Posts Tagged ‘Debt’

Whenever there’s a fight over raising the debt limit, the political establishment gets hysterical and makes apocalyptic claims about default and economic crisis.

For years, I’ve been arguing that this Chicken-Little rhetoric is absurd. And earlier this week I testified about this issue before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee.

By the way, when I first showed up, my placard identified me as Ms. Mitchell.

Since I work at a libertarian think tank, I reckon nobody would object if I wanted to change my identity. But since I’m the boring rather than adventurous kind of libertarian, I guess it’s good that I wound up being Dr. Mitchell.

More important, here’s some elaboration and background links to some of the information from my testimony.

America’s long-run fiscal problem isn’t debt. That’s just a symptom. The real challenge is a rising burden of government spending, largely because of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Measured as a share of economic output, the tax burden already is above historical levels. Moreover, taxes are projected to rise even further, so there is zero plausible evidence for the notion that America’s future fiscal crisis is the result of inadequate tax revenue.

International bureaucracies such as the IMF, BIS, and OECD show America in worse long-run shape than Europe, but the U.S. is actually in a better position since a spending cap easily would prevent the compounding levels of debt that are driving the terrible long-run outlook in the United States.

It’s good to have debt limit fights today if such battles enhance the possibility of averting a future Greek-style economic calamity.

Arguments against using the debt limit as an action-forcing event usually are based on the bizarre claim that an inability to borrow more money would cause a default and wreck the “full faith and credit” of the United States. Nonsense. Treasury would be able to avoid default in the absence of a higher debt limit for the simple reason that tax receipts are far greater than what’s needed to pay interest on the debt.

This last point is worth some extra attention. I’ve been arguing for years that debt limit fights are harmless since there’s no risk of default. I even explained to the Senate Budget Committee a few years ago that it would be easy for the Treasury Department to “prioritize” payments to ensure that bondholders would never be adversely impacted.

The Obama Administration routinely denied that it was sufficiently competent to engage in “prioritization” and even enlisted the then-Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to dishonestly fan the flames of economic uncertainty.

Well, thanks to the good work of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, we now have a report outlining how the White House was prevaricating. Simply stated, of course there were and are contingency plans to prioritize in the event of a standoff on the debt limit.

By the way, I didn’t get the chance to mention it in my oral testimony, but my full written testimony addressed the silly assertion that any delay in a government payment is somehow a “default.”

I will close by noting the utterly disingenuous Administration tactic of trying to…make it seem as if delaying payments of things like crop subsidies and Medicaid reimbursements is somehow equivalent to default on interest payments.

One final point. Let’s imagine that we’re four years in the future and political events somehow have given us a Republican president and a Democratic Congress. Don’t be surprised if the political parties then reverse their positions and the GOPers argue for “clean” debt limits and make silly claims about default and Democrats argue the opposite.

That’s why I’m glad I’m at the Cato Institute. I can simply tell the truth without worrying about partisanship.

P.S. Here are some jokes about the debt limit, and you can find some additional humor on the topic here and here.

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I have a very mixed view of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is an organization representing self-styled deficit hawks in Washington.

They do careful work and I always feel confident about citing their numbers.

Yet I frequently get frustrated because they seem to think that tax increases have to be part of any budget deal, regardless of the evidence that such an approach will backfire.

So when CRFB published a “Fiscal FactChecker” to debunk 16 supposed budget myths that they expect during this campaign season, I knew I’d find lots of stuff I would like…and lots of stuff I wouldn’t like.

Let’s look at what they said were myths, along with my two cents on CRFB’s analysis.

Myth #1: We Can Continue Borrowing without Consequences

Reality check: CRFB’s view is largely correct. If we leave policy on autopilot, demographic changes and poorly structured entitlement programs  will lead to an ever-rising burden of government spending, which almost surely will mean ever-rising levels of government debt (as well as ever-rising tax burdens). At some point, this will lead to serious consequences, presumably bad monetary policy (i.e., printing money to finance the budget) and/or Greek-style crisis (investors no longer buying bonds because they don’t trust the government will pay them back).

The only reason I don’t fully agree with CRFB is that we could permanently borrow without consequence if the debt grew 1 percent per year while the economy grew 3 percent per year. Unfortunately, given the “new normal” of weak growth, that’s not a realistic scenario.

Myth #2: With Deficits Falling, Our Debt Problems are Behind Us

Reality check: The folks at CRFB are right. Annual deficits have dropped to about $500 billion after peaking above $1 trillion during Obama’s first term, but that’s just the calm before the storm. As already noted, demographics and entitlements are a baked-into-the-cake recipe for a bigger burden of government and more red ink.

That being said, I think that CRFB’s focus is misplaced. They fixate on debt, which is the symptom, when they should be more concerned with reducing excessive government, which is the underlying disease.

Myth #3: There is No Harm in Waiting to Solve Our Debt Problems

Reality check: We have a spending problem. Deficits and debt are merely symptoms of that problem. But other than this chronic mistake, CRFB is right that it is far better to address our fiscal challenges sooner rather than later.

CRFB offers some good analysis of why it’s easier to solve the problem by acting quickly, but this isn’t just about math. Welfare State Wagon CartoonsIt’s also important to impose some sort of spending restraint before a majority of the voting-age population has been lured into some form of government dependency. Once you get to the point when more people are riding in the wagon than pulling the wagon (think Greece), reform becomes almost impossible.

Myth #4: Deficit Reduction is Code for Austerity, Which Will Harm the Economy

Reality check: The folks at CRFB list this as a myth, but they actually agree with the assertion, stating that deficit reduction policies “have damaged economic performance and increased unemployment.” They even seem sympathetic to “modest increases to near-term deficits by replacing short-term ‘sequester’ cuts”, which would gut this century’s biggest victory for good fiscal policy!

There are two reasons for CRFB’s confusion. First, they seem to accept the Keynesian argument about bigger government and red ink boosting growth, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary. Second, they fail to distinguish between good austerity and bad austerity. If austerity means higher taxes, as has been the case so often in Europe, then it is unambiguously bad for growth. But if it means spending restraint (or even actual spending cuts), then it is clearly good for growth. There may be some short-term disruption since resources don’t instantaneously get reallocated, but the long-term benefits are enormous because labor and capital are used more productively in the private economy.

Myth #5: Tax Cuts Pay For Themselves

Reality check: I agree with the folks at CRFB. As a general rule, tax cuts will reduce government revenue, even after measuring possible pro-growth effects that lead to higher levels of taxable income.

But it’s also important to recognize that not all tax cuts are created equal. Some tax cuts have very large “supply-side” effects, particularly once the economy has a chance to adjust in response to better policy. So a lower capital gains tax or a repeal of the death tax, to cite a couple of examples, might increase revenue in the long run. And we definitely saw a huge response when Reagan lowered top tax rates in the 1980s. But other tax cuts, such as expanded child credits, presumably generate almost no pro-growth effects because there’s no change in the relative price of productive behavior.

Myth #6: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Taxing the Top 1%

Reality check: The CRFB report correctly points out that confiscatory tax rates on upper-income taxpayers would backfire for the simple reason that rich people would simply choose to earn and report less income. And they didn’t even include the indirect economic damage (and reductions in taxable income) caused by less saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Ironically, the CRFB folks seem to recognize that tax rates beyond a certain level would result in less revenue for government. Which implies, of course, that it is possible (notwithstanding what they said in Myth #5) for some tax cuts to pay for themselves.

Myth #7: We Can Lower Tax Rates by Closing a Few Egregious Loopholes

Reality check: It depends on the definition of “egregious.” In the CRFB report, they equate “egregious” with “unpopular” in order to justify their argument.

But if we define “egregious” to mean “economically foolish and misguided,” then there are lots of preferences in the tax code that could – and should – be abolished in order to finance much lower tax rates. Including the healthcare exclusion, the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable giving deduction, and (especially) the deduction for state and local taxes.

Myth #8: Any Tax Increases Will Cripple Economic Growth

Reality check: The CRFB folks are right. A small tax increase obviously won’t “cripple” economic growth. Indeed, it’s even possible that a tax increase might lead to more growth if it was combined with pro-growth policies in other areas. Heck, that’s exactly what happened during the Clinton years. But now let’s inject some reality into the conversation. Any non-trivial tax increase on productive behavior will have some negative impact on economic performance and competitiveness. The evidence is overwhelming that higher tax rates hurt growth and the evidence is also overwhelming that more double taxation will harm the economy.

The CRFB report suggests that the harm of tax hikes could be offset by the supposed pro-growth impact of a lower budget deficit, but the evidence for that proposition if very shaky. Moreover, there’s a substantial amount of real-world data showing that tax increases worsen fiscal balance. Simply stated, tax hikes don’t augment spending restraint, they undermine spending restraint. Which may be why the only “bipartisan” budget deal that actually led to a balanced budget was the one that lowered taxes instead of raising them.

Myth #9: Medicare and Social Security Are Earned Benefits and Should Not Be Touched

Reality check: CRFB is completely correct on this one. The theory of age-related “social insurance” programs such as Medicare and Social Security is that people pay into the programs while young and then get benefits when they are old. This is why they are called “earned benefits.”

The problem is that politicians don’t like asking people to pay and they do like giving people benefits, so the programs are poorly designed. The average Medicare recipient, for instance, costs taxpayers $3 for every $1 that recipient paid into the program. Social Security isn’t that lopsided, but the program desperately needs reform because of demographic change. But the reforms shouldn’t be driven solely by budget considerations, which could lead to trapping people in poorly designed entitlement schemes. We need genuine structural reform.

Myth #10: Repealing “Obamacare” Will Fix the Debt

Reality check: Obamacare is a very costly piece of legislation that increased the burden of government spending and made the tax system more onerous. Repealing the law would dramatically improve fiscal policy.

But CRFB, because of the aforementioned misplaced fixation on red ink, doesn’t have a big problem with Obamacare because the increase in taxes and the increase in spending are roughly equivalent. So the organization is technically correct that repealing the law won’t “fix the debt.” But it would help address America’s real fiscal problem, which is a bloated and costly public sector.

Myth #11: The Health Care Cost Problem is Solved

Reality check: CRFB’s analysis is correct, though it would have been nice to see some discussion of how third-party payer is the problem.

Myth #12: Social Security’s Shortfall Can be Closed Simply by Raising Taxes on or Means-Testing Benefits for the Wealthy

Reality check: To their credit, CRFB is basically arguing against President Obama’s scheme to impose Social Security payroll taxes on all labor income, which would turn the program from a social-insurance system into a pure income-redistribution scheme.

On paper, such a system actually could eliminate the vast majority of Social Security’s giant unfunded liability. In reality, this would mean a huge increase in marginal tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners, which would have a serious adverse economic impact.

Myth #13: We Can Solve Our Debt Situation by Cutting Waste, Fraud, Abuse, Earmarks, and/or Foreign Aid

Reality check: Earmarks (which have been substantially curtailed already) and foreign aid are a relatively small share of the budget, so CRFB is right that getting rid of that spending won’t have a big impact. But what about the larger question. Could our fiscal mess (which is a spending problem, not a “debt situation”) be fixed by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse?

It depends on how one defines “waste, fraud, and abuse.” If one uses a very narrow definition, such as technical malfeasance, then waste, fraud, and abuse might “only” amount to a couple of hundred billions dollars per year. But from an economic perspective (i.e., grossly inefficient misallocation of resources), then entire federal departments such as HUD, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, etc, should be classified as waste, fraud, and abuse.

Myth #14: We Can Grow Our Way Out of Debt

Reality check: CRFB is correct that faster growth won’t solve all of our fiscal problems. Unless one makes an untenable assumption that economic growth will be faster than the projected growth of entitlement spending. And even that kind of heroic assumption would be untenable since faster growth generally obligates the government to pay higher benefits in the future.

Myth #15: A Balanced Budget Amendment is All We Need to Fix the Debt

Reality check: CRFB accurately explains that a BBA is simply an obstacle to additional debt. Politicians still would be obliged to change laws to fulfill that requirement. But that analysis misses the point. A BBA focuses on red ink, whereas the real problem is that government is too big and growing too fast. State balanced-budget requirement haven’t stopped states like California and Illinois from serious fiscal imbalances and eroding competitiveness. The so-called Maastricht anti-deficit and anti-debt rules in the European Union haven’t stopped nations such as France and Greece from fiscal chaos.

This is why the real solution is to have some sort of enforceable cap on government spending. That approach has worked well in jurisdictions such as Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado. And even research from the IMF (a bureaucracy that shares CRFB’s misplaced fixation on debt) has concluded that expenditure limits are the only effective fiscal rules.

Myth #16: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Cutting Welfare Spending

Reality check: The federal government is spending about $1 trillion this year on means-tested (i.e., anti-poverty) programs, which is about one-fourth of total outlays, so getting Washington out of the business of income redistribution would substantially lower the burden of federal spending (somewhat offset, to be sure, by increases in state and local spending). And for those who fixate on red ink, that would turn today’s $500 billion deficit into a $500 billion surplus.

That being said, there would still be a big long-run problem caused by other federal programs, most notably Social Security and Medicare. So CRFB is correct in that dealing with welfare-related spending doesn’t fully solve the long-run problem, regardless of whether you focus on the problem of spending or the symptom of borrowing.

This has been a lengthy post, so let’s have a very simple summary.

We know that modest spending restraint can quickly balance the budget.

We also know lots of nations that have made rapid progress with modest amounts of spending restraint.

And we know that the tax-hike option simply leads to more spending.

So the only question to answer is why the CRFB crowd can’t put two and two together and get four?

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I wrote last month that the debt burden in Greece doesn’t preclude economic recovery. After all, both the United States and (especially) the United Kingdom had enormous debt burdens after World War II, yet those record levels of red ink didn’t prevent growth.

Climbing out of the debt hole didn’t require anything miraculous. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom had great economic policy during the post-war decades. They didn’t even comply with Mitchell’s Golden Rule on spending.

But both nations managed to at least shrink the relative burden of debt by having the private sector grow faster than red ink. And the recipe for that is very simple.

…all that’s needed is a semi-sincere effort to avoid big deficits, combined with a semi-decent amount of economic growth. Which is an apt description of…policy between WWII and the 1970s.

Greece could achieve that goal, particularly if politicians would allow faster growth. The government could reduce red tape, which would be a good start since the nation ranks a miserable #114 for regulation in Economic Freedom of the World.

But Greece also should try to reverse some of the economy-stifling tax increases that have been imposed in recent years.

That may seem a challenge considering the level of red ink, but good tax policy would be possible if the Greek government was more aggressive about reducing the burden of government spending.

And if that’s the goal, then the Baltic nations are a good role model, as explained by Anders Aslund in the Berlin Policy Journal. With Latvia being the star pupil.

…austerity policies have not been attempted most aggressively in Greece: all three Baltic countries pursued more aggressive fiscal adjustments, especially Latvia. The Latvian government faced the global financial crisis head-on. …The Latvian government carried out a fiscal adjustment of 8.8 percent of GDP in 2009 and 5.9 percent of GDP in 2010, amounting to a fiscal adjustment of 14.7 percent of GDP over the course of two years, totaling 17.5 percent of GDP over four years, according to IMF calculations. Greece did the opposite. According to the IMF, its fiscal adjustment in the initial crisis year of 2010 was a paltry 2.5 percent of GDP, and in 2011 only 4.1 percent, a total of only 6.6 percent of GDP over two years. Greece’s total fiscal adjustment over four years was only 11.1 percent of GDP.

In other words, Latvia (like the other Baltic nations) did more reform and did it faster.

And it’s also worth noting that the reforms were generally the right kind of austerity, meaning that expenditure commitments were reduced.

Whereas Greece has implemented some expenditure reforms, but has relied far more on tax increases.

Better policy, not surprisingly, meant better results.

In 2008-10 Latvia suffered an output decline of 24 percent, as much as Greece did in the six-year span from 2009-14. However, thanks to its front-loaded fiscal adjustment, Latvia was able to restore its public finances after two years. The country has shown solid economic growth, averaging 4.3 percent per year from 2011-14, according to Eurostat. …The consequences of tepid Greek fiscal stabilization have been a devastating six years of declining output, even as the Latvian economy has revived. In 2013 Latvia’s GDP at constant prices was 4 percent lower than in 2008, while Greece’s was 23 percent less than in 2008, according to the IMF. A cumulative difference in GDP development of 19 percentage points over six years cannot be a statistical blip – it is real.

The bottom line is that Latvia and the other Baltics were willing to endure more short-term pain in order to achieve a quicker economic rebound.

That was a wise choice, particularly since the alternative, as we see in Greece, is seemingly permanent stagnation.

Anders Paalzow of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga also suggests, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, that Latvia is a good role model.

Professor Paalzow starts by explaining that Latvia is now enjoying good growth after enduring a dramatic boom-bust cycle last decade.

In 2008, Europe’s most overheated economy, which had been fuelled by cheap credit and rapidly raising wages and real estate prices, collapsed. GDP dropped by 20 percent and unemployment rose to more than 20 percent. But here’s where things take an unexpected turn. By late 2010, the first glimmers of recovery became apparent. Today, the economy is among Europe’s fastest growing, and its GDP is back at pre-crisis levels. So how did Latvia, the hero of this story, do it?

The first thing to understand is that Latvia was determined to join the eurozone, so that meant it wasn’t going to devalue its currency in hopes of inflating away its problems. Which meant the only other choice was “internal devaluation.”

…the Latvian government’s only real option was fiscal policy adjustment, the details of which it unveiled in its supplementary budget for 2009 and its budget for 2010. Both of these saw substantial reductions in social benefits accompanied by long overdue cuts in public employment with close to 30 percent of civil servants laid off. Those who remained in the public sector saw their salaries cut by 25 percent, on average, whereas salaries in the private sector fell by on average ten percent. …the reductions made during the crisis years amounted to approximately 11 percent of GDP. Most of the fiscal consolidation was done on the expenditure side of the public budget… The fiscal consolidation program continued into 2011 and the years following, even though the economy started to grow again.

Not only did the economy grow, but the government was rewarded for making tough choices.

…in 2010, the government responsible for austerity was reelected.

But here’s the challenge. Professor Paalzow warns that fiscal reforms won’t mean much unless the chronic dysfunction of the Greek government is somehow addressed.

The importance of the institutional framework cannot be overestimated. …it seems like a fool’s errand to try to sell off the public assets of a country riddled with high corruption… Furthermore, with a legal system incapable of enforcing current legislation and characterized by slow judicial processes, inefficient courts, and weak investor protection, legal reform will be a necessary condition for an economic turnaround.

So he suggests that Latvian-type fiscal reforms should be accompanied by Nordic-style institutional reforms.

Greece should look further north to Finland and Sweden, which overcame their own crises in the early 1990s. …The three to four years following the initial economic disaster saw remarkable institutional reform…substantial changes in both welfare systems. …both countries pursued austerity…, a remedy that both nations had frequently tried in the 1970s and 1980s without any success. What made the difference this time was that the institutional, and hence the fundamental roots, of the problems were addressed.

While I like his prescription, I suspect Paalzow is being too optimistic.

You can’t turn the Greeks into Finns or Swedes, at least not without some sort of massive jolt.

Which is why my preferred policy is to end bailouts, even if it means that Greece repudiates its existing debt. If the Greeks no longer got any handouts, that necessarily would mean an immediate end to deficit spending (assuming the government doesn’t ditch the euro in order to finance spending by printing drachmas).

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsAnd that might be a very sobering experience that would teach the Greek people about the dangers of having too many people trying to ride in the wagon of government dependency.

That might not turn the Greeks into Nordics, but it presumably would help them understand that you can’t (at least in the long run) consume more than you produce.

That’s also a lesson that some American politicians need to learn!

P.S. I wonder if Paul Krugman will attack Latvia’s good reforms. When he went after Estonia for adopting similar policies, he wound up with egg on his face.

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Remember the big debt limit fight of 2013? The political establishment at the time went overboard with hysterical rhetoric about potential instability in financial markets.

They warned that a failure to increase the federal government’s borrowing authority would mean default to bondholders even though the Treasury Department was collecting about 10 times as much revenue as would be needed to pay interest on the debt.

And these warnings had an effect. Congress eventually acquiesced.

I thought it was a worthwhile fight, but not everyone agrees.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), for instance, recently released a report about that experience and they suggest that there was a negative impact on markets.

During the 2013 debt limit impasse, investors reported taking the unprecedented action of systematically avoiding certain Treasury securities—those that matured around the dates when the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) projected it would exhaust the extraordinary measures that it uses to manage federal debt when it is at the limit. …Investors told GAO that they are now prepared to take similar steps to systematically avoid certain Treasury securities during future debt limit impasses. …industry groups emphasized that even a temporary delay in payment could undermine confidence in the full faith and credit of the United States and therefore cause significant damage to markets for Treasury securities and other assets.

The GAO even produced estimates showing that the debt limit fight resulted in a slight increase in borrowing costs.

GAO’s analysis indicates that the additional borrowing costs that Treasury incurred rose rapidly in the final weeks and days leading up to the October 2013 deadline when Treasury projected it would exhaust its extraordinary measures. GAO estimated the total increased borrowing costs incurred through September 30, 2014, on securities issued by Treasury during the 2013 debt limit impasse. These estimates ranged from roughly $38 million to more than $70 million, depending on the specifications used.

I confess that these results don’t make sense since it is inconceivable to me that Treasury wouldn’t fully compensate bondholders if there was any sort of temporary default.

But GAO included some persuasive evidence that investors didn’t have total trust in the government. Here are a couple of charts looking at interest rates.

Both of them show an uptick in rates as we got closer to the date when the Treasury Department said it would run out of options.

Given this data, the GAO argues that it would be best to eviscerate the debt limit.

The bureaucrats propose three options, all of which would have the effect of enabling automatic or near-automatic increases in the federal government’s borrowing authority.

GAO identified three potential approaches to delegating borrowing authority. …Option 1: Link Action on the Debt Limit to the Budget Resolution …legislation raising the debt limit to the level envisioned in the Congressional Budget Resolution would be…deemed to have passed… Option 2: Provide the Administration with the Authority to Increase the Debt Limit, Subject to a Congressional Motion of Disapproval… Option 3: Delegating Broad Authority to the Administration to Borrow…such sums as necessary to fund implementation of the laws duly enacted by Congress and the President.

So is GAO right? Should we give Washington a credit card with no limits?

I don’t think so, but I’m obviously not very persuasive because I actually had a chance to share my views with GAO as they prepared the report.

Here are the details about GAO’s process for getting feedback from outside sources.

…we hosted a private Web forum where selected experts participated in an interactive discussion on the various policy proposals and commented on the technical feasibility and merits of each option. We selected experts to invite to the forum based on their experience with budget and debt issues in various capacities (government officials, former congressional staff, and policy researchers), as well as on their knowledge of the debt limit, as demonstrated through published articles and congressional testimony since 2011. …we received comments from 17 of the experts invited to the forum. We determined that the 17 participants represented the full range of political perspectives. We analyzed the results of the forum to identify key factors that policymakers should consider when evaluating different policy options.

Given the ground rules of this exercise, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to share details of that interactive discussion.

But I will share some of my 2013 public testimony to the Joint Economic Committee.

Here’s some of what I told lawmakers.

I explained that Greece is now suffering through a very deep recession, with record unemployment and harsh economic conditions. I asked the Committee a rhetorical question: Wouldn’t it have been preferable if there was some sort of mechanism, say, 15 years ago that would have enabled some lawmakers to throw sand in the gears so that the government couldn’t issue any more debt? Yes, there would have been some budgetary turmoil at the time, but it would have been trivial compared to the misery the Greek people currently are enduring. I closed by drawing an analogy to the situation in Washington. We know we’re on an unsustainable path. Do we want to wait until we hit a crisis before we address the over-spending crisis? Or do we want to take prudent and modest steps today – such as genuine entitlement reform and spending caps – to ensure prosperity and long-run growth.

In other words, my argument is simply that it’s good to have debt limit fights because they create a periodic opportunity to force reforms that might avert far greater budgetary turmoil in the future.

Indeed, one of the few recent victories for fiscal responsibility was the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which only was implemented because of a fight that year over the debt limit. At the time, the establishment was screaming and yelling about risky brinksmanship.

But the net result is that the BCA ultimately resulted in the sequester, which was a huge victory that contributed to much better fiscal numbers between 2009-2014.

By the way, I’m not the only one to make this argument. The case for short-term fighting today to avoid fiscal crisis in the future was advanced in greater detail by a Wall Street expert back in 2011.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some good debt limit cartoons by clicking here and here.


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The conventional wisdom, pushed by the IMF and others, is that Greece’s economy will never recover unless there is substantial debt relief.

Translated into English, that means the Greek government should be allowed to break the contracts it made with the people and institutions that lent money to Greece. That may mean a “haircut,” which would mean lenders (often called creditors) only get back some of what they’ve been promised, or a “default,” which would mean they get none of the money they were promised.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Greece has a full or partial default. And that actually might not be a bad result if it meant an end to bailouts and Greece was immediately forced to balance its budget.

But let’s set that issue aside and look at the specific issue of whether Greece’s debt is unsustainable. Here’s a look at Greek government debt, measured as a share of economic output.

As you can see, when the crisis started in Greece, government debt was about 100 percent of GDP.

Was Greece doomed at that point?

Well, if the situation was hopeless, then someone needs to explain why the United States didn’t collapse after World War II.

As you can see from this chart, debt climbed to more than 100 percent of economic output because of the heavy expense of defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Yet the American economy rebounded after the war (notwithstanding dire predictions from Keynesians) and the debt burden shrank.

So maybe the more interesting issue is to look at how America reduced its debt burden after 1945, which may give us some insights into what should happen (or should have happened) in Greece.

Here’s one question to consider: Did the burden of the federal debt drop between the end of World War II and the 1970s because of big budget surpluses?

Nope. If you look at Table 7.1 of OMB’s Historical Tables, you’ll see that there was a steady increase in the amount of government debt in America after 1945. Yes, there were a few years with budget surpluses, but those surpluses were more than offset by years with budget deficits.

The reason that the national debt shrank as a share of economic output was completely the result of the economy growing faster than the debt.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine you graduate from college and you have $20,000 of credit card debt. That might be a very big burden relative to your income.

But in your 50s and (hopefully) earning a lot more money, you might have $40,000 of credit card debt, yet be in a much stronger financial position.

So the real issue for Greece (and Spain, and Japan, and the United States, etc) is not so much whether the amount of debt shrinks. It’s whether debt is constrained compared to private-sector growth.

That doesn’t require any sort of miracle. Yes, it would be nice if Greece and other nations decided to become like Hong Kong and Singapore, high-growth economies thanks to small government and non-interventionism.

But all that’s needed is a semi-sincere effort to avoid big deficits, combined with a semi-decent amount of economic growth. Which is an apt description of U.S. policy between WWII and the 1970s.

Is it unreasonable to ask Greece to follow that model?

Some may say Greece is now in a different situation because debt levels have climbed too high. Debt in the United States peaked a bit above 100 percent of GDP at the end of World War II, whereas government debt in Greece is now closer to 200 percent of GDP.

It’s certainly true that today’s debt burden in Greece is higher than America’s post-WWII debt burden. So let’s look at another example.

Government debt in the United Kingdom jumped to almost 250 percent of economic output by the end of the World War II.

Did that cause the U.K. economy to collapse? Did Britain have to default?

The answer to both questions is no.

The United Kingdom simply did what America did. It combined a semi-sincere effort to avoid big deficits with a semi-decent amount of economic growth.

And the result, as you can see from the above graph, is that debt fell sharply as a share of GDP.

In other words, Greece can fulfill its promises and pay its bills. And the recipe isn’t that difficult. Simply impose a modest bit of spending restraint and enact a modest amount of pro-growth reforms.

Unfortunately, prior bailouts have given Greece an excuse to avoid reforms. Though the IMF, ECB and European Commission (the so-called troika) have learned somewhat from those mistakes and are now making greater demands of the Greek government as a condition of another bailout.

The problem is the troika doesn’t seem to understand what’s really needed in Greece. They’re pushing for lots of tax increases, which will make it hard for Greece’s private sector to generate growth. The only good news (or, to be more accurate, less bad news) is that the troika doesn’t want as many tax hikes as the Greek government would like.

In other words, don’t be too optimistic about the long-run outcome. Which is basically what I said in this interview on Canadian TV.

The bottom line is that a rescue of the Greek economy is possible. But so long as nobody with any power wants to make the right kind of reforms, don’t hold your breath waiting for good results.

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There’s an old saying that states are the laboratories of democracy. But since I’m a policy wonk, I focus more on the lessons we can learn from the states about public policy.

Such as the importance of limiting the destructive nature of taxes.

Such as the economic benefits of not having an income tax.

Such as the horrible consequences of adopting an income tax.

Such as the negative effects of excessive compensation of bureaucrats.

Such as better job creation in states with less government.

But it’s always good to have more data and evidence.

So I was very interested to see that the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has a new report that ranks states based on their fiscal solvency.

Here are some of the details.

Budgetary balance is only one aspect of a state’s fiscal health, indicating that revenues are sufficient to cover a desired level of spending. But a balanced budget by itself does not mean the state is in a strong fiscal position. State spending may be large relative to the economy and thus be a drain on resources. …How can states establish healthier fiscal foundations? And how can states guard against economic shocks or identify long-term fiscal risks? Before taking policy or budgetary action, it is important to identify where states may have fiscal weaknesses. One approach to help states evaluate their ongoing fiscal performance is to use basic financial indicators that measure short- and long-run fiscal position.

Here are some of the findings.

The five dimensions (or indexes) of solvency in this study—cash, budget, long-run, service-level, and trust fund—are…combined into one overall ranking of state fiscal condition. …States with large long-term debts, large unfunded pension liabilities, and structural budgetary imbalances continue to hover near the bottom of the rankings. These states are Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. Just as they did last year, states that depend on natural resources for revenues and that have low levels of debt and spending place at the top of the rankings. The top five states are Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Florida.

And here’s a map so you can see the rankings of each state. Dark green is good and yellow is bad.

I’m shocked and amazed to see California, Illinois, and New York near the bottom of the list.

Here’s the same information, but in a table so you can see the specific scores for each state.

So what should we learn from these rankings?

According to an editorial from Investor’s Business Daily, there are some very obvious lessons.

What do the most fiscally sound states have in common? Good weather? Oil? Blind luck? Or is it conservative policies such as keeping taxes low, regulations reasonable and spending under control? …There’s only one factor these fiscal winners and losers share in common. And that’s their political leanings. …if you look at the 25 best-performing states, only three could be considered reliably liberal. …There’s only one factor these fiscal winners and losers share in common. And that’s their political leanings. Of the top 10 states in the Mercatus ranking, just two — Florida and Ohio — voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in the past four elections, and just one — Montana — has a Democratic governor. Even if you look at the 25 best-performing states, only three could be considered reliably liberal.

Now let’s shift from policy lessons to political implications. There are several governors and former governors running for President.

Based on the Mercatus ranking, can we draw any conclusions about whether these candidates are in favor of taxpayers? Or do they support big government instead?

We’ll start with the current governors.

Kasich – Ohio ranks surprisingly high on the list, particularly given the Ohio governor’s expansion of Obamacare in the state. Maybe the state’s #7 ranking is due to fiscal restraint by his predecessors.

Christie – New Jersey ranks low on the list, and this isn’t a surprise. The relevant question is whether Christie can argue, based on some of the fights he’s had, that the state legislature is an insurmountable impediment to pro-growth reforms.

Jindal – The governor of Louisiana has proposed some big reforms, but the state’s #35 ranking doesn’t give him any bragging rights on fiscal policy (though the state is leading the way on education reform).

Walker – Thanks to his high-profile fight with unionized bureaucrats, Walker has a very strong reputation. But his state doesn’t rank very high, and he can’t blame the legislature because it’s GOP-controlled as well. But perhaps the low ranking is a legacy of the state’s historically left-wing orientation.

What about former governors?

Well, there’s probably not much we can say because we don’t have long-run data. There was a similar Mercatus study last year, but that obviously doesn’t help with the analysis of governors that left office years ago.

Nonetheless, here are a few observations.

Bush – I’m very suspicious of politicians who express an openness to tax hikes, and Bush is in that group. But he did govern Florida for a couple of terms and never flirted with imposing an income tax. And former governors, particularly from recent history, presumably can take some credit for Florida’s relatively high ranking.

Pataki – Since New York is one of the worst states, Pataki has guilt by implication. But he did lower a few taxes during his tenure, and you also have the same issue that exists with Christie, which is whether a governor should be blamed when the state legislature is hostile to good policy.

Perry – It’s hard to argue with the success Texas has enjoyed in recent years, and Perry (like Bush) never even hinted at the imposition of a state income tax. Though the #19 ranking shows that there are issues that should have been addressed during Perry’s several terms in office.

Huckabee – There aren’t many conclusions to draw about Arkansas and Huckabee. He’s been out of office for a while and the state is in the middle of the pack.

The bottom line is that the Mercatus study is very helpful in identifying well-governed (and not-so-well-governed) states, but the newness of the project means we can’t make any sweeping statements about governors because of limited data.

Fortunately, the Cato Institute for years has been publishing a Report Card that grades governors based on fiscal policy. So fans (or opponents) of different candidates can peruse past issues to see the degree to which governors pushed policy in the right or wrong direction.

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When I make speeches about fiscal policy, I oftentimes share a table showing the many nations that have made big progress by enforcing spending restraint over multi-year periods.

I then ask audiences a rhetorical question about a possible list of nations that have prospered by going in the opposite direction. Are there any success stories based on tax hikes or bigger government?

The answer is no, which is why I’ve never received a satisfactory answer to my two-part challenge, even if I limit the focus to fiscal policy.

And nobody will be surprised to learn that the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico reinforces these lessons.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Hanson explains that the American territory in the Caribbean is on the verge of default.

As Puerto Rico struggles under the weight of more than $70 billion in debt, it has become popular to draw parallels with Greece.

The one theme that is common with the two jurisdictions is that their fiscal crises are the result of too much government spending.

How bad is the problem in Puerto Rico?

It’s hard to answer that question because government budgeting isn’t very transparent and the quality and clarity of the numbers that do exist leaves a lot to be desired.

But I’ve done some digging (along with my colleagues at Cato) and here’s some data that will at least illustrate the scope of the problem.

First, we have numbers from the World Bank showing inflation-adjusted (2005$) government consumption expenditures over the past few decades. As you can see, overall spending in this category increased by 100 percent between 1980 and 2013 (at a time when the population increased only 12 percent).

In other words, Puerto Rico is in trouble because it violated the Golden Rule and let government grow faster than the private sector over a sustained period (just like Greece, just like Alberta, just like the United States, etc, etc).

Here’s another chart and this one purports to show total outlays.

The numbers aren’t adjusted for inflation, so the increase looks more dramatic. But even if you consider the impact of a rising price level (average annual increase of about 4 percent since the mid-1980s), it’s obvious that government spending has climbed far too fast.

To be more specific, Puerto Rico has allowed the burden of government to rise much faster than population plus inflation.

A government can get away with that kind of reckless policy for a few years. But when bad policy is maintained for a long period of time, the end result is never positive.

Now that we’ve established that Puerto Rico got in trouble by violating my Golden Rule, what’s the right way of fixing the mess? Is the government responding to its fiscal crisis in a responsible manner?

Not exactly. Like Greece, it’s too beholden to interest groups, and that’s making (the right kind of) austerity difficult.

Indeed, Mr. Hanson says there haven’t been any cuts in the past few years.

In the past four years, when the fiscal crisis has been most severe, four successively larger budgets have been enacted. The budget proposed for the coming year is $235 million larger than last year’s and $713 million, or 8%, higher than four years ago. Austerity this is not.

What special interest groups standing in the way of reform?

The government workforce would be high on the list. One of the big problems in Puerto Rico is that there are far too many bureaucrats and they get paid far too much (gee, this sounds familiar).

Here are some details from Mr. Hanson’s column.

…more than two-thirds of the territory’s budget is payroll. The proposed budget…contains no plans for head-count reductions. …Median household income in Puerto Rico hovers around $20,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but government workers fare much better. Public agencies pay salaries on average more than twice that amount, a 2014 report from Banco Popular shows. Salaries in the central government in San Juan are more than 90% higher than in the private sector. Even across comparable skill sets, the wage disparity persists.

In other words, life is pretty good for the people riding in the wagon, but Puerto Rico doesn’t have enough productive people to pull the wagon.

So we’re back to where we started. It’s the Greece of the Caribbean.

P.S. This column has focused on fiscal policy, but it’s important to recognize that there are many other bad policies hindering prosperity in Puerto Rico. And some of them are the result of Washington politicians rather than their counterparts in San Juan. Nicole Kaeding and Nick Zaiac have explained that the Jones Act and the minimum wage are particularly destructive to the territory’s economy.

P.P.S. At least Puerto Rico is still a good tax haven for American citizens.

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