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Posts Tagged ‘Big Government’

Since it is the single-largest government program, not only in the United States but also the entire world, it’s remarkable that Social Security isn’t getting much attention from fiscal policy wonks.

Sure, Obamacare is a more newsworthy issue because of the repeal/replace fight. And yes, it’s true that Medicare and Medicaid are growing faster and eventually will consume a larger share of the economy.

But those aren’t reasons to turn a blind eye toward a program that will soon have an annual budget of $1 trillion. Especially since the tax-and-spend crowd in Washington is actually arguing that the program should be expanded. I’m not kidding.

If nothing else, the just-released Trustees Report from the Social Security Administration demands attention. As I do every year, I immediately looked at Table VI.G9, which shows the annual inflation-adjusted budgetary impact of the program.

Here’s a chart showing how the program has grown since 1970 and what is expected in the future. Remember, these are inflation-adjusted numbers, so the sharp increase in outlays over the next several decades starkly illustrates that Social Security will be grabbing ever-larger amounts of money from the economy’s productive sector.

It’s also worth noting that the program already is in the red. Social Security outlays began to exceed revenues back in 2010.

And the numbers will get more out of balance over time.

By the way, some people say that the program is in decent shape since the “Trust Fund” isn’t projected to run out of money until 2034. That’s technically true, but utterly meaningless since it is nothing but a pile of IOUs.

You don’t have to believe me. A few years ago, I quoted this passage from one of Bill Clinton’s budgets.

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures–but only in a bookkeeping sense. …They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury, that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.

Amen.

This is why annual cash flow into and out of the program is what matters, at least if we care about the Social Security’s economic impact.

And for those who want to know about the gap between the inflow and outflow, here’s a chart showing how deficits are going to explode in coming decades. Again, keep in mind these are inflation-adjusted numbers.

That’s not a typo in the chart. The total shortfall between now and 2095 is a staggering $44.2 trillion. Yes, trillion.

Remarkably, there’s an even bigger long-run problem with Medicare and Medicaid. Which helps to explain I relentlessly push for genuine entitlement reform.

But let’s focus today on Social Security. The answer to this looming fiscal nightmare is to copy one of the many nations that have shifted to “funded” retirement systems based on real savings. I’m a big fan of the Australian approach. Chile also has a great system, and Switzerland and the Netherlands are good role models as well. Hong Kong and Singapore also rely on private savings for retirement, and both jurisdictions demonstrate that aging populations and falling birthrates aren’t necessarily a fiscal death sentence. Heck, even the Faroe Islands and Sweden have jumped on the bandwagon of private retirement accounts.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

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I wrote yesterday about a very depressing development in the United Kingdom. Politicians in that country – including some supposed fiscal conservatives – are contemplating a big expansion in the burden of government spending in order to give pay hikes to the bureaucracy.

What makes this so unfortunate is that the country has been making fiscal progress. Ever since 2010, government spending has grown by an average of 1.6 percent annually. And since the private economy has expanded at a faster pace, this period of restraint has satisfied my golden rule. In other words, the public sector – though still very large – is now a smaller burden on the private sector.

This progress could be quickly reversed, though, with a new spending binge. And it would be especially foolish to throw in the towel just to give more money to government employees. Just like in the U.S., bureaucrats already are overcompensated compared to their counterparts in the productive sector of the economy.

Let’s take a closer look at whether U.K. policymakers should end “austerity” and expand the relative burden of government spending.

The Centre for Policy Studies in London has examined the issue, and this new research from CPS debunks the notion that there should be large increases in bureaucrat compensation.

But since we covered that topic yesterday, let’s focus instead on what CPS discovered when reviewing the impact of spending restraint on various economic aggregates.

…when examining OECD countries that were left with a large budget deficit in 2010 (those countries with a deficit of over 5% of GDP in 2010), it appears that there is a strong correlation between those countries that cut spending by a higher degree, on average, and countries which achieved a larger reduction in deficit, higher average growth rates, a larger fall in proportionate unemployment and marginally better wage growth (see Figures 5, 6, 7 and 8). Of course, correlation does not necessarily mean causation. However, this provides strong evidence that there is no link between austerity and lower growth, higher unemployment and weaker wage growth.

Let’s look at the charts referenced in the excerpt.

We’ll start with Figure 5, which looks at relationship between spending restraint and deficit reduction. Nobody should be surprised to see that the symptom of red ink shrinks when there’s a reduction in the underlying disease of too much government spending.

I think the most important data is contained in Figure 6, which maps the relationship between economic growth and spending restraint. As you can see, a lower burden of government spending is associated with better economic performance.

There’s also a connection between smaller government and lower joblessness, as shown in Figure 7.

Last but not least, Figure 8 shows the positive relationship between lower spending and higher wages.

As explained in the CPS report, correlation is not causation. But since these results are in sync with research from academic scholars (and even research from left-leaning bureaucracies such as the IMF, World Bank, and OECD), the only prudent conclusion is that the U.K. should not give up on fiscal responsibility.

And perhaps the real lesson is that a constitutional spending cap should be enacted whenever a consensus for good policy materializes. That way, there’s a much lower risk of backsliding when politicians get weak-kneed.

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One of my favorite charts shows how nations achieve great results when they engage in multi-year periods of spending restraint.

The most important benefit is that the burden of government shrinks relative to the private sector, but it’s also worth noting that the symptom of red ink begins to disappear when there is a serious effort to deal with the underlying disease of excessive spending.

But sharing this chart also a bittersweet experience since it shows – in almost all cases – that it is just a matter of time before politicians go back to fiscal profligacy.

This is why I’m a huge fan of a permanent spending cap, ideally as part of a nation’s constitution.  Jurisdictions that have adopted this approach, such as Hong Kong and Switzerland, have very strong long-run fiscal performance rather than just temporary blips of good policy.

At the risk of understatement, it’s increasingly obvious that the United Kingdom needs this kind of permanent structural reform.

As you can see from this chart I shared back in February, there’s been some decent spending restraint in that country ever since 2010.

Let’s augment those numbers. I pulled together the data on government spending from the OECD, the IMF, and the UK government. They all have slightly different methodologies with slightly different numbers, but they all tell the same story.

Ever since 2010, the burden of government spending has expanded by an average of about 1.6 percent annually. Spending is still growing, needless to say, but the private sector has been growing faster, so British policymakers have been satisfying my golden rule.

And because the productive sector of the economy has grown faster than government, this means that relative burden of spending has declined. Which is exactly what we see in this chart.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that politicians are tired of being responsible. They are salivating at the prospect of a new spending binge. Even Tory politicians now want to play Santa with other people’s money.

The U.K.-based Times has some of the unpleasant details.

Ministers are pushing to delay or abandon a series of tax cuts to fund an increase in public sector pay, The Times has learnt. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, is being urged to scrap commitments to reduce corporation tax and raise the thresholds for the personal allowance and the 40 per cent income tax rate. …At a meeting of the political cabinet last week, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, Justine Greening, the education secretary, and Sir Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, are understood to have called for more money for public sector workers.

Opening the spending spigot would be a terrible mistake. Especially to finance higher pay for bureaucrats.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on this new threat to fiscal responsibility on the other side of the Atlantic.

…the Prime Minister’s Tories now want to abandon their claim to fiscal discipline. Rather than blame a feckless campaign, wobbly Tory leaders have decided that voters are exhausted with “austerity” and government employees are happy to step in with spending demands. Those government workers and their patrons in the opposition Labour Party are demanding an end to the 1% annual pay-rise cap imposed by former Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne in 2013 after several years of pay freezes.

Even worse, they want to cancel tax cuts and/or impose tax hikes to finance more money for the bureaucracy.

…cabinet grandees Boris Johnson and Michael Gove…seem willing to pay for it by reducing scheduled corporate tax-rate cuts or increasing individual taxes by reducing the threshold at which the second-highest 40% rate applies.

You won’t be surprised to learn that British bureaucrats (just like their American cousins) are not underpaid compared to workers in the economy’s productive sector.

Britain’s government workers aren’t suffering from a pay crisis compared to their peers in the private (that is, productive) economy. For most of the period since 2000, average weekly nominal earnings for public employees have exceeded the private average, according to the Office for National Statistics. And that excludes government pensions that are far more generous than what most private employees enjoy. Government workers were also shielded from the worst of the post-2008 downturn. The 1% cap amounted to steady nominal wage growth while private wages fell sharply…. Government workers were also spared the worst of the job cuts private employers imposed. …The 1% nominal pay cap mainly has given private workers an opportunity to catch up to government pay. …Voters are frustrated by an economic recovery that has largely failed to deliver inflation-adjusted earnings growth. But the solution isn’t to further stifle wage growth in the private economy by raising taxes to benefit public employees.

Tim Worstall also explains that the bureaucracy is not suffering from a lack of compensation.

We’ve just had a massive recession and thus we are indeed worse off. That’s what a recession is all about. So the question should be: are we all sharing that pain? We are not. Public sector pay has fallen by less than private. The people paying the tax have suffered more than those who eat the tax – hardly a good argument in favour of tax-eater pay rises. …It is also true, as the IFS points out, that public sector pay rose substantially in the 2000 to 2005 period. Pay rose more and then pay fell less. I simply can’t see an argument for a public sector pay rise or the lifting of that cap here.

My colleague at the Cato Institute, Ryan Bourne, is a citizen of the United Kingdom, and he points out that one of the problems is that bureaucrat pay levels are determined nationally, which makes no sense when the cost of living varies widely across the country.

….they should phase out national pay bargaining where it remains in the public sector. Previous research by Allison Wolf has shown the high cost of having national pay scales and bargaining. …Poorer regions…suffer as very high pay relative to the private sector crowds out private sector growth.

Ryan explains that Sweden successfully adopted this reform.

Sweden shows the solution. There, collective bargaining was entirely replaced by individual contracts between staff and their local public sector employer, with little fuss. If applied here, managers would then have genuine flexibility in the creation of new posts. It would liberate them to set pay to reflect more accurately local conditions, while varying wages to fulfil difficult positions.

Of course, the ideal situation would be genuine federalism, with local communities raising their own funds and then deciding how lavishly to compensate the bureaucrats they hire. The U.K. actually took a baby step in that direction years ago by giving greater autonomy to Scotland.

I’ll close with a rather depressing observation. It was only two months ago that I suggested Tories might be poised to make big policy improvements in the United Kingdom. Now it appears that they’ll be competing with the Labour Party on how to spend other people’s money. The great Margaret Thatcher is probably spinning in her grave.

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I will occasionally pontificate about a demographic crisis in the developed world, but I usually feel guilty afterwards. After all, how can it be a bad thing that we’re living longer? And what gives me the right to grouse about the number of children other families decide to have?

What I should be saying instead is that demographic changes are forcing us to recognize that we have a crisis of bad public policy. To be more specific, the entitlement state has become too large.

That’s the message I tried to get across in an interview earlier this week.

At the risk of oversimplification, I basically stated that there are two crises in the world.

The first crisis, based in the industrialized world, is that tax-and-transfer welfare states were created back when there were lots of workers and relatively few old people, and most people assumed that demographic profile would always exist.

But now that the “population pyramid” is becoming a “population cylinder” (I was talking faster than I was thinking in the interview and reversed the two concepts at one point), there aren’t going to be enough workers to finance all the redistribution programs, particularly the ones that funnel money to the elderly.

This is a big reason why nations such as Greece and Italy already are in deep trouble and why it’s just a matter of time before the fiscal crisis spreads to France and Japan (and the United States if we don’t enact genuine entitlement reform).

Here’s a table, based on World Bank data, showing the 20 jurisdictions with the lowest fertility rates. Which means, of course, the places with the fewest future taxpayers to finance redistribution.

The second crisis, based in the developing world, is that pervasive statism suffocates growth.

And while I largely agree with the late Julian Simon about people being a resource rather than liability, if a nation has a bloated and intrusive public sector that stifles the private sector, then a growing population can be a bad thing.

But it’s not the growing population that’s bad, it’s the statist policies. Here’s a list of the 20 counties with the highest fertility rates. The majority of them are ranked in the “least free” quartile according to Economic Freedom of the World. And none of them are in the “most free” quartile.

But the most important part of the interview, at least when thinking about problems in the industrialized world, is when I pointed out that nations such as Singapore don’t face a big problem.

Yes, Singapore has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, but it also doesn’t have a pervasive tax-and-transfer welfare state. People are responsible for saving for their own retirement and healthcare. So the absence of future taxpayers isn’t a major challenge because the system doesn’t need to be propped up with tax revenue.

And the same thing is true in Hong Kong, another jurisdiction that is in good long-run shape even though the fertility rate is extremely low.

P.S. Given the demographic changes that are now occurring, many governments with big welfare states now recognize that they have a problem. Unfortunately, many of them think the solution is to artificially encourage more babies rather than entitlement reform.

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Why does government waste so much money? In so many ways? With such reckless abandon?

I suppose I could answer with mockery and say it’s because they have lots of experience squandering our tax dollars.

But let’s seriously contemplate that question and explore one of the reasons for waste. Simply stated, government programs are a magnet for scammers.

Let’s look at three case studies.

Example #1: Fraud is an inherent part of the big entitlement programs. Kevin Williamson has some unseemly details in an article for National Review.

…you know where there’s a lot of waste, fraud, and abuse? Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. …Medicare and Medicaid together account for about $1 trillion in federal spending annually, and estimates suggest that $1 out of ever $10 of that spending is fraud. Some estimates go much higher. We do not have a very good idea of exactly how extensive fraud in the system is, because the federal government has put a fair amount of effort into not knowing.

And what does that mean? How does the government try not to know?

…the government’s approach long has been backward…investigators are asking whether a certain treatment was in fact appropriate for what ails Mrs. Jones, not whether Mrs. Jones exists.

In other words, bureaucrats basically accept all claims as legitimate and simply judges from afar whether the right medical service is provided for the listed ailment.

Even if the ailment is fictional. Or the patient is fake.

As one might imagine, that kind of sloppy approach, combined with programs that dispense hundreds of billions of dollars, is a magnet for professional crooks.

It’s the work of organized crime. As Sparrow points out, when there is a criminal case filed against one of these fraud artists, then billing in a particular category — some years ago, it was HIV fusion treatments — falls off steeply, by as much as 90 percent. The implication here is that fraudulent billing may make up the majority of Medicaid and Medicare spending in some categories. …organized-crime syndicates are being permitted to use our medical entitlements to loot the Treasury, and that not very much is being done about that, which suggests the possibility — only a possibility — that there is political collusion in this at some level.

By the way, Kevin may be on to something when he speculates about collusion.

We already know about examples of politicians intervening to protect fraudsters (who, conveniently, also happen to be campaign donors).

So is it really that much of a stretch to imagine them turning a blind eye (or worse) to industrial-level fraud by criminal enterprises?

Leads me to think this cartoon makes an unnecessary distinction.

Example #2: Welfare programs also are a magnet for fraud.

Here are excerpts from a recent news report.

Another six Lakewood, New Jersey couples were charged Wednesday with welfare fraud, bringing to 26 the number of people implicated since last week in the multimillion-dollar scandal. At the heart of the charges is the allegation that they all, in one way or another, failed to report or otherwise concealed significant income that would have made them ineligible for the assistance programs in which they enrolled. In total, state and federal prosecutors have said the families collected more than $2.4 million in benefits. …They allegedly obtained nearly $400,000 in Medicaid, food and heating benefits fraudulently. …Four other couples were arrested June 26 for allegedly defrauding public assistance programs of more than $1.3 million in benefits.

Welfare fraud must have been a major pastime for residents of the town.

Hundreds of these moochers are now trying to cover their tracks in hopes of avoiding legal trouble.

The specter of more charges has shaken Lakewood. Hundreds of residents have contacted authorities seeking amnesty or help avoiding arrest, the Asbury Park Press reported on June 29. In addition to the hundreds seeking amnesty, dozens more people have contacted social service agencies to cancel their benefits or declare income

Example #3: And nobody should be surprised to learn that there’s plenty of fraud at the Pentagon.

Here’s an example that seems very representative.

The former owners of a Pittsburgh-area military supplier have been accused of defrauding the U.S. government of more than $6 million in defense contract work. …Prosecutors allege the Buckners inflated the cost of the work by falsifying invoices to make it appear as though they had spent $70 per window frame for the materials when in fact they had paid just $20 each for frames manufactured in China. The brothers are also alleged to have sold scrap aluminum collected in the manufacturing process without crediting that money to TACOM. The losses to TACOM are placed at $6,085,709 by the DOJ.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2014, a defense contractor responsible for providing food and water to troops in Afghanistan pleaded guilty to over-charging the U.S. government to the tune of $48 million. This week, two San Diego defense contractors pleaded guilty in a scheme that defrauded the Navy out of at least $1.4 million by over-billing for supplies that the military never ordered, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. Similar stories have cropped up in Florida, California, Maryland, North Carolina and elsewhere in recent years, renewing calls for systemic reforms.

Maybe the reason fraud is so pervasive is that penalties are trivial or nonexistent.

A 2011 DOD report found hundreds of defense contractors that defrauded the U.S. military subsequently went on to receive more than $1.1 trillion in new Pentagon contracts between 2000 and 2010.

Shouldn’t criminal companies be barred from subsequent contracts? Shouldn’t crooked company officials be sent to prison?

Or do these things not happen because the same folks are also campaign contributors?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but surely something is amiss.  It’s almost as if government is simply a racket for the benefit of insiders.

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I spend a lot of my time fretting about how federal spending is going to become an ever-larger (and unsustainable) burden in the future.

And I periodically will write about how I wish we still had the very small federal government envisioned by the Founding Fathers (and which largely existed up until the 1920s).

But I haven’t spent that much time looking at how we got to where we are today, other than in 2015 when I cited a very interesting report from the Joint Economic Committee that provided decade-by-decade data on changes in the burden of federal spending.

But I had a chance to touch on this issue in a recent interview when asked to comment on the unfortunate milestone of a $4 trillion federal budget.

Building on that discussion, here are three charts, based on numbers from table 1.3 of OMB’s historical budget data, showing what has happened to federal outlays.

This first graph shows changes in nominal spending over time. As I pointed out in the interview, it took 200 years before the crowd in Washington got spending up to $1 trillion.

But in the past three decades, it has skyrocketed to $4 trillion.

But nominal spending numbers are not the most useful data when looking at long-run changes.

After all, we’ve had lots of inflation. Simply stated, dollars today are worth a lot less than dollars in the past.

So this second chart shows inflation-adjusted federal outlays. As you can see, we have a graph that doesn’t look quite the same. It’s much easier to see the budgetary impact of World War II, for instance, and post-war spending growth isn’t quite as dramatic.

Though it’s still significant. As I noted in the interview, the burden of inflation-adjusted federal spending has doubled since 1985.

But even inflation-adjusted data doesn’t tell the real story.

The most important numbers, at least from an economic perspective, are the ones that measure the burden of federal spending relative to the size of the private economy.

And that’s what I show in this final chart measuring federal spending as a share of economic output (gross domestic product).

Now it’s very easy to see that World War II involved a massive one-time fiscal cost. But the most important data is what happened after the war. The burden of federal outlays initially dropped to 12 percent of GDP. That’s higher than it was before the war, but at least in retrospect not a bad place to be.

Unfortunately, there’s been a gradual expansion in the economic burden of the federal budget ever since.

Though if you pay close attention to the numbers, there are some interesting secondary stories. You’ll notice that the negative upward trend was reversed during the Reagan years and we continued to make progress during the Clinton years.

Unfortunately, policy then moved in the wrong direction under Bush and Obama.

Which brings me back to where I started. As bad as the numbers are today, they are likely to get worse in the future because of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs. So unless we have genuine entitlement reform, we will become a failed welfare state.

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Here’s what I wrote last month about the fiscal situation in Illinois.

Illinois is a mess. Taxes and spending already are too high, and huge unfunded liabilities point to an even darker future. Simply stated, politicians and government employee unions have created an unholy alliance to extract as much money as possible from the state’s beleaguered private sector. That’s not a surprise. Indeed, it’s easily explained by the “stationary bandit” theory of government. But while the bandit of government may be stationary, the victims are not. At least not in a nation with 50 different states.

Looking at this grim situation, the state legislature decided it had to act.

Unfortunately, the politicians in Springfield decided that action meant stepping on the accelerator while driving in the wrong direction. Democrats in the state legislature (joined by some big-government Republicans, just like in Kansas) just overrode Governor Rauner’s veto and imposed a huge tax hike on a state that already has one of the nation’s highest tax burdens.

This will hasten the state’s collapse.

Here’s what I said earlier this week about the prospect of another tax hike in the state.

I specifically want to highlight something I said about halfway through the interview about the burden of government spending in Illinois compared to regional competitors.

Here’s a chart I prepared based on data culled from the Census Bureau. As you can see, per-capita outlays are higher in Illinois than in neighboring states. In some cases, thousands of dollars higher.

Given this data, I’d like to ask the people of Illinois the same question I asked an audience in Paris when comparing France and Switzerland. What exactly are you getting for all that money?

The answer is nothing. Just like the French governments spends far more than the Swiss government without delivering better services, the Illinois government spends far more than the Indiana government without delivering better services.

Instead, the money gets diverted to the pockets of the various interest groups. In the case of Illinois, it’s almost as if the state exists to enrich a cossetted class of state and local bureaucrats.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial earlier this week made several key points.

In Illinois, Democrats spent the long weekend coaxing Republican legislators to join their suicide pact to raise taxes to plug a $6 billion deficit… And don’t forget the $130 billion unfunded pension liability—none of which will be solved by the $5 billion tax hike. …The state legislature is controlled by public unions that refuse to compromise. …Pensions will consume about a quarter of Illinois’s general fund this year. Nearly 40% of state education dollars go toward teacher pensions, and the state paid nearly as much into the State Universities Retirement System last year as it spent on higher education. Anemic revenue and economic growth can’t keep up with entitlement spending. The state’s GDP has ticked up by a mere 0.8% annually over the last four years compared to 2% nationwide and 1.4% in the Great Lakes region. Since 2010 more than 520,000 Illinois residents on net have fled to other states.

And Jonathan Williams of the American Legislative Exchange Council also opined on the mess in Illinois.

…the focus should be on fixing the state’s big-government policy prescriptions that are killing economic growth and opportunity. It should come as no surprise that businesses and citizens continue to leave the Land of Lincoln in droves. The credit rating agencies are right to question Illinois’ ability to pay its bills, as the tax base flees to other states. …When the rosy accounting assumptions are stripped away, Illinois has a dismal 23.77 percent funding ratio, $362.6 billion in total amount of unfunded liabilities. That staggering number represents an unfunded pension liability of $28,200 for every man, woman and child in Illinois. …one might assume the state government is not bringing in enough revenue and merely needs to raise taxes. This is simply false. According to Tax Foundation’s analysis, Illinois’ taxpayers pay the 5th highest combined state-local tax burden in America. …It should come as no surprise, then, that nearly 700,000 Illinois residents left from 2006-2015… Only New York and California experienced higher levels of domestic out-migration during the same period.

The bottom line is that this latest tax hike will cause more productive people to leave the state. Politicians in the state also will have an excuse to postpone much-needed reforms of the state pension system, which is the primary threat to long-run solvency. And government, which already is too big, will become an even bigger burden.

P.S. At some point, I need to write about Indiana, a state that quietly has amassed a very good track record of fiscal prudence. Especially since it’s about to benefit from an influx of tax refugees from its neighbor to the west.

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