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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Policy’

In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, the United States at some point is going to suffer from a debt crisis.

But red ink is merely a symptom. I used numbers from Greece in this interview to underscore the fact that the real problem is government spending.

The discussion was triggered by comments from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Wednesday that reducing the federal debt needs to return to the forefront of the agenda, warning that the government’s finances are unsustainable. “I do think that deficits matter and do think it’s not really controversial to say our debt can’t grow faster than our economy indefinitely — and that’s what it’s doing right now,” Powell said.

As I noted in my comments, Powell is right, but he’s focusing on the wrong variable.

The real crisis is that spending is growing faster than the private sector (Powell needs to learn the six principles to guide spending policy).

To be more specific, politicians are violating my Golden Rule.

Spending grew too fast under Bush. It grew too fast under Obama (except for a few years when the “Tea Party” was in the ascendancy). And it’s growing too fast under Trump.

Most worrisome, the burden of spending is expected to grow faster than the private sector far into the future according to the long-run forecast from the Congressional Budget Office.

That doesn’t mean we’ll have a crisis this year or next year. We probably won’t even have a crisis in the next 10 years or 20 years.

But I cited Greek data in the interview to point out that excessive spending eventually does create a major problem.

Here’s the data from International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database. To make matters simple (I should have done this for the interview as well), I adjusted the numbers for inflation.

So how can America avoid a Greek-style fiscal nightmare?

Simple, just impose a spending cap. At the end of the interview, I added a plug for the very successful system in Switzerland, but I’d also be happy if we copied Hong Kong’s spending cap. Or the Taxpayer Bill of Rights from Colorado.

The bottom line is that spending restraint works and a constitutional spending cap is the best way to achieve permanent fiscal discipline.

P.S. By contrast, proponents of “Modern Monetary Theory” argue governments can finance ever-growing government by printing money. For what it’s worth, nations that have used central banks to finance big government (most recently, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) are not exactly good role models.

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I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how New York is committing slow-motion fiscal suicide.

The politicians in Illinois must have noticed because they now want (another “hold my beer” moment?) to accelerate the already-happening collapse of their state.

The new governor, J.B. Pritzker, wants to undo the state’s 4.95 percent flat tax, which is the only decent feature of the Illinois tax system.

And he has a plan to impose a so-called progressive tax with a top rate of 7.95.

Here are some excerpts from the Chicago Tribune‘s report., starting with the actual plan.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker embarked on a new and potentially bruising political campaign Thursday by seeking to win public approval of a graduated-rate income tax that he contended would raise $3.4 billion by increasing taxes for the wealthy…for his long-discussed plan to replace the state’s constitutionally mandated flat-rate income tax. Currently, all Illinois residents are taxed at 4.95 percent… Pritzker’s proposal is largely reliant on raising taxes significantly on residents making more than $250,000 a year, with those earning $1 million and up taxed at 7.95 percent of their total income. …The corporate tax rate would increase from the current 7 percent to 7.95 percent, matching the top personal rate. …The governor’s proposal would give Illinois the second-highest top marginal tax rate among its neighboring states.

And here’s what would need to happen for the change to occur.

Before Pritzker’s plan can be implemented, three-fifths majorities in each chamber of the legislature must approve a constitutional amendment doing away with the flat tax requirement. The measure would then require voter approval, which couldn’t happen until at least November 2020. …Democrats hold enough seats in both chambers of the legislature to approve the constitutional amendment without any GOP votes. Whether they’ll be willing to do so remains in question. Democratic leaders welcomed Pritzker’s proposal… voters in 2014 endorsed the idea by a wide margin in an advisory referendum.

The sensible people on the Chicago Tribune‘s editorial board are not very impressed, to put it mildly.

…how much will taxes increase under a rate structure Pritzker proposed? You might want to cover your eyes. About $3.4 billion annually… That extraction of dollars from taxpayers’ pockets would be in addition to roughly $5 billion raised annually in new revenue under the 2017 income tax hike. …How did Springfield’s collection of all that new money work out for state government and taxpayers? Here’s how: Illinois remains deeply in debt, continues to borrow to pay bills, faces an insurmountable unfunded pension liability and is losing taxpayers who are fed up with paying more. The flight of Illinoisans to other states is intensifying with 2018’s loss of 45,116 net residents, the worst of five years of consistent, dropping population. …Illinois needs to be adding more taxpayers and businesses, not subtracting them. When politicians raise taxes, they aren’t adding. A switch to a graduated tax would eliminate one of Illinois’ only fishing lures to attract taxpayers and jobs: its constitutionally protected flat income tax. …Pritzker’s proposal, like each tax hike before it, was introduced with no meaningful reform on the spending side of the ledger. This is all about collecting more money. …In fact, the tax hike would come amid promises of spending new billions.

And here’s a quirk that is sure to backfire.

For filers who report income of more than $1 million annually, the 7.95 percent rate would not be marginalized; meaning, it would be applied to every dollar, not just income of more than $1 million. Line up the Allied moving vans for business owners and other high-income families who’ve had a bellyful of one of America’s highest state and local tax burdens.

The Tax Foundation analyzed this part of Pritzker’s plan.

This creates a significant tax cliff, where a person making $1,000,000 pays $70,935 in taxes, while someone earning one dollar more pays $79,500, a difference of $8,565 on a single dollar of income.

That’s quite a marginal tax rate. I suspect even French politicians (as well as Cam Newton) might agree that’s too high.

Though I’m sure that tax lawyers and accountants will applaud since they’ll doubtlessly get a lot of new business from taxpayers who want to avoid that cliff (assuming, of course, that some entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners actually decide to remain in Illinois).

While the tax cliff is awful policy, it’s actually relatively minor compared to the importance of this table in the Tax Foundation report. It shows how the state’s already-low competitiveness ranking will dramatically decline if Pritzker’s class-warfare plan is adopted.

The Illinois Policy Institute has also analyzed the plan.

Unsurprisingly, there will be fewer jobs in the state, with the losses projected to reach catastrophic levels if the new tax scheme is adjusted to finance all of the Pritzker’s new spending.

And when tax rates go up – and they will if states like Connecticut, New Jersey, and California are any indication – that will mean very bad news for middle class taxpayers.

The governor is claiming they will be protected. But once the politicians get the power to tax one person at a higher rate, it’s just a matter of time before they tax everyone at higher rates.

Here’s IPI’s look at projected tax rates based on three different scenarios.

The bottom line is that the middle class will suffer most, thanks to fewer jobs and higher taxes.

Rich taxpayer will be hurt as well, but they have the most escape options, whether they move out of the state or rely on tax avoidance strategies.

Let’s close with a few observations about the state’s core problem of too much spending.

Steve Cortes, writing for Real Clear Politics, outlines the problems in his home state.

…one class of people has found a way to prosper: public employees. …over 94,000 total public employees and retirees in Illinois command $100,000+ salaries from taxpayers…former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who earned a $140,000 pension for his eight years of service in the Illinois legislature. …Such public-sector extravagance has fiscally transformed Illinois into America’s Greece – only without all the sunshine, ouzo, and amazing ruins.

So nobody should be surprised to learn that the burden of state spending has been growing at an unsustainable rate.

Indeed, over the past 20 years, state spending has ballooned from $34 billion to $86 billion according to the Census Bureau. At the risk of understatement, the politicians in Springfield have not been obeying my Golden Rule.

And today’s miserable fiscal situation will get even worse in the near future since Illinois is ranked near the bottom when it comes to setting aside money for lavish bureaucrat pensions and other retirement goodies.

Indeed, paying off the state’s energized bureaucrat lobby almost certainly is the main motive for Pritzker’s tax hike. As as happened in the past, this tax hike is designed to finance bigger government.

Yet that tax hike won’t work.

Massive out-migration already is wreaking havoc with the state’s finances. And if Pritzker gets his tax hike, the exodus will become even more dramatic.

P.S. Keep in mind, incidentally, that all this bad news for Illinois will almost certainly become worse news thanks to the recent tax reform. Restricting the state and local tax deduction means a much smaller implicit federal subsidy for high-tax states.

P.P.S. I created a poll last year and asked people which state will be the first to suffer a fiscal collapse. Illinois already has a big lead, and I won’t be surprised if that lead expands if Pritzker is able to kill the flat tax.

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Back in January, I wrote about the $42 trillion price tag of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.

To pay for this massive expansion in the burden of government spending, some advocates have embraced “Modern Monetary Theory,” which basically assumes the Federal Reserve can finance new boondoggles by printing money.

I debated this issue yesterday on CNBC. Here’s a clip from that interview.

Wow, this Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) reminds me of the old joke about “I can’t be out of money. I still have checks in my checkbook.”

I don’t know how far Ms. Kelton would go with this approach. I know from previous encounters that she’s a genuine Keynesian and thus willing to borrow lots of money to finance a larger public sector. But her answer at 2:45 of the interview also suggests she’s okay with using the Federal Reserve to finance bigger government.

In either case, our debate is really about the size of government.

And anybody who wants a bigger burden of government is at least semi-obliged to say how it would be financed. The MMT crowd stands out because they basically say the Federal Reserve can print money.

To help understand the various options, I’ve created a helpful flowchart.

It’s possible, of course, for my statist friends to say “all of the above,” so these are not mutually exclusive categories.

Though the MMT people who select “Print money!” are probably the craziest.

And I hope that they are not successful. After all, nations that have used the printing press to finance big government (most recently, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) are not exactly good role models.

I noted in the interview that MMT is so radical that it is opposed by conventional economists on the right and left.

For instance, Michael Strain of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute opines that the theory is preposterous and nonsensical.

…modern monetary theory…freshman Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke favorably about it earlier this month. …MMT is…sometimes a theory of money. MMT is also being discussed in the context of a political program to justify huge increases in social spending. Finally, there is its role as a prescription for macroeconomic policy. …The bedrock observation of MMT is correct: Any government that issues its own currency can always pay its bills. …this is about all that can be said favorably regarding modern monetary theory. …it is in its ideas about macroeconomic policy that MMT fully earns its place on the fringe. …what does MMT have to say about inflation when it does materialize? …it falls to the institution with authority over tax and budget policy — the U.S. Congress — to make sure prices are stable by raising taxes… MMT seems to call for tax increases in order to restrain inflation. …Modern monetary theory…if enacted it could cause great harm to the U.S. economy.

From the left side of the spectrum, here’s some of what Joseph Minarik wrote on the topic.

MMT rests on simplistic observations that have just enough truth to take in those who need to believe. Believers in MMT see crying societal needs… By common reckoning, government lacks the resources to address all of those needs immediately. MMT solves that problem with a simple and (literally) true observation: The federal government can just print the money. …And that is what willing policymakers choose to hear: Anything. Without limit. It is so convenient —  “too good to check.” …to MMT adherents, the Federal Reserve and all other inflation “Chicken Littles” are and forever have been totally wrong. There has not been rapid inflation for 20 years or so. Therefore, there never will be inflation again. …Yes, inflation is low. But it always is before it rises. And once inflation begins, slowing it is hard and painful. MMT is the perfect theory for the video game generation, which never saw the 1960s economic miscalculations so much like what MMT advocates today, and apparently believes that such mistakes can be reversed painlessly by just hitting the reset button. …the consequences could be catastrophic.

Catastrophic indeed.

Letting the inflation genie out of the bottle is not a good idea. And the policies of the MMT crowd presumably would lead to something far worse than what America experienced in the 1970s.

Rescuing the economy from that inflation was painful, so it’s not pleasant to imagine what would be needed to salvage the country if the MMT people ever got their hands on the levers of power.

Let’s wrap this up. Earlier this week, I presented a guide to fiscal policy based on six core principles.

If Modern Monetary Theory gains more traction, I may have to add a postscript.

P.S. If ever imposed, I suspect MMT would be very good news for people with a lot of gold and/or a lot of Bitcoin.

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When I’m asked for a basic tutorial on fiscal policy, I normally share my four videos on the economics of government spending and my primer on fundamental tax reform.

But this six-minute interview may be a quicker introduction to spending issues since I had the opportunity to touch on almost every key principle.

Culled from the discussion, here is what everyone should understand about the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Principle #1 – America’s fiscal problem is a government that is too big and growing too fast. Government spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy, regardless of how it is financed. There is real-world evidence that large public sectors sap the private sector’s vitality, augmented by lots of academic research on the negative relationship between government spending and economic performance.

Principle #2 – Entitlements programs are the main drivers of excessive spending. All the long-run forecasts show that the burden of spending is rising because of the so-called mandatory spending programs. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid were not designed to keep pace with demographic changes (falling birthrates, increasing longevity), so spending for these program will consume ever-larger shares of economic output.

Principle #3 – Deficits and debt are symptoms of the underlying problem. Government borrowing is not a good idea, but it’s primarily bad because it is a way of financing a larger burden of spending. The appropriate analogy is that, just as a person with a brain tumor shouldn’t fixate on the accompanying headache, taxpayers paying for a bloated government should pay excessive attention to the portion financed by red ink.

Principle #4 – Existing red ink is small compared to the federal government’s unfunded liabilities. People fixate on current levels of deficits and debt, which are a measure of all the additional spending financed by red ink. But today’s amount of red ink is relatively small compared to unfunded liabilities (i.e., measures of how much future spending will exceed projected revenues).

Principle #5 – A spending cap is the best way to solve America’s fiscal problems. Balanced budget rules are better than nothing, but they have a don’t control the size and growth of government. Spending caps are the only fiscal rules that have a strong track record, even confirmed by research from the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Here’s one final principle, though I didn’t mention it in the interview.

Principle #6 – Increasing taxes will make a bad situation worse. Since government spending is the real fiscal problem, higher taxes, at best, replace debt-financed spending with tax-financed spending. In reality, higher taxes loosen political constraints on policy makers and “feed the beast,” so the most likely outcome – as seen in Europe – is that overall spending levels increase and long-term debt actually increases.

In an ideal world, these six principles would be put in a frame and nailed above the desk of every politician, government official, and bureaucrat who deals with fiscal policy.

Not that it would make much difference since their decisions are guided by “public choice” no matter what principles they see at their desk, but it’s nice to fantasize.

Here are a few other observations from the interview.

P.S. Needless to say, I wish limits on enumerated powers were still a guiding principle for fiscal policy. Sadly, the days of Madisonian constitutionalism are long gone.

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According to Freedom in the 50 States, which we reviewed a couple of days ago, New Jersey is in the bottom 10 and has been moving in the wrong direction.

This dismal ranking is not an anomaly. New Jersey also is in the bottom 10 of states according to Economic Freedom of North America, and the Garden State is dead last according the State Business Tax Climate Index and State Fiscal Condition.

In a perverse way, I admire New Jersey’s politicians. They’re not satisfied with the state’s low scores. They want to become even less competitive. If that’s even possible.

As I noted in the interview, the latest proposal for a “rain tax” isn’t necessarily objectionable if examined in isolation.

But in the context of New Jersey’s fiscal deterioration, it’s almost as if politicians are writing another passage in a very long suicide note for the state.

Consider what happened recently with the gas tax, as explained by the Wall Street Journal.

…a silver lining used to be the Garden State’s relatively low gasoline tax of 14.5 cents a gallon—second lowest in the U.S. No more, and therein lies a tale of why taxing the rich to finance government is an illusion. In October 2016, then-Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill raising the gas tax by 22.6 cents to 37.1 cents a gallon…the bill also included a clause that automatically raises the gas tax if it doesn’t produce the expected revenue each year. This is a self-fulfilling economic prophesy. A higher gas tax causes people to drive less, which in turn has meant that revenues have fallen short of the expected $2 billion target. So on Oct. 1 the gas tax will rise another 4.3 cents to 41.4 cents per gallon, which will be the ninth highest in the U.S. …This will be the state’s third tax increase in four months, following June’s increase in income and corporate tax rates. …The larger lesson is that sooner or later the middle class always gets the bill for bigger government. Higher income and corporate taxes drive the affluent out of the state, which means less revenue. That leaves the middle class to pay in higher sales, property and now gasoline taxes.

Needless to say, New Jersey’s taxaholic lawmakers want even more revenue.

Here are some excerpts from a report by Politico.

Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday he may propose new tax increases when he unveils his budget in March, saying he’s worried that the state has not done enough to achieve what he called “tax fairness.” …The governor…had sought some $1.7 billion in new taxes… Murphy was met with fierce resistance from fellow Democrats in the Legislature… Murphy ultimately agreed to…$1.6 billion in annual revenue. …Murphy, speaking at a church in Newark where he delivered a speech on his first-year accomplishments, said he needs to leave his options open as he starts to prepare a budget… “I would say everything is on the table. Period, full stop,” he added when pressed again about the idea of new tax increases.

If all this sound worrisome, that’s because it is.

But it gets even worse. As I warned at the end of the interview, the 2017 tax law restricts the ability of federal taxpayers to deduct taxes paid to state and local governments.

And that means the full burden of those taxes is now much more explicit, which means more and more taxpayers in high tax rates are going to “vote with their feet” and move to states with less onerous fiscal regimes.

In other words, New Jersey politicians are making their tax system worse at precisely the moment that the geese with the golden eggs have more incentive to fly away.

Insane.

P.S. Given this grim news, I’m surprised that fewer than 9 percent of people picked New Jersey to be the first state that will suffer fiscal collapse.

P.P.S. What’s really remarkable – albeit in a very sad and tragic sense – is that New Jersey in my lifetime used to be like New Hampshire, with no state income tax and no state sales tax.

P.P.P.S. There is a Jersey with good tax policy, but it’s far away from the American version.

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I did not like Bill Clinton’s 1993 class-warfare tax hike, and I also opposed Barack Obama’s 2012 fiscal-cliff tax increase on the so-called rich.

But those were incremental measures.

Today’s leftist politicians have much more grandiose schemes, such as 70 percent tax rates, wealth taxes, and extortionary death taxes.

And even those proposals may not be enough.

In a column for the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo actually suggests that billionaires should be taxed out of existence. Literally, not just figuratively.

…if we aimed, through public and social policy, simply to discourage people from attaining and possessing more than a billion in lucre, just about everyone would be better off. …Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are floating new taxes aimed at the superrich, including special rates for billionaires. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who also favors higher taxes on the wealthy, has been making a moral case against the existence of billionaires. …the question is getting so much attention because the answer is obvious: Nope. Billionaires should not exist… Abolishing billionaires might not sound like a practical idea, but if you think about it as a long-term goal in light of today’s deepest economic ills, it feels anything but radical. …Billionaire abolishment could take many forms. It could mean preventing people from keeping more than a billion in booty, but more likely it would mean higher marginal taxes on income, wealth and estates for billionaires and people on the way to becoming billionaires. …But abolishment does not involve only economic policy. It might also take the form of social and political opprobrium. …Why should anyone have a billion dollars, why should anyone be proud to brandish their billions, when there is so much suffering in the world? …When American capitalism sends us its billionaires, it’s not sending its best. It’s sending us people who have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing inequality. They’re bringing injustice.

Wow, I’m not even sure how to respond to this demonization of success. Should I focus on the vicious populism? The economic ignorance?

Maybe I should joke about how Mr. Manjoo wants to turn David Azerrad’s satire into reality?

Fortunately, I don’t have to come up with a response. I can simply rely on Allister Heath of the U.K.-based Daily Telegraph.

He explains, in his latest column, that these crazy ideas are a real threat.

Hard-Left ideas are uber-trendy: they are making a catastrophic comeback in the world’s most powerful universities, capturing many young minds, and are now being proposed by a new generation of supposedly modern politicians around the world. …pro-capitalist arguments…are met with derision by this new generation of intellectuals. Higher taxes bad for the economy? Hilarious! Nationalisation doesn’t work? Laughable! Venezuela? Nothing to do with actual socialism, all America’s fault. It’s a dialogue of the deaf… The old Left used to argue (falsely) that entrepreneurs, investors and executives aren’t really put off by high tax, which means that rates can be jacked up safely, raising lots to “redistribute”, without discouraging work and investment. The new Left has turned the argument on its head. It now admits the “rich” would work less if they were highly taxed – but claim this would be a good thing, as it would make society less unequal… As Harvard’s Greg Mankiw puts it, the Left now believes that “we can no longer afford the rich”.

If such policies were ever enacted, the results would be catastrophic.

The impact would be Venezuelan-style: it would lead to a collapse in GDP… Only the richest are being targeted at first: but everybody will suffer when the economy tanks, and such taxes are always eventually extended to the prosperous middle classes. …We could thus be on the cusp of a new socialist era, where even zero GDP growth will be seen as a good year. …we are on the brink of a new war on wealth.

Here’s what worries me.

Allister’s warning about terrible economic consequences is accurate, but I’m not sure that matters.

When I talk to hard-core leftists, I usually make the following three points.

In the past, leftists would disagree. Maybe they would claim government could make investments. Or perhaps they would assert that government could somehow compel employers to pay higher wages.

But it’s now quite common for my leftist friends to simply assert that lower living standards are an acceptable result. For all intents and purposes, hurting the rich is more important than helping the poor.

You may think I’m joking, or that only a small handful of crazies actually want this outcome.

But the establishment left also advocates for lower living standards. The International Monetary Fund has financed and publicized research that explicitly embraces the twisted notion that it would be ideal to reduce everyone’s living standards so long as rich people suffered the bigger declines.

Margaret Thatcher is spinning in her grave.

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The Congressional Budget Office just released it’s annual Budget and Economic Outlook, and that means I’m going to do something that I first did in 2010 and most recently did last year.

I’m going to show that it’s actually rather simple to balance the budget with modest spending restraint.

This statement shocks many people because they’ve read about out-of-control entitlement spending, pork-filled appropriations bills, big tax cuts, and trillion-dollar deficits.

But  the first thing to understand when contemplating how to fix America’s fiscal problems is that tax revenues, according to the new CBO numbers, are going to increase by an average of nearly 5 percent annually over the next 10 years. And that means receipts will be more than $2.1 trillion higher in 2029 than they are in 2019.

And since this year’s deficit is projected to be “only” $897 billion, that presumably means that it shouldn’t be that difficult to balance the budget.

By the way, I don’t even think balance should be the goal. It’s far more important to focus on reducing the burden of government spending. After all, the economy is adversely affected if wasteful outlays are financed by taxes, just as the economy is hurt when wasteful outlays are financed by borrowing.

In other words, too much government spending is the disease. Deficits are best understood as a symptom of the disease.

But I’m digressing. The point for today is simply that the symptom of borrowing can be addressed if a good chunk of that additional $2.1 trillion of new revenue is used to get rid of the $897 billion of red ink.

Unfortunately, the CBO report projects that the burden of government spending also is on an upward trajectory. As you can see from our next chart, outlays will jump by about $2.6 trillion by 2029 if the budget is left on autopilot.

The solution to this problem is very straightforward.

All that’s needed is a bit of spending restraint to put the budget on a glide path to balance.

I’m a big fan of spending caps, so this next chart shows the 10-year fiscal outlook if annual spending increases are limited to 1% growth, 2% growth, or 2.5% growth.

As you can see, modest spending discipline is a very good recipe for fiscal balance.

Our final chart adds a bit of commentary to illustrate how quickly we could move from deficit to surplus based on different spending trajectories.

I’ll close with a video from 2010 that explains why spending restraint is the best way to achieve fiscal balance. Especially when compared to tax increases.

The numbers are different today, but the analysis hasn’t changed.

As I noted at the end of the video, balancing the budget with spending restraint may be simple, but it won’t be easy.

If we want spending to grow, say, 2% annually rather than 5% annually, that will require some degree of genuine entitlement reform. And it means finally enforcing some limits on annual appropriations.

Those policies will cause lots of squealing in Washington. But we saw during the Reagan and Carter years, as well as more recently, that spending discipline is possible.

P.S. The video also exposed the dishonest way that budgets are presented in Washington.

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