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Archive for the ‘Government Spending’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

However, it’s not time to give up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mercatus study looks at Hong Kong.

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

Amen.

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

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

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

Once again, I say amen.

Switzerland’s spending cap is a big success.

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

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

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

I guess this is time for a triple-amen.

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

The economic case for spending caps is ironclad.

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

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

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

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

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The invaluable John Stossel has an entertaining and informative video that estimates how many handouts are being promised by Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Elizabeth Warren.

Wow, how depressing.

When I wrote about about the “dangerous seduction of free” a month ago, I apparently underestimated the problem. We have politicians completely divorced from fiscal reality (the “Green New Deal” being a frightening example).

But the key question is whether the American people are actually getting seduced.

It’s not looking good on the Democratic side. Joe Biden is presumably part of the Democratic Party’s anti-socialist wing, which is encouraging. But all the other leading candidates are hard-core big spenders.

And it’s not looking good on the Republican side, either. Trump may not have crazy proposals for new spending, but in practice he’s been profligate. Indeed, I’m guessing he will wind up with a worse record on spending than Obama.

The bottom line is that the public sector already is too large in the United States. Yet we have politicians who want it to become an even bigger burden. In some cases, much bigger.

That has very serious economic consequences. Especially if it coincides with an erosion of societal capital.

For instance, I think some European countries have already reached a “tipping point” because of a dependency mindset.

Historically, the United States has been insulated from that problem because of a belief in personal responsibility. But ever-growing levels of dependency suggest that this advantage is dissipating.

I’ll close with a final observation about the candidates – Sanders, Warren, and Harris – who were identified in the video as advocating trillions of dollars of new spending.

How do they plan to finance this orgy?

  • Sanders has a plethora of new taxes, including class-warfare tax increase and middle-class tax increases, so he definitely wants to put our money where his mouth is. In terms of fiscal policy, think of him as Sweden.
  • Warren supports a bunch of new taxes, mostly on the rich, most notably a huge wealth tax, which surely would backfire but theoretically is a big source of money. In terms of fiscal policy, think of her as France.
  • Harris has some class-warfare tax hikes but is mostly promising a free lunch since there’s a huge mismatch between what she wants to spend and the new taxes she has embraced. In terms of fiscal policy, think of her as Greece.

For what it’s worth, I’m waiting for the Hong Kong candidate.

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I point out in this interview that the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) was the only big victory for taxpayers this century. It imposed spending caps on discretionary spending and led to a sequester in early 2013, which was Barack Obama’s biggest defeat.

The bad news is that the BCA is merely legislation. That means politicians can conspire to bust the spending caps – which is what they did at the end of 2013, as well as in 2015, 2018, and again this year.

This most recent deal may be the worst of the worst. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) shows that it brings discretionary spending almost up to the level we reached during Obama’s pork-filled stimulus.

By the way, the chart also shows that Bush was a big spender and that we actually had a bit of spending restraint after the Tea Party-themed 2010 mid-term elections.

But let’s focus on today.

Here’s one more chart from CRFB. It shows that Trump is doing a good job of impersonating Obama with huge, across-the-board spending increases.

These charts show why I’m so depressed. And let’s not forget that they are only measures of discretionary spending. The outlook for entitlement spending is even worse!

In other words, we’re on the path to fiscal crisis. Is there a solution?

Yes, we could adopt constitutional restraints on the growth of government. I mentioned Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights in the interview, as well as the “debt brake” in Switzerland.

But there’s zero chance that today’s crop of politicians will enact this kind of sensible reform. We’ll probably have to wait until a crisis occurs. At which point it may be too late.

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Way back in early 2016, I asked whether Donald Trump believed in smaller government.

A few months later, I concluded that the answer was no. Trump – like Bush and Nixon – was a big-government Republican.

I wish that I was wrong.

But if you look at the budget deal he approved last year, there’s no alternative explanation. Especially since there was an approach that would have guaranteed a victory for taxpayers.

Now it appears that he is on the verge of meekly surrendering to another big expansion of the federal budget.

The Washington Post has a story on the new deal to increase spending.

…the final details of a sweeping budget and debt deal are unlikely to include many — if any — actual spending cuts… The agreement appeared likely to mark a retreat for White House officials who had demanded major spending cuts in exchange for a new budget deal. …instead of the $150 billion in new spending cuts recently demanded by White House acting budget director Russell Vought, the agreement would include a significantly lower amount of reductions. And those reductions aren’t expected to represent actual spending cuts, in part because most would take place in future years and likely be reversed by Congress at a later date. …In practical terms, the budget agreement would increase spending by tens of billions of dollars in the next two years, a stark reversal from the White House’s budget request several months ago… Agreeing on new spending levels also avoids onerous budget caps that would otherwise snap into place automatically under an Obama-era deal, and indiscriminately slash $126 billion from domestic and Pentagon budgets.

The establishment-oriented Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) is aghast at the grotesque profligacy of the purported agreement.

…this agreement is a total abdication of fiscal responsibility by Congress and the President. It may end up being the worst budget agreement in our nation’s history, proposed at a time when our fiscal conditions are already precarious. If this deal passes, President Trump will have increased discretionary spending by as much as 22 percent over his first term… There was a time when Republicans insisted on a dollar of spending cuts for every dollar increase in the debt limit. It’s hard to believe they are now considering the opposite – attaching $2 trillion of spending increases to a similar-sized debt limit hike.

I sometimes differ with the folks at the CRFB because they’re too fixated on debt rather than the size of government.

But in this case, we both find this rumored deal to be utterly irresponsible.

From a liberty-minded perspective, the Wall Street Journal opines about the spendthrift agreement.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin are negotiating another spending blowout as part of a two-year budget deal, and let’s hope the talks break down. The price could be another $2 trillion in deficit spending… The Budget Control Act of 2011 puts caps on spending that both parties have to agree to lift. In 2018 Congress passed a two-year budget deal that blew out domestic spending by more than $130 billion in exchange for a buildup in defense. The bipartisan spending party is hoping to repeat the exercise for fiscal 2020 and 2021… After the last two-year deal Mr. Trump vowed never to sign another one, but here he is again. …The GOP may…underestimate the political cost of campaigning on another spending deal that increases the size of government. It will be harder to run against the spending plans of Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris with Mr. Trump’s first-term spending record.

I’ll close with a chart I prepared based on the numbers for domestic discretionary spending from the Mid-Session Review, as well as Table 8.1 from the Historical Tables, both from the Office of Management and Budget.

The numbers show that we had more fiscal restraint under Obama (blue line) than Trump (orange line). And Trump’s numbers will now be even worse with the new deal.

I added the Excel-generated trendline to show what would have happened if Obama-era policies were maintained.

But since that produced an unrealistic assessment, I also showed (green line) what spending would have looked like if politicians had obeyed commitments from the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).

Some of these numbers are back-of-the-envelope calculations, but the bottom line is clear. Trump is worse than Obama on spending.

And that means big tax increases inevitably will be the result.

P.S. When I recently issued a report card for Trump’s economic policy, I gave him a “B-” because I decided his good tax policy outweighed his bad spending policy. If this deal gets finalized, he drops to a “C-” because of the big expansion in the burden of spending.

P.P.S. Trump also is weak on entitlement spending, which is the biggest part of the federal spending burden.

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San Francisco used to be famous for cable cars.

Now it’s getting well known for its “poop patrol” and maps that warn people about the ubiquitous presence of human excrement.

Why are people defecating on city sidewalks? Because there’s a major problem with government-created homelessness thanks to rent control and zoning restrictions.

And homelessness gives us our topic for today because we have an astounding example of government waste.

More specifically, a story from the San Francisco Chronicle nicely summarizes the efficiency and competence of the public sector.

An experiment to put a homeless shelter in a San Francisco public school gym has so far been a costly failure, …costing taxpayers about $700 for each person who spends the night. …only five families have used the facility at 23rd and Valencia streets in the Mission, with an average occupancy of less than two people per night… The facility is completely empty several nights each month, Kositsky said, although shelter workers are on-site seven nights a week and through holidays, whether anyone shows up or not.

I’ve been to San Francisco many times. Hotels are not cheap.

But I’ve never had to pay anywhere close to $700 per night.

Though maybe this San Francisco program is a bargain since it costs the state $1.3 million per year to house a homeless person.

So why did the city create this boondoggle? For the same reason that many programs are created. Politicians and bureaucrats exaggerated about a problem.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen and the school’s administrators…advocated for the shelter, saying there were dozens of families facing homelessness at Buena Vista Horace Mann who needed someplace to sleep. The principal at the time, Richard Zapien, said he had identified 60 families in unstable housing.

But here’s a passage that captures the real story.

This program was created to funnel money to a non-profit group and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that officers of this group are supporters (campaign cash, get-out-the-vote, etc) of the politicians who created the program.

The city has been paying the nonprofit Dolores Street Community Services $40,000 per month to manage the shelter, and if it were to be successful, would spend up to $900,000 per year to serve up to 20 families at a time with all-night staffing, food and support services to help them find permanent housing.

In other words, we have another example of how government is a racket.

No matter how flawed and foolish a program may be, never forget that it’s putting unearned money in the pockets of some group of people. And that group of people know how to play the game, since they then recycle some of the loot back to the politicians.

Politicians don’t care if the money is wasted. They don’t care if there’s rampant fraud.

They’re simply buying votes. With our money.

P.S. There is a sure-fire way of reducing this kind of corrupt behavior, but don’t hold your breath expecting it to happen.

P.P.S. Though you may want to hold your breath if you visit the city.

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The Congressional Budget Office just released its new long-run fiscal forecast.

Most observers immediately looked at the estimates for deficits and debt. Those numbers are important, especially since America has an aging population, but they should be viewed as secondary.

What really matters are the trends for both taxes and spending.

Here are the three things that you need to know.

First, America’s tax burden is increasing. Immediately below are two charts. The first one shows that revenues will consume an addition three percentage points of GDP over the next three decades. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, our long-run problem is not caused by inadequate revenue.

The second of the two charts shows that most of the increase is due to “real bracket creep,” which is what happens when people earn more income and wind up having to pay higher tax rates.

So even if Congress extends the “Cadillac tax” on health premiums and extends all the temporary provisions of the 2017 Tax Act, the aggregate tax burden will increase.

Second, the spending burden is growing even faster than the tax burden.

And if you look closely at the top section of Figure 1-7, you’ll see that the big problems are the entitlements for health care (i.e., Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare).

By the way, the lower section of Figure 1-7 shows that corporate tax revenues are projected to average about 1.3 percent of GDP, which is not that much lower than what CBO projected (about 1.7 percent of GDP) before the rate was reduced by 40 percent.

Interesting.

Third, we have our most important chart.

It shows that the United States is on a very bad trajectory because the burden of government spending is growing faster than the private economy.

In other words, Washington is violating my Golden Rule.

And this leads to all sorts of negative consequences.

  • Government consumes a greater share of the economy over time.
  • Politicians will want to respond by raising taxes.
  • Politicians will allow red ink to increase.

The key thing to understand is that more taxes and more debt are the natural and inevitable symptoms of the underlying disease of too much spending.

We know the solution, and we have real world evidence that it works (especially when part of a nation’s constitution), but don’t hold your breath waiting for Washington to do the right thing.

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