Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Government Spending’ Category

What’s the most depressing chart in the world?

If you believe in limited government and you’re looking back in time, this example or this example are good candidates.

But if we’re looking into the future, this chart from a new study by the European Central Bank is very sobering.

And it’s a depressing chart because it doesn’t matter whether you believe in big government or small government. That’s because this chart shows a dramatic shift in population demographics.

Simply stated, Europe’s welfare states are in deep trouble because over time there will be fewer and fewer workers to pay taxes and more and more old people expecting benefits.

Here’s what the ECB experts, Katalin Bodnár and Carolin Nerlich, wrote about their findings.

The euro area, like many other advanced economies, has entered an era of drastic demographic change. …Declining birth rates and rising life expectancy are causing the number of pensioners to increase relative to workers. In the next one and a half decades, this trend will be amplified as the sizeable baby boom generation enters retirement and the cohort of workers shrinks. …The old-age dependency ratio is projected to reach almost 54% by 2070… If left unaddressed, population ageing will pose a burden on public finances in the euro area, given the relatively strong role of publicly financed pension and health care systems. Debt sustainability challenges might arise from mounting ageing-related public spending, which will be particularly a concern in high debt countries.

That last sentence in the above excerpt should win a prize for understatement of the year.

Many of Europe’s welfare states already are on the verge of crisis. And as demographics change over time (findings replicated in the European Commission’s Ageing Report), they will go from bad to worse.

Here’s a breakdown of how the “age dependency ratio” will change in various nations.

By the way, if you look at the right side of Chart 4, you’ll see Japan’s horrible numbers as well as a worrisome trend for the United States.

Most people focus on how demographic change will lead to more debt.

I think it’s more important to focus on the underlying problem of government spending.

This next chart combines both. The vertical axis shows the increase in age-related government spending while the horizontal axis shows debt levels.

The bottom line is that countries in the top-right quadrant are in deep trouble. Especially in the long run (though Italy could go belly-up very soon).

The ECB report does suggest ways to address this looming crisis.

To safeguard against the adverse economic and fiscal consequences of population ageing, there is a need to build-up fiscal buffers during good economic times, to improve the quality of public finance and to implement growth-enhancing structural reforms. …Further pension reforms are needed that encourage workers to postpone their retirement.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of these things to happen. Building up “fiscal buffers” means running surpluses today to offset deficits tomorrow. But European nations are running big deficits because of excessive spending today, so there will be no maneuvering room in the future.

P.S. Here’s some comedy (and more comedy) about Europe’s fiscal mess.

P.P.S. It is possible to reduce large debt burdens, so long as governments simply restrain spending.

Read Full Post »

Echoing remarks earlier this month to a group in Nigeria, I spoke today about fiscal economics to the 2022 Africa Liberty Camp in Entebbe, Uganda.

During the Q&A session, I was asked to specify the ideal amount of government spending. I addressed that issue in an April interview while visiting Spain.

You’ll notice that I didn’t give a specific number in the above video. Just like I didn’t give a specific number to the audience in Uganda.

That’s because there is not an exact answer. The only thing we can definitively state is that government in most nations should be far smaller than it is today.

This is illustrated by the “Rahn Curve,” which I discussed both in the interview and in my speech today.

What is the Rahn Curve? Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2015.

…it shows the non-linear relationship between the size of government and economic performance. Simply stated, some government spending presumably enables growth by creating the conditions (such as rule of law and property rights) for commerce. But as politicians learn to buy votes and enhance their power by engaging in redistribution, then government spending is associated with weaker economic performance because of perverse incentives and widespread misallocation of resources.

And here’s a visual depiction of the Rahn Curve. The upward-sloping part of the curve shows that spending on genuine public goods is associated with more prosperity. But once government budgets exceed a certain level, additional spending means weaker economic performance.

In the above graph, I show that growth is maximized when government consumes about 15 percent-20 percent of economic output.

But I actually think prosperity would be maximized if government was a smaller burden, perhaps about 5 percent-10 percent of GDP.

In 2017, I explained the appropriate role of government in a libertarian society. My analysis was based on my “minarchist” views, which imply government only spends money for national defense and rule of law.

By contrast, my anarcho-capitalist friends would say we don’t need any government.

Meanwhile, moderate libertarians (or conservative Republicans) might be amenable to having state and local governments play a role in education and infrastructure.

The bottom line is that I think growth would be maximized if government consumes – at most – 10 percent of economic output (which was the size of government in the 1800s when the Western world became rich).

But I will be happy with any progress (particularly since government is projected to become an even bigger burden if left on autopilot).

If you want to watch more videos related to the Rahn curve, there are many options.

P.S. Here’s my response to a critic from the left.

P.P.S. Interestingly, some normally left-leaning international bureaucracies have acknowledged you get more prosperity with smaller government. Check out the analysis from the IMF, ECB, World Bank, and OECD.

Read Full Post »

As part of my recent appearance on The Square Circle (we discussed Uvalde police, gun control, and Ukraine), I said that the new Social Security numbers were the under-reported story of the week.

For more details, I was referring to the latest Trustees Report, published yesterday by the Social Security Administration.

Most people, when that annual report is released, focus on when the Social Security Trust Fund runs out of money. But since the Trust Fund only contains IOUs, I view that as a largely irrelevant number.

Instead, I immediately look at Table VI.G9, which shows how much revenue is being collected and how much money is being spent every year.

Here is that data displayed in a chart. The left side shows actual fiscal numbers from 1970 to 2021 while the right side shows the projections between 2022 and 2100.

As you can see in the chart, revenues going into the system (the blue line) are growing rapidly.

But you also can see that Social Security spending (the orange line) is expanding even faster.

And when spending grows faster than revenue, one consequences is more red ink.

This next chart shows that annual deficits between now and 2100 will total $56 trillion.

At the risk of understatement, these two charts should be very sobering. Especially since they only show the taxes, spending, and red ink for Social Security.

If we also add the fiscal aggregates for other entitlement programs, it would be abundantly clear why we face a “crisis” and a “train wreck.”

So how do we solve this mess. I’ve written about the needed reforms for Medicare and Medicaid, so let’s focus today on Social Security.

The ideal approach is to take the current pay-as-you-go entitlement and turn it into a system of personal retirement accounts.

Many nations around the world have adopted this approach, most notably Chile and Australia.

But as I noted two years ago, there will be a big “transition” challenge if the United States decides to modernize.

P.S. I mentioned “public choice” at the end of that clip. You can click here to learn more about the economic analysis of political choices.

P.P.S. I mentioned that Chile and Australia have created personal retirement accounts. You can also learn about reforms in Switzerland, Hong Kong, Netherlands, the Faroe Islands, Denmark, Israel, and Sweden.

Read Full Post »

The 21st century has been bad news for America’s taxpayers. Every president (George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden) has been a big spender.

We obviously can’t give Biden a final grade since he has at least two more years in office (though his performance so far has been dismal – and his so-called Build Back Better is an ongoing threat to fiscal sanity).

But there is comprehensive data allowing us to assess Biden’s three predecessors. Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute has a new report that shows what happened to red ink under Bush, Obama, and Trump.

He measures what happened to 10-year deficit projections based on both legislated changes (what laws were enacted during time in office) and changes in economic and technical assumptions (largely driven by unanticipated changes in the economy).

As I’ve repeatedly written, I don’t think we should focus on red ink. What really matters is the burden of government spending.

So I’ve taken Brian’s rigorous analysis and highlighted what happened to government spending during the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations.

We’ll start with George W. Bush, who approved laws adding almost $4.3 trillion to America’s spending burden.

Then we have Barack Obama, who added $1.4 trillion to America’s spending burden.

Then we have Donald Trump, who added $6 trillion to America’s spending burden.

Here are some final observations about the numbers.

The bottom line is that I wish we could return to the spending restraint that America enjoyed during the final two decades of the 20th century.

Read Full Post »

America’s fiscal future is very grim, largely because of an ever-expanding burden of entitlement spending.

To see the magnitude of the problem, let’s peruse the Budget and Economic Outlook, which was released yesterday by the Congressional Budget Office has some.

Most people are focusing on how deficits are going to climb from $1 trillion to $2 trillion-plus over the next 10 years.

That’s not good news, but we should be far more worried about the fact that the burden of government spending is growing faster than the private economy. As a result, government will be consuming an ever-larger share of national output.

The budget wonks who (mistakenly) focus on red ink say the problem is so serious that we need higher taxes.

They look at this chart, which is based on CBO’s baseline forecast (what will happen if taxes and spending are left on autopilot), and assert we have no choice but to raise taxes.

They point out that the annual deficit in 2032 will be almost $2.3 trillion and that it’s impossible cut spending by that much.

Needless to say, it would be a near-impossible political undertaking to cut $2.3 trillion in one year (though it would fulfill libertarian fantasies).

But what if, instead of kicking the can down the road, policymakers imposed some sort of overall spending cap to avoid a giant deficit in 10 year.

This second chart displays that scenario. I took CBO’s baseline (autopilot) numbers and assumed that spending could only increase by 1.4 percent annually starting in 2024.

As you can see, that modest bit of fiscal discipline completely eliminates the project $2.3 trillion annual deficit in 2032.

In other words, there is no need for any tax increase.

Especially since politicians almost certainly would respond to the expectation of additional revenue by increasing spending above the baseline (as would happen with Joe Biden’s so-called Build Back Better scheme).

I’ll close by noting that there’s no need to fixate on whether the budget is balanced by 2032. What matters is trend lines.

It’s not good for government to grow faster than the private economy in the long run. And it’s not good for deficits and debt to climb as a share of economic output in the long run.

Both of those outcomes can be avoided if we have some sort of spending cap so that outlays grow slower than the private sector.

The stricter the cap, the quicker the progress.

  • I prefer actual cuts (a requirement to reduce nominal spending each year).
  • I would be happy with a hard freeze (like we had for a few years after the Tea Party revolt).
  • As noted above, a 1.4 percent spending cap balances the budget by 2032.
  • But we would make progress, albeit slow progress, even if the spending cap allowed the budget to grow by 2.0 percent of 2.5 percent per year.

P.S. I start the spending cap in 2024 because spending is not projected to grow by very much between 2022 and 2023. That’s not because today’s politicians are being responsible, however. It’s simply a result of one-time pandemic emergency spending coming to an end. But since that one-time spending has a big impact on short-run numbers, I delayed the spending cap for one year.

P.P.S. The blue revenue line has a kink in 2025 because the baseline forecast assumes that many of the Trump tax cuts expire that year. If those tax cuts are extended or made permanent, revenues would be about $400 billion lower in 2032. As such, balancing the budget by that year would require a spending cap that allows annual outlays to increase by less than 0.9 percent per year.

P.P.P.S. President Biden is bragging that the deficit is falling this year, but that’s only because the one-time pandemic spending is coming to an end.

P.P.P.P.S. A spending cap is a simple solution, but it would not be an easy solution. In the long-run, it would require genuine entitlement reform.

Read Full Post »

More than 10 years ago, I narrated this video showing how the United States benefited from spending restraint under both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Since today’s topic is Clinton’s policies, pay attention starting about 4:00.

If you don’t have time to watch the video, I hope you will at least pay attention to this chart, which appeared near the end (about 6:00).

It shows what happened to domestic spending (entitlements plus discretionary) as a share of economic output during the Reagan years, the Clinton years, and the 2001-2010 period under Bush and Obama.

Reagan was the runaway champion, but it’s worth noting that the burden of domestic spending also declined during the Clinton years.

But it wasn’t just that Bill Clinton was good on spending. Good things happened in the 1990s in other areas as well, especially trade.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Bill Galston defends Clinton’s “neoliberal” record.

… critics often mark the Clinton administration as the moment when establishment Democrats capitulated to the ideology of the unfettered market. Poor and working-class Americans paid the price, they charge… The historical record tells a different story. …During eight years of the Clinton administration, annual real growth in gross domestic product averaged a robust 3.8% while inflation was restrained, averaging 2.6%. Payrolls increased by 22.9 million… Unemployment fell from 7.3% in January 1993 to…4.2% at the end of President Clinton’s second term. Adjusted for inflation, real median household income rose by 13.9%. …During the administration, federal spending as a share of GDP fell from 21.2% to 17.5%… What about the poor? The poverty rate declined during the Clinton administration by nearly one quarter, from 15.1% to 11.3%, near its historic low. And it declined even faster among minorities—by 8.1 percentage points for Hispanics and 10.9 points for blacks. …In sum, during the heyday of neoliberalism, Americans weren’t forced to choose between high growth and low inflation or between aggregate growth and fairness for the poor, working class and minorities.

Why did we get these good results?

Because overall economic freedom increased during the Clinton years. And when the burden of government is reduced, that creates more opportunity for upward advancement for everyone in society.

By the way, I’m not arguing in today’s column that Bill Clinton deserves all the credit. There’s little doubt that the Republican landslide in 1994 played a big role in many of the subsequent pro-market reforms (such as welfare reform, the 1997 tax cut, etc).

But I will say that Bill Clinton at least was amenable to pro-market compromises, which is not what we saw during the Obama years (and I doubt we will see a shift to the center from Biden if Republicans win Congress this November).

P.S. Republicans were able to impose some fiscal discipline on Obama after the Tea Party landslide of 2010

P.P.S. For those who want more details, click here for a detailed examination of the fiscal policy performance of various modern presidents.

Read Full Post »

When I first started writing this daily column, the Congressional Budget Office was infamous for dodgy economics.

That was the bad news.

The good news is that CBO is more of a mainstream organization today.

It’s far from being libertarian, to be sure, but it no longer seems to have the left-leaning bias that plagued the bureaucracy in the past (it had gotten so bad that I advised Republicans not to cite CBO numbers even when they seemed helpful to the cause of less government).

For instance, I grudgingly acknowledged a few years ago that CBO was better (but still not good) when analyzing potential repeal of Obamacare.

And I was actually impressed last year when CBO published a report showing that a bigger burden of government spending would reduce growth.

And now we have another report that reaches similar conclusions.

The new study, released last month, considers what would happen if lawmakers decided to control red ink by either raising taxes of by restraining spending.

A perpetually rising debt-to-GDP ratio is unsustainable over the long term because financing deficits and servicing the debt would consume an ever-growing proportion of the nation’s income. In this report, CBO analyzes the effects of measures that policymakers could take to prevent debt as a percentage of GDP from continuing to climb. Policymakers could restrain the growth of spending, raise revenues, or pursue some combination of those two approaches. …or this analysis, CBO examined two simplified policies. The first would raise federal tax rates on different types of income proportionally. The second would cut spending for certain government benefit programs—mostly for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Under each of the two stylized policy options, debt as a percentage of GDP would be fully stabilized 10 years after the changes were implemented.

By the way, I would have greatly preferred if CBO estimated the impact of genuine entitlement reforms.

Trimming spending for existing programs is better than nothing, of course, but the goal should be to achieve both structural reforms and budgetary savings.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to what was actually in the report. Here’s what CBO projects if policy makers choose to raise taxes.

…the higher tax rates that would be required if implementation of the policy was delayed would reduce after-tax wages, which would discourage work and lower the aggregate supply of labor. Those reductions in capital stock and the labor supply would cause GDP to be lower… As a result, GDP would be 0.9 percent lower in 2051 if implementation of the policy was delayed by 5 years and 2.6 percent lower if it was delayed by 10 years.

And here’s what happens if they decide to trim benefits.

…a drop in benefits would reduce people’s income and induce some people to work more to, at least partially, maintain their standard of living, thereby increasing the aggregate labor supply. …a drop in expected future retirement benefits would induce workers to save more before they retired, and that increased saving would, in turn, increase the aggregate capital stock.

Figure 3 from the report allows readers to compare how the different options affect the economy’s output.

In other words, we get lower living standards if taxes go up and higher living standards if spending is restrained.

How big is the difference? As you can see, the tax increase options (light green) cause significant long-run reductions in gross domestic product.

Trimming benefits by contrast (the dark green lines) actually lead to a slight increase in economic output.

The report accurately explains why the two policy choices produce such different results.

…GDP would be lower after an increase in income tax rates than it would be after cuts in benefit payments… Whereas benefit cuts strengthen people’s incentives to work and save, tax increases weaken those incentives and thus reduce the capital stock, the labor supply, and output.

In other words, it’s not a good idea to copy nations such as France, Italy, and Greece.

Which is a good description of Biden’s so-called plan to Build Back Better.

Read Full Post »

After almost 16 months in office, what is President Biden’s track record on fiscal policy?

The good news is that his big tax-and-spend plan to “build back better” has not been approved by Congress (and fingers crossed that it stays that way).

The bad news is that he has done other things, such as getting a fake stimulus though Congress, as well as a so-called infrastructure package.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget put together an estimate of his major initiatives.

By the way, the CRFB folks fixate on how these initiative impact the deficit. What we really should be concerned about is how much money is being spent.

But let’s set that aside and focus instead on a jaw-dropping claim from the White House.

Even though all of his major initiatives have increased red ink, he is patting himself on the back for lower deficits.

For what it is worth, Biden’s claim is semi-accurate. It is true that budget deficits are temporarily falling.

But not because of him. Instead, red ink is falling because there was massive, one-time, multi-trillion dollar emergency spending for the COVID pandemic in 2020. That spending began to wind down in 2021 and it has mostly dissipated this year, so of course deficits have fallen.

For Biden to take credit for this drop would be akin to Truman taking credit for the big drop in red ink after World War II ended.

Eric Boehm of Reason wrote a column that debunks Biden’s ludicrous claim.

…this year’s budget deficit is forecasted to be the third or fourth-largest in American history—but President Joe Biden claims…his administration is overseeing a period of fiscal austerity. …Here are some words that actually tumbled out of the president’s mouth at a press conference… “We’re on track to cut the federal deficit by another $1.5 trillion by the end of this fiscal year. …on top of us having a $350 billion drop in the deficit last year, my first year as president,” Biden continued. …Those facts, however, exclude a few key details. …Biden took office the year after the budget deficit hit previously unimaginable highs due to a completely unprecedented spending binge triggered by a once-in-a-generation public health disaster. …if you look at the actual budgetary baselines published by the Congressional Budget Office—that is, the ongoing amount of annual federal spending absent any emergency stimulus bills like the ones passed on several occasions during the height of the pandemic—Biden has overseen a noticeable increase in the deficit above the pre-pandemic baseline. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a fiscal watchdog group that advocates for lower deficits, Biden’s policies have added about $2.5 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years.

Brian Riedl is now with the Manhattan Institute, but we used to work together earlier this century at the Heritage Foundation. One of his admirable traits is that he hasn’t lost the ability to be outraged.

That comes through in his tweet about Biden’s supposed accomplishment.

By the way, I’m not making a partisan point. I have no doubt Trump would have done the same thing.

After all, politicians are probably the least ethical people in the nation. And Washington brings out the worst of the worst.

Read Full Post »

Since I’m a big fan of spending caps, I’m very happy to be in Zurich as part of the Free Market Road Show.

Switzerland’s spending cap (called “the debt brake“) is probably the best system in the world. It does have an escape clause for emergencies, so the government did increase spending during the pandemic.

But as this chart illustrates, Swiss lawmakers were much more responsible than their American counterparts. Over the past few years, IMF data shows that the national debt (as a share of GDP) increased by about 3.4 percent in Switzerland compared to 12.8 percent in the United States.

Even more amazing, Switzerland is now quickly restoring spending restraint.

Indeed, as reported by Le News, Switzerland already is going to be back to fiscal balance by the end of this year.

The Covid-19 pandemic plunged Switzerland’s budget into the red in 2020 and 2021. The federal government expects to return to normality with a balanced budget in 2022. …In 2022, the federal government expects to spend CHF 0.6 billion less than it collects. …the government is aiming for an ordinary operating surplus of CHF 1 billion. Past budget surpluses may also be applied to the accumulated deficit to bring the accounting into line with the debt brake rules.

If you want to know why there such quick progress, one of the big banks, Credit Suisse, recently analyzed the nation’s fiscal status and explained how the debt brake requires future spending restraint to compensate for the emergency spending during the pandemic.

As part of the pandemic response, the Federal Council approved fiscal measures of over 70 billion Swiss francs… As a result of the debt brake, this deficit should be offset in the immediate following years. …the Federal Council announced that it would classify the majority of the fiscal measures as extraordinary spending. Under the law, this can be paid back more slowly – specifically, within six years. Additionally, with the escape clause, the Federal Assembly has the option of extending the repayment deadline even further in special cases.

Another international bank, ING, also issued a report about the country’s spending cap and actually expressed concern that the level of government debt is too low.

The main cause of Switzerland’s low indebtedness is a mechanism introduced by the Confederation to stabilise the federal debt: “the debt brake”. Enabled in the Constitution since 2003, with a population approval rate of 85% in 2001, the rule has strong legitimacy and many cantons have introduced similar models. The principle: public spending should not exceed revenues over a full economic cycle. The formula allows for a deficit during a recession, offset by surpluses during an expansion period. …the implementation of this system has resulted in a significant debt reduction, rather than just stabilisation. This is because the rule is applied asymmetrically and expenditure tends to be overestimated each year, while revenue is systematically underestimated. …every budget surplus is greeted with a self-congratulatory round of applause on the sound management of public finances.

Here’s a chart from the article showing on government debt began to decline once the spending cap was implemented. By contrast, debt in other industrialized nations has continued to climb.

Keep in mind, by the way, that this chart was before the pandemic.

Given Switzerland’s more prudent approach, the gap between the two lines is even higher today.

P.S. If you want a more in-depth discussion of how Switzerland’s de facto spending cap operates, there’s a very good article in the Swiss Journal of Economics and Statistics. Authored by Tobias Beljean and Alain Geier, the 2013 study has a lot of useful information.

…the success is not just visible in figures – it is also evident in the way that the budget process has changed. The debt brake has turned the budget process upside down. Previously, spending intentions were submitted by individual government offices, and it was very difficult to make changes to a large number of budget items during the short interval between the first consolidated budget plan (largely influenced by government offices) between April and the final budget proposal in June. More problematic still, the finance minister faced the potential opposition of six “spending” ministers, who were each looking for support to get their policy proposals into the budget. The budget process is now essentially a top-down process, in which targets are set at the beginning of the process and then broken down to individual ministries and offices. …One key aspect is the fact that the debt brake sets a clear target for the deficit and expenditure. …the (risk-averse) administration tends to plan its spending cautiously so as to not exceed the limit of the credit item. Hence, actual outcomes are mostly below spending limits and are not compensated for by occasional overspending and supplementary credits. The consequence for overall spending is a systematic undershooting of expenditure with respect to the budget. … This “revenue brake” and the “debt brake” taken together now result in a framework similar to an expenditure rule, as it is rather difficult to meet the requirements of the debt brake through revenue-side measures – at least in the short term.

P.P.S. You can also read a couple of good summaries (here and here) from the Swiss government’s Federal Finance Administration.

P.P.P.S. Hong Kong also has a spending cap, and Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights is a spending cap as well. You can click here to watch informative video presentations about the various spending caps.

Read Full Post »

Whether they are based on 10 questions or 144 questions, I can’t resist taking quizzes that supposedly identify one’s political or economic philosophy.

The good news, according to various quizzes, is that I’m 92 percent minarchist and only 6 percent communist.

Today, we are going to take a quiz prepared by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. It is designed to determine fiscal priorities. You can click here to answer the 21 questions.

As is often the case with online tests and quizzes, I’m frustrated by the sloppy wording of certain questions.

Question #8 asks if we should spend more or less on interest. I answered “less,” of course, but the only way to make that happen (other than default) is to change policies so that the government borrows less money.

I imagine 99 percent of people who take the quiz will also answer “less,” but those results mean nothing without follow-up questions about whether they want less spending or higher taxes.*

Question #17 asks if we should spend more or less on seniors or children. Like any sensible libertarian I want to spend less on both categories, so how do I answer?

Question #19 asks if we should spend more or less on seniors or welfare. Once again, the correct answer is to spend less on both categories, so there’s no logical way to respond.

For what it’s worth, I opted to spend less on both children and welfare for the simple reason that – in my libertarian fantasy world – it would take longer to implement reforms to replace Medicare and Social Security.

Given the inadequate wording of the quiz, I’m not surprised I got these strange results.

Notwithstanding what the top panels says, I don’t want to spend more on so-called public investment, regardless of whether that means infrastructure or research and development.

With regards to the bottom panel, I do want to spend less on children. Or, to be more accurate, I want the government to spend less on children so that families will have greater ability to spend more on children.

I’ll close by stating that I much prefer the CRFB quiz I took last year. The questions were better designed and it gave me very accurate results (i.e., I’m a “minimalist” who is “in favor of smaller government”).

*On paper, tax increases reduce debt and therefore reduce interest costs. In the real world, higher taxes lead to weaker economic performance and a larger burden of spending, thus producing more debt and higher interest costs.

Read Full Post »

Keynesian economics is based on the misguided notion that consumption drives the economy.

In reality, high levels of consumption should be viewed an indicator of a strong economy.

The real drivers of economic strength are private investment and private production.

After all, we can’t consume unless we first produce.*

Not everyone agrees with these common-sense observations. The Biden Administration, for instance, claimed the economy would benefit if Congress approved a costly $1.9 trillion “stimulus” plan last year.

Yet we wound up with 4 million fewer jobs than the White House projected. We even wound up with fewer jobs than the Administration estimated if there was no so-called stimulus.

So what did we get for all that money?

Some say we got inflation. In a column for the Hill, Professor Carl Schramm from Syracuse is unimpressed by Biden’s plan. And he’s even less impressed by the left-leaning economists who claimed it is a good idea to increase the burden of government.

Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz rounded up another 16 of the 36 living American Nobel Prize economists to declare, in an open letter, that…there was no threat of inflation. …The Nobelists’ letter showed that those signing had bought Team Biden’s novel argument that its enormous expansion of social welfare programs really was just a different form of infrastructure investment, just like roads and bridges. …The laureates seemed to have overlooked that previous COVID benefits had often exceeded what tens of millions of workers regularly earned and that recipients displaced by COVID were never required to look for other work. While the high priests of economic “science” were cheering on higher federal spending, larger deficits and increased taxes, employers were and are continuing to deal with inflation face-to-face. …The Nobelists assured that we would see a robust recovery because of President Biden’s “active government interventions.” Their presumed authority was used to give credence to the president’s continuously twisting storyline on inflation — that it was “transitory,” good for the economy, a “high-class problem,” Putin’s fault for invading Ukraine, and the greed of oil and food companies… Today’s fashionable goals seem to have displaced the no-nonsense pragmatism that has long characterized economics as a discipline. …Don’t expect a mea culpa from Stiglitz or his coauthors any time soon. …They can be wrong, really wrong, and never pay a price.

The New York Post editorialized about Biden’s economic missteps and reached similar conclusions.

President Joe Biden loves to blame our sky-high inflation on corporate greed and Vladimir Putin. But a new study from the San Francisco Fed shows it was Biden himself who put America on this grim trajectory. …other advanced economies…haven’t seen anything like the soaring prices now punishing workers across America. Which means that the spike is due to something US-specific, rather than global prevailing conditions. That policy, was, of course, Biden’s signature economic “achievement.” …The damage it did has been massive. …inflation…to 7%… Put in concrete terms, a recent Bloomberg calculation translates this to an added $433 per month in household expenses for 2022. And historic producer price inflation, a shocking 10%, guarantees even more pain ahead.

For what it’s worth, I don’t fully agree with Professor Schramm or the New York Post.

They are basically asserting that Biden’s wasteful spending is responsible for today’s grim inflation numbers.

I definitely don’t like Biden’s spending agenda, but I agree with Milton Friedman that it is more accurate to say that inflation is a monetary phenomenon.

In other words, the Federal Reserve deserves to be blamed.

The bottom line is that Keynesian monetary policy produces inflation and rising prices while Keynesian fiscal policy produces more wasteful spending and higher levels of debt.

I’ll close with a couple of caveats.

  • First, Friedman also points out that there’s “a long and variable lag” in monetary policy. So it is not easy to predict how quickly (or how severely) Keynesian monetary policy will produce rising prices.
  • Second, Keynesian deficit spending can lead to Keynesian monetary policy if a central bank feels pressure to help finance deficit spending by buying government bonds (think Argentina).

*Under specific circumstances, Keynesian policy can cause a short-term boost in consumption. For instance, a government can borrow lots of money from overseas lenders and use that money to finance more consumption of things made in places such as China. The net result of that policy, however, is that American indebtedness increases without any increase in national income.

P.S. You can read the letter from the pro-Keynesian economists by clicking here. And you can read a letter signed by sensible economists (including me) by clicking here.

P.P.S. Keynesianism is a myth with a history of failure in the real world.

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.

Call me crazy, but I sense a pattern. Maybe, just maybe, Keynesian economics is wrong.

Read Full Post »

Since the economy suffers when tax rates go up and the burden of government spending increases, there obviously are plenty of awful features in President Biden’s newly released budget.

If I had to select a worst feature, though, I’d be tempted to pick the proposed spending hikes that Biden is seeking for some of Washington’s most-wasteful bureaucracies.

Here’s a chart from a story in today’s Washington Post (based on Table S-8 in the budget), which summarizes how much additional “discretionary spending” Biden is seeking.

Why am I upset about these proposed spending increases?

From a big-picture economic perspective, it’s bad fiscal policy to allow the burden of government spending to grow faster than the private sector.

And since Biden is projecting that real GDP will grown by 2.8 percent next year and inflation will be 2.1 percent during the same period (see Table S-9 of the budget), he obviously wants all these bureaucracies to enjoy big increases (unlike families, who are losing ground compared to inflation).

But I’m also irked from a targeted fiscal perspective. That’s because Biden wants giant spending increases for bureaucracies that should not even exist.

Here’s what I’ve written about some of them.

By the way, “worst feature” is not the same as most economically damaging feature.

There are two other parts of Biden’s budget that definitely will cause more harm.

These tax increases and entitlement expansions will do considerably more damage than the discretionary spending increases excerpted above.

But it’s still an outrage that Biden is shoveling more money at some of Washington’s most wasteful and counterproductive bureaucracies.

Read Full Post »

My main objection to government employees is that they work for bureaucracies that should not exist (especially the ones in Washington).

That being said, I also don’t like how bureaucrats are overpaid compared to workers in the productive sector of the economy.

How much are they overpaid? The Committee to Unleash Prosperity has a daily newsletter, and here’s a chart from yesterday’s edition that compares compensation levels for private-sector employees and state and local bureaucrats.

Just in case you are wondering whether these numbers are accurate, you can go this website from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, scroll down to the “Pay and Benefits” section, and then click on “Data Finder” for “Employer Costs for Employee Compensation.”

You will then find that average hourly costs (including benefits) for state and local government workers are about $55, compared to about $38 for workers in the economy’s productive sector.

Government employee unions and other defenders of the status quo often will argue that such numbers are comparing apples and oranges because bureaucrats tend to be older and working in fields that require greater skills.

Those are legitimate arguments (indeed, similar to the arguments that debunk the idea of a gender pay gap).

But a legitimate argument is not the same as a compelling argument. The Department of Labor’s data on voluntary quit rates definitely suggests that bureaucrats (both federal and state/local) have a big compensation advantage over workers in the private sector.

If you want a concrete example of how government workers receive windfalls, Adam Andrzejewski opined last year about lifeguards in Southern California. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

Being a lifeguard isn’t easy, but in Los Angeles it can be lucrative. Auditors at OpenTheBooks.com found 82 county lifeguards earning at least $200,000 including benefits and seven making between $300,000 and $392,000. Thirty-one lifeguards made between $50,000 and $131,000 in overtime alone. After 30 years of service, they can retire as young as 55 on 79% of their pay. The Los Angeles County Lifeguard Association makes all this possible. …By comparison, the top-paid public lifeguard in Florida made $118,000, including benefits—though the pay goes further in the Sunshine State, which has no income tax. Even in New York City, the top-paid lifeguard made only $168,000. Think of the Los Angeles Country Lifeguard Association as the teachers union of “Baywatch.”

Sounds like they all belong in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

P.S. Click here to learn why state and local governments sign contracts providing absurd levels of pay and benefits.

P.P.S. Workers in the private sector work more hours, so annual pay gaps are not as large as hourly pay gaps.

P.P.P.S. Putting lifeguards to shame, one state employee in California raked in more than $800,000 in one year.

P.P.P.P.S. Adding insult to injury, the lavish retirement benefits of state and local bureaucrats often are dramatically underfunded.

Read Full Post »

I’ve identified seven reasons to oppose tax increases, but explain in this interview that the biggest reason is that it would be a mistake to give politicians more money to finance an ever-larger burden of government spending.

I had two goals when responding this question (part of a longer interview).

First, I wanted to help viewers understand that America’s fiscal problem is too much government spending and that red ink is simply a symptom of that problem.

Over the years, I’ve concocted all sorts of visuals to make this point. Like this one.

And this one.

And this one.

Second, I wanted viewers to understand that higher taxes will simply make a bad situation even worse.

From my perspective, the biggest problem with tax increases is that they will enable a bigger burden of government spending.

But even the folks who fixate on red ink should adopt a no-tax increase position.

Why? Because politicians who want big tax increases want even bigger spending increases.

Joe Biden is pushing for a massive tax increase, for instance, but his proposed spending increase is far larger.

We also have decades of evidence from Europe. There’s been a huge increase in the tax burden in Western Europe since the 1960s (largely enabled by the enactment of value-added taxes).

Did that massive increase in revenue lead to less red ink?

Nope, just the opposite, as I showed in both 2012 and 2016.

If you don’t agree with me on this issue, maybe you should heed the words of these four former presidents.

P.S. Some people warn that endlessly increasing debt is a recipe for an eventual crisis. They’re probably right. Which is why it is important to oppose tax-increase deals that wind up saddling us with more red ink. Besides, the long-run damage of tax-financed spending is very similar to the long-run damage of debt-financed spending.

P.P.S. As I mention in the interview, the only real solution is spending restraint. And a spending cap is the best way of enforcing that approach.

Read Full Post »

The “bad penny” of Keynesian economics (based on the “broken window fallacy“) has returned, as I discussed in an interview last week.

While I’m not a fan of Keynesianism, I tried to give a fair description of the theory.

I pointed out that supporters think government spending can “prime the pump” of the economy. Give people money, and they will spend it, and the merchants who receive that money will spend it, which then leads to further spending. And so on and so on.

In reality, this is the fiscal version of a perpetual motion machine.

I explained in the interview that Keynesian economics has never worked in the real world. It didn’t work for Hoover or FDR. It didn’t work for Japan. It didn’t work for Obama.

If I had more time, I also would have explained the theory’s underlying deficiency – which is that government can’t put money into the economy without first taking money out of the economy (a part of the equation that some Keynesians apparently don’t understand).

Who are these people who don’t understand basic economics?

One of them is the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. Here are excerpts from a story posted by MSN.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., argued…that increased U.S. government spending on domestic social programs would help decrease the national debt and bring down inflation at home. …”So when we’re having this discussion, it’s important to dispel some of those who say, well it’s the government spending – no, it isn’t,” she continued. “The government spending is doing the exact reverse, reducing the national debt. It is not inflationary.” …Biden made similar comments during a Democratic retreat in Philadelphia on Friday.

Just in case some of you may be thinking Speaker Pelosi is being misquoted, you can watch videos of her making the statement, either on Twitter or YouTube.

I’ll close by bending over backwards to (sort of) rationalize her statement.

If you listen closely to her full remarks, it’s possible that she may be mixing up arguments about Keynesianism potentially stimulating the economy in the short run and Biden’s budget plan potentially reducing debt in the long run.

She would be wrong about both short-run policy and long-run policy, in my humble opinion, but at least she wouldn’t be crazy wrong.

P.S. It’s not uncommon for politicians to misspeak rather than deliberately lie. For instance, Trump was wrong five years ago when he claimed the U.S. had the world’s highest taxes, but I think he was being sloppy rather than dishonest. And the same may be true for Pelosi .

P.P.S. As I noted in the interview, Pelosi has a track record of making foolish statements based on Keynesian theory.

P.P.P.S. Not to be pedantic, but I don’t think government spending increases are inflationary. The better argument is to say that reckless fiscal policy may encourage the Federal Reserve to enact inflationary monetary policy.

P.P.P.P.S. Since today’s column is about Keynesian economics, click here, here, and here for some amusing cartoons. Here’s some clever mockery of Keynesianism. And here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally enjoyable sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

Read Full Post »

I’ve written about President Warren Harding’s under-appreciated economic policies.

He restored economic prosperity in the 1920s by slashing tax rates and reducing the burden of government spending.

I’ve also written many times about how President Franklin Roosevelt’s economic policies in the 1930s were misguided.

And that’s being charitable. For all intents and purposes, he doubled down on the bad policies of Herbert Hoover. As a result, what should have been a typical recession wound up becoming the Great Depression.

But I’ve never directly compared Harding and FDR.

Ryan Walters, who teaches history to students at Collins College, has undertaken that task. In a piece for the Foundation for Economic Education, he explains how Harding and Roosevelt took opposite paths when facing similar situations.

Both men came into office with an economy in tatters and both men instituted ambitious agendas to correct the respective downturns. Yet their policies were the polar opposite of one another and, as a result, had the opposite effect. In short, Harding used laissez faire-style capitalism and the economy boomed; FDR intervened and things went from bad to worse. …Unlike FDR, who was no better than a “C” student in economics at Harvard, Harding understood that the old method of laissez faire was the best prescription for a sick economy.

Here’s some of what he wrote about Harding’s successful policies.

America in 1920, the year Harding was elected, fell into a serious economic slide called by some “the forgotten depression.” …The depression lasted about 18 months, from January 1920 to July 1921. During that time, the conditions for average Americans steadily deteriorated. Industrial production fell by a third, stocks dropped nearly 50 percent, corporate profits were down more than 90 percent. Unemployment rose from 4 percent to 12, putting nearly 5 million Americans out of work. …Harding campaigned on exactly what he wanted to do for the economy – retrenchment. He would slash taxes, cut government spending, and roll back the progressive tide. …Under Harding and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, and with the leadership of Andrew Mellon at Treasury, taxes were slashed from more than 70 percent to 25 percent. Government spending was cut in half. Regulations were reduced. The result was an economic boom. Growth averaged 7 percent per year, unemployment fell to less than 2 percent, and revenue to the government increased, generating a budget surplus every year, enough to reduce the national debt by a third. Wages rose for every class of American worker.

And here’s what happened under FDR.

Basically the opposite path, with horrible consequences.

FDR certainly inherited a bad economy, like Harding, yet he made it worse, not better, prolonging it for nearly a decade. With the stock market crash in October 1929, the American economy slid into a steep recession, which Herbert Hoover…proceeded to make worse by intervening with activist government policies – increased spending, reversing the Harding-Coolidge tax cuts, and imposing the Smoot-Hawley tariff. …once in office FDR set in motion a massive government economic intervention called the New Deal. …under FDR taxes were tripled and new taxes, like Social Security, were added, taking more money out of the pockets of ordinary Americans and businesses alike. Between 1933 and 1936, FDR’s first term, government expenditures rose by more than 83 percent. Federal debt skyrocketed by 73 percent. In all, spending shot up from $4.5 billion in 1933 to $9.4 billion in 1940. …The results were disastrous. …Unemployment under Roosevelt averaged a little more than 17 percent and never fell below 14 percent at any time. And, to make matters worse, there was a second crash in 1937. From August 1937 to March 1938, the stock market fell 50 percent.

At the risk of understatement, amen, amen, and amen.

Sadly, very few people understand this economic history.

This is mostly because they get spoon fed inaccurate information in their history classes and now think that laissez-faire capitalism somehow failed in the 1930s.

And they know nothing about what happened under Harding.

P.S. What happened in the 1920s and 1930s also is very instructive when thinking about the growth-vs-equality debate.

P.P.S. Shifting back to people not learning history (or learning bad history), it would be helpful if there was more understanding of how supporters of Keynesian economics were completely wrong about what happened after World War II.

Read Full Post »

Two days ago, I explained that spending caps are better than anti-deficit rules. In this clip from the same panel discussion, I talk about how a spending cap should be designed.

The key design issue is how fast spending should increase.

For libertarians and Reaganite conservatives, the goal is to shrink the burden of government. This means a cap that fulfills my Golden Rule of having government grow slower than the private sector.

So if long-run nominal GDP is projected to grow by, say, 5 percent per year, the cap might allow government to grow 2 percent or 3 percent annually.

That’s somewhat like the TABOR rule in Colorado, which limits government to grow no faster than inflation plus population.

For more moderate types, the goal might be to maintain the status quo.

In other words, don’t attempt to shrink government, but also don’t allow government to expand.

Perhaps that would mean a spending cap tied to nominal personal income growth, which might mean allowing spending to grow 4 percent or 5 percent each year.

That sound anemic, but it is definitely better than nothing since it would force lawmakers to somehow prevent the huge future spending increases that will be caused by America’s poorly designed entitlement programs.

But then there’s the issue of how a spending cap gets enforced.

I was cited in a 2020 article about this challenge in Hawaii.

Hawaii’s existing cap is too easily ignored by lawmakers. …So what would a “spending cap with teeth” look like? Mitchell said there are many types of spending caps that could be adopted. Hawaii added a spending cap to its Constitution in 1978, but it was essentially arbitrary due to an escape clause that allows the Legislature to override the cap with a two-thirds vote. “That escape clause, especially in a state where one party dominates the government, basically means that your spending cap isn’t very effective at all,” said Mitchell. So what would be better? Mitchell is especially fond of the spending cap that Colorado voters adopted in 1992, which Colorado’s Department of the Treasury estimated in 2019 had returned more than $2 billion to state taxpayers since it was implemented. Called the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights Amendment, it pegs state spending to population growth plus inflation. Colorado’s legislature can still propose a budget that exceeds the spending cap, but “the politicians have to go to the voters and ask for permission, and the voters in almost all cases say no.”

The bottom line is that spending caps are like speed limits in a school zone.

With small children present, the best speed limit might be 20 miles per hour.

By contrast, a speed limit of 45 miles per hour seems unwise. Then again, it would be better than nothing.

And we can’t forget that any speed limit won’t be worth much if there’s no enforcement.

I’ll close by sharing this table, which shows various nations that got very good results with multi-year periods of spending restraint (government growing, on average, by less than 2 percent annually).

P.S. The advantage of a numerical spending cap (such as limiting spending increases to no more than 2 percent annually) is that politicians would have a big incentive to keep inflation under control (meaning Biden’s economic team would not have allowed him to make vapid remarks about inflation during his state of the union address).

Read Full Post »

As part of a panel discussion with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, I explained (with a frozen look) why spending caps (such as Switzerland’s “debt brake“) are better than balanced budget requirements.

This is a topic I’ve written about many times, noting that even left-leaning international bureaucracies like the IMF and OECD have reached the same conclusion.

For today’s discussion, I want to focus on a wonky but important observation. I mentioned in the presentation that the European Union’s “Maastricht Criteria” – which focus on controlling red ink – have not worked.

Those interested can click here for further background on these rules, but the key thing to understand is that eurozone nations agreed back in 1992 to limit deficits to 3 percent of economic output and to limit debt to 60 percent of GDP.

Has this approach worked?

Here’s the data, from a 2019 European Parliament report, on government debt for eurozone nations. Incidentally, the euro currency officially began in 2002, though nations were supposed to comply with the Maastricht Criteria starting back in 1993.

As you can see, debt has increased in most European nations. In may cases, debt is more than twice as high as the supposed maximum specified in the Maastricht Criteria.

And these are the “good” numbers. I deliberately chose data from a few years ago to make clear that the failure to comply with the Maastricht Criteria has nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic.

In other words, debt in Europe is now far worse.

What went wrong? Why did anti-red ink rules produce more red ink?

A big part of the answer is that politicians use anti-deficit and anti-debt rules as an excuse to raise taxes (which is what happened during Europe’s prior debt crisis).

And we know that tax increases generally backfire, both because they undermine economic growth and because they give politicians leeway to spend even more money.

By contrast, spending restraint has a very good track record of reducing red ink.

P.S. To learn more about Switzerland’s spending cap, click here. To learn more about Colorado’s spending cap, click here.

Read Full Post »

Our series on the failure of Bidenomics has touched on four topics.

For our fifth edition, let’s turn our attention to the president’s misguided fiscal policy.

This means analyzing three pieces of legislation.

First, his so-called stimulus was approved last year, adding $1.9 trillion to the nation’s fiscal burden. The president and his team claimed it would lead to four million additional jobs, but the net result was a drop in employment compared to the White House’s own projections.

Second, his costly infrastructure plan also was approved last year, though only a small fraction of new spending was actually for roads and bridges (and even that spending should be handled by state and local governments).

Third, his “Build Back Better” proposal dramatically would expand the burden of government spending – by $5 trillion over the next decade! Along with a plethora of economy-sapping tax increases.

Regarding the third item, the president so far has not been able to convince all Democratic senators to support the scheme. And with the Senate evenly split between the two parties, Biden needs all of their votes to get his plan approved.

With any luck, that will never happen.

So what is the plan wrong? Along with several hundred other economists, I signed on to this letter explaining why Biden’s massive expansion of the welfare state would be bad news for the country.

The most important part of the statement is that bigger government would “reduce the number of people working, badly misallocate capital, and hobble economic growth.”

Based on research from the Congressional Budget Office, the damage would be enormous, reducing worker compensation by $1.6 trillion over the next ten years.

What about the other issues mentioned in the statement, such as debt and inflation?

It’s not good that debt goes up, of course, but that’s a symptom of the bigger problem, which is government consuming a greater share of the nation’s output.

Also, at the risk of being annoyingly pedantic, I don’t actually think Biden’s budget would increase inflation. That only happens if the Federal Reserve adopts bad monetary policy.

That being said, central banks are more likely to adopt bad monetary policy when politicians are following bad fiscal policy. So the core assertion is correct.

P.S. I don’t know whether to characterize this as absurd, pathetic, addled, or dishonest, but Joe Biden actually claimed his budget plan has zero cost.

Read Full Post »

When I compare the United States and Europe, it’s usually because I want to make the point that people on the other side of the Atlantic have lower living standards in large part because there is a more onerous fiscal burden of government.

Simply stated, America’s medium-sized welfare state doesn’t do as much damage as the large-sized welfare states in Europe.

But I also use US-vs.-Europe comparisons to make another point, namely that big welfare states mean big tax burdens for lower-income and middle-class households.

To be more specific, most of Europe’s redistribution spending is financed by high tax burdens on regular people.

Yes, European politicians impose onerous burdens on upper-income taxpayers, but there simply are not nearly enough rich people to finance big government.

So those politicians have responded by pillaging everyone else as well (onerous payroll taxes, harsh value-added taxes, high income tax rates on modest incomes, etc).

The United States takes a different approach. We also impose onerous burdens on upper-income taxpayers (as confirmed by IRS data), but we impose comparatively modest taxes on everyone else.

Indeed, the net result, as shown in the table, is that the United States actually has the most “progressive” tax system among OECD nations.

Today, let’s look at some research that makes similar points.

Three academics at the Paris School of Economics authored a study for the World Inequality Lab that uses a new database to measure redistribution and inequality.

Their main conclusion is that there are differences between the United States and Europe, but redistribution policies don’t have a big impact on inequality.

This article addresses…substantive and methodological issues by constructing distributional national accounts for twenty-six European countries from 1980 to 2017. To our knowledge, this is the first attempt at doing so. …our series are fully comparable with recently produced US distributional national accounts, allowing us to compare the dynamics of inequality and redistribution in the two regions in great detail. Two key findings emerge from the analysis of our new database. First, we show that, over the past four decades, inequality has increased in nearly all European countries as well as in Europe as a whole, both before and after taxes, but much less than in the United States. …Second, the main reason for Europe’s relative resistance to the rise of inequality has little to do with the direct impact of taxes and transfers. While Western and Northern European countries redistribute a larger fraction of output than the US (about 47% of national income is taxed and redistributed in Europe versus 35% in the US), the distribution of taxes and transfers does not explain the large gap between Europe and US posttax inequality levels. Quite the contrary: after accounting for all taxes and transfers, the US appears to redistribute a greater fraction of its national income to the poorest 50% than any European country.

What drives these results?

Simply stated, the most salient feature of European fiscal policy is that nations tax the middle class and have programs that benefit the middle class.

The United States, by contrast, focuses more on taxing the rich and giving benefits to the poor.

Look at what the study says about tax progressivity.

Figure Vb ranks European countries and the United States according to a simple measure of tax progressivity: the ratio of the total tax rate faced by the top 10% to that of the bottom 50%. The composition of bars correspond to the composition of taxes paid by the top 10%. The US stands out as the country with the highest level of tax progressivity: the top decile faces a tax rate that is more than 70% higher than that of the poorest half of the population. By this measure, the European country with the most progressive tax system is the United Kingdom, followed by Norway, the Czech Republic, and France. Many European countries have values close to 1 on this indicator, corresponding to relatively flat tax systems, in which top income groups face a tax rate approximately equal to that of the bottom 50%. …the US also stands out as one of the countries where the top 10% pay the largest share of their pretax income in the form of income and wealth taxes.

And here’s Figure V, which shows how the U.S. has (far and away) the most “progressive” tax system.

Again, I want to emphasize that this is not because the U.S. imposes higher taxes on the rich. The so-called progressivity of the American system is driven by the fact that there are low taxes on everyone else.

What about on the spending side of the fiscal ledger?

The study finds that the the United States has the most redistribution to lower-income people.

…the US tax-and-transfer system appears to be unequivocally more progressive. The bottom 50% in the US received a positive net transfer of 6% of national income in 2017, compared to about 4% in Western and Northern Europe and less than 3% in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the top 10% saw their average income decrease by 8% of national income in the US after taxes and transfers, compared to about 4% in Western and Northern Europe and 3% in Eastern Europe. …Figure VIIb represents the net transfer received by the bottom 50% in all European countries and the United States in 2017. Again, the US stands out as the country that redistributes the greatest fraction of national income to the bottom 50%.

Here’s the aforementioned Figure VII.

I’ll close by observing that there are multiple interpretations of this data. I suspect that authors want readers to conclude that there should be higher taxes and more redistribution. Both in Europe and the United States.

My big takeaway is that this research confirms why people with modest incomes in the United States have a better life than their counterparts in Europe.

Not only do they enjoy higher levels of income, but they also pay much lower tax burdens.

P.S. One other point to emphasize is that it’s wrong to fixate on inequality. In part, that’s because there’s nothing wrong with rich people getting richer (assuming they earn their money rather than getting special favors from politicians). But also because ethical people should be concerned about improving the lives of the less fortunate rather than tearing down the successful.

Read Full Post »

The United States needs a constitutional spending cap, sort of like the “debt brake” that has been producing positive results in Switzerland for the past two decades.

Imposing a limit on annual spending increases would be a much-needed way of stopping politicians from saddling the nation with “Goldfish Government.”

The best-case scenario is that a spending cap is very stringent (say, limiting annual spending increases to 2 percent annually). This level of fiscal restraint reduces the burden of government spending compared to the private sector (i.e., it fulfills fiscal policy’s Golden Rule).

The avoid-harm scenario is that a spending cap prevents government from becoming a bigger burden. Given dismal long-run fiscal forecasts (a consequence of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs), this actually would be an impressive achievement.

There are also some auxiliary benefits of a spending cap.

A new working paper from Italy’s central bank, authored by Anna Laura Mancini and Pietro Tommasino, considers whether spending caps can mitigate the problem of dishonest budgeting by politicians.

…policy-makers have an incentive to “plan to cheat”. That is, they promise an amount of expenditures higher than what they will actually deliver, because this allows them to cater to the demands of the various groups of voters, and at the same time they present overoptimistic revenue forecasts, in order to preserve the appearance of fiscal discipline. Once the extra revenues hoped for by the government fail to materialize, budgeted investment expenditures are downsized or abandoned altogether. In this context, caps on realized spending can contribute to more realistic ex ante spending plans. Indeed, politicians have less room to inflate planned expenditures, once there is a legal ceiling in place.

The authors crunch the numbers and conclude that spending caps result in a greater level of fiscal honesty.

In this paper, we provide evidence in favour of this theoretical intuition, exploiting a unique dataset including the ex-ante budget plans as well as ex-post budget outcomes of…a rule that constrains capital expenditures in municipalities with more than 5,000 residents. …Our analysis show that the municipalities subject to the new capital-spending rule significantly reduced their over-optimism in expenditure projections… Furthermore, in the new regime revenue projections are also more accurate (less over-optimistic). …The reform reduced the forecast error concerning capital expenditures… The effects is significant both statistically and in economic terms. …the introduction of the cap on investment reduced the forecast error on investment expenditures by almost €1 mln, or 35% of the pre-reform average error.

For wonky readers, Figure 1 shows some of relevant data.

For what it’s worth, we seem to have a different problem in the United States.

Rather than exaggerate potential spending on so-called public investment, as seems to have been the case in Italy, American politicians generally low-ball cost estimates for infrastructure projects.

And then, once the projects get started, we get absurd cost overruns (with the high-speed rail project in California being an especially absurd example).

The good news is that a spending cap solves both the Italian version of the problem and the American version of the problem.

As the authors found in their research, it removes the incentive for dishonest budgeting in Italy. And, if adopted in the United States, politicians would learn that it doesn’t help to produce laughably low cost estimates if a spending cap means there is no way of financing cost overruns in the future.

P.S. There is a spending limit in Hong Kong’s constitution, and it has generated very positive results. Given China’s increasing control, it’s unclear how effective it will be in the future.

P.P.S. There’s also a spending limit in Colorado’s constitution, known as the Taxpayers Bill of Rights. It has been very successful.

P.P.P.S. Last month, I wrote about research from both the IMF and the ECB about the benefits of spending caps.

Read Full Post »

Is “austerity” a good thing?

Depends on how it is defined. Johan Norberg points out that spending restraint is the right approach.

Since I’m a fan of spending restraint, I obviously like the video.

But let’s expand on two points.

First, the definition of austerity is critical. Some fiscal policy folks (at the IMF and CBO, for instance) focus on deficits and debt. And this means they view spending restraint and tax increases as being equally desirable.

But that’s nonsense. As I’ve repeatedly explained, red ink is best viewed as a symptom. The real problem is excessive government spending.

Moreover, higher taxes usually exacerbate the spending problem since politicians can’t resist the temptation to spend at least a portion of any expected new revenue.

And since tax increases generally don’t collect as much money as politicians think they will, you can wind up with higher taxes, a bigger burden of government, and even higher levels of red ink!

Second, it doesn’t help to identify good policy if politicians think that’s a path to losing elections.

Which is why I want to highlight some new research published by the IMF.

The study, authored by Alberto Alesina, Gabriele Ciminelli, Davide Furceri, and Giorgio Saponaro, has some very encouraging results about tax increases being political poison.

Spending restraint, by contrast, is actually a political plus – at least when implemented by a right-leaning government.

Conventional wisdom holds that voters punish governments that implement fiscal austerity. Yet, most empirical studies, which rely on ex-post yearly austerity measures, do not find supportive evidence. This paper revisits the issue using action-based, real-time, ex-ante measures of fiscal austerity as well as a new database of changes in vote shares of incumbent parties. The analysis emphasizes the importance of the ‘how’—whether austerity is done via tax hikes or expenditure cuts—and the ‘who’—whether it is carried out by left- vs. right-leaning governments. Our main finding is that tax-based austerity carries large electoral costs, while the effect of expenditure-based consolidations depends on the political-leaning of the government. An austerity package worth 1% of GDP, carried out mostly through tax hikes, reduces the vote share of the leader’s party by about 7%. In contrast, expenditure-based austerity is detrimental for left- but beneficial for right-leaning governments.

For what it’s worth, this new research is an affirmation of my Fourth Theorem of Government.

This implies that Republicans should strive to control spending when they have power.

That’s certainly what happened under Reagan, and he then was reelected with a 49-state landslide.

But other Republicans didn’t learn any lessons from Reagan’s success. Both Bushes were big spenders, as was Trump.

Read Full Post »

I’ve repeatedly heaped praise on Ronald Reagan.

I’ve also lauded Calvin Coolidge on several occasions.

And I even once extolled the virtues of Grover Cleveland.

Today, we’re going to celebrate the fiscal achievements of Warren Harding.

Most notably, as illustrated by this chart based on OMB data, he presided over a period of remarkable spending discipline.

Harding also launched very big – and very effective – reductions in tax rates.

And his agenda of less government and lower tax rates helped bring about a quick end to a massive economic downturn (unlike the big-government policies of Hoover and Roosevelt, which deepened and lengthened the Great Depression).

In an article for National Review last year, Kyle Smith praised President Harding’s economic stewardship.

In a moment of national crisis, Warren G. Harding restored the economic health of the United States. …America in 1921 was in a state of crisis, reeling from the worst recession in half a century, the most severe deflationary spiral on record… Unemployment, it is now estimated, stood somewhere between 8.7 and 11.7 percent as returning soldiers inflated the size of the working-age population. Between 1919 and August of 1921 the Dow Jones average plummeted 47 percent. Harding’s response to this emergency was largely to let the cycle play out. …The recession ended in mid-year, and boom times followed. Harding and Congress cut federal spending nearly in half, from 6.5 percent of GDP to 3.5 percent. The top tax rate came down from 73 percent to 25, and the tax base broadened. Unemployment came down to an estimated 2 to 4 percent. …Harding was a smashing success in a historically important role as the anti-Wilson: He restored a classically liberal, rights-focused, limited government, and deserves immense credit for the economic boom that kicked off in his first year and continued throughout the rest of the 1920s.

Smith’s article also praises Harding for reversing some of Woodrow Wilson’s most odious policies, such as racial discrimination and imprisoning political opponents (Wilson also had a terrible record on economic issues).

Now let’s look at some excerpts from a new article authored by Vance Ginn of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and John Hendrickson of the Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation.

President Harding assumed office in 1921 when nation was suffering an overlooked severe economic depression. Hampering growth were high income tax rates and a large national debt after WWI. …President Harding’s chief economic policy was to rein in spending, reduce tax rates, and pay down debt. Harding…understood that any meaningful cuts in taxes and debt couldn’t happen without reducing spending. …Not only was Harding successful in this first endeavor to reduce government expenditures, his efforts resulted in “over $1.5 billion less than actual expenditures for the year 1921.”  …The decade had started in depression and by 1923 the national economy was booming with low unemployment. 

By the way, the $1.5 billion-plus reduction from 1921 to 1922 may not sound like much, but it was a 30 percent reduction in the size of government (and this was back in the days when government was a relatively small burden).

That would be akin to cutting more than $1.5 trillion from this year’s federal budget.

What a great idea – perhaps even better than my other libertarian fantasy.

P.S. Thomas Sowell has praised Harding’s economic policies.

P.P.S. And I’ve applauded Bill Clinton’s economic policies. Or, to be more precise, I’ve praised the policies that were enacted during his presidency.

Read Full Post »

A key principle of economics is convergence, which is the notion that poorer nations generally grow faster than richer nations.

For instance, battle-damaged European nations grew faster than the United States in the first few decades after World War II.

But, starting in the 1980s, that convergence stopped. And not because Europe reached American levels of prosperity. Even the nations of Western Europe never came close to U.S. levels of per-capita economic output.

Moreover, European countries then began to lose ground for the rest of the 20th century.

And that process is continuing. Here’s a recent tweet from Robin Brooks, the Chief Economist of the Institute of International Finance, which shows that the United States was growing faster than Europe before the pandemic and is now growing faster than Europe after the pandemic.

In other words, we’re seeing divergence.

Sven Larson addressed this same issue in a new article on this topic for European Conservative.

Over the 20 years from 2000 to 2019, the U.S. economy outgrew the 27-member European Union by a solid 19%, adjusted for inflation. These numbers…are quite impressive, especially considering that during President Obama’s eight years in office, annual growth in gross domestic product, GDP, never reached 3%. …From 2010 to 2019, U.S. unemployment averaged 6.3%, dropping below 3.7% in the last year before the pandemic. By contrast, the EU economy never dropped below 6.7% unemployment (in 2019) with an average of 9.5% for the entire decade. …These differences between America and Europe are significant, and should be the subject of debate in Europe: what is it that the Americans are doing that Europeans could do better? Over time, even small differences in economic growth compound into large differences in the standard of living.

Here’s his chart showing the divergence.

So why is Europe falling behind the United States when it should be growing faster because of lower living standards?

Sven has a very good explanation.

There are many candidates for explaining this difference, but there is one that stands out compared to all the others: the size of government. Between 2010 and 2019, government spending in the European Union was equal to 48.3% of GDP, on average, compared to 37.1% in the U.S. economy. …The most hard-hitting impact does not come through taxes, as conventional wisdom suggests, but through spending. …government operates under a form of central economic planning. Its outlays are not based on the mechanisms and prices of free markets: instead, its spending is governed by ideological preferences… While government spending inflicts the most damage on the economy, taxes are not insignificant. Here, again, the U.S. comes out more competitive than its European counterpart, and it is not a new problem. …For the past 20 years, European governments in general have taxed their economies 10-12 percentage points higher, as a share of GDP, than is the case in America.

Having crunched the data from Economic Freedom of the World, I think Sven is correct.

With regards to factors other than fiscal policy, European nations have just as much economic liberty (or, if you’re a glass-half-empty type, just as little economic liberty) as the United States. Heck, many of them rank above the United States when just considering factors such as trade, red tape, monetary policy, and rule of law.

Yet the United States nonetheless earns a better overall score.

Why? Because the United States does much better on fiscal policy (or, to be more accurate, doesn’t do as poorly).

P.S. Both Europe and the United States are moving in the wrong direction with regard to fiscal policy. Almost as if there’s a contest to see who can be the most profligate. Let’s call it the Keynesian Olympics. Whoever wins a gold medal is the first to suffer a fiscal crisis.

Read Full Post »

The title of this column is an exaggeration. What we’re really going to do today is explain the main things you need to know about government debt.

We’ll start with this video from Kite and Key Media, which correctly observes that entitlement programs are the main cause of red ink.

I like that the video pointed out how tax-the-rich schemes wouldn’t work, though it would have been nice if they added some information on how genuine entitlement reform could solve the problem  (as you can see here and here, I’ve also nit-picked other debt-themed videos).

Which is why I humbly think this is the best video ever produced on the topic.

As you can see, I’m not an anti-debt fanatic. It was perfectly okay, for instance, to incur debt to win World War II.

But I’m very skeptical of running up the nation’s credit card for routine pork and fake stimulus.

But my main message, which I’ve shared over and over again, is that deficits and debt are merely a symptom. The underlying disease is excessive government spending.

And that spending hurts our economy whether it is financed by taxing or borrowing (or, heaven forbid, by printing money).

Now let’s look at some recent articles on the topic.

We’ll start with Eric Boehm’s column for Reason, which explains how red ink has exploded in recent years.

America’s national debt exceeded $10 trillion for the first time ever in October 2008. By mid-September 2017 the national debt had doubled to $20 trillion. …data released by the U.S. Treasury confirmed that the national debt reached a new milestone: $30 trillion. …Entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are in dire fiscal straits and will become even more costly as the average American gets older. Even without another unexpected crisis, deficits will exceed $1 trillion annually, which means the debt will continue growing, both in real terms and as a percentage of the economy. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the federal government will add another $12.2 trillion to the debt by 2031.

As already stated, I think the real problem is the spending and the debt is the symptom.

But it is possible, of course, that debt rises so high that investors (the people who buy government bonds) begin to lose faith that they will get repaid.

At that point, governments have to pay higher interest rates to compensate for perceived risk of default, which exacerbates the fiscal burden.

And if there’s not a credible plan to fix the problem, a country can go into a downward spiral. In other words, a debt crisis.

This is what happened to Greece. And I think it’s just a matter of time before it happens to Italy.

Heck, many European nations are vulnerable to a debt crisis. As are many developing countries. And don’t forget Japan.

Could the United States also be hit by a debt crisis? Will we reach a “tipping point” that leads to the aforementioned loss of faith?

That’s one of the possibilities mentioned in the New York Times column by Peter Coy.

It’s hard to know how much to worry about the federal debt of the United States. …Either the United States can continue to run big deficits and skate along with no harm done or it’s at risk of losing investors’ confidence and having to pay higher interest rates on its debt, which would suppress economic growth. …the huge increase in federal debt incurred during and after the past two recessions — those of 2007-09 and 2020 — has used up a lot of the “fiscal space” the United States once had. In other words, the federal government is closer to the tipping point where big increases in debt finally start to become a real problem. …any given amount of debt becomes easier to sustain as long as the growth rate of the economy (and thus the growth rate of tax revenue) is higher than the interest rate on the debt. In that scenario, interest payments gradually shrink relative to tax revenue. …but it doesn’t explain how much more the debt can grow. …Past a certain point, there’s a double whammy of more dollars of debt plus higher interest costs on each dollar. …sovereign debt crises tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies: Investors get nervous about a government’s ability to pay, so they demand higher interest rates, which raise borrowing costs and produce the bad outcome they feared. It’s a dynamic that Argentines are familiar with — and that Americans had better hope they never experience.

For what it’s worth, I think other major nations will suffer fiscal crisis before the problem becomes acute in the United States.

I realize this will make me sound uncharacteristically optimistic, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will finally lead politicians to adopt a spending cap so we don’t become Argentina.

P.S. The Wall Street Journal recently editorialized on the issue of government debt and made a very important point about the difference between the $30 trillion “gross debt” and the “debt held by the public,” which is about $6 trillion lower.

…the debt really isn’t $30 trillion. About $6 trillion of that is debt the government owes to itself in Social Security and other IOUs. …The debt held by the public is some $24 trillion, which is bad enough.

As I’ve noted when writing about Social Security, the IOUs in government trust funds are not real.

They’re just bookkeeping entries, as even Bill Clinton’s budget freely admitted.

Indeed, if you want to know whether some is both honest and knowledgeable about budget matters, ask them which measure of the national debt really matters.

As you can see from this exchange of tweets, competent and careful budget people (regardless of whether they favor big government or small government) focus on “debt held by the public,” which is the term for the money government actually borrows from credit markets.

If you want to know the difference between the various types of government debt – including “unfunded liabilities” – watch this video.

P.P.S. This column explains how and when debt matters. If you’re interested in how to reduce the debt, there’s very good evidence that spending restraint is the only effective approach. Even in cases where debt is enormous.

P.P.P.S. By contrast, the evidence is very clear that higher taxes actually make debt problems worse.

Read Full Post »

Back in 2017, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released this video to help explain why spending caps are the most sensible and sustainable fiscal rule.

Switzerland actually has a spending cap in its constitution, and similar fiscal rules also exist in Hong Kong and the state of Colorado.

These policies have produced very good results.

There are many reasons to support a spending cap, including the obvious observation that an expenditure limit (as it is sometimes called) directly addresses the actual problem of excessive government.

And addressing the underlying disease works better than rules that focus on symptoms, such as balanced budget requirements or anti-deficit mandates.

You’ll notice toward the end of the video that the narrator cites pro-spending cap research from international bureaucracies, which is remarkable since those institutions normally have a bias for bigger government.

I’ve also written about that research, citing studies by the International Monetary Fund (here and here), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (here and here) and the European Central Bank (here).

Today, let’s look at more evidence from these bureaucracies.

We’ll start with a new study from the European Central Bank. Here’s some of what the authors (Nicholai Benalal, Maximilian Freier, Wim Melyn, Stefan Van Parys, and Lukas Reiss) found when comparing spending limits and anti-deficit rules.

this paper provides an in-depth assessment of two alternative measures of fiscal consolidation and expansion: the change in the structural balance (dSB) and the expenditure benchmark (EB). Both the dSB and the EB are currently used to assess compliance with the fiscal rules under the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP).The EB was introduced as an indicator in 2011, and has gained in importance relative to the dSB since the European Commission began to put more emphasis on it in 2016.A comparison of the fiscal performance of euro area countries reveals significant differences depending on whether the assessment is based on the dSB or the EB. this paper finds that the EB has advantages over the dSB as a fiscal performance indicator. …expenditure rules…provide more predictability in fiscal requirements. …Even more importantly, the EB can be shown to be less procyclical as a fiscal rule than the dSB. 

Let’s also review some 2019 research from the International Monetary Fund.

This study (authored by Kodjovi Eklou and Marcelin Joanis) looks at whether fiscal rules can constrain vote-buying politicians.

In order to increase their chances of reelection, politicians are known to undertake fiscal manipulations, especially in election years. These fiscal manipulations typically take the form of increased public expenditure… Many countries, both developed and developing, have adopted fiscal rules in recent decades as an attempt to enforce fiscal discipline. …In this paper, we employ a cross-country panel dataset in order to test whether fiscal rules adopted in developing countries have been effective in constraining political budget cycles. The dataset covers 67 developing countries over the period 1985-2007. …Our dependent variable is the general government’s final consumption expenditure as a share of GDP.

Here’s what the authors concluded about the effectiveness of spending caps.

Our empirical evidence in a sample of 67 developing countries over the period 1985-2007, shows that fiscal rules cause fiscal discipline over the electoral cycle. More specifically, in election years with fiscal rules in place, public consumption is reduced by 1.65% point of GDP as compared to election years without these rules. Furthermore, the effectiveness of these rules depends on their type… In particular, expenditure rules, rules covering the general government and rules characterized by a monitoring body outside the government dampen political budget cycles in government consumption.

Indeed, footnote 12 of the paper specifically notes the superiority of expenditure limits.

…the results show that public consumption is reduced by 2.44% points during election years with expenditure rules in place. The findings on expenditure rules are consistent with Cordes et al. (2015) who show that the compliance rate for these rules are high.

Last but not least, the fiscal experts at the Office of Management and Budget included in Trump’s final budget some very encouraging language at the end of Chapter 10 of the Analytical Perspectives.

…additional efforts to control spending are needed. Several budget process reforms should be considered, including setting spending caps… Outlay caps that are consistent with the historical average as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), post-World War II levels could be enforced with sequestration across programs similar to other budget enforcement regimes. An outlay cap on mandatory spending would complement discretionary caps, which have been in place since 2013. The Budget proposes to continue discretionary caps through 2025 at declining levels and declining levels through 2030.

Trump was a big spender, of course, but at least there were people in his administration who realized there was a problem.

And they recognized the right solution.

P.S. It’s also interesting that the authors of the IMF study found that fiscal rules work better in democracies.

…estimates focusing on the subsample of democratic elections. The effect of fiscal rules on the political budget cycle is larger… More specifically, public consumption is reduced by 2.46% point of GDP (while it is 1.65% point in the baseline).

This may not bode well for the durability of Hong Kong’s spending cap.

The authors also found that foreign aid makes it less likely that a government will follow sensible policy.

Foreign aid, which relaxes the budget constraint of the government, is negatively correlated with the probability of having fiscal rules.

Needless to say, nobody should be surprised to learn that foreign aid undermines good policy.

Read Full Post »

As a libertarian, I view defense spending with the same jaundiced eye that I apply to domestic spending.

  • I’ve pointed out that the U.S. represents a big share of global military outlays.
  • I’ve pointed out that sequestration wasn’t a threat to military preparedness.
  • I’ve pointed out that legacy defense commitments may be senseless nowadays.

And here’s a more-updated view of how much the United States spends on the military compared to other nations.

Call me crazy, but this chart indicates that the United States is probably spending too much on the Pentagon.

For what it’s worth, it’s possible that America’s lead is exaggerated because China and Russia get more bang for their buck on their military spending, but it’s also worth noting that the rest of the nations on the list are largely allied with the United States.

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times writes there is too much spending on defense. But he undermines the credibility of his position with a deceptive comparison of domestic and defense outlays.

…the nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars that we are spending this year on a military that has become the epitome of governmental dysfunction, self-dealing and overspending. …does it make any sense to keep spending so many hundreds of billions on the Pentagon? …The Pentagon has never passed an audit… Congress is projected to spend about $8.5 trillion for the military over the next decade — about half a trillion more than is budgeted for all nonmilitary discretionary programs combined… You don’t have to be a pacifist to wonder if this imbalance between military and nonmilitary spending makes sense.

The problem with what he wrote is that he compares defense spending only to the portion of domestic spending that is considered “discretionary.”

And this leaves out all the entitlement programs – which are the biggest and fastest growing part of the federal budget.

So I went to section 8 of the Historical Tables of the Budget and put together this chart, based on inflation-adjusted dollars, showing total domestic spending (huge and growing), total defense spending (relatively flat), and interest payments on the national debt (relatively flat).

Next, let’s look at the data showing what share of the budget goes to different types of spending.

For this chart, I’ve separated domestic entitlements and domestic discretionary.

Once again, the obvious and unambiguous takeaway is that domestic spending is the problem in general, with entitlements being the problem in particular.

Now that we know that entitlement programs are America’s main fiscal challenge, let’s close with a couple of reminders that we also should take a knife to the Pentagon’s budget.

This headline for a story in USA Today.

This heading from a story in Stars & Stripes.

This headline from a story in the New York Times.

And if you want other examples of military waste, click here, here, and here.

But don’t forget that the big savings from defense budget can be achieved by reevaluating whether it makes sense to maintain alliances against enemies that no longer exist, along with reconsidering the wisdom of nation building.

Read Full Post »

As part of a recent discussion with Gene Tunny in Australia, I explained why I support “Starve the Beast,” which means keeping taxes as low as possible to help achieve the goal of spending restraint.

The premise of Starve the Beast is very simple.

Politicians like to spend money and they don’t particularly care whether that spending is financed by taxes or financed by borrowing (both bad options).

As Milton Friedman sagely observed, that means they will spend every penny they collect in taxes plus as much additional spending financed by borrowing that the political system will allow.

The IMF published a study on this issue about 10 years ago. The authors (Michael Kumhof, Douglas Laxton, and Daniel Leigh) assert that there’s no way of knowing whether Starve the Beast will lead to good or bad results.

…there is no consensus regarding the macroeconomic and welfare consequences of implementing a starve-the-beast approach, henceforth referred to as STB. …it could be beneficial in the ideal case in which it results in cuts in entirely wasteful government spending. In particular, lower spending frees up resources for private consumption, and the associated lower tax rates reduce distortions in the economy. On the other hand, …lower government spending may itself entail welfare losses…if it augments the productivity of private factors of production. …the paper examines whether the principal macroeconomic variables such as GDP and consumption, both in the United States and in the rest of the world, respond positively to this policy. …In addition, the paper assesses how the welfare effects depend on the degree to which government spending directly contributes to household welfare or to productivity.

The authors don’t really push any particular conclusion. Instead, they show various economic outcomes depending on with assumptions one adopts.

Since plenty of research shows that government spending is not a net plus for the economy (even IMF economists agree on that point), and because I think a less-punitive tax system is possible (and desirable) if there’s a smaller burden of government spending, I think the findings shown in Figure 4 make the most sense.

Now let’s shift from academic analysis to policy analysis.

In a piece for National Review back in July 2020, Jim Geraghty notes that Starve the Beast has an impact on government finances at the state level.

…we’re probably not going to see a massive expansion of government at the state level in the coming year or two. …Thanks to the pandemic lockdown bringing vast swaths of the economy to a halt, state tax revenues are plummeting. …So states will have much less tax revenue, constitutional balanced-budget requirements that are not easily repealed, and a limited amount of budgetary tricks to work around it. State governments could attempt to raise taxes, but that’s going to be unpopular and hurt state economies when they’re already struggling. Add it all up and it’s a tough set of circumstances for a dramatic expansion of government, no matter how ardently progressive the governor and state legislatures are.

For what it’s worth, Geraghty warned in the article that fiscal restraint by state governments wouldn’t happen if the federal government turned on the spending spigot.

And that, of course, is exactly what happened.

Now let’s look at the most unintentional endorsement of Stave the Beast.

A couple of years ago, Paul Krugman sort of admitted that cutting taxes was a potentially effective strategy for spending restraint.

…the same Republicans now wringing their hands over budget deficits…blew up that same deficit by enacting a huge tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. …this has been the G.O.P.’s budget strategy for decades. First, cut taxes. Then, bemoan the deficit created by those tax cuts and demand cuts in social spending. Lather, rinse, repeat. This strategy, known as “starve the beast,” has been around since the 1970s, when Republican economists like Alan Greenspan and Milton Friedman began declaring that the role of tax cuts in worsening budget deficits was a feature, not a bug. As Greenspan openly put it in 1978, the goal was to rein in spending with tax cuts that reduce revenue, then “trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending.” …voters should realize that the threat to programs… Social Security and Medicare as we know them will be very much in danger.

In other words, Krugman doesn’t like Starve the Beast because he fears it is effective (just like he also acknowledges the Laffer Curve, even though he’s opposed to tax cuts).

Let’s close by looking at some very powerful real-world evidence. Over the past 50 years, there’s been a massive increase in the tax burden in Western Europe.

Did all that additional tax revenue lead to lower deficits and less debt?

Nope, the opposite happened. European politicians spent every penny of the new tax revenue (much of it from value-added taxes). And then they added even more spending financed by additional borrowing.

To be fair, one could argue that this was an argument for the view of “Don’t Feed the Beast” rather than “Starve the Beast,” but it nonetheless shows that more money in the hands of politicians simply means more spending. And more red ink.

P.S. I had a discussion last year with Gene Tunny about the issue of “state capacity libertarianism.”

Read Full Post »

At the risk of understatement, economists are not good forecasters.

And they are especially incompetent when they make forecasts based on bad policy, such as when the Obama White House projected that his so-called stimulus would quickly lead to falling unemployment.

In reality, the jobless rate immediately increased and then remained much higher than projected for the remainder of the five-year forecast.

The failure of Obama’s stimulus should have been a learning moment for Washington politicians.

But Joe Biden must have slept through that lesson because his first big move after taking office was to saddle the nation with a $1.9 trillion “stimulus” package.

The White House claimed this orgy of new spending would lead to four million additional jobs in 2021, on top of the six million new jobs that already were expected.

So what happened? Matt Weidinger of the American Enterprise Institute looked at the final numbers for 2021 and discovered that employment actually fell compared to pre-stimulus baseline projection.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected on February 1, 2021…a gain of 6.252 million jobs over…2021…we now know payroll employment in the fourth quarter of 2021 averaged 148.735 million — an increase of 6.116 million compared with the average of 142.619 million in the fourth quarter of 2020. That means the job growth the President praised this week has fallen 136,000 jobs short of what was expected under the policies he inherited. …President Biden and congressional Democrats promised their $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan would create millions of additional new jobs this year — on top of what White House economists called the “dire” baseline of 6.252 million new jobs reflected in CBO’s projection without that enormous legislation. …House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) repeated that claim, stating that “if we do not enact this package, the results could be catastrophic,” including “4 million fewer jobs.” Yet…not one of those four million additional jobs supposedly resulting from that $1.9 trillion spending plan has appeared, as job creation in 2021 did not even match CBO’s projection without that legislation.

Below you’ll see the chart that accompanied the article.

As you can see, the White House projected more than 10 million new jobs (right bar).

Yet we would up with 6.1 million new jobs (left bar), about 140,000 less than we were projected to get (center bar) without wasting $1.9 trillion.

If pressed, I’m sure the Biden Administration would use the same excuse that we got from the Obama White House (and from the Congressional Budget Office), which is that the initial forecast was wrong and that the so-called stimulus did create jobs.

In other words, the Biden economists now would say they should have projected 2 million new jobs, which means that the $1.9 trillion spending spree added 4 million jobs, for a net increase of 6 million.

You may think I’m joking, but that is exactly how the Keynesian economists tried to justify Obama’s stimulus failure.

The moral of the story is that the best way to really create jobs is to get government out of the way rather than adding new burdens.

Read Full Post »

It’s an annual tradition (2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, etc) to list a handful of things that I hope might happen in the upcoming year, as well as the things I fear may happen.

Sadly, since I understand the economics of “public choice” (something Thomas Jefferson also implicitly understood) it’s always easier to envision the latter category.

But it’s good to begin a new year with optimism, so here are the good things that hopefully will happen in 2022.

Biden’s So-Called Build Back Better Stays Dead – The President squandered money on a fake stimulus and an infrastructure boondoggle, but we dodged the biggest bullet when Democrats couldn’t get all 50 of their Senators to support a multi-trillion dollar, growth-sapping expansion in taxes and spending.

The Supreme Court Ends Civil Asset Forfeiture – This was on my list last year, but the odious practice of “theft by government” continues. That being said, I still think it won’t survive if the Supreme Court has a chance to make a ruling (especially since America’s best Justice is very aware of the problem).

Republicans Win Congress in 2022 – I don’t have much faith in Republicans to do the right thing (especially when a Republican is in the White House), but I hope they win the House and Senate in November because they will oppose big tax increases while Democrats control the White House – even if only for partisan reasons.

In the “honorable mention” or “runner-up” category, I also hope to see further progress for school choice in 2022.

And I used to list a collapse of Venezuela’s reprehensible socialist government as one of my annual “hopes,” but I’ve largely given up (particularly since Latin Americans seem foolishly susceptible to “leftist saviors“).

Now let’s shift to the bad things that I fear will happen over the next 365 days.

Biden’s BBB Budget Plan Springs Back to Life – The President’s “Build Back Better” plan may be on life support, but sadly it’s not quite dead. I fear a scaled-down (but still horrible) version of the legislation may get approved this year. Senator Manchin of West Virginia, for instance, says he is willing to support a $1.5 trillion package and I fear the left eventually will decide that 50 percent of a (moldy and weevil-ridden) loaf is better than none.

Biden’s Remains a Protectionist – I hoped last year that Biden would reduce government trade taxes. Not because he believes in economic liberty, but simply because he wouldn’t want to continue a Trump-era policy. But that didn’t happen, and I now fear he’ll continue with protectionism in 2022. I don’t even have much hope that he’ll resuscitate the World Trade Organization.

New Tax Cartels – One of last year’s big defeats was the creation of a global tax cartel by governments. Barring some sort of miracle that prevents implementation, greedy politicians have set up a system that will require all nations to have a minimum corporate tax of 15 percent. That’s very bad news for workers, consumers, and shareholders, but I’m even more worried about the precedent it creates for additional tax cartels and ever-higher tax rates.

I’ll close by noting that last year’s list included the possibility of Kamala Harris becoming president.

But Biden has been so bad that it’s unclear that Harris would make things worse.

P.S. For the “fears” category, I could – and probably should – list entitlements every single year. Simply stated, the country is in deep long-run trouble because of an aging population and poorly designed tax-and-transfer programs. Years ago, I was semi-hopeful that we would get Medicaid and Medicare reform.

Now that seems like a distant dream and the real battle is preventing further entitlement expansions such as Biden’s per-child handout.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: