Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Policy’

The best budget rule in the United States is Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Known as TABOR, this provision in the state’s constitution says revenues can’t grow faster than population plus inflation. Any revenue greater than that amount must be returned to taxpayers.

Combined with the state’s requirement for a balanced budget, this means Colorado has a de facto spending cap (similar to what exists in Switzerland and Hong Kong).

The second-best budget rule is probably a requirement that tax increases can’t be imposed without a supermajority vote by the legislature.

The underlying theory is very simple. It won’t be easy for politicians to increase the burden of government spending if they can’t also raise taxes. Particularly since states generally have some form of rule requiring a balanced budget.

Basically a version of “Starve the Beast.”

Anyhow, according to the National Council of State Legislatures, 14 states have some type of supermajority requirements.

And more states are considering this reform.

Here are some excerpts from a column in the Washington Post.

Florida Republicans are pursuing a plan to make it harder for lawmakers to raise taxes in the state, adding new hurdles for Democrats hoping to enact bold social programs such as “Medicare for all” and more robust education spending. …Florida’s Republican lawmakers have approved a ballot measure that, if approved by the voters, would require a two-thirds “supermajority” of the legislature to enact any new taxes. …In…additional states — …Oregon and North Carolina — conservative lawmakers and business groups are currently advancing similar measures… The supermajority requirements have proved effective at keeping taxes low in the states where they have been implemented, said Joel Griffith of the American Legislative Exchange Council… “These supermajority rules make policymaking incredibly difficult,” said Elaine Maag, senior research associate at the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank. “If a state can’t increase spending because of these very high bars for raising taxes, they can’t expand programs.”

Dean Stansel crunched the numbers in 1998 and got some encouraging data.

There is some evidence that supermajority requirements have at least helped to restrain the growth of taxes. From 1980 to 1996, state tax burdens as a share of personal income increased by 1.1 percent in states with supermajority requirements. Taxes rose five times faster in states without such requirements. In 10 states, residents face higher top personal income tax rates today than they did in 1990. None of those states require supermajority approval for tax hikes. None of the 13 supermajority states have higher top rates today than they did in 1990, and three of them have lowered their top rate in the 1990s.

Academic experts also have found positive effects.

In a 1990 study published in the William and Mary Law Review, Jim Miller and Mark Crain found some evidence of modest spending restraint.

Seven states require approval of tax proposals by a super-majority vote in the legislature. …According to this hypothesis, the amount of revenue available to politicians resembles a budget constraint, and when this constraint shifts, government spending consequently changes. …the tax-and-spend literature suggests a causal connection that should be controlled. This variable is expected to produce a negative coefficient because in making an increase in revenues more difficult, the requirement tightens the total constraint on spending options. …The super-majority required to increase taxes variable is negative, as expected, although it is significant at only the 10% level in the three models.

In a 2000 study published in the Journal of Public Economics, Brian Knight also determined that supermajority provisions limited taxation.

This paper measures the effect of state-level supermajority requirements for tax increases on tax rates. …A model is presented in which legislatures controlled by a pro-tax party adopt a supermajority requirement to reduce the majority party agenda control. The propensity of pro-tax states to adopt supermajority requirements results in an underestimate of the true effect of these requirements on taxes. To correct this identification problem, the paper first uses fixed effects to control for unobserved attitudes and then employs instruments that measure the difficulty of amending state constitutions. The paper concludes that supermajority requirements have significantly reduced taxes.

In a 2014 study published in State Politics & Policy Quarterly, Soomi Lee concluded that a supermajority has restrained the fiscal burden in California.

My article examines whether supermajority vote requirements (SMVR) to raise taxes in California’s constitution suppresses state tax burdens. The rationale behind the rule is to contain the growth of government by making it costly to form a winning coalition to raise taxes. …I take a different approach from extant literature and estimate the causal effect of SMVR by using synthetic control methods. The results show that, from 1979 to 2008, SMVR reduced the state nonproperty tax burden by an average of $1.44 per $100 of personal income, which is equivalent to 21% of the total tax burden for each year. The effect…has abated over time.

This last study is remarkable. The long-run fiscal outlook is quite grim in California, so just imagine how much worse it would be if the supermajority requirement didn’t exist.

I’ll close with this amateurish visual that I created.

Though the evidence from California shows the kitten shouldn’t be peacefully sleeping if there is a supermajority requirement.

The best way to think of such a provision is that it is akin to putting locks on your doors in a crime-ridden neighborhood. The crooks may figure out how to mug you on the street or break through your windows, so you’re still in danger.

But having locks on your doors is definitely better than not having them.

P.S. It’s not a fiscal rule, but the best tax policy for a state is to have a zero income tax. The second best rule is for a state to have a flat tax.

Read Full Post »

Guided by the principles of a simple and fair flat tax, I’ve been toiling for decades in the vineyard of tax reform. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, I usually feel like Don Quixote, engaged in a futile quest. Convincing politicians to reduce their power is not an easy task, after all.

But it is possible to make incremental progress. I’ve argued, ad nauseam, about the need to lower the corporate tax rate and the benefits of ending the state and local tax deduction, and we actually took big steps in the right direction last year.

Indeed, while the final legislation was far from perfect, it was certainly better than I expected.

But there’s no such thing as a permanent victory in Washington. The debate has now shifted from “is the tax plan a good idea?” to “is the tax plan working?” And that was the focus of my recent CNBC debate with Austan Goolsbee, the former Chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Interestingly, Austan and I agreed on several issues.

At the risk of digressing, I should have mentioned that Trump’s corporate rate cut, while a big step in the right direction, should be viewed as a first step. As illustrated by this chart, the overall US corporate rate is still higher than the average for other advanced nations.

Let’s now get back to the interview. Goolsbee and I didn’t agree on everything.

  • Austan is fixated on class warfare, which I think is very bad economics because it means high marginal tax rates and/or a heavier tax bias against saving and investment.
  • He also frets about deficits, which is rather ironic since he didn’t seem to worry about red ink when Obama was pushing his failed stimulus scheme. In any event, I pointed out that there is no long-run tax cut.

Last but not least, here are some additional points from the interview

  • I repeatedly expressed concern that good tax policy won’t be very sustainable unless politicians restrain the excessive growth of government spending, both in the short run and long run.
  • I also pointed out that the restriction on the state and local tax deduction will help the national economy if it deters some big states from raising taxes (though that reform certainly isn’t slowing down the big spenders in New Jersey).
  • Even small differences in economic growth, if sustained over time, can make a big difference in living standards.
  • We should be worried that Trump will sabotage his tax cut with protectionism.

The bottom line is that last year’s tax plan resulted in a less-destructive tax code. That doesn’t guarantee fast growth since we also have to look at other policies, but it will help.

P.S. I indirectly tangled with Goolsbee in about taxes in 2010 and about spending in 2012.

Read Full Post »

Last week, I shared very grim data, going all the way back to 1880, on the growth of the welfare state.

I even claimed that the accompanying graph was the “western world’s most depressing chart” because it showed the dramatic increase in the burden of government spending for redistribution programs.

And I didn’t even mention that the numbers likely will get even worse because of changing demographics.

Now it’s time for the western world’s second-most depressing chart. Like the first chart, the data for this second chart comes from “Our world in data,” only this time it shows the relentless and astounding (in a depressing way) expansion in tax burdens starting in 1868. It only shows four countries, but other western nations would show the same pattern.

What isn’t shown in this chart is that the tax burden used to be reasonable because governments generally did not have income taxes.

The United Kingdom was an early adopter, but France, Sweden, and the United States didn’t impose that onerous levy until the 1900s. And it’s no coincidence that the tax burden exploded once politicians learned to exploit that source of revenue.

An obvious lesson is that it is never a good idea to give politicians a new source of revenue. We see in the above chart what happened once nations imposed income taxes. We’ve also seen increases in fiscal burdens in nations that imposed value-added taxes (which is why Americans should fight to their dying breaths before allowing that levy in the United States).

From the perspective of politicians, they like new sources of revenue because that increases “tax capacity,” which is an Orwellian term that describes their ability to grab more money from the economy’s productive sector.

And here’s another chart from “Our world in data” showing how income taxes and VATs (along with income-tax withholding) have become ubiquitous.

Very depressing trends. Reminds me of the biased grading of tax regimes from the World Bank.

Let’s close with the tiny bit of good news from the website. Here’s a chart showing how top rates for the personal income tax dropped substantially between 1979 and 2002.

This happened, needless to say, because of tax competition. As globalization expanded, it became easier and easier for taxpayers to move themselves and/or their money from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions.

Politicians thus were forced to lower tax rates so the geese with the golden eggs didn’t fly away.

Sadly, updated versions of this chart now show top tax rates heading in the wrong direction, in large part because tax havens have been weakened and politicians no longer feel as much competitive pressure.

Read Full Post »

New Jersey is a fiscal disaster area.

It’s in last place in the Tax Foundation’s index that measures a state’s business tax climate.

It’s tied for last place in the Mercatus Center’s ranking of state fiscal conditions.

And it ranks in the bottom-10 in measures of state economic freedom and measures of unfunded liabilities for bureaucrat pensions.

All of this led me, last October, to warn that the state was suffering from fiscal decay.

Then, two months ago, James Freeman of the Wall Street Journal wrote about how New Jersey’s uncompetitive fiscal system was encouraging highly productive taxpayers to leave the state.

The Garden State already has the third largest overall tax burden and the country’s highest property tax collections per capita. Now that federal reform has limited the deduction for state and local taxes, the price of government is surging again among high-income earners in New Jersey and other blue states. Taxpayers are searching for the exits. …says Jeffrey Sica, founder of Circle Squared, an alternative investments firm. “We structure real estate deals for family offices and high-net-worth individuals and at a record pace those family offices and individuals are leaving the TriState for lower-tax states. Probably a dozen this year at least,”…In the decade ending in 2016, real economic growth in New Jersey clocked in at a compound annual percentage rate of 0.1, just slightly higher than John Blutarsky’s GPA and less than a tenth of the national average for economic growth. The Tax Foundation ranks New Jersey dead last among the 50 states for its business tax climate. …Steven Malanga calls Mr. Murphy’s plan “the U-Haul Budget” for the new incentives it gives New Jersey residents to flee.

You would think that New Jersey politicians would try to stop the bleeding, particularly given the impact of federal tax reform.

But that assumes logic, common sense, and a willingness to put the interests of people above the interests of government. Unfortunately, all of those traits are in short supply in the Garden State, so instead the politicians decided to throw gasoline on the fire with another big tax hike.

The Wall Street Journal opines today on the new agreement from Trenton.

Governor Phil Murphy and State Senate leader Steve Sweeney have been fighting over whether to raise tax rates on individuals or businesses, and over the weekend they decided to raise taxes on both. Messrs. Murphy and Sweeney agreed to raise the state’s income tax on residents making more than $5 million to 10.75% from 8.97% and the corporate rate on companies with more than $1 million in income to 11.5% from 9%. This will give New Jersey the fourth highest marginal income tax rate on individuals and the second highest corporate rate after Iowa.

New Jersey is pursuing class warfare, but the politicians don’t seem to realize that the geese with the golden eggs can fly away.

The two Democrats claim this will do no harm because about 0.04% of New Jersey taxpayers will get smacked. But those taxpayers account for 12.5% of state income-tax revenue and their investment income is highly mobile. The state treasurer said in 2016 that a mere 100 filers pay more than 5.5% of all state receipts. Billionaire David Tepper escaped from New Jersey for Florida in 2015, and other hedge fund managers could follow. Between 2012 and 2016 a net $11.9 billion of income left New Jersey, according to the IRS. The flight risk will increase with the new limit of $10,000 on deducting state and local taxes on federal tax returns. …About two-thirds of New Jersey’s $3.5 billion income outflow last year went to Florida, which doesn’t have an income tax. …The fair question is why any rational person or business that can move would stay in New Jersey.

That’s not merely a fair question, it’s a description of what’s already happening. And it’s going to accelerate – in New Jersey and other uncompetitive states – when additional soak-the-rich schemes are imposed (unless politicians figure out a way to put fences and guard towers at the border).

A few months ago, I conducted a poll on which state would be the first to suffer a fiscal collapse. For understandable reasons, Illinois was the easy “winner.” But I won’t be surprised if there are a bunch of new votes for New Jersey. Simply stated, the state is committing fiscal suicide.

P.S. What’s amazing (and depressing) is that New Jersey was like New Hampshire as recently as the 1960s, with no state sales tax and no state income tax.

Read Full Post »

Last week, I shared a graph showing that there are more guns than people in the United States, and I wrote that it was the “most enjoyable” chart of the year, mostly because it gets my leftist friends so agitated.

But I’m more likely to share gloomy visuals.

  • The “most depressing” chart about Denmark, which shows a majority of the population lives off government.
  • A “very depressing” chart about the United States, which shows how big business profits from cronyism.
  • The “most depressing” chart about Japan, which shows that the tax burden has nearly doubled since 1965.

Now it’s time to add to that list. There’s a website called “Our World in Data,” which is a great resource if you’re a policy wonk who likes numbers. But some numbers are quite depressing.

For instance,if you peruse the “public spending” page, you’ll find a chart showing the dramatic expansion of redistribution spending as a share of economic output.

These numbers are very similar to the table I shared from Vito Tanzi back in 2013, which isn’t surprising since Professor Peter Lindert is the underlying source for both sets of data.

While the above chart is depressing to a libertarian, it’s nonetheless instructive because it confirms my argument that the western world became rich when government was very small and redistribution was tiny or even nonexistent.

For instance, nations in North America and Western Europe largely made the transition from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity during the “golden century” between the Napoleanic wars and World War I. And that was a period when redistribution spending basically didn’t exist and most nations didn’t even have income taxes (the U.S. didn’t make that mistake until 1913).

And even as recently as 1960, welfare states were very small compared to their current size. Indeed, redistribution spending in western nations averaged only about 10 percent of economic output, about half the size of today’s supposedly miserly American welfare state.

These points are important because some folks on the left misinterpret Wagner’s Law and actually try to argue that bigger government is good for growth.

P.S. South Korea has been a great success story for the past five decades, but that redistribution trendline is very worrisome.

P.P.S. The trendline for Greece helps to explain why that nation is bankrupt.

P.P.P.S. The chart shows that Canada is better than the United States, though that may not last since Canada’s current Prime Minister is seeking to undermine his nation’s competitive advantage.

P.P.P.P.S. While fiscal trends in the western world have been unfavorable, that bad news has been offset by positive trends for trade liberalization. Whether we see a big step backwards because of Trump remains to be seen.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

There are many threats to prosperity, both in the short run and long run.

Those are all things we should worry about. But here’s the issue that worries me the most.

  • More government spending resulting from demographic change and entitlements.

Fortunately, there’s a solution. Governments should copy Switzerland and impose a spending cap. I explained this system in a column for the Wall Street Journal back in 2012.

…85% of its voters approved an initiative that effectively requires its central government spending to grow no faster than trendline revenue. The reform, called a “debt brake” in Switzerland, has been very successful. Before the law went into effect in 2003, government spending was expanding by an average of 4.3% per year. Since then it’s increased by only 2.6% annually. …politicians aren’t able to boost spending when the economy is doing well and the Treasury is flush with cash. Equally important, it is very difficult for politicians to increase the spending cap by raising taxes.

By the way, I just updated the calculations using IMF data. Looking at the numbers from 2003-2018, government spending has grown by an average of 2.1 percent per year since the debt brake went into effect.

In other words, the policy is becoming more successful over time.

Some argue, by the way, that spending restraint is bad for an economy. The Keynesians think that more government is “stimulus.” And many of the international bureaucracies (including the IMF) argue that more government is an “investment.”

There’s lots of evidence that smaller government is the right route for prosperity. But for today’s purposes, let’s focus just on the United States and Switzerland.

Both nations are prosperous by world standards, though the United States generally enjoyed a small advantage in terms of per-capita economic output according to the Maddison database. But in the past 15 years, Switzerland has jumped ahead.

Time for a big caveat. There are dozens of policies that help determine a nation’s prosperity, so it would be improper to claim that Switzerland overtook the United States solely because of the spending cap.

Switzerland ranks above the United States in Economic Freedom of the World, so many factors doubtlessly contributed to the nation’s superior performance. Both theory and evidence, however, suggest that fiscal discipline is good for prosperity.

But what about government debt? Did the spending cap in the debt brake succeed in controlling red ink?

The answer is yes, an emphatic yes.

Here are two charts, based on data from the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database for the years since the debt brake went into effect. We can see that both gross debt and net debt increased in advanced countries and euro countries. In Switzerland, however, debt levels fell.

In other words, while debt levels have jumped in other industrialized nations, the level of red ink in Switzerland has declined. While other European nations have experienced fiscal crisis and ever-increasing amounts of debt, Switzerland has been an island of budgetary tranquility.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out that Switzerland relies on spending restraint, and red ink fell. Other nations have adopted lots of tax increases, and red ink rose.

Hmmm…, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned?

P.S. Hong Kong also has a spending cap.

P.P.S. You can watch short presentations about their respective spending caps from Swiss and Hong Kong diplomats at an event I organized for staffers on Capitol Hill.

P.P.P.S. That event also included a speech about the very successful spending cap (TABOR) in Colorado.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: