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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Policy’

My views on the value-added tax are very straightforward.

These points are worth contemplating because I am increasingly worried that we’ll get a VAT because of misguided conservatives rather than because of tax-and-spend leftists.

Consider, for instance, Alan Viard of the American Enterprise.

He wrote a column last November arguing that we should let politicians in Washington have this new source of tax revenue, and I explained why his arguments were wrong.

But I’m obviously not very persuasive since he just reiterated his support for a VAT in an interview with the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. Here are some of the highlights (lowlights might be a better term).

…tax increases on corporations and high-income households as well as benefit cuts could be part of a debt-reduction package…such tax increases would have limited revenue potential. …a VAT should—and undoubtedly would—be accompanied by rebates to offset the tax burden on low-income households. The Tax Policy Center estimated that a 7.7 percent VAT with rebates, which would raise the same net revenue as a 5 percent VAT without rebates, would generally be progressive. …the VAT would be only one component of the federal tax system. Individual and corporate income taxes would continue to add progressivity.

There are two remarkable admissions in the above excerpts.

  1. He’s basically admitting a VAT would be accompanied by class-warfare tax hikes on companies and households – thus undermining the usual argument that the VAT is needed to avert these other types of tax increases.
  2. He’s basically admitting a VAT would be accompanied by a new entitlement program of “rebates” – thus undermining the argument that VAT revenues would be used to reduce deficits and debt.

But what I found particularly amazing is that Viard never tries to empirically justify his main argument that, a) debt is a problem, and b) the VAT is part of a solution.

I don’t particularly object to the first part (though I would argue the real problem is spending). But the assertion that a VAT will solve that problem is contrary to real-world evidence.

For instance, government debt has continued to grow ever since Japan adopted a VAT.

Moreover, the evidence from Europe, which shows not only that the burden of government spending increased after the VAT was adopted beginning (see chart at start of column), but also that government debt subsequently exploded (see nearby chart).

And that data doesn’t even include all the additional red ink accumulated in recent years!

P.S. The clinching argument is that one of America’s best presidents opposed a VAT and one of America’s worst presidents supported a VAT. That tells you everything you need to know.

P.P.S. The pro-tax International Monetary Fund inadvertently produced a study showing why the VAT is a money machine for big government.

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT by clicking herehere, and here.

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Way back in 2007, I narrated this video to explain why tax competition is very desirable because politicians are likely to overtax and overspend (“Goldfish Government“) if they think taxpayers have no ability to escape.

The good news is that tax competition has been working.

As explained in the above video, there have been big reductions in personal tax rates and corporate tax rates. Just as important, governments have reduced various forms of double taxation, meaning lower tax rates on dividends and capital gains.

Many governments have also reduced – or even eliminated – death taxes and wealth taxes.

These pro-growth tax reforms didn’t happen because politicians read my columns (I wish!). Instead, they adopted better tax policy because they were afraid of losing jobs and investment to countries with better fiscal policy.

Now for the bad news.

There’s been an ongoing campaign by high-tax governments to replace tax competition with tax harmonization. They’ve even conscripted international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to launch attacks against low-tax jurisdictions.

And now the United States is definitely on the wrong side of this issue.

Here’s some of what the Biden Administration wants.

The United States can lead the world to end the race to the bottom on corporate tax rates. A minimum tax on U.S. corporations alone is insufficient. …President Biden is also proposing to encourage other countries to adopt strong minimum taxes on corporations, just like the United States, so that foreign corporations aren’t advantaged and foreign countries can’t try to get a competitive edge by serving as tax havens. This plan also denies deductions to foreign corporations…if they are based in a country that does not adopt a strong minimum tax. …The United States is now seeking a global agreement on a strong minimum tax through multilateral negotiations. This provision makes our commitment to a global minimum tax clear. The time has come to level the playing field and no longer allow countries to gain a competitive edge by slashing corporate tax rates.

As Charlie Brown would say, “good grief.” Those passages sound like they were written by someone in France, not America

And Heaven forbid that  countries “gain a competitive edge by slashing corporate tax rates.” Quelle horreur!

There are three things to understand about this reprehensible initiative from the Biden Administration.

  1. Tax harmonization means ever-increasing tax rates – It goes without saying that if politicians are able to create a tax cartel, it will merely be a matter of time before they ratchet up the tax rate. Simply stated, they won’t have to worry about an exodus of jobs and investment because all countries will be obliged to have the same bad approach.
  2. Corporate tax harmonization will be followed by harmonization of other taxes – If the scheme for a harmonized corporate tax is imposed, the next step will be harmonized (and higher) tax rates on personal income, dividends, capital gains, and other forms of work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.
  3. Tax harmonization denies poor countries the best path to prosperity – The western world became rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when there was very small government and no income taxes. That’s the path a few sensible jurisdictions want to copy today so they can bring prosperity to their people, but that won’t be possible in a world of tax harmonization.

P.S. If you want more information, here’s a three-part video series on tax havens, and even a video debunking some of Obama’s demagoguery on the topic.

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The state of New York is an economic disaster area.

  • New York is ranked #50 in the Economic Freedom of North America.
  • New York is ranked #48 in the State Business Tax Climate Index.
  • New York is ranked #50 in the Freedom in the 50 States.
  • New York is next-to-last in measures of inbound migration.
  • New York is ranked #50 in the State Soft Tyranny Index.

The good news is that New York’s politicians seem to be aware of these rankings and are taking steps to change policy.

The bad news is that they apparently want to be in last place in every index, so they’re looking at a giant tax increase.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the potential tax increase yesterday.

…lawmakers in Albany should be shouting welcome home. Instead they’re eyeing big new tax increases that would give the state’s temporary refugees to Florida—or wherever—one more reason to stay away for good. …Here are some of the proposals… Impose graduated rates on millionaires, up to 11.85%. …Since New York City has its own income tax, running to 3.88%, the combined rate would be…a bigger bite than even California’s notorious 13.3% top tax, and don’t forget Uncle Sam’s 37% share. …The squeeze is worse when you add the new taxes President Biden wants. A second factor: In 2017 the federal deduction for state and local taxes was capped at $10,000, so New Yorkers will now really feel the pinch. As E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy writes: “The financial incentive for high earners to move themselves and their businesses from New York to states with low or no income taxes has never—ever—been higher than it already is.”

The potential deal also would increase the state’s capital gains tax and the state’s death tax, adding two more reasons for entrepreneurs and investors to escape.

Here are some more details from a story in the New York Times by Luis Ferré-Sadurní and .

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York State legislative leaders were nearing a budget agreement on Monday that would make New York City’s millionaires pay the highest personal income taxes in the nation… Under the proposed new tax rate, the city’s top earners could pay between 13.5 percent to 14.8 percent in state and city taxes, when combined with New York City’s top income tax rate of 3.88 percent — more than the top marginal income tax rate of 13.3 percent in California… Raising taxes on the rich in New York has been a top policy priority of the Democratic Party’s left flank… The business community has warned that raising income taxes could prompt millionaires who have left the state during the pandemic and are working remotely to make their move permanent, damaging the state’s tax base. Currently, the top 2 percent of the state’s highest earners pay about half of the state’s income taxes. …The corporate franchise tax rate would also increase to 7.25 percent from 6.5 percent.

There are two things to keep in mind about this looming tax increase.

That second item is a big reason why so many taxpayers already have escaped New York and moved to states with better tax policy (most notably, Florida).

And even more will move if tax rates are increased, as expected.

Indeed, if the left’s dream agenda is adopted, I wouldn’t be surprised if every successful person left New York. In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Mark Kingdon warns about other tax hikes being considered, especially a wealth tax.

Legislators in Albany are considering two tax bills that could seriously damage the economic well-being and quality of life in New York for many years to come: a wealth tax and a stock transfer tax. …Should New York enact a 2% wealth tax, a wealthy New Yorker could wind up paying a 77% tax on short-term stock market profits. And that’s a conservative estimate: It assumes that stocks return 9% a year. If the return is 4.4% or less, the tax would be more than 100%. …65,000 families pay half of the city’s income taxes, and they won’t stay if the taxes become unreasonable… The trickle of wealthy émigrés out of New York has become a steady stream… It will be a flood if New York enacts a wealth tax with an associated tax on unrealized gains, which would lower, not raise, tax revenues, as those who leave take with them jobs and related services, such as legal and accounting. …The geese who have laid golden eggs for years see what is happening in Albany, and they’ll fly south to avoid being carved up.

The good news – at least relatively speaking – is that a wealth tax is highly unlikely.

But that a rather small silver lining on a very big dark cloud. The tax increases that will happen are more than enough to make the state even more hostile to private sector growth.

I’ll close with a few observations.

There are a few states that can get away with higher-than-average taxes because of special considerations. California, for instance, has climate and scenery. In the case of New York, it can get away with some bad policy because some people think of New York City as a one-of-a-kind place. But there’s a limit to how much those factors can be exploited, as both California and New York are now learning.

What politicians don’t realize (or don’t care about) is that people look at a range of factors when deciding where to live. This is especially true for successful entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners, who have both resources and knowledge to assess the costs and benefits of different locations. The problem for New York is that it looks bad on almost all policy metrics.

If the tax increases is enacted, expect to see a significant drop in taxable income as upper-income taxpayers either leave the state or figure out other ways of protecting their income. I don’t know if the state will be on the downward-sloping portion of the Laffer Curve, but it’s safe to assume that revenues over time will fall far short of projections. And it’s very safe to assume that the economic damage will easily offset any revenues that are collected.

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It’s simple to mock Democrats like Joe Biden, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders. One reason they’re easy targets is they want people to believe that America can finance a European-style welfare state with higher taxes on the rich.

That’s nonsensical. Simply stated, there are not enough rich people and they don’t earn enough money (and they have relatively easy ways of protecting themselves if their tax rates are increased).

Some folks on the left admit this is true. I’ve shared many examples of big-government proponents who openly acknowledge that lower-income and middle-class people will need to be pillaged as well.

I disagree with these people on policy, but I applaud them for being straight shooters. They get membership in my “Honest Leftists” club.

And we have a new member of that group.

Catherine Rampell opines in the Washington Post that President Biden should openly embrace tax increases on everybody.

President Biden is trying to address…big, thorny problems…with one hand tied behind his back. Yet he’s the one who tied it, with a pledge to bankroll every solution solely by soaking the rich. …Some have compared Biden’s efforts to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society or other ambitious endeavors of the pre-Reagan era — when government was more commonly seen as a solution rather than the problem. …Like many Democrats before him, Biden has promised to pay for government expansions by raising taxes only on corporations and the “rich,” everyone else spared. Exactly who counts as “rich” is an ever-shrinking sliver of the population. Barack Obama defined it as households making $250,000 or more a year; now, Biden says it’s anyone making $400,000 or more. …more than 95 percent of Americans are excluded from helping to foot the bill… But…there aren’t enough ultrarich people and megacorporations out there to fund the massive new economic investments and social services Democrats say they want… Democrats sometimes point to Sweden or Denmark as examples of generous, successful welfare states. But in those countries, taxes are higher and broader-based. Here, the middle class pays much lower taxes… Here’s the argument I wish Biden would make: These new spending projects are worth doing. …we should all be financially invested in their success, at least a little. Taxation is the price we pay for a civilized society, as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it. …If Biden wants to permanently transform the role of government, that may need to be his trajectory.

Needless to say, I fundamentally disagree with Ms. Rampell’s support for an even bigger welfare state, regardless of which taxpayers are being pillaged.

But at least she wants to pay for it and knows that means the IRS reaching into all of our pockets. And kudos to her for acknowledging the high tax burdens on lower-income and middle-class people in nations such as Sweden and Denmark.

Though I can’t resist commenting on the quote (“Taxation is the price we pay for a civilized society”) from Oliver Wendell Holmes.

People on the left love to cite that sentence, but they conveniently never explain that Holmes reportedly made that statement in 1904, nine years before there was an income tax, and then again in 1927, when federal taxes amounted to only $4 billion and the federal government consumed only about 5 percent of economic output.

As I wrote in 2013, “I’ll gladly pay for that amount of civilization.”

Let’s close with a couple of tweets that underscore how Democrats are pushing for giant spending increases, well beyond what can be financed by confiscating more money from the rich.

First, a reporter from the Washington Post lists some of the insanely expensive spending schemes being pushed on Capitol Hill.

I assume the “recurring checks” is a reference to the new per-child handouts in Biden’s so-called American Rescue Plan.

And “SALT change” refers to restoring the state and local tax deduction, which is supported by many Democrats from high-tax states even though (or perhaps because) it is a huge tax break for the rich.

Next we have a couple of tweets from Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute. He correctly points out that Democrats are using just about every available class-warfare tax scheme, yet that money will only finance a fraction of their spending wish list.

Brian is right.

What tax increases (on the rich) will be left when the left want to push their “green new deal“? Or the “public option” for Medicare? Or any of the other spending schemes circulating in Washington.

The bottom line is that – sooner or later – politicians will follow Ms. Rampell’s advice and squeeze you and me.

P.S. It’s not a good idea to turn America into a European-style welfare state – unless the goal is much lower living standards.

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I have a four-part series (here, here, here, and here) about the conceptual downsides of Joe Biden’s class-warfare approach to tax policy.

Now it’s time to focus on the component parts of his agenda. Today’s column will review his plan for a big increase in the corporate tax rate. But since I’ve written about corporate tax rates over and over and over again, we’re going to approach this issue is a new way.

I’m going to share five visuals that (hopefully) make a compelling case why higher tax rates on companies would be a big mistake.

Visual #1

One thing every student should learn from an introductory economics class is that corporations don’t actually pay tax. Instead, businesses collect taxes that are actually borne by workers, consumers, and investors.

There’s lots of debate in the profession, of course, about which group bears what share of the tax. But there’s universal agreement that higher taxes lead to less investment, which leads to less productivity, which leads to lower pay.

Here’s a depiction of the relationship of corporate taxes and worker pay.

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Visual #2

The previous image explains the theory. Now it’s time for some evidence.

Here’s a look at how much faster wages have grown in countries with low corporate tax rates compared to nations with high corporate tax rates.

Biden, for reasons beyond my comprehension, wants America on the red line.

And his staff economists apparently don’t understand (or don’t care about) the link between investment and wages.

Visual #3

Here’s some more evidence.

And it comes from an unexpected source, the pro-tax Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Even economists at that Paris-based bureaucracy have produced studies confirming that lower tax rates lead to higher disposable income for people.

Needless to say, if lower tax rates lead to more disposable income, then higher tax rates will lead to less disposable income.

We should have learned during the Obama years that ordinary people pay the price when politicians practice class warfare.

Visual #4

It’s very bad news that Biden wants a big increase in the corporate tax rate, but let’s not forget that the IRS double-taxes corporate income (i.e., that same income is subject to a second layer of tax when shareholders receive dividends).

The combined effect, as shown in this visual, is that the United States will have the dubious honor of having the highest effective corporate tax rate in the entire developed world.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think that’s a recipe for jobs and investment in America.

Visual #5

The economic damage of higher corporate tax rates means that there is less taxable income (i.e., we need to remember the Laffer Curve).

Will the damage be so extensive, causing taxable income to fall so much, that the IRS collects less revenue with a higher tax rate?

We’ll learn the answer to that question over time, but we have some very strong evidence from the IMF that lower corporate tax rates don’t lead to less revenue. As you can see from this chart, revenues held steady as tax rates plummeted over the past few decades.

In other words, lower rates led to enough additional economic activity that governments have collected just as much money with lower tax rates. But now Biden wants to run this experiment in reverse.

It’s possible the government will collect more revenue, of course, but only at a very high cost to workers, consumers, and shareholders.

By the way, there’s OECD data showing the exact same thing.

Those pictures probably tell you everything you need to know about this issue.

But let’s add some more analysis. The Wall Street Journal opined today on Biden’s class-warfare agenda. Here are some of the key passages from the editorial.

The bill for President Biden’s agenda is coming due, starting with Wednesday’s proposal for the largest corporate tax increase in decades. …Mr. Biden’s corporate increase amounts to the restoration of the Obama-era corporate tax burden, only much more so. …Mr. Biden wants to raise the corporate rate back up to 28%, but that’s the least of his proposals. He also wants to add penalties that would make inversions punitive, and he’d impose a global minimum corporate tax of 21%. This would shoot the tax burden on U.S. companies back toward the top of the developed world list. …The larger Biden goal is to end global tax competition… “The United States can lead the world to end the race to the bottom on corporate tax rates,” says the White House fact sheet. Mr. Biden says he wants “other countries to adopt strong minimum taxes on corporations” so nations like Ireland can no longer compete for capital with lower tax rates. This has long been the dream of the French and Germans, working through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. …All of this is in addition to the looming Biden tax increases on dividends, capital gains and other investment income. …Mr. Biden’s corporate tax increases will hit the middle class hard—in the value of their 401(k)s, the size of their pay packets, and what they pay for goods and services.

Amen.

Let’s conclude with some gallows humor.

This meme shows how some of our leftist friends will celebrate if the tax increase is imposed.

P.S. Here’s a depressing final observation. Decades of experience have led me to conclude that many folks on the left support class-warfare tax policy because they are primarily motivated by a spiteful desire to punish success rather than provide upward mobility for the poor.

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I get asked why I frequently criticize Republicans.

My response is easy. I care about results rather than rhetoric. And while GOP politicians often pay lip service to the principles of limited government, they usually increase spending even faster than Democrats.

Indeed, Republicans are even worse than Democrats when measuring the growth of domestic spending!

This is bad news because it means the burden of government expands when Republicans are in charge.

And, as Gary Abernathy points out in a column for the Washington Post, Republicans then don’t have the moral authority to complain when Democrats engage in spending binges.

President Biden is proposing another $3 trillion in spending… There are objections, but none that can be taken seriously. …Republicans had lost their standing as the party of fiscal responsibility when most of them succumbed to the political virus of covid fever and rubber-stamped around $4 trillion in “covid relief,”… With Trump out and Biden in, Republicans suddenly pretended that their 2020 spending spree happened in some alternate universe. But the GOP’s united opposition to Biden’s $1.9 trillion package won’t wash off the stench of the hypocrisy. …I noted a year ago that we had crossed the Rubicon, that our longtime flirtation with socialism had become a permanent relationship. Congratulations, Bernie Sanders. The GOP won’t become irrelevant because of its association with Trump, as some predict. It will diminish because it is bizarrely opposing now that which it helped make palatable just last year. Fiscal responsibility is dead, and Republicans helped bury it. Put the shovels away, there’s no digging it up now.

For what it’s worth, I hope genuine fiscal responsibility isn’t dead.

Maybe it’s been hibernating ever since Reagan left office (like Pepperidge Farm, I’m old enough to remember those wonderful years).

Subsequent Republican presidents liked to copy Reagan’s rhetoric, but they definitely didn’t copy his policies.

  • Spending restraint was hibernating during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.
  • Spending restraint also was hibernating during the presidency of George W. Bush.
  • And spending restraint was hibernating during the presidency of Donald Trump.

I’m not the only one to notice GOP hypocrisy.

Here are some excerpts from a 2019 column in the Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria.

In what Republicans used to call the core of their agenda — limited government — Trump has been profoundly unconservative. …Trump has now added more than $88 billion in taxes in the form of tariffs, according to the right-leaning Tax Foundation. (Despite what the president says, tariffs are taxes on foreign goods paid by U.S. consumers.) This has had the effect of reducing gross domestic product and denting the wages of Americans. …For decades, conservatives including Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan preached to the world the virtues of free trade. But perhaps even more, they believed in the idea that governments should not pick winners and losers in the economy… Yet the Trump administration…behaved like a Central Planning Agency, granting exemptions on tariffs to favored companies and industries, while refusing them to others. …In true Soviet style, lobbyists, lawyers and corporate executives now line up to petition government officials for these treasured waivers, which are granted in an opaque process… On the core issue that used to define the GOP — economics — the party’s agenda today is state planning and crony capitalism.

Zakaria is right about Republicans going along with most of Trump’s bad policies (as illustrated by this cartoon strip).*

The bottom line is that Republicans would be much more effective arguing against Biden’s spending orgy had they also argued for spending restraint when Trump was in the White House.

P.S. It will be interesting to see what happens in the near future. Will the GOP be a small-government Reagan party or a big-government Trump party?

Or maybe it will go back to being a Nixon-type party, which would mean bigger government but without mean tweets. And there are plenty of options.

If they make the wrong choice (anything other than Reaganism), Margaret Thatcher has already warned us about the consequences.

*To be fair, Republicans also went along with Trump’s good policies. It’s just unfortunate that spending restraint wasn’t one of them.

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According to data on jobs and growth, President Obama’s so-called stimulus was a failure.

But at least politicians and bureaucrats were able to concoct new and clever ways to waste money. Including research grants to interview people about their sexual histories and to study erectile dysfunction.

In other words, stimulus spending on stimulus (though at least we did get some clever humor in exchange for nearly $1 trillion of wasted money).

Now we’re wasting nearly $2 trillion on Biden’s spending spree.

And we’re getting more stimulus spending on stimulus.

But not the economic kind of stimulus. Paul Bedard of the Washington Examiner reports that people are using handout cash for interesting purchases.

An analysis of spending on Amazon following the distribution of the latest coronavirus stimulus, a massive $1.9 trillion package, suggests that people are using it to let off some steam. The global e-commerce firm Pattern said that the biggest surges in sales were for the PlayStation 5 and a female sex toy called the “Rose Flower Sex Toy.” …Rose’s sales (check Amazon for the description) shot up 334%. …“Distribution of stimulus checks on Wednesday, March 17…may have represented an opportunity for some retail therapy,” said the company.

I’m sure there’s probably some interesting social commentary to make about guys playing video games and neglecting their wives and girlfriends.

But I’m a policy nerd, so I’m focused on how we’re now saddled with a bigger burden of government spending.

The problem is much bigger than the humorous/irritating example discussed above.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Brad Polumbo shares some big-picture data on how politicians have squandered our money.

Whenever the government spends money, a significant portion is lost to bureaucracy, waste, and fraud. But the…unprecedented scope of federal spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—an astounding $6 trillion total—has led to truly unthinkable levels of fraud. Indeed, a new report shows that the feds potentially lost $200 billion in unemployment fraud alone. …More than $200 billion of unemployment benefits distributed in the pandemic may have been pocketed by thieves… To put that $200 billion figure in context, it is equivalent to $1,400 lost to fraud per federal taxpayer. (There goes your stimmy check!) Or, comparing it to the $37 billion the federal government spent on vaccine and treatment development, it’s more than five times more lost to fraud than went to arguably the most crucial COVID initiative of all. That’s just scratching the surface. According to the American Enterprise Institute, “unemployment fraud” now ranks as the 4th biggest federal COVID expenditure out of more than 17 different categories.

If you’re a taxpayer, hundreds of billions of dollars in fraud sounds like a bad outcome.

But if you’re a Keynesian economist, it’s not a problem. All they care about is having the government borrow and spend a bunch of money. They think that making government bigger automatically generates benefit for the economy, even if the money goes to thieves and crooks.

I’m not joking. This is why people like Paul Krugman said a fake attack by space aliens would be good for the economy because Washington would spend a bunch of money in response.

And it’s why Nancy Pelosi actually said the economy benefits if we subsidize joblessness.

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I’ve been warning that the United States should not copy Europe’s fiscal policy, largely because living standards are significantly lower in nations with large welfare states.

That’s true if you look at average levels of consumption in different nations, but the most compelling data is the fact that lower-income people in the United States generally enjoy living standards that are equal to or even higher than those for middle-class people in most European countries.

A bigger burden of government is not just a theoretical concern. President Biden has already pushed through a $1.9 trillion spending bill that includes some temporary provisions – such as per-child handouts – that, if made permanent, could add several trillion dollars to the burden of government spending.

And the White House has signaled support for $3 trillion of additional spending for items such as infrastructure, green energy, and other boondoggles.

This doesn’t even count the cost of other schemes, such as the “public option” that would strangle private health insurance and force more people to rely on an already-costly-and-and bankrupt government program.

So what will it mean for America if our medium-sized welfare state morphs into a European-style large welfare state?

The answer to that question is rather unpleasant, at least if some new research from the Congressional Budget Office is any indication. The study, authored by Jaeger Nelson and Kerk Phillips, considers the impact on growth based on six different scenarios (based on how much the spending burden increases and what taxes are increased).

If permanent spending is financed by new or increased taxes, then those taxes influence people’s decisions about how much to work and save. Those decisions then affect how much the economy produces and businesses invest and, ultimately, how much people can consume. Different types of taxes have different economic effects. Taxes on labor income reduce after-tax wages, so they reduce the return on each additional hour worked. …Higher taxes on capital income, such as dividends and capital gains, lower the average after-tax rate of return on private wealth holdings (or the return on investment), which reduces the incentive to save and invest and leads to reductions in saving, investment, and the capital stock. …we compare the effects of raising additional revenues through three illustrative tax policies: a flat tax on labor income, a flat tax on all income (including both labor and capital income), and a progressive tax on all income. The additional revenues generated by these policies are in addition to the revenues raised by taxes that already exist and are used to finance two specific increases in government spending. The two increases in government spending are set to 5 percent and 10 percent of GDP in 2020.

Here are some of the key results, as illustrated by the chart.

The least-worst result (the blue line) is a decline in GDP of about 3 percent, and that happens if the spending burden expand by 5-percentage points of GDP and is financed by a flat tax.

The worst-worst result (dashed red line) is a staggering decline in GDP of about 10 percent, and that happens if the spending burden climbs by 10-percentage points and is financed by a progressive tax.

Here’s some additional analysis, including a description of why progressive taxes impose the most damage.

This paper shows that flat labor and flat income tax policies have similar effects on output; labor taxes reduce the labor supply more, and income taxes reduce the capital stock more. For all three policies, the decline in income contracts the tax base considerably over time. As a result, to continuously generate enough revenues to finance the increase in government spending in each year, tax rates must steadily increase over time to account for the decline in the tax base. Moreover, labor and capital taxes put upward pressure on interest rates by reducing the capital-to-labor ratio over time… The largest declines in economic activity among the financing methods considered occur with the progressive tax on all income. Those declines occur because high-productivity workers reduce their hours worked and because higher taxes on asset income reduce the incentive to save and invest relatively more than under the two flat taxes.

There’s lots of additional information in the study, but I definitely want to draw attention to Table 4 because it shows that lower-income people will suffer big reductions in living standards if there’s an increase in the burden of government spending (circled in red).

What makes these results especially remarkable is that the authors only look at the damage caused by higher taxes.

Yet we know from other research that the economy also will suffer because of the higher spending burden. This is because of the various ways that growth is reduced when resources are diverted from the productive sector to the government.

For background, here’s a video on the theoretical reasons why government spending hinders growth.

And here’s a video with some of the scholarly evidence.

P.S. The CBO study also points out that financing new spending with a value-added tax wouldn’t avert economic damage.

…by reducing the cost of time spent not working for pay relative to other goods, a consumption tax could reduce hours worked through a channel like that of a tax on labor.

For what it’s worth, even the pro-tax International Monetary Fund agrees with this observation.

P.P.S. It’s worth noting that the CBO study also shows that young people will suffer much more than older people.

…older cohorts, on average, experience smaller declines in lifetime consumption than younger cohorts

Which raises an interesting question of why millennials and Gen-Zers don’t appreciate capitalism and instead are sympathetic to the dirigiste ideology that will make their lives more difficult.

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As part of a video debate last year (where I also discussed wealth taxation, poverty reduction, and the inadvisability of tax increases), I pontificated on the negative economic impact of class-warfare taxation.

To elaborate, I’m trying to help people understand why it is a mistake to impose class-warfare taxes on high-income taxpayers.

Back in 2019, I shared data from the Internal Revenue Service confirming that rich taxpayers get the vast majority of their income from business activity and investments.

And since it’s comparatively easy to control the timing, level, and composition of that income, class-warfare taxes generally backfire.

Heck, well-to-do taxpayers can simply shift all their investments into tax-free municipal bonds (that’s bad for the rest of us, by the way, since it’s better for growth if they invest in private businesses rather than buying bonds from state and local governments).

Or, they can simply buy growth stocks rather than dividend stocks because politicians (thankfully) haven’t figured out how to tax unrealized capital gains.

Some of my left-leaning readers probably think that my analysis can be ignored or dismissed because I’m a curmudgeonly libertarian.

But I’m simply recycling conventional economic thinking on these issues.

And to confirm that point, let’s review a study on taxes and growth that the International Monetary Fund published last December. Written by Khaled Abdel-Kader and Ruud de Mooij, there are passages that sound like they could have been written by yours truly.

Such as the observation that taxes hinder prosperity by reducing economic output (what economist refer to as deadweight loss).

…public finance…theories teach us some important lessons about efficient tax design. By transferring resources from the private to the public sector, taxes inescapably impose a loss on society that goes beyond the revenue generated. …deadweight loss (or excess burden) is what determines a tax distortion. Efficient tax design aims to minimize the total deadweight loss of taxes. The size of this loss depends on two main factors. First, losses are bigger the more responsive the tax base is to taxation. Second, the loss increases more than proportionately with the tax rate: adding a distortion to an already high tax rate is more harmful than adding it to a low tax rate. Two prescriptions for efficient tax policy follow: (i) it is efficient to impose taxes at a higher rate if things are in inelastic demand or supply; and (ii) it is best to tax as many things as possible to keep rates low. …empirical studies on the growth impact of taxes…generally find that income taxes are more distortive for economic growth than taxes on consumption.

There are several parts of the above passage that deserve extra attention, such as the observation about elasticity (similar to the point I made in the video about why higher tax rates on upper-income taxpayers are so destructive).

But the most important thing to understand is what the authors wrote about how “the [deadweight] loss increases more than proportionately with the tax rate.”

In other words, it’s more damaging to increase top tax rates.

This observation, which is almost certainly universally recognized in the economics profession, tells us why class-warfare taxes do the most economic damage, on a per-dollar-collected basis.

The IMF study also has worthwhile observations on different types of taxes, such as why it’s a good idea to have low income tax rates on people.

Optimal tax theory emphasizes the trade-off between equity and efficiency. …This requires balancing the revenue gain from a higher marginal top PIT rate at the initial base against the revenue loss induced by behavioral responses that a higher tax rate would induce—such as reduced labor effort, avoidance or evasion—measured by the elasticity of taxable income. …high marginal rates cause other adverse economic effects, e.g. on innovation and entrepreneurship, and thus create larger economic costs than is sometimes assumed.

Very similar to what I’ve written.

And low income tax rates on companies.

Capital income—interest, dividends and capital gains—is used for future consumption so that taxes on it correspond to a differentiated consumption tax on present versus future consumption—one that compounds if the time horizon expands. Prudent people who prefer to postpone consumption to later in life (or transfer it to their heirs) will thus be taxed more than those who do not, even though they have the same life-time earnings. This violates horizontal equity principles. Moreover, it causes a distortion by encouraging individuals to substitute future with current consumption, i.e. they reduce savings. The tax is therefore also inefficient. A classical result, formalized by Chamley (1986) and Judd (1985), is that the optimal tax on capital is zero.

Once again, very similar to what I’ve written.

Indeed, the study even asks whether there should be a corporate income tax when the same income already is subject to dividend taxation when distributed to shareholders.

…capital income taxes can be levied directly on the people that ultimately receive that income, i.e. shareholders and creditors. So: why is there a need for a CIT? It is hard to justify a CIT on efficiency grounds. As explained before, the incidence of the CIT in a small open economy falls largely on workers, not on the firm or its shareholders. Since it is more efficient to tax labor directly than indirectly, the optimal CIT is found to be zero. …CIT systems…in most countries…create two major economic distortions. First, by raising the cost of capital on equity they distort investment decisions. This hurts economic growth and adversely affects efficiency. Second, by differentiating between debt and equity, they induce a bias toward debt finance. This not only creates an additional direct welfare loss, but also threatens financial stability. Both distortions can be eliminated by…cash-flow taxes, which allow for full expensing of investment instead of deductions for tax depreciation

Also similar to what I’ve written.

And I like the fact that the study makes very sensible points about why there should not be a pro-debt bias in tax codes and why there should be “expensing” of business investment costs.

I’ll close by noting that the IMF study is not a libertarian document.

The authors are simply describing the economic costs of taxation and acknowledging the tradeoffs that exist when politicians impose various types of taxes (and the rates at which those taxes are imposed).

But that doesn’t mean the IMF is arguing for low taxes.

There are plenty of sections that make the (awful) argument that it’s okay to impose higher tax rates and sacrifice growth in order to achieve more equality.

And there are also sections that regurgitate the IMF’s anti-empirical argument that higher taxes can be good for growth if politicians wisely allocate the money so it is spent on genuine public goods.

Politicians doing what’s best for their countries rather than what’s best for themselves? Yeah, good luck with that.

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Two days ago, the Congressional Budget Office released its latest long-run fiscal forecast. The report focuses – incorrectly – on the growth of red ink.

And most of the people who have written about the report also have focused – incorrectly – on the rising levels of debt.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the report also contains lots of data on the variables – the spending burden and the tax burden – that should command our attention.

Here are four visuals from the report. We’ll start with Figure 7, which shows what will happen to spending and taxes over the next three decades. I’ve highlighted in red the most important numbers.

The right-most column gives you the big picture. The main takeaway (and it’s been this way for a while) is that more than 100 percent of America’s long-run fiscal problem is driven by the fact that government spending (“total outlays”) will consume a much greater share of our economic output.

The top-left of Figure 7 shows the growth of entitlement programs (which captures the fiscal problems of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid).

So lot’s look at Figure 9, which presents the same data in a different way.

The moral of the story is that America desperately needs genuine entitlement reform.

Why did I write above that government spending is responsible for “more than 100 percent of America’s long-run fiscal problem”?

Because, as depicted in Figure 11, there’s a built-in tax increase over the next three decades.

In other words, the fiscal mess in Washington is not the result of inadequate tax revenue.

Last but not least, Figure 13 is worth sharing because it shows how small differences in some variables can make a big difference over time. I’m especially interested in the top chart, which shows how slight differences in productivity (which determines the all-important variable of per-capita growth) have a big impact on long-run debt.

It would be preferable, of course, if the CBO report showed how greater productivity impacts both revenue and spending. We would see that faster growth generates more tax revenue (without raising tax rates) and reduces spending (people with good jobs are less likely to be dependent on government redistribution programs).

P.S. Yes, government debt matters. It matters in the short run because it’s a measure of how much private saving is being diverted to finance government. And it matters in the long run because excessive red ink can trigger a fiscal crisis when investors decide that a government no longer can be trusted to pay back lenders (see Greece, for instance). But we should never forget that it is excessive spending that drives the debt. Cure the disease of excessive spending and it is all but certain that you eliminate the symptom of red ink.

P.P.S. For what it’s worth, the United States is not Greece. At least not yet.

P.P.P.S. But we will be if there’s not some long-run spending restraint (an approach that worked in the 1800s), which almost certainly would require a spending cap.

P.P.P.P.S. There is zero evidence that tax increases would be successful. Indeed, that approach would make matters worse if history is any guide.

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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’ve shared three reasons why Biden’s tax plan is misguided (the tax code is biased against rich taxpayers, the tax hike would have Laffer-Curve implications, and it would saddle America with the world’s highest corporate tax burden).

For Part IV of the series, let’s explain why every piece of his plan will backfire.

There are three main arguments for higher taxes, though I don’t find any of them convincing.

  1. Spite and envy against successful entrepreneurs, investors, innovators, and business owners.
  2. Bringing more money to Washington to finance a larger burden of government spending.
  3. Bringing more money to Washington to ostensibly lower the burden of deficits and debt.

For what it’s worth, Biden’s proposed spending increases are far larger than his proposed tax increases, so we can rule out reason #3.

So we have to ask ourselves whether reasons #1 and #2 are compelling.

And when considering those two arguments, we also should ask whether those reasons are sufficiently compelling to justify throwing millions of Americans into unemployment and reducing the nation’s competitiveness.

The answer should be a resounding no.

In a column in the Wall Street Journal from last July, Philip DeMuth elaborated on the damage that would be inflicted by Biden’s class-warfare agenda.

Mr. Biden has proposed to reinstate the Obama tax rates for top earners while simultaneously imposing an unlimited 12.4% Social Security payroll tax on earnings over $400,000. …Mr. Biden proposes to eliminate the capital gains reset to fair market value at death. For long-term holdings, much of that gain is merely inflation, created by the government’s failure to maintain price stability, so this is effectively a tax on a tax. The remaining gains are usually from corporate earnings, which were already taxed once, when they came in the door. It will be difficult to keep your business or farm in the family if the Biden scheme forces it to be liquidated to pay the death taxes. …If a President Biden has his way, the top capital-gains tax rate will be 39.6%—the same as for ordinary income. This could be a triple whammy: cutting the estate tax exemption in half, eliminating the capital gains reset to fair market value, and then doubling the capital-gains tax rate. A small step for the government, a giant loss for the American family. …The former vice president’s ambitious spending programs would more than offset any new revenue from his tax proposals. …This isn’t a debate between growing the pie vs. redistributing the pie; it is about everyone settling for a smaller pie.

The final two sentences deserve extra attention.

First, nobody should be deluded that tax increases will be used to reduce red ink. Yes, Biden is proposing to collect a lot more money, but he’s proposing about $2 of new spending for every $1 of projected tax revenue.

Brian Riedl’s Chartbook has the grim details on Biden’s spending agenda.

Second, the point about “growing the pie” is critically important since even a very small reduction in long-run growth will have a surprisingly large impact on household finances within a few decades.

The bottom line is that living standards in the United States are significantly higher than living standards in Europe, in large part because fiscal burdens are not as onerous in America.

Biden’s plan to make America more like France, Italy, and Greece is not a good idea.

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Since both political parties have sent good and bad people to the White House, I don’t think it makes much sense to compare all Democratic presidents vs all Republican presidents.

But we can learn a lot by looking at the track record of specific presidents. I’ve done that with several past chief executives (Wilson, Hoover, FDR, Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama), and today we’re going to assess Trump’s performance.

The bottom line, as you can see from the chart, is that he did really well in some areas and really poorly in other areas, so his overall record was flat. Or perhaps slightly negative.

The bottom line is that Trump was good on taxes and bad on spending and trade.

And there were some very positive moves on regulation, but they were partly offset by areas where Trump increased intervention (coal subsidies, property rights, Fannie/Freddie, and international tax rules, for instance).

By the way, I’d like to give Trump a negative grade for his failure to address entitlements, but, in the interest of fairness, I only include actual policy changes.

Having given my big-picture assessment, here are some columns and articles that offer interesting insights.

We’ll start with some pro-Trump analysis. Professor Casey Mulligan opined in the Wall Street Journal that he restored growth (until the coronavirus, of course).

The Obama administration promulgated hundreds of new federal regulations that protected certain special interests from market competition. The beneficiaries included large banks, trial lawyers, big tech, major health-insurance companies, labor unions and foreign drug manufacturers. President Trump promised to undo all that, and in many cases succeeded, sometimes with the help of a Republican Congress. …Mr. Trump also helped remove government obstacles to innovation and competition in health care. Democrats will tell you that the first calendar-year drop in retail prescription drug prices in 46 years was mere coincidence, not the result of deregulation. …The Fed and the Obama economic team overpredicted growth almost every year from 2010-16. When growth failed to meet their rosy predictions, Mr. Obama’s advisers blamed the poor economic performance on America itself. …No one in Washington predicted that small business optimism would skyrocket to record levels when Mr. Trump was elected, that real wages would grow again (especially for blue-collar workers), that business formation would hit 20th-century highs, or that poverty and unemployment rates would quickly fall to record lows for Hispanics and African-Americans.  …Although Mr. Trump’s economic policy was imperfect, it was preferable by a long shot to Mr. Obama’s, which punished work, hiring and success rather than rewarding them. 

And here’s a chart that definitely makes Trump look good compared to Obama.

Those numbers will look much worse once 2020 numbers are included, but I won’t blame Trump for coronavirus-caused economic havoc (though I also don’t give him full credit for the good data in 2019).

Now let’s look at some less-than-flattering analysis.

Jeffrey Tucker of the American Institute for Economic Research lists some of Trump’s statist policies.

From 2015, even from his first public speeches following his presidential run, it was clear that Donald Trump was not a conservative in the Reagan tradition… This is not an American ideal. It’s not about freedom, rights, the rule of law, much less the limits on government. …Trump’s first year began with a more traditional Republican agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, and non-progressive court appointments. …That all changed on January 22, 2018. …This was the beginning of the trade war that would expand to Europe, Canada, Mexico, most of Asia, and ultimately the entire world. …What he ended up seeking was nothing short of trade autarky. …In addition to this calamity, US government spending soared 47% while the money supply registered record increases as measured by M1. The effects of this debt and money printing will be felt through next year.

Rick Newman wrote for Yahoo that Trump’s fiscal performance makes him an honorary Democrat.

Trump’s last-second objection to the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill Congress approved after eight months of negotiation is an unexpected Christmas gift for Democrats. Trump says the $600 direct payment to most Americans contained in the bill is too small. He wants $2,000. Trump could have insisted on this while Congress was drafting the bill… Democrats are gleeful. They’d happily accept a supersized stimulus payment, and even better, they now get to watch Republicans battle each other as they try to figure out what to do about Trump. Some Congressional Republicans think $2,000 is too generous, and there’s no chance of that getting into the bill unless other provisions come out. 

Newman was focusing on Trump’s spending proclivities during the pandemic, but the assertion that “maybe Trump’s a Democrat” applies to his fiscal record during his first three years as well.

P.S. I didn’t rank Trump on monetary policy for the same reason I didn’t rank Obama on that issue. Simply stated, I think both of them pursued a misguided Keynesian approach of easy money and artificially low interest rates, but we don’t have firm evidence (yet) of negative consequences.

P.P.S. I also didn’t give Trump a grade, positive or negative, regarding coronavirus. The federal government failed, but those failures largely were independent of the White House.

P.P.P.S. I generally approved of Trump’s judicial appointments, but don’t includes judges in my assessments of economic policy (though I may have to change my mind if they restore the Constitution’s protections of economic liberty and limits on the power of Washington).

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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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Back in 2015, just five years ago, it seemed like entitlement reform might happen.

Republicans in the House and Senate voted for budgets based on much-needed changes to Medicare and Medicaid. That was only a symbolic step with Obama in the White House, to be sure, but the presumption was that actual reform would be possible if Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress after the 2016 election.

The good news is that the GOP did wind up in control of Washington.

The bad news is that Donald Trump was in the White House.

Given his unfortunate views on government spending, that killed entitlement reform for the past four years.

And now Biden will be in the White House, and he wants to expand those programs, so that presumably kills reform for the next four years.

But does that change the fact that the programs should be reformed?

In a column for National Review, Fred Bauer asserts that Republicans should give up on trying to control big government.

Republicans…risk being lured toward a pivot back to 2010s-style austerity politics during the Biden administration, with a renewed focus on the federal deficit and entitlement reform. …Trying to push party-line entitlement reform has backfired on the GOP again and again in the recent past. George W. Bush’s 2005 Social Security–privatization proposal kneecapped his second term from the start. In 2012, Republicans got bogged down defending their position on Medicare reform… retreating to austerity politics could cost Republicans a chance to promote other kinds of reforms that would strengthen workers and families: fixing the medical marketplace (by reducing cartelization, revising medical licensing, etc.), passing a 21st-century infrastructure program, trying to secure a strategic industrial base, enacting smarter regulation of Big Tech that addresses market concerns and serves the public welfare, offering Americans family tax credits, and so on.

Also writing for National Review, Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute explains that we have no choice but to grapple with entitlements.

The Republican Party has styled itself the party of fiscal restraint for the better part of a century… But there hasn’t been much action, or much willingness to expend political capital or make some painful deals to achieve a meaningful change in the trajectory of the government’s finances. …the willful blindness of the Trump era…means the underlying fiscal problems have grown worse… the costs of fiscal irresponsibility have more to do with constraints on future growth… Fiscal reform will need to involve changes to these programs.

Levin even suggests that entitlement reform is so important that it might be worth ceding ground in other areas.

Repub­licans should be willing to make bargains that involve leaving discretionary spending untouched, or even on a path of modest growth, if that allows for some reforms of entitlements. They should also be willing to contemplate tax increases and reforms that move the burden of federal revenue upward on the income scale, provided such changes do not unduly undermine growth.

My two cents is that Levin is right and Bauer is wrong.

To be sure, I don’t agree with everything Levin wrote (it’s theoretically possible to make a tax increase acceptable, for instance, but that won’t happen in the real world). But at least he recognizes the long-run spending outlook is so dour that entitlement reform is absolutely necessary.

Bauer, by contrast, argues that we should throw in the towel because reform is politically difficult.

I think he misreads the evidence.

Regarding Social Security, Bush got elected twice while supporting personal accounts, but the issue never went anywhere in his second term in large part because the White House never proposed a plan. Moreover, the public continued to be supportive of the idea of personal accounts, even after Bush left office.

Likewise, I think Bauer is wrong on Medicare and Medicaid. Republicans easily maintained control of the House in 2012, 2014 and 2016, notwithstanding Democratic attacks that they wanted to “push granny off a cliff.” And they still control the Senate after years of similar attacks.

But even if Bauer was right about the politics, he’s wrong about policy.

America will become another Greece if we don’t reform entitlements. That will be bad for the nation. It will be bad for our economy. It will be bad for our children and grandchildren. It will be bad for the fabric of our society.

The bottom line is that entitlement reform is the patriotic thing to do.

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When examining state public policy, big jurisdictions such as California, Texas, New York, and Florida get a lot of attention.

But what about Mississippi? It has mediocre scores for overall economic policy.

And the Magnolia State also isn’t winning any prizes when looking specifically at tax policy.

But the state may be about to take a big step in the right direction.

The governor wants to get rid of his state’s progressive income tax and instead join the no-income-tax club.

The Associated Press reports on the proposal.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said Monday that the state should phase out its individual income tax by 2030 to attract new residents and businesses that could boost economic growth. …Mississippi’s population has grown slowly this year after declining in recent years. Florida, Texas and Tennessee, which do not have an individual income tax, have grown rapidly. “Let’s eliminate the income tax, which is one huge speed bump to long-term economic growth and recovery for Mississippi,” Reeves said.

Analyzing the proposal for the Tax Foundation, Katherine Loughead points out a big logistical challenge.

The income tax currently generates a big chunk of revenues for the state’s budget, so abolition of that levy will require serious spending restraint and/or offsetting tax increases.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves (R), in his budget proposal for fiscal year (FY) 2022, has announced his goal of phasing out the state’s income tax by 2030. Mississippi’s income tax currently has three marginal rates of 3 percent, 4 percent, and 5 percent. …Under legislation adopted in 2016, the first marginal rate is already being phased out. …Gov. Reeves’ proposal seeks to build upon the ongoing phaseout of the 3 percent rate by also eliminating the 4 percent rate within five years. Then, subject to revenue availability, the governor hopes to eliminate the 5 percent rate so that, by 2030, Mississippi will join the ranks of the states with no income tax. …Mississippi’s income tax generated nearly 43 percent of the state’s total tax collections in FY 2019, with nearly $1.9 billion coming from the individual income tax and $644 million from the corporate income tax. The state will need to see continued revenue gains over the next decade to phase out the income tax without increasing other taxes. …Even if full income tax repeal is out of reach, however, the state could certainly reduce tax liability, particularly for lower-income residents, by continuing to increase the amount of income that is exempt from taxation, eliminating the first two brackets so a single-rate tax remains, and then reducing the rate below 5 percent.

A flat tax would be a step in the right direction, but state lawmakers should be aggressive and push for total elimination of the income tax. Which probably means the state will need a TABOR-style spending cap to make the numbers work.

The bottom line is that Mississippi is a relatively poor state by American standards (roughly akin to the United Kingdom or New Zealand, for those who prefer international comparisons) and needs bold reforms to catch up to the rest of the nation.

Abolishing the income tax definitely would qualify as a big move. Revisiting the chart from above, which I created in 2018, abolishing the income tax would vault the state to the top quintile of tax policy.

P.S. I also modified the chart to show that Arizona will drop from the middle quintile to the bottom quintile because voters foolishly voted for a class-warfare tax hike earlier this month.

P.P.S. The last southern governor to propose total repeal of the income tax didn’t make any progress.

P.P.P.S. Even though the people of Mississippi are the least likely of any state to read my columns, I hope they soon enjoy the benefits of living in a no-income-tax jurisdiction.

P.P.P.P.S. There’s also a proposal to get rid of the Nebraska state income tax.

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Public finance experts sometime differ in how to describe a value-added tax.

  • Is it a hidden form of a national sales tax, imposed at each stage of the production process?
  • Is it a hidden withholding tax on income, imposed at each stage of the production process?

Both answers are actually correct. The VAT is both a tax on consumption and a tax on income because – notwithstanding its other flaws – it has the right “tax base.”

In other words, like the flat tax, a VAT taxes all economic activity, but only one time (i.e., no double taxation of income that is saved and invested). And it usually has a single rate, which is another feature of a flat tax.

That’s why a VAT (in theory!) would be acceptable if it was used to finance the complete abolition of the income tax.

But that’s not a realistic option. Heck, it’s not even an unrealistic option.

Instead, many politicians in the United States want to keep the income tax and also impose a VAT so they can finance a bigger burden of government – which is exactly what’s been happening in Europe.

Unfortunately, they’re getting some support from the American Enterprise Institute. Alan Viard, a resident scholar at AEI, has a new column urging the adoption of a VAT.

Let’s review what he wrote and explain why he’s wrong.

The U.S. faces a large long-term imbalance between projected federal tax revenue and federal spending… To narrow the fiscal imbalance, we should follow the lead of 160 other countries by adopting a value-added tax (VAT), a consumption tax that is economically similar to a retail sales tax. …Adopting a VAT would significantly curb the debt buildup.

I’ve never been impressed with the argument that the U.S. should adopt a policy simply because other nations have done the same thing.

The United States is much richer than other countries in large part because we haven’t replicated their mistakes. So why start now?

But let’s deal with Viard’s assertion that a VAT would “significantly curb the debt buildup.”

I recently showed the opposite happened in Japan. They adopted a VAT (and have repeatedly increased the VAT rate), but debt has increased.

But I think the strongest evidence is from Europe since we have several additional decades of data. Those nations started imposing VATs in the late 1960s and they now all have very high VAT rates.

And what’s happened to debt?

Well, as you can see from the chart, big increases in the tax burden were matched by even bigger increases in government debt.

The moral of the story is that Milton Friedman was right when he warned that, “History shows that over a long period of time government will spend whatever the tax system raises plus as much more as it can get away with.”

So why would Viard support a VAT when the evidence overwhelmingly shows that a big tax increase will worse a nation’s fiscal outlook?

He argues that a VAT would be the least-worst way to finance bigger government.

Although tax increases on the affluent place the burden on those with the most ability to pay, they impede long-run economic growth by penalizing saving and investment and distorting business decisions. The economic costs become larger as tax rates are pushed higher. …The VAT is more growth-friendly than high-income tax increases because it does not penalize saving and investment and poses fewer economic distortions.

He’s right that a VAT doesn’t do as much damage as class-warfare tax, but he’s wildly wrong to assert that it is “growth-friendly.”

Simply stated, a VAT will drive a further wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. That not only will discourage work. It also will discourage saving and investment.

The only positive thing to say is that a VAT doesn’t discourage those good things as much as some other types of tax increases.

But that’s sort of like saying that it’s better to lose your hand in an accident instead of losing your entire arm. Call me crazy, but I think the best outcome is to avoid the accident in the first place.

In other words, the bottom line is that we shouldn’t have any tax increase. Especially since 100 percent of America’s fiscal problem is the consequence of excessive government spending.

I’ll close by debunking the notion that a VAT is a simple tax.

As you can see from this European map, VATs can impose huge complexity burdens on businesses.

Yes, the map shows that some nations have relatively simple VATs, but American politicians already have shown with the income tax that they can’t resist turning a tax system into a Byzantine nightmare. Of course they would do the same with the VAT, creating special loopholes and penalties to please their donors.

P.S. Here’s my video from 2009, which explains how a VAT works and why it would be a bad idea.

Everything I said back then is even more true today.

P.P.S. The clinching argument is that one of America’s best presidents opposed a VAT and one of America’s worst presidents supported a VAT. That tells you everything you need to know.

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT by clicking here, here, and here.

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Back in July, I wrote a three-part series designed to identify the states with the greediest politicians.

The results sometimes matched expectations. Florida generally looked very responsible, for instance, while New York looked rather profligate.

But other results were mixed. In particular, Alaska and Wyoming have very good tax systems, but they use energy taxes to finance bloated public sectors.

Today, let’s build on that research by reviewing two new reports than rank state economic policy.

First, we have the American Legislative Exchange Council’s 2020 Report on Economic Freedom. It’s based on several factors, but I can’t help but notice that the 10-best-ranked states include five with no income tax and three with flat taxes.

If you look at the 10 states at the bottom of the rankings, by contrast, they almost all have so-called progressive taxes. The only exceptions are Alaska, which (as noted above) finances a big government with energy taxes, and Illinois, which has a flat tax that currently is under assault by the state’s big spenders.

Now let’s look at the Tax Foundation’s newly released State Business Tax Climate Index.

As you can see, the top 10 is dominated by states that either don’t tax income, or have flat taxes, and the one state (Montana) with a so-called progressive tax compensates by having no sales tax.

Every state in the bottom 10, meanwhile, has a discriminatory income tax.

The two reports cited above measure different things. But both use good data and rely on sound methodology, so it’s very interesting to see which states score well (and score poorly) in both.

The states that crack the top 10 in both reports are South Dakota, Florida, New Hampshire, Utah, and Indiana.

And the states that languish in the bottom 10 in both reports are Louisiana (they should have adopted Bobby Jindal’s plan when they had a chance) and New Jersey (not exactly a surprise).

P.S. I recently wrote about Chris Edwards’ Report Card on America’s Governors. So if we mesh those results (New Hampshire was in the top category while New Jersey was in the bottom category) with today’s results, the folks in the Granite State get the triple crown while the folks in the Garden State get a booby prize.

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One of the problems with state balanced budget requirements is that tax revenues are very sensitive to economic conditions.

Boom Years: When there’s robust economic growth, politicians collect unanticipated revenue because more people have good jobs and more businesses are earning money.

And what do politicians do when this happens? They spend a big chunk of that unanticipated tax revenue.

Bust Years: When there’s a recession and tax revenues unexpectedly decline, state politicians are in a tough position because they’ve made lots of promises to spend money, including for the extra spending that took place when the economy was growing.

And what do politicians do when this happens? They usually respond with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.

This boom-bust budgeting is unwise for many reasons, but I don’t like it because it leads to a long-run expansion in the size of government (the spending increases in the boom years almost always are greater than the cutbacks in the bust years).

Indeed, one of the reasons why I prefer a spending cap instead of a balanced budget requirement is that you avoid this “ratchet effect.”

Now let’s look at some real-time data on why this matters. Given what’s happened with the coronavirus, we’re currently in a “bust year” and many governors and state legislators claim that they’re dealing with special conditions that necessitate a bailout from Washington.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Williams of the American Legislative Exchange Council and Dave Trabert of the Kansas Policy Institute explore the topic.

Many governors now seek a federal bailout, but borrowing trillions more will only make matters worse for taxpayers… Every state provides the same basic services, but some do it at much lower cost, which allows them to have lower taxes. ……high-spending states are at the front of the line for a federal bailout. …Too many elected officials would rather have taxpayers submit to a tax increase now, or pay off bailout debt later, than do the hard work of eliminating unnecessary spending.

Their column includes plenty of hard data showing that the states clamoring for the bailouts wouldn’t be facing any fiscal problems if they weren’t spending so much money.

…The 41 states with an income tax spent 55% more per resident in 2018 than did the nine states without an income tax. Florida, which doesn’t have an income tax, spent the least, at $2,327 per resident. Texas and New Hampshire, also without income taxes, have the next lowest spending at $2,585 and $2,773, respectively. New Hampshire is frugal enough to avoid a sales tax. …New York, which has an income tax, spends $5,231 per resident. Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatens to cut services unless he gets a $60 billion bailout over two years. If New York spent at Florida’s level per resident, the Empire State would save $56.7 billion each year. If Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker were to trim his state’s per resident spending to match Texas’, he would save his taxpayers $22.3 billion a year—and there would be no need for any income-tax increase. Gov. Gavin Newsom could save Californians $64.6 billion annually if his state matched New Hampshire’s spending.

Here’s the map that accompanied the column, showing per-capita spending levels in each state.

Earlier this year, I looked at state data, but also included spending by local governments.

But slicing the numbers in a different way doesn’t change the fact that some states spend much more (and without delivering more and/or better services).

Some people portray this as a battle of red states vs. blue states, but I prefer to avoid the politics and simply compare big-spending states to modest-spending states. For instance, compare New York and Florida. If that’s not enough, also compare Texas and California.

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On election day, most people focus on the big-ticket partisan battles, such as this year’s contest between Trump and Biden.

Let’s not forget, though, that there are sometimes very important referendum battles at the state (or even local) level.

This year, the most important referendum will be in Illinois, where hypocritical Governor J.B. Pritzker wants voters to approve an initiative to replace the state’s flat tax with a discriminatory progressive tax.

I’ve already explained that the flat tax is the only thing saving Illinois from going further and faster in the wrong direction. Let’s add some additional evidence, starting with excerpts from this editorial in the Wall Street Journal.

The last state to adopt a progressive income tax was Connecticut in 1996, and we know how that turned out. Now Democrats in Illinois want to follow Connecticut down the elevator shaft with a referendum replacing the state’s flat 4.95% income tax with progressive rates… Public unions have long wanted to enact a progressive tax to pay for increased spending and pensions, and they think the political moment has finally arrived. Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker says a progressive tax will hit only the wealthy… Don’t believe it. There aren’t enough wealthy in the state to pay for his spending promises, so eventually Democrats will come after the middle class. …Illinois has no fiscal room to fail. Since 2015 Illinois’s GDP has grown a mere 1% annually, about half as fast as the U.S. and slower than Ohio (1.4%), Indiana (1.7%), Wisconsin (1.7%) and Michigan (2.1%). About 11% of Illinois residents have left since 2001, the second biggest state exodus after New York. Taxpayer flight has been accelerating as income and property taxes have risen. …A progressive tax would be a gift to Florida and Texas.

The head of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Todd Maisch, also worries that other states will benefit if voters make the wrong choice. Here are excerpts from his column in the Chicago Sun-Times.

The rest of the nation’s states are cheering on Illinois’ efforts to enact a progressive income tax. That’s because they know it will be one more self-inflicted blow to our state’s economy, certain to drive dollars, jobs and families into their waiting arms. …The reality is that this proposal is intended to do just one thing: Make it easier to raise taxes on all Illinoisans. …the spenders in Springfield are coming for you too, sooner or later. Proponents of the progressive tax know something they don’t want to tell you. Taxing millionaires will in no way meet their appetite for state spending. There simply isn’t enough money at the higher income levels to satisfy their demands. Tax rates will go up and tax brackets will reach lower and lower incomes. …Other states already are benefiting from the outmigration of Illinoisans and their money. Illinois passing the progressive tax is exactly what they are hoping for.

Amen. We already have lots of evidence showing that taxpayers move from high-tax states to low-tax states. And Illinois already has been bleeding taxable income to other states, so it’s very likely that a progressive tax would dramatically worsen the state’s position.

Illinois voters can and should learn from what’s happened elsewhere.

For instance, Orphe Divounguy of the Illinois Policy Institute shares evidence from California about the adverse impact of class-warfare taxation.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker finds himself in the same place as then-California Gov. Jerry Brown was in back in 2012 – trying to convince voters that a progressive state income tax hike will fix state finances in crisis. Brown claimed the burden of those tax hikes would only harm those earning $250,000 or more – the top 3% of earners. That’s exactly what Pritzker promises with his “fair tax” proposal. Brown was wrong. …Here are the main findings of the new study… The negative economic effects of the tax hike wiped out nearly half of the expected additional tax revenue. Among top-bracket California taxpayers, outward migration and behavioral responses by stayers together eroded 45% of the additional tax revenues from the tax hike… The “temporary” income tax hike, which has now been extended through 2030, made it about 40% more likely wealthy residents would move out of California, primarily to states without income taxes.

Illinois voters also should learn from the painful experiences of taxpayers in Connecticut and New Jersey.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized this morning about their negative experiences.

Illinois is the nation’s leading fiscal basket case, with runaway pension liabilities and public-union control of Springfield. But it has had one saving grace: a flat-rate income tax that makes it harder for the political class to raise taxes. Now that last barrier to decline is in jeopardy on the November ballot. …the pattern of other blue states is instructive. Democratic governors have often lowballed voters with modest rates when introducing a new tax, only to ratchet up the levels in each administration. …New Jersey first taxed individual income in 1976 amid a national revenue slump, with a top rate of 2.5%. …Democratic Gov. James Florio raised the tax to 7%… A decade later Democrats raised the top rate to 8.97%, and last year Gov. Murphy added the 10.75% rate… Or take Connecticut… For decades its lack of an income tax lured New York workers and businesses, but Gov. Lowell Weicker introduced the tax in 1991…and the original 1.5% rate has since been raised five times to today’s 6.99%.

And here’s the chart that every taxpayer should memorize before they vote next month.

And never forget that ever-increasing tax rates on high earners inevitably are accompanied by ever-increasing tax rates on everyone else – exactly as predicted by the Sixth Theorem of Government.

So if middle-class Illinois voters approve the so-called Fair Tax initiative, they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves when their tax rates also climb.

P.S. If voters in very-blue Illinois reject Pritzker’s class-warfare tax referendum, I wonder if that will discourage Democrats in Washington from embracing Biden’s class warfare agenda next year (assuming he wins the election)?

P.P.S. There’s a debate whether ballot initiatives and other forms of “direct democracy” are a good idea. Professor Garett Jones of George Mason University persuasively argues we’ll get better governance with less democracy. On the other hand, Switzerland is a very successful, very well-governed nation where voters directly decide all sorts of major policy issues.

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I identified four heroes from the “Battle of Ideas” video I shared in late August – Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher. Here’s one of those heroes, Milton Friedman, explaining what’s needed to control big government.

For all intents and purposes, Friedman is pointing out that there’s a “public choice” incentive for government to expand.

To counteract that disturbing trend, he explains that we need a high level of “societal capital.” In other words, we need a self-reliant and ethical populace – i.e., people who realize it’s wrong to use the coercive power of government to take from others.

Sadly, I don’t think that’s an accurate description of today’s United States.

So how, then, can we get control of government?

Since politicians are unlikely to control spending in the short run (their time horizon is always the next election), our best hope is to get them to agree to a rule that constrains what can happen in the future.

I’ve repeatedly argued in favor of a spending cap. Such a policy has a proven track record, and is far more effective than a balanced budget requirement.

That’s what should happen.

Now let’s focus on what shouldn’t happen. As Milton Friedman famously observed in 2001, tax increases are never the solution because politicians will simply spend any additional revenue (and the tax increases also will hurt the economy and cause Laffer-Curve feedback effects).

P.S. You can enjoy more wisdom from Friedman on issues such as the role of the firm, spending other people’s money, and so-called Robber Barons.

P.P.S. On the issue of spending other people’s money, here’s an example of Jay Leno channeling Friedman.

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With the election less than two months away, there’s a lot of discussion and debate about Trump’s performance.

I put together a report card last year showing that his economic policies have been a mixed bag, with good grades on tax and regulation, but bad grades on trade and spending.

Today, let’s focus specifically on fiscal issues and try to identify the best and worst changes that have occurred during his presidency.

Let’s start with the good news.

For what it’s worth, I’m somewhat conflicted between two different provisions of the 2017 tax reform.

I’m a huge fan of the cap on the state and local tax deduction. For years, I had been arguing that it was very foolish for the federal tax system to subsidize high-tax states.

So I was delighted that the 2017 law restricted this subsidy (and I’m further delighted that we’re already seeing a positive impact with people “voting with their feet” against states such as New York, Illinois, and California).

However, that reform is not permanent. Like many other provisions of that law, it automatically expires at the end of 2025.

Which is why I’m going to choose the lower corporate tax rate as Trump’s best policy. Not only is that reform permanent (at least until/unless Joe Biden takes office), but it was enormously important for American competitiveness since the United States used to have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

And the rate is still too high today, especially if you include the impact of state corporate tax rates, but at least the 2017 reform took a big step in the right direction.

And that big step is good news for jobs, wages, investment, and competitiveness.

Now for the bad news.

I could make the case that Trump’s overall spending increase is the problem.

Indeed, in a column for Reason, Matt Welch points out that Trump has not been a fiscal conservative.

The most traditional way to measure the size of government is to count how much money it spends. In Barack Obama’s last full fiscal year of 2016…, the federal government spent $3.85 trillion… In fiscal year 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic triggered a record amount of spending, the federal government was on course to cough up $4.79 trillion… So under Trump’s signature, before any true crisis hit, the annual price tag of government went up by $937 billion in less than four years—more than the $870 billion price hike Obama produced in an eight-year span… You can argue plausibly that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party will grow the government more. But the fact is, the guy railing against socialism…has grown spending faster than his predecessor and shown considerably less interest in confronting the entitlement bomb.

All of this is true, but I want to focus on specific policies, not just the overall spending performance.

Which is why I would argue that Trump’s worst fiscal policy is captured by this table from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

It shows what Trump promised compared to what he delivered and I’ve highlighted his awful record on non-defense discretionary spending (which is basically domestic spending other than entitlements). He promised $750 billion of reductions over 10 years and instead he saddled the American economy with $700 billion of additional increases.

P.S. Click here if you want background info on the different types of federal spending. But all you probably need to know is that many parts of the federal government that shouldn’t exist (Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, etc) get much of their funding from the non-defense discretionary budget.

P.P.S. Trump has failed to address entitlements, which is reckless, but that’s a sin of omission. The increase in non-defense discretionary is a sin of commission.

P.P.P.S. I also thought about listing Trump’s failure to follow through on his proposal to get rid of taxpayer subsidies for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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New York is in trouble from bad economic policy, especially excessive taxing and spending.

This is one of the reasons why there’s been a steady exodus of taxpayers from the Empire State.

The problem is especially acute for New York City, which has been suffering from Mayor Bill De Blasio’s hard-left governance.

To be sure, not all of the city’s problems are self-inflicted. The 2017 tax reform removed the IRS loophole for state and local tax payments, which means people living in places such as NYC no longer can artificially lower their tax liabilities. And the coronavirus hasn’t helped, either, particularly since Governor Cuomo bungled the state’s response.

The net result of bad policy and bad luck is that New York City has serious economic problems. And this leads, as one might expect, to serious fiscal problems.

What’s surprising, however, is that the normally left-leaning New York Times actually wrote an editorial pointing out that fiscal restraint is the only rational response.

New York is facing…a budget hole of more than $5 billion… Mayor Bill de Blasio has asked the State Legislature to give him the authority to borrow… But borrowing to meet operating expenses is especially hazardous. Cities that do so over and over again are at greater risk of the kind of bankruptcy faced by New York in the late 1970s and Detroit in 2013. …Before Mr. de Blasio adds billions to the city’s debt sheet…he needs to find savings. …The city’s budget grew under Mr. de Blasio, to $92 billion last year from about $73 billion in 2014, his first year in office. Complicating matters, the mayor has hired tens of thousands of employees over his tenure, adding significantly to the city’s pension and retirement obligations. …the mayor will have to be creative, make unpopular decisions and demand serious cost-saving measures… One way to begin is with a far stricter hiring freeze. …The mayor will need to do something he has rarely been able to: ask the labor unions to share in the sacrifice. …There are other cuts to be made.

Wow, this may be the first sensible editorial from the New York Times since it called for abolishing the minimum wage in 1987.*

Mayor De Blasio, needless to say, doesn’t want any form of spending restraint. Depending on the day, he either wants to tax-and-spend or borrow-and-spend.

Both of those approaches are misguided.

Kristin Tate explained in a column for the Hill that the middle class suffers most when class-warfare politicians such as De Blasio impose policies that penalize the private sector.

Finance giant JPMorgan is…slowly relocating many of its operations and jobs to lower tax locations in Ohio, Texas, and Delaware. The Lone Star State currently hosts 25,000 of its employees, and Texas will likely surpass the New York portion in coming years. The resulting move will harm the middle earners of New York far more than that of the wealthy… The exodus is part of a trend sweeping traditionally Democratic states over the last several years. …A whopping 1,800 businesses left California in 2016 alone, while manufacturing firm Honeywell moved its headquarters from New Jersey to greener pastures in North Carolina. …the primary losers in this formula are middle class workers. Between the loss of jobs and revenue, these states and cities press even harder on millions of middle income taxpayers to make up the difference. …Many of the Democrats…who are in charge of the blue state economic models…love to preach that their proposals will make the economy fairer by targeting the most productive members of their states and cities. However, the encompassing butterfly effect spells bad news for people like you and me. Every time you vote for a proposition or a candidate promising a repeat of bad policy, just remember that it will ultimately be the middle class that will pay the largest share.

My contribution to this discussion is to point out that New York City’s fiscal problems are the entirely predictable result of politicians spending too much money over an extended period of time.

In other words, they violated my Golden Rule.

Indeed, the burden of government spending has climbed more than three times faster than inflation during De Blasio’s time in office.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because excessive spending is the cause of every fiscal crisis (as I’ve noted when writing about Cyprus, Alaska, Ireland, Alberta, Greece, Puerto Rico, California, etc).

My final observation is that New York City’s current $5 billion budget shortfall would be a budget surplus of more than $6 billion if De Blasio and the other politicians had adopted a spending cap back in 2015 and limited budget increases to 2 percent annually.

*The New York Times also endorsed the flat tax in 1982, so there have been rare outbursts of common sense.

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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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If Donald Trump wins the 2020 election, I don’t expect any serious effort to rein in the burden of government spending.

And if Joe Biden wins the 2002 election, I don’t expect any serious effort to rein in the burden of government spending.

At the risk of understatement, this is rather unfortunate since fiscal policy in the United States is on a very worrisome path.

Thanks to demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs, the federal budget – assuming it is left on autopilot – is going to consume an ever-larger share of the nation’s economic output.

And that means fewer resources for the economy’s productive sector.

In a new study from the Hoover Institution, Professor John F. Cogan, Daniel L. Heil, and Professor John B. Taylor investigate the potential consequences of bigger government – and the potential benefits of spending restraint.

In this paper we consider an illustrative fiscal consolation proposal that restrains the growth in federal spending. The policy is to hold federal expenditures as a share of GDP at about the 20 percent ratio that prevailed before the pandemic hit. We estimate the policy’s impact using a structural macroeconomic model with price and wage rigidities and adjustment costs. The spending restraint avoids a potentially large increase in future federal taxes and prevents the outstanding debt relative to GDP from rising from its current level. The simulations show that the consolidation plan boosts short-run annual GDP growth by as much as 10 percent and increases long-run annual GDP growth by about 7 percent.

The authors believe that there will be some tax increases over the next few decades – an assumption that I fear will be accurate.

…our baseline assumes that future Congresses will enact tax increases to finance a portion of rising future federal spending. Specifically, we have assumed that Congress will finance half of the projected higher baseline outlays with higher tax rates. The tax rate increases are assumed to be gradually phased-in and are in the form of equi-proportionate increases in personal income tax rates, corporate income tax rates, and social insurance tax rates. Under these assumptions, tax rates will be about 20 percent higher in 2045 than in 2022.

Here are their projection over the next 25 years.

The authors then create an alternative scenario based on spending restraint, including entitlement reform.

To illustrate the potential positive impact of a fiscal consolidation plan on economic growth, we have chosen a stylized long-term budget policy that reduces the growth in federal spending, maintains federal tax rates at their current levels, and limits the outstanding federal debt relative to GDP to its pandemic high level. …the spending side of the plan has three essential elements. One, reductions in government spending from the baseline which come exclusively from permanent changes in entitlement programs; the principal source of the federal government’s long-term fiscal imbalance. …Two, the plan contains an immediate one-time reduction in entitlement program spending that permanently lowers the overall level of government spending. Three, the plan permanently reduces the growth in entitlement spending thereafter from this lower level.

They then estimate what happens to the fiscal burden of government if policy makers choose spending restraint instead of bigger government and tax increases.

In 2033, ten years from the initiation of the policy, total federal spending as a percent of GDP, including interest on the debt, would be 3.3 percent lower than baseline expenditures. In twenty years, it would be 5.7 percent lower. …the consolidation plan would maintain all federal tax rates.at their current statutory levels. …revenue as a share.. of GDP would rise slightly over time due to real bracket creep. Thus, the plan is designed to prevent the approximately 15 percent tax rate increases that are presumed in the budget baseline.

Here’s a chart from the study that shows how the burden of redistribution spending and social insurance programs is significantly smaller with the restraint approach.

Now we get to key results.

Cogan, Heil, and Taylor use a model of the U.S. economy to estimate what happens if there is spending restraint instead of bigger government.

Unsurprisingly, there’s more prosperity when there’s a smaller burden of spending.

The impact of the consolidation strategy is shown in Figure 4. Observe that there is a substantial increase in real GDP in the short run, and that this positive change occurs throughout the simulation through 2045. The short-run increase of about 0.5 percent in the first two years following the policy’s implementation amounts to about a 10 percent increase in the real GDP growth rate. Over the longer-term, GDP increases by about 3.7 percent after 25 years. This is equivalent to a 7 percent increase in the economy’s real growth rate.

This chart from the study shows the economic benefits of spending restraint.

These results are consistent with what other economists have produced.

Heck, even economists at left-leaning international bureaucracies such as OECD, World Bank, and IMF have acknowledged that smaller government is better for prosperity.

P.S. The unanswered question, of course, is how to convince self-interested politicians to choose spending restraint instead of buying votes with other people’s money. A spending cap is probably a necessary but not sufficient condition (it’s an approach that has been very successful in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado – and which was recently adopted in Brazil).

P.P.S. Even small differences in economic growth have a significant long-run impact on living standards.

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Two weeks ago, I shared some video from a presentation to the New Economic School of Georgia (the country, not the state) as part of my “Primer on the Laffer Curve.”

Here’s that portion of that presentation that outlines the principles of sensible taxation.

Just in case you don’t want to watch me pontificate for nearly 14 minutes, here’s the slide from the presentation that most deserves attention since it captures the key principle of good tax policy.

Simply stated, the more you tax of something, the less you get of that thing.

By the way, I had an opportunity earlier this year to share some similar thoughts about the principles of sound tax policy with the United Nations’ High-Level Panel on Financial Accountability Transparency & Integrity.

Given my past interactions with fiscal people at the U.N., I’m not overflowing with optimism that the following observations will have an impact, but hope springs eternal.

The ideal fiscal environment is one that has a vibrant and productive economy that generates sufficient revenue with modest tax rates that do not needlessly penalize productive behavior. Public finance experts generally agree on the following features

  • Low marginal tax rates. A tax operates by increasing the “price” of whatever is being taxed. This is most obvious in the case of some excise taxes –such as levies on tobacco –where governments explicitly seek to discourage certain behaviors. …but there should be a general consensus in favor of keeping tax rates reasonable on the behaviors –work, saving, investment, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship –that make an economy more prosperous.
  • A “consumption-base.” Because of capital gains taxes, death taxes, wealth taxes, and double taxation of interest and dividends, many nations impose a disproportionately harsh tax burden on income that is saved and invested. This creates a bias against capital formation, which is problematical since every economic theory –including various forms of socialism –share the view that saving and investment are necessary for rising wages and higher living standards.
  • Neutrality. Special preferences in a tax system distort the relative “prices” of how income is earned or how income is spent. Such special tax breaks encourage taxpayers to make economically inefficient choices simply to lower their tax liabilities. Moreover, loopholes, credits, deductions, exemptions, holidays, exclusions, and other preferences reduce tax receipts, thus creating pressure for higher marginal tax rates, which magnifies the adverse economic impact.
  • Territoriality. This is the simple notion that governments should not tax activity outside their borders. If income is earned in Brazil, for instance, the Brazilian government should have the authority over how that income is taxed.The same should be true for all other nations.

By the way, “consumption-base” is simply the jargon used by public-finance economists when referring to a tax system that doesn’t impose double taxation (i.e., extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested).

Here’s a flowchart I prepared showing the double taxation in the current system compared to what happens with a flat tax.

P.S. At the risk of understatement, it’s impossible to have a good tax system with a bloated public sector, which means it’s not easy to be optimistic about future fiscal policy in the United States.

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Speculating about tax policy in 2021, with Washington potentially being controlling by Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi, there are four points to consider.

  1. The bad news is that Joe Biden has endorsed a wide range of punitive tax increases.
  2. The good news is that Joe Biden has not endorsed a wealth tax, which is one of the most damaging ways – on a per-dollar raised basis – for Washington to collect more revenue.
  3. The worse news is that the additional spending desired by Democrats is much greater than Biden’s proposed tax increases, which means there will be significant pressures for additional sources of money.
  4. The worst news is that the class-warfare mentality on the left means the additional tax increases will target successful entrepreneurs, investors, innovators, and business owners – which means a wealth tax is a very real threat.

Let’s consider what would happen if this odious example of double taxation was imposed in the United States.

Two scholars from Rice University, John Diamond and George Zodrow, produced a study for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity on the economic impact of a wealth tax.

They based their analysis on the plan proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, which is probably the most realistic option since Biden (assuming he wins the election) presumably won’t choose the more radical plan proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders.

They have a sophisticated model of the U.S. economy. Here’s their simplified description of how a wealth tax would harm incentives for productive behavior.

The most direct effect operates through the reduction in wealth of the affected taxpayers, including the reduction in accumulated wealth over time. Although such a reduction in wealth is, for at least some proponents of the wealth tax, a desirable result, the associated reduction in investment and thus in the capital stock over time will have deleterious effects, reducing labor productivity and thus wage income as well as economic output. …A wealth tax would also affect saving by changing the relative prices of current and future consumption. In the standard life-cycle model of household saving, a wealth tax effectively increases the price of future consumption by lowering the after-tax return to saving, creating a tax bias favoring current consumption and thus reducing saving. … we should note that the apparently low tax rates under the typical wealth tax are misleading if they are compared to income tax rates imposed on capital income, and the capital income tax rates that are analogous to wealth tax rates are often in excess of 100 percent. …For example, with a 1 percent wealth tax and a Treasury bond earning 2 percent, the effective income tax rate associated with the wealth tax is 50 percent; with a 2 percent tax rate, the effective income tax rate increases to 100 percent.

And here are the empirical findings from the report.

We compare the macroeconomic effects of the policy change to the values that would have occurred in the absence of any changes — that is, under a current law long run scenario… The macroeconomic effects of the wealth tax are shown in Table 1. Because the wealth tax reduces the after-tax return to saving and investment and increases the cost of capital to firms, it reduces saving and investment and, over time, reduces the capital stock. Investment declines initially by 13.6 percent…and declines by 4.7 percent in the long run. The total capital stock declines gradually to a level 3.5 percent lower ten years after enactment and 3.7 percent lower in the long run… The smaller capital stock results in decreased labor productivity… The demand for labor falls as the capital stock declines, and the supply of labor falls as households receive larger transfer payments financed by the wealth tax revenues… Hours worked decrease initially by 1.1 percent and decline by 1.5 percent in the long run. …the initial decline in hours worked of 1.1 percent would be equivalent to a decline in employment of approximately 1.8 million jobs initially. The declines in the capital stock and labor supply imply that GDP declines as well, by 2.2 percent 5 years after enactment and by 2.7 percent in the long run.

Here’s the table mentioned in the above excerpt. At the risk of understatement, these are not favorable results.

Other detailed studies on wealth taxation also find very negative results.

The Tax Foundation’s study, authored by Huaqun Li and Karl Smith, also is worth perusing. For purposes of today’s analysis, I’ll simply share one of the tables from the report, which echoes the point about how “low” rates of wealth taxation actually result in very high tax rates on saving and investment.

The American Action Forum also released a study.

Authored by Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Gordon Gray, it’s filled with helpful information. The part that deserves the most attention is this table showing how a wealth tax on the rich results in lost wages for everyone else.

Yes, the rich definitely lose out because their net wealth decreases.

But presumably the rest of us are more concerned about the fact that lower levels of saving and investment reduce labor income for ordinary people.

The bottom line is that wealth taxes are very misguided, assuming the goal is a prosperous and competitive America.

P.S. One obvious effect of wealth taxation, which is mentioned in the study from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, is that some rich people will become tax expatriates and move to jurisdictions (not just places such as Monaco, Bermuda, or the Cayman Islands, but any of the other 200-plus nations don’t tax wealth) where politicians don’t engage in class warfare.

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Compared to most of the world, Japan is a rich country. But it’s important to understand that Japan became rich when the burden of government was very small and there was no welfare state.

Indeed, as recently as 1970, Japan’s fiscal policy was rated by Economic Freedom of the World as being better than what exists today in Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, the country has since moved in the wrong direction. Back in 2016, I shared the “most depressing chart about Japan” because it showed that the overall tax burden doubled in just 45 years.

As you might expect, that rising tax burden was accompanied by a rising burden of government spending (fueled in part by enactment of a value-added tax).

And that has not been a good combination for the Japanese economy, as Douglas Carr explains in an article for National Review.

From 1993 to 2019, the U.S. averaged 2.6 percent growth, …far ahead of Japan’s meager 0.9 percent. …What happened? Big government happened… Japanese government spending was just 17.5 percent of the country’s GDP in 1960 but has grown, as illustrated below, to 38.8 percent of GDP today. …the island nation’s growth never recovered. The theory that government spending boosts long-term growth has failed… What government spending does is crowd out investment.

Amen. Japan has become a parody of Keynesian spending.

Here’s a chart from Mr. Carr’s article, which could be entitled “the other most depressing chart about Japan.”

As you can see, the burden of government spending began to climb about 1970 and is now represents a bigger drag on their economy than what we’re enduring in the United States.

Unfortunately, the United States is soon going to follow Japan in that wrong direction according to fiscal projections from the Congressional Budget Office.

Carr warns that bigger government in America won’t work any better than big government in Japan.

Rather than a problem confined to the other side of the world, Japan’s death spiral is a pointed warning to the U.S. The U.S. and Japanese economies are on the same trajectory; Japan is simply further along the big-government, low-growth path. …The United States is at risk of entering a Japanese death spiral.

Here’s another chart from the article showing the inverse relationship between government spending and economic growth.

Moreover, the U.S. numbers may be even worse because of coronavirus-related spending and whatever new handouts that might be created after the election.

The negative relationship of government spending with growth and investment holds with adjustments for cyclical influences such as using ten-year averages or the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates of cyclically adjusted U.S. government spending. CBO data highlight how close the U.S. is to a Japanese-style death spiral. …Of course, CBO’s recent forecast was prepared before the coronavirus shock and does not incorporate spending by a new Democratic government, so this dismal outlook is likely to worsen.

So what’s the solution? Can the United States avoid a Greek-style future?

The author explains how America can be saved.

Boosting growth means restraining government. Restraining government means reengineering entitlements… Economically, it shouldn’t be too difficult to do better. We have an insolvent, low-return government-retirement program along with an insolvent retiree-health program — part of a Rube Goldberg health-care system.

He’s right. To avoid stagnation and decline, we desperately need spending restraint and genuine entitlement reform in the United States.

Sadly, Trump is on the wrong side on that issue and Biden wants to add fuel to the fire by making the programs even bigger.

P.S. Here’s another depressing chart about Japan.

P.P.S. Unsurprisingly, the OECD and IMF have been cheerleading for Japan’s fiscal decline.

P.P.P.S. Japan’s government may win the prize for the strangest regulation and the prize for the most useless government giveaway.

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