government. In practice, the rule sets a limit of 0.5 percent of GDP on the structural budget deficit. Policymakers decided that managing fiscal policy on the basis of a balanced structural budget would lead to an appropriate fiscal position in the long term. They also designed the system to take discretion out of their own hands by making the cuts automatic. In addition to structural deficit rules, the Budget Act introduces four-year rolling expenditure ceilings. These ceilings set legally binding limits for spending at all levels of government and for each program. If one program spends under its cap, any money not spent cannot be reallocated to another program.

I guess this is time for a triple-amen.

Here’s Figure 2 from the study, which I’ve also augmented to highlight the most important success of Denmark’s policy of spending restraint.

The economic case for spending caps is ironclad.

The problem is that it’s an uphill climb from a political perspective.

Politicians prefer legislative spending caps. After all (as we saw in 2013, 2015, 2018, and this year), those can be evaded with a simple majority, so long as there’s a profligate president who approves higher spending levels.

And those caps have never applied to entitlements, which are the part of the budget that eventually will bankrupt the nation.

So why would public choice-motivated lawmakers actually allow a serious and comprehensive spending cap to become part of the Constitution?

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At the risk of over-simplifying, the difference between “supply-side economics” and “demand-side economics” is that the former is based on microeconomics (incentives, price theory) while the latter is based on macroeconomics (aggregate demand, Keynesianism).

When discussing the incentive-driven supply-side approach, I often focus on two key points.

  • Marginal tax rates matter more than average tax rates because the incentive to earn additional income (rather than enjoying leisure) is determined by whether the government grabs a small, medium, or large share of any extra earnings.
  • Some taxpayers such as investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners are especially sensitive to changes in marginal tax rates because they have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

Today, let’s review some new research from Spain’s central bank confirms these supply-side insights.

Here’s what the authors investigated.

The impact of personal income taxes on the economic decisions of individuals is a key empirical question with important implications for the optimal design of tax policy. …the modern public finance literature has devoted significant efforts to study behavioral responses to changes in taxes on reported taxable income… Most of this work focuses on the elasticity of taxable income (ETI), which captures a broad set of real and reporting behavioral responses to taxation. Indeed, reported taxable income reflects not only individuals’ decisions on hours worked, but also work effort and career choices as well as the results of investment and entrepreneurship activities. Besides these real responses, the ETI also captures tax evasion and avoidance decisions of individuals to reduce their tax bill.

By the way, “elasticity” is econ-speak for sensitivity. In other words, if there’s high elasticity, it means taxpayers are very responsive to a change in tax rates.

Anyhow, here’s how authors designed their study.

In this paper, we estimate the elasticity of taxable income in Spain, an interesting country to study because during the last two decades it has implemented several major personal income tax reforms… In the empirical analysis, we use an administrative panel dataset of income tax returns… We calculate the MTR as a weighted average of the MTR applicable to each income source (labor, financial capital, real-estate capital, business income and capital gains).

You can see in Figure 1 that the 2003 reform was good for taxpayers and the 2012 reform was bad for taxpayers.

If nothing else, though, these changes created the opportunity for scholars to measure how taxpayers respond.

And here are the results.

We obtain estimates of the ETI around 0.35 using the Gruberand Saez (2002) estimation method, 0.54 using Kleven and Schultz (2014)’s method and 0.64 using Weber (2014)’s method. …In addition to the average estimates of the ETI, we analyze heterogeneous responses across groups of taxpayers and sources of income. …As expected, stronger responses are documented for groups of taxpayers with higher ability to respond. In particular, self-employed taxpayers have a higher ETI than wage employees, while real-estate capital and business income respond more strongly than labor income. …we find large responses on the tax deductions margin, especially private pension contributions.

In other words, taxpayers do respond to changes in tax policy.

And some taxpayers are very sensitive (high elasticity) to those changes.

Here’s Table 6 from the study. Much of it will be incomprehensible if you’re not familiar with econometrics. But all that matters is that I circled (in red) the measures of how elasticities vary based on the type of income (larger numbers mean more sensitive).

I’ll close with a very relevant observation about American fiscal policy.

Currently, upper-income taxpayers finance the vast majority of America’s medium-sized welfare state.

But what if the United States had a large-sized welfare state, like the ones that burden many European nations?

If you review the data, those large-sized welfare states are financed with stifling tax burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers. Politicians in Europe learned that they couldn’t squeeze enough money out of the rich (in large part because of high elasticities).

Indeed, I wrote early this year about how taxes are confiscating the lion’s share of the income earned by ordinary workers in Spain.

And if we adopt the expanded welfare state envisioned by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Kamala Harris, the same thing will happen to American workers.

P.S. I admire how Spanish taxpayers have figured out ways of escaping the tax net.

P.P.S. There’s also evidence about the impact of Spain’s corporate tax.

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In my libertarian fantasies, we dramatically shrink the size of the federal government and return to pre-1913 policy by getting rid of the income tax.

But if I’m forced to be at least vaguely realistic, the second-best option is scrapping the current tax code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax based on the “Holy Trinity” of good policy.

The third-best option (i.e., the best we can hope for in the real world) is to adopt incremental reforms that move the tax code in the right direction.

That happened in 2017. I’ve written many times about why it was a very good idea to reduce the tax rate on corporate income. And I’ve also lauded the 2017 law’s limitation on the state and local tax deduction.

Today, let’s focus on the changes in that law that reduced the tax preference for residential real estate.

The housing lobby (especially builders and realtors) tried to scare lawmakers that any reduction in their privileged tax status would cause a large amount of damage.

Yet, as reported last year by the New York Times, there was no adverse effect in the first year of the new tax law.

It wasn’t supposed to take long for the Trump tax cuts to hobble housing prices… Nearly nine months later, those warnings have not materialized. …Economists see only faint effects from the new law so far in housing data. They’re small, and they’re contained to a few high-priced, highly taxed ZIP codes, largely in blue states. They’re nothing close to the carnage that real estate groups warned about when the law was under debate last fall. …the tax law has unquestionably diminished the value of several federal subsidies for homeowners. It limits deductions for state and local taxes, including property taxes, to $10,000 per household, which hurts owners of expensive homes in high-tax states. It lowers the cap on the mortgage interest deduction, which raises housing prices by allowing homeowners to write off the interest payments from their loans, to $750,000 for new loans, down from $1 million.

To the extent the impact could even be measured, it was a net plus for the economy.

After the law passed, ZIP codes in the Boston area saw a 0.6 percentage point slowdown in home appreciation on the Massachusetts side — and a 0.1 percent acceleration on the New Hampshire side. The effect there is “not huge, it’s small,”… Experts say several forces are helping to counteract the diminished federal home-buying subsidies. …said Kevin Hassett, “…if you’re getting a lot of income growth, the income growth increases the demand for housing, and the mortgage interest deduction reduces it. And the effects offset.”

This chart from the story is particularly persuasive. If anything, it appears housing values rose faster after the law was changed (though presumably due to bad policies such as building restrictions and zoning laws, not just the faster growth caused by a a shift in tax policy).

There’s also no negative effect one year later. A report from today’s New York Times finds that the hysterical predictions of the housing lobby haven’t materialized.

Even though the tax preference was significantly reduced.

The mortgage-interest deduction, a beloved tax break bound tightly to the American dream of homeownership, once seemed politically invincible. Then it nearly vanished in middle-class neighborhoods across the country, and it appears that hardly anyone noticed. …The 2017 law nearly doubled the standard deduction — to $24,000 for a couple filing jointly — on federal income taxes, giving millions of households an incentive to stop claiming itemized deductions. As a result, far fewer families — and, in particular, far fewer middle-class families — are claiming the itemized deduction for mortgage interest. In 2018, about one in five taxpayers claimed the deduction, Internal Revenue Service statistics show. This year, that number fell to less than one in 10. The benefit, as it remains, is largely for high earners, and more limited than it once was: The 2017 law capped the maximum value of new mortgage debt eligible for the deduction at $750,000, down from $1 million.

Once again, the evidence shows good news.

…housing professionals, home buyers and sellers — and detailed statistics about the housing market — show no signs that the drop in the use of the tax break is weighing on prices or activity. …Such reactions challenge a longstanding American political consensus. For decades, the mortgage-interest deduction has been alternately hailed as a linchpin of support for homeownership (by the real estate industry)…. most economists on the left and the right…argued that the mortgage-interest deduction violated every rule of good policymaking. It was regressive, benefiting wealthy families… Studies repeatedly found that the deduction actually reduced ownership rates by helping to inflate home prices, making homes less affordable to first-time buyers. …In the debate over the tax law in 2017, the industry warned that the legislation could cause house prices to fall 10 percent or more in some parts of the country. …Places where a large share of middle-class taxpayers took the mortgage-interest deduction, for example, have not seen any meaningful difference in price increases from less-affected areas.

Incidentally, here’s a chart from the story. It shows that the rich have always been the biggest beneficiaries of the tax preference.

And now the deduction that remains is even more skewed toward upper-income households.

As far as I’m concerned, the tax code shouldn’t punish people simply because they earn a lot of money.

But neither should it give them special goodies.

For what it’s worth, the mortgage interest deduction is not a left-vs-right or statism-vs-libertarian issue.

I’ve crossed swords on a few occasions with Bill Gale of the Brooking Institute, but his column a few months ago in the Wall Street Journal wisely calls for full repeal of this tax preference.

With any luck, the 2017 tax overhaul will prove to be only the first step toward eventually replacing the century-old housing subsidy… This is a welcome change. The mortgage-interest deduction has existed since the income tax was created in 1913, but it has never been easy to justify. …Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have no mortgage-debt subsidies, yet their homeownership rates are slightly higher than in the U.S. A large reduction in the mortgage-interest deduction in Denmark in 1987 had virtually no effect on homeownership rates. …The next step should be to eliminate the deduction altogether. The phaseout should be gradual but complete.

Here’s another example.

Nobody would ever accuse the folks at Slate of being market friendly, so this article is another sign that there’s a consensus against using the tax code to tilt the playing field in favor of residential real estate.

One of the most remarkable things about the tax bill Republicans passed last year was how it took a rotary saw to the mortgage interest deduction. The benefit for homeowners was once considered a politically untouchable upper-middle-class entitlement, but the GOP aggressively curtailed it in order to pay for cuts elsewhere in the tax code. …just 13.8 million households will subtract mortgage interest from their 2018 returns, down from 32.3 million in 2017. …if Democrats ever get a chance to kill off the vestigial remains of the mortgage interest deduction down the line, they might as well. …any negative effect of the tax law seems to have been drowned out by a healthy economy.

I’ll close by digging into the archives at the Heritage Foundation and dusting off one of my studies from 1996.

Analyzing the flat tax and home values, I pointed out that rising levels of personal income were the key to a strong housing market, not the value of the tax deduction.

Everything that’s happened over the past 23 years – and especially the past two years – confirms my analysis.

Simply stated, economic growth is how we get more good things in society. That’s true for housing, as explained above, and it’s also true for charitable giving.

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When I write about Estonia, I generally have something nice to say.

Today, I want to add to my praise for this Baltic nation.

Unlike politicians in many other nations, lawmakers in Estonia responded wisely when they saw a tax increase was backfiring.

As Estonia tries to recover its alcohol customers lost to neighbouring Latvia due to high excise duty, the parliament in Tallinn has passed a 25% cut in excise duty rate. Estonian public broadcaster ERR reports that the bill was passed on Thursday, June 13, in the Riigikogu by landslide. In the final reading, the bill was passed by 70-9 MP in favour backing the cutting of the alcohol excise duty rates for beer, cider and hard liquor by 25% beginning July 1. The amendments to the Estonian Alcohol, Tobacco, Fuel and Electricity Excise Duty Law…are aimed at reducing cross-border trade of Estonians buying their drinks much cheaper in northern Latvia.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Estonian politicians shouldn’t have increased excise taxes on booze in the first place.

And they may have fixed the problem because they got on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve (i.e., tax revenue was falling), not because of a philosophical preference for lower tax rates.

But rectifying a mistake is definitely better than doubling down on a mistake, which is how politicians in many other nations probably would have reacted.

This approach, combined with the good policies listed above, helps to explain why Estonia is one of the few economic success stories to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Though, in closing, I’ll note that the country needs additional pro-market reform to deal with the challenge of demographic decline.

P.S. Read what Estonia’s Minister of Justice wrote about totalitarian socialism.

P.P.S. Also read about how Paul Krugman earned an “exploding cigar” with some sloppy analysis about Estonia.

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Assuming the goal is faster growth and higher living standards, there are three core principles of good tax policy.

You could call this list the Holy Trinity of supply-side economics. Simply stated, incentives matter, so it makes no sense for government to discourage the things that make a nation more prosperous.

Regarding low marginal tax rates, my left-leaning friends sometimes dismiss the importance of this principle by pointing out that they don’t pay much attention to their marginal tax rates.

I can sympathize with their skepticism. When I was first learning about public finance and studying supply-and-demand curves showing deadweight loss, I also wondered about the supply-side claim that marginal tax rates mattered. Even after I started working, I had doubts. Would I somehow work harder if my tax rate fell? Or goof off if my tax rate went up? It didn’t make much sense.

What I didn’t recognize, however, is that I was looking at the issue from the perspective of someone working a standard, 9-to-5 job with a modest income. And it is true that such workers are not very responsive (especially in the short run) to changes in tax rates.

In the real world, though, there are lots of people who don’t fit that profile. They have jobs that give them substantial control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

And these people – such as business owners, professionals, second earners, investors, and entrepreneurs – often are very responsive to changes in marginal tax rates.

We have a new example of this phenomenon. Check out these excerpts from a story in the U.K.-based Times.

About three quarters of GPs and hospital consultants have cut or are planning to cut their hours… About 42 per cent of family doctors and 30 per cent of consultants have reduced their working times already, claiming that they are being financially penalised the more they work. A further 34 per cent and 40 per cent respectively have confirmed that they plan to reduce their hours in the coming months… The government has launched an urgent consultation over the issue, which is the result of changes to pension rules limiting the amount that those earning £110,000 or more can pay into their pensions before they are hit with a large tax bill.

In other words, high tax rates have made leisure more attractive than work. Why work long hours, after all, if the tax authority is the biggest beneficiary?

There are also indirect victims of these high tax rates.

Last month figures from NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, showed that waiting lists had climbed by up to 50 per cent since April as doctors stopped taking on extra shifts to avoid the financial penalties. Richard Vautrey, chairman of the BMA GPs’ committee, said: “These results show the extent to which GPs are being forced to reduce their hours or indeed leave the profession altogether because of pension taxes. …swift and decisive action is needed from the government to end this shambolic situation and to limit the damage that a punitive pensions taxation system is inflicting on doctors, their patients and across the NHS as a whole.”

The U.K.’s government-run health system already has plenty of problems, including long wait times and denial of care. The last thing it needs is for doctors and other professionals to cut back their hours because politicians are too greedy.

The moral of the story is that tax rates matter. Depending on the type of person, they can matter a lot.

This doesn’t mean tax rates need to be zero (though I like that idea).

It simply means that taxes impose costs, and those costs become increasingly apparent as tax rates climb.

P.S. If you want a horror story about marginal tax rates, check out what happened to Cam Newton, the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers.

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