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Posts Tagged ‘Debt’

When leftists (or misguided rightists) tell me that Americans are under-taxed and that the government has lots of red ink because of insufficient revenue, I sometimes will direct them to the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables in hopes of changing their minds.

I’ll specifically ask them to look at the data in Table 1-3 so they can see what’s happened to federal tax revenue over time. As you can see from this chart, nominal tax revenues have skyrocketed.

The reason that I send them to Table 1-3 is that they can also peruse the numbers after adjusting for inflation.

On that basis, we see the same story. Inflation-adjusted federal tax revenues have grown enormously.

The two charts we just examined are very depressing.

So now let’s peruse at a chart that is just mildly depressing.

If you look at federal tax revenues as a share of economic output, you’ll see that Uncle Sam currently is collecting slightly more than 18 percent of economic output. Since the long-run average is about 17 percent of GDP, that’s not a horrific increase.

However, there are still some reasons to be quite concerned.

  • The Congressional Budget Office projects the tax burden as a share of GDP will expand even further over the next few decades.
  • That means that politicians in DC not only are getting more money because of inflation, but also because the economy is expanding.
  • Third, not only are politicians getting more money because the economy expanding, they’re slowly but surely expanding their share.

That’s very bad news for those of us who don’t like higher taxes and bigger government.

Some people, however, have a different perspective

In one of his columns for the New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum argues that Americans are undertaxed.

…the United States really does have a debt problem. …Americans need more federal spending. The United States invests far less than other wealthy nations in providing its citizens with the basic resources necessary to lead productive lives. …Measured as a share of G.D.P., public spending in the other Group of 7 nations is, on average, more than 50 percent higher than in the United States. …There is another, better way to fund public spending: collecting more money in taxes. …If the debt ceiling serves any purpose, it is the occasional opportunity for Congress to step back and consider the sum of all its fiscal policies. The nation is borrowing too much but not because it is spending too much. The real crisis is the need to collect more money in taxes.

I give Appelbaum credit for honesty. He openly advocates for higher taxes and bigger government, explicitly writing that “Americans need more federal spending.”

And he is envious that spending in other major nations is “more than 50 percent higher than in the United States.”

But this raises the very obvious point about whether we should copy other nations with their bigger welfare states and higher tax burdens. After all, European nations suffer from weaker economic performance and lower living standards.

Does Appelbaum think we’ll have “productive lives” if our living standards drop by 50 percent?

Does he think that “invest” is the right word for policies that lead to lower economic performance?

The bottom line is that I’m completely confident that Appelbaum would be stumped by the never-answered question.

P.S. Dishonest leftists claim tax increases will lead to less red ink while honest leftists like Appelbaum admit the real goal is a bigger burden of government.

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Back in 2016, here’s what I said about the debt limit during some congressional testimony (and I made very similar points in some 2013 testimony).

Near the end of my testimony (about 4:55) I discuss “prioritization,” which is what would happen if the debt limit is not raised and the Treasury Department has to decide which payments are made (and which payments are delayed).

I then pointed out that federal tax revenues in 2017 were expected to be 11 times greater than annual interest payments.

As such, there obviously would have been plenty of cash available to make interest payments, as well as to finance other economically or politically sensitive items (I assume, for instance, that Treasury would have prioritized monthly Social Security benefits as well).

Would this have been messy? Yes. Would it have been uncharted territory not covered by the law? Yes. But would it have been better than default, which would have caused turmoil in financial markets? Another yes.

Which now brings us to the present day. We’re now in another debt limit fight, so I decided to look at the most-recent data from the Congressional Budget Office to see whether the federal government will still have plenty of cash so that interest payments on the debt can be prioritized.

Lo and behold, annual tax revenue this fiscal year is going to be more than 11 times greater than annual interest payments. Just like in 2017.

In other words, we presumably can sleep easy. There’s plenty of money to pay interest on the debt.

There would only be a default if Joe Biden or Janet Yellen (the Treasury Secretary) deliberately chose not to prioritize. And the odds of that happening presumably are way below 1 percent.

Some people may wonder why we should accept even that small risk? Why not simply increase the debt limit so that the odds of a default are 0 percent?

That’s a fair point, but it must be balanced by the recognition that the United States is on a path to long-run economic and fiscal chaos. So I can also understand why some lawmaker say the debt limit should only be raised if accompanied by some much-need spending restraint.

And, for those who care about real-world evidence, that’s what has happened in the past. Indeed, Brian Riedl notes that it’s the only plausible vehicle for altering the nation’s fiscal trajectory.

I’ll close by expressing pessimism that House Republicans will achieve anything in the current fight over the debt limit.

We won’t get something really good, like a spending cap. But I start with very low expectations, so I guess I’m happy that Republicans are at least pretending to care once again about excessive government spending.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step!

P.S. I partially disagree with Brian Riedl’s list. The 1990 Bush tax increase was not a “deficit-reduction law.” And it was post-1994 spending restraint that produced a balanced budget, not Clinton’s 1993 tax increase.

P.P.S. Remember that debt is bad, but it should be viewed as a symptom. The underlying disease is excessive government spending.

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As part of my annual “Hopes and Fears” column, a rejuvenated interest in spending restraint was at the top of my list.

This clip from a recent interview summarizes the economic issues.

If you don’t want to watch the video, here are the three things to understand.

  1. Tax-financed spending is bad for prosperity.
  2. Debt-financed spending is bad for prosperity.
  3. Monetary-financed spending is bad for prosperity.

And if you understand those three things, then you realize that the real problem is spending.

At the risk of over-simplifying, taxes, borrowing, and printing money should be viewed as different ways of doing a bad thing.

Since I mentioned over-simplifying, I’ll close with a couple of observations that are somewhat contradictory.

  • First, I don’t worry very much about whether there is a surplus or a deficit in any particular year, but it is a good idea to have long-run fiscal balance (compared to the alternatives of financing the budget with borrowing or printing money).
  • Second, while taxes are the most appropriate way to finance spending, tax increases are a reckless and irresponsible option because we have so much evidence that politicians will respond with additional spending and additional debt.

Which brings us back to the main lesson, which is that spending is the problem and spending restraint is the solution.

Not just a solution. The only solution.

P.S. This video is a bit dated, but all of the economic analysis is still completely accurate.

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I don’t worry much about budget deficits. Simply stated, it is far more important to focus on the overall burden of government spending.

To be sure, it is not a good idea to have too much debt-financed spending. But it’s also not a good idea to have too much tax-financed spending. Or too much spending financed by printing money.

Other people, however, do fixate on budget deficits. And I get drawn into those debates.

For instance, I wrote back in July that Biden was spouting nonsense when he claimed credit for a lower 2022 deficit. But some people may have been skeptical since I cited numbers from Brian Riedl and he works at the right-of-Center Manhattan Institute.

So let’s revisit this issue by citing some data from the middle-of-the-road Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB). They crunched the numbers and estimated the impact, between 2021 and 2031, of policies that Biden has implemented since becoming president.

The net result: $4.8 trillion of additional debt.

By the way, this is in addition to all the debt that will be incurred because of policies that already existed when Biden took office.

If you want to keep score, the Congressional Budget Office projects additional debt of more than $15 trillion over the 2021-2031 period, so Biden is approximately responsible for about 30 percent of the additional red ink.

Some readers may be wondering how Biden’s 10-year numbers are so bad when the deficit actually declined in 2022.

But we need to look at the impact of policies that already existed at the end of 2021 compared to policies that Biden implemented in 2022.

As I explained back in May, the 2022 deficit was dropping simply because of all the temporary pandemic spending. To be more specific, Trump and Biden used the coronavirus as an excuse to add several trillion dollars of spending in 2020 and 2021.

That one-time orgy of spending largely ended in 2021, so that makes the 2022 numbers seem good by comparison.

Sort of like an alcoholic looking responsible for “only” doing 7 shots of vodka on Monday after doing 15 shots of vodka every day over the weekend.

If that’s not your favorite type of analogy, here’s another chart from the CRFB showing the real reason for the lower 2022 deficit.

I’ll close by reminding everyone that the real problem is not the additional $4.8 trillion of debt Biden has created.

That’s merely the symptom.

The ever-rising burden of government spending is America’s real challenge.

P.S. If you want to watch videos that address the growth-maximizing size of government, click herehereherehere, and here.

P.P.S. Surprisingly, the case for smaller government is bolstered by research from generally left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECDWorld BankECB, and IMF.

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I don’t spend much time worrying about why the United States has a big budget deficit. I’m much more concerned about the fact that the federal government is too big and that it is spending too much.

Moreover, there’s plenty of evidence that we can quickly get rid of deficits with some long-overdue spending restraint. In other words, deal with the underlying disease of excessive government and the symptom of red ink goes away.

But since many people focus first and foremost on fiscal balance, let’s take a look at why budget surpluses at the turn of the century have turned into big budget deficits.

I’m motivated to address this issue because of this chart from Brian Riedl’s impressive collection. It shows spending increases are responsible for 97.5 percent of the shift.

Some of you may be wondering if the chart is accurate. I can easily imagine my friends on the left exclaiming, “What about the Bush tax cuts and the Trump tax cuts?!?”

Those tax cuts did happen, but they were mostly offset by Obama’s “fiscal cliff” tax increase and real bracket creep (the tax burden tends to increase over time since even small increases in economic growth will push households into higher tax brackets).

So the net result of all these factors is that there has been a very small reduction (0.2 percentage points) in tax revenue as a share of economic output.

Others of you may be wondering if the spending numbers may be exaggerated because of pandemic-related spending.

That is a fair question since the crowd in Washington used the opportunity to spend a couple of trillion dollars. But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that it was almost entirely one-time spending that took place in 2020 and 2021 (for what it’s worth, budget experts have mocked Biden’s claim of deficit reduction this year since it is simply a result of expiring emergency outlays).

There is some one-time spending in 2022. As noted in the chart, Biden’s reckless student loan bailout is a big chuck of the increase in “other mandatory spending.”

As such, I suppose I should say that higher spending is “only” responsible for 96.8 percent of today’s higher deficits, not 97.5 percent.

The bottom line is that all 21st-century presidents (and Congresses) have been big spenders.

P.S. According to the long-run forecast from the Congressional Budget Office, a bad situation will get even worse over the next 30 years. And more than 100 percent of that future decline will be the result of excessive spending (something that’s been true for many years).

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As part of “European Fiscal Policy Week,” I’ve complained about bad Italian fiscal policy, bad Europe-wide fiscal policy, bad British fiscal policy, and also the unhelpful role of the European Union.

But I want to end the week on an optimistic note, so let’s take a look at Switzerland‘s spending cap.

Known as the “debt brake,” the rule was approved by 84.7 percent of voters back in 2001 and took effect with the 2003 fiscal year.

And if you want to know whether it has been successful, here’s a comparison of average spending increases before the debt brake and after the debt brake.

The above data comes directly from the database of the IMF’s World Economic Outlook.

There are some caveats, to be sure.

  • The IMF data cited above is not adjusted for inflation, though inflation has not been a problem in Switzerland.
  • The IMF numbers also show total government spending rather than just the outlays of the central government, but most cantons also have spending caps.

The bottom line is that Swiss fiscal policy dramatically improved after the spending cap took effect.

Switzerland’s Federal Finance Administration has a nice English-language description of the policy.

The debt brake is a simple mechanism for managing federal expenditure. …Expenditure is limited to the level of structural, i.e. cyclically adjusted, receipts. This allows for a steady expenditure trend and prevents a stop-and-go policy. …The debt brake has passed several tests since its introduction in 2003… The binding guidelines of the debt brake helped to swiftly balance the federal budget when it was introduced. The debt brake prevented the high tax receipts from the pre-2009 economically strong years from being used for additional expenditure. Instead, it was possible to build up surpluses and reduce debt. …s public finances are well positioned when compared internationally. Aside from the Confederation, most of the cantons have a debt brake too.

Here’s a chart from the report. It shows that debt is on a downward trajectory, especially when measured as a share of economic output (the right axis).

For what it’s worth, I’m glad the debt brake reduced debt, but I care more about controlling government spending. That being said, the Swiss spending cap also is a success on that basis.

The burden of spending as a share of GDP was increasing before the debt brake was approved. And since 2003, it’s been on a downward trajectory.

Here’s what Avenir Suisse, a Swiss think tank, wrote back in 2017.

Since the early 2000’s, Switzerland’s fiscal institutions have been successful in keeping the overall levels of taxation and spending at moderate levels. The country’s high fiscal strength is based on…Switzerland’s debt brake, a key institutional mechanism for managing public finances which subjects the Confederation’s fiscal policy to a binding rule…and contributes significantly to the country’s fiscal discipline. …Switzerland’s spending cap has helped the country avoid the fiscal crisis affecting so many other European nations. …The Swiss debt brake is the ideal model for other countries lacking fiscal discipline to embrace. …The Swiss debt brake’s most important contribution, however, cannot be measured in figures… In the early 1990s fiscal policy was oriented more towards the demands of the public sector… Today, however, the administration, the government and the parliaments believe it is self-evident that expenditures must develop in the medium term in line with revenue. Fiscal federalism, as an important element in the cantons, protects against overcrowding access to the tax side.

That last sentence deserves some elaboration. The authors are noting (“overcrowding access to the tax side”) that it is possible to increase spending by increasing taxes, but that’s not an easy option in Switzerland because voters can use direct democracy to reject tax hikes (as they have in the past).

P.S. The Debt Brake has an opt-out clause that allows more spending in an emergency. And, during the pandemic, spending did jump by more than 12 percent in just one year. But there’s also a claw-back provision that requires lawmakers to be extra frugal in subsequent years. And that policy seems to be successful. The big spending surge in 2020 was followed by two years of zero spending growth (with another year of no spending growth projected for 2023).

P.P.S. Look at this map if you want to see how much better Switzerland is than the rest of Europe.

P.P.P.S. Look at these charts if you want to see how Switzerland is doing better than the United States.

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I wrote yesterday to speculate about a possible fiscal crisis in Italy.

Today, here are my thoughts on why there should not be a bailout if/when a crisis occurs.

I have moral objections to bailouts, but let’s focus in this column on the practical impact.

And let’s start with this chart, which shows debt levels in Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain (the so-called PIGS) ever since the misguided bailout of Greece about a dozen years ago.

As you can see, OECD data reveals that there’s been no change in these poorly governed nations. They have continued to over-spend and accumulate ever-higher levels of debt.

This certainly seems like evidence of failure, in part because of Greece’s continued bad policy.

But I’m equally concerned about how other Mediterranean nations did not change their behavior.

So why did those nations accumulate more debt, even though they had an up-close look at Greece’s fiscal collapse?

I suspect they figured they could get bailouts, just like Greece. In other words, the IMF and others created a system corrupted by moral hazard.

Defenders of bailouts assert that Greece was forced to engage in “austerity” as a condition of getting a bailout.

I have two problems with that argument.

  • First, notice how Greece’s debt has continued to go up. If that’s a success, I would hate to see an example of failure.
  • Second, the main effect of the so-called austerity is a much higher tax burden and a somewhat higher spending burden.

If there’s a bailout of Italy (or any other nation), I suspect we’ll see the same thing happen. Higher taxes, higher spending, and higher debt.

I’ll close by acknowledging that there are costs to my approach. If Italy is not given a bailout, the country may have a “disorderly default,” meaning the government simply stops honoring its commitments to pay bondholders.

That is bad for individual bondholders, but it also could hurt – or even bankrupt – financial institutions that foolishly decided to buy a lot of Italian government bonds.

But there should be consequences for imprudent choices. Especially if the alternative is bailouts that misallocate global capital and encourage further bad behavior.

The bottom line is that the long-run damage of bailouts is much greater than the long-run damage of defaults.

P.S. Just like it’s a bad idea to provide bailouts to national governments, it’s also a bad idea to provide bailouts to state governments. Or banks. Or student loan recipients.

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I’m in Europe to give a couple of speeches about fiscal policy, so I’m going to spend all week commenting on the continent’s (mostly miserable) fiscal policy.

Let’s start with comments about Italy, the nation most likely to suffer a crisis.

Normally, I tell people to focus on government spending rather than red ink. After all, the economy is hurt whether spending is financed by taxes or borrowing (or printing money).

But I’ve also noted that governments sometimes spend so much money and incur so much debt that investors decide it is very risky to buy or hold debt from those governments. In other words, they begin to fear default.

When investors (sometimes known as “bond vigilantes”) reach that stage, they probably try to get rid of their holdings and definitely refuse to buy more debt. The net result is that profligate governments have to offer much higher interest rates to compensate for the risk of a possible default.

That happened earlier this century in Greece.

And if peruse this data from the OECD, you find that Italian government debt has jumped to levels that may be unsustainable.

So why has Italy avoided a crisis?

As noted in this article by Desmond Lachman, published by Inside Sources, the nation is being propped up by the European Central Bank.

In Europe, when the European Central Bank (ECB) soon dials back its bond-buying program, we are likely to find out that it is the Italian economy that has been swimming naked. This should be of deep concern for the Eurozone and world economies. While the Italian economy might be too large for its Eurozone partners to allow it to fail, it also might prove to be too large for them to bail it out. …The main factor that has allowed the Italian government to finance its ballooning budget deficit on favorable terms has been the ECB’s massive government bond-buying…the ECB used its emergency bond-buying program to more than fully finance the Italian government’s borrowing needs. …it must be only a matter of time before we have another round of the Italian sovereign debt crisis. …no longer being able to count on ECB bond-buying, the Italian government will have to increasingly finance itself in the market. It will have to do so with its public finances in a worse state than they were in during the 2012 debt crisis.

In the article, Lachman thinks a crisis is all but inevitable because the ECB is unwinding its pandemic-era money creation.

I agree about the ECB’s harmful role, but I fear the central bankers in Frankfurt will continue to do the wrong thing.

P.S. I mentioned demographics at the start of the video. Here’s some more information about how aging populations are contributing to fiscal meltdown.

P.P.S. Italy can solve its problems, but I doubt it will choose the only effective solution.

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Yesterday’s column analyzed some depressing data in the new long-run fiscal forecast from the Congressional Budget Office.

Simply stated, if we leave fiscal policy on auto-pilot, government spending is going to consume an ever-larger share of America’s economy. Which means some combination of more taxes, more debt, and more reckless monetary policy.

Today, let’s show how that problem can be solved.

My final chart yesterday showed that the fundamental problem is that government spending is projected to grow faster than the private economy, thus violating the “golden rule” of fiscal policy.

Here’s a revised version of that chart. I have added a bar showing how fast tax revenues are expected to grow over the next 30 years, as well as a bar showing the projection for population plus inflation.

As already stated, it’s a big problem that government spending is growing faster (an average of 4.63 percent per year) than the growth of the private economy (an average of 3.75 percent per years.

But the goal of fiscal policy should not be to maintain the bloated budget that currently exists. That would lock in all the reckless spending we got under Bush, Obama, and Trump. Not to mention the additional waste approved under Biden.

Ideally, fiscal policy should seek to reduce the burden of federal spending.

Which is why this next chart is key. It shows what would happen if the federal government adopted a TABOR-style spending cap, modeled after the very successful fiscal rule in Colorado.

If government spending can only grow as fast as inflation plus population, we avoid giant future deficits. Indeed, we eventually get budget surpluses.

But I’m not overly concerned with fiscal balance. The proper goal should be to reduce the burden of spending, regardless of how it is financed.

And a spending cap linked to population plus inflation over the next 30 years would yield impressive results. Instead of the federal government consuming more than 30 percent of the economy’s output, only 17.8 percent of GDP would be diverted by federal spending in 2052.

P.S. A spending cap also could be modeled on Switzerland’s very successful “debt brake.”

P.P.S. Some of my left-leaning friends doubtlessly will think a federal budget that consumes “only” 17.8 percent of GDP is grossly inadequate. Yet that was the size of the federal government, relative to economic output, at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

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The Congressional Budget Office has released its new long-run fiscal forecast. Like I did last year (and the year before, and the year before, etc), let’s look at some very worrisome data.

We’ll start with projections over the next three decades for taxes and spending, measured as a share of economic output (gross domestic product). As you can see, the tax burden is increasing, but the spending burden is increasing even faster.

By the way, some people think America’s main fiscal problem is the gap between the two lines. In other words, they worry about deficits and debt.

But the real problem is government spending. And that’s true whether the spending burden is financed by taxes, borrowing, or printing money.

So why is the burden of government spending projected to get larger?

As you can see from Figure 2-2, entitlement programs deserve the lion’s share of the blame. Social Security spending is expanding as a share of GDP, and health entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare) are expanding even faster.

Now let’s confirm that the problem is not on the revenue side.

As you can see from Figure 2-7, taxation is expected to consume an ever-larger share of economic output in future decades. And that’s true even if the Trump tax cuts are made permanent.

Having shared three charts from CBO’s report, it’s now time for a chart that I created using CBO’s long-run data.

My chart shows that America’s main fiscal problem is that we are not abiding by fiscal policy’s Golden Rule. To be more specific, the burden of government is projected to grow faster than the economy.

So long as the burden of government is expanding faster than the private sector, that’s a recipe for higher taxes, more debt, and reckless monetary policy.

All of those options lead to the same bad outcome.

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America’s fiscal future is very grim, largely because of an ever-expanding burden of entitlement spending.

To see the magnitude of the problem, let’s peruse the Budget and Economic Outlook, which was released yesterday by the Congressional Budget Office has some.

Most people are focusing on how deficits are going to climb from $1 trillion to $2 trillion-plus over the next 10 years.

That’s not good news, but we should be far more worried about the fact that the burden of government spending is growing faster than the private economy. As a result, government will be consuming an ever-larger share of national output.

The budget wonks who (mistakenly) focus on red ink say the problem is so serious that we need higher taxes.

They look at this chart, which is based on CBO’s baseline forecast (what will happen if taxes and spending are left on autopilot), and assert we have no choice but to raise taxes.

They point out that the annual deficit in 2032 will be almost $2.3 trillion and that it’s impossible cut spending by that much.

Needless to say, it would be a near-impossible political undertaking to cut $2.3 trillion in one year (though it would fulfill libertarian fantasies).

But what if, instead of kicking the can down the road, policymakers imposed some sort of overall spending cap to avoid a giant deficit in 10 year.

This second chart displays that scenario. I took CBO’s baseline (autopilot) numbers and assumed that spending could only increase by 1.4 percent annually starting in 2024.

As you can see, that modest bit of fiscal discipline completely eliminates the project $2.3 trillion annual deficit in 2032.

In other words, there is no need for any tax increase.

Especially since politicians almost certainly would respond to the expectation of additional revenue by increasing spending above the baseline (as would happen with Joe Biden’s so-called Build Back Better scheme).

I’ll close by noting that there’s no need to fixate on whether the budget is balanced by 2032. What matters is trend lines.

It’s not good for government to grow faster than the private economy in the long run. And it’s not good for deficits and debt to climb as a share of economic output in the long run.

Both of those outcomes can be avoided if we have some sort of spending cap so that outlays grow slower than the private sector.

The stricter the cap, the quicker the progress.

  • I prefer actual cuts (a requirement to reduce nominal spending each year).
  • I would be happy with a hard freeze (like we had for a few years after the Tea Party revolt).
  • As noted above, a 1.4 percent spending cap balances the budget by 2032.
  • But we would make progress, albeit slow progress, even if the spending cap allowed the budget to grow by 2.0 percent of 2.5 percent per year.

P.S. I start the spending cap in 2024 because spending is not projected to grow by very much between 2022 and 2023. That’s not because today’s politicians are being responsible, however. It’s simply a result of one-time pandemic emergency spending coming to an end. But since that one-time spending has a big impact on short-run numbers, I delayed the spending cap for one year.

P.P.S. The blue revenue line has a kink in 2025 because the baseline forecast assumes that many of the Trump tax cuts expire that year. If those tax cuts are extended or made permanent, revenues would be about $400 billion lower in 2032. As such, balancing the budget by that year would require a spending cap that allows annual outlays to increase by less than 0.9 percent per year.

P.P.P.S. President Biden is bragging that the deficit is falling this year, but that’s only because the one-time pandemic spending is coming to an end.

P.P.P.P.S. A spending cap is a simple solution, but it would not be an easy solution. In the long-run, it would require genuine entitlement reform.

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Earlier this year, I pointed out that President Biden should not be blamed for rising prices.

There has been inflation, of course, but the Federal Reserve deserves the blame. More specifically, America’s central bank responded to the coronavirus pandemic by dumping a lot of money into the economy beginning in early 2020.

Nearly a year before Biden took office.

The Federal Reserve is not the only central bank to make this mistake.

Here’s the balance sheet for the Eurosystem (the European Central Bank and the various national central banks that are in charge of the euro currency). As you can see, there’s also been a dramatic increase in liquidity on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Why should American readers care about what’s happening with the euro?

In part, this is simply a lesson about the downsides of bad monetary policy. For years, I’ve been explaining that politicians like easy-money policies because they create “sugar highs” for an economy.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that false booms almost always are followed by real busts.

But this is more than a lesson about monetary policy. What’s happened with the euro may have created the conditions for another European fiscal crisis (for background on Europe’s previous fiscal crisis, click here, here, and here).

In an article for Project Syndicate, Willem Buiter warns that the European Central Bank sacrificed sensible monetary policy by buying up the debt of profligate governments.

…major central banks have engaged in aggressive low-interest-rate and asset-purchase policies to support their governments’ expansionary fiscal policies, even though they knew such policies were likely to run counter to their price-stability mandates and were not necessary to preserve financial stability. The “fiscal capture” interpretation is particularly convincing for the ECB, which must deal with several sovereigns that are facing debt-sustainability issues. Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain are all fiscally fragile. And France, Belgium, and Cyprus could also face sovereign-funding problems when the next cyclical downturn hits.

Mr. Buiter shares some sobering data.

All told, the Eurosystem’s holdings of public-sector securities under the PEPP at the end of March 2022 amounted to more than €1.6 trillion ($1.7 trillion), or 13.4% of 2021 eurozone GDP, and cumulative net purchases of Greek sovereign debt under the PEPP were €38.5 billion (21.1% of Greece’s 2021 GDP). For Portugal, Italy, and Spain, the corresponding GDP shares of net PEPP purchases were 16.4%, 16%, and 15.7%, respectively. The Eurosystem’s Public Sector Purchase Program (PSPP) also made net purchases of investment-grade sovereign debt. From November 2019 until the end of March 2022, these totaled €503.6 billion, or 4.1% of eurozone GDP. In total, the Eurosystem bought more than 120% of net eurozone sovereign debt issuances in 2020 and 2021.

Other experts also fear Europe’s central bank has created more risk.

Two weeks ago, Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute expressed concern that Italy had become dependent on the ECB.

…the European Central Bank (ECB) is signaling that soon it will be turning off its monetary policy spigot to fight the inflation beast. Over the past two years, that spigot has flooded the European economy with around $4 trillion in liquidity through an unprecedented pace of government bond buying. The end to ECB money printing could come as a particular shock to the Italian economy, which has grown accustomed to having the ECB scoop up all of its government’s debt issuance as part of its Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program. …the country’s economy has stalled, its budget deficit has ballooned, and its public debt has skyrocketed to 150 percent of GDP. …Italy has had the dubious distinction of being a country whose per capita income has actually declined over the past 20 years. …All of this is of considerable importance to the world economic outlook. In 2010, the Greek sovereign debt crisis shook world financial markets. Now that the global economy is already slowing, the last thing that it needs is a sovereign debt crisis in Italy, a country whose economy is some 10 times the size of Greece’s.

Mr. Lachman also warned about this in April.

Over the past two years, the ECB’s bond-buying programs have kept countries in the eurozone’s periphery, including most notably Italy, afloat. In particular, under its €1.85 trillion ($2 trillion) pandemic emergency purchase program, the ECB has bought most of these countries’ government-debt issuance. That has saved them from having to face the test of the markets.

And he said the same thing in March.

The ECB engaged in a large-scale bond-buying program over the past two years…, as did the U.S. Federal Reserve. The size of the ECB’s balance sheet increased by a staggering four trillion euros (equivalent to $4.4 billion), including €1.85 trillion under its Pandemic Emergency Purchasing Program. …The ECB’s massive bond buying activity has been successful in keeping countries in the eurozone’s periphery afloat despite the marked deterioration in their public finances in the wake of the pandemic.

Let’s conclude with several observations.

So if politicians won’t adopt good policies and their bad policies won’t work, what’s going to happen?

At some point, national governments will probably default.

That’s an unpleasant outcome, but at least it will stop the bleeding.

Unlike bailouts and easy money, which exacerbate the underlying problems.

P.S. For what it is worth, I do not think a common currency is necessarily a bad idea. That being said, I wonder if the euro can survive Europe’s awful politicians.

P.P.S. While I think Mr. Buiter’s article in Project Syndicate was very reasonable, I’ve had good reason to criticize some of his past analysis.

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I’ve identified seven reasons to oppose tax increases, but explain in this interview that the biggest reason is that it would be a mistake to give politicians more money to finance an ever-larger burden of government spending.

I had two goals when responding this question (part of a longer interview).

First, I wanted to help viewers understand that America’s fiscal problem is too much government spending and that red ink is simply a symptom of that problem.

Over the years, I’ve concocted all sorts of visuals to make this point. Like this one.

And this one.

And this one.

Second, I wanted viewers to understand that higher taxes will simply make a bad situation even worse.

From my perspective, the biggest problem with tax increases is that they will enable a bigger burden of government spending.

But even the folks who fixate on red ink should adopt a no-tax increase position.

Why? Because politicians who want big tax increases want even bigger spending increases.

Joe Biden is pushing for a massive tax increase, for instance, but his proposed spending increase is far larger.

We also have decades of evidence from Europe. There’s been a huge increase in the tax burden in Western Europe since the 1960s (largely enabled by the enactment of value-added taxes).

Did that massive increase in revenue lead to less red ink?

Nope, just the opposite, as I showed in both 2012 and 2016.

If you don’t agree with me on this issue, maybe you should heed the words of these four former presidents.

P.S. Some people warn that endlessly increasing debt is a recipe for an eventual crisis. They’re probably right. Which is why it is important to oppose tax-increase deals that wind up saddling us with more red ink. Besides, the long-run damage of tax-financed spending is very similar to the long-run damage of debt-financed spending.

P.P.S. As I mention in the interview, the only real solution is spending restraint. And a spending cap is the best way of enforcing that approach.

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As part of a panel discussion with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, I explained (with a frozen look) why spending caps (such as Switzerland’s “debt brake“) are better than balanced budget requirements.

This is a topic I’ve written about many times, noting that even left-leaning international bureaucracies like the IMF and OECD have reached the same conclusion.

For today’s discussion, I want to focus on a wonky but important observation. I mentioned in the presentation that the European Union’s “Maastricht Criteria” – which focus on controlling red ink – have not worked.

Those interested can click here for further background on these rules, but the key thing to understand is that eurozone nations agreed back in 1992 to limit deficits to 3 percent of economic output and to limit debt to 60 percent of GDP.

Has this approach worked?

Here’s the data, from a 2019 European Parliament report, on government debt for eurozone nations. Incidentally, the euro currency officially began in 2002, though nations were supposed to comply with the Maastricht Criteria starting back in 1993.

As you can see, debt has increased in most European nations. In may cases, debt is more than twice as high as the supposed maximum specified in the Maastricht Criteria.

And these are the “good” numbers. I deliberately chose data from a few years ago to make clear that the failure to comply with the Maastricht Criteria has nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic.

In other words, debt in Europe is now far worse.

What went wrong? Why did anti-red ink rules produce more red ink?

A big part of the answer is that politicians use anti-deficit and anti-debt rules as an excuse to raise taxes (which is what happened during Europe’s prior debt crisis).

And we know that tax increases generally backfire, both because they undermine economic growth and because they give politicians leeway to spend even more money.

By contrast, spending restraint has a very good track record of reducing red ink.

P.S. To learn more about Switzerland’s spending cap, click here. To learn more about Colorado’s spending cap, click here.

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The title of this column is an exaggeration. What we’re really going to do today is explain the main things you need to know about government debt.

We’ll start with this video from Kite and Key Media, which correctly observes that entitlement programs are the main cause of red ink.

I like that the video pointed out how tax-the-rich schemes wouldn’t work, though it would have been nice if they added some information on how genuine entitlement reform could solve the problem  (as you can see here and here, I’ve also nit-picked other debt-themed videos).

Which is why I humbly think this is the best video ever produced on the topic.

As you can see, I’m not an anti-debt fanatic. It was perfectly okay, for instance, to incur debt to win World War II.

But I’m very skeptical of running up the nation’s credit card for routine pork and fake stimulus.

But my main message, which I’ve shared over and over again, is that deficits and debt are merely a symptom. The underlying disease is excessive government spending.

And that spending hurts our economy whether it is financed by taxing or borrowing (or, heaven forbid, by printing money).

Now let’s look at some recent articles on the topic.

We’ll start with Eric Boehm’s column for Reason, which explains how red ink has exploded in recent years.

America’s national debt exceeded $10 trillion for the first time ever in October 2008. By mid-September 2017 the national debt had doubled to $20 trillion. …data released by the U.S. Treasury confirmed that the national debt reached a new milestone: $30 trillion. …Entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are in dire fiscal straits and will become even more costly as the average American gets older. Even without another unexpected crisis, deficits will exceed $1 trillion annually, which means the debt will continue growing, both in real terms and as a percentage of the economy. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the federal government will add another $12.2 trillion to the debt by 2031.

As already stated, I think the real problem is the spending and the debt is the symptom.

But it is possible, of course, that debt rises so high that investors (the people who buy government bonds) begin to lose faith that they will get repaid.

At that point, governments have to pay higher interest rates to compensate for perceived risk of default, which exacerbates the fiscal burden.

And if there’s not a credible plan to fix the problem, a country can go into a downward spiral. In other words, a debt crisis.

This is what happened to Greece. And I think it’s just a matter of time before it happens to Italy.

Heck, many European nations are vulnerable to a debt crisis. As are many developing countries. And don’t forget Japan.

Could the United States also be hit by a debt crisis? Will we reach a “tipping point” that leads to the aforementioned loss of faith?

That’s one of the possibilities mentioned in the New York Times column by Peter Coy.

It’s hard to know how much to worry about the federal debt of the United States. …Either the United States can continue to run big deficits and skate along with no harm done or it’s at risk of losing investors’ confidence and having to pay higher interest rates on its debt, which would suppress economic growth. …the huge increase in federal debt incurred during and after the past two recessions — those of 2007-09 and 2020 — has used up a lot of the “fiscal space” the United States once had. In other words, the federal government is closer to the tipping point where big increases in debt finally start to become a real problem. …any given amount of debt becomes easier to sustain as long as the growth rate of the economy (and thus the growth rate of tax revenue) is higher than the interest rate on the debt. In that scenario, interest payments gradually shrink relative to tax revenue. …but it doesn’t explain how much more the debt can grow. …Past a certain point, there’s a double whammy of more dollars of debt plus higher interest costs on each dollar. …sovereign debt crises tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies: Investors get nervous about a government’s ability to pay, so they demand higher interest rates, which raise borrowing costs and produce the bad outcome they feared. It’s a dynamic that Argentines are familiar with — and that Americans had better hope they never experience.

For what it’s worth, I think other major nations will suffer fiscal crisis before the problem becomes acute in the United States.

I realize this will make me sound uncharacteristically optimistic, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will finally lead politicians to adopt a spending cap so we don’t become Argentina.

P.S. The Wall Street Journal recently editorialized on the issue of government debt and made a very important point about the difference between the $30 trillion “gross debt” and the “debt held by the public,” which is about $6 trillion lower.

…the debt really isn’t $30 trillion. About $6 trillion of that is debt the government owes to itself in Social Security and other IOUs. …The debt held by the public is some $24 trillion, which is bad enough.

As I’ve noted when writing about Social Security, the IOUs in government trust funds are not real.

They’re just bookkeeping entries, as even Bill Clinton’s budget freely admitted.

Indeed, if you want to know whether some is both honest and knowledgeable about budget matters, ask them which measure of the national debt really matters.

As you can see from this exchange of tweets, competent and careful budget people (regardless of whether they favor big government or small government) focus on “debt held by the public,” which is the term for the money government actually borrows from credit markets.

If you want to know the difference between the various types of government debt – including “unfunded liabilities” – watch this video.

P.P.S. This column explains how and when debt matters. If you’re interested in how to reduce the debt, there’s very good evidence that spending restraint is the only effective approach. Even in cases where debt is enormous.

P.P.P.S. By contrast, the evidence is very clear that higher taxes actually make debt problems worse.

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Back in 2017, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released this video to help explain why spending caps are the most sensible and sustainable fiscal rule.

Switzerland actually has a spending cap in its constitution, and similar fiscal rules also exist in Hong Kong and the state of Colorado.

These policies have produced very good results.

There are many reasons to support a spending cap, including the obvious observation that an expenditure limit (as it is sometimes called) directly addresses the actual problem of excessive government.

And addressing the underlying disease works better than rules that focus on symptoms, such as balanced budget requirements or anti-deficit mandates.

You’ll notice toward the end of the video that the narrator cites pro-spending cap research from international bureaucracies, which is remarkable since those institutions normally have a bias for bigger government.

I’ve also written about that research, citing studies by the International Monetary Fund (here and here), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (here and here) and the European Central Bank (here).

Today, let’s look at more evidence from these bureaucracies.

We’ll start with a new study from the European Central Bank. Here’s some of what the authors (Nicholai Benalal, Maximilian Freier, Wim Melyn, Stefan Van Parys, and Lukas Reiss) found when comparing spending limits and anti-deficit rules.

this paper provides an in-depth assessment of two alternative measures of fiscal consolidation and expansion: the change in the structural balance (dSB) and the expenditure benchmark (EB). Both the dSB and the EB are currently used to assess compliance with the fiscal rules under the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP).The EB was introduced as an indicator in 2011, and has gained in importance relative to the dSB since the European Commission began to put more emphasis on it in 2016.A comparison of the fiscal performance of euro area countries reveals significant differences depending on whether the assessment is based on the dSB or the EB. this paper finds that the EB has advantages over the dSB as a fiscal performance indicator. …expenditure rules…provide more predictability in fiscal requirements. …Even more importantly, the EB can be shown to be less procyclical as a fiscal rule than the dSB. 

Let’s also review some 2019 research from the International Monetary Fund.

This study (authored by Kodjovi Eklou and Marcelin Joanis) looks at whether fiscal rules can constrain vote-buying politicians.

In order to increase their chances of reelection, politicians are known to undertake fiscal manipulations, especially in election years. These fiscal manipulations typically take the form of increased public expenditure… Many countries, both developed and developing, have adopted fiscal rules in recent decades as an attempt to enforce fiscal discipline. …In this paper, we employ a cross-country panel dataset in order to test whether fiscal rules adopted in developing countries have been effective in constraining political budget cycles. The dataset covers 67 developing countries over the period 1985-2007. …Our dependent variable is the general government’s final consumption expenditure as a share of GDP.

Here’s what the authors concluded about the effectiveness of spending caps.

Our empirical evidence in a sample of 67 developing countries over the period 1985-2007, shows that fiscal rules cause fiscal discipline over the electoral cycle. More specifically, in election years with fiscal rules in place, public consumption is reduced by 1.65% point of GDP as compared to election years without these rules. Furthermore, the effectiveness of these rules depends on their type… In particular, expenditure rules, rules covering the general government and rules characterized by a monitoring body outside the government dampen political budget cycles in government consumption.

Indeed, footnote 12 of the paper specifically notes the superiority of expenditure limits.

…the results show that public consumption is reduced by 2.44% points during election years with expenditure rules in place. The findings on expenditure rules are consistent with Cordes et al. (2015) who show that the compliance rate for these rules are high.

Last but not least, the fiscal experts at the Office of Management and Budget included in Trump’s final budget some very encouraging language at the end of Chapter 10 of the Analytical Perspectives.

…additional efforts to control spending are needed. Several budget process reforms should be considered, including setting spending caps… Outlay caps that are consistent with the historical average as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), post-World War II levels could be enforced with sequestration across programs similar to other budget enforcement regimes. An outlay cap on mandatory spending would complement discretionary caps, which have been in place since 2013. The Budget proposes to continue discretionary caps through 2025 at declining levels and declining levels through 2030.

Trump was a big spender, of course, but at least there were people in his administration who realized there was a problem.

And they recognized the right solution.

P.S. It’s also interesting that the authors of the IMF study found that fiscal rules work better in democracies.

…estimates focusing on the subsample of democratic elections. The effect of fiscal rules on the political budget cycle is larger… More specifically, public consumption is reduced by 2.46% point of GDP (while it is 1.65% point in the baseline).

This may not bode well for the durability of Hong Kong’s spending cap.

The authors also found that foreign aid makes it less likely that a government will follow sensible policy.

Foreign aid, which relaxes the budget constraint of the government, is negatively correlated with the probability of having fiscal rules.

Needless to say, nobody should be surprised to learn that foreign aid undermines good policy.

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As part of a recent discussion with Gene Tunny in Australia, I explained why I support “Starve the Beast,” which means keeping taxes as low as possible to help achieve the goal of spending restraint.

The premise of Starve the Beast is very simple.

Politicians like to spend money and they don’t particularly care whether that spending is financed by taxes or financed by borrowing (both bad options).

As Milton Friedman sagely observed, that means they will spend every penny they collect in taxes plus as much additional spending financed by borrowing that the political system will allow.

The IMF published a study on this issue about 10 years ago. The authors (Michael Kumhof, Douglas Laxton, and Daniel Leigh) assert that there’s no way of knowing whether Starve the Beast will lead to good or bad results.

…there is no consensus regarding the macroeconomic and welfare consequences of implementing a starve-the-beast approach, henceforth referred to as STB. …it could be beneficial in the ideal case in which it results in cuts in entirely wasteful government spending. In particular, lower spending frees up resources for private consumption, and the associated lower tax rates reduce distortions in the economy. On the other hand, …lower government spending may itself entail welfare losses…if it augments the productivity of private factors of production. …the paper examines whether the principal macroeconomic variables such as GDP and consumption, both in the United States and in the rest of the world, respond positively to this policy. …In addition, the paper assesses how the welfare effects depend on the degree to which government spending directly contributes to household welfare or to productivity.

The authors don’t really push any particular conclusion. Instead, they show various economic outcomes depending on with assumptions one adopts.

Since plenty of research shows that government spending is not a net plus for the economy (even IMF economists agree on that point), and because I think a less-punitive tax system is possible (and desirable) if there’s a smaller burden of government spending, I think the findings shown in Figure 4 make the most sense.

Now let’s shift from academic analysis to policy analysis.

In a piece for National Review back in July 2020, Jim Geraghty notes that Starve the Beast has an impact on government finances at the state level.

…we’re probably not going to see a massive expansion of government at the state level in the coming year or two. …Thanks to the pandemic lockdown bringing vast swaths of the economy to a halt, state tax revenues are plummeting. …So states will have much less tax revenue, constitutional balanced-budget requirements that are not easily repealed, and a limited amount of budgetary tricks to work around it. State governments could attempt to raise taxes, but that’s going to be unpopular and hurt state economies when they’re already struggling. Add it all up and it’s a tough set of circumstances for a dramatic expansion of government, no matter how ardently progressive the governor and state legislatures are.

For what it’s worth, Geraghty warned in the article that fiscal restraint by state governments wouldn’t happen if the federal government turned on the spending spigot.

And that, of course, is exactly what happened.

Now let’s look at the most unintentional endorsement of Stave the Beast.

A couple of years ago, Paul Krugman sort of admitted that cutting taxes was a potentially effective strategy for spending restraint.

…the same Republicans now wringing their hands over budget deficits…blew up that same deficit by enacting a huge tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. …this has been the G.O.P.’s budget strategy for decades. First, cut taxes. Then, bemoan the deficit created by those tax cuts and demand cuts in social spending. Lather, rinse, repeat. This strategy, known as “starve the beast,” has been around since the 1970s, when Republican economists like Alan Greenspan and Milton Friedman began declaring that the role of tax cuts in worsening budget deficits was a feature, not a bug. As Greenspan openly put it in 1978, the goal was to rein in spending with tax cuts that reduce revenue, then “trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending.” …voters should realize that the threat to programs… Social Security and Medicare as we know them will be very much in danger.

In other words, Krugman doesn’t like Starve the Beast because he fears it is effective (just like he also acknowledges the Laffer Curve, even though he’s opposed to tax cuts).

Let’s close by looking at some very powerful real-world evidence. Over the past 50 years, there’s been a massive increase in the tax burden in Western Europe.

Did all that additional tax revenue lead to lower deficits and less debt?

Nope, the opposite happened. European politicians spent every penny of the new tax revenue (much of it from value-added taxes). And then they added even more spending financed by additional borrowing.

To be fair, one could argue that this was an argument for the view of “Don’t Feed the Beast” rather than “Starve the Beast,” but it nonetheless shows that more money in the hands of politicians simply means more spending. And more red ink.

P.S. I had a discussion last year with Gene Tunny about the issue of “state capacity libertarianism.”

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Regarding fiscal policy, almost everyone’s attention is focused on Biden’s growth-sapping plan to increase the burden of taxes and spending.

People are right to be concerned. If the President’s plan is approved, the already-grim fiscal outlook for United States will get even worse.

This battle will be decided in next 12 months, hopefully with a defeat for Biden’s dependency agenda.

Regardless of how that fight is resolved, though, we’re eventually going to get to a point where sensible people are back in charge. And when that happens, we’ll have to figure out how to restore the nation’s finances.

That requires figuring out the appropriate goal. Here are two options:

  • Keeping taxes low.
  • Controlling debt.

These are both worthy objectives.

But, as a logic teacher might say, they are necessary but not sufficient conditions.

Here’s a chart showing how a policy of low taxes (the orange line) presumably enables faster growth, but also creates the risk of an eventual economic crisis if nothing is done to control spending and debt climbs too high (think Greece).

By contrast, the chart also shows that it’s theoretically possible to avoid an economic crisis with higher taxes (the blue line), but it means less growth on a year-to-year basis.

The moral of the story is that the economy winds up in the same place with either tax-financed spending or debt-financed spending.

Which is why we should consider a third goal.

  • Limiting spending.

The economic benefits of this approach are illustrated in this second chart. We enjoy faster year-to-year growth. And, because spending restraint is the best way of controlling debt, the risk of a Greek-style economic crisis is averted.

Now for some caveats.

I made a handful of assumptions in the above charts.

  • The economy grows 2.0 percent annually for the next 31 years with tax-financed spending
  • The economy grows 2.5 percent annually with debt-financed spending, but suffers a 10 percent decline in Year 31.
  • The economy grows 3.0 percent annually for the next 31 years with smaller government (thus enabling low taxes and less debt).

Anyone can create their own spreadsheet and make different assumptions.

That being said, there’s a lot of evidence that higher tax burdens hinder growth, that ever-rising debt burdens can lead to crisis, and that less government spending produces stronger growth.

So feel free to make your own assumptions about the strength of these effects, but let’s never lose sight of the fact that spending restraint should be the main goal for post-Biden fiscal policy.

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I’ve periodically warned the European nations such as France, Italy, Greece, and Spain almost surely are doomed to suffer a fiscal crisis.

This is because governments in Europe didn’t respond to the 2010 crisis by actually solving the problem of excessive spending.

Instead, I pointed out about five years ago that they have allowed the spending burden to rise, as measured by outlays as a share of economic output.

Well, things have since gone even further in the wrong direction, exacerbated by long-run factors such as demographic decline and short-run factors such as the coronavirus pandemic.

So what’s the net result?

Writing for the Hill, Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute is concerned about the possibility of a new round of fiscal chaos in Europe.

In 2010, the Eurozone experienced a sovereign debt crisis that shook the world economy. Today…, it appears that the Eurozone could be well on the way to another such debt crisis. It is not only that the public finances of several key countries in the Eurozone periphery are considerably worse than they were on the eve of the 2010 sovereign debt crisis. It is also that inflation has risen to a level that will make it difficult for the European Central Bank (ECB) to continue to keep the Eurozone periphery governments afloat by a continuation of bond purchases on the massive scale that it has been doing to date. …Over the past 18 months, in response to the pandemic and with a view to stimulating the European economy, the ECB increased the size of its balance sheet by more than $4 trillion. …The fly in the ointment for countries such as Italy and Spain is that they cannot expect that the ECB will continue to buy their bonds on a large scale forever. …Another reason to fear an early end to the ECB’s massive bond-buying program is the strong resistance to such bond buying by the Eurozone’s northern member countries in general and by Germany in particular. These countries view the ECB’s bond-buying activities as a move to a fiscal union through the backdoor.

Excellent points, particularly with regard to the malignant role of the European Central Bank, which has created the conditions for a much bigger crisis by enabling bigger government and more debt.

If you want to understand how much worse the debt problem is today, here’s a chart based on OECD data for European nations (with the U.S. and Japan added for purposes of comparison.

Keep in mind, of course, that the debt is basically a symptom of the real problem of excessive spending.

Though debt becomes its own problem when investors no longer trust a government’s ability to pay bondholders.

P.S. Notice Switzerland’s good numbers, which is an argument for that nation’s spending cap.

P.P.S. The problem in Europe is too much government spending, not the euro currency.

P.P.P.S. Eurobonds will make things worse in the long run.

P.P.P.P.S. It is possible to reduce large debt burdens, so long as governments simply restrain spending.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Here’s some comedy (and more comedy) about Europe’s fiscal mess.

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In an ideal world, Americans would have personal retirement accounts, just like workers in Australia, Sweden, Chile, Hong Kong, Israel, Switzerland, and a few dozen other nations.

But we’re not in that ideal world. We are forced to participate in a Ponzi Scheme known as Social Security.

By the way, that’s not necessarily a disparaging description. A Ponzi Scheme can work if there are always enough new people in the system to pay off the old people.

But because of demographic changes (increasing lifespans and decreasing birthrates), that’s not what we have in the United States.

And this is why Social Security faces serious long-run problems.

How serious? The Social Security Administration finally released the annual Trustees Report. This document has a wealth of data on the program’s financial condition, and Table VI.G9 is where the rubber meets the road.

As you can see from this chart, there will be an ever-increasing burden of Social Security taxes and spending over the next 75 years. And these numbers are adjusted for inflation!

The good news (relatively speaking) is that the economy also will be growing over the next 75 years, both in nominal terms and inflation-adjusted terms.

The bad news is that spending on Social Security will grow at a faster rate, so the program will consume a larger share of the economy’s output.

And because Social Security spending is growing faster than the economy (and also faster than tax revenue), this next chart shows there is going to be more and more red ink in the future. Once again, you’re looking at inflation-adjusted data.

As indicated by the chart’s title, the cumulative shortfall over the next 75 years is nearly $48 trillion. That’s a lot of money, even by Washington standards.

And with each passing year, the problem seems to worsen. The 75-year shortfall was $44.7 trillion according to the 2020 report and $42.1 trillion according to the 2019 report.

I’ll conclude by observing that today’s column focuses on the big-picture fiscal problems with Social Security.

But let’s not forget the program’s second crisis, which is the fact that Americans are deprived of the ability to enjoy much higher levels of retirement income.

Certain groups are particularly harmed by this aspect of the current program, including minorities, women, older workers, and low-income workers.

P.S. Our friends on the left argue that the program’s fiscal problems (the first crisis) can be solved with tax increases. Perhaps that is true, but it will mean a weaker economy and it will exacerbate the second crisis by forcing workers to pay more to get less.

P.P.S. I once made a $16 trillion dollar mistake on national TV when discussing Social Security’s shaky finances.

P.P.P.S. Much of the news coverage about the Trustees Report has focused on the year the Social Security Trust Fund supposedly runs out of money. But this is sloppy journalism since the Trust Fund has nothing but IOUs (as illustrated by this joke).

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Back in 2019, I listed “Six Principles to Guide Policy on Government Spending.”

If I was required to put it all in one sentence (sort of), here’s the most important thing to understand about fiscal policy.

This does not mean, by the way, that we should be anarcho-capitalists and oppose all government spending.

But it does mean that all government spending imposes a burden on the economy and that politicians should only spend money to finance “public goods” that generate offsetting benefits.

Assuming, of course, that the goal is greater prosperity.

I’m motivated to address this topic because Philip Klein wrote a column for National Review about Biden’s new spending. He points out that this new spending is bad, regardless of whether it is debt-financed or tax-financed.

As Democrats race toward squandering another $4.1 trillion — perhaps with some Republican help — we are being told over and over how the biggest stumbling block is figuring out how the new spending will be “paid for.” …Senator Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), who is trying to maintain his image as a moderate, insisted that he doesn’t believe the spending should be passed if it isn’t fully financed. “Everything should be paid for,” Manchin has told reporters. …Republican members of the bipartisan group have also made similar comments. …But it is folly to consider massive amounts of new spending to be “responsible” as long as members of Congress come up with enough taxes to raise… At some point in the next few weeks, Democrats (and possibly Republicans) will announce that they have reached a deal on some sort of major spending compromise. They will claim that it is fully paid for, and assert that it is fiscally responsible. But there is nothing responsible about adding trillions in new obligations at a time when the nation is already heading for fiscal catastrophe.

Klein is correct.

Biden’s spending binge will be just as damaging to prosperity if it is financed with taxes rather than financed by debt.

The key thing to realize is that we’ll have less growth if more of the economy’s output is consumed by government spending.

Giving politicians and bureaucrats more control over the allocation of resources is a very bad idea (as even the World Bank, OECD, and IMF have admitted).

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Two days ago, the Congressional Budget Office released its latest long-run fiscal forecast. The report focuses – incorrectly – on the growth of red ink.

And most of the people who have written about the report also have focused – incorrectly – on the rising levels of debt.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the report also contains lots of data on the variables – the spending burden and the tax burden – that should command our attention.

Here are four visuals from the report. We’ll start with Figure 7, which shows what will happen to spending and taxes over the next three decades. I’ve highlighted in red the most important numbers.

The right-most column gives you the big picture. The main takeaway (and it’s been this way for a while) is that more than 100 percent of America’s long-run fiscal problem is driven by the fact that government spending (“total outlays”) will consume a much greater share of our economic output.

The top-left of Figure 7 shows the growth of entitlement programs (which captures the fiscal problems of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid).

So lot’s look at Figure 9, which presents the same data in a different way.

The moral of the story is that America desperately needs genuine entitlement reform.

Why did I write above that government spending is responsible for “more than 100 percent of America’s long-run fiscal problem”?

Because, as depicted in Figure 11, there’s a built-in tax increase over the next three decades.

In other words, the fiscal mess in Washington is not the result of inadequate tax revenue.

Last but not least, Figure 13 is worth sharing because it shows how small differences in some variables can make a big difference over time. I’m especially interested in the top chart, which shows how slight differences in productivity (which determines the all-important variable of per-capita growth) have a big impact on long-run debt.

It would be preferable, of course, if the CBO report showed how greater productivity impacts both revenue and spending. We would see that faster growth generates more tax revenue (without raising tax rates) and reduces spending (people with good jobs are less likely to be dependent on government redistribution programs).

P.S. Yes, government debt matters. It matters in the short run because it’s a measure of how much private saving is being diverted to finance government. And it matters in the long run because excessive red ink can trigger a fiscal crisis when investors decide that a government no longer can be trusted to pay back lenders (see Greece, for instance). But we should never forget that it is excessive spending that drives the debt. Cure the disease of excessive spending and it is all but certain that you eliminate the symptom of red ink.

P.P.S. For what it’s worth, the United States is not Greece. At least not yet.

P.P.P.S. But we will be if there’s not some long-run spending restraint (an approach that worked in the 1800s), which almost certainly would require a spending cap.

P.P.P.P.S. There is zero evidence that tax increases would be successful. Indeed, that approach would make matters worse if history is any guide.

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The 21st century has been bad news for proponents of limited government. Bush was a big spender, Obama was a big spender, Trump was a big spender, and now Biden also wants to buy votes with other people’s money.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there is still a simple solution to America’s fiscal problems. According to the just-released Budget and Economic Outlook from the Congressional Budget Office, tax revenues will grow by an average of 4.2 percent over the next decade. So we can make progress, as illustrated by this chart, if there’s some sort of spending cap so that outlays grow at a slower pace.

The ideal fiscal goal should be reducing the size of government, ideally down to the level envisioned by America’s Founders.

But even if we have more modest aspirations (avoiding future tax increases, avoiding a future debt crisis), it’s worth noting how modest spending restraint generates powerful results in a short period of time. And the figures in the chart assume the spending restraint doesn’t even start until the 2023 fiscal year.

The main takeaway is that the budget could be balanced by 2031 if spending grows by 1.5 percent per year.

But progress is possible so long as the cap limits spending so that it grows by less than 4.2 percent annually. The greater the restraint, of course, the quicker the progress.

In other words, there’s no need to capitulate to tax increases (which, in any event, almost certainly would make a bad situation worse).

P.S. The solution to our fiscal problem is simple, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Long-run spending restraint inevitably will require genuine reform to deal with the entitlement crisis. Given the insights of “public choice” theory, it will be a challenge to find politicians willing to save the nation.

P.P.S. Here are real-world examples of nations that made rapid progress with spending restraint.

P.P.P.S. Switzerland and Hong Kong (as well as Colorado) have constitutional spending caps, which would be the ideal approach.

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I have repeatedly warned that nations get in fiscal trouble when government is too big and growing too fast.

In such countries, it’s very common to find high levels of government debt as one of the symptoms of excessive spending.

This can create the conditions for a fiscal crisis, particularly during an economic downturn. Simply stated, investors (the people who buy government bonds) begin to worry that governments may renege on their promises (i.e., default).

There’s a must-read story on this issue in today’s Washington Post suggesting that the economic fallout from coronavirus has created conditions for new fiscal crises in nations across the globe.

Authored by Alexander VillegasAnthony Faiola Lesley Wroughton, the report explains that the downturn has produced record levels of debt.

Around the globe, the pandemic is racking up a mind-blowing bill: trillions of dollars in lost tax revenue, ramped-up spending and new borrowing set to burden the next generation with record levels of debt. In the direst cases — low- and middle-income countries, mostly in Africa and Latin America, that are already saddled with backbreaking debt — covering the rising costs is transforming into a high-stakes test of national solvency. …By the end of 2020, total government debt worldwide was projected to soar by $9 trillion and top 103 percent of global GDP, according to the Institute of International Finance — a historic jump of more than 10 percentage points in just one year. Countries have maxed out their figurative credit cards.

Keep in mind, by the way, that spending burdens were climbing in most nations, leading to more red ink, even before the pandemic.

That was true in developed nations (the U.S., Europe, Japan), but also in developing nations.

And, the story explains that developed nations are far more vulnerable to fiscal crisis.

The pandemic is hurtling heavily leveraged nations into an economic danger zone, threatening to bankrupt the worst-affected. Costa Rica, a country known for zip-lining tourists and American retirees, is scrambling to stave off a full-blown debt crisis, imposing emergency cuts and proposing harsher measures that touched off rare violent protests last fall. …Angola, in contrast, effectively shut out of global markets, is racing to strike a deal with the Chinese, but even that might not be enough to prevent a painful debt crisis. Sri Lanka, locked in recession, needs to make $4 billion in debt payments this year with only $6 billion in the bank. Brazil’s debt, worsened by a yawning budget deficit, has surged to a crippling 95 percent of GDP — raising alarm over the medium-term ability of the Latin American giant to stay afloat. …Zambia, once a shining example of Africa’s economic renaissance, is now the Ghost of Crises Future for debt-burdened countries slammed by the pandemic. The sub-Saharan nation fell into default in November.

Here’s a visual from the report.

To simplify, it’s good to be in a lighter-colored nation and bad to be in a darker-colored country. At least in terms of national debt burdens.

All this grim data understandably raises the very important question of what choices governments should now make.

Sadly, some self-styled experts are actually urging even more spending, mostly because of a dogmatic belief in the supposed elixir of Keynesian economics. In other words, they want governments to dig a deeper hole.

Analysts argue that the need for stimulus to keep economies running during this historically challenging period still outweighs the need to balance budgets. …the IMF…is telling countries that now is not the time to scrimp, lest they jeopardize still-fragile economic recoveries.

Politicians will want to follow that advice because it tells them that their vice (buying votes with other people’s money) is a virtue (more spending magically can boost growth).

In the real world, there are two big lessons we should learn.

  • First, it’s profoundly reckless to further increase tax and spending burdens when nations are already in trouble because of previous bouts of fiscal profligacy.
  • Second, countries should focus on spending restraint in both the short run and long run, ideally by enacting caps to limit annual spending increases.

For what it’s worth, the U.S. would be in great shape today if, back in 2000, lawmakers had adopted a Swiss-style spending cap.

P.S. One reason that spending caps work so well is that there’s built-in flexibility when dealing with economic volatility.

P.P.S. Financing government with the printing press won’t work any better than financing it with taxes and debt.

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At the risk of oversimplification and exaggeration, these six principles tell you everything you need to know about fiscal policy.

For purposes of today’s column, let’s focus on Principle #3, which is that “Deficits and debt are symptoms of the underlying problem” of excessive spending.

I’ve been making that point over and over and over and over and over again, but I feel motivated to address the issue again after reading two columns about government debt.

First, here’s some of what Paul Krugman wrote on the topic for his column in the New York Times.

…we’ve learned a lot about the economics of government debt over the past few years — enough so that Olivier Blanchard, the eminent former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is talking about a “shift in fiscal paradigm.” And the new paradigm suggests both that public debt isn’t a major problem and that government borrowing for the right purposes is actually the responsible thing to do. …It made some sense, nine or 10 years ago, to worry that the financial crisis in Greece was a harbinger of potential debt crises in other countries. …What briefly seemed like a spread of Greek-style problems across southern Europe turned out to be a temporary investor panic, quickly ended by a promise from the European Central Bank that it would lend money to cash-short governments if necessary. …We weren’t and aren’t anywhere close to that kind of crisis, and probably never will be. …But what about the longer term? …The important point for current discussion is that government borrowing costs are now very low and likely to stay low for a long time. …given what we’ve learned and where we are, it’s clear that the U.S. government should be investing heavily in the nation’s future, and that it’s OK, indeed desirable, to borrow the money we need to make those investments.

Second, Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute provides a different perspective in a column for today’s Washington Post, .

The election of Joe Biden to the presidency has prompted liberal calls to set aside pesky budget deficit concerns and go deeper into debt to finance large new spending initiatives… All these writers share the view that the persistence of low interest rates — currently about 1 percent for a 10-year Treasury bill — means the rules of the fiscal game have fundamentally changed. …But…deficit advocates must face two fundamental realities: First, the debt is already set to soar in the absence of any new spending. And second, these bloated debt levels will mean that any future rise in interest rates could bring a full-scale debt crisis. …Deficit doves are essentially gambling the future of the U.S. economy on the expectation that interest rates never again exceed 4 percent or 5 percent. …they are wrong to assume that state of affairs will continue. …Exceeding the projections by two or three points would mean annual interest costs consuming all projected tax revenue, leaving no taxes to finance normal federal programs. These debt spirals become nearly impossible to escape, as rising interest costs necessitate more borrowing, which in turn brings higher interest costs… Deficit doves would gamble America’s economic future on the hope that interest rates will never again top 4 or 5 percent. Are you feeling lucky?

At the risk of sounding like a muddle-headed, finger-in-the-wind moderate, I’m going to disagree with both of them (I’m like Goldilocks, who doesn’t want the porridge too hot or too cold).

I have a fundamental disagreement with Krugman because he’s overtly arguing for a bigger burden of government. Based on his past writings, he is willing to use higher taxes to finance some additional spending.

But the aforementioned column confirms that he’s in favor of a big amount of additional debt-financed spending as well.

He presumably wants to move the country into the lower-right quadrant of this 2×2 matrix, but doesn’t mind getting there by detouring through the lower-left quadrant.

My disagreement with Brian is probably more a matter of rhetoric. Based on his past writings, I think he wants to be in the upper-left quadrant, but he has an unfortunate tendency to fixate on the symptom of debt and deficits when he should be focusing on the underlying disease of excessive government spending.

My bottom line if that bigger government is a bad idea when it’s financed by debt, but it’s an equally bad idea if it’s financed by taxes.

Moreover, I worry when well-meaning people grouse about red ink because that creates an opening for not-so-well-meaning people to say, “I agree with you, so let’s raise taxes.”

P.S. In the real world of Washington (as opposed to blackboard theorizing), higher taxes lead to higher deficits and more debt.

P.P.S. Assuming they’re both sincere and guided by empiricism, people who care about red ink should support a spending cap.

P.P.P.S. Maintained for a sufficient period of time, spending restraint can even eliminate huge debt burdens.

 

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For a land-locked nation without many natural resources, Switzerland is remarkably successful.

One reason for the country’s success is pro-market policy. Switzerland routinely scores in the top 5 according to both Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom.

More specifically, I’m a big fan of the country’s fiscal policy, especially the “Debt Brake,” which was imposed when voters overwhelmingly adopted the provision (84.7 percent approval) early this century.

There’s always been a debate, however, whether Switzerland’s good outcomes are because of the debt brake, or because of some random reason, such as the sensibility of Swiss voters.

Three academic economists, Michele Salvi, Christoph Schaltegger, and Lukas Schmid, investigated this issue in a study for Kyklos, a scholarly journal published by the University of Basel.

A prominent means to prevent excess debt accumulation is the use of fiscal rules. In fact,fiscal rules focus on securing solvency of governments by concentrating on the intertemporal budget constraint. …there is a strong positive association between constrained fiscal discretion and improved fiscal performance. …Our paper presents evidence on the effect of a fiscal rule with a strict enforcement mechanism… We analyze the consequences of the centrally imposed balanced budget rule on public debt in Switzerland. …the Swiss debt containment rule stands out as a clearly defined fiscal rule with a constitutional basis that constrains deviating from a balanced budget in the long-term. …The rule consists of a simple mechanism stating that expenditure may not exceed revenues over the course of an economic cycle. …The debt containment rule brings a“top-down”element into the budgeting process, which has a strong disciplinary appeal and leads to more accurate budgeting. …one key aspect is the fact that the debt containment rule sets a clear expenditure ceiling.

The key parts from the above excerpt are “expenditure may not exceed” and “clear expenditure ceiling.”

Those statements ratify my oft-made point that the debt brake is really a spending cap. And spending caps are far and away the only effective macro-fiscal rule.

The policy certainly has generated good results for Switzerland. Here’s what the authors found when thy crunched numbers to compare the country’s current fiscal trajectory with what would have happened without a spending cap.

To construct the counterfactual outcome of the debt ratio for Switzerland without a debt containment rule, we select a control group…countries expected to be driven by a similar structural process as Switzerland. …Due to the availability of comprehensive debt data, the observation period is restricted to last from 1980 until 2010. …we divide the time period into a pre-treatment period from 1980 to 2002 and a postintervention period from 2003 to 2010. …Figure 2 displays the central government debt ratio for Switzerland and its synthetic counterpart during the study period. …In 2003, the two debt ratio curves start to diverge. …it appears that the introduction of the debt containment rule led to a substantial and persistent decrease in the debt ratio in Switzerland.

And here’s the relevant set of charts from the study.

Here’s one more sentence I want to cite since it echoes the argument I’ve made to my Keynesian friends about how they also should support a Swiss-style spending cap.

The debt containment rule has made a significant contribution to switching from a procyclical to a cyclically appropriate fiscal policy.

Simply stated, the political tradeoff embedded in the debt brake is that politicians get to modestly increase spending during a downturn, even though revenues are falling, but they also can only enact modest spending increases during growth years, even if revenue is growing much faster.

By the way, you will have noticed that the study focused on how the debt brake helped to reduce red ink.

Regular readers know that I’m far more interested in focusing on the real fiscal problem, which is excessive government spending.

So I’ll close by looking at some additional evidence from Switzerland. Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing that the growth rate of spending fell sharply after the debt brake was adopted.

I looked at the 2003-2010 period, since it matched the years in the study discussed above.

But I also calculated the spending growth rate for 2003-2019 and confirmed that the debt brake’s success hasn’t just been a temporary phenomenon.

P.S. Click here for a short presentation on the debt brake, as well as similar presentations on Hong Kong’s spending cap and Colorado’s TABOR spending cap.

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The Congressional Budget Office released it’s 2020 Long-Term Budget Outlook yesterday.

Almost everybody has focused on CBO’s projections for record levels of red ink. And it is worrisome that debt is heading to Greek/Japanese levels (especially if the folks who buy government bonds think American politicians are more like Greek politicians rather than Japanese politicians).

But what should really have us worried, both in the short run and the long run, is that the burden of government spending is on an upward trajectory.

CBO has some charts showing that federal government spending will consume more than 30 percent of GDP by 2050, assuming the budget is left on autopilot.

But I dug into CBO’s database and created my own chart because I think it does a much better job of illustrating our problem.

As you can see, the problem is that government spending is projected to grow too fast, violating the Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

The solution to this problem is very simple.

We need spending restraint, ideally enforced by some sort of spending cap.

And if we control the growth of spending (preferably so that it grows no more than the rate of inflation), the projections for ever-rising levels of red ink will disappear.

In other words, you can get rid of symptoms (red ink) when you cure the underlying disease (big government).

P.S. Given all the profligacy over the past year, you won’t be surprised to learn that this year’s long-run forecast from CBO is more depressing than last year’s forecast.

P.P.S. While the solution is simple, it’s not easy. Restraining the growth of spending – especially in the long run – will require entitlement reforms, especially for Medicare and Medicaid.

P.P.P.S. Tax increases almost certainly would make a bad situation even worse by weakening the economy and encouraging more spending.

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There are two reasons why I generally don’t write much about government debt.

  • First, red ink is not desirable, but it’s mostly just the symptom of the far more important problem of excessive government spending.
  • Second, our friends on the left periodically try to push through big tax increases by hypocritically exploiting anxiety about red ink.

The one thing I can state with full certainty, however, is that tax increases are guaranteed to make a bad situation worse.

We’ll get a weaker economy (perhaps much weaker since the left is now fixated on pushing for the kinds of tax increases that do the most damage).

Equally worrisome, the biggest impact of a tax increase is that politicians won’t feel any need to control spending or reform entitlements. Indeed, it’s quite likely that they’ll respond to the expectation of higher revenue by increasing the spending burden.

To complicate matters further, any tax increase probably won’t generate that much additional revenue because of the Laffer Curve.

All of which explains why budget deals that include tax increases usually lead to even higher budget deficits.

This analysis is very timely and relevant since advocates of bigger government somehow claim that the new fiscal forecast from the Congressional Budget Office is proof that we need new taxes.

So I’m doing the same thing today I did back in January (and last August, and in January 2019, and many times before that starting back in 2010). I’ve crunched the numbers to see what sort of policies would be needed to balance the budget without tax increases.

Lo and behold, you can see from this chart that we wouldn’t need draconian spending cuts. All that’s needed for fiscal balance is to limit spending so that it grows slightly less than 1 percent per year (and this analysis even assumes that they get to wait until 2022 before imposing a cap on annual spending increases).

To be sure, politicians would not want to live with that kind of limit on their spending. So I’m not optimistic that we’ll get this type of policy in the near future.

Especially since the major parties are giving voters a choice between big-spender Trump and big-spender Biden.

But the last thing that we should do is worsen the nation’s fiscal outlook by acquiescing to higher taxes.

P.S. It’s worth noting that there was a five-year nominal spending freeze between 2009 and 2014 (back when the Tea Party was influential), so it is possible to achieve multi-year spending restraint in Washington.

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Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office released updated budget projections. The most important numbers in that report show what’s happening with the overall fiscal burden of government – measured by both taxes and spending.

As you can see, there’s a big one-time spike in coronavirus-related spending this year. That’s not good news, but more worrisome is the the longer-run trend of government spending gradually climbing as a share of economic output (and the numbers are significantly worse if you look at CBO’s 30-year projection).

Most reporters and fiscal wonks overlooked the spending data, however, and instead focused on the CBO’s projection for government debt.

Since government spending is the problem and borrowing is merely a symptom of that problem, I think it’s a mistake to fixate on red ink.

That being said, Figure 3 from the CBO report shows that there’s also an upward-spike in federal debt.

And it is true (remember Greece) that high levels of debt can, by themselves, produce a crisis. This happens when investors suddenly stop buying government bonds because they think there’s a risk of default (which happens when a government is incapable or unwilling to make promised payments to lenders).

I think some nations are on the verge of having that kind of crisis, most notably Italy.

But what about the United States? Or Japan? And how’s the outlook for Europe’s welfare states?

In other words, what nations are approaching a tipping point?

A new study from the European Central Bank may help answer these questions. Authored by Pablo Burriel, Cristina Checherita-Westphal, Pascal Jacquinot, Matthias Schön, and Nikolai Stähler, it uses several economic models to measure the downside risks of excessive debt.

The 2009 global financial and economic crisis left a legacy of historically high levels of public debt in advanced economies, at a scale unseen during modern peace time. …The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a different type of shock that has dramatically affected global economic activity… Fiscal positions are projected to be strongly hit by the crisis…once the crisis is over and the recovery firmly sets in, keeping public debt at high levels over the medium term is a source of vulnerability… The main objective of this paper is to contribute to the stabilisation vs. sustainability debate in the euro area by reviewing through the lens of large scale DSGE models the economic risks associated with regimes of high public debt.

Here’s what they found, none of which should be a surprise.

…we evaluate the economic consequences of high public debt using simulations with three DSGE models… Our DSGE simulations also suggest that high-debt economies…can lose more output in a crisis…have less scope for counter-cyclical fiscal policy and…are adversely affected in terms of potential (long-term) output, with a significant impairment in case of large sovereign risk premia reaction and use of most distortionary type of taxation to finance the additional public debt burden in the future.

Here’s a useful chart from the study. It shows some sort of shock on the left (2008 financial crisis or coronavirus being obvious examples), which then produces a recession (lower GDP) and rising debt.

That outcome isn’t good for nations with “low” levels of debt, but it can be really bad for nations with “high” debt burdens because they have to deal with much higher interest payments, much bigger tax increases, and much bigger reductions in economic output.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the study actually gives us any way of determining which nations are near the tipping point. That’s because “low” and “high” are subjective. Japan has an enormous amount of debt, yet investors don’t think there’s any meaningful risk that Japan’s government will default, so it is a “low” debt nation for purposes of the above illustration.

By contrast, there’s a much lower level of debt in Argentina, but investors have almost no trust in that nation’s especially venal politicians, so it’s a “high” debt nation for purposes of this analysis.

The United States, in my humble opinion, is more like Japan. As I wrote last year, “We probably won’t even have a crisis in the next 10 years or 20 years.” And that’s still my view, even after all the spending and debt for coronavirus.

The study concludes with some common-sense advice about using spending restraint and pro-market reforms to create buffers (some people refer to this as “fiscal space“).

Overall, once the COVID-19 crisis is over and the economic recovery firmly re-established, further efforts to build fiscal buffers in good times and mitigate fiscal risks over the medium term are needed at the national level. Such efforts should be guided by risks to debt sustainability. High debt countries, in particular, should implement a mix of fiscal discipline and wide-ranging growth-enhancing reforms.

Needless to say, there’s an obvious and successful way of achieving this goal.

P.S. Here’s another chart from the ECB study that is worth sharing because it confirms that not all tax increases do the same amount of economic damage.

We see that consumption taxes (red line) are bad, but income taxes on workers (green line) are even worse.

And if the study included an estimate of what would happen if there were higher income taxes on saving and investment, there would be another line showing even more economic damage.

P.P.S. History shows that nations can reduce very large debt burdens if they follow my Golden Rule.

P.P.P.S. There’s a related study from the IMF that shows how excessive spending is a major warning sign that nations will be vulnerable to fiscal crisis.

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Last week, I shared some data showing how the economy enjoyed a strong recovery from recession in the early 1920s when President Warren Harding cut government spending.

(And these were genuine cuts, not the nonsense we get from today’s politicians, who claim they’ve cut spending simply because the budget increases by 5 percent rather than 7 percent.)

What happened nearly 100 years ago is very relevant today since we still have advocates of Keynesian economics who claim that more spending (especially debt-financed spending) is a recipe for more growth.

To show why this view is misguided, let’s now look at what happened in the 1940s after World War II came to an end.

In a column for today’s Wall Street Journal, Professor Richard Vedder explains that the Keynesians predicted economic disaster because of big reductions in government spending.

…many Americans assumed the end of the war would mean a resumption of the Depression, which was cut off by the World War II military buildup. In the middle of the fighting, America’s leading Keynesian economist, Alvin Hansen of Harvard, said: “When the war is over, the government cannot just disband the Army, close down munitions factories, stop building ships, and remove economic controls.” …When the sudden end of combat became apparent in late August 1945, economist Everett Hagen predicted that the unemployment rate in the first quarter of 1946 would be 14.8%.

So what actually happened?

Vedder points out that the Keynesian predictions of massive unemployment were wildly inaccurate.

Millions of military personnel did become jobless within months and defense spending plummeted, putting more out of work. In June 1946 federal employment was almost precisely 10 million less than a year earlier. Yet the sharp rise in overall unemployment didn’t occur. The total unemployment rate for 1946 was 3.9%… Perhaps most interesting for today, all this occurred as the U.S. moved from an extremely expansionary fiscal policy—with budget deficits equal to almost 25% of gross domestic product in 1944 (the equivalent of more than $5 trillion today)—to an extremely contractionary one. The U.S. by 1947 was running a budget surplus exceeding 5% of output—the equivalent of more than $1 trillion today. …This was the complete reverse of the expectation of the newly dominant Keynesian economists.

In the following chart, you can see the numbers from the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables (Table 1.2), which show that fiscal policy between 1945 and 1948 was very contractionary, at least as defined by the Keynesians.

There definitely were huge spending cuts (the real kind, not the fake kind) during those years, and big deficits also became big surpluses.

Professor Vedder’s column explained that this anti-Keynesian policy didn’t produce mass unemployment.

But what about economic growth?

Well, you’ll see in the chart below the data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis for the 1945-48 period. There was a recession in 1946, which could be interpreted as evidence for Keynesianism.

But then look what happened in the next couple of years. There were more budget cuts, deficits became surpluses, and the economy enjoyed a strong rebound.

According to Keynesian theory, these two charts can’t exist. There can’t be an economic recovery when spending and deficits are falling.

Yet that’s exactly what happened after World War II (just as it happened under Harding, as Thomas Sowell observed).

Maybe, just maybe, Keynesianism is simply wrong. Maybe it’s nothing more than the economic version of a perpetual motion machine?

P.S. It’s also worth noting that huge increases in spending and debt under Hoover and Roosevelt didn’t produce good results in the 1930s.

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