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Posts Tagged ‘Deficits’

Responding to widespread criticism of his AWOL status on the budget fight, President Obama today unveiled a fiscal plan. It already is being criticized for its class warfare approach to tax policy, but the most disturbing feature may be a provision that punishes the American people with higher taxes if politicians overspend.

Called a “debt failsafe trigger,” Obama’s scheme would automatically raise taxes if politicians spend too much. According to the talking points distributed by the White House, the automatic tax increase would take effect “if, by 2014, the projected ratio of debt-to-GDP is not stabilized and declining toward the end of the decade.”

Let’s ponder what this means. If politicians in Washington spend too much and cause more red ink, which happens on a routine basis, Obama wants a provision that automatically would raise taxes on the American people.

In other words, they play and we pay. The last thing we need is a perverse incentive for even more reckless spending from Washington.

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Washington is filled with groups that piously express their devotion to balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility, so it is rather revealing that some of these groups have less-than-friendly responses to Congressman Ryan’s budget plan.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, for instance, portrays itself as a bunch of deficit hawks. So you would think they would be doing cartwheels to celebrate a lawmaker who makes a real proposal that would control red ink. Yet Maya MacGuineas, president of the CRFB, basically rejects Ryan’s plan because it fails to increase the tax burden.

…while the proposal deserves praise for being bold, the national discussion has moved beyond just finding a plan with sufficient savings to finding one that can generate enough support to move forward. All parts of the budget, including defense and revenues, will have to be part of a budget deal… Now that both the White House and House Republicans have made their opening bids, this continues to reinforce our belief that a comprehensive plan to fix the budget like the one the Fiscal Commission recommended has the best hope of moving forward.

I’m mystified by Maya’s reference to an “opening bid” by the White House. What on earth is she talking about? Obama punted in his budget and didn’t even endorse the findings of his own Fiscal Commission. But I digress.

Another example of a group called Third Way, which purports to favor “moderate policy and political ideas” and “private-sector economic growth.” Sounds like they should be cheerleaders for Congressman Ryan’s plan, but they are even more overtly hostile to his proposal to reduce the burden of government.

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget is a deep disappointment. There is a serious framework on the table for a bipartisan deal on our long term budget crisis. It’s the Bowles-Simpson blueprint, now being turned into legislation by the Gang of Six. It puts everything on the table – a specific plan to save Social Security, significant defense cuts, large reductions in tax expenditures and reforms to make Medicare and Medicaid more efficient, not eliminate them.

That sounds hard left, not third way. But it’s not unusual. Many of the self-proclaimed deficit hawks on Capitol Hill also have been either silent or critical of Ryan’s plan.

Which leaves me to conclude that what they really want are tax increases, and they simply use rhetoric about debt and deficits to push their real agenda.

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London was just hit by heavy riots as part of a protest against the “deep” and “savage” budget cuts of the Cameron government. This is not the first time the U.K. has endured riots. The welfare lobby, bureaucrats, and other recipients of taxpayer largesse are becoming increasingly agitated that their gravy train may be derailed.

The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, but some hooligans took the opportunity to wreak havoc. These nihilistic punks apparently call themselves anarchists, but are too dense to understand the giant disconnect of adopting that title while at the same time rioting for bigger government and more redistribution. My anarcho-capitalist friends must be embarrassed by the potential linkage with these angry morons.

Speaking of rage, Paul Krugman is equally dismayed with Prime Minister Cameron’s ostensibly penny-pinching budget. Summoning the ghost of John Maynard Keynes, he asserts that such frugality is misguided when an economy is still weak and people are unemployed. Indeed, Krugman argues that the U.K. economy is weak today precisely because of Cameron’s supposed austerity.

Not surprisingly, the purpose of his argument is to discourage similar policies from being adopted in the United States.

Here’s part of what Krugman wrote as part of his column on “The Austerity Delusion.”

Austerity advocates predicted that spending cuts would bring quick dividends in the form of rising confidence, and that there would be few, if any, adverse effects on growth and jobs; but they were wrong. …Like America, Britain is still perceived as solvent by financial markets, giving it room to pursue a strategy of jobs first, deficits later. But the government of Prime Minister David Cameron chose instead to move to immediate, unforced austerity, in the belief that private spending would more than make up for the government’s pullback. As I like to put it, the Cameron plan was based on belief that the confidence fairy would make everything all right. But she hasn’t: British growth has stalled, and the government has marked up its deficit projections as a result.

At first I wondered if Krugman was playing an April Fool’s joke, but this is consistent with his long-held views about the magical impact of government spending. Besides, his piece is dated March 25, so I think we can safely assume he actually believes that Cameron’s supposed budget cutting is crippling the U.K.’s recovery.

There are two problems with Krugman’s column. The obvious problem is his unwavering support for Keynesian economics. I’ve addressed that issue here, here, here, here, and here, so I don’t feel any great need to rehash all those arguments. I’ll just ask why the policy still has adherents when it failed for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, failed for Japan in the 1990s, failed for Bush in 2008, and failed for Obama in 2009.

But the really amazing thing this is that both Krugman and the rioters are wrong, not just in their opinions and ideology, but also about basic facts. Government spending has skyrocketed in the United Kingdom in recent years. And, as the chart shows, spending is even increasing by about twice as fast as inflation in the current fiscal year. But don’t believe me. Look on page 102 of the U.K.’s latest budget.

Maybe that’s austerity to the looters and moochers who think they have an unlimited claim on the production and income of other people, but it’s hard to see how a 4 percent increase can be characterized as “brutal” and “vicious” spending cuts.

Moreover, Cameron also has been a disappointment on the tax issue. He left in place Gordon Brown’s election-year, 10-percentage point increase in the top income tax rate. But then he imposed an increase in the VAT rate and implemented a higher capital gains tax.

To be sure, Cameron’s budget promises a bit of fiscal restraint in upcoming years, with spending supposedly growing at about 1 percent annually over the next three years. That would actually be somewhat impressive, roughly akin to what Canada and Slovakia achieved in recent decades. But promises of future spending restraint (which may never materialize) surely are not the same as present-day austerity.

One final comment. While I obviously disagree with much of what Krugman wrote, he does make some sound points. Many Republicans and Democrats claim that changes in deficits and debt have a big impact on interest, for instance, but Krugman correctly notes that there is no evidence for this assertion. Nations such as Portugal and Greece may face high interest rates, but that’s because investors don’t trust those governments to pay their debts, not because the borrowing of these states is having an impact on credit markets.

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There’s a significant debate now taking place in Washington – largely behind closed doors, but sometimes covered by the media – on whether fiscal conservatives should maintain a rigid no-tax-increase position. One side of the debate features Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, which is the organization that maintains the no-tax increase pledge. The other side features Senator Coburn of Oklahoma, who is part of a small group of GOP Senators who might be willing to increase the tax burden as part of a deal that supposedly reduces deficits.

I’m a huge fan of Senator Coburn, who was in favor of cutting wasteful spending before it became fashionable. His office, for instance, releases a “Pork Report” every couple of days. But you shouldn’t read it if you have high blood pressure, because it will confirm (and reconfirm, and reconfirm, ad nauseum) your worst fears about tax dollars getting wasted.

Nonetheless, I’m on Grover’s side on this tax debate for two reasons.

First, we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem or a deficit/debt problem. Red ink is undesirable, to be sure, but it is a symptom of the underlying problem of a government that is too big and spending too much.

But don’t believe me. Here is a chart from the House Budget Committee showing long-run projections for spending and revenues over the next 70 years. As you can see, the long-run fiscal shortfall is completely caused by higher spending. In other words, 100 percent of red ink is due to government spending. So why put taxes on the table?

But this chart actually understates the case against tax increases. It uses revenue numbers from the Congressional Budget Office’s “alternative” forecast, which shows taxes steady at 19.3 percent of GDP. That’s more than the historical average of about 18 percent of GDP, which surely indicates that revenues are not the problem.

However, that 19.3 percent estimate is completely artificial. As CBO states in its long-run forecast, “the alternative fiscal scenario also incorporates unspecified changes in tax law that would keep revenues constant as a share of GDP after 2020.”

I’ll actually be delighted if we can permanently keep federal revenues below 20 percent of GDP, but I’m not overly optimistic because the tax burden is projected to automatically increase over time. And I’m not talking about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts or the alternative minimum tax. Yes, those factors would push up tax revenues (at least based on static revenue estimates), but the tax burden also is expected to climb because even modest economic growth slowly but surely pushes more and more people into higher tax brackets.

This second chart shows CBO’s estimate of personal income tax revenue based on current policy (as opposed to estimates based on current law, which includes already legislated tax hikes). To be more specific, it shows how much revenue the government will collect from the individual income tax even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent and the AMT is indexed.

As you can see, the aggregate individual income tax burden will increase by roughly 5 percentage points of GDP when compared to the long-run average of about 8 percent of GDP (the CBO estimate only goes to 2035, so I extrapolated to show the same time period as the first chart). And remember, this is the forecast of what will happen to income tax revenues even if politicians don’t impose any new laws to coercively extract more revenue.

This might not be too bad if other taxes were falling, but that’s not what CBO is projecting. As such, this big increase in revenue from the individual income tax means that the overall tax burden will climb by approximately the same amount.

In other words, revenue likely will rise close to 25 percent of GDP as we approach the next century. So if we use this more realistic baseline, we can say that more than 100 percent of the long-run deficit problem is because spending is out of control.

The second reason for a firm no-tax increase position is that higher taxes are a very ineffective way of reducing budget deficits. Indeed, tax increases generally backfire and lead to more red ink. To understand why, it’s important to put away the calculator and instead consider the real world of politics and public policy. For instance:

o  Tax increases rarely raise as much revenue as predicted by government forecasters. This is because of “Laffer Curve” effects, as taxpayers change their behavior to earn less income and/or report less income. Simply stated, people respond to incentives, and this means taxable income falls as tax rates increase.

o  Tax increases erode pressure to control spending. Why would politicians want to make tough decisions and upset special interest groups, after all, when there is going to be more revenue (or at least the expectation of more revenue)? Using more colloquial language, trying to control spending with higher taxes is like trying to cure alcoholics by giving them keys to a liquor store.

o  Milton Friedman was right when he said that, “In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.” In other words, if politicians think they can get away with deficits averaging, say, 5 percent of GDP in the long run, then the the only impact of higher taxes is an equal amount of additional spending – while still retaining deficits of 5 percent of GDP.

The real-world evidence certainly points in this direction. We’ve seen “bipartisan budget summits” several times in Washington, and the result is more spending rather than lower deficits. Americans for Tax Reform has a good analysis of what happened after the two big budget summits in 1982 and 1990, but I think the problem is best captured by my adaptation of a famous Peanuts cartoon strip.

Every year, if my aging memory is correct, Lucy would ask Charlie Brown if he wanted to kick the football. At first, Charlie was skeptical. But Lucy always managed to trick him into giving it a try. And the inevitable result was Charlie Brown lying on his back wondering why he had been so foolish.

In the Washington version of this cartoon, Democrats hypnotize gullible Republicans with ostensibly sincere promises of future spending restraint. Republicans eventually acquiesce, naively assuming that Democrats will be their new best-friends-forever in the fight against big government.

Needless to say, that’s not the way the story ends.

Ronald Reagan is reported to have said that the 1982 tax increase was the “biggest mistake” of his presidency. And since Congress never followed through on commitments to reduce spending by $3 for every $1 of higher taxes, he wryly remarked that, “I’m still waiting on those three dollars of spending cuts I was promised from Congress.”

Like Ronald Reagan, Tom Coburn wants to do the right thing. But good intentions are not the same as good policy. America’s fiscal challenge is too much spending. Government is too big and it is wasting too much money. Taking more money from the American people is not the way to solve that problem.

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Fiscal policy wonks (like me, I’m forced to admit) sometimes miss the forest because we focus too much on individual trees.

So while I think my posts on the spending and revenue sides of Obama’s new budget contained lots of useful information, I didn’t pay any attention to the elephant in the room (I’m really going overboard with metaphors, huh?).

The most important number in Obama’s budget is that he is proposing $5.7 trillion of spending in 2021, about $2 trillion more than is being spent this year, according to table S-1 of the budget.

Here’s everything you need to know about Obama’s budget, in one chart.

It’s important to make three additional observations. First, Obama’s budget is based on all sorts of optimistic assumptions and rosy scenarios, as explained by Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation. When CBO produces a re-estimate of the President’s budget, it almost certainly will show hundreds of billions of dollars of additional spending.

Second, the slope of the line if the graph is very revealing. The first two years look very impressive, with almost no change in spending, but the goal of fiscal policy, to borrow a phrase from the health care debate, should be “bending the cost curve” of government. Short-run gimmicks, to put it mildly, don’t have any long-run impact. That’s why the most important number in Obama’s budget is the $5.7 trillion burden of spending in 2021. That’s a mark of fiscal failure, and it exists because Obama’s budget increases spending at twice the rate of inflation between 2013 and 2021.

Third, many people have appropriately criticized the White House for moving the fiscal goalposts (oops, another metaphor) and focusing on a technical budget concept known as “primary deficit” or “primary balance” instead of traditional budget measures. This is an arcane issue involving the difference between total spending compared to overall spending minus interest payments. Yes, the White House is being slippery, even earning a false rating from PolitiFact, but this is red herring (there I go again) issue. What really matters is the size of government, not regular deficits or primary deficits. Too many Republicans are fixating on the symptom of too much borrowing and paying insufficient attention to the underlying disease of too much spending. This video explains further.

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President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 has been released and there is lots of rhetoric in Washington about “budget cuts.”

At first glance, this seems warranted. According to the just-released fiscal blueprint, the federal government is spending about $3.8 trillion this year and the President is proposing to spending a bit more than $3.7 trillion next year. In other words, the White House is going beyond a budget freeze and is actually proposing to spend $90 billion less next year than is being spent this year.

That certainly seems consistent with my proposal to solve America’s fiscal problems by restraining the growth of spending.

But you won’t find a smile on my face. This new budget may be better than Obama’s first two fiscal blueprints, but that’s damning with faint praise. The absence of big initiatives such as the so-called stimulus scheme or a government-run healthcare plan simply means that there’s no major new proposal to accelerate America’s fiscal decline.

But neither is there any plan to undo the damage of the past 10 years, which resulted in a doubling in the burden of government spending during a period when inflation was less than 30 percent.

Moreover, many of the supposed budget savings (such as nearly $40 billion of lower jobless benefits) are dependent on better economic performance. I certainly hope the White House is correct about faster growth and more job creation, but they’ve been radically wrong for the past two years and it might not be wise to rely on optimistic assumptions.

Some of the fine print in the budget also is troubling, such as Table 4.1 of OMB’s Historical Tables of the Budget, which shows that some agencies are getting huge increases, including:

o     17 percent more money for International Assistance Programs;

o     24 percent more money for the Executive Office of the President;

o     13 percent for the Department of Transportation; and

o     12 percent more for the Department of State.

But these one-year changes in outlays are dwarfed by the 10-year trend. Since 2001, spending has skyrocketed in almost every part of the budget. Even with the supposed “cuts” in Obama’s budget, there will be:

o     112 percent more spending for the Department of Agriculture;

o     100 percent more spending for the Department of Education;

o     154 percent more spending for the Department of Energy;

o     110 percent more spending for the Department of Health and Human Services;

o     175 percent more spending for the Department of Labor; and

o     82 percent for the Department of Transportation.

And remember that inflation was less than 30 percent during this period.

The budget needs to be dramatically downsized, yet the President has proposed that we tread water.

But even that’s too optimistic. America’s real fiscal challenge is that the burden of government spending will dramatically increase in coming decades, thanks largely to an aging population and poorly designed entitlement programs. Barring some sort of change, the United States will suffer the same problems that are now afflicting failed welfare states such as Greece and Portugal.

On the issue of entitlement reform, however, the President is missing in action. He’s not even willing to embrace the timid proposals of his own Fiscal Commission.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the tax side of the President’s budget.

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I’m not a big fan of central banks, and I definitely don’t like multilateral bureaucracies, so I almost feel guilty about publicizing two recent studies published by the European Central Bank. But when such an institution puts out research that unambiguously makes the case for smaller government, it’s time to sit up and take notice. And since these studies largely echo the findings of recent research by the International Monetary Fund, we may have reached a point where even the establishment finally understands that government is too big.

The first study looks at real-world examples of debt reduction in 15 European nations and investigates the fiscal policies that worked and didn’t work. Entitled, “Major Public Debt Reductions: Lessons From The Past, Lessons For The Future,” the report unambiguously concludes that spending restraint is the right way to reduce deficits and debt. Tax increases, by contrast, are not successful. The study doesn’t highlight this result, but the data clearly show that, “revenue increases do not seem to have induced debt reductions, whereas cuts in primary expenditure seem to have contributed significantly in the case of major debt reductions.” Here’s a key excerpt.

…this paper estimates several specifications of a logistic probability model to assess which factors determine the probability of a major debt reduction in the EU-15 during the period 1985-2009. Our results are three-fold. First, major debt reductions are mainly driven by decisive and lasting (rather than timid and short-lived) fiscal consolidation efforts focused on reducing government expenditure, in particular, cuts in social benefits and public wages. Revenue-based consolidations seem to have a tendency to be less successful. Second, robust real GDP growth also increases the likelihood of a major debt reduction because it helps countries to “grow their way out” of indebtedness. Here, the literature also points to a positive feedback effect with decisive expenditure-based fiscal consolidation because this type of consolidation appears to foster growth, in particular in times of severe fiscal imbalances.

The last part of this passage is especially worth highlighting. The authors found that reducing spending promotes faster economic growth. In other words, Obama did exactly the wrong thing with his so-called stimulus. The U.S. economy would have enjoyed much better performance if the burden of spending had been reduced rather than increased. One can only hope the statists at the Congressional Budget Office learn from this research.

Equally interesting, the report notes that reducing social welfare spending and reducing the burden of the bureaucracy are the two most effective ways of lowering red ink.

The estimation results indicate that expenditure-based consolidation which mainly concentrates on cuts in social benefits and government wages is more likely to lead to a major debt reduction. A significant decline in social benefits or public wages vis-a-vis the overall decline in the primary expenditure will increase the probability of a major debt reduction by 31 and 26 percent, respectively.

The other study takes a different approach, looking at the poor fiscal position of European nations and showing what would have happened if governments had imposed some sort of cap on government spending. Entitled, “Towards Expenditure Rules And Fiscal Sanity In The Euro Area,” this report finds that restraining spending (what the study refers to as a “neutral expenditure policy”) would have generated much better results.  Here are the main findings.

…the study assesses the impact of the fiscal stance on primary expenditure ratios and public debt ratios and, thus, provides a measure of prudence or imprudence of past expenditure policies. The study finds that on the basis of real time rules, expenditure and debt ratios in 2009 for the euro area aggregate would not have been much different with neutral expenditure policies than actually experienced. …Primary expenditure ratios would have been 2-3½ pp of GDP lower for the euro area aggregate, 3-5pp of GDP for the euro area without Germany and up to over 10 pp of GDP lower in certain countries if expenditure policies had been neutral.

There’s a bit of academic jargon in that passage, but the authors are basically saying that some sort of annual limit on the growth of government spending is a smart fiscal strategy. And such rules, depending on the country, would have reduced the burden of government spending by as much as 10 percentage points of GDP. To put that figure in context, reducing the burden of government spending by that much in America would balance the budget overnight.

There are several ways of achieving such a goal. The report suggests a rule based on the growth of the overall economy, which is similar to a proposal being developed in the United States by Senator Corker of Tennessee. But it also could mean something akin to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, but intelligently revised to focus on annual spending rather than annual deficits. Some sort of limit on annual spending, perhaps based on population plus inflation like the old Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) in Colorado, also could be successful.

There are a couple of ways of skinning this cat. What’s important is that there needs to be a formula that limits how much spending can grow, and this formula should be designed so that the private sector grows faster than the public sector. And to make sure the formula is successful, it should be enforced by automatic spending cuts, similar to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings sequester provision.

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