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Posts Tagged ‘Spending Cap’

For a land-locked nation without many natural resources, Switzerland is remarkably successful.

One reason for the country’s success is pro-market policy. Switzerland routinely scores in the top 5 according to both Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom.

More specifically, I’m a big fan of the country’s fiscal policy, especially the “Debt Brake,” which was imposed when voters overwhelmingly adopted the provision (84.7 percent approval) early this century.

There’s always been a debate, however, whether Switzerland’s good outcomes are because of the debt brake, or because of some random reason, such as the sensibility of Swiss voters.

Three academic economists, Michele Salvi, Christoph Schaltegger, and Lukas Schmid, investigated this issue in a study for Kyklos, a scholarly journal published by the University of Basel.

A prominent means to prevent excess debt accumulation is the use of fiscal rules. In fact,fiscal rules focus on securing solvency of governments by concentrating on the intertemporal budget constraint. …there is a strong positive association between constrained fiscal discretion and improved fiscal performance. …Our paper presents evidence on the effect of a fiscal rule with a strict enforcement mechanism… We analyze the consequences of the centrally imposed balanced budget rule on public debt in Switzerland. …the Swiss debt containment rule stands out as a clearly defined fiscal rule with a constitutional basis that constrains deviating from a balanced budget in the long-term. …The rule consists of a simple mechanism stating that expenditure may not exceed revenues over the course of an economic cycle. …The debt containment rule brings a“top-down”element into the budgeting process, which has a strong disciplinary appeal and leads to more accurate budgeting. …one key aspect is the fact that the debt containment rule sets a clear expenditure ceiling.

The key parts from the above excerpt are “expenditure may not exceed” and “clear expenditure ceiling.”

Those statements ratify my oft-made point that the debt brake is really a spending cap. And spending caps are far and away the only effective macro-fiscal rule.

The policy certainly has generated good results for Switzerland. Here’s what the authors found when thy crunched numbers to compare the country’s current fiscal trajectory with what would have happened without a spending cap.

To construct the counterfactual outcome of the debt ratio for Switzerland without a debt containment rule, we select a control group…countries expected to be driven by a similar structural process as Switzerland. …Due to the availability of comprehensive debt data, the observation period is restricted to last from 1980 until 2010. …we divide the time period into a pre-treatment period from 1980 to 2002 and a postintervention period from 2003 to 2010. …Figure 2 displays the central government debt ratio for Switzerland and its synthetic counterpart during the study period. …In 2003, the two debt ratio curves start to diverge. …it appears that the introduction of the debt containment rule led to a substantial and persistent decrease in the debt ratio in Switzerland.

And here’s the relevant set of charts from the study.

Here’s one more sentence I want to cite since it echoes the argument I’ve made to my Keynesian friends about how they also should support a Swiss-style spending cap.

The debt containment rule has made a significant contribution to switching from a procyclical to a cyclically appropriate fiscal policy.

Simply stated, the political tradeoff embedded in the debt brake is that politicians get to modestly increase spending during a downturn, even though revenues are falling, but they also can only enact modest spending increases during growth years, even if revenue is growing much faster.

By the way, you will have noticed that the study focused on how the debt brake helped to reduce red ink.

Regular readers know that I’m far more interested in focusing on the real fiscal problem, which is excessive government spending.

So I’ll close by looking at some additional evidence from Switzerland. Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing that the growth rate of spending fell sharply after the debt brake was adopted.

I looked at the 2003-2010 period, since it matched the years in the study discussed above.

But I also calculated the spending growth rate for 2003-2019 and confirmed that the debt brake’s success hasn’t just been a temporary phenomenon.

P.S. Click here for a short presentation on the debt brake, as well as similar presentations on Hong Kong’s spending cap and Colorado’s TABOR spending cap.

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The good news is that there will be a record reduction next year in the burden of government spending. Unfortunately, the bad news is that this reduction will only occur because of gigantic spending increases this year.

In this webinar, I explain how fiscal policy is being affected by coronavirus, and then explain why a spending cap is the way to restore fiscal sanity.

You can watch the full webinar, organized by Lebanon’s Modern University for Business and Science, by clicking here.

But if you don’t want to watch the entire event, or even my 11-minute presentation, all you really need to understand is that red ink is exploding this year. Not just in the United States, but in other nations as well.

The fiscal wreckage, as illustrated in this chart I shared for the audience, is greater than the world experienced during the financial crisis/great recession.

For what it’s worth, I wish the chart specified how much of the debt is caused by additional spending and how much is caused by declining tax revenues.

It’s also worth noting that these numbers will probably deteriorate even further over the next few months. Politicians are likely to approve more handouts and subsidies. And if there’s not a rapid economic recovery (I express doubt about that outcome in my remarks), tax revenue will continue to fall far short of baseline estimates.

The sad reality is that we don’t know the full degree of the coronavirus-caused fiscal wreckage. That being said, it’s safe to assume that – sooner or later – there will be a big debate in Washington over how to reverse the damage. And in other nations as well.

In my presentation, I explained why a Swiss-style spending cap is the right approach. In other words, simply impose a limit so that government grows slower than the private economy – i.e., fiscal policy’s Golden Rule.

I’d like to be able to specifically show how a spending cap would undo the current mess, but that’s not possible because we can only make wild guesses about the full extent of the fiscal fallout.

That being said, I’ll share two pieces of evidence to show the value of a spending cap.

First, here’s an estimate I prepared earlier this year to show how America’s fiscal situation would have been much stronger today if a spending cap had been imposed back in 2000.

Needless to say, it would have been nice if the U.S. had big surpluses when the coronavirus hit.

Our second piece of evidence is the experience of the U.S., France, and the U.K. in the decades before World War I.

All three nations had enormous debt burdens as a result of previous conflicts.

And all three countries dramatically reduced debt by using the same strategy of long-run spending restraint.

The bottom line is that spending restraint has worked in the past and it can work in the future.

Unfortunately, I doubt that either Donald Trump or Joe Biden is interested in that approach.

P.S. One thing we can say for certain is that responding with tax increases almost surely will make a bad situation even worse.

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As explained in this short video, a spending cap limits how fast a government’s budget can grow each year.

That’s a very sensible approach, sort of like having a speed limit in a school zone, and even left-leaning international bureaucracies have concluded it’s the best fiscal rule.

That being said, not all spending caps are created equal. A fiscal rule that allows continuous increases in the burden of government spending is akin to an excessive speed limit on the road in front of an elementary school.

At a minimum, a spending cap should keep the spending burden constant (relative to the economy’s productive sector). Even better, a spending cap should fulfill the Golden Rule of fiscal policy by slowly but surely reducing the size of government.

Let’s learn from a real-world example.

Ben Wilterdink, a Visiting Fellow with the Alaska Policy Forum, explains for readers of the Peninsula Clarion that the state has a spending cap, but one that is set too high.

Alaska is in the midst of a perfect fiscal storm. …Even before the present crisis, our state faced large budget deficits and tough decisions about how to make ends meet. …That’s why adopting a functional limit on the growth in state spending is essential for long-term economic success. …a functional limit in the growth of state spending decreases the temptation to dramatically increase spending when economic times are good, creating new budget expectations that are difficult to maintain during inevitable economic downturns… Technically, Alaska already has a constitutional spending cap in place, but the formula used renders it basically meaningless. …While Alaskans can’t retroactively adopt a meaningful spending limit, we can ensure that those economic benefits are captured going forward.

So why is a spending cap now an important issue?

Because the state relies overwhelmingly on energy taxes, which are very cyclical, and the drop in oil prices is putting pressure on state finances.

This isn’t an overnight phenomenon. Here’s some of what Henry Olsen wrote last year for the Washington Post.

Alaskans have long financed their state government without paying for it themselves. Alaska has no personal income tax and no statewide sales or property tax. Instead, the state uses taxes and royalties on oil and gas producers to fund the overwhelming share of its government. …Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) told his constituents that the gravy train is over. Oil prices and production have been down for many years… Dunleavy showed the leadership that many conservatives contend is lacking in Washington and proposed slashing state spending by nearly 25 percent. Those cuts are real, not some phony accounting scheme against “projected” spending. …Dunleavy’s budget is forcing Alaskans to decide how much government they want and how much they are willing to pay for it.

The bad news is that Alaskans may decide they want more government. Indeed, Olsen suggests in his column that this may be the outcome.

That might even lead politicians in the state to do something really unfortunate, such as adopting a state income tax.

The key thing to understand, however, is that the state would not be in this position if it had the kind of meaningful spending cap that Ben Wilterdink discussed in his column.

I wrote about Alaska’s fiscal policy back in 2015 and shared a very depressing chart showing that the burden of state spending tripled in the eight-year period between 2005 and 2013.

Just imagine, though, if spending during that period only grew at the rate of population plus inflation. The state would be in a very strong fiscal position today instead of dealing with a big mess (that’s also the case for the federal government, which also deals with revenue fluctuations).

So what’s the bottom line? Here’s another excerpt from Wilterdink’s column, noting that Colorado’s spending cap is a good role model.

…the most effective is Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), which constitutionally limits spending growth to the rate of inflation plus estimated population growth. The stable budget and tax climate created by TABOR has served Coloradans remarkably well. Over the past decade, Colorado’s gross state product (GSP) has grown by 45.5%, personal income has grown by 59.5%, and non-farm payroll employment has grown by 15.8%.

Amen. Colorado’s TABOR policy is a common-sense policy with a strong track record. And Colorado voters, most recently last November, routinely reject proposals to bust the state’s spending cap. So it’s an economic success and a political success.

P.S. If Alaska (or any other jurisdiction) wants global examples of successful spending caps, Switzerland and Hong Kong are good role models.

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Back in 2012, when America had a budget deficit above $1 trillion, Investor’s Business Daily opined that America’s fiscal mess could have been avoided if politicians had simply adopted a TABOR-style spending cap starting in 1998.

As illustrated by the accompanying chart, IBD showed how a giant deficit would have become very manageable if politicians simply limited spending so it grew no faster than population plus inflation.

What makes this alternative history so bittersweet is that there are places – such as Switzerland and Hong Kong – that already have successful spending caps that deliver positive results.

Indeed, spending caps have such a good track record that even left-leaning international bureaucracies like the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have acknowledged that they are the most effective fiscal rule.

To understand the benefits of spending caps, especially since we’re now back in an environment of $1 trillion-plus deficits, let’s replicate the IBD exercise.

Here’s a chart showing actual spending (orange line) and revenue (blue line) over the past 20 years, along with what would have happened to spending with a 3-percent cap on annual spending increases (grey line).

The net result is that today’s $1 trillion surplus would be a budget surplus of nearly $500 billion.

More important, the burden of spending today would be much lower, which means more resources being allocated by the productive sector of the economy. And that would mean more jobs and more prosperity.

P.S. While a spending cap is simple and effective, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Abiding by a cap would force politicians to set priorities, which is a constraint they don’t like. In the long run, complying with a cap also would require some much-need entitlement reform, which also won’t be popular with the interest groups that control Washington.

P.P.S. We would need a spending cap of 1.7 percent to balance the budget over the next 10 years.

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When the Congressional Budget Office released its Budget and Economic Outlook yesterday, almost everyone in Washington foolishly fixated on the estimate of $1 trillion-plus annual deficits.

What’s far more important – and much more worrisome – is that the burden of government spending is projected to relentlessly increase, violating the Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

More specifically, the federal budget currently is consuming 21 percent of gross domestic product, but will consume 23.4 percent of economic output in 2030 if fiscal policy is left on autopilot.

Here is a chart, based on CBO’s new data, that shows why we should be very concerned.

By the way, last year’s long-run forecast from CBO shows the problem will get even worse in the following decades, especially if there isn’t genuine entitlement reform.

We’re in trouble today because government has been growing too fast, and we’ll be in bigger trouble in the future for the same reason.

But the situation is not hopeless. The problem can be fixed with some long-overdue and much-needed spending restraint.

We don’t even need to cut spending, though that would be very desirable.

As this next chart illustrates, our budgetary problems can be solved if there’s some sort of spending cap.

The grey line shows the current projection for federal spending and the orange line shows how much tax revenue Washington expects to collect (assuming the Trump tax cut is made permanent). There’s a big gap between those two lines (the $1 trillion-plus deficits everyone else is worried about).

My contribution to the discussion is to show we can have a budget surplus by 2028 if spending only grows by 1 percent annually and we can balance the budget by 2030 if spending grows by 1.7 percent per year.

Needless to say, I’m not fixated on balancing the budget and eliminating red ink.

The real goal is to change budgetary trend lines with a spending cap so that the fiscal burden of government begins to shrink as a share of the nation’s economy.

The bottom line is that modest spending restraint (government growing at 1.7 percent annually, nearly as fast as projected inflation) would slowly but surely achieve that goal by gradually reversing the big-government policies of Bush, Obama, and Trump.

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I gave a speech this past weekend about the economy and fiscal policy, and I made my usual points about government being too big and warned that the problem would get much worse in the future because of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Which is probably what the audience expected me to say.

But then I told the crowd that a balanced budget requirement is neither necessary nor sufficient for good fiscal policy.

Which may have been a surprise.

To bolster my argument, I pointed to states such as IllinoisCalifornia, and New Jersey. They all have provisions to limit red ink, yet there is more spending (and more debt) every year. I also explained that there are also anti-deficit rules in nations such as GreeceFrance, and Italy, yet those countries are not exactly paragons of fiscal discipline.

To help explain why balanced budget requirements are not effective, I shared this chart showing annual changes in revenue over the past two decades for the federal government (Table 1.1 of OMB’s Historical Tables).

It shows that receipts are very volatile, primarily because they grow rapidly when the economy is expanding and they contract – sometimes sharply – when there’s an economic downturn.

I pointed out that volatile revenue flows make it very difficult to enforce a balanced budget requirement.

Most important, it’s extremely difficult to convince politicians to reduce spending during a recession since that’s when they feel extra pressure to spend more money (whether for Keynesian reasons of public-choice reasons).

Moreover, a balanced budget requirement doesn’t impose any discipline when the economy is growing. If revenues are growing by 8%, 10%, or 12% per year, politicians use that as an excuse for big increases in the spending burden.

Needless to say, those new spending commitments then create an even bigger fiscal problem when there’s a future downturn (as I’ve noted when writing about budgetary problems in jurisdictions such as Cyprus, Alaska, Ireland, Alberta, Greece, Puerto Rico, California, etc).

So what, then, is the right way of encouraging or enforcing prudent fiscal policy?

I told the audience we need a federal spending cap, akin to what exists in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado. Allow politicians to increase spending each year, preferably at a modest rate so that there’s a gradual reduction in the fiscal burden relative to economic output.

I’ve modified the above chart to show how a 2% spending cap would work. Politicians could increase spending when revenues are falling, but they wouldn’t be allowed to embark on a spending spree when revenues are rising.

Spending caps create a predictable fiscal environment. And limiting spending growth produces good outcomes.

If you’re still not convinced, this video hopefully will make a difference.

P.S. Spending caps work so well that even left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF have acknowledged that they are the only effective fiscal rule.

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Last November, voters in some states had the opportunity to accept or reject some very important initiatives, including votes on Colorado’s flat tax, Arizona’s school choice system, and a carbon tax in the state of Washington.

Since 2019 is an off-year election, there aren’t as many initiatives and referendums. But one of them is vitally important. Politicians in Colorado are hoping voters will approve Proposition CC, which would gut the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) and thus allow more government spending.

Why is TABOR worth defending? Because it’s far and away the most effective and well-designed fiscal rule in the United States.

It’s basically a spending cap, which is the ideal fiscal policy, and here’s a description of how it works that I shared last year.

Colorado voters adopted The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in 1992. TABOR allows government spending to grow each year at the rate of inflation-plus-population. Government can increase faster whenever voters consent. Likewise, tax rates can be increased whenever voters consent. …The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that excess government revenues be refunded to taxpayers, unless taxpayers vote to let the government keep the revenue.

Proposition CC doesn’t fully repeal TABOR, but it allows politicians to keep – and spend – excess tax revenues.

Thomas Aiello of the National Taxpayers Union wrote last month for the Colorado Springs Gazette about TABOR. He explains why it has been successful.

By guaranteeing refunds of excessive taxes, restricting spending to sensible growth rates, and giving Coloradans the ability to vote on tax increases, TABOR has been instrumental in the state’s booming economy. …Since TABOR limits the amount of money the state is allowed to spend, surplus revenue in excess of the cap must be refunded to Colorado taxpayers. Generally, the revenue cap on the state level grows with inflation plus population increases. …TABOR is working as designed: limiting the growth of government, protecting taxpayers, and ensuring working Coloradans keep more of their hard-earned money. …since 1992 more than $3 billion has been refunded back to taxpayers in the form of lower property, sales, and income taxes.

And he warns about the adverse consequences of Proposition CC.

…in the 2019 legislative session, the Democratic-controlled legislature agreed to place Proposition CC onto the November ballot. If approved by voters, TABOR’s provision for refunds would be gutted, thereby allowing the treasury to retain all excess revenue it is required to return to taxpayers. That means taxpayers would forfeit future refunds from 2019 on. Just put that into perspective: taxpayers will send an extra $1.3 billion to the treasury than what would normally be spent. Instead of giving that money back to you as required by TABOR, lawmakers want Coloradans to forget about overpayments so they can just spend it on other things in the budget.

Writing for the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Jay Stooksbury also opines against Proposition CC.

They lied to us in 2005, and they are doubling down on this lie in 2019. Colorado voters were sold a bill of goods with Referendum C in 2005, and it is of the utmost importance that we aren’t fooled again with Proposition CC in 2019. Proponents of Referendum C originally claimed that their measure was “temporary.” The measure was supposed to offer a five-year reprieve from the constitutional limitations created by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR)… Referendum C proved to be anything but “temporary.” The referendum allowed Colorado’s spendthrift government to permanently augment its spending cap, shortchanging taxpayers on their potential refund year after year since its passing.

He explains that Proposition CC would be far worse.

If passed, this 2019 ballot measure would permanently abolish the state government’s obligation to refund taxpayers. I repeat: permanently. At least this time around, legislators have dropped the pretense that they are bluffing with “temporary” half-measures; when it comes to keeping all of your hard-earned income, these legislators are going all-in, baby. …TABOR is, unfortunately, a shell of its former self. Its effectiveness has been chipped away by a decades-long rebranding campaign that laundered tax revenue by using terms like “fees” and “enterprises.” …Regardless, TABOR is still a vital, one-of-a-kind safeguard that empowers Coloradans against the wastefulness of government. Come November, let’s be certain to keep it that way. Fool us once with C, shame on you; fool us twice with CC, shame on all of us.

I don’t have much to add to these analyses. The real gold standard for good fiscal policy is to make sure government doesn’t grow faster than the private sector, and that’s what TABOR is designed to achieve.

It’s basically the closest thing we have in America to Switzerland’s “debt brake” and Hong Kong’s Article 107.

My only contribution to the discussion is this chart, based on data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, showing how Coloradans now enjoy more than $4,000 of additional personal income compared to the national average – up from just $526 when TABOR was enacted.

While it’s impossible to precisely explain why income has grown faster in Colorado, I don’t think it is a coincidence that the state gets high scores for economic liberty.

P.S. To see the real-world impact of TABOR, look at what happened after pot legalization produced additional tax revenue.

P.P.S. I’m also paying close attention to Proposition 4 in Texas, which would amend the state constitution to prohibit consideration of a personal income tax.

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Spending caps are the most effective way of fulfilling my Golden Rule for fiscal policy.

And we have good evidence for this approach, as I explain in this FreedomWorks discussion.

I also discuss tax competition in the interview, as well as other topics. You can watch the entire discussion by clicking here.

But I’m sharing the part about spending caps because it fits perfectly with some new research from Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon of the Mercatus Center.

They point out that America faces a grim fiscal future, but suggest that fiscal rules may be part of the solution.

…the federal budget process as it exists today has proven inadequate…it is a great way to enable politicians to do what they want to do (cater to interest groups) while avoiding what they don’t want to do (living within their means). …The negative consequence emerging from this chaos and the resulting failure to follow budget rules is an unremitting expansion of the size and scope of government… With countries around the world experiencing growing debt-to-GDP ratios, resultant stagnation in economic growth, and, in extreme cases, default on debts, academics have been paying an increasing amount of attention to the potential of rules toward restraining unsustainable deficit spending. …The good news is that the evidence suggests that these fiscal rules are broadly effective at restraining deficit spending. …The bad news is that not all fiscal rules are effective in restraining government profligacy and curtailing debt growth.

The authors are right. Some fiscal rules don’t work very well.

As I stated in the interview, balanced budget requirements tend to be ineffective.

Spending caps, by contrast, have a decent track record.

The Mercatus study looks at Hong Kong.

Hong Kong…might actually represent the gold standard of good fiscal policy. …Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary, Mr. John Tsang, explained, “Our commitment to small government demands strong fiscal discipline. . . . It is my responsibility to keep expenditure growth commensurate with growth in our GDP.” …in Hong Kong it’s actually a constitutional requirement: Article 107 requires that the government should strive to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficit, and more importantly, make sure government spending doesn’t grow faster than the growth of the economy. …Hong Kong’s spending-to-GDP ratio has fluctuated between 14 and 20 percent since the 1990s, its debt as a share of GDP is zero, social welfare spending remains steady at less than 3 percent of GDP.

Amen.

I’ve also praised Hong Kong’s fiscal policy.

Now let’s look at what the authors wrote about Switzerland.

Swiss politicians are not allowed to increase spending faster than average revenue growth over a multiyear period (as calculated by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance), which confines spending growth to a rate no higher than the rate of inflation plus population growth. The Swiss debt brake rule is significant in that it appeals to economists and policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Advocates for fiscal restraint support this rule because it is effectively a spending cap, while social democrats support the rule as it allows for deficit spending during recessionary periods. …There’s no arguing with the results: Annual spending growth fell from an average of 4.3 percent to 2.5 percent since the rule was implemented. Also, in 10 out of the past 14 years, Switzerland has had budget surpluses, while deficits have remained rare and small… At the same time, the Swiss debt-to-GDP ratio has fallen from almost 60 percent in 2003 to around 42 percent in 2017.

Once again, I say amen.

Switzerland’s spending cap is a big success.

Here’s Figure 1 from the study, which shows a big drop in Swiss government debt. I’ve augmented the chart with OECD data to focus on something even more important – which is that the burden of spending (which started very low by European standards) has declined since the debt brake was implemented.

Last but not least, let’s look at the Danish example.

In 2014 Denmark implemented The Budget Act to ensure more efficient management of public expenditures. The act is aimed at ensuring a balance or surplus on the general government balance sheet, as well as appropriate expenditure management at all levels of government. In practice, the rule sets a limit of 0.5 percent of GDP on the structural budget deficit. Policymakers decided that managing fiscal policy on the basis of a balanced structural budget would lead to an appropriate fiscal position in the long term. They also designed the system to take discretion out of their own hands by making the cuts automatic. In addition to structural deficit rules, the Budget Act introduces four-year rolling expenditure ceilings. These ceilings set legally binding limits for spending at all levels of government and for each program. If one program spends under its cap, any money not spent cannot be reallocated to another program.

I guess this is time for a triple-amen.

Here’s Figure 2 from the study, which I’ve also augmented to highlight the most important success of Denmark’s policy of spending restraint.

The economic case for spending caps is ironclad.

The problem is that it’s an uphill climb from a political perspective.

Politicians prefer legislative spending caps. After all (as we saw in 2013, 2015, 2018, and this year), those can be evaded with a simple majority, so long as there’s a profligate president who approves higher spending levels.

And those caps have never applied to entitlements, which are the part of the budget that eventually will bankrupt the nation.

So why would public choice-motivated lawmakers actually allow a serious and comprehensive spending cap to become part of the Constitution?

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I point out in this interview that the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) was the only big victory for taxpayers this century. It imposed spending caps on discretionary spending and led to a sequester in early 2013, which was Barack Obama’s biggest defeat.

The bad news is that the BCA is merely legislation. That means politicians can conspire to bust the spending caps – which is what they did at the end of 2013, as well as in 2015, 2018, and again this year.

This most recent deal may be the worst of the worst. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) shows that it brings discretionary spending almost up to the level we reached during Obama’s pork-filled stimulus.

By the way, the chart also shows that Bush was a big spender and that we actually had a bit of spending restraint after the Tea Party-themed 2010 mid-term elections.

But let’s focus on today.

Here’s one more chart from CRFB. It shows that Trump is doing a good job of impersonating Obama with huge, across-the-board spending increases.

These charts show why I’m so depressed. And let’s not forget that they are only measures of discretionary spending. The outlook for entitlement spending is even worse!

In other words, we’re on the path to fiscal crisis. Is there a solution?

Yes, we could adopt constitutional restraints on the growth of government. I mentioned Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights in the interview, as well as the “debt brake” in Switzerland.

But there’s zero chance that today’s crop of politicians will enact this kind of sensible reform. We’ll probably have to wait until a crisis occurs. At which point it may be too late.

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The Congressional Budget Office just released its new long-run fiscal forecast.

Most observers immediately looked at the estimates for deficits and debt. Those numbers are important, especially since America has an aging population, but they should be viewed as secondary.

What really matters are the trends for both taxes and spending.

Here are the three things that you need to know.

First, America’s tax burden is increasing. Immediately below are two charts. The first one shows that revenues will consume an addition three percentage points of GDP over the next three decades. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, our long-run problem is not caused by inadequate revenue.

The second of the two charts shows that most of the increase is due to “real bracket creep,” which is what happens when people earn more income and wind up having to pay higher tax rates.

So even if Congress extends the “Cadillac tax” on health premiums and extends all the temporary provisions of the 2017 Tax Act, the aggregate tax burden will increase.

Second, the spending burden is growing even faster than the tax burden.

And if you look closely at the top section of Figure 1-7, you’ll see that the big problems are the entitlements for health care (i.e., Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare).

By the way, the lower section of Figure 1-7 shows that corporate tax revenues are projected to average about 1.3 percent of GDP, which is not that much lower than what CBO projected (about 1.7 percent of GDP) before the rate was reduced by 40 percent.

Interesting.

Third, we have our most important chart.

It shows that the United States is on a very bad trajectory because the burden of government spending is growing faster than the private economy.

In other words, Washington is violating my Golden Rule.

And this leads to all sorts of negative consequences.

  • Government consumes a greater share of the economy over time.
  • Politicians will want to respond by raising taxes.
  • Politicians will allow red ink to increase.

The key thing to understand is that more taxes and more debt are the natural and inevitable symptoms of the underlying disease of too much spending.

We know the solution, and we have real world evidence that it works (especially when part of a nation’s constitution), but don’t hold your breath waiting for Washington to do the right thing.

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There are two things everyone should understand about the federal budget.

Sadly, the politicians in Washington generally aren’t interested in sensible fiscal policy. They have a “public choice” incentive to spend more money in hopes of buying more votes.

Congressman Chip Roy, a freshman from Texas, is one of the few lawmakers who objects to the spend-like-there’s-no-tomorrow mentality in Washington.

Here’s some of what he wrote for the Hill.

…both parties appear to have reached a consensus on one major issue: busting spending caps is their solution to disagreements over spending. …Members of my party would be happy to agree with Democrats’ demands to spend outside our means, so long as they get all the money they want for defense. …The truth is Washington is all about power rather than solving the problem. It’s politically easier for Republicans to press for defense spending and Democrats to push for non-defense spending… Years of out-of-control spending and poor decision making is catching up with us.

He specifically wants to maintain the spending caps that apply to annually appropriated outlays.

Instead of wringing our hands and finding political convenient reasons to spend outside our means, Congress should stick to the caps. Doing so will force us – Republicans and Democrats – to sit at the table and negotiate—a lost art in Washington… allowing an across-the-board sequester to kick-in is more responsible than what Congress appears on track to do. …we must act now to do our job. We must stick to the budget caps.

He’s right about the desirability of a sequester.

Indeed, the sequester that took place in 2013 was the biggest victory for fiscal discipline during Obama’s presidency.

Sadly, politicians since then have been jumping through all sorts of hoops to avoid a second sequester. And the Democrats in the House of Representatives are proposing to bust the spending caps once again.

Here’s a chart prepared by Republicans on the House Budget Committee.

By the way, I’m not citing material from Republicans because they deserve praise.

So even though House Democrats are now proposing something that’s “absurdly terrible,” Republicans don’t have much credibility on the issue.

I’ll close with an observation about Greece’s fiscal tragedy.

There was no single decision that caused that country’s economic crisis. Instead, it was hundreds of short-sighted choices to spend more on Program A, Initiative B, Plan C, and Project D, along with every kind of tax increase under the sun.

And when some people warned that the fiscal orgy eventually would produce bad consequences, they were dismissed or ignored.

Sadly, American is heading down the same path. We know the solution, but politicians are more interested in buying votes than doing what’s right for America.

That includes the President. Trump has the power to force a sequester. All he has to do is veto any spending bill that busts the caps. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

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In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, the United States at some point is going to suffer from a debt crisis.

But red ink is merely a symptom. I used numbers from Greece in this interview to underscore the fact that the real problem is government spending.

The discussion was triggered by comments from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Wednesday that reducing the federal debt needs to return to the forefront of the agenda, warning that the government’s finances are unsustainable. “I do think that deficits matter and do think it’s not really controversial to say our debt can’t grow faster than our economy indefinitely — and that’s what it’s doing right now,” Powell said.

As I noted in my comments, Powell is right, but he’s focusing on the wrong variable.

The real crisis is that spending is growing faster than the private sector (Powell needs to learn the six principles to guide spending policy).

To be more specific, politicians are violating my Golden Rule.

Spending grew too fast under Bush. It grew too fast under Obama (except for a few years when the “Tea Party” was in the ascendancy). And it’s growing too fast under Trump.

Most worrisome, the burden of spending is expected to grow faster than the private sector far into the future according to the long-run forecast from the Congressional Budget Office.

That doesn’t mean we’ll have a crisis this year or next year. We probably won’t even have a crisis in the next 10 years or 20 years.

But I cited Greek data in the interview to point out that excessive spending eventually does create a major problem.

Here’s the data from International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database. To make matters simple (I should have done this for the interview as well), I adjusted the numbers for inflation.

So how can America avoid a Greek-style fiscal nightmare?

Simple, just impose a spending cap. At the end of the interview, I added a plug for the very successful system in Switzerland, but I’d also be happy if we copied Hong Kong’s spending cap. Or the Taxpayer Bill of Rights from Colorado.

The bottom line is that spending restraint works and a constitutional spending cap is the best way to achieve permanent fiscal discipline.

P.S. By contrast, proponents of “Modern Monetary Theory” argue governments can finance ever-growing government by printing money. For what it’s worth, nations that have used central banks to finance big government (most recently, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) are not exactly good role models.

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I wrote yesterday about the continuing success of Switzerland’s spending cap.

Before voters changed the Swiss constitution, overall expenditures were growing by an average of 4.6 percent annually. Ever since the “debt brake” took effect, though, government spending has increased by an average of just 2.1 percent.

For all intents and purposes, Switzerland is getting good results because it is now complying with fiscal policy’s Golden Rule.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the United States. The Congressional Budget Office just released its new long-run forecast of the federal budget.

The most worrisome factoid in the report is that the overall burden of federal spending is going to expand significantly over the next three decades, jumping from 20.6 percent of the economy this year to 29.3 percent of economic output in 2048.

And why will the federal budget consume an ever-larger share of economic output? The chart tells you everything you need to know. Our fiscal situation is deteriorating because government is growing faster than the private sector.

Actually, the chart doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. It doesn’t tell us, for instances, that tax increases simply make a bad situation worse since politicians then have an excuse to avoid much-need reforms.

And the chart also doesn’t reveal that entitlement programs are the main cause of ever-expanding government.

But the chart does a great job of showing that our fundamental problem is growth of government. Which presumably makes it obvious that the only logical solution is a spending cap.

The good news is that there already is a spending cap in Washington.

But the bad news is that it only applies to “appropriations,” which are a small share of the overall federal budget.

And the worse news is that politicians voted to bust that spending cap in 2013, 2015, and earlier this year.

The bottom line is that we know spending restraint works, but the challenge is figuring out a system that actually ties the hands of politicians. Switzerland and Hong Kong solved that problem by making their spending caps part of their national constitutions.

Sadly, there’s little immediate hope of that kind of reform in the United States.

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A balanced budget requirement is neither necessary nor sufficient for good fiscal policy.

If you want proof for that assertion, check out states such as IllinoisCalifornia, and New Jersey. They all have provisions to limit red ink, yet there is more spending (and more debt) every year. There are also anti-deficit rules in nations such as GreeceFrance, and Italy, and those countries are not exactly paragons of fiscal discipline.

The real gold standard for good fiscal policy is my Golden Rule. And the best way to make sure government doesn’t grow faster than the private sector is to have a constitutional rule limiting the growth of government.

That’s why I’m a big fan of the “debt brake” in Switzerland’s constitution and Article 107 in Hong Kong’s constitution.

And it’s also why the 49 other states, assuming they want an effective fiscal rule, should look at Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) as a role model.

Colorado’s Independence Institute has a very informative study on how TABOR works and the degree to which it has been effective. Here’s a good description of the system.

Colorado voters adopted The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in 1992. TABOR allows government spending to grow each year at the rate of inflation-plus-population. Government can increase faster whenever voters consent. Likewise, tax rates can be increased whenever voters consent. …The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that excess government revenues be refunded to taxpayers, unless taxpayers vote to let the government keep the revenue.

And here are the headline results.

Cumulatively, TABOR refunds have been over $800 per Coloradan, or $3,200 for a family of four. …If Colorado government had continued growing at the same high rate (8.56% compound annual rate) as in 1983-92, the average Coloradan would have paid an additional $442 taxes in 2012. The cumulative two-decade savings per Coloradan are $6,173—or more than $24,000 for a family of four.

However, the study notes that TABOR was most effective during its first 10 years. It was less effective in its second decade because voters acquiesced to a “TABOR time-out” as part of referendum C in 2005.

The final decade included the largest tax increase in Colorado history, enacted as Referendum C in 2005. Decade-2 was also marked by increasing efforts to evade TABOR by defining nearly 60% of the state budget as “exempt” from TABOR. …Rapid government growth resumed in Decade-2, mainly because of Referendum C.

This chart from the study shows that outcomes were much better during the first decade of TABOR.

But a weakened TABOR is better than nothing. Here’s the conclusion of the report.

The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights Amendment has worked well to achieve its stated intention to “slow government growth.” Although government has still continued to grow significantly faster than the rate of population-plus-inflation, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights did partially dampen excess government growth. …In terms of economic vitality, Colorado’s Decade-1 was best for Colorado. Unlike in the pre-TABOR decade, or in TABOR Decade-2 with its record increase in taxes and spending, because of Referendum C. Colorado’s first TABOR decade saw the state economy far outperform the national economy.

But keep in mind that the economic gains occurred in the first decade.

The bottom line is that spending caps are like speed limits in school zones. If they’re set too high, that defeats the purpose.

And in Colorado, the vote for Referendum C allowed a spending surge that made a mockery of TABOR.

But only temporarily, which is why that period was known as the “TABOR time-out.” The rules once again limit spending growth to population plus inflation.

For instance, TABOR made it difficult for state politicians to spend the additional tax revenues produced by marijuana legalization.

Needless to say, the political crowd hates having their hands tied. Which is why the pro-spending lobbies are agitating to once again gut TABOR. Here’s a clip from a local news report that does a good job of describing the current fight.

The battle actually started a couple of years ago. Here are some excerpts from a 2016 report by the Associated Press.

By 2030, Colorado’s population will grow from 5 million to 7 million people, thanks in part to a strong and diverse economy, the state’s famed Rocky Mountain quality of life, and its constitutionally-mandated low taxes. …The state’s Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, is trying to find ways to squeeze more revenue for roads from the budget, while Republicans don’t want to tamper with the fabled 1992 constitutional amendment known as TABOR that keeps a tight limit on those taxes. …Under TABOR, voters must approve any state and local tax hike. Democrats are still stung by a resounding defeat of a 2013 ballot initiative to raise $1 billion for schools.

I’m amused by the fact that the above passage starts by noting the state has a “strong” economy. Too bad the reporter didn’t put 2 and 2 together and recognize that TABOR deserves some of the credit.

Likewise, this next passage cites a leftist who acknowledges growth in the state, but pretends that it’s exogenous, like the weather.

Liberals think that’s a recipe for disaster, especially in a growing state. “What we have to stop doing is pitting necessary priorities like roads against other necessary priorities like schools and colleges,” said Tim Hoover, spokesman for the Colorado Fiscal Institute, which favors dismantling the amendment. “TABOR forces us to do that.” So far the low-tax crowd is winning. Even Hickenlooper acknowledges there isn’t a popular appetite to raise taxes, and his hopes of changing the classification of an arcane fee in the budget to free up revenue are opposed by Republicans… Republicans say the real problem is growing Medicaid spending. Colorado, which expanded the program under the Affordable Care Act, is spending about $2.5 billion on the health care plan.

Note that TABOR critics object to various interest groups having to compete for money.

But that’s exactly why a spending limit is so desirable. Politicians are forced to abide by the rules that apply to every household and business in the state. In other words, they have to (gasp!) prioritize.

Let’s conclude by reviewing some passages from a pro-TABOR column published last week in the Steamboat newspaper.

Colorado’s  has grown by nearly two-thirds since 1992, one of the fastest increases in the country. If you are part of the more than two million new residents who have arrived over this time, there are a few things you should know…the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights is responsible for much of the state’s economic success, which likely drew you here in the first place. Between 1992 and 2016, median household income in Colorado grew by 30 percent, adjusted for inflation. …TABOR helped end years of economic stagnation and laid the groundwork for the state’s future success by keeping resources in the hands of Colorado residents who could put them to their highest valued use and checking overzealous government spending. …Its requirement that excess revenues must be refunded to taxpayers has also resulted in more than $2 billion being returned to the private economy… TABOR has empowered voters to reject roughly a dozen advocacy-backed tax hike proposals.

My favorite part is when they cite critics, who confirm that TABOR is successful.

Denver Post editorial last year complained, “TABOR’s powerful check on government spending in reality has been a padlock on the purse-strings of the General Assembly.” The check on spending is exactly the point, and it still allows spending to grow in-line with inflation and population growth. If government wants more money, all it has to do is ask. Requiring consent is hardly a “padlock.”

Amen. We could use some more padlocks in the rest of the country. TABOR should be nationally emulated, not locally emasculated.

P.S. Enjoy this amusing video from the Independence Institute. It shows politicians in a group therapy session about TABOR.

P.P.S. By the way, there is a spending cap in Washington, though it only applies to a small portion of the budget (appropriated outlays). Sadly, that very modest example of fiscal restraint has not been very effective. The group therapy session in Washington, otherwise known as Congress, voted to bust those spending caps in 2013, 2015, and earlier this year. Sort of D.C.’s lather-rinse-repeat version of Referendum C.

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I wrote two days ago about how the country of Georgia has achieved impressive economic performance thanks to major reforms to reduce the size and scope of government.

Indeed, Georgia jumped from #56 to #8 in Economic Freedom of the World between 2004 and 2015, a remarkable climb.

Today, I want to focus on what the country has achieved with regard to fiscal policy.

In part, this is an opportunity to highlight that Georgia is one of many nations to adopt a flat tax. Georgia’s 20 percent flat tax not only has a single rate, but also doesn’t have destructive forms of double taxation like a death tax or capital gains tax (it also has an Estonian-style corporate tax).

But my main goal is to draw attention to the fiscal rules in Georgia. Both the nation’s Constitution and its Organic Law have provisions that are designed to limit the growth of government.

First, let’s look at Article 94 of the Georgian Constitution, which states that no new taxes are allowed unless approved by a vote of the people.

The Organic Law also has good provisions on taxation, most notably a prohibition on using a referendum to adopt a discriminatory “progressive” tax (too bad we don’t have such a provision in America!).

Here’s the part that I really like.

There’s an aggregate spending cap. The government’s budget can’t consume more than 30 percent of economic output.

It also includes European Union-style “Maastricht” limits on deficits and debt, though I’ll simply observe that those rules are irrelevant if there’s a limit on overall spending.

In any event, the burden of spending in Georgia does comply with the spending cap, according to IMF data. Though I’ll be curious to see what happens if there’s ever a serious recession. If that happens, GDP falls, which could make it politically difficult to obey the cap.

Which is why I prefer the Swiss approach of simply allowing government to grow by a small amount every year. That seems more politically sustainable. But I’m happy with anything to fulfills my Golden Rule.

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Back in April, I shared a new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that explained how poor nations can become rich nations by following the recipe of small government and free markets.

Now CF&P has released another video. Narrated by Yamila Feccia from Argentina, it succinctly explains – using both theory and evidence – why spending caps are the most prudent and effective way of achieving good fiscal results.

Ms. Feccia covers all the important issues, but here are five points that are worth emphasizing.

  1. Demographics – Almost all developed nations have major long-run fiscal problems because welfare states will implode because of aging populations and falling birthrates (Ponzi schemes need an ever-growing number of new people to stay afloat).
  2. Golden Rule – If government spending grows slower than the private sector, that reduces the relative burden of government spending (the underlying disease) and also reduces red ink (the symptom of the underlying disease).
  3. Success Stories – Simply stated, spending caps work. She lists the nations that have achieved very good results with multi-year periods of spending restraint. She points out that the U.S. made a lot of fiscal progress when GOPers aggressively fought Obama. And she shares the details about the very successful constitutional spending caps in Hong Kong and Switzerland.
  4. Better than Balanced Budget Amendments or Anti-Deficit Rules – The video explains why policies that try to target red ink are not very effective, mostly because tax revenues are very volatile.
  5. Even International Bureaucracies Agree – Remarkably, the International Monetary Fund (twice!), the European Central Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (twice!) have acknowledged that spending caps are the most, if not only, effective fiscal rule.

I touch on some of these issues in one of my chapters in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers. The entire chapter is worth reading, in my humble opinion, but I want to share an excerpt echoing Point #4 that I just shared from Ms. Feccia’s video.

There’s a very practical reason to focus on capping long-run spending rather than trying to balance the budget every year. Simply stated, the “business cycle” makes the latter very difficult. …when a recession occurs and revenues drop, a balanced-budget mandate requires politicians to make dramatic changes at a time when they are especially reluctant to either raise taxes or impose spending restraint. Then, when the economy is enjoying strong growth and producing lots of tax revenue, a balanced-budget requirement doesn’t impose much restraint on spending. All of which creates an unfortunate cycle. Politicians spend a lot of money during the good years, creating expectations of more and more money for various interest groups. When a recession occurs, the politicians suddenly have to slam on the brakes. But even if they actually cut spending, it is rarely reduced to the level it was when the economy began its upswing. Moreover, politicians often raise taxes as part of these efforts to comply with anti-deficit rules. When the recession ends and revenues begin to rise again, the process starts over—this time from a higher base of spending and with a bigger tax burden. Over the long run, these cycles create a ratchet effect, with the burden of government spending always reaching new plateaus.

It’s not that I want to belabor this point, but the bottom line is that it is very difficult to amend a country’s constitution (at least in the United States, but presumably in other nations as well).

So if there’s going to be a major campaign to put a fiscal rule in a constitution, then I think it should be one that actually achieves the goal. And whether people want to address the economically important goal of spending restraint or the symbolically important goal of fiscal balance, what should matter is that a spending cap is the effective way of getting there.

P.S. The narrator is from the soccer-mad country of Argentina, which has a big rivalry with the soccer-mad nation of Brazil. Like most Americans, I don’t quite get the appeal of that sport. That being said, I will cheer for Brazil the next time it plays against Argentina for the simple reason that it just adopted a constitutional amendment to cap government spending. If Ms. Feccia wants me to cheer for her country’s team, she needs to convince her government to do something similar.

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What could be more fun than to spend the day before Christmas reading about fiscal policy?

I realize there are probably endless ways to answer that question, particularly since normal people are probably more concerned about the rumor that the feds are going to arrest Santa Claus.

But America’s fiscal future is very grim, so hopefully some of you will be interested in some relevant new research on spending caps.

My buddy Sven Larson has a scholarly article about deficits and the Swiss Debt Brake that has just been published by the Journal of Governance and Regulation.

The first half of his article is a review of the academic debate on whether deficits are good (the Keynesians) or bad (the austerity crowd). This literature review is necessary for that sort of article, though I think it’s a distraction because deficits are merely a symptom. The real problem is excessive government.

Sven then gets to the meat of his article, which considers whether the Swiss Debt Brake (which imposes a cap on annual spending increases) is a better approach because it isn’t focused on annual budget deficits (which are susceptible to big swings because income tax revenues can dramatically increase or decline based on the economy’s performance).

…the Swiss Debt Brake…focuses primarily on the non-cyclical, i.e., structural part of the deficit in Switzerland (Geier 2011). By focusing on the long-term debt outlook rather than the short-term or annual ebbs and flows, the debt brake allows the economy to move through a business cycle without disruptive fiscal-policy incursions. …Since it was introduced in 2003 it appears to have worked as intended. Beljean and Geier (2013) present evidence suggesting that the brake has ended a long period of sustained government deficits.

Sven then cites my Wall Street Journal column on the Debt Brake, which is nice, and he then shares some new evidence about the economic benefits of the Swiss spending cap.

The Swiss economy grew faster in the first decade after the brake went into effect than in the decade immediately preceding its enactment.

And, in his conclusion, he speculates that the United States could reap similar economic benefits with a spending cap.

Should Congress manage to pass and comply with an adapted version of the Swiss debt brake, it is reasonable to expect…stronger economic growth. As an indication of the potential macroeconomic gains, a real growth rate of three percent as opposed to two percent over a period of ten years would add more than $2.3 trillion in annual economic activity to the U.S. GDP.

The degree of additional growth that would be triggered by a spending cap is an open question, of course, but if we could get even half of that additional growth, it would be a boon for American living standards.

Let’s now shift to an article with a much more hostile view of spending caps.

I wrote very recently about the adoption of a spending cap in Brazil. This new system will limit government spending so that it can’t grow faster than inflation. Sounds very reasonable to me, but Zeeshan Aleem has a Vox column that is apoplectic about the supposed horrible consequences.

Americans worried that Donald Trump will try to shred the nation’s social welfare programs can take some grim comfort by looking south: No matter what Republicans do, it will pale in comparison with the changes that are about to ravage Brazil. On Thursday, a new constitutional amendment goes into effect in Brazil that effectively freezes federal government spending for two decades. Since the spending cap can only increase by the rate of inflation in the previous year, that means that spending on government programs like education, health care, pensions, infrastructure, and defense will, in real terms, remain paused at 2016 levels until the year 2037.

Since the burden of government spending in Brazil has been rising far faster than the growth of the private sector (thus violating fiscal policy’s Golden Rule), I view the spending cap as a long-overdue correction.

Interesting, Aleem admits that the policy is being welcomed by financial markets.

As far as inspiring faith from investors, the amendment appears to be working. Brazil’s currency and stocks rose during December in part because of the passage of the measure.

But the author is upset that there won’t be as much redistribution spending.

…the spending cap…places the burden of reining in government spending entirely on beneficiaries of government spending — all Brazilians, but especially the poor and the vulnerable.

Instead, Aleem wants big tax increases.

…the amendment does a great deal to limit the expenditure of government funds, it doesn’t do anything to directly address how to generate them directly: taxes. “The major cause of our fiscal crisis is falling revenues,” Carvalho says… Carvalho says taking an ax to spending is coming at the expense of discussing “taxing the very rich, who do not pay very much in taxes, or eliminating tax cuts that have been given to big corporations.”

Wow, methinks Professor Carvalho and I don’t quite see things the same way.

I would point out that falling revenues in a deep recession is not a surprise. But that’s an argument for policies that boost growth, not for big tax hikes.

Especially since the long-run fiscal problem in Brazil is a growing burden of government spending.

And it’s worth noting that overall impact of the spending cap, even after 10 years, will be to bring the size of the public sector back to where it was in about 2008.

Let’s close by reviewing an article by Charles Blahous of the Mercatus Center. Chuck starts by noting that we have a spending problem. More specifically, the burden of government is expanding faster than the private economy.

…to say we have a problem with deficits and debt is an oversimplification. What we have instead is an overspending problem, and the federal debt is essentially a symptom of that problem. …federal spending has grown and will grow (under current projections) faster than our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The solution, he explains, is a procedural version of a spending cap.

To solve this, future federal budgets in which spending grows as a percentage of GDP from one year to the next should require a congressional supermajority (e.g., three-fifths or two-thirds) to pass. Only if spending in the budget does not rise as a percentage of GDP from one year to the next could it be passed with a simple majority.

Chuck explains why there should be a limit on spending increases.

…we cannot permanently continue to allow federal spending to grow faster than America’s production. …as government spending growth exceeds GDP growth, we all lose more control over our economic lives. As individuals we will have less of a say over the disposition of each dollar we earn, because the government will claim a perpetually-growing share.

And higher taxes are never a solution to a spending problem.

…this problem cannot be solved by raising taxes. Raising taxes…does not avoid the necessity of keeping spending from rising faster than our productive output. Raising taxes may even have the downside of deferring the necessary solutions on the spending side.

The last sentence in that abstract is key. I’ve written about why – in theory – I could accept some tax increases in order to obtain some permanent spending reforms. In the real world of Washington, however, politicians will never adopt meaningful spending restraint if there’s even the slightest rumor that higher taxes may be an option.

He concludes that current budget rules need to be updated.

…budget rules apply no procedural barriers to continuing unsustainable spending growth rates, while legislative points of order protect baseline fiscal practices in which both federal spending and revenues grow faster than the economy’s ability to keep pace.

I certainly agree, though it would be nice to see something much stronger than just changes in congressional procedures.

Perhaps something akin to the constitutional spending caps in Hong Kong and Switzerland?

Now that would be a nice Christmas present for American taxpayers.

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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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If you look at oil-rich jurisdictions around the world, it’s easy to see why experts sometimes write about the “resource curse.” Simply stated, governments don’t have much incentive to be responsible when they can use oil as a seemingly endless source of tax revenue.

From the perspective of voters, this seems like a good deal. They can get lots of goodies from government without themselves paying much tax.

This is definitely a good description of how fiscal policy operates in Alaska, a state I just visited to give a speech to the Alaska Alliance.

But everything I said during my remarks will be familiar to regular readers, so instead I want to share some state-specific information from a presentation earlier this year by Professor Gunnar Knapp of the University of Alaska Anchorage. As you can see from one of his charts, the tax burden on households is very low.

But the fact that households don’t pay much tax doesn’t mean the Alaska government is starved of money.

That’s because the state, on average, collects 90 percent of its revenue from severance taxes on natural resources.

And since there’s a lot of oil, that adds up to a lot of revenue. A lot.

Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation, looking at per-capita state tax collections.

It turns out that Alaska is actually a very high-tax state, collecting more money than 48 other states. It’s just that one sector of the economy pays the overwhelming majority of that tax burden.

By the way, notice that oil-rich North Dakota has the highest tax burden and resource-rich Wyoming has the third-highest tax amount of tax revenue.

I suppose there’s some lesson to learn by comparing Alaska and Wyoming, which have lots of energy-related revenue and no state income taxes, with North Dakota, which has both.

But for purposes of today’s column, I want to emphasize a point about the boom-bust cycle and the value of spending caps.

Let’s return to Professor Knapp’s presentation and peruse a chart showing spending, revenue, and fiscal balance from 2005-present. Knapp’s slide puts the focus on surpluses and deficits, but I want to draw your attention to the fact that spending (the blue line) basically tripled from 2005 to 2013.

In other words, politicians in Alaska were not following Mitchell’s Golden Rule, which would have required them to limit spending so that it grew slower than the private sector.

Instead, they responded to the influx of oil revenue during the boom years the same way alcoholics respond to an open bar. They had a spending orgy.

It’s no surprise that more revenue enabled more spending.

That’s why it’s a mistake to “feed the beast.”

But let’s focus on the fact that Alaska is now in the midst of fiscal turmoil and make the very simple point that some sort of spending cap, starting back in 2005, would have prevented the current crisis.

If spending was limited so that it grew by 2 percent annually, outlays today would only be about $500 million higher than they were in 2005. Given the plunge in oil-related revenue, even that might not have been enough to balance the budget for 2015 or 2016, but the state would have had plenty of money in the state’s rainy day funds (technically known as the “statutory budget reserve fund” and the “constitutional budget reserve fund”) to fill in the fiscal gap.

And this is why spending caps are so important. Governments get in trouble because politicians have a hard time resisting the urge to spend money during growth years, when plenty of tax revenue is being generated.

I’ve made this point when looking at data from California. It also applies when looking at the fiscal mess in Puerto Rico. And Greece.

But perhaps most relevant for Alaska, it’s exactly when happened in oil-rich Alberta. Politicians from a supposedly conservative party in that Canadian province also went on a spending binge when energy prices were high. But then oil prices dropped, energy-related tax collections fell, the ruling party was defeated at the polls, and a new leftist government has used the over-spending mess as an excuse to impose additional taxes.

Yet none of that would have happened if Alberta had a spending cap.

Just as the crisis in Alaska wouldn’t exist if there had been some mechanism to stop politicians in Juneau from over-spending.

Needless to say, there’s also a lesson here for Washington (one that actually was heeded between 2009-2014, but the real key is permanent, structural spending restraint).

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A new fiscal year starts October 1, and this is terrifying news for Republicans in Washington. They’re scared that if they don’t give Obama everything he wants, they’ll get “blamed” when the President vetoes annual spending bills and shuts down the government.

If this sounds like déjà vu all over again, that’s for a good reason. There were big shutdown fights during the Clinton years, a near-shutdown fight in 2011, and then another major shutdown fight in 2013 (as well as rumors of possible shutdown fights in 2012 and 2014). And Republicans ostensibly were at fault in every case.

Now, thanks to big disagreements about whether to renege on the Budget Control Act and/or whether to subsidize Planned Parenthood, it could happen again.

At least if Republicans don’t preemptively surrender.

I realize I’m a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but there’s a strong case to be made that GOPers should exhibit some backbone and fight for spending restraint even if President Obama decides to pick a shutdown fight.

First, fighting can lead to better policy.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, a multi-year period of spending restraint starting in 1995 and ending in the late 1990s paid big dividends. The burden of federal spending dropped from more than 20 percent of GDP to less than 18 percent of economic output, and a big budget deficit became a big budget surplus.

The fiscal fights in recent years (involving not just a shutdown and shutdown threats, but also sequester battles and debt limit conflicts) also led to better fiscal outcomes. There was a de facto spending freeze starting in 2010 and ending in 2014, and the burden of government spending fell during those years, dropping from more than 24 percent of GDP to 20.3 percent of economic output.

Second, it’s unclear whether shutdowns actually lead to political blowback. Yes, the polling data seems to show that the GOP gets blamed when there’s an actual shutdown in Washington, and they obviously face unified hostility from the media and various interest groups whenever they hold firm.

That being said, there’s precious little evidence that they suffer on election day.

Republicans retained control of the House and Senate after their shutdown fight with Bill Clinton, and even picked up two Senate seats in 1996.

The 2013 shutdown fight over Obamacare was followed by a massive GOP landslide in 2014, which rewarded Republicans for opposing Obamacare.

So maybe the lesson is that voters don’t really care about shutdowns, particularly if they don’t take place close to an election. And I’ll pat myself on the back for predicting  – both at the start and the end of the 2013 shutdown – that there wouldn’t be any negative political consequences.

That being said, these policy and political arguments apparently aren’t very convincing to GOPers on Capitol Hill.

As reported by The Hill, Republican leaders think the possibility of a shutdown fight is a “crisis” to be avoided.

House Republicans will huddle in a pivotal closed-door meeting Wednesday morning as they face mounting pressure to defund Planned Parenthood — including threats to shut down the government. …Boehner and his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are in no mood to reprise the shutdown of 2013. They believe another headline-grabbing crisis would severely damage the party at a time when they’re trying to show that Republicans can govern and take back the White House.

By the way, this isn’t just a fight about Planned Parenthood getting subsidies while selling parts of aborted babies.

Obama also says he’ll shut down the government if Republicans don’t give him more spending.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Examiner.

President Obama…called on Republicans to pass his budget when Congress reconvenes next month. He also threatened to veto any budget that did not increase spending. …”And if they don’t, they’ll shut down the government for the second time in two years,” said Obama.

Wow, let’s think about what’s actually going on. First, the President is reneging on the deal he agreed to back in 2011, which says something about ethics, character, and honesty. Second, his threatened veto, should it occur, is the only reason there would be a shutdown.

So why would that be the fault of Republicans?

Even more remarkable, President Obama even claims a shutdown would harm the economy.

President Obama on Thursday warned Congress not to “kill” the growing economy by risking a government shutdown this fall.

He must have a short memory (or no shame) because he made the same Keynesian-based argument that a sequester would hurt the economy. And he was wrong.

And he made the same claim about the 2013 shutdown and how it supposedly would hurt the economy. And was wrong then as well.

So what’s the bottom line?

At a minimum, advocates of fiscal responsibility should fight to protect the spending caps. There also should be a natural alliance between libertarians and social conservatives to end Planned Parenthood’s handouts.

Simply stated, some fights are worth having.

Though it’s important to understand this doesn’t guarantee victory.

The Wall Street Journal has a sober assessment of the challenge facing the GOP.

…the real GOP problem isn’t John Boehner or Mitch McConnell. It’s James Madison, who designed a government of checks and balances that is hard to overcome without the White House. …the party simply doesn’t have the votes to pass most of its preferred policy outcomes, much less to override a Democratic President.

The editors at the WSJ still think Republicans should fight, but the battlefield should be a separate piece of legislation rather than annual spending bills.

They should still fight and frame the issues to educate the public. They can even use budget reconciliation to send a budget to Mr. Obama’s desk with only GOP votes. But the project for the next 14 months should be to achieve what they can within divided government… Another failed government shutdown will make that harder.

I agree and disagree. Yes, not all fights need to be part of the annual appropriations legislation.

But unilaterally ceding the fight on the yearly spending bills would be wrong since Obama could successfully impose a higher burden of government spending.

I can understand why Obama wants to gut the spending caps. After all, they led to his biggest-ever defeat on fiscal policy.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the GOP leadership should hand him a victory without a fight.

P.S. There’s a humorous fringe benefit to government shutdowns, as you can see by clicking here, here, here, here, and here.

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