Posts Tagged ‘Debt Brake’

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

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

There are three reasons for this drop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iceland Spending Restraint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swiss Debt Brake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how does this system work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming that obstacle is the real challenge.

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

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