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Archive for the ‘Mitchell’s Golden Rule’ Category

Should high-tax states such as California and New York get a bailout?

I explained last month why that would be a mistake, in large part because bailouts would reward states for irresponsible fiscal policy (similar to my argument that countries like Austria and the Netherlands shouldn’t be bullied into providing bailouts for Italy and Spain).

And I’ve shared two videos (here and here) for those who want more information about how bailouts encourage “moral hazard.” And this is true for banks (think TARP) as well as governments.

Today, though, I want to focus on some numbers that show what’s really causing fiscal problems in some states.

Adam Michel and David Ditch of the Heritage Foundation have generated some startling data on state government finances.

Instead of waiting on a handout from Washington, states should clear the way for a more robust economic recovery by addressing their unsustainable finances. States and local government spending has increased over the recent past… After adjusting for inflation and increases in population, state and local spending (in constant 2019 dollars) has grown from $5,596 per person in 2000 to $7,268 per person in 2019. That amounts to a 30% increase in the real cost of state and local government over just two decades, even without the thousands of dollars per person the federal government sends to states and localities through a wide variety of programs. …not all states spend equally. As of 2017, Florida, Georgia, and Arizona spent about $5,800 per person on state and local governments, but New York spent more than $11,700 per person.

The most important number is the above excerpt is that there’s been a 30 percent increase in per-capita state spending after adjusting for inflation.

That’s a very worrisome trend.

But not all states are created equal. Or, to be more precise, they’re not all equally profligate. Here’s the chart that starkly illustrates why some states are in trouble.

At the risk of understatement, California and New York have not complied with the Golden Rule for fiscal policy.

Needless to say, there’s no justification for the notion that taxpayers in well-run states such as Texas and Florida should be coerced into providing bailouts for politicians in poorly run states.

And now we have a compelling visual that settles the argument.

P.S. Over the past several years, I’ve done multiple columns comparing Texas and California and also several columns comparing New York and Florida, all of which underscore that blue states have created their own problems by taxing too much and spending too much.

P.P.S. Thankfully, people can vote with their feet by moving from high-tax states to low-tax states. Let’s hope that Congress doesn’t enact a bailout so they’re forced to subsidize the states that drove them away.

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Last November, voters in some states had the opportunity to accept or reject some very important initiatives, including votes on Colorado’s flat tax, Arizona’s school choice system, and a carbon tax in the state of Washington.

Since 2019 is an off-year election, there aren’t as many initiatives and referendums. But one of them is vitally important. Politicians in Colorado are hoping voters will approve Proposition CC, which would gut the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) and thus allow more government spending.

Why is TABOR worth defending? Because it’s far and away the most effective and well-designed fiscal rule in the United States.

It’s basically a spending cap, which is the ideal fiscal policy, and here’s a description of how it works that I shared last year.

Colorado voters adopted The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in 1992. TABOR allows government spending to grow each year at the rate of inflation-plus-population. Government can increase faster whenever voters consent. Likewise, tax rates can be increased whenever voters consent. …The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that excess government revenues be refunded to taxpayers, unless taxpayers vote to let the government keep the revenue.

Proposition CC doesn’t fully repeal TABOR, but it allows politicians to keep – and spend – excess tax revenues.

Thomas Aiello of the National Taxpayers Union wrote last month for the Colorado Springs Gazette about TABOR. He explains why it has been successful.

By guaranteeing refunds of excessive taxes, restricting spending to sensible growth rates, and giving Coloradans the ability to vote on tax increases, TABOR has been instrumental in the state’s booming economy. …Since TABOR limits the amount of money the state is allowed to spend, surplus revenue in excess of the cap must be refunded to Colorado taxpayers. Generally, the revenue cap on the state level grows with inflation plus population increases. …TABOR is working as designed: limiting the growth of government, protecting taxpayers, and ensuring working Coloradans keep more of their hard-earned money. …since 1992 more than $3 billion has been refunded back to taxpayers in the form of lower property, sales, and income taxes.

And he warns about the adverse consequences of Proposition CC.

…in the 2019 legislative session, the Democratic-controlled legislature agreed to place Proposition CC onto the November ballot. If approved by voters, TABOR’s provision for refunds would be gutted, thereby allowing the treasury to retain all excess revenue it is required to return to taxpayers. That means taxpayers would forfeit future refunds from 2019 on. Just put that into perspective: taxpayers will send an extra $1.3 billion to the treasury than what would normally be spent. Instead of giving that money back to you as required by TABOR, lawmakers want Coloradans to forget about overpayments so they can just spend it on other things in the budget.

Writing for the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Jay Stooksbury also opines against Proposition CC.

They lied to us in 2005, and they are doubling down on this lie in 2019. Colorado voters were sold a bill of goods with Referendum C in 2005, and it is of the utmost importance that we aren’t fooled again with Proposition CC in 2019. Proponents of Referendum C originally claimed that their measure was “temporary.” The measure was supposed to offer a five-year reprieve from the constitutional limitations created by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR)… Referendum C proved to be anything but “temporary.” The referendum allowed Colorado’s spendthrift government to permanently augment its spending cap, shortchanging taxpayers on their potential refund year after year since its passing.

He explains that Proposition CC would be far worse.

If passed, this 2019 ballot measure would permanently abolish the state government’s obligation to refund taxpayers. I repeat: permanently. At least this time around, legislators have dropped the pretense that they are bluffing with “temporary” half-measures; when it comes to keeping all of your hard-earned income, these legislators are going all-in, baby. …TABOR is, unfortunately, a shell of its former self. Its effectiveness has been chipped away by a decades-long rebranding campaign that laundered tax revenue by using terms like “fees” and “enterprises.” …Regardless, TABOR is still a vital, one-of-a-kind safeguard that empowers Coloradans against the wastefulness of government. Come November, let’s be certain to keep it that way. Fool us once with C, shame on you; fool us twice with CC, shame on all of us.

I don’t have much to add to these analyses. The real gold standard for good fiscal policy is to make sure government doesn’t grow faster than the private sector, and that’s what TABOR is designed to achieve.

It’s basically the closest thing we have in America to Switzerland’s “debt brake” and Hong Kong’s Article 107.

My only contribution to the discussion is this chart, based on data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, showing how Coloradans now enjoy more than $4,000 of additional personal income compared to the national average – up from just $526 when TABOR was enacted.

While it’s impossible to precisely explain why income has grown faster in Colorado, I don’t think it is a coincidence that the state gets high scores for economic liberty.

P.S. To see the real-world impact of TABOR, look at what happened after pot legalization produced additional tax revenue.

P.P.S. I’m also paying close attention to Proposition 4 in Texas, which would amend the state constitution to prohibit consideration of a personal income tax.

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I’m glad that Boris Johnson is Prime Minister for the simple reason that “Brexit” is far and away the most important issue for the United Kingdom.

Whether it’s called a Clean Brexit or Hard Brexit, leaving the European Union is vital. It means escaping the transfer union that inevitably will be imposed as more EU nations suffer Greek-style fiscal chaos. And a real Brexit gives the UK leeway to adopt market-friendly policies that currently are impossible under the dirigiste rules imposed by Brussels.

But just because Johnson appears to be good on Brexit, this doesn’t mean he deserves good grades in other areas. For instance, the UK-based Times reports that the Prime Minister is on a spending spree.

Boris Johnson is planning to spend as much on public services as Jeremy Corbyn promised at the last election and cannot afford the tax cuts he pledged in the Tory leadership campaign, a think tank has warned. The prime minister’s proposed spending spree would mean Sajid Javid, the chancellor, overshooting the government’s borrowing limit by £5 billion in 2020-21, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which said that the government was “adrift without any fiscal anchor”.

Ugh, sounds like he may be the British version of Trump. Or Bush, or Nixon.

In a column for CapX, Ben Ramanauskas warns that more spending is bad policy.

…with Sajid Javid making a raft of spending announcements, it would seem as though the age of austerity really is over. …So it would be useful to look back over the past decade and answer a few questions. Does austerity work? …As explained in the excellent new book Austerity: When it Works and When it Doesn’t  by Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero, and Francesco Giavazzi, it depends what you mean by austerity. …The authors analyse thousands of fiscal measures adopted by sixteen advanced economies since the late 1970s, and assess the relative effectiveness of tax increases and spending cuts at reducing debt. They show that…spending cuts are much more successful than tax increases at reducing the growth of debt, and can sometimes even result in output gains, such as in the case of expansionary austerity. …Which brings us onto our next question: did the UK actually experience austerity? …the government’s programme was a mild form of austerity. …Then there is the politics of it all. It’s important to remember that fiscal conservatism can be popular with the electorate and it worked well in 2015 and to a lesser extent in 2010. The Conservatives should not expect to win the next election by promising massive increases in public spending.

Moreover, good spending policy facilitates better tax policy.

Or, in this case, the issue is that bad spending policy makes good tax policy far more difficult.

And that isn’t good news since the U.K. needs to improve its tax system, as John Ashmore explains in another CapX article.

…the Tax Foundation…released its annual International Tax Competitiveness Index. The UK came 25th out of 36 major industrialised nations. For a country that aims to have one of the world’s most dynamic economies, that simply will not do. …Conservatives…should produce a comprehensive plan for a simpler, unashamedly pro-growth tax system. And it should be steeped in a political narrative about freedom… Rates are important, but so is overall structure and efficiency. …a more generous set of allowances for investment, coupled with a reform of business rates would be a great place to start. We know the UK has a productivity problem, so it seems perverse that we actively discourages investment. …As for simplicity, …it’s possible to drastically reduce the number of taxes paid by small businesses without having any effect on revenue. Accountants PwC estimate it takes 105 hours for the average UK business to file their taxes… Another area the UK falls down is property taxes, of which Stamp Duty Land Tax is the most egregious example. It’s hard to find anyone who thinks charging a tax on people moving house is a good idea…in the longer term there’s no substitute for good, old-fashioned economic growth – creating the world’s most competitive tax system would be a fine way to help deliver it.

To elaborate, a “more generous set of allowances for investment” is the British way of saying that the tax code should shift from depreciation to expensing, which is very good for growth.

And simplicity is also a good goal (we could use some of that on this side of the Atlantic).

The problem, of course, is that good reforms won’t be easy to achieve if there’s no plan to limit the burden of government spending.

It’s too early to know if Boris Johnson is genuinely weak on fiscal issues. Indeed, friends in the UK have tried to put my mind at ease by asserting that he’s simply throwing around money to facilitate Brexit.

Given the importance of that issue, even I’m willing to forgive a bit of profligacy if that’s the price of escaping the European Union.

But, if that’s the case, Johnson needs to get serious as soon as Brexit is delivered.

Let’s close by looking at recent fiscal history in the UK. Here’s a chart, based on numbers from the IMF, showing the burden of spending relative to economic output.

Margaret Thatcher did a good job, unsurprisingly.

And it’s not a shock to see that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown frittered away that progress.

But what is surprising is to see how David Cameron was very prudent.

Indeed, if you compared spending growth during the Blair-Brown era with spending growth in the Cameron-May era, you can see a huge difference.

Cameron may not have been very good on tax issues, but he definitely complied with fiscal policy’s golden rule for spending.

Let’s hope Boris Johnson is similarly prudent with other people’s money.

P.S. If you want some Brexit-themed humor, click here and here.

P.P.S. If you want some unintentional Brexit-themed humor, check out the IMF’s laughably biased and inaccurate analysis.

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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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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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I wrote yesterday about the leadership race for the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.

The most important goal is to find a leader who will deliver a “clean Brexit,” but I also pointed out that it would be very desirable to select a Prime Minister who will support much-needed supply-side reforms to make the U.K. more attractive for jobs and investment.

Today, let’s turn our attention to the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

The accompanying table of data (from page 65 of HM Treasury’s Statistical Analyses of Public Expenditure) shows annual spending in nominal and inflation-adjusted terms, as well as the burden of spending as a share of economic output.

If you look at trends, you’ll notice a bit of progress in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher and then some backsliding last decade when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were in charge.

But the most surprising results can be found this decade.

Starting in 2011, there’s been some impressive spending restraint. Nominal outlays have increased by an average of 1.7 percent annually.

And since the private sector has grown at a faster pace, that means the overall burden of government spending – measured as a share of gross domestic product – has declined.

I’ve never thought of David Cameron (Prime Minister from 2010-2016) or Theresa May (Prime Minister since 2016) as fiscal conservatives, but they deserve credit for keeping spending under control.

(Too bad we can’t say the same thing about Donald Trump!)

In any event, the new leader of the Conservative Party should maintain this approach. Or, better yet, go one step further by institutionalizing some sort of Swiss-style spending cap.

There’s also a lesson for the rest of us.

What’s happened in the United Kingdom is additional confirmation that my Golden Rule is the right approach to fiscal policy.

Nations with multi-year periods of spending restraint always get good fiscal results.

We even had such an experience in the United States (back when Republicans pretended to care about spending).

Let’s close with this chart, based on IMF data, showing what’s happened this decade in the United Kingdom.

P.S. Unsurprisingly, Paul Krugman got everything backwards when he examined U.K. fiscal policy earlier this decade.

P.P.S. While they did a surprisingly good job on spending restraint, that doesn’t change the fact that Cameron was bad on tax policy and May was a failure on Brexit.

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Earlier this year, I reviewed new fiscal projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and showed that balancing the budget would be relatively easy if politicians simply limited spending so that it didn’t grow faster than inflation.

Though I made sure to point out that the primary goal should be to limit the burden of spending. That’s because government spending, regardless of whether it’s financed by taxes or financed by borrowing, undermines prosperity by diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy.

We now have some new numbers from CBO. The number-crunching bureaucrats have put together their estimates of the latest Trump budget and that’s generated some predictable squabbling between Republicans and Democrats.

Most of the finger-pointing has focused on the (relatively trivial) fiscal impact of the Trump tax cuts.

The Wall Street Journal wisely put the focus instead on the growth of government.

You wouldn’t know it from the press coverage, but there’s some modest good news about the federal budget. The deficit is rising, but not as much as feared because tax revenues are increasing due to faster economic growth. …So why has the federal deficit increased by $145 billion this fiscal year to $531 billion? Because federal spending continued to rise rapidly—7% in the first seven months to $2.571 trillion. That’s $178 billion more than in the same period a year ago. …The media blame deficits on tax reform, but the facts show the main culprit is spending. No one in the political class wants to talk about entitlements but that’s where the money is.

The WSJ’s editorial focused on short-run data.

I want to augment that analysis by looking at medium-run and long-run numbers.

We’ll start with this chart looking at what will happen over the next 10 years. As you can see, Washington is violating my Golden Rule by allowing spending to grow faster than the private economy.

As a result, the burden of federal spending, measured as a share of gross domestic product, is projected to climb over the next decade.

That’s not good news.

(For what it’s worth, since tax revenues will be growing at the same pace as spending, there won’t be any meaningful change in the deficit as a share of GDP.)

Now let’s look at the most-recent long-run data from CBO. These numbers are even more depressing because the spending burden continues to grow faster than the private sector. A lot faster.

Which is why the burden of federal spending is projected to increase from less than 21 percent of GDP today to nearly 29 percent of GDP by 2049.

That’s terrible news.

And if you include spending by state and local governments (which currently consumes more than 11 percent of economic output and also is projected to increase), the terrible news gets even worse.

Moreover, the tax burden is projected to climb as well, and that doesn’t even include any estimate of what will happen if politicians manage to impose a value-added tax, an energy tax, a wealth tax, a financial transactions tax, or any of the other revenue-raising schemes under consideration in Washington.

In other words, the U.S. is on track to become just like GreeceFrance, and Italy.

P.S. There is an alternative to this dismal future. But can we convince politicians to adopt a spending cap and then make it work with genuine entitlement reform? I’m not holding my breath for any of that to happen.

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I explained yesterday that Denmark is not a good role model for American leftists.

Simply stated, Otto Brøns-Petersen’s video shows that the admirable outcomes in that country are the result of laissez-faire markets and the bad outcomes are the result of the welfare state imposed beginning in the 1960s.

In any event, Denmark is not a socialist country. As I wrote, “There’s plenty of bad policy, but no government ownership, no central planning, and no price controls.”

But to make matters clear, here’s a comparison of Denmark and the United States from Economic Freedom of the World.

The bottom line is that if folks on the left want to claim Denmark is socialist, then America also is socialist. Alternatively, if Denmark is an example of Democratic Socialism, then so is the United States.

And if that’s the case, we’ve already reached Collectivist Nirvana and my leftist friends can shelve some of their crazy ideas such as 70 percent tax rates and the Green New Deal.

Needless to say, I won’t hold my breath.

Today, I want to focus on another aspect of Danish public policy that warms my heart. Back in 2015, I applauded the government for imposing some spending restraint and I expressed hope that plans for future fiscal discipline would be fulfilled.

Well, based on IMF and OECD data, policy makers in Denmark deserve a gold star. They followed my Golden Rule and limited the growth of government spending. As a result, there’s been a meaningful decline in the burden of spending (measured as a share of economic output).

Too bad American politicians weren’t similarly prudent. If federal spending in the U.S. grew at the same rate since 2012, the burden of spending today would be more than $700 billion lower.

And since spending is the problem and red ink is the symptom, it naturally follows that the United States would have a deficit this year of about $370 billion instead of nearly $1.1 trillion.

It’s a shame we can’t go back in time and trade profligate Obama and profligate Trump for Denmark’s leaders.

P.S. Here’s a list of other nations with successful periods of spending restraint, and here’s a video highlighting four of those episodes.

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Iceland is a tiny little country with just 338,000 people (about the population of Santa Ana, CA), but that doesn’t mean it can’t teach us lessons about public policy.

I wrote about the nation’s approach to fisheries in 2016, and explained that the property rights-based system is the best way of protecting fish stocks from over-harvesting.

And in 2013, I wrote about how modest spending restraint was helping to solve fiscal problems created by the financial crisis.

Today, I want to further explore Iceland’s fiscal policy, largely because of this remarkable chart that accompanied a Bloomberg report on the country’s budget strategy.

As you can see, debt skyrocketed during the financial crisis and has since plummeted at a very rapid rate.

This shows debt reduction is possible. Indeed, there can be huge reductions in a very short period of time.

So there may be hope for nations that are in the midst of fiscal crisis (such as Greece), nations that are about to suffer fiscal crisis (Italy is a prime candidate), and nations that will suffer a crisis if there isn’t reform (most developed nations, including the United States).

But what are the specific policy lessons?

Here are some excerpts from the accompanying article, which basically tells us that the government is focused on spending restraint.

Iceland will continue to reduce public debt and sustain a budget surplus even as it lowers taxes in the next five years, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson said. The plan is part of a financial road map… The balancing act between austerity and the proposed fiscal concessions means less room for the government to…step up other spending… “We will need to impose certain measures of restriction,” Benediktsson said. The government may have to seek cost savings of as much as 5 billion kronur ($42 million), he said. …The financial plan projects a decrease in taxes as well as the Treasury’s debt levels and interest burden. It also expects the bank tax to be lowered in four steps.

But the article didn’t tell us why Iceland’s debt fell so quickly.

So I dug into the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database and crunched some numbers. I specifically wanted to find out why debt fell, both before and after the 2008 crisis.

And I focused on three sets of numbers.

  • Annual inflation rate
  • Annual growth of government spending burden
  • Annual increase in nominal gross domestic product

Here are those numbers, both for the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, as well as what happened starting in 2009.

For both the 2001-07 period and 2009-19 period, Iceland followed my Golden Rule. Government spending (the orange bars) grew slower than the economy (the grey bars).

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that debt fell during both eras.

But debt fell much faster starting in 2009 for the simple reason that the gap between spending growth and GDP growth was very significant over the past 10 years. This is the reason for the big reduction in debt.

And this spending restraint also generated some data that’s even more important – the burden of government spending has dropped from more than 48 percent of economic output in 2009 to less than 41 percent of GDP this year.

During the 2001-2007 period, by contrast, Iceland only barely satisfied the Golden Rule. Indeed, one could argue that spending was growing much too fast since the economy was in an unsustainable boom (Ireland was similarly profligate during the same period).

P.S. I recently shared an excellent IMF study showing three examples of big debt reductions in the pre-World War I era.

P.P.S. Unsurprisingly, the OECD has been pushing for higher taxes in Iceland.

P.P.P.S. If you want to read about all of Iceland’s pro-market economic, Prof. Hannes Gissurarson has a must-read article in Econ Journal Watch.

P.P.P.P.S. Voters in Iceland had an opportunity to vote on bank bailouts and 93 percent said no.

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In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, the United States at some point is going to suffer from a debt crisis.

But red ink is merely a symptom. I used numbers from Greece in this interview to underscore the fact that the real problem is government spending.

The discussion was triggered by comments from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Wednesday that reducing the federal debt needs to return to the forefront of the agenda, warning that the government’s finances are unsustainable. “I do think that deficits matter and do think it’s not really controversial to say our debt can’t grow faster than our economy indefinitely — and that’s what it’s doing right now,” Powell said.

As I noted in my comments, Powell is right, but he’s focusing on the wrong variable.

The real crisis is that spending is growing faster than the private sector (Powell needs to learn the six principles to guide spending policy).

To be more specific, politicians are violating my Golden Rule.

Spending grew too fast under Bush. It grew too fast under Obama (except for a few years when the “Tea Party” was in the ascendancy). And it’s growing too fast under Trump.

Most worrisome, the burden of spending is expected to grow faster than the private sector far into the future according to the long-run forecast from the Congressional Budget Office.

That doesn’t mean we’ll have a crisis this year or next year. We probably won’t even have a crisis in the next 10 years or 20 years.

But I cited Greek data in the interview to point out that excessive spending eventually does create a major problem.

Here’s the data from International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database. To make matters simple (I should have done this for the interview as well), I adjusted the numbers for inflation.

So how can America avoid a Greek-style fiscal nightmare?

Simple, just impose a spending cap. At the end of the interview, I added a plug for the very successful system in Switzerland, but I’d also be happy if we copied Hong Kong’s spending cap. Or the Taxpayer Bill of Rights from Colorado.

The bottom line is that spending restraint works and a constitutional spending cap is the best way to achieve permanent fiscal discipline.

P.S. By contrast, proponents of “Modern Monetary Theory” argue governments can finance ever-growing government by printing money. For what it’s worth, nations that have used central banks to finance big government (most recently, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) are not exactly good role models.

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I’ve been in Lebanon for the past few days, but not because I’m seeking a replacement for the Princess of the Levant.

Instead, I’m here because the Lebanese Institute for Market Studies arranged a briefing in the Parliament on the perilous state of the nation’s finances.

Lebanon is in trouble because policy makers have violated my Golden Rule by allowing spending to grow too fast. As such, even though the overall fiscal burden of government is relatively modest, red ink has climbed to about 150 percent of economic output. That’s higher than Italy today, and higher than Greek debt when that nation’s fiscal crisis occurred.

I’ve pointed out before that there’s not an automatic tipping point when a debt crisis occurs. It happens whenever investors decide that they no longer trust that a government will pay its debt.

I’m not going to predict exactly when Lebanon reaches that point, but I suspect sooner rather than later. Unless, of course, Lebanon changes direction.

And that’s exactly what I’m recommending. I made three points.

First, higher taxes are not a solution. Given the IMF’s awful track record of pushing tax hikes in the region, I repeated my standard joke about arresting any of those bureaucrats who enter the country.

Second, a rule requiring a balanced budget is not the ideal solution. Not because balanced budgets are a bad idea, but because such rules put fiscal policy at the mercy of the business cycle.

This chart showing Lebanon’s revenue makes my point. When there’s strong growth and revenues are increasing rapidly (between 2001-2004 and 2006-2009), big spending increases are possible. But when the economy is weak and revenues are flat (between 2004-2006 and 2009-2016), politicians are very resistant to fiscal discipline during a downturn.

Even the IMF and OECD agree with me that this is a big reason why anti-deficit rules don’t work.

Which leads me to my third point, which is that Lebanon should copy Hong Kong and Switzerland by adopting an annual limit on spending growth.

I didn’t specify a specific number for a spending cap. Instead, I emphasized that the key goal is to make sure spending – over time – grows slower than the private sector.

But I did show what would have happened if lawmakers had limited nominal annual spending increases to 6 percent starting in 1992 (that sounds far too high, but keep in mind that inflation averaged about 4 percent over the past 25 years).

I told the audience that they would have a budget surplus today, and also very little debt, if a spending cap had been in effect (same results would hold for America).

And I also pointed out that lawmakers could avoid boom-bust budgeting with a long-run spending cap. With a fixed limit on annual spending increases, they would not have to cut outlays during a recession, but they also would not be able to have a spending orgy during a boom.

That’s a good recipe for Lebanon. It’s also the right recipe for the United States.

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I wrote yesterday about the continuing success of Switzerland’s spending cap.

Before voters changed the Swiss constitution, overall expenditures were growing by an average of 4.6 percent annually. Ever since the “debt brake” took effect, though, government spending has increased by an average of just 2.1 percent.

For all intents and purposes, Switzerland is getting good results because it is now complying with fiscal policy’s Golden Rule.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the United States. The Congressional Budget Office just released its new long-run forecast of the federal budget.

The most worrisome factoid in the report is that the overall burden of federal spending is going to expand significantly over the next three decades, jumping from 20.6 percent of the economy this year to 29.3 percent of economic output in 2048.

And why will the federal budget consume an ever-larger share of economic output? The chart tells you everything you need to know. Our fiscal situation is deteriorating because government is growing faster than the private sector.

Actually, the chart doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. It doesn’t tell us, for instances, that tax increases simply make a bad situation worse since politicians then have an excuse to avoid much-need reforms.

And the chart also doesn’t reveal that entitlement programs are the main cause of ever-expanding government.

But the chart does a great job of showing that our fundamental problem is growth of government. Which presumably makes it obvious that the only logical solution is a spending cap.

The good news is that there already is a spending cap in Washington.

But the bad news is that it only applies to “appropriations,” which are a small share of the overall federal budget.

And the worse news is that politicians voted to bust that spending cap in 2013, 2015, and earlier this year.

The bottom line is that we know spending restraint works, but the challenge is figuring out a system that actually ties the hands of politicians. Switzerland and Hong Kong solved that problem by making their spending caps part of their national constitutions.

Sadly, there’s little immediate hope of that kind of reform in the United States.

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A balanced budget requirement is neither necessary nor sufficient for good fiscal policy.

If you want proof for that assertion, check out states such as IllinoisCalifornia, and New Jersey. They all have provisions to limit red ink, yet there is more spending (and more debt) every year. There are also anti-deficit rules in nations such as GreeceFrance, and Italy, and those countries are not exactly paragons of fiscal discipline.

The real gold standard for good fiscal policy is my Golden Rule. And the best way to make sure government doesn’t grow faster than the private sector is to have a constitutional rule limiting the growth of government.

That’s why I’m a big fan of the “debt brake” in Switzerland’s constitution and Article 107 in Hong Kong’s constitution.

And it’s also why the 49 other states, assuming they want an effective fiscal rule, should look at Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) as a role model.

Colorado’s Independence Institute has a very informative study on how TABOR works and the degree to which it has been effective. Here’s a good description of the system.

Colorado voters adopted The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in 1992. TABOR allows government spending to grow each year at the rate of inflation-plus-population. Government can increase faster whenever voters consent. Likewise, tax rates can be increased whenever voters consent. …The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that excess government revenues be refunded to taxpayers, unless taxpayers vote to let the government keep the revenue.

And here are the headline results.

Cumulatively, TABOR refunds have been over $800 per Coloradan, or $3,200 for a family of four. …If Colorado government had continued growing at the same high rate (8.56% compound annual rate) as in 1983-92, the average Coloradan would have paid an additional $442 taxes in 2012. The cumulative two-decade savings per Coloradan are $6,173—or more than $24,000 for a family of four.

However, the study notes that TABOR was most effective during its first 10 years. It was less effective in its second decade because voters acquiesced to a “TABOR time-out” as part of referendum C in 2005.

The final decade included the largest tax increase in Colorado history, enacted as Referendum C in 2005. Decade-2 was also marked by increasing efforts to evade TABOR by defining nearly 60% of the state budget as “exempt” from TABOR. …Rapid government growth resumed in Decade-2, mainly because of Referendum C.

This chart from the study shows that outcomes were much better during the first decade of TABOR.

But a weakened TABOR is better than nothing. Here’s the conclusion of the report.

The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights Amendment has worked well to achieve its stated intention to “slow government growth.” Although government has still continued to grow significantly faster than the rate of population-plus-inflation, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights did partially dampen excess government growth. …In terms of economic vitality, Colorado’s Decade-1 was best for Colorado. Unlike in the pre-TABOR decade, or in TABOR Decade-2 with its record increase in taxes and spending, because of Referendum C. Colorado’s first TABOR decade saw the state economy far outperform the national economy.

But keep in mind that the economic gains occurred in the first decade.

The bottom line is that spending caps are like speed limits in school zones. If they’re set too high, that defeats the purpose.

And in Colorado, the vote for Referendum C allowed a spending surge that made a mockery of TABOR.

But only temporarily, which is why that period was known as the “TABOR time-out.” The rules once again limit spending growth to population plus inflation.

For instance, TABOR made it difficult for state politicians to spend the additional tax revenues produced by marijuana legalization.

Needless to say, the political crowd hates having their hands tied. Which is why the pro-spending lobbies are agitating to once again gut TABOR. Here’s a clip from a local news report that does a good job of describing the current fight.

The battle actually started a couple of years ago. Here are some excerpts from a 2016 report by the Associated Press.

By 2030, Colorado’s population will grow from 5 million to 7 million people, thanks in part to a strong and diverse economy, the state’s famed Rocky Mountain quality of life, and its constitutionally-mandated low taxes. …The state’s Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, is trying to find ways to squeeze more revenue for roads from the budget, while Republicans don’t want to tamper with the fabled 1992 constitutional amendment known as TABOR that keeps a tight limit on those taxes. …Under TABOR, voters must approve any state and local tax hike. Democrats are still stung by a resounding defeat of a 2013 ballot initiative to raise $1 billion for schools.

I’m amused by the fact that the above passage starts by noting the state has a “strong” economy. Too bad the reporter didn’t put 2 and 2 together and recognize that TABOR deserves some of the credit.

Likewise, this next passage cites a leftist who acknowledges growth in the state, but pretends that it’s exogenous, like the weather.

Liberals think that’s a recipe for disaster, especially in a growing state. “What we have to stop doing is pitting necessary priorities like roads against other necessary priorities like schools and colleges,” said Tim Hoover, spokesman for the Colorado Fiscal Institute, which favors dismantling the amendment. “TABOR forces us to do that.” So far the low-tax crowd is winning. Even Hickenlooper acknowledges there isn’t a popular appetite to raise taxes, and his hopes of changing the classification of an arcane fee in the budget to free up revenue are opposed by Republicans… Republicans say the real problem is growing Medicaid spending. Colorado, which expanded the program under the Affordable Care Act, is spending about $2.5 billion on the health care plan.

Note that TABOR critics object to various interest groups having to compete for money.

But that’s exactly why a spending limit is so desirable. Politicians are forced to abide by the rules that apply to every household and business in the state. In other words, they have to (gasp!) prioritize.

Let’s conclude by reviewing some passages from a pro-TABOR column published last week in the Steamboat newspaper.

Colorado’s  has grown by nearly two-thirds since 1992, one of the fastest increases in the country. If you are part of the more than two million new residents who have arrived over this time, there are a few things you should know…the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights is responsible for much of the state’s economic success, which likely drew you here in the first place. Between 1992 and 2016, median household income in Colorado grew by 30 percent, adjusted for inflation. …TABOR helped end years of economic stagnation and laid the groundwork for the state’s future success by keeping resources in the hands of Colorado residents who could put them to their highest valued use and checking overzealous government spending. …Its requirement that excess revenues must be refunded to taxpayers has also resulted in more than $2 billion being returned to the private economy… TABOR has empowered voters to reject roughly a dozen advocacy-backed tax hike proposals.

My favorite part is when they cite critics, who confirm that TABOR is successful.

Denver Post editorial last year complained, “TABOR’s powerful check on government spending in reality has been a padlock on the purse-strings of the General Assembly.” The check on spending is exactly the point, and it still allows spending to grow in-line with inflation and population growth. If government wants more money, all it has to do is ask. Requiring consent is hardly a “padlock.”

Amen. We could use some more padlocks in the rest of the country. TABOR should be nationally emulated, not locally emasculated.

P.S. Enjoy this amusing video from the Independence Institute. It shows politicians in a group therapy session about TABOR.

P.P.S. By the way, there is a spending cap in Washington, though it only applies to a small portion of the budget (appropriated outlays). Sadly, that very modest example of fiscal restraint has not been very effective. The group therapy session in Washington, otherwise known as Congress, voted to bust those spending caps in 2013, 2015, and earlier this year. Sort of D.C.’s lather-rinse-repeat version of Referendum C.

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I’ve half-joked in the past that spending restraint is the answer to every fiscal problem.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the right answer to 98 percent of fiscal problems. Some fiscal discipline is what we need in America, for instance, and it’s certainly an approach that works whenever and wherever it is tried.

Could it also be the answer in Jordan, which has stumbled into a fiscal crisis and is now facing domestic unrest?

The trouble began in January when the government announced a big IMF-supported tax increase. Here’s some of what was reported by Reuters.

Jordans cabinet announced on Monday a major package of IMF-guided tax hikes… The package announced on state media includes removing exemptions on general sales tax and unifying low 4 to 8 percent rates on a large number of items at 10 percent while leaving it at 16 percent ceiling for others, alongside raising special taxes on tobacco, premium gasoline and streamlining customs duties.

Interestingly, the article acknowledged that the country got in a fiscal mess because of too much spending.

The debt is at least in part due to successive governments adopting an expansionist fiscal policy characterized by job creation in the bloated public sector, and by lavish subsidies for bread and other staple goods. …Economists said Jordans ability to maintain a costly subsidy system and a large state bureaucracy was increasingly untenable in the absence of large foreign capital inflows or infusions of foreign aid.

But politicians almost always prefer tax hikes rather than spending restraint (even though – or perhaps because – higher taxes are not an effective way of controlling red ink).

The victims of those tax increases are not happy. As reported earlier this month, they took to the streets.

Jordanians took to the streets of the capital Amman on Sunday in a fourth day of nightly protests against IMF-backed price increases that have shaken the kingdom, witnesses said. …demonstrators who converged near the cabinet office chanted slogans calling for the sacking of Prime Minister Hani Mulki and saying they would disband only if the government rescinded a tax bill it sent to parliament last month which critics say worsens living standards. …Public anger over IMF-driven government policies has grown since a steep general sales tax hike earlier this year… The government says it needs more funds for public services and argues that tax reforms reduce social disparities by placing a heavier burden on high earners.

And the protests worked.

The New York Times has the cheerful news.

The government of Jordan announced on Thursday that it would withdraw a divisive tax bill after nationwide protests rocked the country, leading to the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet. The newly appointed prime minister, Omar Razzaz, said in a statement that he had consulted members of both houses of Parliament, and that there was a consensus that the tax bill should be withdrawn. …The decision to withdraw the bill, which proposed increasing the tax rate on workers by at least five percentage points and on businesses by 20 to 40 percentage points, was lauded by many in Jordan.

Incidentally, taxpayers in the United States have been subsidizing Jordanian profligacy.

In 2015, the Obama administration and Jordan signed a three-year agreement in which the United States pledged $1 billion in assistance annually, subject to the approval of Congress. More recently, Washington pledged $6.3 billion in aid through 2022, making Jordan one of the top recipients of American foreign assistance.

These three news reports were interesting, but I wondered if they told the full story.

Maybe, just maybe, the IMF is right and tax increases are necessary because there is no leeway to reduce the burden of government spending. Perhaps the government already has been complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule and has slashed the budget, meaning that higher revenues are the only feasible option still on the table.

So I decided to check the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database. Lo and behold, I discovered that the budget has soared from 2 billion dinar in 2000 to more than 9 billion dinar this year. What’s especially remarkable is that government spending has grown far faster than needed to keep pace with inflation.

In other words, what happened in Jordan is exactly what happened in Greece. Government grew too fast. But not just Greece. The mess in Jordan is a repeat of what happened in Western Australia. In Puerto Rico as well. And don’t forget Alberta and Alaska. The list could go on and on.

It’s sort of like the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. Or the swallows returning to Capistrano.

And for those who value predictability, it’s no surprise to once again see the IMF pushing for higher taxes. Those bureaucrats are the Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy and there’s only one medicine they prescribe.

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I wrote two days ago about how the country of Georgia has achieved impressive economic performance thanks to major reforms to reduce the size and scope of government.

Indeed, Georgia jumped from #56 to #8 in Economic Freedom of the World between 2004 and 2015, a remarkable climb.

Today, I want to focus on what the country has achieved with regard to fiscal policy.

In part, this is an opportunity to highlight that Georgia is one of many nations to adopt a flat tax. Georgia’s 20 percent flat tax not only has a single rate, but also doesn’t have destructive forms of double taxation like a death tax or capital gains tax (it also has an Estonian-style corporate tax).

But my main goal is to draw attention to the fiscal rules in Georgia. Both the nation’s Constitution and its Organic Law have provisions that are designed to limit the growth of government.

First, let’s look at Article 94 of the Georgian Constitution, which states that no new taxes are allowed unless approved by a vote of the people.

The Organic Law also has good provisions on taxation, most notably a prohibition on using a referendum to adopt a discriminatory “progressive” tax (too bad we don’t have such a provision in America!).

Here’s the part that I really like.

There’s an aggregate spending cap. The government’s budget can’t consume more than 30 percent of economic output.

It also includes European Union-style “Maastricht” limits on deficits and debt, though I’ll simply observe that those rules are irrelevant if there’s a limit on overall spending.

In any event, the burden of spending in Georgia does comply with the spending cap, according to IMF data. Though I’ll be curious to see what happens if there’s ever a serious recession. If that happens, GDP falls, which could make it politically difficult to obey the cap.

Which is why I prefer the Swiss approach of simply allowing government to grow by a small amount every year. That seems more politically sustainable. But I’m happy with anything to fulfills my Golden Rule.

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During the election season, I speculated Trump was a big government Republican, and he confirmed my analysis this past February when he acquiesced to an orgy of new spending and agreed to bust the spending caps.

That awful spending spree gave huge increases to almost every part of the budget, and I pointed out that the deal probably will create the conditions for future tax hikes.

I got so upset at profligate GOPers that I crunched the numbers and revealed that (with the notable exception of Reagan) Republican presidents are even bigger spenders than Democrats.

Well, Senate Republicans recently had a chance to atone for their sins by voting for a proposal from Rand Paul to balance the budget.

So what did they do? Rejected it, of course.

In a column for Reason, Eric Boehm justly condemns Republicans for being big spenders.

The Senate on Thursday resoundingly rejected the Kentucky Republican’s plan to balance the federal budget by 2023, voting 76 to 21 against a bill that would have required a $400 billion cut in federal spending next year, followed by 1 percent spending increases for the rest of the next decade. …Paul’s proposal never really had a chance of passing, coming as it did just months after Congress approved enormous spending hikes that busted Obama-era caps once championed by Republicans as necessary for fiscal restraint. …Paul’s plan would have balanced the budget by 2023, as long as revenue met current CBO projections. By 2028, his proposal envisioned a $700 billion surplus instead of the $1.5 trillion deficit currently projected by the CBO.

A Lifezette column by Brendan Kirby was even more critical of big-government Republicans.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was hoping his Republican colleagues would be embarrassed by their vote to jack up federal spending earlier this year and support his plan to phase in a balanced budget. Few were. Paul got 20 other Republican senators on Thursday — less than half of the Senate GOP caucus — to vote for his “penny plan,” which would balance the federal budget over five years… No Democrats back the proposal. …Even though Paul’s bid failed, it did pick up the support of some senators who voted for the spending bill in February, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). The others were Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). …Paul also got more votes than he did for a similar proposal last year.

Kirby’s article ended on an upbeat note based on voting patterns.

I also want to close on an upbeat note, but for an entirely different reason. Here are the annual numbers from the CBO baseline (what will happen to spending and revenue if government continues on its current path) and the numbers for Senator Paul’s proposal.

And why do these depressing numbers leave me with a feeling of optimism?

For the simple reason that they show how simple it is to make progress with some modest spending restraint. The lower set of number show that Senator Paul quickly gets to a balanced budget by imposing an overall reduction of about 2 percent on spending in 2019, followed by annual increases of about 1 percent until 2025.

I think that’s a great plan, but I’d also be happy with a plan that allows spending to grow by 1 percent each year. Or even 2 percent each year.

My bottom line is that we need some sort of spending cap so that the burden of government spending grows slower than the productive sector of the economy. In other words, comply with the Golden Rule.

And what’s especially remarkable is that solving our fiscal problems is still quite feasible notwithstanding the reckless spending bill that was recently approved (Paul’s proposal, incidentally, leaves in place the small – and temporary – tax cut from the recent reform legislation).

P.S. Senator Paul would achieve a balanced budget in just five years by letting spending grow during that period by a bit less than 4/10ths of 1 percent per year. Does that sound impossibly radical? Well, it’s what Republicans managed to achieve during the heyday of the Tea Party revolution, when they actually produced a five-year nominal spending freeze. In other words, zero spending growth! If they could impose that level of discipline with Obama in the White House, why not do the same with Trump (who quasi-endorsed the Penny Plan) at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue?

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The Congressional Budget Office just released its annual Economic and Budget Outlook, and almost everyone in Washington is agitated (or pretending to be agitated) about annual deficits exceeding $1 trillion starting in the 2020 fiscal year.

All that red ink isn’t good news, but I’m much more concerned (and genuinely so) about this line from CBO’s forecast. In just 10 years, the burden of federal spending is going to jump from 20.6 percent of GDP to 23.6 percent!

Simply stated, we’ve entered the era of baby boomer retirement. And because we have some very poorly designed entitlement programs, that means the federal budget – assuming we leave it on autopilot – is going to consume an ever-growing share of our national economic output.

The bottom line is that Washington is violating my Golden Rule.

Let’s look at the underlying numbers. Federal spending is projected by CBO to grow by an average of about 5.5 percent per year over the next decade while nominal GDP is estimated to grow by just 4.0  percent annually.

And that unfortunate trend isn’t limited to the nest 10 years. CBO’s latest long-run forecast, which I discussed last year, shows a never-ending deterioration of America’s fiscal position.

Hello Greece.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this mess.

A modest amount of spending restraint can quickly reverse our fiscal troubles and put us on a path to a balanced budget. More importantly, limits on the growth of spending can slowly reduce the size of the federal government relative to the private sector.

Here’s a chart, based on CBO’s numbers, that shows how much Uncle Sam is spending this year (a bit over $4.1 trillion), along with a blue line showing projected tax revenues over the next 10 years (blue line). And I’ve shown what happens if spending is “only” allowed to increase by either 2 percent annually (orange line) or 3 percent annually (grey line) over the next decade.

This chart is basically everything you need to know. It shows that our fiscal situation is not hopeless. All we have to do is make sure government is growing slower than the productive sector of the economy.

A good rule of thumb, as suggested in the chart title, is that government shouldn’t grow faster than the rate of inflation.

And we’ve done it before.

  • During the Clinton years, the United States enjoyed a multi-year period of spending restraint. We got a balanced budget because of that frugality. More important, spending fell as a share of GDP.
  • During the Obama years, we benefited from a five-year de facto spending freeze. Deficits dropped dramatically and the nation experienced the biggest drop in the relative burden of spending since the end of World War II.

And many other nations also have also managed multi-year periods of spending restraint.

Let’s close with a video I narrated which illustrates how modest spending discipline generates good outcomes.

It’s from 2010, so the numbers are no longer relevant, but otherwise the analysis applies just as strongly today.

P.S. I’m not overly optimistic that President Trump is serious about solving this problem. His proposed a semi-decent amount of spending restraint in last year’s budget, but then he signed into law a grotesque budget-busting appropriations bill.

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It’s both amusing and frustrating to observe the reaction to President Trump’s budget.

I’m amused that it is generating wild-eyed hysterics from interest groups who want us to believe the world is about to end.

But I’m frustrated because I’m reminded of the terribly dishonest way that budgets are debated and discussed in Washington. Simply stated, almost everyone starts with a “baseline” of big, pre-determined annual spending increases and they whine and wail about “cuts” if spending doesn’t climb as fast as previously assumed.

Here are the three most important things to understand about what the President has proposed.

First, the budget isn’t being cut. Indeed, Trump is proposing that federal spending increase from $4.06 trillion this year to $5.71 trillion in 2027.

Second, government spending will grow by an average of almost 3.5 percent per year over the next 10 years.

Third, because the private economy is projected to grow by an average of about 5 percent per year (in nominal terms), Trump’s budget complies with the Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

Now that we’ve established a few basic facts, let’s shift to analysis.

From a libertarian perspective, you can argue that Trump’s budget is a big disappointment. Why isn’t he proposing to get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development? What about shutting down the Department of Education? Or the Department of Energy? How about the Department of Agriculture, or Department of Transportation?

And why is he leaving Social Security basically untouched when taxpayers and retirees would both be better off with a system of personal retirement accounts? And why is Medicare not being fundamentally reformed when the program is an ever-expanding budgetary burden?

In other words, if you want the federal government to reflect the vision of America’s Founders, the Trump budget is rather disappointing. It’s far from a Liberland-style dream.

But for those who prefer to see the glass as half-full, here are a couple of additional takeaways from the budget.

Fourth, as I wrote yesterday, there is real Medicaid reform that will restore federalism and save money.

Fifth, domestic discretionary spending will be curtailed.

But not just curtailed. Spending in the future for this category will actually be lower if Trump’s budget is approved. In other words, a genuine rather than fake budget cut.

I’ll close with my standard caveat that it’s easy to put good ideas (or bad ideas) in a budget. The real test is whether an Administration will devote the energy necessary to move fiscal reforms through Congress.

Based on how Trump was defeated in the battle over the final spending bill for the current fiscal year, there are good reasons to be worried that good reforms in his budget won’t be implemented. Simply stated, if Trump isn’t willing to use his veto power, Congress will probably ignore his proposals.

P.S. You may have noticed that I didn’t include any discussion of deficits and debt. And I also didn’t address the Administration’s assertion that the budget will be balanced in 10 years if Trump’s budget is approved. That’s because a fixation on red ink is a distraction. What really matters is whether the burden of spending is falling relative to the private sector’s output. In other words, the entire focus should be on policies that generate spending restraint and policies that facilitate private sector growth. If those two goals are achieved, the burden of red ink is sure to fall. Whether it happens fast enough to balance the budget in 2027 is of little concern.

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When I debate one of my leftist friends about deficits, it’s often a strange experience because none of us actually care that much about red ink.

I’m motivated instead by a desire to shrink the burden of government spending, so I argue for spending restraint rather than tax hikes that would “feed the beast.”

And folks on the left want bigger government, so they argue for tax hikes to enable more spending and redistribution.

I feel that I have an advantage in these debates, though, because I share my table of nations that have achieved great results when nominal spending grows by less than 2 percent per year.

The table shows that nations practicing spending restraint for multi-year periods reduce the problem of excessive government and also address the symptom of red ink.

I then ask my leftist buddies to please share their table showing nations that got good results from tax increases. And the response is…awkward silence, followed by attempts to change the subject. I often think you can even hear crickets chirping in the background.

I point this out because I now have another nation to add to my collection.

From the start of last decade up through the 2009-2010 fiscal year, government spending in the United Kingdom grew by 7.1 percent annually, far faster than the growth of the economy’s productive sector. As a result, an ever-greater share of the private economy was being diverted to politicians and bureaucrats.

Beginning with the 2010-2011 fiscal year, however, officials started complying with my Golden Rule and outlays since then have grown by an average of 1.6 percent per year.

And as you can see from this chart prepared by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, this modest level of fiscal restraint has paid big dividends. The burden of government spending has significantly declined, falling from 45 percent of national income to 40 percent of national income.

This means more resources in private hands, which means better economic performance.

Though allow me to now share some caveats. Fiscal policy is only a small piece of what determines good policy, just 20 percent of a nation’s grade according to Economic Freedom of the World.

So spending restraint should be accompanied by free trade, sound money, a sensible regulatory structure, and good governance. Moreover, as we see from the tragedy of Greece, spending restraint doesn’t even lead to good fiscal policy if it’s accompanied by huge tax increases.

Fortunately, the United Kingdom is reasonably sensible, which explains why the country is ranked #10 by EFW. Though it’s worth noting that it gets its lowest score for “size of government,” so the recent bit of good news about spending restraint needs to be the start of a long journey.

P.S. The United States got great results thanks to spending restraint between 2009-2014. It will be interesting to see whether Republicans get better results with Trump in the White House.

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Based on new 10-year fiscal estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, I wrote yesterday that balancing the budget actually is very simple with a modest bit of spending restraint.

If lawmakers simply limit annual spending increases to 1 percent annually, the budget is balanced by 2022. If spending is allowed to grow by 2 percent annually, the budget is balanced by 2025. And if the goal is balancing the budget by the end of the 10-year window, that simply requires that spending grow no more than 2.63 percent annually.

I also pointed out that this wouldn’t require unprecedented fiscal discipline. After all, we had a de facto spending freeze (zero percent spending growth) from 2009-2014.

And in another previous column, I shared many other examples of nations that achieved excellent fiscal results with multi-year periods of spending restraint (as defined by outlays growing by an average of less than 2 percent).

Today, we’re going to add tax cuts to our fiscal equation.

Some people seem to think it’s impossible to balance the budget if lawmakers are also reducing the amount of tax revenue that goes to Washington each year.

And they think big tax cuts, such as the Trump plan (which would reduce revenues over 10 years by $2.6 trillion-$3.9 trillion according to the Tax Foundation), are absurd and preposterous.

After all, if politicians tried to simultaneously enact a big tax cut and balance the budget, it would require deep and harsh spending cuts that would decimate the federal budget, right?

Nope. Not at all.

They just need to comply with my Golden Rule.

Let’s examine the fiscal implications of a $3 trillion tax cut. If you look at CBO’s baseline revenue forecast for the next 10 years, the federal government is projected to collect more than $43 trillion during that decade. If you reduce that baseline by an average of $300 billion each year, receipts will still grow. Indeed, they’ll rise from $3.4 trillion this year to $4.8 trillion in 2027.

And since CBO is forecasting that the federal government this year will spend more than $3.9 trillion, we simply have to figure out the amount of spending restraint necessary so that outlays in 2027 don’t exceed $4.8 trillion.

That’s not a difficult calculation. It turns out that the American people can get a substantial $3 trillion tax and a balanced budget if politicians simply exercise a modest amount of fiscal discipline and limit annual spending increases to 1.96 percent annually.

In other words, if the crowd in Washington does nothing more than simply have government grow just a tiny bit less than the projected rate of inflation, lots of good things can be achieved.

P.S. I can’t resist pointing out yet again that we shouldn’t fixate on balancing the budget. The real goal should be to shrink the burden of federal spending so more resources are allocated by the productive sector of the economy. That being said, if lawmakers address the underlying disease of excessive spending, that automatically solves the symptom of red ink.

P.P.S. Higher taxes, by contrast, generally lead to higher deficits and debt.

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The Congressional Budget Office, as part of The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2017 to 2027, has just released fiscal projections for the next 10 years.

This happens twice every year. As part of this biannual exercise, I regularly (most recently here and here) dig through the data and highlight the most relevant numbers.

Let’s repeat that process. Here’s what you need to know from CBO’s new report.

  • Under current law, tax revenues over the next 10 years are projected to grow by an average of 4.2 percent each year.
  • If left on autopilot, the burden of government spending will rise by an average of 5.2 percent each year.
  • If that happens, the federal budget will consume 23.4 percent of economic output in 2027 compared to 20.7 percent of GDP in 2017.
  • Under that do-nothing scenario, the budget deficits jumps to $1.4 trillion by 2027.

But what happens if there is a modest bit of spending restraint? What if politicians decide to comply with my Golden Rule and limit how fast the budget grows every year?

This shouldn’t be too difficult. After all, even with Obama in the White House, there was a de facto spending freeze between 2009-2014. In other words, all the fights over debt limits, sequesters, and shutdowns actually yielded good results.

So if the Republicans who now control Washington are serious about protecting the interests of taxpayers, it should be relatively simple for them to adopt good fiscal policy.

And if GOPers actually decide to do the right thing, the grim numbers in the CBO’s new report quickly turn positive.

  • If spending is frozen at 2017 levels, there’s a budget surplus by 2021.
  • If spending is allowed to grow 1 percent annually, there’s a budget surplus by 2022.
  • If spending is allowed to grow 2 percent annually, there’s a budget surplus by 2025.
  • If spending is allowed to grow 2.63 percent annually, the budget is balanced in 10 years.
  • With 2.63 percent spending growth, the burden of government spending drops to 18.4 percent of GDP by 2027.

To put all these numbers in context, inflation is supposed to average about 2 percent annually over the next decade.

Here’s a chart showing the overall fiscal impact of modest spending restraint.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that the primary objective of good fiscal policy should be reducing the burden of government spending, not balancing the budget. However, if you address the disease of excessive spending, you automatically eliminate the symptom of red ink.

For more background information, here’s a video I narrated on this topic. It was released in 2010, so the numbers have changed, but the analysis is still spot on.

P.S. Achieving good fiscal policy obviously becomes much more difficult if Republicans in Washington decide to embark on a foolish crusade to expand the federal government’s role in infrastructure.

P.P.S. Achieving good fiscal policy obviously becomes much more difficult if Republicans in Washington decide to leave entitlement programs on autopilot.

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There’s a lot of speculation in Washington about what a Trump Administration will do on government spending. Based on his rhetoric it’s hard to know whether he’ll be a big-spending populist or a hard-nosed businessman.

But what if that fight is pointless?

Back in October, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center wrote a very interesting – albeit depressing – article about the potential futility of trying to reduce the size of government. He starts with the observation that government tends to get bigger as nations get richer.

“Wagner’s Law” says that as an economy’s per capita output grows larger over time, government spending consumes a larger share of that output. …Wagner’s Law names a real, observed, robust empirical pattern. …It’s mainly the positive relationship between rising demand for welfare services/transfers and rising GDP per capita that drives Wagner’s Law.

I’ve also written about Wagner’s Law, mostly to debunk the silly leftist interpretation that bigger government causes more wealth (in other words, they get the causality backwards), but also to point out that other policies matter and that some big-government nations have wisely mitigated the harmful economic impact of excessive spending and taxation by having very pro-market policies in areas such as trade and regulation.

In any event, Will includes a chart showing that there certainly has been a lot more redistribution spending in the United States over the past 70 years, so it certainly is true that the political process has produced results consistent with Wagner’s Law. As America has become richer, voters and politicians have figured out how to redistribute ever-larger amounts of money.

By the way, this data is completely consistent with my recent column that pointed out how defense spending plays only a minor role in America’s fiscal challenge.

But let’s get back to Will’s article. He asserts that Wagner’s Law is bad news for advocates of smaller government.

…free-marketeers tend to insist that the key to achieving higher rates of economic growth is slashing the size of government. After all, it’s true that the private sector is better than government at putting resources to their most productive use and that some public spending crowds out private investment. If you’re really committed to the idea of stronger economic growth through government contraction, you’re pretty much committed to the idea that the pattern behind Wagner’s Law is a sort of fluke—a contingent correlation without any real cause-and-effect basis—and that there’s got to be some workaround or fix.

I don’t particularly agree with his characterization. You can believe (as I surely do) that smaller government would lead to faster growth without having to disbelieve, deny, or debunk Wagner’s Law.

  • First, it’s quite possible to have decent growth along with expanding government so long as other policy levers are moving in the right direction. Which is exactly what one Spanish scholar found when examining data for developed nations during the post-World War II period.
  • Second, it’s overly simplistic to characterize this debate as government or growth. The real issue is the rate of growth. After all, even France has a bit of growth in an average year. The real issue is whether there could be more growth with a lower level of taxes and spending. In other words, would the rest of the developed world grow faster with Hong Kong-sized government?

All that being said, Will certainly is right in his article when he points out that libertarians and other advocates of smaller government haven’t done a good job of constraining government spending.

He then examines some of the ideas have been proposed by folks on the right who want to constrain spending. Beginning with the starve-the-beast hypothesis.

The idea that it is possible to “starve the beast”—to reduce the size of government by starving the government of tax revenue—springs from this hope. But the actual effect of cutting taxes below the amount necessary to sustain current levels of government spending only underscores the unforgiving lawlikeness of Wagner’s Law. As our namesake Bill Niskanen showed, tax cuts that lead to budget shortfalls don’t lead to corresponding cuts in government spending. On the contrary, financing government spending through debt rather than taxes makes voters feel that government spending is cheaper than it really is, which makes them want even more of it.

Here’s my first substantive disagreement with Will. I’m definitely not in the all-we-have-to-do-is-cut-taxes camp, but I certainly like lower tax rates and I definitely believe that higher taxes would worsen our long-run fiscal outlook.

And I’ve looked closely at the starve-the-beast academic research. Niskanen’s study has some methodological problems and the Romer & Romer study that most people cite when arguing against the starve-the-beast hypothesis actually shows that cutting taxes is somewhat effective so long as tax cuts are durable.

Will then looks at whether it would be effective to end withholding.

…withholding made tax collection cheaper and more reliable. …paying taxes automatically and with a minimum of pain makes it less likely that you’ll be livid about them when you vote. The complaint…is the libertarian/conservative argument against a VAT or national sales tax in a nutshell. It’s the same line of reasoning that leads some libertarians and conservatives to flirt with the idea that we ought to pass a law that requires us to write a single, hugely infuriating check to the IRS each year.  The idea is that if voters are really ticked off about taxes, they’ll want lower tax rates. So taxes need to be as salient and painful—i.e., as inefficient and distortionary—as possible.

Will is skeptical of this approach, though I would point out that the one major developed economy that doesn’t have withholding is Hong Kong. And that’s a place that has successfully constrained government spending.

To be sure, the spending restraint could exist for other reasons (such as the spending cap in Article 107 of the jurisdiction’s Basic Law), but the hypothesis that people will want less government if taxes are painful is quite reasonable.

And, by the way, requiring lump-sum payments rather than withholding wouldn’t change the degree to which taxes are distortionary.

Will then turns his attention to the ‘supply-side” argument about lower tax rates.

Supply-siders generally present two scenarios, and neither helps reduce the size of government. One: If the tax cuts pushed by ticked-off taxpayers create supply-side stimulus and increase rather than decrease revenue, there’s no downward pressure on spending. …But it doesn’t make government smaller. Two: If tax cuts aren’t self-funding and simply leave a hole in the budget, the beast (as Niskanen showed) does not therefore get starved. Instead, spending feels cheap, the beast grows even more, and the tax bill gets shifted to the future.

Since I’ve already addressed the starve-the-beast issue, I’ll simply note that self-financing tax cuts (which do exist, though only in rare cases) are only possible if there’s a big uptick in growth and/or compliance. And to the extent that the revenue feedback is due to growth, that will mean that the burden of government spending will fall relative to the size of the private sector even if actual outlays stay the same.

Maybe I’m insufficiently libertarian, but I’ll take that outcome every day of the week. Heck, I’m willing to let government get bigger so long as the private sector gets to grow at a faster pace.

Now we get to Will’s main point. He suggests that maybe libertarians shouldn’t be so fixated on the size of government.

…well-funded and well-organized attempts “to convince voters to reduce their demand for the services financed by federal spending” so far have all failed. It’s time to consider the possibility that there’s no convincing them. …If we look at the world, what we see is that when people get richer, they want more welfare state. Maybe there’s nothing much we can do about that. …When people get richer, they want more welfare state. You can want Americans to get continuously wealthier and also want the government to consume a smaller share of national economic output, but there’s very little reason to think you can have both of those things. That is what the world is telling us.

To the extent that Will is simply making a prediction about the likelihood of continued government expansion, I assume (and fear) he’s right.

But to the degree he’s arguing that we should meekly acquiesce to that outcome, then I’ll strongly disagree. I may lose the fight against big government, but I intend to go down swinging.

Interestingly, Will and I may not actually disagree. This passage points out that it’s a good idea to fight against ineffective programs and to support entitlement reform.

…accepting that it’s probably not possible to shrink government would have a transformative effect on right-leaning politics. We would focus on figuring out the best ways to match receipts to outlays… You start to accept that spending cuts are ultimately more about optimizing the composition and effectiveness of spending than about the overall level of spending or its rate of growth. This doesn’t mean not fighting like hell to slash nonsense programs, or not prioritizing reforms to make entitlement programs fiscally sustainable, or not trying to balance budgets from the spending side, or not trying to minimize the rate of spending growth. This just means that you do it all knowing that the rate of spending growth isn’t going to go negative unless you hit a recession, a debt crisis, or end a major war.

And, most important, this passage also highlights the desirability of a policy to “minimize the rate of spending growth.”

Gee, I think I know someone who relentlessly argues in favor of that approach. Indeed, this guy is so fixated on that policy that he even created a “Rule” to give the concept more attention.

I can’t remember his name right now, but I’m sure he’s a swell guy.

More seriously (and to echo the point I made above), it would be a libertarian victory to have government grow slower than the productive sector of the economy. To be sure, obeying my rule (which actually does happen every so often) doesn’t mean we’ll soon reach the libertarian Nirvana of the “night watchman” state set forth in the Constitution.

But the real fiscal fight in America is whether government is becoming a bigger burden, relative to the private economy, or whether its growth is being constrained so that it’s becoming a smaller burden.

Will closes with a very sensible point about not overlooking the other policy areas where government is hindering prosperity (though that doesn’t require us to give up on the very practical quest to limit the growth of government).

Giving up on the quixotic quest to…falsify Wagner’s Law would also lead us to…focus our energy on removing regulatory barriers to economic participation, innovation, and growth.

And his concluding passage is correct, but too pessimistic.

This is just a conjecture. But when…the United States—where the freedom-as-small-government philosophy is most powerfully promoted and most widely accepted—has lost ground in economic freedom year after year for nearly two decades, it’s a conjecture worth taking very seriously.

Yes, he’s right that overall economic freedom has declined during the Bush-Obama years.

But what about the fact that overall economic freedom increased during the ReaganClinton years? And what about the fact that we achieved a five-year nominal spending freeze even with Obama in the White House?

In other words, there’s no need to throw in the towel. I may not be overflowing with optimism about whether we ultimately succeed in sufficiently constraining the growth of government, but I feel very confident that it’s a worthwhile fight.

P.S. While I disagree with a few of Will’s points, I think his article is very worthwhile. Moreover, a consensus on restraining the growth of government would be an excellent outcome to the debate he has triggered.

But I can’t resist being a bit more critical about something Noah Smith wrote about Will’s article. In his Bloomberg column discussing the hypothesis that libertarians should focus less on (or perhaps even give up on) the battle against government spending, he has a passage that is designed to lure readers into thinking that small government is associated with economic deprivation.

…a stark fact — the richer a country is, the more its government tends to spend. …Today, the top spenders include countries such as France, Denmark and Finland, while the small-government ranks include Sudan, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Sigh.

It’s true that the burden of government spending is much higher in France, Denmark, and Finland than in Sudan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh, but let’s take a look at the overall data from Economic Freedom of the World.

France (#57), Denmark (#21), and Finland (#20) are all much more market-oriented than Sudan (unrated, but would have an awful score), Nigeria (#113), and Bangladesh (#121). Smith’s argument is akin to me saying that government-built roads cause economic misery because that’s how they do it in the hellhole of North Korea.

More important, he either ignores or is unaware of the research showing that nations such as France, Denmark, and Finland became rich when government spending was very small. Sigh, again.

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I’m generally a fan of Australia. I wrote my dissertation on the country’s private Social Security system, and I’m always telling policy makers we should  copy their approach. The Aussies also abolished death taxes, which was a very admirable choice.

I even wrote that Australia is the place to go if politicians wreck the American dream and turn us into a New World version of Greece.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of foolish policy Down Under.

A column in the Sydney Morning Herald notes that the mining-heavy state of Western Australia faces a fiscal crisis even though it enjoyed a lengthy economic boom when there was a lot of demand for natural resources.

…the state has recently attracted much attention – and derision – for the way its policy making elite squandered the wealth generated by the resources boom. …how WA managed to emerge from the once in a lifetime mining boom with an estimated debt burden of $40 billion by 2020 and a projected budget deficit of $4 billion is one of the West’s great mysteries. Or not, if you bother to look at what happened.

Ironically, the author of the column didn’t bother to look at what happened. He wasted a lot of ink extolling the supposed virtues of Norway’s oil-financed sovereign wealth fund, but he never shared any fiscal data.

Why he omitted this very relevant information is a bit of a mystery. It’s certainly not because it’s hidden. I’m on the other side of the world, but my intern managed to get spending and revenue data for Western Australia without any heavy lifting.

And what do we see? Can we learn why the Aussie state is in a fiscal mess?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is that politicians in Western Australia spent too much money. Annual outlays grew by an average of nearly seven percent each year.

That spending spree may not have seemed reckless when the resources boom was generating big increases in government receipts.

But as happened in both Alberta and Alaska, the chickens of fiscal profligacy eventually come home to roost when there are resources-fueled spending binges.

Not that all politicians in Western Australia have learned from their mistakes.

WA Nationals leader Brendon Grylls certainly has…launched a rather lonely campaign to make the miners pay more tax.

By the way, the National Party is supposed to be on the right side of the political spectrum, yet this politician wants to blame mining companies even though it was the government that squandered so much money. Makes me wonder if his middle initial is “W“?

Anyhow, there is a larger lesson for the rest of us – assuming, of course, that we want sensible fiscal policy.

The main conclusion we should draw is that it is vitally important to control spending in boom years. That’s when lots of revenue is flowing to the government and it’s very difficult for politicians to resist the temptation to spend that windfall revenue.

A spending cap, though, solves this problem.

And research from the International Monetary Fund echoes this argument.

One of the desirable features of expenditure rules compared to other rules is that they are not only binding in bad but also in good economic times.

The European Central Bank reached the same conclusion.

…if governments have fiscal rules in place, the results suggest that governments can no longer fully use their fiscal space and (on average) are even forced to reduce their current expenditures.

Even the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development agrees.

…spending rules can can limit pro-cyclical spending in the presence of revenue windfalls in good times.

So we know the right solution. Now the challenge is convincing politicians (who are often governed by bad incentives) to tie their own hands.

P.S. Now I understand why Crocodile Dundee didn’t like giving Australian politicians any more money than absolutely necessary.

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One of the most remarkable developments in the world of fiscal policy is that even left-leaning international bureaucracies are beginning to embrace spending caps as the only effective and successful rule for fiscal policy.

The International Monetary Fund is infamous because senior officials relentlessly advocate for tax hikes, but the professional economists at the organization have concluded in two separate studies (see here and here) that expenditure limits produce good results.

Likewise, the political appointees at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development generally push a pro-tax increase agenda, but professional economists at the Paris-based bureaucracy also have produced studies (see here and here) showing that spending caps are the only approach that leads to good results.

Heck, even the European Central Bank has jumped into the issue with a study that reaches the same conclusion.

This doesn’t mean balanced budget requirements are bad, by the way, but the evidence shows that they aren’t very effective since they allow lots of spending when the economy is expanding (and thus generating tax revenue). But when the economy goes into recession (causing a drop in tax revenue), politicians impose tax hikes in hopes of propping up their previous spending commitments.

With a spending cap, by contrast, fiscal policy is very stable. Politicians know from one year to the next that they can increase spending by some modest amount. They don’t like the fact that they can’t approve big spending increases in the years when the economy is expanding, but that’s offset by the fact that they don’t have to cut spending when there’s a recession and revenues are falling.

From the perspective of taxpayers and the economy, the benefit of a spending cap (assuming it is well designed so that it satisfies Mitchell’s Golden Rule) is that annual budgetary increases are lower than the long-run average growth of the private sector.

And nations that have followed such a policy have achieved very good results. The burden of government spending shrinks as a share of economic output, which naturally also leads to less red ink relative to the size of the private economy.

But it’s difficult to maintain spending discipline for multi-year periods. In most cases, governments that adopt good policy eventually capitulate to pressure from interest groups and start allowing the budget to expand too quickly.

That’s why the ideal policy is to make a spending cap part of a nation’s constitution.

That’s what happened in Switzerland early last decade thanks to a voter referendum. And that’s what has been part of Hong Kong’s Basic Law since it was approved back in 1990.

And while many nations struggle with ever-growing government, both Switzerland and Hong Kong have enjoyed good outcomes and considerable fiscal stability.

Now a Latin American nation may enact a similar reform. Brazil, which is suffering a recession in part because of bad government policies, is trying to boost its economy with market-based reforms. Given my interests, I’m especially excited that it has taken the first step in a much-needed effort to impose a spending cap.

The Brazil Chamber of Deputies on Monday voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that would limit government spending to counteract the country’s alarming economic downturn. …The amendment proposal must pass two rounds of voting in the lower House and Senate. Should it be passed, the government would limit spending increases to the rate of inflation… Following approval, the amendment would take effect in 2017.

The specific reform in Brazil would limit spending so it doesn’t grow faster than inflation. And it would apply only to the central government, so the provinces would be unaffected.

Capping central government outlays would be a significant step in the right direction. The central government would consume 16.8 percent of economic output in 2025 with the cap, compared to 20.8 percent of GDP if fiscal policy is left on autopilot.

Of course, there’s no guarantee this reform will become part of the Constitution. It needs to be approved a second time by the Chamber of Deputies (akin to our House of Representatives) and then be approved twice by the Senate.

But the good news is that more than 71 percent of Deputies voted for the measure. And there’s every reason to expect a sufficient number of votes when it come up for a second vote.

Brazil’s Senate, however, may be more of a challenge. Especially since various interest groups are now mobilizing against the proposal.

Advocates of the reform should go over the heads of the interest groups and other pro-spending lobbies and educate the Brazilian people. They should make two arguments that hopefully will be appealing even to those who don’t understand economic policy.

First, a spending cap doesn’t require spending cuts in a downturn. Outlays can continue to grow according to the formula. This should be a compelling argument for Keynesians who think government spending somehow stimulates growth (and also may appease those who simply think it is “harsh” to reduce spending when the economy is in recession).

Second, by preventing big spending increases during the boom years, a spending cap is a self-imposed constraint to protect against “Goldfish Government,” which should be an effective argument for those who are familiar with the underlying fiscal and demographic trends that already have caused so much chaos and misery in nations such as Greece.

P.S. While I haven’t been a fan of Brazilian economic policy in past years, I actually defended that nation when Hillary Clinton applauded Brazil for being more statist than it actually is.

P.P.S. Being less statist than Hillary is not exactly something to brag about, so I will note that Brazil deserves credit for moving in the right direction on gun rights and also having some semi-honest left-wing politicians.

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When writing a few days ago about the newly updated numbers from Economic Freedom of the World, I mentioned in passing that New Zealand deserves praise “for big reforms in the right direction.”

And when I say big reforms, this isn’t exaggeration or puffery.

Back in 1975, New Zealand’s score from EFW was only 5.60. To put that in perspective, Greece’s score today is 6.93 and France is at 7.30. In other words, New Zealand was a statist basket cast 40 years ago, with a degree of economic liberty akin to where Ethiopia is today and below the scores we now see in economically unfree nations such as Ukraine and Pakistan.

But then policy began to move in the right direction, especially between 1985 and 1995, the country became a Mecca for market-oriented reforms. The net result is that New Zealand’s score dramatically improved and it is now comfortably ensconced in the top-5 for economic freedom, usually trailing only Hong Kong and Singapore.

To appreciate what’s happened in New Zealand, let’s look at excerpts from a 2004 speech by Maurice McTigue, who served in the New Zealand parliament and held several ministerial positions.

He starts with a description of the dire situation that existed prior to the big wave of reform.

New Zealand’s per capita income in the period prior to the late 1950s was right around number three in the world, behind the United States and Canada. But by 1984, its per capita income had sunk to 27th in the world, alongside Portugal and Turkey. Not only that, but our unemployment rate was 11.6 percent, we’d had 23 successive years of deficits (sometimes ranging as high as 40 percent of GDP), our debt had grown to 65 percent of GDP, and our credit ratings were continually being downgraded. Government spending was a full 44 percent of GDP, investment capital was exiting in huge quantities, and government controls and micromanagement were pervasive at every level of the economy. We had foreign exchange controls that meant I couldn’t buy a subscription to The Economist magazine without the permission of the Minister of Finance. I couldn’t buy shares in a foreign company without surrendering my citizenship. There were price controls on all goods and services, on all shops and on all service industries. There were wage controls and wage freezes. I couldn’t pay my employees more—or pay them bonuses—if I wanted to. There were import controls on the goods that I could bring into the country. There were massive levels of subsidies on industries in order to keep them viable. Young people were leaving in droves.

Maurice then discusses the various market-oriented reforms that took place, including spending restraint.

What’s especially impressive is that New Zealand dramatically shrank government bureaucracies.

When we started this process with the Department of Transportation, it had 5,600 employees. When we finished, it had 53. When we started with the Forest Service, it had 17,000 employees. When we finished, it had 17. When we applied it to the Ministry of Works, it had 28,000 employees. I used to be Minister of Works, and ended up being the only employee. …if you say to me, “But you killed all those jobs!”—well, that’s just not true. The government stopped employing people in those jobs, but the need for the jobs didn’t disappear. I visited some of the forestry workers some months after they’d lost their government jobs, and they were quite happy. They told me that they were now earning about three times what they used to earn—on top of which, they were surprised to learn that they could do about 60 percent more than they used to!

And there was lots of privatization.

…we sold off telecommunications, airlines, irrigation schemes, computing services, government printing offices, insurance companies, banks, securities, mortgages, railways, bus services, hotels, shipping lines, agricultural advisory services, etc. In the main, when we sold those things off, their productivity went up and the cost of their services went down, translating into major gains for the economy. Furthermore, we decided that other agencies should be run as profit-making and tax-paying enterprises by government. For instance, the air traffic control system was made into a stand-alone company, given instructions that it had to make an acceptable rate of return and pay taxes, and told that it couldn’t get any investment capital from its owner (the government). We did that with about 35 agencies. Together, these used to cost us about one billion dollars per year; now they produced about one billion dollars per year in revenues and taxes.

Equally impressive, New Zealand got rid of all farm subsidies…and got excellent results.

…as we took government support away from industry, it was widely predicted that there would be a massive exodus of people. But that didn’t happen. To give you one example, we lost only about three-quarters of one percent of the farming enterprises—and these were people who shouldn’t have been farming in the first place. In addition, some predicted a major move towards corporate as opposed to family farming. But we’ve seen exactly the reverse. Corporate farming moved out and family farming expanded.

Maurice also has a great segment on education reform, which included school choice.

But since I’m a fiscal policy wonk, I want to highlight this excerpt on the tax reforms.

We lowered the high income tax rate from 66 to 33 percent, and set that flat rate for high-income earners. In addition, we brought the low end down from 38 to 19 percent, which became the flat rate for low-income earners. We then set a consumption tax rate of 10 percent and eliminated all other taxes—capital gains taxes, property taxes, etc. We carefully designed this system to produce exactly the same revenue as we were getting before and presented it to the public as a zero sum game. But what actually happened was that we received 20 percent more revenue than before. Why? We hadn’t allowed for the increase in voluntary compliance.

And I assume revenue also climbed because of Laffer Curve-type economic feedback. When more people hold jobs and earn higher incomes, the government gets a slice of that additional income.

Let’s wrap this up with a look at what New Zealand has done to constrain the burden of government spending. If you review my table of Golden Rule success stories, you’ll see that the nation got great results with a five-year spending freeze in the early 1990s. Government shrank substantially as a share of GDP.

Then, for many years, the spending burden was relatively stable as a share of economic output, before then climbing when the recession hit at the end of last decade.

But look at what’s happened since then. The New Zealand government has imposed genuine spending restraint, with outlays climbing by an average of 1.88 percent annually according to IMF data. And because that complies with my Golden Rule (meaning that government spending is growing slower than the private sector), the net result according to OECD data is that the burden of government spending is shrinking relative to the size of the economy’s productive sector.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the OECD and IMF use different methodologies when calculating the size of government in New Zealand (the IMF says the overall burden of spending is much smaller, closer to 30 percent of GDP). But regardless of which set of numbers is used, the trend line is still positive.

P.P.S. Speaking of statistical quirks, some readers have noticed that there are two sets of data in Economic Freedom of the World, so there are slightly different country scores when looking at chain-weighted data. There’s a boring methodological reason for this, but it doesn’t have any measurable impact when looking at trends for individual nations such as New Zealand.

P.P.P.S. Since the Kiwis in New Zealand are big rugby rivals with their cousins in Australia, one hopes New Zealand’s high score for economic freedom (3rd place) will motivate the Aussies (10th place) to engage in another wave of reform. Australia has some good polices, such as a private Social Security system, but it would become much more competitive if it lowered its punitive top income tax rate (nearly 50 percent!).

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If you asked a bunch of Republican politicians for their favorite fiscal policy goals, a balanced budget amendment almost certainly would be high on their list.

This is very unfortunate. Not because a balanced budget amendment is bad, per se, but mostly because it is irrelevant. There’s very little evidence that it produces good policy.

Before branding me as an apologist for big government or some sort of fiscal heretic, consider the fact that balanced budget requirements haven’t prevented states like California, Illinois, Connecticut, and New York from adopting bad policy.

Or look at France, Italy, Greece, and other EU nations that are fiscal basket cases even though there are “Maastricht rules” that basically are akin to balanced budget requirements (though the target is a deficit of 3 percent of economic output rather than zero percent of GDP).

Indeed, it’s possible that balanced budget rules contribute to bad policy since politicians can argue that they are obligated to raise taxes.

Consider what’s happening right now in Spain, as reported by Bloomberg.

Spain’s acting government targeted an extra 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) a year from corporate tax as it tried to persuade the European Commission not to levy its first-ever fine for persistent budget breaches. …Spain is negotiating with the European Commission over a new timetable for deficit reduction, as well as trying to sidestep sanctions after missing its target for a fourth straight year. Spain is proposing to bring its budget shortfall below the European Union’s 3 percent limit in 2017 instead of this year, Guindos said.

Wow, think about what this means. Spain’s economy is very weak, yet the foolish politicians are going to impose a big tax hike on business because of anti-deficit rules.

This is why it’s far better to have spending caps so that government grows slower than the private sector. A rule that limits the annual growth of government spending is both understandable and enforceable. And such a rule directly deals with the preeminent fiscal policy problem of excessive government.

Which is why we’ve seen very good results in jurisdictions such as Switzerland and Hong Kong that have such policies.

The evidence is so strong for spending caps that even left-leaning international bureaucracies have admitted their efficacy.

I’ve already highlighted how the International Monetary Fund (twice!), the European Central Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have acknowledged that spending caps are the most, if not only, effective fiscal rule.

Here are some highlights from another study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

…the adoption of a budget balance rule complemented by an expenditure rule could suit most countries well. As shown in Table 7, the combination of the two rules responds to the two objectives. A budget balance rule encourages hitting the debt target. And, well-designed expenditure rules appear decisive in ensuring the effectiveness of a budget balance rule (Guichard et al., 2007). Carnot (2014) shows also that a binding spending rule can promote fiscal discipline while allowing for stabilisation policies. …Spending rules entail no trade-off between minimising recession risks and minimising debt uncertainties. They can boost potential growth and hence reduce the recession risk without any adverse effect on debt. Indeed, estimations show that public spending restraint is associated with higher potential growth (Fall and Fournier, 2015).

Here’s a very useful table from the report.

As you can see, expenditure rules have the most upside and the least downside.

Though it’s important to make sure a spending cap is properly designed.

Here are some of the key conclusions on Tax and Expenditure Limitations (TELs) from a study by Matt Mitchell (no relation) and Olivia Gonzalez of the Mercatus Center.

The effectiveness of TELs varies greatly depending on their design. Effective TEL formulas limit spending to the sum of inflation plus population growth. This type of formula is associated with statistically significantly less spending. TELs tend to be more effective when they require a supermajority vote to be overridden, are constitutionally codified, and automatically refund surpluses. These rules are also more effective when they limit spending rather than revenue and when they prohibit unfunded mandates on local government. Having one or more of these characteristics tends to lead to less spending. Ineffective TELs are unfortunately the most common variety. TELs that tie state spending growth to growth in private income are associated with more spending in high-income states.

In other words, assuming the goal is better fiscal policy, a spending cap should be designed so that government grows slower than the productive sector of the economy. That’s music to my ears.

And the message is resonating with many other people in Washington who care about good fiscal policy.

P.S. Hopefully this column explains why I’ve only mentioned “balanced budget amendment” eight times in nearly 4,300 columns over the past seven-plus years. And most of those mentions were incidental or dismissive.

P.P.S. Simply stated, it’s a mistake to focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of excessive government spending.

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Much of my work on fiscal policy is focused on educating audiences about the long-run benefits of small government and modest taxation.

But what about the short-run issue of how to deal with a fiscal crisis? I have periodically weighed in on this topic, citing research from places like the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund to show that spending restraint is the right approach.

And I’ve also highlighted the success of the Baltic nations, all of which responded to the recent crisis with genuine spending cuts (and I very much enjoyed exposing Paul Krugman’s erroneous attack on Estonia).

Today, let’s look at Cyprus. That Mediterranean nation got in trouble because of an unsustainable long-run increase in the burden of government spending. Combined with the fallout caused by an insolvent banking system, Cyprus suffered a deep crisis earlier this decade.

Unlike many other European nations, however, Cyprus decided to deal with its over-spending problem by tightening belts in the public sector rather than the private sector.

This approach has been very successful according to a report from the Associated Press.

…emerging from a three-year, multi-billion euro rescue program, Cyprus boasts one of the highest economic growth rates among the 19 eurozone countries — an annual rate of 2.7 percent in the first quarter. Finance Minister Harris Georgiades says Cyprus turned its economy around by aggressively slashing costs but also by avoiding piling on new taxes that would weigh ordinary folks down and put a serious damper on growth. “We didn’t raise taxes that would burden an already strained economy,” he told The Associated Press in an interview. “We found spending cuts that weren’t detrimental to economic activity.”

Cutting spending and avoiding tax hike? This is catnip for Dan Mitchell!

But did Cyprus actually cut spending, and by how much?

That’s not an easy question to answer because the two main English-language data sources don’t match.

According to the IMF data, outlays were sliced to €8.1 billion in 2014, down from a peak of €8.5 in 2011. Though the IMF indicates that those numbers are preliminary.

The European Commission database shows a bigger drop, with outlays of €7.0 billion in 2015 compared to €8.3 billion in 2011 (also an outlay spike in 2014, presumably because of a bank bailout).

The bottom line is that, while it’s unclear which numbers are most accurate, Cyprus has experienced a multi-year period of spending restraint.

And having the burden of government grow slower than the private sector always has been and always will be the best gauge of good fiscal policy.

By contrast, there’s no evidence that tax increases are a route to fiscal probity.

Indeed, the endless parade of tax hikes in Greece shows that such an approach greatly impedes economic recovery.

Though not everybody in Cyprus supports prudent policy.

Critics have accused the government of working its fiscal gymnastics on the backs of the poor — essentially chopping salaries for public sector workers. Pambis Kyritsis, head of the left-wing PEO trade union, said the government’s “neo-liberal” policies coupled with the creditors’ harsh terms have widened the chasm between the have and have-nots to huge proportions. …Georgiades turned Kyritsis argument around to reinforce his point that there shouldn’t be any let-up in the government’s reform program and fiscal discipline.

In the European context, “liberal” or “neo-liberal” means pro-market and small government (akin to “classical liberal” or “libertarian” in the United States).

Semantics aside, it will be interesting to see whether Finance Minister Georgiades is correct about maintaining spending discipline as the economy rebounds.

As the above table indicates, there are several examples of nations getting good results by limiting the growth of government spending. But there are very few examples of long-run success since very few nations have politicians with the fortitude to control outlays if the economy is growing and generating an uptick in tax revenue (which is why states like California periodically get in trouble).

This is why the best long-run answer is some sort of constitutional spending cap, similar to what exists in Switzerland or Hong Kong.

The bottom line if that spending restraint is good short-run policy and good long-run policy. Though I doubt Hillary Clinton will learn the right lesson.

P.S. Cyprus also is a reasonably good role model for how to deal with a banking crisis.

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There’s a very powerful statement, variously attributed to Alexis de Toqueville, Benjamin Franklin, or Alexander Tytler, that basically warns that democracy is doomed when people figure out they can vote themselves money.

There’s no evidence that any of them actually spoke or wrote those words, though I guess it doesn’t matter that the quote didn’t originate with someone like Franklin. What does matter is that it accurately captures something very important, which is the tendency for governments to over-tax and over-spend once people decide that it’s okay to use government coercion to take other people’s money.

But it’s still nice to be able to cite something accurate. With this in mind, I came up with my Theorem of Societal Collapse. And I think it’s actually more accurate than the vote-themselves-money quote because democracy doesn’t necessarily lead to statism. What leads to bad outcomes is democracy combined with bad values.

And a pervasive belief in redistributionism is a bad value. Heck, it’s a self-destructive value. Consider Greece. When you add together the people getting welfare and disability to the people getting pension payments to the people on the government payroll, it turns out that a majority of people in the country are riding in the wagon of government dependency.

That’s bad. But what makes the Greek situation so hopeless is that those are the same people who vote. Which means there’s very little chance of getting a government that would implement good policy.

After all, why would the recipients of other people’s money vote for politicians who support limits on redistribution?

But I’m not just blaming voters. Politicians also deserve scorn and disdain because they are the ones who often seek votes by promising to take other people’s money.

Some observers would like to believe that these politicians will use their supposed superior expertise and knowledge about public policy to make appropriate tradeoffs and prevent the system from becoming over-burdened.

But that’s somewhat naive.

Indeed, there’s an entire school of thought in economics, known as “public choice,” which is based on making real-world assumptions about the self-interested behavior of politicians and interest groups. Here’s a partial description from the Library of Economics and Liberty.

As James Buchanan artfully defined it, public choice is “politics without romance.” The wishful thinking it displaced presumes that participants in the political sphere aspire to promote the common good. …public officials are portrayed as benevolent “public servants” who faithfully carry out the “will of the people.” …public choice, like the economic model of rational behavior on which it rests, assumes that people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests… As such, voters “vote their pocketbooks,” supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off; bureaucrats strive to advance their own careers; and politicians seek election or reelection to office. Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics. …collective decision-making processes allow the majority to impose its preferences on the minority.

In other words, both voters and politicians can have an incentive for ever-larger government, even if the end result is Greek-style fiscal chaos because taxes and spending reach ruinous levels.

I call this “Goldfish Government” because some think that a goldfish lacks the ability to control its appetite and therefore will eat itself to death when presented with unlimited food.

Indeed, public choice scholars explicitly recognize that unconstrained democracy can lead to bad results.

Public choice scholars have identified…deep…problems with democratic decision-making processes.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that their research suggests ways to compensate for the natural tendency of ever-expanding government.

Like that founding father of the American constitutional republic, public choice recognizes that men are not angels and focuses on the importance of the institutional rules… If, for example, democratic governments institutionally are incapable of balancing the public budget, a constitutional rule that limits increases in spending and taxes to no more than the private sector’s rate of growth will be more effective.

Hmmm…., a rule that limits the government so it doesn’t grow faster than the private sector.

Sounds like an idea worth embracing.

But while I like anything that builds support for the Golden Rule, I’m not sure it’s a sufficient condition for good policy.

Simply stated, we have too many examples of nations that followed the Golden Rule for several years, only to then fall off the wagon with a new splurge of spending.

There are two ways to deal with this problem. First, make the spending restraint part of a jurisdiction’s constitution, as we see in Switzerland and Hong Kong.

Second, augment the internal constraint of a spending cap with the external constraint of tax competition. Bluntly stated, destructive tax policies will be less likely when politicians are afraid that taxpayers will move across borders.

I spoke about this topic at a recent conference in Slovakia.

I also discuss the critical role of demographic change toward the end of my speech.

P.S. America’s Founding Fathers had the right solution. They set up a democratic form of government, but they strictly limited the powers of the central government. This system worked remarkably well for a long period, but then the Supreme Court decided that the enumerated powers listed in the Constitution were just a suggestion.

P.P.S. While it’s bad news to combine democracy with bad value, I want to emphasize that the problem is bad values. Most non-democratic societies have policies that are so evil and destructive (think Cuba and North Korea) that they make France seem like a beacon of economic liberty.

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As I’ve repeatedly explained, governments generally get in fiscal trouble because politicians can’t resist spending lots of money when the economy is buoyant and therefore generating lots of tax revenue.

And this is why I’m a huge fan of spending caps. If outlays can’t grow faster than, say, 3 percent annually, that make it difficult for politicians to enact unsustainable spending commitments (as we’ve seen in Greece, Alberta, Puerto Rico, California, and Alaska) in years when there is extra revenue.

Now I have a new example, and it’s extra painful because the politicians literally want me to pay for their profligacy.

Here’s part of what was recently written in the Washington Post about the supposed budget hardships in my home county of Fairfax in Virginia.

Virginia’s largest municipality is fraying around the edges. A population that is growing older, poorer and more diverse is sharpening the need for basic services…even as a sluggish local economy maintains a chokehold on the revenue stream. Since the 2008 recession, local officials have whittled away at programs to the tune of $300 million. …Since 2008, the county has eliminated 700 jobs. Libraries operate on shorter schedules and with fewer books, class sizes have swelled past 32 students in some schools… County agencies are stretching out vehicle maintenance — including for school buses and fire engines — and officials say aging athletic courts and deteriorating playgrounds await nearly $20 million in repairs. …The county slashed $3.8 million in summer school funding in 2015 and is trying to use $374,000 less in paper this year.

But all this budget “slashing” apparently isn’t enough to balance the budget.

…there is no fat left to trim. Instead, they are searching for ways to raise taxes… The county is searching for new revenue to cover some of what officials estimate are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of unmet needs. …“We’ve been punting for seven years now,” said John C. Cook (R-Braddock), a county supervisor. “There’s really nothing easy left to cut.” …the County Board of Supervisors will decide whether to raise residential property taxes by as much as four cents — to $1.13 per $100 of assessed value.

Gee, sounds like the government has “cut spending to the bone” and imposed “savage austerity,” which means higher taxes are the only option, right?

Not exactly, Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University digs through the data and exposes the truth.

What budget cuts?  In fiscal year 2016 Fairfax County’s government will spend $7.13 billion dollars – the highest inflation-adjusted annual expenditure in County history.  And this real expenditure is the highest in County history even on a per-capita basis.  …Fairfax County’s government today spends, per county resident, 168 percent more real dollars than it spent in 1975, 144 percent more than in 1986, 30 percent more than in 2001, and 1.6 percent more than in 2008 – the year that your reporter suggests marks the beginning of Fairfax County’s budget austerity. …it is emphatically not true that the Fairfax leviathan has cut its spending or suffered budget cuts.  Quite the opposite.

Don included a table of data, which I’ve put into a chart.

Let me know if you can find where spending was “slashed.”

Remember, this is inflation-adjusted spending, and also per-capita-adjusted spending, which means we can do apples-to-apples comparisons.

And the comparison that really matters is that the local government is now spending more than twice as much as it did 30 years ago.

  • Are the schools more than twice as good? No.
  • Are the roads more than twice as good? No.
  • Are the parks more than twice as good? No.

So where did all the money go? Beats me, though I’m going to take a wild guess that the country bureaucracy is now far bigger and getting paid much more.

In other words, the same theorem of government that explains the behavior of Washington also applies at the local level.

P.S. Let’s close with a very appropriate joke about the type of people who create fiscal crises.

A father told his 3 sons when he sent them to the university: “I feel it’s my duty to provide you with the best possible education, and you do not owe me anything for that. However, I want you to appreciate it. As a token, please each put $1,000 into my coffin when I die.”

And so it happened. His sons became a doctor, a lawyer, and a financial planner, each very successful financially. When their father’s time had come and they saw their father in the coffin, they remembered his wish.

First, it was the doctor who put 10 $100 bills onto the chest of the deceased.

Then, came the financial planner, who also put $1,000 there.

Finally, it was the heartbroken lawyer’s turn.He dipped into his pocket, took out his checkbook, wrote a check for $3,000, put it into his father’s coffin, and took the $2,000 cash.

He later went on to become a member of Congress…

If you want more jokes about politicians, click here.

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The fact that there’s widespread support for spending caps from groups that support limited government is hardly a surprise.

After all, we have lots of real world evidence that limits on the growth of government spending – if sustained for multi-year periods – can quickly shrink the burden of government and reduce red ink.

So the real key is figuring how to impose rules that ensure long-run spending restraint. That’s why, for instance, the Swiss Debt Brake is attracting so much positive attention.

But what’s really remarkable is that there’s also growing support for spending caps (sometimes called “expenditure limits”) from establishment organizations that normally lean to the left.

I’ve already highlighted how both the International Monetary Fund (twice!) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have acknowledged that spending caps are the most, if not only, effective fiscal rule.

By the way, these international bureaucracies are not motivated by a desire for limited government. Instead, they focus on fiscal balance. In other words, they want to control deficits and debt, which I think is a misguided focus since red ink is merely the symptom of the real problem of excessive spending.

Yet regardless of their focus, research from the IMF and OECD has shown that spending caps are the only approach that works (hardly a surprise since symptoms go away if underlying problems are addressed).

Now we can add another establishment voice to the chorus. The European Central Bank (ECB) has just published a study on the efficacy of fiscal rules for countries in the European Union. Let’s look at some excerpts to see what was found.

First, it was discovered that balanced budget rules aren’t very effective since they allow too much spending when the economy is growing and generating lots of tax revenue. Moreover, such rules are difficult to sustain during downturns when revenues fall.

…during a boom phase fiscal rules do not prevent fiscal policy from turning expansionary, while at times of a recession fiscal policy is potentially restrictive as governments need to comply with the rules’ requirements. This effect is assumed to be particularly pronounced in periods of limited fiscal space, while it might be less obvious in an environment of high fiscal space.

By the way, “fiscal space” refers to the maneuvering room politicians have. A government with a budget surplus, for instance, has “fiscal space” under a balanced-budget requirement.

But if a budget is balanced, then a government doesn’t have “fiscal space” if something happens (like a downturn) that causes lower revenues and higher spending.

Anyhow, the ECB study found that expenditure rules were the most effective.

We find strong evidence for fiscal rules being associated with higher fiscal space, i.e. the fiscal room for manoeuvre is higher in those countries which have established fiscal rules. This may not be surprising as fiscal rules are implemented to keep primary balances under control… When splitting the results by different types of fiscal rules, we find significant coefficients for expenditure and, to a lesser extent, balanced budget rules, but none for debt rules.

Here are some of the details about spending caps.

Regarding the different types of fiscal rules, we find particularly strong coefficients for expenditure rules, possibly reflecting the fact that expenditure rules are easier to monitor and are thereby more credible. …If a country had a fiscal rule in place for the past ten years the average fiscal space for those years is around 22% of GDP higher. The coefficient is proportional to the number of years in which a fiscal rule has been in place.

All this makes sense. The longer a spending cap is in place, the better the results. Which may be why more and more nations are moving in this direction.

The study highlights a very important reason why spending caps are successful. They make it difficult for politicians (as we’ve seen in Greece, Alberta, Puerto Rico, California, and Alaska) to increase spending when there is fiscal space (i.e., extra revenue).

…if governments have fiscal rules in place, the results suggest that governments can no longer fully use their fiscal space and (on average) are even forced to reduce their current expenditures.

Last but not least, the study also generated some findings that should be of considerable interest to fans of Keynesian economics. These are the folks who think an extra burst of government spending can stimulate an economy, so they are strongly opposed to balanced budget rules that are perceived to be “procyclical” since they require belt-tightening when there’s a recession and revenues shrink (while also allowing more spending when the economy is strong and revenues are growing).

But as you can see, spending caps generally avoid this problem.

…an increase in fiscal space indeed seems to be associated with fiscal policy being more procyclical. Yet if fiscal rules are in place, this positive link seems to be significantly smaller. …balanced budget rules…and expenditure rules…are correlated with a lower coefficient for fiscal space on procyclicality. This is in line with our findings above that expenditure rules might restrict discretionary expenditures.

This makes perfect sense. If you look at what’s happened with the Swiss Debt Brake (which is actually a spending cap), government spending has increased about 2 percent annually. That’s a frugal approach when the economy is growing and revenues are increasing, so advocates of small government can applaud.

But when the economy is weak and revenues are flat, Keynesians can applaud because government is still allowed to grow by 2 percent each year.

And since spending grows by less than the private sector over the long run, the net result is not only a smaller burden of government spending, but also shrinking debt levels, which is why we’re also getting applause from the OECD, IMF, and now the ECB.

P.S. Not all spending caps are created equal. There are very successful spending caps in places such as Switzerland and Hong Kong, in large part because these caps are explicitly designed to keep government from consuming ever-larger shares of economic output.

But I was recently in Texas as part of a program to discuss spending caps, organized by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Texas has a spending cap, but as you can see from this slide presented by State Senator Van Taylor, it’s not exactly working as well as the Swiss Debt Brake.

You can watch a video of the event by clicking here.

My message was that a spending cap is like a speed limit in a school zone. If the limit is 90 MPH, it doesn’t do any good.

The goal – at the very least – should be to prevent government from consuming ever-larger shares of economic output. This is the giant challenge in the developed world.

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