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Posts Tagged ‘Deficit’

I don’t know whether to be impressed or horrified by Paul Krugman.

I’m impressed that he’s always “on message.” No matter what’s happening in America or around the world, he always has some sort of story about why events show the need for bigger government.

But I’m horrified that he’s so sloppy with numbers.

My all-time favorite example of his fact-challenged approach deals with Estonia. In an attempt to condemn market-based fiscal policy, he blamed that nation’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

Wow. That’s like saying that a rooster’s crowing causes yesterday’s sunrise. Amazing.

Let’s look at a new example. This is some of what he recently wrote while trying to explain why the U.S. has out-performed Europe.

America has yet to achieve a full recovery from the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Still, it seems fair to say that we’ve made up much, though by no means all, of the lost ground. But you can’t say the same about the eurozone, where real G.D.P. per capita is still lower than it was in 2007, and 10 percent or more below where it was supposed to be by now. This is worse than Europe’s track record during the 1930s. Why has Europe done so badly?

Krugman answers his own question by saying that the United States has been more loyal to Keynesian economics.

…what stands out from around 2010 onward is the huge divergence in thinking that emerged between the United States and Europe. In America, the White House and the Federal Reserve mainly stayed faithful to standard Keynesian economics. The Obama administration wasted a lot of time and effort pursuing a so-called Grand Bargain on the budget, but it continued to believe in the textbook proposition that deficit spending is actually a good thing in a depressed economy.

I have to confess that alarm bells went off in my head when I read this passage.

If Krugman was talking about the two years between 2008 and 2010, he would be right about “staying faithful to standard Keynesian economics.”

But 2010 was actually the turning point when fiscal policy in America moved very much in an anti-Keynesian direction.

Here’s the remarkable set of charts showing this reversal. First, there was zero spending growth in Washington after 2009.

Second, this modest bit of fiscal restraint meant a big reduction in the burden of government spending relative to economic output.

Wow, if this is Keynesian economics, then I’m changing my name to John Maynard Mitchell!

So is Krugman hallucinating? Why is he claiming that U.S. policy was Keynesian?

Let’s bend over backwards to be fair and try to find some rationale for his assertions. Remember, he is making a point about U.S. performance vs. European performance.

So maybe if we dig through the data and find that European nations were even more fiscally conservative starting in 2010, then there will be some way of defending Krugman’s claim.

Yet I looked at the IMF’s world economic outlook database and I crunched the numbers for government spending in the biggest EU economies (Germany, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, accounting for almost 80 percent of the bloc’s GDP).

And what did I find?

Contrary to Krugman’s claims, total government spending in those nations grew slightly faster than it did in the United States between 2009 and 2014.

So on what basis can Krugman argue that the U.S. had a more Keynesian approach?

Beats the heck out of me. I even looked at the OECD data on deficits to see whether there was some way of justifying his argument, but those numbers show the biggest reduction in red ink (presumably a bad thing according to Keynesian stimulus theory) took place in the United States.

But I will close by acknowledging that Krugman’s column isn’t just focused on fiscal policy. He also argues that the Federal Reserve has been more Keynesian than European central banks. My impression is that both the Fed and the ECB have been keeping interest rates artificially low, so I’m not sure that’s an effective argument (or an effective policy!), but I’ll leave that issue to the folks who specialize in monetary policy.

P.S. If you want additional examples of Krugman’s factual errors, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here,here, here, and here.

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It’s amazingly simple to reduce the burden of government spending. Policy makers simply need to impose some modest spending restraint so that government doesn’t grow faster than the economy’s productive sector.

In a display of humility that can only be found in Washington, DC, I call this Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

And, amazingly, even the International Monetary Fund agrees that spending caps are the most effective strategy for good fiscal policy.

Since I’m not a fan of the IMF, this is definitely a case of strange bedfellows!

Let’s look at some case studies of what happens when there are limits on the growth of government.

A review of data for 16 nations reveals that multi-year periods of spending restraint lead to lower fiscal burdens and less red ink.

Between 2009 and 2014, a de facto spending freeze at the federal level dramatically reduced burden of spending in the United States.

Thanks to a spending cap, Switzerland has shrunk the public sector, balanced its budget and reduced government debt .

These real-world examples provide compelling evidence on the value of long-run spending restraint.

By the way, when I challenge my leftist friends to provide similar examples of nations that have achieved good results by raising taxes, they become uncharacteristically quiet. Just like you can hear crickets chirping when I present them with my two-question challenge to identify statist nations that are good role models.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the main topic.

In addition to the data cited above, there are also hypothetical examples showing why it is important to have government grow slower than the private sector.

A column published by Investor’s Business Daily reveals that the United States would have avoided the multi-trillion dollar deficits of the Obama years had a Swiss-style spending cap been in effect.

The oil-rich Canadian province of Alberta would have avoided its current fiscal crisis had it followed my Golden Rule over the past 10 years.

Now let’s add to our list of hypothetical examples. Writing for Real Clear Markets, Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University of Georgia cleverly suggests that Republicans simply take Bill Clinton’s last budget and then adjust it for inflation and population growth.

…a Clinton is ready to show them a path to nearly everything a dream Republican budget might have. …President Bill Clinton’s last budget was for fiscal year 2001, which began just before the 2000 election. That budget spent $1.86 trillion, less than half of what President Obama is proposing. If this final Clinton budget is adjusted upwards for subsequent inflation (32 percent) and population growth (12 percent), we arrive at a figure of $2.76 trillion, still only 69 percent as much as President Obama wants to spend. This difference is what Republicans should exploit.

And since federal revenues for next year are projected to be $3.46 trillion, that means not only a smaller burden of government spending, but also a huge budget surplus.

Professor Dorfman then proposes that this gives Republicans leeway to show that they can compromise.

… appropriate spending for each agency equal to a minimum of the population and inflation adjusted amount in President Bill Clinton’s final budget plus 50 percent of the additional growth between President Obama’s proposal and the adjusted Clinton budget. That is, Republicans would not even try to roll federal spending back to when we last had a balanced budget, but only move to reverse half of the enormous spending increases that have occurred under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Such a budget would spend $3.25 trillion and would come with an estimated budget surplus of $220 billion based on the latest Congressional Budget Office projections of 2016 federal revenue.

Dorfman hypothesizes that this rhetorical approach will give advocates of smaller government the upper hand.

After all, the statists presumably wouldn’t want to say Bill Clinton’s last budget was somehow draconian or heartless. And if Republicans are proposing to take that Clinton budget, adjust it for inflation and population, and then add even more money, it should be equally improbably to characterize their proposals as being draconian and heartless.

At a time when Hillary Clinton certainly appears set to run for president, Republicans can stake their claim to reduced spending in many areas by pointing out that they are being 50 percent more generous in inflation and population adjusted spending than President Clinton was. Will Democrats in Congress, or even President Obama, want to claim that President Clinton was insufficiently generous with the poor and working classes? Will they really want to take a stand in opposition to the Clintons at this point in time? I doubt it. Certainly Hillary Clinton is unlikely to want to criticize a Clinton budget. That will make other Democrats hesitate and likely bite their tongues. Using the Clintons against the rest of the Democrats offers the Republicans in Congress a clear path to almost all their budgetary wishes.

I agree that this is an astute strategy. I particularly like it because it puts the focus on how much government has grown since Bill Clinton left office.

And the notion of letting the budget grow as fast as population plus inflation is very similar to Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which is the best spending cap in America.

That being said, I’m far less optimistic than Professor Dorfman that this approach will produce a victory in the short run. Simply stated, President Obama is too ideologically committed to big government. Moreover, I doubt that he will feel any special pressure to accept Bill Clinton’s last budget as some sort of baseline.

But having this debate would still be useful and could pay dividends in 2017 and beyond.

P.S. Speaking of President Obama, let’s close with some political humor that showed up in my inbox yesterday.

P.S. If you want more Obama humor, check out this t-shirt, this Pennsylvania joke, this Reagan-Obama comparison, this Wyoming joke, this Bush-Obama comparison, this video satire, this bumper sticker, and this very timely bit of Bowe Bergdahl humor.

And sometime there’s even humor that makes me sympathize with the President.

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Last week, I applauded the Chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees for proposing budgets that complied with my Golden Rule, which means the burden of government would grow slower than the private sector.

But my praise was limited because neither budget is ideal from the perspective of libertarians and small-government conservatives.

Even though the two proposals satisfy my Golden Rule, that’s simply a minimum threshold. In reality, there’s far too much spending in both plans, and neither Chairman proposes to get rid of a single Department. Not HUD, not Education, not Transportation, and not Agriculture.

Heck, the budgets don’t even go after low-hanging fruit such as the Small Business Administration, National Endowment for the Arts, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or Legal Services Corporation.

And it turns out that there’s another reason to be semi-disappointed with the GOP budgets.

Stephen Ohlemacher of the Associated Press has a story on the Republican plans and he looks at one of the GOP’s most prominent claims.

The new House and Senate Republican budgets make a big boast: They both balance the federal budget within 10 years, without raising taxes.

But there are two problems with this assertion.

First, the GOPers are assuming that certain “temporary” tax breaks will expire. And this means more money for the government.

…millions of American families and businesses would have to pay more in taxes to make the math work…current law assumes that more than 50 temporary tax breaks that expired at the start of the year will not be renewed. …All together, the tax breaks add up to $898 billion over the next decade, according to CBO. …Most Republicans in Congress have voted numerous times to temporarily extend them. And over the past year, the Republican-controlled House has voted to make some of the more popular ones permanent.

Second, Republicans say they want to repeal Obamacare, but they want to keep all the revenue currently associated with the Obamacare tax hikes.

…they rely on more than $1 trillion in tax revenue from the health law that would supposedly be repealed. …In 2012, CBO said repealing the president’s health law would reduce tax revenues by $1 trillion over the following decade. That number has certainly gone up as more of the law’s tax increases have come into effect. But despite calling for the health law to be repealed, both budget resolutions include all the revenue that would come from the law’s taxes.

Both of these criticisms are valid.

Regardless of what you think about temporary tax provisions (some of them are good and some are special interest junk), letting these “extenders” expire is a way to boost the long-run revenue haul of the federal government. In an ideal world, by contrast, the good provisions would be made permanent and the bad ones would be repealed and the money used to finance good tax changes.

Similarly, while Republicans say they want to repeal the specific Obamacare tax hikes, that they don’t plan on letting go of the money. Which is just a way of saying that they are letting Obamacare boost the long-run revenue stream going to Washington.

By the way, this doesn’t mean that the GOP budgets are bad compared to current law. It simply means that they could – and should – be better. Specifically, they could incorporate lower tax levels and lower spending levels.

Which brings me to the part of the AP article that rubs me the wrong way. The headline, at least the one picked by Business Insider, says that eliminating red ink without a higher tax burden is “probably not possible.” And the language in the report is similar.

Balancing the federal budget is hard. Doing it without more tax revenue is even harder.

So why am I irked by this passage? Well, balancing the budget without new money for DC may be “harder” in the sense that it would require more spending restraint. And someone might be correct if they predicted that achieving balance is “probably not possible” because politicians are reluctant to exercise fiscal discipline.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Earlier this year, I shared this chart showing how modest spending restraint can quickly balance the budget. As you can see, it’s actually very simple to get rid of red ink if politicians simply exercise a modest bit of fiscal discipline.

But I’ll admit that I used the Congressional Budget Office’s January projections of revenue, which assumed (like the GOP budgets) that the government would get revenues from the Obamacare tax hikes, as well as revenues from expiring provisions.

So does that mean that it’s impractical to balance the budget without all this added money going to DC?

Nonsense.

Let’s look at the numbers (and we now have new revenue projections from CBO, but they haven’t changed much) and see what happens if you remove the $2 trillion of revenues (over 10 years) associated with Obamacare and the extenders.

Since the revenue numbers climb over time, let’s assume that this means revenues will be $250 billion lower in 2025.

Does that cripple any hope of balancing the budget?

Hardly. It simply means that spending over the next 10 years could grow only about 2.7 percent per year rather than (as assumed in the House and Senate budgets) 3.3 percent per year.

So the bottom line is that we don’t need more revenue in Washington. We simply need more spending restraint.

P.S. By the way, this video explains why our goal should be smaller government, not fiscal balance.

That being said, there’s overwhelming evidence from nations all over the world that spending restraint is the best way to quickly reduce red ink.

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Earlier this year, President Obama proposed a budget that would impose new taxes and add a couple of trillion dollars to the burden of government spending over the next 10 years.

The Republican Chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees have now weighed in. You can read the details of the House proposal by clicking here and the Senate proposal by clicking here, but the two plans are broadly similar (though the Senate is a bit vaguer on how to implement spending restraint, as I wrote a couple of days ago).

So are any of these plans good, or at least acceptable? Do any of them satisfy my Golden Rule?

Here’s a chart showing what will happen to spending over the next 10 years, based on the House and Senate GOP plans, as well as the budget proposed by President Obama.

Keep in mind, as you look at these numbers, that economy is projected to expand, in nominal terms, by an average of about 4.3 percent annually.

The most relevant data is that the Republican Chairmen want spending to climb by about $1.4 trillion over the next decade (annual spending increases averaging about 3.3 percent per year), while Obama wants spending to jump by about $2.4 trillion over the same period (with annual spending climbing by an average of almost 5.1 percent per year).

At this point, some of you may be wondering how to reconcile this data with news stories you may have read about GOP budgets that supposedly include multi-trillion spending cuts?!?

The very fist sentence in a report from The Hill, for instance, asserted that the Senate budget would “cut spending by $5.1 trillion.” And USA Today had a story headlined, “House GOP budget cuts $5.5 trillion in spending.”

But these histrionic claims are based on dishonest math. The “cuts” only exist if you compare the GOP budget numbers to the “baseline,” which is basically an artificial estimate of how fast spending would grow if government was left on auto-pilot.

Which is sort of like a cad telling his wife that he reduced his misbehavior because he only added 4 new mistresses to his collection rather than the 5 that he wanted.

I explained this biased and deceptive budgetary scam in these John Stossel and Judge Napolitano interviews, and also nailed the New York Times for using this dishonest approach when reporting about sequestration.

Interestingly, the Senate plan tries to compensate for this budgetary bias by including a couple of charts that properly put the focus on year-to-year spending changes.

Here’s their chart on Obama’s profligate budget plan.

And here’s their chart looking at what happens to major spending categories based on the reforms in the Senate budget proposal.

So kudos to Chairman Enzi and his team for correctly trying to focus the discussion where it belongs.

By the way, in addition to a better use of rhetoric, the Senate GOP plan actually is more fiscally responsible than the House plan. Under Senator Enzi’s proposal, government spending would increase by an average of 3.25 percent per year over the next 10 years, which is better than Chairman Price’s plan, which would allow government spending to rise by an average of 3.36 percent annually.

Though both Chairman deserve applause for having more spending restraint than there was in the last two Ryan budgets.

But this doesn’t mean I’m entirely happy with the Republican fiscal plans.

Even though the two proposals satisfy my Golden Rule, that’s simply a minimum threshold. In reality, there’s far too much spending in both plans, and neither Chairman proposes to get rid of a single Department. Not HUD, not Education, not Transportation, and not Agriculture.

But the one thing that got me the most agitated is that the House and Senate proposals both indirectly embrace very bad economic analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.

Here’s some language that was included with the House plan (the Senate proposal has similar verbiage).

CBO’s analysis…estimates that reducing budget deficits, thereby bending the curve on debt levels, would be a net positive for economic growth. …The analysis concludes that deficit reduction creates long-term economic benefits because it increases the pool of national savings and boosts investment, thereby raising economic growth and job creation.

But here’s the giant problem. The CBO would say – and has said – the same thing about budget plans with giant tax increases.

To elaborate, CBO has a very bizarre view of how fiscal policy impacts the economy. The bureaucrats think that deficits are very important for long-run economic performance, while also believing that the overall burden of government spending and the punitive structure of the tax code are relatively unimportant.

And this leads them to make bizarre claims about tax increases being good for growth.

Moreover, the bureaucrats not only think deficits are the dominant driver of long-run growth, they also use Keynesian analysis when measuring the impact of fiscal policy on short-run growth. Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, or somehow mischaracterizing CBO’s position, check out page 12 of the Senate GOP plan and page 37 of the House GOP plan. You’ll see the “macroeconomic” effects of the plans cause higher deficits in 2016 and 2017, based on the silly theory that lower levels of government spending will harm short-run growth.

So hopefully you can understand why GOPers, for the sake of intellectual credibility, should not be citing bad analysis from the CBO.

But even more important, they should stop CBO from producing bad analysis is the future. The Republicans did recently replace a Democrat-appointed CBO Director, so it will be interesting to see whether their new appointee has a better understanding of how fiscal policy works.

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Just like the swallows return each year to Capistrano, I eagerly await the Congressional Budget Office’s release of its annual Economic and Budget Outlook.

But not just because I’m a fiscal wonk. I also like perusing this publication to find CBO’s “baseline” forecast for government revenue over the next 10 years.

And once I have that data, it’s then a simple matter to figure out the degree of spending restraint that will reduce red ink and balance the budget.*

Let’s conduct that exercise.

We’ll start by going to page 2 of the report, which reveals that federal tax revenue (assuming there are no changes in law) will grow from $3,189 billion this year to $5,029 billion in 2025. Over that ten-year period, revenues will grow each year by an average of 4.67 percent.

So, at the risk of stating the obvious, this means that red ink will increase if yearly spending increases by more than 4.67 percent, but it also means that the deficit will fall if the burden of federal spending grows by less than 4.67 percent each year.

Indeed, we can easily calculate how easy it is to achieve fiscal balance. Simply take CBO’s estimate of federal spending for the 2015 fiscal year, $3,656, and then look at what happens based on various assumptions for future spending growth.

A spending freeze means the budget balances in 2018.

If federal spending increases by 1 percent each year, we balance the budget in 2019.

If federal spending climbs by 2 percent each year, we balance the budget in 2020.

And if federal spending jumps by 3 percent each year, we balance the budget in 2024.

Here’s a chart showing these options.

Balanced budget CBO Jan 2015

Now let’s explore three implications of this data.

First, there is no need to cut spending. It would be good to impose genuine spending cuts, to be sure, but progress is possible so long as spending grows slower than revenue. And the real goal should be to make sure that spending grows slower than the private sector.

Second, there is no need to raise taxes. A lot of beltway types would like voters to believe that our fiscal problems are so huge that tax increases are both necessary and desirable. That’s obviously wrong. Indeed, tax hikes almost surely enable more spending rather than deficit reduction.

Third, when Washington insiders assert that tax increases are needed to preclude “savage” and “draconian” spending cuts, they’re using the dishonest DC definition of a “cut,” which is when spending doesn’t rise as fast as previously forecast.

 At this point, you may be wondering, “Gee, if it’s so simple, why don’t we already have a balanced budget?”

The main problem is that politicians generally don’t like spending restraint. Between 2000 and 2009, for instance, they let spending grow nearly four times faster than revenue.

That being said, we’ve actually made progress over the past five years thanks to a nominal spending freeze.** And as outlined above, we can make more progress in the near future with a few more years of modest spending restraint.

The real key is whether we can maintain fiscal discipline. In the long run, there’s very little hope of spending restraint unless there’s genuine entitlement reform.

And getting that type of reform probably won’t be possible if politicians think they can just raise taxes instead. Particularly a value-added tax, which the European evidence shows is a money machine for bigger government.

Probably the best way of getting good policy would be some sort of long-run spending control process, akin to the Swiss Debt Brake. If politicians know they can only increase spending by, say, two percent each year, that will encourage them to finally prioritize the budget and make some long-overdue reforms.

*As I have written, over and over again, restraining the size and scope of the federal government should be the main goal of fiscal policy. Deficits and debt are undesirable, of course, but they’re best viewed as symptoms of the real problem, which is too much spending.

** The good news is that spending grew very slowly beginning in 2010. The bad news is that spending rose so fast last decade (particularly in 2009) that the burden of federal spending is still much larger than it was when Bill Clinton left office.

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I had a very bad lunch today.

But not because of what I ate. My lunch was unpleasant because I moderated a noontime panel on Capitol Hill featuring Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and my Cato colleague Chris Edwards.

And I should hasten to add that they were splendid company. The unpleasant part of the lunch was the information they shared.

The Senator, in particular, looked at budgetary projections over the next 30 years and basically confirmed for the audience that an ever-expanding burden of federal spending is going to lead to a fiscal crisis.

To be blunt, he showed numbers that basically matched up with this Henry Payne cartoon.

Here’s a chart from his presentation. It shows the average burden of spending in past years, compared to various projections of how much bigger government will be – on average – over the next three decades.

The Senator warned that the most unfavorable projection (i.e., “CBO ALT FISC”) was also the most realistic one. In other words, federal spending will consume a much larger share of economic output over the next three decades than it has over the past two decades.

But our fiscal outlook is actually even worse than what you see in his slide.

The Senator’s numbers are based on average spending levels over the 2015-2044 period. That’s very useful – and sobering – data, but if you look at the annual numbers, you’ll see that the trendline gives us additional reasons to worry.

More specifically, spending for the major entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare, as well as Medicaid) is closely tied to the aging population. So as more and more baby boomers retire over the next couple of decades, spending on these programs will become more burdensome.

In other words, our fiscal problem will be much larger in 2040 than it will be in 2020.

Here are the long-run numbers from the Congressional Budget Office. The blue line is federal spending on various programs and the pink line is total spending (i.e., programmatic spending plus interest payments). And keep in mind that these numbers don’t include state and local government spending, which presumably will chew up another 15 percent of our economic output!

In other words, America will become Greece.

And don’t delude yourself into thinking that CBO must be wrong. I’m not a big fan of the Congressional Budget Office (particularly CBO’s economic analysis), but these numbers are driven by demographics.

Moreover, CBO’s grim outlook is matched by similarly dismal numbers from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

By the way, CBO doesn’t do projections once federal government debt exceeds 250 percent of GDP, so the gray-colored trendline beginning about 2048 is not an official projections. It’s merely an estimate of the total spending burden assuming that the federal budget is left on autopilot.

Of course, we’ll never reach that level. We will suffer a fiscal crisis before that point. But when it happens to us, the IMF won’t be there to bail us out for the simple reason that the IMF’s credibility is based on the backing of American taxpayers.

And we’ll already have been bled dry!

So unless we find some very rich Martians (who are also stupid enough to bail out profligate governments), it won’t be a pretty situation. I’m not sure we’ll have riots, such as the ones that have taken place in Europe, but there will be plenty of suffering.

Fortunately, there is a solution. All we need is a modest bit of fiscal restraint so that government grows slower than the private sector. That would completely reverse Senator Johnson’s dismal long-run numbers.

And some countries have shown that multi-year periods of fiscal restraint are possible.

The real question, though, is whether politicians in America would be willing to adopt the entitlement reforms that are needed to control the long-run growth of spending.

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Libertarians tend to like – or at least have a grudging respect for – the underground economy.

For instance, even if we’re personally very straight-laced, we don’t like government prohibitions against gambling, drugs, and prostitution. This is why we’re not upset when these things happen in spite of the laws enacted by the political class.

But this isn’t just about victimless crimes. We also dislike high taxes, so you won’t find libertarians shedding many tears when we read about tax avoidance and tax evasion in nations (such as France and Greece) with punitive tax systems.

Politicians tend to have a different perspective. They generally get very upset if we’re not following their societal diktats and acquiescing to their fiscal demands.

But now we’re suddenly seeing that some politicians have a new-found appreciation for the underground economy.

The New York Times reports that European nations want to add these activities to their estimates of GDP.

As of September, all European Union countries will be required to take fuller accounting of trade in sex, drugs and other underground businesses as part of an overhaul of economic measurements by Eurostat, the European statistics agency. The point of counting everything, including the wages of sin, is to get a more accurate reading of each country’s gross domestic product.

Sounds reasonable, right? Who objects, after all, to more accurate numbers?

But it’s always good to be suspicious of governments.

And why is suspicion warranted in this case? Well, it appears that this effort to re-measure GDP may give politicians more ability to spend.

With European Union governments obliged to reduce debt as a percentage of their economies, the changes are also expected to make growth rates from Spain to Sweden look better, possibly also making debt ratios seem rosier. …In Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, …G.D.P. could increase by as much as 2 percent, Eurostat estimates, while Germany and France could see expansions of as much as 3 percent. Britain might show a gain of 3 to 4 percent, Eurostat said.

To elaborate, there are “Maastricht rules” in the European Union that (at least in theory) obligate governments to keep deficits from rising about 3 percent of GDP and to keep debt from climbing above 60 percent of GDP.

So if politicians and bureaucrats can figure out ways to make GDP appear bigger, that means they can have more red ink. Which means, of course, that they can spend more money.

So now it should be abundantly clear why governments have an incentive to add the underground economy to their GDP estimates.

But there’s one little problem with this approach. The whole purpose of the Maastricht rules was to keep nations from spending themselves into a fiscal crisis. The rules obviously didn’t work very well (perhaps because they focused on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much government spending), but there presumably would have been even more profligacy if they didn’t exist.

So what’s the point of adding the underground economy to GDP when that simply gives politicians more leeway to spend?

Indeed, the NYT article notes that some of the bean-counting bureaucracies in Europe are concerned that this new approach won’t work because there won’t be any new tax revenue to accompany the new spending.

Statistics agencies, though, say that whatever the improved ratios, debt will not be easier to service, because governments cannot collect taxes from illegal underground activity.

And just in case you don’t trust the New York Times, here’s a blurb from Money News making the same point.

No country is supposed to let their annual deficits exceed 3 percent of GDP or accumulated debt exceed 60 percent of GDP. Countries that don’t comply with the debt limits are to be penalized — 0.2 percent of GDP, plus a “variable component” that can range up to 0.5 percent of GDP annually as long as the breach continues. Boosting GDP helps lower the debt ratio.

The bottom line is that these changes will enable Europe’s politicians to postpone much-needed fiscal discipline.

In other words, they’ll have the ability to spend themselves deeper into a hole.

And as you can see from these sobering IMF, OECD, and BIS estimates, the hole is already enormous.

Not that America is any different. Our economy may be doing better (or less worse) today, but our future fiscal outlook is worse than many other nations thanks to a combination of poorly designed entitlement programs and changing demographics.

And just as is the case for Europe, counting our underground economy would not be a substitute for the reforms needed to save the nation.

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