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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Crisis’

I wrote yesterday about the continuing success of Switzerland’s spending cap.

Before voters changed the Swiss constitution, overall expenditures were growing by an average of 4.6 percent annually. Ever since the “debt brake” took effect, though, government spending has increased by an average of just 2.1 percent.

For all intents and purposes, Switzerland is getting good results because it is now complying with fiscal policy’s Golden Rule.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the United States. The Congressional Budget Office just released its new long-run forecast of the federal budget.

The most worrisome factoid in the report is that the overall burden of federal spending is going to expand significantly over the next three decades, jumping from 20.6 percent of the economy this year to 29.3 percent of economic output in 2048.

And why will the federal budget consume an ever-larger share of economic output? The chart tells you everything you need to know. Our fiscal situation is deteriorating because government is growing faster than the private sector.

Actually, the chart doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. It doesn’t tell us, for instances, that tax increases simply make a bad situation worse since politicians then have an excuse to avoid much-need reforms.

And the chart also doesn’t reveal that entitlement programs are the main cause of ever-expanding government.

But the chart does a great job of showing that our fundamental problem is growth of government. Which presumably makes it obvious that the only logical solution is a spending cap.

The good news is that there already is a spending cap in Washington.

But the bad news is that it only applies to “appropriations,” which are a small share of the overall federal budget.

And the worse news is that politicians voted to bust that spending cap in 2013, 2015, and earlier this year.

The bottom line is that we know spending restraint works, but the challenge is figuring out a system that actually ties the hands of politicians. Switzerland and Hong Kong solved that problem by making their spending caps part of their national constitutions.

Sadly, there’s little immediate hope of that kind of reform in the United States.

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I’ve half-joked in the past that spending restraint is the answer to every fiscal problem.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the right answer to 98 percent of fiscal problems. Some fiscal discipline is what we need in America, for instance, and it’s certainly an approach that works whenever and wherever it is tried.

Could it also be the answer in Jordan, which has stumbled into a fiscal crisis and is now facing domestic unrest?

The trouble began in January when the government announced a big IMF-supported tax increase. Here’s some of what was reported by Reuters.

Jordans cabinet announced on Monday a major package of IMF-guided tax hikes… The package announced on state media includes removing exemptions on general sales tax and unifying low 4 to 8 percent rates on a large number of items at 10 percent while leaving it at 16 percent ceiling for others, alongside raising special taxes on tobacco, premium gasoline and streamlining customs duties.

Interestingly, the article acknowledged that the country got in a fiscal mess because of too much spending.

The debt is at least in part due to successive governments adopting an expansionist fiscal policy characterized by job creation in the bloated public sector, and by lavish subsidies for bread and other staple goods. …Economists said Jordans ability to maintain a costly subsidy system and a large state bureaucracy was increasingly untenable in the absence of large foreign capital inflows or infusions of foreign aid.

But politicians almost always prefer tax hikes rather than spending restraint (even though – or perhaps because – higher taxes are not an effective way of controlling red ink).

The victims of those tax increases are not happy. As reported earlier this month, they took to the streets.

Jordanians took to the streets of the capital Amman on Sunday in a fourth day of nightly protests against IMF-backed price increases that have shaken the kingdom, witnesses said. …demonstrators who converged near the cabinet office chanted slogans calling for the sacking of Prime Minister Hani Mulki and saying they would disband only if the government rescinded a tax bill it sent to parliament last month which critics say worsens living standards. …Public anger over IMF-driven government policies has grown since a steep general sales tax hike earlier this year… The government says it needs more funds for public services and argues that tax reforms reduce social disparities by placing a heavier burden on high earners.

And the protests worked.

The New York Times has the cheerful news.

The government of Jordan announced on Thursday that it would withdraw a divisive tax bill after nationwide protests rocked the country, leading to the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet. The newly appointed prime minister, Omar Razzaz, said in a statement that he had consulted members of both houses of Parliament, and that there was a consensus that the tax bill should be withdrawn. …The decision to withdraw the bill, which proposed increasing the tax rate on workers by at least five percentage points and on businesses by 20 to 40 percentage points, was lauded by many in Jordan.

Incidentally, taxpayers in the United States have been subsidizing Jordanian profligacy.

In 2015, the Obama administration and Jordan signed a three-year agreement in which the United States pledged $1 billion in assistance annually, subject to the approval of Congress. More recently, Washington pledged $6.3 billion in aid through 2022, making Jordan one of the top recipients of American foreign assistance.

These three news reports were interesting, but I wondered if they told the full story.

Maybe, just maybe, the IMF is right and tax increases are necessary because there is no leeway to reduce the burden of government spending. Perhaps the government already has been complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule and has slashed the budget, meaning that higher revenues are the only feasible option still on the table.

So I decided to check the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database. Lo and behold, I discovered that the budget has soared from 2 billion dinar in 2000 to more than 9 billion dinar this year. What’s especially remarkable is that government spending has grown far faster than needed to keep pace with inflation.

In other words, what happened in Jordan is exactly what happened in Greece. Government grew too fast. But not just Greece. The mess in Jordan is a repeat of what happened in Western Australia. In Puerto Rico as well. And don’t forget Alberta and Alaska. The list could go on and on.

It’s sort of like the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. Or the swallows returning to Capistrano.

And for those who value predictability, it’s no surprise to once again see the IMF pushing for higher taxes. Those bureaucrats are the Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy and there’s only one medicine they prescribe.

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As a general rule, we worry too much about deficits and debt. Yes, red ink matters, but we should pay more attention to variables such as the overall burden of government spending and the structure of the tax system.

That being said, Greece shows that a nation can experience a crisis if investors no longer trust that a government is capable of “servicing” its debt (i.e., paying interest and principal to people and institutions that hold government bonds).

This doesn’t change the fact that Greece’s main fiscal problem is too much spending. It simply shows that it’s also important to recognize the side-effects of too much spending (if you have a brain tumor, that’s your main problem, even if crippling headaches are a side-effect of the tumor).

Anyhow, it’s quite likely that Italy will be the next nation to travel down this path.

This in in part because the Italian economy is moribund, as noted by the Wall Street Journal.

Italy’s national elections…featured populist promises of largess but neglected what economists have long said is the real Italian disease: The country has forgotten how to grow. …The Italian economy contracted deeply in Europe’s debt crisis earlier this decade. A belated recovery now under way yielded 1.5% growth in 2017—a full percentage point less than the eurozone as a whole and not enough to dispel Italians’ pervasive sense of national decline. Many European policy makers view Italy’s stasis as the likeliest cause of a future eurozone crisis.

Why would Italy be the cause of a future crisis?

For the simple reason that it is only the 4th-largest economy in Europe, but this chart from the Financial Times shows it has the most nominal debt.

So what’s the solution?

The obvious answer is to dramatically reduce the burden of government.

Interestingly, even the International Monetary Fund put forth a half-decent proposal based on revenue-neutral tax reform and modest spending restraint.

The scenario modeled assumes a permanent fiscal consolidation of about 2 percent of GDP (in the structural primary balance) over four years…, supported by a pro-growth mix of revenue and expenditure reforms… Two types of growth-friendly revenue and spending measures are considered along the envisaged fiscal consolidation path: shifting taxation from direct to indirect taxes, and lowering expenditure and shifting its composition from transfers to investment. On the revenue side, a lower labor tax wedge (1.5 percent of GDP) is offset by higher VAT collections (1 percent of GDP) and introducing a modern property tax (0.5 percent of GDP). On the expenditure side, spending on public consumption is lowered by 1.25 percent of GDP, while productive public investment spending is increased by 0.5 percent of GDP. The remaining portion of the fiscal consolidation, 1.25 percent of GDP, is implemented via reduced social transfers.

Not overly bold, to be sure, but I suppose I should be delighted that the IMF didn’t follow its usual approach and recommend big tax increases.

So are Italians ready to take my good advice, or even the so-so advice of the IMF?

Nope. They just had an election and the result is a government that wants more red ink.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page is not impressed by the economic agenda of Italy’s putative new government.

Five-Star wants expansive welfare payments for poor Italians, revenues to pay for it not included. Italy’s public debt to GDP, at 132%, is already second-highest in the eurozone behind Greece. Poor Italians need more economic growth to generate job opportunities, not public handouts that discourage work. The League’s promise of a pro-growth 15% flat tax is a far better idea, especially in a country where tax avoidance is rife. The two parties would also reverse the 2011 Monti government pension reforms, which raised the retirement age and moved Italy toward a contribution-based benefit system. …Recent labor-market reforms may also be on the block.

Simply stated, Italy elected free-lunch politicians who promised big tax cuts and big spending increases. I like the first part of that lunch, but the overall meal doesn’t add up in a nation that has a very high debt level.

And I don’t think the government has a very sensible plan to make the numbers work.

…problematic for the rest of Europe are the two parties’ demand for an exemption from the European Union’s 3% GDP cap on annual budget deficits. …the two parties want the European Central Bank to cancel some €250 billion in Italian debt.

Demond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute suggests this will lead to a fiscal crisis because of two factors. First, the economy is weak.

Anyone who thought that the Eurozone debt crisis was resolved has not been paying attention to economic and political developments in Italy…the recent Italian parliamentary election…saw a surge in support for populist political parties not known for their commitment to economic orthodoxy or to real economic reform. …To say that the Italian economy is in a very poor state would be a gross understatement. Over the past decade, Italy has managed to experience a triple-dip economic recession that has left the level of its economy today 5 percent below its pre-2008 peak. Meanwhile, Italy’s current unemployment level is around double that of its northern neighbors, while its youth unemployment continues to exceed 25 percent. …the country’s public debt to GDP ratio continued to rise to 133 percent, making the country the most indebted country in the Eurozone after Greece. …its banking system remains clogged with non-performing loans that still amount to 15 percent of its balance sheet…

Second, existing debt is high.

…having the world’s third-largest government bond market after Japan and the United States, with $2.5 trillion in bonds outstanding, Italy is simply too large a country for even Germany to save. …global policymakers…, it would seem not too early for them to start making contingency plans for a full blown Italian economic crisis.

Since he writes on issues I care about, I always enjoy reading Lachman’s work. Though I don’t always agree with his analysis.

Why, for instance, does he think an Italian fiscal crisis threatens the European currency?

…the Italian economy is far too large an economy to fail if the Euro is to survive in anything like its present form.

Would the dollar be threatened if (when?) Illinois goes bankrupt?

But let’s not get sidetracked.3

To give you an idea of the fairy-tale thinking of Italian politicians, I’ll close with this chart from L’Osservatorio on the fiscal impact of the government’s agenda. It’s in Italian, but all you need to know is that the promised tax cuts and spending increases are on the left side and the compensating savings (what we would call “pay-fors”) are on the right side.

Wow, makes me wonder if Italy has passed the point of no return.

By the way, Italy may be the next domino, but it’s not the only European nation with fiscal problems.

P.S. No wonder some people want Sardinia to secede from Italy and become part of “sensible” Switzerland.

P.P.S. Some leftists genuinely think the United States should emulate Italy.

P.P.P.S. As a fan of spending caps, I can’t resist pointing out that anti-deficit rules in Europe have not stopped politicians from expanding government.

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Five former Democratic appointees to the Council of Economic Advisers have a column in today’s Washington Post asserting that we should not blame entitlements for America’s future fiscal problems.

The good news is that they at least recognize that there’s a future problem.

The bad news is that their analysis is sloppy, inaccurate, and deceptive.

They start with an observation about red ink that is generally true, though I think the link between government borrowing and interest rates is rather weak (at least until a government – like Greece – gets to the point where investors no longer trust its ability to repay).

The federal budget deficit is on track to exceed $1 trillion next year and get worse over time. Eventually, ever-rising debt and deficits will cause interest rates to rise. …the growing debt will take an increasing toll.

But the authors don’t want us to blame entitlements for ever-rising levels of red ink.

It is dishonest to single out entitlements for blame.

That’s a remarkable claim since the Congressional Budget Office (which is not a small government-oriented bureaucracy, to put it mildly) unambiguously shows that rising levels of so-called mandatory spending are driving our long-run fiscal problems.

CBO’s own charts make this abundantly clear (click on the image to see the original column with the full-size chart).

So how do the authors get around this problem?

First, they try to confuse the issue by myopically focusing on the short run.

The primary reason the deficit in coming years will now be higher than had been expected is the reduction in tax revenue from last year’s tax cuts, not an increase in spending.

Okay, fair enough. There will be a short-run tax cut because of the recent tax legislation. But the column is supposed to be about the future debt crisis. And that’s a medium-term and long-term issue.

Well, it turns out that they have to focus on the short run because their arguments become very weak – or completely false – when we look at the overall fiscal situation.

For instance, they make an inaccurate observation about the recent tax reform legislation.

…the tax cuts passed last year actually added an amount to America’s long-run fiscal challenge that is roughly the same size as the preexisting shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare.

That’s wrong. The legislation actually increases the long-run tax burden.

And that’s in addition to the long-understood reality that the tax burden already is scheduled to gradually increase, even measured as a share of economic output.

Once again, the CBO has a chart with the relevant data. Note especially the steady rise in the burden of the income tax (once again, feel free to click on the image to see the original column with the full-size chart).

The authors do pay lip service to the notion that there should be some spending restraint.

There is some room for…spending reductions in these programs, but not to an extent large enough to solve the long-run debt problem.

But even that admission is deceptive.

We don’t actually need spending reductions. We simply need to slow down the growth of government. Indeed, our long-run debt problem would be solved if imposed some sort of Swiss-style or Hong Kong-style spending cap so that the budget couldn’t grow faster than 3 percent yearly.

In any event, they wrap up their column by unveiling their main agenda. They want higher taxes.

Additional revenue is critical…responding to the looming fiscal challenge required a balanced approach that combined increased revenue with reduced spending. Two bipartisan commissions, Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin, proposed such approaches that called for tax reform to raise revenue as a percent of GDP…set tax policy to realize adequate revenue.

As I already noted, the tax burden already is going to climb as a share of GDP. But the authors want an increase on top of the built-in increase.

And it’s very revealing that they cite Simpson-Bowles, which is basically a left-wing proposal of higher taxes combined with the wrong type of entitlement reform. To be fair, the Domenici-Rivlin plan  has the right kind of entitlement reform, but that proposal is nonetheless bad news since it contains a value-added tax.

The bottom line if that the five Democratic CEA appointees who put together the column (I’m wondering why Austan Goolsbee didn’t add his name) do not make a compelling case for higher taxes.

Unless, of course, the goal is to enable a bigger burden of government.

Which is the message of this very appropriate cartoon.

Needless to say, this belongs in my “Government in Cartoons” collection.

P.S. Entitlement spending is not only to blame for our future spending problems. It’s also the cause of our current spending problems.

P.P.S. In a perverse way, I actually like the column we discussed today. Five top economists on the left put their heads together and tried to figure out the most compelling argument for higher taxes. Yet what they produced is shoddy and deceptive. In other words, they didn’t make a strong argument because they don’t have a strong argument. Reminds me of Robert Rubin’s anemic argument last year against the GOP tax plan.

P.P.P.S. Four former presidents offer good advice on the topic of taxation.

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I’m a big fan of federalism because states have the flexibility to choose good policy or bad policy.

And that’s good news for me since I get to write about the consequences.

One of the main lessons we learn (see here, here, here, here, and here) is that high-earning taxpayers tend to migrate from states with onerous tax burdens and they tend to land in places where there is no state income tax (we also learn that welfare recipients move to states with bigger handouts, but that’s an issue for another day).

In this interview with Stuart Varney, we discuss whether this trend of tax-motivated migration is going to accelerate.

I mentioned in the interview that restricting the state and local tax deduction is going to accelerate the flight from high-tax states, which underscores what I wrote earlier this year about that provision of the tax bill being a “big [expletive deleted] deal.”

I suggested that Stuart create a poll on which state will be the first to go bankrupt.

And there’s a lot of data to help people choose.

Technically, I don’t think bankruptcy is even possible since there’s no provision for such a step in federal law.

But it’s still an interesting issue, so I decided to create a poll on the question. To make it manageable, I limited the selection to 10 states, all of which rank poorly in one of more of the surveys listed above. And, to avoid technical quibbles, the question is about “fiscal collapse” rather than bankruptcy, default, or bailouts. Anyhow, as they say in Chicago, vote early and vote often.

P.S. I asked a similar question about bankruptcies in developed nations back in 2011. Back then, it appeared Portugal might be the right answer. Today, I’d pick Italy.

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Way back in 2009, I narrated a video explaining that people worry too much about deficits and debt. Red ink isn’t desirable, to be sure, but I pointed out that the real problem is government spending.

And the bottom line is that most types of government spending are bad for an economy, regardless of whether they are financed by taxes or borrowing.

It is possible, of course, for a nation to have a debt crisis. But keep in mind that this simply means a government has accumulated so much debt that investors no longer trust that they will receive payments on government bonds.

That’s not a good outcome, but replacing debt-financed spending with tax-financed spending is like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Or the fire into the frying pan, if you prefer. In either case, politicians are ignoring the real problem.

Greece is a cautionary example. Thanks to a period of overspending, Greek politicians drove the country into a debt crisis. But this dark cloud had a silver lining. The good news (at least relatively speaking) is that the government no longer could borrow from the private sector to finance more spending.

But the bad news is that Greek politicians subsequently hammered the economy with huge tax increases in hopes of propping up the country’s bloated welfare state. And the “troika” made a bad situation worse with bailout funds (mostly to protect big banks that unwisely lent money to Greek politicians, but that’s a separate story).

In other words, Greece got in trouble because of too much government spending and it remains in trouble because of too much government spending. As is the case for many other European nations.

And I fear the United States is slowly but surely heading in that direction. I elaborate about the problem of government spending – and the concomitant symptom of red ink – in this interview with the Mises Institute.

For all intents and purposes, I’m trying to convince people that deficits and debt are bad, but they’re bad mostly because they are a sign that government is too big. Sort of like a brain tumor being the real problem and headaches being a warning sign.

I feel like Goldilocks on this issue. Except instead of porridge that is too hot or too cold, I deal with people on both sides who think red ink is either wonderful or terrible.

For an example of the former group, here’s some of what Stephanie Kelton wrote for the New York Times last October.

…bigger deficits wouldn’t wreck the nation’s finances. …Lawmakers are obsessed with avoiding an increase in the deficit. …It’s also holding us back. Politicians of both parties should stop using the deficit as a guide to public policy. Instead, they should be advancing legislation aimed at raising living standards and delivering…long-term prosperity.

Hard to disagree with the above excerpt.

But here’s the part I don’t like. She’s a believer in the perpetual motion machine of Keynesian economics. She thinks deficits are actually good for the economy and she wants to use debt to finance an ever-larger burden of government spending.

Government spending adds new money to the economy, and taxes take some of that money out again. …we should think of the government’s spending as self-financing since it pays its bills by sending new money into the economy. …the deficit itself could be deployed as a potent weapon in the fights against inequality, poverty and economic stagnation.

Ugh.

Now let’s check out the view of the so-called deficit hawks who think red ink is an abomination.

Here are some passages from a Hill report on the battle over last year’s tax plan.

A handful of GOP deficit hawks are worried that their party’s tax plan could add trillions to the deficit, deepening a debt crisis for future generations. …The tax plan could cost the government $1.5 trillion in revenue over the next decade… Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who recently announced his retirement at the end of this Congress, has warned he’ll oppose the tax plan if it adds to the deficit. …In a separate interview, he told The New York Times that the debt is “the greatest threat to our nation,” more dangerous than the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or North Korea.

Ugh, again.

The threat isn’t the red ink. The real danger is an ever-increasing burden of government spending, driven by entitlements.

Besides, the GOP tax bill actually is a long-run tax increase!

Let’s close with a video on the topic from Marginal Revolution. It has too much Keynesianism in it for my tastes, but the discussion of Argentina’s default is useful for those who wonder about whether the United States is going to have a debt meltdown at some point.

P.S. I don’t agree with Keynesians and I don’t agree with the self-styled deficit hawks. But I can appreciate that both groups have a consistent approach to public finance. What really galls me are the statist hypocrites who are cheerleaders for debt when there are proposals to increase government spending, but then do a back flip and pretend that debt is terrible and must be reduced when tax increases are being discussed.

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I’ve narrated a video on why big government is theoretically bad for an economy, another video looking at the empirical evidence on government spending and economic performance, and also a video on the growth-maximizing size of the public sector.

But if you want to see a lot of what I said condensed into one video, here’s Dennis Prager talking about differences in how the left and right view government. The opening part of the video is interesting, though I suspect his descriptions only apply to philosophically motivated activists on each side.

The part I want to focus on begins about 1:15, when he outlines seven adverse consequences of ever-growing government.

I think he put together a very good list. Here’s my two cents on his seven points.

  1. More Corruption – He points out that a government with lots of power and control will be very susceptible to misbehavior as interest groups and politicians figure out ways of scamming the system. Very similar to the message in one of my videos.
  2. Less Liberty – It is basically a tautology that ever-larger government necessitates a reduction in liberty. Not in a totalitarian sense, but taxes and regulations constrain the freedom of individual to earn and control income.
  3. Fiscal Crisis – He warns that big government is a recipe for fiscal crisis. I’m not sure if this has to be inevitable, but from a practical perspective, he is right. Demographic change and entitlements are a poisonous combination.
  4. Punitive Taxation – If government consistently expands faster than the productive sector of the economy, that almost certainly means ever-higher taxes, which ultimately will be self defeating because of the Laffer Curve.
  5. Unsustainable Debt – An expanding burden of government spending also will mean ever-higher levels of red ink, especially once the tax burden is so high that additional levies don’t produce much – if any – revenue.
  6. Totalitarianism – This is probably Prager’s weakest point. He’s right that bad people do very bad things when they control a government, but I suspect western nations will suffer societal breakdown rather that dictatorship.
  7. Dependency – He closes very strong with observations about the danger of luring people into reliance on government. This concern about the erosion of societal capital is much more important than most people think.

For all intents and purposes, Prager’s video is a very good description of “goldfish government.”

This is the term I use to describe the unfortunate tendency of politicians to over-tax and over-spend until a society faces a crisis.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think western nations necessarily will collapse (though some almost certainly will depending on the degree to which societal capital has been destroyed).

But I will acknowledge that politicians generally don’t like taking the necessary steps to avert fiscal crisis.

Which is one of the reasons I’m such a big fan of tax competition. I don’t want politicians to think that endless tax increases are a way of postponing the fiscal day of reckoning.

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