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Posts Tagged ‘Spending Cap’

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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