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Posts Tagged ‘Government Spending’

We can learn a lot of economic lessons from Europe.

Today, we’re going to focus on another lesson, which is that higher taxes lead to more red ink. And let’s hope Hillary Clinton is paying attention.

I’ve already made the argument, using European fiscal data to show that big increases in the tax burden over the past several decades have resulted in much higher levels of government debt.

But let’s now augment that argument by considering what’s happened in recent years.

There’s been a big fiscal crisis in Europe, which has forced governments to engage in austerity.

But the type of austerity matters. A lot.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2014.

…austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint). But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

And when I claim politicians in Europe have chosen the wrong kind of austerity, that’s not hyperbole.

As of 2012, there were €9 of tax hikes for every €1 of supposed spending cuts according to one estimate. That’s even worse than some of the terrible budget deals we’ve seen in Washington.

At this point, a clever statist will accuse me of sour grapes and state that I’m simply unhappy that politicians opted for policies I don’t like.

I’ll admit to being unhappy, but my real complaint is that higher tax burdens don’t work.

And you don’t have to believe me. We have some new evidence from an international bureaucracy based in Europe.

In a working paper for the European Central Bank, Maria Grazia Attinasi and Luca Metelli crunch the numbers to determine if and when “austerity” works in Europe.

…many Euro area countries have adopted fiscal consolidation measures in an attempt to reduce fiscal imbalances…in most cases, fiscal consolidation did not result, at least in the short run, in a reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio…calls for a more temperate approach to fiscal consolidation have increased on the ground that the drag of fiscal restraint on economic growth could lead to an increase rather than a decrease in the debt-to-GDP ratio, as such fiscal consolidation may turn out to be self-defeating. …The aim of this paper is to investigate the effects of fiscal consolidation on the general government debt-to-GDP ratio in order to assess whether and under which conditions self defeating effects are likely to materialise and whether they tend to be short-lived or more persistent over time.

Now let’s look at the results of their research.

It turns out that austerity does work, but only if it’s the right kind. The authors find that spending cuts are successful and higher tax burdens backfire.

The main finding of our analysis is that…In the case of revenue-based consolidations the increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to be larger and to last longer than in the case of spending-based consolidations. The composition also matters for the long term effects of fiscal consolidations. Spending-based consolidations tend to generate a durable reduction of the debt-to-GDP ratio compared to the pre-shock level, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not produce any lasting improvement in the sustainability prospects as the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to revert to the pre-shock level. …strategy is more likely to succeed when the consolidation strategy relies on a durable reduction of spending, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not appear to bring about a durable improvement in debt sustainability.

Unfortunately, European politicians generally have chosen the wrong approach.

This is an important policy lesson also in view of the fact that revenue-based consolidations tend to be the preferred form of austerity, at least in the short run, given also the political costs that a durable reduction in government spending entail.

Here are a few important observations from the study’s conclusion.

…the findings of our analysis are in line with those of the literature on successful consolidation, namely that the composition of fiscal consolidation matters and that a durable reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio is more likely to be achieved if consolidation is implemented on the expenditure side, rather than on the revenue side. In particular, when fiscal consolidation is implemented via an increase in taxation, the debt-to-GDP ratio reverts back to its pre-shock level only in the long run, thus failing to generate an improvement in the debt ratio, and producing what we call a self-defeating fiscal consolidation. …fiscally stressed countries benefit from an immediate reduction in the level of debt when reducing spending.

In other words, restraining the growth of spending is the best way to reduce red ink. Heck, it’s the only way.

When debating my leftists friends, I frequently share this table showing nations that have obtained very good results with multi-year periods of spending restraint.

My examples are from all over the world and cover all sorts of economic conditions. And the results repetitively show that when you deal with the underlying problem of too much government, you automatically improve the symptom of red ink.

I then ask my statist pals to show me a similar table of data for countries that have achieved good results with higher taxes.

I’m still waiting for an answer.

Which is why the only good austerity is spending restraint.

P.S. Paul Krugman is remarkably sloppy and inaccurate when writing about austerity. Check out his errors when commenting on the United Kingdom, Germany, and Estonia.

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There’s a very powerful statement, variously attributed to Alexis de Toqueville, Benjamin Franklin, or Alexander Tytler, that basically warns that democracy is doomed when people figure out they can vote themselves money.

There’s no evidence that any of them actually spoke or wrote those words, though I guess it doesn’t matter that the quote didn’t originate with someone like Franklin. What does matter is that it accurately captures something very important, which is the tendency for governments to over-tax and over-spend once people decide that it’s okay to use government coercion to take other people’s money.

But it’s still nice to be able to cite something accurate. With this in mind, I came up with my Theorem of Societal Collapse. And I think it’s actually more accurate than the vote-themselves-money quote because democracy doesn’t necessarily lead to statism. What leads to bad outcomes is democracy combined with bad values.

And a pervasive belief in redistributionism is a bad value. Heck, it’s a self-destructive value. Consider Greece. When you add together the people getting welfare and disability to the people getting pension payments to the people on the government payroll, it turns out that a majority of people in the country are riding in the wagon of government dependency.

That’s bad. But what makes the Greek situation so hopeless is that those are the same people who vote. Which means there’s very little chance of getting a government that would implement good policy.

After all, why would the recipients of other people’s money vote for politicians who support limits on redistribution?

But I’m not just blaming voters. Politicians also deserve scorn and disdain because they are the ones who often seek votes by promising to take other people’s money.

Some observers would like to believe that these politicians will use their supposed superior expertise and knowledge about public policy to make appropriate tradeoffs and prevent the system from becoming over-burdened.

But that’s somewhat naive.

Indeed, there’s an entire school of thought in economics, known as “public choice,” which is based on making real-world assumptions about the self-interested behavior of politicians and interest groups. Here’s a partial description from the Library of Economics and Liberty.

As James Buchanan artfully defined it, public choice is “politics without romance.” The wishful thinking it displaced presumes that participants in the political sphere aspire to promote the common good. …public officials are portrayed as benevolent “public servants” who faithfully carry out the “will of the people.” …public choice, like the economic model of rational behavior on which it rests, assumes that people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests… As such, voters “vote their pocketbooks,” supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off; bureaucrats strive to advance their own careers; and politicians seek election or reelection to office. Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics. …collective decision-making processes allow the majority to impose its preferences on the minority.

In other words, both voters and politicians can have an incentive for ever-larger government, even if the end result is Greek-style fiscal chaos because taxes and spending reach ruinous levels.

I call this “Goldfish Government” because some think that a goldfish lacks the ability to control its appetite and therefore will eat itself to death when presented with unlimited food.

Indeed, public choice scholars explicitly recognize that unconstrained democracy can lead to bad results.

Public choice scholars have identified…deep…problems with democratic decision-making processes.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that their research suggests ways to compensate for the natural tendency of ever-expanding government.

Like that founding father of the American constitutional republic, public choice recognizes that men are not angels and focuses on the importance of the institutional rules… If, for example, democratic governments institutionally are incapable of balancing the public budget, a constitutional rule that limits increases in spending and taxes to no more than the private sector’s rate of growth will be more effective.

Hmmm…., a rule that limits the government so it doesn’t grow faster than the private sector.

Sounds like an idea worth embracing.

But while I like anything that builds support for the Golden Rule, I’m not sure it’s a sufficient condition for good policy.

Simply stated, we have too many examples of nations that followed the Golden Rule for several years, only to then fall off the wagon with a new splurge of spending.

There are two ways to deal with this problem. First, make the spending restraint part of a jurisdiction’s constitution, as we see in Switzerland and Hong Kong.

Second, augment the internal constraint of a spending cap with the external constraint of tax competition. Bluntly stated, destructive tax policies will be less likely when politicians are afraid that taxpayers will move across borders.

I spoke about this topic at a recent conference in Slovakia.

I also discuss the critical role of demographic change toward the end of my speech.

P.S. America’s Founding Fathers had the right solution. They set up a democratic form of government, but they strictly limited the powers of the central government. This system worked remarkably well for a long period, but then the Supreme Court decided that the enumerated powers listed in the Constitution were just a suggestion.

P.P.S. While it’s bad news to combine democracy with bad value, I want to emphasize that the problem is bad values. Most non-democratic societies have policies that are so evil and destructive (think Cuba and North Korea) that they make France seem like a beacon of economic liberty.

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As a general rule, I’m not overly concerned about debt, even when looking at government red ink.

I don’t like deficit and debt, to be sure, but government borrowing should be seen as the symptom. The real problem is excessive government spending.

This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of a balanced budget amendment, Based on the experiences of American states and European countries, I fear politicians in Washington would use any deficit-limiting requirement as an excuse to raise taxes.

I much prefer spending caps, such as those found in Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Colorado. If you cure the disease of excessive government, you automatically ameliorate the symptom of too much borrowing.

That being said, the fiscal chaos plaguing European welfare states is proof that there is a point when a spending problem can also become a debt problem. Simply stated, the people and institutions that buy government bonds at some point will decide that they no longer trust a government’s ability to repay because the public sector is too big and the economy is too weak.

And even though the European fiscal crisis no longer is dominating the headlines, I fear this is just the calm before the storm.

For instance, the data in a report from Citi about the looming Social Security-style crisis are downright scary.

…the total value of unfunded or underfunded government pension liabilities for twenty OECD countries is a staggering $78 trillion, or almost double the $44 trillion published national debt number.

And the accompanying chart is rather appropriate since it portrays this giant pile of future spending promises as an iceberg.

And when you look at projections for ever-rising spending (and therefore big increases in red ink) in America, it’s easy to see why I’m such a strong advocate of genuine entitlement reform.

But it’s also important to realize that government policies also can encourage excessive debt in the private sector.

Before digging into the issue, let’s first make clear that debt is not necessarily bad. Households often borrow to buy big-ticket items like homes, cars, and education. And businesses borrow all the time to finance expansion and job creation.

But if there’s too much borrowing, particularly when encouraged by misguided government policies, then households and businesses are very vulnerable if there’s some sort of economic disruption and they no longer have enough income to finance debt payments. This is when debt becomes excessive.

Yet this is what the crowd in Washington is encouraging.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, George Melloan warns that misguided “stimulus” and “QE” policies have created a debt bubble.

…while Mr. Bernanke and Ms. Yellen were trying to prevent deflation, the federal government was engineering its cause, excessive debt. And the Fed abetted the process by purchasing trillions of dollars of government paper, aka quantitative easing. Near-zero interest rates also have encouraged consumers and business to releverage. Cars are now financed with low or no-interest five-year loans. With the 2008 housing debacle forgotten, easier mortgage terms have made a comeback. Corporations also couldn’t let cheap money go to waste, so they have piled up debts to buy back their own stock. Such “investment” produces no economic growth, but it has to be paid back nonetheless. Amid the Great Recession, many worried that the entire economy of the U.S., or even the world, would be “deleveraged.” Instead, we have a new world-wide debt bubble.

The numbers he shares are sobering.

Global debt of all types grew by $57 trillion from 2007 to 2014 to a total of $199 trillion, the McKinsey Global Institute reported in February last year. That’s 286% of global GDP compared with 269% in 2007. The current ratio is above 300%.

Professor Noah Smith writes in Bloomberg about research showing that debt-fueled bubbles are especially worrisome.

…since debt bubbles damage the financial system, they endanger the economy more than equity bubbles, which transmit their losses directly to households. Financial institutions lend people money, and if people can’t pay it back — because the value of their house has gone down — it could cause bank failures. …Economists Oscar Jorda, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor recently did a historical study of asset price crashes, and they found that, in fact, debt seems to matter a lot. …To make a long story short, they look at what happened to the economy of each country after each large drop in asset prices. …bubbles make recessions longer, and credit worsens the effect. …the message is clear: Bubbles and debt are a dangerous combination.

To elaborate, equity and bubbles aren’t a good combination, but there’s far less damage when an equity bubble pops because the only person who is directly hurt is the person who owns the asset (such as shares of a stock). But when a debt bubble pops, the person who owes the money is hurt, along with the person (or institution) to whom the money is owed.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute adds his two cents to the issue.

…the world is presently drowning in debt. Indeed, as a result of the world’s major central banks for many years having encouraged markets to take on more risk by expanding their own balance sheets in an unprecedented manner, the level of overall public and private sector indebtedness in the global economy is very much higher today than it was in 2008 at the start of the Great Economic Recession. Particularly troublesome is the very high level of corporate debt in the emerging market economies and the still very high public sector debt levels in the European economic periphery. …the Federal Reserve’s past policies of aggressive quantitative easing have set up the stage for considerable global financial market turbulence. They have done so by artificially boosting asset prices and by encouraging borrowing at artificially low interest rates that do not reflect the likelihood of the borrower eventually defaulting on the loan.

In other words, artificially low interest rates are distorting economic decisions by making something (debt) seem cheaper than it really is. Sort of financial market version of the government-caused third-party payer problem in health care and higher education.

And Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal makes the very important point that debt is encouraged by bailouts and subsidies.

Big banks aren’t automatically bad or badly managed because they are big, but it’s hard to believe big banks would exist without an explicit and implicit government safety net underneath them. …None of this has changed since Dodd-Frank, none of it is likely to change. …we know where the crisis will come from and how it will be transmitted to the financial system. The Richmond Fed’s “bailout barometer” shows that, since the 2008 crisis, 61% of all liabilities in the U.S. financial system are now implicitly or explicitly guaranteed by government, up from 45% in 1999. …Six years after a crisis caused by excessive borrowing, McKinsey estimates that even visible global debt has increased by $57 trillion, while in the U.S., Europe, Japan and China growth to pay back these liabilities has been slowing or absent.

The bottom line is that government spending programs directly cause debt, but we should be just as worried about the private debt that is being encouraged and subsidized by other misguided government policies.

And surely we shouldn’t forget to include the pernicious role of the tax code, which further tilts the playing field in favor or debt.

P.S. Let’s briefly divert to another issue. I wrote last Christmas that President Obama may have given the American people a present.

But the Washington Examiner reports that gift has turned into a lump of coal.

The Department of Justice announced this week that it is resuming its Equitable Sharing program…that allows state and local police to get around tough state laws that limit how much property can be taken from citizens without being charged with wrongdoing, let alone convicted of a crime. …money-hungry police departments can exploit these lax federal rules about confiscating people’s property. The feds like this because they get a cut of the loot. …there is no presumption of innocence. …civil forfeitures by the feds amounted to $4.5 billion in 2014, which is more than the $3.9 billion that all of America’s burglars stole that year. It’s hard to imagine more compelling evidence of gross wrong.

Wow, so the government steals more money than burglars. I guess I’m not surprised.

But if you really want to get upset, check out real-world examples of asset forfeiture by clicking here, here, here, here, and here.

Thankfully, some states are seeking to curtail this evil practice.

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As I’ve repeatedly explained, governments generally get in fiscal trouble because politicians can’t resist spending lots of money when the economy is buoyant and therefore generating lots of tax revenue.

And this is why I’m a huge fan of spending caps. If outlays can’t grow faster than, say, 3 percent annually, that make it difficult for politicians to enact unsustainable spending commitments (as we’ve seen in Greece, Alberta, Puerto Rico, California, and Alaska) in years when there is extra revenue.

Now I have a new example, and it’s extra painful because the politicians literally want me to pay for their profligacy.

Here’s part of what was recently written in the Washington Post about the supposed budget hardships in my home county of Fairfax in Virginia.

Virginia’s largest municipality is fraying around the edges. A population that is growing older, poorer and more diverse is sharpening the need for basic services…even as a sluggish local economy maintains a chokehold on the revenue stream. Since the 2008 recession, local officials have whittled away at programs to the tune of $300 million. …Since 2008, the county has eliminated 700 jobs. Libraries operate on shorter schedules and with fewer books, class sizes have swelled past 32 students in some schools… County agencies are stretching out vehicle maintenance — including for school buses and fire engines — and officials say aging athletic courts and deteriorating playgrounds await nearly $20 million in repairs. …The county slashed $3.8 million in summer school funding in 2015 and is trying to use $374,000 less in paper this year.

But all this budget “slashing” apparently isn’t enough to balance the budget.

…there is no fat left to trim. Instead, they are searching for ways to raise taxes… The county is searching for new revenue to cover some of what officials estimate are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of unmet needs. …“We’ve been punting for seven years now,” said John C. Cook (R-Braddock), a county supervisor. “There’s really nothing easy left to cut.” …the County Board of Supervisors will decide whether to raise residential property taxes by as much as four cents — to $1.13 per $100 of assessed value.

Gee, sounds like the government has “cut spending to the bone” and imposed “savage austerity,” which means higher taxes are the only option, right?

Not exactly, Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University digs through the data and exposes the truth.

What budget cuts?  In fiscal year 2016 Fairfax County’s government will spend $7.13 billion dollars – the highest inflation-adjusted annual expenditure in County history.  And this real expenditure is the highest in County history even on a per-capita basis.  …Fairfax County’s government today spends, per county resident, 168 percent more real dollars than it spent in 1975, 144 percent more than in 1986, 30 percent more than in 2001, and 1.6 percent more than in 2008 – the year that your reporter suggests marks the beginning of Fairfax County’s budget austerity. …it is emphatically not true that the Fairfax leviathan has cut its spending or suffered budget cuts.  Quite the opposite.

Don included a table of data, which I’ve put into a chart.

Let me know if you can find where spending was “slashed.”

Remember, this is inflation-adjusted spending, and also per-capita-adjusted spending, which means we can do apples-to-apples comparisons.

And the comparison that really matters is that the local government is now spending more than twice as much as it did 30 years ago.

  • Are the schools more than twice as good? No.
  • Are the roads more than twice as good? No.
  • Are the parks more than twice as good? No.

So where did all the money go? Beats me, though I’m going to take a wild guess that the country bureaucracy is now far bigger and getting paid much more.

In other words, the same theorem of government that explains the behavior of Washington also applies at the local level.

P.S. Let’s close with a very appropriate joke about the type of people who create fiscal crises.

A father told his 3 sons when he sent them to the university: “I feel it’s my duty to provide you with the best possible education, and you do not owe me anything for that. However, I want you to appreciate it. As a token, please each put $1,000 into my coffin when I die.”

And so it happened. His sons became a doctor, a lawyer, and a financial planner, each very successful financially. When their father’s time had come and they saw their father in the coffin, they remembered his wish.

First, it was the doctor who put 10 $100 bills onto the chest of the deceased.

Then, came the financial planner, who also put $1,000 there.

Finally, it was the heartbroken lawyer’s turn.He dipped into his pocket, took out his checkbook, wrote a check for $3,000, put it into his father’s coffin, and took the $2,000 cash.

He later went on to become a member of Congress…

If you want more jokes about politicians, click here.

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There’s no agreement on the most important variable for state tax competitiveness.

I’m sympathetic to the final option, in part because of my disdain for the income tax. And if an income tax is imposed, I prefer a simple and fair flat tax.

With that in mind, here’s a fascinating infographic I received via email. I don’t know if Reboot Illinois is left wing, right wing, or apolitical, but they did a very good job. I particularly like the map showing zero-income tax states (gray), flat tax states (red), and states with so-called progressive tax schemes (blue).

For what it’s worth, Illinois taxpayers should fight as hard as possible to preserve the state’s flat tax. If the politicians get the power to discriminate among income classes, it will just be a matter of time before all taxpayers are hit by higher rates.

Now let’s shift to the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Like any good libertarian, I generally focus on the size of government. I compare France with Hong Kong and that tells me that big is bad and small is good.

But regardless of whether a government is large or small, it’s desirable if it spends money efficiently and generates some benefit. I shared, for instance, a fascinating study on “public sector efficiency” from the European Central Bank and was not surprised to see that nations with smaller public sectors got much more bang for the buck (with Singapore easily winning the prize for the most efficient government).

So I was very interested to see that WalletHub put together a report showing each state’s “return on investment” based on how effectively it uses tax monies to achieve desirable outcomes for education, health, safety, economy, and infrastructure, and pollution.

I’m not completely comfortable with the methodology (is it a state government’s fault if the population is more obese and therefore less healthy, for instance, and what about adjusting for demographic factors such as age and race?), but I nonetheless think the study is both useful and interesting.

Here are the best and worst states.

One thing that should stand out is that the best states are dominated by zero-income tax states and flat tax states.

The worst states, by contrast, tend to have punitive tax systems (Alaska is a bit of an outlier because it collects – and squanders – a lot of revenue from oil).

By the way, if you’re a Republican, you can probably give yourself a small pat on the back. The so-called red states do a bit better than the so-called blue states.

P.S. WalletHub put together some fascinating data on which cities get a good return on investment (i.e., bang for the back) for spending on police and education.

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It’s very hard to be optimistic about Japan. I’ve even referred to the country as a basket case.

But my concern is not that the country has been mired in stagnation for the past 25 years. Instead, I’m much more worried about the future. The main problem is that Japan has the usual misguided entitlement programs that are found in most developed nations, but has far-worse-than-usual demographics. That’s not a good long-term combination.

As I repeatedly point out in my speeches and elsewhere, a modest-sized welfare state can be sustained in a nation with a population pyramid. But even a small welfare state is a challenge for a country with a population cylinder. And it’s a crisis for a jurisdiction such as Japan that will soon have an upside-down pyramid.

To make matters worse, Japanese politicians don’t seem overly interested in genuine entitlement reform. Instead, most of the discussion (egged on by the tax-free bureaucrats at the OECD) seems focused on how to extract more money from the private sector to finance an ever-growing public sector.

But the icing on the cake of bad policy is that Japanese politicians are addicted to Keynesian economics. For two-plus decades, they’ve enacted one “stimulus package” after another. None of these schemes have succeeded. Indeed, the only real effect has been a quadrupling of the debt burden.

The Wall Street Journal shares my pessimism. Here’s some of what was stated in an editorial late last year.

Japan is in recession for the fifth time in seven years, and the…Prime Minister who promised to end his country’s stagnation is failing at the task. …Mr. Abe’s economic plan consisted of three “arrows,” starting with fiscal spending and monetary easing. The result is a national debt set to hit 250% of GDP by the end of the year. The Bank of Japan is buying bonds at a $652 billion annual rate, a more radical quantitative easing than the Federal Reserve’s. …The third arrow, structural economic reform, offered Japan the only hope of sustained economic growth. …But for every step Mr. Abe takes toward reform, one foot remains planted in the political economy of Japan Inc. In April 2014, Mr. Abe acquiesced to a disastrous three percentage-point increase in the value-added tax, to 8%, pushing Japan into its first recession on his watch. More recently, he has pushed politically popular but economically ineffectual spending measures on child care and help for the elderly. …only 25% of the population now believes Abenomics will improve the economy. Reality has a way of catching up with political promises.

You might think that even politicians might learn after repeated failure that big government is not a recipe for prosperity.

But you would be wrong.

Notwithstanding the fact that Keynesian economics hasn’t worked, Japanese politicians are doubling down on the wrong approach.

According to a report from Bloomberg, American Keynesians (when they’re not busing giving bad advice to Greece) are telling Japan to dig a deeper hole.

Paul Krugman urged Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to…expand fiscal stimulus to revive the economy.

Reuters filed a similar report.

U.S. economist Paul Krugman said on Tuesday he advised Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to…boost fiscal spending… Krugman’s advice was the same as that which fellow U.S. economist Joseph Stiglitz gave Abe last week.

Indeed, there apparently was a consensus for bigger government.

Every one of the economists that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has invited here for a series of meetings with policymakers has recommended that Japan let loose government spending… When Abe asked why consumer spending has remained feeble since the 2014 consumption tax increase, the U.S. academic suggested the answer lies in expectations that fiscal stimulus will end. …Abe’s government…appears to be seeking to rally the G-7 for aggressive fiscal policy.

So why did the Japanese government create an echo chamber of Keynesianism?

Perhaps because politicians want an excuse to buy votes with other people’s money.

With an upper house election looming in July, ruling coalition lawmakers also are eager to dole out massive public spending.

And it appears that Japanese politicians are happy to take advice when it’s based on their spending vice ostensibly being a fiscal virtue.

That’s not too shocking, but the Keynesian scheme that’s being prepared is a parody even by Krugmanesque standards.

Japan’s government is considering handing out gift certificates to low-income young people in a supplementary budget for fiscal 2016 as consumer spending remains sluggish on a slow wage recovery, the Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported Thursday. Government officials believe certificates for purchasing daily necessities would lead to spending, unlike cash handouts which could be saved… The additional fiscal program would follow a similar measure for seniors and the ruling coalition would use it to gain voter support before the Upper House election expected in July, the daily said.

Maybe the politicians will succeed in buying votes, but they shouldn’t expect better economic performance. Giving people gift certificates won’t alter incentives to work, save, and invest (the behaviors that actually result in more economic output).

Indeed, on the margin these handouts may lure a few additional people out of the labor force.

The plan is foolish even from a Keynesian perspective. Since money is fungible, do these people really think gift certificates will encourage more spending that cash handouts?

By the way, another reason to be pessimistic about Japan is that there apparently aren’t any politicians who understand economics. Or at least there aren’t any that want good policy. The opposition party isn’t opposed to Keynesian foolishness. Instead, it’s leader is only concerned about who gets the goodies.

Katsuya Okada, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, said in parliamentary debate in January. “Elderly people are not the only ones who are suffering. Among the working generation, only a limited number of people are feeling the fruit of Abenomics.”

The bottom line is that Japan will become another Greece at some point. I’m not smart enough to know whether that will happen in five years or twenty-five years, but barring a radical reversal in government policy, the nation is in deep long-run trouble.

P.S. Though I have to give the Japanese government credit for being so incompetent that it introduced a giveaway program that was so poorly designed that nobody signed up for the handout.

P.P.S. And Japan also wins the prize for what must be the world’s oddest regulation.

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The welfare state is bad news. It’s bad for taxpayers and it’s bad for recipients.

It’s also bad for the economy since prosperity is in part a function of the quantity of labor that is productively employed. As such, government programs that lure people into dependency obviously reduce national economic output.

We can get a sense of how the nation is being hurt by reviewing some of the scholarly literature.

Writing for the Cato Journal, Lowell Gallaway and Daniel Garrett explore the relationship between redistribution spending and poverty reduction.

They start by pointing out that more welfare spending used to be associated with reductions in poverty. But when President Johnson launched his so-called War on Poverty and dramatically increased the level of redistribution, the link between welfare spending and poverty reduction substantially weakened.

…the real per capita cost in the United States of federal public aid rose 70 percent in the 11 years between 1953—the first year the federal government reported an official poverty rate—and Johnson’s 1964 remarks. In the 11 years that followed, however, that same real per capita cost increased by an astonishing 434 percent—that is, more than six times faster than in 1953–64. …in 1953–64, every 10 percentage point increase in public aid was associated with a 1 percentage point drop in the official poverty rate. Compare that with the experience of the 11 years following the outbreak of hostilities in the War on Poverty. During that interval, every 1 percentage point fall in the poverty rate was accompanied by a 50 percentage point increase in real public aid. …the relationship between public aid and the poverty rate is subject to the principle of diminishing returns.

Not just a diminishing return. There’s a point at which more redistribution actually leads to an increase in poverty.

Just like there’s a point at which higher tax rates lead to less revenue. And the authors recognize this link.

This is a Laffer Curve type relationship, which is to say that while public aid initially decreases poverty, there eventually comes a point at which additional increases in public aid increase poverty. …the effectiveness of additional real public aid expenditures, as a policy instrument designed to reduce the poverty rate, had been exhausted by the mid-1970s. Indeed, any additional public aid beyond the mid-1970s levels would result in an increase, not a decrease, in the poverty rate.

Gallaway and Garrett crunch the numbers.

…to calculate the impact of public aid expenditures on the incidence of poverty in the United States. The greatest poverty-reducing effect occurs at $1,291 of per capita expenditures on public aid, which produces a 6.07 percentage point reduction in the overall poverty rate. However, as the level of real per capita public aid rises beyond $1,291, the poverty reducing effect is eroded. …at $2,407 of per capita public aid, all of the initial reductions in the poverty rate have disappeared. …By 2010, real per capita aid stood at $2,697—a level that produces a 2.52 percentage point increase in the poverty rate. Thus, the impact of per capita public aid in 2010 being $1,406 greater than the optimal, poverty-reducing level was to increase the poverty rate by 8.59 percentage points, according to our analysis.

Here’s the relevant table from their article.

Unfortunately, they didn’t create a hypothetical curve to show these numbers, so we don’t have the welfare/poverty version of the Laffer Curve.

But they do estimate the negative human impact of excessive redistribution spending.

Since the official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, this implies that in the absence of that extra $1,406 of per capita public aid, the official poverty rate in 2010 would have been 6.5 percent. …Taking dynamic factors into consideration would probably lower the figure to less than 6 percent. This implies that the actual poverty rate in 2010 was more than two and-one-half times higher than it could have been were it not for the excessive use of public aid income transfers as an instrument of policy. In other words, it may be argued that public aid overreach was responsible for approximately 30 million extra people living in poverty in 2010.

And children are among the biggest victims.

…one in every eight American children is living below the poverty line because public aid payments exceed the level that would minimize the poverty rate.

Ugh, this is terrible news. Children raised in government-dependent households are significantly more likely to suffer adverse life outcomes, in large part because of very poor social capital.

Last but not least, the authors also speculate that excessive redistribution may be one of the reasons why the distribution of income has shifted.

…up to the mid- 1970s, government cash income transfers (public aid) were increasing the incomes of those in the bottom quintile of the income distribution by more than work-disincentive effects were reducing them. The result was a reduction in the official poverty rate. …However, as the volume of public aid payments continued to increase, the work-disincentive effect more than offset the income enhancements generated by the flow of public aid. As this happened, the poverty rate began to drift upward and the percentage share of all income received by those in the bottom quintile of the income distribution began what would turn out to be a long and steady decline.

By the way, I don’t think that there’s a “correct” or “proper” level of income distribution. That should be a function of what people contribute to economic output. I’m concerned instead with boosting growth so everyone has a chance to rise.

Which is why it is especially tragic that redistribution spending is trapping less-fortunate people in long-term government dependency by undermining their incentives to earn income.

The bottom line is that it’s time to reduce – and ideally eliminate – the Washington welfare state.

Though that involves a major challenge since the real beneficiaries of the current system are the “poverty pimps” in Washington.

P.S. This Wizard-of-Id parody contains a lot of insight about labor supply and government-distorted incentives. As does this Chuck Asay cartoon and this Robert Gorrell cartoon.

P.P.S. If you want to see sloppy and biased analysis (paid for with your tax dollars), take a look at efforts to rationalize that redistribution is good for growth from the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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