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Archive for the ‘Spending’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the part that I really like.

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

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

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

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

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Yesterday’s column about “the tax nightmare before Christmas” was based on my fear that politicians will try to impose a value-added tax at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Today’s column is about the spending nightmare that is already happening. The bottom line, as expressed in this clip from a recent interview with Neil Cavuto, is that Republicans are not doing what’s right for the country.

Need some evidence?

How about  what was reported today in the Hill?

Lawmakers are under pressure to get a deal to increase the budget caps and prevent automatic across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration. …a deal has remained elusive, with both sides battling over how much to increase both defense and nondefense spending.

Needless to say, they should be battling over how much to cut spending, not how much to increase it.

Unfortunately, the propensity to over-spend is a long-standing pattern. In an uncharacteristic episode of fiscal sanity, Congress enacted the Budget Control Act in 2011, which then led to a much-needed sequestration early in 2013.

But ever since that point, as explained back in 2015 by the New York Times, politicians have been figuring out ways to get out from under this modest bit of fiscal discipline.

They raised the spending caps at the end of 2013.

And raised the spending caps again in 2015.

In other words, GOP fecklessness isn’t anything new.

Here’s another clip from the recent Cavuto interview. I argue for spending caps with sequester enforcement.

But I confess that enacting such caps is just part of the battle. The real challenge is making sure politicians can’t wiggle out from under such fiscal constraints.

In my fantasy world, we avoid that problem by making spending restraint part of the Constitution, an approach that has been very successful for Hong Kong and Switzerland.

That doesn’t seem likely any time soon in America.

And let’s not forget that Republicans also are poised to splurge on a new “emergency” package – and this money would be exempt from spending caps. Here’s another portion of the Hill story.

The $81 billion package provides aid for communities affected by recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as wildfires in California. The Senate is expected to take the legislation up once they return to Washington.

And the bill is turning into a bidding war, thanks in part to some supposed fiscal conservatives.

…Cornyn and fellow Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz want… more funding for their state’s Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts. …Cruz said…his state, which he said had up to $180 billion in hurricane damage, would only be eligible for a small portion of the money in the House bill. But any push to help Texas would likely set off a demand from other delegations for help responding to wildfires in California, as well as additional funding for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.)…said that Puerto Rico needs an estimated $94 billion to rebuild.

I don’t think the federal government should be in the business of compensating people for losses following natural disasters. That simply rewards those who go without insurance while also creating perverse incentives to build in risky areas.

But if politicians actually think that it’s the federal government’s responsibility, then they should reduce other spending to finance supposed emergencies. Heck, FDR and Truman did this for World War II and the Korean War, and they weren’t exactly fiscal conservatives.

Let’s close with some additional bad news. What’s written above relates to the GOP’s failure to control “discretionary” spending. That’s the part of the budget that funds the Pentagon, as well as providing most of the outlays for departments that shouldn’t even exist (such as Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Energy, and Agriculture).

If you really want to be depressed, keep in mind that Republicans also are dropping the ball on “entitlements,” which are programs that are designed to automatically increase every year (such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) and are largely responsible for America’s very grim long-run fiscal outlook.

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The good thing about being a libertarian (above and beyond respecting the rights and liberties of other people) is that you can always say “I told you so” when government intervention leads to bad results. Obamacare is a very good (albeit very painful) example.

The bad thing about being a libertarian is that you don’t win many victories. No matter how much evidence is on your side, politicians usually do the wrong thing. Not because they are necessarily evil. They’re simply responding to “public choice” incentives.

Indeed, the only big victory that I’ve had in recent years was the sequester. And even that victory has been tarnished by the 2013 and 2015 deals that weakened the caps on discretionary outlays.

So I’m delighted to report that Brazil has actually amended its constitution to impose a spending cap. I was somewhat hopeful that this might happen when I wrote about the issue back in October, but never allowed myself to think it would actually happen.

The Wall Street Journal reports on this remarkable development.

Brazil’s Senate approved a measure capping public spending, delivering a victory to embattled President Michel Temer, who is struggling to close a massive budget deficit and revive the nation’s moribund economy. In an unusually rapid session with little discussion, lawmakers on Tuesday voted 53 to 16 to approve a constitutional amendment limiting the country’s annual spending growth to the previous year’s inflation rate. The move was a drastic shot of discipline for Brazil’s government, whose public debt and deficits have expanded at rates so worrisome that three major credit agencies have downgraded the nation’s credit rating to junk status. Several economists and analysts praised the constitutionally enforced limits as the only way for Brazil’s government to live within its means and restore investor confidence.

It’s remarkable that Brazil’s politicians were willing to tie their own hands, but they presumably had no choice because the nation’s finances deteriorated to the point that drastic measures were necessary.

The spending cap applies to the federal budget starting in 2017, except for education and health costs, which will be subject to the limits starting in 2018. It was the centerpiece of austerity measures proposed by Mr. Temer to shore up Brazil’s shaky public finances. Brazil’s budget deficit was a hefty 8.3% of gross domestic product in October, after growing almost steadily from 1.8% of GDP in July 2011. Gross debt was 70.3% of GDP in October, up from its more recent low of 51% of GDP in December 2012.

As you might expect, there was opposition.

..the measure drew the ire of opposition politicians, labor unions and citizens concerned that spending limits could harm Brazil’s troubled health-care and education systems.

So it is impressive that the this constitutional reform received supermajority support for two votes in the Brazilian House, followed by supermajority support for two votes in the Brazilian Senate.

I would like to think I played at least a tiny role in this development. I’ve crunched numbers showing that nations get very good results when spending is restrained for multi-year periods.

I’ve written extensively on the successful spending caps in Switzerland and Hong Kong, both of which are part of those nations’ constitutions.

And I’ve highlighted the fact that international bureaucracies, when they investigate the efficacy of various fiscal rules, always conclude that spending caps are the only effective approach.

I also wrote an article for the Brazilian media back in October.

But even if I had no impact on the debate, I’m still very happy about the outcome.

Assuming, of course, that Brazil doesn’t have a Supreme Court Justice like John Roberts who will somehow make a politicized decision and sabotage the new spending cap!

P.S. I seem to have more success overseas than in the United States. I did help defeat the income tax in the Cayman Islands a few years ago, and I also hope that my recent trip to Vanuatu will lead to a similar outcome.

But since I’m a patriot (in the proper sense) who wants the United States to be a beacon of liberty for the world, it sure would be nice to win a few battles here at home.

P.P.S. Brazil may be on the cusp of other pro-market reforms, in part because of a vibrant libertarian movement in the country.

Here’s a video from Reason on this positive development.

Jeff Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education has a very upbeat assessment.

I went on a three-city speaking tour in Brazil. …I found an amazingly well-educated crowd of students, young professionals, professors, media personalities, and digital activists, all dedicated to using the upheaval to the advantage of freedom itself. Organizations like Mises Brazil, and many others that have spun off from Students for Liberty and other organizations, have spent years translating and distributing books and articles, holding seminars, and cultivating young people for a life of activism. …The libertarians in Brazil seem to understand that ideological slogans and promises for change mean nothing so long as states are huge, invasive, and offer a bounty to anyone who gains power.

Let’s hope this is right and Brazil becomes a star reformer. Chile (and, in recent years, Peru) have been lonely outposts of good policy in South America.

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I’m not a big fan of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That international bureaucracy is controlled by high-tax nations that want to export bad policy to the rest of the world. As such, the OECD frequently advocates policies that are contrary to sound economic principles.

Here are just a few examples of statist policies that are directly contrary to the interests of the American people.

With a list like that, you can understand why I’m so upset that American taxpayers subsidize this pernicious bureaucracy. Heck, I’m so opposed to the OECD that I was almost thrown in a Mexican jail for fighting against their anti-tax competition project.

But the point of today’s column isn’t to bash the OECD. The above list is simply to make clear that nobody could accuse the Paris-based bureaucracy of being in favor of small government and free markets.

So if the OECD actually admits that the spending cap in the Swiss Debt Brake is a very effective fiscal rule, that’s a remarkable development. Sort of like criminals admitting that a certain alarm system is effective.

And that’s exactly the message in a report on The State of Public Finances 2015, which was just released by the OECD. Here are some key findings from the preface.

It is understandable that citizens ask why public financial management processes did not guard, in a more effective way, against the vagaries of the economic cycle…the OECD’s recent Recommendation on Budgetary Governance…spells out a number of simple, clear yet ambitious principles for how countries should manage their budgets and fiscal policy processes. …the most salient lesson…is not to seek to avoid altogether the fiscal shocks and cyclical downturns, to which our economies are subject from time to time. The real challenge is to build resilience into our national framework…to mitigate these fiscal shocks. …As to fiscal resilience, this report underpins the wisdom of…fiscal rules.

But what fiscal rules actually work?

This is where the OECD bureaucrats deserve credit for acknowledging an approach with a proven track record, even though the organization often advocates for bigger government. Here are some excerpts from the report’s executive summary.

The European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact…proved largely ineffective in protecting countries from the effects of the fiscal crisis. …Simple and clear fiscal anchors – e.g., the Swiss and German debt brake rules – appear to have been more effective in influencing effective fiscal management.

And here is some additional analysis from the body of the report.

Switzerland’s “debt brake” constitutional rule has proven a model for some OECD countries, notably Germany. …Germany adopted a debt brake rule in 2009… In addition, the United Kingdom recently announced (June 2015) its plan… Furthermore,…it is preferable to combine a budget balance rule with an expenditure rule.

And here are some of the findings from a separate OECD study published earlier this year. Switzerland’s debt brake isn’t explicitly mentioned, but the key feature of the Swiss approach – a spending cap – is warmly embraced.

A combination of a budget balance rule and an expenditure rule seems to suit most countries well. …well-designed expenditure rules appear decisive to ensure the effectiveness of a budget balance rule and can foster long-term growth. …Spending rules entail no trade-off between minimising recession risks and minimising debt uncertainties. They can boost potential growth and hence reduce the recession risk without any adverse effect on debt. Indeed, estimations show that public spending restraint is associated with higher potential growth.

Let me now add my two cents. The research from the OECD on spending caps is good, but incomplete. The main omission is that both the report and the study don’t explain that spending caps primarily are effective because they prevent excessive spending increases when the economy is strong.

As I’ve explained before, citing examples such as Greece, Alberta, Puerto Rico, California, and Alaska, politicians have a compulsive tendency to create new spending commitments during periods when a robust economy is generating lots of tax revenue. But when the economy stumbles and revenues go flat, these spending commitments become unsustainable.

And, all too often, politicians respond with higher taxes.

Speaking of which, the more recent OECD report also has some interesting data on how countries have dealt with fiscal policy in recent years.

Here are two charts showing fiscal changes from 2012-2014 and projected fiscal changes from 2015-2017.

I’m not sure why the United States isn’t on the list. After all, we actually had some very good changes in 2012-2014 period (though we’ve recently regressed).

But let’s look at some of the other nations (keeping in mind “expenditure reductions” are mostly just reductions in planned increases, just like in the U.S.).

Kudos to New Zealand (NZL), Switzerland (CHE), and the United Kingdom (GBR), all of which took steps to constrain spending over the past three years and all of which intend to be similarly prudent over the next three years.

Cautious applause to France (FRA), Spain (ESP), Denmark (DNK), and Sweden (SWE), all of which at least claim they’ll be prudent in the future.

And jeers to Mexico (MEX) for bad policy in the past and Turkey (TUR) for bad policy in the future, while both the Czech Republic (CZE) and Finland (FIN) deserve scorn for pursuing lots of tax increases in both periods.

Let’s take a moment to elaborate on the nations that have made responsible choices. I’ve already written about fiscal restraint in Switzerland, and I’ve also noted that the United Kingdom has moved in the right direction (even though the current government made some tax mistakes that led me to be very pessimistic when it first took control).

So let’s focus on New Zealand, which is yet another case study showing the value of Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

During the 2012-2014 period, government spending grew by less than 1 percent annually according to IMF data. The government doesn’t intend to be as prudent for the 2015-2017 period, which spending projected to grow by 3 percent annually. But in both cases, nominal spending is growing slower than nominal GDP, and that’s the key to fiscal progress.

Indeed, if you check the OECD data on the overall burden of government spending, the public sector in New Zealand today is consuming 40.5 percent of economic output, which is far too high, but still lower than 44.7 percent of GDP, which was the amount of GDP consumed by government in 2011.

And don’t forget that New Zealand has the world’s freest economy for non-fiscal factors, ranking even above Hong Kong and Singapore.

Let’s conclude by circling back to the issue of spending caps.

It is a noteworthy development that even the OECD has embraced expenditure limits. Especially since the IMF also has endorsed spending caps.

And since spending caps also have widespread support among fiscal experts from think thanks, maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance for real reform.

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I’m pleasantly surprised by the tax plans proposed by Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump.

In varying ways, all these candidate have put forth relatively detailed proposals that address high tax rates, punitive double taxation, and distorting tax preferences.

But saying the right thing and doing the right thing are not the same. I just did an interview focused on Donald Trump’s tax proposal, and one of my first points was that candidates may come up with good plans, but those proposals are only worthwhile if the candidates are sincere and if they intend to do the heavy lifting necessary to push reform through Congress.

Today, though, I want to focus on another point, which I raised starting about the 0:55 mark of the interview.

For the plans to be credible, candidates also need to have concomitant proposals to restrain the growth of federal spending.

I don’t necessarily care whether they balance the budget, but I do think proposals to reform and lower taxes won’t have any chance of success unless there are also reasonable plans to gradually shrink government spending as a share of economic output.

As part of recent speeches in New Hampshire and Nevada, I shared my simple plan to impose enough spending restraint to balance the budget in less than 10 years.

But those speeches were based on politicians collecting all the revenue projected under current law.

By contrast, the GOP candidates are proposing to reduce tax burdens. On a static basis, the cuts are significant. According to the Tax Foundation, the 10-year savings for taxpayers would be $2.97 trillion with Rand Paul’s plan, $3.67 trillion under Jeb Bush’s plan, $4.14 trillion with Marco Rubio’s plan, all the way up to $11.98 trillion for Donald Trump’s plan.

Those sound like very large tax cuts (and Trump’s plan actually is a very large tax cut), but keep in mind that those are 10-year savings. And since the Congressional Budget Office is projecting that the federal government will collect $41.58 trillion over the next decade, the bottom line, as seen in this chart, is that all of the plans (other than Trump’s) would still allow the IRS to collect more than 90 percent of projected revenues.

Now let’s make the analysis more realistic by considering that tax cuts and tax reforms will generate faster growth, which will lead to more taxable income.

And the experts at the Tax Foundation made precisely those calculations based on their sophisticated model.

Here’s an updated chart showing 10-year revenue estimates based on “dynamic scoring.”

The Trump plan is an obvious outlier, but the proposals from Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio all would generate at least 96 percent of the revenues that are projected under current law.

Returning to the original point of this exercise, all we have to do is figure out what level of spending restraint is necessary to put the budget on a glide path to balance (remembering, of course, that the real goal should be to shrink the burden of spending relative to GDP).

But before answering this question, it’s important to understand that the aforementioned 10-year numbers are a bit misleading since we can’t see yearly changes. In the real world, pro-growth tax cuts presumably lose a lot of revenue when first enacted. But as the economy begins to respond (because of improved incentives for work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship), taxable income starts climbing.

Here’s an example from the Tax Foundation’s analysis of the Rubio plan. As you can see, the proposal leads to a lot more red ink when it’s first implemented. But as the economy starts growing faster and generating more income, there’s a growing amount of “revenue feedback.” And by the end of the 10-year period, the plan is actually projected to increase revenue compared to current law.

So does this mean some tax cuts are a “free lunch” and pay for themselves? Sound like a controversial proposition, but that’s exactly what happened with some of the tax rate reductions of the Reagan years.

To be sure, that doesn’t guarantee what will happen if any of the aforementioned tax plans are enacted. Moreover, one can quibble with the structure and specifications of the Tax Foundation’s model. Economists, after all, aren’t exactly famous for their forecasting prowess.

But none of this matters because the Tax Foundation isn’t in charge of making official revenue estimates. That’s the job of the Joint Committee on Taxation, and that bureaucracy largely relies on static scoring.

Which brings me back to today’s topic. The good tax reform plans of certain candidates need to be matched by credible plans to restrain the growth of federal spending.

Fortunately, that shouldn’t be that difficult. I explained last month that big tax cuts were possible with modest spending restraint. If spending grows by 2 percent instead of 3 percent, for instance, the 10-year savings would be about $1.4 trillion.

And since it’s good to reduce tax burdens and also good to restrain spending, it’s a win-win situation to combine those two policies. Sort of the fiscal equivalent of mixing peanut butter and chocolate in the famous commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

P.S. Returning to my interview embedded above, I suppose it’s worthwhile to emphasize a couple of other points.

P.P.S. Writing about the prospect of tax reform back in April, I warned that “…regardless of what happens with elections, I’m not overly optimistic about making progress.”

Today, I still think it’s an uphill battle. But if candidates begin to put forth good plans to restrain spending, the odds will improve.

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When I first came to Washington back in the 1980s, there was near-universal support and enthusiasm for a balanced budget amendment among advocates of limited government.

The support is still there, I’m guessing, but the enthusiasm is not nearly as intense.

There are three reasons for this drop.

  1. Political reality – There is zero chance that a balanced budget amendment would get the necessary two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. And if that happened, by some miracle, it’s highly unlikely that it would get the necessary support for ratification in three-fourths of state legislatures.
  2. Unfavorable evidence from the statesAccording to the National Conference of State Legislatures, every state other than Vermont has some sort of balanced budget requirement. Yet those rules don’t prevent states like California, Illinois, Connecticut, and New York from adopting bad fiscal policy.
  3. Favorable evidence for the alternative approach of spending restraint – While balanced budget rules don’t seem to work very well, policies that explicitly restrain spending work very well. The data from Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado is particularly persuasive.

Advocates of a balanced budget amendment have some good responses to these points. They explain that it’s right to push good policy, regardless of the political situation. Since I’m a strong advocate for a flat tax even though it isn’t likely to happen, I can’t argue with this logic.

Regarding the last two points, advocates explain that older versions of a balanced budget requirement simply required a supermajority for more debt, but newer versions also include a supermajority requirement to raise taxes. This means – at least indirectly – that the amendment actually is a vehicle for spending restraint.

This doesn’t solve the political challenge, but it’s why advocates of limited government need to be completely unified in favor of tax-limitation language in a balanced budget amendment. And they may want to consider being more explicit that the real goal is to restrain spending so that government grows slower than the productive sector of the economy.

Interestingly, even the International Monetary Fund (which is normally a source of bad analysis) understands that spending limits work better than rules that focus on deficits and debt.

Here are some of the findings from a new IMF study that looks at the dismal performance of the European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact. The SGP supposedly limited deficits to 3 percent of GDP and debt to 60 percent of GDP, but the requirement failed largely because politicians couldn’t resist the temptation to spend more in years when revenue grew rapidly.

An analysis of stability programs during 1999–2007 suggests that actual expenditure growth in euro area countries often exceeded the planned pace, in particular when there were unanticipated revenue increases. Countries were simply unable to save the extra revenues and build up fiscal buffers. …This reveals an important asymmetry: governments were often unable to preserve revenue windfalls and faced difficulties in restraining their expenditure in response to revenue shortfalls when consolidation was needed. …The 3 percent of GDP nominal deficit ceiling did not prevent countries from spending their revenue windfalls in the mid-2000s. … Under the SGP, noncompliance has been the rule rather than the exception. …The drawbacks of the nominal deficit ceiling are particularly apparent when the economy is booming, as it is compatible with very large structural deficits.

The good news is that the SGP has been modified and now (at least theoretically) requires spending restraint.

The initial Pact only included three supranational rules… As of 2014, fiscal aggregates are tied by an intricate set of constraints…government spending (net of new revenue measures) is constrained to grow in line with trend GDP. …the expenditure growth ceiling may seem the most appealing. This indicator is tractable (directly constraining the budget), easy to communicate to the public, and conceptually sound… Based on simulations, Debrun and others (2008) show that an expenditure growth rule with a debt feedback ensures a better convergence towards the debt objective, while allowing greater flexibility in response to shocks. IMF (2012) demonstrates the good performance of the expenditure growth ceiling

This modified system presumably will lead to better (or less worse) policy in the future, though it’s unclear whether various nations will abide by the new EU rules.

One problem is that the overall system of fiscal rules has become rather complicated, as illustrated by this image from the IMF study.

Which brings us back to the third point above. If the goal is to restrain spending (and it should be), then why set up a complicated system that first and foremost is focused on red ink?

That’s why the Swiss Debt Brake is the right model for how to get spending under control. And this video explains why the objective should be spending restraint rather than deficit reduction.

And for those who fixate on red ink, it’s worth noting that if you deal with the underlying disease of too much government, you quickly solve the symptom of deficits.

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