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Posts Tagged ‘Government Spending’

Back in 2012, I shared some superb analysis from Investor’s Business Daily showing that the United States never would have suffered $1 trillion-plus deficits during Obama’s first term if lawmakers had simply exercised a modest bit of spending restraint beginning back in 1998.

And the IBD research didn’t assume anything onerous. Indeed, the author specifically showed what would have happened if spending grew by an average of 3.3 percent, equal to the combined growth of inflation plus population.

Remarkably, we would now have a budget surplus of about $300 billion if that level of spending restraint continued to the current fiscal year.

This is a great argument for some sort of spending cap, such as the Swiss Debt Brake or Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

But let’s look beyond the headlines to understand precisely why a spending cap is so valuable.

If you look at the IBD chart, you’ll notice that revenues are not very stable. This is because they are very dependent on the economy’s performance. During years of good growth, revenues tend to rise very rapidly. But when there’s a downturn, such as we had at the beginning and end of last decade, revenues tend to fall.

But you don’t have to believe me or IBD. Just look at federal tax revenues over the past 30 years. There have been seven years during which nominal tax revenues have increased by more than 10 percent. But there also have been five years during which nominal tax revenue declined.

This instability means that it doesn’t make much sense to focus on a balanced budget rule. All that means is that politicians can splurge during the growth years. But when there’s a downturn, they’re in a position where they have to cut spending or (as we see far too often) raise taxes.

But if there’s a spending cap, then there is a constraint on the behavior of politicians. And assuming the spending cap is set at a proper level, it means that – over time – there will be shrinking levels of red ink because the burden of government spending will grow by less than the average growth rate of the private economy.

In other words, compliance with my Golden Rule!

Let’s look at other examples.

Why did Greece get in fiscal trouble? The long answer has to do with ever-growing government and ever-increasing dependency. But the short answer, at least in part, is that a growing economy last decade generated plenty of tax revenue, but rather than cut taxes and/or pay down debt, Greek politicians went on a spending binge, which then proved to be unsustainable when there was an economic slowdown.*

This is also why California periodically gets in fiscal trouble. During years when the economy is growing and generating tax revenue, the politicians can’t resist the temptation to spend the money, oftentimes creating long-run spending obligations based on the assumption of perpetually rapid revenue growth. These spending commitments then prove to be unaffordable when there’s a downturn and revenues stop growing.

And as you can see from the accompanying graph, this creates a very unstable fiscal situation for the Golden State. Revenue spikes lead to spending spikes. During a downturn, by contrast, revenues are flat or declining, and this puts politicians in a position of either enacting serious spending restraint or (as you might predict with California) imposing anti-growth tax hikes.

And, in the long run, the burden of spending rises faster than the private sector.

We have another example to add to our list, thanks to some superb research from Canada’s Fraser Institute.

They recently released a study examining fiscal policy in the energy-rich province of Alberta. In particular, the authors (Mark Milke and Milagros Palacios) look at the rapid growth of spending between the fiscal years 2004/05 and 2013/14.

By the mid-2000s, even though the province was again spending at a level that contributed to deficits in the early 1990s, after 2004/05 the province allowed program spending to escalate even further and beyond inflation and population growth. The result was that by 2013/14, the province spent $10,967 per person on government programs. That was $2,002 higher per person than in 2004/05.

Why did the burden of spending climb so quickly? The simple answer is that bigger government was enabled by tax revenue generated by a prospering energy industry.

Over a nine-year period, politicians spent money based on an assumption that high energy prices were permanent and that tax revenues would always be surging.

But now that energy prices have fallen, politicians are suddenly facing a fiscal shortfall. Simply stated, there’s no longer enough revenue for their spending promises.

This fiscal mess easily could have been avoided if the fecklessness of Alberta politicians had been constrained by some sort of spending cap.

The experts at the Fraser Institute explain how such a limit would have precluded today’s dismal situation.

Had the province increased program spending after 2004/05 but within population growth plus inflation, by 2013/14 the province would have spent $35.9 billion on programs. Instead, the province spent $43.9 billion, an $8 billion difference in that year alone. That $8 billion difference is significant. In recent interviews, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has warned that the drop in oil prices has drained $7 billion from expected provincial government revenues. Thus, past decisions to ramp up program spending mean that additional provincial spending (beyond inflation and population growth) is at least as responsible for current budget gap as the decline in revenues.

And here’s a chart from the study showing how much money would have been saved with modest fiscal restraint.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. So now today’s politicians have to deal with a mess that is a consequence of profligate politicians during prior years.**

…the decision by the province to spend (on programs) above the combined effect of population growth and inflation between 2005/06 and 2013/14 inclusive built in higher annual spending obligations, that, once revenues declined, would open up a fiscal gap in the province’s budget. As of 2013/14, the result of spending more on programs than inflation plus population growth combined would warrant meant program expenses were $8 billion higher in that year alone. The province’s past fiscal choices have now severely constricted present choices on everything from balanced budgets to tax relief to additional capital spending. If the province wishes to have a better menu of choices in the future, it must, obviously, control expenditures more carefully.

Since I’ve shared all sorts of bad examples of how nations get in trouble by letting spending grow too fast over time, let’s look at a real-world example of a spending cap in action.

As you can see from the chart, Switzerland has enjoyed great success ever since voters imposed the debt brake.

Indeed, while many other European nations are in fiscal crisis because of big increases in the burden of government spending, the Swiss have experienced economic tranquility in part because the size of the public sector has gradually declined.

The key lesson isn’t that spending restraint is good, though that obviously is important. The most important takeaway is that spending restraint appears to be sustainable only if there is some sort of permanent external constraint on politicians. Like the debt brake. Or like Article 107 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

Remember, there are many nations that have enjoyed good results because of multi-year periods of spending restraint. But many of those countries saw their gains evaporate because policies then moved in the wrong direction.

*Greek politicians also took advantage of low interest rates last decade (a result of joining the euro currency) to engage in plenty of debt-financed government spending, which meant the economy was even more vulnerable to a crisis when revenues stopped growing.

**Some of today’s politicians in Alberta are probably long-term incumbents who helped create the mess by over-spending between 2004/05 and today, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they opted for destructive tax hikes instead of long-overdue spending restraint.

P.S. On a totally separate topic, it appears some towns in New York are listening to the sage advice of Walter Williams on the topic of secession.

Here are some excerpts from an editorial published by the Wall Street Journal.

Some 15 towns have announced they want to secede from New York and become part of neighboring Pennsylvania. …The towns occupy four counties in New York State’s “Southern Tier,” just across the Pennsylvania state line. Pennsylvania allows fracking for natural gas… That part of Pennsylvania is booming. Upstate New York, as anyone who drives through it can attest, is an economic bummer. …Governor Cuomo has created an American version of the Cold War’s East Berlin—with economic life booming on one side of the divide, while an anti-economic ideology stifles it on the other.

Unfortunately, New York’s East Berliners will have to pick up and move if they want to benefit from better policy in the Keystone State.

There is no chance the secessionists will succeed, needing approval from the legislatures of New York, Pennsylvania and the U.S.

Another option, of course, is to decentralize decision making so that local communities can decide policy rather than faraway politicians in a state capitol.

That’s the approach that perhaps would have averted the catastrophe we now see in Ukraine, so why not try it in places where the stakes are simply jobs rather than life and death?

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To save the nation from a future Greek-style fiscal meltdown, we should reform entitlements.

But as part of the effort to restore limited, constitutional government, we also should shut down various departments that deal with issues that shouldn’t be handled by the central government.

I’ve already identified some low-hanging fruit.

Get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Shut down the Department of Agriculture.

Eliminate the Department of Transportation.

We need to add the Department of Education to the list. And maybe even make it one of the first targets.

Increasing federal involvement and intervention, after all, is associated with more spending and more bureaucracy, but NOT better educational outcomes.

Politicians in Washington periodically try to “reform” the status quo, but rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic never works. And that’s true whether you look at the results of GOP plans, like Bush’s no-bureaucrat-left-behind scheme, or Democratic plans, like Obama’s Common Core.

The good news, as explained by the Washington Examiner, is that Congress is finally considering legislation that would reduce the federal government’s footprint.

There are some good things about this bill, which will serve as the reauthorization of former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Importantly, the bill removes the Education Department’s ability to bludgeon states into adopting the controversial Common Core standards. The legislative language specifically forbids both direct and indirect attempts “to influence, incentivize, or coerce” states’ decisions. …The Student Success Act is therefore a step in the right direction, because it returns educational decisions to their rightful place — the state (or local) level. It is also positive in that it eliminates nearly 70 Department of Education programs, replacing them with more flexible grants to the states.

But the bad news is that the legislation doesn’t go nearly far enough. Federal involvement is a gaping wound caused by a compound fracture, while the so-called Student Success Act is a band-aid.

…as a vehicle for moving the federal government away from micromanaging schools that should fall entirely under state and local control, the bill is disappointing. …the recent explosion of federal spending and federal control in education over the last few decades has failed to produce any significant improvement in outcomes. Reading and math proficiency have hardly budged. …the federal government’s still-modest financial contribution to primary and secondary education has come with strings that give Washington an inordinate say over state education policy. …The Student Success Act…leaves federal spending on primary and secondary education at the elevated levels of the Bush era. It also fails to provide states with an opt-out.

To be sure, there’s no realistic way of making significant progress with Obama in the White House.

But the long-run battle will never be won unless reform-minded lawmakers make the principled case. Here’s the bottom line.

Education is one area where the federal government has long resisted accepting the evidence or heeding its constitutional limitations. …Republicans should be looking forward to a post-Obama opportunity to do it for real — to end federal experimentation and meddling in primary and secondary education and letting states set their own policies.

Amen.

But now let’s acknowledge that ending federal involvement and intervention should be just the first step on a long journey.

State governments are capable of wasting money and getting poor results.

Local governments also have shown that they can be similarly profligate and ineffective.

Indeed, when you add together total federal/state/local spending and then look at the actual results (whether kids are getting educated), the United States does an embarrassingly bad job.

The ultimate answer is to end the government education monopoly and shift to a system based on choice and competition.

Fortunately, we already have strong evidence that such an approach yields superior outcomes.

To be sure, school choice doesn’t automatically mean every child will be an educational success, but evidence from SwedenChile, and the Netherlands shows good results after breaking up state-run education monopolies.

P.S. Let’s close with a bit of humor showing the evolution of math lessons in government schools.

P.P.S. If you want some unintentional humor, the New York Times thinks that government education spending has been reduced.

P.P.P.S. And you’ll also be amused (and outraged and disgusted) by the truly bizarre examples of political correctness in government schools.

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As a fiscal policy economist who believes in individual liberty and personal responsibility, I have two goals.

1. Replace the corrupt and punitive internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax that raises necessary revenue in the least-destructive and least-intrusive manner possible.

2. Shrink the size of the federal government so that it only funds the core public goods, such as national defense and rule of law, envisioned by America’s Founding Fathers.

Needless to say, I haven’t been doing a great job. The tax code seems to get worse every year, and even though we’ve made some progress in recent years on spending, the long-run outlook is still very grim because there’s hasn’t been genuine entitlement reform.

But I continue with my Sisyphean task. And part of my efforts include educating people about the Rahn Curve, which is sort of the spending version of the Laffer Curve. it shows the non-linear relationship between the size of government and economic performance.

Simply stated, some government spending presumably enables growth by creating the conditions (such as rule of law and property rights) for commerce.

But as politicians learn to buy votes and enhance their power by engaging in redistribution, then government spending is associated with weaker economic performance because of perverse incentives and widespread misallocation of resources.

I’ve even shared a number of videos on the topic.

The video I narrated explaining the basics of the Rahn Curve, which was produced by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

A video from the Fraser Institute in Canada that reviews the evidence about the growth-maximizing size of government.

A video from the Centre for Policy Studies in the United Kingdom that explores the relationship between prosperity and the size of the public sector.

Even a video on the Rahn Curve from a critic who seems to think that I’m a closeted apologist for big government.

Now we have another video to add to the collection.

Narrated by Svetla Kostadinova of Bulgaria’s Institute for Market Economics, it discusses research from a few years ago about the “optimal size of government.”

If you want to read the research study that is cited in the video, click here. The article was written by Dimitar Chobanov and Adriana Mladenova of the IME

The evidence indicates that the optimum size of government, e.g. the share of overall government spending that maximizes economic growth, is no greater than 25% of GDP (at a 95% confidence level) based on data from the OECD countries. In addition, the evidence indicates that the optimum level of government consumption on final goods and services as a share of GDP is 10.4% based on a panel data of 81 countries. However, due to model and data limitations, it is probable that the results are biased upwards, and the “true” optimum government level is even smaller than the existing empirical study indicates.

Two points in that excerpt are worth additional attention.

First, they understand that not all forms of government spending have equal effects.

Spending on core public goods (rule of law, courts, etc) generally are associated with better economic performance.

Spending on physical and human capital (infrastructure and education) can be productive, though governments often do a poor job based on a money-to-outcomes basis.

Most government spending, though, is for transfers and consumption, and these are areas where the economic effects are overwhelmingly negative.

So kudos to the Bulgarians for recognizing that it’s particularly important to restrain some types of outlays.

The other point that merits additional emphasis is that the growth-maximizing size of government is probably far lower than 25 percent of economic output.

Here’s what they wrote, citing yours truly.

…the results from the above mentioned models should not be taken as the “true” optimal level of government due to limitations of the models, and lack of data as already discussed. As Dan Mitchell commented, government spending was about 10% of GDP in the West from the end of the Napoleonic wars to World War I. And we do not have any data to think that growth would have been higher if government was doubled or tripled. However, what the empirical results do show is that the government spending should be much less than is the average of most countries at the moment. Thus, we can confidentially say the optimum size of general government is no bigger than 25% but is likely to be considerably smaller because of the above-mentioned reasons.

And here’s their version of the Rahn Curve, though I’m not a big fan since it seems to imply that government should consume about one-third of economic output.

I much prefer the curve to show the growth-maximizing level under 20 percent of GDP.

Though I often use a dashed line to emphasize that we don’t really know the actual peak because there unfortunately are no developed nations with modest-sized public sectors.

Even Singapore and Hong Kong have governments that consume about 20 percent of economic output.

But maybe if I someday achieve my goal, we’ll have better data.

And maybe some day I’ll go back to college and play quarterback for my beloved Georgia Bulldogs.

P.S. Since I shared one video, I can’t resist also including this snippet featuring Ronald Reagan talking about libertarianism.

What impresses me most about this clip is not that Reagan endorses libertarianism.

Instead, notice how he also explains the link between modern statism and fascism.

He had a much greater depth of knowledge than even supporters realize. Which also can be seen in this clip of Reagan explaining why the Keynesians were wrong about a return to Depression after World War II.

And click here if you simply want to enjoy some classic Reagan clips. For what it’s worth, this clip from his first inauguration is my favorite.

Given my man crush on the Gipper, you also won’t be surprised to learn that this is the most encouraging poll I’ve ever seen.

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There’s a big fiscal battle happening in Europe. The relatively new Greek government is demanding continued handouts from the rest of Europe, but it wants to renege on at least some of the country’s prior commitments to improve economic performance by reducing the preposterous burden of spending, regulation, and intervention.

That seems like a rather strange negotiating position. Sort of like a bank robber holding a gun to his own head and saying he’ll shoot himself if the teller doesn’t hand over money.

At first glance, it seems the Greeks are bluffing. Or being suicidally self-destructive.

And maybe they are posturing and/or being deluded, but there are two reasons why the Greeks are not totally insane.

1. The rest of Europe does not want a Greek default.

There’s a famous saying, attributed to J. Paul Getty, that applies to the Greek fiscal fight. Simply stated, there are lots of people and institutions that own Greek government bonds and they are afraid that their investments will lose value if Greece decides to fully or partially renege on its debts (which is an implicit part of Greece’s negotiating position).

So while Greece would suffer if it defaulted, there would be collateral damage for the rest of Europe. In other words, the hypothetical bank robber has a grenade rather than a gun. And while the robber won’t fare well if he pulls the pin, lots of other people may get injured by shrapnel.

And to make matters more interesting, previous bailouts of Greece have created a rather novel situation in that taxpayers are now the indirect owners of a lot of Greek government debt. As you can see from the pie chart, European taxpayers have the most exposure, but American taxpayers also are on the hook because the IMF has participated in the bailouts.

The situation is Greece is akin to a bankruptcy negotiation. The folks holding Greek government debt are trying to figure out the best strategy for minimizing their losses, much as the creditors of a faltering business will calculate the best way of extracting their funds. If they press too hard, the business may go bust and they get very little (analogous to a Greek default). But if they are too gentle, they miss out on a chance of getting a greater share of the money they’re owed.

2. Centralization is the secular religion of the European elite and they want Greece in the euro.

The bureaucrats at the European Commission and the leaders of many European nations are emotionally and ideologically invested in the notion of “ever closer union” for Europe. Their ultimate goal is for the European Union to be a single nation, like the United States. In this analogy, the euro currency is akin to the American dollar.

There’s a general perception that a default would force the Greek government to pull out of the euro and re-create its own currency. And for the European elite who are committed to “ever closer union,” this would be perceived as a major setback. As such, they are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate Greece’s new government.

Given the somewhat blurry battle lines between Greece and its creditors, what’s the best outcome for advocates of limited government and individual liberty?

That’s a frustrating question to answer, particularly since the right approach would have been to reject any bailouts back when the crisis first started.

Without access to other people’s money, the Greek government would have been forced to rein in the nation’s bloated public sector. To be sure, the Greek government may also have defaulted, but that would have taught investors a valuable lesson about lending money to profligate governments.

And it would have been better if Greece defaulted five years ago, back when its debt was much smaller than it is today.

But there’s no point in crying about spilt milk. We can’t erase the mistakes of the past, so what’s the best approach today?

Actually, the right answer hasn’t changed.

And just as there are two reasons why the Greek government is being at least somewhat clever in playing hardball, there are two reasons why the rest of the world should tell them no more bailouts.

1. Don’t throw good money after bad.

To follow up on the wisdom of J. Paul Getty, let’s now share a statement commonly attributed to either Will Rogers or Warren Buffett. I don’t know which one (if either) deserves credit, but there’s a lot of wisdom in the advice to stop digging if you find yourself in a hole. And Greece, like many other nations, has spent its way into a deep fiscal hole.

There is a solution for the Greek mess. Politicians need to cut spending over a sustained period of time while also liberalizing the economy to create growth. And, to be fair, some of that has been happening over the past five years. But the pace has been too slow, particularly for pro-growth reforms.

But this also explains why bailouts are so misguided. Politicians generally don’t do the right thing until and unless they’ve exhausted all other options. So if the Greek government thinks it has additional access to money from other nations, that will give the politicians an excuse to postpone and/or weaken necessary reforms.

2. Saying “No” to Greece will send a powerful message to other failing European welfare states.

Now let’s get to the real issue. What happens to Greece will have a big impact on the behavior of other European governments that also are drifting toward bankruptcy.

Here’s a chart showing the European nations with debt burdens in excess of 100 percent of economic output based on OECD data. Because of bad demographics and poor decisions by their politicians, every one of these nations is likely to endure a Greek-style fiscal crisis in the near future.

And keep in mind that these figures understate the magnitude of the problem. If you include unfunded liabilities, the debt levels are far higher.

So the obvious concern is how do you convince the politicians and voters in these nations that they better reform to avoid future fiscal chaos? How do you help them understand, as Mark Steyn sagely observed way back in 2010, that “The 20th-century Bismarckian welfare state has run out of people to stick it to.

Well, if you give additional bailouts to Greece, you send precisely the wrong message to the Italians, French, etc. In effect, you’re telling them that there’s a new group of taxpayers from other nations who will pick up the tab.

That means more debt, bigger government, and a deeper crisis when the house of cards collapses.

P.S. Five years ago, I created a somewhat-tongue-in-cheek 10-step prediction for the Greek crisis and stated at the time that we were at Step 5. Well, it appears my satire is slowly becoming reality. We’re now at Step 7.

P.P.S. Four years ago, I put together a bunch of predictions about Greece. You can judge for yourself, but I think I was quite accurate.

P.P.P.S. A big problem in Greece is the erosion of social capital, as personified by Olga the Moocher. At some point, as I bluntly warned in an interview, the Greeks need to learn there’s no Santa Claus.

P.P.P.P.S. The regulatory burden in Greece is a nightmare, but some examples of red tape are almost beyond belief.

P.P.P.P.P.S. The fiscal burden in Greece is a nightmare, but some examples pf wasteful spending are almost beyond belief.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Since we once again have examined a very depressing topic, let’s continue with our tradition of ending with a bit of humor. Click here and here for some very funny (or sad) cartoons about Obama and Greece. And here’s another cartoon about Greece that’s worth sharing. If you like funny videos, click here and here. Last but not least, here’s some very un-PC humor about Greece and the rest of Europe.

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I’ve written several times about the importance of appointing sensible people to head the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT). Heck, making reforms to these Capitol Hill bureaucracies is a basic competency test for Republicans.

That’s because CBO and JCT are the official scorekeepers when politicians consider changes in fiscal policy and it has a big (and bad) impact if they rely on outdated methods and bad analysis.

The CBO, for instance, puts together economic analysis and baseline forecasts of revenue and spending, while also estimating what will happen if there are changes to spending programs. Seems like a straightforward task, but what if the bureaucrats assume that government spending “stimulates” the economy and they fail to measure the harmful impact of diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy to Washington?

The JCT, by contrast, prepares estimates of what will happen to revenue if politicians make various changes in tax policy. Sounds like a simple task, but what if the bureaucrats make the ridiculous assumption that tax policy has no measurable impact on jobs, growth, or competitiveness, which leads to the preposterous conclusion that you maximize revenue with 100 percent tax rates?

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily, former Treasury Department officials Ernie Christian and Gary Robbins explain why the controversy over these topics – sometimes referred to as “static scoring” vs “dynamic scoring” – is so important.

It is Economics 101 that many federal taxes, regulations and spending programs create powerful incentives for people not to work, save, invest or otherwise efficiently perform the functions essential to their own well-being. These government-induced changes in behavior set off a chain reaction of macroeconomic effects that impair GDP growth, kill jobs, lower incomes and restrict upward mobility, especially among lower- and middle-income families. …Such measurements are de rigueur among credible academic and private-sector researchers who seek to determine the true size of the tax and regulatory burden on the economy and the true value of government spending, taking into account the economic damage it often causes.

But not all supposed experts look at these second-order or indirect effects of government policy.

And what’s amazing is that the official scorekeepers in Washington are the ones who refuse to recognize the real-world impact of changes in government policy.

These indirect costs of government, in particular or in total, have not been calculated and disclosed in the Budget of the United States or in analyses by the Congressional Budget Office. The result of this deliberate omission by Washington has been to understate many costs of government, often by more than 100%, and grossly overstate its benefits. …It is on this foundation of disinformation that the highly disrespected, overly expensive and too often destructive federal government in Washington has been built.

Christian and Robbins look specifically at the direct and indirect costs of the income tax.

The income tax is a two-part tax, one acknowledged and one deliberately concealed. First, almost $2 trillion of income tax is collected by the IRS for government to spend for presumably beneficial purposes. Then there is the tax-induced economic damage, a stealth tax, indirectly picked from people’s pockets in the form of fewer jobs and lower incomes. This stealth tax is $3.2 trillion each year. …economists often refer to the stealth tax as a deadweight loss. …When the $2 trillion of income tax taken directly out of the economy by the IRS is added to the $3.2 trillion of indirect economic cost, the total private-sector cost of the income tax is $5.2 trillion — and the government has only $2 trillion of income tax revenues to spend in trying to repair the damage.

By the way, I must disagree with the last part of this excerpt.

Government doesn’t “repair the damage” of high taxes when it spends money. Most of the time, it exacerbates the damage of high taxes by spending money in ways that further weaken the economy.

Let’s now get back to the part of the editorial that I like. Ernie and Gary make the very important point that some taxes do more damage than others.

…when the IRS collects a dollar of income tax from corporations, the damage to the overall economy is about $4. Similarly, a dollar of tax on capital gains sets off a ripple effect that does about $6 of damage. Poison pills such as capitalizing (instead of expensing) the job-creating cost of machinery and equipment, taxing dividends, double-taxing personal saving and imposing high tax rates result in stealth taxes ranging from $3 to $8 per dollar of revenues. …Low tax rates do less damage to economic growth per dollar of revenues raised and are preferable to high tax rates, which have the opposite effect.

Here’s a chart based on their analysis.

I’m not overly fixated on their specific estimates. Even good economists, after all, have a hard time making accurate forecasts and correctly isolating the impact of discrete policies on overall economic performance. Moreover, it’s very difficult to factor in the economic impact of America’s tax-haven policies for foreign investors, which help offset the damage of high tax burdens on American citizens.

But Christian and Robbins are completely correct about certain taxes doing more damage than other taxes.

And the lesson they teach us is that the tax bias against saving and investment is extremely destructive.

And the less fortunate are particularly disadvantaged when bad methodology at CBO and JCT perpetuates bad policy.

…it is self-defeating and harmful to require that tax reforms always be revenue neutral in a near-term static sense. Imagine a tax reform that initially costs the IRS $1. Through economic growth, it promptly increases taxable income and well-offness by $2.50. At an average tax rate of 20%, the reform-induced $2.50 increase in taxable income at the outset recoups only 50 cents of the initial $1 cost to the IRS, thereby leaving the IRS 50 cents short in the near term. But who in the White House or Congress would refuse to make mostly lower and middle-income families $2.50 better off at a cost of only 50 cents to Washington’s already overflowing coffers?

The final sentence of the excerpt hits the nail on the head.

I’ve previously cited academic research and expert analysis to show that it is pointlessly punitive to raise tax rates if the damage to the private sector is several times greater than the additional revenue collected by government.

Yet there are plenty of examples of this type of short-sighted analysis, such as Obama’s proposal to expand the Social Security payroll tax (see the 6:43-7:41 section of this video)

And if you like videos, I have a three-part series on the Laffer Curve which is part of this post offering a lesson from the 1980s for Barack Obama.

The bottom line is that we’ll continue to get bad analysis and bad numbers if Republicans aren’t smart enough to clean house at CBO and JCT.

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Last month, I posted “the cartoon argument” for Social Security reform.

My main goal, as an American, is to achieve this important reform in the United States.

And I’ve tried to bolster the argument by citing lots of hard data, including the fact that “funded” accounts already exist in nations such as Australia, Chile, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

In this spirit, I wrote an article for the most recent issue of Cayman Financial Review, and I looked at the issue from a global perspective. I first explained that demographics are destiny.

It is widely believe that aging populations and falling birth rates represent one of biggest global challenges for long-term economic stability. How can a nation prosper, after all, if there are more and more old people over time and fewer and fewer workers? Don’t these demographic changes put every-growing fiscal burdens on a shrinking workforce to support the elderly, leading to crippling tax burdens and/or enormous levels of debt? In most cases, there are no good answers to those questions. So it is quite likely that many nations will face serious economic and fiscal challenge… Here are some charts showing the age profile of the world’s population in both 1990 and 2100. As you can see, demographic changes are turning population pyramids into population cylinders. …virtually every industrialized nation is undergoing demographic changes that will produce some very painful fiscal consequences.

But not all nations are in trouble.

there are jurisdictions, such as Singapore and Hong Kong that are in reasonably good shape even though their populations rank among the nations with the lowest levels of fertility and longest life expectancies. And other nations, including Sweden, Australia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, have much smaller long-run challenges than other industrialized countries with similar demographic profiles.

Why are these jurisdictions in stronger shape?

Simply stated, they have personal retirement accounts.

Mandatory pension savings is a key reason why some jurisdictions have mitigated a demographic death squeeze. Whether they rely on occupational pensions, individual accounts, or even central provident funds, the common characteristic is that workers automatically set aside a portion of current income so it can be invested in some sort of retirement vehicle. Over several decades, this results in the accumulation of a substantial nest egg that then is used to provide retirement income.

And there are now about 30 nations that have implemented this critical reform…though that number unfortunately is dwarfed by the number of countries that haven’t modernized their tax-and-transfer schemes.

For advocates of funded pension systems, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that there has been a dramatic increase in jurisdictions that have adopted some form of private retirement system. …the bad news is that mandatory private retirement systems still only cover a small fraction of the world’s workers. The vast majority of workers with retirement plans are compelled to participate in pay-as-you-go government schemes.

Unsurprisingly, I explain why personal retirement accounts are much better for the overall economy.

Economists have been concerned about a triple-whammy caused by traditional tax-and-transfer retirement schemes. First, payroll taxes and other levies discourage labor supply during peak working years. Second, the promise of retirement benefits undermines a very significant incentive to save. Third, the provision of retirement benefits discourages labor supply once a worker reaches retirement age. …Systems based on private savings, by contrast, have very little economic downside. Workers are compelled to save and invest some portion of their income, but all of that money will be correctly seen as deferred compensation. …Perhaps equally important, second-pillar systems boost national savings, which means more funds available to finance productive private-sector investment.

Though I bluntly admit that there will be a significant transition cost.

The…common critique of mandatory retirement savings is that…if younger workers are allowed to shift their payroll taxes into personal accounts, policy makers would need to find lots of money over several decades (trillions of dollars in the American example) to fulfill promises made to existing retirees as well as workers that are too old to get much benefit from personal accounts. This critique is completely accurate. …But here’s the catch. While trillions of dollars are needed to finance the transition to a system of personal accounts, it’s also true that trillions of dollars are needed to bail out the current system. …The real question is figuring out the best way to climb out of that hole. From a long-term fiscal and economic perspective, personal accounts are the more attractive option.

To elaborate, it’s better to somehow find $5 trillion over several decades to finance the shift to personal retirement accounts than it is to somehow find $30 trillion over a longer period of time to bail out the current system.

For more information on personal accounts, you can click here for my video on the topic.

And to learn about Obama’s supposed solution, watch (with horror) this video.

P.S. You can enjoy some previous Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

P.P.S. While I’m a very strong advocate of personal retirement accounts (my Ph.D. dissertation was about Australia’s very good system), I’ll be the first to admit that it’s even more important to modernize Medicare and Medicaid.

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Back in 2013, I actually wrote something vaguely nice about HBO’s Bill Maher. Or at least I expressed approval for a point he made about the limits of class-warfare taxation.

It’s now time to compensate for that action.

Check out this interview. It’s about Obama’s new tax-and-spend budget, but pay particular attention at the 5:15 mark of the video and you’ll hear Maher asserting that “socialism” deserves the credit for the development of a thriving middle class in America.

Wow. Maher’s comments are astonishingly illiterate.

As I remarked in the interview, the United States (like other western nations) had a tiny public sector during the period when it transitioned from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity.

Federal spending averaged only about 3 percent of economic output, and overall government spending (including state and local governments) was only about 10 percent of GDP.

If that was socialism, then sign me up!

This isn’t to say we have laissez-faire paradise in the 1800s and early 1900s. Some of the so-called Robber Barons were cronyists who used government favoritism to line their pockets. Monetary policy oftentimes was a mess because of government regulation and control of banks. Tariffs were very onerous. And Jim Crow laws were an odious example of government power being used to oppress an entire class of citizens and hamper their ability to participate in the market economy.

But the one thing we didn’t have back then was socialism, whether you use the right definition (government ownership of the means of production) or the sloppy definition (a redistributive welfare state).

Sigh.

Enough on that topic. The bulk of the interview, of course, focused on Obama’s budget. I got in my main point, which is that we need to focus on restraining the growth of government spending.

So rather than recycle my thoughts, let’s cite comments by two wise observers.

Here’s how Dan Henninger of the Wall Street Journal described the President’s plan.

The president’s annual budget reminds the Beltway tribes of what they do—tax the country, distribute revenues to their allies, and euphemize it as a budget. With his 2015 budget, Barack Obama at last makes clear his presidency’s reason for being: to establish an empire of taxation. …In six years, the Obama Democrats have abandoned any belief in the idea that the private sector is the primary cause of American prosperity. Instead, they seem to see the private sector as a kind of tax sump-pump, a dumb machine whose only purpose is tax flow. …That is the empire of taxation. It is an isolated system, based in Washington, which allocates what it exacts from the private sector.

And here’s some of what George Will wrote about the poisonous spiral of more government leading to more stagnation leading to more demands for more government.

The progressive project of maximizing the number of people dependent on government is also aided by the acid of insecurity that grows rapidly when the economy does not. Anxious and disappointed people are susceptible to progressives’ blandishments about the political allocation of wealth and opportunity — “free” this and that. By making slow growth normal, iatrogenic government serves the progressive program of defining economic failure down.

I fully agree. Not only the points about the weakness of the Obama “recovery,” but also the concerns about more and more people being lured into government dependency, which sabotages American exceptionalism.

Jerry Holbert has a nice summary of the President’s worldview.

Hmmm…I think we’ve seen this bookstore before.

Though I’m surprised Obama is bothering to shop when he can just go to the library for his favorite books.

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