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Archive for the ‘Fiscal Policy’ Category

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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I would prefer not to write about President Trump’s new budget, largely because I know it’s not a serious proposal.

Even before he was elected, I pointed out that Trump was a big-government Republican who had no intention of dealing with serious fiscal issues such as the rising burden of entitlement spending.

So I wasn’t surprised that he capitulated to swamp-friendly budget deals in 2017, 2018, and 2019. And I’m depressingly confident that the same thing will happen this year.

That being said, I want to comment on how the media is covering his latest budget.

Take a look at some of the headlines that are dominating the news this morning.

From Reuters.

From New York magazine.

From the Washington Times.

From NBC.

From the Associated Press.

From Bloomberg.

From International Business Times.

From Fox.

From the Wall Street Journal.

All of these headlines make is seem like Trump is proposing a Reagan-style budget with lots of cuts, especially with regards to domestic programs.

All of that would be great news…if it was true.

In reality, here’s what Trump is projecting for total spending over the next 10 years.

Can you find the spending cuts?

And here’s what’s happening with domestic spending (mandatory outlays plus domestic discretionary) according to Trump’s budget.

Can you find the spending cuts?

Last but not least, here’s Trump’s plan for domestic discretionary spending.

Can you find the spending cuts?

So why is there such a big disconnect in the media? Why are there headlines about cutting and slashing when government is growing by every possible measure?

For the simple reason that the budget process in Washington is pervasively dishonest, as I’ve explained in interviews with John Stossel and Judge Napolitano. Here are the three things you need to know.

  1. The politicians created a system that automatically assumes big increases in annual spending, called a baseline.
  2. When there’s a proposal to have spending grow slower than the baseline, the gap between the proposal and the baseline is called a cut.
  3. It’s like being on a diet and claiming progress because you’re gaining two pounds each month rather than five pounds.

Defenders of this system argue that programs should get built-in increases because of things such as inflation, or because of more old people, which leads to more spending for programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

It’s certainly reasonable for them to argue that budgets should increase for these reasons.

But they should be honest. Be forthright and assert that “Spending should climb X percent because…”

Needless to say, that won’t happen. The pro-spending politicians and interest groups like the current approach because it allows them to scare voters by warning about “savage” and “draconian” spending cuts.

Remember how Obama said the sequester would wreak havoc because of massive cuts? Except there weren’t any cuts, massive or otherwise. As Thomas Sowell pointed out, Obama was trying to deceive voters.

P.S. The British also use dishonest budgeting.

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One of the most significant developments in 2020 politics is how Democratic presidential candidates have embraced hard-left economic policies.

Prominent analysts on the left have noted that even Joe Biden, ostensibly the most moderate of the candidates, has a very statist economic platform when compared to Barack Obama.

And “Crazy Bernie” and “Looney Liz” have made radicalism a central tenet of their campaigns.

So where does Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, fit on the spectrum?

The New York Times has a report on Bloomberg’s tax plan. Here are some of the key provisions, all of which target investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other high-income taxpayers.

Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York unveiled a plan on Saturday that would raise an estimated $5 trillion in new tax revenue… The proposal includes a repeal of President Trump’s 2017 tax cuts for high earners, along with a new 5 percent “surcharge” on incomes above $5 million per year. It would raise capital gains taxes for Americans earning more than $1 million a year and…it would partially repeal Mr. Trump’s income tax cuts for corporations, raising their rate to 28 percent from 21 percent. …Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers estimate his increases would add up to $5 trillion of new taxes spread over the course of a decade, in order to finance new spending on health care, housing, infrastructure and other initiatives. That amount is nearly 50 percent larger than the tax increases proposed by the most fiscally moderate front-runner in the race, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. …Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers said it was possible that he would propose additional measures to raise even more revenue, depending on how his other domestic spending plans develop.

These are all terrible proposals. And you can see even more grim details at Bloomberg’s campaign website.

Every provision will penalize productive behavior.

But there is a bit of good news.

Though it would be more accurate to say that there’s a partial absence of additional bad news.

Bloomberg hasn’t embraced some of the additional bad ideas being pushed by other Democratic candidates.

It would…maintain a limit on federal deductions of state and local tax payments set under the 2017 law, which some Democrats have pushed to eliminate. …the plan notably does not endorse the so-called wealth tax favored by several of the more liberal candidates in the race, like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

I’m definitely happy he hasn’t embraced a wealth tax, and it’s also good news that he doesn’t want to restore the state and local tax deduction, which encouraged profligacy in states such as California, New Jersey, and Illinois.

It also appears he doesn’t want to tax unrealized capital gains, which is another awful idea embraced by many of the other candidates.

But an absence of some bad policies isn’t the same as a good policy.

And if you peruse his website, you’ll notice there isn’t a single tax cut or pro-growth proposal. It’s a taxapalooza, what you expect from a France-based bureaucracy, not from an American businessman.

To add insult to injury, Bloomberg wants all these taxes to finance an expansion in the burden of government spending.

For what it’s worth, this is my estimate of what will happen to America’s tax burden (based on the latest government data) if Bloomberg is elected and he successfully imposes all his proposed tax increases. We’ll have a more punitive tax system that extracts a much greater share of people’s money.

P.S Take these numbers with a grain of salt because they assume that Bloomberg’s tax increases will actually collect $5 trillion of revenue (which won’t happen because of the Laffer Curve) and that GDP won’t be adversely affected (which isn’t true because there will be much higher penalties on productive behavior).

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