Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Government Spending’

As we have seen in nations such as Greece and Argentina, voters sometimes cannot resist the temptation to support profligate politicians – a process that can lead to “goldfish government.”

In effect, voters choose fiscal suicide.

There’s even a quote, often mistakenly attributed to Ben Franklin, that this is the Achilles’ Heel of democratic governments (for what it’s worth, it appears that a Scottish historian, Alexander Fraser Tytler, was the real source).

Is the United States traveling down that path? Based on long-run fiscal projections, I’m not optimistic.

The good news is that there is still time to fix our problems.

The bad news is that the crowd in Washington is not interested in doing the right thing.

If you think I’m being unduly pessimistic, consider what House Republicans did earlier this week. As Kimberly Strassel explained in her Wall Street Journal column, they decided that the swamp is actually a hot tub.

Self-awareness isn’t one of the modern GOP’s strong suits, as House Republicans proved again this week. …Leader Kevin McCarthy in September unveiled to great fanfare the party’s Commitment to America, which vowed that Republicans would “curb wasteful government spending”… Then came Wednesday’s first test of whether this was all hot air… Rep. Tom McClintock moved to repeal the recent party rule allowing earmarks. The caucus routed his motion, voting it down 158-52. Commitment to America? More like Commitment to Spoils.

She added some historical context.

The GOP swore off earmarks in 2011, when it stood for something… But when a Democratic Congress in 2021 announced intentions to bring them back, GOP trough-feeders rushed to sign up. …And the addicts aren’t interested in rehab.

Her conclusion does not pull punches.

If Republicans can’t muster the backbone to get rid of earmarks that are an affront to spending discipline, good governance and federalism, voters won’t muster the enthusiasm to keep them in charge.

Back during the era of the Tea Party, Republicans did the right thing.

Nowadays, motivated by various forces such as big-government Trumpism and big-government national conservatism, Republicans do the wrong thing.

And if you wonder whether earmarks are wrong, here are some excerpts from a column in National Review by Romina Boccia.

Earmarking contributes to excessive spending and is a distraction from more fundamental governing responsibilities, such as reining in deficit spending… Supporters of earmarks insist that they are central to Congress’s exercising its constitutional power of the purse. …To the degree that Congress leaves too much discretion to the executive to determine federal funding allocations, it should address that issue directly… Looking at the details of where the money flows, it becomes clear that earmarks mostly authorize pork-barrel spending. …Such a misdirected focus inevitably invites fraud, waste, and abuse. …The 117th Congress included 4,963 earmarks worth a total of $9.1 billion in fiscal-year (FY) 2022 appropriations bills. From feral-swine management to aquarium subsidies to museum and theater funding to local bike paths, FY2022 earmark spending spanned the gamut of parochial interests. 

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), earmarks are directly linked to corruptions.

Politicians swap earmarks for campaign cash (and sometimes they even cut out the middleman!).

Defenders of this sleazy process sometimes claim we should not worry because earmarks represent just a small slice of a bloated federal budget.

But what they don’t realize – or what they don’t want the rest of us to understand – is that earmarks are a “gateway drug to big government addiction.”

So ask yourself a question: Do you think politicians who get lured into this oleaginous game will have any interest in controlling the overall burden of government spending?

P.S. Just in case everything I just wrote did not convince you that earmarks are a problem, then maybe this headline from September will be more compelling.

Such a depressing headline.

Such a depressing scam.

Such a corrupt system.

Read Full Post »

I was going to write about Argentina again today, following up on yesterday’s column.

But the National Association of State Budget Officers has released a new report about spending in the 50 states.

This is an opportunity to see how all the pandemic spending by Washington has encouraged bad fiscal policy at the sub-national level.

To be succinct, the answer is “a lot.”

Figure 1 shows that all the grants and handouts enabled reckless policy. For all 50 states, the burden of spending climbed 24.7 percent between 2020 and 2022.

But not all states are created equal.

So I went to Table 1 of the report to see how much spending increased in various states.

Here are some of the highlights. Special applause for Georgia (home of my beloved Bulldawgs!), which actually reduced the spending burden over the past two years. And honorary mention to North Carolina, which is further enhancing its reputation for sensible fiscal policy.

Colorado also was one of the best states, doubtlessly thanks to TABOR. And New Hampshire also deserves further plaudits for relative frugality.

The big states of Texas and Florida increased spending by less than the 24.7 percent average. As did New York, surprisingly.

I’m sure nobody is surprised to see such bad results from New Jersey and California. And Illinois deserves some sort of Booby Prize for its recklessness.

P.S. I’ll close by shifting to a different topic. As you can see from Figure 5, Medicaid (the government’s health entitlement for poor people) is consuming ever-larger shares of state budgets (and the federal budget).

Medicaid reform (block granting the program) is a very good idea to fix budget problems at the state level and to fix budget problems in Washington. And reduce fraud as well.

Read Full Post »

I explained last week that excessive government spending is responsible for about 97 percent of America’s fiscal deterioration in the 21st century.

I followed that column with two post-election pieces that explained how huge tax increases will be inevitable if there is no effort to deal with the spending problem.

Simply stated, lawmakers need to copy the fiscal restraint of the Reagan years and Clinton years.

Why? To help people enjoy better lives thanks to faster growth and more opportunity.

In the Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler explains that smaller government is the recipe for more growth.

Winston Churchill…said: “We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.” The U.S. should heed that advice… economic growth is going to come from efficient supply chains and productivity in manufacturing in the U.S. Tax and spending cuts are the cure. …Republicans must resist the urge to subsidize higher energy costs and instead help slay inflation and bring back a strong, productive economy.

Let’s look at some new academic research bolstering Kessler’s argument.

Megha Jain Aishwarya Nagpal, and Abhay Jain published a study last year in the South Asia Journal of Macroeconomics and Public Finance.

The key findings deal with the Armey-Rahn Curve and can be found in the abstract.

The current study attempts to examine the linkage between government (public) spending and economic growth in the broader framework of selected South Asian Nations (SANs), BRICS and other emerging nations by using two sets of empirical modelling over the period 2007–2016 by using inverted U-shaped hypothesis, propounded by Armey curve (1995). …The key findings signify the existence of an inverted U-shaped relationship for the selected data set of emerging nations and, therefore, support the Armey curve hypothesis. The projected threshold (tipping) levels (as a percentage of GDP) are 24.31% for the government total expenditures (GTotExp), 12.92% for consumption spending (GConExp) and 7.11% for investment spending (GInvExp). It has been observed that a rise in the public spending (size) resulted in a substantial…decrease…in the growth rate when the public spending was…after…the optimal threshold level, indicating a non-monotonic association.

For what it’s worth, I think the study is wrong and that the growth-maximizing level of government spending is much lower than 24.3 percent of economic output.

But since total government spending in the United States now consumes about 40 percent of GDP, at least we can all agree that there will be more prosperity if America’s fiscal burden is dramatically reduced.

If we ever bring the spending burden back down to 24.3 percent of economic output, we can then figure out whether the ultimate goal is even lower (as it was for much of America’s history).

There is one point from the study that merits further attention. The authors estimated not only the growth-maximizing level of total spending, but also how much the government should spend on “consumption” and “investment” outlays (an issue I addressed last month).

Here’s a chart from the study showing that consumption outlays should be less than 13 percent of economic output.

P.S. If you want to watch videos that address the growth-maximizing size of government, click here, here, here, here, and here.

P.P.S. Ironically, the case for smaller government is bolstered by research from normally left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECD, World Bank, ECB, and IMF.

Read Full Post »

In yesterday’s column, I explained Republicans are not credible advocates of lower tax rates if they don’t also push for spending restraint.

And, as I explained to the Adam Smith Institute, they will be de facto advocates of higher taxes if they embrace the wrong version of national conservatism.

To understand why I’m concerned, look at the most-recent edition of the Congressional Budget Office’s long-run fiscal forecast.

It shows that the burden of government spending is going to substantially increase over the next three decades – largely due to the unchecked growth of entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Failure to control spending will mean two bad things – either huge tax increases or staggering levels of debt. Probably both.

And if politicians add more spending (as Biden has already done), then those long-run trend lines will get even worse.

My concern is that some national conservatives are unwilling to confront this problem and/or they support policies to make matters worse.

But first, in the interest of fairness, bigger government is not an inherent part of the national conservatism platform. At least based on the statement of principles published by The American Conservative.

That document, signed by the key advocates of national conservatism, lists 10 concepts, most of which are good from a libertarian perspective and only one of which is overtly troubling.

  1. National independence (I cheer for anyone opposed to global governance)
  2. Rejection of imperialism and globalism (they’re opposed to the bad form of globalism)
  3. National government (very akin to “state capacity libertarianism“)
  4. God and public religion (not a role for government, but they’re not pushing bad ideas)
  5. The rule of law (good idea)
  6. Free enterprise (they have a few unnecessary caveats)
  7. Public research (I’m skeptical of this one)
  8. Family and children (not a role for government, but they’re not pushing bad ideas)
  9. Immigration (I’m more sympathetic than they are, but agree on the importance of assimilation)
  10. Race (they want neutrality rather than preferences)

Unfortunately, some national conservatives go beyond this statement of principles and push for bigger government.

But don’t believe me. Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal makes similar points.

Mr. Cass’s movement insists (rightly) that purely economic and material measures are limited. But whenever they move beyond rhetoric to specifics, their preferred solutions almost always turn out to be economic interventions, from child tax credits to industrial policy. …Even a cursory glance at the record of the past half-century shows government often doing the most harm to people precisely when it is trying to help them. Federal efforts to promote homeownership ended up encouraging banks to lend people more than they could afford and feeding a housing bubble. Federal college loans helped drive up tuition while leaving Americans $1.6 trillion in debt. As we ought to have learned from the Great Society, well-intentioned government policies can do immense damage to families and communities. Unfortunately, when it comes to getting the toothpaste back in the tube, government has shown much less success.

The bottom line is that national conservatives always seem to advocate bigger government when they develop or endorse specific policies.

And, to the best of my knowledge, none of them have put forth any agenda to deal with the spending problem that already exists.

That’s an agenda that guarantees future tax increases. And, for what it’s worth, one of the advocates already has embraced a tax-the-rich agenda to help finance the national conservative agenda.

If Republicans go down that path, it won’t end well (just as it didn’t end well when they embraced other fads such as compassionate conservatismkinder-and-gentler conservatismcommon-good capitalismreform conservatism, etc).

As I’ve previously noted, there no alternative to Reaganism.

Read Full Post »

As part of a recent discussion at the Adam Smith Institute in London, I explained why advocates of sensible taxation in the U.S. and U.K. need to be serious about controlling government spending.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it will be almost impossible to achieve better tax policy if the spending burden continues to increase and we enter an era of endless deficits and debt.

We presumably won’t get needed policy reforms from the Democratic Party (the era of JFK is long gone, and Bill Clinton’s moderate approach also is a distant memory).

But what about Republicans?

In part I of this series, I argued that Trump’s big-government populism was bad politics as well as bad policy.

But I was not arguing for establishment Republicans such as Bush or Romney.

Instead, I think the GOP needs to return to the era of Reagan-style libertarianism.

That means some things that Trumpies want, such as lower tax rates, but it also means genuine spending restraint. Which we didn’t get during the Trump years.

In part II, let’s contemplate whether this is a realistic hope, at least once we get past the Biden years.

If history is any guide, the answer is yes. Here’s another video, from more than 10 years ago, that shows the fiscal discipline the nation enjoyed under both Reagan and Clinton.

If you want more recent evidence, we also had a five-year spending freeze after the so-called Tea Party Republicans took power in 2010.

What about today? Can Republicans sober up and once again become fiscal hawks, morphing into good supply-siders who want better tax policy and spending restraint?

Or are they the bad supply-siders, meaning they spout rhetoric about tax cuts but don’t take the tough steps (such as entitlement reform) that are needed to make lower tax rates realistic?

I’ll close with a very depressing observation. The current fiscal situation is bad, but remember that things will get much worse because of demographic changes such as population aging.

Those who oppose entitlement reform necessarily are embracing huge tax increases and perpetual economic stagnation. Not to mention handing more power to Democrats.

There is no alternative.

Read Full Post »

I don’t spend much time worrying about why the United States has a big budget deficit. I’m much more concerned about the fact that the federal government is too big and that it is spending too much.

Moreover, there’s plenty of evidence that we can quickly get rid of deficits with some long-overdue spending restraint. In other words, deal with the underlying disease of excessive government and the symptom of red ink goes away.

But since many people focus first and foremost on fiscal balance, let’s take a look at why budget surpluses at the turn of the century have turned into big budget deficits.

I’m motivated to address this issue because of this chart from Brian Riedl’s impressive collection. It shows spending increases are responsible for 97.5 percent of the shift.

Some of you may be wondering if the chart is accurate. I can easily imagine my friends on the left exclaiming, “What about the Bush tax cuts and the Trump tax cuts?!?”

Those tax cuts did happen, but they were mostly offset by Obama’s “fiscal cliff” tax increase and real bracket creep (the tax burden tends to increase over time since even small increases in economic growth will push households into higher tax brackets).

So the net result of all these factors is that there has been a very small reduction (0.2 percentage points) in tax revenue as a share of economic output.

Others of you may be wondering if the spending numbers may be exaggerated because of pandemic-related spending.

That is a fair question since the crowd in Washington used the opportunity to spend a couple of trillion dollars. But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that it was almost entirely one-time spending that took place in 2020 and 2021 (for what it’s worth, budget experts have mocked Biden’s claim of deficit reduction this year since it is simply a result of expiring emergency outlays).

There is some one-time spending in 2022. As noted in the chart, Biden’s reckless student loan bailout is a big chuck of the increase in “other mandatory spending.”

As such, I suppose I should say that higher spending is “only” responsible for 96.8 percent of today’s higher deficits, not 97.5 percent.

The bottom line is that all 21st-century presidents (and Congresses) have been big spenders.

P.S. According to the long-run forecast from the Congressional Budget Office, a bad situation will get even worse over the next 30 years. And more than 100 percent of that future decline will be the result of excessive spending (something that’s been true for many years).

Read Full Post »

If Republicans do as well as expected in next Tuesday’s mid-term elections, especially with regard to gubernatorial and state legislative contests, I expect that more states will enact and expand on school choice in 2023.

That will be great news for families.

But I also want great news for taxpayers, and that’s why I’m hoping that we also will see progress on fiscal policy. To be more specific, I want to see more states copy Colorado’s very successful spending cap.

Known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), it basically limits the growth of annual tax revenue to the growth of population-plus-inflation. Any revenue above that amount automatically must be returned to taxpayers.

And since the state also has a balanced-budget requirement, that means spending can only increase as fast as population-plus-inflation as well. A very simple concept.

Has TABOR been successful? Has it produced better fiscal policy and more economic prosperity?

The answer is yes. In a column for National Review, Jonathan Williams and Nick Stark say it is the “gold standard” for state fiscal policy.

TABOR is a state constitutional amendment that limits the amount of revenue Colorado lawmakers can retain and spend to a reasonable formula of population plus inflation growth. If the state government collects more tax revenue than TABOR allows, the money is returned to taxpayers as a refund. Just this year, Colorado taxpayers will receive nearly $4 billion in TABOR refund checks. If any government in Colorado intends to spend surplus revenue, increase taxes or fees, or increase debt, it must submit the proposed measure to the ballot and win the approval of a majority of voters. …Following the low-tax-plus-limited-government formula, Colorado developed into one of the most competitive business climates in the nation in the years following TABOR’s adoption. During the past three decades, Colorado has been one of the most competitive and fastest-growing economies in the nation. …Even in the face of this tremendous economic-success story, the tax-and-spend crowd have spent a tremendous amount of resources trying to demonize TABOR, often attempting to find work-arounds or suing to have TABOR declared unconstitutional. Why? In short, because it is an effective limit on the growth of government, and it restricts the wild spending increases that fund their constituencies — who generally favor big government. …Other states trying to implement meaningful checks and balances on the inexorable government-growth machine…should follow Colorado’s example.

Courtesy of Jon Caldera, here’s some of Colorado’s fiscal history, which began with a flat tax in the 1980s and then culminated with TABOR in the 1990s.

Colorado used to have a progressive income tax where people and companies would pay a higher tax rate the more money they earned. Thanks to the Independence Institute…and…economist Barry Poulson, the legislature was convinced to switch from the progressive tax to a flat one in the mid-1980s. Poulson urged that the new tax rate be 4.5% so that it would bring in the same amount of revenue as the system it was replacing. …So, of course, the legislature set the new rate at 5% to create a fine windfall, which it did. Even so, the flat income tax did what it was predicted to do. It lit the engine of Colorado’s economy. When productive people and their companies are looking to locate, they are attracted to states with low and stable tax policy. The flat tax began the Colorado boom. That boom resulted in massive tax receipts to the state. So much so that the legislature quickly felt the growing pressure of a tax rebellion. …So, we then passed the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in 1992. The combination of our flat tax and TABOR attracted more and more businesses and jobs to Colorado. So much so that in the late 1990s the state had to refund some $3.2 billion of surplus tax revenue to taxpayers. …The combination of our flat-rate income tax and TABOR has made for a sustainable gold rush which has turned Colorado into one of the most economically vibrant states in the country with one of the lowest unemployment rates.

I’ll close by explaining why folks on the left also should support TABOR-style spending caps.

Part of the reason is that they should care about future generations.

Part of the reason is that they should care about economic growth.

But another reason is that it may be politically beneficial. Check out these excerpts from a column in the Denver Post by Scott Gessler.

TABOR requires a vote of the people to raise taxes, incur debt, or spend excess government funds. Practically, it makes all three much harder. So Democrats hate TABOR. …conservatives love TABOR. They rarely support tax increases or additional borrowing, and for them TABOR imposes fiscal discipline and forces government to live within its means. And Colorado has avoided the ongoing fiscal crises that have plagued other states like Illinois or California. Plus, it’s hard to argue against the public’s right to vote on taxes and debt. …But what about Republicans? They’re the ones who have paid the political price. …Today, voters can oppose Republicans and support Democrats, with little fear taxes will go up. …So expect the continued irony, as Democrats attack TABOR with a unified voice, while Republicans usually support it, yet lose political strength.

Since I care about policy rather than partisanship, I hope lots of Democrats read this article and then embrace spending caps. If they don’t want to copy Colorado, they can opt for the Swiss version of a spending cap. So long as they choose something real, it will work.

That would be bad for Republicans, but good for prosperity.

P.S. Colorado is now a blue-leaning state, but voters in 2019 rejected an effort by the pro-spending lobbies to eviscerate TABOR.

Read Full Post »

As part of “European Fiscal Policy Week,” I’ve complained about bad Italian fiscal policy, bad Europe-wide fiscal policy, bad British fiscal policy, and also the unhelpful role of the European Union.

But I want to end the week on an optimistic note, so let’s take a look at Switzerland‘s spending cap.

Known as the “debt brake,” the rule was approved by 84.7 percent of voters back in 2001 and took effect with the 2003 fiscal year.

And if you want to know whether it has been successful, here’s a comparison of average spending increases before the debt brake and after the debt brake.

The above data comes directly from the database of the IMF’s World Economic Outlook.

There are some caveats, to be sure.

  • The IMF data cited above is not adjusted for inflation, though inflation has not been a problem in Switzerland.
  • The IMF numbers also show total government spending rather than just the outlays of the central government, but most cantons also have spending caps.

The bottom line is that Swiss fiscal policy dramatically improved after the spending cap took effect.

Switzerland’s Federal Finance Administration has a nice English-language description of the policy.

The debt brake is a simple mechanism for managing federal expenditure. …Expenditure is limited to the level of structural, i.e. cyclically adjusted, receipts. This allows for a steady expenditure trend and prevents a stop-and-go policy. …The debt brake has passed several tests since its introduction in 2003… The binding guidelines of the debt brake helped to swiftly balance the federal budget when it was introduced. The debt brake prevented the high tax receipts from the pre-2009 economically strong years from being used for additional expenditure. Instead, it was possible to build up surpluses and reduce debt. …s public finances are well positioned when compared internationally. Aside from the Confederation, most of the cantons have a debt brake too.

Here’s a chart from the report. It shows that debt is on a downward trajectory, especially when measured as a share of economic output (the right axis).

For what it’s worth, I’m glad the debt brake reduced debt, but I care more about controlling government spending. That being said, the Swiss spending cap also is a success on that basis.

The burden of spending as a share of GDP was increasing before the debt brake was approved. And since 2003, it’s been on a downward trajectory.

Here’s what Avenir Suisse, a Swiss think tank, wrote back in 2017.

Since the early 2000’s, Switzerland’s fiscal institutions have been successful in keeping the overall levels of taxation and spending at moderate levels. The country’s high fiscal strength is based on…Switzerland’s debt brake, a key institutional mechanism for managing public finances which subjects the Confederation’s fiscal policy to a binding rule…and contributes significantly to the country’s fiscal discipline. …Switzerland’s spending cap has helped the country avoid the fiscal crisis affecting so many other European nations. …The Swiss debt brake is the ideal model for other countries lacking fiscal discipline to embrace. …The Swiss debt brake’s most important contribution, however, cannot be measured in figures… In the early 1990s fiscal policy was oriented more towards the demands of the public sector… Today, however, the administration, the government and the parliaments believe it is self-evident that expenditures must develop in the medium term in line with revenue. Fiscal federalism, as an important element in the cantons, protects against overcrowding access to the tax side.

That last sentence deserves some elaboration. The authors are noting (“overcrowding access to the tax side”) that it is possible to increase spending by increasing taxes, but that’s not an easy option in Switzerland because voters can use direct democracy to reject tax hikes (as they have in the past).

P.S. The Debt Brake has an opt-out clause that allows more spending in an emergency. And, during the pandemic, spending did jump by more than 12 percent in just one year. But there’s also a claw-back provision that requires lawmakers to be extra frugal in subsequent years. And that policy seems to be successful. The big spending surge in 2020 was followed by two years of zero spending growth (with another year of no spending growth projected for 2023).

P.P.S. Look at this map if you want to see how much better Switzerland is than the rest of Europe.

P.P.P.S. Look at these charts if you want to see how Switzerland is doing better than the United States.

Read Full Post »

I discussed Italy’s looming fiscal crisis on Monday and then argued against a potential bailout on Tuesday.

Today, let’s focus on the rest of Europe.

I gave a presentation yesterday in Brussels about “Public Finances in the Eurozone” and used the opportunity to explain that governments are too big in Europe and to warn that demographic changes were going to lead to an even-bigger burden of government in the future.

My assessment is very mainstream, at least with regards to what will happen to national budgets in European nations.

A study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, authored by Yvan Guillemette and David Turner, examines the long-run fiscal position of member nations.

It warns that government debt levels will increase dramatically if they don’t change current policies.

… secular trends such as population ageing and the rising relative price of services will keep adding pressure on government budgets. Without policy changes, maintaining current public service standards and benefits while keeping public debt ratios stable at current levels would increase fiscal pressure in the median OECD country by nearly 8 percentage points of GDP between 2021 and 2060, and much more in some countries. …governments will need to re-assess long-run fiscal sustainability in the context of higher initial government debt levels…when considering expenditure pressures associated with ageing…, the OECD structural primary balance would deteriorate rapidly and net government debt would more than double as a share of GDP by 2050 (Figure 12).

Here is the aforementioned Figure 12. As you can see, both deficits (left chart) and debt (right chart) are driven by the cost of age-related entitlement programs.

The report also explains that the increase in red ink is being caused by a bigger burden of government spending.

Under a ‘business-as-usual’ hypothesis, in which no major reforms to government programmes are undertaken, public expenditure is projected to rise substantially in most countries… Public health and long-term care expenditure is projected to increase by 2.2 percentage points of GDP in the median country between 2021 and 2060… Public pension expenditure is projected to increase by 2.8 percentage points of GDP in the median country between 2021 and 2060… Other primary expenditures are projected to rise by 1½ percentage points of GDP in the median country between 2021 and 2060 (Figure 13, Panel A). This projection excludes potential new sources of expenditure pressure, such as climate change adaptation.

Here’s Figure 13, mentioned above. Notice the projected increases in spending in most European nations.

So what’s the best response to this slow-motion fiscal disaster?

Since more government spending is the problem, you might think the OECD would recommend ways to restrain budgetary expansion.

But that would be a mistake. As is so often the case, OECD bureaucrats think giving politicians more money is the best approach.

The present study…uses an indicator of long-run fiscal pressure that is premised on the idea that governments would seek to stabilise public debt ratios at projected 2022 levels by adjusting structural primary revenue from 2023 onward. … all OECD governments would need to raise taxes in this scenario to prevent gross government debt ratios from rising over time… The median country would need to increase structural primary revenue by nearly 8 percentage points of GDP between 2021 and 2060, but the effort would exceed 10 percentage points in 11 countries.

To be fair, the authors acknowledge that there might be some complications.

Raising taxes…appears feasible in some countries…, in other countries it may present a substantial challenge. In Belgium, Denmark, Finland and France, for instance, structural primary revenue is already around 50% of GDP… Pushing mainstream taxes on incomes or consumption further up, even by only a few percentage points of GDP, may be politically difficult and fiscally counter-productive if it means reaching the downward-sloping segment of the Laffer curve… Lundberg…identifies five OECD countries where top effective marginal tax rates (accounting for income, payroll and consumption taxes) are already beyond revenue-maximizing levels (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Sweden). Thus, if taxes are to rise, it might be necessary to look to other bases, such as housing, capital gains, inheritance or wealth. Recent international efforts to establish a minimum global corporate tax could also enable more revenue to be raised from corporate taxes.

I’m happy that the study acknowledges the Laffer Curve, though that is not much of a concession since even Paul Krugman agrees that it exists.

And even when OECD bureaucrats admit that it may be unwise to increase some taxes, their response is to suggest that other taxes can be increased.

Sigh.

Now you understand why I’ve argued that the OECD may be the world’s worst international bureaucracy. Especially since OECD bureaucrats get tax-free salaries while urging higher taxes on the rest of us.

Read Full Post »

I wrote yesterday to speculate about a possible fiscal crisis in Italy.

Today, here are my thoughts on why there should not be a bailout if/when a crisis occurs.

I have moral objections to bailouts, but let’s focus in this column on the practical impact.

And let’s start with this chart, which shows debt levels in Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain (the so-called PIGS) ever since the misguided bailout of Greece about a dozen years ago.

As you can see, OECD data reveals that there’s been no change in these poorly governed nations. They have continued to over-spend and accumulate ever-higher levels of debt.

This certainly seems like evidence of failure, in part because of Greece’s continued bad policy.

But I’m equally concerned about how other Mediterranean nations did not change their behavior.

So why did those nations accumulate more debt, even though they had an up-close look at Greece’s fiscal collapse?

I suspect they figured they could get bailouts, just like Greece. In other words, the IMF and others created a system corrupted by moral hazard.

Defenders of bailouts assert that Greece was forced to engage in “austerity” as a condition of getting a bailout.

I have two problems with that argument.

  • First, notice how Greece’s debt has continued to go up. If that’s a success, I would hate to see an example of failure.
  • Second, the main effect of the so-called austerity is a much higher tax burden and a somewhat higher spending burden.

If there’s a bailout of Italy (or any other nation), I suspect we’ll see the same thing happen. Higher taxes, higher spending, and higher debt.

I’ll close by acknowledging that there are costs to my approach. If Italy is not given a bailout, the country may have a “disorderly default,” meaning the government simply stops honoring its commitments to pay bondholders.

That is bad for individual bondholders, but it also could hurt – or even bankrupt – financial institutions that foolishly decided to buy a lot of Italian government bonds.

But there should be consequences for imprudent choices. Especially if the alternative is bailouts that misallocate global capital and encourage further bad behavior.

The bottom line is that the long-run damage of bailouts is much greater than the long-run damage of defaults.

P.S. Just like it’s a bad idea to provide bailouts to national governments, it’s also a bad idea to provide bailouts to state governments. Or banks. Or student loan recipients.

Read Full Post »

Domestic programs are the main reason that the burden of government spending is expanding, with so-called entitlement outlays deserving the lion’s share of the blame.

But this does not mean that advocates of limited government should give the Pentagon a free pass.

As with all types of spending, there should be a cost-benefit assessment of whether a particular program or activity makes sense.

One of the costs (of military spending and every other type of spending) is that resources are diverted from the productive sector of the economy.

That means that reducing the Pentagon’s budget – holding everything else equal – will boost growth.

By how much? Anthony Mayberry of the University of Oklahoma has some new research that measures the economic impact of lower military expenditures.

This paper analyzes the implications of demilitarization on economic growth. I create a new dataset of military transitions since 1960 and measure the effect of demilitarization in countries that reduced their military capabilities and subsided aggressive or violent behavior. Semiparametric difference-in-difference and instrumental variable estimates predict that on average, demilitarization is associated with a 1% higher annual GDP per capita than if the country had remained militarized. Dynamic analysis shows that on average, GDP per capita is 15-20% higher 20 years after transition. Increases in foreign direct investment and international trade flows, as well as a reallocation of resources to more economically productive outlets, following demilitarization are found to contribute to growth. These findings provide empirical evidence in support of a Peace Dividend.

And if the reduction in military spending is significant, as seen in Figure 5 from the study, the economic gains can be remarkably significant.

To be sure, there are caveats, some of which are discussed in the study.

One obvious complication is that a country may be able to lower military outlays because some external threat has dissipated.

In that scenario, how much of the subsequent growth is because the threat has diminished and how much is because there is a lower burden of government spending?

The answer presumably is different for every real-world case study. But the bottom line is that it is good to lower military spending just like it is good to reduce domestic spending.

I’ll close by acknowledging that advocates of military spending should base their arguments on cost-benefit analysis.

Don’t make silly Keynesian arguments about multiplier effects. Don’t make exaggerated claims about spin-off benefits. Instead, make a clear-headed case that the cost of military spending can be justified because it provides a national security benefit (against an imperialist Soviet Union forty years ago, or perhaps an expansionist China today).

P.S. It would be helpful if supporters of a strong military opposed some of the many ways that politicians insert waste, fraud, inefficiency, and pork in the Pentagon’s budget.

P.P.S. The U.S. experience after World War II is a good example of how lower military spending triggers more growth.

P.P.P.S. My three-part series on the economics of war can be read here, here, and here.

Read Full Post »

At the end of last month, I wrote about the growth-maximizing size of government, citing a study that estimated that the public sector in Sudan should not consume more than 11.17 percent of the nation’s economic output.

I realize that very few people care about Sudanese fiscal policy, but the research gave me an opportunity to condemn the OECD, IMF, and UN for peddling the nonsensical argument that more government spending would promote faster growth in poor nations.

Today, I want to cite another study, in this case about the growth-maximizing size of government in India. But, once again, I’m citing some research to make a bigger point.

First, here are the findings from the study, written by Neha Jain and Niharika Sinha.

The present study aims to examine the relationship between government size and economic growth in India for the period from 1961 to 2018. Additionally, as a novel contribution, the current study also attempts to examine the existence of Armey curve and estimate the threshold level of government size in India. …The result of the study confirms…the existence of Armey curve and supports the Armey curve hypothesis in India. There exists a positive impact of government size till the threshold level, and beyond the threshold level, the coefficient of economic growth tends to decrease. The estimated optimal government size is 11.89% for India…the findings of the study also suggest that a large size of the government can be harmful for the efficiency of economic growth; thus, adjusting the government at its optimum is crucial to the economy.

By the way, the Armey Curve is the Rahn Cure and the Rahn Curve is the Armey Curve (there’s ongoing discussion of who was the first to visually depict the upside-down-U-shaped relationship between the size of government and economic performance).

But let’s set aside that discussion. Regardless of who deserves credit, it’s vitally important that policymakers understand that excessive government spending is very harmful for prosperity.

That’s true in India, and that’s true in the United States (especially since government is too big right now and is expected to become a bigger burden in the future).

But while it’s good to have a discussion on the quantity of government spending, let’s not forget that the quality of government spending also matters.

To be more precise, some types of government spending can be helpful to growth and other types of spending are usually harmful to growth.

  • Rule-of-law spending – If done effectively, spending for pure public goods such as administration of justice and enforcement of contracts can create a favorable environment for more growth.
  • Physical capital spending – The growth impact (or anti-growth impact) depends on whether money for ports, roads, etc, is spent efficiently, thus offsetting the cost of diverting resources from the economy’s productive sector.
  • Human capital spending – The growth impact (or anti-growth impact) depends on whether money for education, training, etc, is spent efficiently, thus offsetting the cost of diverting resources from the economy’s productive sector.
  • Defense/military spending – May be necessary for national survival, but otherwise bad for growth since labor and capital are diverted from the economy’s productive sector to government.
  • Social welfare spending – May be compassionate (or dependency inducing), but otherwise bad for growth since labor and capital are diverted from the productive sector to government.

The purpose of today’s column is to conceptually explain how different types of government spending may or many not affect economic performance, but I can’t resist noting that the United States does a terrible job of spending money on human capital and physical capital.

And I can’t resist observing that the vast majority of America’s federal budget is for social welfare spending.

P.S. Developing nations do a bad job of providing rule of law, but I have near-zero faith that more government spending will lead to improvements. Instead, more spending will be a vehicle for ruling elites to cement their power by buying votes.

Read Full Post »

Most people have heard of the Laffer Curve, which shows that there is a non-linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenues (for instance, doubling tax rates won’t produce a doubling of tax revenue because people and businesses will have less incentive to earn and report income).

There’s something similar on the spending side of the budget. I call it the Rahn Curve and it shows there is a non-linear relationship between government spending and economic performance.

The concept is not controversial, just like the concept of a Laffer Curve is not controversial.

What does trigger disagreement, however, is figuring out the shape of the curve, especially the growth-maximizing size of government (or, in the case of the Laffer Curve, the revenue-maximizing tax rate).

Much of the academic literature suggests that is maximized when government spending consumes about 20-plus percent of economic output.

But I’ve questioned whether these studies are correct, based on data limitations that are inherent when doing research based on post-WWII numbers.

Those numbers tell us interesting things (the East Asian tiger economies have been star performers and have relatively small spending burdens), but does that mean government should consume 20 percent of GDP when we know from history that Western nations grew rapidly in the 1800s and early 1900s when there was no welfare state and the public sector consumed only about 10 percent of economic output?

Given my interest in these issues, I was intrigued to see a new study on the Social Science Research Network. Authored by Hisham Mohamed Hassan of the University of Khartoum, it estimates the growth-maximizing size of government in Sudan.

The bad news is that the study is in Arabic. The good news is that there is an abstract in English. Here are some of the findings.

Policies related to the level of government spending are considered one of the most important economic issues, and aspects that drew particular attention of its impact on economic growth. This paper aims to determine the size of the government of Sudan, which is reflecting positively on the optimal allocation of the resources and the level of public spending that maximizes economic growth. In addition to testing whether there is a long-run relationship between the size of the government and economic growth in Sudan? The findings show that the relationship between government size and economic growth in Sudan is nonlinear (Armey) curve, the ARDL model shows that there is a short and long-run relationship between the size of the government and economic growth in Sudan. The optimal size of the Sudanese government, based on the share of public spending, should not exceed 11.17% of GDP.

Since I can’t read the full study, there’s no way of assessing the quality of the research and/or if the conclusions are only appropriate for Sudan, or also appropriate for other developing nations, or universally applicable to all countries.

But even if the results are not applicable to rich countries, the conclusions are very useful since they debunk the absurd notion (peddled by the IMF, OECD, and UN) that developing nations should have bigger governments.

P.S. For those interested, here’s my video explaining the Rahn Curve (or Armey Curve if you prefer).

P.P.S. You can watch other videos on this topic by clicking here, here, here, and here).

P.P.P.S. Interestingly, some normally left-leaning international bureaucracies have acknowledged you get more prosperity with smaller government. Check out the analysis from the IMFECBWorld Bank, and OECD.

Read Full Post »

I strongly supported Brexit in part because I wanted the United Kingdom to have both the leeway and the incentive to adopt pro-market policies.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when subsequent Conservative Prime Ministers did nothing (Theresa May) or expanded the burden of government (Boris Johnson).

Where was the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher? Didn’t the Tory Party understand the need to restrain big government?

Perhaps my prayers have finally been answered. After jettisoning Boris Johnson (albeit for scandal rather than bad policy), the Tories elected Liz Truss to lead the nation.

And she appointed Kwasi Kwarteng to be Chancellor of the Exchequer (akin to U.S. Treasury Secretary). The two of them have just unveiled some major changes in U.K. fiscal policy.

Allister Heath’s editorial for the Telegraph has a celebratory tone.

…the best Budget I have ever heard a British Chancellor deliver, by a massive margin. The tax cuts were so huge and bold, the language so extraordinary, that at times, listening to Kwasi Kwarteng, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, that I hadn’t been transported to a distant land that actually believed in the economics of Milton Friedman and FA Hayek. …The neo-Brownite consensus of the past 20 years, the egalitarian, redistributionist obsession, the technocratic centrism, the genuflections at the altar of a bogus class war, the spreadsheet-wielding socialists: all were blown to smithereens by Kwarteng’s stunning neo-Reaganite peroration. …All the taboos have been defiled: the fracking ban, the performative 45pc tax rate, the malfunctioning bonus cap, the previous gang’s nihilistic corporation tax and national insurance raids. The basic rate of income tax is being cut, as is stamp duty, that dumbest of levies. …Reforms of this order of magnitude should really have happened after the referendum in 2016, or after Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019… Truss..has a fighting chance to save Britain, and her party, from oblivion.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial has a similarly hopeful tone while also explaining the difference between good supply-side policies and failed Keynesian demand-side policies.

This is a pro-growth agenda that is very different than the tax-and spend Keynesianism that has dominated the West’s economic policies for nearly two decades. …Mr. Kwarteng axed the 2.5-percentage-point increase in the payroll tax imposed by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and canceled a planned increase in the corporate income tax rate to 26% from 19%. …Kwarteng also surprised by eliminating the 45% tax rate on incomes above £150,000. The top marginal rate now will be 40%… A frequent complaint is that there’s no evidence tax cuts for corporations or higher earners will boost demand. Maybe not, but that’s also not the point. Britain doesn’t need a Keynesian demand-side stimulus. It needs the supply-side jolt Ms. Truss is trying to deliver by changing incentives to work and invest. A parallel complaint from the same crowd is that Ms. Truss’s policies—which they just said won’t stimulate demand—will stimulate so much demand the policies will stoke inflation. This has been the experience with debt-fueled fiscal blowouts since the pandemic, but Ms. Truss’s plan is different. She’s not throwing around money to fund consumption. She’s using the tax code to spur production.

The editorial concludes with a key observations.

Britain has become the most important economic experiment in the developed world because Ms. Truss is the only leader willing to abandon a stale Keynesian policy consensus that has produced stagflation everywhere.

Here’s a tweet that captures the current approach, with “liberal” referring to pro-market classical liberalism.

This is the “Singapore-on-Thames” approach that I’ve been promoting for years. Finally!

In a column for Reason, Robert Jackman gives a relatively optimistic libertarian assessment of what to expect from Truss.

…will her arrival in Downing Street bring an end to the big-state, big-spending style of her predecessor? …Within the Westminster village, Truss has long been regarded as a torchbearer for liberty—a reputation that stretches back to her days working at various small-state think tanks. Since entering Parliament in 2010, she has been a member of the Free Enterprise Group… As trade secretary, Truss was responsible for delivering on the good bit of Brexit—jetting around the world to sign tariff-busting trade deals. She was good at it too, quickly securing ambitious agreements with Australia and Japan. …But will Liz Truss’ premiership put Britain back on track to a smaller state? Some things aren’t that simple. …Truss has long been an advocate of relaxing Britain’s punitive planning laws, which would make it easier to build much-needed homes and energy infrastructure.

As you might expect, the analysis from the U.K.-based Economist left much to be desired.

Liz Truss, Britain’s new prime minister, is now implementing Reaganomics…comprising tax cuts worth perhaps £30bn ($34bn) per year (1.2% of gdp)… The fuel that fiscal stimulus will inject into the economy will almost certainly lead the boe to raise interest rates… No matter, say Ms Truss’s backers, because tax cuts will boost productivity. Didn’t inflation fall and growth surge under Reagan? …Ms Truss’s cheerleaders seem to have read only the first chapter of the history of Reaganomics. The programme’s early record was mixed. The tax cuts did not stop a deep recession, yet by March 1984 annual inflation had risen back to 4.8% and America’s ten-year bond yield was over 12%, reflecting fears of another upward spiral in prices. Inflation was anchored only after Congress had raised taxes. By 1987 America’s budget, excluding interest payments, was nearly balanced. By 1993 Congress had raised taxes by almost as much as it had cut them in 1981.

By the way, the article’s analysis of Reaganomics is laughably inaccurate.

Meanwhile, a report in the New York Times, writtten by Eshe Nelson, Stephen Castle and , also has a skeptical tone.

But I’m surprised and impressed that they admit Thatcher’s policies worked in the 1980s.

Britain’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, gambled on Friday that a heavy dose of tax cuts, deregulation and free-market economics would reignite her country’s growth — a radical shift in policy… the new chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, abandoned a proposed rise in corporate taxation and, in a surprise move, also abolished the top rate of 45 percent of income tax applied to those earning more than 150,000 pounds, or about $164,000, a year. He also cut the basic rate for lower earners and cut taxes on house purchases. …It is hard to overstate the magnitude of the policy shift from Mr. Johnson’s government, which just one year ago had announced targeted tax increases to offset its increased public spending… The chancellor’s statement in Parliament on Friday underscored the free-market, small-state, tax-cutting instincts of Ms. Truss, who has modeled herself on Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990. Thatcher’s economic revolution in the 1980s turned the economy around.

The article includes 11 very worrisome words.

…so far there has been no indication of corresponding spending cuts.

Amen. Tax cuts are good for growth, but their effectiveness and durability will be in question if there is not a concomitant effort to restrain the burden of spending.

Truss and Kwarteng also should have announced a spending cap, modeled on either the Swiss Debt Brake or Colorado’s TABOR.

P.S. In addition to worrying about whether Truss will copy Thatcher’s track record on spending, I’m also worried about her support for misguided energy subsidies.

Read Full Post »

Last month, I wrote an article comparing Switzerland’s admirable fiscal policy with the profligate tendencies of other European nations.

I included a chart showing that the burden of government spending in Switzerland is far below where it is in countries such as Belgium, Greece, and France – where the public sector consumes about 60 percent of economic output.

And then there are nations such as Germany, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, and Italy, where more than 50 percent of GDP is diverted to finance bloated budgets.

Given this background, I was not surprised to read an article in the New York Times about European politicians engaging in another spending binge.

Nationalizations. Subsidies. Cash handouts. Price caps. Profit taxes. …Governments are resorting to old-school solutions, …throwing vast amounts of money at the energy crisis engulfing the region… E.U. governments have already earmarked more than $350 billion to subsidize consumers, industry and utility companies; ministers met on Friday to narrow down their options for the bloc’s direct intervention in markets to grab excess profits, cap electricity prices and subsidize utilities companies. “Government intervention is back in vogue in a really big way,” said Mujtaba Rahman, Europe director at the consulting firm Eurasia. …The huge public spending is in addition to a nearly trillion-dollar stimulus package adopted over the past year to deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic, mostly through borrowing. …spending billions…may be the only way to keep voters on board with Europe’s strong support of Ukraine against Russia.

The fact that Europe “turns once again to big spending” surely must win a prize for least surprising headline.

What is surprising, though, is some of the mistakes in the article. The reporter, Matina Stevis-Gridneff, seems to think that Europe has been some sort of bastion of laissez-faire fiscal policy.

It’s back to 20th-century economics in Europe. …The standoff with Russia over Ukraine is upturning European economic orthodoxy at rapid speed with barely a peep of dissent at the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels, a bastion of neoliberalism that not so long ago imposed brutal austerity on its own members, most notably Greece, even after it became clear it was harmful. …The ballooning debt load would have normally caused an uproar in the bloc, where fiscal conservatism has dominated policy and politics for years. …Paolo Gentiloni, the top E.U. economic official, ..said that the E.U. would begin to consider changes to its stringent fiscal rules

I’m not sure which part of the above excerpt is most at odds with reality.

  • “A bastion of neoliberalism.” To be blunt, that’s wildly wrong.
  • “Brutal austerity.” To be blunt, that’s wildly wrong.
  • “Fiscal conservatism has dominated policy.” To be blunt, that’s wildly wrong.
  • “Stringent fiscal rules.” To be blunt, that’s wildly wrong.

Though, to be fair, Greece was forced to engage in real austerity for a few years last decade. Though that only happened after a lengthy period of profligacy.

And the Greek people suffered immensely because the government over-spent for so many years.

What’s tragic is that other European nations, led by Italy, almost surely will suffer Greek-style fiscal crises. And the European Central Bank is making a bad situation even worse.

P.S. My other “least surprising headline” columns can be found here, here, and here.

Read Full Post »

Back in March, I explained that a spending cap is desirable, but noted that it’s important to set a limit that actually restrains government spending.

I made the same point as part of a recent speech to Hawaii’s Grassroot Institute.

My main point is that the goal of fiscal policy should be to control government spending, ideally by making sure it does not expand faster than the private sector.

That’s my Golden Rule.

The problem in Hawaii is that there’s a spending cap, but it’s set too high. Politicians are allowed to increase spending at the rate of growth of state income.

It’s far better to cap spending so that it increases no faster than population plus inflation.

Like the TABOR rule in Colorado.

But that’s only part of the problem. As I noted in my remarks, Hawaii politicians routinely waive even the overly permissive limit in their state.

At the risk of repeating myself, they should copy Colorado.

I also explained to the audience that a balanced budget is nice, but it shouldn’t be the goal of fiscal policy.

  1. From an economic perspective, the real problem is spending, regardless of whether outlays are financed by taxes or borrowing.
  2. From a practical perspective, balanced budget requirements are unsustainable because revenues rise and fall with the business cycle.
  3. From a political perspective, politicians can opt to comply by increasing the tax burden, particularly during an economic downturn.

I’ll add a fourth point. governments (such as Switzerland) with successful spending caps have a very good track record of budget surpluses. The same can’t be said for European nations that are supposed to comply with anti-deficit rules.

Not that Switzerland’s success should come as a surprise. If you fix the disease of excessive spending, that automatically should solve the symptom of red ink.

P.S. Here’s an explanation of Switzerland’s spending cap.

P.P.S. Here’s how a spending cap could solve the fiscal mess in Washington.

Read Full Post »

I don’t like shoveling more money at a corrupt IRS, hurting jobs with higher taxes on “book income,” price controls on prescription drugs, or green-energy pork.

But, as explained in this video clip, the insult added to injury is that the resuscitated “Build Back Better” is being sold as the “Inflation Reduction Act.”

If a private company said that candy bars help you lose weight or that it is okay to stick your hand under a running lawnmower, it would be dragged into court for false and/or dangerous advertising.

But when politicians make utterly dishonest claims about legislation, we have to grit our teeth and endure their lies.

The bottom line is that rising prices inevitably are a consequence of bad monetary policy.

That’s true in the United States, and that’s true elsewhere in the world.

So why, then, did Biden, Schumer, and Manchin decide to affix such an inaccurate label to their tax-and-spend package?

The answer presumably is political. Inflation is a problem for the incumbent party, so why not pretend the budget plan will somehow reduce inflation. Heck, if they could get away with it, they would probably call it the “Inflation Reduction and Cancer Elimination Act.”

But, to be fair, perhaps some of them actually believe a big-government plan will have an impact on inflation. For instance, the misguided but honest folks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget released an endorsement letter from 55 supposed experts based on the assumption that higher taxes will lead to lower prices.

Here are some excerpts.

With inflation at a 40-year high…, we are writing to encourage you to pass legislation to reduce budget deficits in a manner that would help counter inflation… As President Biden has explained, “bringing down the deficit is one way to ease inflationary pressures.” …Given the current state of the economy, we believe passing deficit reduction would send an important message to the American people that their leaders are serious about tackling inflation.

There are two big problems with the letter.

First, it is based on Keynesian economics, which assumes higher prices are caused by excessive “aggregate demand” and that deficit reduction (whether from tax increases or spending restraint) can help by slowing the economy.

Yet this is the theory that also told us that it was impossible to have rising prices and rising unemployment, like we saw in the 1970s. And Keynesians also said we couldn’t have falling unemployment and falling inflation, like we enjoyed in the 1980s.

Second, even if one believes in the fairy tale of Keynesian economics, all of the alleged deficit reduction occurs in future years.

And even that is nonsense since every sentient adult knows that the massive expansion of the IRS’s budget is not going to generate a windfall of new tax revenue. And every honest person also knows that lawmakers plan on extending the new Obamacare handouts in the bill.

These tweets summarize why even Keynesians should realize the legislation is fraudulent.

P.S. It is very disappointing (but perhaps not entirely surprising) that former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels signed the CRFB letter. And it also is disappointing that a couple of people from the American Enterprise Institute added their names as well. They all deserve the Charlie Brown Award.

P.P.S. As I noted in the video, deficit spending can lead to inflation if a central bank buys government bonds in order to help finance additional government spending (the crazy Modern Monetary Theory agenda). Perhaps I am being too charitable, but I don’t think that’s the reason for the Federal Reserve’s big mistake (though I fear it may be happening with the European Central Bank).

Read Full Post »

I realize few readers are interested in small, faraway countries. But I periodically write about nations such as Jordan, Cyprus, Latvia, Vanuatu, Panama, and Pakistan because they offer important lessons – mostly negative, but sometimes positive – about fiscal policy.

Today, let’s see what we can learn from Barbados.

That island nation in the Caribbean wound up in fiscal trouble a few years ago and Abrahm Lustgarten of the New York Times wrote a lengthy article last week about that experience.

Here’s the situation as of 2018.

Barbados was out of money. It was so broke that it was taking out new loans just to pay the interest on the old ones, even as its infrastructure was coming undone. Soon the nation would have no choice but to declare itself insolvent, instigating a battle with the dozens of banks and creditors that held its $8 billion in debt and triggering austerity measures that would spiral the island into further poverty. …Mottley, the first woman to lead Barbados, had been working…to develop a plan that would restructure the country’s soaring debts in a way that would free up money to invest in Barbados’s economy.

While the preceding excerpts are mostly to illustrate what was happening, I can’t resist two editorial comments.

Now let’s get back to the story.

Prime Minister Mottley’s plan involved going to the International Monetary Fund, then headed by Christine Lagarde, for a bailout.

Mottley knew that banks and investors would work with her only if Barbados were participating in a formal I.M.F. program… Mottley wanted Lagarde to endorse an economic program that would still allow her to raise salaries of civil servants, build schools and improve piping and wiring for water and power. …No one was sure how Lagarde would respond. Would she trust Mottley to spend on Barbados first? …the director’s surprising reply: She was extremely supportive of what Mottley was proposing.

Needless to say, I don’t like bailouts. And a bailout that enables more government spending seems especially foolish.

But I like to check the numbers before making sweeping pronouncements.

And while I am very skeptical of IMF bailouts, I like that the international bureaucracy has an extensive database with economic and fiscal numbers. Including fiscal data for Barbados going back to 1994.

So let’s see whether Barbados somehow was being hurt by inadequate levels of government spending.

But it turns out that total government spending today is more than four times greater than it was in 1994.

And if we look at government spending as a share of gross domestic product, we can see that government has nearly doubled in size.

To be fair to Ms. Mottley, the politicians in office from 1994-2008 were the most profligate.

But none of that changes the fact that government is far bigger today than it was in the recent past. So the notion that Barbados needs a bigger government budget is nonsense.

Sadly, the reporter did not bother to share any of these numbers. Indeed, in a story that ran more than 10,000 words, there were only 50 words that even hinted at the real problem.

…a mixture of poor management and corruption had eroded the country’s economy. …the country had developed a “dysfunctional” fiscal culture in which government agencies and departments took loans and negotiated deals without consulting the central bank, accumulating sprawling debt… The country’s response was to print more money and borrow more.

I’ll close by observing that Barbados never would have gotten into trouble if it had a Swiss-style spending cap. If government spending had been allowed to grow only 3 percent each year starting in 1994, Barbados would be enjoyed a huge budget surplus today.

P.S. Ironically, economists at the IMF have written in favor of spending caps on multiple occasions. Too bad the political hacks in charge of the bureaucracy don’t pay attention to that research.

Read Full Post »

One of the best things about 2021 was the fact that Congress did not approve Joe Biden’s economically debilitating plan to raise taxes and expand the welfare state.

His so-called Build Back Better plan was a very bad mix of class-warfare tax policy and redistributionist spending policy.

But one of the worst things about 2022 may be the reincarnation of a slimmed-down version of Biden’s plan.

Simply stated, the “slimmed-down version” of a terrible piece of legislation is bad news – even if it is possible to envision something even worse.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on the package illustrates why it is bad news that Senator Joe Manchin is trying to rescue Biden’s statist agenda.

As the economy slouches near recession, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin…unveiled a tax-and-spending deal that they call the Inflation Reduction Act. Is their aim to reduce inflation by chilling business investment and the economy? …A more accurate name would be the Business Investment Reduction and Distortion Act since that will be the result of its $433 billion in climate and healthcare spending, and $615 billion in new taxes and drug price-control “savings.”

The editorial highlights four terrible provisions.

First, there’s a big tax hike on American companies, with the biggest tax hike on firms that make new investments.

…the 15% minimum tax on corporate book income…will slam businesses whose taxable income is lower than the profits on their financial statements owing to the likes of investment expensing.

For all intents and purposes, politicians would be creating a second type of corporate income tax.

Heavy compliance costs for the business community, of course, but the rest of us probably care more about the estimated loss of 218,000 jobs according to the National Association of Manufacturers.

Second, there are corrupt “green energy” provisions that will degrade America’s energy efficiency and security.

…the bill’s $369 billion in climate spending, most of which is corporate welfare. …All of this will steer private investment into green energy at the cost of reduced investment in fossil fuels. Wind and solar subsidies are already creating distortions in power markets that make the electric grid less reliable and energy more expensive. The expansion of subsidies will compound these problems.

If you want to know why this is bad, just remember Solyndra.

Third, the legislation imposes back-door price controls on the pharmaceutical industry.

The bill will require the Health and Human Services Secretary to “negotiate” Medicare prices—i.e., impose price controls—for dozens of drugs. But the $288 billion in putative savings are fanciful. Manufacturers will hedge potential future losses by launching drugs at higher prices. …The bill will also discourage investment in innovative treatments that could reduce future healthcare spending.

For those of us who value the development of new drugs to fight problems like cancer and Alzheimer’s, this is very bad news.

Fourth, a very corrupt internal revenue service is rewarded for its bad behavior.

Speculative revenue of $124 billion will also come from an $80 billion boost for the IRS. Most of this will finance more audits. The rich can afford more tax lawyers, but middle and upper-middle class Americans will be inclined to settle IRS claims, however meritless, lest they spend even more to defend themselves.

P.S. I can’t resist sharing one final bit of information.

If you peruse the Joint Committee on Taxation’s analysis of the bill, you’ll find that Joe Biden is breaking his promise not to raise taxes on people making less than $400,000 per year.

Not that anyone should be shocked. I have repeatedly explained that the big spenders need to pillage lower-income and middle-class household if they want to finance bigger government.

Read Full Post »

Yesterday’s column analyzed some depressing data in the new long-run fiscal forecast from the Congressional Budget Office.

Simply stated, if we leave fiscal policy on auto-pilot, government spending is going to consume an ever-larger share of America’s economy. Which means some combination of more taxes, more debt, and more reckless monetary policy.

Today, let’s show how that problem can be solved.

My final chart yesterday showed that the fundamental problem is that government spending is projected to grow faster than the private economy, thus violating the “golden rule” of fiscal policy.

Here’s a revised version of that chart. I have added a bar showing how fast tax revenues are expected to grow over the next 30 years, as well as a bar showing the projection for population plus inflation.

As already stated, it’s a big problem that government spending is growing faster (an average of 4.63 percent per year) than the growth of the private economy (an average of 3.75 percent per years.

But the goal of fiscal policy should not be to maintain the bloated budget that currently exists. That would lock in all the reckless spending we got under Bush, Obama, and Trump. Not to mention the additional waste approved under Biden.

Ideally, fiscal policy should seek to reduce the burden of federal spending.

Which is why this next chart is key. It shows what would happen if the federal government adopted a TABOR-style spending cap, modeled after the very successful fiscal rule in Colorado.

If government spending can only grow as fast as inflation plus population, we avoid giant future deficits. Indeed, we eventually get budget surpluses.

But I’m not overly concerned with fiscal balance. The proper goal should be to reduce the burden of spending, regardless of how it is financed.

And a spending cap linked to population plus inflation over the next 30 years would yield impressive results. Instead of the federal government consuming more than 30 percent of the economy’s output, only 17.8 percent of GDP would be diverted by federal spending in 2052.

P.S. A spending cap also could be modeled on Switzerland’s very successful “debt brake.”

P.P.S. Some of my left-leaning friends doubtlessly will think a federal budget that consumes “only” 17.8 percent of GDP is grossly inadequate. Yet that was the size of the federal government, relative to economic output, at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

Read Full Post »

The Congressional Budget Office has released its new long-run fiscal forecast. Like I did last year (and the year before, and the year before, etc), let’s look at some very worrisome data.

We’ll start with projections over the next three decades for taxes and spending, measured as a share of economic output (gross domestic product). As you can see, the tax burden is increasing, but the spending burden is increasing even faster.

By the way, some people think America’s main fiscal problem is the gap between the two lines. In other words, they worry about deficits and debt.

But the real problem is government spending. And that’s true whether the spending burden is financed by taxes, borrowing, or printing money.

So why is the burden of government spending projected to get larger?

As you can see from Figure 2-2, entitlement programs deserve the lion’s share of the blame. Social Security spending is expanding as a share of GDP, and health entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare) are expanding even faster.

Now let’s confirm that the problem is not on the revenue side.

As you can see from Figure 2-7, taxation is expected to consume an ever-larger share of economic output in future decades. And that’s true even if the Trump tax cuts are made permanent.

Having shared three charts from CBO’s report, it’s now time for a chart that I created using CBO’s long-run data.

My chart shows that America’s main fiscal problem is that we are not abiding by fiscal policy’s Golden Rule. To be more specific, the burden of government is projected to grow faster than the economy.

So long as the burden of government is expanding faster than the private sector, that’s a recipe for higher taxes, more debt, and reckless monetary policy.

All of those options lead to the same bad outcome.

Read Full Post »

Back in May, I pointed out that it is absurd for Joe Biden to claim credit for lower deficits. This Reason video elaborates, noting that red ink is (temporarily) falling solely because the orgy of pandemic spending is ending.

Serious budget people, regardless of their ideology, know this is true.

Almost everything Biden has done since taking office has expanded the burden of government.

For instance, he pushed through a so-called stimulus scheme, followed by a boondoggle-filled infrastructure plan.

Both of which are captured in this chart from Brian Riedl.

By the way, it would be better if the chart focused on how the spending burden has increased. After all, deficits should be viewed as the symptom. The real disease is excessive government.

That being said, either type of chart would look far worse if Biden had been able to convince Congress to approve $trillions of additional spending as part of his “build back better” proposal.

One final point is that Biden also has added to the fiscal burden of government with the pen-and-phone approach.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Biden has added $532 billion of extra spending via executive orders and other unilateral decisions.

P.S. I have no doubt Trump and many other politicians of both parties also would be taking credit for falling deficits if they were in Biden’s position. After all, politicians are probably the least ethical people in the nation. And Washington brings out the worst of the worst.

P.P.S. There is a risk that a slimmed-down version of Biden’s “build back better” plan is being resuscitated. That would be bad news for the economy. Not as bad as the original version, to be sure, but it’s crazy to enact anti-growth proposals with the economy teetering on the edge of recession (especially since some of the specific provisions are so misguided).

Read Full Post »

Last month, I shared a chart from a study published by the European Central Bank.

It showed which European nations were in the unfortunate position of facing big future spending increases (the vertical axis) combined with already-high levels of government debt (the horizontal axis).

The bottom line is that Italy, Portugal, France and Belgium face a very difficult fiscal future.

And Estonia (at least relatively speaking) is in the best shape.

Today we are going to augment those ECB numbers by looking at some data from the OECD’s recent report on Estonia.

Here’s a chart showing how the burden of government spending is going to increase in various nations between now and 2060.

Slovakia, Spain, Norway, and the Czech Republic have the biggest problem.

Lithuania is in the best shape, surprisingly followed by Greece (I assume because that nation already hit rock bottom, not because of good policy).

I also highlight the United States, which will have to face the challenge of above-average spending increases.

But if you want to know which nation will be the next to suffer fiscal collapse, you also need to know whether (or the degree to which) it has the capacity – or “fiscal space” – to endure a bigger burden of government spending.

James Capretta addressed that topic in an article for the Bulwark.

Which governments have exercised budgetary restraint in recent years, even while confronting sequential global crises? Which have been more profligate? And what do the differences portend for their differing abilities to handle an era when servicing debt may be more expensive than it has been in many years? …Accuracy…requires assessing both assets and liabilities. …The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development…’s most comprehensive measure of fiscal resilience is the “financial net worth” of the reporting countries, which includes the main sources of accumulated liabilities (especially public debt) along with financial assets owned by governments.

And here’s a chart showing how developed nations (with the exception of oil-rich Norway) have been spending themselves into a fiscal ditch.

Here are some of Capretta’s observations.

Among the twenty-seven OECD countries that reported data every year from 1995 to 2020, the average deterioration in their net financial position, weighted by population size, was equal to 48 percent of GDP. …Several countries stand out for the steepness of their declines. Japan’s net financial position was -20 percent of GDP in 1995, and in 2020 it was -129 percent of GDP—in other words, in just 25 years it worsened by over 100 percent of the country’s annual GDP. Similarly, the United Kingdom experienced a serious deterioration, with a net financial position in 2020 equal to -109 percent of GDP. In 1995, it was -26 percent. …France, Greece, Italy, and Spain are regularly criticized for their uneven approaches to fiscal discipline. The OECD data showing a substantial deterioration of their net financial positions over the last quarter century provides more evidence that each of these countries needs to take further steps to lower the risk of a fiscal crisis in future years.

The United States obviously is not in good shape, though I think the OECD’s methodology is imperfect.

Yes, America will have to deal with a fiscal crisis if we don’t figure out a way of controlling spending, but I suspect many other countries will reach that point before the U.S. (with Italy quite likely being the next to go belly up).

P.S. At the risk of repeating advice from previous columns, genuine entitlement reform is the only solution to America’s long-run spending problem, ideally enforced by a Swiss-style, TABOR-style spending cap.

Read Full Post »

What’s the most depressing chart in the world?

If you believe in limited government and you’re looking back in time, this example or this example are good candidates.

But if we’re looking into the future, this chart from a new study by the European Central Bank is very sobering.

And it’s a depressing chart because it doesn’t matter whether you believe in big government or small government. That’s because this chart shows a dramatic shift in population demographics.

Simply stated, Europe’s welfare states are in deep trouble because over time there will be fewer and fewer workers to pay taxes and more and more old people expecting benefits.

Here’s what the ECB experts, Katalin Bodnár and Carolin Nerlich, wrote about their findings.

The euro area, like many other advanced economies, has entered an era of drastic demographic change. …Declining birth rates and rising life expectancy are causing the number of pensioners to increase relative to workers. In the next one and a half decades, this trend will be amplified as the sizeable baby boom generation enters retirement and the cohort of workers shrinks. …The old-age dependency ratio is projected to reach almost 54% by 2070… If left unaddressed, population ageing will pose a burden on public finances in the euro area, given the relatively strong role of publicly financed pension and health care systems. Debt sustainability challenges might arise from mounting ageing-related public spending, which will be particularly a concern in high debt countries.

That last sentence in the above excerpt should win a prize for understatement of the year.

Many of Europe’s welfare states already are on the verge of crisis. And as demographics change over time (findings replicated in the European Commission’s Ageing Report), they will go from bad to worse.

Here’s a breakdown of how the “age dependency ratio” will change in various nations.

By the way, if you look at the right side of Chart 4, you’ll see Japan’s horrible numbers as well as a worrisome trend for the United States.

Most people focus on how demographic change will lead to more debt.

I think it’s more important to focus on the underlying problem of government spending.

This next chart combines both. The vertical axis shows the increase in age-related government spending while the horizontal axis shows debt levels.

The bottom line is that countries in the top-right quadrant are in deep trouble. Especially in the long run (though Italy could go belly-up very soon).

The ECB report does suggest ways to address this looming crisis.

To safeguard against the adverse economic and fiscal consequences of population ageing, there is a need to build-up fiscal buffers during good economic times, to improve the quality of public finance and to implement growth-enhancing structural reforms. …Further pension reforms are needed that encourage workers to postpone their retirement.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of these things to happen. Building up “fiscal buffers” means running surpluses today to offset deficits tomorrow. But European nations are running big deficits because of excessive spending today, so there will be no maneuvering room in the future.

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

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

Read Full Post »

Echoing remarks earlier this month to a group in Nigeria, I spoke today about fiscal economics to the 2022 Africa Liberty Camp in Entebbe, Uganda.

During the Q&A session, I was asked to specify the ideal amount of government spending. I addressed that issue in an April interview while visiting Spain.

You’ll notice that I didn’t give a specific number in the above video. Just like I didn’t give a specific number to the audience in Uganda.

That’s because there is not an exact answer. The only thing we can definitively state is that government in most nations should be far smaller than it is today.

This is illustrated by the “Rahn Curve,” which I discussed both in the interview and in my speech today.

What is the Rahn Curve? Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2015.

…it shows the non-linear relationship between the size of government and economic performance. Simply stated, some government spending presumably enables growth by creating the conditions (such as rule of law and property rights) for commerce. But as politicians learn to buy votes and enhance their power by engaging in redistribution, then government spending is associated with weaker economic performance because of perverse incentives and widespread misallocation of resources.

And here’s a visual depiction of the Rahn Curve. The upward-sloping part of the curve shows that spending on genuine public goods is associated with more prosperity. But once government budgets exceed a certain level, additional spending means weaker economic performance.

In the above graph, I show that growth is maximized when government consumes about 15 percent-20 percent of economic output.

But I actually think prosperity would be maximized if government was a smaller burden, perhaps about 5 percent-10 percent of GDP.

In 2017, I explained the appropriate role of government in a libertarian society. My analysis was based on my “minarchist” views, which imply government only spends money for national defense and rule of law.

By contrast, my anarcho-capitalist friends would say we don’t need any government.

Meanwhile, moderate libertarians (or conservative Republicans) might be amenable to having state and local governments play a role in education and infrastructure.

The bottom line is that I think growth would be maximized if government consumes – at most – 10 percent of economic output (which was the size of government in the 1800s when the Western world became rich).

But I will be happy with any progress (particularly since government is projected to become an even bigger burden if left on autopilot).

If you want to watch more videos related to the Rahn curve, there are many options.

P.S. Here’s my response to a critic from the left.

P.P.S. Interestingly, some normally left-leaning international bureaucracies have acknowledged you get more prosperity with smaller government. Check out the analysis from the IMF, ECB, World Bank, and OECD.

Read Full Post »

As part of my recent appearance on The Square Circle (we discussed Uvalde police, gun control, and Ukraine), I said that the new Social Security numbers were the under-reported story of the week.

For more details, I was referring to the latest Trustees Report, published yesterday by the Social Security Administration.

Most people, when that annual report is released, focus on when the Social Security Trust Fund runs out of money. But since the Trust Fund only contains IOUs, I view that as a largely irrelevant number.

Instead, I immediately look at Table VI.G9, which shows how much revenue is being collected and how much money is being spent every year.

Here is that data displayed in a chart. The left side shows actual fiscal numbers from 1970 to 2021 while the right side shows the projections between 2022 and 2100.

As you can see in the chart, revenues going into the system (the blue line) are growing rapidly.

But you also can see that Social Security spending (the orange line) is expanding even faster.

And when spending grows faster than revenue, one consequences is more red ink.

This next chart shows that annual deficits between now and 2100 will total $56 trillion.

At the risk of understatement, these two charts should be very sobering. Especially since they only show the taxes, spending, and red ink for Social Security.

If we also add the fiscal aggregates for other entitlement programs, it would be abundantly clear why we face a “crisis” and a “train wreck.”

So how do we solve this mess. I’ve written about the needed reforms for Medicare and Medicaid, so let’s focus today on Social Security.

The ideal approach is to take the current pay-as-you-go entitlement and turn it into a system of personal retirement accounts.

Many nations around the world have adopted this approach, most notably Chile and Australia.

But as I noted two years ago, there will be a big “transition” challenge if the United States decides to modernize.

P.S. I mentioned “public choice” at the end of that clip. You can click here to learn more about the economic analysis of political choices.

P.P.S. I mentioned that Chile and Australia have created personal retirement accounts. You can also learn about reforms in Switzerland, Hong Kong, Netherlands, the Faroe Islands, Denmark, Israel, and Sweden.

Read Full Post »

The 21st century has been bad news for America’s taxpayers. Every president (George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden) has been a big spender.

We obviously can’t give Biden a final grade since he has at least two more years in office (though his performance so far has been dismal – and his so-called Build Back Better is an ongoing threat to fiscal sanity).

But there is comprehensive data allowing us to assess Biden’s three predecessors. Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute has a new report that shows what happened to red ink under Bush, Obama, and Trump.

He measures what happened to 10-year deficit projections based on both legislated changes (what laws were enacted during time in office) and changes in economic and technical assumptions (largely driven by unanticipated changes in the economy).

As I’ve repeatedly written, I don’t think we should focus on red ink. What really matters is the burden of government spending.

So I’ve taken Brian’s rigorous analysis and highlighted what happened to government spending during the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations.

We’ll start with George W. Bush, who approved laws adding almost $4.3 trillion to America’s spending burden.

Then we have Barack Obama, who added $1.4 trillion to America’s spending burden.

Then we have Donald Trump, who added $6 trillion to America’s spending burden.

Here are some final observations about the numbers.

The bottom line is that I wish we could return to the spending restraint that America enjoyed during the final two decades of the 20th century.

Read Full Post »

America’s fiscal future is very grim, largely because of an ever-expanding burden of entitlement spending.

To see the magnitude of the problem, let’s peruse the Budget and Economic Outlook, which was released yesterday by the Congressional Budget Office has some.

Most people are focusing on how deficits are going to climb from $1 trillion to $2 trillion-plus over the next 10 years.

That’s not good news, but we should be far more worried about the fact that the burden of government spending is growing faster than the private economy. As a result, government will be consuming an ever-larger share of national output.

The budget wonks who (mistakenly) focus on red ink say the problem is so serious that we need higher taxes.

They look at this chart, which is based on CBO’s baseline forecast (what will happen if taxes and spending are left on autopilot), and assert we have no choice but to raise taxes.

They point out that the annual deficit in 2032 will be almost $2.3 trillion and that it’s impossible cut spending by that much.

Needless to say, it would be a near-impossible political undertaking to cut $2.3 trillion in one year (though it would fulfill libertarian fantasies).

But what if, instead of kicking the can down the road, policymakers imposed some sort of overall spending cap to avoid a giant deficit in 10 year.

This second chart displays that scenario. I took CBO’s baseline (autopilot) numbers and assumed that spending could only increase by 1.4 percent annually starting in 2024.

As you can see, that modest bit of fiscal discipline completely eliminates the project $2.3 trillion annual deficit in 2032.

In other words, there is no need for any tax increase.

Especially since politicians almost certainly would respond to the expectation of additional revenue by increasing spending above the baseline (as would happen with Joe Biden’s so-called Build Back Better scheme).

I’ll close by noting that there’s no need to fixate on whether the budget is balanced by 2032. What matters is trend lines.

It’s not good for government to grow faster than the private economy in the long run. And it’s not good for deficits and debt to climb as a share of economic output in the long run.

Both of those outcomes can be avoided if we have some sort of spending cap so that outlays grow slower than the private sector.

The stricter the cap, the quicker the progress.

  • I prefer actual cuts (a requirement to reduce nominal spending each year).
  • I would be happy with a hard freeze (like we had for a few years after the Tea Party revolt).
  • As noted above, a 1.4 percent spending cap balances the budget by 2032.
  • But we would make progress, albeit slow progress, even if the spending cap allowed the budget to grow by 2.0 percent of 2.5 percent per year.

P.S. I start the spending cap in 2024 because spending is not projected to grow by very much between 2022 and 2023. That’s not because today’s politicians are being responsible, however. It’s simply a result of one-time pandemic emergency spending coming to an end. But since that one-time spending has a big impact on short-run numbers, I delayed the spending cap for one year.

P.P.S. The blue revenue line has a kink in 2025 because the baseline forecast assumes that many of the Trump tax cuts expire that year. If those tax cuts are extended or made permanent, revenues would be about $400 billion lower in 2032. As such, balancing the budget by that year would require a spending cap that allows annual outlays to increase by less than 0.9 percent per year.

P.P.P.S. President Biden is bragging that the deficit is falling this year, but that’s only because the one-time pandemic spending is coming to an end.

P.P.P.P.S. A spending cap is a simple solution, but it would not be an easy solution. In the long-run, it would require genuine entitlement reform.

Read Full Post »

More than 10 years ago, I narrated this video showing how the United States benefited from spending restraint under both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Since today’s topic is Clinton’s policies, pay attention starting about 4:00.

If you don’t have time to watch the video, I hope you will at least pay attention to this chart, which appeared near the end (about 6:00).

It shows what happened to domestic spending (entitlements plus discretionary) as a share of economic output during the Reagan years, the Clinton years, and the 2001-2010 period under Bush and Obama.

Reagan was the runaway champion, but it’s worth noting that the burden of domestic spending also declined during the Clinton years.

But it wasn’t just that Bill Clinton was good on spending. Good things happened in the 1990s in other areas as well, especially trade.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Bill Galston defends Clinton’s “neoliberal” record.

… critics often mark the Clinton administration as the moment when establishment Democrats capitulated to the ideology of the unfettered market. Poor and working-class Americans paid the price, they charge… The historical record tells a different story. …During eight years of the Clinton administration, annual real growth in gross domestic product averaged a robust 3.8% while inflation was restrained, averaging 2.6%. Payrolls increased by 22.9 million… Unemployment fell from 7.3% in January 1993 to…4.2% at the end of President Clinton’s second term. Adjusted for inflation, real median household income rose by 13.9%. …During the administration, federal spending as a share of GDP fell from 21.2% to 17.5%… What about the poor? The poverty rate declined during the Clinton administration by nearly one quarter, from 15.1% to 11.3%, near its historic low. And it declined even faster among minorities—by 8.1 percentage points for Hispanics and 10.9 points for blacks. …In sum, during the heyday of neoliberalism, Americans weren’t forced to choose between high growth and low inflation or between aggregate growth and fairness for the poor, working class and minorities.

Why did we get these good results?

Because overall economic freedom increased during the Clinton years. And when the burden of government is reduced, that creates more opportunity for upward advancement for everyone in society.

By the way, I’m not arguing in today’s column that Bill Clinton deserves all the credit. There’s little doubt that the Republican landslide in 1994 played a big role in many of the subsequent pro-market reforms (such as welfare reform, the 1997 tax cut, etc).

But I will say that Bill Clinton at least was amenable to pro-market compromises, which is not what we saw during the Obama years (and I doubt we will see a shift to the center from Biden if Republicans win Congress this November).

P.S. Republicans were able to impose some fiscal discipline on Obama after the Tea Party landslide of 2010

P.P.S. For those who want more details, click here for a detailed examination of the fiscal policy performance of various modern presidents.

Read Full Post »

When I first started writing this daily column, the Congressional Budget Office was infamous for dodgy economics.

That was the bad news.

The good news is that CBO is more of a mainstream organization today.

It’s far from being libertarian, to be sure, but it no longer seems to have the left-leaning bias that plagued the bureaucracy in the past (it had gotten so bad that I advised Republicans not to cite CBO numbers even when they seemed helpful to the cause of less government).

For instance, I grudgingly acknowledged a few years ago that CBO was better (but still not good) when analyzing potential repeal of Obamacare.

And I was actually impressed last year when CBO published a report showing that a bigger burden of government spending would reduce growth.

And now we have another report that reaches similar conclusions.

The new study, released last month, considers what would happen if lawmakers decided to control red ink by either raising taxes of by restraining spending.

A perpetually rising debt-to-GDP ratio is unsustainable over the long term because financing deficits and servicing the debt would consume an ever-growing proportion of the nation’s income. In this report, CBO analyzes the effects of measures that policymakers could take to prevent debt as a percentage of GDP from continuing to climb. Policymakers could restrain the growth of spending, raise revenues, or pursue some combination of those two approaches. …or this analysis, CBO examined two simplified policies. The first would raise federal tax rates on different types of income proportionally. The second would cut spending for certain government benefit programs—mostly for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Under each of the two stylized policy options, debt as a percentage of GDP would be fully stabilized 10 years after the changes were implemented.

By the way, I would have greatly preferred if CBO estimated the impact of genuine entitlement reforms.

Trimming spending for existing programs is better than nothing, of course, but the goal should be to achieve both structural reforms and budgetary savings.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to what was actually in the report. Here’s what CBO projects if policy makers choose to raise taxes.

…the higher tax rates that would be required if implementation of the policy was delayed would reduce after-tax wages, which would discourage work and lower the aggregate supply of labor. Those reductions in capital stock and the labor supply would cause GDP to be lower… As a result, GDP would be 0.9 percent lower in 2051 if implementation of the policy was delayed by 5 years and 2.6 percent lower if it was delayed by 10 years.

And here’s what happens if they decide to trim benefits.

…a drop in benefits would reduce people’s income and induce some people to work more to, at least partially, maintain their standard of living, thereby increasing the aggregate labor supply. …a drop in expected future retirement benefits would induce workers to save more before they retired, and that increased saving would, in turn, increase the aggregate capital stock.

Figure 3 from the report allows readers to compare how the different options affect the economy’s output.

In other words, we get lower living standards if taxes go up and higher living standards if spending is restrained.

How big is the difference? As you can see, the tax increase options (light green) cause significant long-run reductions in gross domestic product.

Trimming benefits by contrast (the dark green lines) actually lead to a slight increase in economic output.

The report accurately explains why the two policy choices produce such different results.

…GDP would be lower after an increase in income tax rates than it would be after cuts in benefit payments… Whereas benefit cuts strengthen people’s incentives to work and save, tax increases weaken those incentives and thus reduce the capital stock, the labor supply, and output.

In other words, it’s not a good idea to copy nations such as France, Italy, and Greece.

Which is a good description of Biden’s so-called plan to Build Back Better.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: