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Posts Tagged ‘Government Spending’

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

How much will it hurt the economy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wall Street Journal opined about Biden’s gimmickry.

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

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

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

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

But we do have a tiny bit of good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Massive failure may be an understatement.

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

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

How much of a disaster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But affordable is not the same as sensible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Biden White House has a different perspective.

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

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

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

Biden’s strange analysis has generated some amusing responses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not many.

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

The only exception to this rule is Ronald Reagan.

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

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

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

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

Some of what Waldman wrote is correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I miss the Gipper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is throwing good money after bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Klein is correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And higher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The private sector reacted quickly (when allowed by sluggish and inefficient government) to the coronavirus pandemic. We quickly got everything from vaccines to personal protective equipment.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that politicians also reacted quickly.

The crowd in Washington used the crisis as an excuse to spend money. Lots of money.

This predictably led to lots of waste, fraud, and abuse.

But did it also help the economy? In other words, did the pandemic spending “stimulate” the private sector, as Keynesian economists have long claimed?

In a new study, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center and Professor Garett Jones of George Mason University examined whether government spending has a “multiplier effect” that leads to additional prosperity.

Here’s the issue they investigated.

Since March 2020, Congress and two successive administrations have passed and signed into law five COVID-19 pandemic relief bailouts…  That adds up to almost $6 trillion in “emergency” federal spending… designed to save jobs that would have been lost or create jobs that would have gone uncreated otherwise. …this perspective fails to acknowledge the limits that this type of government intervention has in achieving the goal of pulling the economy out of recession. …According to the best available evidence, there are no realistic scenarios where the short-term benefit of stimulus is so large that the government spending pays for itself. In fact, even when government spending crowds in some private-sector activity, the positive impact is small, and much smaller than economic textbooks suggest. …the COVID-19 recession was driven by supply constraints on growth, not a lack of aggregate demand. …Both history and Keynesian-influenced economic theory teach that extra government spending per se cannot do much to overcome the effects of a supply shock.

And here are some of their conclusions.

The possibility that higher government spending, rather than increasing the size of the private sector, results in the private sector shrinking, is often omitted from the Keynesian theories that students learn in textbooks. Nevertheless, this kind of result turns up routinely in recent data-driven research. …evidence from the past few decades has seriously weakened (though not entirely defeated) the argument that expanding the government is a path to growing the private sector. …The outpouring of academic interest into Keynesian fiscal multipliers has ultimately led researchers to the view that those effects are even smaller than earlier supposed. …So even during recessions, even during times of high unemployment, high-quality statistical analysis of US economic history shows that extra government spending shrinks the private sector, at least a little. …The Keynesian idea that short-term government spending can reboot a crashed economy has not proven useful. …it is more like a myth.

And it’s a myth with a history of failure in the real world.

It’s also worth pointing out that Keynesians have been consistently wrong with predicting economic damage during periods of spending restraint.

  • They were wrong about growth after World War II (and would have been wrong, if they were around at the time, about growth when Harding slashed spending in the early 1920s).
  • They were wrong about Thatcher in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Reagan in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Canada in the 1990s.
  • They were wrong after the sequester in 2013.
  • They were wrong about unemployment benefits in 2020.

P.S. Here’s a bit of satire about Keynesian economics.

P.P.S. If you want to enjoy some cartoons about Keynesian economics, click here, here, here, and here. Here’s some clever mockery of Keynesianism. And here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally enjoyable sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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Back in 2009 and 2010, when I had less gray hair, I narrated a four-part series on the economic burden of government spending.

Here’s Part II, which discusses the theoretical reasons why big government reduces prosperity.

I provide eight examples to illustrate how and why government spending can hinder economic growth.

The last item is what I called the “stagnation cost,” which is the tendency of politicians and bureaucrats to throw good money after bad because there is no incentive to adapt.

When giving speeches, I usually refer to this as the “inertia cost.”

But, regardless of what I call it, I explain that every government program has a group of beneficiaries that are strongly motivated to keep their gravy train moving even if money is being wasted.

And since politicians like getting votes from those beneficiaries, it’s very difficult to derail programs.

In an article for National Review, Sean-Michael Pigeon offers one very plausible explanation for why this happens.

He says politicians fall victim to the fallacy of sunk costs.

…we need an understanding of government inefficiency… One reason government spending is so needlessly costly is somewhat paradoxical: The state is wasteful precisely because people are so concerned about wasting money. …This is a classic sunk-cost fallacy: Costs that can’t be recovered are “sunk,” and therefore irrelevant for future decision-making. But while this fallacy is well known in economics, sunk costs are a big deal in the practical world of politics. Nobody wants to waste money, and politicians don’t want to cause waste directly. No member of Congress wants to be publicly responsible for a half-built bridge, especially when they have to tell taxpayers they still have to foot the bill for it. …Congress’s unwillingness to cut the funding of poorly run projects is a significant reason government projects always spend too much. …Politicians are nervous about cutting ongoing projects because they don’t want to leave taxpayers empty-handed, but stomaching sunk costs is worth it. Not only is it economically sound to stop government agencies from bleeding money, but it also sets the precedent that shoddy work will be held accountable. …to save money, sometimes you have to lose money.

In other words, it would be good to stop the bleeding.

But that’s not politically easy. Mr. Pigeon has examples in his column, but he should have included California’s (supposed) high-speed rail project.

That boondoggle has been draining money from state and federal coffers for about a decade. Cost estimates have exploded (something that almost always happens with government projects), yet construction has barely started.

Yet now Biden wants to increase federal subsidies for that money pit, along with other long-distance rail schemes.

And you won’t be surprised that a big argument from supporters is that we’ve already wasted billions and billions of dollars on the project, so therefore we should continue to waste even more money (sort of like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer because it feels good when you stop).

The big-picture bottom line is that the burden of federal spending should be reduced so that politicians have less ability to waste money.

And that also means that Americans will be able to enjoy more growth and more prosperity.

The targeted bottom line is that we should get Washington out of infrastructure.

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Politicians and bureaucrats are (self-interested) conduits for taking money from one group of people and giving it to another group of people.

Milton Friedman famously explained that this is why they largely don’t care about how much money is spent or how effectively it is spent.

No wonder government programs, agencies, and departments waste so much money, year after year, decade after decade.

This observation about careless profligacy also applies to so-called emergency spending.

I’ve repeatedly written about the perverse impact of unemployment benefits that are so excessive that people have big incentives not to work.

But that’s just one problem with that program. Axios has a depressing report on how the turbo-charged benefits that were part of the coronavirus legislation triggered staggering levels of fraud.

Criminals may have stolen as much as half of the unemployment benefits the U.S. has been pumping out over the past year, some experts say. …fraud during the pandemic could easily reach $400 billion, according to some estimates, and the bulk of the money likely ended in the hands of foreign crime syndicates… Blake Hall, CEO of ID.me, a service that tries to prevent this kind of fraud, tells Axios that…50% of all unemployment monies might have been stolen… Haywood Talcove, the CEO of LexisNexis Risk Solutions, estimates that at least 70% of the money stolen by impostors ultimately left the country, much of it ending up in the hands of criminal syndicates in China, Nigeria, Russia and elsewhere.

USA Today reported on one Nigerian scammer who feasted on American tax dollars.

Mayowa is an engineering student in Nigeria who estimates he’s made about $50,000 since the pandemic began. After compiling a list of real people, he turns to databases of hacked information that charge $2 in cryptocurrency to link that name to a date of birth and Social Security number. In most states that information is all it takes to file for unemployment. …“Once we have that information, it’s over,” Mayowa said. “It’s easy money.” …prepaid debit cards issued by some state unemployment offices paved the way for fraud this year, security experts said. …Asked whether he feels bad about stealing from unemployed Americans, Mayowa pointed out that 70% of his peers in school are working the scams as side hustles, too.

But it’s not just the unemployment benefits.

The government also has been sending out “stimulus” checks to people, even if they were employed all during the pandemic.

And they didn’t even need to be alive, according to a report from CNS.

The federal government sent nearly 1.2 million “economic impact payments” authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to people who were dead and, therefore, not qualified to receive them, according to a report published today by the Government Accountability Office. …On its website, the IRS describes individuals who are not eligible for an “Economic Impact Payment”… “Taxpayers likely won’t qualify for an Economic Impact Payment if any of the following apply: … You can be claimed a dependent on someone else’s return. … You are a nonresident alien. … An incarcerated individual. A deceased individual.”

Hundreds of foreigners also got handouts, as reported by the Washington Post.

Hundreds of people have cashed U.S. stimulus checks at Austrian banks in recent months. Some of them appeared puzzled by the unexpected payments or were ineligible for the payouts, according to bank officials and Austrian media reports. …He and his wife received $1,200 each, although neither is a U.S. resident or holds U.S. citizenship — key eligibility requirements. …Similar instances have been reported in other countries.

By the way, it’s not just Austrians who received handouts. NPR has a story featuring people all over the world who got $1200 checks from Uncle Sam.

And let’s not forget the PPP program, which was another big chunk of the coronavirus handouts.

The Wall Street Journal has a report on the rampant fraud in that program.

The federal government is swamped with reports of potential fraud in the Paycheck Protection Program, according to government officials and public data…the government allowed companies to self-certify that they needed the funds, with little vetting. The Small Business Administration’s inspector general, an arm of the agency that administers the PPP, said last month there were “strong indicators of widespread potential abuse and fraud in the PPP.” …The watchdog counted tens of thousands of companies that received PPP loans for which they appear to have been ineligible, such as corporations created after the pandemic began… Given the limited criteria Congress set for the program, he said, “The scandal is what’s legal, not what’s illegal.”

Reason also has a story about PPP waste.

…carmaker Lamborghini has benefitted from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)… Within days of receiving $1.6 million in PPP loans for his construction and logistics businesses, Lee Price III of Houston bought himself a 2019 Lamborghini Urus for $233,337, plus a $14,000 Rolex watch and close to $5,000 worth of entertainment at a strip club and various bars around town. …His scheme was audacious but hardly original. The DOJ had already brought similar fraud charges against Miami man David T. Hines, who had allegedly spent his ill-gotten PPP loans on a new $318,000 Lamborghini Huracán EVO. …Loan recipients include companies founded by members of Congress and prominent D.C. lobbying firms. Presidential adviser Jared Kushner’s family businesses, including their media and real estate concerns, received PPP loans, as did the clothing brand of rapper and aspiring president Kanye West.

We already knew that the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a bigger burden of government.

None of us should be surprised that we also wound up with record levels of waste.

P.S. Remember, “more government” is not the answer to any sensible question.

P.P.S. At some point, we will run out of “other people’s money.”

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While Paul Krugman sometimes misuses and misinterprets numbers for ideological reasons (see his errors regarding the United States, France, Canada, the United States, Estonia, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom), he isn’t oblivious to reality.

At least not totally.

He’s acknowledged, for instance, that there is a Laffer Curve and that tax rates can become so onerous that tax revenues actually decline.

Now he’s had another encounter with the real world.

In a column that was mostly a knee-jerk defense of Biden’s class-warfare tax policy, Krugman confessed yesterday that big government ultimately means big tax increases for lower-income and middle-class people.

…is trying to “build back better” by taxing only the very affluent feasible? Is it wise? …There’s a good case that the kind of society progressives want us to become, with a very strong social safety net, can’t be paid for just by taxing the rich. A country like Denmark, for example, does have a high top tax rate… But Denmark also has very high middle-class taxation, in particular a 25 percent value-added tax, effectively a national sales tax. …the fact that even the Nordic countries feel compelled to raise a lot of money from the middle class suggests that there are limits…to how much you can raise just by taxing the rich. So if you want Medicare for all, Nordic levels of support for child care and families in general, and so on, just raising taxes on the 400K-plus elite won’t get you there.

It may not happen often, but Krugman is completely correct.

European-sized government requires European-style taxes on everyone. And that means a big value-added tax, as Krugman notes. And it almost certainly also means big energy taxes, higher payroll taxes, and much higher income tax rates on middle-class taxpayers.

This chart from Brian Riedl shows that government spending already was on track to become a bigger burden for the American economy, and Biden is proposing to go even faster in the wrong direction.

The growing gap between the blue lines and red lines implies giant tax increases. At the risk of understatement, there’s no way to finance that ever-expanding government by just pillaging upper-income taxpayers.

By the way, Krugman is right about big government leading to higher taxes on ordinary people, but he’s wrong about the desirability of that outcome.

He wants us to think that big government means a “better America,” but all the economic data tells a different story. A bigger fiscal burden means much lower living standards.

P.S. If you want another example of Krugman being right on a fiscal issue, click here.

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In the world of public finance, Ireland is best known for its 12.5 percent corporate tax rate.

That’s a very admirable policy, as will be momentarily discussed, but my favorite Irish policy was the four-year spending freeze in the late 1980s.

I discussed that fiscal reform in a video about 10 years ago, and I subsequently shared data on how spending restraint reduced the overall burden of government in Ireland and also lowered red ink.

It’s a great case study showing the beneficial impact of my Golden Rule.

Spending restraint also paved the way for better tax policy, and that’s a perfect excuse to discuss Ireland’s pro-growth corporate tax system. The Wall Street Journal opined last week about that successful supply-side experiment.

Democrats want a high global minimum tax that would end national tax competition and reduce the harm from their huge tax increase on U.S. business. But tax competition has been a boon to global growth and investment, as Ireland’s famous low-tax policy makes clear. Far from a “race to the bottom,” Ireland adopted policies that were ahead of their time and helped its economy grow from a backwater into a Celtic tiger. …in the late 1990s …an EU mandate led Dublin to…pioneer…a new strategy: Apply the same low tax rate to every business. Policy makers settled on 12.5%, which was a tax increase for some companies but a cut for others. This was a classic flat-tax reform… Ireland has reaped the benefits. Between 1986 and 2006, the economy grew to nearly 140% of the EU average from a mere two-thirds. Employment nearly doubled to two million, and the brain drain of the 1970s and 1980s reversed. …Oh and by the way: After Ireland slashed its rate and broadened the corporate-tax base, tax revenue soared. Except for the post-2008 recession and its aftermath, corporate-profits taxes in some years account for about 13% of total revenue and exceed 3% of GDP. That’s up from as low as 5% of revenue and less than 2% of GDP before the current tax rate was introduced.

That’s a lot of great information, particularly the last couple of sentences about how Ireland collected more revenue when the corporate tax rate was slashed.

Indeed, I discussed that remarkable development in Part II of my video series on the Laffer Curve (and it’s not just an Irish phenomenon since both the IMF and OECD have persuasive global data on lower corporate tax rates and revenue feedback).

Though higher revenue is not necessarily a good thing.

I complained back in 2011, for example, about how Irish politicians began to spend too much money once a booming economy began to generate a lot of tax revenue.

Which is a good argument for a Swiss-style spending cap in Ireland.

Let’s wrap up by considering some fiscal lessons from Ireland. Here are four things everyone should know.

  1. Spending restraint is a powerful tool to achieve smaller government..
  2. Lower tax rates on productive behavior lead to jobs and prosperity.
  3. Lower corporate tax rates can generate substantial revenue feedback.
  4. A spending cap is needed to maintain long-run fiscal discipline.

Good rules for Ireland. Good rules for any nation.

P.S. Ireland has definitely prospered in recent decades, but GNI data gives a more accurate picture than GDP data.

July 29, 2021 Addendum: This chart shows the growth Ireland has experienced since starting to adopt pro-market policies in the mid-1980s.

Even though the nation got hit hard by the financial crisis, it is still far ahead of where it was before reforms.

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There are many things to dislike about President Biden’s budget plan to expand the burden of government.

There will be ample opportunity to write about these issues in the coming weeks. For today, however, let’s identify and highlight the biggest problem.

Simply stated, Biden wants to permanently and significantly increase the burden of government spending. Here’s a chart, based on data from Table S.1 of the President’s budget, augmented by data from Table 1.3 of the Budget’s Historical Tables.

The budget had reached $4 trillion before the pandemic. It then skyrocketed for coronavirus-related spending.

But now that the emergency is receding, Biden is not going to let the burden of government fall back to prior levels. Instead, he’s proposing a $6 trillion budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

And that’s just the starting point. He wants spending to then climb rapidly – at almost twice the rate of inflation – up to $8 trillion by 2031.

By the way, this horrifying data doesn’t tell the entire story.

Biden’s budget doesn’t include some of his new spending giveaways. Brian Riedl addressed this fiscal gimmickry in a column for today’s New York Post.

…this budget does not even include additional spending and debt proposals that are coming later. …They account only for the recently-enacted “stimulus,” a massive discretionary spending hike, and the trillions in (creatively-defined) “infrastructure” spending proposed by the President over the past two months. However, during last fall’s campaign, Biden also proposed trillions in new spending for health care, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, climate change, college aid, and other priorities. The White House has signaled that these new spending initiatives are still in the pipeline. Including these forthcoming proposals, the President would push spending and deficits far above any levels that have ever been sustained.

And don’t forget all this spending, both proposed and in the pipeline, is in addition to all the entitlement spending that is going to burden the economy over the next several decades.

Here’s one final point to underscore and emphasize the radical nature of Biden’s budget.

I’ve taken the previous chart and added a trendline showing what spending would be if Biden has simply followed the trajectory based on the actual spending levels of every President from Carter to Trump.

In other words, we’re looking at trillions of dollars of additional money being diverted from the productive sector of the economy and being put under the control of politicians and bureaucrats.

That does not bode well for American prosperity. Even the Congressional Budget Office recognizes this means lower living standards for our nation.

The bottom line is that if you adopt European-style fiscal policy, you get anemic European-style levels of income.

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I’ve shared all sorts of online quizzes that supposedly can detect things such as whether you’re a pure libertarian.

Or even whether you’re a communist.

Today, courtesy of the folks at the Committee for a Responsible Budget, you can agree or disagree with 24 statements to determine your “budget personality.”

I have some quibbles about some of the wording (for instance, I couldn’t answer “neither” when asked to react to: “The government should spend more money on children than on seniors”).

But I can’t quibble with the results. Given the potential outcomes, I’m glad to be a “Minimalist” who is “in favor of smaller government.”

Though I’m disappointed that I apparently didn’t get a perfect score on “Size of Government.”

And I need to explain why I got a mediocre score on the topic of “Fiscal Responsibility.”

The budget geeks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) have a well-deserved reputation for rigorous analysis. I regularly cite their numbers and appreciate the work that they do.

That being said, they mistakenly focus on deficits and debt when the real problem is too much government.

I agree with Milton Friedman, who wisely observed that ““I would rather have government spend one trillion dollars with a deficit of a half a trillion dollars than have government spend two trillion dollars with no deficit.”

The folks at CRFB would disagree.

Indeed, they are so fixated on red ink that they would welcome tax increases.

At the risk of understatement, that would be a very bad approach.

The evidence from Europe shows that higher taxes simply lead to higher spending. And more debt.

Indeed, Milton Friedman also commented on this issue, warning that, “History shows that over a long period of time government will spend whatever the tax system raises plus as much more as it can get away with.”

The bottom line is that CRFB not only has the wrong definition of “Fiscal Responsibility,” but they also support policies that would make matters worse – even from their perspective!

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President Biden has proposed a massive $2 trillion-plus infrastructure plan. Here are the two things everyone should understand.

  1. It will hurt growth because it will be financed with very harmful tax increases, most notably a big increase in the corporate tax rate that will undermine competitiveness.
  2. It will hurt growth because the new spending will divert resources from the productive sector of the economy, leading to inefficient allocation of labor and capital.

Actually, there’s another thing everyone should understand. As illustrated by this summary from the Washington Post, it’s not really an infrastructure plan. It’s a spend-money-on-anything-and-everything plan, presumably to reward various interest groups.

Though I guess we have to give the Biden Administration points for consistency. The President’s COVID relief plan from earlier this year had very little to do with the pandemic, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see that the infrastructure plan has very little to do with infrastructure.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized about this bait-and-switch scam.

Most Americans think of infrastructure as roads, highways, bridges and other traditional public works. That’s why it polls well… Yet this accounts for a mere $115 billion of Mr. Biden’s proposal. There’s another $25 billion for airports and $17 billion for ports and waterways that also fill a public purpose. The rest of the $620 billion earmarked for “transportation” are subsidies for green energy and payouts to unions for the jobs his climate regulation will kill. …The magnitude of spending is something to behold. There’s $85 billion for mass transit plus $80 billion for Amtrak, which is on top of the $70 billion that Congress appropriated for mass transit in three Covid spending bills. The money is essentially a bailout for unions… Then there’s $174 billion for electric vehicles, including money to build 500,000 charging stations and for consumer “incentives” on top of the current $7,500 federal tax credit to buy an EV. …Mr. Biden is also redefining infrastructure as social-justice policy and income redistribution. …His plan also includes $213 billion for affordable housing, $100 billion for retrofitting public schools, $25 billion for child-care facilities and $400 billion for increasing home-health care.

Michael Boskin, a professor at Stanford, is not optimistic that Biden’s plan will generate good results.

Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan would be many times larger than previous such bills, only about one-third of it would meet even a broad definition of “infrastructure.” …What could possibly go wrong? A lot. …federal spending would crowd out private and local government spending, with a substantial risk of boondoggles piling up along the way. …The Biden plan is rife with opportunities for earmarked pork-barrel projects (bridges to nowhere) and crony capitalist corporate welfare (next-generation Solyndras). Consider California High-Speed Rail, an infrastructure train wreck that will soon be begging for a bailout from the Biden administration. It originally used a grant from President Barack Obama’s 2009 “stimulus” package to pay, six years later, for a tiny initial rail line. Yet, because the project’s projected total San Francisco to Los Angeles cost has tripled to $100 billion.

And even if the plan was nothing but real infrastructure, that wouldn’t be a cause for optimism.

Kenneth Rogoff, a professor at Harvard, wrote late last year that governments have a terrible track record with cost overruns.

…perhaps the biggest obstacle to improving infrastructure in advanced economies is that any new project typically requires navigating difficult right-of-way issues, environmental concerns, and objections from apprehensive citizens… The “Big Dig” highway project in my hometown of Boston, Massachusetts was famously one of the most expensive infrastructure projects in US history. The scheme was originally projected to cost $2.6 billion, but the final tab swelled to more than $15 billion… The construction of New York City’s Second Avenue Subway was a similar experience, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. In Germany, the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport recently opened nine years behind schedule and at three times the initial estimated cost.

Amen. I wrote a column about the infamous Second Avenue Subway, and I’ve also repeatedly opined about how government projects always wind up costing much more than initial projections.

Let’s wrap up by looking at an economic analysis of Biden’s plan by the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model.

The overall macroeconomic effects of enacting the AJP, including both its spending and tax provisions, are shown in Table 4. …After the AJP’s new spending ends in 2029, however, its tax increases persist—as a result, federal debt ends up 6.4 percent lower by 2050, relative to the current law baseline. Despite the decline in government debt, the investment-disincentivizing effects of the AJP’s business tax provisions decrease the capital stock by 3 percent in 2031 and 2050. The decline in capital makes workers less productive despite the increase in productivity due to more infrastructure, dragging hourly wages down by 0.7 percent in 2031 and 0.8 percent in 2050. Overall, GDP is 0.9 percent lower in 2031 and 0.8 percent lower in 2050.

Here’s Table 4, which I’ve augmented by circling the two most important statistics.

The immediate lesson from all of this is that Biden’s plan is a boondoggle waiting to happen (just as would have been the case with Trump).

The longer-term lesson is that we should get the federal government out of the business of infrastructure.

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Good fiscal policy means low tax rates and spending restraint.

And that’s a big reason why I’m a fan of Reaganomics.

Unlike other modern presidents (including other Republicans), Reagan successfully reduced the tax burden while also limiting the burden of government spending.

President Biden wants to take the opposite approach.

A few days ago, Dan Balz of the Washington Post provided some “news analysis” about Biden’s fiscal agenda. Some of what he wrote was accurate, noting that the president wants to increase spending by an additional $6 trillion over the next 10 years.

…the scope and implications of his domestic agenda have come sharply into focus. Together they represent the most dramatic shift in federal economic and social welfare policy since Ronald Reagan was elected 40 years ago. …The politics of redistribution, which are at the heart of what Biden is proposing, could test decades of assumptions that Democrats should be afraid of being tagged as the party of big government. …Together, the already approved coronavirus relief plan, the infrastructure proposal that was unveiled a few weeks ago and the newly proposed plan to invest in social welfare programs would total roughly $6 trillion.

But Mr. Balz then decided to be either sloppy or dishonest, writing that we’ve had decades of Reagan-style policies that have squeezed domestic spending and disproportionately lowered tax burden for rich people.

Reagan’s small-government philosophy resulted in a decades-long squeeze on the federal government, especially domestic spending, and on tax policies that mainly benefited the wealthiest Americans. …Government spending on social safety-net programs has been reduced compared with previous years.

Balz is wrong, wildly wrong.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s a chart, taken from an October 2020 report by the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see, people in the lowest income quintile have been the biggest winners,, with their average tax rate dropping from about 10 percent to about 2 percent..

Here’s a chart showing marginal tax rates from a January 2019 CBO report. As you can see, Reagan lowered marginal tax rates for everyone, but Balz’s assertion that the rich got the lion’s share of the benefits is hard to justify considering that people in the bottom quintile now have negative marginal tax rates.

Balz’s mistakes on tax policy are significant.

But his biggest error (or worst dishonesty) occurred when he wrote about a “decades-long squeeze” on domestic spending and asserted that “spending on social safety-net programs has been reduced.”

A quick visit to the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables is all that’s needed to debunk this nonsense. Here’s a chart, based on Table 8.2, showing the inflation-adjusted growth of entitlements and domestic discretionary programs.

Call me crazy, but I’m seeing a rapid increase in domestic spending after Reagan left office.

P.S. There’s a pattern of lazy/dishonest fiscal reporting at the Washington Post.

P.P.S. I also can’t resist noting that Balz wrote how Biden wants to “invest” in social welfare programs, as if there’s some sort of positive return from creating more dependency. Reminds me of this Chuck Asay cartoon from the Obama years.

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Way back in 2010, I shared this video explaining how “gross domestic product” and “gross domestic income” are basically the same number, but warning that the former leads to sloppy thinking (including the Keynesian myth that consumer spending drives the economy).

Since President Biden is seeking to resuscitate Keynesian Economics, let’s revisit this topic.

The first thing I want to do is to reassure skeptical readers that there’s nothing remotely controversial about my assertion that GDP and GDI are equivalent measures. It’s simply the common-sense recognition that total spending in a country is going to closely match total income.

If you really want to get into the technical weeds, the Bureau of Economic Analysis has a very detailed document showing how all the measurements fit with each other. Feel free to read that material by clicking here.

But if you don’t have the time or inclination to wade through all that material, here are two charts from the document that capture what’s important, at least for purposes of our discussion about macroeconomic policy.

First, here’s a chart showing that GDP and GDI are two ways of arriving at the same number (though never exactly identical because of statistical discrepancies).

And if you really want to be a wonk, here’s the BEA’s depiction of GDP and GDI, along with a bunch of other measures of economic output.

And if all that boring background doesn’t convince you that it’s okay to equate GDP and GDI, let’s go back to 2018 and look at a column in the Wall Street Journal by Jason Furman, who was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers for President Obama

…the data aren’t perfect. …GDP is not measured directly. Instead, the BEA sums up economy-wide expenditures from dozens of data sources, covering consumption, investment, government spending, net exports and more. …the underlying data are noisy and incomplete, meaning that revisions to GDP growth estimates can be large and often confusing. …Drawing on more data can cancel out some of this noise and produce a more accurate figure that requires smaller revisions. Specifically, the BEA separately gauges the size of the economy by adding up all the different sources of income, such as wages and profits. This figure is called gross domestic income, or GDI… Ultimately, GDI should be identical to GDP, since all money spent is money earned.

With all that out of the way, now let’s move to some analysis that actually is controversial (not in my mind, of course, but my left-leaning friends probably won’t agree with me).

As explained in the video, and as I wrote back in 2013, people without much knowledge about economics draw inaccurate conclusions when using data on GDP .

But don’t take my word for it. Professor Alexander William Salter of Texas Tech University described, in an article for National Review, how GDP accounting equations are mistakenly interpreted to justify more government spending.

The most egregious abuses of economics that we see today start with an accounting identity — a true statement or equation — but end with an absurd economic claim. …Here’s an example: If you’ve taken an introductory economics course, this equation is probably familiar to you: Y=C+I+G+(X-IM). In plain English: Gross Domestic Product (GDP, in this equation ‘Y’) is the sum of consumption (C), investment (I), government spending (G), and net exports (X-IM). This is the foundation of national-income accounting, and it’s true by construction. GDP is defined as the sum of these things. Nothing in this equation tells us how the economy actually works. …often it’s misused. Here’s a case from the Left: Because government expenditures enter positively into GDP, increased government spending raises GDP. Simple, right? Not so fast. …Uncle Sam spending more doesn’t increase the size of the economic pie. It just redistributes existing slices to Uncle Sam, or to whomever Uncle Sam finances. More public-sector consumption means less private-sector consumption.

That’s a look at theory.

He also applies theory to reality, most recently in a column for the Wall Street Journal about Biden’s supposed infrastructure plan.

Whether public or private, spending doesn’t cause growth. Mr. Stiglitz and his allies have it backward: Consumption is downstream from production. Growth is about increasing the supply of goods over time; you can’t spend if the goods haven’t been produced. Production grows as technology and production processes improve. Such improvement requires saving and investing rather than consuming. …all the financing in the world won’t boost productivity if it isn’t channeled correctly. More-efficient producers, not partisan spending, create economic flourishing. Though the president’s plans will consume plenty, they’ll produce only disappointment.

That last sentence is an apt summary. A bigger government means a smaller economy.

The empirical evidence shows that nations with smaller fiscal burdens economically out-perform countries with large welfare states. Simply stated, there’s an incentive for efficiency in the private sector, whereas people in Washington are governed by the perverse incentives described by “public choice” theory.

I’ll close with a relevant caveat that was mentioned in the above video. It is possible for a nation to consume more than it produces. But only if it borrows from overseas, and only at the cost of having to sacrifice future income to service the additional debt.

P.S. If you want more information, here’s my video on Keynesian Economics, and here’s my 4-part series on the economics of government spending.

P.P.S. I also wrote about GDP vs. GDI in 2017, in part to debunk some grotesquely dishonest reporting by Time.

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As part of my recent interview about European economic policy with Gunther Fehlinger, I pontificated on issues such as Convergence and Wagner’s Law.

I also explained why a Swiss-style spending cap could have saved Greece and Italy from fiscal crisis. Here’s that part of the discussion.

For those not familiar with spending caps, this six-minute video tells you everything you need to know.

Simply stated, this policy requires politicians to abide by fiscal policy’s Golden Rule, meaning that – on average – government spending grows slower than the private economy.

And that’s a very effective recipe for a lower burden of spending and falling levels of red ink.

One of the points I made in the video is that spending caps would prevented the fiscal mess in Greece and Italy.

To show what I mean, I went to the International Monetary Funds World Economic Outlook database and downloaded the historical budget data for those two nations. I then created charts showing actual spending starting in 1988 compared to how much spending would have grown if there was a requirement that the budget could only increase by 2 percent each year.

Here are the shocking numbers for Greece.

The obvious takeaway is that there never would have been a fiscal crisis if Greece had a spending cap.

That also would be true even if the spending cap allowed 3-percent budget increases starting in 1998.

And it would be true if the 2-percent spending cap didn’t start until 2000.

There are all sorts of ways of adjusting the numbers. The bottom line is that any reasonable level of spending restraint could have prevented the horrible misery Greece has suffered.

Here are the numbers for Italy.

As you can see, the government budget has not increased nearly as fast in Italy as it did in Greece, but the burden of spending nonetheless has become more onerous – particularly when compared to what would have happened if there was a 2-percent spending cap.

I’ve written many times (here, here, here, and here) about Italy’s looming fiscal crisis. As I said in the interview, I don’t know when the house of cards will collapse, but it won’t be pretty.

And tax reform, while very desirable, is not going to avert that crisis. At least not unless it is combined with very serious spending restraint.

P.S. For those who want information about real-world success stories, I shared three short video presentations back in 2015 about the spending caps in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado.

P.P.S. It’s also worth noting that the United States would be in a much stronger position today if we had enacted a spending cap a couple of decades ago.

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I get asked why I frequently criticize Republicans.

My response is easy. I care about results rather than rhetoric. And while GOP politicians often pay lip service to the principles of limited government, they usually increase spending even faster than Democrats.

Indeed, Republicans are even worse than Democrats when measuring the growth of domestic spending!

This is bad news because it means the burden of government expands when Republicans are in charge.

And, as Gary Abernathy points out in a column for the Washington Post, Republicans then don’t have the moral authority to complain when Democrats engage in spending binges.

President Biden is proposing another $3 trillion in spending… There are objections, but none that can be taken seriously. …Republicans had lost their standing as the party of fiscal responsibility when most of them succumbed to the political virus of covid fever and rubber-stamped around $4 trillion in “covid relief,”… With Trump out and Biden in, Republicans suddenly pretended that their 2020 spending spree happened in some alternate universe. But the GOP’s united opposition to Biden’s $1.9 trillion package won’t wash off the stench of the hypocrisy. …I noted a year ago that we had crossed the Rubicon, that our longtime flirtation with socialism had become a permanent relationship. Congratulations, Bernie Sanders. The GOP won’t become irrelevant because of its association with Trump, as some predict. It will diminish because it is bizarrely opposing now that which it helped make palatable just last year. Fiscal responsibility is dead, and Republicans helped bury it. Put the shovels away, there’s no digging it up now.

For what it’s worth, I hope genuine fiscal responsibility isn’t dead.

Maybe it’s been hibernating ever since Reagan left office (like Pepperidge Farm, I’m old enough to remember those wonderful years).

Subsequent Republican presidents liked to copy Reagan’s rhetoric, but they definitely didn’t copy his policies.

  • Spending restraint was hibernating during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.
  • Spending restraint also was hibernating during the presidency of George W. Bush.
  • And spending restraint was hibernating during the presidency of Donald Trump.

I’m not the only one to notice GOP hypocrisy.

Here are some excerpts from a 2019 column in the Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria.

In what Republicans used to call the core of their agenda — limited government — Trump has been profoundly unconservative. …Trump has now added more than $88 billion in taxes in the form of tariffs, according to the right-leaning Tax Foundation. (Despite what the president says, tariffs are taxes on foreign goods paid by U.S. consumers.) This has had the effect of reducing gross domestic product and denting the wages of Americans. …For decades, conservatives including Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan preached to the world the virtues of free trade. But perhaps even more, they believed in the idea that governments should not pick winners and losers in the economy… Yet the Trump administration…behaved like a Central Planning Agency, granting exemptions on tariffs to favored companies and industries, while refusing them to others. …In true Soviet style, lobbyists, lawyers and corporate executives now line up to petition government officials for these treasured waivers, which are granted in an opaque process… On the core issue that used to define the GOP — economics — the party’s agenda today is state planning and crony capitalism.

Zakaria is right about Republicans going along with most of Trump’s bad policies (as illustrated by this cartoon strip).*

The bottom line is that Republicans would be much more effective arguing against Biden’s spending orgy had they also argued for spending restraint when Trump was in the White House.

P.S. It will be interesting to see what happens in the near future. Will the GOP be a small-government Reagan party or a big-government Trump party?

Or maybe it will go back to being a Nixon-type party, which would mean bigger government but without mean tweets. And there are plenty of options.

If they make the wrong choice (anything other than Reaganism), Margaret Thatcher has already warned us about the consequences.

*To be fair, Republicans also went along with Trump’s good policies. It’s just unfortunate that spending restraint wasn’t one of them.

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According to data on jobs and growth, President Obama’s so-called stimulus was a failure.

But at least politicians and bureaucrats were able to concoct new and clever ways to waste money. Including research grants to interview people about their sexual histories and to study erectile dysfunction.

In other words, stimulus spending on stimulus (though at least we did get some clever humor in exchange for nearly $1 trillion of wasted money).

Now we’re wasting nearly $2 trillion on Biden’s spending spree.

And we’re getting more stimulus spending on stimulus.

But not the economic kind of stimulus. Paul Bedard of the Washington Examiner reports that people are using handout cash for interesting purchases.

An analysis of spending on Amazon following the distribution of the latest coronavirus stimulus, a massive $1.9 trillion package, suggests that people are using it to let off some steam. The global e-commerce firm Pattern said that the biggest surges in sales were for the PlayStation 5 and a female sex toy called the “Rose Flower Sex Toy.” …Rose’s sales (check Amazon for the description) shot up 334%. …“Distribution of stimulus checks on Wednesday, March 17…may have represented an opportunity for some retail therapy,” said the company.

I’m sure there’s probably some interesting social commentary to make about guys playing video games and neglecting their wives and girlfriends.

But I’m a policy nerd, so I’m focused on how we’re now saddled with a bigger burden of government spending.

The problem is much bigger than the humorous/irritating example discussed above.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Brad Polumbo shares some big-picture data on how politicians have squandered our money.

Whenever the government spends money, a significant portion is lost to bureaucracy, waste, and fraud. But the…unprecedented scope of federal spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—an astounding $6 trillion total—has led to truly unthinkable levels of fraud. Indeed, a new report shows that the feds potentially lost $200 billion in unemployment fraud alone. …More than $200 billion of unemployment benefits distributed in the pandemic may have been pocketed by thieves… To put that $200 billion figure in context, it is equivalent to $1,400 lost to fraud per federal taxpayer. (There goes your stimmy check!) Or, comparing it to the $37 billion the federal government spent on vaccine and treatment development, it’s more than five times more lost to fraud than went to arguably the most crucial COVID initiative of all. That’s just scratching the surface. According to the American Enterprise Institute, “unemployment fraud” now ranks as the 4th biggest federal COVID expenditure out of more than 17 different categories.

If you’re a taxpayer, hundreds of billions of dollars in fraud sounds like a bad outcome.

But if you’re a Keynesian economist, it’s not a problem. All they care about is having the government borrow and spend a bunch of money. They think that making government bigger automatically generates benefit for the economy, even if the money goes to thieves and crooks.

I’m not joking. This is why people like Paul Krugman said a fake attack by space aliens would be good for the economy because Washington would spend a bunch of money in response.

And it’s why Nancy Pelosi actually said the economy benefits if we subsidize joblessness.

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I’ve been warning that the United States should not copy Europe’s fiscal policy, largely because living standards are significantly lower in nations with large welfare states.

That’s true if you look at average levels of consumption in different nations, but the most compelling data is the fact that lower-income people in the United States generally enjoy living standards that are equal to or even higher than those for middle-class people in most European countries.

A bigger burden of government is not just a theoretical concern. President Biden has already pushed through a $1.9 trillion spending bill that includes some temporary provisions – such as per-child handouts – that, if made permanent, could add several trillion dollars to the burden of government spending.

And the White House has signaled support for $3 trillion of additional spending for items such as infrastructure, green energy, and other boondoggles.

This doesn’t even count the cost of other schemes, such as the “public option” that would strangle private health insurance and force more people to rely on an already-costly-and-and bankrupt government program.

So what will it mean for America if our medium-sized welfare state morphs into a European-style large welfare state?

The answer to that question is rather unpleasant, at least if some new research from the Congressional Budget Office is any indication. The study, authored by Jaeger Nelson and Kerk Phillips, considers the impact on growth based on six different scenarios (based on how much the spending burden increases and what taxes are increased).

If permanent spending is financed by new or increased taxes, then those taxes influence people’s decisions about how much to work and save. Those decisions then affect how much the economy produces and businesses invest and, ultimately, how much people can consume. Different types of taxes have different economic effects. Taxes on labor income reduce after-tax wages, so they reduce the return on each additional hour worked. …Higher taxes on capital income, such as dividends and capital gains, lower the average after-tax rate of return on private wealth holdings (or the return on investment), which reduces the incentive to save and invest and leads to reductions in saving, investment, and the capital stock. …we compare the effects of raising additional revenues through three illustrative tax policies: a flat tax on labor income, a flat tax on all income (including both labor and capital income), and a progressive tax on all income. The additional revenues generated by these policies are in addition to the revenues raised by taxes that already exist and are used to finance two specific increases in government spending. The two increases in government spending are set to 5 percent and 10 percent of GDP in 2020.

Here are some of the key results, as illustrated by the chart.

The least-worst result (the blue line) is a decline in GDP of about 3 percent, and that happens if the spending burden expand by 5-percentage points of GDP and is financed by a flat tax.

The worst-worst result (dashed red line) is a staggering decline in GDP of about 10 percent, and that happens if the spending burden climbs by 10-percentage points and is financed by a progressive tax.

Here’s some additional analysis, including a description of why progressive taxes impose the most damage.

This paper shows that flat labor and flat income tax policies have similar effects on output; labor taxes reduce the labor supply more, and income taxes reduce the capital stock more. For all three policies, the decline in income contracts the tax base considerably over time. As a result, to continuously generate enough revenues to finance the increase in government spending in each year, tax rates must steadily increase over time to account for the decline in the tax base. Moreover, labor and capital taxes put upward pressure on interest rates by reducing the capital-to-labor ratio over time… The largest declines in economic activity among the financing methods considered occur with the progressive tax on all income. Those declines occur because high-productivity workers reduce their hours worked and because higher taxes on asset income reduce the incentive to save and invest relatively more than under the two flat taxes.

There’s lots of additional information in the study, but I definitely want to draw attention to Table 4 because it shows that lower-income people will suffer big reductions in living standards if there’s an increase in the burden of government spending (circled in red).

What makes these results especially remarkable is that the authors only look at the damage caused by higher taxes.

Yet we know from other research that the economy also will suffer because of the higher spending burden. This is because of the various ways that growth is reduced when resources are diverted from the productive sector to the government.

For background, here’s a video on the theoretical reasons why government spending hinders growth.

And here’s a video with some of the scholarly evidence.

P.S. The CBO study also points out that financing new spending with a value-added tax wouldn’t avert economic damage.

…by reducing the cost of time spent not working for pay relative to other goods, a consumption tax could reduce hours worked through a channel like that of a tax on labor.

For what it’s worth, even the pro-tax International Monetary Fund agrees with this observation.

P.P.S. It’s worth noting that the CBO study also shows that young people will suffer much more than older people.

…older cohorts, on average, experience smaller declines in lifetime consumption than younger cohorts

Which raises an interesting question of why millennials and Gen-Zers don’t appreciate capitalism and instead are sympathetic to the dirigiste ideology that will make their lives more difficult.

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We have decades of real-world experience with Keynesian economics. The results are not pretty.

It’s also worth pointing out that Keynesians have been consistently wrong with predicting economic damage during periods of spending restraint.

  • They were wrong about growth after World War II (and would have been wrong, if they were around at the time, about growth when Harding slashed spending in the early 1920s).
  • They were wrong about Thatcher in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Reagan in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Canada in the 1990s.
  • They were wrong after the sequester in 2013.
  • They were wrong about unemployment benefits in 2020.

This story needs to be told, again and again, especially since we’re now going to have another real-world test case thanks to President Biden’s so-called American Rescue Plan.

I just wrote a column on Biden’s proposal for the Foundation for Economic Education, and it is co-authored by Robert O’Quinn, who most recently served as the Chief Economist at the Department of Labor.

We started by pointing out that Biden is basically copying Trump’s big-spending approach, but with a different justification (Keynesianism instead of coronavirus).

Mr. Biden is bringing a new twist to the profligacy. Instead of trying to justify the new spending by saying it is needed to compensate households and businesses for government-mandated lockdowns, he is making the Keynesian argument that the new spending is a way of stimulating the economy. The same approach was used when he was Vice President, of course, but did not yield positive results. …Mr. Biden and his team apparently think the anemic results were a consequence of not spending enough money. Hence, the huge $1.9 trillion price tag for his plan. Will his approach work? …We can learn about economic recovery today by reviewing what happened during the Great Recession earlier this century and what happened at the end of World War II.

We explain the causes of the previous recession and point out that Obama’s so-called stimulus didn’t work.

…the Great Recession…was the result of an unsustainable housing bubble caused by overly accommodative monetary policy from the Federal Reserve and misguided housing policies. …it took years to clean up the mess from the bursting of the housing bubble. Households slowly rebuilt their savings and cleaned up their balance sheets. …Banks had to work out problem loans and rebuild their capital… Obama’s stimulus did not drive that healing process and spending more money would have done little to accelerate it.

And we also point out that the economy recovered very quickly after World War II, even though the Keynesians predicted disaster in the absence of a giant new package such as Truman’s 21-Point Program (his version of FDR’s horrible vision of an entitlement society).

Keynesians feared that demobilization would throw the US economy into a deep depression as federal spending was reduced. Paul Samuelson even wrote in 1943 that a failure to come up with alternative forms of government spending would lead to “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced.” …President Harry Truman proposed “a 21-Point Program for the Reconversion Period” shortly after the war ended. But his plan, which was basically a reprise of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, was largely ignored by Congress. Did the economy collapse, as the Keynesians feared? Hardly. …Spared a repeat of FDR’s interventionism, the economy enjoyed strong growth. One of the big tailwinds for growth is that the forced savings accumulated during the war years allowed consumers to go on a peacetime buying binge.

That last sentence in the above excerpt is key because 2021 is a lot like 1945. Back then, households had lots of money in the bank (wartime rationing and controls meant there wasn’t much to buy), which helped trigger the post-war boom.

Something similar is about to happen, as we explain in the column.

The current economic conditions are somewhat reminiscent of the ones that existed after World War II. The limited ability to spend money during the pandemic has helped boost the personal saving rate…  In aggregate terms, personal saving soared from $1.2 trillion in 2019 to $2.9 trillion in 2020. …pent-up demand funded with more than $1 trillion in excess savings will resuscitate…GDP.

So what does all this mean? Well, the good news is that 2021 is going to be a very good year for the economy. That’s already baked into the cake.

The bad news is that Biden is taking advantage of the current political situation to increase the burden of government spending.

…the economy prospered after World War II despite (or perhaps because of) the failure of Mr. Truman’s 21-point proposal. President Biden’s team is either unaware of this history, or they simply do not care. Perhaps they simply want to take advantage of the current environment to reward key constituencies. Or they may be trying to resuscitate the tattered reputation of Keynesian economics by spending a bunch of money so they can take credit for an economic recovery that is already destined to happen.

Since I gave the good news and bad news, I’ll close with the worse news.

There’s every reason to expect very strong growth in 2021, but Biden’s spending binge means that future growth won’t be as robust

  • Especially since the economy also is saddled with lots of wasteful spending by Bush, Obama, and Trump.
  • And especially if Biden is able to push through his agenda of higher taxes on work, saving, and investment.

The bottom line is that the United States is becoming more like Europe and the economic data tells us that means less prosperity and lower living standards.

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