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Posts Tagged ‘Deficit’

I don’t like shoveling more money at a corrupt IRS, hurting jobs with higher taxes on “book income,” price controls on prescription drugs, or green-energy pork.

But, as explained in this video clip, the insult added to injury is that the resuscitated “Build Back Better” is being sold as the “Inflation Reduction Act.”

If a private company said that candy bars help you lose weight or that it is okay to stick your hand under a running lawnmower, it would be dragged into court for false and/or dangerous advertising.

But when politicians make utterly dishonest claims about legislation, we have to grit our teeth and endure their lies.

The bottom line is that rising prices inevitably are a consequence of bad monetary policy.

That’s true in the United States, and that’s true elsewhere in the world.

So why, then, did Biden, Schumer, and Manchin decide to affix such an inaccurate label to their tax-and-spend package?

The answer presumably is political. Inflation is a problem for the incumbent party, so why not pretend the budget plan will somehow reduce inflation. Heck, if they could get away with it, they would probably call it the “Inflation Reduction and Cancer Elimination Act.”

But, to be fair, perhaps some of them actually believe a big-government plan will have an impact on inflation. For instance, the misguided but honest folks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget released an endorsement letter from 55 supposed experts based on the assumption that higher taxes will lead to lower prices.

Here are some excerpts.

With inflation at a 40-year high…, we are writing to encourage you to pass legislation to reduce budget deficits in a manner that would help counter inflation… As President Biden has explained, “bringing down the deficit is one way to ease inflationary pressures.” …Given the current state of the economy, we believe passing deficit reduction would send an important message to the American people that their leaders are serious about tackling inflation.

There are two big problems with the letter.

First, it is based on Keynesian economics, which assumes higher prices are caused by excessive “aggregate demand” and that deficit reduction (whether from tax increases or spending restraint) can help by slowing the economy.

Yet this is the theory that also told us that it was impossible to have rising prices and rising unemployment, like we saw in the 1970s. And Keynesians also said we couldn’t have falling unemployment and falling inflation, like we enjoyed in the 1980s.

Second, even if one believes in the fairy tale of Keynesian economics, all of the alleged deficit reduction occurs in future years.

And even that is nonsense since every sentient adult knows that the massive expansion of the IRS’s budget is not going to generate a windfall of new tax revenue. And every honest person also knows that lawmakers plan on extending the new Obamacare handouts in the bill.

These tweets summarize why even Keynesians should realize the legislation is fraudulent.

P.S. It is very disappointing (but perhaps not entirely surprising) that former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels signed the CRFB letter. And it also is disappointing that a couple of people from the American Enterprise Institute added their names as well. They all deserve the Charlie Brown Award.

P.P.S. As I noted in the video, deficit spending can lead to inflation if a central bank buys government bonds in order to help finance additional government spending (the crazy Modern Monetary Theory agenda). Perhaps I am being too charitable, but I don’t think that’s the reason for the Federal Reserve’s big mistake (though I fear it may be happening with the European Central Bank).

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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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After almost 16 months in office, what is President Biden’s track record on fiscal policy?

The good news is that his big tax-and-spend plan to “build back better” has not been approved by Congress (and fingers crossed that it stays that way).

The bad news is that he has done other things, such as getting a fake stimulus though Congress, as well as a so-called infrastructure package.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget put together an estimate of his major initiatives.

By the way, the CRFB folks fixate on how these initiative impact the deficit. What we really should be concerned about is how much money is being spent.

But let’s set that aside and focus instead on a jaw-dropping claim from the White House.

Even though all of his major initiatives have increased red ink, he is patting himself on the back for lower deficits.

For what it is worth, Biden’s claim is semi-accurate. It is true that budget deficits are temporarily falling.

But not because of him. Instead, red ink is falling because there was massive, one-time, multi-trillion dollar emergency spending for the COVID pandemic in 2020. That spending began to wind down in 2021 and it has mostly dissipated this year, so of course deficits have fallen.

For Biden to take credit for this drop would be akin to Truman taking credit for the big drop in red ink after World War II ended.

Eric Boehm of Reason wrote a column that debunks Biden’s ludicrous claim.

…this year’s budget deficit is forecasted to be the third or fourth-largest in American history—but President Joe Biden claims…his administration is overseeing a period of fiscal austerity. …Here are some words that actually tumbled out of the president’s mouth at a press conference… “We’re on track to cut the federal deficit by another $1.5 trillion by the end of this fiscal year. …on top of us having a $350 billion drop in the deficit last year, my first year as president,” Biden continued. …Those facts, however, exclude a few key details. …Biden took office the year after the budget deficit hit previously unimaginable highs due to a completely unprecedented spending binge triggered by a once-in-a-generation public health disaster. …if you look at the actual budgetary baselines published by the Congressional Budget Office—that is, the ongoing amount of annual federal spending absent any emergency stimulus bills like the ones passed on several occasions during the height of the pandemic—Biden has overseen a noticeable increase in the deficit above the pre-pandemic baseline. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a fiscal watchdog group that advocates for lower deficits, Biden’s policies have added about $2.5 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years.

Brian Riedl is now with the Manhattan Institute, but we used to work together earlier this century at the Heritage Foundation. One of his admirable traits is that he hasn’t lost the ability to be outraged.

That comes through in his tweet about Biden’s supposed accomplishment.

By the way, I’m not making a partisan point. I have no doubt Trump would have done the same thing.

After all, politicians are probably the least ethical people in the nation. And Washington brings out the worst of the worst.

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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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Last week, I wrote about a new study which estimates that Biden’s fiscal agenda of bigger government and higher taxes would reduce economic output by about $3 trillion over the next decade.

Perhaps more relevant, that foregone economic growth would translate into more than $10,000 of lost compensation per job. And a lifetime drop in living standards of more than 4 percent for younger people.

And these numbers are based on research by the Congressional Budget Office, which is hardly a bastion of libertarian analysis.

The Biden White House has a different perspective.

How different? Well, the President actually claims that expanding the burden of government won’t cost anything.

I’m not joking. Here are some excerpts from an article in the Washington Post by Seung Min Kim and Tony Romm.

President Biden promised Friday that his sweeping domestic agenda package will cost “nothing” because Democrats will pay for it through tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations… The remarks were an attempt by Biden to assuage some of the cost concerns pointedly expressed by the moderate Democrats about the size of the legislation… The total spending outlined in the plan is $3.5 trillion… “It is zero price tag on the debt we’re paying. We’re going to pay for everything we spend,” Biden said in remarks from the State Dining Room at the White House.

Biden’s strange analysis has generated some amusing responses.

For instance, Gerard Baker opined in the Wall Street Journal about Biden’s magical approach.

…this is a novel way of estimating the cost of something. That eye-wateringly expensive dinner you had last week didn’t really cost you anything because you paid for it. …You could have used the money to invest in your children’s college fund. You could have paid off some of your credit card bill, the debt on which has quadrupled in the last year. But you chose instead to blow it on a few morsels of raw fish and a couple of bottles of 1982 Château Lafite Rothschild. Don’t worry, It didn’t cost you anything.

Biden and his team definitely deserve to be mocked for their silly argument.

For all intents and purposes, they want us to believe that there’s no downside if you combine anti-growth spending increases with anti-growth tax increases – so long as there’s no increase in red ink.

But there’s actually a fiscal theory that sort of supports what the White House is saying.

  • Capital (saving and investment) is a key driver of productivity and long-run growth.
  • Budget deficits divert capital from the economy’s productive sector to government.
  • Budget deficits raise interest rates, reducing incentives for investment.
  • Therefore, budget deficits are bad for prosperity.

For what it’s worth, all four of those statements are correct.

But the theory is nonetheless wrong because it elevates one variable – fiscal balance – while ignoring other variables that have a much bigger impact on economic performance.

For instance, the Congressional Budget Office at one point embraced this approach – even though it led to absurd implications such as growth being maximized with tax rates of 100 percent.

For further background, here’s a table I prepared back in 2012.

The White House today is basically embracing the IMF’s “austerity” argument that deficits/surpluses are the variable that has the biggest impact on growth.

P.S. Folks on the left must get whiplash because some days they embrace the Keynesian argument that deficits are good for growth and other days they argue that a big expansion of government will have zero cost because there is no increase in the deficit.

P.P.S. The folks on the right who focus solely on tax cuts also are guilty of elevating one variable while ignoring others (humorously depicted in this cartoon strip).

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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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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 relentlessly criticized Republicans in recent years for being profligate big spenders.

But I have some good news. The GOP is finding religion and is once again fretting about big government.

The bad news is that many of them are total hypocrites.

The only reason that they’re now beating their chests about fiscal responsibility is that there’s now a Democrat in the White House pushing for big government rather than a Republican in the White House pushing for big government.

Talking a few days ago with Politifact, I remarked on the GOP’s battlefield conversion.

“The very narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will make big policy changes difficult for Biden,” said Daniel Mitchell, a conservative economist with decades of experience in Washington. “Republicans were big spenders under Trump, but they’ll dust off their fiscal conservatism rhetoric with Biden in the White House. …”There will be unanimous, or near-unanimous, GOP opposition to the tax increases,” Mitchell said. That could make passage difficult.

I’m not the only one to notice Republicans change their spots when Democrats are in charge.

In her Washington Post column, Catherine Rampell also notes their hypocrisy.

It’s almost like clockwork. As soon as a Democrat enters the White House, Republicans pretend to care about deficits again. …And so Republicans laid the groundwork for blocking the Biden administration’s request for more covid-19 fiscal relief, on the grounds that further spending is not merely unnecessary but also irresponsible. …These foul-weather fiscal hawks neglect to mention, …before the coronavirus pandemic — the Republican-controlled Senate passed and President Donald Trump signed spending bills that added…$2 trillion to deficits.

If Ms. Rampell’s column focused solely on Republicans behaving inconsistently, I would fully applaud.

Unfortunately, she also used the opportunity to make some assertions that deserve some pushback. Beginning with what she said about the 2017 tax reform.

…the GOP’s prized 2017 tax cuts added nearly $2 trillion to deficits.

It is true that the legislation is a short-run tax cut, but there’s no long-run revenue reduction because many of the provisions expire at the end of 2025.

And, as Brian Riedl made clear in this chart, the tax cuts only play a tiny role even if all the provisions ultimately are made permanent.

Ms. Rampell then makes a Keynesian argument that more spending would be stimulative.

…the U.S. economy actually needs more federal spending, and President Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion plan… Republicans objecting to Biden’s proposal…seem to be writing off the need for more relief entirely, at least now that a Democrat is president.

Is she right about Republican hypocrisy? Yes.

Is she right that bigger government produces growth? No.

If Biden and the Democrats were simply arguing that some level of handouts are needed and justified to compensate for government-mandated shutdowns, I wouldn’t be happy, but I also wouldn’t complain.

But I do object to the mechanistic argument that government can magically produce prosperity by borrowing money from the economy’s left pocket and putting it in the economy’s right pocket.

At best, the borrow-and-spend approach only produces a transitory bump in consumption, but does nothing for real problem of inadequate income (which is why we should focus on GDI rather than GDP).

She also engages in a bit of historical revisionism about Obama’s failed stimulus from 2009.

This is, not coincidentally, almost exactly what they did about a decade ago. …Republicans suddenly demanded to turn off fiscal (and monetary) spigots once Barack Obama was elected.

In reality, Republicans didn’t control either the House or Senate in Obama’s first two years. He was able to adopt his so-called stimulus. And the economy was stagnant.

Republicans did win the House at the end of 2010 and were somewhat successful in controlling spending for the next few years. And that’s when the economy did better.

Just like it did better during the Reagan and Clinton years when there was spending restraint.

To put this discussion in the proper context, I’ll close with another chart from Brian Riedl. The long-run problem we face is not red ink. Deficits and debt are merely the symptom of the real problem of excessive government spending.

P.S. I wish Politicifact had identified me as a libertarian. I’m only willing to be called a conservative if that means Reaganism, but I worry it now means Trumpism.

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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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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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Because of changing demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs, the burden of government spending in the United States (in the absence of genuine reform) is going to increase dramatically over the next few decades.

That bad outlook will get even worse thanks to all the coronavirus-related spending from Washington.

This is bad news for America since more of the economy’s output will be consumed by government, leaving fewer resources for the private sector. And that problem would exist even if all the spending was magically offset by trillions of dollars of unexpected tax revenue.

Many people, however, think the nation’s future fiscal problem is that politicians will borrow to finance  that new spending. I think that’s a mistaken view, since it focuses on a symptom (red ink) rather than the underlying disease (excessive spending).

But regardless of one’s views on that issue, fiscal policy is on an unsustainable path. And that means there will soon be a fight between twho different ways of addressing the nation’s grim fiscal outlook.

  • Restrain the growth of government spending.
  • Divert more money from taxpayers to the IRS.

Fortunately, we now have some new evidence to help guide policy.

A new study from the Mercatus Center, authored by Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon, examines what actually happens when politicians try to control debt with spending restraint or tax increases.

Here’s what the authors wanted to investigate.

Fiscal consolidation can take two forms: (1) adopting a debt-reduction package driven primarily by tax increases or (2) adopting a package mostly consisting of spending restraint. …What policymakers might not know is which of these two forms of consolidation tend to be more effective at reining in debt levels and which are less harmful to economic performance: tax-based (TB) fiscal consolidation or expenditure-based (EB) fiscal consolidation.

Here’s their methodology.

Our analysis focuses on large fiscal consolidations, or consolidations in which the fiscal deficit as a share of GDP improves by at least 1.5 percentage points over two years and does not decrease in either of those two years. …A successful consolidation is defined as one in which the debt-to-GDP ratio declines by at least 5 percentage points three years after the adjustment takes places or by at least 3 percentage points two years after the adjustment. …Episodes in which the consolidation is at least 60 percent revenue increases are labeled TB, and episodes in which the consolidation is at least 60 percent spending decreases are labeled EB.

And here are their results.

…of the 45 EB episodes, more than half were successful, while of the 67 TB episodes, less than 4 in 10 were successful. …The results in table 2 show that while in unsuccessful adjustments most (74 percent) of the changes are on the revenue side, in successful adjustments most (60 percent) of the changes are on the expenditure side. In successful adjustments, for every 1.00 percent of GDP increase in revenues, expenditures are cut by 1.50 percent. By contrast, in unsuccessful adjustments, for every 1.00 percent of GDP increase in revenues, expenditures are cut by less than 0.35 percent. From these findings we conclude that successful fiscal adjustments are those that involve significant spending reductions with only modest increases in taxation. Unsuccessful fiscal adjustments, however, typically involve significant increases in taxation and very modest spending reductions.

Table 2 summarizes the findings.

As you can see, tax increases are the least effective way of dealing with the problem. Which makes sense when you realize that the nation’s fiscal problem is too much spending, not inadequate revenue.

In my not-so-humble opinion, I think the table I prepared back in 2014 is even more compelling.

Based on IMF data, it shows nations that imposed mutli-year spending restraint and how that fiscally prudent policy generated very good results – both in terms of reducing the spending burden and lowering red ink.

When I do debates at conferences with my left-wing friends, I almost always ask them to show me a similar table of countries that achieved good results with tax increases.

Needless to say, none of them have ever even attempted to prepare such a list.

That’s because nations that repeatedly raise taxes – as we’ve seen in Europe – wind up with more spending and more debt.

In other words, politicians pull a bait-and-switch. They claim more revenue is needed to reduce debt, but they use any additional money to buy votes.

Which is why advocates of good fiscal policy should adamantly oppose any and all tax increases.

Let’s close by looking at two more charts from the Mercatus study.

Here’s a look at how Irish politicians have mostly chose to restrain spending.

And here’s a look at how Greek politicians have mostly opted for tax increases.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that the Greek approach has been very unsuccessful.

P.S. For fiscal wonks, one of the best parts of the Mercatus study is that it cites a lot of academic research on the issue of fiscal consolidation.

Scholars who have conducted research find – over and over again – that spending restraint works.

In a 1995 working paper, Alberto Alesina and Roberto Perotti observe 52 efforts to reduce debt in 20 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries between 1960 and 1992. The authors define a successful fiscal adjustment as one in which the debt-to-GDP ratio declines by at least 5 percentage points three years after the adjustment takes place. In successful adjustments, government spending is reduced by almost 2.2 percent of gross national product (GNP) and taxes are increased by less than 0.5 percent of GNP. For unsuccessful adjustments, government expenditure is reduced by less than 0.5 percent of GNP and taxes are increased by almost 1.3 percent of GNP. These results suggest that successful fiscal adjustments are those that cut spending and include very modest increases in taxation.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) economists John McDermott and Robert Wescott, in a 1996 paper, examine 74 episodes of fiscal adjustment in which countries attempted to address their budget gaps. The authors define a successful fiscal adjustment as a reduction of at least 3 percentage points in the ratio of gross public debt to GDP by the second year after the end of an adjustment. The authors then divide episodes of fiscal consolidation into two categories: those in which the deficit was cut primarily (by at least 60 percent) through revenue increases, and those in which it was reduced primarily (by at least 60 percent) through expenditure cuts. Of the expenditure-based episodes of fiscal consolidation, almost half were successful, while of the tax-based episodes, less than one out of six met the criteria for success.

Jürgen von Hagen and Rolf Strauch observe 65 episodes in 20 OECD countries from 1960 to 1998 and define a successful adjustment as one in which the budget balance stands at no more than 75 percent of the initial balance two years after the adjustment period. …it does find that successful consolidations consist of expenditure cuts averaging more than 1.2 percent of GDP, while expenditure cuts in unsuccessful adjustments are smaller than 0.3 percent of GDP. The opposite pattern is true for revenue-based adjustments: successful consolidations consist of increases in revenue averaging around 1.1 percent, while unsuccessful adjustments consist of revenue increases exceeding 1.9 percent.

American Enterprise Institute economists Andrew Biggs, Kevin Hassett, and Matthew Jensen examine over 100 episodes of fiscal consolidation in a 2010 study. The authors define a successful fiscal adjustment as one in which the debt-to-GDP ratio declines by at least 4.5 percentage points three years after the first year of consolidation. Their study finds that countries that addressed their budget shortfalls through reduced spending burdens were far more likely to reduce their debt than countries whose budget-balancing strategies depended upon higher taxes. …the typical successful adjustment consists of 85 percent spending cuts and just 15 percent tax increases.

In a 1998 Brookings Institution paper, Alberto Alesina and coauthors reexamined the research on the economic effects of fiscal adjustments. Using data drawn from 19 OECD countries, the authors assess whether the composition of fiscal adjustments results in different economic outcomes… Contrary to the Keynesian view that fiscal adjustments are contractionary, the results of this study suggest that consolidation achieved primarily through spending reductions often has expansionary effects.

Another study that observes which features of fiscal adjustments are more or less likely to predict whether the fiscal adjustment is contractionary or expansionary is by Alesina and Silvia Ardagna. Using data from 20 OECD countries during 1960 to 1994, the authors label an adjustment expansionary if the average GDP growth rate in the period of adjustment and in the two years after is greater than the average value (of G7 countries) in all episodes of adjustment. …The authors conclude, “The composition of the adjustment appears as the strongest predictor of the growth effect: all the non-expansionary adjustments were tax-based and all the expansionary ones were expenditure-based.”

French economists Boris Cournède and Frédéric Gonand adopt a dynamic general equilibrium model to compare the macroeconomic impacts of four debt reduction scenarios. Results from the model suggest that TB adjustments are much more costly than spending restraint when policymakers are attempting to achieve fiscal sustainability. Annual consumption per capita would be 15 percent higher in 2050 if consolidation were achieved through spending reductions rather than broad tax increases.

In a review of every major fiscal adjustment in the OECD since 1975, Bank of England economist Ben Broadbent and Goldman Sachs economist Kevin Daly found that “decisive budgetary adjustments that have focused on reducing government expenditure have (i) been successful in correcting fiscal imbalances; (ii) typically boosted growth; and (iii) resulted in significant bond and equity market outperformance. Tax-driven fiscal adjustments, by contrast, typically fail to correct fiscal imbalances and are damaging for growth.”

Economists Christina and David Romer investigated the impact of tax changes on economic activity in the United States from 1945 to 2007. The authors find that an exogenous tax increase of 1 percent of GDP lowers real GDP by almost 3 percent, suggesting that TB adjustments are highly contractionary.

…the IMF released its annual World Economic Outlook in 2010 and included a study on the effects of fiscal consolidation on economic activity. The results of studying episodes of fiscal consolidation for 15 OECD countries over three decades…reveals that EB fiscal adjustments tend to have smaller contractionary effects than TB adjustments. For TB adjustments, the effect of a consolidation of 1 percent of GDP on GDP is −1.3 percent after two years, while for EB adjustments the effect is just −0.3 percent after two years and is not statistically significant. Interestingly, TB adjustments also raise unemployment levels by about 0.6 percentage points, while EB adjustments raise the unemployment rate by only 0.2 percentage points.

…a 2014 IMF study…estimates the short-term effect of fiscal consolidation on economic activity among 17 OECD countries. The authors of the IMF study find that the fall in GDP associated with EB consolidations is 0.82 percentage points smaller than the one associated with TB adjustments in the first year and 2.31 percentage points smaller in the second year after the adjustment.

Focusing on the fiscal consolidations that followed the Great Recession, Alesina and coauthors…find that EB consolidations are far less costly for economic output than TB adjustments. They also find that TB adjustments result in a cumulative contraction of 2 percent of GDP in the following three years, while EB adjustments generate very small contractions with an impact on output not significantly different from zero.

A study by the European Central Bank in 2018…finds that macroeconomic responses are largely caused by differences in the composition of the adjustment plans. The authors find large and negative multipliers for TB adjustment plans and positive, but close to zero, multipliers for EB plans. The composition of adjustment plans is found to be the largest contributor to the differences in economic performance under the two types of consolidation plans.

The bottom line is that nations enjoy success when they obey fiscal policy’s Golden Rule. Sadly, that doesn’t happen very often because politicians focus mostly on buying votes in the short run rather than increasing national prosperity in the long run.

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I’ve warned that the budgetary impact of the coronavirus may trigger another fiscal crisis in Europe.

Especially Italy.

But what about the United States? Will we reach a point, as Margaret Thatcher famously warned, of running out of other people’s money?

We probably still have a couple of decades before that happens, as I speculated at the end of a recent interview, but that doesn’t mean we should continue down our current path.

The Wall Street Journal opined on this topic yesterday, citing newly released estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

Friday’s Congressional Budget Office report on the federal fisc for April…usually a surplus month as tax payments roll in, but the Treasury postponed tax day this year until July 15. We are grateful for such small government favors. Spending more than doubled in April from the year before and revenue fell by 55%. …we are all apparently supposed to be converts to Modern Monetary Theory. This is the view that governments can spend whatever they like because the Federal Reserve can monetize it without economic harm. We may get to test this proposition. …the damage from so much spending will come in two ways. First, in resources misallocated to government rather than into private hands to invest. Second, in the tax increases that the political class will eventually impose, perhaps starting as early as 2021.

As is so often the case, the WSJ is correct in its analysis.

The fiscal crisis won’t be too much red ink. That’s merely the symptom of the real disease, which is that government is getting far too big.

As the editorial warns, this undermines prosperity because resources get diverted from the economy’s productive sector.

And as that spending burden increases, it means more and more pressure for tax increases, which further penalize growth. I’ve already noted that politicians will try to exploit the crisis by imposing a wealth tax, but I think the real prize – in the mind of statists – is a money-gobbling value-added tax.

I’ll close by sharing a chart from Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute, which estimates the per-capita burden of inflation-adjusted federal spending in the United States.

The red portion of the chart is coronavirus-related spending, plus future interest payments on the additional borrowing for all that spending, and the blue portion is spending in prior years plus estimates of future spending (already on an upward trajectory because of poorly designed entitlement programs).

That chart does not paint a pretty picture, but Brian’s numbers may be too optimistic. He assumes that the coronavirus-related emergency spending is just temporary and that additional interest on a bigger debt is the only long-run impact.

But if politicians make some of that spending permanent (which will be in their self-interest), then we’ll be traveling even faster in the wrong direction.

All the more reason to impose a spending cap, which is the only major fiscal reform with a track record of success.

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When I put forth the “The Case for Social Security Personal Accounts” in early 2011, I pointed out that the program’s long-run fiscal shortfall was more than $27 trillion.

We should be so lucky to have that problem today.

The Social Security Administration just released the annual report on the program’s finances, so I went to to Table VI.G9 of the “Supplemental Single-Year Tables” to peruse the yearly projections for future revenue and spending (which are adjusted for inflation so we have a more accurate method for comparisons).

The bad news is that an ever-increasing amount of our income is going to be grabbed by payroll taxes. The worse news is that Social Security’s spending burden will climb at an even-faster rate (historical data to the left of the red line, future projections to the right of the red line).

For those who focus on the less-important issue of red ink, the gap between revenue and spending over the next 75 years is projected to reach $44.7 trillion.

The gap in this year’s report is not directly comparable to the number I cited in 2011, but there’s no question the program’s finances are heading in the wrong direction.

This is partly because Social Security – as a “pay-as-you-go” program – is very vulnerable to demographic changes.

Like other types of Ponzi Schemes, it can work so long as there are always more and more new people entering the system.

But America’s demographic profile is changing. We’re living longer and having fewer kids.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Daniel Kowalski has a summary of how the program works and why it has a grim future.

Social Security recipients are not paid with the money that the government deducted directly from them and their past employers. Instead that money was used to pay the benefits for past retirees, while current retired recipients are getting their money through Americans who are currently working and contributing to the system. …the first recipients of the Social Security program took out far more than they put in with the difference being made up by the fact that active workers then greatly outnumbered beneficiaries. In 1940 this was not an issue as there were 159 workers supporting one beneficiary. …By 1960, 15 years after President Roosevelt’s death, that ratio was reduced to 5 workers for every beneficiary. In 1980, the ratio dropped to just above three and in 2010 it dropped below that. …there is one thing that Millennials and Generation Z can do to prepare themselves for that day. Start saving and planning for retirement now and make a plan that does not count on a government-issued Social Security check.

He’s right, and his column doesn’t even address the other problem for young people, which is the fact that they get a rotten deal from the program, paying in record amounts of money in exchange for hollow promises of a meager monthly benefit.

By the way, the numbers in the two charts above are based on the Social Security Administration’s “intermediate” assumptions.

I’ve never had any reason to question the reasonableness of those numbers. But in a world with coronavirus, which is causing crippling short-run economic damage and could cause significant long-run harm, it may be more prudent to look at SSA’s “high-cost” assumptions.

The bottom line is that the program’s long-run shortfall could be more than $20 trillion higher.

And remember, these numbers are in 2020 dollars. In other words, adjusted for inflation.

So how do we solve this mess? How do we avoid a grim fiscal future?

Shifting to a system of personal retirement accounts would be the most prudent approach. Yes, there would be an enormous transition cost since we would need to pay benefits to current retirees and many older workers, but that transition cost would be less than the $44.7 trillion unfunded liability (or even more!) of the current system.

I’ve written many times about the benefits of personal accounts for the United States, but I find most people are more interested in real-world evidence. Here are just a few of the several dozen nations that either fully or partially utilize private savings instead of political promises.

P.S. Some folks in Washington want to exacerbate Social Security’s fiscal burden by expanding the program.

P.P.S. I hate to add to the bad news, but the long-run finances for Medicare and Medicaid are an even-bigger problem.

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Back in 2012, when America had a budget deficit above $1 trillion, Investor’s Business Daily opined that America’s fiscal mess could have been avoided if politicians had simply adopted a TABOR-style spending cap starting in 1998.

As illustrated by the accompanying chart, IBD showed how a giant deficit would have become very manageable if politicians simply limited spending so it grew no faster than population plus inflation.

What makes this alternative history so bittersweet is that there are places – such as Switzerland and Hong Kong – that already have successful spending caps that deliver positive results.

Indeed, spending caps have such a good track record that even left-leaning international bureaucracies like the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have acknowledged that they are the most effective fiscal rule.

To understand the benefits of spending caps, especially since we’re now back in an environment of $1 trillion-plus deficits, let’s replicate the IBD exercise.

Here’s a chart showing actual spending (orange line) and revenue (blue line) over the past 20 years, along with what would have happened to spending with a 3-percent cap on annual spending increases (grey line).

The net result is that today’s $1 trillion surplus would be a budget surplus of nearly $500 billion.

More important, the burden of spending today would be much lower, which means more resources being allocated by the productive sector of the economy. And that would mean more jobs and more prosperity.

P.S. While a spending cap is simple and effective, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Abiding by a cap would force politicians to set priorities, which is a constraint they don’t like. In the long run, complying with a cap also would require some much-need entitlement reform, which also won’t be popular with the interest groups that control Washington.

P.P.S. We would need a spending cap of 1.7 percent to balance the budget over the next 10 years.

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About 10 years ago, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released this video to explain that America’s real fiscal problem is too much spending and that red ink is best viewed as a symptom of that problem.

I wrote a primer on this issue two years ago, but I want to revisit the topic because I’m increasingly irked when I see people – over and over again – mistakenly assume that “deficit neutrality” or “budget neutrality” is the same thing as good fiscal policy.

  • For instance, advocates of a carbon tax want to use the new revenues to finance bigger government. Their approach (at least in theory) would not increase the deficit. Regardless, that’s a plan to increase to overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.
  • Just two days ago, I noted that Mayor Buttigieg wants the federal government to spend more money on health programs and is proposing an even-greater amount of new taxes. That’s a plan to increase the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.
  • Back in 2016, a columnist for the Washington Post argued Hillary Clinton was a fiscal conservative because her proposals for new taxes were larger than her proposals for new spending. That was a plan to increase the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.
  • And in 2011, Bruce Bartlett argued that Obama was a “moderate conservative” because his didn’t raises taxes and spending as much as some on the left wanted him to. Regardless, he still increased the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.

To help make this point clear, I’ve created a simple 2×2 matrix and inserted some examples for purposes of illustration.

At the risk of stating the obvious, good fiscal policy is in the top-left quadrant and bad fiscal policy is in the bottom-two quadrants.

Because of “public choice,” there are no real-world examples in the top-right quadrant. Why would politicians collect extra taxes, after all, if they weren’t planning to use the money to buy votes?

P.S. In 2012, I created a table showing the differences on fiscal policy between supply-siders, Keynesians, the IMF, and libertarians.

P.P.S. I also recommend Milton Friedman’s 2×2 matrix on spending and incentives.

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I gave a speech this past weekend about the economy and fiscal policy, and I made my usual points about government being too big and warned that the problem would get much worse in the future because of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Which is probably what the audience expected me to say.

But then I told the crowd that a balanced budget requirement is neither necessary nor sufficient for good fiscal policy.

Which may have been a surprise.

To bolster my argument, I pointed to states such as IllinoisCalifornia, and New Jersey. They all have provisions to limit red ink, yet there is more spending (and more debt) every year. I also explained that there are also anti-deficit rules in nations such as GreeceFrance, and Italy, yet those countries are not exactly paragons of fiscal discipline.

To help explain why balanced budget requirements are not effective, I shared this chart showing annual changes in revenue over the past two decades for the federal government (Table 1.1 of OMB’s Historical Tables).

It shows that receipts are very volatile, primarily because they grow rapidly when the economy is expanding and they contract – sometimes sharply – when there’s an economic downturn.

I pointed out that volatile revenue flows make it very difficult to enforce a balanced budget requirement.

Most important, it’s extremely difficult to convince politicians to reduce spending during a recession since that’s when they feel extra pressure to spend more money (whether for Keynesian reasons of public-choice reasons).

Moreover, a balanced budget requirement doesn’t impose any discipline when the economy is growing. If revenues are growing by 8%, 10%, or 12% per year, politicians use that as an excuse for big increases in the spending burden.

Needless to say, those new spending commitments then create an even bigger fiscal problem when there’s a future downturn (as I’ve noted when writing about budgetary problems in jurisdictions such as Cyprus, Alaska, Ireland, Alberta, Greece, Puerto Rico, California, etc).

So what, then, is the right way of encouraging or enforcing prudent fiscal policy?

I told the audience we need a federal spending cap, akin to what exists in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado. Allow politicians to increase spending each year, preferably at a modest rate so that there’s a gradual reduction in the fiscal burden relative to economic output.

I’ve modified the above chart to show how a 2% spending cap would work. Politicians could increase spending when revenues are falling, but they wouldn’t be allowed to embark on a spending spree when revenues are rising.

Spending caps create a predictable fiscal environment. And limiting spending growth produces good outcomes.

If you’re still not convinced, this video hopefully will make a difference.

P.S. Spending caps work so well that even left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF have acknowledged that they are the only effective fiscal rule.

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I want lower taxes. I want to reform taxes. And I want to abolish existing taxes and block new taxes.

But I also recognize that the biggest fiscal problem, both in America and elsewhere in the world, is that there’s too much government spending.

This creates a bit of a quandary. Given the various pressures and trade-offs in the world of fiscal policy, should supporters of limited government embrace additional tax relief?

Steve Moore opines in the Washington Times that it’s time for further tax cuts.

Every single plausible Democratic candidate for president has endorsed tax increases as centerpieces of their economic agenda. …Meanwhile, Mr. Trump and the Republicans in Congress have the 2017 tax cut to trumpet… Middle class incomes have hit an all-time high as has the stock market and employment. …Mr. Trump and the Republicans need a new tax cut plan… Mr. Trump has said he wants any new tax cut to be aimed at the middle class. …Let the liberals spend the next 11 months trying to explain why higher taxes and lower take home pay is better for families than lower taxes and MORE take home pay.  That should be fascinating to watch.

Steve specifically mentions some good ideas, such as lower marginal tax rates, a lower tax burden on capital gains, protecting more savings from double taxation, and allowing workers to shift some of their payroll taxes to personal retirement accounts.

But are these ideas smart policy?

Robert Verbruggen of National Review is very skeptical.

…it’s shocking that anyone is even thinking about tax cuts as a smart policy right now. …Our deficit has grown by a quarter since the 2018 fiscal year to hit nearly a trillion dollars in 2019, Baby Boomers are retiring, and the president has consistently said he has no intention of cutting the old-age entitlements that drive our spending. …tax cuts at this point would just add to the debt and hasten the day of our fiscal reckoning. We have a bunch of bills piling up. Let’s start paying them. …We need some mix of spending cuts and tax hikes to survive this. …Politicians almost certainly don’t have the guts to get serious about all this until a true crisis forces them to. But at very least, they should stop making matters worse.

So who is right?

The answer may depend on the goal.

If the objective is to simply get more votes in 2020, I’m not the right person to judge the effectiveness of that approach. After all, I’m a policy wonk, not a political strategist.

So let’s focus on the narrower issue of whether further tax relief would be good policy. Here are five things to consider, starting with two points about taxes and the economy.

1. Will tax cuts improve long-run economic performance? It’s impossible to answer this question without knowing what kind of tax cut. Increasing child credits may or may not be desirable, but that kind of tax relief doesn’t boost incentives for additional economic activity. Other types of tax reforms, by contrast, can have a very positive effect on incentives for work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

2. Will tax cuts improve short-run economic performance? This is actually the wrong way to analyze fiscal policy. Advocates of Keynesian economics are fixated on trying to tinker with the economy’s short-run performance. That being said, some types of tax cuts – particularly reforms designed to attract global capital – may generate quicker positive effects.

Now let’s broaden our scope and consider tax cuts as part of overall fiscal policy.

3. Should policy makers focus on deficit reduction? Excessive government borrowing is undesirable, but it’s important to understand that red ink is the symptom and government spending is the underlying disease. Treat the disease and the symptoms automatically begin to go away.

4. Will tax cuts interfere with a bipartisan deal? Some people imagine that America’s fiscal problems can be addressed only if there’s a package deal of tax increases and spending cuts (dishonestly defined). Such an outcome is theoretically possible, but entirely unrealistic. Tax increases almost surely would be a recipe for additional spending.

5. Is there a starve-the-beast constraint on spending? There’s a theory, known as “starve the beast,” that suggests lower taxes can help constrain government spending. Given that Trump has simultaneously lowered the tax burden and increased the spending burden, that’s obviously not true in the short run. But the evidence suggests a firm commitment to lower taxes can inhibit long-run spending.

Based on these five points, I side with Steve Moore. It’s always a good idea to push for lower taxes.

And I definitely disagree with Robert Verbruggen’s willingness to put tax increases on the table. A huge mistake.

That being said, the Trump Administration’s reckless approach to discretionary spending and feckless approach to entitlement spending makes any discussion of further tax relief completely pointless.

So, at the risk of sounding like a politician, I also disagree with Steve. Instead of writing a column discussing additional tax cuts, he should have used the opportunity to condemn big-spending GOPers.

P.S. For what it’s worth, more than 100 percent (yes, that’s mathematically possible) of America’s long-run fiscal problem is excessive spending.

P.P.S. If you doubt my assertion that higher taxes will lead to more spending, I invite you to come up with another explanation for what’s happened in Europe.

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This week featured lots of angst-ridden headlines about the annual budget deficit for the 2019 fiscal year (which ended on September 30) jumping to $984 billion, an increase of more than $200 billion.

For reasons I’ve previously outlined, I don’t lose too much sleep about the level of government borrowing. What’s far more important is the burden of government spending.

Whether the budget is financed by taxes or borrowing, the level of spending is what really matters. Simply stated, that number measures the amount of money that politicians divert from the economy’s productive sector.

That being said, it’s sometimes very illuminating to look at why red ink goes up and down.

So I went to the Treasury Department’s most-recent Monthly Treasury Statement and looked at the raw numbers. What did I find?

Lo and behold, the deficit jumped to $984 billion because outlays are increasing twice as fast as revenue.

Perhaps even more discouraging, the burden of spending is rising more than four times faster than needed to keep pace with inflation.

These are very discouraging numbers, especially when you keep in mind that this is the calm before the storm. Because of poorly designed entitlement programs and an ageing population, our fiscal situation will deteriorate even faster in the future.

Unless there’s much-needed reform.

But I’m not holding out much hope. Trump is a big spender and Congress is filled with big spenders.

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The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) just released its new 10-year forecast. Unsurprisingly, it shows that Trump’s reckless spending policy is accelerating America’s descent to Greek-style fiscal profligacy.

Most people are focusing on the estimates of additional red ink, but I point out in this interview that the real problem is spending.

Some folks also are highlighting the fact that CBO isn’t projecting a recession, but I don’t think that’s important for the simple fact that all economists are bad at making short-run economic predictions.

That being said, I think CBO’s long-run fiscal forecasts are worthy of close attention (unfortunately, I didn’t state this very clearly in the interview).

And what worries me is that the numbers show that government spending will be consuming an ever-larger share of the nation’s economic output.

However, it’s not time to give up.

Modest spending restraint (i.e., obeying the Golden Rule of fiscal policy) generates very good results in a remarkably short period of time.

What matters most is reducing the burden of spending. But when you address the problem of government spending (as the chart shows), you also solve the symptom of red ink.

The challenge, of course, is convincing politicians that spending should be frozen. Or, at the very least, that it should only grow at a modest pace.

We have enjoyed periods of spending restraint, including a five-year spending freeze under Obama, as well as some fiscal discipline under both Reagan and Clinton.

But if we want long-run spending discipline, we need a comprehensive spending cap, sort of like the very successful systems in Hong Kong and Switzerland.

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