Posts Tagged ‘Balanced Budget’

What could be more fun than to spend the day before Christmas reading about fiscal policy?

I realize there are probably endless ways to answer that question, particularly since normal people are probably more concerned about the rumor that the feds are going to arrest Santa Claus.

But America’s fiscal future is very grim, so hopefully some of you will be interested in some relevant new research on spending caps.

My buddy Sven Larson has a scholarly article about deficits and the Swiss Debt Brake that has just been published by the Journal of Governance and Regulation.

The first half of his article is a review of the academic debate on whether deficits are good (the Keynesians) or bad (the austerity crowd). This literature review is necessary for that sort of article, though I think it’s a distraction because deficits are merely a symptom. The real problem is excessive government.

Sven then gets to the meat of his article, which considers whether the Swiss Debt Brake (which imposes a cap on annual spending increases) is a better approach because it isn’t focused on annual budget deficits (which are susceptible to big swings because income tax revenues can dramatically increase or decline based on the economy’s performance).

…the Swiss Debt Brake…focuses primarily on the non-cyclical, i.e., structural part of the deficit in Switzerland (Geier 2011). By focusing on the long-term debt outlook rather than the short-term or annual ebbs and flows, the debt brake allows the economy to move through a business cycle without disruptive fiscal-policy incursions. …Since it was introduced in 2003 it appears to have worked as intended. Beljean and Geier (2013) present evidence suggesting that the brake has ended a long period of sustained government deficits.

Sven then cites my Wall Street Journal column on the Debt Brake, which is nice, and he then shares some new evidence about the economic benefits of the Swiss spending cap.

The Swiss economy grew faster in the first decade after the brake went into effect than in the decade immediately preceding its enactment.

And, in his conclusion, he speculates that the United States could reap similar economic benefits with a spending cap.

Should Congress manage to pass and comply with an adapted version of the Swiss debt brake, it is reasonable to expect…stronger economic growth. As an indication of the potential macroeconomic gains, a real growth rate of three percent as opposed to two percent over a period of ten years would add more than $2.3 trillion in annual economic activity to the U.S. GDP.

The degree of additional growth that would be triggered by a spending cap is an open question, of course, but if we could get even half of that additional growth, it would be a boon for American living standards.

Let’s now shift to an article with a much more hostile view of spending caps.

I wrote very recently about the adoption of a spending cap in Brazil. This new system will limit government spending so that it can’t grow faster than inflation. Sounds very reasonable to me, but Zeeshan Aleem has a Vox column that is apoplectic about the supposed horrible consequences.

Americans worried that Donald Trump will try to shred the nation’s social welfare programs can take some grim comfort by looking south: No matter what Republicans do, it will pale in comparison with the changes that are about to ravage Brazil. On Thursday, a new constitutional amendment goes into effect in Brazil that effectively freezes federal government spending for two decades. Since the spending cap can only increase by the rate of inflation in the previous year, that means that spending on government programs like education, health care, pensions, infrastructure, and defense will, in real terms, remain paused at 2016 levels until the year 2037.

Since the burden of government spending in Brazil has been rising far faster than the growth of the private sector (thus violating fiscal policy’s Golden Rule), I view the spending cap as a long-overdue correction.

Interesting, Aleem admits that the policy is being welcomed by financial markets.

As far as inspiring faith from investors, the amendment appears to be working. Brazil’s currency and stocks rose during December in part because of the passage of the measure.

But the author is upset that there won’t be as much redistribution spending.

…the spending cap…places the burden of reining in government spending entirely on beneficiaries of government spending — all Brazilians, but especially the poor and the vulnerable.

Instead, Aleem wants big tax increases.

…the amendment does a great deal to limit the expenditure of government funds, it doesn’t do anything to directly address how to generate them directly: taxes. “The major cause of our fiscal crisis is falling revenues,” Carvalho says… Carvalho says taking an ax to spending is coming at the expense of discussing “taxing the very rich, who do not pay very much in taxes, or eliminating tax cuts that have been given to big corporations.”

Wow, methinks Professor Carvalho and I don’t quite see things the same way.

I would point out that falling revenues in a deep recession is not a surprise. But that’s an argument for policies that boost growth, not for big tax hikes.

Especially since the long-run fiscal problem in Brazil is a growing burden of government spending.

And it’s worth noting that overall impact of the spending cap, even after 10 years, will be to bring the size of the public sector back to where it was in about 2008.

Let’s close by reviewing an article by Charles Blahous of the Mercatus Center. Chuck starts by noting that we have a spending problem. More specifically, the burden of government is expanding faster than the private economy.

…to say we have a problem with deficits and debt is an oversimplification. What we have instead is an overspending problem, and the federal debt is essentially a symptom of that problem. …federal spending has grown and will grow (under current projections) faster than our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The solution, he explains, is a procedural version of a spending cap.

To solve this, future federal budgets in which spending grows as a percentage of GDP from one year to the next should require a congressional supermajority (e.g., three-fifths or two-thirds) to pass. Only if spending in the budget does not rise as a percentage of GDP from one year to the next could it be passed with a simple majority.

Chuck explains why there should be a limit on spending increases.

…we cannot permanently continue to allow federal spending to grow faster than America’s production. …as government spending growth exceeds GDP growth, we all lose more control over our economic lives. As individuals we will have less of a say over the disposition of each dollar we earn, because the government will claim a perpetually-growing share.

And higher taxes are never a solution to a spending problem.

…this problem cannot be solved by raising taxes. Raising taxes…does not avoid the necessity of keeping spending from rising faster than our productive output. Raising taxes may even have the downside of deferring the necessary solutions on the spending side.

The last sentence in that abstract is key. I’ve written about why – in theory – I could accept some tax increases in order to obtain some permanent spending reforms. In the real world of Washington, however, politicians will never adopt meaningful spending restraint if there’s even the slightest rumor that higher taxes may be an option.

He concludes that current budget rules need to be updated.

…budget rules apply no procedural barriers to continuing unsustainable spending growth rates, while legislative points of order protect baseline fiscal practices in which both federal spending and revenues grow faster than the economy’s ability to keep pace.

I certainly agree, though it would be nice to see something much stronger than just changes in congressional procedures.

Perhaps something akin to the constitutional spending caps in Hong Kong and Switzerland?

Now that would be a nice Christmas present for American taxpayers.

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It’s not a big day for normal people, but today is exciting for fiscal policy wonks because the Congressional Budget Office has released its new 10-year forecast of how much revenue Uncle Sam will collect based on current law and how much the burden of government spending will expand if policy is left on auto-pilot.

Most observers will probably focus on the fact that budget deficits are projected to grow rapidly in future years, reaching $1 trillion in 2024.

That’s not welcome news, though I think it’s far more important to focus on the disease of too much spending rather than the symptom of red ink.

But let’s temporarily set that issue aside because the really big news from the CBO report is that we have new evidence that it’s actually very simple to balance the budget without tax increases.

According to CBO’s new forecast, federal tax revenue is projected to grow by an average of 4.3 percent each year, which means receipts will jump from 3.28 trillion this year to $4.99 trillion in 2026.

And since federal spending this year is estimated to be $3.87 trillion, we can make some simple calculation about the amount of fiscal discipline needed to balance the budget.

A spending freeze would balance the budget by 2020. But for those who want to let government grow at 2 percent annually (equal to CBO’s projection for inflation), the budget is balanced by 2024.

So here’s the choice in front of the American people. Either allow spending to grow on autopilot, which would mean a return to trillion dollar-plus deficits within eight years. Or limit spending so it grows at the rate of inflation, which would balance the budget in eight years.

Seems like an obvious choice.

By the way, when I crunched the CBO numbers back in 2010, they showed that it would take 10 years to balance the budget if federal spending grew 2 percent per year.

So why, today, can we balance the budget faster if spending grows 2 percent annually?

For the simple reason that all those fights earlier this decade about debt limits, government shutdowns, spending caps, and sequestration actually produced a meaningful victory for advocates of spending restraint. The net result of those budget battles was a five-year nominal spending freeze.

In other words, Congress actually out-performed my hopes and expectations (probably the only time in my life I will write that sentence).*

Here’s a video I narrated on this topic of spending restraint and fiscal balance back in 2010.

Everything I said back then is still true, other than simply adjusting the numbers to reflect a new forecast.

The bottom line is that modest spending restraint is all that’s needed to balance the budget.

That being said, I can’t resist pointing out that eliminating the deficit should not be our primary goal. It’s not good to have red ink, to be sure, but the more important goal should be to reduce the burden of federal spending.

That’s why I keep promoting my Golden Rule. If government grows slower than the private sector, that means the burden of spending (measured as a share of GDP) will decline over time.

And it’s why I’m a monomaniacal advocate of spending caps rather than a conventional balanced budget amendment. If you directly address the underlying disease of excessive government, you’ll automatically eliminate the symptom of government borrowing.

Which is why I very much enjoy sharing this chart whenever I’m debating one of my statist friends. It shows all the nations that have enjoyed great success with multi-year periods of spending restraint.

During these periods of fiscal responsibility, the burden of government falls as a share of economic output and deficits also decline as a share of GDP.

I then ask my leftist pals to show a similar table of countries that have gotten good results by raising taxes.

As you can imagine, that’s when there’s an uncomfortable silence in the room, perhaps because the European evidence very clearly shows that higher taxes lead to bigger government and more red ink (I also get a response of silence when I issue my challenge for statists to identify a single success story of big government).

*Congress has reverted to (bad) form, voting last year to weaken spending caps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a very useful table from the report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Congressional Budget Office has just released its new 10-year fiscal forecast and the numbers are getting worse.

Most people are focusing on the fact that the deficit is rising rather than falling and that annual government borrowing will again climb above $1 trillion by 2022.

This isn’t good news, of course, but it’s a mistake to focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of excessive spending.

So here’s the really bad news in the report.

  • The burden of government spending has jumped from 20.3 percent of GDP in 2014 to 21.2 percent this year.
  • By the end of the 10-year forecast, the federal government will consume 23.1 percent of the economy’s output.

In other words, the progress that was achieved between 2010 and 2014 is evaporating and America is on the path to becoming a Greek-style welfare state.

There are two obvious reasons for this dismal trend.

Here’s a chart that shows what’s been happening. It shows the rolling average of annual changes in revenue and spending. With responsible fiscal policy, the red line (spending) will be close to 0% and have no upward trend.

Unfortunately, federal outlays have been moving in the wrong direction since 2014 and government spending is now growing twice as fast as inflation.

By the way, don’t forget that we’re at the very start of the looming tsunami of retiring baby boomers, so this should be the time when spending restraint is relatively easy.

Yet if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors, bipartisan profligacy is digging a deeper hole as we get closer to an entitlement cliff.

Now let’s shift to the good news. It’s actually relatively simple to solve the problem.

Here’s a chart that shows projected revenues (blue line) and various measures of how quickly the budget can be balanced with a modest bit of spending restraint.

Regular readers know I don’t fixate on fiscal balance. I’m far more concerned with reducing the burden of government spending relative to the private sector.

That being said, when you impose some restraint on the spending side of the fiscal ledger, you automatically solve the symptom of deficits.

With a spending freeze, the budget is balanced in 2020. If spending is allowed to climb 1 percent annually, the deficit disappears in 2022. And if outlays climb 2 percent annually (about the rate of inflation), the budget is balanced in 2024. And if you want to give the politicians a 10-year window, you get to balance by 2026 if spending is “only” allowed to grow 2.5 percent per year.

In other words, the solution is a spending cap.

Here’s my video on spending restraint and fiscal balance from 2010. The numbers obviously have changed, but the message is still the same because good policy never goes out of style.

Needless to say, a simple solution isn’t the same as an easy solution. The various interest groups in Washington will team up with bureaucrats, politicians, and lobbyists to resist spending restraint.

P.S. A final snow update. Since my neighbors were kind enough to help me finish my driveway yesterday, I was inspired to “pay it forward” by helping to clear an older couple’s driveway this morning (not that I was much help since another neighbor brought a tractor with a plow).

It’s amazing that these good things happen without some government authority directing things!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of the details about spending caps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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