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Posts Tagged ‘Debt’

One of the few theoretical constraints on Washington is that politicians periodically have to raise a “debt ceiling” or “debt limit” in order to finance additional spending with additional red ink.

I have mixed feelings about this requirement. I like that there is some limit on spending, even if it’s only a potential restraint.

On the other hand, fights over the debt limit are mostly just opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to engage in posturing and finger pointing rather than adopt positive reforms.

Moreover, the scholarly research clearly suggests that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule, so what’s the point of having a debt limit if potential spending restraint never turns into actual spending restraint?

Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post looks at the current fight and opines that we shouldn’t even have a debt limit.

The government is about to run out of money because of an arbitrary cap on how much it can borrow… Lawmakers and the White House are haggling over  the conditions under which they will, once again, temporarily raise that cap, known as the debt ceiling. But the better solution would be to abolish it entirely… Most recently, the government hit the official debt limit on March 1 . Since then, the Treasury Department has engaged in “extraordinary measures” to shift money around and continue paying its bills… Initially Treasury predicted that its extraordinary measures would get us to October, but more recent forecasts suggest we will hit the wall as soon as early September. Which means the drop-dead deadline before we become global deadbeats could happen while Congress is away on summer vacation.

She worries that a failure to raise the debt ceiling could have very negative consequences.

So what happens if we default on our debt obligations? Well, for one, it would violate the Constitution, which says the “validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned.” No small thing. …U.S. debt instruments are currently considered the safest of safe assets because creditors believe they’ll be paid back on time and in full. …Calling our creditworthiness into question could therefore set off a chain reaction of global financial panic.

I agree.

Defaulting on the debt (i.e., not paying bondholders what they’ve been contractually promised) would be very damaging to financial markets.

In reality, however, what we’re really talking about is potentially a delay in making promised payments. Which would be harmful, though presumably not nearly as bad as long-run default.

And even a delay in payments might not happen if the Treasury Department made sure that tax revenue was set aside to make all promised payments to bondholders.

Though Ms. Rampell doesn’t like this idea, which is sometimes called “prioritization.”

Some right-wingers…have in the past suggested  that defaulting is no big deal, perhaps even desirable. They (mistakenly) think that a debt default would allow those in charge to unilaterally decide which bills deserve payment and which don’t, bypassing the democratic budget process.

I’m not sure why she says prioritization is a “mistaken” view.

I testified to Congress about this issue in 2013 and in 2016. If the debt limit isn’t raised, meaning no ability to issue new debt, that would be the same as an overnight balanced budget requirement (i.e., spending could only equal current tax revenue).

If that happened and Treasury made sure to prioritize interest payments (to avoid the potentially bad results Ms. Rampell and others warn about), who would have the power to stop that from happening?

I’m guessing lawsuits would be filed, but I can’t imagine a judge would issue an injunction to require a default.

Let’s dig deeper into this issue. Back in 2017, when a similar fight occurred, Heather Long of the Washington Post identified five reasons to worry.

Unless Trump and Congress pass a law raising the U.S. debt limit — a legal cap on how much the U.S. government is allowed to borrow — the Treasury Department will soon run out of money to pay its bills, triggering a first-in-modern-U.S.-history default that threatens to turn the world economy on its head. …The danger…is that at some point someone will miscalculate and the government will actually hit the debt limit, sparking a default, intentional or otherwise. Here are five reasons that would cause global panic.

How persuasive are these reasons?

First, it would trigger a wild ride for stocks and bonds. Wall Street doesn’t like bad surprises. …There would probably be an immediate, negative reaction in the markets.

If there’s an actual default, that would be horrible news.

If there’s a temporary default, that also would be bad news, though presumably far less catastrophic than a permanent default (though some will fan the flames of hysteria).

Second, America’s cheap funding source would end. …As soon as the United States actually defaults, investors would start suing the country, and they would almost certainly insist on much higher interest rates in the future.

Interest rates surely would climb because of the perception of added risk for investors.

Though I wonder by how much. I think Italy is heading toward a fiscal/financial crisis, yet investors are buying up plenty of that government’s debt at very low interest rates.

Third, real people won’t get paid. …The Trump administration would have to either stop payments to everyone or they would have to pick who gets paid and who does not. That means deciding between bondholders, Social Security recipients, welfare recipients, …etc.

Interesting, Ms. Long accepts that prioritization would happen.

For what it’s worth, I’m guessing bondholders and Social Security recipients would be at the front of the line.

Fourth, America’s global power would decline. …The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency. People carry dollars and hold U.S. bonds all over the world because they believe America is their best and safest bet. A default would probably cause the value of the dollar to drop and global investors to shift some money out of U.S. assets.

This is an interesting claim.

The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

Does drama over the debt limit, or even a temporary default, lead investors to shift, en masse, to another currency?

Perhaps, though I don’t see an alternative. The euro is compromised because the European Central Bank surrendered its independence by engaging in indirect bailouts of some of Europe’s decrepit welfare states.

The Chinese financial system is too debt ridden and too opaque to give investors confidence in that nation’s currency. And other nations are simply too small.

Fifth, a recession is possible. …hitting the debt limit could cause a sharp drop in markets and sentiment around the world as everyone worries that if the United States defaults, who’s next? Investors might start panicking and ditching bonds of other countries in Europe and Asia, too.

These are all reasonable concerns.

It all depends, of course, whether there’s a temporary default and how long it lasts.

And since we may be in the midst of a debt bubble fueled by easy money, any triggering event could lead to very bad outcomes.

Which is why it would make sense for lawmakers to embrace prioritization. There has been legislation to make that happen.

For what it’s worth, it should be quite feasible to prioritize.

Here’s the latest 10-year forecast from the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see from the parts I’ve circled, the government is projected to collect far more revenue than would be needed to fulfill obligations to bondholders.

To be sure, prioritization means that some recipients of federal largesse would have to wait in line. This would be unseemly and unwelcome, but it already happens in profligate states such as Illinois without causing any economic or fiscal disarray.

Who knows, maybe politicians would even decide that it’s time to jettison some federal programs. But since I understand “public choice,” I won’t be holding my breath awaiting that outcome.

I’ll close with two observations.

The first, which I’ve already discussed, is that a failure to increase the debt limit should not result in default. Unless, of course, the Treasury Department wants that to happen. But that’s inconceivable, which is why I fully expect prioritization if we ever get to that point.

The second is that debt limit fights are messy and counterproductive, but I don’t want it abolished since there’s a chance that one of these battles eventually may force politicians to deal with our fiscal mess – thus saving the country from a future Greek-style economic and fiscal meltdown.

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The Congressional Budget Office just released its new long-run fiscal forecast.

Most observers immediately looked at the estimates for deficits and debt. Those numbers are important, especially since America has an aging population, but they should be viewed as secondary.

What really matters are the trends for both taxes and spending.

Here are the three things that you need to know.

First, America’s tax burden is increasing. Immediately below are two charts. The first one shows that revenues will consume an addition three percentage points of GDP over the next three decades. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, our long-run problem is not caused by inadequate revenue.

The second of the two charts shows that most of the increase is due to “real bracket creep,” which is what happens when people earn more income and wind up having to pay higher tax rates.

So even if Congress extends the “Cadillac tax” on health premiums and extends all the temporary provisions of the 2017 Tax Act, the aggregate tax burden will increase.

Second, the spending burden is growing even faster than the tax burden.

And if you look closely at the top section of Figure 1-7, you’ll see that the big problems are the entitlements for health care (i.e., Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare).

By the way, the lower section of Figure 1-7 shows that corporate tax revenues are projected to average about 1.3 percent of GDP, which is not that much lower than what CBO projected (about 1.7 percent of GDP) before the rate was reduced by 40 percent.

Interesting.

Third, we have our most important chart.

It shows that the United States is on a very bad trajectory because the burden of government spending is growing faster than the private economy.

In other words, Washington is violating my Golden Rule.

And this leads to all sorts of negative consequences.

  • Government consumes a greater share of the economy over time.
  • Politicians will want to respond by raising taxes.
  • Politicians will allow red ink to increase.

The key thing to understand is that more taxes and more debt are the natural and inevitable symptoms of the underlying disease of too much spending.

We know the solution, and we have real world evidence that it works (especially when part of a nation’s constitution), but don’t hold your breath waiting for Washington to do the right thing.

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The folks at USA Today invited me to opine on fiscal policy, specifically whether the 2017 tax cut was a mistake because of rising levels of red ink.

Here’s some of what I wrote on the topic, including the all-important point that deficits and debt are best understood as symptoms of the real problem of too much spending.

Now that there’s some much needed tax reform to boost American competitiveness, we’re supposed to suddenly believe that red ink is a national crisis. What’s ironic about all this pearl clutching is that the 2017 tax bill actually increases revenue beginning in 2027, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. …This isn’t to say that America’s fiscal house is in good shape, or that President Donald Trump should be immune from criticism. Indeed, the White House should be condemned for repeatedly busting the spending caps as part of bipartisan deals where Republicans get more defense spending, Democrats get more domestic spending and the American people get stuck with the bill. …The real lesson is that red ink is bad, but it’s only the symptom of the real problem of a federal budget that is too big and growing too fast.

I also pointed out that the only good solution for our fiscal problems is some sort of spending cap, similar to the successful systems in Hong Kong and Switzerland.

Heck, even left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF have pointed out that spending caps are the only successful fiscal rule.

Now let’s look at a different perspective. USA Today also opined on the same topic (I was invited to provide a differing view). Here are excerpts from their editorial.

…more than anyone else, Laffer gave intellectual cover to the proposition that politicians can have their cake and eat it, too. …Laffer argued — on a cocktail napkin, according to economic lore, and elsewhere — that tax reductions would pay for themselves. These “supply side” cuts would stimulate growth so much, revenue would rise even as tax rates declined. This is, of course, rubbish. In the wake of the massive 2017 tax cuts, …the budget deficit is projected to run a little shy of $1 trillion… To run such large deficits a decade into a record economy recovery, is a massive problem because they will soar to dangerous heights the next time a recession strikes.

I think the column misrepresents the Laffer Curve, but let’s set that issue aside for another day.

The editorial also goes overboard in describing the 2017 tax cut as “massive.” As I noted in my column, that legislation actually raises revenue starting in 2027.

That being said, the main shortcoming of the USA Today editorial is that it doesn’t acknowledge that America’s long-run fiscal challenge (even for those who fixate on deficits and debt) is entirely driven by excessive spending growth.

Indeed, all you need to know is that nominal GDP is projected to grow by an average of about 4.0 percent annually over the next 30 years while the federal budget is projected to grow 5.2 percent per year.

This violates the Golden Rule of sensible fiscal policy.

And raising taxes almost certainly would make this bad outlook even worse since the economy would be weaker and politicians would jack up spending even further.

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Every year, the Social Security Administration issues a “Trustees Report” that summarizes the program’s financing. So every year (see 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, etc) I cut through all the verbiage and focus the numbers that really matter.

First, here’s the data from Table VI.G9 showing annual spending and annual revenue, and the numbers are adjusted for inflation. Everything to the left of the vertical red line is historical data. Everything to the right is an estimate based on “intermediate” economic and demographic projections.

The bad news is that there’s a never-ending increase in the program’s fiscal burden.

The only good news is that country presumably will be much richer in the future, so we’ll have more income to pay all those taxes and finance all that spending.

That being said, the fiscal burden is projected to increase faster than our income, so the economic burden of Social Security will increase over time.

But there’s also a wild card to consider. Simply stated, we have more data from Table VI.G9 that shows the program has a giant, ever-expanding deficit.

Here are the grim numbers (though not quite as grim as last year when the cumulative shortfall was $43.7 trillion). Once again, everything to the left of the line is historical data and everything to the right is a projection.

The obvious takeaway is that the program is bankrupt.

Indeed, a private pension fund with these numbers would have been shut down a long time ago. And its executives would be in prison for running a Ponzi Scheme.

Politicians won’t put themselves in prison, of course, but they eventually will be forced to address Social Security’s huge shortfall. If nothing else, the so-called Trust Fund (which isn’t a real Trust Fund since it is filled with IOUs) runs out of money in 2035.

The interesting question is what sort of “solution” they choose when the crisis occurs.

Sadly, many politicians are gravitating to a plan to impose ever-higher taxes to prop up the system.

A far better approach is personal retirement accounts. I’ve written favorably about the Australian system, the Chilean system, the Hong Kong system, the Swiss system, the Dutch system, the Swedish system. Heck, I even like the system in the Faroe Islands.

The bottom line is that there’s been a worldwide revolution in favor of private savings and the United States is falling behind.

P.S. If you have some statist friends and family who get confused by numbers, here’s a set of cartoons that shows the need for Social Security reform.

P.P.S. As I explain in this video, reform does not mean reducing benefits for current retirees, or even older workers.

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Iceland is a tiny little country with just 338,000 people (about the population of Santa Ana, CA), but that doesn’t mean it can’t teach us lessons about public policy.

I wrote about the nation’s approach to fisheries in 2016, and explained that the property rights-based system is the best way of protecting fish stocks from over-harvesting.

And in 2013, I wrote about how modest spending restraint was helping to solve fiscal problems created by the financial crisis.

Today, I want to further explore Iceland’s fiscal policy, largely because of this remarkable chart that accompanied a Bloomberg report on the country’s budget strategy.

As you can see, debt skyrocketed during the financial crisis and has since plummeted at a very rapid rate.

This shows debt reduction is possible. Indeed, there can be huge reductions in a very short period of time.

So there may be hope for nations that are in the midst of fiscal crisis (such as Greece), nations that are about to suffer fiscal crisis (Italy is a prime candidate), and nations that will suffer a crisis if there isn’t reform (most developed nations, including the United States).

But what are the specific policy lessons?

Here are some excerpts from the accompanying article, which basically tells us that the government is focused on spending restraint.

Iceland will continue to reduce public debt and sustain a budget surplus even as it lowers taxes in the next five years, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson said. The plan is part of a financial road map… The balancing act between austerity and the proposed fiscal concessions means less room for the government to…step up other spending… “We will need to impose certain measures of restriction,” Benediktsson said. The government may have to seek cost savings of as much as 5 billion kronur ($42 million), he said. …The financial plan projects a decrease in taxes as well as the Treasury’s debt levels and interest burden. It also expects the bank tax to be lowered in four steps.

But the article didn’t tell us why Iceland’s debt fell so quickly.

So I dug into the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database and crunched some numbers. I specifically wanted to find out why debt fell, both before and after the 2008 crisis.

And I focused on three sets of numbers.

  • Annual inflation rate
  • Annual growth of government spending burden
  • Annual increase in nominal gross domestic product

Here are those numbers, both for the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, as well as what happened starting in 2009.

For both the 2001-07 period and 2009-19 period, Iceland followed my Golden Rule. Government spending (the orange bars) grew slower than the economy (the grey bars).

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that debt fell during both eras.

But debt fell much faster starting in 2009 for the simple reason that the gap between spending growth and GDP growth was very significant over the past 10 years. This is the reason for the big reduction in debt.

And this spending restraint also generated some data that’s even more important – the burden of government spending has dropped from more than 48 percent of economic output in 2009 to less than 41 percent of GDP this year.

During the 2001-2007 period, by contrast, Iceland only barely satisfied the Golden Rule. Indeed, one could argue that spending was growing much too fast since the economy was in an unsustainable boom (Ireland was similarly profligate during the same period).

P.S. I recently shared an excellent IMF study showing three examples of big debt reductions in the pre-World War I era.

P.P.S. Unsurprisingly, the OECD has been pushing for higher taxes in Iceland.

P.P.P.S. If you want to read about all of Iceland’s pro-market economic, Prof. Hannes Gissurarson has a must-read article in Econ Journal Watch.

P.P.P.P.S. Voters in Iceland had an opportunity to vote on bank bailouts and 93 percent said no.

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In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, the United States at some point is going to suffer from a debt crisis.

But red ink is merely a symptom. I used numbers from Greece in this interview to underscore the fact that the real problem is government spending.

The discussion was triggered by comments from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Wednesday that reducing the federal debt needs to return to the forefront of the agenda, warning that the government’s finances are unsustainable. “I do think that deficits matter and do think it’s not really controversial to say our debt can’t grow faster than our economy indefinitely — and that’s what it’s doing right now,” Powell said.

As I noted in my comments, Powell is right, but he’s focusing on the wrong variable.

The real crisis is that spending is growing faster than the private sector (Powell needs to learn the six principles to guide spending policy).

To be more specific, politicians are violating my Golden Rule.

Spending grew too fast under Bush. It grew too fast under Obama (except for a few years when the “Tea Party” was in the ascendancy). And it’s growing too fast under Trump.

Most worrisome, the burden of spending is expected to grow faster than the private sector far into the future according to the long-run forecast from the Congressional Budget Office.

That doesn’t mean we’ll have a crisis this year or next year. We probably won’t even have a crisis in the next 10 years or 20 years.

But I cited Greek data in the interview to point out that excessive spending eventually does create a major problem.

Here’s the data from International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database. To make matters simple (I should have done this for the interview as well), I adjusted the numbers for inflation.

So how can America avoid a Greek-style fiscal nightmare?

Simple, just impose a spending cap. At the end of the interview, I added a plug for the very successful system in Switzerland, but I’d also be happy if we copied Hong Kong’s spending cap. Or the Taxpayer Bill of Rights from Colorado.

The bottom line is that spending restraint works and a constitutional spending cap is the best way to achieve permanent fiscal discipline.

P.S. By contrast, proponents of “Modern Monetary Theory” argue governments can finance ever-growing government by printing money. For what it’s worth, nations that have used central banks to finance big government (most recently, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) are not exactly good role models.

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The long-run fiscal outlook for most developed nations is very grim thanks to demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

For all intents and purposes, we’re all destined to become Greece according to long-run projections from the International Monetary Fund, Bank for International Settlements, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Are there any solutions to this “most predictable crisis“?

Politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders would like us to believe the answer involves never-ending tax increases. But such an approach is a recipe for more debt because the economy will weaken and governments will spend more money (look at what’s been happening in Europe, for instance).

A more sensible approach is a spending cap. I’ve pointed out, for instance, how Swiss government debt has plummeted ever since voters imposed annual limits on budgetary growth.

We also can learn lessons from history according to new research from the International Monetary Fund.

The report contains some very interesting economic history and the evolution of government finance, including the Bank of England being created and given a monopoly so the government would have a vehicle for borrowing money (as I observed in my video on central banking).

But it mostly tells the story of how governments and public finance simultaneously evolved.

Although the written record points to instances of public borrowing as long as two thousand years ago, recent scholarship points to 1000-1400 A.D. as when borrowing agreements with states were concluded with regularity and debt contracts entered into by sovereigns were standardized. …The supply of loans from city-states and territorial monarchies was driven by the need to finance military campaigns and secure borders. …From the 16th century, Europe’s political geography coalesced into the nation states recognized at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In parallel, many European states evolved from absolutist regimes to more limited government. …Fiscal states thus evolved in response to the efforts of rulers to secure borders, expand territory and survive. After 1650, larger, more centralized states increasingly possessed the fiscal machinery to raise revenue in uniform ways and had a veto player, such as a parliament, to monitor and discipline public expenditure.

There’s also lots of information in the report about how some governments, primarily outside of Europe, began to borrow money.

In many cases, this produced bad results, with defaults and economic crisis. As the authors wrote, “Debasement and restructuring also have a long history.”

But the part of the report that caught my eye was the description of how three advanced nations – the United Kingdom, the United States, and France – successfully dealt with large debt burdens before World War I.

…we describe three notable debt consolidation episodes before World War I: Great Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, the United States in the last third of the 19th century, and France in the decades leading up to 1913. While the colorful debt crises and defaults of the first era of globalization have been much discussed, less attention has been paid to these successful consolidation episodes. We focus on these three cases because they involved three of the largest economies of the period, but also because their debt burdens were among the heaviest. British public debt as a share of GDP was higher in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, for example, than Greek public debt in 2018. But in all three cases, high public debts were successfully reduced relative to GDP.

In each case, war-time spending was the cause of the debt buildup.

The Napoleonic Wars, Franco-Prussian War and U.S. Civil War were the three most expensive conflicts of the 19th century. …debt accounted for the single largest share of wartime financing.

Here’s a table showing that these nations dramatically reduced their debt burdens.

To be sure, there were differences in the three nations.

The reduction in the British debt-GDP ratio was by far the largest and longest: the debt ratio fell from 194 percent in 1822 to 28 percent nine decades later. …The French public-debt-GDP ratio fell from 96 percent in 1896 to 51 percent in 1913… This case ranks second in size but first in pace. U.S. (federal or union) government debt was not as high at the end of the Civil War, and the subsequent consolidation was more leisurely; however, the process is notable for having reduced the debt-GDP ratio to virtually zero by World War I.

When the authors investigated how these nations reduced their debt burdens, they found that limited government was a common answer.

This was true in the United Kingdom.

Britain achieved the impressive feat of maintaining an average primary surplus of 1.6 percent of GDP for nearly a century (the only deficit in Figure 2 is at the time of the Boer War). One of the political legacies of Peel and Gladstone was a fiscal theory or philosophy of “sound finance” emphasizing budget surpluses, low taxes and minimal government expenditure. …demands for spending on welfare relief from the disenfranchised masses were kept in check. In exchange, the self-taxing class of income-tax-paying electors relieved the non-electors from the burden of direct taxation… Budget surpluses then made feasible further reductions in tariffs and taxes, which reduced the cost of living for the working class

It was true in the United States.

In the U.S., primary surpluses were consistently achieved… Southern states opposed an expansive role for the federal government, while entitlements limited to Civil War pensions contained pressure for public spending.

And it was true even in France.

In France, debt reduction was entirely accounted for by primary surpluses. Those surpluses exceeded British levels, reaching 2.5 percent of GDP on average, albeit over a shorter period.

Remember, this was a period when total government spending only consumed about 10 percent of economic output.

And this was a period when there was no welfare state. Redistribution was virtually nonexistent. Not even in France.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that debt quickly fell in all three countries.

The common thread was small government.

…in all three of these large-scale debt consolidations, governments and societies went to great lengths to service and repay heavy debts. …it reflected prevailing conceptions of the limited functions of government, and limited popular pressure for public programs, entitlements and transfers.

What’s equally important is to note what didn’t happen.

No default. No inflation. No indirect confiscation.

…there was no restructuring or renegotiation of official or privately-held debts in these cases. Nor was there financial repression, i.e., measures artificially depressing interest rates. …Governments for their part did little to bottle up savings at home or to otherwise use regulation and legislation to artificially depress yields. …None of these three governments undertook involuntary restructurings despite the inheritance of heavy debt.

Now let’s shift from the past to the future

The authors point out how debt is rising today because of the welfare state rather than war.

The end of the last century also saw, for the first time, a secular increase in public-debt-to-GDP ratios in a variety of countries in conjunction not with wars and crises but in response to popular demands on governments for pensions, health care, and other often unfunded social services.

Given the demographic changes I mentioned at the beginning of the column, this does not bode well.

So what are the likely implications? As the authors note, there are two ways of dealing with high debt levels.

Countries have pursued two broad approaches to debt reduction. The orthodox approach relies on growth, primary surpluses, and the privatization of government assets. In turn this encourages long debt duration and non-resident holdings. Heterodox approaches, in contrast, include restructuring debt contracts, generating inflation, taxing wealth and repressing private finance.

At the risk of understatement, I fear Robert Higgs is right and that today’s politicians (and today’s voters!) will choose the latter approach.

Given that those policies will make a bad situation even worse, I’m not overflowing with confidence about the future.

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