Hillary Clinton’s Debt Promise (That She’d Definitely Break)

In the third and final debate last week, Hillary Clinton tried to flex her fiscal responsibility bona fides by vowing  that she “will not add a penny to the debt” on three separate occasions. That must mean she has comprehensive reforms to address entitlements, rein in other spending, and reduce our commitments abroad, if she is not going to add a penny to the current gross debt of $19.7 trillion, right? No, not really.

She is only promising not to make things worse relative to the current baseline, which projects the debt increase to $28.2 trillion over the next decade. To be fair, her plans would add less to the debt than Donald Trump’s, although that’s almost entirely due to an array of new taxes. Even with those hikes, the debt would increase a lot more than a penny were she to win, and neither major party candidate has put forward a substantive plan to address the problems with the country’s fiscal health.

And that’s just the projection over the next decade. The long-term fiscal picture is even bleaker. In the baseline scenario from the most recent Long-Term Budget Outlook from the Congressional Budget Office, federal debt held by the public will almost double by midcentury, from around 77 percent of GDP to more than 140 percent by 2046. Kicking the can down the road, which is effectively the plan by for both candidates in the debate due to their lack of an actual plan, would only increases the magnitude of the changes that will eventually be needed.

Clinton may have meant that her specific proposals are paid for, but even that is not accurate, as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) estimated that her proposals would add $200 billion to it, even with the assumption that she would be able to help shepherd immigration reform through Congress and attributing that positive fiscal impact to her. If she were to stabilize the debt to GDP ratio and restrict herself to her preferred method of hiking taxes on high earners (eschewing spending cuts or entitlement reform), she’d have to raise the top tax rate all the way to 61 percent, which would impose significant new disincentives and economic distortions. 

She is not promising that she would not “add a penny to the debt” or at least that can’t be what she means, unless she wants to set herself up to break that promise shortly after taking officer were she to win. She’s promising not to further accelerate our movement down the unsustainable fiscal path we’re on now, which is hardly comforting. Neither of the candidates at the debate last week has put forward any substantive plan to do anything to address the debt or our fiscal trajectory, despite what promises they may have made. 

The Perils of Financial Over-Regulation

Last Friday, I gave the opening remarks at the International Finance Corporation’s annual FinTech CEO Summit — a meeting of many of the top executives involved in developing cutting-edge alternatives to conventional means for raising capital and making payments, among other things. Because the event wasn’t recorded, I thought I’d share the remarks with you here.


I’m honored to be able to address an audience consisting of many of the world’s leading financial-market innovators. I don’t often get invited to speak on the subject of financial technology. That’s probably because the most advanced piece of financial technology concerning which I possess any real expertise is the steam-powered coining press that James Watt and his business partner Matthew Boulton designed a bit more than three centuries ago.

Still I know enough about more recent developments to realize that, so far as the future progress of financial innovation is concerned, these are critical times. Never has there been a more crying need for financial innovation — innovation to overcome the infirmities, not only of conventional private-market sources of capital and payments services, but also of the world’s official monetary systems. Yet never has the threat government regulators and their academic advisors pose to the unfolding of such innovations been so obvious.

When Civic Participation Means Shaming A Non-Voter’s Kid

This video, “Playground” [YouTube, Facebook] makes quite an impression. It shows a scene of schoolyard bullying but takes the side of the jeering, taunting mob – in the name of voting. It is one of a series of 30 second videos put out by a group calling itself Civic Innovation Works, encouraging a vote in the general election on November 8 and seemingly intended as public service announcements.  The others in the series appear to be similar in message, but lacking in this one’s outrageousness (although one does present a fantasy about publicly shaming a non-voter).  

On the off chance that Civic Innovation Works was someone’s idea of an elaborate parody I looked them up. I found that Fenton, the well-known progressive/”social change” public relations agency, takes credit for one of the other videos in the series.

So it would look as if they are on the level. It is almost as if they were trying with “Playground” to convince viewers that electoral politics makes people worse.

In One Chart, Everything You Need to Know about Big Government, the Welfare State, and Sweden’s Economy

Sweden punches way above its weight in debates about economic policy. Leftists all over the world (most recently, Bernie Sanders) say the Nordic nation is an example that proves a big welfare state can exist in a rich nation. And since various data sources (such as the IMF’s huge database) show that Sweden is relatively prosperous and also that there’s an onerous fiscal burden of government, this argument is somewhat plausible.

A few folks on the left sometimes even imply that Sweden is a relatively prosperous nation because it has a large public sector. Though the people who make this assertion never bother to provide any data or evidence.

I have five responses when confronted with the why-can’t-we-be-more-like-Sweden argument.

  1. Sweden became rich when government was small. Indeed, until about 1960, the burden of the public sector in Sweden was smaller than it was in the United States. And as late as 1970, Sweden still had less redistribution spending that America had in 1980.
  2. Sweden compensates for bad fiscal policy by having a very pro-market approach to other areas, such as trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and rule of law and property rights. Indeed, it has more economic freedom than the United States when looking an non-fiscal policies. The same is true for Denmark.
  3. Sweden has suffered from slower growth ever since the welfare state led to large increases in the burden of government spending. This has resulted in Sweden losing ground relative to other nations and dropping in the rankings of per-capita GDP.
  4. Sweden is trying to undo the damage of big government with pro-market reforms. Starting in the 1990s, there have been tax-rate reductions, periods of spending restraint, adoption of personal retirement accounts, and implementation of nationwide school choice.
  5. Sweden doesn’t look quite so good when you learn that Americans of Swedish descent produce 39 percent more economic output, on a per-capita basis, than the Swedes that stayed in Sweden. There’s even a lower poverty rate for Americans of Swedish ancestry compared to the rate for native Swedes.

I think the above information is very powerful. But I’ll also admit that these five points sometimes aren’t very effective in changing minds and educating people because there’s simply too much information to digest.

As such, I’ve always thought it would be helpful to have one compelling visual that clearly shows why Sweden’s experience is actually an argument against big government.

And, thanks to the Professor Deepak Lal of UCLA, who wrote a chapter for a superb book on fiscal policy published by a British think tank, my wish may have been granted. In his chapter, he noted that Sweden’s economic performance stuttered once big government was imposed on the economy.

Though the Swedish model is offered to prove that high levels of social security can be paid for from the cradle to the grave without damaging economic performance, the claim is false (see Figure 1). The Swedish economy, between 1870 and 1950, grew faster on average than any other industrialised economy, and the country became technologically one of the most advanced and richest in the world. From the 1950s Swedish economic growth slowed relative to other industrialised countries. This was due to the expansion of the welfare state and the growth of public – at the expense of private – employment.57 After the Second World War the working population increased by about 1 million: public employment accounted for c. 770,000, private accounted for only 155,000. The crowding out by an inefficient public sector of the efficient private sector has characterised Sweden for nearly half a century.58 From being the fourth richest county in the OECD in 1970 it has fallen to 14th place. Only in France and New Zealand has there been a larger fall in relative wealth.

And here is Figure 1, which should make clear that what’s good in Sweden (rising relative prosperity) was made possible by the era of free markets and small government, and that what’s bad in Sweden (falling relative prosperity) is associated with the adoption and expansion of the welfare state.

But just to make things obvious for any government officials who may be reading this column, I augment the graph by pointing out (in red) the “free-market era” and the “welfare-state era.”

As you can see, credit for the chart actually belongs to Professor Olle Krantz. The version I found in Professor Lal’s chapter is a reproduction, so unfortunately the two axes are not very clear. But all you need to know is that Sweden’s relative economic position fell significantly between the time the welfare state was adopted and the mid 1990s (which presumably reflects the comparative cross-country data that was available when Krantz did his calculations).

You can also see, for what it’s worth, that Sweden’s economy spiked during World War II. There’s no policy lesson in this observation, other than to perhaps note that it’s never a good idea to have your factories bombed.

But the main lesson, which hopefully is abundantly clear, is that big government is a recipe for comparative decline.

Which perhaps explains why Swedish policymakers have spent the past 25 years or so trying to undo some of those mistakes.

Surge in Emergency Department Use Persists in New Oregon Medicaid Study

One of the main arguments proponents of Medicaid expansion make, at least on the fiscal side, is that it would save money as people gaining Medicaid coverage would reduce their use of expensive visits to the Emergency Department (ED). An earlier study from the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment threw some cold water on that theory, as it found that getting Medicaid actually increased the number of ED visits by 40 percent. Some analysts postulated that this increase was only temporary because it was due to either pent-up demand for health care services, or because new enrollees did not have established relationships with doctors. The thinking was that after enrollees became familiar with their coverage or addressed long-gestating health problems, the reductions in ED use and the associated cost savings would materialize.

A new report analyzing a longer time horizon finds that this is not the case, and there is “no evidence that the increase in ED use due to Medicaid coverage is driven by pent-up demand that dissipates over time; the effect on ED use appears to persist over the first two years.” This is another blow to the oft-repeated claim that Medicaid expansion will lead to significant savings from reduced Emergency Department utilization, and the effect actually seems to work in the other direction.

The Oregon case is important because it is one of the few instances of random assignment in health insurance, as the state wanted to expand Medicaid but had funding constraints, so it employed a lottery to determine who would get coverage. 

In this new update, the researchers see if there are any time patterns or signs of dissipation when it comes to the impact of Medicaid percent of the population with an ED visit or the number of ED visits per person. They expand upon the earlier utilization study to analyze the two years following the 2008 lottery and break up into six-month segments to see if there are any signs of the effects dissipating.

As they explain, “there is no statistical or substantive evidence of any time pattern in the effect on ED use on either variable.” In the first six-month tranche Medicaid coverage increased the number of ED visits per person by about 65 percent relative to the control group, and the estimates for the following three periods were similar and mostly statistically indistinguishable from each other. They also find that Medicaid increases the probability of an ED visit in the first period by nine percent, and the impact in the subsequent periods does not differ significantly. 

Estimated Effect of Medicaid Coverage on Emergency Department Use over Time

Source: Finkelstein et al., New England Journal of Medicine (2016).

Seattle Millennials Should Move to Houston

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer says it has found the best Seattle homes for Millennials. Judging by the former paper’s suggestions, Seattle Millennials should move to Houston. Houston may not have Mt. Rainier, but it has beautiful lakes, a sea coast that is just about as nice as Washington’s (though not as nice as Oregon’s), and most important, it doesn’t have urban-growth boundaries which means it has much more affordable housing.

Click any photo to go to the listing for that property.

The P-I’s first suggestion is a 720-square foot, two-bedroom, one-bath home on a 5,000-square-foot lot. On the plus side, the living room has hardwood floors. On the minus side, the asking price is $259,950–and if Seattle’s housing market is anything like Portland’s, it will go for more than that. At the asking price, the cost is $361 per square foot.

As an alternative, allow me to suggest this 720-square-foot home in Houston’s University Area, not too far from downtown. It has new paint and an updated kitchen and, like the Seattle home, it is on a 5,000-square-foot lot. Unlike the Seattle home, the cost is just $86,500, just under a third of the Seattle house. That’s just $120 per square foot–and the sellers will probably accept a little less.

Sen. Mike Lee on Executive Power & Conscientious Electors

This weekend, I sat down with Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) for the Cato Daily Podcast. We discussed executive power, criminal justice reform, the Electoral College and this strange, disappointing election year. Here’s a portion of our discussion:

Caleb Brown: President Obama has said he’s concerned, and I have a bit of a hard time taking some of what he says seriously, he’s concerned about leaving a loaded gun around in the White House for the next President, which is, it’s almost comical.

Senator Mike Lee: That’s wonderful. If that is a deathbed repentance, it’s better than no repentance at all. I would like to see what he means by that. I hope he means the same thing that you or I would mean if we made that kind of a statement, which people like you and I do, say things like that all the time. Look, this President has, in fact, taken a lot of steps in the direction of consolidating power in the Executive Branch. And this has been one of the consistent refrains that you’ve heard from some members of Congress. One of the consistent themes that I’ve tried to follow, is pointing out to Republicans and Democrats alike, in both Houses of Congress, look, regardless of how you feel about this President’s policy, regardless of how you feel about this President’s political orientation, this is a bad practice. This is something that ought to scare the daylights out of any Republican or any Democrat or Libertarian or person of any other political stripe, because this is not American. This is not how we do things.

We don’t live in a kind of government where Presidents can appropriately say if Congress won’t act, I will. That’s kind of scary. Scary because of what it says about the consolidation of power in the minds of the chief executive, in the minds of the American public as far as they regard the executive, it’s also scary for the simple reason that in many respects the law allows them to do precisely that. Because we’ve got so much buildup from so many decades of broad, amorphous, quasi lawmaking, where we basically say we shall have good law in area X, and we hereby delegate to department or agency Y the power to make good law in area X. Well guess who controls department Y? The President, and those he chooses, who normally serve at the pleasure of the President. So, in many respects, Congress has enabled this. Congress has created this monster. And it’s time for Congress to tame the monster once again.

Brown: Is there any appetite to do that this year?

Lee: There is a strong appetite on the part of some members of Congress to do that. I don’t, frankly, sense a lot of appetite from the White House. In fact, aside from this statement which was made very recently and has yet to be followed up by anything substantive that I’m aware of, you don’t ever hear that from the White House. And shockingly, you don’t hear it very much from very many members of Congress. That is starting to change, and I’m going my best to change that, but most members of Congress have become strangely, bizarrely content with allowing for this delegated lawmaking trend to continue. And in fact I wrote a book called Our Lost Constitution, it just came out in paperback, and in Our Lost Constitution I explain that even though our Founding Fathers thought that each branch of government would have a strong, compelling interest to guard jealously its own power, what we see is that in the last few decades the opposite has been true for Congress. Congress has been eager to delegate more and more.