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Posts Tagged ‘Government Spending’

Back in 2017, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released this video to help explain why spending caps are the most sensible and sustainable fiscal rule.

Switzerland actually has a spending cap in its constitution, and similar fiscal rules also exist in Hong Kong and the state of Colorado.

These policies have produced very good results.

There are many reasons to support a spending cap, including the obvious observation that an expenditure limit (as it is sometimes called) directly addresses the actual problem of excessive government.

And addressing the underlying disease works better than rules that focus on symptoms, such as balanced budget requirements or anti-deficit mandates.

You’ll notice toward the end of the video that the narrator cites pro-spending cap research from international bureaucracies, which is remarkable since those institutions normally have a bias for bigger government.

I’ve also written about that research, citing studies by the International Monetary Fund (here and here), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (here and here) and the European Central Bank (here).

Today, let’s look at more evidence from these bureaucracies.

We’ll start with a new study from the European Central Bank. Here’s some of what the authors (Nicholai Benalal, Maximilian Freier, Wim Melyn, Stefan Van Parys, and Lukas Reiss) found when comparing spending limits and anti-deficit rules.

this paper provides an in-depth assessment of two alternative measures of fiscal consolidation and expansion: the change in the structural balance (dSB) and the expenditure benchmark (EB). Both the dSB and the EB are currently used to assess compliance with the fiscal rules under the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP).The EB was introduced as an indicator in 2011, and has gained in importance relative to the dSB since the European Commission began to put more emphasis on it in 2016.A comparison of the fiscal performance of euro area countries reveals significant differences depending on whether the assessment is based on the dSB or the EB. this paper finds that the EB has advantages over the dSB as a fiscal performance indicator. …expenditure rules…provide more predictability in fiscal requirements. …Even more importantly, the EB can be shown to be less procyclical as a fiscal rule than the dSB. 

Let’s also review some 2019 research from the International Monetary Fund.

This study (authored by Kodjovi Eklou and Marcelin Joanis) looks at whether fiscal rules can constrain vote-buying politicians.

In order to increase their chances of reelection, politicians are known to undertake fiscal manipulations, especially in election years. These fiscal manipulations typically take the form of increased public expenditure… Many countries, both developed and developing, have adopted fiscal rules in recent decades as an attempt to enforce fiscal discipline. …In this paper, we employ a cross-country panel dataset in order to test whether fiscal rules adopted in developing countries have been effective in constraining political budget cycles. The dataset covers 67 developing countries over the period 1985-2007. …Our dependent variable is the general government’s final consumption expenditure as a share of GDP.

Here’s what the authors concluded about the effectiveness of spending caps.

Our empirical evidence in a sample of 67 developing countries over the period 1985-2007, shows that fiscal rules cause fiscal discipline over the electoral cycle. More specifically, in election years with fiscal rules in place, public consumption is reduced by 1.65% point of GDP as compared to election years without these rules. Furthermore, the effectiveness of these rules depends on their type… In particular, expenditure rules, rules covering the general government and rules characterized by a monitoring body outside the government dampen political budget cycles in government consumption.

Indeed, footnote 12 of the paper specifically notes the superiority of expenditure limits.

…the results show that public consumption is reduced by 2.44% points during election years with expenditure rules in place. The findings on expenditure rules are consistent with Cordes et al. (2015) who show that the compliance rate for these rules are high.

Last but not least, the fiscal experts at the Office of Management and Budget included in Trump’s final budget some very encouraging language at the end of Chapter 10 of the Analytical Perspectives.

…additional efforts to control spending are needed. Several budget process reforms should be considered, including setting spending caps… Outlay caps that are consistent with the historical average as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), post-World War II levels could be enforced with sequestration across programs similar to other budget enforcement regimes. An outlay cap on mandatory spending would complement discretionary caps, which have been in place since 2013. The Budget proposes to continue discretionary caps through 2025 at declining levels and declining levels through 2030.

Trump was a big spender, of course, but at least there were people in his administration who realized there was a problem.

And they recognized the right solution.

P.S. It’s also interesting that the authors of the IMF study found that fiscal rules work better in democracies.

…estimates focusing on the subsample of democratic elections. The effect of fiscal rules on the political budget cycle is larger… More specifically, public consumption is reduced by 2.46% point of GDP (while it is 1.65% point in the baseline).

This may not bode well for the durability of Hong Kong’s spending cap.

The authors also found that foreign aid makes it less likely that a government will follow sensible policy.

Foreign aid, which relaxes the budget constraint of the government, is negatively correlated with the probability of having fiscal rules.

Needless to say, nobody should be surprised to learn that foreign aid undermines good policy.

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As a libertarian, I view defense spending with the same jaundiced eye that I apply to domestic spending.

  • I’ve pointed out that the U.S. represents a big share of global military outlays.
  • I’ve pointed out that sequestration wasn’t a threat to military preparedness.
  • I’ve pointed out that legacy defense commitments may be senseless nowadays.

And here’s a more-updated view of how much the United States spends on the military compared to other nations.

Call me crazy, but this chart indicates that the United States is probably spending too much on the Pentagon.

For what it’s worth, it’s possible that America’s lead is exaggerated because China and Russia get more bang for their buck on their military spending, but it’s also worth noting that the rest of the nations on the list are largely allied with the United States.

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times writes there is too much spending on defense. But he undermines the credibility of his position with a deceptive comparison of domestic and defense outlays.

…the nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars that we are spending this year on a military that has become the epitome of governmental dysfunction, self-dealing and overspending. …does it make any sense to keep spending so many hundreds of billions on the Pentagon? …The Pentagon has never passed an audit… Congress is projected to spend about $8.5 trillion for the military over the next decade — about half a trillion more than is budgeted for all nonmilitary discretionary programs combined… You don’t have to be a pacifist to wonder if this imbalance between military and nonmilitary spending makes sense.

The problem with what he wrote is that he compares defense spending only to the portion of domestic spending that is considered “discretionary.”

And this leaves out all the entitlement programs – which are the biggest and fastest growing part of the federal budget.

So I went to section 8 of the Historical Tables of the Budget and put together this chart, based on inflation-adjusted dollars, showing total domestic spending (huge and growing), total defense spending (relatively flat), and interest payments on the national debt (relatively flat).

Next, let’s look at the data showing what share of the budget goes to different types of spending.

For this chart, I’ve separated domestic entitlements and domestic discretionary.

Once again, the obvious and unambiguous takeaway is that domestic spending is the problem in general, with entitlements being the problem in particular.

Now that we know that entitlement programs are America’s main fiscal challenge, let’s close with a couple of reminders that we also should take a knife to the Pentagon’s budget.

This headline for a story in USA Today.

This heading from a story in Stars & Stripes.

This headline from a story in the New York Times.

And if you want other examples of military waste, click here, here, and here.

But don’t forget that the big savings from defense budget can be achieved by reevaluating whether it makes sense to maintain alliances against enemies that no longer exist, along with reconsidering the wisdom of nation building.

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As part of a recent discussion with Gene Tunny in Australia, I explained why I support “Starve the Beast,” which means keeping taxes as low as possible to help achieve the goal of spending restraint.

The premise of Starve the Beast is very simple.

Politicians like to spend money and they don’t particularly care whether that spending is financed by taxes or financed by borrowing (both bad options).

As Milton Friedman sagely observed, that means they will spend every penny they collect in taxes plus as much additional spending financed by borrowing that the political system will allow.

The IMF published a study on this issue about 10 years ago. The authors (Michael Kumhof, Douglas Laxton, and Daniel Leigh) assert that there’s no way of knowing whether Starve the Beast will lead to good or bad results.

…there is no consensus regarding the macroeconomic and welfare consequences of implementing a starve-the-beast approach, henceforth referred to as STB. …it could be beneficial in the ideal case in which it results in cuts in entirely wasteful government spending. In particular, lower spending frees up resources for private consumption, and the associated lower tax rates reduce distortions in the economy. On the other hand, …lower government spending may itself entail welfare losses…if it augments the productivity of private factors of production. …the paper examines whether the principal macroeconomic variables such as GDP and consumption, both in the United States and in the rest of the world, respond positively to this policy. …In addition, the paper assesses how the welfare effects depend on the degree to which government spending directly contributes to household welfare or to productivity.

The authors don’t really push any particular conclusion. Instead, they show various economic outcomes depending on with assumptions one adopts.

Since plenty of research shows that government spending is not a net plus for the economy (even IMF economists agree on that point), and because I think a less-punitive tax system is possible (and desirable) if there’s a smaller burden of government spending, I think the findings shown in Figure 4 make the most sense.

Now let’s shift from academic analysis to policy analysis.

In a piece for National Review back in July 2020, Jim Geraghty notes that Starve the Beast has an impact on government finances at the state level.

…we’re probably not going to see a massive expansion of government at the state level in the coming year or two. …Thanks to the pandemic lockdown bringing vast swaths of the economy to a halt, state tax revenues are plummeting. …So states will have much less tax revenue, constitutional balanced-budget requirements that are not easily repealed, and a limited amount of budgetary tricks to work around it. State governments could attempt to raise taxes, but that’s going to be unpopular and hurt state economies when they’re already struggling. Add it all up and it’s a tough set of circumstances for a dramatic expansion of government, no matter how ardently progressive the governor and state legislatures are.

For what it’s worth, Geraghty warned in the article that fiscal restraint by state governments wouldn’t happen if the federal government turned on the spending spigot.

And that, of course, is exactly what happened.

Now let’s look at the most unintentional endorsement of Stave the Beast.

A couple of years ago, Paul Krugman sort of admitted that cutting taxes was a potentially effective strategy for spending restraint.

…the same Republicans now wringing their hands over budget deficits…blew up that same deficit by enacting a huge tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. …this has been the G.O.P.’s budget strategy for decades. First, cut taxes. Then, bemoan the deficit created by those tax cuts and demand cuts in social spending. Lather, rinse, repeat. This strategy, known as “starve the beast,” has been around since the 1970s, when Republican economists like Alan Greenspan and Milton Friedman began declaring that the role of tax cuts in worsening budget deficits was a feature, not a bug. As Greenspan openly put it in 1978, the goal was to rein in spending with tax cuts that reduce revenue, then “trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending.” …voters should realize that the threat to programs… Social Security and Medicare as we know them will be very much in danger.

In other words, Krugman doesn’t like Starve the Beast because he fears it is effective (just like he also acknowledges the Laffer Curve, even though he’s opposed to tax cuts).

Let’s close by looking at some very powerful real-world evidence. Over the past 50 years, there’s been a massive increase in the tax burden in Western Europe.

Did all that additional tax revenue lead to lower deficits and less debt?

Nope, the opposite happened. European politicians spent every penny of the new tax revenue (much of it from value-added taxes). And then they added even more spending financed by additional borrowing.

To be fair, one could argue that this was an argument for the view of “Don’t Feed the Beast” rather than “Starve the Beast,” but it nonetheless shows that more money in the hands of politicians simply means more spending. And more red ink.

P.S. I had a discussion last year with Gene Tunny about the issue of “state capacity libertarianism.”

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At the risk of understatement, economists are not good forecasters.

And they are especially incompetent when they make forecasts based on bad policy, such as when the Obama White House projected that his so-called stimulus would quickly lead to falling unemployment.

In reality, the jobless rate immediately increased and then remained much higher than projected for the remainder of the five-year forecast.

The failure of Obama’s stimulus should have been a learning moment for Washington politicians.

But Joe Biden must have slept through that lesson because his first big move after taking office was to saddle the nation with a $1.9 trillion “stimulus” package.

The White House claimed this orgy of new spending would lead to four million additional jobs in 2021, on top of the six million new jobs that already were expected.

So what happened? Matt Weidinger of the American Enterprise Institute looked at the final numbers for 2021 and discovered that employment actually fell compared to pre-stimulus baseline projection.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected on February 1, 2021…a gain of 6.252 million jobs over…2021…we now know payroll employment in the fourth quarter of 2021 averaged 148.735 million — an increase of 6.116 million compared with the average of 142.619 million in the fourth quarter of 2020. That means the job growth the President praised this week has fallen 136,000 jobs short of what was expected under the policies he inherited. …President Biden and congressional Democrats promised their $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan would create millions of additional new jobs this year — on top of what White House economists called the “dire” baseline of 6.252 million new jobs reflected in CBO’s projection without that enormous legislation. …House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) repeated that claim, stating that “if we do not enact this package, the results could be catastrophic,” including “4 million fewer jobs.” Yet…not one of those four million additional jobs supposedly resulting from that $1.9 trillion spending plan has appeared, as job creation in 2021 did not even match CBO’s projection without that legislation.

Below you’ll see the chart that accompanied the article.

As you can see, the White House projected more than 10 million new jobs (right bar).

Yet we would up with 6.1 million new jobs (left bar), about 140,000 less than we were projected to get (center bar) without wasting $1.9 trillion.

If pressed, I’m sure the Biden Administration would use the same excuse that we got from the Obama White House (and from the Congressional Budget Office), which is that the initial forecast was wrong and that the so-called stimulus did create jobs.

In other words, the Biden economists now would say they should have projected 2 million new jobs, which means that the $1.9 trillion spending spree added 4 million jobs, for a net increase of 6 million.

You may think I’m joking, but that is exactly how the Keynesian economists tried to justify Obama’s stimulus failure.

The moral of the story is that the best way to really create jobs is to get government out of the way rather than adding new burdens.

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It’s an annual tradition (2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, etc) to list a handful of things that I hope might happen in the upcoming year, as well as the things I fear may happen.

Sadly, since I understand the economics of “public choice” (something Thomas Jefferson also implicitly understood) it’s always easier to envision the latter category.

But it’s good to begin a new year with optimism, so here are the good things that hopefully will happen in 2022.

Biden’s So-Called Build Back Better Stays Dead – The President squandered money on a fake stimulus and an infrastructure boondoggle, but we dodged the biggest bullet when Democrats couldn’t get all 50 of their Senators to support a multi-trillion dollar, growth-sapping expansion in taxes and spending.

The Supreme Court Ends Civil Asset Forfeiture – This was on my list last year, but the odious practice of “theft by government” continues. That being said, I still think it won’t survive if the Supreme Court has a chance to make a ruling (especially since America’s best Justice is very aware of the problem).

Republicans Win Congress in 2022 – I don’t have much faith in Republicans to do the right thing (especially when a Republican is in the White House), but I hope they win the House and Senate in November because they will oppose big tax increases while Democrats control the White House – even if only for partisan reasons.

In the “honorable mention” or “runner-up” category, I also hope to see further progress for school choice in 2022.

And I used to list a collapse of Venezuela’s reprehensible socialist government as one of my annual “hopes,” but I’ve largely given up (particularly since Latin Americans seem foolishly susceptible to “leftist saviors“).

Now let’s shift to the bad things that I fear will happen over the next 365 days.

Biden’s BBB Budget Plan Springs Back to Life – The President’s “Build Back Better” plan may be on life support, but sadly it’s not quite dead. I fear a scaled-down (but still horrible) version of the legislation may get approved this year. Senator Manchin of West Virginia, for instance, says he is willing to support a $1.5 trillion package and I fear the left eventually will decide that 50 percent of a (moldy and weevil-ridden) loaf is better than none.

Biden’s Remains a Protectionist – I hoped last year that Biden would reduce government trade taxes. Not because he believes in economic liberty, but simply because he wouldn’t want to continue a Trump-era policy. But that didn’t happen, and I now fear he’ll continue with protectionism in 2022. I don’t even have much hope that he’ll resuscitate the World Trade Organization.

New Tax Cartels – One of last year’s big defeats was the creation of a global tax cartel by governments. Barring some sort of miracle that prevents implementation, greedy politicians have set up a system that will require all nations to have a minimum corporate tax of 15 percent. That’s very bad news for workers, consumers, and shareholders, but I’m even more worried about the precedent it creates for additional tax cartels and ever-higher tax rates.

I’ll close by noting that last year’s list included the possibility of Kamala Harris becoming president.

But Biden has been so bad that it’s unclear that Harris would make things worse.

P.S. For the “fears” category, I could – and probably should – list entitlements every single year. Simply stated, the country is in deep long-run trouble because of an aging population and poorly designed tax-and-transfer programs. Years ago, I was semi-hopeful that we would get Medicaid and Medicare reform.

Now that seems like a distant dream and the real battle is preventing further entitlement expansions such as Biden’s per-child handout.

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Per tradition (2020, 2019, 2018, etc), we highlight the best and worst developments of the year on December 31.

The choices are based on whether a particular policy increases or decreases individual liberty, either in a big way or a symbolic way.

Interestingly, the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t show up on either the good list or bad list.

Why? Because governments continue to make things worse, but not in ways that are significantly new or different.

With that in mind, let’s look at what happened in 2021, starting with the good news.

The Death of (the horribly misnamed) Build Back Better – President Biden somehow decided a very narrow victory over a very unpopular incumbent meant that he had a mandate for a radical expansion of the welfare state, accompanied by a plethora of class-warfare tax increases. Fortunately, Congress did not approve Biden’s growth-sapping plan.

School Choice Advances – Led by a sweeping plan to empower parents in West Virginia, there were many encouraging victories this year for school choice. And as teacher unions continue to mishandle the pandemic, there’s hope for continued progress next year.

Arizona Tax Reform – Several states lowered tax rates in 2021, but what happened in Arizona deserves special attention. Lawmakers reversed the outcome of a class-warfare referendum, meaning the state’s top tax rate on households will be 4.5 percent rather than 8 percent.

Speaking of referendum results, if we had an “honorable mention” or “runner-up” category, I would list three results from  2021

Now let’s look at the three worst policy developments of 2021.

Biden’s Fake Stimulus and Infrastructure Boondoggle – Even though the so-called Build Back Better plan failed to advance, President Biden was able to significantly increase the burden of government spending with a supposed stimulus plan early in the year, followed by a grab-bag of special-interest handouts as part of “infrastructure” legislation later in the year.

Chile Elects a Hard-Core Leftist President – Much to my dismay, Chilean voters opted for a hard-core leftist president who wants to dismantle the nation’s very successful private social security system. The most economically successful nation in Latin America is now in danger of becoming another Argentina. Or worse.

Global Tax Cartel – While Biden’s proposal for a higher corporate tax rate in the United States did not succeed, he seems to have successfully paved the way for a global tax cartel that will require all nations to have a corporate tax rate of at least 15 percent. This is a victory for politicians over workers, consumers, and shareholders. And it creates a very dangerous precedent.

Let’s also have an honorable mention for bad news.

One positive development during the Trump years was the unwinding of regulations that forced Americans to use crummy, low-flow showerheads.

Well, that victory was short-lived, as captured by this headline from a Reason article.

For what it’s worth, I suspect this bit of bad news will be followed by some bad news on a related issue.

P.S. I thought about including inflation as one of the bad things that happened in 2021, but I think that’s the results of years of misguided monetary policy. Politicians from both parties seem perfectly happy with Keynesian policy from the Federal Reserve.

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The fight over President Biden’s budget, the so-called Build Back Better plan, has revolved around very important issues.

For today’s column, let’s zoom out and look at two charts that highlight the big issue that should be getting more attention.

First, here’s a comparison of projected inflation with baseline spending (the current spending outlook) and Biden’s budget – all based on economic and fiscal estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

As you can see, spending was growing far too fast even without Biden’s budget. And if Biden’s budget is enacted, the spending burden will rise more than twice the rate of inflation.

Now let’s look at a chart that illustrates why Biden’s spending spree is just a small part of the problem.

To be sure, it’s not good that the President is exacerbating America’s fiscal problems, but you can see that he’s simply adding a few more straws to the camel’s back.

You’ll also notice that I included both the amount of spending that technically is in Biden’s budget plan (the orange part), as well as CBO’s estimate of the additional spending (the gray part) that will happen if the budget gimmicks are removed.

The bottom line is that America’s fiscal problem is too much government spending.

And that spending burden is getting worse over time because spending is growing faster than the private sector, violating the Golden Rule, which is bad news for jobs and growth.

Making the problem worse, as Biden proposes, will further hurt American prosperity.

P.S. Biden’s plan will increase the deficit, which also is not good, but keep in mind that tax-financed spending is no better than debt-financed spending. In either case, you wind up with the same bad result.

P.P.S. This column has two serious visuals to help understand Biden’s fiscal policy. If you prefer satire, here are two other images.

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Regarding fiscal policy, almost everyone’s attention is focused on Biden’s growth-sapping plan to increase the burden of taxes and spending.

People are right to be concerned. If the President’s plan is approved, the already-grim fiscal outlook for United States will get even worse.

This battle will be decided in next 12 months, hopefully with a defeat for Biden’s dependency agenda.

Regardless of how that fight is resolved, though, we’re eventually going to get to a point where sensible people are back in charge. And when that happens, we’ll have to figure out how to restore the nation’s finances.

That requires figuring out the appropriate goal. Here are two options:

  • Keeping taxes low.
  • Controlling debt.

These are both worthy objectives.

But, as a logic teacher might say, they are necessary but not sufficient conditions.

Here’s a chart showing how a policy of low taxes (the orange line) presumably enables faster growth, but also creates the risk of an eventual economic crisis if nothing is done to control spending and debt climbs too high (think Greece).

By contrast, the chart also shows that it’s theoretically possible to avoid an economic crisis with higher taxes (the blue line), but it means less growth on a year-to-year basis.

The moral of the story is that the economy winds up in the same place with either tax-financed spending or debt-financed spending.

Which is why we should consider a third goal.

  • Limiting spending.

The economic benefits of this approach are illustrated in this second chart. We enjoy faster year-to-year growth. And, because spending restraint is the best way of controlling debt, the risk of a Greek-style economic crisis is averted.

Now for some caveats.

I made a handful of assumptions in the above charts.

  • The economy grows 2.0 percent annually for the next 31 years with tax-financed spending
  • The economy grows 2.5 percent annually with debt-financed spending, but suffers a 10 percent decline in Year 31.
  • The economy grows 3.0 percent annually for the next 31 years with smaller government (thus enabling low taxes and less debt).

Anyone can create their own spreadsheet and make different assumptions.

That being said, there’s a lot of evidence that higher tax burdens hinder growth, that ever-rising debt burdens can lead to crisis, and that less government spending produces stronger growth.

So feel free to make your own assumptions about the strength of these effects, but let’s never lose sight of the fact that spending restraint should be the main goal for post-Biden fiscal policy.

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Earlier this year, extrapolating from a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Robert O’Quinn (former Chief Economist at the Department of Labor) and I authored a study on the economic impact of Biden’s fiscal plan.

The results are not pretty.

Lost jobs, lost wages, lower living standards, and lost competitiveness.

But those estimates were based on the parameters of Biden’s economic plan in the summer.

His agenda has since been modified, which raises the question of how the current proposal would affect economic performance.

In a piece for Canada’s Fraser Institute (publishers of Economic Freedom of the World and Economic Freedom of North America), Robert and I updated our numbers and explained the implications of Biden’s tax-and-spend agenda.

According to independent experts at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the actual cost of the president’s policies is closer to $4.9 trillion. Some of this new spending will be financed with red ink, but President Biden also has embraced higher tax rates on work, saving, investment and entrepreneurship. Indeed, if his plan were enacted, the United States would have both the highest corporate tax rate and the highest capital gains tax rate in the developed world. …But how much would the economy be hurt? There are groups such as the Tax Foundation that do excellent work measuring the adverse effects of higher tax rates. But it’s also important to measure the harmful impact of a bigger welfare state. …Based on that CBO study, and using the CBO fiscal and economic baselines, we calculated the following unpalatable outcomes if Build Back Better bill (pushed by the president and Democrats in Congress) becomes law and growth is reduced by 2/10ths of 1 per cent per year.

And here are the results.

The good news is that the latest version of Biden’s plan doesn’t do quite as much damage as what was being discussed earlier this year.

The bad news is that our economy will be much weaker (and our results are in line with other estimates, including those done before the election and since the election).

Not that we should be surprised. If the United States becomes more like Europe, we’ll be more likely so suffer from European-style anemia.

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A couple of years ago, to help build the case against socialism, I showed how West Germany enjoyed much faster growth and much more prosperity than East Germany.

The obvious lesson to be learned from this example of “anti-convergence” is that market-oriented economies out-perform state-controlled economies.

I want to revisit this topic because I recently dealt with someone who claimed that government spending via the Marshall Plan deserves the credit for West Germany’s post-war economic renaissance.

What does the evidence say? Was foreign aid from the United States after World War II a key driver (for Keynesian or socialist reasons) of the West German economy.

The answer is no.

Professor David Henderson explained the role of the Marshall Plan for Econlib.

After World War II the German economy lay in shambles. …less than ten years after the war people already were talking about the German economic miracle. What caused the so-called miracle? The two main factors were currency reform and the elimination of price controls, both of which happened over a period of weeks in 1948. A further factor was the reduction of marginal tax rates later in 1948 and in 1949. …Marshall Plan aid to West Germany was not that large. Cumulative aid from the Marshall Plan and other aid programs totaled only $2 billion through October 1954. Even in 1948 and 1949, when aid was at its peak, Marshall Plan aid was less than 5 percent of German national income. Other countries that received substantial Marshall Plan aid exhibited lower growth than Germany.

Moreover, the money that was dumped into Germany as part of the Marshall plan was offset by money that was taken out of the country.

…while West Germany was receiving aid, it was also making reparations and restitution payments well in excess of $1 billion. Finally, and most important, the Allies charged the Germans DM7.2 billion annually ($2.4 billion) for their costs of occupying Germany.

Inconvenient facts like this make the socialism or Keynesian argument very difficult to maintain.

In a 1990 study on whether there should be something similar to the Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe, Melanie Tammen summarized some of the research on how the original plan for Western Europe was a flop.

…those that received relatively large amounts of aid per capita, such as Greece and Austria, did not recover economically until U.S. assistance was winding down. Germany, France, and Italy, on the other hand, began their recovery before receiving Marshall Plan funds. As for Belgium, it embarked on a radical monetary reform program in October 1944, only one month after liberation. Belgium’s economic stabilization and recovery were well under way by 1946, fully two years before the arrival of U.S. aid. Great Britain, conversely, received more Marshall Plan aid than any other nation but had the lowest postwar economic growth rate of any European country. The critical problem facing Europe was…simply bad economic policy.

Kai Weiss of the Austrian Economic Center in Vienna also addressed this issue. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Foundation for Economic Education.

Common knowledge says that the United States’ Marshall Plan was responsible for the rapid economic growth, rebuilding the country by throwing a lot of money at it. But that’s a mistaken view. …why was there a “Wirtschaftswunder”? …two main reasons: a monetary reform and the freeing of the economy by abolishing price controls and cutting taxes. All of this was implemented thanks to one man: Ludwig Erhard. …What Erhard did was unthinkable in a hostile environment. The Allied forces, still heavily controlling Germany, left the Nazi price controls and rationing intact. But when Erhard became Secretary of the Economy in West Germany, he quickly ended all price controls and stopped rationing — to the dismay of the US advisors. …He, not a Keynesian Project like the Marshall Plan, enabled the miracle.

Speaking of Ludwig Erhard, here’s a video clip on what he did to trigger West Germany’s prosperity.

I have one minor disagreement with that video.

It states that Germany combined “free markets with a strong welfare state.”

That’s a very accurate description of, say, current policy in Denmark.

But total social welfare spending in Germany was less than 20 percent of GDP for the first few decades after World War II, considerably less than social welfare spending today in the United States.

At the risk of being pedantic, it would be more accurate to state that Germany combined free markets with a medium-sized welfare state.

Let’s close with one final bit of evidence.

Here’s a look at the most pro-market nations in the decades after the war. Germany (outlined in red) was never at the top of the list, but it was almost always in the top 10.

Was Germany a libertarian paradise?

Hardly.

But the main takeaway from today’s column is that it’s even more absurd to claim that Germany’s post-war growth was because of big government.

P.S. Regarding Eastern Europe, western nations ultimately decided to create a cronyist institution, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, in hopes of boosting post-Soviet economies. Needless to say, that was a mistake. Many nations have enjoyed good growth after escaping communist tyranny, but the cause was good policy rather than handouts.

P.P.S. The Erhard video is an excerpt from The Commanding Heights, a must-watch video that basically tells the economic history of the 20th century).

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Nearly 10 years ago, I shared some data to show how a Swiss-style spending cap would have prevented some of the excess spending of the Bush and Obama years.

Trillion-dollar deficits would have been avoided. But, more important, the burden of government spending would have been significantly lower.

That would have enabled stronger growth, as confirmed even by researchers from left-leaning bureaucracies such as the OECD and CBO.

I then did the same thing in 2020, showing once again how a spending cap would have produced great results.

And, earlier this year, I crunched the numbers to show how Italy and Greece could have avoided their fiscal nightmares if they had imposed spending caps a couple of decades ago.

Today, let’s look at similar data for Canada.

Except I don’t need to do any work because Livio di Matteo has a new study on tax and expenditure limitations from the Fraser Institute. Here’s some he wrote about the conceptual issues.

Tax and expenditure limits restrict the growth of either revenues or expenditures or both by either setting them at a fixed dollar amount or by limiting the growth rate by linking them to the growth of specific economic variables. …A key perceived benefit of TELs is that they serve as a restraint on politicians and bureaucrats who often have little incentive to restrain spending in response to pressures from interest groups. A second benefit of TELs is that smaller government can be associated with higher rates of economic growth. …One noteworthy type of TEL is a strict restriction on tax or expenditure levels, or, more commonly their rates of growth. This is generally a formula driven approach and the most common mechanism involves restricting expenditure growth to the pace of personal income, GDP, or combined population and inflation growth.

Now let’s look at his numbers for Canada, starting with a look at the the status quo outlook for 2015-2025, which shows that the spending burden will climb by 58 percent over the 10-year period.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the implementation of a simple TEL and assess its impact and effectiveness is via an example that makes use of recent federal public finance data. …The base scenario…shows revenues rising from…$292.6 billion to $437.7 billion—an increase of 50 percent. …Meanwhile, expenditures rise from $295.4 billion to $466 billion for an increase of 58 percent.

But what if spending was limited so it could only grow at the same rate as population plus inflation?

The spending burden would increase by just 33 percent.

The simulations in this paper…involves a fixed growth rule for expenditures so that they cannot exceed growth in population plus inflation… Under this approach, federal expenditures grow from $295.5 billion in 2015–16 to reach $393.2 billion by 2025–26, which is a much smaller increase in spending relative to the projections contained in Budget 2021. …Expenditures grow from $295.5 billion in 2015–16 to reach $393.2 billion by 2025–26, an
increase of 33 percent.

The report also looks at what would happen if there was an opt-out clause to allow emergency spending, specifically the outlays for Canada’s response to the COVID pandemic.

The net result is that spending climbs by 43 percent over the 10-year period.

…In figure 3, a…final scenario is presented that…assumes that the TEL was designed to accommodate the need for an emergency fiscal response… Expenditures are assumed to grow at 2.9 percent annually from 2015–16 to 2019–20 and then from 2023–24 onwards. …The results show that revenues rise from $292.6 billion in 2015–16 to $427.7 billion by 2025–26 for a total increase of 46 percent. Meanwhile, expenditures rise from $295.5 billion in 2015–16 to reach $423.7 billion by 2025–26 for an overall increase of 43 percent.

Here is the aforementioned Figure 3, for those interested.

The main takeaway is that a spending cap can be very successful, even if there’s a provision that allows emergency spending.

Total spending grows by less than total revenue, thus satisfying my Golden Rule. And, as a result, there’s far less government debt.

In other words, even with a TEL as structured under this scenario, it would have been possible for the federal government to deliver the exact same amount of COVID-19 fiscal support as laid out in the 2021 federal spring budget, balance the budget by 2025–26, and only accumulate half the deficits

P.S. Let’s look at a final excerpt from the study. We have reviewed a bunch of data showing how spending caps would be successful.

By contrast, balanced budget requirements do not have a good track record.

Balanced budget legislation is often perceived as a form of TEL but in practice it is considered different in that it simply attempts to achieve budget balance so that debt stops being accumulated. Such legislation is not necessarily designed to constrain the rate of growth of government spending—nor to limit the size of the public sector… Indeed, according to Clemens et al. (2003) the adoption of balanced budget laws in Canada, which by the early 2000s existed in eight out of ten provinces, coincided with increases in government spending and taxation as measured by real per-capita consolidated provincial and municipal spending.

This is not surprising. The cyclical nature of revenues means it is very difficult to maintain a balanced budget rule.

By contrast, the International Monetary Fund (twice!), the European Central Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (twice!) have acknowledged that spending caps are the most, if not only, effective fiscal rule.

P.P.S. If you want some real-world evidence, Switzerland’s spending cap continues to produce strong outcomes.

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In my column yesterday about state tax systems, I specifically noted that North Carolina has been making big improvements.

Not only did the state shift to a flat tax a few years ago, it recently voted to lower the rate from 5.25 percent to 3.99 percent.

Why did this happen?

The easy answer is that Republicans gained control of the state legislature. But that’s – at best – only a partial answer. After all, there are plenty of places where Republicans gain power and don’t enact good fiscal policy.

So maybe a better answer is that Reagan-style Republicans took control.

I suspect that’s a far more accurate answer, but I want to dig deeper and look at a policy reform that made the tax cuts possible.

Simply stated, North Carolina politicians embraced the Golden Rule of spending restraint.

And by controlling the growth of spending, they created fiscal maneuvering room for lower tax rates.

In a column for a North Carolina newspaper, John Hood, a board member of the John Locke Foundation (the state’s pro-market think tank) explains what happened.

…in North Carolina, conservative governance has actually reduced the size of state government and significantly improved its fiscal condition. …As a share of the economy, state spending has averaged about 5.8% over the past 45 years. It was well over 6% as recently as 2009. Since fiscally conservative Republicans won control of the General Assembly in 2010, however, budgets have gone up every year in dollar terms but have gone down almost every year when expressed as a share of GDP. That’s because legislative leaders have stuck to their commitment to keep annual spending growth at or below the combined rates of inflation and population growth. …That has, in turn, allowed legislators to rebuild the state’s savings reserves, pay off state debt, and finance several rounds of growth-enhancing tax cuts.

I fully agree that the goal should be to reduce state spending as a share of GDP, so kudos to North Carolina lawmakers.

By limiting annual spending increases, they have strengthened the private sector.

Here’s a chart, based on data from the National Association of State Budget Officers, showing what has happened to state spending since 2010. For background, a simple rule of thumb is that the “general fund” is money a state raises and spends while “total spending” includes that spending plus money that comes from Washington.

By the way, population has increased by about 1 percent annually in North Carolina, so per-capita state spending is only growing by about 1.5 percent per year.

All things considered, a very good job. Too bad Republicans in Washington don’t push for similar policies (to be fair, they did restrain spending during the Tea Party era).

I’ll close with a worrisome observation that North Carolina does not not have a TABOR-style constitutional spending limit.

So while it’s admirable that state lawmakers have restrained spending over the past decade, there are no guarantees that the Tarheel State will enjoy spending restraint in the future.

So North Carolina should copy Colorado and adopt something like TABOR. Or, they can demonstrate their worldliness by copying Switzerland’s “debt brake,” which is another constitutional provision to limit spending.

The goal – for the state and the nation – should be some sort of spending cap.

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First we got Biden’s $1.9 trillion so-called stimulus.

Then we got his $1 trillion-plus infrastructure boondoggle.

Now Congress may be on the verge of approving the President’s budget, which (if we use honest numbers) is a $5 trillion plan to expand the welfare state.

And…

So it’s hardly a surprise that recent changes will lead to a much-larger burden of government spending.

This is bad news for our economy, as measured by my recent study (with similar findings from a wide range of academics – as well as normally left-leaning bureaucracies such as the IMF, World Bank, and OECD).

For purposes of today’s column, let’s put America’s fiscal decline in global context.

Here are some excerpts from a very depressing article in the Economist, starting with some discussion of how Biden’s spending binge is similar to the mistakes made by other nations.

President Joe Biden is building on what started as emergency pandemic-related policy, expanding the child-tax credit, creating a universal federally funded child-care system, subsidising paid family leave and expanding Obamacare. America’s government spending remains somewhat below the developed-world average. But this change is not just a matter of catching up; the target is moving. Government spending as a share of gdp in the oecd as a whole has consistently inched higher in the six decades since the club was formed in 1961.

There’s then some discussion about how a few nations – most notably Sweden and New Zealand – enjoyed period of genuine spending restraint, but accompanied by depressing observations about how fiscal responsibility is very rare.

Examples of genuine state retrenchment in developed countries are few and far between. Sweden managed it in the 1980s. In the early 1990s Ruth Richardson, then New Zealand’s finance minister, cut the size of the state drastically. …State spending is now six percentage points lower as a share of gdp than it was in 1990. But this is a rare achievement, and perhaps one doomed to pass. …This is a sorry state of affairs if you believe that low taxes and small government are the right, and possibly the only, conditions for reliable, enduring economic growth. …an argument made by Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian philosopher, Milton Friedman, an American economist, and others in the mid-20th century.

There’s also some historical analysis showing how the burden of government used to be relatively minor.

From 1274 to 1691 the English government raised less than 2% of gdp in tax. …In the 1870s the governments of rich countries were spending about 10% of gdp. In 1920 it was nearer 20%. It has been growing ever since (see chart 2).

Here’s the aforementioned chart 2, and there are a lot of depressing numbers, though notice how Switzerland does better than other nations.

I’ve previously shared a version of this data, calling it the “world’s most depressing chart” – all of which was made possible by the imposition of income taxes.

But there is some good news. The ever-rising fiscal burden of government has been somewhat offset by reductions in other bad policies.

Governments have not grown more powerful by all measures. Bureaucrats no longer, as a rule, set wages or prices, nor impose strict currency controls, as many did in the 1960s or 1970s. In recent decades the public sector has raised hundreds of billions of dollars from privatisations of state assets such as mines and telecoms networks. If you find it faintly amusing to hear that, from 1948 to 1984, the British state ran its own chain of hotels, that is because the “neoliberal” outlook on the proper place of government has triumphed.

Last but not least, there’s some discussion of “public choice,” which explains why politicians and bureaucrats have incentives to expand the size and scope of government.

Governments and bureaucrats are at least partly self-interested: “public-choice theory” says that unrestrained bureaucracies will defend their turf and seek to expand it. …Politicians have their own incentives to expand the state. It is generally more rewarding for a politician to introduce a new programme than it is to close an old one down; costs are spread across all taxpayers while benefits tend to be concentrated, thus eliciting gratitude from interest groups

I’ll close by reiterating my warning that ever-rising spending burdens not only lead to less growth, but they also will lead to Greek-style fiscal crises.

Europe will get hit first, but it’s just a matter of time before the United States suffers a similar fate.

P.S. There is a simple solution to avoid such crises, and a specific policy to achieve that solution. But don’t hold your breath waiting for politicians to tie their own hands.

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I’ve periodically warned the European nations such as France, Italy, Greece, and Spain almost surely are doomed to suffer a fiscal crisis.

This is because governments in Europe didn’t respond to the 2010 crisis by actually solving the problem of excessive spending.

Instead, I pointed out about five years ago that they have allowed the spending burden to rise, as measured by outlays as a share of economic output.

Well, things have since gone even further in the wrong direction, exacerbated by long-run factors such as demographic decline and short-run factors such as the coronavirus pandemic.

So what’s the net result?

Writing for the Hill, Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute is concerned about the possibility of a new round of fiscal chaos in Europe.

In 2010, the Eurozone experienced a sovereign debt crisis that shook the world economy. Today…, it appears that the Eurozone could be well on the way to another such debt crisis. It is not only that the public finances of several key countries in the Eurozone periphery are considerably worse than they were on the eve of the 2010 sovereign debt crisis. It is also that inflation has risen to a level that will make it difficult for the European Central Bank (ECB) to continue to keep the Eurozone periphery governments afloat by a continuation of bond purchases on the massive scale that it has been doing to date. …Over the past 18 months, in response to the pandemic and with a view to stimulating the European economy, the ECB increased the size of its balance sheet by more than $4 trillion. …The fly in the ointment for countries such as Italy and Spain is that they cannot expect that the ECB will continue to buy their bonds on a large scale forever. …Another reason to fear an early end to the ECB’s massive bond-buying program is the strong resistance to such bond buying by the Eurozone’s northern member countries in general and by Germany in particular. These countries view the ECB’s bond-buying activities as a move to a fiscal union through the backdoor.

Excellent points, particularly with regard to the malignant role of the European Central Bank, which has created the conditions for a much bigger crisis by enabling bigger government and more debt.

If you want to understand how much worse the debt problem is today, here’s a chart based on OECD data for European nations (with the U.S. and Japan added for purposes of comparison.

Keep in mind, of course, that the debt is basically a symptom of the real problem of excessive spending.

Though debt becomes its own problem when investors no longer trust a government’s ability to pay bondholders.

P.S. Notice Switzerland’s good numbers, which is an argument for that nation’s spending cap.

P.P.S. The problem in Europe is too much government spending, not the euro currency.

P.P.P.S. Eurobonds will make things worse in the long run.

P.P.P.P.S. It is possible to reduce large debt burdens, so long as governments simply restrain spending.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Here’s some comedy (and more comedy) about Europe’s fiscal mess.

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After the people of the United Kingdom voted to escape the European Union, I wondered whether the Conservative Party would “find a new Margaret Thatcher” to enact pro-market reforms and thus “take advantage of a golden opportunity” to “prosper in a post-Brexit world.”

The answer is no.

The current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, deserves praise for turning the Brexit vote into Brexit reality, but his fiscal policy has been atrocious.

Not only is he failing to be another Margaret Thatcher, he’s a bigger spender than left-leaning Tory leaders such as David Cameron and Theresa May.

Let’s look at some British media coverage of how Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) have sided with government over taxpayers.

Allister Heath of the Telegraph has a brutal assessment of their profligacy.

Rishi Sunak’s message, repeated over and over again, as he unveiled a historic, epoch-defining rise in public spending financed by ruinous tax increases. It was a Labour Budget with a Tory twist and the kind of Spending Review that Gordon Brown would have relished… the cash was sprinkled in every possible direction. Sunak is Chancellor, but he was executing Boris Johnson’s cakeist vision: a meddling, hyperactive, managerialist, paternalistic and almost municipal state which refuses to accept any limits to its ambition or ability to spend. …The scale of the tax increases is staggering. …This will propel the tax burden from 33.5 per cent of GDP before the pandemic to 36.2 per cent by 2026-27, its highest since the early 1950s… The picture on spending is equally grim: we are on course for a new normal of around 41.6 per cent of GDP by 2026-27, the largest sustained share of GDP since the late 1970s. …The Budget and Spending Review are thus a huge victory for Left-wing ideas, even if the shift is being implemented by Right-wing Brexiteers who have forgotten that the economic case for Brexit wasn’t predicated on Britain becoming more like France or Spain. …Labour shouldn’t be feeling too despondent: the party may not be in office, but when it comes to the economy and public spending, they are very much in power.

Writing for CapX, James Heywood explains one of the adverse consequences of big-government Toryism.

Simply stated, the U.K. will go from bad to worse in the Tax Foundation’s International Tax Competitiveness Index.

…in the Cameron-Osborne era, the Conservatives focused on heavily on making Britain competitive and business-friendly, with significant cuts to the headline rate of corporation tax. …in his recent Tory conference speech, Boris Johnson trumpeted the virtues of an ‘open society and free market economy’, promising that his was a government committed to creating a ‘low tax economy’.  Unfortunately, when it comes to UK tax policy the direction of travel is concerningly divorced from the rhetoric. The latest iteration of the US-based Tax Foundation’s annual International Tax Competitiveness Index placed the UK 22nd out of 37 OECD countries when it comes to the overall performance of our tax system. …Nor does the UK’s current ranking factor in the Government’s plans for future tax rises. …the headline rate of corporation tax had fallen to 19% and was set to fall to 17% by 2020. That further fall had already been cancelled during Sajid Javid’s brief stint as Chancellor, in order to pay for additional NHS spending. At the last Budget, Rishi Sunak went much further, setting out plans to gradually raise the rate from 19% to 25% in April 2023. That is a huge tax measure by anyone’s standards… On top of that we have the recently announced Health and Social Care Levy… If we factor all these new measures into the Tax Foundation’s Competitiveness Index, the UK falls to a dismal 30th out of 37 countries.

For what it’s worth, the United Kingdom’s competitiveness decline will be very similar to the drop in America’s rankings if Biden’s fiscal plan is enacted.

In other words, there’s not much difference between the left-wing policy of Joe Biden and the (supposedly) right-wing policy of Britain’s Conservative Party.

No wonder a British cartoonist thought it was appropriate to show Rishi Sunak morphing into Gorden Brown, the high-tax, big-government Chancellor of the Exchequer under Tony Blair.

I’ll close with the observation that conservatives and libertarians in the United Kingdom need to create their own version of the no-tax-hike pledge.

That pledge, organized by Americans for Tax Reform, has helped protect many (but not all) Republicans from politically foolish tax hikes.

It is good politics to have a no-tax pledge, but I’m much more focused on the fact that opposing tax hikes is good policy.

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President Biden’s fiscal agenda of higher taxes and bigger government is not a recipe for prosperity.

How much will it hurt the economy?

Last month, I shared the results of a new study I wrote with Robert O’Quinn for the Club for Growth Foundation.

We based our results on a wide range of economic research, especially a scholarly study from the Congressional Budget Office, and found a big drop in economic output, employment and labor income.

Most troubling was the estimate of a long-run drop in living standards, which would be especially bad news for young people.

Today, I want to share some different estimates of the potential impact of Biden’s agenda.

A study for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, authored by  E. J. Antoni, Vance Ginn, and Stephen Moore, found even higher levels of economic damage. Here are some main excerpts.

President Biden and congressional Democrats seek to spend another $6.2 trillion over the next decade, spread across at least two bills that comprise their “Build Back Better” plan. This plan includes heavy taxing, spending, and debt, which contributes to reducing growth rates for GDP, employment, income, and capital stock.  Compared to baseline growth over the next decade, this plan will result in estimated dynamic economic effects of 5.3 million fewer jobs, $3.7 trillion less in GDP, $1.2 trillion less in income, and $4.5 trillion in new debt. …There are many regulatory changes and transfer payments in current legislation whose effects have not been included in this paper but are worth mentioning in closing since they will have many of the same effects as the tax increases discussed in this paper. Extending or expanding the enhanced Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit, Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, and more, disincentivizes working, reducing incomes, investment, and GDP. Just the changes to these three tax credits alone are expected to cause a loss of 15,000 jobs… Permanently expanding the health insurance premium tax credits would similarly have a negative effect… Regulatory changes subsidizing so-called green energy while increasing tax and regulatory burdens on fossil fuels also result in a less efficient allocation of resources.

If we focus on gross domestic product (GDP), the TPPF estimates a drop in output of $3.7 trillion, which is higher than my study, which showed a drop of about $3 trillion.

Part of the difference is that TPPF looked at the impact of both the so-callled infrastructure spending package and Biden’s so-called Build Back Better plan, while the study for the Club for Growth Foundation only looked at the impact of the latter.

So it makes sense that TPPF would find more aggregate damage.

And part of the difference is that economists rarely agree on anything because there are so many variables and different experts will assign different weights to those variables.

So the purpose of sharing these numbers is not to pretend that any particular study perfectly estimates the effect of Biden’s agenda, but rather to simply get a sense of the likely magnitude of the economic damage.

Speaking of economic damage, here’s a table from the TPPF showing state-by-state job losses.

I’ll close by noting that you can also use common sense to get an idea of what will happen if Biden’s agenda is approved.

He wants to make the United States more like Western Europe’s welfare states, so all we have to do is compare U.S. living standards and economic performance to what’s happening on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

And when you do that, the clear takeaway is that it’s crazy to “catch up” to nations that are actually way behind.

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Having been in Washington for close to 40 years, I’ve seen lots of budget dishonesty, but nothing compares to Joe Biden’s claim that his profligate budget proposals have zero cost.

According to the official numbers, that’s a $3.5 trillion lie.

In reality, as I noted in July, it’s much bigger.

Let’s investigate this issue. I’ll start by noting that I have mixed feelings about the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB). They think controlling red ink should be the main focus of fiscal policy, whereas I think controlling spending should be the top goal.

That being said, CRFB’s staff have a well-deserved reputation for being thorough and careful when producing fiscal analysis.

So it’s worth noting that the group estimates that the Biden’s fiscal agenda would actually cost between $5 trillion and $5.5 trillion over 10 years, much higher than the “official” estimate of $3.5 trillion.

Here are some of the bottom-line numbers from their report.

That’s a truncated version of their table. If you want to see all the gory details, click here.

You’ll also be able to read the group’s analysis, including these key excerpts.

While the actual cost of this new legislation will ultimately depend heavily on details that have yet to be revealed, we estimate the policies under consideration could cost between $5 trillion and $5.5 trillion over a decade, assuming they are made permanent. In order to fit these proposals within a $3.5 trillion budget target, lawmakers apparently intend to have some policies expire before the end of the ten-year budget window, using this oft-criticized budget gimmick to hide their true cost. …To fit $5 trillion to $5.5 trillion…into a $3.5 trillion budget, background documents to reporters explain that “the duration of each program’s enactment will be determined based on scoring and Committee input.”  In other words, tax credits and spending programs will be set to expire at some point before the end of the decade, in the hope that future lawmakers will extend these programs. …This budget gimmick…would obscure the true cost of the legislation

The Wall Street Journal opined about Biden’s gimmickry.

Democrats are grasping for ways to finance their cradle-to-grave welfare state, with the left demanding what they claim is $3.5 trillion over 10 years. The truth is that even that gargantuan number hides the real cost of their plans. The bills moving through committees are full of delayed starts, phony phase-outs, and cost shifting to states designed to fit $3.5 trillion into a 10-year budget window… Start with the child allowance… Democrats have hidden the real cost by extending the allowance only through 2025. Even if Republicans gain control of Congress and the White House in 2024, Democrats and their media allies will bludgeon them to extend the payments… Democrats are using a different time shift to disguise the cost of their Medicare expansion…delaying the phase-in of the much more expensive dental benefit to 2028. This “saves” $420 billion over 10 years, but the costs explode after that. …the new universal child-care entitlement…gives $90 billion to the states—but only from 2022 to 2027. …The bottom line: $3.5 trillion is merely the first installment of a bill that would put government at the commanding heights of family life and the economy for decades to come. Tax increases will follow as far as the eye can see.

Regarding the final sentence of the above excerpt, the tax increases in Biden’s budget are merely an appetizer.

Ultimately, a European-sized welfare state requires European-style taxes on lower-income and middle-class households.

In other words, a value-added tax, along with higher payroll taxes, higher energy taxes, and higher income tax rates on ordinary workers (with this unfortunate Spaniard being a tragic example).

But we do have a tiny bit of good news.

A small handful of Democrats are resisting Biden’s budget, which means the package presumably will have to shrink in order to get sufficient votes.

But this good news may be fake news if Biden and his allies in Congress simply expand the use of dishonest accounting.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute documents some of this likely dishonesty in a column for the New York Post.

How does Congress cut a $3.5 trillion spending bill down to $1.5 trillion? By using gimmicks to hide its true cost. …Progressives have been abusing these gimmicks from the start. They began with a reconciliation proposal that would cost nearly $5 trillion over the decade. Then, in order to cut the bill’s “official” cost closer to $4 trillion, the bill’s authors included a December 2025 expiration of the $130 billion annual expansion of the child tax credit… Of course, no one believes that Congress will actually allow the child tax credit to be reduced at the end of 2025… Democrats purposely selected for “expiration” a popular middle-class benefit that they know even a future Republican Congress or president would not dare take away from voters. …expensive child care subsidies, family leave, and “free” community college benefits may also have their full cost hidden with fake expiration dates early into the 10-year scoring window. Lawmakers fully expect to extend these policies later, ultimately raising the cost of the total reconciliation bill closer to the $3.5 trillion target (or even higher). …Progressives are also discussing delaying the proposed new Medicare dental benefits until 2028, which legitimately saves money within the 10-year scoring window but also hides a larger long-term cost.

I realize that it’s not a big revelation to write that politicians are dishonest (Washington, after all, is a “wretched hive of scum and villainy“).

And I also realize that that the main problem with Biden’s plan is the economic damage it will cause, not the reliance on phony accounting.

But truth should matter a little bit, even in a town where lying about fiscal policy is a form of art.

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When asked to list the worst presidents of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon belong on the list.

But this Reason video with Amity Shlaes shows why Lyndon Johnson also is among the worst of the worst.

 

You should watch every second of the video, but if you don’t have 33 minutes to spare, here’s a helpful summary.

Johnson declared war on poverty, jacked up federal spending on education, and pushed massive new entitlement programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, which promised to deliver high-quality, low-cost health care to the nation’s elderly and poor. …But did the Great Society achieve its goals of eradicating poverty, sheltering the homeless, and helping all citizens participate more fully in the American Dream? In Great Society: A New History, Amity Shlaes argues that Lyndon Johnson’s bold makeover of the government was a massive failure.

Massive failure may be an understatement.

LBJ’s two big entitlement programs, Medicare and Medicaid, are the biggest reason why America will suffer a future fiscal crisis.

And his so-called War on Poverty was a disaster for both taxpayers and poor people.

How much of a disaster?

Let’s augment Amity’s analysis with these excerpts from Jason Riley’s column in the Wall Street Journal.

Entitlement programs were dramatically expanded in the 1960s in the service of a war on poverty, yet poverty fell at a slower rate after the Great Society initiatives were implemented, and overall dependency on the government for food, shelter and other basic necessities increased. …Liberals pitch these social programs in the name of helping underprivileged minority groups and reducing inequality, but the lesson of the 1960s is that government relief can put in place incentives that have the opposite effect. Between 1940 and 1960 the percentage of black families living in poverty declined by 40 points… No welfare program has ever come close to replicating that rate of black advancement… Moreover, what we experienced in the wake of the Great Society interventions was slower progress or outright retrogression. Black labor-force participation rates fell, black unemployment rates rose, and the black nuclear family disintegrated. In 1960 fewer than 25% of black children were being raised by a single mother; within four decades, it was more than half. …The welfare state is often discussed in relation to its effect on racial and ethnic minorities, yet crime, single parenting and drug abuse also increased among poor whites in the aftermath of the Great Society. When the government indulges and subsidizes counterproductive behavior, we tend to get more of it.

What’s depressing is that Biden wants to replicate LBJ’s mistakes. His new entitlements will mean slower growth and more dependency.

P.S. Amity Shlaes also has done great work to highlight the achievements of one of America’s best presidents.

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A couple of days ago, I shared the most-recent data about “actual individual consumption” in nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

My goal was to emphasize my oft-stated point about people in the United States enjoying higher living standards – in large part because European nations are saddled with a bigger fiscal burden of government.

President Biden, however, wants to make the United States more like Europe.

What’s happening this week in Congress may determine whether he succeeds.

Since I’m policy wonk rather than a political pundit, I don’t pretend to have any great insight on matters such as vote counting.

But I feel compelled to warn that adoption of Biden’s plan would have a negative economic impact.

And I’m not the only one raising alarm bells.

Professor Greg Mankiw of Harvard opined for the New York Times about Biden’s fiscal plan. He starts be noting that Biden’s plan is affordable.

President Biden and many congressional Democrats aim to expand the size and scope of government substantially. …People of all ages are in line to get something… If there is a common theme, it is that when you need a helping hand, the government will be there for you. …Western European nations have more generous social safety nets than the United States. The Biden plan takes a big step in that direction. Can the United States afford to embrace a larger welfare state? From a narrow budgetary standpoint, the answer is yes.

But affordable is not the same as sensible.

He points out that a bigger government will mean a smaller economy.

The costs of an expanded welfare state…extend beyond those reported in the budget. There are also broader economic effects. Arthur Okun, the former economic adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, addressed this timeless issue in his 1975 book, “Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff.” …As policymakers attempt to rectify the market’s outcome by equalizing the slices, the pie tends to shrink. …Which brings us back to Western Europe. Compared with the United States, G.D.P. per person in 2019 was 14 percent lower in Germany, 24 percent lower in France and 26 percent lower in the United Kingdom. …In other words, most European nations use that leaky bucket more than the United States does and experience greater leakage, resulting in lower incomes. By aiming for more compassionate economies, they have created less prosperous ones.

And less prosperous economies mean lower living standards, as honest folks on the left (such as Okun) openly admit.

That’s bad news for everyone, including lower-income people who theoretically are supposed to benefit from the various new and expanded redistribution programs in Biden’s fiscal plan.

Yes, they may get money from government in their pockets in the short run, but even a small reduction in economic growth will lead to larger income losses in the long run.

The bottom line is that the American experiment has been successful. Why put it at risk by copying nations that aren’t as successful.

After all, you don’t want to “catch up” to countries that are lagging.

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Last week, I wrote about a new study which estimates that Biden’s fiscal agenda of bigger government and higher taxes would reduce economic output by about $3 trillion over the next decade.

Perhaps more relevant, that foregone economic growth would translate into more than $10,000 of lost compensation per job. And a lifetime drop in living standards of more than 4 percent for younger people.

And these numbers are based on research by the Congressional Budget Office, which is hardly a bastion of libertarian analysis.

The Biden White House has a different perspective.

How different? Well, the President actually claims that expanding the burden of government won’t cost anything.

I’m not joking. Here are some excerpts from an article in the Washington Post by Seung Min Kim and Tony Romm.

President Biden promised Friday that his sweeping domestic agenda package will cost “nothing” because Democrats will pay for it through tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations… The remarks were an attempt by Biden to assuage some of the cost concerns pointedly expressed by the moderate Democrats about the size of the legislation… The total spending outlined in the plan is $3.5 trillion… “It is zero price tag on the debt we’re paying. We’re going to pay for everything we spend,” Biden said in remarks from the State Dining Room at the White House.

Biden’s strange analysis has generated some amusing responses.

For instance, Gerard Baker opined in the Wall Street Journal about Biden’s magical approach.

…this is a novel way of estimating the cost of something. That eye-wateringly expensive dinner you had last week didn’t really cost you anything because you paid for it. …You could have used the money to invest in your children’s college fund. You could have paid off some of your credit card bill, the debt on which has quadrupled in the last year. But you chose instead to blow it on a few morsels of raw fish and a couple of bottles of 1982 Château Lafite Rothschild. Don’t worry, It didn’t cost you anything.

Biden and his team definitely deserve to be mocked for their silly argument.

For all intents and purposes, they want us to believe that there’s no downside if you combine anti-growth spending increases with anti-growth tax increases – so long as there’s no increase in red ink.

But there’s actually a fiscal theory that sort of supports what the White House is saying.

  • Capital (saving and investment) is a key driver of productivity and long-run growth.
  • Budget deficits divert capital from the economy’s productive sector to government.
  • Budget deficits raise interest rates, reducing incentives for investment.
  • Therefore, budget deficits are bad for prosperity.

For what it’s worth, all four of those statements are correct.

But the theory is nonetheless wrong because it elevates one variable – fiscal balance – while ignoring other variables that have a much bigger impact on economic performance.

For instance, the Congressional Budget Office at one point embraced this approach – even though it led to absurd implications such as growth being maximized with tax rates of 100 percent.

For further background, here’s a table I prepared back in 2012.

The White House today is basically embracing the IMF’s “austerity” argument that deficits/surpluses are the variable that has the biggest impact on growth.

P.S. Folks on the left must get whiplash because some days they embrace the Keynesian argument that deficits are good for growth and other days they argue that a big expansion of government will have zero cost because there is no increase in the deficit.

P.P.S. The folks on the right who focus solely on tax cuts also are guilty of elevating one variable while ignoring others (humorously depicted in this cartoon strip).

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With regards to fiscal policy, part of my mission is to proselytize in favor of lower tax rates and a smaller burden of government spending.

But another goal is simply to make sure people understand basic facts about the budget.

For instance, how many people know that Republican presidents (notwithstanding their rhetoric) generally increase spending at a faster rate than Democrats?

Not many.

And ever fewer people know that Republican presidents even increase domestic spending (discretionary outlays plus entitlements) faster than Democrats.

The only exception to this rule is Ronald Reagan.

Which explains why folks on the left don’t like him, which is a perfectly reasonable reaction from their perspective.

But what’s not reasonable is the way some of them butcher facts in pursuit a big-government agenda.

For instance, Paul Waldman of the Washington Post has a column claiming that Joe Biden is finally, after 40 years, ending the Reagan revolution.

…the old-school plutocrats who have long controlled the party’s policy agenda…are getting very frightened of the reconciliation bill Democrats are negotiating. …The reconciliation bill really does represent an undoing of Reaganism. …The bill would reverse what Ronald Reagan wrought on government spending… Reagan famously said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” His great achievement was to make that the default assumption of public debate, the paradigm under which the country would operate for decades. It held sway even during periods of Democratic rule. Bill Clinton embraced the Reagan paradigm… the Democratic reconciliation bill is most revolutionary. It would reinforce the safety net — largely temporary programs such as unemployment insurance and food stamps, meant to help when you experience a crisis — but it would also create a new system of social infrastructure… All of which would go far beyond what was in place before Reagan. …it really is a threat to the legacy of Reaganism.

Some of what Waldman wrote is correct.

Reagan did point out that “government is the problem.”

And we did get a bit of Reagan-style spending restraint under Bill Clinton (though one can certainly argue that the post-1994 GOP Congress deserves some or all of the credit).

But he is wildly wrong in his main point about a dominant Reagan-inspired paradigm on government spending.

Let’s go to the Historical Tables of the Budget, published by the Office of Management and Budget.

Here’s a chart based on Table 8.2, which shows total domestic spending (column E + column H) in inflation-adjusted dollars. As you can see, outlays have exploded in the post-Reagan years (and I included both 2019 and 2020 data to show that it’s not just the coronavirus-related spending increases from last year).

Now let’s look at Table 8.4, which allows us to show domestic spending (also column E + column H) as a share of economic output.

We see that the burden of such outlays declined significantly under Reagan. Sadly, all that progress evaporated (and then some) by 2019.

The bottom line is that Biden does have a big-government agenda.

But that’s not exactly a new paradigm. Every other president in the post-Reagan era has sided with government over taxpayers.

I miss the Gipper.

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More than 10 years ago, I wrote about President Obama’s disingenuous strategy of pretending that spending increases were tax cuts.

Politicians in Washington have come up with something far more impressive than turning lead into gold or water into wine. Using self-serving budget rules, they can increase the burden of government spending and say they are cutting taxes instead. This bit of legerdemain is made possible…by adopting or expanding refundable tax credits. But in this case, “refundable” does not mean the government is returning money to taxpayers. Instead, it means that money is being redistributed to people who do not earn enough to be subject to the income tax. This is hardly a trivial issue. …the amount of income redistribution being laundered through the tax code is now so large that the bottom 40 percent of the population has a negative “effective” income tax rate.

Indeed, the IRS is now the biggest redistribution agency in the world, in charge of giving away a massive amount of money.

Far more than is spent on traditional welfare (what used to be called aid to families with dependent children and was reclassified as temporary aid to needy families), as illustrated by the chart.

The so-called earned income tax credit is the biggest redistribution program, though there’s also a large amount of spending on child credits.

And the cost of the so-called child credits is going to explode if President Biden’s plan for per-child handouts is approved.

Matt Weidinger of the American Enterprise Institute opined on Biden’s version of political alchemy.

Democrats are fond of saying their massive $3.5 trillion spending bill includes significant “tax cuts.” They are referring to the effects of continuing the expanded child tax credit… President Biden said it was “one of the largest-ever single tax cuts for families with children.” …The facts say otherwise. …Such payments to those who do not owe federal income taxes are known as “refundable” credits, or in budget terms “outlays” — the same as benefits provided under welfare, Medicaid, food stamps, and similar spending programs. The outlay portions of these tax credits are not “tax cuts” for the simple reason that the payments exceed any taxes the recipient owed in the first place. Put another way, it is impossible to “cut taxes” if you do not owe taxes.

And here’s the relevant table from the Joint Committee on Taxation.

By the way, note how the spending estimates decline after 2025.

This is a budget gimmick. To make Biden’s expansion of the welfare state seem less extravagant, supporters designed the proposal so the expanded per-child handouts disappear in 2026.

But they openly argue that they will be extended because of the assumption that many Americans will get hooked on “free” money from Washington.

P.S. I’m not a fan of child credits, even for families that pay taxes. Simply stated, there are other types of tax cuts that will do a much better job of boosting after-tax family income.

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In an ideal world, Americans would have personal retirement accounts, just like workers in Australia, Sweden, Chile, Hong Kong, Israel, Switzerland, and a few dozen other nations.

But we’re not in that ideal world. We are forced to participate in a Ponzi Scheme known as Social Security.

By the way, that’s not necessarily a disparaging description. A Ponzi Scheme can work if there are always enough new people in the system to pay off the old people.

But because of demographic changes (increasing lifespans and decreasing birthrates), that’s not what we have in the United States.

And this is why Social Security faces serious long-run problems.

How serious? The Social Security Administration finally released the annual Trustees Report. This document has a wealth of data on the program’s financial condition, and Table VI.G9 is where the rubber meets the road.

As you can see from this chart, there will be an ever-increasing burden of Social Security taxes and spending over the next 75 years. And these numbers are adjusted for inflation!

The good news (relatively speaking) is that the economy also will be growing over the next 75 years, both in nominal terms and inflation-adjusted terms.

The bad news is that spending on Social Security will grow at a faster rate, so the program will consume a larger share of the economy’s output.

And because Social Security spending is growing faster than the economy (and also faster than tax revenue), this next chart shows there is going to be more and more red ink in the future. Once again, you’re looking at inflation-adjusted data.

As indicated by the chart’s title, the cumulative shortfall over the next 75 years is nearly $48 trillion. That’s a lot of money, even by Washington standards.

And with each passing year, the problem seems to worsen. The 75-year shortfall was $44.7 trillion according to the 2020 report and $42.1 trillion according to the 2019 report.

I’ll conclude by observing that today’s column focuses on the big-picture fiscal problems with Social Security.

But let’s not forget the program’s second crisis, which is the fact that Americans are deprived of the ability to enjoy much higher levels of retirement income.

Certain groups are particularly harmed by this aspect of the current program, including minorities, women, older workers, and low-income workers.

P.S. Our friends on the left argue that the program’s fiscal problems (the first crisis) can be solved with tax increases. Perhaps that is true, but it will mean a weaker economy and it will exacerbate the second crisis by forcing workers to pay more to get less.

P.P.S. I once made a $16 trillion dollar mistake on national TV when discussing Social Security’s shaky finances.

P.P.P.S. Much of the news coverage about the Trustees Report has focused on the year the Social Security Trust Fund supposedly runs out of money. But this is sloppy journalism since the Trust Fund has nothing but IOUs (as illustrated by this joke).

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Our friends on the left who want more government spending generally have a short-run argument and a long-run argument.

  • In the short run, they assert that more government spending can stimulate a weak economy. This is typically known as Keynesian economics and it means temporary borrowing and spending.
  • In the long run, they claim that big government is an investment that leads to better economic performance. This is the “Nordic Model” and it means permanent increases in taxes and spending.

In many ways, the debate about short-run Keynesianism is different than the debate about the appropriate long-run size of government.

But there is one common thread, which is that proponents of more government pay too much attention to consumption and too little attention to production.

I wrote a somewhat wonky column about this topic back in April, but let’s take another look at this issue.

In a column last month for the Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler shared some economic fundamentals.

Here’s how capitalism works—pay attention if you took the social-justice version of Econ 101. SIPPC: Save. Invest. Produce. Profit. Consume. Save means postponing consumption, money and time. Only then you can invest, especially your human capital, in something productive. Usually this means doing more with less, being efficient and effective. This is when innovation happens. Wealth comes only from productivity, not from giving away money. …Supply first and then consume…, creating incentives to put money into the hands of entrepreneurs and clearing a path for them to innovate by getting government out of the way.

In some sense, this is simply the common-sense observation that you can’t consume (or redistribute) unless someone first produces.

But it’s also a deeper message about what actually drives production.

There are no shortcuts. You can’t induce demand without supply. Didn’t the lockdowns prove that? Stimulus checks did little good given that there were few places to spend them until businesses were allowed to reopen. We’re now perversely sitting on almost $3 trillion in excess savings and even more new government debt. Yet the government stimulus mentality continues in Congress. …Through taxes and currency depreciation, demand-side spending steals savings needed to invest in future supply, which is why it never works. It is why the Great Depression lasted so long, why Japan lost two decades, and why 2009-16 saw subpar U.S. economic growth. When demand drops, government spending and giveaways make things worse. The only solution to kickstart production is to increase investment and make jobs more plentiful by cutting taxes and easing regulation. ..Price signals tell entrepreneurs what to supply. But price signals are only as good as their inputs. Minimum-wage laws mess up labor price signals. Tariffs mess up trade price signals. The Federal Reserve’s bond-buying blowouts mess up interest-rate price signals.

Amen. We know the policies that lead to more prosperity, but politicians constantly throw sand in the gears.

Simply stated, bigger government diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. And that makes it more difficult to get the innovation and investment that are necessary for rising wages.

To be sure, there are some types of government spending that arguably help a private economy function.

But that’s not what we get from much of the federal government (Department of Housing and Urban DevelopmentDepartment of EducationDepartment of EnergyDepartment of AgricultureDepartment of Transportation, etc).

Which is why the growth-maximizing size of government is far smaller than what we are burdened with today.

P.S. I can’t resist sharing this additional segment of Mr. Kessler’s column.

Modern Monetary Theory, known as MMT—what economist John Christensen called the “Magic Money Tree”—is the worst of demand-side nonsense. MMT believers think that to boost aggregate demand we can have government print money and spend, spend, spend. We tried this in the 1960s and ’70s with Great Society programs

At the risk of understatement, I agree with his concerns.

P.P.S. It’s worth noting that the World BankOECD, and IMF have all published research showing the benefits of smaller government.

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As a matter of sensible public policy (and well as fealty to the Constitution), the federal government should not be involved in transportation.

But since I don’t expect the current crowd in Washington has any interest in getting rid of the Department of Transportation, perhaps we should have a more modest goal of eliminating subsidies for mass transit.

After all, there’s no reason why taxpayers across the nation should be subsidizing the cost of railway, bus, and subway travel in a handful of cities.

Getting rid of these handouts would save a decent chunk of money. Here’s a chart from Downsizing Government, which shows the history of pre-pandemic spending by the Federal Transit Administration.

But that chart is now out of date since politicians have used the pandemic as an excuse to dramatically increase the burden of federal spending. Including big handouts for mass transit.

And now they want to raid taxpayers for more transit money as part of a spending spree on infrastructure.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized about this topic a couple of days ago.

Democrats are accusing Republicans of holding up the Senate infrastructure deal over funding for mass transit. Here’s what’s really going on: Republicans have bowed to most Democratic demands. But now Democrats are also insisting that they acquiesce to spending ever more to rescue broken rail and bus systems in big liberal cities. Mass transit typically receives $13 billion in federal funds each year, and Congress provided an additional $70 billion for urban transit last year in the myriad pandemic spending bills. That’s more than six times the normal transit budget and more than the annual operating and capital spending of every transit agency in the U.S. combined. …But most mass transit systems face a larger structural budget problem that pre-dated the pandemic: Ballooning operating costs from generous labor contracts and pension payments, which are siphoning off money from system improvements and repairs. Many systems have also been losing riders due to lousy service… So Democrats want Republicans to bail out those cities and their public unions. Republicans have agreed to a $48.5 billion supplemental appropriation for mass transit in the deal. But in addition Democrats are demanding that 20% of transportation spending from the highway trust fund—financed by gas tax revenues—go toward transit.

This is throwing good money after bad.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education back in 2019, Hans Bader explained that mass transit in an inefficient money pit.

Mass transit is largely a failure and continues to decline despite growing subsidies to many mass transit systems. Light rail systems are white elephants. …South Korea is abolishing its celebrated high-speed rail line from its capital, Seoul, to a nearby major city because it can’t cover even the marginal costs of keeping the trains running. Most people who ride trains don’t need maximum possible speed, and most of those who do will still take the plane to reach distant destinations. …most Japanese don’t take the bullet train either; they take buses because the bullet train is too expensive. Bullet trains do interfere with freight lines, so Japanese freight lines carry much less cargo than in the United States, where railroads—rather than trucks—carry most freight, thereby reducing pollution… California’s so-called bullet train is vastly behind schedule and over budget, and will likely never come close to covering its operating costs once it is built. …Just the first leg of this $77 billion project will cost billions more than budgeted. And the project is already at least 11 years behind schedule.

Government is a big reason why transit is so inefficient and expensive.

Industry expert Randal O’Toole wrote about the harmful impact of socialized systems back in 2018.

Public ownership of transit has significantly increased the cost of transit, creating another disadvantage for the transit industry relative to other modes of travel. Before 1964, transit systems in most American cities were private and profitable, albeit declining. In 1964, Congress gave cities and states incentives to take over transit systems, and within a decade nearly all had been municipalized …followed by a staggering decline in transit productivity. In the decade before 1964, transit systems carried an average of about 59,000 riders per operating employee. This plunged after 1964 and today averages fewer than 27,000 riders per employee… It is doubtful that any American industry has suffered a 54 percent decline in worker productivity over 30 years unless it was another industry taken over by the government and inflicted with all the inefficiencies associated with government control and management.

We’ll close with this chart from O’Toole’s study, which shows total taxpayer subsidies over time.

The bottom line is that government transit systems are a lot like government schools. More and more money gets spent over time with worse and worse results.

Except maybe mass transit is even worse because of absurd cost overruns.

P.S. Click here and here to learn more about the boondoggle of government-funded rail.

P.P.S. Click here to learn more about the boondoggle of government-funded subways.

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Joe Biden wants to dramatically expand the welfare state (more than $5 trillion of new spending over the next 10 years).

In this discussion with Ross Kaminsky of KHOW in Denver, I warn that the President’s proposal for per-child handouts is an especially bad idea.

In part, my opposition to per-child handouts is motivated by a desire to protect the welfare reform law enacted in the 1990s.

As I noted in the interview, that reform reduced dependency and it reduced poverty. And Biden’s plan, for all intents and purposes, will repeal that law since it will be possible to get big chunks of money while not working, simply by having kids.

But since I’m a public finance economist, I’m also motivated by opposition to a massive new entitlement program.

At the risk of understatement, we don’t need to spend another $1.1 trillion when we can’t even afford all the programs that already are burdening taxpayers.

Others share my concern about the impact of Biden’s plan.

Matt Weidinger dissects per-child handouts in an article for National Review.

This year, parents don’t need to have paid taxes at all to collect an annual allowance of up to $3,600 per child. …According to the New York Times, “more than 93 percent of children — 69 million” will benefit from the new federal giveaway. …No work is expected from parents collecting them. That’s reminiscent of welfare programs before bipartisan 1996 reforms that required parents to work or attend training in order to receive government checks. In fact, the biggest beneficiaries of the new child allowance will be parents who earn less than $2,500 per year — including those who don’t work or pay taxes at all. …As explained in a 2019 report proposing child allowances in the U.S., the idea comes “from other countries.” …American policy-makers could merely be following suit. But it seems more likely that they’re just searching for a palatable way to package their current explosion of new spending, a spin on a return to the failed policies of the past: bigger benefits, for more people, funded by others’ tax dollars. After all, calling such payments “welfare” just wouldn’t do, would it?

David Henderson of the Hoover Institution also explains why Biden’s scheme is misguided.

Child allowances are a bad idea. It’s wrong to forcibly take money from some and give to others simply because they have children. Moreover, child allowances would create increased dependence, are not targeted at the needy, could reduce the work effort of lower-income women, and would add to the already huge federal budget… Scott Winship, the director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute…worries that child allowances will undercut the successful welfare reform of the mid-1990s and thereby cause a substantial number of unmarried low-income mothers to stop working. …in the 1990s he thought welfare reform would increase child poverty and he now admits that he was wrong. He writes that in the United States, “Poverty among the children of single parents fell from 50 percent in the early 1980s to 15 percent today, with an especially sharp decline during the 1990s.” …the urgent need is to get federal spending under control. This means slowing the growth of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the three programs most responsible for the coming federal deficits. But it also means not adding major new programs.

By the way, Henderson’s column focuses on Mitt Romney’s plan, but his criticisms apply equally (actually, even more) to Biden’s proposal.

I’ll close with some encouraging polling data that was shared by G. Elliott Morris of the Economist.

Biden’s plan has only 29 percent support (versus 43 percent opposition).

I suspect that polling data would look even better if the pollsters had been honest and asked whether people favored expanded redistribution payments based on number of kids (“refundable” tax credits are simply spending that gets laundered through the tax code).

The bottom line is that the United States already has a big problem with government dependency. Per-child handouts will make a bad situation even worse.

P.S. Some advocates of the handouts say we need to copy Europe, but they never explain why “catching up” is a good idea when Europeans have much lower living standards.

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Back in 2019, I listed “Six Principles to Guide Policy on Government Spending.”

If I was required to put it all in one sentence (sort of), here’s the most important thing to understand about fiscal policy.

This does not mean, by the way, that we should be anarcho-capitalists and oppose all government spending.

But it does mean that all government spending imposes a burden on the economy and that politicians should only spend money to finance “public goods” that generate offsetting benefits.

Assuming, of course, that the goal is greater prosperity.

I’m motivated to address this topic because Philip Klein wrote a column for National Review about Biden’s new spending. He points out that this new spending is bad, regardless of whether it is debt-financed or tax-financed.

As Democrats race toward squandering another $4.1 trillion — perhaps with some Republican help — we are being told over and over how the biggest stumbling block is figuring out how the new spending will be “paid for.” …Senator Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), who is trying to maintain his image as a moderate, insisted that he doesn’t believe the spending should be passed if it isn’t fully financed. “Everything should be paid for,” Manchin has told reporters. …Republican members of the bipartisan group have also made similar comments. …But it is folly to consider massive amounts of new spending to be “responsible” as long as members of Congress come up with enough taxes to raise… At some point in the next few weeks, Democrats (and possibly Republicans) will announce that they have reached a deal on some sort of major spending compromise. They will claim that it is fully paid for, and assert that it is fiscally responsible. But there is nothing responsible about adding trillions in new obligations at a time when the nation is already heading for fiscal catastrophe.

Klein is correct.

Biden’s spending binge will be just as damaging to prosperity if it is financed with taxes rather than financed by debt.

The key thing to realize is that we’ll have less growth if more of the economy’s output is consumed by government spending.

Giving politicians and bureaucrats more control over the allocation of resources is a very bad idea (as even the World Bank, OECD, and IMF have admitted).

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Back in 2009, there was strong and passionate opposition to Bush’s corrupt TARP scheme and Obama’s fake stimulus boondoggle – both of which had price tags of less than $1 trillion.

Today, Biden has already squandered $1.9 trillion on his version of “stimulus” and has asked Congress to expand the federal government’s budgetary burden by another $3.5 trillion (plus about $600 billion for so-called infrastructure).

Yet there doesn’t seem to be the same intensity of opposition, even though Biden is proposing policies that are far more costly.

Is this simply because Republicans were corrupted by Trump’s profligacy and are now comfortable with big government?

Or are they distracted by cultural battles over issues such as critical race theory?

I don’t know, but I’m very worried that insufficient opposition may result in Biden’s dependency agenda getting enacted.

And I’m even more worried because we now know that the left intends to increase the spending burden by a lot more than $3.5 trillion. Especially since Bernie Sanders is Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

The Wall Street Journal opined on this topic a couple of days ago.

Democrats have provided few details of what they plan to include in Sen. Bernie Sanders’s $3.5 trillion budget proposal, and now we know why. The real cost is $5 trillion or more… Their plan is to include every program but start small and pretend they’re temporary. This will let them skirt the budget-reconciliation rule that spending can’t add to the deficit outside a 10-year budget window without triggering a 60-vote threshold to pass. The nonprofit Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget examined the budget outline… Assuming the major provisions will be made permanent and continue through the 10-year budget window, the group says, the “policies under consideration could cost between $5 trillion and $5.5 trillion over a decade.” …All of this false accounting will let Democrats pretend the overall cost of their budget spending is lower than it really is… Any way you add it up, Democrats are attempting to pass the biggest expansion of government since the 1960s with narrow majorities and no electoral mandate. No wonder they want to disguise its real cost.

By the way, it’s not just Democrats who play this game. Some provisions of the Trump tax cut expire in 2025 because Republicans also finagled to get around restrictions that govern the 10-year budget process.

That being said, I don’t think there’s moral equivalency between proposals to let people keep their own money and the Biden-Bernie scheme to buy votes with other people’s money.

Anyhow, here’s the relevant table from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s report.

P.S. This battle is not just an issue of dollars and cents. Some of the Biden-Bernie proposals, such as per-child handouts, would increase dependency by undoing Bill Clinton’s welfare reform.

P.P.S. Don’t forget all the debilitating taxes that will accompany all the new spending.

P.P.P.S. But at least we’ll “catch up” with Europe if Biden-Bernie agenda is enacted.

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President Biden pushed through $1.9 trillion of new spending earlier this year, but that so-called stimulus plan was mostly for one-time giveaways. As I warn in this recent discussion on Denver’s KHOW, we should be much more worried about his proposals to permanently expand the welfare state.

When I first got to Washington, I would be upset that politicians wanted to add billions of dollars to the burden of government.

Well, those were the good ol’ days. Biden is proposing to divert trillions of dollars from the private sector to expand the welfare state.

Even worse, he wants to make more Americans dependent on the federal government.

Maybe that’s a smart way of buying votes, but it will erode societal capital.

John Cogan and Daniel Heil of the Hoover Institution warned about the consequences of this dependency agenda in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

The federal government’s system of entitlements is the largest money-shuffling machine in human history, and President Biden intends to make it a lot bigger. His American Families Plan—which he recently attempted to tie to a bipartisan infrastructure deal—proposes to extend the reach of federal entitlements to 21 million additional Americans, the largest expansion since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. …more than half of working-age households would be on the entitlement rolls if the plan were enacted in its current form. …57% of all married-couple children would receive federal entitlement benefits, and more than 80% of single-parent households would be on the entitlement rolls.

Many of the handouts would go to people with middle-class incomes.

And higher.

…The American Families Plan proposes several new entitlement programs. One promises students the government will pick up the entire cost of community-college tuition; another promises families earning 1.5 times their state’s median income that Washington will cover all daycare expenses above 7% of family income for children under 5; still another promises workers up to 12 weeks of federally financed wage subsidies to take time off to care for newborns or sick family members. …Two-parent households with two preschool-age children and incomes up to $130,000 would qualify for federal cash assistance for daycare. Single parents with two preschoolers and incomes up to $113,000 would qualify. And some families with incomes over $200,000 would be eligible for health-insurance subsidies. Other parts of the plan, such as paid leave and free community college, have no income limits at all.

The Wall Street Journal opined on this issue last month. Here are the key passages from their editorial.

The entitlements are by far the biggest long-term economic threat from the Biden agenda. …entitlements that spend automatically based on eligibility are nearly impossible to repeal, or even reform, and they represent a huge tax-and-spend wedge far into the future. …We’d highlight two points. First is the dishonesty about costs. Entitlements always start small but then soar. The Biden Families Plan is even more dishonest than usual. For example, it pretends the child tax credit ends in 2025, so its cost is $449 billion over the 10-year budget window that is used for reconciliation bills that require only 51 votes to pass the Senate. But a future Congress will never repeal the credit. …Second, these programs aren’t intended as a “safety net” for the poor or those temporarily down on their luck. They are explicitly designed to make the middle class dependent on government handouts.

The editorial explicitly warns that the United States will economically suffer if politicians copy Europe’s counterproductive redistributionism.

…on present trend the U.S. is falling into the same entitlement trap as Western Europe. Entitlement spending requires higher taxes, which grab 40% or more of GDP. Economic growth declines as more money flows to transfer payments instead of investment. The entitlement state becomes too large to afford but also too politically entrenched to reform. …Only a decade ago the Tea Party fought ObamaCare. Now most Beltway conservatives worry more about Big Tech than they do Big Government. If the Biden Families Plan passes, these conservatives will find themselves spending the rest of their careers as tax collectors for the entitlement state.

Amen. I’m baffled when folks on the left argue that we should “catch up” with Europe.

Are they not aware that American living standards are far higher? Do they not understand that low-income people in the United States often have more income than middle-class people on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean?

P.S. As I mentioned in the interview, the 21st century has been bad news for fiscal policy, with two big-government Republicans and two big-government Democrats.

For what it’s worth, the $3,000-per-child handouts are Biden’s most damaging idea. In one fell swoop, he would create a trillion-dollar entitlement program and repeal the successful Clinton-Gingrich welfare reform.

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I’m not optimist about America’s fiscal future. Thanks primarily to entitlement programs, the long-run outlook shows an ever-increasing burden of government spending.

And rather than hit the brakes, Biden wants to step on the gas with new giveaways, especially his plan to gut Bill Clinton’s welfare reform by creating new per-child handouts that would subsidize idleness and family dissolution.

But that doesn’t mean the problems can’t be fixed. We simply need to replace fiscal profligacy with spending restraint.

To set the stage for this discussion, here’s a look at what’s happened to the budget over the past several decades.  You can see how the burden of federal spending has steadily increased, with noticeable one-time bumps in 2008-2009 (TARP and Obama’s so-called stimulus) and 2020-2021 (coronavirus).

The chart also includes projections between 2021 and 2031, based on new numbers from the Congressional Budget Office.

For today’s column, I want to focus on the next 10 years and show how the current fiscal mess can be averted with some modest spending restraint.

This second chart shows that spending actually drops over the next two years as coronavirus-related spending comes to an end. But once we get to 2023, the orange line shows that “baseline” spending (what happens to the budget if things are left on autopilot) climbs rapidly, more than twice the rate needed to keep pace with inflation.

But if there’s any sort of fiscal restraint (a freeze or some sort of spending cap), then the numbers look much better.

More specifically, a freeze or a 1-percent spending cap would actually produce a budget surplus by the year 2031.

But I’m not fixated on getting to a balanced budget. What’s more important is that the burden of government spending shrinks when the budget grows slower than the private sector.

In other words, we get good results when policy makers follow fiscal policy’s Golden Rule.

P.S. While it’s difficult to convince politicians to support spending restraint, it’s worth noting that the nation enjoyed a five-year spending freeze between 2009-2014.

P.P.S. In the long run, a spending freeze almost certainly requires genuine entitlement reform.

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