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Archive for the ‘Mitchell’s Golden Rule’ Category

Republicans are probably going to surrender on spending caps, thus allowing Obama to reverse his biggest-ever defeat.

Moreover, GOPers almost surely will get nothing in exchange for raising the debt limit, thus squandering an opportunity to limit profligacy in Washington.

So I should be feeling very glum. And, truth be told, I am routinely frustrated by what happens in DC.

But one thing I’ve learned over the past three decades is that it’s very hard to win battles without doing the hard work that helps to build a consensus for policy reform.

With this in mind, I’m going to express some optimism about the case for long-run spending restraint. This may seem counter intuitive given the probable defeats that will occur in the next month or two on the BCA spending caps and the debt limit.

But I’m thinking this may be Obama’s last hurrah and that things will change dramatically after the 2016 elections.

My medium-term hopefulness isn’t based on the election of any specific candidate. Instead, it’s a reflection of the growing consensus for good policy.

For instance, Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas, writing in National Review, says that the BCA spending caps need to be expanded.

Congress’s latest effort at fiscal restraint — the Budget Control Act of 2011 — targeted the one-third of federal spending that goes for discretionary programs. This act has helped to shrink Washington’s budget deficit by two-thirds and shave Washington’s spending by a significant three percentage points of GDP. …Unfortunately, the…Budget Control Act does not address entitlements. And without common-sense reforms, the massive uncontrolled growth in entitlements will leave America with a bleak fiscal future. …Congress must build on the success of the Budget Control Act. We need smarter, 21st-century budget guardrails… The upcoming fight over the federal debt limit gives Congress an opportunity to think smartly and act boldly by enacting a responsible spending cap that limits federal spending in relation to the size of our economy.

Congressman Brady has a specific plan to cap spending growth, and he explains that it is similar to Switzerland’s very effective approach.

The Maximizing America’s Prosperity Act of 2015 (MAP) would cap federal primary spending (which includes both discretionary and entitlement spending) as a percentage of potential GDP. Under MAP, primary spending would gradually decline from 19 percent of potential GDP in fiscal year 2016 to 16 percent of potential GDP over ten years. …MAP is a very prudent approach similar to the “debt brake” that has successfully capped the growth of government spending in Switzerland.

Since I’ve already written favorably about the Swiss Debt Brake and specifically noted that the MAP Act is the closest thing to that approach in the Untied States, it’s obvious that I like spending caps.

But what about other fiscal experts in Washington?

Well, there’s significant agreement on this issue.

Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute testified on the issue earlier this month.

…countries have increasingly begun to rely on specific expenditure targets… The adoption of such targets makes a great deal of sense. …Marking spending to potential GDP would be an effective way to enact budget legislation that is transparent and difficult to game. …I encourage Congress to consider adopting a budget rule that caps spending in the U.S. (other than interest payments) at some agreed upon fraction of GDP.

By the way, Kevin mentioned in his testimony that even the IMF has identified spending caps as the only effective fiscal rule.

Returning to the views of American fiscal experts, Romina Boccia of the Heritage Foundation shared favorable thoughts about spending caps in an article for The National Interest.

…how could Congress…make long-overdue spending reforms? One way is to enact spending caps in line with Congress’s budget to pave the way for concrete reforms with the threat of automatic cuts. Such a statutory spending cap would encourage lawmakers to prioritize federal spending, enable them to say “no” to special interests, and help to protect American taxpayers from wasteful spending burdens. Lawmakers should build on the success of the Budget Control Act and its spending caps enforced by sequestration to motivate entitlement reforms. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) recently reintroduced the Maximizing America’s Prosperity Act (H.R. 2471), which would impose a statutory spending cap across all non-interest outlays, in line with the spending targets established in Congress’s budget resolution.

And here’s some of what Veronique de Rugy wrote for the Mercatus Center.

…the caps and accompanying sequestration enforcement mechanism have been successful in constraining the discretionary share of the federal budget. …One of the chief criticisms of the caps is that they are largely limited to the discretionary programs, which comprise an increasingly smaller share of the overall federal budget. That’s a fair criticism. …policymakers should lock in these gains for taxpayers and seek to expand limits on federal funding to include more of the mandatory side of the budget.

By the way, here’s a chart Veronique prepared showing how the BCA spending caps have saved taxpayers a lot of money.

From this chart, you can see why I think it’s so important to preserve the spending caps and not surrender to Obama’s veto threats.

But let’s not dwell on potential bad developments and instead focus on the best approach, which is expanding the caps to constrain a far greater share of the federal budget.

Here are some excerpts from an article in Reason by A. Barton Hinkle, who explains how spending caps produce fiscal progress.

How do we avoid the iceberg up ahead? …sequestration has helped slow the growth of the federal government. Before it took effect, federal spending was on track to consume one-fourth of America’s GDP. By last year, Washington sopped up only one-fifth of America’s wealth. …there’s a[n]…option that could put America in the black… Hold the growth of government spending to 2 percent per year. That’s it. If Washington did only that, the federal budget would be balanced within six years. …many other advanced democracies have held their spending in similar check. Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands, and Italy did so during the 1990s; Germany, Switzerland, Israel and Taiwan did so in the 2000s. And because their economies grew somewhat faster, their government debt burdens shrank.

Wow. If you have Cato, AEI, Heritage, Mercatus, and Reason all endorsing spending caps, that’s a noteworthy development.

And remember that this approach also has been lauded by the International Monetary Fund, which definitely is not part of the vast right wing conspiracy.

Here’s the bottom line, which presumably explains the growing support for spending caps.

We have lots of examples of countries that have successfully addressed fiscal problems with multi-year periods of spending restraint.

And we have further evidence that explicit spending caps are the only sure-fire way of ensuring long-run fiscal discipline.

So no wonder lots of people and institutions are joining forces in the campaign to create a successful enforcement mechanism for fiscal policy’s Golden Rule.

But I don’t want to get cocky. Building a coalition for good policy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reform.

I’ll feel more confident about possible changes if some of the presidential candidates openly embrace spending caps and put forth plans to restrain the burden of government spending.

But if we get enough people in the parade for good policy, I suspect a few politicians will suddenly see the wisdom of getting to the front of the line.

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Earlier this month, Americans for Prosperity held a “Road to Reform” event in Las Vegas.

I got to be the warm-up speaker and made two simple points.

First, we made a lot of fiscal progress between 2009 and 2014 because various battles over debt limits, shutdowns, and sequestration actually did result in real spending discipline.

Second, I used January’s 10-year forecast from the Congressional Budget Office to explain how easy it would be to balance the budget with a modest amount of future spending restraint.

Here’s my speech (you can see the entire event by clicking here).

I realize I sound uncharacteristically optimistic in these remarks, but it is amazing how easy it is to make progress with even semi-effective limits on the growth of government.

Genuine spending cuts would be very desirable, of course, but we move in the right direction so long as government spending grows slower than the private sector.

The challenge, needless to say, is convincing politicians to limit spending.

Well, we now have some new data in that battle. The CBO released its Update this morning, which means the numbers I shared in Nevada are now slightly out of date and that I need to re-do all my calculations based on the new 10-year forecast.

But it doesn’t really make a difference.  As you can see from the chart, we can balance the budget by 2021 if spending is capped so that it grows by 2 percent annually. And even if spending is allowed to grow by 3 percent per year (about 50 percent faster than projected inflation), the budget is balanced by 2024.

At this point, I feel compelled to point out that the goal should be smaller government, not fiscal balance.

But since fiscal policy debates tend to focus on how to eliminate red ink and balance the budget, I may as well take advantage of this misplaced focus to push a policy (spending restraint) that would be desirable even if we had a budget surplus.

And that’s the purpose of this video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity back in 2010. The numbers obviously have changed over the past five years, but the underlying argument about the merits and efficacy of spending restraint are exactly the same today.

For more information on the merits of smaller government, here’s my tutorial on government spending.

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I have a very mixed view of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is an organization representing self-styled deficit hawks in Washington.

They do careful work and I always feel confident about citing their numbers.

Yet I frequently get frustrated because they seem to think that tax increases have to be part of any budget deal, regardless of the evidence that such an approach will backfire.

So when CRFB published a “Fiscal FactChecker” to debunk 16 supposed budget myths that they expect during this campaign season, I knew I’d find lots of stuff I would like…and lots of stuff I wouldn’t like.

Let’s look at what they said were myths, along with my two cents on CRFB’s analysis.

Myth #1: We Can Continue Borrowing without Consequences

Reality check: CRFB’s view is largely correct. If we leave policy on autopilot, demographic changes and poorly structured entitlement programs  will lead to an ever-rising burden of government spending, which almost surely will mean ever-rising levels of government debt (as well as ever-rising tax burdens). At some point, this will lead to serious consequences, presumably bad monetary policy (i.e., printing money to finance the budget) and/or Greek-style crisis (investors no longer buying bonds because they don’t trust the government will pay them back).

The only reason I don’t fully agree with CRFB is that we could permanently borrow without consequence if the debt grew 1 percent per year while the economy grew 3 percent per year. Unfortunately, given the “new normal” of weak growth, that’s not a realistic scenario.

Myth #2: With Deficits Falling, Our Debt Problems are Behind Us

Reality check: The folks at CRFB are right. Annual deficits have dropped to about $500 billion after peaking above $1 trillion during Obama’s first term, but that’s just the calm before the storm. As already noted, demographics and entitlements are a baked-into-the-cake recipe for a bigger burden of government and more red ink.

That being said, I think that CRFB’s focus is misplaced. They fixate on debt, which is the symptom, when they should be more concerned with reducing excessive government, which is the underlying disease.

Myth #3: There is No Harm in Waiting to Solve Our Debt Problems

Reality check: We have a spending problem. Deficits and debt are merely symptoms of that problem. But other than this chronic mistake, CRFB is right that it is far better to address our fiscal challenges sooner rather than later.

CRFB offers some good analysis of why it’s easier to solve the problem by acting quickly, but this isn’t just about math. Welfare State Wagon CartoonsIt’s also important to impose some sort of spending restraint before a majority of the voting-age population has been lured into some form of government dependency. Once you get to the point when more people are riding in the wagon than pulling the wagon (think Greece), reform becomes almost impossible.

Myth #4: Deficit Reduction is Code for Austerity, Which Will Harm the Economy

Reality check: The folks at CRFB list this as a myth, but they actually agree with the assertion, stating that deficit reduction policies “have damaged economic performance and increased unemployment.” They even seem sympathetic to “modest increases to near-term deficits by replacing short-term ‘sequester’ cuts”, which would gut this century’s biggest victory for good fiscal policy!

There are two reasons for CRFB’s confusion. First, they seem to accept the Keynesian argument about bigger government and red ink boosting growth, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary. Second, they fail to distinguish between good austerity and bad austerity. If austerity means higher taxes, as has been the case so often in Europe, then it is unambiguously bad for growth. But if it means spending restraint (or even actual spending cuts), then it is clearly good for growth. There may be some short-term disruption since resources don’t instantaneously get reallocated, but the long-term benefits are enormous because labor and capital are used more productively in the private economy.

Myth #5: Tax Cuts Pay For Themselves

Reality check: I agree with the folks at CRFB. As a general rule, tax cuts will reduce government revenue, even after measuring possible pro-growth effects that lead to higher levels of taxable income.

But it’s also important to recognize that not all tax cuts are created equal. Some tax cuts have very large “supply-side” effects, particularly once the economy has a chance to adjust in response to better policy. So a lower capital gains tax or a repeal of the death tax, to cite a couple of examples, might increase revenue in the long run. And we definitely saw a huge response when Reagan lowered top tax rates in the 1980s. But other tax cuts, such as expanded child credits, presumably generate almost no pro-growth effects because there’s no change in the relative price of productive behavior.

Myth #6: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Taxing the Top 1%

Reality check: The CRFB report correctly points out that confiscatory tax rates on upper-income taxpayers would backfire for the simple reason that rich people would simply choose to earn and report less income. And they didn’t even include the indirect economic damage (and reductions in taxable income) caused by less saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Ironically, the CRFB folks seem to recognize that tax rates beyond a certain level would result in less revenue for government. Which implies, of course, that it is possible (notwithstanding what they said in Myth #5) for some tax cuts to pay for themselves.

Myth #7: We Can Lower Tax Rates by Closing a Few Egregious Loopholes

Reality check: It depends on the definition of “egregious.” In the CRFB report, they equate “egregious” with “unpopular” in order to justify their argument.

But if we define “egregious” to mean “economically foolish and misguided,” then there are lots of preferences in the tax code that could – and should – be abolished in order to finance much lower tax rates. Including the healthcare exclusion, the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable giving deduction, and (especially) the deduction for state and local taxes.

Myth #8: Any Tax Increases Will Cripple Economic Growth

Reality check: The CRFB folks are right. A small tax increase obviously won’t “cripple” economic growth. Indeed, it’s even possible that a tax increase might lead to more growth if it was combined with pro-growth policies in other areas. Heck, that’s exactly what happened during the Clinton years. But now let’s inject some reality into the conversation. Any non-trivial tax increase on productive behavior will have some negative impact on economic performance and competitiveness. The evidence is overwhelming that higher tax rates hurt growth and the evidence is also overwhelming that more double taxation will harm the economy.

The CRFB report suggests that the harm of tax hikes could be offset by the supposed pro-growth impact of a lower budget deficit, but the evidence for that proposition if very shaky. Moreover, there’s a substantial amount of real-world data showing that tax increases worsen fiscal balance. Simply stated, tax hikes don’t augment spending restraint, they undermine spending restraint. Which may be why the only “bipartisan” budget deal that actually led to a balanced budget was the one that lowered taxes instead of raising them.

Myth #9: Medicare and Social Security Are Earned Benefits and Should Not Be Touched

Reality check: CRFB is completely correct on this one. The theory of age-related “social insurance” programs such as Medicare and Social Security is that people pay into the programs while young and then get benefits when they are old. This is why they are called “earned benefits.”

The problem is that politicians don’t like asking people to pay and they do like giving people benefits, so the programs are poorly designed. The average Medicare recipient, for instance, costs taxpayers $3 for every $1 that recipient paid into the program. Social Security isn’t that lopsided, but the program desperately needs reform because of demographic change. But the reforms shouldn’t be driven solely by budget considerations, which could lead to trapping people in poorly designed entitlement schemes. We need genuine structural reform.

Myth #10: Repealing “Obamacare” Will Fix the Debt

Reality check: Obamacare is a very costly piece of legislation that increased the burden of government spending and made the tax system more onerous. Repealing the law would dramatically improve fiscal policy.

But CRFB, because of the aforementioned misplaced fixation on red ink, doesn’t have a big problem with Obamacare because the increase in taxes and the increase in spending are roughly equivalent. So the organization is technically correct that repealing the law won’t “fix the debt.” But it would help address America’s real fiscal problem, which is a bloated and costly public sector.

Myth #11: The Health Care Cost Problem is Solved

Reality check: CRFB’s analysis is correct, though it would have been nice to see some discussion of how third-party payer is the problem.

Myth #12: Social Security’s Shortfall Can be Closed Simply by Raising Taxes on or Means-Testing Benefits for the Wealthy

Reality check: To their credit, CRFB is basically arguing against President Obama’s scheme to impose Social Security payroll taxes on all labor income, which would turn the program from a social-insurance system into a pure income-redistribution scheme.

On paper, such a system actually could eliminate the vast majority of Social Security’s giant unfunded liability. In reality, this would mean a huge increase in marginal tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners, which would have a serious adverse economic impact.

Myth #13: We Can Solve Our Debt Situation by Cutting Waste, Fraud, Abuse, Earmarks, and/or Foreign Aid

Reality check: Earmarks (which have been substantially curtailed already) and foreign aid are a relatively small share of the budget, so CRFB is right that getting rid of that spending won’t have a big impact. But what about the larger question. Could our fiscal mess (which is a spending problem, not a “debt situation”) be fixed by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse?

It depends on how one defines “waste, fraud, and abuse.” If one uses a very narrow definition, such as technical malfeasance, then waste, fraud, and abuse might “only” amount to a couple of hundred billions dollars per year. But from an economic perspective (i.e., grossly inefficient misallocation of resources), then entire federal departments such as HUD, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, etc, should be classified as waste, fraud, and abuse.

Myth #14: We Can Grow Our Way Out of Debt

Reality check: CRFB is correct that faster growth won’t solve all of our fiscal problems. Unless one makes an untenable assumption that economic growth will be faster than the projected growth of entitlement spending. And even that kind of heroic assumption would be untenable since faster growth generally obligates the government to pay higher benefits in the future.

Myth #15: A Balanced Budget Amendment is All We Need to Fix the Debt

Reality check: CRFB accurately explains that a BBA is simply an obstacle to additional debt. Politicians still would be obliged to change laws to fulfill that requirement. But that analysis misses the point. A BBA focuses on red ink, whereas the real problem is that government is too big and growing too fast. State balanced-budget requirement haven’t stopped states like California and Illinois from serious fiscal imbalances and eroding competitiveness. The so-called Maastricht anti-deficit and anti-debt rules in the European Union haven’t stopped nations such as France and Greece from fiscal chaos.

This is why the real solution is to have some sort of enforceable cap on government spending. That approach has worked well in jurisdictions such as Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado. And even research from the IMF (a bureaucracy that shares CRFB’s misplaced fixation on debt) has concluded that expenditure limits are the only effective fiscal rules.

Myth #16: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Cutting Welfare Spending

Reality check: The federal government is spending about $1 trillion this year on means-tested (i.e., anti-poverty) programs, which is about one-fourth of total outlays, so getting Washington out of the business of income redistribution would substantially lower the burden of federal spending (somewhat offset, to be sure, by increases in state and local spending). And for those who fixate on red ink, that would turn today’s $500 billion deficit into a $500 billion surplus.

That being said, there would still be a big long-run problem caused by other federal programs, most notably Social Security and Medicare. So CRFB is correct in that dealing with welfare-related spending doesn’t fully solve the long-run problem, regardless of whether you focus on the problem of spending or the symptom of borrowing.

This has been a lengthy post, so let’s have a very simple summary.

We know that modest spending restraint can quickly balance the budget.

We also know lots of nations that have made rapid progress with modest amounts of spending restraint.

And we know that the tax-hike option simply leads to more spending.

So the only question to answer is why the CRFB crowd can’t put two and two together and get four?

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As far as I’m concerned, a key gateway test of whether someone might be a libertarian is whether they get upset when ordinary people are mistreated or brutalized by government.

Though admittedly any decent person should get upset by those examples.

So perhaps we need something more detailed to identify supporters of limited government, individual freedom, and personal responsibility. So when one of my friends sent me the “definitive political orientation test,” I immediately was tempted to see my score.

I don’t know if it’s the “definitive” test, but it seems reasonably accurate. As you can see, I’m about as libertarian as you can be without being an anarchist who wants zero government.

Though I should point out that there aren’t any questions on anarchism. I think the test probably assumes anarchism if your answers are both anti-welfare state and anti-defense.

This “circle test” is probably a simpler way of determining where you are on the big government-some government-no government spectrum.

But the most more sophisticated measure of libertarianism is Professor Bryan Caplan’s test. I only got a 94 out of a possible 160, which sounds bad, but that was still enough for my views to be considered “hard-core.”

And since we’re looking at online surveys, here are my results from the “I Side With” quiz. I don’t endorse candidates (as if anyone would care), but this quiz suggests that Rand Paul is closest to my views, followed by Scott Walker and Marco Rubio.

For what it’s worth, I’m not exactly shocked to see Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the bottom.

By the way, since we’ve shifted to a discussion of the 2016 race, I was the warm-up speaker for Governor Jeb Bush at a recent “Road to Reform” event in New Hampshire sponsored by Americans for Prosperity. Here’s what I said about fixing the budget mess in Washington.

You can watch the entire event and also see what the governor said by clicking here.

And for folks in Nevada, I’ll be the warm-up speaker for a similar event with Ted Cruz on August 14.

P.S. The most inaccurate political quiz was the one that classified me as a “moderate” with “few strong opinions.”

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The European Commission’s data-gathering bureaucracy, Eurostat, has just published a new report on government finances for the region.

And with Greece’s ongoing fiscal turmoil getting headlines, this Eurostat publication is worthwhile because it debunks the notion, peddled by folks like Paul Krugman, that Europe has been harmed by “savage” and “harsh” spending cuts.

Here’s some of what’s in the report.

In 2014, total general government expenditure amounted to €6 701 bn in the European Union (EU). This represented almost half (48.1%) of EU GDP in 2014… Among EU Member States, general government expenditure varied in 2014 from less than 35% of GDP in Lithuania and Romania to more than 57% in Finland, France and Denmark.

Not only is government spending consuming almost half of economic output, redistribution outlays are the biggest line item in the budgets of European nations.

…the function ‘social protection’ was by far the most important, accounting for 40.2% of total general government expenditure. The next most important areas in terms of general government expenditure were ‘health’ (14.8%)… Its weight varied across EU Member States from 28.6% of total general government expenditure in Cyprus to 44.4% in Luxembourg. Eight EU Member States devoted more than 40% of their expenditure to social protection.

At this point, some readers may be thinking that the report shows European nations have very big governments with very large welfare states, but that doesn’t prove one way or the other whether there’s been austerity.

After all, austerity supposedly measures the degree to which there have been big spending cuts, not whether government consumes a large or small share of economic output.

So let’s now look at some of the underlying annual spending data from Eurostat.

Here’s their chart showing annual levels of government spending, both for the entire European Union (EU-28) and for the nations using the euro currency (EA-19). As you can see, there haven’t been any “harsh” or “savage” cuts.

Heck, there haven’t even been “timid” and “meek” cuts. The burden of government spending keeps climbing.

None of this should come as a surprise.

I’ve shared analysis making this point from experts on European fiscal policy such as Steve Hanke, Brian Wesbury, Constantin Gurdgiev, Fredrik Erixon, and Leonid Bershidsky.

So why is there a mythology about supposed spending cuts in Europe?

There are three answers.

  • First, there are lots of ignorant of mendacious people who don’t understand the numbers or don’t care about the truth. You can take a wild guess about the identity of some of these people.
  • Second, while overall government spending has continuously risen in Europe, a few nations (generally the ones that were most profligate last decade) have been forced to make some non-trivial spending cuts.
  • Third, some people cherry pick data on the burden of government spending relative to economic output and assert that austerity exists if government grows slower than GDP.

The people in the first category should be dismissed as cranks and ideologues.

Regarding the second category, if you look at Eurostat’s annual fiscal data, you’ll find that most EU nations since 2008 have had at least one year in which government spending declined. Indeed, the only exceptions are Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Finland, and Sweden.

But we’ve also had a few years of spending reductions in the United States since 2008, yet it would be silly to argue we’ve had “savage” and “harsh” cuts. The real question is whether any governments have been forced to make non-trivial reductions in the burden of spending. And if that’s defined as spending less today than they did in 2008, the only nations on that list are Greece, Latvia, and Ireland. But they’re also high on the list of countries that were most profligate in the years before 2008, so is it “austerity” if you give up drinking for a week or two after spending a week or two in an alcoholic haze? Perhaps the answer is yes, but the real problem was having a spending binge in the first place.

The third category is also worth exploring because the best way to determine if a country has responsible policy is to see whether government spending is falling as a share of economic output (i.e., are they following Mitchell’s Golden Rule). But you can’t cherry pick the data. For instance, look at this chart from Eurostat. If 2009 is used as the base year, it appears that EU nations have been frugal. But 2009 also was the year with the biggest bailouts and faux stimulus packages. So while government spending has receded a bit from the 2009 peak, the overall burden of spending today is significantly higher than it was before the 2008 crisis. Not exactly a very rigorous definition of austerity.

The bottom line is that there hasn’t been serious austerity in Europe, at least if austerity is defined as non-trivial spending cuts.

To be sure, there have been big fiscal changes in Europe. The bad news is that those changes have been big increases in income tax rates and big increases in value-added tax rates.

So if folks are looking for a good explanation of why Europe is suffering from anemic growth, that might be a place to start.

P.S. Unlike other European countries, the Baltic nations focused on genuine spending cuts rather than tax hike and their economies are doing comparatively well.

P.P.S. Even though Switzerland isn’t a member of the EU, Eurostat does include annual spending data for that nation. And it’s worth noting that spending has only grown by 2.07 percent per year since the implementation of the debt brake (which is really a spending cap). So that’s actually the best role model in Europe, as explained here by a representative from the Swiss Embassy.

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When I make speeches about fiscal policy, I oftentimes share a table showing the many nations that have made big progress by enforcing spending restraint over multi-year periods.

I then ask audiences a rhetorical question about a possible list of nations that have prospered by going in the opposite direction. Are there any success stories based on tax hikes or bigger government?

The answer is no, which is why I’ve never received a satisfactory answer to my two-part challenge, even if I limit the focus to fiscal policy.

And nobody will be surprised to learn that the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico reinforces these lessons.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Hanson explains that the American territory in the Caribbean is on the verge of default.

As Puerto Rico struggles under the weight of more than $70 billion in debt, it has become popular to draw parallels with Greece.

The one theme that is common with the two jurisdictions is that their fiscal crises are the result of too much government spending.

How bad is the problem in Puerto Rico?

It’s hard to answer that question because government budgeting isn’t very transparent and the quality and clarity of the numbers that do exist leaves a lot to be desired.

But I’ve done some digging (along with my colleagues at Cato) and here’s some data that will at least illustrate the scope of the problem.

First, we have numbers from the World Bank showing inflation-adjusted (2005$) government consumption expenditures over the past few decades. As you can see, overall spending in this category increased by 100 percent between 1980 and 2013 (at a time when the population increased only 12 percent).

In other words, Puerto Rico is in trouble because it violated the Golden Rule and let government grow faster than the private sector over a sustained period (just like Greece, just like Alberta, just like the United States, etc, etc).

Here’s another chart and this one purports to show total outlays.

The numbers aren’t adjusted for inflation, so the increase looks more dramatic. But even if you consider the impact of a rising price level (average annual increase of about 4 percent since the mid-1980s), it’s obvious that government spending has climbed far too fast.

To be more specific, Puerto Rico has allowed the burden of government to rise much faster than population plus inflation.

A government can get away with that kind of reckless policy for a few years. But when bad policy is maintained for a long period of time, the end result is never positive.

Now that we’ve established that Puerto Rico got in trouble by violating my Golden Rule, what’s the right way of fixing the mess? Is the government responding to its fiscal crisis in a responsible manner?

Not exactly. Like Greece, it’s too beholden to interest groups, and that’s making (the right kind of) austerity difficult.

Indeed, Mr. Hanson says there haven’t been any cuts in the past few years.

In the past four years, when the fiscal crisis has been most severe, four successively larger budgets have been enacted. The budget proposed for the coming year is $235 million larger than last year’s and $713 million, or 8%, higher than four years ago. Austerity this is not.

What special interest groups standing in the way of reform?

The government workforce would be high on the list. One of the big problems in Puerto Rico is that there are far too many bureaucrats and they get paid far too much (gee, this sounds familiar).

Here are some details from Mr. Hanson’s column.

…more than two-thirds of the territory’s budget is payroll. The proposed budget…contains no plans for head-count reductions. …Median household income in Puerto Rico hovers around $20,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but government workers fare much better. Public agencies pay salaries on average more than twice that amount, a 2014 report from Banco Popular shows. Salaries in the central government in San Juan are more than 90% higher than in the private sector. Even across comparable skill sets, the wage disparity persists.

In other words, life is pretty good for the people riding in the wagon, but Puerto Rico doesn’t have enough productive people to pull the wagon.

So we’re back to where we started. It’s the Greece of the Caribbean.

P.S. This column has focused on fiscal policy, but it’s important to recognize that there are many other bad policies hindering prosperity in Puerto Rico. And some of them are the result of Washington politicians rather than their counterparts in San Juan. Nicole Kaeding and Nick Zaiac have explained that the Jones Act and the minimum wage are particularly destructive to the territory’s economy.

P.P.S. At least Puerto Rico is still a good tax haven for American citizens.

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I suggested earlier this year that Denmark’s ratio of private sector workers compared with government dependents produced the world’s most depressing Powerpoint slide.

It’s hard to be optimistic, after all, if a nation has an ever-growing number of people riding in the wagon (or the “party boat“) and a stagnant population of productive people.

But I don’t want to be overly pessimistic. Denmark may have a big welfare state and a punitive tax system (I’ve joked that birthers should accuse Obama of being born there rather than Kenya), but it is very pro-market in other policy areas.

Indeed, it beats the United States in 3 out of the 5 major categories in the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Index.

And while the United States has a higher overall score – ranked #12 compared to #19, Denmark had more overall economic freedom than the United States as recently as 2010 and 2011.

With this introduction, you’re probably guessing that I plan on saying something nice about the Danes. And you’d be right. It turns out that our Nordic friends are slowly but surely adopting my Golden Rule of spending restraint.

Look at this data on government spending from the IMF’s database. As you can see, the burden of spending has been climbing at a much slower rate in recent years, and the forecast shows even more frugality in the near future.

Perhaps most important, the modest fiscal discipline that began in 2009 is paying big dividends.

Government spending that year consumed nearly 58 percent of Denmark’s economic output. Now, the burden of spending is “only” 53 percent of GDP.

Still astronomically high, to be sure, but heading in the right direction. And if Denmark maintains the spending restraint projected by the IMF, the burden of spending will drop to less than 51 percent of GDP in 2017.

And that may actually happen. Just a few days ago, Denmark’s left-wing government was voted out of office and the new center-right government is promising tighter control of the purse strings.

I would like to think I played a very tiny role in this development. My friend Mads Lundby Hansen from Denmark’s free-market think tank (CEPOS) took part in a debate before the election and promoted the Golden Rule.

Here’s a picture from his Facebook page.

Unfortunately, even though I would like to think I played a role, Mads burst my bubble by informing me that the Golden Rule “wasn’t an issue in the election.”

But I don’t care if politicians are overtly cognizant of the Golden Rule. And I certainly don’t care if they know my name. I just want good policy.

So the moment the burden of government spending drops below 50 percent of GDP in Denmark, I’m going to declare victory in the battle.

Though I won’t declare victory in the war until we shrink government to its growth-maximizing level.

P.S. Denmark’s most famous welfare recipient is “Lazy Robert,” who was honored for his lack of contribution to society by being selected to the Moocher Hall of Fame.

P.P.S. One important lesson from Denmark is that a nation can somewhat successfully endure bad fiscal policy by being hyper-free market in other policy fields.

P.P.P.S. Another Nordic nation, Sweden, already enjoyed a big improvement in fiscal policy thanks to a multi-year period of spending restraint.

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A few days ago, I cited some research by an economics professor at the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!), who calculated that we would have a big budget surplus today if Washington lawmakers had simply maintained Bill Clinton’s final budget, adjusting it only for inflation plus population growth.

My purpose was to show that some sort of long-run spending cap (such as limiting outlays so they can’t grow faster than population plus inflation) is the best way of achieving good fiscal outcomes.

And I cited similar hypothetical examples when writing about fiscal policy in Canada and also when sharing some good analysis from Investor’s Business Daily.

I think these examples are persuasive, but some people aren’t overly impressed by arguments that aren’t based on real-world evidence. So I also make sure to show how good things happen in those rare instances that politicians can be convinced to restrain spending.

A review of data for 16 nations reveals that multi-year periods of spending restraint lead to lower fiscal burdens and less red ink.

Between 2009 and 2014, a de facto spending freeze at the federal level dramatically reduced burden of spending in the United States.

Thanks to a constitutional spending cap, Switzerland has shrunk the public sector, balanced its budget and reduced government debt.

Now we have another real-world example to add to our list.

Check out these excerpts from a New York Times story.

A year after Colorado became the first state to allow recreational marijuana sales, millions of tax dollars are rolling in… But a legal snarl may force the state to hand that money back to marijuana consumers, growers and the public — and lawmakers do not want to.

Hmmm…I can understand lawmakers wanting to hold on to other people’s money, but what is meant by “legal snarl”?

Well, it turns out that this is just a way of describing Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), which imposes caps on how fast the state’s fiscal burden can increase. The reporter from the New York Times writes that this is a “problem,” but taxpayers obviously have a different perspective.

The problem is a strict anti-spending provision in the state Constitution… Technical tripwires in that voter-approved provision, known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, may require Colorado to refund nearly $60 million…because it collected more than it had anticipated in taxes last year across the board — including construction, oil and gas and other sections of the state’s booming economy. …The complex measure, first approved by voters in 1992, essentially requires that when Colorado collects more money than it had anticipated, it has to give some back to taxpayers.

In other words, the state is collecting plenty of money in taxes, but the politicians are irked they can’t raise spending beyond what’s allowed by TABOR.

And that irks the pro-spending crowd.

Blame lies with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, said Tim Hoover, a spokesman for the Colorado Fiscal Institute, which tracks budget issues in the state. …“It has its own malevolent programming that is really hard to override,” he said.

I obviously don’t agree with Mr. Hoover’s philosophy, but his quote is very powerful evidence that a well-designed spending cap can be effective.

Which is why I cited Colorado’s TABOR back in 2013 as being the best role model in the United States for those who want to genuinely constrain government.

Heck, even the International Monetary Fund now acknowledges that spending caps are the only effective fiscal policy.

By the way, there’s also a Laffer Curve lesson in this story. Echoing what I wrote earlier this year, marijuana tax revenues have been below estimates because the tax rate is too high.

“It’s not that the pot tax came in too high,” said State Senator Pat Steadman, a Democrat who has been trying to write a law that would provide a solution. “It’s that every other revenue came in high.” …Miguel Lopez, who organizes Denver’s annual 4/20 rally — intended to be a giant feel-good festival — said he was sick of what he called high taxes on recreational marijuana. He said they were hurting small stores and helping to keep the black market alive.

Not that we should be surprised. Politicians routinely over-tax tobacco.

And other so-called sin taxes also get set too high, which is a point I made when commenting about a proposed tax on strip clubs in Florida.

“You get a bigger underground economy with high tax rates, which means less revenue than anticipated, and also openings for organized crime and other bad guys,” he said. “Regarding the proposal, I have to imagine that a $25 cover charge, combined with record-keeping, will kill off most strip clubs, so I don’t think they’ll get much money,” Mitchell said. “Customers, presumably, will gravitate to substitute forms of entertainment.”

In the case of Colorado’s pot tax, the “substitute form of entertainment” is simply buying pot in the underground economy.

So the moral of the story, whether looking at spending caps or tax rates, is that politicians are too greedy for their own good.

P.S. What’s the opposite of a spending cap? There are probably a couple of possible answers, but I would pick Obama’s proposed tax-increase “trigger.” Here’s some of what I wrote about that scheme.

Called a “debt failsafe trigger,” Obama’s scheme would automatically raise taxes if politicians spend too much. …Let’s ponder what this means. If politicians in Washington spend too much and cause more red ink, which happens on a routine basis, Obama wants a provision that automatically would raise taxes on the American people.

Fortunately, this was such an awful idea that even gullible GOPers said no. Now if we can keep Republicans from getting seduced into counterproductive tax-hike budget deals, we may actually make some progress!

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It’s amazingly simple to reduce the burden of government spending. Policy makers simply need to impose some modest spending restraint so that government doesn’t grow faster than the economy’s productive sector.

In a display of humility that can only be found in Washington, DC, I call this Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

And, amazingly, even the International Monetary Fund agrees that spending caps are the most effective strategy for good fiscal policy.

Since I’m not a fan of the IMF, this is definitely a case of strange bedfellows!

Let’s look at some case studies of what happens when there are limits on the growth of government.

A review of data for 16 nations reveals that multi-year periods of spending restraint lead to lower fiscal burdens and less red ink.

Between 2009 and 2014, a de facto spending freeze at the federal level dramatically reduced burden of spending in the United States.

Thanks to a spending cap, Switzerland has shrunk the public sector, balanced its budget and reduced government debt .

These real-world examples provide compelling evidence on the value of long-run spending restraint.

By the way, when I challenge my leftist friends to provide similar examples of nations that have achieved good results by raising taxes, they become uncharacteristically quiet. Just like you can hear crickets chirping when I present them with my two-question challenge to identify statist nations that are good role models.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the main topic.

In addition to the data cited above, there are also hypothetical examples showing why it is important to have government grow slower than the private sector.

A column published by Investor’s Business Daily reveals that the United States would have avoided the multi-trillion dollar deficits of the Obama years had a Swiss-style spending cap been in effect.

The oil-rich Canadian province of Alberta would have avoided its current fiscal crisis had it followed my Golden Rule over the past 10 years.

Now let’s add to our list of hypothetical examples. Writing for Real Clear Markets, Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University of Georgia cleverly suggests that Republicans simply take Bill Clinton’s last budget and then adjust it for inflation and population growth.

…a Clinton is ready to show them a path to nearly everything a dream Republican budget might have. …President Bill Clinton’s last budget was for fiscal year 2001, which began just before the 2000 election. That budget spent $1.86 trillion, less than half of what President Obama is proposing. If this final Clinton budget is adjusted upwards for subsequent inflation (32 percent) and population growth (12 percent), we arrive at a figure of $2.76 trillion, still only 69 percent as much as President Obama wants to spend. This difference is what Republicans should exploit.

And since federal revenues for next year are projected to be $3.46 trillion, that means not only a smaller burden of government spending, but also a huge budget surplus.

Professor Dorfman then proposes that this gives Republicans leeway to show that they can compromise.

… appropriate spending for each agency equal to a minimum of the population and inflation adjusted amount in President Bill Clinton’s final budget plus 50 percent of the additional growth between President Obama’s proposal and the adjusted Clinton budget. That is, Republicans would not even try to roll federal spending back to when we last had a balanced budget, but only move to reverse half of the enormous spending increases that have occurred under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Such a budget would spend $3.25 trillion and would come with an estimated budget surplus of $220 billion based on the latest Congressional Budget Office projections of 2016 federal revenue.

Dorfman hypothesizes that this rhetorical approach will give advocates of smaller government the upper hand.

After all, the statists presumably wouldn’t want to say Bill Clinton’s last budget was somehow draconian or heartless. And if Republicans are proposing to take that Clinton budget, adjust it for inflation and population, and then add even more money, it should be equally improbably to characterize their proposals as being draconian and heartless.

At a time when Hillary Clinton certainly appears set to run for president, Republicans can stake their claim to reduced spending in many areas by pointing out that they are being 50 percent more generous in inflation and population adjusted spending than President Clinton was. Will Democrats in Congress, or even President Obama, want to claim that President Clinton was insufficiently generous with the poor and working classes? Will they really want to take a stand in opposition to the Clintons at this point in time? I doubt it. Certainly Hillary Clinton is unlikely to want to criticize a Clinton budget. That will make other Democrats hesitate and likely bite their tongues. Using the Clintons against the rest of the Democrats offers the Republicans in Congress a clear path to almost all their budgetary wishes.

I agree that this is an astute strategy. I particularly like it because it puts the focus on how much government has grown since Bill Clinton left office.

And the notion of letting the budget grow as fast as population plus inflation is very similar to Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which is the best spending cap in America.

That being said, I’m far less optimistic than Professor Dorfman that this approach will produce a victory in the short run. Simply stated, President Obama is too ideologically committed to big government. Moreover, I doubt that he will feel any special pressure to accept Bill Clinton’s last budget as some sort of baseline.

But having this debate would still be useful and could pay dividends in 2017 and beyond.

P.S. Speaking of President Obama, let’s close with some political humor that showed up in my inbox yesterday.

P.S. If you want more Obama humor, check out this t-shirt, this Pennsylvania joke, this Reagan-Obama comparison, this Wyoming joke, this Bush-Obama comparison, this video satire, this bumper sticker, and this very timely bit of Bowe Bergdahl humor.

And sometime there’s even humor that makes me sympathize with the President.

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It’s not very often that I applaud research from the International Monetary Fund.

That international bureaucracy has a bad track record of pushing for tax hikes and other policies to augment the size and power of government (which shouldn’t surprise us since the IMF’s lavishly compensated bureaucrats owe their sinecures to government and it wouldn’t make sense for them to bite the hands that feed them).

But every so often a blind squirrel finds an acorn. And that’s a good analogy to keep in mind as we review a new IMF report on the efficacy of “expenditure rules.”

The study is very neutral in its language. It describes expenditure rules and then looks at their impact. But the conclusions, at least for those of us who want to constrain government, show that these policies are very valuable.

In effect, this study confirms the desirability of my Golden Rule! Which is not why I expect from IMF research, to put it mildly.

Here are some excerpts from the IMF’s new Working Paper on expenditure rules.

In practice, expenditure rules typically take the form of a cap on nominal or real spending growth over the medium term (Figure 1). Expenditure rules are currently in place in 23 countries (11 in advanced and 12 in emerging economies).

Such rules vary, of course, is their scope and effectiveness.

Many of them apply only to parts of the budget. In some cases, governments don’t follow through on their commitments. And in other cases, the rules only apply for a few years.

Out of the 31 expenditure rules that have been introduced since 1985, 10 have already been abandoned either because the country has never complied with the rule or because fiscal consolidation was so successful that the government did not want to be restricted by the rule in good economic times. … In six of the 10 cases, the country did not comply with the rule in the year before giving it up. …In some countries, there was the perception that expenditure rules fulfilled their purpose. Following successful consolidations in Belgium, Canada, and the United States in the 1990s, these countries did not see the need to follow their national expenditure rules anymore.

But even though expenditure limits are less than perfect, they’re still effective – in part because they correctly put the focus on the disease of government spending rather than symptom of red ink.

Countries have complied with expenditure rules for more than two-third of the time. …expenditure rules have a better compliance record than budget balance and debt rules. …The higher compliance rate with expenditure rules is consistent with the fact that these rules are easy to monitor and that they immediately map into an enforceable mechanism—the annual budget itself. Besides, expenditure rules are most directly connected to instruments that the policymakers effectively control. By contrast, the budget balance, and even more so public debt, is more exposed to shocks, both positive and negative, out of the government’s control.

One of the main advantages of a spending cap is that politicians can’t go on a spending binge when the economy is growing and generating a lot of tax revenue.

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 compliance rate in good economic times, defined as years with a negative change in the output gap, is at 72 percent almost the same as in bad economic times at 68 percent. In contrast to other fiscal rules, countries also have incentives to break an expenditure rule in periods of high economic growth with increasing spending pressures. … two design features are in particular associated with higher compliance rates. …compliance is higher if the government directly controls the expenditure target. …Specific ceilings have the best performance record.

And the most important result is that expenditure limits are associated with a lower burden of government spending.

The results illustrate that countries with expenditure rules, in addition to other rules, exhibit on average higher primary balances (Table 2). Similarly, countries with expenditure rules also exhibit lower primary spending. …The data provide some evidence of possible implications for government size and efficiency. Event studies illustrate that the introduction of expenditure rules is indeed followed by smaller governments both in advanced and emerging countries (Figure 11a).

Here’s the relevant chart from the study.

And it’s also worth noting that expenditure rules lead to greater efficiency in spending.

…the public investment efficiency index of DablaNorris and others (2012) is higher in countries that do have expenditure rules in place compared to those that do not (Figure 11b). This could be due to investment projects being prioritized more carefully relative to the case where there is no binding constraint on spending

Needless to say, these results confirm the research from the European Central Bank showing that nations with smaller public sectors are more efficient and competent, with Singapore being a very powerful example.

One rather puzzling aspect of the IMF report is that there was virtually no mention of Switzerland’s spending cap, which is a role model of success.

Perhaps the researchers got confused because the policy is called a “debt brake,” but the practical effect of the Swiss rule is that there are annual expenditures limits.

So to augment the IMF analysis, here are some excerpts from a report prepared by the Swiss Federal Finance Administration.

The Swiss “debt brake” or “debt containment rule”…combines the stabilizing properties of an expenditure rule (because of the cyclical adjustment) with the effective debt-controlling properties of a balanced budget rule. …The amount of annual federal government expenditures has a cap, which is calculated as a function of revenues and the position of the economy in the business cycle. It is thus aimed at keeping total federal government expenditures relatively independent of cyclical variations.

Here’s a chart from the report.

And here are some of the real-world results.

The debt-to-GDP ratio of the Swiss federal Government has decreased since the implementation of the debt brake in 2003. …In the past, economic booms tended to contribute to an increase in spending. …This has not been the case since the implementation of the fiscal rule, and budget surpluses have become commonplace. … The introduction of the debt brake has changed the budget process in such a way that the target for expenditures is defined at the beginning of the process, which must not exceed the ceiling provided by the fiscal rule. It has thus become a top-down process.

The most important part of this excerpt is that the debt brake prevented big spending increases during the “boom” years when the economy was generating lots of revenue.

In effect, the grey-colored area of the graph isn’t just an “ideal representation.” It actually happened in the real world.

Though the most important and beneficial real-world consequence, which I shared back in 2013, is that the burden of government spending has declined relative to the economy’s productive sector.

This is a big reason why Switzerland is in such strong shape compared to most of its European neighbors.

And such a policy in the United States would have prevented the trillion-dollar deficits of Obama’s first term.

By the way, if you want to know why deficit numbers have been lower in recent years, it’s because we actually have been following my Golden Rule for a few years.

So maybe it’s time to add the United States to this list of nations that have made progress with spending restraint.

But the real issue, as noted in the IMF research, is sustainability. Yes, it’s good to have a few years of spending discipline, but the real key is some sort of permanent spending cap.

Which is why advocates of fiscal responsibility should focus on expenditure limits rather than balanced budget requirements.

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Back in 2012, I shared some superb analysis from Investor’s Business Daily showing that the United States never would have suffered $1 trillion-plus deficits during Obama’s first term if lawmakers had simply exercised a modest bit of spending restraint beginning back in 1998.

And the IBD research didn’t assume anything onerous. Indeed, the author specifically showed what would have happened if spending grew by an average of 3.3 percent, equal to the combined growth of inflation plus population.

Remarkably, we would now have a budget surplus of about $300 billion if that level of spending restraint continued to the current fiscal year.

This is a great argument for some sort of spending cap, such as the Swiss Debt Brake or Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

But let’s look beyond the headlines to understand precisely why a spending cap is so valuable.

If you look at the IBD chart, you’ll notice that revenues are not very stable. This is because they are very dependent on the economy’s performance. During years of good growth, revenues tend to rise very rapidly. But when there’s a downturn, such as we had at the beginning and end of last decade, revenues tend to fall.

But you don’t have to believe me or IBD. Just look at federal tax revenues over the past 30 years. There have been seven years during which nominal tax revenues have increased by more than 10 percent. But there also have been five years during which nominal tax revenue declined.

This instability means that it doesn’t make much sense to focus on a balanced budget rule. All that means is that politicians can splurge during the growth years. But when there’s a downturn, they’re in a position where they have to cut spending or (as we see far too often) raise taxes.

But if there’s a spending cap, then there is a constraint on the behavior of politicians. And assuming the spending cap is set at a proper level, it means that – over time – there will be shrinking levels of red ink because the burden of government spending will grow by less than the average growth rate of the private economy.

In other words, compliance with my Golden Rule!

Let’s look at other examples.

Why did Greece get in fiscal trouble? The long answer has to do with ever-growing government and ever-increasing dependency. But the short answer, at least in part, is that a growing economy last decade generated plenty of tax revenue, but rather than cut taxes and/or pay down debt, Greek politicians went on a spending binge, which then proved to be unsustainable when there was an economic slowdown.*

This is also why California periodically gets in fiscal trouble. During years when the economy is growing and generating tax revenue, the politicians can’t resist the temptation to spend the money, oftentimes creating long-run spending obligations based on the assumption of perpetually rapid revenue growth. These spending commitments then prove to be unaffordable when there’s a downturn and revenues stop growing.

And as you can see from the accompanying graph, this creates a very unstable fiscal situation for the Golden State. Revenue spikes lead to spending spikes. During a downturn, by contrast, revenues are flat or declining, and this puts politicians in a position of either enacting serious spending restraint or (as you might predict with California) imposing anti-growth tax hikes.

And, in the long run, the burden of spending rises faster than the private sector.

We have another example to add to our list, thanks to some superb research from Canada’s Fraser Institute.

They recently released a study examining fiscal policy in the energy-rich province of Alberta. In particular, the authors (Mark Milke and Milagros Palacios) look at the rapid growth of spending between the fiscal years 2004/05 and 2013/14.

By the mid-2000s, even though the province was again spending at a level that contributed to deficits in the early 1990s, after 2004/05 the province allowed program spending to escalate even further and beyond inflation and population growth. The result was that by 2013/14, the province spent $10,967 per person on government programs. That was $2,002 higher per person than in 2004/05.

Why did the burden of spending climb so quickly? The simple answer is that bigger government was enabled by tax revenue generated by a prospering energy industry.

Over a nine-year period, politicians spent money based on an assumption that high energy prices were permanent and that tax revenues would always be surging.

But now that energy prices have fallen, politicians are suddenly facing a fiscal shortfall. Simply stated, there’s no longer enough revenue for their spending promises.

This fiscal mess easily could have been avoided if the fecklessness of Alberta politicians had been constrained by some sort of spending cap.

The experts at the Fraser Institute explain how such a limit would have precluded today’s dismal situation.

Had the province increased program spending after 2004/05 but within population growth plus inflation, by 2013/14 the province would have spent $35.9 billion on programs. Instead, the province spent $43.9 billion, an $8 billion difference in that year alone. That $8 billion difference is significant. In recent interviews, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has warned that the drop in oil prices has drained $7 billion from expected provincial government revenues. Thus, past decisions to ramp up program spending mean that additional provincial spending (beyond inflation and population growth) is at least as responsible for current budget gap as the decline in revenues.

And here’s a chart from the study showing how much money would have been saved with modest fiscal restraint.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. So now today’s politicians have to deal with a mess that is a consequence of profligate politicians during prior years.**

…the decision by the province to spend (on programs) above the combined effect of population growth and inflation between 2005/06 and 2013/14 inclusive built in higher annual spending obligations, that, once revenues declined, would open up a fiscal gap in the province’s budget. As of 2013/14, the result of spending more on programs than inflation plus population growth combined would warrant meant program expenses were $8 billion higher in that year alone. The province’s past fiscal choices have now severely constricted present choices on everything from balanced budgets to tax relief to additional capital spending. If the province wishes to have a better menu of choices in the future, it must, obviously, control expenditures more carefully.

Since I’ve shared all sorts of bad examples of how nations get in trouble by letting spending grow too fast over time, let’s look at a real-world example of a spending cap in action.

As you can see from the chart, Switzerland has enjoyed great success ever since voters imposed the debt brake.

Indeed, while many other European nations are in fiscal crisis because of big increases in the burden of government spending, the Swiss have experienced economic tranquility in part because the size of the public sector has gradually declined.

The key lesson isn’t that spending restraint is good, though that obviously is important. The most important takeaway is that spending restraint appears to be sustainable only if there is some sort of permanent external constraint on politicians. Like the debt brake. Or like Article 107 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

Remember, there are many nations that have enjoyed good results because of multi-year periods of spending restraint. But many of those countries saw their gains evaporate because policies then moved in the wrong direction.

*Greek politicians also took advantage of low interest rates last decade (a result of joining the euro currency) to engage in plenty of debt-financed government spending, which meant the economy was even more vulnerable to a crisis when revenues stopped growing.

**Some of today’s politicians in Alberta are probably long-term incumbents who helped create the mess by over-spending between 2004/05 and today, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they opted for destructive tax hikes instead of long-overdue spending restraint.

P.S. On a totally separate topic, it appears some towns in New York are listening to the sage advice of Walter Williams on the topic of secession.

Here are some excerpts from an editorial published by the Wall Street Journal.

Some 15 towns have announced they want to secede from New York and become part of neighboring Pennsylvania. …The towns occupy four counties in New York State’s “Southern Tier,” just across the Pennsylvania state line. Pennsylvania allows fracking for natural gas… That part of Pennsylvania is booming. Upstate New York, as anyone who drives through it can attest, is an economic bummer. …Governor Cuomo has created an American version of the Cold War’s East Berlin—with economic life booming on one side of the divide, while an anti-economic ideology stifles it on the other.

Unfortunately, New York’s East Berliners will have to pick up and move if they want to benefit from better policy in the Keystone State.

There is no chance the secessionists will succeed, needing approval from the legislatures of New York, Pennsylvania and the U.S.

Another option, of course, is to decentralize decision making so that local communities can decide policy rather than faraway politicians in a state capitol.

That’s the approach that perhaps would have averted the catastrophe we now see in Ukraine, so why not try it in places where the stakes are simply jobs rather than life and death?

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Many people fantasize about supermodels, but not me. I’m a bit of an oddball.

In my fantasy world, I want to shrink the federal government back to the size envisioned by the Founding Fathers. I can’t stop myself from wistfully dreaming about the expanded freedom and increased growth we would enjoy if the federal government only consumed about 5 percent of economic output.

But I’m not expecting my fantasies to become reality anytime soon.

So in the real world, I have much more modest goals and expectations. I simply want to move policy in the right direction rather than the wrong direction. That’s why I developed my Golden Rule, which is designed to show that progress is possible so long as we simply make sure the private sector grows faster than the government.

And, as I explained a few weeks ago, that’s been happening. There’s been zero growth in nominal levels of federal government spending since 2009. And because there’s been some growth, that translates into a smaller fiscal burden when measured as a share of economic output.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean we should break out the champagne. The long-run fiscal outlook is still very grim. And the post-2009 progress was possible in part because reckless policies such as the faux stimulus and TARP pushed spending to unprecedented levels in the first place.

That being said, I’m still glad that we at least stopped government from getting even bigger after 2009. That’s a genuine victory.

Let’s look at some more evidence.

Here’s a chart put together by Veronique de Rugy at Mercatus. It shows what’s been happening to total spending, but adjusts the numbers for inflation plus population. As you can see, the burden of government spending has declined over the past five years.

The lesson from this chart is simple. If you have no growth in nominal government spending and there’s some inflation and population growth, then the actual burden of spending is going to decline.

Which is exactly what we see after 2009.

Now let’s look at federal spending compared to economic output. Here’s a chart that’s been circulating on Twitter which shows that the burden of government spending (measured on a quarterly basis) has been falling rapidly over the past few years.

.

This is very good news.

Though it’s not great news because the burden of federal spending is still significantly higher than it was when Bill Clinton left office.

All we’ve achieved is that some of the damage of the big-spending Bush-Obama years has been reversed.

That being said, it’s obviously better to reverse some damage if the alternative is even more damage.

And that’s why this next chart (also making the rounds on Twitter) is important. It shows what the Congressional Budget Office predicted would happen to spending (blue bars) when they released their forecast in early 2011 compared to what actually happened (red bars).

The lesson from this chart is that all the battles of the past few years have generated big dividends. Federal spending is about $500 billion lesson that CBO projected.

So be happy about the shutdowns, debt-limit battles, earmark fights, and sequestration.

And it’s also worth noting that the economy has been performing better as the burden of federal spending has been falling, which is further evidence that Keynesian economics doesn’t make sense.

Heck, even leftists have acknowledged this point, albeit accidentally.

Let’s close by making a very important observation. We’ve made progress over the past five years by restraining government spending, but the key question is whether that success will continue over the next five years.

This will be a key test for Republicans. Starting in a few days, they will have total control of the House and Senate. And if they can enforce even a modest bit of spending discipline, it’s amazing to see how quickly progress can be achieved.

And without any tax increases.

P.S. There’s also some fiscal progress on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Here are some excerpts from a report by CNBC.

President Francois Hollande unveiled a “super-tax” on the rich in 2012…the damage to France’s appeal as a home for top earners has been great, and the pickings from the levy paltry. …Hollande first floated the 75-percent super-tax on earnings over 1 million euros ($1.2 million) a year in his 2012 campaign to oust his conservative rival Nicolas Sarkozy. It fired up left-wing voters and helped him unseat the incumbent. Yet ever since, it has been a thorn in his side.

Or, to be more accurate, a thorn in the side of the French economy.

So, in a remarkable development, Monsieur Hollande is letting the tax expire.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls — alongside Macron the main reformer in Hollande’s cabinet — chose a visit to London in October to confirm that the super tax would not be renewed.

This has to be a kick in the gut to the class-warfare crowd. Even a total statist like Hollande is unfurling the white flag and admitting that it makes no sense to impose policies that are so punitive that some entrepreneurs even left the country.

P.P.S. Spending is falling the U.S. and tax rates are dropping in France, so leftists must be feeling very glum. Heck, they’re probably almost as sad as they were when the Berlin Wall fell. So if you have any statist friends, try to cheer them up. Remind them that Venezuela is still a role model.

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Which nation is richer, Belarus or Luxembourg?

If you look at total economic output, you might be tempted to say Belarus. The GDP of Belarus, after all, is almost $72 billion while Luxembourg’s GDP is less than $60 billion.

But that would be a preposterous answer since there are about 9.5 million people in Belarus compared to only about 540,000 folks in Luxembourg.

It should be obvious that what matters is per-capita GDP, and the residents of Luxembourg unambiguously enjoy far higher living standards than their cousins in Belarus.

This seems like an elementary point, but it has to be made because there have been a bunch of misleading stories about China “overtaking” the United States in economic output. Look, for instance, at these excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

China is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy earlier than expected, possibly as soon as this year… The latest tally adds to the debate on how the world’s top two economic powers are progressing. Projecting growth rates from 2011 onwards suggests China’s size when measured in PPP may surpass the U.S. in 2014.

There are methodological issues with PPP data, some of which are acknowledged in the data, and there’s also the challenge of whether Chinese numbers can be trusted.

But let’s assume these are the right numbers. My response is “so what?”

I’ve previously written that the Chinese tiger is more akin to a paper tiger. But Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute put together a chart that is far more compelling than what I wrote. He looks at the per-capita numbers and shows that China is still way behind the United States.

To be blunt, Americans shouldn’t worry about the myth of Chinese economic supremacy.

But that’s not the main point of today’s column.

Instead, I want to call attention to Taiwan. That jurisdiction doesn’t get as much attention as Hong Kong and Singapore, but it’s one of the world’s success stories.

And if you compare Taiwan to China, as I’ve done in this chart, there’s no question which jurisdiction deserves praise.

China v Taiwan

Yes, China has made big strides in recent decades thanks to reforms to ease the burden of government. But Taiwan is far above the world average while China has only recently reached that level (and only if you believe official Chinese numbers).

So why is there a big difference between China and Taiwan? Well, if you look at Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll see that Taiwan ranks among the top-20 nations while China ranks only 123 out of 152 countries.

By the way, Taiwan has a relatively modest burden of government spending. The public sector only consumes about 21.5 percent of economic output. That’s very good compared to other advanced nations.

Moreover, Taiwan is one of the nations that enjoyed considerable progress by adhering to Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Between 2001 and 2006, total government spending didn’t grow at all.

Taiwan Spending Freeze

During this period of fiscal restraint, you won’t be surprised to learn that the burden of government spending fell as a share of GDP.

And it should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that because politicians addressed the underlying disease of government spending, that also enabled big progress is dealing with the symptom of government borrowing.

Look at what happened to spending and deficits between 2001 and 2006.

Taiwan Fiscal Restraint Benefits

P.S. You probably didn’t realize that it was possible to see dark humor in communist oppression.

P.P.S. But at least some communists in China seem to understand that the welfare state is a very bad idea.

P.P.P.S. Some business leaders say China is now more business-friendly than the United States. That’s probably not good news for America, but my goal is to have a market-friendly nation, not a business-friendly nation.

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My tireless (and probably annoying) campaign to promote my Golden Rule of spending restraint is bearing fruit.

The good folks at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal allowed me to explain the fiscal and economic benefits that accrue when nations limit the growth of government.

Here are some excerpts from my column, starting with a proper definition of the problem.

What matters, as Milton Friedman taught us, is the size of government. That’s the measure of how much national income is being redistributed and reallocated by Washington. Spending often is wasteful and counterproductive whether it’s financed by taxes or borrowing.

So how do we deal with this problem?

I’m sure you’ll be totally shocked to discover that I think the answer is spending restraint.

More specifically, governments should be bound by my Golden Rule.

Ensure that government spending, over time, grows more slowly than the private economy. …Even if the federal budget grew 2% each year, about the rate of projected inflation, that would reduce the relative size of government and enable better economic performance by allowing more resources to be allocated by markets rather than government officials.

I list several reasons why Mitchell’s Golden Rule is the only sensible approach to fiscal policy.

A golden rule has several advantages over fiscal proposals based on balanced budgets, deficits or debt control. First, it correctly focuses on the underlying problem of excessive government rather than the symptom of red ink. Second, lawmakers have the power to control the growth of government spending. Deficit targets and balanced-budget requirements put lawmakers at the mercy of economic fluctuations that can cause large and unpredictable swings in tax revenue. Third, spending can still grow by 2% even during a downturn, making the proposal more politically sustainable.

The last point, by the way, is important because it may appeal to reasonable Keynesians. And, in any event, it means the Rule is more politically sustainable.

I then provide lots of examples of nations that enjoyed great success by restraining spending. But rather than regurgitate several paragraphs from the column, here’s a table I prepared that wasn’t included in the column because of space constraints.

It shows the countries that restrained spending and the years that they followed the Golden Rule. Then I include three columns of data. First, I show how fast spending grew during the period, followed by numbers showing what happened to the overall burden of government spending and the change to annual government borrowing.

Golden Rule Examples

Last but not least, I deal with the one weakness of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. How do you convince politicians to maintain fiscal discipline over time?

I suggest that Switzerland’s “debt brake” may be a good model.

Can any government maintain the spending restraint required by a fiscal golden rule? Perhaps the best model is Switzerland, where spending has climbed by less than 2% per year ever since a voter-imposed spending cap went into effect early last decade. And because economic output has increased at a faster pace, the Swiss have satisfied the golden rule and enjoyed reductions in the burden of government and consistent budget surpluses.

In other words, don’t bother with balanced budget requirements that might backfire by giving politicians an excuse to raise taxes.

If the problem is properly defined as being too much government, then the only logical answer is to shrink the burden of government spending.

Last but not least, I point out that Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas has legislation, the MAP Act, that is somewhat similar to the Swiss Debt Brake.

We know what works and we know how to get there. The real challenge is convincing politicians to bind their own hands.

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When I first started working on fiscal policy in the 1980s, I never thought I would consider Sweden any sort of role model.

It was the quintessential cradle-to-grave welfare state, much loved on the left as an example for America to follow.

But Sweden suffered a severe economic shock in the early 1990s and policy makers were forced to rethink big government.

They’ve since implemented some positive reforms in the area of fiscal policy, along with other changes to liberalize the economy.

I even, much to my surprise, wrote a column in 2012 stating that it’s “Time to Follow Sweden’s Lead on Fiscal Policy.”

More specifically, I’m impressed that Swedish leaders have imposed some genuine fiscal restraint.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing that the country enjoyed a nine-year period where the burden of government spending grew by an average of 1.9 percent per year.

Swedish Fiscal Restraint

From a libertarian perspective, that’s obviously not very impressive, particularly since the public sector was consuming about two-thirds of economic output at the start of the period.

But by the standards of European politicians, 1.9 percent annual growth was relatively frugal.

And since Mitchell’s Golden Rule merely requires that government grow slower than the private sector, Sweden did make progress.

Real progress.

It turns out that a little bit of spending discipline can pay big dividends if it can be sustained for a few years.

This second chart shows that the overall burden of the public sector (left axis) fell dramatically, dropping from more than 67 percent of GDP to 52 percent of economic output.

Swedish Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

By the way, the biggest amount of progress occurred between 1994 and 1998, when spending grew by just 0.27 percent per year. That’s almost as good as what Germany achieved over a four-year period last decade.

It’s also worth noting that Sweden hasn’t fallen off the wagon. Spending has been growing a bit faster in recent years, but not as fast as overall economic output. So the burden of spending is now down to about 48 percent of GDP.

And for those who mistakenly focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much spending, you’ll be happy to know that spending discipline in the 1990s turned a big budget deficit (right axis) into a budget surplus.

Now let’s get the other side of the story. While Sweden has moved in the right direction, it’s still far from a libertarian paradise. The government still consumes nearly half of the country’s economic output and tax rates on entrepreneurs and investors max out at more than 50 percent.

And like the United Kingdom, which is the source of many horror stories, there are some really creepy examples of failed government-run health care in Sweden.

Though I suppose if the third man grew new legs, maybe we would all reassess our views of the Swedish system. And if the first guy managed to grow a new…oh, never mind.

But here are the two most compelling pieces of evidence about unresolved flaws in the Swedish system.

First, the system is so geared toward “equality” that a cook at one Swedish school was told to reduce the quality of the food she prepared because other schools had less capable cooks.

Second, if you’re still undecided about whether Sweden’s large-size welfare state is preferable to America’s medium-size welfare state, just keep in mind that Americans of Swedish descent earn 53 percent more than native Swedes.

In other words, Sweden might be a role model on the direction of change, but not on the level of government.

P.S. On a separate topic, regular readers know that I’m a fan of lower taxes and a supporter of the Second Amendment. So you would think I’d be delighted if politicians wanted to lower the tax burden on firearms.

This is not a hypothetical issue. Here’s a passage from a local news report in Alabama about a state lawmaker who wants a special sales tax holiday for guns and ammo.

Rep. Becky Nordgren of Gadsden said today that she has filed legislation to create an annual state sales tax holiday for gun and ammunition purchases. The firearms tax holiday would occur every weekend prior to the Fourth of July. Alabama currently has tax holidays for back-to-school shopping and severe weather preparedness. Nordgren says the gun and ammunition tax holiday would be a fitting way to celebrate the anniversary of the nation’s birth and Alabama’s status as a gun friendly state.

I definitely admire the intent, but I’m enough of a tax policy wonk that the proposal makes me uncomfortable.

Simply stated, I don’t want the government to play favorites.

For instance, I want to replace the IRS in Washington with a simple and fair flat tax in part because I don’t want the government to discriminate based on the source of income, the use of income, or the level of income.

And I want states to have the lowest-possible rate for the sales tax, but with all goods and services treated equally. Alabama definitely fails on the first criteria, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it also granted a lot of loopholes.

So put me in the “sympathetic skepticism” category on this proposal.

Though I imagine this Alabama lass could convince me to change my mind.

P.P.S. A few days ago, the PotL noticed that I shared some American-European humor at the end of a blog post. She suggests this would be a good addition to that collection.

Europe Heaven Hell

I can’t comment on some of the categories, but I will say that McDonald’s in London is just as good as McDonald’s in Paris, Milan, Geneva, and Berlin.

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Germany isn’t exactly a fiscal role model.

Tax rates are too onerous and government spending consumes about 44 percent of economic output.

That’s even higher than it is in the United States, where politicians at the federal, state, and local levels divert about 39 percent of GDP into the public sector.

Germany also has too much red tape and government intervention, which helps to explain why it lags other European nations such as Denmark and Estonia in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But I have (sort of) defended Germany a couple of times, at least on fiscal policy, explaining that the Germans didn’t squander much money on Keynesian spending schemes during the downturn and also explaining that Paul Krugman was wrong in his column on Germany and austerity.

Today, though, I’m going to give Germany some unambiguous praise.

If you look at last decade’s fiscal data, you’ll see that our Teutonic friends actually followed my Golden Rule on fiscal policy for a four-year period.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF numbers, showing total government spending in Germany from 2003-2007. As you can see, German policy makers basically froze spending.

German Fiscal Restraint

I realize that I’m a libertarian and that I shouldn’t be happy unless the burden of spending is being dramatically reduced, but we’re talking about the performance of European politicians, so I’m grading on a curve.

By that standard, limiting spending so it grows by an average of 0.18 percent is rather impressive. Interestingly, this period of fiscal discipline began when the Social Democrats were in power.

And because the economy’s productive sector was growing at a faster rate during this time, a bit more than 2 percent annually, the relative burden of government spending did fall.

The red line in this next chart shows that the public sector, measured as a share of economic output, fell from almost 49 percent of GDP to less than 44 percent of GDP.

German Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

It’s also worth noting that this four-year period of spending restraint also led to a balanced budget, as shown by the blue line.

In other words, by addressing the underlying problem of too much government, the German government automatically dealt with the symptom of red ink.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the German government wasn’t willing to sustain this modest degree of fiscal discipline. The Christian Democrats, who took office in mid-2005, allowed faster spending growth beginning in 2008. As I noted above, the budget increases haven’t been huge, but there’s been enough additional spending that Germany no longer is complying with the Golden Rule and the burden of the public sector is stuck at about 44 percent of GDP.

The moral of the story is that Germany shows that good things happen when spending is restrained, but long-run good performance requires long-run spending discipline.

That’s why I’m a fan of Switzerland’s spending cap. It’s called the “debt brake,” but it basically requires politicians to limit spending so that the budget doesn’t grow much faster than inflation plus population.

And that’s why Switzerland has enjoyed more than a decade of good policy.

To see other examples of nations that have enjoyed fiscal success with period of spending restrain, watch this video.

The Canadian example is particularly impressive.

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Jay Leno had the all-time best Christmas joke and the school bureaucrats in Haymarket, VA, win the prize for the all-time worst example of anti-Christmas lunacy.

But I must win the prize for being the biggest Christmas policy dork. I make this confession freely because there’s no other explanation for being very happy about this present from my girlfriend.

Golden Rule Christmas

The Golden Rule, for those who have not endured my haranguing on the topic, is the common-sense notion that good fiscal policy is achieved when the burden of government spending shrinks compared to the size of the private sector.

And that occurs, needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), when government spending increases slower than the growth of private output.

Ideally, it would be even better to actually cut government spending – which actually did happen in the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years (thanks to the Tea Party and sequestration).

Unfortunately, I fear government will grow far too fast in 2014, in part because of the Murray-Ryan budget deal that replaced automatic spending cuts with back-door tax hikes.

Compared to the size of the federal budget, the additional spending isn’t that large, so my real concern is that the pact sets the stage for bigger moves in the wrong direction at some point in the near future.

But let’s not dwell on potential bad news at this time of year.

Instead, let’s close with a better way of selling Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Here’s the Princess of the Levant showcasing the gift she made.

Abir Golden Rule

Since she gave this gift to me, it’s now my job to implement the Golden Rule as a gift to the entire nation.

That should be a simple achievement. If we simply limit government spending so it grows at the rate of inflation (about 2 percent per year), the burden of government spending will fall as a share of gross domestic product.

And even though I’m much more interested in reducing the size of the public sector than I am in fiscal balance, it’s worth noting that you can balance the budget by 2018 with this amount of modest spending restraint.

But even though this should be simple, it definitely won’t be easy. Convincing politicians not to spend is very analogous to convincing ticks not to suck your blood.

Actually, I apologize. That’s a very unfair analogy. The only really bad thing we get from ticks is Lyme Disease.

With politicians, by contrast, we get taxes, spending, and red tape on good days and war, genocide, and totalitarianism on bad days.

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Being a glass-half-full kind of guy, I look for kernels of good news when examining economic policy around the world. I once even managed to find something to praise about French tax policy. And I can assure you that’s not a very easy task.

I particularly try to find something positive to highlight when I’m a visitor. While in the Faroe Islands two days ago, for instance, I wrote about that jurisdiction’s new system of personal retirement accounts.

And now that I’m in Iceland, I want to focus on spending restraint.

As you can see from this chart, lawmakers in this island nation have done a reasonably good job of satisfying Mitchell Golden Rule over the past couple of years. Nominal economic output has been growing by 6.1 percent annually, while government spending has risen by an average of 2.8 percent per year.

Iceland Spending Restraint

If Iceland continues to enjoy this level of growth and can maintain this modest degree of fiscal discipline, the burden of government spending will soon drop below 40 percent of GDP.

As I’ve noted before, fiscal progress can occur very rapidly if spending is curtailed. Consider what’s happened, for example, over the past two years in America. Total federal spending didn’t grow in 2011 or 2012, and that de facto two-year spending freeze has led to a big reduction in the size of the public sector relative to GDP.

And because policymakers addressed the underlying disease of excessive spending, it’s no surprise that the symptom of red ink became much less of a problem with the deficit falling by almost 50 percent in those two years.

And nations such as New Zealand and Canada also have enjoyed quick benefits when limiting the growth of government.

Now let’s take a glass-half-empty look at Icelandic fiscal policy.

First, Iceland isn’t really moving in the right direction. Policy makers are merely undoing the damage that occurred in the latter part of last decade. As recently as 2006, the burden of government spending was less than 42 percent of GDP. So the current period of fiscal discipline is like going on a diet after spending several years at an all-you-can-eat dessert shop.

Second, three years of spending restraint could be a statistical blip rather than a long-run trend, especially since the 2014 numbers from the IMF are an estimate and the 2012 and 2013 numbers aren’t even finalized.

What Iceland needs is some sort of Swiss-style spending cap to impose long-run limits on the growth of government spending. As you can see from this second chart, Switzerland’s “debt brake” has produced more than ten years of spending restraint. Government generally has been growing slower than the private sector, which means that burden of government spending has been falling in Switzerland while other European nations are moving in the wrong direction.

Swiss Debt Brake

By the way, it’s not just Iceland that would benefit from this type of spending cap. I explained last year that America would never have experienced trillion-dollar deficits if we had something similar to the Swiss debt brake.

Though it’s important not to overstate the benefits of this policy. A Swiss-type spending cap presumably wouldn’t have stopped the Fed’s easy-money policy. Nor would it have prevented Fannie-Mae and Freddie Mac from subsidizing a housing bubble. So we presumably still would have suffered a financial crisis.

But that’s not an argument against a spending cap. We lock our doors and latch our windows even though we realize that determined crooks can still break in. But at least we want to make our homes a less inviting target. Likewise, a spending cap doesn’t preclude all bad policies. But at least it makes it harder for politicians to increase spending.

The ultimate challenge, of course, is figuring out how to convince politicians to tie their own hands. The academic research suggests that spending caps need to be well designed if we want to limit the greed of the political class.

Iceland has made some progress, but Switzerland at this point is a better role model because the debt brake has been very durable.

P.S. If we’re going to copy Switzerland, we also should take a close look at their tax laws. Switzerland has the best ranking in the Tax Oppression Index, while the United States languishes in the bottom half of nations measured.

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Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. How to fix the mess at the IRS is a fiscal policy question, and that requires tax reform rather than spending restraint.

But allow me a bit of literary license. We just had a big debt limit battle in Washington and, after a lot of political drama, politicians kicked the can down the road.

So we need to ask ourselves whether that fight accomplished anything?

It did focus attention on the flaws of Obamacare, and I suppose there’s some value in that.

But the debt limit was not a vehicle – as has been the case in the past – for changes in fiscal policy. We didn’t get something good, like the sequester which resulted from the 2011 debt limit legislation. And we didn’t get something bad, like the tax hike in the 1985 debt limit legislation

Some are asking whether we should even have a debt limit. A number of critics have suggested we should get rid of the borrowing cap because it creates the risk of default. I think those concerns are very overblown.

I’m more persuaded by those who argue that the debt limit diverts attention from better options to improve fiscal policy.

Professors Gary Becker and Edward Lazear write in the Wall Street Journal that the debt ceiling is not a very good tool for restraining the growth of government. They look at evidence from the states to warn that fiscal rules that seek to limit borrowing are ineffective.

Many states are required to have “balanced” budgets, but the growth in spending and the size of state governments continues apace. During good times, when tax revenues are high, states “balance” their budgets by spending at the high levels consistent with large revenues. When times get tough, it is difficult if not impossible to eliminate programs that had been initiated during the fat years. Instead, the states resort to budgetary gimmicks, like delaying shortfalls until next year’s “balanced” budget.

Gimmicks are bad, of course, but politicians also respond to fiscal squeezes by raising taxes.

And that can be even worse as the prospect of more revenue leads to a ratchet effect, with periodic tax hikes used to maintain or expand the gravy train of spending. The fiscal mess in Europe is an obvious case study, but if you want a painful example from America, just look at data from Connecticut. The state did quite well without an income tax from the 1600s until 1991.

But then an income tax was imposed, in part to deal with the fiscal shortfall caused by an economic downturn. And, as critics warned, that new tax has produced dismal results. The top rate has jumped from 4.5 percent to 6.5 percent and inflation-adjusted per-capita state government spending has doubled. And there have been zero net private-sector jobs created since the income tax was implemented.

So what’s the answer? Becker and Lazear explain that lawmakers should target the underlying problem of spending rather than the symptom of red ink.

Better than a debt-ceiling rule would be one that controls spending directly, not the debt that results from it. The specifics are less important than the general principle, which is that spending growth should be limited in a way that brings government outlays back down to historic ratios relative to GDP. This would place the attention where it belongs, on spending rather than on the difference between outlays and receipts. Increased spending, coupled with even larger increases in taxes, might bring the deficit down, but it would damage economic growth and well-being.

Well stated. Reducing the overall burden of government spending – measured as a share of economic output – should be the goal of fiscal policy. That’s simply another way of stating my Golden Rule. And there’s a growing body of academic evidence showing that reducing the size of government is a good way of improving economic performance.

I’ve been highlighting the example of Switzerland, which has successfully strengthened its economy and fiscal policy with a spending cap (which, ironically, is called a “debt brake” even though the real effect of the law is to limit how fast spending can increase over time).

Other countries that have limited spending also have achieved some very impressive results. The video at this link looks at evidence from nations such as New Zealand and Canada in the 1990s, and there’s a more recent data about the positive effects of spending restraint in the Baltic nations.

There has been some interest in spending caps on Capitol Hill. Congressman Brady of Texas has proposed a MAP Act that is somewhat similar to Switzerland’s debt brake and Senator Corker of Tennessee has introduced a CAP Act that also would restrain annual spending increases.

Perhaps if some of their colleagues read today’s Becker-Lazear column, they’ll also understand why it’s better to focus on the underlying problem of government spending rather than getting distracted by the symptom of red ink.

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As we get closer to the debt limit, the big spenders in Washington are becoming increasingly hysterical about the supposed possibility of default if politicians lose the ability to borrow more money.

I testified yesterday to the Joint Economic Committee on “The Economic Costs of Debt-Ceiling Brinkmanship” and I explained (reiterating points I made back in 2011) that there is zero chance of default.

Why? Because, as I outline beginning about the 3:10 mark of the video, annual interest payments are about $230 billion and annual tax collections are approaching $3 trillion.

I actually made five points in my testimony. The first three should be quite familiar to regular readers.

First, America’s main fiscal problem is that government is too big. That’s the disease  Deficits and debt are symptoms of that underlying problem.

Second, you achieve good fiscal policy by following “Mitchell’s Golden Rule” so that government grows slower than private sector economic output.

Third, we’ve made some progress in the last two years thanks to genuine fiscal restraint, and we can balance the budget in a very short period of time if lawmakers impose a very modest bit of spending discipline in the future.

The fourth point, which I already discussed above, is that there’s no risk of default – unless the Obama Administration deliberately wants that to happen. But that’s simply not a realistic possibility.

My fifth and final point deserves a bit of extra discussion. I explained that Greece is now suffering through a very deep recession, with record unemployment and harsh economic conditions. I asked the Committee a rhetorical question: Wouldn’t it have been preferable if there was some sort of mechanism, say, 15 years ago that would have enabled some lawmakers to throw sand in the gears so that the government couldn’t issue any more debt?

Debt limit jokesYes, there would have been some budgetary turmoil at the time, but it would have been trivial compared to the misery the Greek people currently are enduring.

I closed by drawing an analogy to the situation in Washington. We know we’re on an unsustainable path. Do we want to wait until we hit a crisis before we address the over-spending crisis? Or do we want to take prudent and modest steps today – such as genuine entitlement reform and spending caps – to ensure prosperity and long-run growth.

Seems like the answer should be simple…at least if you’re not trying to get reelected by bribing voters with their own money.

P.S. My argument for short-term fighting today to avoid fiscal crisis in the future was advanced in greater detail by a Wall Street expert back in 2011.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some good debt limit cartoons by clicking here and here.

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I want a smaller burden of government spending, so you can only imagine how frustrating it is for me to observe the fight in Europe.

On one side of the debate you have pro-spenders, who call themselves “growth” advocates, but are really just Keynesians. On the other side of the debate, you have pro-taxers, who claim to favor “austerity,” but actually just want big government financed by taxes rather than borrowing.

I had a chance to condemn these statist policy prescriptions in an appearance on the John Stossel show.

Here are 10 takeaways from the discussion, along with links to further information.

  1. The main point of the interview was to explain that government spending hasn’t been cut in Europe, with the United Kingdom being a poster child for bad policy (you won’t be surprised that Paul Krugman hasn’t bothered to look at the actual numbers).
  2. Austerity in Europe generally is just a code word for higher taxes. Governments only restrain spending as a last resort.
  3. Excessive spending is the problem, but many people mistakenly fixate on government borrowing.
  4. Keynesian spending doesn’t work, regardless of when it’s been tried.
  5. The Baltic nations are a rare good example of how to respond to a crisis (and another example of Krugman misreading the data), though I should have mentioned that Switzerland never got in trouble in the first place because of its admirable fiscal policy.
  6. We also discussed some historical examples of good policy, such as fiscal restraint in Canada and New Zealand, as well as a shrinking burden of government spending during the Clinton years.
  7. At the end of the interview segment, I say the goal should be to reduce the size of government relative to the productive sector of the economy. I wasn’t narcissistic enough to say “Mitchell’s Golden Rule” on air, but I did say that good fiscal policy occurs when government grows slower than the private sector.
  8. In the Q&A section at the end, I talked about the economic impact of different forms of government spending. Politicians and other defenders of statism like to highlight capital spending, which can have positive effects, but they overlook the fact that the vast majority of government outlays are for things that hinder growth.
  9. Most important, I made the key point about poor people are much better off in pro-market, small-government jurisdictions such as Singapore and Hong Kong, where at least they have opportunity, rather than France or Italy, where the best they can hope for is permanent dependency.
  10. Last but not least, I express some optimism about the possibility of genuine entitlement reform, though I should have acknowledged that nothing good will happen while Obama is in office.

It’s always great to do a show with Stossel since he genuinely care about freedom and wants to explore the details. In previous appearances on his show, I’ve discussed dishonest fiscal policy in Washington, the differences between Texas and California, and the reverse Midas touch of government.

P.S. There is at least one person in Europe who understands the real problem is too much spending.

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The main goal of fiscal policy should be to shrink the burden of government spending as a share of economic output. Fortunately, it shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve this modest goal. All that’s required is to make sure the private sector grows faster than the government.

But it’s very easy for me to bluster about “all that’s required” to satisfy this Golden Rule. It’s much harder to convince politicians to be frugal. Yes, it happened during the Reagan and Clinton years, and there also have been multi-year periods of spending discipline in nations such as Estonia, New Zealand and Canada.

But these examples of good fiscal policy are infrequent. And even when they do happen, the progress often is reversed when a new crop of politicians take power. Federal spending has jumped to about 23 percent of GDP under Bush and Obama, for instance, after falling to 18.2 percent of economic output at the end of the Clinton years.

This is why many advocates of limited government argue that some sort of external force is needed to somehow limit the tendency of politicians to over-tax and over-spend.

I’ve argued on many occasions that tax competition is an important mechanism for restraining the greed of the political class. But even in my most optimistic moments, I realize that it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Another option is budget process reform. If you can somehow convince politicians to tie their own hands (in the same way that alcoholics can sometimes be convinced to throw out all their booze), then perhaps rules can be imposed that improve fiscal policy.

But what sort of rules? Europe has “Maastricht” requirements that theoretically limit deficits and debt, and 49 states have some sort of balanced budget requirement, but these policies have been very unsuccessful – perhaps because they mistakenly focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of government spending.

Are there any budget process reforms that do work? Well, I’ve written about Switzerland’s “debt brake,” which has generated some good results over the past 10 years because it actually imposes an annual spending cap.

Some American states also impose expenditure limits. Have they been successful?

Unfortunately, they usually don’t seem to do a good job of controlling spending. Here are some key passages from a new study by Benjamin Zycher from the American Enterprise Institute.

…tax and expenditure limits (TELs) vary substantially in terms of their details, definitions, and underlying structures, but the empirical finding reported here is simple and powerful: TELs are not effective. …The ineffectiveness of TELs is unambiguous in terms of summary statistics, case-study examination of the records of several individual states, and estimation of an econometric model. This model was estimated for both state and local spending combined and state outlays considered alone.

The author finds some positive impact, but it’s unclear whether the results are meaningful…or durable.

In terms of the growth rates of per capita outlays, 20 of the 30 states display a decline in that growth rate during the periods when the respective TELs were effective, but none of those differences is statistically significant. …to the (highly limited) extent that spending limits prove effective, they are likely to be subject to erosion driven by the same political factors that yield the fiscal pressures.

Though three states seem to have generated genuine budgetary savings.

Among the 30 states with TELs in effect during 1970–2010, the econometric analysis finds that only three of those limits had the effect of reducing total outlays, by approximately 4–6.5 percent. This evidence does not provide grounds for optimism that an emphasis on spending limits would prove useful in terms of reducing long-term fiscal pressures.

Looking at all the evidence, Zycher is not very optimistic about expenditure limits, though he does recognize the valuable role of tax competition.

…a TEL is unlikely by itself to reverse the underlying conditions that yield expanding government. In particular, the incentives of interest groups to circumvent and neutralize the effects of TELs are unsurprising; that may be one central lesson from the California and Washington experiences. Future efforts to restrain the growth in government spending may find greater success if they are directed at increasing competition… One obvious way to achieve this is to strengthen the institutions of federalism, thus forcing states and localities to compete with each other.

Other researchers also have looked at tax and expenditure limits, so let’s see whether they have different perspectives.

Matt Mitchell (no relation) has a slightly more optimistic assessment. Here’s some of what he wrote in a study for the Mercatus Center.

…some varieties of TELs can decrease state spending as a share of state income, but the effect is small—in the range of about 2 to 3 percent. …Certain characteristics can make TELs more effective. These include constitutional (as opposed to statutory) codification, a focus on spending rather than on revenue, a provision that automatically and immediately refunds surpluses, and—of particular importance—a provision that requires either a supermajority vote or a public vote for override.

Here are some of his specific findings.

Weak TELs…tend not to impact state spending very much in either low or high-income states. At best, they decrease spending by about 1/10 of one percentage point in low-income states. At worst, they increase spending by less than 1/100 of one percentage point in high-income states. The most-stringent TELs, on the other hand, do have an appreciable impact on state spending. …Those TELs that limit budgets to inflation plus population growth seem to limit combined state and local spending. In states with this variety of TEL, state and local spending as a share of state income is about 6/10 of a percentage point less than in other states (this is a 3-percent difference relative to the average state and local spending share). …This variety of TEL is often favored by advocates of limited government because it is particularly restrictive (the sum of inflation and population growth is typically less than income growth).

Michael New of the University of Michigan-Dearborn also found that the design of a TEL makes a big difference. Here are some excerpts from his study, which was published in the State Politics and Policy Quarterly.

…most TELs have been enacted by state legislatures, and it is not clear that legislators have the incentive to reduce their autonomy by placing meaningful constraints on their own behavior. …Conversely, TELs enacted through citizen initiatives are likely to be drafted by interest groups that actually possess an interest in limiting state spending, giving them considerably greater potential for effectiveness.

Here are some of his results.

Why has Colorado’s TABOR been more effective than other fiscal limits? …the results of Models 2 and 4, which categorize TELs based on how they were adopted, lend considerable support to my hypothesis. These models indicate that TELs enacted by citizen initiative are the most effective at limiting the size of government. Model 2 predicts that after a TEL is passed by a citizen initiative, annual growth in per capita state and local expenditures will be reduced by $35.70. Similarly, Model 4 predicts that the annual growth in per capita state and local revenues will be reduced by $35.64. Both findings are statistically significant.

Professor New’s research shows that it is very important to limit spending so it grows at inflation plus population rather than letting it climb as fast as personal income.

…holding increases in expenditures to increases in personal income is a relatively easy threshold for a state to maintain. …During the early 1990s, however, two states enacted TELs with a lower limit. Both Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) and Washington state’s Initiative 601 (I-601) established a limit of inflation plus population growth. …Table 4 provides further evidence that strong TELs have been able to restrict government growth. Holding other factors constant, strong TELs annually reduce growth in both state expenditures and state revenues by over $100 per capita. …Both the coefficient for TABOR and the coefficient for I-601 are negative in all four regressions and statistically significant in three of the four. …My analysis provided solid evidence that these two TELs were even more effective at restraining expenditures and revenues as demonstrated by both statistical analysis and case studies.

Some people would conclude from the research of Zycher, Mitchell, and New that spending limits are not very effective. But that’s a hasty conclusion. The real lesson is that spending limits work, but only if they actually limit spending so that it grows slower than personal income, just as suggested by my Golden Rule.

In other words, spending limits are like speed limits in school zones. They are only effective if they’re set low enough to actually protect taxpayers and children.

This debate reminds me of the intellectual fight over the starve-the-beast hypothesis. Some have argued that tax cuts are not an effective way of limiting spending. But the research actually shows that tax cuts are an effective way of “starving the beast” if lawmakers don’t subsequently raise taxes.

The bottom line is that expenditure limits – if properly designed and enforced – are an effective way of controlling government spending. That doesn’t mean that politicians won’t figure out ways to over-spend, just like locks on doors don’t always stop burglars. But both are better than the alternative of no limits or no locks.

In prior posts, I’ve shared research showing that the United States today would be very close to a balanced budget if we had implemented something akin to the Swiss Debt Brake.

So far as I know, there’s no legislation to impose a spending cap specifically modeled on the Swiss system, but I’ve previously noted that Senator Corker’s CAP Act and Congressman Brady’s MAP Act both have sequester-enforced spending limits.

And the good news about sequestration is that the savings are real, unlike the gimmicks that you get when the politicians are in charge of “cutting” spending.

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I greatly admire Switzerland’s “debt brake” because it’s really a spending cap.

Politicians are not allowed to increase spending faster than average revenue growth over a multi-year period, which basically means spending can only grow at the rate of inflation plus population.

Theoretically, taxes could be hiked to allow more spending, but that hasn’t happened. The Swiss are very good about voting against tax increases, so the politicians don’t have much ability to boost the revenue trendline.

Since the debt brake first took effect in 2003, the burden of government spending has dropped from 36 percent of GDP to 34 percent of economic output – a rather remarkable achievement since most other European nations have moved in the wrong direction.

As part of my self-serving efforts to promote Mitchell’s Golden Rule, I’ve been advocating for spending caps in the United States, and I’ve favorably cited legislation proposed by Congressman Brady of Texas and Senator Corker of Tennessee.

Now I have some new evidence on my side. David Hogberg of Investor’s Business Daily looks at the current fiscal mess in America and discovers – gee, what a surprise – that spending has grown very rapidly since the late 1990s.

President Obama says he wants a “balanced” approach to the fiscal cliff. But critics argue the real problem is spending, which has far outstripped rising tax revenue as well as economic growth. Federal government revenue rose from $1.7 trillion to $2.4 trillion from fiscal 1998 to 2012, slightly exceeding inflation. Revenue growth averaged 2.9% annually, despite two recessions, bear markets — and tax cuts. But federal spending rose nearly twice as fast — 5.7% per year — surging from $1.6 trillion to $3.5 trillion over that same span. The spending spike also exceeds growth in the population.

What’s the solution to this mess? I make the argument for a spending cap.

Dan Mitchell, senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, says the U.S. government needs a spending cap. “It’s an issue of trendlines and that’s everything in fiscal policy,” Mitchell said. “If you are on a path where government spending grows faster than the private sector of the economy, which is your tax base, then in theory there is no level of taxation that will be enough to stabilize the system. … If we had kept government spending down to just increases for inflation and population growth, we wouldn’t be in the trouble we’re in now.” Limiting spending to increases in inflation and population growth over 1998-2012 (an annual average of about 3.3%) would have given dramatically different results. The U.S. would have spent $2.6 trillion in FY 12, about $900 billion less than what it actually did. The latest deficit would be $157 billion, a fraction of the actual $1.089 trillion.

I’ve crunched the numbers to show that we could balance the budget in just 10 years if we just limited spending so that it grew by “only” 2.5 percent annually.

David did the same thing, but looking backwards instead of forward. Here’s the chart included with his article. As you can see, the budget mess would be very manageable today if the Bush-Obama spending binge hadn’t occurred.

IBD Spending Cap

But politicians don’t like spending caps for the same reasons that burglars don’t like armed homeowners. As Veronique de Rugy notes, if we imposed a spending cap, they would be forced to reform entitlements.

While a spending cap would help, some analysts contend that it would need to be coupled with entitlement reform. “If you don’t reform Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, you’ll have a hard time staying within the cap,” said Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the libertarian Mercatus Center. …”To make it feasible and enforceable you’d have to do a constitutional amendment,” said Mitchell. “But even short of that, at least if you start talking about it and set it as your goal it would get people focusing on the real problem … which is government spending growing faster than the private sector.”

This brings us to the real challenge. How do we get politicians to impose reforms when they benefit from the current system. Barring a miracle, they’re not going to tie their own hands.

But I think our chances of success will be much higher if advocates of good fiscal policy kept reminding the crowd in Washington that the real problem is too much spending and that red ink is just a symptom of the underlying disease.

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I’m in Slovenia where I just finished indoctrinating educating a bunch of students on the importance of Mitchell’s Golden Rule as a means of restraining the burden of government spending.

And I emphasized that the fiscal problem in Europe is the size of government, not the fact that nations are having a hard time borrowing money. As explained in this video, spending is the disease and deficits are one of the symptoms.

This is also an issue in the United States, and Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal is worried that the GOP ticket is debt-obsessed and doesn’t have sufficient enthusiasm for lower tax rates and tax reform.

Stylistically, Paul Ryan’s Republican convention speech last night was a grand slam. …But was it the growth message that supply-siders wanted to hear, or debt-clock obsession? There were clearly apocalyptic claims. “Before the math and the momentum overwhelm us all, we are going to solve this nation’s economic problems,” said Mr. Ryan in reference to the federal rea ink. “I’m going to level with you; we don’t have that much time.” …In fact, he talked about turning around the economy with “tax fairness.” Ugh, that’s an Obama term. …Larry Kudlow of CNBC and a former Reagan economist tells me, “Paul’s speech just didn’t have the growth, tax-cutting message. We didn’t even get the words tax reform. I don’t know what happened, but it worries me.” It’s a question of priorities. Are Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan signaling that they will put spending cuts ahead of pro-growth tax-rate cuts?

I share Steve’s concern, but with a twist.

I’m not worried that the Republicans will put spending cuts ahead of tax cuts. I’m worried that they won’t do spending cuts at all (even using the dishonest DC definition) and therefore wind up getting seduced into some sort of tax-increase deal that facilitates bigger government.

As a general rule, it is always good to do spending cuts (however defined). And it is always good to lower tax rates. And if you can do both at the same time, even better.

But since I have low expectations, I’ll be delighted if we “merely” manage to get entitlement reform during a Romney-Ryan Administration. That would mean some progress on the spending side and presumably reduce the risk of bad things (like a VAT!) on the revenue side.

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Even though I’ve already made clear that I am less-than-overwhelmed by the thought of Mitt Romney in the White House, I worry that people will become to think I’m a GOP toady.

That’s because I’ve been spending a lot of time providing favorable analysis and commentary on the relative merits of the Ryan budget (particularly proposed reforms to Medicare and Medicaid) compared to President Obama’s statist agenda of class warfare and bigger government.

I’ve already done a couple of TV interviews on Ryanomics vs Obamanomics and the Wall Street Journal this morning published my column explaining the key features of the Ryan budget.

Here are some highlights. In one of my early paragraphs, I give Ryan credit for steering the GOP back in the right direction after the fiscal recklessness of the Bush years.

…the era of bipartisan big government may have come to an end. Largely thanks to Rep. Paul Ryan and the fiscal blueprint he prepared as chairman of the House Budget Committee earlier this year, the GOP has begun climbing back on the wagon of fiscal sobriety and has shown at least some willingness to restrain the growth of government.

I probably should have also credited the Tea Party, but I’ll try to make up for that omission in the future.

These next couple of sentences are the main point of my column.

The most important headline about the Ryan budget is that it limits the growth rate of federal spending, with outlays increasing by an average of 3.1% annually over the next 10 years. …limiting spending so it grows by 3.1% per year, as Mr. Ryan proposes, quickly leads to less red ink. This is because federal tax revenues are projected by the House Budget Committee to increase 6.6% annually over the next 10 years if the House budget is approved (and this assumes the Bush tax cuts are made permanent).

Some conservatives complain that the Ryan budget doesn’t balance the budget in 10 years. I explain how that could happen, but I then emphasize that what really matters is shrinking the burden of government spending.

To balance the budget within 10 years would require that outlays grow by about 2% each year. …There are many who would prefer that the deficit come down more quickly, but from a jobs and growth perspective, it isn’t the deficit that matters. Rather, what matters for prosperity and living standards is the degree to which labor and capital are used productively. This is why policy makers should focus on reducing the burden of government spending as a share of GDP—leaving more resources in the private economy. The simple way of making this happen is to follow what I’ve been calling the golden rule of good fiscal policy: The private sector should grow faster than the government.

Actually, I’ve been calling it Mitchell’s Golden Rule, but I couldn’t bring myself to be that narcissistic and self-aggrandizing on the nation’s most important and influential editorial page.

One final point from the column that’s worth emphasizing is that Ryan does the right kind of entitlement reform.

One of the best features of the Ryan budget is that he reforms the two big health entitlements instead of simply trying to save money. Medicaid gets block-granted to the states, building on the success of welfare reform in the 1990s. And Medicare is modernized by creating a premium-support option for people retiring in 2022 and beyond. This is much better than the traditional Beltway approach of trying to save money with price controls on health-care providers and means testing on health-care consumers. …But good entitlement policy also is a godsend for taxpayers, particularly in the long run. Without reform, the burden of federal spending will jump to 35% of GDP by 2040, compared to 18.75% of output under the Ryan budget.

The last sentence of the excerpt is critical. If the Golden Rule of fiscal policy is to have the private sector grow faster than government, then the Golden Goal is to reduce government spending as a share of GDP.

I’ve commented before how America will become Greece in the absence of reform. Well, that’s basically the Obama fiscal plan, as illustrated by this amusing cartoon.

What makes the Ryan budget so impressive is that it includes the reforms that are needed to avoid this fate.

No, it doesn’t bring the federal government back down to 3 percent of GDP, so it’s not libertarian Nirvana.

But we manage to stay out of fiscal hell, so that counts for something.

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What Do Greece, the United States, and the Cayman Islands Have in Common?

At first, this seems like a trick question. After all, the Cayman Islands are a fiscal paradise, with no personal income tax, no corporate income tax, no capital gains tax, and no death tax.

By contrast, Greece is a bankrupt, high-tax welfare state, and the United States sooner or later will suffer the same fate because of misguided entitlement programs.

But even though there are some important differences, all three of these jurisdictions share a common characteristic in that they face fiscal troubles because government spending has been growing faster than economic output.

I’ve written before that the definition of good fiscal policy is for the private sector to grow faster than the government. I’ve humbly decided to refer to this simple principle as Mitchell’s Golden Rule, and have pointed out that bad things happen when governments violate this common-sense guideline.

In the case of the Cayman Islands, the “bad thing” is that the government is proposing to levy an income tax, which would be akin to committing fiscal suicide.

The Cayman Islands are one of the world’s richest jurisdictions (more prosperous than the United States according to the latest World Bank data), in part because there are no tax penalties on income and production.

So why are the local politicians considering a plan to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? For the simple reason that they have been promiscuous in spending other people’s money. This chart shows that the burden of government spending in the Cayman Islands has climbed twice as fast as economic output since 2000.

Much of this spending has been to employ and over-compensate a bloated civil service (in this respect, Cayman is sort of a Caribbean version of California).

In other words, the economic problem is that there has been too much spending, and the political problem is that politicians have been trying to buy votes by padding government payrolls (a problem that also exists in America).

The right solution to this problem is to reduce the burden of government spending back to the levels in the early part of last decade. The political class in Cayman, however, hopes it can prop up its costly bureaucracy with a new tax – which euphemistically is being called a “community enhancement fee.”

The politicians claim the tax will only be 10 percent and will only be imposed on the expat community. But it’s worth noting that the U.S. income tax began in 1913 with a top rate of only 7 percent and it affected less than 1 percent of the population. But that supposedly benign tax has since become a monstrous internal revenue code that plagues the nation today.

Except the results will be even worse in Cayman because the thousands of foreigners who are being targeted easily can shift their operations to other zero-income tax jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Monaco, or the Bahamas. Or they can decide that to set up shop in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore, which have very modest income tax burdens (and the ability to out-compete Cayman in other areas).

As a long-time admirer of the Cayman Islands, I desperately hope the government will reconsider this dangerous step. The world already has lots of examples of nations that are following bad policy. We need a few places that are at least being semi-sensible.

By they way, I started this post with a rhetorical question about the similarities of Greece, the United States, and the Cayman Islands. Let’s elaborate on the answer.

Here’s a post that shows how Greece’s fiscal nightmare developed. But let’s show a separate chart for the burden of federal spending in the United States.

What’s remarkable is that the federal government and the Cayman Islands government have followed very similar paths to fiscal trouble. Indeed, Caymanian politicians have achieved the dubious distinction of increasing the burden of government spending at a faster rate than even Bush and Obama. No mean feat.

This data for the U.S. chart doesn’t include the burden of state and local government spending, so the Cayman Islands still has an advantage over the United States, but I’ll close with a prediction.

Cayman’s proposed income tax

If the Cayman Islands adopts an income tax – regardless of whether they call it a community enhancement fee (to misquote Shakespeare, a rotting fish on the beach by any other name would still smell like crap), it will be just a matter of time before the burden of government spending becomes even more onerous and Cayman loses its allure and drops from being one of the world’s 10-richest jurisdictions.

Which will be very sad since I’ll now have to find a different place to go when America suffers its Greek-style fiscal collapse.

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With all the fiscal troubles in Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy, there’s not much attention being paid to Cyprus.

But the Mediterranean island nation is a good case study illustrating the economic dangers of big government.

For all intents and purposes, Cyprus is now bankrupt, and the only question that remains to be answered is whether it will get handouts from the IMF-ECB-EC troika, handouts from Russia, or both. Here’s some of what has been reported by AP.

Cyprus’ president on Thursday defended his government’s decision to seek financial aid from the island nation’s eurozone partners while at the same time asking for a loan from Russia, insisting that the two are perfectly compatible. …Cyprus, with a population of 862,000 people, last week became the fifth country that uses the euro currency to seek a European bailout… The country is currently in talks with the so-called ‘troika’ — the body made up of officials from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — on how much bailout money it will need and the conditions that will come attached. Locked out of international markets because of its junk credit rating status, Cyprus is paying its bills thanks to a €2.5 billion ($3.14 billion) Russian loan that it clinched last year. But that money is expected to run out by the end of the year.

So what caused this mess? Is Cyprus merely the helpless and innocent victim of economic turmoil in nearby Greece?

That’s certainly the spin from Cypriot politicians, but the budget data shows that Cyprus is in trouble because of excessive spending. This chart, based on data from the International Monetary Fund, shows that the burden of government spending has jumped by an average of 8.3 percent annually since the mid-1990s.

My Golden Rule of fiscal policy is that government spending should grow slower than economic output. Nations that follow that rule generally enjoy good results, while nations that violate that rule inevitably get in trouble.

Interestingly, if Cypriot politicians had engaged in a very modest amount of spending restraint and limited annual budgetary increases to 3 percent, there would be a giant budget surplus today and the burden of government spending would be down to 21.4 percent of GDP, very close to the levels in the hyper-prosperous jurisdictions of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Actually, that’s not true. If the burden of government spending had grown as 3 percent instead of 8.3 percent, economic growth would have been much stronger, so GDP would have been much larger and the public sector would be an ever smaller share of economic output.

Speaking of GDP, the burden of government spending in Cyprus, measured as a share of GDP, has climbed dramatically since 1995.

A simple way to look at this data is that Cyprus used to have a Swiss-sized government and now it has a Greek-sized government. Government spending is just one of many policies that impact economic performance, but is anyone surprised that this huge increase in the size of the public sector has had a big negative impact on Cyprus?

Interestingly, if government spending had remained at 33.9 percent of GDP in Cyprus, the nation would have a big budget surplus today. Would that have required huge and savage budget cuts? Perhaps in the fantasy world of Paul Krugman, but politicians could have achieved that modest goal if they had simply limited annual spending increases to 6 percent.

But that was too “draconian” for Cypriot politicians, so they increased spending by an average of more than 8 percent each year.

What’s the moral of the story? Simply stated, the fiscal policy variable that matters most is the growth of government. Cyprus got in trouble because the burden of government grew faster than the productive sector of the economy.

That’s the disease, and deficits and debt are the symptoms of that underlying problem.

Europe’s political elite doubtlessly will push for higher taxes, but that approach – at best – simply masks the symptoms in the short run and usually exacerbates the disease in the long run.

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I’ve argued, ad nauseam, that the single most important goal of fiscal policy is (or should be) to make sure the private sector grows faster than the government. This “golden rule” is the best way of enabling growth and avoiding fiscal crises, and I’ve cited nations that have made progress by restraining government spending.

But what’s the best way of actually imposing such a rule, particularly since politicians like using taxpayer money as a slush fund?

Well, the Swiss voters took matters into their own hands, as I describe in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Americans looking for a way to tame government profligacy should look to Switzerland. In 2001, 85% of its voters approved an initiative that effectively requires its central government spending to grow no faster than trendline revenue. The reform, called a “debt brake” in Switzerland, has been very successful. Before the law went into effect in 2003, government spending was expanding by an average of 4.3% per year. Since then it’s increased by only 2.6% annually.

So how does this system work?

Switzerland’s debt brake limits spending growth to average revenue increases over a multiyear period (as calculated by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance). This feature appeals to Keynesians, who like deficit spending when the economy stumbles and tax revenues dip. But it appeals to proponents of good fiscal policy, because politicians aren’t able to boost spending when the economy is doing well and the Treasury is flush with cash. Equally important, it is very difficult for politicians to increase the spending cap by raising taxes. Maximum rates for most national taxes in Switzerland are constitutionally set (such as by an 11.5% income tax, an 8% value-added tax and an 8.5% corporate tax). The rates can only be changed by a double-majority referendum, which means a majority of voters in a majority of cantons would have to agree.

In other words, the debt brake isn’t a de jure spending cap, but it is a de facto spending cap. And capping the growth of spending (which is the underlying disease) is the best way of controlling red ink (the symptom of excessive government).

Switzerland’s spending cap has helped the country avoid the fiscal crisis affecting so many other European nations. Annual central government spending today is less than 20% of gross domestic product, and total spending by all levels of government is about 34% of GDP. That’s a decline from 36% when the debt brake took effect. This may not sound impressive, but it’s remarkable considering how the burden of government has jumped in most other developed nations. In the U.S., total government spending has jumped to 41% of GDP from 36% during the same time period.

Switzerland is moving in the right direction and the United States is going in the wrong direction. The obvious lesson (to normal people) is that America should copy the Swiss. Congressman Kevin Brady has a proposal to do something similar to the debt brake.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R., Texas), vice chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, has introduced legislation that is akin to the Swiss debt brake. Called the Maximizing America’s Prosperity Act, his bill would impose direct spending caps, but tied to “potential GDP.” …Since potential GDP is a reasonably stable variable (like average revenue growth in the Swiss system), this approach creates a sustainable glide path for spending restraint.

In some sense, Brady’s MAP Act is akin to Sen. Corker’s CAP Act, but the use of “potential GDP” makes the reform more sustainable because economic fluctuations don’t enable big deviations in the amount of allowable spending.

To conclude, we know the right policy. It is spending restraint. We also know a policy that will achieve spending restraint. A binding spending cap. The problem, as I note in my oped, is that “politicians don’t want any type of constraint on their ability to buy votes with other people’s money.”

Overcoming that obstacle is the real challenge.

P.S. A special thanks to Pierre Bessard, the President of Switzerland’s Liberales Institut. He is a superb public intellectual and his willingness to share his knowledge of the Swiss debt brake was invaluable in helping me write my column.

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The Chairman of the House Budget Committee has produced a new budget plan which contrasts very favorably with the tax-heavy, big-spending proposal submitted by the President last month.

Perhaps most important, Congressman Ryan’s plan restrains spending growth, allowing the private sector to grow faster than the burden of government, thus satisfying Mitchell’s Golden Rule so that spending falls as a share of GDP.

The most important detail in the proposal is that the federal budget, which currently consumes 24 percent of GDP, would fall to less than 20 percent of GDP beginning in 2016.

That’s the good news. There are three pieces of not-so-good news.

1. Ryan’s plan allows spending to grow by an average of 3.1 percent annually over the next 10 years, with is faster than the 2.8 percent average annual growth in last year’s budget.

2. His proposed Medicare reform, while far better than current law, also is not as good as what was proposed last year.

3. The federal budget would still consume a greater share of the economy’s output than it did when Bill Clinton left office.

I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that Ryan’s proposal isn’t as good as Rand Paul’s budget. Spending only climbs 2.2 percent yearly under the plan put together by the Kentucky Senator, and he also abolishes several useless cabinet-level departments.

But the very good shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. As noted already, Congressman Ryan’s plan meets the most important test, which is restraining spending so that the federal budget grows slower than the private economy. And, as the chart shows, he obviously imposes more fiscal restrain then President Obama.

Regular readers know that I generally show no mercy to jelly-spined Republicans, but I praised GOPers for approving last year’s Ryan budget. The same will be true if they approve this year’s version.

P.S. I am frustrated and nauseated by all the people who are fixating on whether Congressman Ryan’s plan balances the budget in 10 years, 20 years, or whenever. What matters is shrinking the burden of government. I hereby bestow the Bob Dole Award on all the people who are mistakenly focusing on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of bloated government.

P.P.S. I’m happy to report that there is no value-added tax in the revenue portion of Congressman Ryan’s budget. There is a VAT in his Roadmap plan, and I endlessly worry that this poison pill will re-emerge and ruin other good fiscal plans put forth by the Wisconsin lawmaker.

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President Obama’s budget proposal was unveiled today, generating all sorts of conflicting statements from both parties.

Some of the assertions wrongly focus on red ink rather than the size of government. Others rely on dishonest Washington budget math, which means spending increases magically become budget cuts simply because outlays are growing at a slower rate than previously planned.

When you strip away all the misleading and inaccurate rhetoric, here’s the one set of numbers that really matters. If we believe the President’s forecasts (which may be a best-case scenario), the burden of federal spending will grow by $2 trillion between this year and 2022.

In all likelihood, the actual numbers will be worse than this forecast.

The President’s budget, for instance, projects that the burden of federal spending will expand by less than 1 percent next year. That sounds like good news since it would satisfy Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

But don’t believe it. If we look at the budget Obama proposed last year, federal spending was supposed to fall this year. Yet the Obama Administration now projects that outlays in 2012 will be more than 5 percent higher than they were in 2011.

The most honest assessment of the budget came from the President’s Chief of Staff, who openly stated that, “the time for austerity is not today.”

With $2 trillion of additional spending (and probably more), that’s the understatement of the century.

What makes this such a debacle is that other nations have managed to impose real restraints on government budgets. The Baltic nations have made actual cuts to spending. And governments in Canada, New Zealand, Slovakia, and Ireland generated big improvements by either freezing budgets or letting them grow very slowly.

I’ve already pointed out that the budget could be balanced in about 10 years if the Congress and the President displayed a modest bit of fiscal discipline and allowed spending to grow by no more than 2 percent annually.

But the goal shouldn’t be to balance the budget. We want faster growth, more freedom, and constitutional government. All of these goals (as well as balancing the budget) are made possible by reducing the burden of federal spending.

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