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Posts Tagged ‘Government Spending’

When I was younger, folks in the policy community joked that BusinessWeek was the “anti-business business weekly” because its coverage of the economy was just as stale and predictably left wing as what you would find in the pages of Time or Newsweek.

Well, perhaps it’s time for The Economist to be known as the “anti-economics economic weekly.”

Writing about the stagnation that is infecting western nations, the magazine beclowns itself by regurgitating stale 1960s-style Keynesianism. The article is worthy of a fisking (i.e., a “point-by-point debunking of lies and/or idiocies”), starting with the assertion that central banks saved the world at the end of last decade.

During the financial crisis the Federal Reserve and other central banks were hailed for their actions: by slashing rates and printing money to buy bonds, they stopped a shock from becoming a depression.

I’m certainly open to the argument that the downturn would have been far worse if the banking system hadn’t been recapitalized (even if it should have happened using the “FDIC-resolution approach” rather than via corrupt bailouts), but that’s a completely separate issue from whether Keynesian monetary policy was either desirable or successful.

Regarding the latter question, just look around the world. The Fed has followed an easy-money policy. Has that resulted in a robust recovery for America? The European Central Bank (ECB) has followed the same policy. Has that worked? And the Bank of Japan (BoJ) has done the same thing. Does anyone view Japan’s economy as a success?

At least the article acknowledges that there are some skeptics of the current approach.

The central bankers say that ultra-loose monetary policy remains essential to prop up still-weak economies and hit their inflation targets. …But a growing chorus of critics frets about the effects of the low-rate world—a topsy-turvy place where savers are charged a fee, where the yields on a large fraction of rich-world government debt come with a minus sign, and where central banks matter more than markets in deciding how capital is allocated.

The Economist, as you might expect, expresses sympathy for the position of the central bankers.

In most of the rich world inflation is below the official target. Indeed, in some ways central banks have not been bold enough. Only now, for example, has the BoJ explicitly pledged to overshoot its 2% inflation target. The Fed still seems anxious to push up rates as soon as it can.

The preceding passage is predicated on the assumption that there is a mechanistic tradeoff between inflation and unemployment (the so-called Phillips Curve), one of the core concepts of Keynesian economics. According to adherents, all-wise central bankers can push inflation up if they want lower unemployment and push inflation down if they want to cool the economy.

This idea has been debunked by real world events because inflation and unemployment simultaneously rose during the 1970s (supposedly impossible according the Keynesians) and simultaneously fell during the 1980s (also a theoretical impossibility according to advocates of the Phillips Curve).

But real-world evidence apparently can be ignored if it contradicts the left’s favorite theories.

That being said, we can set aside the issue of Keynesian monetary policy because the main thrust of the article is an embrace of Keynesian fiscal policy.

…it is time to move beyond a reliance on central banks. …economies need succour now. The most urgent priority is to enlist fiscal policy. The main tool for fighting recessions has to shift from central banks to governments.

As an aside, the passage about shifting recession fighting “from central banks to governments” is rather bizarre since the Fed, the ECB, and the BoJ are all government entities. Either the reporter or the editor should have rewritten that sentence so that it concluded with “shift from central banks to fiscal policy” or something like that.

In any event, The Economist has a strange perspective on this issue. It wants Keynesian fiscal policy, yet it worries about politicians using that approach to permanently expand government. And it is not impressed by the fixation on “shovel-ready” infrastructure spending.

The task today is to find a form of fiscal policy that can revive the economy in the bad times without entrenching government in the good. …infrastructure spending is not the best way to prop up weak demand. …fiscal policy must mimic the best features of modern-day monetary policy, whereby independent central banks can act immediately to loosen or tighten as circumstances require.

So The Economist endorses what it refers to as “small-government Keynesianism,” though that’s simply its way of saying that additional spending increases (and gimmicky tax cuts) should occur automatically.

…there are ways to make fiscal policy less politicised and more responsive. …more automaticity is needed, binding some spending to changes in the economic cycle. The duration and generosity of unemployment benefits could be linked to the overall joblessness rate in the economy, for example.

In the language of Keynesians, such policies are known as “automatic stabilizers,” and there already are lots of so-called means-tested programs that operate this way. When people lose their jobs, government spending on unemployment benefits automatically increases. During a weak economy, there also are automatic spending increases for programs such as Food Stamps and Medicaid.

I guess The Economist simply wants more programs that work this way, or perhaps bigger handouts for existing programs. And the magazine views this approach as “small-government Keynesianism” because the spending increases theoretically evaporate as the economy starts growing and fewer people are automatically entitled to receive benefits from the various programs.

Regardless, whoever wrote the article seems convinced that such programs help boost the economy.

When the next downturn comes, this kind of fiscal ammunition will be desperately needed. Only a small share of public spending needs to be affected for fiscal policy to be an effective recession-fighting weapon.

My reaction, for what it’s worth, is to wonder why the article doesn’t include any evidence to bolster the claim that more government spending is and “effective” way of ending recessions and boosting growth. Though I suspect the author of the article didn’t include any evidence because it’s impossible to identify any success stories for Keynesian economics.

  • Did Keynesian spending boost the economy under Hoover? No.
  • Did Keynesian spending boost the economy under Roosevelt? No.
  • Has Keynesian spending worked in Japan at any point over the past twenty-five years? No.
  • Did Keynesian spending boost the economy under Obama? No.

Indeed, Keynesian spending has an unparalleled track record of failure in the real world. Though advocates of Keynesianism have a ready-built excuse. All the above failures only occurred because the spending increases were inadequate.

But what do expect from the “perpetual motion machine” of Keynesian economics, a theory that is only successful if you assume it is successful?

I’m not surprised that politicians gravitate to this idea. After all, it tells them that their vice  of wasteful overspending is actually a virtue.

But it’s quite disappointing that journalists at an allegedly economics-oriented magazine blithely accept this strange theory.

P.S. My second-favorite story about Keynesian economics involves the sequester, which big spenders claimed would cripple the economy, yet that’s when we got the only semi-decent growth of the Obama era.

P.P.S. My favorite story about Keynesianism is when Paul Krugman was caught trying to blame a 2008 recession in Estonia on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

P.P.P.S. Here’s my video explaining Keynesian economics.

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When I tell journalists and politicians that the European fiscal situation is worse today than it was immediately prior to the crisis, they don’t believe me. What about all the spending cuts, they ask? What about the draconian austerity? And the Troika-imposed fiscal restraint?

I tell them it’s mostly been a mirage. It turns out that “austerity” in Europe is simply another way of saying massive tax increases. National governments have boosted tax burdens substantially, but there hasn’t been much spending restraint.

This is a topic I spoke about earlier today at a conference in Prague, which was hosted by the European Conservatives and Reformers bloc of the European Parliament.

My panel’s topic was “Current Challenges to the Transatlantic Partnership” and I focused on economic stagnation and fiscal crisis.

Regarding economic stagnation, I pointed out that there’s very little growth in Europe and substandard growth in the United States.

By itself, that’s a problem but not a crisis.

The crisis (or at least what I argue is a looming crisis) is that Europe’s fiscal situation is worse today than it was when last decade’s fiscal chaos began.

To put this in concrete terms, I crunched the data for both the “eurozone” nations (those using the common currency) and for the overall European Union.

And here are the numbers showing how the burden of government spending has increased in Europe between 2007 and 2015.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there hasn’t been any overall spending restraint on the other side of the Atlantic. This is the chart I will now share with politicians and journalists (as well as anyone else) who is under the illusion that there have been big spending cuts in Europe.

But just as slow growth is a problem rather than a crisis, the same can be said about bigger government. Yes, a larger fiscal burden saps an economy’s vitality and weakens national competitiveness, but it presumably doesn’t by itself produce a crisis.

The crisis, at least if last decade is any indication, materializes when investors decide they don’t want to buy a nation’s government debt because they fear they won’t get repaid (i.e., a default). And that happens when a nation’s debt level is perceived to have reached an unsustainable level when compared to the ability of that country’s economy to generate enough output to support that debt.

And I suspect it’s just a matter of time before Europe experiences another such crisis. Here are the numbers, both for euro-using nations as well as the entire European Union, showing that government debt is substantially higher today than it was at the dawn of last decade’s meltdown.

I should point out that there’s no reason why a crisis need occur. If European governments copied Switzerland and put in place some sort of spending cap (a good one that ensures that the burden of government expanded slower than the private sector), then red ink quickly would fall and investors would be much less fearful of a default.

Unfortunately, all the pressure is in the other direction. Indeed, to the limited degree there was any spending restraint after the last crisis, it has largely evaporated.

A story in the New York Times from two years ago illustrates why the mess in Europe is so intractable.

The reporters who authored the story were correct that there was disagreement between Germany and other nations.

…many of the largest European countries are now rebelling against the German gospel of belt-tightening and demanding more radical steps to reverse their slumping fortunes.

But they naively reported that there were genuine cutbacks and they also believed the silly Keynesian argument that smaller government somehow reduces growth.

…eurozone nations buckled under to German demands to slash budget deficits and roll back public services, and then watched in dismay as unemployment rates shot into the double digits and growth collapsed.

In any event, Europe’s self-styled elite decided on a return to the types of bad policy that led to last decade’s fiscal crisis.

Now, France, Italy and the European Central Bank have coalesced into a bloc against Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and they are insisting that Berlin change course. …France, which has in modern times been Germany’s indispensable partner in European crisis management, is now in near revolt, and President François Hollande has joined forces with Mr. Renzi, who has presented an expansionary 2015 budget that will cut taxes despite pressure from Brussels to meet deficit targets. Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, has pressed Germany to temper its insistence on budgetary discipline and to spend more on public works to stimulate the eurozone economy. The French have cheered him on

For what it’s worth, I would have been on Merkel’s side if she was actually pushing for meaningful spending restraint.

But that was not the case. She myopically focused on fiscal balance rather than the size of government, which is bad enough since higher taxes are always the first (and second, and third, …) resort of politicians. But to make matters worse, her motives have always been suspect because of fears that she’s mostly concerned about protecting German banks that foolishly lent a lot of money to profligate governments.

Though that presumably shouldn’t be a major concern today since the European Central Bank is now buying lots of government bonds as part of 1) a foolish experiment in monetary Keynesianism, and 2) an indirect bailout of dodgy governments. Any banks with competent management will have used this opportunity to sell their holdings so the risk of sovereign defaults is borne by the general public.

But let’s set aside speculation on Merkel’s motives. All that really matters is that government in Europe is now bigger and more expensive, with lots of additional red ink. And the European Central Bank is helping to build the house of cards even higher.

This won’t end well, though I very much hope my fears are misplaced.

P.S. Anybody who wants to argue that Europe’s fiscal problems can be solved with higher taxes first needs to explain this set of charts.

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When Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton agree on things, it’s always bad news for taxpayers.

Now they both agree that it’s somehow the federal government’s job to subsidize child care, though they’ve each concocted different ways of implementing this new form of redistribution.

The Wall Street Journal opines on this fiscally incontinent bidding war.

…both candidates [are] offering multiple subsidies for raising kids. This will end up raising prices and it won’t address the real reason parents feel squeezed: a decade of slow or no economic growth. Donald Trump on Tuesday proposed a tax deduction that would let families write off the average cost of child care for up to four children, among other ideas. Hillary Clinton has already promised to limit care expenses to 10% of income; raises for caretakers; universal pre-K; an increase in the $1,000 per child tax credit; a new program for student parents, and more.

Looking at the details, Trumps plan would exacerbate the EITC problem.

Here’s the dirty detail: Mr. Trump proposed an up to $1,200 child-care tax rebate for low-income families that would be delivered by expanding the earned-income tax credit. But the credit would inevitably phase out as income increases and disappears at $31,200. The result would be a higher inframarginal tax cliff—when people are discouraged from earning more income because they lose more in benefits than they can gain in wages. This disincentive to advancement is already steep.

He’s also proposing a new subsidy for savings accounts.

Mr. Trump also proposes savings accounts for child care to add to the tax-free destinations for retirement, health care, college and more. This new benefit, worth up to $2,000 a year, would make tax reform more difficult. The government would also match parental contributions at 50% up to $1,000 a year for low-income families. That’s a wonky way of unveiling a new $500 transfer payment.

And Trump even wants to engage in a no-win bidding war with Hillary Clinton to create a new European-style entitlement for paid maternity leave (even though, as a columnist for the New York Times even admitted, this type of scheme will backfire against women by making them less attractive to employers).

Then there’s six weeks of paid maternity leave that Mr. Trump says he would guarantee through unemployment insurance. He claims he’ll pay for this by cleaning out fraudulent payments, though this is his funding mechanism for every proposal. Mr. Trump will nonetheless lose the family bidding war with Mrs. Clinton, who wants 12 weeks of paid leave for new mothers and fathers.

The Clinton plan, meanwhile, is a predictably statist prescription for more intervention and subsidies.

And the WSJ‘s editorial correctly points out that is a recipe for ever-higher costs.

Mrs. Clinton raises the Trump offer in every regard, from more Head Start funding to salary support for day-care workers. And if you think care is expensive now, wait until Mrs. Clinton wades in. She likes to say that child care can be more expensive than college tuition, which is false. The irony is that her day-care blowout would recreate what has made college notoriously expensive—large subsidies for the provider and buyer. Day-care centers and pre-Ks could raise prices, confident that government will cover the increase.

The fact that Hillary Clinton wants bigger government is not the most shocking revelation in the world.

Her voting record as a Senator was almost identical to Bernie Sanders’.

And every single proposal in her big economic speech last month required a larger burden of government.

But it’s rather odd to find the Republican nominee being the statist Tweedledee to match the statist Tweedledum.

In an article for Commentary, Noah Rothman looks at Trump’s overall approach to fiscal policy.

Donald Trump…is a self-described Republican who has cast aside the austere facade of fiscal conservatism in favor of any and every spending proposal that crosses his transom. Promising the electorate the world in the campaign with every intention of working out the details after the election is hardly a new phenomenon, but it used to be one that Republicans rejected. Today, under Trump’s corrupting umbra, the GOP has become the party of wild assurances and cascading spending proposals with no intention of ever making good on them.

Actually, I fear the spending promises would be fulfilled if Trump got to the White House. Though I agree that Trump personally doesn’t care if they are either adopted or forgotten.

Here are just a few of the spending promises Trump has made.

Trump promised to augment the Pentagon’s budget by repealing the portions of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (aka, “Sequester”) that imposed limits on defense spending. …Trump has called for “more funding” for the Department of Veterans Affairs to augment job training, research on traumatic stress, brain injury, and suicide prevention, and to hire more service providers at VA hospitals. The Republican nominee promised a massive $500 billion public works program that you dare not call a “stimulus,” which he proudly boasted would spend more than double what Hillary Clinton has pledged to refurbish America’s infrastructure. …He has attacked as cold-hearted the idea that America’s entitlement state must be curtailed and reformed—a massive expenditure that already consumes nearly two-thirds of the nation’s annual outlays.

In other words, Trump is a big-government, Nixon-style Republican.

Which means advocates of limited government are not exactly thrilled about November.

P.S. Other Republican presidential candidates have boosted the burden of government when they took office (President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush are two dismal examples of this phenomenon). But they at least pretended to be vaguely in favor of smaller government during their respective campaigns. The fact that Trump doesn’t even fake it during the campaign suggests that economic policy would be very bad if he ever got to the White House.

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It’s not a big day for normal people, but today is exciting for fiscal policy wonks because the Congressional Budget Office has released its new 10-year forecast of how much revenue Uncle Sam will collect based on current law and how much the burden of government spending will expand if policy is left on auto-pilot.

Most observers will probably focus on the fact that budget deficits are projected to grow rapidly in future years, reaching $1 trillion in 2024.

That’s not welcome news, though I think it’s far more important to focus on the disease of too much spending rather than the symptom of red ink.

But let’s temporarily set that issue aside because the really big news from the CBO report is that we have new evidence that it’s actually very simple to balance the budget without tax increases.

According to CBO’s new forecast, federal tax revenue is projected to grow by an average of 4.3 percent each year, which means receipts will jump from 3.28 trillion this year to $4.99 trillion in 2026.

And since federal spending this year is estimated to be $3.87 trillion, we can make some simple calculation about the amount of fiscal discipline needed to balance the budget.

A spending freeze would balance the budget by 2020. But for those who want to let government grow at 2 percent annually (equal to CBO’s projection for inflation), the budget is balanced by 2024.

So here’s the choice in front of the American people. Either allow spending to grow on autopilot, which would mean a return to trillion dollar-plus deficits within eight years. Or limit spending so it grows at the rate of inflation, which would balance the budget in eight years.

Seems like an obvious choice.

By the way, when I crunched the CBO numbers back in 2010, they showed that it would take 10 years to balance the budget if federal spending grew 2 percent per year.

So why, today, can we balance the budget faster if spending grows 2 percent annually?

For the simple reason that all those fights earlier this decade about debt limits, government shutdowns, spending caps, and sequestration actually produced a meaningful victory for advocates of spending restraint. The net result of those budget battles was a five-year nominal spending freeze.

In other words, Congress actually out-performed my hopes and expectations (probably the only time in my life I will write that sentence).*

Here’s a video I narrated on this topic of spending restraint and fiscal balance back in 2010.

Everything I said back then is still true, other than simply adjusting the numbers to reflect a new forecast.

The bottom line is that modest spending restraint is all that’s needed to balance the budget.

That being said, I can’t resist pointing out that eliminating the deficit should not be our primary goal. It’s not good to have red ink, to be sure, but the more important goal should be to reduce the burden of federal spending.

That’s why I keep promoting my Golden Rule. If government grows slower than the private sector, that means the burden of spending (measured as a share of GDP) will decline over time.

And it’s why I’m a monomaniacal advocate of spending caps rather than a conventional balanced budget amendment. If you directly address the underlying disease of excessive government, you’ll automatically eliminate the symptom of government borrowing.

Which is why I very much enjoy sharing this chart whenever I’m debating one of my statist friends. It shows all the nations that have enjoyed great success with multi-year periods of spending restraint.

During these periods of fiscal responsibility, the burden of government falls as a share of economic output and deficits also decline as a share of GDP.

I then ask my leftist pals to show a similar table of countries that have gotten good results by raising taxes.

As you can imagine, that’s when there’s an uncomfortable silence in the room, perhaps because the European evidence very clearly shows that higher taxes lead to bigger government and more red ink (I also get a response of silence when I issue my challenge for statists to identify a single success story of big government).

*Congress has reverted to (bad) form, voting last year to weaken spending caps.

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I’ve been accused of making supposedly inconsistent arguments against Hillary Clinton. Make up your mind, these critics say. Is she corrupt or is she a doctrinaire leftist?

I always respond with the simple observation that she’s both. Not that this should come as a surprise. Proponents of bigger government have long track records of expanding their bank accounts at the same time they’re expanding the burden of the public sector. This is true for radical leftists in places like Venezuela and it’s true for establishment leftists in places like America.

And it’s definitely true for Hillary Clinton. I shared lots of information about Hillary’s corruption yesterday, so let’s spend some time today detailing her statist policy agenda.

Consider her new entitlement scheme for childcare. As the Wall Street Journal opines, it’s even worse than an ordinary handout.

Hillary Clinton is methodically expanding her plans to supervise or subsidize those remaining spheres of human existence unspoiled by government. Mrs. Clinton rolled out her latest proposal…to make child care more affordable for working parents and also to raise the wages of child-care workers. The Democrat didn’t mention how she’d resolve the contradiction between her cost-increasing ideas and her cost-reducing ideas, though you can bet it will be expensive. …Her solution is for the feds to cap the share of a family’s income that goes toward care at 10%, with the rest of the tab covered by various tax benefits, direct cash payments and scholarships.

Her scheme to cap a family’s exposure so they don’t have to pay more than 10 percent may be appealing to some voters, but it is terrible economics.

Although we don’t have details on how the various handouts will work, the net effect surely will be to exacerbate a third-party payer problem that already is leading to childcare costs rising faster than the overall inflation rate.

After all, families won’t care about the cost once it rises above 10 percent of their income since Hillary says that taxpayers will pick up the tab for anything about that level.

There’s more information about government intervention in the editorial.

The auditors at the Government Accountability Office report that there are currently 45 federal programs dedicated to supporting care “from birth through age five,” spread across multiple agencies. The Agriculture Department runs a nursery division, for some reason. …Mrs. Clinton also feels that caregivers are paid “less than the value of their worth,” and she promises to increase their compensation. How? Why, another program of course. She’ll call it the Respect and Increased Salaries for Early Childhood Educators (Raise) Initiative, which she says is modelled after another one of her proposals, the Care Workers Initiative. …If families think day care and health care are “really expensive” now, wait until they have to pay for Mrs. Clinton’s government.

Just as subsidized childcare will be very expensive if Hillary gets elected, the same will be true for higher education.

But in a different way. The current system of subsidies and handouts gives money (in the form of grants and loans) to students, who then give the money to colleges and universities. This is a great deal for the schools, who have taken advantage of the programs by dramatically increasing tuition and fees, while also expanding bureaucratic empires.

Hillary’s plan will expand the subsidies for colleges and universities, but students apparently no longer will serve as the middlemen. Instead, the money will go directly from Uncle Sam to the schools.

Here’s some analysis from the Pope Center on Hillary’s new scheme.

Clinton has come out with a plan to make public colleges and universities free for families with earnings less than $125,000 annually by 2021. …“free” college…would depend on state governments going along with her scheme whereby the federal government would pay them if they cooperate by charging no tuition… Suppose a state decides to adopt Clinton’s free college plan. What would the consequences be? …That would mean at least a modest increase in enrollment, but it would come mainly from the most academically marginal students. The colleges and universities that gained in those enrollments would also find they need to increase remedial programs. …Another adverse result from making college tuition free would be that many students would devote less effort to their courses. …Federal Reserve Bank of New York economist Aysegul Sahin…studied the effort college students put into their work in a 2004 paper“The Incentive Effects of Higher Education Subsidies on Student Effort.” She concluded, “Low-tuition, high-subsidy policies cause an increase in the ratio of less highly-motivated students among the college graduates and that even highly-motivated ones respond to lower tuition by choosing to study less.”

As with much of Hillary’s agenda, we don’t have full details. I strongly suspect that colleges and universities will have a big incentive to jack up tuition and fees to take advantage of the new handout, though I suppose we have to consider the possibility (fantasy?) that the plan will somehow include safeguards to prevent that from happening.

Oh, and don’t forget all the tax hikes she’s proposing to finance bigger government.

The really sad part about all this is that her husband actually wound up being one of the most market-oriented presidents in the post-World War II era. I’ve written on this topic several times (including speculation on whether the credit actually belongs to the post-1994 GOP Congress).

Is it possible that Hillary decides to “triangulate” and move to the center if she gets to the White House?

Yes, but I’m not brimming with optimism.

The Wall Street Journal has some depressing analysis on Bill Clinton vs Hillary Clinton.

…the Obama-era Democratic Party has repudiated the Democratic Party’s Bill-era centrist agenda. They now call themselves progressives, not New Democrats… The Clinton contradiction is that she claims she’ll produce economic results like her husband did with economic policies like Mr. Obama’s.

The editorial looks at Bill Clinton’s sensible record and compares it to what Hillary is proposing.

His wife wants to nearly double the top tax rate on long-term cap gains to 43.4% from 23.8%, in the name of ending “quarterly capitalism.” That’s higher than the 40% rate under Jimmy Carter, and she’d also impose a minimum tax on millionaires and above, details to come. …Mrs. Clinton has repudiated the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership that she had praised as Secretary of State. …She wants to extend Dodd-Frank regulation to nonbanks, and she promises to entrench Mr. Obama’s anticarbon central planning at the EPA and expand ObamaCare with price controls on new medicines. …Mrs. Clinton is proposing to impose many more such work disincentives. She’ll bestow tax credits on everything from child care to elderly care, from college tuition to businesses that share profits with workers. To the extent her new mandates for family leave, the minimum wage, overtime and “equal pay” increase the cost of labor, she’ll drive more Americans out of the workforce. Oh, and…Mrs. Clinton wants to “enhance” Social Security benefits and make Medicare available to pre-retirees.

I’ve already written about her irresponsible approach to Social Security.

And I also opined on the issue in this interview.

The bottom line is that we’re in a very deep hole and Hillary Clinton, simply for reasons of personal ambition, wants to dig the hole deeper. As I remarked in the interview, she’s akin to a Greek politician agitating for more spending in 2007.

Given all this, is anyone surprised that “French President Francois Hollande endorsed Hillary Clinton”? What’s next, a pro-Hillary campaign commercial featuring Nicolas Maduro? A direct mail piece from the ghost of Che Guevara?

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Remember Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, the 1993 comedy classic about a weatherman who experiences the same day over and over again?

Well, the same thing is happening in Japan. But instead of a person waking up and reliving the same day, we get politicians pursuing the same failed Keynesian stimulus policies over and over again.

The entire country has become a parody of Keynesian economics. Yet the politicians make Obama seem like a fiscal conservative by comparison. They keep doubling down on the same approach, regardless of all previous failures.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the details of the latest Keynesian binge.

Japan’s cabinet approved a government stimulus package that includes ¥7.5 trillion ($73 billion) in new spending, in the latest effort by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to jump-start the nation’s sluggish economy. The spending program, which has a total value of ¥28 trillion over several years, represents…an attempt to breathe new life into the Japanese economy… The government will pump money into infrastructure projects… The government will provide cash handouts of ¥15,000, or about $147, each to 22 million low-income people… Other items in the package included interest-free loans for infrastructure projects…and new hotels for foreign tourists.

As already noted, this is just the latest in a long line of failed stimulus schemes.

The WSJ story includes this chart showing what’s happened just since 2008.

And if you go back farther in time, you’ll see that the Japanese version of Groundhog Day has been playing since the early 1990s.

Here’s a list, taken from a presentation at the IMF, of so-called stimulus plans adopted by various Japanese governments between 1992-2008.

And here’s my contribution to the discussion. I went to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database and downloaded the numbers on government borrowing, government debt, and per-capita GDP growth.

I wanted to see how much deficit spending there was and what the impact was on debt and the economy. As you can see, red ink skyrocketed while the private economy stagnated.

Though we shouldn’t be surprised. Keynesian economics didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt, or Bush and Obama, so why expect it to work in another country.

By the way, I can’t resist making a comment on this excerpt from a CNBC report on Japan’s new stimulus scheme.

Abe ordered his government last month to craft a stimulus plan to revive an economy dogged by weak consumption, despite three years of his “Abenomics” mix of extremely accommodative monetary policy, flexible spending and structural reform promises.

In the interest of accuracy, the reporter should have replaced “despite” with “because of.”

In addition to lots of misguided Keynesian fiscal policy, there’s been a radical form of Keynesian monetary policy from the Bank of Japan.

Here are some passages from a very sobering Bloomberg report about the central bank’s burgeoning ownership of private companies.

Already a top-five owner of 81 companies in Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average, the BOJ is on course to become the No. 1 shareholder in 55 of those firms by the end of next year…. BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda almost doubled his annual ETF buying target last month, adding to an unprecedented campaign to revitalize Japan’s stagnant economy. …opponents say the central bank is artificially inflating equity valuations and undercutting efforts to make public companies more efficient. …the monetary authority’s outsized presence will make some shares harder to buy and sell, a phenomenon that led to convulsions in Japan’s government bond market this year. …the BOJ doesn’t acquire individual shares directly, it’s the ultimate buyer of stakes purchased through ETFs. …investors worry that BOJ purchases could give a free ride to poorly-run firms and crowd out shareholders who would otherwise push for better corporate governance.

Wow. I don’t pretend to be an expert on monetary economics, but I can’t image that there will be a happy ending to this story.

Just in case you’re not sufficiently depressed about Japan’s economic outlook, keep in mind that the nation also is entering a demographic crisis, as reported by the L.A. Times.

All across Japan, aging villages such as Hara-izumi have been quietly hollowing out for years… Japan’s population crested around 2010 with 128 million people and has since lost about 900,000 residents, last year’s census confirmed. Now, the country has begun a white-knuckle ride in which it will shed about one-third of its population — 40 million people — by 2060, experts predict. In 30 years, 39% of Japan’s population will be 65 or older.

The effects already are being felt, and this is merely the beginning of the demographic wave.

Police and firefighters are grappling with the safety hazards of a growing number of vacant buildings. Transportation authorities are discussing which roads and bus lines are worth maintaining and cutting those they can no longer justify. …Each year, the nation is shuttering 500 schools. …In Hara-izumi, …The village’s population has become so sparse that wild bears, boars and deer are roaming the streets with increasing frequency.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), even modest-sized welfare states eventually collapse when you wind up with too few workers trying to support an ever-growing number of recipients.

Now maybe you can understand why I’ve referred to Japan as a basket case.

P.S. You hopefully won’t be surprised to learn that Japanese politicians are getting plenty of bad advice from the fiscal pyromaniacs at the IMF and OECD.

P.P.S. Maybe I’m just stereotyping, but I’ve always assumed the Japanese were sensible people, even if they have a bloated and wasteful government. But when you look at that nation’s contribution to the stupidest-regulation contest and the country’s entry in the government-incompetence contest, I wonder whether the Japanese have some as-yet-undiscovered genetic link to Greece?

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I’ve written (some would say excessively) about the fact that America has too many bureaucrats and that they’re paid too much.

That’s true in Washington. That’s true at the state level. And it’s true for local governments.

But since I’m a big believer in beating a dead horse, let’s revisit this issue. We’ll narrow our focus today and look solely at the issue of retirement benefits for state and local bureaucrats.

Why? Because, as explained by Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, the unfunded liability for these schemes has mushroomed into a giant $5 trillion problem.

If the Actuarial Standards Board enacts recommendations from its Pension Task Force, actuarial valuations for state and local government pensions will report unfunded liabilities of over $5 trillion and funding ratios of just 39 percent. The public pensions industry will hate it, but those figures are the best available measures of the costs of public employee retirement plans. …That $5.2 trillion is the number most economists would think is most relevant to considering the costs of public sector pensions. …The simple reality is that public pension underfunding is a significant problem that can only really be addressed by increasing contributions or by lower pension benefits, choices that pretty much everyone involved in the pension world would prefer to avoid.

You won’t be surprised to learn that some states are more irresponsible than others.

CNBC reports that Nebraska is the most prudent and Alaska is the worst (politicians can’t resist squandering oil revenue). Several blue states rank poorly (think Illinois, Connecticut, California, and New Jersey), but there also are red states (such as Louisiana and Kentucky) that have made very foolish promises.

In Nebraska, for example, the pension liability amounts to about $386 per person, the lowest in the nation. That compares with Alaska ($19,394 per person: the highest in the country), Illinois ($15,158 per person) and Connecticut ($14,769). The average pension shortfall in 2014 amounted to $4,383.

The Wall Street Journal has an interactive table that allows readers to see which states have the biggest shortfall.

Meanwhile, Governing has an interactive map showing which states have the biggest gaps.

In other words, state and local bureaucrats have been promised a lot of money when they retire.

Much more money than is available.

And when you add Social Security benefits to the mix, as Andrew Biggs has calculated, you wind up having lots of bureaucrats enjoying very lavish levels of retirement income.

I tabulated the pension benefits paid to full-career “regular” state government employees (meaning, non-public safety) retiring in 2012. For states in which public employees participated in Social Security, I estimated the Social Security benefit the retiree would be eligible to receive. And finally, I compared total retirement benefits to the worker’s earnings immediately preceding retirement. …Mississippi paying the lowest replacement rate of 54% of final earnings. …West Virginia paid the most generous benefits, equal to 115% of final earnings, followed by New Mexico (113%), Oregon (105%), California (102%) and, yes, conservative Texas (101%).

Here’s a map that accompanied the article.

But maybe big numbers, maps and tables are too abstract.

To give some examples of how this is leading to a fiscal crisis, consider these recent news reports.

A story from the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

Nevadans should brace for reduced services, higher taxes or both — the necessary consequence of the Public Employee Retirement System of Nevada (PERS) having badly missed its investment target last year…PERS has now missed its target over the past five, 10, 15, 20 and 25 years — suggesting that another taxpayer-rate hike is on its way. Remarkably, this shortfall has occurred even though markets have nearly tripled from their 2009 lows, and currently sit at or near all-time highs. Nevada’s soaring pension costs — ranked third-highest in the nation at 9.8 percent of own-source revenue, according to 2013 data from the Public Plans Database — aren’t just due to overly optimistic investment assumptions, however. Another factor is the extraordinarily generous nature of the benefits.

A column from the Orange County Register:

…in the world of public sector pensions – among the biggest institutional investors in global markets – politicians…pretend they can count on big investment returns every year, while disregarding warning signs, mounting debts and increasingly unsustainable pension systems. We’re seeing the latest pension fund returns come in, and almost uniformly, it was a terrible year for states – and thus taxpayers. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest U.S. public pension fund, logged a paltry annual return of 0.6 percent. …CalPERS is currently only 76 percent funded, a figure that will inevitably drop given the latest weak returns.

A report from the Portland Tribune:

Oregon’s major business groups want lawmakers to start dealing with rising public pension costs as early as the session that opens Feb. 1. Although those costs start to kick in with the 2017-19 budget cycle — 18 months away — advocates say it’s not too early to whittle down an unfunded liability projected at $18 billion over the next few decades. …projected increases in contributions to PERS, which covers about 95 percent of Oregon’s public workers, will eat deeply into what they can spend over the next several two-year budget cycles. Cheri Helt, co-chair of the Bend-La Pine School Board, says pension costs will jump from the current 16 percent of payroll to 20 percent in 2017-19, and to 25 percent in the cycle afterward. …Jamie Moffitt, vice president and chief financial officer for the University of Oregon, says rising pension costs will eat up 40 percent — about 2 percentage points — of the 5.5 percent average annual increase in tuition.

An editorial about New Jersey in the Wall Street Journal:

New Jersey’s Senate president is in a Brando-like fight with government unions that he says are trying to extort or bribe legislators into doing their bidding. …At issue is the woefully underfunded state pension system. The teachers union wants to put a measure on the November ballot to amend the state constitution to require quarterly state pension payments of increasing amounts. …government unions have so much political sway over politicians that they often call the shots on their own pensions and benefits. …New Jersey’s public pensions are underfunded to the tune of $82 billion. Thomas Healey of the state’s bipartisan Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission notes that pensions and health care now eat up 11% of New Jersey’s budget, and without reform this will grow to 28% by 2025. …The pension commission has proposed reforms—including a shift to a hybrid retirement plan that includes features more akin to a 401(k)—but unions have blocked them. They now want voters to rewrite the state constitution so pension reform would be all but impossible.

A column about the corrupt system in Illinois:

Illinois’s government, says [Gov.] Rauner, “is run for the benefit of its employees.” Increasingly, it is run for their benefit when they retire. Pension promises [are] unfunded by at least $113 billion… The government is so thoroughly unionized (22 unions represent almost all government employees), that “I can’t,” Rauner says, “turn on a light switch without permission.” He exaggerates, somewhat, but the process of trying to fire someone is a career, not an option. …high-tax Illinois will continue bleeding population and businesses, but with one contented cohort — the Democratic political class, for whom the system is working quite well.

The crux of the problem is that most state and local governments have “defined-benefit” plans for bureaucrats, which means that taxpayers are on the hook to provide retiring bureaucrats a specific amount of benefits (not just retirement income, but other goodies such as health care) based on formulas that count years in the workforce, highest salary levels, and other factors. That may not sound totally unreasonable, but politicians realize they can buy votes by cutting deals with government unions and providing retirement benefits that are extremely generous, especially compared to what’s available for workers in the private sector.

But that’s simply one part of the problem. The other part of the problem is the employers with defined-benefit plans (usually referred to as “DB plans”) are supposed to set aside money in investment funds so that there’s a growing pool of assets that can be used to pay for the lavish benefits promised to the bureaucracy. But as we’ve already learned, politicians often are reluctant to take this step. They like committing lots of future money to bureaucrats, but when putting together annual budgets, they generally can buy more votes by allocating money to things like schools and roads rather than depositing money into a pension fund.

So the net result is that there’s a big unfunded liability, meaning that the amount that politicians have promised to give bureaucrats is larger than what’s set aside in the pension funds. And to make matters worse, the pension funds usually have dodgy accounting (they assume the investments will earn more money than is realistic). Which is why the actual shortfall is about $5.2 trillion, as noted above.

Given this ticking time bomb, some of you may be wondering why the title says there’s a libertarian quandary. Surely the answer is to cauterize this fiscal wound with immediate cuts and to avoid an even bigger long-run disaster by shifting newly hired bureaucrats to a defined-contribution system such as IRAs or 401(k)s. This type of reform automatically eliminates any liability for taxpayers since retirement benefits for bureaucrats would be solely a function of contributions to retirement accounts and the investment performance of those funds (most state and local bureaucrats also are part of the Social Security system).

Yes, that is the answer, but the quandary (to add to my collection) is whether the federal government should force, or even encourage, this type of reform. Don’t state and local governments, after all, have the right to make stupid decisions?

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Ed Bachrach argues that Uncle Sam should limit these suicidal policies.

The pensions of states and local governments are, collectively, trillions of dollars in the hole. This debt is crippling budgets and will dump an enormous burden on future generations. Yet state and local politicians have proven that they cannot, or will not, solve the problem. The federal government ought to step in. But how? Instead of bailing out these pensions, Congress should pass a law allowing states and local governments to reduce promised benefits—something that is now illegal under some states’ statutes or constitutions. …Many pensions allow retirement at age 55; states and local governments could mandate that benefits cannot be drawn until age 65. Payments could be capped at 150% of the median income in the local jurisdiction. Automatic cost-of-living increases that now exceed expected inflation could instead be tied to increases in the median income. …Local governments must also be required to terminate their defined-benefit plans. These should be replaced with defined-contribution plans, like 401(k)s or 403(b)s… Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) proposed withholding federal aid to government entities that don’t accurately report pension funding. That would be a step forward but would not solve the problem of underfunding.

I obviously agree that there should be no bailouts, but I’m still not convinced that Washington should mandate good policy by state and local governments.

Federalism means the freedom to adopt good policy…but also the leeway to commit fiscal suicide.

Though Andrew Biggs points out that the part about accurate reporting certainly sounds reasonable.

Congress has a tremendous opportunity to require state and local government employee pension plans to accurately disclose their multi-trillion dollar unfunded liabilities. …For years, economists and government agencies like the Congressional Budget Office have called for so-called “fair market valuation,” which both more accurately calculates the value of public pension liabilities and accurately tells those plans that taking more investment risk doesn’t make their plans cheaper. …there’s legislative language already written: Rep. Devin Nunes’s Public Employee Pension Transparency Act (PEPTA), which has a number of Congressional co-sponsors including House Speaker Paul Ryan, would require state and local plans to accurately disclose their liabilities using fair market valuation. The federal government would respect state and local rights by not forcing any changes to how pensions are funded, but Nunes’s plan would require that state and local governments to tell the public – including people thinking of purchasing municipal bonds – how much they really owe to their pensions.

P.S. By the way, advocates of limited government don’t experience many victories, but there actually was a very good reform of the pension system for federal bureaucrats during the Reagan years. Yes, federal bureaucrats are still over-compensated, but it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be. Yet another example of how Reaganomics was a success.

P.P.S. Shifting to bad news (or laughable news), the hacks in California tried to argue that lavish pensions for bureaucrats boost the economy. Andrew Biggs does a great job of debunking this nonsense.

The California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) issued a report in July claiming that its benefit payments to retired government employees in 2013-2014 “supported 104,974 jobs throughout California and generated more than $15.6 billion in additional economic output.” …To reduce pension benefits for public employees, the study implies, would harm the overall California economy. …This study is nothing short of propaganda that wouldn’t get a passing grade in a freshman economics course. …the CalPERS study lacks one important component, called “counting both sides of the equation.” It needs to count economic costs as well as economic benefits. …CalPERS doesn’t create money out of thin air. Every single dollar of CalPERS benefits comes from a dollar that taxpayers or government employees contributed to the program or from the interest earned on those contributions.

Sounds like the bureaucrats at CalPERS should be working for the Congressional Budget Office.

P.P.P.S. The focus of this column is on the inherent instability of defined-benefit pension plans for bureaucrats, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the underlying issue is that bureaucrats are ripping off taxpayers. Here are some blurbs from a Reason report by Eric Boehm on how this scam works in California.

If public service truly is a sacrifice, then join me in shedding a tear for the 20,900 public workers in California who pulled down more than $100,000 in retirement benefits during 2015. …Leading the way for 2015 was Michael Johnson. The former Solano County administrator received a $388,407 pension last year. …Rounding out the top three are Stephen Maguin, a former Los Angeles County Sanitation District general manager who pulled down $340,811 in 2015 and Joaquin Fuster, a former UCLA professor who got a pension worth $338,412 last year. …Curtis Bowden, a former member of the California Highway Patrol…retired all the way back in 1947, which means he’s been collecting pension checks for 68 years, after working just 5.3 years for the state. He got $24,800 from CalPERS in 2015.

Wow, I’m not sure what’s more impressive, Getting an annual pension of nearly $400K after being a country bureaucrat or working for just a bit over five years and getting 68 years worth of retirement checks?

Seems like both of them should be part of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

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