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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Policy’

Remember the big debt limit fight of 2013? The political establishment at the time went overboard with hysterical rhetoric about potential instability in financial markets.

They warned that a failure to increase the federal government’s borrowing authority would mean default to bondholders even though the Treasury Department was collecting about 10 times as much revenue as would be needed to pay interest on the debt.

And these warnings had an effect. Congress eventually acquiesced.

I thought it was a worthwhile fight, but not everyone agrees.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), for instance, recently released a report about that experience and they suggest that there was a negative impact on markets.

During the 2013 debt limit impasse, investors reported taking the unprecedented action of systematically avoiding certain Treasury securities—those that matured around the dates when the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) projected it would exhaust the extraordinary measures that it uses to manage federal debt when it is at the limit. …Investors told GAO that they are now prepared to take similar steps to systematically avoid certain Treasury securities during future debt limit impasses. …industry groups emphasized that even a temporary delay in payment could undermine confidence in the full faith and credit of the United States and therefore cause significant damage to markets for Treasury securities and other assets.

The GAO even produced estimates showing that the debt limit fight resulted in a slight increase in borrowing costs.

GAO’s analysis indicates that the additional borrowing costs that Treasury incurred rose rapidly in the final weeks and days leading up to the October 2013 deadline when Treasury projected it would exhaust its extraordinary measures. GAO estimated the total increased borrowing costs incurred through September 30, 2014, on securities issued by Treasury during the 2013 debt limit impasse. These estimates ranged from roughly $38 million to more than $70 million, depending on the specifications used.

I confess that these results don’t make sense since it is inconceivable to me that Treasury wouldn’t fully compensate bondholders if there was any sort of temporary default.

But GAO included some persuasive evidence that investors didn’t have total trust in the government. Here are a couple of charts looking at interest rates.

Both of them show an uptick in rates as we got closer to the date when the Treasury Department said it would run out of options.

Given this data, the GAO argues that it would be best to eviscerate the debt limit.

The bureaucrats propose three options, all of which would have the effect of enabling automatic or near-automatic increases in the federal government’s borrowing authority.

GAO identified three potential approaches to delegating borrowing authority. …Option 1: Link Action on the Debt Limit to the Budget Resolution …legislation raising the debt limit to the level envisioned in the Congressional Budget Resolution would be…deemed to have passed… Option 2: Provide the Administration with the Authority to Increase the Debt Limit, Subject to a Congressional Motion of Disapproval… Option 3: Delegating Broad Authority to the Administration to Borrow…such sums as necessary to fund implementation of the laws duly enacted by Congress and the President.

So is GAO right? Should we give Washington a credit card with no limits?

I don’t think so, but I’m obviously not very persuasive because I actually had a chance to share my views with GAO as they prepared the report.

Here are the details about GAO’s process for getting feedback from outside sources.

…we hosted a private Web forum where selected experts participated in an interactive discussion on the various policy proposals and commented on the technical feasibility and merits of each option. We selected experts to invite to the forum based on their experience with budget and debt issues in various capacities (government officials, former congressional staff, and policy researchers), as well as on their knowledge of the debt limit, as demonstrated through published articles and congressional testimony since 2011. …we received comments from 17 of the experts invited to the forum. We determined that the 17 participants represented the full range of political perspectives. We analyzed the results of the forum to identify key factors that policymakers should consider when evaluating different policy options.

Given the ground rules of this exercise, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to share details of that interactive discussion.

But I will share some of my 2013 public testimony to the Joint Economic Committee.

Here’s some of what I told lawmakers.

I explained that Greece is now suffering through a very deep recession, with record unemployment and harsh economic conditions. I asked the Committee a rhetorical question: Wouldn’t it have been preferable if there was some sort of mechanism, say, 15 years ago that would have enabled some lawmakers to throw sand in the gears so that the government couldn’t issue any more debt? Yes, there would have been some budgetary turmoil at the time, but it would have been trivial compared to the misery the Greek people currently are enduring. I closed by drawing an analogy to the situation in Washington. We know we’re on an unsustainable path. Do we want to wait until we hit a crisis before we address the over-spending crisis? Or do we want to take prudent and modest steps today – such as genuine entitlement reform and spending caps – to ensure prosperity and long-run growth.

In other words, my argument is simply that it’s good to have debt limit fights because they create a periodic opportunity to force reforms that might avert far greater budgetary turmoil in the future.

Indeed, one of the few recent victories for fiscal responsibility was the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which only was implemented because of a fight that year over the debt limit. At the time, the establishment was screaming and yelling about risky brinksmanship.

But the net result is that the BCA ultimately resulted in the sequester, which was a huge victory that contributed to much better fiscal numbers between 2009-2014.

By the way, I’m not the only one to make this argument. The case for short-term fighting today to avoid fiscal crisis in the future was advanced in greater detail by a Wall Street expert back in 2011.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some good debt limit cartoons by clicking here and here.

 

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When giving speeches outside the beltway, I sometimes urge people to be patient with Washington. Yes, we need fundamental tax reform and genuine entitlement reform, but there’s no way Congress can make those changes with Obama in the White House.

But there are some areas whether progress is possible, and people should be angry with politicians if they deliberately choose to make bad decisions.

For instance, the corrupt Export-Import Bank has expired and there’s nothing that Obama can do to restore this odious example of corporate welfare. It will only climb from the grave if Republicans on Capitol Hill decide that campaign cash from big corporations is more important than free markets.

Another example of a guaranteed victory – assuming Republicans don’t fumble the ball at the goal line – is that there’s no longer enough gas-tax revenue coming into the Highway Trust Fund to finance big, bloated, and pork-filled transportation spending bills. So if the GOP-controlled Congress simply does nothing, the federal government’s improper and excessive involvement in this sector will shrink.

Unfortunately, Republicans have no desire to achieve victory on this issue. It’s not that there’s a risk of them fumbling the ball on the goal line. By looking for ways to generate more revenue for the Trust Fund, they’re moving the ball in the other direction and trying to help the other team score a touchdown!

The good news is that Republicans backed away from awful proposals to increase the federal gas tax.

But the bad news is that they’re coming up with other ideas to transfer more of our income to Washington. Here’s a look at some of the revenue-generating schemes in the Senate transportation bill.

Since the House and Senate haven’t agreed on how to proceed, it’s unclear which – if any – of these proposals will be implemented.

But one thing that is clear is that the greed for more federal transportation spending is tempting Republicans into giving more power to the IRS.

Republicans and Democrats alike are looking to the IRS as they try to pass a highway bill by the end of the month. Approving stricter tax compliance measure is one of the few areas of agreement between the House and the Senate when it comes to paying for an extension of transportation funding. …the Senate and House are considering policy changes for the IRS ahead of the July 31 transportation deadline. …With little exception, the Senate bill uses the same provisions that were in a five-month, $8 billion extension the House passed earlier this month. The House highway bill, which would fund programs through mid-December, gets about 60 percent of its funding from tax compliance measures. …it’s…something of a shift for Republicans to trust the IRS enough to back the new tax compliance measures. House Republicans opposed similar proposals during a 2014 debate over highway funding, both because they didn’t want to give the IRS extra authority and because they wanted to hold the line on using new revenues to pay for additional spending.

Gee, isn’t it swell that Republicans have “grown in office” since last year.

But this isn’t just an issue of GOPers deciding that the DC cesspool is actually a hot tub. Part of the problem is the way Congress operates.

Simply stated, the congressional committee system generally encourages bad decisions. If you want to understand why there’s no push to scale back the role of the federal government in transportation, just look at the role of the committees in the House and Senate that are involved with the issue.

Both the authorizing committees (the ones that set the policy) and the appropriating committees (the ones that spend the money) are among the biggest advocates of generating more revenue in order to enable continued federal government involvement in transportation.

Why? For the simple reason that allocating transportation dollars is how the members of these committees raise campaign cash and buy votes. As such, it’s safe to assume that politicians don’t get on those committees with the goal of scaling back federal subsidies for the transportation sector.

And this isn’t unique to the committees that deal with transportation.

It’s also a safe bet that politicians that gravitate to the agriculture committees have a strong interest in maintaining the unseemly system of handouts and subsidies that line the pockets of Big Ag. The same is true for politicians that seek out committee slots dealing with NASA. Or foreign aid. Or military bases.

The bottom line is that even politicians who generally have sound views are most likely to make bad decisions on issues that are related to their committee assignments.

So what’s the solution?

Well, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a shift to random and/or rotating committee assignments, so the only real hope is to have some sort of overall cap on spending so that the various committees have to fight with each other over a (hopefully) shrinking pool of funds.

That’s why the Gramm-Rudman law in the 1980s was a step in the right direction. And it’s why the spending caps in today’s Budget Control Act also are a good idea.

Most important, it’s why we should have a limit on all spending, such as what’s imposed by the so-called Debt Brake in Switzerland.

Heck, even the crowd at the IMF has felt compelled to admit spending caps are the only effective fiscal tool.

Maybe, just maybe, a firm and enforceable spending cap will lead politicians in Washington to finally get the federal government out of areas such as transportation (and housing, agriculture, education, etc) where it doesn’t belong.

One can always hope.

In the meantime, since we’re on the topic of transportation decentralization, here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing how gas taxes vary by states.

This data is useful (for instance, it shows why drivers in New York and Pennsylvania should fill up their tanks in New Jersey), but doesn’t necessarily tell us which states have the best transportation policy.

Are the gas taxes used for roads, or is some of the money siphoned off for boondoggle mass transit projects? Do the states have Project Labor Agreements and other policies that line the pockets of unions and cause needlessly high costs? Is there innovation and flexibility for greater private sector involvement in construction, maintenance, and operation?

But this is what’s good about federalism and why decentralization is so important. The states should be the laboratories of democracy. And when they have genuine responsibility for an issue, it then becomes easier to see which ones are doing a good job.

So yet another reason to shut down the Department of Transportation.

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I’m very fond of Estonia, and not just because of the scenery.

Back in the early 1990s, it was the first post-communist nation to adopt a flat tax.

More recently, it showed that genuine spending cuts were the right way to respond to the 2008 crisis (notwithstanding Paul Krugman’s bizarre attempt to imply that the 2008 recession was somehow caused by 2009 spending cuts).

This doesn’t mean Estonia is perfect. It is ranked #22 by Economic Freedom of the World, which is a respectable score, but that puts them not only behind the United States (#12), but also behind Switzerland (#4), Finland (#10), the United Kingdom (#12), Ireland (#14), and Denmark (#19).

And you can see from the chart that Estonia’s overall score has dropped slightly since 2006.

But I don’t believe in making the perfect the enemy of the good. Estonia is still a reasonably good role model for reform, particularly for nations that emerged from decades of communist enslavement.

You can see how good policy makes a difference, for instance, by comparing Estonia with Croatia (#70). At the time of the breakup of the Soviet Empire, living standards in Croatia were low, but they were about twice as high as they were in Estonia. Today, though, per-capita economic output in Estonia is about $4000 higher than in Croatia.

That’s a dramatic turnaround and it shows that markets are much better for people than statism. Sort of like the lesson we learn by comparing Poland (#48) and Ukraine (#122).

Let’s now take a closer look at one of the policies that has helped Estonia prosper. The flat tax was first adopted in 1994 and the rate was 26 percent. Since then, the rate has been gradually reduced and is now 20 percent.

For some people, the most amazing aspect of the Estonian flat tax is its simplicity, as noted by Kyle Pomerleau of the Tax Foundation.

Republican Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush claimed that it only takes 5 minutes to file taxes in Estonia. This claim was confirmed by a number of reporters and tax authorities in Estonia. For those of us that do our taxes by hand, this sounds like a dream. Depending on your situation, filing your taxes can tax a significant amount of time and due to the numerous steps involved (especially if you are claiming credits) may lead some to make errors. According to the IRS, it takes an average taxpayer with no business income 8 hours to fill out their 1040 and otherwise comply with the individual income tax. Triple that for those with business income.

For those keeping score, this means Estonia is kicking America’s derriere.

But Kyle is even more impressed by other features of the Estonian system.

…that it is not the best part of the Estonian tax code. The best part of the Estonian tax code has more to do with its tax base (what it taxes) rather than how fast people can pay their taxes. Specifically, the Estonian tax code has a fully-integrated individual and corporate income tax. This means that corporate income is taxed only once either at the entity level or at the individual level.

And this means Estonia’s flat tax is far better for growth than America’s system, which suffers from pervasive and destructive double taxation.

In total, the tax rate on corporate income is 20 percent in Estonia. Compare this to the integrated tax rate on corporate profits of 56 percent in the United States. Even more, this tax system provides de facto full expensing for capital investments because the corporate tax is only levied on the cash distributed to shareholders, which is also a significant boon to investment and economic growth.

Wow. No double taxation and expensing of business investment.

There is a lot to admire about Estonia’s sensible approach to business taxation.

Particularly when compared to America’s masochistic corporate income tax, which ranks below even the Greek, Italian, and Mexican systems.

Having the world’s highest statutory corporate tax rate is part of the problem. But as Kyle pointed out, the problem is actually far worse when you calculate how the internal revenue code imposes extra layers of tax on business income.

That’s why, at a recent tax reform event at the Heritage Foundation, I tried to emphasize why it’s economically misguided to have a tax bias against saving and investment.

The bottom line is that high taxes on capital ultimately lead to lower wages for workers.

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What’s the best way to generate growth and prosperity for the developing world?

Looking at the incredible economic rise of jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore, it’s easy to answer that question. Simply put in place the rule of law, accompanied by free markets and small government.

But that answer, while unquestionably accurate, would mean less power and control for politicians and bureaucrats.

So you probably won’t be surprised to learn that when politicians and bureaucrats recently met to discuss this question, they decided that development could be best achieved with a policy of higher taxes and bigger government.

I’m not joking.

Reuters has a report on a new cartel-like agreement among governments to extract more money from the economy’s productive sector. Here are some key passages from the story.

Rich and poor countries agreed on Thursday to overhaul global finance for development, unlocking money for an ambitious agenda… The United Nations announced the deal on its website… Development experts estimate that it will cost over $3 trillion each year to finance the 17 new development goals… Central to the agreement is a framework for countries to generate more domestic tax revenues in order to finance their development agenda… Under the agreement, the UN Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters will be strengthened, the press release said.

Though there’s not total agreement within this crooks’ cartel. There’s a fight over which international bureaucracy will have the biggest role. Should it be the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is perceived as representing the interests of revenue-hungry politicians from the developed world?

Or should it be the United Nations, which is perceived as representing the interests of revenue-hungry politicians from the developing world?

Think of this battle as being somewhat akin to the fight between various socialist sects (Mensheviks, Trotskyites, Stalinists, etc) as the Soviet Union came to power.

Bloomberg has a story on this squabble.

Responsibility for tax standards should be moved to the UN from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group of 34 rich countries, according to a position paper endorsed by 142 civil-society groups. …Tove Maria Ryding from the European Network on Debt and Development, [said] “Our global tax decision-making system is anything but democratic, excluding more than half of the world’s nations.”

I’m tempted to laugh about the notion that there’s anything remotely democratic about either the UN or OECD. Both international organizations are filled with unelected (and tax-free) bureaucrats.

But more importantly, it’s bad news for either organization to have any power over the global economy. Both bureaucracies want to replace tax competition with tax harmonization, precisely because of a desire to enable big expansion is the size and power of governments.

This greed for more revenue already has produced some bad policies, including an incredibly risky scheme to collect and share private financial information, as well as a global pact that could be the genesis of a world tax organization.

And there are more troubling developments.

Here are some excerpts from another Bloomberg report.

Step aside, Doctors Without Borders. …A team called Tax Inspectors Without Borders will be…established next week by the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. …Tax Inspectors Without Borders would take on projects or audits either by flying in to hold workshops…or embedding themselves full time in a tax agency for several months… “There is a lot of enthusiasm from developing countries” for this initiative, said John Christensen, the U.K.-based director of the nonprofit Tax Justice Network.

Gee, what a surprise. Politicians and bureaucrats have “a lot of enthusiasm” for policies that will increase their power and money.

But at the risk of repeating myself, the more serious point to make is that bigger government in the developing world is not a recipe for economic development.

The western world became rich when government was very small. As noted above, Hong Kong and Singapore more recently became rich with small government.

But can anyone name a country that became rich with big government?

I’ve posed that question over and over again to my leftist friends and they never have a good answer.

If we want the third world to converge with rich nations, they need to follow the policies that enabled rich nations to become rich in the first place.

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I suggested a couple of months ago that the economic turmoil in Greece and Venezuela is somewhat akin to a real-life version of Atlas Shrugged.

And I’ve also used that analogy when writing about France and Detroit.

But I’m probably not doing justice to Ayn Rand’s famous novel because Atlas Shrugged is not just about an economy that collapses under the weight of too much government regulation, intervention, and control.

I probably won’t give the right description since I’m a policy wonk rather than philosopher, but Atlas Shrugged is also about the perils of self-sacrifice.

And I couldn’t help but think about that aspect of the book when I read the comments of certain Greek politicians during yesterday’s bailout vote in Athens.

If you scroll down to the 14:40 mark of this timeline from the U.K.-based Telegraph, you’ll find some remarkable comments that sound like they came straight from Ayn Rand’s book.

Greece’s ruling Syriza party has accused David Cameron of being mean over his objections to allowing British taxpayer’s money to be used to help Athens meet upcoming debt payments. …Mr Cameron’s attitude was described as cold-hearted by Nikos Xydakis, a deputy culture minister in Syriza. “Mr Cameron must explain to the European people and 11 million Greeks why he wants them to suffer a social crisis,” Mr Xydakis told The Telegraph. “This is not about politics, this is about human souls.”

Wow. I might agree that David Cameron is “mean,” but I think his cruelty is directed against British taxpayers, not Greek politicians.

But let’s stick with our main topic. Notice how the moochers in Greece are trying to use guilt as a weapon. I’m sure some Ayn Rand experts will correct me if I’m wrong, but the aforementioned comments definitely sound like passages from Atlas Shrugged.

That being said, the Germans apparently have more in common with John Galt than Jim Taggart. Here are some excerpts from a column in the New York Times by Jacob Soll, a professor from the University of Southern California. He recently attended a conference in Germany and found very little sympathy for the Greeks.

 …when the German economists spoke…, a completely different tone took over the room. Within the economic theories and numbers came a moral message: The Germans were honest dupes and the Greeks corrupt, unreliable and incompetent. …the Greeks destroyed themselves over the past four years. Now the Greeks deserved what was coming to them. …Debtors who default, they explained, would simply have to suffer…a country like Greece…did not seem to merit empathy. …When the panel split up, German attendees circled me to explain how the Greeks were robbing the Germans. They did not want to be victims anymore.

Wow, who knew the Germans were a bunch of closet Randians!

No wonder the Greek politicians decided to target David Cameron instead.

For what it’s worth, I must have some German blood in my veins because I wasn’t overly sympathetic to Greece in this interview.

I even referred (again) to “looters” and “moochers,” which are terms used in Rand’s book.

I’ll make two comments about the interview.

  1. My prediction about the vote in Greece was correct. Though I wish I had been wrong because the best long-run outcome (both for the Greek people and the world’s taxpayers) is an end to bailouts.
  2. I mentioned that there will be more debt-crisis dominoes at some point in the future. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s hard to be optimistic when you look at long-run fiscal estimates from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

P.S. Lots of what happens in Washington also is disturbingly similar to scenes from Atlas Shrugged, particularly the corrupt Obamacare waiver process.

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I very rarely feel sympathy for the people of Greece. Indeed, events over the past five years have even led me to write that “I hate the Greeks.”

I also disparaged the people of Greece by stating on TV that they’ve been trying to loot and mooch their way through life.

So you can see that I generally believe in the tough-love approach.

But there comes a point when even a curmudgeon like me is going to say enough is enough and that the Greek people have suffered enough already.

And I had that experience yesterday. Check out this headline from a story in yesterday’s EU Observer.

Economic advice from the French government?!? Isn’t that a bit like asking the Chicago Cubs for suggestions on how to win the World Series?

What are the French advisers going to do, propose ways to make the government even bigger? Suggest ways of driving even more entrepreneurs out of the country?

For Heaven’s sake, this is the last thing the people of Greece need.

Sort of reminds me of a headline I saw attached to a report by Reuters a few years ago.

Geesh, the Greeks already suffered because of an invasion by people working for the German government back in the 1940s. Seems like another deployment of German bureaucrats would be adding insult to injury.

Particularly since it would create the worst of all worlds, marrying Teutonic tax efficiency (for example, taxing prostitutes with parking meters) with Greek profligacy (for example, subsidies for pedophiles).

I’m not sure where that would end, but it surely wouldn’t be a good place.

Now let’s make a more serious point about tough love and Greek suffering.

Back in early 2010, about the time the Greek fiscal crisis was becoming a big issue, I warned that a bailout would actually make things worse. I suggested it would be better to let Greece default, both because it would penalize foolish investors who lent too much money to the Greek government and because it would force Greece to live within its means.

That would have meant short-run pain, to be sure, but I think that approach would have involved the least amount of aggregate suffering.

But the political class ignored my helpful advice and instead decided that bailouts would be a better idea. But how has that worked out? The Greek economy has been moribund and the Greek people are now saddled with far more debt. Yes, some short-run pain was mitigated, but only at the cost of much more pain over the past few years (with more pain in the future).

Interestingly, the International Monetary Fund’s top economist unintentionally has confirmed my analysis. Here’s some of what Olivier Blanchard recently posted as part of an effort to defend the IMF’s choices back in 2010.

Had Greece been left on its own, it would have been simply unable to borrow. …Even if it had fully defaulted on its debt, given a primary deficit of over 10% of GDP, it would have had to cut its budget deficit by 10% of GDP from one day to the next.  These would have led to much larger adjustments and a much higher social cost.

Blanchard obviously thinks reducing government spending by 10 percent of GDP would have imposed too much “social cost,” but imagine if Greece had bitten the bullet back in 2010. Sort of like what Estonia did in 2009.

Yes, there would have been a challenging adjustment. Interest groups would have received fewer handouts. Greek bureaucrats would have lost jobs and/or had their pay reduced. Payments to vendors would have been delayed. State-run TV may have been shut down. The regulatory apparatus probably would have been cut back. And I’m sure the Greek government probably would have raised taxes as well.

Now imagine how much better off Greece would be today if it went with that approach.

We don’t have a parallel universe where we can see the results of that different approach, but consider the fact that Estonia had a deeper downturn than Greece, presumably in part because it undertook strong measures, but since that time has been Europe’s fastest-growing economy.

Greece, by contrast, has been Europe’s slowest-growing economy. Hmmm…seems like this should be part of any discussions about “social cost.”

So what lessons can we learn?

I realize there are lots of factors that determine economic performance and that it’s impossible to isolate the impact of either Estonia’s spending-cut policy or Greece’s bailout policy. But it would take a very bizarre and untenable set of assumptions to conclude that Estonia didn’t make smarter policy choices.

The only silver lining to Greece’s dark cloud is that it’s not too late to do the right thing.

P.S. Since we ended by speculating about the good results of my tough-love approach, let’s also enjoy some Greek-related humor.

This cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.

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There’s an old saying that states are the laboratories of democracy. But since I’m a policy wonk, I focus more on the lessons we can learn from the states about public policy.

Such as the importance of limiting the destructive nature of taxes.

Such as the economic benefits of not having an income tax.

Such as the horrible consequences of adopting an income tax.

Such as the negative effects of excessive compensation of bureaucrats.

Such as better job creation in states with less government.

But it’s always good to have more data and evidence.

So I was very interested to see that the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has a new report that ranks states based on their fiscal solvency.

Here are some of the details.

Budgetary balance is only one aspect of a state’s fiscal health, indicating that revenues are sufficient to cover a desired level of spending. But a balanced budget by itself does not mean the state is in a strong fiscal position. State spending may be large relative to the economy and thus be a drain on resources. …How can states establish healthier fiscal foundations? And how can states guard against economic shocks or identify long-term fiscal risks? Before taking policy or budgetary action, it is important to identify where states may have fiscal weaknesses. One approach to help states evaluate their ongoing fiscal performance is to use basic financial indicators that measure short- and long-run fiscal position.

Here are some of the findings.

The five dimensions (or indexes) of solvency in this study—cash, budget, long-run, service-level, and trust fund—are…combined into one overall ranking of state fiscal condition. …States with large long-term debts, large unfunded pension liabilities, and structural budgetary imbalances continue to hover near the bottom of the rankings. These states are Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. Just as they did last year, states that depend on natural resources for revenues and that have low levels of debt and spending place at the top of the rankings. The top five states are Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Florida.

And here’s a map so you can see the rankings of each state. Dark green is good and yellow is bad.

I’m shocked and amazed to see California, Illinois, and New York near the bottom of the list.

Here’s the same information, but in a table so you can see the specific scores for each state.

So what should we learn from these rankings?

According to an editorial from Investor’s Business Daily, there are some very obvious lessons.

What do the most fiscally sound states have in common? Good weather? Oil? Blind luck? Or is it conservative policies such as keeping taxes low, regulations reasonable and spending under control? …There’s only one factor these fiscal winners and losers share in common. And that’s their political leanings. …if you look at the 25 best-performing states, only three could be considered reliably liberal. …There’s only one factor these fiscal winners and losers share in common. And that’s their political leanings. Of the top 10 states in the Mercatus ranking, just two — Florida and Ohio — voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in the past four elections, and just one — Montana — has a Democratic governor. Even if you look at the 25 best-performing states, only three could be considered reliably liberal.

Now let’s shift from policy lessons to political implications. There are several governors and former governors running for President.

Based on the Mercatus ranking, can we draw any conclusions about whether these candidates are in favor of taxpayers? Or do they support big government instead?

We’ll start with the current governors.

Kasich – Ohio ranks surprisingly high on the list, particularly given the Ohio governor’s expansion of Obamacare in the state. Maybe the state’s #7 ranking is due to fiscal restraint by his predecessors.

Christie – New Jersey ranks low on the list, and this isn’t a surprise. The relevant question is whether Christie can argue, based on some of the fights he’s had, that the state legislature is an insurmountable impediment to pro-growth reforms.

Jindal – The governor of Louisiana has proposed some big reforms, but the state’s #35 ranking doesn’t give him any bragging rights on fiscal policy (though the state is leading the way on education reform).

Walker – Thanks to his high-profile fight with unionized bureaucrats, Walker has a very strong reputation. But his state doesn’t rank very high, and he can’t blame the legislature because it’s GOP-controlled as well. But perhaps the low ranking is a legacy of the state’s historically left-wing orientation.

What about former governors?

Well, there’s probably not much we can say because we don’t have long-run data. There was a similar Mercatus study last year, but that obviously doesn’t help with the analysis of governors that left office years ago.

Nonetheless, here are a few observations.

Bush – I’m very suspicious of politicians who express an openness to tax hikes, and Bush is in that group. But he did govern Florida for a couple of terms and never flirted with imposing an income tax. And former governors, particularly from recent history, presumably can take some credit for Florida’s relatively high ranking.

Pataki – Since New York is one of the worst states, Pataki has guilt by implication. But he did lower a few taxes during his tenure, and you also have the same issue that exists with Christie, which is whether a governor should be blamed when the state legislature is hostile to good policy.

Perry – It’s hard to argue with the success Texas has enjoyed in recent years, and Perry (like Bush) never even hinted at the imposition of a state income tax. Though the #19 ranking shows that there are issues that should have been addressed during Perry’s several terms in office.

Huckabee – There aren’t many conclusions to draw about Arkansas and Huckabee. He’s been out of office for a while and the state is in the middle of the pack.

The bottom line is that the Mercatus study is very helpful in identifying well-governed (and not-so-well-governed) states, but the newness of the project means we can’t make any sweeping statements about governors because of limited data.

Fortunately, the Cato Institute for years has been publishing a Report Card that grades governors based on fiscal policy. So fans (or opponents) of different candidates can peruse past issues to see the degree to which governors pushed policy in the right or wrong direction.

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