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Posts Tagged ‘Deficit’

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

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

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

Here are the three things that you need to know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting.

Third, we have our most important chart.

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

In other words, Washington is violating my Golden Rule.

And this leads to all sorts of negative consequences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This violates the Golden Rule of sensible fiscal policy.

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

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Earlier this year, I reviewed new fiscal projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and showed that balancing the budget would be relatively easy if politicians simply limited spending so that it didn’t grow faster than inflation.

Though I made sure to point out that the primary goal should be to limit the burden of spending. That’s because government spending, regardless of whether it’s financed by taxes or financed by borrowing, undermines prosperity by diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy.

We now have some new numbers from CBO. The number-crunching bureaucrats have put together their estimates of the latest Trump budget and that’s generated some predictable squabbling between Republicans and Democrats.

Most of the finger-pointing has focused on the (relatively trivial) fiscal impact of the Trump tax cuts.

The Wall Street Journal wisely put the focus instead on the growth of government.

You wouldn’t know it from the press coverage, but there’s some modest good news about the federal budget. The deficit is rising, but not as much as feared because tax revenues are increasing due to faster economic growth. …So why has the federal deficit increased by $145 billion this fiscal year to $531 billion? Because federal spending continued to rise rapidly—7% in the first seven months to $2.571 trillion. That’s $178 billion more than in the same period a year ago. …The media blame deficits on tax reform, but the facts show the main culprit is spending. No one in the political class wants to talk about entitlements but that’s where the money is.

The WSJ’s editorial focused on short-run data.

I want to augment that analysis by looking at medium-run and long-run numbers.

We’ll start with this chart looking at what will happen over the next 10 years. As you can see, Washington is violating my Golden Rule by allowing spending to grow faster than the private economy.

As a result, the burden of federal spending, measured as a share of gross domestic product, is projected to climb over the next decade.

That’s not good news.

(For what it’s worth, since tax revenues will be growing at the same pace as spending, there won’t be any meaningful change in the deficit as a share of GDP.)

Now let’s look at the most-recent long-run data from CBO. These numbers are even more depressing because the spending burden continues to grow faster than the private sector. A lot faster.

Which is why the burden of federal spending is projected to increase from less than 21 percent of GDP today to nearly 29 percent of GDP by 2049.

That’s terrible news.

And if you include spending by state and local governments (which currently consumes more than 11 percent of economic output and also is projected to increase), the terrible news gets even worse.

Moreover, the tax burden is projected to climb as well, and that doesn’t even include any estimate of what will happen if politicians manage to impose a value-added tax, an energy tax, a wealth tax, a financial transactions tax, or any of the other revenue-raising schemes under consideration in Washington.

In other words, the U.S. is on track to become just like GreeceFrance, and Italy.

P.S. There is an alternative to this dismal future. But can we convince politicians to adopt a spending cap and then make it work with genuine entitlement reform? I’m not holding my breath for any of that to happen.

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