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Archive for the ‘Government Spending’ Category

President Biden has proposed a massive $2 trillion-plus infrastructure plan. Here are the two things everyone should understand.

  1. It will hurt growth because it will be financed with very harmful tax increases, most notably a big increase in the corporate tax rate that will undermine competitiveness.
  2. It will hurt growth because the new spending will divert resources from the productive sector of the economy, leading to inefficient allocation of labor and capital.

Actually, there’s another thing everyone should understand. As illustrated by this summary from the Washington Post, it’s not really an infrastructure plan. It’s a spend-money-on-anything-and-everything plan, presumably to reward various interest groups.

Though I guess we have to give the Biden Administration points for consistency. The President’s COVID relief plan from earlier this year had very little to do with the pandemic, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see that the infrastructure plan has very little to do with infrastructure.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized about this bait-and-switch scam.

Most Americans think of infrastructure as roads, highways, bridges and other traditional public works. That’s why it polls well… Yet this accounts for a mere $115 billion of Mr. Biden’s proposal. There’s another $25 billion for airports and $17 billion for ports and waterways that also fill a public purpose. The rest of the $620 billion earmarked for “transportation” are subsidies for green energy and payouts to unions for the jobs his climate regulation will kill. …The magnitude of spending is something to behold. There’s $85 billion for mass transit plus $80 billion for Amtrak, which is on top of the $70 billion that Congress appropriated for mass transit in three Covid spending bills. The money is essentially a bailout for unions… Then there’s $174 billion for electric vehicles, including money to build 500,000 charging stations and for consumer “incentives” on top of the current $7,500 federal tax credit to buy an EV. …Mr. Biden is also redefining infrastructure as social-justice policy and income redistribution. …His plan also includes $213 billion for affordable housing, $100 billion for retrofitting public schools, $25 billion for child-care facilities and $400 billion for increasing home-health care.

Michael Boskin, a professor at Stanford, is not optimistic that Biden’s plan will generate good results.

Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan would be many times larger than previous such bills, only about one-third of it would meet even a broad definition of “infrastructure.” …What could possibly go wrong? A lot. …federal spending would crowd out private and local government spending, with a substantial risk of boondoggles piling up along the way. …The Biden plan is rife with opportunities for earmarked pork-barrel projects (bridges to nowhere) and crony capitalist corporate welfare (next-generation Solyndras). Consider California High-Speed Rail, an infrastructure train wreck that will soon be begging for a bailout from the Biden administration. It originally used a grant from President Barack Obama’s 2009 “stimulus” package to pay, six years later, for a tiny initial rail line. Yet, because the project’s projected total San Francisco to Los Angeles cost has tripled to $100 billion.

And even if the plan was nothing but real infrastructure, that wouldn’t be a cause for optimism.

Kenneth Rogoff, a professor at Harvard, wrote late last year that governments have a terrible track record with cost overruns.

…perhaps the biggest obstacle to improving infrastructure in advanced economies is that any new project typically requires navigating difficult right-of-way issues, environmental concerns, and objections from apprehensive citizens… The “Big Dig” highway project in my hometown of Boston, Massachusetts was famously one of the most expensive infrastructure projects in US history. The scheme was originally projected to cost $2.6 billion, but the final tab swelled to more than $15 billion… The construction of New York City’s Second Avenue Subway was a similar experience, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. In Germany, the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport recently opened nine years behind schedule and at three times the initial estimated cost.

Amen. I wrote a column about the infamous Second Avenue Subway, and I’ve also repeatedly opined about how government projects always wind up costing much more than initial projections.

Let’s wrap up by looking at an economic analysis of Biden’s plan by the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model.

The overall macroeconomic effects of enacting the AJP, including both its spending and tax provisions, are shown in Table 4. …After the AJP’s new spending ends in 2029, however, its tax increases persist—as a result, federal debt ends up 6.4 percent lower by 2050, relative to the current law baseline. Despite the decline in government debt, the investment-disincentivizing effects of the AJP’s business tax provisions decrease the capital stock by 3 percent in 2031 and 2050. The decline in capital makes workers less productive despite the increase in productivity due to more infrastructure, dragging hourly wages down by 0.7 percent in 2031 and 0.8 percent in 2050. Overall, GDP is 0.9 percent lower in 2031 and 0.8 percent lower in 2050.

Here’s Table 4, which I’ve augmented by circling the two most important statistics.

The immediate lesson from all of this is that Biden’s plan is a boondoggle waiting to happen (just as would have been the case with Trump).

The longer-term lesson is that we should get the federal government out of the business of infrastructure.

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Good fiscal policy means low tax rates and spending restraint.

And that’s a big reason why I’m a fan of Reaganomics.

Unlike other modern presidents (including other Republicans), Reagan successfully reduced the tax burden while also limiting the burden of government spending.

President Biden wants to take the opposite approach.

A few days ago, Dan Balz of the Washington Post provided some “news analysis” about Biden’s fiscal agenda. Some of what he wrote was accurate, noting that the president wants to increase spending by an additional $6 trillion over the next 10 years.

…the scope and implications of his domestic agenda have come sharply into focus. Together they represent the most dramatic shift in federal economic and social welfare policy since Ronald Reagan was elected 40 years ago. …The politics of redistribution, which are at the heart of what Biden is proposing, could test decades of assumptions that Democrats should be afraid of being tagged as the party of big government. …Together, the already approved coronavirus relief plan, the infrastructure proposal that was unveiled a few weeks ago and the newly proposed plan to invest in social welfare programs would total roughly $6 trillion.

But Mr. Balz then decided to be either sloppy or dishonest, writing that we’ve had decades of Reagan-style policies that have squeezed domestic spending and disproportionately lowered tax burden for rich people.

Reagan’s small-government philosophy resulted in a decades-long squeeze on the federal government, especially domestic spending, and on tax policies that mainly benefited the wealthiest Americans. …Government spending on social safety-net programs has been reduced compared with previous years.

Balz is wrong, wildly wrong.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s a chart, taken from an October 2020 report by the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see, people in the lowest income quintile have been the biggest winners,, with their average tax rate dropping from about 10 percent to about 2 percent..

Here’s a chart showing marginal tax rates from a January 2019 CBO report. As you can see, Reagan lowered marginal tax rates for everyone, but Balz’s assertion that the rich got the lion’s share of the benefits is hard to justify considering that people in the bottom quintile now have negative marginal tax rates.

Balz’s mistakes on tax policy are significant.

But his biggest error (or worst dishonesty) occurred when he wrote about a “decades-long squeeze” on domestic spending and asserted that “spending on social safety-net programs has been reduced.”

A quick visit to the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables is all that’s needed to debunk this nonsense. Here’s a chart, based on Table 8.2, showing the inflation-adjusted growth of entitlements and domestic discretionary programs.

Call me crazy, but I’m seeing a rapid increase in domestic spending after Reagan left office.

P.S. There’s a pattern of lazy/dishonest fiscal reporting at the Washington Post.

P.P.S. I also can’t resist noting that Balz wrote how Biden wants to “invest” in social welfare programs, as if there’s some sort of positive return from creating more dependency. Reminds me of this Chuck Asay cartoon from the Obama years.

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Way back in 2010, I shared this video explaining how “gross domestic product” and “gross domestic income” are basically the same number, but warning that the former leads to sloppy thinking (including the Keynesian myth that consumer spending drives the economy).

Since President Biden is seeking to resuscitate Keynesian Economics, let’s revisit this topic.

The first thing I want to do is to reassure skeptical readers that there’s nothing remotely controversial about my assertion that GDP and GDI are equivalent measures. It’s simply the common-sense recognition that total spending in a country is going to closely match total income.

If you really want to get into the technical weeds, the Bureau of Economic Analysis has a very detailed document showing how all the measurements fit with each other. Feel free to read that material by clicking here.

But if you don’t have the time or inclination to wade through all that material, here are two charts from the document that capture what’s important, at least for purposes of our discussion about macroeconomic policy.

First, here’s a chart showing that GDP and GDI are two ways of arriving at the same number (though never exactly identical because of statistical discrepancies).

And if you really want to be a wonk, here’s the BEA’s depiction of GDP and GDI, along with a bunch of other measures of economic output.

And if all that boring background doesn’t convince you that it’s okay to equate GDP and GDI, let’s go back to 2018 and look at a column in the Wall Street Journal by Jason Furman, who was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers for President Obama

…the data aren’t perfect. …GDP is not measured directly. Instead, the BEA sums up economy-wide expenditures from dozens of data sources, covering consumption, investment, government spending, net exports and more. …the underlying data are noisy and incomplete, meaning that revisions to GDP growth estimates can be large and often confusing. …Drawing on more data can cancel out some of this noise and produce a more accurate figure that requires smaller revisions. Specifically, the BEA separately gauges the size of the economy by adding up all the different sources of income, such as wages and profits. This figure is called gross domestic income, or GDI… Ultimately, GDI should be identical to GDP, since all money spent is money earned.

With all that out of the way, now let’s move to some analysis that actually is controversial (not in my mind, of course, but my left-leaning friends probably won’t agree with me).

As explained in the video, and as I wrote back in 2013, people without much knowledge about economics draw inaccurate conclusions when using data on GDP .

But don’t take my word for it. Professor Alexander William Salter of Texas Tech University described, in an article for National Review, how GDP accounting equations are mistakenly interpreted to justify more government spending.

The most egregious abuses of economics that we see today start with an accounting identity — a true statement or equation — but end with an absurd economic claim. …Here’s an example: If you’ve taken an introductory economics course, this equation is probably familiar to you: Y=C+I+G+(X-IM). In plain English: Gross Domestic Product (GDP, in this equation ‘Y’) is the sum of consumption (C), investment (I), government spending (G), and net exports (X-IM). This is the foundation of national-income accounting, and it’s true by construction. GDP is defined as the sum of these things. Nothing in this equation tells us how the economy actually works. …often it’s misused. Here’s a case from the Left: Because government expenditures enter positively into GDP, increased government spending raises GDP. Simple, right? Not so fast. …Uncle Sam spending more doesn’t increase the size of the economic pie. It just redistributes existing slices to Uncle Sam, or to whomever Uncle Sam finances. More public-sector consumption means less private-sector consumption.

That’s a look at theory.

He also applies theory to reality, most recently in a column for the Wall Street Journal about Biden’s supposed infrastructure plan.

Whether public or private, spending doesn’t cause growth. Mr. Stiglitz and his allies have it backward: Consumption is downstream from production. Growth is about increasing the supply of goods over time; you can’t spend if the goods haven’t been produced. Production grows as technology and production processes improve. Such improvement requires saving and investing rather than consuming. …all the financing in the world won’t boost productivity if it isn’t channeled correctly. More-efficient producers, not partisan spending, create economic flourishing. Though the president’s plans will consume plenty, they’ll produce only disappointment.

That last sentence is an apt summary. A bigger government means a smaller economy.

The empirical evidence shows that nations with smaller fiscal burdens economically out-perform countries with large welfare states. Simply stated, there’s an incentive for efficiency in the private sector, whereas people in Washington are governed by the perverse incentives described by “public choice” theory.

I’ll close with a relevant caveat that was mentioned in the above video. It is possible for a nation to consume more than it produces. But only if it borrows from overseas, and only at the cost of having to sacrifice future income to service the additional debt.

P.S. If you want more information, here’s my video on Keynesian Economics, and here’s my 4-part series on the economics of government spending.

P.P.S. I also wrote about GDP vs. GDI in 2017, in part to debunk some grotesquely dishonest reporting by Time.

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As part of my recent interview about European economic policy with Gunther Fehlinger, I pontificated on issues such as Convergence and Wagner’s Law.

I also explained why a Swiss-style spending cap could have saved Greece and Italy from fiscal crisis. Here’s that part of the discussion.

For those not familiar with spending caps, this six-minute video tells you everything you need to know.

Simply stated, this policy requires politicians to abide by fiscal policy’s Golden Rule, meaning that – on average – government spending grows slower than the private economy.

And that’s a very effective recipe for a lower burden of spending and falling levels of red ink.

One of the points I made in the video is that spending caps would prevented the fiscal mess in Greece and Italy.

To show what I mean, I went to the International Monetary Funds World Economic Outlook database and downloaded the historical budget data for those two nations. I then created charts showing actual spending starting in 1988 compared to how much spending would have grown if there was a requirement that the budget could only increase by 2 percent each year.

Here are the shocking numbers for Greece.

The obvious takeaway is that there never would have been a fiscal crisis if Greece had a spending cap.

That also would be true even if the spending cap allowed 3-percent budget increases starting in 1998.

And it would be true if the 2-percent spending cap didn’t start until 2000.

There are all sorts of ways of adjusting the numbers. The bottom line is that any reasonable level of spending restraint could have prevented the horrible misery Greece has suffered.

Here are the numbers for Italy.

As you can see, the government budget has not increased nearly as fast in Italy as it did in Greece, but the burden of spending nonetheless has become more onerous – particularly when compared to what would have happened if there was a 2-percent spending cap.

I’ve written many times (here, here, here, and here) about Italy’s looming fiscal crisis. As I said in the interview, I don’t know when the house of cards will collapse, but it won’t be pretty.

And tax reform, while very desirable, is not going to avert that crisis. At least not unless it is combined with very serious spending restraint.

P.S. For those who want information about real-world success stories, I shared three short video presentations back in 2015 about the spending caps in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado.

P.P.S. It’s also worth noting that the United States would be in a much stronger position today if we had enacted a spending cap a couple of decades ago.

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I get asked why I frequently criticize Republicans.

My response is easy. I care about results rather than rhetoric. And while GOP politicians often pay lip service to the principles of limited government, they usually increase spending even faster than Democrats.

Indeed, Republicans are even worse than Democrats when measuring the growth of domestic spending!

This is bad news because it means the burden of government expands when Republicans are in charge.

And, as Gary Abernathy points out in a column for the Washington Post, Republicans then don’t have the moral authority to complain when Democrats engage in spending binges.

President Biden is proposing another $3 trillion in spending… There are objections, but none that can be taken seriously. …Republicans had lost their standing as the party of fiscal responsibility when most of them succumbed to the political virus of covid fever and rubber-stamped around $4 trillion in “covid relief,”… With Trump out and Biden in, Republicans suddenly pretended that their 2020 spending spree happened in some alternate universe. But the GOP’s united opposition to Biden’s $1.9 trillion package won’t wash off the stench of the hypocrisy. …I noted a year ago that we had crossed the Rubicon, that our longtime flirtation with socialism had become a permanent relationship. Congratulations, Bernie Sanders. The GOP won’t become irrelevant because of its association with Trump, as some predict. It will diminish because it is bizarrely opposing now that which it helped make palatable just last year. Fiscal responsibility is dead, and Republicans helped bury it. Put the shovels away, there’s no digging it up now.

For what it’s worth, I hope genuine fiscal responsibility isn’t dead.

Maybe it’s been hibernating ever since Reagan left office (like Pepperidge Farm, I’m old enough to remember those wonderful years).

Subsequent Republican presidents liked to copy Reagan’s rhetoric, but they definitely didn’t copy his policies.

  • Spending restraint was hibernating during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.
  • Spending restraint also was hibernating during the presidency of George W. Bush.
  • And spending restraint was hibernating during the presidency of Donald Trump.

I’m not the only one to notice GOP hypocrisy.

Here are some excerpts from a 2019 column in the Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria.

In what Republicans used to call the core of their agenda — limited government — Trump has been profoundly unconservative. …Trump has now added more than $88 billion in taxes in the form of tariffs, according to the right-leaning Tax Foundation. (Despite what the president says, tariffs are taxes on foreign goods paid by U.S. consumers.) This has had the effect of reducing gross domestic product and denting the wages of Americans. …For decades, conservatives including Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan preached to the world the virtues of free trade. But perhaps even more, they believed in the idea that governments should not pick winners and losers in the economy… Yet the Trump administration…behaved like a Central Planning Agency, granting exemptions on tariffs to favored companies and industries, while refusing them to others. …In true Soviet style, lobbyists, lawyers and corporate executives now line up to petition government officials for these treasured waivers, which are granted in an opaque process… On the core issue that used to define the GOP — economics — the party’s agenda today is state planning and crony capitalism.

Zakaria is right about Republicans going along with most of Trump’s bad policies (as illustrated by this cartoon strip).*

The bottom line is that Republicans would be much more effective arguing against Biden’s spending orgy had they also argued for spending restraint when Trump was in the White House.

P.S. It will be interesting to see what happens in the near future. Will the GOP be a small-government Reagan party or a big-government Trump party?

Or maybe it will go back to being a Nixon-type party, which would mean bigger government but without mean tweets. And there are plenty of options.

If they make the wrong choice (anything other than Reaganism), Margaret Thatcher has already warned us about the consequences.

*To be fair, Republicans also went along with Trump’s good policies. It’s just unfortunate that spending restraint wasn’t one of them.

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According to data on jobs and growth, President Obama’s so-called stimulus was a failure.

But at least politicians and bureaucrats were able to concoct new and clever ways to waste money. Including research grants to interview people about their sexual histories and to study erectile dysfunction.

In other words, stimulus spending on stimulus (though at least we did get some clever humor in exchange for nearly $1 trillion of wasted money).

Now we’re wasting nearly $2 trillion on Biden’s spending spree.

And we’re getting more stimulus spending on stimulus.

But not the economic kind of stimulus. Paul Bedard of the Washington Examiner reports that people are using handout cash for interesting purchases.

An analysis of spending on Amazon following the distribution of the latest coronavirus stimulus, a massive $1.9 trillion package, suggests that people are using it to let off some steam. The global e-commerce firm Pattern said that the biggest surges in sales were for the PlayStation 5 and a female sex toy called the “Rose Flower Sex Toy.” …Rose’s sales (check Amazon for the description) shot up 334%. …“Distribution of stimulus checks on Wednesday, March 17…may have represented an opportunity for some retail therapy,” said the company.

I’m sure there’s probably some interesting social commentary to make about guys playing video games and neglecting their wives and girlfriends.

But I’m a policy nerd, so I’m focused on how we’re now saddled with a bigger burden of government spending.

The problem is much bigger than the humorous/irritating example discussed above.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Brad Polumbo shares some big-picture data on how politicians have squandered our money.

Whenever the government spends money, a significant portion is lost to bureaucracy, waste, and fraud. But the…unprecedented scope of federal spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—an astounding $6 trillion total—has led to truly unthinkable levels of fraud. Indeed, a new report shows that the feds potentially lost $200 billion in unemployment fraud alone. …More than $200 billion of unemployment benefits distributed in the pandemic may have been pocketed by thieves… To put that $200 billion figure in context, it is equivalent to $1,400 lost to fraud per federal taxpayer. (There goes your stimmy check!) Or, comparing it to the $37 billion the federal government spent on vaccine and treatment development, it’s more than five times more lost to fraud than went to arguably the most crucial COVID initiative of all. That’s just scratching the surface. According to the American Enterprise Institute, “unemployment fraud” now ranks as the 4th biggest federal COVID expenditure out of more than 17 different categories.

If you’re a taxpayer, hundreds of billions of dollars in fraud sounds like a bad outcome.

But if you’re a Keynesian economist, it’s not a problem. All they care about is having the government borrow and spend a bunch of money. They think that making government bigger automatically generates benefit for the economy, even if the money goes to thieves and crooks.

I’m not joking. This is why people like Paul Krugman said a fake attack by space aliens would be good for the economy because Washington would spend a bunch of money in response.

And it’s why Nancy Pelosi actually said the economy benefits if we subsidize joblessness.

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I’ve been warning that the United States should not copy Europe’s fiscal policy, largely because living standards are significantly lower in nations with large welfare states.

That’s true if you look at average levels of consumption in different nations, but the most compelling data is the fact that lower-income people in the United States generally enjoy living standards that are equal to or even higher than those for middle-class people in most European countries.

A bigger burden of government is not just a theoretical concern. President Biden has already pushed through a $1.9 trillion spending bill that includes some temporary provisions – such as per-child handouts – that, if made permanent, could add several trillion dollars to the burden of government spending.

And the White House has signaled support for $3 trillion of additional spending for items such as infrastructure, green energy, and other boondoggles.

This doesn’t even count the cost of other schemes, such as the “public option” that would strangle private health insurance and force more people to rely on an already-costly-and-and bankrupt government program.

So what will it mean for America if our medium-sized welfare state morphs into a European-style large welfare state?

The answer to that question is rather unpleasant, at least if some new research from the Congressional Budget Office is any indication. The study, authored by Jaeger Nelson and Kerk Phillips, considers the impact on growth based on six different scenarios (based on how much the spending burden increases and what taxes are increased).

If permanent spending is financed by new or increased taxes, then those taxes influence people’s decisions about how much to work and save. Those decisions then affect how much the economy produces and businesses invest and, ultimately, how much people can consume. Different types of taxes have different economic effects. Taxes on labor income reduce after-tax wages, so they reduce the return on each additional hour worked. …Higher taxes on capital income, such as dividends and capital gains, lower the average after-tax rate of return on private wealth holdings (or the return on investment), which reduces the incentive to save and invest and leads to reductions in saving, investment, and the capital stock. …we compare the effects of raising additional revenues through three illustrative tax policies: a flat tax on labor income, a flat tax on all income (including both labor and capital income), and a progressive tax on all income. The additional revenues generated by these policies are in addition to the revenues raised by taxes that already exist and are used to finance two specific increases in government spending. The two increases in government spending are set to 5 percent and 10 percent of GDP in 2020.

Here are some of the key results, as illustrated by the chart.

The least-worst result (the blue line) is a decline in GDP of about 3 percent, and that happens if the spending burden expand by 5-percentage points of GDP and is financed by a flat tax.

The worst-worst result (dashed red line) is a staggering decline in GDP of about 10 percent, and that happens if the spending burden climbs by 10-percentage points and is financed by a progressive tax.

Here’s some additional analysis, including a description of why progressive taxes impose the most damage.

This paper shows that flat labor and flat income tax policies have similar effects on output; labor taxes reduce the labor supply more, and income taxes reduce the capital stock more. For all three policies, the decline in income contracts the tax base considerably over time. As a result, to continuously generate enough revenues to finance the increase in government spending in each year, tax rates must steadily increase over time to account for the decline in the tax base. Moreover, labor and capital taxes put upward pressure on interest rates by reducing the capital-to-labor ratio over time… The largest declines in economic activity among the financing methods considered occur with the progressive tax on all income. Those declines occur because high-productivity workers reduce their hours worked and because higher taxes on asset income reduce the incentive to save and invest relatively more than under the two flat taxes.

There’s lots of additional information in the study, but I definitely want to draw attention to Table 4 because it shows that lower-income people will suffer big reductions in living standards if there’s an increase in the burden of government spending (circled in red).

What makes these results especially remarkable is that the authors only look at the damage caused by higher taxes.

Yet we know from other research that the economy also will suffer because of the higher spending burden. This is because of the various ways that growth is reduced when resources are diverted from the productive sector to the government.

For background, here’s a video on the theoretical reasons why government spending hinders growth.

And here’s a video with some of the scholarly evidence.

P.S. The CBO study also points out that financing new spending with a value-added tax wouldn’t avert economic damage.

…by reducing the cost of time spent not working for pay relative to other goods, a consumption tax could reduce hours worked through a channel like that of a tax on labor.

For what it’s worth, even the pro-tax International Monetary Fund agrees with this observation.

P.P.S. It’s worth noting that the CBO study also shows that young people will suffer much more than older people.

…older cohorts, on average, experience smaller declines in lifetime consumption than younger cohorts

Which raises an interesting question of why millennials and Gen-Zers don’t appreciate capitalism and instead are sympathetic to the dirigiste ideology that will make their lives more difficult.

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We have decades of real-world experience with Keynesian economics. The results are not pretty.

It’s also worth pointing out that Keynesians have been consistently wrong with predicting economic damage during periods of spending restraint.

  • They were wrong about growth after World War II (and would have been wrong, if they were around at the time, about growth when Harding slashed spending in the early 1920s).
  • They were wrong about Thatcher in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Reagan in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Canada in the 1990s.
  • They were wrong after the sequester in 2013.
  • They were wrong about unemployment benefits in 2020.

This story needs to be told, again and again, especially since we’re now going to have another real-world test case thanks to President Biden’s so-called American Rescue Plan.

I just wrote a column on Biden’s proposal for the Foundation for Economic Education, and it is co-authored by Robert O’Quinn, who most recently served as the Chief Economist at the Department of Labor.

We started by pointing out that Biden is basically copying Trump’s big-spending approach, but with a different justification (Keynesianism instead of coronavirus).

Mr. Biden is bringing a new twist to the profligacy. Instead of trying to justify the new spending by saying it is needed to compensate households and businesses for government-mandated lockdowns, he is making the Keynesian argument that the new spending is a way of stimulating the economy. The same approach was used when he was Vice President, of course, but did not yield positive results. …Mr. Biden and his team apparently think the anemic results were a consequence of not spending enough money. Hence, the huge $1.9 trillion price tag for his plan. Will his approach work? …We can learn about economic recovery today by reviewing what happened during the Great Recession earlier this century and what happened at the end of World War II.

We explain the causes of the previous recession and point out that Obama’s so-called stimulus didn’t work.

…the Great Recession…was the result of an unsustainable housing bubble caused by overly accommodative monetary policy from the Federal Reserve and misguided housing policies. …it took years to clean up the mess from the bursting of the housing bubble. Households slowly rebuilt their savings and cleaned up their balance sheets. …Banks had to work out problem loans and rebuild their capital… Obama’s stimulus did not drive that healing process and spending more money would have done little to accelerate it.

And we also point out that the economy recovered very quickly after World War II, even though the Keynesians predicted disaster in the absence of a giant new package such as Truman’s 21-Point Program (his version of FDR’s horrible vision of an entitlement society).

Keynesians feared that demobilization would throw the US economy into a deep depression as federal spending was reduced. Paul Samuelson even wrote in 1943 that a failure to come up with alternative forms of government spending would lead to “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced.” …President Harry Truman proposed “a 21-Point Program for the Reconversion Period” shortly after the war ended. But his plan, which was basically a reprise of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, was largely ignored by Congress. Did the economy collapse, as the Keynesians feared? Hardly. …Spared a repeat of FDR’s interventionism, the economy enjoyed strong growth. One of the big tailwinds for growth is that the forced savings accumulated during the war years allowed consumers to go on a peacetime buying binge.

That last sentence in the above excerpt is key because 2021 is a lot like 1945. Back then, households had lots of money in the bank (wartime rationing and controls meant there wasn’t much to buy), which helped trigger the post-war boom.

Something similar is about to happen, as we explain in the column.

The current economic conditions are somewhat reminiscent of the ones that existed after World War II. The limited ability to spend money during the pandemic has helped boost the personal saving rate…  In aggregate terms, personal saving soared from $1.2 trillion in 2019 to $2.9 trillion in 2020. …pent-up demand funded with more than $1 trillion in excess savings will resuscitate…GDP.

So what does all this mean? Well, the good news is that 2021 is going to be a very good year for the economy. That’s already baked into the cake.

The bad news is that Biden is taking advantage of the current political situation to increase the burden of government spending.

…the economy prospered after World War II despite (or perhaps because of) the failure of Mr. Truman’s 21-point proposal. President Biden’s team is either unaware of this history, or they simply do not care. Perhaps they simply want to take advantage of the current environment to reward key constituencies. Or they may be trying to resuscitate the tattered reputation of Keynesian economics by spending a bunch of money so they can take credit for an economic recovery that is already destined to happen.

Since I gave the good news and bad news, I’ll close with the worse news.

There’s every reason to expect very strong growth in 2021, but Biden’s spending binge means that future growth won’t be as robust

  • Especially since the economy also is saddled with lots of wasteful spending by Bush, Obama, and Trump.
  • And especially if Biden is able to push through his agenda of higher taxes on work, saving, and investment.

The bottom line is that the United States is becoming more like Europe and the economic data tells us that means less prosperity and lower living standards.

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Two days ago, the Congressional Budget Office released its latest long-run fiscal forecast. The report focuses – incorrectly – on the growth of red ink.

And most of the people who have written about the report also have focused – incorrectly – on the rising levels of debt.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the report also contains lots of data on the variables – the spending burden and the tax burden – that should command our attention.

Here are four visuals from the report. We’ll start with Figure 7, which shows what will happen to spending and taxes over the next three decades. I’ve highlighted in red the most important numbers.

The right-most column gives you the big picture. The main takeaway (and it’s been this way for a while) is that more than 100 percent of America’s long-run fiscal problem is driven by the fact that government spending (“total outlays”) will consume a much greater share of our economic output.

The top-left of Figure 7 shows the growth of entitlement programs (which captures the fiscal problems of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid).

So lot’s look at Figure 9, which presents the same data in a different way.

The moral of the story is that America desperately needs genuine entitlement reform.

Why did I write above that government spending is responsible for “more than 100 percent of America’s long-run fiscal problem”?

Because, as depicted in Figure 11, there’s a built-in tax increase over the next three decades.

In other words, the fiscal mess in Washington is not the result of inadequate tax revenue.

Last but not least, Figure 13 is worth sharing because it shows how small differences in some variables can make a big difference over time. I’m especially interested in the top chart, which shows how slight differences in productivity (which determines the all-important variable of per-capita growth) have a big impact on long-run debt.

It would be preferable, of course, if the CBO report showed how greater productivity impacts both revenue and spending. We would see that faster growth generates more tax revenue (without raising tax rates) and reduces spending (people with good jobs are less likely to be dependent on government redistribution programs).

P.S. Yes, government debt matters. It matters in the short run because it’s a measure of how much private saving is being diverted to finance government. And it matters in the long run because excessive red ink can trigger a fiscal crisis when investors decide that a government no longer can be trusted to pay back lenders (see Greece, for instance). But we should never forget that it is excessive spending that drives the debt. Cure the disease of excessive spending and it is all but certain that you eliminate the symptom of red ink.

P.P.S. For what it’s worth, the United States is not Greece. At least not yet.

P.P.P.S. But we will be if there’s not some long-run spending restraint (an approach that worked in the 1800s), which almost certainly would require a spending cap.

P.P.P.P.S. There is zero evidence that tax increases would be successful. Indeed, that approach would make matters worse if history is any guide.

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While it’s true that every penny in the budget requires money to be diverted from the economy’s productive sector, not all government spending is created equal when considering the impact on growth.

Some types of spending, such as redistribution programs, are doubly harmful to prosperity. The economy is first hurt by the taxes needed to finance the programs, and then the economy is hurt because the programs give people incentives to rely on the government rather than work.

Other types of spending, however, require a cost-benefit analysis.

Consider the case of education. There are costs when politicians take money out of the private sector to finance education, but there are benefits from having an educated population.

That doesn’t tell us how much to spend, of course, and it also overlooks equally important questions such as whether the money will generate better results if used to finance a government monopoly or a choice-based system. But I’m simply making the point that there are costs and benefits.

Now let’s apply this analysis to government-financed research and development, which involves everything from the National Science Foundation to NASA, and from global warming grants to weapons development for the Pentagon.

Proponents argue that these are “public goods,” meaning that they produce economy-wide benefits and can only be handled by government.

But that view seems to be based in large part on faith rather than evidence.

Matt Ridley, the former science editor for the Economist, wrote about this topic for the Wall Street Journal back in 2015. If you only have time to read one article, this might be the best choice.

He starts by explaining that most breakthroughs come from private initiative.

Most technological breakthroughs come from technologists tinkering, not from researchers chasing hypotheses. Heretical as it may sound, “basic science” isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think. …Politicians believe that innovation can be turned on and off like a tap: You start with pure scientific insights, which then get translated into applied science, which in turn become useful technology. So what you must do, as a patriotic legislator, is to ensure that there is a ready supply of money to scientists on the top floor of their ivory towers, and lo and behold, technology will come clanking out of the pipe at the bottom of the tower. …this story…so prevalent in the world of science and politics—that science drives innovation, which drives commerce—is mostly wrong. It misunderstands where innovation comes from. Indeed, it generally gets it backward. …It is no accident that astronomy blossomed in the wake of the age of exploration. The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine. …Technological advances are driven by practical men who tinkered until they had better machines; abstract scientific rumination is the last thing they do.

Government funding, by contrast, does not have a good track record.

It follows that there is less need for government to fund science: Industry will do this itself. Having made innovations, it will then pay for research into the principles behind them. Having invented the steam engine, it will pay for thermodynamics. …For more than a half century, it has been an article of faith that science would not get funded if government did not do it, and economic growth would not happen if science did not get funded by the taxpayer. …there is still no empirical demonstration of the need for public funding of research and that the historical record suggests the opposite. After all, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. and Britain made huge contributions to science with negligible public funding, while Germany and France, with hefty public funding, achieved no greater results either in science or in economics. …public funding of research almost certainly crowds out private funding. That is to say, if the government spends money on the wrong kind of science, it tends to stop researchers from working on the right kind of science.

Ridley doesn’t claim there are no benefits. Instead, he makes the more practical point that government R&D has high costs with relatively low benefits.

…the argument for public funding of science rests on a list of the discoveries made with public funds, from the Internet (defense science in the U.S.) to the Higgs boson (particle physics at CERN in Switzerland). But that is highly misleading. Given that government has funded science munificently from its huge tax take, it would be odd if it had not found out something. This tells us nothing about what would have been discovered by alternative funding arrangements. And we can never know what discoveries were not made because government funding crowded out philanthropic and commercial funding.

Ridley’s analysis is backed up by scholarly research.

Here are some excerpts from a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This paper reviews the literature on R&D to provide guidelines for recent efforts to include R&D in the national income accounts. …The overall rate of return to R&D is very large, perhaps 25 percent as a private return and a total of 65 percent for social returns. However, these returns apply only to privately financed R&D in industry. Returns to many forms of publicly financed R&D are near zero. …On the basis of the evidence considered, privately financed R&D in industry should be treated as an investment and included in the relevant R&D stock. Returns to R&D are very high, but these high returns accrue only to privately financed R&D. Many elements of university and government research have very low returns, overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly, if at all, and do not belong in investment.

And here are some passages from a 2003 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

…the pace of accumulation of physical and human capital plays a major role in the growth process. Most notably, the estimated impact of increases in human capital (as measured by average years in education) on output suggests high returns to investment in education. The results also point to a marked positive effect of business-sector R&D, while the analysis could find no clear-cut relationship between public R&D activities and growth …there are significant differences in the returns of R&D expenditure across sectors, and the private sector may be better able to channel resources towards high return R&D activities …regressions including separate variables for business-performed R&D and that performed by other institutions (mainly public research institutes) suggest that it is the former that drives the positive association between total R&D intensity and output growth. …The negative results for public R&D are surprising…they suggest publicly-performed R&D crowds out resources that could be alternatively used by the private sector, including private R&D. There is some evidence of this effect in studies.

Terence Kealey’s 2017 testimony to the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also is worth perusing.

…the British Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, like the British Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century, was laissez faire… The US was laissez faire in science between 1776 and 1940, yet by 1890 it had overtaken the UK to become the richest industrialized country in the world. Meanwhile those European countries – including France and the German states – whose governments invested most in science failed to converge on the UK or the US, let alone overtake them. …as shown by the successes of the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, to say nothing of the great industries of Pittsburgh and Detroit – US science, technology and industry flourished. …since 1830 the long-term rates of GDP per capita and TFP (total factor productivity) growth in the US have been steady (with GDP per capita, for example, growing at just under 2% per annum) and the inauguration of the federal funding for science had the following effect on long-term rates of GDP per capita and TFP growth: none.

The good news, relatively speaking, is that the private sector now plays a very dominant role in R&D expenditures.

This was not always the case. This chart, from Iain Murray’s research, shows that government played the dominant role in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Let’s close with two real-world examples of how private R&D drives progress.

First, here are some excerpts from a 2017 column in the Wall Street Journal by Tom Stossel.

He explains that progress in curing and treating diseases comes from the private sector rather than the National Institutes of Health.

The assumption seems to be that the root of all medical innovation is university research, primarily funded by federal grants. This is mistaken. The private economy, not the government, actually discovers and develops most of the insights and products that advance health. The history of medical progress supports this conclusion. …innovation came from physicians in universities and research institutes that were supported by philanthropy. Private industry provided chemicals used in the studies and then manufactured therapies on a mass scale. …Practical innovation requires incremental efforts. But the reviewers of grant applications for medical research are obsessed with theory-based science and novelty for novelty’s sake. …Academic administrators, operating under the delusion that government largess would grow forever, have become entitled. …By contrast, private investment in medicine has kept pace with the aging population and is the principal engine for advancement. More than 80% of new drug approvals originate from work solely performed in private companies. …Great advances in health care have been made, but there are still important challenges, from obesity to dementia. One step toward addressing them would be for Washington to adopt the right approach to medical innovation—and to stop simply throwing money at the current inefficient system.

Second, here’s more of Terence Kealey’s work, in this case some commentary from last year that focuses on space exploration.

…all powered flight started in the private sector, for the Wright brothers were not government‐​funded researchers. …A team of full‐​time government‐​funded researchers, operating out of the Smithsonian Institution, were then also trying to launch heavier‐​than‐​air machines. Even though the Smithsonian team enjoyed a budget that was a hundred times larger than that of the Wrights, its prototypes always crashed. Airplanes are but one of the many gifts that private research and development has bestowed on humanity. As are space rockets. The great space‐​rocket pioneer was Robert “Moonie” Goddard (1882–1945), a professor at Clark College in Massachusetts. Funded with $100,000 from the Guggenheims and $10,000 from the Hodgkins Fund, the projects that resulted in his achievements were extraordinary: By 1925 he had created the first liquid‐​fueled rocket. By 1932 he had developed a gyro stabilizer… Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX,…doing something — namely, putting humans into orbit — that previously had been achieved only by governments. NASA could now be seen as only a temporary interruption of a process that had started in the private sector. …If there is a science that proves the resilience of the private sector, it is space science, including, of course, astronomy. Time again, what at the time was the largest optical telescope in the world was privately funded… Radio astronomy, moreover, was actually born in the private sector, when Karl Jansky of Bell Labs discovered in 1931 that stars emitted radio waves. Grote Reber, a radio engineer, built the first radio telescope, a parabolic dish reflector in his backyard in Chicago in 1937.

The purpose of this column isn’t to argue that there shouldn’t be any government-funded research.

Indeed, because there’s at least some hope of that such spending generates benefits, I prefer R&D spending over almost all other types of spending (it’s better than redistribution outlays, and also better than money that goes for the Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, Department of Housing and Urban Development, etc).

But “better than” other types of government spending is not the same as “better than” leaving the money in the economy’s productive sector.

The bottom line is that there simply isn’t any evidence that government-financed R&D generally passes the cost-benefit test described at the start of the column.

Which means that we should be very skeptical when politicians and interest groups plead for more funding (needless to say, evidence tells us we should be skeptical of any requests for bigger government, not just those for more R&D spending).

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The 21st century has been bad news for proponents of limited government. Bush was a big spender, Obama was a big spender, Trump was a big spender, and now Biden also wants to buy votes with other people’s money.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there is still a simple solution to America’s fiscal problems. According to the just-released Budget and Economic Outlook from the Congressional Budget Office, tax revenues will grow by an average of 4.2 percent over the next decade. So we can make progress, as illustrated by this chart, if there’s some sort of spending cap so that outlays grow at a slower pace.

The ideal fiscal goal should be reducing the size of government, ideally down to the level envisioned by America’s Founders.

But even if we have more modest aspirations (avoiding future tax increases, avoiding a future debt crisis), it’s worth noting how modest spending restraint generates powerful results in a short period of time. And the figures in the chart assume the spending restraint doesn’t even start until the 2023 fiscal year.

The main takeaway is that the budget could be balanced by 2031 if spending grows by 1.5 percent per year.

But progress is possible so long as the cap limits spending so that it grows by less than 4.2 percent annually. The greater the restraint, of course, the quicker the progress.

In other words, there’s no need to capitulate to tax increases (which, in any event, almost certainly would make a bad situation worse).

P.S. The solution to our fiscal problem is simple, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Long-run spending restraint inevitably will require genuine reform to deal with the entitlement crisis. Given the insights of “public choice” theory, it will be a challenge to find politicians willing to save the nation.

P.P.S. Here are real-world examples of nations that made rapid progress with spending restraint.

P.P.P.S. Switzerland and Hong Kong (as well as Colorado) have constitutional spending caps, which would be the ideal approach.

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I have relentlessly criticized Republicans in recent years for being profligate big spenders.

But I have some good news. The GOP is finding religion and is once again fretting about big government.

The bad news is that many of them are total hypocrites.

The only reason that they’re now beating their chests about fiscal responsibility is that there’s now a Democrat in the White House pushing for big government rather than a Republican in the White House pushing for big government.

Talking a few days ago with Politifact, I remarked on the GOP’s battlefield conversion.

“The very narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will make big policy changes difficult for Biden,” said Daniel Mitchell, a conservative economist with decades of experience in Washington. “Republicans were big spenders under Trump, but they’ll dust off their fiscal conservatism rhetoric with Biden in the White House. …”There will be unanimous, or near-unanimous, GOP opposition to the tax increases,” Mitchell said. That could make passage difficult.

I’m not the only one to notice Republicans change their spots when Democrats are in charge.

In her Washington Post column, Catherine Rampell also notes their hypocrisy.

It’s almost like clockwork. As soon as a Democrat enters the White House, Republicans pretend to care about deficits again. …And so Republicans laid the groundwork for blocking the Biden administration’s request for more covid-19 fiscal relief, on the grounds that further spending is not merely unnecessary but also irresponsible. …These foul-weather fiscal hawks neglect to mention, …before the coronavirus pandemic — the Republican-controlled Senate passed and President Donald Trump signed spending bills that added…$2 trillion to deficits.

If Ms. Rampell’s column focused solely on Republicans behaving inconsistently, I would fully applaud.

Unfortunately, she also used the opportunity to make some assertions that deserve some pushback. Beginning with what she said about the 2017 tax reform.

…the GOP’s prized 2017 tax cuts added nearly $2 trillion to deficits.

It is true that the legislation is a short-run tax cut, but there’s no long-run revenue reduction because many of the provisions expire at the end of 2025.

And, as Brian Riedl made clear in this chart, the tax cuts only play a tiny role even if all the provisions ultimately are made permanent.

Ms. Rampell then makes a Keynesian argument that more spending would be stimulative.

…the U.S. economy actually needs more federal spending, and President Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion plan… Republicans objecting to Biden’s proposal…seem to be writing off the need for more relief entirely, at least now that a Democrat is president.

Is she right about Republican hypocrisy? Yes.

Is she right that bigger government produces growth? No.

If Biden and the Democrats were simply arguing that some level of handouts are needed and justified to compensate for government-mandated shutdowns, I wouldn’t be happy, but I also wouldn’t complain.

But I do object to the mechanistic argument that government can magically produce prosperity by borrowing money from the economy’s left pocket and putting it in the economy’s right pocket.

At best, the borrow-and-spend approach only produces a transitory bump in consumption, but does nothing for real problem of inadequate income (which is why we should focus on GDI rather than GDP).

She also engages in a bit of historical revisionism about Obama’s failed stimulus from 2009.

This is, not coincidentally, almost exactly what they did about a decade ago. …Republicans suddenly demanded to turn off fiscal (and monetary) spigots once Barack Obama was elected.

In reality, Republicans didn’t control either the House or Senate in Obama’s first two years. He was able to adopt his so-called stimulus. And the economy was stagnant.

Republicans did win the House at the end of 2010 and were somewhat successful in controlling spending for the next few years. And that’s when the economy did better.

Just like it did better during the Reagan and Clinton years when there was spending restraint.

To put this discussion in the proper context, I’ll close with another chart from Brian Riedl. The long-run problem we face is not red ink. Deficits and debt are merely the symptom of the real problem of excessive government spending.

P.S. I wish Politicifact had identified me as a libertarian. I’m only willing to be called a conservative if that means Reaganism, but I worry it now means Trumpism.

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Trump was a big spender before coronavirus and he became an even-bigger spender once the pandemic began.

But the White House generally didn’t add insult to injury by citing Keynesian economic theory to justify the president’s profligacy .

Prior to the pandemic, the excuse was that more money was needed for defense and that required (from a political perspective) more money for domestic programs.

And once the coronavirus hit, the excuse was that people and businesses needed to be compensated because of government-mandated lockdowns.

I thought the pre-pandemic excuse was pathetic and I’ve been skeptical of the post-pandemic excuse (why, for instance, are bureaucrats getting checks when their comfy jobs aren’t at risk?).

Well, Trump in on the way out and Biden is on the way in, which means one big spender is being replaced by another.

But there will be one difference, at least stylistically.  Biden will copy Obama by citing Keynesian theory to justify his spending binges.

Which means heartburn from me because I’ve been trying for years to drive a stake through the heart of this free-lunch concept.

But I obviously need to address the issue again.

To begin, Andy Kessler opines about so-called stimulus in his Wall Street Journal column.

…get ready for the “multipliers.” You know, the idea that a government dollar spent magically turns into multiple dollars in the economy. …Expect more multiplier mumbo jumbo as the Biden administration begins its tax-and-spend fiesta. …during the early days of the Obama administration. The financial crisis team…were “carrying around this list of multipliers”… Every dollar spent extending unemployment insurance benefits would, the fairy tale went, boost the economy by $1.64. …every dollar spent on food stamps would spur a $1.73 increase in gross domestic product. …“bang for the buck”—the proverbial free lunch. It’s more like “dud for the dollar” because it didn’t work. It never does. Multipliers are a canard, a Keynesian conceit. …The theory of multipliers is based on the Keynesian view that poorer consumers tend to spend a large amount of increased income, and the rich less so. But multipliers are half a story. Someone has to put up the original money that allegedly gets multiplied, taking it away from the private sector and negating whatever dwindling chain of transactions are hypothesized.

Amen.

Kessler is making many of the same points I made in my 2008 video about Keynesian economics, so I obviously agree.

Since Kessler’s column poked holes in the theory, now let’s look at some new evidence.

Former Senator Phil Gramm has a column on this topic in today’s WSJ, co-authored by Mike Solon.

The main takeaway is that Obama did a Keynesian “stimulus” and the economy suffered a weaker-than-normal recovery.

Between the start of the subprime mortgage crisis and the end of the recession in mid-2009, net new spending of $1.6 trillion was enacted. In 2009, federal spending as a share of gross domestic product surged by an unprecedented 4.2 percentage points to reach 24.4%, the highest level since World War II. Spending was 23.3% of GDP in 2010. …what happened after 2010? …some six months into the Obama administration, the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office both confidently predicted an economic boom, with real GDP growing an average of 3.6% from 2010-13. …Yet…growth from 2010-13 averaged less than 2.1%, half the 4.2% average growth rates in the four-year periods following the previous 10 postwar recessions. The Obama recovery didn’t falter for lack of sustained stimulus; it was shackled from the beginning by his economic program.

I think it’s especially instructive to compare the economy’s weak performance under Obama with the strong recovery we enjoyed under Reagan.

By the way, I think it’s possible to artificially and temporarily boost consumption with so-called stimulus spending, but increasing consumer spending with borrowed money is not the same as boosting national income.

Anyhow, what’s the moral of this story?

Because Mr. Biden’s proposed program is little more than Mr. Obama’s tax, spend and regulate agenda on steroids, and because his appointees are merely grayer retreads of the Obama administration, it is excessively optimistic to believe that his stimulus will do any more good for the economy than Mr. Obama’s did. …How does it end? …it isn’t a question of if government is going to run out of other people’s money, but when.

For what it’s worth, I think the United States could be profligate for decades before we reach some sort of fiscal crisis.

But Gramm and Solon are correct to cite Thatcher’s warning that statists eventually run out of other people’s money.

P.S. My fingers are crossed that Biden is more like Bill Clinton rather than Barack Obama, but I’m not overly hopeful.

P.P.S. We have a very recent example of Paul Krugman being wrong about Keynesian economics.

P.P.P.S. Even though it’s no longer the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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In an interview with Fox Business last week, I touched on three policies (easy money from the Fed, Biden’s class-warfare tax agenda, and the ever-increasing burden of federal spending) that create risks for the economy in 2021.

I didn’t have a chance to elaborate in the interview, but it’s worth noting that Biden will inherit two of the aforementioned problems.

Trump has been profligate with our money, and he was that way even before the coronavirus became an excuse to open the budgetary spigot. Moreover, he was just like Obama in pressuring the Federal Reserve for Keynesian-style monetary policy.

Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think Biden will try to reverse those mistakes.

Indeed, he wants expand the burden of federal spending. And, regarding monetary policy, appointing Janet Yellen as Secretary of Treasury certainly suggests he is comfortable with the current approach.

And to make matters worse, he definitely wants a more punitive tax system. We will shortly learn whether Democrats take control of the Senate, which presumably would give Biden more leeway to enact his class-warfare tax agenda.

As I said in the interview, that would create economic headwinds.

P.S. I mentioned in the interview that we have “three Americas” with regards to coronavirus. I’m not sure I was completely clear, so here’s what I was trying to get across.

  1. Tourism-reliant states – They are going to be in bad shape until coronavirus is in the rear-view mirror and people feel comfortable with traveling and socializing.
  2. Lock-down states – They have higher unemployment rates because more businesses are shut down.
  3. Laissez-faire states – These are the states that generally allow businesses to remain open and have lower unemployment rates.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s best to let businesses stay open and to allow them and their customers to assess safety risks. It will be interesting to see whether any link is discovered between state policy and coronavirus rates.

P.P.S. At the risk of over-simplification, bad fiscal policy erodes the economy’s long-run growth rate. Bad monetary policy, by contrast, is what causes economic volatility and downturns.

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Back in 2015, just five years ago, it seemed like entitlement reform might happen.

Republicans in the House and Senate voted for budgets based on much-needed changes to Medicare and Medicaid. That was only a symbolic step with Obama in the White House, to be sure, but the presumption was that actual reform would be possible if Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress after the 2016 election.

The good news is that the GOP did wind up in control of Washington.

The bad news is that Donald Trump was in the White House.

Given his unfortunate views on government spending, that killed entitlement reform for the past four years.

And now Biden will be in the White House, and he wants to expand those programs, so that presumably kills reform for the next four years.

But does that change the fact that the programs should be reformed?

In a column for National Review, Fred Bauer asserts that Republicans should give up on trying to control big government.

Republicans…risk being lured toward a pivot back to 2010s-style austerity politics during the Biden administration, with a renewed focus on the federal deficit and entitlement reform. …Trying to push party-line entitlement reform has backfired on the GOP again and again in the recent past. George W. Bush’s 2005 Social Security–privatization proposal kneecapped his second term from the start. In 2012, Republicans got bogged down defending their position on Medicare reform… retreating to austerity politics could cost Republicans a chance to promote other kinds of reforms that would strengthen workers and families: fixing the medical marketplace (by reducing cartelization, revising medical licensing, etc.), passing a 21st-century infrastructure program, trying to secure a strategic industrial base, enacting smarter regulation of Big Tech that addresses market concerns and serves the public welfare, offering Americans family tax credits, and so on.

Also writing for National Review, Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute explains that we have no choice but to grapple with entitlements.

The Republican Party has styled itself the party of fiscal restraint for the better part of a century… But there hasn’t been much action, or much willingness to expend political capital or make some painful deals to achieve a meaningful change in the trajectory of the government’s finances. …the willful blindness of the Trump era…means the underlying fiscal problems have grown worse… the costs of fiscal irresponsibility have more to do with constraints on future growth… Fiscal reform will need to involve changes to these programs.

Levin even suggests that entitlement reform is so important that it might be worth ceding ground in other areas.

Repub­licans should be willing to make bargains that involve leaving discretionary spending untouched, or even on a path of modest growth, if that allows for some reforms of entitlements. They should also be willing to contemplate tax increases and reforms that move the burden of federal revenue upward on the income scale, provided such changes do not unduly undermine growth.

My two cents is that Levin is right and Bauer is wrong.

To be sure, I don’t agree with everything Levin wrote (it’s theoretically possible to make a tax increase acceptable, for instance, but that won’t happen in the real world). But at least he recognizes the long-run spending outlook is so dour that entitlement reform is absolutely necessary.

Bauer, by contrast, argues that we should throw in the towel because reform is politically difficult.

I think he misreads the evidence.

Regarding Social Security, Bush got elected twice while supporting personal accounts, but the issue never went anywhere in his second term in large part because the White House never proposed a plan. Moreover, the public continued to be supportive of the idea of personal accounts, even after Bush left office.

Likewise, I think Bauer is wrong on Medicare and Medicaid. Republicans easily maintained control of the House in 2012, 2014 and 2016, notwithstanding Democratic attacks that they wanted to “push granny off a cliff.” And they still control the Senate after years of similar attacks.

But even if Bauer was right about the politics, he’s wrong about policy.

America will become another Greece if we don’t reform entitlements. That will be bad for the nation. It will be bad for our economy. It will be bad for our children and grandchildren. It will be bad for the fabric of our society.

The bottom line is that entitlement reform is the patriotic thing to do.

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At the risk of oversimplification and exaggeration, these six principles tell you everything you need to know about fiscal policy.

For purposes of today’s column, let’s focus on Principle #3, which is that “Deficits and debt are symptoms of the underlying problem” of excessive spending.

I’ve been making that point over and over and over and over and over again, but I feel motivated to address the issue again after reading two columns about government debt.

First, here’s some of what Paul Krugman wrote on the topic for his column in the New York Times.

…we’ve learned a lot about the economics of government debt over the past few years — enough so that Olivier Blanchard, the eminent former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is talking about a “shift in fiscal paradigm.” And the new paradigm suggests both that public debt isn’t a major problem and that government borrowing for the right purposes is actually the responsible thing to do. …It made some sense, nine or 10 years ago, to worry that the financial crisis in Greece was a harbinger of potential debt crises in other countries. …What briefly seemed like a spread of Greek-style problems across southern Europe turned out to be a temporary investor panic, quickly ended by a promise from the European Central Bank that it would lend money to cash-short governments if necessary. …We weren’t and aren’t anywhere close to that kind of crisis, and probably never will be. …But what about the longer term? …The important point for current discussion is that government borrowing costs are now very low and likely to stay low for a long time. …given what we’ve learned and where we are, it’s clear that the U.S. government should be investing heavily in the nation’s future, and that it’s OK, indeed desirable, to borrow the money we need to make those investments.

Second, Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute provides a different perspective in a column for today’s Washington Post, .

The election of Joe Biden to the presidency has prompted liberal calls to set aside pesky budget deficit concerns and go deeper into debt to finance large new spending initiatives… All these writers share the view that the persistence of low interest rates — currently about 1 percent for a 10-year Treasury bill — means the rules of the fiscal game have fundamentally changed. …But…deficit advocates must face two fundamental realities: First, the debt is already set to soar in the absence of any new spending. And second, these bloated debt levels will mean that any future rise in interest rates could bring a full-scale debt crisis. …Deficit doves are essentially gambling the future of the U.S. economy on the expectation that interest rates never again exceed 4 percent or 5 percent. …they are wrong to assume that state of affairs will continue. …Exceeding the projections by two or three points would mean annual interest costs consuming all projected tax revenue, leaving no taxes to finance normal federal programs. These debt spirals become nearly impossible to escape, as rising interest costs necessitate more borrowing, which in turn brings higher interest costs… Deficit doves would gamble America’s economic future on the hope that interest rates will never again top 4 or 5 percent. Are you feeling lucky?

At the risk of sounding like a muddle-headed, finger-in-the-wind moderate, I’m going to disagree with both of them (I’m like Goldilocks, who doesn’t want the porridge too hot or too cold).

I have a fundamental disagreement with Krugman because he’s overtly arguing for a bigger burden of government. Based on his past writings, he is willing to use higher taxes to finance some additional spending.

But the aforementioned column confirms that he’s in favor of a big amount of additional debt-financed spending as well.

He presumably wants to move the country into the lower-right quadrant of this 2×2 matrix, but doesn’t mind getting there by detouring through the lower-left quadrant.

My disagreement with Brian is probably more a matter of rhetoric. Based on his past writings, I think he wants to be in the upper-left quadrant, but he has an unfortunate tendency to fixate on the symptom of debt and deficits when he should be focusing on the underlying disease of excessive government spending.

My bottom line if that bigger government is a bad idea when it’s financed by debt, but it’s an equally bad idea if it’s financed by taxes.

Moreover, I worry when well-meaning people grouse about red ink because that creates an opening for not-so-well-meaning people to say, “I agree with you, so let’s raise taxes.”

P.S. In the real world of Washington (as opposed to blackboard theorizing), higher taxes lead to higher deficits and more debt.

P.P.S. Assuming they’re both sincere and guided by empiricism, people who care about red ink should support a spending cap.

P.P.P.S. Maintained for a sufficient period of time, spending restraint can even eliminate huge debt burdens.

 

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The good news is that the election season is almost over. The bad news is that we’ll have a president next year who does not embrace classical liberal principles of free markets and social tolerance.

But that doesn’t mean Trump and Biden are equally bad. Depending on what issues you think are most important, they’re not equally bad in what they say. And, because politicians often make insincere promises, they’re not equally bad in what they’ll actually do.

Regarding Trump, we have a track record. We know he’s pro-market on some issues (taxes and red tape) and we know he’s anti-market on other issues (spending and trade).

Regarding Biden, we have his track record in the United States Senate, where he routinely voted to expand the burden of government.

But we also have his presidential platform. And that’s the topic for today’s column. We’re going to review the major economic analyses that have been conducted on his proposals.

We’ll start with a report from Moody’s Analytics, authored by Mark Zandi and Bernard Yaros, which compares the economic impacts of the Trump and Biden agendas.

The economic outlook is strongest under the scenario in which Biden and the Democrats sweep Congress and fully adopt their economic agenda. In this scenario, the economy is expected to create 18.6 million jobs during Biden’s term as president, and the economy returns to full employment, with unemployment of just over 4%, by the second half of 2022. During Biden’s presidency, the average American household’s real after-tax income increases by approximately $4,800, and the homeownership rate and house prices increase modestly. Stock prices also rise, but the gains are limited. …Near-term economic growth is lifted by Biden’s aggressive government spending plans, which are deficit-financed in significant part. …Greater government spending adds directly to GDP and jobs, while the higher tax burden has an indirect impact through business investment and the spending and saving behavior of high-income households. …The economic outlook is weakest under the scenario in which Trump and the Republicans sweep Congress and fully adopt their economic agenda. …Trump has proposed much less expansive support to the economy from tax and spending policies.

Here’s the most relevant set of graphs from the report.

The Moody’s study is an outlier, however. Most other comprehensive analyses are less favorable to Biden.

For instance, a study for the Hoover Institution by Timothy Fitzgerald, Kevin Hassett, Cody Kallen, and Casey Mulligan, finds that Biden’s plan will weaken overall economic performance.

We estimate possible effects of Joe Biden’s tax and regulatory agenda. We find that transportation and electricity will require more inputs to produce the same outputs due to ambitious plans to further cut the nation’s carbon emissions, resulting in one or two percent less total factor productivity nationally. Second, we find that proposed changes to regulation as well as to the ACA increase labor wedges. Third, Biden’s agenda increases average marginal tax rates on capital income. Assuming that the supply of capital is elastic in the long run to its after-tax return and that the substitution effect of wages on labor supply is nontrivial, we conclude that, in the long run, Biden’s full agenda reduces fulltime equivalent employment per person by about 3 percent, the capital stock per person by about 15 percent, real GDP per capita by more than 8 percent, and real consumption per household by about 7 percent.

Wonkier readers may be interested in these numbers, which show that there’s a modest benefit from unwinding some of Trump’s protectionism, but there’s a lot of damage from the the other changes proposed by the former Vice President.

In a report authored by Garrett Watson, Huaqun Li, and Taylor LaJoie, the Tax Foundation estimated the impact of Biden’s proposed policies. Here are some of the highlights.

According to the Tax Foundation General Equilibrium Model, Biden’s tax plan would reduce the economy’s size by 1.47 percent in the long run. The plan would shrink the capital stock by just over 2.5 percent and reduce the overall wage rate by a little over 1 percent, leading to about 518,000 fewer full-time equivalent jobs. …Biden’s tax plan would raise about $3.05 trillion over the next decade on a conventional basis, and $2.65 trillion after accounting for the reduction in the size of the U.S. economy. While taxpayers in the bottom four quintiles would see an increase in after-tax incomes in 2021 primarily due to the temporary CTC expansion, by 2030 the plan would lead to lower after-tax income for all income levels.

Table 2 from the report is worth sharing because it shows what policies have the biggest economic impact.

The bottom line is that it’s not a good idea to raise the corporate tax burden and it’s not a good idea to worsen the payroll tax burden.

Here are some excerpts by a study authored by Professor Laurence Kotlikoff for the Goodman Institute.

The micro analysis is based on The Fiscal Analyzer (TFA), which uses data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finance to calculate how much representative American households will pay in taxes net of what they will receive in benefits over the rest of their lives. …The key micro issues…are the degree to which the Vice President’s reforms alter relative remaining lifetime net tax burdens and lifetime spending of the rich and poor within specific age cohorts and the impact of the reforms on incentives to work, i.e., remaining lifetime marginal net tax rates. The macro analysis is based on the Global Gaidar Model (GGM)…a dynamic, 90-period OLG, 17-region general equilibrium model. …The analysis includes three sets of findings. The first is the change in lifetime net taxes defined as the change in lifetime net taxes. The second is the percentage change in lifetime spending, defined as the change in the present value of outlays on all goods and services as well as bequests, averaged across all survivor path. The third is the lifetime marginal net tax rate from earning an extra $1,000. TFA’s lifetime marginal net tax rate measure takes full account of so-called double taxation. …The GGM predicts a close to 6 percent reduction in the U.S. capital stock. The GGM predicts close to a 2 percent permanent reduction in annual U.S. GDP.  The GGM predicts a roughly 2 percentage-point reduction in wages of U.S. workers, with a larger reduction in the wages of high-skilled workers.

In a study for the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, Professor Casey Mulligan estimated the following effects.

This study addresses the impact of these tax rate changes on economic behavior – work, investment, output and growth. This study finds that the Biden tax agenda will reduce production, incomes, and employment per capita by increasing taxation of both labor and business capital. Employment will be about 3 million workers less in the long run (five to ten years). This employment effect is primarily due to the agenda’s expansion of health insurance credits, which raises the average marginal tax rates on labor income by 2.4 percentage points. Biden also plans to increase taxes on businesses and their owners by a combined 6 to 10 percentage points. These taxes will reduce long-run wages, GDP per worker, and business capital per worker in the long run. By decreasing both the number of workers per capita and GDP per worker, respectively, these two key elements of Biden’s agenda reinforce to significantly reduce GDP per capita and average household incomes. I estimate that, as a result of Biden’s tax agenda, real GDP per capita would be 4 to 5 percent less, which is about $8,000 per household per year in the long run. The two parts of the tax agenda combine to reduce real per capita business capital by 7 to 12 percent in the long run.

Here’s a table from the study.

I’ll add two points to the above analyses.

First, the reason that the Moody’s study produces wildly different results is that its model is based on Keynesian principles. As such, a bigger burden of government spending is assumed to stimulate growth.

For what it’s worth, I think borrowing and spending can lead to short-run increases in consumption, but I’m very skeptical that Keynesian policies can generate increases in national income (i.e., what we produce rather than what we consume) over the medium-run or long-run.

All of the other studies rely on models that estimate how government policies impact incentives to engage in productive behavior. They don’t all measure the same things (some of the studies look solely at taxes, some look at overall fiscal policy, and some also include a look at regulatory proposals) but the methodologies are similar.

Second, I’ll re-emphasize the point I made at the beginning about how politicians routinely say things during campaigns that are either insincere or impractical.

For instance, Trump promised to restrain domestic discretionary spending by $750 billion and he actually increased it by $700 billion.

Likewise, I don’t expect Biden (assuming he prevails) to deliver on his campaign promises. In this case, that’s good news since he won’t increase taxes and spending by nearly as much as what he’s embraced during the campaign (in my fantasy world, he turns out be like Bill Clinton and actually delivers a net reduction in the burden of government).

P.S. For those on the losing side of the upcoming election, I’ll remind you that Australia is probably the best option if you want to escape the United States. Though you may want to pick Switzerland if you have a lot of money.

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For a land-locked nation without many natural resources, Switzerland is remarkably successful.

One reason for the country’s success is pro-market policy. Switzerland routinely scores in the top 5 according to both Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom.

More specifically, I’m a big fan of the country’s fiscal policy, especially the “Debt Brake,” which was imposed when voters overwhelmingly adopted the provision (84.7 percent approval) early this century.

There’s always been a debate, however, whether Switzerland’s good outcomes are because of the debt brake, or because of some random reason, such as the sensibility of Swiss voters.

Three academic economists, Michele Salvi, Christoph Schaltegger, and Lukas Schmid, investigated this issue in a study for Kyklos, a scholarly journal published by the University of Basel.

A prominent means to prevent excess debt accumulation is the use of fiscal rules. In fact,fiscal rules focus on securing solvency of governments by concentrating on the intertemporal budget constraint. …there is a strong positive association between constrained fiscal discretion and improved fiscal performance. …Our paper presents evidence on the effect of a fiscal rule with a strict enforcement mechanism… We analyze the consequences of the centrally imposed balanced budget rule on public debt in Switzerland. …the Swiss debt containment rule stands out as a clearly defined fiscal rule with a constitutional basis that constrains deviating from a balanced budget in the long-term. …The rule consists of a simple mechanism stating that expenditure may not exceed revenues over the course of an economic cycle. …The debt containment rule brings a“top-down”element into the budgeting process, which has a strong disciplinary appeal and leads to more accurate budgeting. …one key aspect is the fact that the debt containment rule sets a clear expenditure ceiling.

The key parts from the above excerpt are “expenditure may not exceed” and “clear expenditure ceiling.”

Those statements ratify my oft-made point that the debt brake is really a spending cap. And spending caps are far and away the only effective macro-fiscal rule.

The policy certainly has generated good results for Switzerland. Here’s what the authors found when thy crunched numbers to compare the country’s current fiscal trajectory with what would have happened without a spending cap.

To construct the counterfactual outcome of the debt ratio for Switzerland without a debt containment rule, we select a control group…countries expected to be driven by a similar structural process as Switzerland. …Due to the availability of comprehensive debt data, the observation period is restricted to last from 1980 until 2010. …we divide the time period into a pre-treatment period from 1980 to 2002 and a postintervention period from 2003 to 2010. …Figure 2 displays the central government debt ratio for Switzerland and its synthetic counterpart during the study period. …In 2003, the two debt ratio curves start to diverge. …it appears that the introduction of the debt containment rule led to a substantial and persistent decrease in the debt ratio in Switzerland.

And here’s the relevant set of charts from the study.

Here’s one more sentence I want to cite since it echoes the argument I’ve made to my Keynesian friends about how they also should support a Swiss-style spending cap.

The debt containment rule has made a significant contribution to switching from a procyclical to a cyclically appropriate fiscal policy.

Simply stated, the political tradeoff embedded in the debt brake is that politicians get to modestly increase spending during a downturn, even though revenues are falling, but they also can only enact modest spending increases during growth years, even if revenue is growing much faster.

By the way, you will have noticed that the study focused on how the debt brake helped to reduce red ink.

Regular readers know that I’m far more interested in focusing on the real fiscal problem, which is excessive government spending.

So I’ll close by looking at some additional evidence from Switzerland. Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing that the growth rate of spending fell sharply after the debt brake was adopted.

I looked at the 2003-2010 period, since it matched the years in the study discussed above.

But I also calculated the spending growth rate for 2003-2019 and confirmed that the debt brake’s success hasn’t just been a temporary phenomenon.

P.S. Click here for a short presentation on the debt brake, as well as similar presentations on Hong Kong’s spending cap and Colorado’s TABOR spending cap.

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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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Bernie Sanders was considered a hard-core leftist because his platform was based on higher taxes and higher spending.

Elizabeth Warren also was considered a hard-core leftist because she advocated a similar agenda of higher taxes and higher spending.

And Joe Biden, even though he is considered to be a moderate, is currently running on a platform of higher taxes and higher spending.

Want to know who else is climbing on the economically suicidal bandwagon of higher taxes and higher spending? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the pro-tax International Monetary Fund just published its World Economic Outlook and parts of it read like the Democratic Party’s platform.

Here are some of the ways the IMF wants to expand the burden of government spending.

Investments in health, education, and high-return infrastructure projects that also help move the economy to lower carbon dependence… Moreover, safeguarding critical social spending can ensure that the most vulnerable are protected while also supporting near-term activity, given that the outlays will go to groups with a higher propensity to spend their disposable income… Some fiscal resources…should be redeployed to public investment—including in renewable energy, improving the efficiency of power transmission, and retrofitting buildings to reduce their carbon footprint. …social spending should be expanded to protect the most vulnerable where gaps exist in the safety net. In those cases, authorities could enhance paid family and sick leave, expand eligibility for unemployment insurance, and strengthen health care benefit coverage…social spending measures…strengthening social assistance (for example, conditional cash transfers, food stamps and in-kind nutrition, medical payments for low-income households), expanding social insurance (relaxing eligibility criteria for unemployment insurance…), and investments in retraining and reskilling programs.

And here’s a partial list of the various class-warfare taxes that the IMF is promoting.

Although adopting new revenue measures during the crisis will be difficult, governments may need to consider raising progressive taxes on more affluent individuals and those relatively less affected by the crisis (including increasing tax rates on higher income brackets, high-end property, capital gains, and wealth) as well as changes to corporate taxation that ensure firms pay taxes commensurate with profitability. …Efforts to expand the tax base can include reducing corporate tax breaks, applying tighter caps on personal income tax deductions, instituting value-added taxes.

Oh, by the way, if nations have any rules that protect the interests of taxpayers, the IMF wants “temporary” suspensions.

Where fiscal rules may constrain action, their temporary suspension would be warranted

Needless to say, any time politicians have a chance to expand their power, temporary becomes permanent.

When I discuss IMF malfeasance in my speeches, I’m frequently asked why the bureaucrats propose policies that don’t work – especially when the organization’s supposed purpose is to promote growth and stability.

The answer is “public choice.” Top IMF officials are selected by politicians and are given very generous salaries, and they know that the best way to stay on the gravy train is to support policies that will please those politicians.

And because their lavish salaries are tax free, they have an extra incentive to curry favor with politicians.

P.S. I wish there was a reporter smart enough and brave enough to ask the head of the IMF to identify a single nation – at any point in history – that became rich by expanding the size and cost of government.

P.P.S. There are plenty of good economists who work for the IMF and they often write papers pointing out the economic benefits of lower taxes and smaller government (and spending caps as well!). But the senior people at the bureaucracy (the ones selected by politicians) make all the important decisions.

 

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According to the Fraser Institute’s calculations of overall economic freedom, Delaware apparently has the worst politicians and New Hampshire has the best ones.

According to comprehensive estimates of economic liberty in Freedom in the 50 States, New York’s politicians seem to be the worst and Florida’s are the best.

But what if we focus just on fiscal policy?

Earlier this year, I wrote three columns that illustrated different ways – income taxes, sales taxes, and government spending burden – of measuring the quality of state fiscal policy.

Today, let’s look at a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s governors, courtesy of Chris Edwards. Here’s his core methodology.

…this year’s 15th biennial fiscal report card on the governors…examines state budget actions since 2018. It uses statistical data to grade the governors on their tax and spending records—governors who have restrained taxes and spending receive higher grades, while those who have substantially increased taxes and spending receive lower grades. …Scores ranging from 0 to 100 were calculated for each governor on the basis of seven tax and spending variables. Scores closer to 100 indicate governors who favored smaller-government policies. 

Only four governors got the highest grade (and that’s using a curve!), led by Chris Sununu of New Hampshire.

Those of you who follow politics may be interested in knowing that Kristi Noem (R-SD) and Ron DeSantis (R-FL), both potential presidential candidates in 2024, got “B” grades. So good, but not great.

Now let’s look at the most profligate chief executives.

The worst of the worst is Jay Inslee of Washington. So however bad Biden’s agenda is for the country, let’s be happy that Governor Inslee didn’t win the Democratic presidential nomination.

I’m not surprised by the other “F” governors. Though I am surprised that Gov. Pritzker isn’t in last place, given his efforts to get rid of the the Illinois flat tax.

For what it’s worth, the best-ranked Democrat (a “B” grade) is Steve Sisolak of Nevada. I assume this means he hasn’t tried to ruin the state’s zero-income-tax status. The worst-ranked Republican (a “D” grade) is Bill Lee of Tennessee and his bad score is because of huge increases in the state spending burden.

Last but not least, Chris identifies a systemic problem impacting almost all states. Simply stated, government spending has been growing too rapidly, more than double what would be needed to keep pace with inflation.

General fund spending grew at an annual average rate of 4.1 percent between 2010 and 2020, including increases of 5.5 percent in 2019 and 5.8 percent in 2020.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

In the study, Chris says states should use “rainy day funds” to avoid boom-and-bust budgeting (in other words, set aside some revenue when the economy is growing so it’s not necessary to make big adjustments when there’s a recession).

That’s definitely a prudent approach, and the study points out that some blue-leaning states like California follow that policy, while others (most notably, Illinois) recklessly spent surplus revenue.

My two cents is that a spending cap is the best long-run solution, and Colorado’s TABOR is easily the best fiscal rule among the 50 states.

P.S. Governor Sununu of New Hampshire needs to continue getting good scores to atone for his father’s terrible role, as Chief of Staff for George H.W. Bush, in pushing through the failed 1990 tax increase.

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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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Last night’s train-wreck debate reinforced my disdain for politicians.

But let’s ignore the immature theatrics from Trump and Biden and focus on one of their policy disagreements.

The two candidates squabbled over whether creating a government-administered health plan (see page 31 for a description of Biden’s so-called  “public option“) would lead to the demise of the current system of employer-provided health insurance.

For what it’s worth, there are two big reasons why I’m not a fan of the current employer-based system.

That being said, I’m very aware of the fact that politicians are always capable of making things worse (the “lather-rinse-repeat cycle” of government failure).

So let’s consider this key question: Government intervention has made our health system expensive and inefficient, but would a “public option” make things better or worse?

About two months ago, I shared this video which explains why the so-called public option will wind up being an expensive boondoggle.

Given the track record of health entitlements, I think the video you just watched is correct. A public option would be a fiscal nightmare.

But does that mean it also would be a threat to the employer-based system of private health insurance?

I think the answer is yes, largely because the subsidies that will make the system more expensive are also the subsidies that will make the public option seem like a good deal.

Let’s use two analogies to get this point across.

  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac dominate housing finance, not because government-created entities are efficient, but because they use subsidies from the federal government to under-price private competitors.
  • Parents know private schools produce much better educational outcomes than government schools, but most families opt for the inferior option because it’s already being financed by their tax dollars.

I fear the same thing will happen with the so-called public option. Politicians (in their never-ending efforts to but votes) will keep increasing the subsidies. That will make employer-based health plans seem less attractive by comparison.

And there will also be political pressure to provide an ever-more-extensive set of benefits (as illustrated by the cartoon). That will also make employer-based health plans seem less attractive by comparison.

The net result of all this is that even though the vast majority of workers are happy with their current employer-provided health plans, Biden’s public option will slowly but surely squeeze them out of the market.

The bottom line is that we’ll wind up with single-payer, government-run healthcare, but politicians would be sneaking it in the back door.

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I’ve previously written that Keynesian economics is like Freddy Kreuger. No matter how many times it is killed off by real-world evidence, it comes back to life whenever a politician wants to justify a vote-buying orgy of new spending.

And there will always be Keynesian economists who will then crank up their simplistic models that churn out results predicting that a bigger burden of government spending somehow will produce additional growth.

They never bother to explain why they think draining funds from the private sector is good for growth, of course, or why they think politicians supposedly spend money more wisely than households and businesses.

Nonetheless, there are some journalists who are willing to act as stenographers for their assertions.

In a September 25 story for the Washington Post, Tory Newmyer gives free publicity to Keynesian predictions that the economy will grow faster if Biden wins and then imposes his profligate agenda – which they underestimate to include $7.3 trillion of new spending and $4.1 trillion of new taxes over the next 10 years.

A Democratic sweep that puts Joe Biden in the White House and the party back in the Senate majority would produce 7.4 million more jobs and a faster economic recovery than if President Trump retains power. …Moody’s Analytics economists Mark Zandi and Bernard Yaros…see the higher government spending a Biden administration would approve — for emergency relief programs, infrastructure, and an expanded social safety net — giving the economy a potent injection of stimulus. …while a Biden administration would seek to offset some of his proposed $7.3 trillion in new spending over the next decade with $4.1 trillion in higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, “the net of these crosscurrents is to boost economic activity,” the economists write.

Here’s one of the charts that was included in the story, which purports to show how bigger government leads to faster growth.

If there was a contest for the world’s most inaccurate economist, Zandi almost surely would win a gold medal.

But his laughable track record is hardly worth mentioning. What matters more is that we have decades of real-world experience with Keynesian economics. And it never works.

It’s also worth pointing out that Keynesians have been consistently wrong with predicting economic damage during periods of spending restraint.

Now let’s look at another example of how Keynesian predictions are wrong.

Professor Casey Mulligan from the University of Chicago analyzed what happened when turbo-charged unemployment benefits recently ended.

July was the final month of the historically disproportionate unemployment bonus of $600 per week. The termination or reduction of benefits will undoubtably make a difference in the lives of the people who were receiving them, but old-style Keynesians insist that the rest of us will be harmed too. …Paul Krugman explained in August that “I’ve been doing the math, and it’s terrifying. . . . Their spending will fall by a lot . . . [and there is] a substantial ‘multiplier’ effect, as spending cuts lead to falling incomes, leading to further spending cuts.” GDP could fall 4 to 5 percent, and perhaps as much as ten percent… Wednesday the Census Bureau’s advance retail-sales report provided our first extensive look at consumer spending in August, which is the first month with reduced benefits (reduced roughly $50 billion for the month). Did consumer spending drop by tens of billions, starting our economy on the promised path toward recession?

Not exactly. As shown in this accompanying chart, “…retail sales increased $3 billion above July.”

Professor Mulligan explains why Keynesian economics doesn’t work in the real world.

Two critical elements are missing from the old-style Keynesian approach. The first piece is that employment, which depends on benefits and opportunity costs to employer and employee, is a bigger driver of spending than government benefits are. For every person kept out of work by benefits, that is less aggregate spending that is not made up elsewhere in the economy. The second missing piece is that taxpayers and lenders to our government finance these benefits and therefore have less to spend and save on other things. Even a foreign lender who decides to lend that extra $1 million to our government may well be lending less to U.S. households and companies. At best, redistribution from workers to the unemployed reallocates demand rather than increasing its total.

Amen.

At best, Keynesian policy enables a transitory boost in consumption, but there’s no increase in production. At the risk of stating the obvious, a nation’s gross domestic income does not increase when the government borrows money from one group of people and redistributes it to another group of people.

P.S. Since today’s topic is Keynesian economics here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining 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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The Congressional Budget Office released it’s 2020 Long-Term Budget Outlook yesterday.

Almost everybody has focused on CBO’s projections for record levels of red ink. And it is worrisome that debt is heading to Greek/Japanese levels (especially if the folks who buy government bonds think American politicians are more like Greek politicians rather than Japanese politicians).

But what should really have us worried, both in the short run and the long run, is that the burden of government spending is on an upward trajectory.

CBO has some charts showing that federal government spending will consume more than 30 percent of GDP by 2050, assuming the budget is left on autopilot.

But I dug into CBO’s database and created my own chart because I think it does a much better job of illustrating our problem.

As you can see, the problem is that government spending is projected to grow too fast, violating the Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

The solution to this problem is very simple.

We need spending restraint, ideally enforced by some sort of spending cap.

And if we control the growth of spending (preferably so that it grows no more than the rate of inflation), the projections for ever-rising levels of red ink will disappear.

In other words, you can get rid of symptoms (red ink) when you cure the underlying disease (big government).

P.S. Given all the profligacy over the past year, you won’t be surprised to learn that this year’s long-run forecast from CBO is more depressing than last year’s forecast.

P.P.S. While the solution is simple, it’s not easy. Restraining the growth of spending – especially in the long run – will require entitlement reforms, especially for Medicare and Medicaid.

P.P.P.S. Tax increases almost certainly would make a bad situation even worse by weakening the economy and encouraging more spending.

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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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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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Last week, I shared some data showing how the economy enjoyed a strong recovery from recession in the early 1920s when President Warren Harding cut government spending.

(And these were genuine cuts, not the nonsense we get from today’s politicians, who claim they’ve cut spending simply because the budget increases by 5 percent rather than 7 percent.)

What happened nearly 100 years ago is very relevant today since we still have advocates of Keynesian economics who claim that more spending (especially debt-financed spending) is a recipe for more growth.

To show why this view is misguided, let’s now look at what happened in the 1940s after World War II came to an end.

In a column for today’s Wall Street Journal, Professor Richard Vedder explains that the Keynesians predicted economic disaster because of big reductions in government spending.

…many Americans assumed the end of the war would mean a resumption of the Depression, which was cut off by the World War II military buildup. In the middle of the fighting, America’s leading Keynesian economist, Alvin Hansen of Harvard, said: “When the war is over, the government cannot just disband the Army, close down munitions factories, stop building ships, and remove economic controls.” …When the sudden end of combat became apparent in late August 1945, economist Everett Hagen predicted that the unemployment rate in the first quarter of 1946 would be 14.8%.

So what actually happened?

Vedder points out that the Keynesian predictions of massive unemployment were wildly inaccurate.

Millions of military personnel did become jobless within months and defense spending plummeted, putting more out of work. In June 1946 federal employment was almost precisely 10 million less than a year earlier. Yet the sharp rise in overall unemployment didn’t occur. The total unemployment rate for 1946 was 3.9%… Perhaps most interesting for today, all this occurred as the U.S. moved from an extremely expansionary fiscal policy—with budget deficits equal to almost 25% of gross domestic product in 1944 (the equivalent of more than $5 trillion today)—to an extremely contractionary one. The U.S. by 1947 was running a budget surplus exceeding 5% of output—the equivalent of more than $1 trillion today. …This was the complete reverse of the expectation of the newly dominant Keynesian economists.

In the following chart, you can see the numbers from the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables (Table 1.2), which show that fiscal policy between 1945 and 1948 was very contractionary, at least as defined by the Keynesians.

There definitely were huge spending cuts (the real kind, not the fake kind) during those years, and big deficits also became big surpluses.

Professor Vedder’s column explained that this anti-Keynesian policy didn’t produce mass unemployment.

But what about economic growth?

Well, you’ll see in the chart below the data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis for the 1945-48 period. There was a recession in 1946, which could be interpreted as evidence for Keynesianism.

But then look what happened in the next couple of years. There were more budget cuts, deficits became surpluses, and the economy enjoyed a strong rebound.

According to Keynesian theory, these two charts can’t exist. There can’t be an economic recovery when spending and deficits are falling.

Yet that’s exactly what happened after World War II (just as it happened under Harding, as Thomas Sowell observed).

Maybe, just maybe, Keynesianism is simply wrong. Maybe it’s nothing more than the economic version of a perpetual motion machine?

P.S. It’s also worth noting that huge increases in spending and debt under Hoover and Roosevelt didn’t produce good results in the 1930s.

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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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