Archive for the ‘Spending’ Category

The federal government is capable of enormous waste, which obviously is bad news, but the worst forms of government spending are those that actually leverage bad things. In a previous video on the economics of government spending, I call this the “negative multiplier” effect, and one of the worst examples is the $100 million that taxpayers spend each year to subsidize the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

There are many other examples of the negative multiplier effect.

The old welfare system, for instance, paid people not to work and have babies out of wedlock (this still happens, but it’s not as bad as it used to be). Paying exorbitant salaries to federal bureaucrats is bad, but it’s even worse if they take their jobs seriously and promulgate new regulations and otherwise harass people in the productive sector of the economy.

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Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the Congressional Budget Office follows a predictable pattern of endorsing policies that result in bigger government. During the debate about the so-called stimulus, for instance, CBO said more spending and higher deficits would be good for the economy. It then followed up that analysis by claiming that the faux stimulus worked even though millions of jobs were lost. Then, during the Obamacare debate, CBO actually claimed that a giant new entitlement program would reduce deficits. Now that tax increases are the main topic (because of the looming expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax bills), CBO has done a 180-degree turn and has published a document discussing the negative consequences of too much deficits and debt.
…persistent deficits and continually mounting debt would have several negative economic consequences for the United States. Some of those consequences would arise gradually: A growing portion of people’s savings would go to purchase government debt rather than toward investments in productive capital goods such as factories and computers; that “crowding out” of investment would lead to lower output and incomes than would otherwise occur. …a growing level of federal debt would also increase the probability of a sudden fiscal crisis, during which investors would lose confidence in the government’s ability to manage its budget, and the government would thereby lose its ability to borrow at affordable rates. …If the United States encountered a fiscal crisis, the abrupt rise in interest rates would reflect investors’ fears that the government would renege on the terms of its existing debt or that it would increase the supply of money to finance its activities or pay creditors and thereby boost inflation.
At some point, even Republicans should be smart enough to figure out that this game is rigged. Then again, the GOP controlled Congress for a dozen years and failed to reform either CBO or its counterpart on the revenue side, the Joint Committee on Taxation (which is infamous for its assumption that tax policy has no impact on overall economic performance).

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Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peter Ferrara of the Institute for Policy Innovation explains that Washington budget deals don’t work because politicians never follow through on promised spending cuts. This is a very relevant argument since Obama’s so-called Deficit Reduction Commission supposedly is considering a deal featuring $3 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases (disturbingly reminiscent of what was promised – but never delivered – as part of the infamous 1982 TEFRA budget scam). 
Washington’s traditional approach to balancing the budget is to negotiate an agreement on a package of benefit cuts and tax increases. President Obama’s deficit commission seems likely to recommend just this strategy in December. The problem is that it never works. What happens is the tax increases get permanently adopted into law. But the spending cuts are almost never fully adopted and, even if they are, they are soon swept away in the next spendthrift budget. Then—because taxes weaken incentives to produce—the tax increases don’t raise the revenue that Congress initially projected and budgeted to spend. So the deficit reappears. In 1982, congressional Democrats promised President Ronald Reagan $3 in spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. Reagan went to his grave waiting for those spending cuts. Then there was the budget deal in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush agreed to violate his famous campaign pledge—”Read my lips, no new taxes,” he had said in 1988—in pursuit of a balanced budget. But after the deal, the deficit increased substantially: to $290 billion in 1992 from $221 billion in 1990. 
As the excerpt indicates, Peter’s column is solid and everything he writes is correct, but it suffers from one major sin of omission. He should have exposed the dishonest practice of using “current services” or “baseline” budgeting. This is the clever Washington practice of assuming that all previously planned spending increases should go into effect and categorizing any budget that increases spending by a lower amount as a spending cut. In other words, if the hypothetical “baseline” budget increases by 7 percent, and a budget is proposed that increases spending by 4 percent, that 4 percent spending increase magically gets transformed into a 3 percent spending cut.
Politicians love “current services” or “baseline” budgeting for two reasons. First, it allows them to have their cake and eat it too. They can simultaneously shovel more money to interest groups while telling voters they are “cutting” spending. Second, it rigs the process in favor of bigger government. This is because lawmakers who actually propose to restrain the growth of spending can be lambasted for wanting “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts totaling “trillions of dollars” when all they’re actually proposing is to have spending grow by less than the so-called baseline. But since people in the real world use honest math rather than “current services” math, they assume that spending is being reduced next year by some large amount compared to what is being spent this year. And if the phony budget cut numbers sound too big (especially for specific programs such as Medicare or Medicaid), they sometimes conclude that it would be better to raise taxes.
Speaking of which, the same misleading process works on the revenue side of the budget. The politicians automatically get to keep whatever additional revenue is generated by population growth and higher incomes, which is not trivial since revenue in a typical year grows faster than nominal GDP. But when they do a budget deal featuring X dollars of tax increases for every Y dollars of spending cuts, the additional taxes are always on top of the revenue increases that already are occurring. And since the supposed spending cuts invariably are nothing more than reductions in planned increases, it should come as no surprise that the burden of spending always seems to increase.
Defenders of “current services” or “baseline” budgeting will respond by arguing that spending should automatically increase because of factors such as inflation and demographic change (i.e., more seniors signing up for Medicare). Indeed, they will point out that the government is legally obligated to spend more money for entitlement programs based on current law.
But that’s not the point. The issue is whether the American people are being presented with honest numbers. If the fans of big government want to argue that spending should increase by 7 percent for various reasons, they should openly and honestly explain what they are trying to do. And if they disagree with lawmakers who want spending to increase by 4 percent, they should be forthright and tell voters that “this proposal does not increase spending by enough because of…” and list the reasons why they want spending to grow even faster.
Unfortunately, deceptive budget practices in Washington are a feature, not a bug. But if you pay close attention, they are very revealing. If the President’s Deficit Reduction Commission uses “baseline” or “current services” budgeting as a benchmark for determining spending “cuts” and tax increases, that’s a good sign that the crowd in Washington wants to pull a fast one on the American people.

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Advocates of limited government generally focus on domestic spending, pork-barrel projects, and entitlement programs. This is target-rich territory, to be sure, and especially inviting because most of the relevant programs and department shouldn’t exist. But just because national defense is a legitimate function of the federal government, that doesn’t mean that national security outlays are somehow immune from waste, fraud, and abuse. Here’s an all-too-typical story from Federal News Radio about the Defense Department being unable to account for a staggering 95 percent-plus of the funds channeled through the Development Fund for Iraq.

The Defense Department is unable to account for $8.7 billion of the $9.1 billion in Development Fund for Iraq monies in received for reconstruction in Iraq. This according to a study published today by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. …The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) finds that only one Defense organization actually set up the accounts required by the Treasury. “The breakdown in controls left the funds vulnerable to inappropriate uses and undetected loss,” SIGIR says. The study recommends that the Secretary of Defense create new accounting and reporting procedures to avoid such mistakes in the future. It also recommends designating an executive agent to oversee progress, establishing measurable milestones, and determining whether any DoD organizations are still holding DFI funds.

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Isn’t it nice to know that the federal government has about 100 separate programs to fund community activities that supposedly help fight crime? And isn’t it even nicer to know that there is no evidence that the money (which gets spent on things like pool parties and donut-eating contests) actually does any good? Senator Coburn has released a report about this wasteful spending and CBS News has a story about how the Department of Justice is squandering your tax dollars.

With a $13 trillion debt, why is the Department of Justice spending money on parties and rollercoaster rides rather than investigating crime, drug cartels, prosecuting terrorists? Untold millions of your tax dollars are paying for recreation in the name of crime prevention: pool parties, rollercoaster rides, and police donut-eating contests. The idea is that fun activities keep kids out of trouble, build self-esteem and prevent crime. …Now, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)has found nobody is measuring just how much is spent on the recreation – or whether it even works. Sen.Tom Coburn, R-Okla., estimates well over $100 million tax dollars over five years has been spent on recreation to fight crime. Coburn says poor tracking leads to questionable spending. At least $200,000 was spent for officials to attend conferences at golf resorts in Florida and Palm Springs, or a film festival featuring “Santa, The Fascist Years.” …Just last month, an Oklahoma City program was found to have misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal crime prevention funds on things like a giant flat screen TV, 40 pairs of binoculars and $200 Japanese-style swords. Police said most of the binoculars were never used and there was “no legitimate purpose” for the swords. Twelve other federal agencies and 99 programs fund similar community programs.

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The New York Times has a story about the budget debacle in Illinois, which is a classic case of a state with too much government and too many overpaid bureaucrats. Other than being an example of what not to do, the most interesting aspect of what’s happening in Illinois is trying to guess whether it is in better or worse shape than California. According to the credit default swaps market, Illinois is in slightly worse shape. Both states rank below Iraq and above Romania:
Even by the standards of this deficit-ridden state, Illinois’s comptroller, Daniel W. Hynes, faces an ugly balance sheet. Precisely how ugly becomes clear when he beckons you into his office to examine his daily briefing memo. He picks the papers off his desk and points to a figure in red: $5.01 billion. “This is what the state owes right now to schools, rehabilitation centers, child care, the state university — and it’s getting worse every single day,” he says in his downtown office. …For the last few years, California stood more or less unchallenged as a symbol of the fiscal collapse of states during the recession. Now Illinois has shouldered to the fore, as its dysfunctional political class refuses to pay the state’s bills and refuses to take the painful steps — cuts and tax increases — to close a deficit of at least $12 billion, equal to nearly half the state’s budget. Then there is the spectacularly mismanaged pension system, which is at least 50 percent underfunded and, analysts warn, could push Illinois into insolvency if the economy fails to pick up. …signs of fiscal crackup are easy to see. Legislators left the capital this month without deciding how to pay 26 percent of the state budget. The governor proposes to borrow $3.5 billion to cover a year’s worth of pension payments, a step that would cost about $1 billion in interest. And every major rating agency has downgraded the state; Illinois now pays millions of dollars more to insure its debt than any other state in the nation. “Their pension is the most underfunded in the nation,” said Karen S. Krop, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. “They have not made significant cuts or raised revenues. There’s no state out there like this. They can’t grow their way out of this.”

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The fault line in American politics is not really between Republicans and Democrats, but rather between taxpayers and the Washington political elite. Here is a perfect example that symbolizes why economic policy is such a mess. President Bush’s former top aide, Karl Rove, makes the case in the Wall Street Journal that the Obama Administration has been fiscally irresponsible. That’s certainly true, but as I’ve pointed out on previous occasions (here and here), Rove has zero credibility on these issues. In the excerpt below, Rove attacks Obama for earmarks, but this corrupt form of pork-barrel spending skyrocketed during the Bush years. He attacks Obama for government-run healthcare, but Rove helped push through Congress a reckless new entitlement for prescription drugs. He attacks Obama for misusing TARP, but the Bush Administration created that no-strings-attached bailout program. These are examples of hypocrisy, but Rove also is willing to prevaricate. He blames Obama for boosting the burden of government spending to 24 percent of GDP, but it was the Bush Administration that boosted the federal government from 18.2 percent of GDP in 2001 to 24.7 percent of GDP in 2009. Obama is guilty of following similar policies and maintaining a bloated budget, but it was Bush (with Rove’s guidance) that drove the economy into a fiscal ditch.
The president’s problem is largely a mess of his own making. Deficit spending did not begin when Mr. Obama took office. But he and his Democratic allies have supported, proposed, passed or signed and then spent every dime that’s gone out the door since Jan. 20, 2009. Voters know it is Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders who approved a $410 billion supplemental (complete with 8,500 earmarks) in the middle of the last fiscal year, and then passed a record-spending budget for this one. Mr. Obama and Democrats approved an $862 billion stimulus and a $1 trillion health-care overhaul, and they now are trying to add $266 billion in “temporary” stimulus spending to permanently raise the budget baseline. It is the president and Congressional allies who refuse to return the $447 billion unspent stimulus dollars and want to use repayments of TARP loans for more spending rather than reducing the deficit. It is the president who gave Fannie and Freddie carte blanche to draw hundreds of billions from the Treasury. It is the Democrats’ profligacy that raised the share of the GDP taken by the federal government to 24% this fiscal year. This is indeed the road to fiscal hell, and it’s been paved by the president and his party. 

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Nancy Pelosi is being appropriately mocked for her strange assertion that subsidizing unemployment is a great way to “stimulate” the economy, but keep in mind that this she is just mindlessly regurgitating standard Keynesian theory. Here are two videos. The first is Pelosi’s ramblings and the second is my analysis of Keynesian economics. I hope my words are more convincing.

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Please share this video with everyone you know. It explains the “Rahn Curve,” which is a spending version of the Laffer Curve. Named after Cato Institute’s Richard Rahn, the Curve shows that modest amounts of government spending – for core “public goods” such as rule of law and protection of property rights – is associated with better economic performance.

But when government rises above that level (as it has in all developed nations), then more government is associated with slower growth.

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It’s rather symbolic of what’s wrong with Washington that a commission ostensibly created to promote deficit reduction is seeking a bigger budget, as noted in the Tax Notes story excerpted below. Rather than impose a bigger burden on taxpayers, though, I will generously suggest that they could easily fulfill their mandate by perusing Cato’s Downsizing Government website. And if they really want to do the right thing, they can always just look at Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution and get rid of existing programs and activities that are not enumerated powers of the federal government.

Saddled with a tight deadline and great expectations, members of President Obama’s deficit reduction commission say they may not have the resources necessary to meet their task. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which the president created through an executive order in February, is charged with developing a plan by December 1 that would stabilize the budget deficit by 2015 and reduce the federal debt over the long term. The group is widely expected to consider a combination of tax reforms and spending cuts. But despite the weighty demands, the panel has only a fraction of the staff and budget of standing congressional committees. The panel’s own cochairs and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have criticized the meager resources and called for more support. …The White House has set aside the resources to provide the equivalent of four full-time salaries and $500,000 in operating costs for the commission, fiscal commission Executive Director Bruce Reed told Tax Analysts.

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David Ignatius continues his odd habit of drawing wrong conclusions from Europe’s fiscal crisis. In a previous post, we made fun of one of his columns because he said America needed a value-added tax to avoid a Greek-style crisis. Yet since Greece has a VAT, he was, for all intents and purposes, arguing that we should copy Greece’s policies to avoid Greece’s problems. Now he has a column saying that Europe needs fiscal centralization to make the euro work. This is a rather interesting assertion since Ignatius comes from a nation that shows that it is possible to have a common currency with 50 different states with 50 different fiscal policies. Perhaps this is why he wrote an entire column on the topic without ever offering any analysis or evidence for his position. Here’s an excerpt:

…there’s a radical mismatch between the ideal of economic integration and the reality that the eurozone has 16 different fiscal regimes — a disconnect that helped produce this crisis. …With this crisis, [Italian President Giorgio Napolitano] argued, Europeans must finally accept that union “implies a partial transfer of national sovereignty.” The current halfway integration simply isn’t strong enough to support a common currency, he suggested. …Investors keep pounding Europe in part because they don’t yet see the mechanisms that will enforce discipline. The European Union just established a trillion-dollar bailout fund, but what happens when it runs out? There’s a pledge to impose strict conditions on Greece, Portugal and the rest in exchange for loans, but it still isn’t clear how Brussels will make this austerity regime work. …What worries me is that the dictates of economics and politics are now in conflict in Europe. To sustain its common currency, Europe needs integrated fiscal policies that are enforceable on all members.

Given his reliance on empty assertions, let’s step into the vacuum and make two observations. First, letting Greece officially default would have been the best way to enforce fiscal discipline. A default would have radically curtailed Greece’s ability (and the ability of other European nations) to overspend by borrowing cheap money and leaving the bill for future generations. The bailout, by contrast, rewarded profligacy and sent a signal to other European nations that it is possible to over-tax and over-spend and send the bill to taxpayers in other nations.

Second, a centralized fiscal policy would exacerbate Europe’s fiscal problems by creating a tragedy of the commons. The existence of a pot of money in Brussels would encourage every nation to maximize its share of the loot, in the same way that a bloated federal government in Washington subsidizes bad fiscal behavior by state politicians. It wouldn’t matter whether the centralized fiscal policy replaced a portion of national budgets or (more likely) represented an additional source of government largesse. Europe’s problems exist because too many people have learned to try to live off the labor of too few people. Another layer of government makes that problem worse, not better – especially since it would open up the possibility of having people from other nations bear the burden.

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Apologies to Star Wars fans for the title, but it seemed very fitting considering the profound amoral mentality of the lobbyists who have launched a public relations campaign to defend earmarks. The key part of the story is excerpted below for your reading pleasure, but let’s focus on the “best” defense of earmarking. I’ve talked to some Republican politicians who argue the practice is legitimate because it means that elected officials rather than faceless bureaucrats are deciding how money is being allocated. That sounds semi-legitimate, but it overlooks three key problems.

1. Earmarking facilitates higher spending. The politicians on the Appropriations Committees allow other members to insert special requests (earmarks) – but only if they agree to vote for the underlying bill. This “log-rolling” practice makes it much more difficult for fiscally responsible members to convince their colleagues to support smaller budgets.

2. Earmarking is naked corruption. In the majority of cases, earmarks are inserted at the request of campaign contributors. In some cases, the contributors are lobbyists representing clients. In other cases, the contributors are the actual earmark beneficiaries. In either case, the process accurately could be described as bribery.

3. Earmarking supports programs and activities that should not exist. The “bridge to nowhere” became a symbol of the earmarking process, but the underlying problem is that members of the Alaska delegation focused on steering as many transportation dollars to their state as possible when they should have been fighting to get rid of the Department of Transportation.

Almost everybody in Washington loves earmarks. Politicians get to raise campaign cash. Lobbyists get rich charging clients. Special interests get money they haven’t earned. Congressional staff facilitate the process so they eventually can become rich lobbyists. The only losers are taxpayers and the Constitution. Anyhow, here’s the nauseating excerpt:

Lobbyists who pursue congressional earmarks are planning a public-relations campaign to defend the practice, as voters signal they no longer want lawmakers to direct millions of federal dollars to pet projects back home. The Ferguson Group, one of the largest earmark lobbying shops in Washington, is seeking donations from other appropriations lobbyists to establish a group that would promote the benefits of earmarks through a media campaign, according to documents obtained by The Hill. …“We have decided to form an informal coalition, tentatively called the Earmark Reform and Education Coalition, with the overall goal being to foster a rational conversation about earmarking among all interested parties, so that we can preserve what works and reform what does not.” …A third option is to partner with the American League of Lobbyists (ALL), according to Ferguson’s memo. Dave Wenhold, ALL’s president and a partner at Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, said the organization has not decided on whether to join the campaign, but he defended earmarks as “the most transparent and accountable form of funding.”

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My blood pressure spiked after reading this story from the UK-based Times. The Greeks are rioting in the streets because they want our money (i.e., an IMF bailout) and they want to keep all the inefficient and wasteful government policies that caused the crisis. In other words, these bums and leeches want my fiscal burden to increase so they can get bonuses for things such as (this is not a joke) using a computer or (gasp!) getting to work on time. They want me to pay more so that children can “inherit” parents’ pensions and some bureaucrats can get 18 months of pay for 12 months on the job. Unbelievable.

The violence came as negotiations were concluding between the socialist government of George Papandreou, the IMF and the EU over a multi-billion-euro rescue package for Greece. …Economists regard the bloated civil service with its jobs for life and generous pensions as a cancer consuming the country’s resources. The older generation, the experts grimly concur, turned the state into a giant cash machine to be plundered at will. …Bureaucrats will raise their fists at the barricades in a general strike and protests on Wednesday to protect their considerable perks from the IMF. They and other public sector workers are virtually unsackable, can retire as early as 45 and get bonuses for using a computer, speaking a foreign language and arriving at work on time. Some of them get as many as four extra months’ salary a year, compared with the 14 months that are paid to other Greek workers. One of the most generous bonuses is paid to unmarried daughters of dead employees in state-controlled banks: they can inherit their parents’ pensions. …It costs more to transport a sack of potatoes from northern Greece to Athens than from Athens to Dusseldorf, because haulage, like many other sectors of the Greek economy, is an impenetrable cartel. When Michalos started a commodities trading business in London in the 1980s, the paperwork took him 48 hours, he said. In Greece’s “Soviet-style” economy he had to go through 117 bureaucratic procedures to get the right government permits. A wealthy friend of his had taken 10 years to win permission to put up a hotel.

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The Chicago Tribune reports that a bunch of government bureaucrats went to the capital of Illinois and protested in favor of higher taxes. But it’s not exactly news that looters want more looting. The amazing thing to note is that the Democrats have complete control of Illinois government yet they are afraid to raise tax rates because they know voters are sick and tired of corrupt and inefficient government:

Thousands of teachers and other union workers descended on the state Capitol on Wednesday and chanted “raise my taxes” to try to pressure politicians to avoid major budget cuts. The vibe was the exact opposite of what you’d find at a tea party rally. But the loud chants barely resonated inside the Capitol, where lawmakers are trying to exit Springfield in a couple of weeks without voting for a tax increase that could jeopardize their re-election chances in little more than six months. …Gov. Pat Quinn is out front pushing his 33 percent increase in the income tax rate, but he’s getting lonely. Many lawmakers don’t want to take more money out of people’s wallets as unemployment remains high in Illinois, yet groups that receive tax money said Quinn’s proposed tax hike isn’t big enough to help bridge a deficit that’s expected to reach $13 billion if nothing is done. Complicating the matter is that Quinn faces Republican state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington in this fall’s race for governor, and Brady is taking the position that no tax increase is needed. …Last year, the Senate Democrats, led by President John Cullerton of Chicago, passed a tax increase that would increase the personal rate to 5 percent from 3 percent, along with a slight bump for corporate taxes. But the tax increase is stalled in the House, where last year, the Democrats in control did not muster enough votes for a smaller, temporary income tax increase.

P.S. Welcome Instapundit readers. I’ve heard about the “Insta-lanche” that occurs when Glenn links something, but this is my first time experiencing the phenomenon. I hope you take the opportunity to check out some of the other postings and visit again.

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The government is wasting so much money in so many ways that it takes something really odd to shock me, but this story from the Federal Times certainly meets that test. The Office of Personnel Management is actually squandering money on a marketing campaign to improve the image of bureaucrats. Call me old fashioned, but I think the image of bureaucrats will increase if they spend some time figuring out ways to save money rather than coming up with innovative ways to waste it:

The Office of Personnel Management is working on a new marketing campaign intended to boost the public’s opinion of federal employees. OPM Director John Berry said his agency is surveying liberal and conservative citizens about their impressions of federal workers and issues most important to them. Once that survey is done, OPM will contract with a marketing firm to “come up with the right vocabulary, the right messaging and the right energy that we believe will re-polish the public servant’s image,” Berry said at the Excellence in Government conference in Washington this morning. Berry said that the government’s outreach efforts should focus on employees’ specific jobs to counter the perception of civil servants as bureaucrats. …Berry’s comments came a day after the Pew Research Center released a survey showing that the public’s trust in the federal government has reached historic lows. Just 22 percent of Americans say they can trust the government almost always or most of the time, the survey found. That’s down from 31 percent in January 2007, and down from 40 percent in February 2000. Surveys conducted by other organizations in late 2009 and early 2010 yielded similar numbers. The last time national polls consistently showed this level of mistrust was in the mid-1990s. Public discontent could hurt government agencies’ ability to recruit and retain employees, said Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service.

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Gloominess and despair are not uncommon traits among supporters of limited government – and with good reason. Government has grown rapidly in recent years and it is expected to get much bigger in the future. To make matters worse, it seems that the deck is stacked against reforms to restrain government. One problem is that 47 percent of Americans are exempt from paying income taxes, which presumably means they no longer have any incentive to resist big government. Mark Steyn recently wrote a very depressing column for National Review Online about this phenomenon, noting that, “By 2012, America could be holding the first federal election in which a majority of the population will be able to vote themselves more government lollipops paid for by the ever shrinking minority of the population still dumb enough to be net contributors to the federal treasury.” Walter Williams, meanwhile, has a new column speculating on whether this cripples the battle for freedom:

According to the Tax Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., research organization, nearly half of U.S. households will pay no federal income taxes for 2009…because their incomes are too low or they have higher income but credits, deductions and exemptions that relieve them of tax liability. This lack of income tax liability stands in stark contrast to the top 10 percent of earners, those households earning an average of $366,400 in 2006, who paid about 73 percent of federal income taxes. …Let’s not dwell on the fairness of such an arrangement for financing the activities of the federal government. Instead, let’s ask what kind of incentives and results such an arrangement produces and ask ourselves whether these results are good for our country. …Having 121 million Americans completely outside the federal income tax system, it’s like throwing chum to political sharks. These Americans become a natural spending constituency for big-spending politicians. After all, if you have no income tax liability, how much do you care about deficits, how much Congress spends and the level of taxation?

Steyn and Williams are right to worry, but the situation is not as grim as it seems for the simple reason that a good portion of the American people know the difference between right and wrong. Consider some of the recent polling data from Rasmussen, which found that “Sixty-six percent (66%) believe that America is overtaxed. Only 25% disagree. Lower income voters are more likely than others to believe the nation is overtaxed” and “75% of voters nationwide say the average American should pay no more than 20% of their income in taxes.” These numbers contradict the hypothesis that 47 percent of Americans (those that don’t pay income tax) are automatic supporters of class-warfare policy.

So why are the supposed free-riders not signing on to the Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda? There are probably several reasons, including the fact that many Americans believe in upward mobility, so even if their incomes currently are too low to pay income tax, they aspire to earn more in the future and don’t want higher tax rates on the rich to serve as a barrier. I’m not a polling expert, but I also suspect there’s a moral component to these numbers. There’s no way to prove this assertion, but I am quite sure that the vast majority of hard-working Americans with modest incomes would never even contemplate breaking into a rich neighbor’s house and stealing the family jewelry. So it is perfectly logical that they wouldn’t support using the IRS as a middleman to do the same thing.

A few final tax observations:

The hostility to taxation also represents opposition to big government (at least in theory). Rasumssen also recently found that, “Just 23% of U.S. voters say they prefer a more active government with more services and higher taxes over one with fewer services and lower taxes. …Two-thirds (66%) of voters prefer a government with fewer services and lower taxes.” 

There is a giant divide between the political elite and ordinary Americans. Rasmussen’s polling revealed that, “Eighty-one percent (81%) of Mainstream American voters believe the nation is overtaxed, while 74% of those in the Political Class disagree.”

Voters do not want a value-added tax or any other form of national sales tax. They are not against the idea as a theoretical concept, but they wisely recognize the politicians are greedy and untrustworthy. Rasumussen found that “just 26% of all voters think that it is even somewhat likely the government would cut income taxes after implementing a sales tax. Sixty-six percent (66%) believe it’s unlikely to happen.” 

Fiscal restraint is a necessary precondition for any pro-growth tax reform. If given a choice between a flat tax, national sales tax, value-added tax, or the current system, many Americans want reform, but it is very difficult to have a good tax system if the burden of government spending is rising. Likewise, it would be very easy to have a good tax system if we had a federal government that was limited to the duties outlined in Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution.

Republicans should never acquiesce to higher taxes. All these good numbers and optimistic findings are dependent on voters facing a clear choice between higher taxes and bigger government vs lower taxes and limited government. If Republicans inside the beltway get seduced into a “budget summit” where taxes are “on the table,” that creates a very unhealthy dynamic where voters instinctively try to protect themselves by supporting taxes on somebody else – and the so-called rich are the easiest target.

Last but not least, I can’t resist pointing out that I am part of a debate for U.S. News & World Report on the flat tax vs. the current system. For those of you who have an opinion on this matter, don’t hesitate to cast a vote.

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Tyler Cowen’s recent New York Times column explains how nations as diverse as Ireland, Sweden, and Canada have successfully solved fiscal problems by limiting the growth of government spending:

America’s long-run fiscal outlook is bleak, mostly because of an aging population and rising health care costs. To close the gap between expenditures and revenue, …we’ll need to focus especially on reducing spending, largely because that taxes on the wealthy can be raised only so high. …Higher income tax rates would discourage hard work and encourage tax avoidance, thereby defeating the purpose of the tax increases. …Higher levels of government spending and taxation would also soak up resources that might otherwise foster innovation and new businesses. And sentiment would most likely turn ever stronger against those immigrants who consume public services and make the deficit higher in the short run. …The macroeconomic evidence also suggests the wisdom of emphasizing spending cuts. In a recent paper, Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna, economics professors at Harvard, found that in developed countries, spending cuts were the key to successful fiscal adjustments — and were generally better for the economy than tax increases. …The received wisdom in the United States is that deep spending cuts are politically impossible. But a number of economically advanced countries, including Sweden, Finland, Canada and, most recently, Ireland, have cut their government budgets when needed. Most relevant, perhaps, is Canada, which cut federal government spending by about 20 percent from 1992 to 1997.

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Since we’re already depressed by the enactment of Obamacare, we may as well wallow in misery by looking at some long-term budget numbers. The chart below, which is based on the Congressional Budget Office’s long-run estimates, shows that federal government spending will climb to 45 percent of GDP if we believe CBO’s more optimistic “baseline” estimate. If we prefer the less optimistic “alternative” estimate, the burden of federal government spending will climb to 67 percent of economic output. These dismal numbers are driven by two factors, an aging population and entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. For all intents and purposes, America is on a path to become a European-style welfare state.

If these numbers don’t depress you enough, here are a couple of additional observations to push you over the edge. These CBO estimates were produced last year, so they don’t count the cost of Obamacare. And as Michael Cannon repeatedly has observed, Obamacare will cost much more than the official estimates concocted by CBO. And speaking of estimates, the long-run numbers in the chart are almost certainly too optimistic since CBO’s methodology naively assumes that a rising burden of government will have no negative impact on the economy’s growth rate. Last but not least, the data above only measures federal spending. State and local government budgets will consume at least another 15 percent of GDP, so even using the optimistic baseline, total government spending will be about 60 percent of GDP, higher than every European nation, including France, Greece, and Sweden. And if we add state and local spending on top of the “alternative” baseline, then we’re in uncharted territory where perhaps Cuba and North Korea would be the most appropriate analogies.

So what do we do? There’s no sure-fire solution. Congressman Paul Ryan has a reform plan to reduce long-run federal spending to less than 20 percent of GDP. This “Roadmap” plan is excellent, though it is marred by the inclusion of a value-added tax. Bill Shipman of CarriageOaks Partners put forth a very interesting proposal in a Washington Times column to make the federal government rely on states for tax revenue. And I’ve been an avid proponent of tax competition as a strategy to curtail the greed of the political class since it is difficult to finance redistribution if labor and capital can escape to jurisdictions with better tax law. Any other suggestions?

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When Dorothy and her friends finally reach Oz, they present themselves to the almighty Wizard, only to eventually discover that he is just an illusion maintained by a charlatan hiding behind a curtain. This seems eerily akin to to the state of Keynesian economics. It does not matter that Keynesianism isn’t working for Obama. It does not matter that it didn’t work for Bush, or for Japan in the 1990s, or for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. In the ultimate triumph of theory over reality, the Keynesians say all that matters is the macroeconomic model behind the curtain showing that more government spending leads to more jobs and growth. Consider the recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which claimed that Obama’s stimulus created at least one million jobs. As Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation noted:

CBO’s calculations are not based on actually observing the economy’s recent performance. Rather, they used an economic model that was programmed to assume that stimulus spending automatically creates jobs — thus guaranteeing their result. …The problem here is obvious. Once CBO decided to assume that every dollar of government spending increased GDP…, its conclusion that the stimulus saved jobs was pre-ordained.

But surely this can’t be true, you may be thinking. Our public servants in Washington would not make important policy decisions based on a model that automatically produces a certain result, would they? Peter Suderman of Reason pulls aside the curtain:

…those reports rely on assumption-packed models that effectively predetermine their outcomes; what they say, in essence, is that the stimulus worked because we assume it did. …That’s especially true when estimating government spending’s productive effects, which is accomplished by plugging numbers into a formula that assumes that government spending produces a multiplier—an increased return for every government dollar spent. In other words, it extrapolates from how much money is put in rather than from what has actually come out. And it does so using a formula that dictates that if money is put in, even more money will come out. According to the CBO’s estimates, depending on how the money is spent, one dollar of government spending can produce total economic activity of up to $2.50. What a deal! …for all practical purposes, the same multipliers that were used to predict how many jobs would be created are being used to estimate how many jobs have been created.

Interestingly, CBO’s analysis is completely schizophrenic. Its short-run budget numbers are based on free-lunch Keynesianism that assumes deficit-financed government spending boosts growth, while its long-run numbers are driven by an assumption that government borrowing is terrible for growth (which is why CBO actually claims higher taxes boost economic output – see, for example, Figure 3 of this CBO analysis). It is impossible to know whether the people at CBO actually believe their own work, or whether they are simply trying to please their political paymasters by producing results that (conveniently) match up with political preferences for more spending today and higher taxes tomorrow. You can draw your own conclusions, but keep in mind that CBO is now making the absurd claim that a giant new healthcare entitlement will reduce budget deficits.

But I digress. Let’s now give the defense of Keynesian model. The folks at CBO and other Keynesian who publish estimates that inevitably turn out to be wrong (Mark Zandi comes to mind) will claim that they are right because they are predicting results compared to what otherwise would have happened. So when they claim that Obama’s so-called stimulus created jobs, they are really saying that the economy would have lost even more jobs if the government didn’t spend all that money. The problem with this approach is that there is no independent benchmark, but this is not why Keynesianism is wrong. Indeed, most of the economic profession relies on this kind of “counterfactual” analysis. Instead, the problem with Keynesianism is that it fails the empirical test. The Keynesians may be good at constructing models, but that doesn’t mean much if the models don’t match the real world. Here’s what Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise said in recent congressional testimony:

…most economists learned in graduate school that models like those relied upon most heavily by the CBO provide nonsensical results. The reason the original large scale Keynesian Macro forecasting models were discarded by most of the profession is that they make a simple logical error in assuming that individuals do not change their behavior based on the expectation of future policy. …Professor Barro has been one of the primary contributors to the macroeconomic time series literature that has tried to estimate effects from observed economic data, rather than assume affects, as is done by the Keynesian models. …Barro’s analysis is based on econometric evidence, a reliance on experience. The CBO analysis is based almost exclusively on speculation within the context of Keynesian Macro models that were discredited decisively in the 1970s. …Dating at least back to the seminal work of Nelson (1972), economists have known that the empirical time series approach significantly outperforms macroeconomic models in forecasting competitions. …Ashley (1988) compares data based time series forecasts to those from the large macro forecasters and concludes not only that the time series approach is superior, but that the macro forecasts were so bad that, “most of these forecasts are so inaccurate that simple extrapolation of historical trends is superior for forecasts more than a couple of quarters ahead.” …Finally, one should note that this literature, combined with an earlier public finance literature, raises questions concerning the welfare gain associated with short-term increases in spending. …Browning (1987) finds that the marginal cost ranges widely, between 10% and 300%. Thus, the welfare costs of paying the bill may be greater than the short-term boost to the economy from the most optimistic estimates. This literature would be consistent with Barro’s analysis that suggests the stimulus makes us worse off in the long run.

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President Obama and many other politicians in Washington are big fans of pay-as-you-go budgeting, which means they want any new spending or tax relief offset (or “paid for”) with tax increases or spending cuts from other parts of the budget. Or at least that’s what they claim. But when Senator Bunning took them at their word and blocked a $10 billion spending bill because his colleagues were unwilling to make some tiny changes elsewhere, he was treated like a leper. Even his Republicans colleagues largely disapproved of his actions (so much for having learned any lessons from the drubbings they took at the polls in 2006 and 2008). Attacked from all sides, Bunning eventually relented in exchange for an offset vote (which was defeated, of course). What makes this episode interesting is not the specific policies that were being considered. As I posted earlier this week, Bunning was not even trying to shrink the size of government. Indeed, his “offset” was actually a tax increase (getting rid of a special tax break for paper manufacturing).

But this incident does expose the gross hypocrisy of the supposed deficit hawks in Washington. President Obama and the Democrats (and many Republicans) pretend they care about deficits, but their concerns magically disappear whenever there is a chance to buy votes by spending other people’s money. When tax cuts or tax increases are being debated, however, many of these same politicians piously declare their unwavering opposition to red ink (unless, of course, it’s a special tax break for a contributor). But perhaps it’s no surprise to discover that politicians think higher taxes are the solution to the over-spending problem in Washington.

What about the organizations that supposedly exist to fight deficits, such as the Concord Coalition and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (they should be fighting spending instead, but let’s set that issue aside). Folks from these groups often ask politicians to be courageous and make “tough choices.” So I want to the Concord Coalition’s homepage and was shocked, shocked to find nothing about Bunning’s effort. I checked the blog and the press releases and found lots of tough rhetoric, but not one word of praise (or one word of any sort) for a Senator who tried to put the Concord Coalition’s words into action. And what about the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget? Same song, second verse. Not a mention of Bunning on the homepage, blog, or in the press releases. [OOPS, CHECK MEA CULPA BELOW]

Anybody care to make any predictions whether these groups will be similarly silent when President Obama’s “Fiscal Responsibility Commission” unveils a big tax hike?

Mea Culpa: I am getting sloppy in my old age. Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget nailed me fair and square. CFRB did say something nice about Bunning on its blog back on February 26. I should have scrolled down farther. I did just check the Concord Coalition blog, all the way back to the beginning of the year, and was relieved (from a personal perspective, not on policy grounds) to find no mention of Bunning’s effort.

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Fiscal crises have a predictable pattern. Step 1 occurs when the economy is prospering and tax revenues are growing faster than forecast. Step 2 is when politicians use the additional money to increase government spending. Step 3 is that politicians do not treat the extra tax revenue like a temportary windfall and budget accordingly. Instead, they adopt policies – more entitlements, more bureaucrats – that permanently expand the burden of the public sector. Step 4 occurs when the economy stumbles (in part because more resources are being diverted from the productive sector to the government) and tax revenues stagnate. If the resulting fiscal gap is large enough, as it is in places such as Greece and California, a crisis atmosphere is created. Step 5 takes place when politicians solemnly proclaim that “tough measures” are necessary, but very rarely does that mean a reversal of the policies that caused the mess. Instead, the result in higher taxes.

Greece is now at this stage. I’ve already argued here that perhaps bankruptcy is the best option for Greece, and I showed the data proving that Greece has a too-much-spending crisis rather than a too-little-revenue crisis. I’ve also commented (here, here, and here) about the feckless behavior of Greek politicians. Sadly, it looks like things are getting even worse. The government has announced a huge increase in the value-added tax, pushing this European version of a national sales tax up to 21 percent. On the spending side of the ledger, though, the government is only proposing to reduce bonuses that are automatically given to bureaucrats three times per year. Here’s an excerpt from the Associated Press report, including a typically hysterical responses from a Greek interest group:

Government officials said the measures would include cuts in civil servant’s annual pay through reducing their Easter, Christmas and vacation bonuses by 30 percent each, and a 2 percentage point increase in sales tax to bring it to 21 percent from the current 19 percent. …One government official, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the official announcement, said…that “we have exhausted our limits.” …”It is a very difficult day for us … These cuts will take us to the brink,” said Panayiotis Vavouyious, the head of the retired civil servants’ association.

Now, time for some predictions. It is unlikely that higher taxes and cosmetic spending restraint will solve Greece’s fiscal problem. Strong global growth would make a difference, but that also seems doubtful. So Greece will probably move to Step 6, which is a bailout, though it is unclear whether the money will come from other European nations, the European Commission, and/or the European Central Bank. Step 7 is when politicians in nations such as Spain and Italy decide that financing spending (i.e., buying votes) with money from German and Dutch taxpayers is a swell idea, so they continue their profligate fiscal policies in order to become eligible for bailouts. Step 8 is when there is no more bailout money in Europe and the IMF (i.e., American taxpayers) ride to the rescue. Step 9 occurs when the United States faces a fiscal criss because of too much spending. For Step 10, read Atlas Shrugged.

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While admitting that spending restraint is the ideal approach, Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution asks whether a value-added tax (VAT) might be the most desirable of all realistic options for dealing with an unsustainable budget situation.

Read his post for yourself, but I think a fair summary is that he is basically saying that a) there will be a crisis if we don’t do something about future deficits, b) a crisis will result in very bad policy, and c) if we support a VAT now, we will at least be able to extract concessions from the other side.

I have no idea whether there will be a future crisis, but I think the rest of Tyler’s argument is wrong.

But before explaining my position, let’s start by stating what I assume to be our mutual objective, which is to control the size of government. We all agree that there is a problem because government is too big now, and it is projected to get even bigger because of the built-in growth of entitlement programs. One symptom of growing government is deficits, which are very large today and will be even bigger in the near future as more and more baby boomers retire and push up costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Our side (broadly speaking) wants to solve the budgetary situation by restraining the growth of government. One proposed solution is Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap plan, which would reform entitlements and curtail other programs so that the long-term burden of federal spending is reduced to less than 20 percent of GDP. Since long-term federal tax revenues under current law – even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent – are expected to be about 19 percent of GDP, this solves the budet problem  (the tax reform component of the Roadmap includes a VAT, which is a poison pill in an otherwise excellent plan, but let’s set that aside for another day).

The left, by contrast, generally wants to let federal spending consume ever-larger shares of economic output, and they believe that increasing the tax burden is the right way of keeping the deficit from getting too large. No statist has put forth a detailed plan to match Rep. Ryan, but several high-ranking Democrats have made no secret about their desire for a VAT (see here, here, and here). And everyone agrees that a VAT is capable of extracting a lot of money from the productive sector of the economy.

These two visions are fundamentally incompatible, which helps to explain why there is a standoff. The bad guys do not want to control the size of government and the good guys do not want to raise taxes. But now we have to add one more piece to the puzzle. While gridlock normally is a good result, inaction to some degree favors the other side because entitlement programs automatically expand. The helps to explain why Tyler (with reluctance) thinks that it may be best to acquiesce to a VAT now rather than to wait for a fiscal crisis.

Now let’s explain why Tyler is wrong. First, it is far from clear that surrendering to a VAT now will result in better (less worse) policy than what will happen during a crisis. It certainly is true that some past crises have led to terrible policy, such as the failed policies of Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s or the more recent Bush-Paulson-Obama-Geithner TARP debacle. But at other points in time, a crisis atmosphere has paved the way for better policy, with Reagan’s presidency being the most obvious example.

The wait-for-a-crisis strategy clearly is a bit of a gamble, but even if we lose, we get a VAT in the future rather than a VAT today. So what’s the downside? Tyler and others might say that the future legislation in the midst of a crisis could be a vehicle for other bad provisions, but he offers no evidence for this proposition. And it may be the case that the other side would be forced to add good provisions instead. Moreover, the lack of a VAT in the period between today and the future crisis might help lead to some much-needed spending restraint.

What about Tyler’s argument that the good guys could extract some concessions from the other side by putting a VAT on the table. This is horribly naive. Even though George Mason University is less than 20 miles from Washington, and even though Tyler is a renassaince man with many talents, he does not understand how Washington really works.

Imagine there is a budget summit where politicians from both sides get together to work on this supposed deal. Here are the inevitable ground rules – and the consequences they will produce:

1. The deal will be 50 percent spending cuts and 50 percent tax increases, but the supposed spending “cuts” will be nothing more than reductions in already-legislated increases. The tax increases, by contrast, will be on top of all the additional revenue that is already exepected under current law (not a trivial matter since receipts will be $1.5 trillion higher in 2015 than they are today according to OMB). For proponents of limited government, using the “current services baseline” as a benchmark in budget negotiations is like playing a five-minute basketball game after spotting the other team a 20-point lead.

2. All spending and revenue decisions will be examined through the prism of CBO income distribution tables, and the left will successfully insist that nothing is done to make the tax code less progressive. But since a VAT is a proportional tax, the only way of preserving overall progressivity is to raise tax rates on those wicked and evil rich people and/or to massively increase “refundable” tax credits (what normal people call income redistribution). Any proposal to lower income tax rates or eliminate the corporate income tax, as Tyler envisions, would be laughed out of the room (though Democrats will offer a fig leaf or two in order to seduce a sufficient number of gullible Republicans into supporting a terrible agreement, and that might include a cosmetic change to the corporate tax regime).

3. Many of the supposed spending cuts, for all intents and purposes, will be back-door tax increases on saving and investment. More specifically, a big chunk of the supposed spending cut portion of a budget deal will be from means-testing entitlement programs. This sounds good. After all, who wants to send a Social Security check to Bill Gates when he retires? But consider how such a system actually will work. The government will say that people with income (and/or assets) above a certain level are ineligible for some or all of the benefits available to less-fortunate retirees. From an economic persepective, this is very much akin to a higher tax rate on people who save and invest during their working years. And since means testing would only generate substantial budgetary savings if it applied to millions of regular people in addition to Bill Gates, we would wind up with a system that created big penalties on middle-class families that were dumb enough to save and invest.

I’ve already pontificated enough for one blog post, so let me summarize by stating that Tyler’s approach, while not unreasonable, is about how to lose gracefully. Even if his strategy works perfectly, the result is bigger government. I’d much rather fight. If you want some inspiration for the battle, watch this video. If you haven’t had enough of me already, here’s my video explaining why the VAT is a horrible idea.

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The White House recently released the Economic Report of the President. In a post at the White House blog, Christina Romer brags that the stimulus legislation was a big success.

This Act is the great unsung hero of the past year.  It has provided a tax cut to 95 percent of America’s working families and thousands of small businesses.  It has meant the difference between hanging on and destitution for millions of unemployed workers who had exhausted their conventional unemployment insurance benefits.  It has kept hundreds of thousands of teachers, police, and firefighters employed by helping to fill the yawning hole in state and local budgets.  And, it has made crucial long-run investments in our country’s infrastructure and jump-started the transition to the clean energy economy.  All told, the Recovery Act has saved or created some 1½ to 2 million jobs so far, and is on track to have raised employment relative to what it otherwise would have been by 3.5 million by the end of this year. 

Let’s set aside some of the disingenuous components of her post, such as categorizing income redistribution as tax relief, and focus on her claim that the legislation created at least 1.5 million new jobs when total employment has dropped by 3 million. Romer is not bad at math. Instead, she is saying that the economy would have lost 4.5 without the $787 billion increase in government spending. This what-might-have-been analysis is completely legitimate, assuming that there is good theory and evidence to back the assertion. Unfortunately (at least for the White House’s credibility), Ms. Romer and another colleague last year prepared a supposedly rigorous what-might-have-been report, where they estimated that the so-called stimulus would keep the unemployment rate at 8 percent and that failure to increase the burden of government spending would drive the unemployment rate to 9 percent. Yet as this chart from their paper indicates, when we add in the data for what actually has happened, in turns out that bigger government is not only theoretically misguided, but it also doesn’t work in the real world.

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The fiscal crisis in Greece is fascinating political theater, in part because the Balkan nation is a leading indicator for what will probably happen in many other countries. The most puzzling feature of the crisis is the assumption in other European capitals, discussed in the BBC article below, that a Greek default is the worst possible result. It certainly would not be good news, especially for investors who thought it was safe to lend money to the government, but there are several reasons why the long-term pain resulting from a bailout would be even worse.

1. Bailing out Greece will reward over-spending politicians and make future fiscal crises more likely. In a four-year period between 2005 and 2009, Greek politicians expanded the burden of government spending from an already excessive level of 43.8 percent of GDP to an even more excessive level of 51.3 percent of GDP. Subsidies are rampant, the public sector is bloated, civil service pay is way too high, and entitlements are wildly unsustainable. A fiscal crisis – with no escape options – is probably the only hope of reversing these disastrous policies. So why, then, would it make sense for Germany and other nations to provide an escape option?

2. Bailing out Greece will reward greedy and short-sighted interest groups, particularly overpaid government workers. Greece is in trouble because the the people riding in society’s wagon assumed that there would always be enough chumps to pull the wagon. In reality, Greece is turning into a real-world version of Atlas Shrugged. Government has become such a burden that the job creators and wealth generators have given up and/or moved their money out of the country. Should taxpayers in other nations reward the greed and narcissism of Greece’s interest groups by being forced to pull the wagon instead?

3. Bailing out Greece will encourage profligacy in Spain, Italy, and other nations. The hot acronym in public finance circles is PIIGS, which is shorthand for Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain. Greece is getting all the attention now, but these other countries have the same problems of excessive spending, bloated and dysfunctional public sectors, and unsustainable finances. What happens in Greece will send a very clear signal to the politicians in these nations, much as a parent who lets the oldest child run rampant is sending signals the younger siblings. Does anybody doubt that a bailout of Greece will discourage the other PIIGS from undertaking needed reforms?

4. Bailing out Greece is not necessary to save the euro. This is the most puzzling feature of this Greek tragedy (sorry, I couldn’t resist). There is a pervasive assumption that a default somehow would cripple the common currency of most European Union nations. But why would a default in Greece undermine the euro? If California went under, after all, that would not cripple the US dollar. There are unpleasant things that would probably happen following a Greek default, but the stability and strength of a currency is a function of central bank behavior. And so long as the European Central Bank does not crank up the proverbial printing press to monetize Greece’s debt, the euro should be fine.

In my darker moments, I have sometimes warned audiences of what will happen when a majority of voters in a country or a state become dependent on government. In such an environment, it obviously becomes much more difficult to put together an electoral coalition that will lead to fiscal changes that shrink the burden of government and curtail the predatory state. This is what has happened to Greece, and what is soon going to happen in other European nations (and, barring reform, what will eventually happen in the United States). The irony of this situation is that even the folks riding in the wagon should favor reform. After all, a parasite needs a healthy host.

For background info, here’s an excerpt from the BBC article:

Despite heavy rain, there have been rallies across Greece throughout the day, with thousands of striking workers and pensioners gathering in the capital, Athens. Several thousand people were also reported to have protested in Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki. The rallies have been mainly peaceful, but in one incident police fired tear gas at rubbish collectors who tried to drive through a police cordon. …The unions regard the austerity programme as a declaration of war against the working and middle classes, the BBC’s Malcolm Brabant reports from the capital. He says their resolve is strengthened by their belief that this crisis has been engineered by external forces, such as international speculators and European central bankers. “It’s a war against workers and we will answer with war, with constant struggles until this policy is overturned,” said Christos Katsiotis, a union member affiliated to the Communist Party, at the Athens rally. …On Tuesday, Prime Minister George Papandreou’s socialist government announced that it intends to raise the average retirement age from 61 to 63 by 2015 in a bid to save the cash-strapped pensions system. …Mr Papandreou has already faced down a three-week protest by farmers demanding higher government subsidies. …The markets remain sceptical that Greece will be able to pay its debts and many investors believe the country will have to be bailed out. The uncertainty has recently buffeted the euro and the problems have extended to Spain and Portugal, which are also struggling with their deficits. The possibility of Greece or one of the other stricken countries being unable to pay its debts – and either needing an EU bailout or having to abandon the euro – has been called the biggest threat yet to the single currency. Ahead of the talks between EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday, some business media reported that Germany is preparing to lead a possible bail-out, supported by France and other eurozone members.

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Politicians in Washington have come up with something far more impressive than turning lead into gold or water into wine. Using self-serving budget rules, they can increase the burden of government spending and say they are cutting taxes instead.

This bit of legerdemain is made possible, thanks to the convolutions of the personal income tax, by adopting or expanding refundable tax credits. But in this case, “refundable” does not mean the government is returning money to taxpayers. Instead, it means that money is being redistributed to people who do not earn enough to be subject to the income tax.

This is hardly a trivial issue. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the amount of income redistribution being laundered through the tax code is now so large that the bottom 40 percent of the population has a negative “effective” income tax rate. In simple terms (though perhaps with profound political implications), the income tax is a revenue generator for a big share of the population.

And the problem is going to get worse if the President’s budget is approved. Buried in the fine print, on pages 188-189 of the Analytical Perspective of the Budget, you will see that the President is proposing to increase this hidden form of spending by more than $152 billion over the next ten years.

It is worth noting that proponents argue that it is okay to classify this new spending as tax cuts because it somehow offsets other tax payments, especially the payroll tax. I’m sympathetic to lower taxes on everybody, including the poor, but surely it is better to be honest and simply cut the taxes that people pay. The current methodology, by contrast, is open to abuse. Heck, I’m surprised politicians don’t classify other forms of spending as tax cuts. Maybe corporate welfare can be reclassified as a corporate tax cut (I better stop lest I give the political class any ideas).

Defenders also assert that some so-called refundable tax credits, particularly the earned income tax credit, are designed to encourage work. That is partly true, but credits like the EITC are withdrawn as income climbs, and this means poor people face punitive marginal tax rates, so the overall effect on hours worked may be negligible.

The right approach, of course, is to get the federal government out of the racket of redistributing income.

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As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the Obama Administration will propose a three-year freeze for a portion of the budget known as “non-defense discretionary” spending. Many critics will correctly note that this is like going on a drunken binge in Vegas and then temporarily joining Alcoholics Anonymous. Others will point out that more than 80 percent of the budget has been exempted, which also is an accurate criticism. Nonetheless, even a partial freeze would be a semi-meaningful achievement. But don’t get too excited yet. It is not clear whether the White House is proposing a genuine spending freeze, meaning “budget outlays” for these programs stay at $477 billion for three years, or a make-believe freeze that applies only to “budget authority.” This is an enormously important distinction. Budget outlays matter because they represent the acutal burden of government spending. Budget authority, by contrast, is a bookkeeping measure that – at best – signals future intentions. During the profligate Bush years, for instance, apologists for the Administration tried to appease fiscal conservatives by asserting that budget authority was growing at ever-slower rates. In some cases, they were technically correct, but their arguments were deceptive because real-world spending kept climbing to record levels. And needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), future intentions never became reality. Domestic discretionary spending soared from less than $350 billion to more than $600 billion during the Bush years (and rose almost another $100 billion in Obama’s first year!). If the Obama Administration proposes a genuine outlay freeze, he will be taking a genuine (albeit small) step in the right direction. If the “freeze” applies only to budget authority, however, that will be a pretty clear indication we are in George W. Bush’s third term.

To attack the $1.4 trillion deficit, the White House will propose limits on discretionary spending unrelated to the military, veterans, homeland security and international affairs, according to senior administration officials. Also untouched are big entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The freeze would affect $447 billion in spending, or 17% of the total federal budget, and would likely be overtaken by growth in the untouched areas of discretionary spending. It’s designed to save $250 billion over the coming decade, compared with what would have been spent had this area been allowed to rise along with inflation. …administration officials acknowledged the freeze is directed at only a small part of overall spending, but that fiscal discipline has to start somewhere. President Obama had requested a 7.3% increase last year in the areas he now seeks to freeze.

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According to a Washington Post story, Obama wants to be the anti-Reagan, a President who permanently changes the American people’s attitude about big government. Obama’s efforts to make statism popular, however, are not exactly working out as he hoped. According to a new Washington Post-ABC poll, the American people have become much more libertarian when asked if that want a bigger government with more services or a smaller government with fewer services. But this is just part of the story. As David Boaz points out, more accurate polling data, which mentions that bigger government also means higher taxes, reveals that support for small government becomes even more pronounced. Here’s an excerpt from the Post story:

Could he restore confidence in government, even as he was proposing the biggest federal intervention in the domestic economy in a generation? …As Obama marks the first anniversary of his inauguration on Wednesday, that question remains one of the most politically charged of his presidency — and central to the politics of this election year — and will hinge on how Americans judge Obama and his policies. Will the public conclude that his policies worked, however much they may cost and however much they may entail more government intervention in the economy? Or will they regard his agenda as intrusive and ineffective big government? What steps may Obama take to alleviate public discontent over these first-year decisions? …Obama receives mixed reviews for his first-year performance, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. His approval rating stands at 53 percent, with 44 percent disapproving. Among independents, 49 percent approve, the lowest of any of his recent predecessors at this point in their presidencies. …The poll also shows how much ground Obama has lost during his first year of trying to convince the public that more government is the answer to the country’s problems. By 58 percent to 38 percent, Americans said they prefer smaller government and fewer services to larger government with more services. Since he won the Democratic nomination in June 2008, the margin between those favoring smaller over larger government has moved in Post-ABC polls from five points to 20 points.

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The Obama Administration said that the so-called stimulus was necessary so that the unemployment rate would not rise above 8 percent. Indeed, the White House warned that the joblessness rate would climb to 9 percent if lawmakers did not approve the $787 billion package. Critics responded by explaining that making government bigger would divert resources from the productive sector of the economy and hurt growth. These skeptics also noted that nations using “Keynesian” policy, such as the United States in the 1930s and Japan in the 1990s, did not generate good results. And since the unemployment rate is now above 10 percent, it certainly seems like opponents were correct.

But now the supposedly non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has jumped to the defense of the White House, estimating that the spending bill actually generated beween 600,000 and 1.6 million jobs. How can that be, you may ask, when the number of jobs has fallen by more than 3 million? The CBO neatly sidesteps that real-world concern by moving the goalposts, using a slightly more sophisticated version of Obama’s “jobs created or saved” alchemy. Their jobs-created estimate is compared to a make-believe baseline of how many jobs there would be “without the law.”

CBO estimates that in the third quarter of calendar year 2009, an additional 600,000 to 1.6 million people were employed in the United States, and real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) was 1.2 percent to 3.2 percent higher, than would have been the case in the absence of ARRA. …CBO’s current estimates differ only slightly from those CBO prepared in March 2009. At that time, CBO projected that in the third quarter of 2009, U.S. employment would be higher by 600,000 to 1.5 million people with ARRA than it would be without the law, and real GDP would be 1.1 percent to 3.0 percent higher. CBO’s new estimates reflect small revisions to earlier projections of the timing and magnitude of changes to spending and revenues under ARRA. …Economic output and employment in the spring and summer of 2009 were lower than CBO had projected at the beginning of the year. But in CBO’s judgment, that outcome reflects greater-than-projected weakness in the underlying economy rather than lower-than-expected effects of ARRA.

Needless to say, this means there is no objective benchmark. The unemployment rate could jump to 15 percent and total job losses could reach 10 million, but CBO would continue to say, for all intents and purposes, that the results from their Keynesian model are more important than any real-world numbers. This is the fiscal-policy version of the Wizard of Oz, and we’re supposed to ignore reality just as Dorothy and friends were supposed to ignore the man behind the curtain.

To be fair, there is nothing inherently wrong with CBO’s methodology. Economic analysis frequently requires people to make assumptions about how the world would behave with or without a certain policy. So the real question is whether Keynesian economics makes sense from a theoretical perspective, whether there is any suppporting evidence, and whether there are more compelling alternatives. Click the links and decide for yourself.

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This video provides 12 reasons in less than 7 minutes.

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This blog has been warning about the danger of a value-added tax. We’ve cited the salivating comments of Speaker Pelosi. We’ve noted the favorable comments by Obama insiders like the former Co-Chairman of his transition team. We know the battle is coming. Now we need to fight. This newly-released video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity provides the data showing that this is a do-or-die fight. If we lose, there is no hope of stopping statism. Blocking a VAT is not a sufficient condition to protect America from becoming a French-style welfare state, but it is a necessary condition.

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