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Archive for the ‘Government Spending’ Category

It’s not a big day for normal people, but today is exciting for fiscal policy wonks because the Congressional Budget Office has released its new 10-year forecast of how much revenue Uncle Sam will collect based on current law and how much the burden of government spending will expand if policy is left on auto-pilot.

Most observers will probably focus on the fact that budget deficits are projected to grow rapidly in future years, reaching $1 trillion in 2024.

That’s not welcome news, though I think it’s far more important to focus on the disease of too much spending rather than the symptom of red ink.

But let’s temporarily set that issue aside because the really big news from the CBO report is that we have new evidence that it’s actually very simple to balance the budget without tax increases.

According to CBO’s new forecast, federal tax revenue is projected to grow by an average of 4.3 percent each year, which means receipts will jump from 3.28 trillion this year to $4.99 trillion in 2026.

And since federal spending this year is estimated to be $3.87 trillion, we can make some simple calculation about the amount of fiscal discipline needed to balance the budget.

A spending freeze would balance the budget by 2020. But for those who want to let government grow at 2 percent annually (equal to CBO’s projection for inflation), the budget is balanced by 2024.

So here’s the choice in front of the American people. Either allow spending to grow on autopilot, which would mean a return to trillion dollar-plus deficits within eight years. Or limit spending so it grows at the rate of inflation, which would balance the budget in eight years.

Seems like an obvious choice.

By the way, when I crunched the CBO numbers back in 2010, they showed that it would take 10 years to balance the budget if federal spending grew 2 percent per year.

So why, today, can we balance the budget faster if spending grows 2 percent annually?

For the simple reason that all those fights earlier this decade about debt limits, government shutdowns, spending caps, and sequestration actually produced a meaningful victory for advocates of spending restraint. The net result of those budget battles was a five-year nominal spending freeze.

In other words, Congress actually out-performed my hopes and expectations (probably the only time in my life I will write that sentence).*

Here’s a video I narrated on this topic of spending restraint and fiscal balance back in 2010.

Everything I said back then is still true, other than simply adjusting the numbers to reflect a new forecast.

The bottom line is that modest spending restraint is all that’s needed to balance the budget.

That being said, I can’t resist pointing out that eliminating the deficit should not be our primary goal. It’s not good to have red ink, to be sure, but the more important goal should be to reduce the burden of federal spending.

That’s why I keep promoting my Golden Rule. If government grows slower than the private sector, that means the burden of spending (measured as a share of GDP) will decline over time.

And it’s why I’m a monomaniacal advocate of spending caps rather than a conventional balanced budget amendment. If you directly address the underlying disease of excessive government, you’ll automatically eliminate the symptom of government borrowing.

Which is why I very much enjoy sharing this chart whenever I’m debating one of my statist friends. It shows all the nations that have enjoyed great success with multi-year periods of spending restraint.

During these periods of fiscal responsibility, the burden of government falls as a share of economic output and deficits also decline as a share of GDP.

I then ask my leftist pals to show a similar table of countries that have gotten good results by raising taxes.

As you can imagine, that’s when there’s an uncomfortable silence in the room, perhaps because the European evidence very clearly shows that higher taxes lead to bigger government and more red ink (I also get a response of silence when I issue my challenge for statists to identify a single success story of big government).

*Congress has reverted to (bad) form, voting last year to weaken spending caps.

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I’ve been accused of making supposedly inconsistent arguments against Hillary Clinton. Make up your mind, these critics say. Is she corrupt or is she a doctrinaire leftist?

I always respond with the simple observation that she’s both. Not that this should come as a surprise. Proponents of bigger government have long track records of expanding their bank accounts at the same time they’re expanding the burden of the public sector. This is true for radical leftists in places like Venezuela and it’s true for establishment leftists in places like America.

And it’s definitely true for Hillary Clinton. I shared lots of information about Hillary’s corruption yesterday, so let’s spend some time today detailing her statist policy agenda.

Consider her new entitlement scheme for childcare. As the Wall Street Journal opines, it’s even worse than an ordinary handout.

Hillary Clinton is methodically expanding her plans to supervise or subsidize those remaining spheres of human existence unspoiled by government. Mrs. Clinton rolled out her latest proposal…to make child care more affordable for working parents and also to raise the wages of child-care workers. The Democrat didn’t mention how she’d resolve the contradiction between her cost-increasing ideas and her cost-reducing ideas, though you can bet it will be expensive. …Her solution is for the feds to cap the share of a family’s income that goes toward care at 10%, with the rest of the tab covered by various tax benefits, direct cash payments and scholarships.

Her scheme to cap a family’s exposure so they don’t have to pay more than 10 percent may be appealing to some voters, but it is terrible economics.

Although we don’t have details on how the various handouts will work, the net effect surely will be to exacerbate a third-party payer problem that already is leading to childcare costs rising faster than the overall inflation rate.

After all, families won’t care about the cost once it rises above 10 percent of their income since Hillary says that taxpayers will pick up the tab for anything about that level.

There’s more information about government intervention in the editorial.

The auditors at the Government Accountability Office report that there are currently 45 federal programs dedicated to supporting care “from birth through age five,” spread across multiple agencies. The Agriculture Department runs a nursery division, for some reason. …Mrs. Clinton also feels that caregivers are paid “less than the value of their worth,” and she promises to increase their compensation. How? Why, another program of course. She’ll call it the Respect and Increased Salaries for Early Childhood Educators (Raise) Initiative, which she says is modelled after another one of her proposals, the Care Workers Initiative. …If families think day care and health care are “really expensive” now, wait until they have to pay for Mrs. Clinton’s government.

Just as subsidized childcare will be very expensive if Hillary gets elected, the same will be true for higher education.

But in a different way. The current system of subsidies and handouts gives money (in the form of grants and loans) to students, who then give the money to colleges and universities. This is a great deal for the schools, who have taken advantage of the programs by dramatically increasing tuition and fees, while also expanding bureaucratic empires.

Hillary’s plan will expand the subsidies for colleges and universities, but students apparently no longer will serve as the middlemen. Instead, the money will go directly from Uncle Sam to the schools.

Here’s some analysis from the Pope Center on Hillary’s new scheme.

Clinton has come out with a plan to make public colleges and universities free for families with earnings less than $125,000 annually by 2021. …“free” college…would depend on state governments going along with her scheme whereby the federal government would pay them if they cooperate by charging no tuition… Suppose a state decides to adopt Clinton’s free college plan. What would the consequences be? …That would mean at least a modest increase in enrollment, but it would come mainly from the most academically marginal students. The colleges and universities that gained in those enrollments would also find they need to increase remedial programs. …Another adverse result from making college tuition free would be that many students would devote less effort to their courses. …Federal Reserve Bank of New York economist Aysegul Sahin…studied the effort college students put into their work in a 2004 paper“The Incentive Effects of Higher Education Subsidies on Student Effort.” She concluded, “Low-tuition, high-subsidy policies cause an increase in the ratio of less highly-motivated students among the college graduates and that even highly-motivated ones respond to lower tuition by choosing to study less.”

As with much of Hillary’s agenda, we don’t have full details. I strongly suspect that colleges and universities will have a big incentive to jack up tuition and fees to take advantage of the new handout, though I suppose we have to consider the possibility (fantasy?) that the plan will somehow include safeguards to prevent that from happening.

Oh, and don’t forget all the tax hikes she’s proposing to finance bigger government.

The really sad part about all this is that her husband actually wound up being one of the most market-oriented presidents in the post-World War II era. I’ve written on this topic several times (including speculation on whether the credit actually belongs to the post-1994 GOP Congress).

Is it possible that Hillary decides to “triangulate” and move to the center if she gets to the White House?

Yes, but I’m not brimming with optimism.

The Wall Street Journal has some depressing analysis on Bill Clinton vs Hillary Clinton.

…the Obama-era Democratic Party has repudiated the Democratic Party’s Bill-era centrist agenda. They now call themselves progressives, not New Democrats… The Clinton contradiction is that she claims she’ll produce economic results like her husband did with economic policies like Mr. Obama’s.

The editorial looks at Bill Clinton’s sensible record and compares it to what Hillary is proposing.

His wife wants to nearly double the top tax rate on long-term cap gains to 43.4% from 23.8%, in the name of ending “quarterly capitalism.” That’s higher than the 40% rate under Jimmy Carter, and she’d also impose a minimum tax on millionaires and above, details to come. …Mrs. Clinton has repudiated the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership that she had praised as Secretary of State. …She wants to extend Dodd-Frank regulation to nonbanks, and she promises to entrench Mr. Obama’s anticarbon central planning at the EPA and expand ObamaCare with price controls on new medicines. …Mrs. Clinton is proposing to impose many more such work disincentives. She’ll bestow tax credits on everything from child care to elderly care, from college tuition to businesses that share profits with workers. To the extent her new mandates for family leave, the minimum wage, overtime and “equal pay” increase the cost of labor, she’ll drive more Americans out of the workforce. Oh, and…Mrs. Clinton wants to “enhance” Social Security benefits and make Medicare available to pre-retirees.

I’ve already written about her irresponsible approach to Social Security.

And I also opined on the issue in this interview.

The bottom line is that we’re in a very deep hole and Hillary Clinton, simply for reasons of personal ambition, wants to dig the hole deeper. As I remarked in the interview, she’s akin to a Greek politician agitating for more spending in 2007.

Given all this, is anyone surprised that “French President Francois Hollande endorsed Hillary Clinton”? What’s next, a pro-Hillary campaign commercial featuring Nicolas Maduro? A direct mail piece from the ghost of Che Guevara?

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Remember Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, the 1993 comedy classic about a weatherman who experiences the same day over and over again?

Well, the same thing is happening in Japan. But instead of a person waking up and reliving the same day, we get politicians pursuing the same failed Keynesian stimulus policies over and over again.

The entire country has become a parody of Keynesian economics. Yet the politicians make Obama seem like a fiscal conservative by comparison. They keep doubling down on the same approach, regardless of all previous failures.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the details of the latest Keynesian binge.

Japan’s cabinet approved a government stimulus package that includes ¥7.5 trillion ($73 billion) in new spending, in the latest effort by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to jump-start the nation’s sluggish economy. The spending program, which has a total value of ¥28 trillion over several years, represents…an attempt to breathe new life into the Japanese economy… The government will pump money into infrastructure projects… The government will provide cash handouts of ¥15,000, or about $147, each to 22 million low-income people… Other items in the package included interest-free loans for infrastructure projects…and new hotels for foreign tourists.

As already noted, this is just the latest in a long line of failed stimulus schemes.

The WSJ story includes this chart showing what’s happened just since 2008.

And if you go back farther in time, you’ll see that the Japanese version of Groundhog Day has been playing since the early 1990s.

Here’s a list, taken from a presentation at the IMF, of so-called stimulus plans adopted by various Japanese governments between 1992-2008.

And here’s my contribution to the discussion. I went to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database and downloaded the numbers on government borrowing, government debt, and per-capita GDP growth.

I wanted to see how much deficit spending there was and what the impact was on debt and the economy. As you can see, red ink skyrocketed while the private economy stagnated.

Though we shouldn’t be surprised. Keynesian economics didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt, or Bush and Obama, so why expect it to work in another country.

By the way, I can’t resist making a comment on this excerpt from a CNBC report on Japan’s new stimulus scheme.

Abe ordered his government last month to craft a stimulus plan to revive an economy dogged by weak consumption, despite three years of his “Abenomics” mix of extremely accommodative monetary policy, flexible spending and structural reform promises.

In the interest of accuracy, the reporter should have replaced “despite” with “because of.”

In addition to lots of misguided Keynesian fiscal policy, there’s been a radical form of Keynesian monetary policy from the Bank of Japan.

Here are some passages from a very sobering Bloomberg report about the central bank’s burgeoning ownership of private companies.

Already a top-five owner of 81 companies in Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average, the BOJ is on course to become the No. 1 shareholder in 55 of those firms by the end of next year…. BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda almost doubled his annual ETF buying target last month, adding to an unprecedented campaign to revitalize Japan’s stagnant economy. …opponents say the central bank is artificially inflating equity valuations and undercutting efforts to make public companies more efficient. …the monetary authority’s outsized presence will make some shares harder to buy and sell, a phenomenon that led to convulsions in Japan’s government bond market this year. …the BOJ doesn’t acquire individual shares directly, it’s the ultimate buyer of stakes purchased through ETFs. …investors worry that BOJ purchases could give a free ride to poorly-run firms and crowd out shareholders who would otherwise push for better corporate governance.

Wow. I don’t pretend to be an expert on monetary economics, but I can’t image that there will be a happy ending to this story.

Just in case you’re not sufficiently depressed about Japan’s economic outlook, keep in mind that the nation also is entering a demographic crisis, as reported by the L.A. Times.

All across Japan, aging villages such as Hara-izumi have been quietly hollowing out for years… Japan’s population crested around 2010 with 128 million people and has since lost about 900,000 residents, last year’s census confirmed. Now, the country has begun a white-knuckle ride in which it will shed about one-third of its population — 40 million people — by 2060, experts predict. In 30 years, 39% of Japan’s population will be 65 or older.

The effects already are being felt, and this is merely the beginning of the demographic wave.

Police and firefighters are grappling with the safety hazards of a growing number of vacant buildings. Transportation authorities are discussing which roads and bus lines are worth maintaining and cutting those they can no longer justify. …Each year, the nation is shuttering 500 schools. …In Hara-izumi, …The village’s population has become so sparse that wild bears, boars and deer are roaming the streets with increasing frequency.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), even modest-sized welfare states eventually collapse when you wind up with too few workers trying to support an ever-growing number of recipients.

Now maybe you can understand why I’ve referred to Japan as a basket case.

P.S. You hopefully won’t be surprised to learn that Japanese politicians are getting plenty of bad advice from the fiscal pyromaniacs at the IMF and OECD.

P.P.S. Maybe I’m just stereotyping, but I’ve always assumed the Japanese were sensible people, even if they have a bloated and wasteful government. But when you look at that nation’s contribution to the stupidest-regulation contest and the country’s entry in the government-incompetence contest, I wonder whether the Japanese have some as-yet-undiscovered genetic link to Greece?

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I’ve written (some would say excessively) about the fact that America has too many bureaucrats and that they’re paid too much.

That’s true in Washington. That’s true at the state level. And it’s true for local governments.

But since I’m a big believer in beating a dead horse, let’s revisit this issue. We’ll narrow our focus today and look solely at the issue of retirement benefits for state and local bureaucrats.

Why? Because, as explained by Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, the unfunded liability for these schemes has mushroomed into a giant $5 trillion problem.

If the Actuarial Standards Board enacts recommendations from its Pension Task Force, actuarial valuations for state and local government pensions will report unfunded liabilities of over $5 trillion and funding ratios of just 39 percent. The public pensions industry will hate it, but those figures are the best available measures of the costs of public employee retirement plans. …That $5.2 trillion is the number most economists would think is most relevant to considering the costs of public sector pensions. …The simple reality is that public pension underfunding is a significant problem that can only really be addressed by increasing contributions or by lower pension benefits, choices that pretty much everyone involved in the pension world would prefer to avoid.

You won’t be surprised to learn that some states are more irresponsible than others.

CNBC reports that Nebraska is the most prudent and Alaska is the worst (politicians can’t resist squandering oil revenue). Several blue states rank poorly (think Illinois, Connecticut, California, and New Jersey), but there also are red states (such as Louisiana and Kentucky) that have made very foolish promises.

In Nebraska, for example, the pension liability amounts to about $386 per person, the lowest in the nation. That compares with Alaska ($19,394 per person: the highest in the country), Illinois ($15,158 per person) and Connecticut ($14,769). The average pension shortfall in 2014 amounted to $4,383.

The Wall Street Journal has an interactive table that allows readers to see which states have the biggest shortfall.

Meanwhile, Governing has an interactive map showing which states have the biggest gaps.

In other words, state and local bureaucrats have been promised a lot of money when they retire.

Much more money than is available.

And when you add Social Security benefits to the mix, as Andrew Biggs has calculated, you wind up having lots of bureaucrats enjoying very lavish levels of retirement income.

I tabulated the pension benefits paid to full-career “regular” state government employees (meaning, non-public safety) retiring in 2012. For states in which public employees participated in Social Security, I estimated the Social Security benefit the retiree would be eligible to receive. And finally, I compared total retirement benefits to the worker’s earnings immediately preceding retirement. …Mississippi paying the lowest replacement rate of 54% of final earnings. …West Virginia paid the most generous benefits, equal to 115% of final earnings, followed by New Mexico (113%), Oregon (105%), California (102%) and, yes, conservative Texas (101%).

Here’s a map that accompanied the article.

But maybe big numbers, maps and tables are too abstract.

To give some examples of how this is leading to a fiscal crisis, consider these recent news reports.

A story from the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

Nevadans should brace for reduced services, higher taxes or both — the necessary consequence of the Public Employee Retirement System of Nevada (PERS) having badly missed its investment target last year…PERS has now missed its target over the past five, 10, 15, 20 and 25 years — suggesting that another taxpayer-rate hike is on its way. Remarkably, this shortfall has occurred even though markets have nearly tripled from their 2009 lows, and currently sit at or near all-time highs. Nevada’s soaring pension costs — ranked third-highest in the nation at 9.8 percent of own-source revenue, according to 2013 data from the Public Plans Database — aren’t just due to overly optimistic investment assumptions, however. Another factor is the extraordinarily generous nature of the benefits.

A column from the Orange County Register:

…in the world of public sector pensions – among the biggest institutional investors in global markets – politicians…pretend they can count on big investment returns every year, while disregarding warning signs, mounting debts and increasingly unsustainable pension systems. We’re seeing the latest pension fund returns come in, and almost uniformly, it was a terrible year for states – and thus taxpayers. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest U.S. public pension fund, logged a paltry annual return of 0.6 percent. …CalPERS is currently only 76 percent funded, a figure that will inevitably drop given the latest weak returns.

A report from the Portland Tribune:

Oregon’s major business groups want lawmakers to start dealing with rising public pension costs as early as the session that opens Feb. 1. Although those costs start to kick in with the 2017-19 budget cycle — 18 months away — advocates say it’s not too early to whittle down an unfunded liability projected at $18 billion over the next few decades. …projected increases in contributions to PERS, which covers about 95 percent of Oregon’s public workers, will eat deeply into what they can spend over the next several two-year budget cycles. Cheri Helt, co-chair of the Bend-La Pine School Board, says pension costs will jump from the current 16 percent of payroll to 20 percent in 2017-19, and to 25 percent in the cycle afterward. …Jamie Moffitt, vice president and chief financial officer for the University of Oregon, says rising pension costs will eat up 40 percent — about 2 percentage points — of the 5.5 percent average annual increase in tuition.

An editorial about New Jersey in the Wall Street Journal:

New Jersey’s Senate president is in a Brando-like fight with government unions that he says are trying to extort or bribe legislators into doing their bidding. …At issue is the woefully underfunded state pension system. The teachers union wants to put a measure on the November ballot to amend the state constitution to require quarterly state pension payments of increasing amounts. …government unions have so much political sway over politicians that they often call the shots on their own pensions and benefits. …New Jersey’s public pensions are underfunded to the tune of $82 billion. Thomas Healey of the state’s bipartisan Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission notes that pensions and health care now eat up 11% of New Jersey’s budget, and without reform this will grow to 28% by 2025. …The pension commission has proposed reforms—including a shift to a hybrid retirement plan that includes features more akin to a 401(k)—but unions have blocked them. They now want voters to rewrite the state constitution so pension reform would be all but impossible.

A column about the corrupt system in Illinois:

Illinois’s government, says [Gov.] Rauner, “is run for the benefit of its employees.” Increasingly, it is run for their benefit when they retire. Pension promises [are] unfunded by at least $113 billion… The government is so thoroughly unionized (22 unions represent almost all government employees), that “I can’t,” Rauner says, “turn on a light switch without permission.” He exaggerates, somewhat, but the process of trying to fire someone is a career, not an option. …high-tax Illinois will continue bleeding population and businesses, but with one contented cohort — the Democratic political class, for whom the system is working quite well.

The crux of the problem is that most state and local governments have “defined-benefit” plans for bureaucrats, which means that taxpayers are on the hook to provide retiring bureaucrats a specific amount of benefits (not just retirement income, but other goodies such as health care) based on formulas that count years in the workforce, highest salary levels, and other factors. That may not sound totally unreasonable, but politicians realize they can buy votes by cutting deals with government unions and providing retirement benefits that are extremely generous, especially compared to what’s available for workers in the private sector.

But that’s simply one part of the problem. The other part of the problem is the employers with defined-benefit plans (usually referred to as “DB plans”) are supposed to set aside money in investment funds so that there’s a growing pool of assets that can be used to pay for the lavish benefits promised to the bureaucracy. But as we’ve already learned, politicians often are reluctant to take this step. They like committing lots of future money to bureaucrats, but when putting together annual budgets, they generally can buy more votes by allocating money to things like schools and roads rather than depositing money into a pension fund.

So the net result is that there’s a big unfunded liability, meaning that the amount that politicians have promised to give bureaucrats is larger than what’s set aside in the pension funds. And to make matters worse, the pension funds usually have dodgy accounting (they assume the investments will earn more money than is realistic). Which is why the actual shortfall is about $5.2 trillion, as noted above.

Given this ticking time bomb, some of you may be wondering why the title says there’s a libertarian quandary. Surely the answer is to cauterize this fiscal wound with immediate cuts and to avoid an even bigger long-run disaster by shifting newly hired bureaucrats to a defined-contribution system such as IRAs or 401(k)s. This type of reform automatically eliminates any liability for taxpayers since retirement benefits for bureaucrats would be solely a function of contributions to retirement accounts and the investment performance of those funds (most state and local bureaucrats also are part of the Social Security system).

Yes, that is the answer, but the quandary (to add to my collection) is whether the federal government should force, or even encourage, this type of reform. Don’t state and local governments, after all, have the right to make stupid decisions?

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Ed Bachrach argues that Uncle Sam should limit these suicidal policies.

The pensions of states and local governments are, collectively, trillions of dollars in the hole. This debt is crippling budgets and will dump an enormous burden on future generations. Yet state and local politicians have proven that they cannot, or will not, solve the problem. The federal government ought to step in. But how? Instead of bailing out these pensions, Congress should pass a law allowing states and local governments to reduce promised benefits—something that is now illegal under some states’ statutes or constitutions. …Many pensions allow retirement at age 55; states and local governments could mandate that benefits cannot be drawn until age 65. Payments could be capped at 150% of the median income in the local jurisdiction. Automatic cost-of-living increases that now exceed expected inflation could instead be tied to increases in the median income. …Local governments must also be required to terminate their defined-benefit plans. These should be replaced with defined-contribution plans, like 401(k)s or 403(b)s… Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) proposed withholding federal aid to government entities that don’t accurately report pension funding. That would be a step forward but would not solve the problem of underfunding.

I obviously agree that there should be no bailouts, but I’m still not convinced that Washington should mandate good policy by state and local governments.

Federalism means the freedom to adopt good policy…but also the leeway to commit fiscal suicide.

Though Andrew Biggs points out that the part about accurate reporting certainly sounds reasonable.

Congress has a tremendous opportunity to require state and local government employee pension plans to accurately disclose their multi-trillion dollar unfunded liabilities. …For years, economists and government agencies like the Congressional Budget Office have called for so-called “fair market valuation,” which both more accurately calculates the value of public pension liabilities and accurately tells those plans that taking more investment risk doesn’t make their plans cheaper. …there’s legislative language already written: Rep. Devin Nunes’s Public Employee Pension Transparency Act (PEPTA), which has a number of Congressional co-sponsors including House Speaker Paul Ryan, would require state and local plans to accurately disclose their liabilities using fair market valuation. The federal government would respect state and local rights by not forcing any changes to how pensions are funded, but Nunes’s plan would require that state and local governments to tell the public – including people thinking of purchasing municipal bonds – how much they really owe to their pensions.

P.S. By the way, advocates of limited government don’t experience many victories, but there actually was a very good reform of the pension system for federal bureaucrats during the Reagan years. Yes, federal bureaucrats are still over-compensated, but it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be. Yet another example of how Reaganomics was a success.

P.P.S. Shifting to bad news (or laughable news), the hacks in California tried to argue that lavish pensions for bureaucrats boost the economy. Andrew Biggs does a great job of debunking this nonsense.

The California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) issued a report in July claiming that its benefit payments to retired government employees in 2013-2014 “supported 104,974 jobs throughout California and generated more than $15.6 billion in additional economic output.” …To reduce pension benefits for public employees, the study implies, would harm the overall California economy. …This study is nothing short of propaganda that wouldn’t get a passing grade in a freshman economics course. …the CalPERS study lacks one important component, called “counting both sides of the equation.” It needs to count economic costs as well as economic benefits. …CalPERS doesn’t create money out of thin air. Every single dollar of CalPERS benefits comes from a dollar that taxpayers or government employees contributed to the program or from the interest earned on those contributions.

Sounds like the bureaucrats at CalPERS should be working for the Congressional Budget Office.

P.P.P.S. The focus of this column is on the inherent instability of defined-benefit pension plans for bureaucrats, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the underlying issue is that bureaucrats are ripping off taxpayers. Here are some blurbs from a Reason report by Eric Boehm on how this scam works in California.

If public service truly is a sacrifice, then join me in shedding a tear for the 20,900 public workers in California who pulled down more than $100,000 in retirement benefits during 2015. …Leading the way for 2015 was Michael Johnson. The former Solano County administrator received a $388,407 pension last year. …Rounding out the top three are Stephen Maguin, a former Los Angeles County Sanitation District general manager who pulled down $340,811 in 2015 and Joaquin Fuster, a former UCLA professor who got a pension worth $338,412 last year. …Curtis Bowden, a former member of the California Highway Patrol…retired all the way back in 1947, which means he’s been collecting pension checks for 68 years, after working just 5.3 years for the state. He got $24,800 from CalPERS in 2015.

Wow, I’m not sure what’s more impressive, Getting an annual pension of nearly $400K after being a country bureaucrat or working for just a bit over five years and getting 68 years worth of retirement checks?

Seems like both of them should be part of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

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I need combat pay. Or maybe some kind of bonus for pain and suffering. First, I had to watch Donald Trump’s incoherent speech on the economy and try to decipher his mish-mash economic plan.

And then, without the benefit of a lengthy vacation or counseling for post-foolishness stress disorder, I had to endure Hillary Clinton’s speech about the economy.

Though I will admit it was very coherent and there wasn’t much to decipher. As I pointed out in this interview, she wants more wasteful spending, more punitive taxes, and more stifling regulation.

There are two points from this interview that deserve some additional emphasis.

  1. Copying Obama and referring to subsidies and handouts as being an “investment” doesn’t make bigger government a wise use of other people’s money.
  2. Keynesian spending is a scam. It’s the fiscal version of a perpetual motion machine that ostensibly spits out dollar bills when you put quarters in a slot.

I closed the interview by pointing out that it makes no sense to make America more like Greece or Venezuela.

Yet Hillary is too clever to say that’s her agenda. To clear up this confusion, here are a few phrases from her recent speech in Michigan. I’ve helpfully translated them into English.

  • …support advanced manufacturing” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • a lot of urgent and important work to do” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • go out and make that happen” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • enormous capacity for clean energy production” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • if we do it together” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • things that your government could do” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • I will have your back every single day” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • make our economy work for everyone” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • restore fairness to our economy” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • go to bat for working families” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • pass the biggest investment” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • modernizing our roads, our bridges” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • help cities like Detroit and Flint” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • repair schools and failing water systems” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • we should be ambitious” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • connect every household in America to broadband” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • build a cleaner, more resilient power grid” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • creating an infrastructure bank” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • we’re going to invest $10 billion” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • bring business, government, and communities together” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • fight to make college tuition-free” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • liberate millions of people who already have student debt” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • support high-quality union training programs” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • We will do more” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • Investments at home” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • we need to make it fairer” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • we will fight for a more progressive…tax code” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • pay a new exit tax” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • Wall Street, corporations, and the super-rich, should finally pay their fair share” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • I support the so-called ‘Buffett Rule,” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • add a new tax on multi-millionaires” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • close the carried interest loophole” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • Just think about what we could do with those $4 billion dollars” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • I want to invest” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • affordable childcare available to all Americans” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • Paid family leave” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • Raising the federal minimum wage” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • expanding Social Security” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • strengthening unions” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • improve the Affordable Care Act” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • a public option health insurance plan” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.
  • build a new future with clean energy” = Notwithstanding all the previous failures of government, both in America and elsewhere in the world, I’m going to make American more like Greece and Venezuela by using coercion to impose more spending, taxes, and regulation.

The only good news is that Hillary is an incremental statist. Unlike crazy Bernie Sanders, she doesn’t want to become Greece at 90 miles-per-hour. She’s content to travel in the wrong direction at a steady 55 miles-per-hour.

And since Greece is such a basket case, even two terms of Hillary Clinton probably would only result in America having French-type levels of economic freedom. Or lack thereof, to be more accurate.

In other words, it will take a lot of bad policy over a couple of decades to completely hollow out America’s economy. The already-baked-into-the-cake expansion of entitlements will take us part of the way to that unfortunate destination.

And, to mix my metaphors, Hillary will be content to add a few more straws to the camel’s back.

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I don’t like election years because the policy debate tends to revolve around the various proposals put forth by candidates. And since those ideas generally don’t make much sense, it’s a frustrating period.

But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that it does create opportunities to comment on what the candidates are saying…and hopefully steer the discussion in a more productive direction.

For instance, I just authored a column about Trump’s plan for Time. I pointed out what’s good (such as a lower corporate rate and death tax repeal), what’s bad (pork-barrel infrastructure and a whiff on entitlement reform), and what’s ugly (protectionism and a new loophole for childcare costs).

But my biggest complaint, which was part of the “bad” section, dealt with Trump’s failure to produce any plan to control the size of government. And echoing a point I made late last year, a big tax cut simply isn’t viable unless it’s accompanied by a credible proposal to rein in Leviathan.

It will be very hard to have a tax cut of any size unless Trump also has some sort of plan to limit the growth of government spending. Unfortunately, outside of vague rhetoric about “waste, fraud, and abuse,” it’s unclear that he is serious about the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

I also made similar points in this CNBC interview, which covered all of the main features of Trump’s economic agenda.

You’ll notice in the interview that I said Trump should propose some sort of spending cap.

Well, maybe my wish will be granted. A story published by Bloomberg looks at Trump’s flirtation with a specific form of spending cap known as the Penny Plan.

Donald Trump on Tuesday revisited a budget-trimming measure called the “penny plan” in response to fresh questions about how he’d finance his agenda. “Well, we’re cutting back, I mean whether it’s a penny plan—which is something that, as simple as it is, I’ve always sort of liked,” the Republican presidential nominee said on Fox Business… Trump remained short on further specifics about how he’d pay for his proposals.

But let’s say he goes beyond sympathetic comments and actually embraces the Penny Plan. The article gives some detail of the proposal.

In variations of the “penny plan,” …one cent is cut per dollar in the federal budget over a period of six or seven years and a spending cap is imposed until the budget is balanced. Different programs can see greater than 1 percent cuts—or no cuts—as long as overall spending is reduced by 1 percent each year… The math generally works out, the nonpartisan fact-checking website PolitiFact found in 2012 when analyzing a Republican lawmaker’s version of the proposal.

And for further detail, Justin Bogie and Romina Boccia have a column in the Daily Signal.

Last week, a House Budget Committee member, Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., and the Senate Budget Committee chairman, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., introduced the “Penny Plan,” which would implement an aggregate spending cap beginning in 2017 and “would cut a single penny from every dollar the federal government spends.” Under this plan, for fiscal year 2017, the cap would be $3.6 trillion for total noninterest outlays minus 1 percent. For each subsequent year through 2021, outlays would be capped at the previous year’s level (not including net interest payments) minus 1 percent.

Wow, this is hard-core spending restraint.

I have written favorably about the Penny Plan, but I normally promote the Swiss Debt Brake, which is a spending cap that has allowed government spending to grow each year by an average of 2 percent.

I must be a big-government squish!

Here are more details on the Penny Plan. Most important, it is enforced by sequestration.

…spending reductions necessary to arrive at the capped level would be enforced by sequestration. Unlike the current form of sequestration applied to the Budget Control Act spending caps, the Penny Plan would not exempt any of the programs listed under the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, except payments for net interest. …Spending caps, enforced with automatic cuts, serve to motivate Congress to prioritize among competing demands for resources. Designed properly, caps can curb excessive spending growth over the long run.

The bottom line, according to Bogie and Boccia, is that a sequester-enforced spending cap is critical for good long-run fiscal policy.

The Penny Plan takes a step toward consideration of a statutory spending cap to limit the growth in government and improve the nation’s fiscal course. Congress must put the country’s budget on a sustainable path to secure prosperity for current and future generations, and a spending cap is one important tool to get there.

My bottom line is similar. I’m a huge fan of spending caps (which have a much better track record than balanced budget requirements).

The key is to make sure that government grows slower than the private sector. And the more spending is restrained (especially if it’s actually cut 1 percent each year), the quicker and better the results.

There’s lots of evidence of nations getting good results when they cap spending. I don’t know if Donald Trump is serious about a spending cap (or whether he’s serious about the policies needed to make sure overall spending stays within a cap), but I know it’s the right policy.

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Does the economic chaos in Greece suggest that government should be bigger?

Is Venezuela’s economic collapse evidence that larger governments boost growth?

Should we learn from Italy’s pervasive stagnation that public sectors should be expanded?

Most people, looking at this real-world evidence, would quickly answer no to these questions.

But Eduardo Porter is not most people. Writing for the New York Times, he openly argues that government should be bigger. Much bigger.

Over the last six years, according to the Pew Research Center, four out of every five — or more — have said the government makes them feel either angry or frustrated. …These frustrated Americans may not fully realize it, under the influence of decades worth of sermons about government’s ultimate incompetence and venality. But there’s a strong case for more government — not less — as the most promising way to improve the nation’s standard of living.

He bases much of his column on the work of four left-wing academics.

Here’s his summary of their work.

The scholars laid out four important tasks: improving the economy’s productivity, bolstering workers’ economic security, investing in education to close the opportunity deficit of low-income families, and ensuring that Middle America reaps a larger share of the spoils of growth. Their strategy includes more investment in the nation’s buckling infrastructure and expanding unemployment and health insurance. It calls for paid sick leave, parental leave and wage insurance for workers who suffer a pay cut when changing jobs. And they argue for more resources for poor families with children and for universal early childhood education.

Improving productivity would be a very good idea. Indeed, producing more output per unit of capital and labor is basically how we become richer.

But while Porter and the statist academics might recognize that higher productivity is a good destination, the route they choose (bigger government, more punitive tax burden, additional regulation, lots of mandates, etc) will move the economy in the opposite direction.

If we want more growth, the best way to boost productivity is with capital formation and entrepreneurship. But  leftists, with their fixation on inequality, are reflexively opposed to the types of tax reforms that enable more saving, investment, and risk-taking.

Instead, they want the suffocating embrace of the European welfare state.

They propose raising government spending by 10 percentage points of the nation’s gross domestic product ($1.8 trillion in today’s dollars), to bring it to some 48 percent of G.D.P. by 2065. …Here are some other things Europeans got from their trade-off: lower poverty rates, lower income inequality, longer life spans, lower infant mortality rates, lower teenage pregnancy rates and lower rates of preventable death. And the coolest part, according to Mr. Lindert — one of the authors of the case for big government — is that they achieved this “without any clear loss in G.D.P.”

There are several assertions here that cry out for correction (poverty indices should measure actual poverty rather than income distribution) and elaboration (is inequality bad when all income classes in America have more income than their counterparts in Europe?), but the most absurd claim is the “coolest part” about Europe making government bigger without sacrificing prosperity.

This is absurd. Living standards in Europe (even Western Europe) are far below American standards. And even though convergence theory tells us that poorer nations should grow the fastest, Europe no longer is closing the gap with the United States.

Indeed, the gap is actually widening.

So how does Porter justify his anti-empirical statements? For evidence of his remarkable assertion about European growth, Porter’s column includes this chart, which (we are supposed to believe) shows that “many countries where government has grown the most have also experienced stronger economic growth.”

In reality, though, this chart merely shows the long-established relationship known as Wagner’s Law, which is that politicians figure out how to redistribute lots of money once nations become comparatively wealthy.

If Porter bothered to follow the academic evidence, he would see that nations can enjoy rapid growth and become rich during periods with small government and free markets, but growth slows considerably once politicians impose high tax rates and lots of redistribution.

By the way, Porter’s column contains two rather interesting accidental admissions. He confesses that a) a value-added tax is necessary to finance big welfare states (and one of the academics cited by Porter has explicitly acknowledged this point), and b) he admits that income taxes impose considerable economic damage.

Europe’s reliance on consumption taxes — which are easier to collect and have fewer negative incentives on work — allowed them to collect more money without generating the kind of economic drag of the United States’ tax structure, which relies more on income taxes.

Porter is completely correct about the role of the VAT in enabling much bigger government. This helps to explain why I’m so fixated on smothering every VAT proposal in its infancy, even when proposed with ostensibly good intentions (for instance, the Rand Paul tax plan and Ted Cruz tax plan).

Though he seems to be implying that a VAT isn’t bad for the economy. This is nonsense. First, the VAT enables bigger government, which necessarily damages the economy because capital and labor are diverted from the more productive and efficient private economy.

And a VAT also is bad for the economy because it drives a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. Which is exactly the same argument against payroll taxes and income taxes on wages and salaries. The only accurate argument he could make is that VATs don’t do as much damage, per dollar raised, as income tax systems that include double taxation of saving and investment.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s close by re-focusing on the main topic of whether more government spending is associated with better economic performance.

I could cite research by the World Bank to show that Porter and his academic buddies are wrong. I also could share research from the European Central Bank. Or plenty of other sources.

But I (not-so-humbly) think these two videos from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity are the best summary.

Here’s the empirical evidence on government spending and growth.

And here’s the empirical evidence on the growth-maximizing size of government (hint: much smaller than Porter suggests).

If this hasn’t exhausted your interest in this topic, click here for my entire four-part video series on the economics of government spending.

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