Archives: April, 2013

Obama’s Budget: Spending Too High, But Bush Was Worse

President Barack Obama’s new budget proposes to spend $3.78 trillion in 2014, which would be 27 percent higher than spending in 2008. President Obama believes in expansive government, and he is proposing a range of new programs, including subsidies for infrastructure, preschool, and mental health care.

However, total federal outlays increased substantially faster under President George W. Bush than they have under Obama so far. It is true that Obama’s spending ambitions have been restrained by House Republicans. But looking at the raw data, it appears that the last Republican president was more profligate than the current Democratic one.

The figure shows total federal outlays, but the data is adjusted to exclude the TARP bailout amounts for all years. The Congressional Budget Office now says (page 15) that TARP will end up costing taxpayers just $22 billion overall. Yet the official federal outlay figure for 2009 included $151 billion in estimated TARP costs. That number has since been re-estimated and mainly reversed out of later-year spending totals. Therefore, TARP must be removed from federal spending totals to avoid a distorted picture of budget growth.

The figure indicates that spending jumped from $1.86 trillion in 2001 to $2.98 trillion in 2008. That’s a 60 percent jump in seven years under Bush, which works out to an annual average growth rate of 7.0 percent. (All data cited here are for fiscal years).

Then comes 2009. Usually this year would be assigned to the outgoing president because the new president comes in part way during the year and typically does not make substantial changes to the current-year budget. But Obama took steps to immediately boost spending in 2009, including pushing through the giant stimulus bill. The CBO has reported that stimulus outlays were $114 billion in 2009.

In Bush’s last budget, he proposed that 2009 spending be $177 billion above the 2008 level, but the actual increase ended up being a massive $386 billion. So you can see that Obama and Congress were mainly responsible for the huge spending leap in 2009, not Bush.

So let’s assign 2009 to Obama and measure his spending from a base in 2008 ($2.98 trillion) to his newly proposed spending for 2014 of $3.78 trillion. Spending increased 27 percent over those six years, or 4.0 percent annually. That’s far too much, but still substantially less than the 7.0 percent growth rate under Bush.

Here is another comparison:

  • Spending growth in Bush’s first seven years: 8%, 7%, 6%, 8%, 7%, 3%, 9%.
  • Spending growth in Obama’s six years: 13%, 6%, 2%, -3%, 5%, 2%.

Partisan Republicans are probably tired of fiscal conservatives and libertarians complaining about Bush’s big spending, especially when Obama has done so much damage to limited government. But Republicans are fooling themselves if they think that the overspending problem has been confined just to the other party. The sooner people understand that overspending it is a deep and chronic disease with bipartisan roots, the sooner we can start finding a lasting cure.

Yesterday the New York Times profiled a conservative group that is embracing higher federal infrastructure spending, apparently at the behest of pro-spending lobby groups. And here is another conservative group in favor of more federal spending on infrastructure, and indeed, more central planning of it. But there is nothing the slightest bit “conservative” about nationalizing spending activities that can be done—and would be done better—by state governments and the private sector.

In sum:

  • Obama’s new federal budget—spends way too much.
  • Bush’s budgets—spent way too much and created a precedent for Obama.
  • Some conservative groups—not conservative on spending.
  • Believers in a small federal government—facing a huge challenge.
  • Federal spending—reduces freedom, damages growth, harms the environment, destroys federalism and diversity, misallocates resources, undermines individual responsibility, and is often wasteful and bureaucratic.
  • The Republic—threatened by a non-stop bipartisan spending spree.
  • Solutions to all this—can be found at www.DownsizingGovernment.org.

Still Looking for the Anti-Tea Party

Covering the budget fight and President Obama’s tepid and misleading budget proposal, NPR’s Scott Horsley reported this morning on opposition from the left:

We saw sort of the counterweight to the Tea Party on the right yesterday … protesting  outside the White House.

Big rally against budget constraints, eh? Like the Tea Party rallies such as this one?

Tea Party rally

Well, not exactly like the Tea Party rallies. According to various news stories, the rally was supported by numerous groups, including the AFL-CIO, MoveOn.org, the National Organization for Women, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. Speakers included Sen. Bernie Sanders, liberal activist (and brother of former presidential candidate Howard Dean) Jim Dean, and at least two members of Congress. 

And here’s how the AP reported the results:

Liberal lawmakers from Congress and a coalition of like-minded groups rallied outside the White House on Tuesday, voicing frustration at the Democratic president they say has let them down by proposing cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

“If they vote to cut Social Security, they may not be returning to Washington,” Sanders told about 100 people who gathered with signs that read “No Chained CPI” and “We earned our Social Security.”

I’m not sure the president should have too much confidence in this “counterweight to the Tea Party.”

Pennsylvania’s Solyndra

Another government-subsidized solar energy company is headed to bankruptcy. The latest casualty is Flabeg Solar U.S. Corp, a subsidiary of a German company. Flabeg’s Pittsburgh plant has been shuttered and its employees laid off. 

In 2009, the Obama administration awarded Flabeg $10 million in federal green energy tax credits. Flabeg also reportedly received a $1 million federal grant. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the state of Pennsylvania and Allegheny County kicked in another “$9 million in job creation grants, loans and other financial aid.” 

Flabeg apparently never had a chance to use the tax credits because it was never profitable, but federal taxpayers will likely be out $1 million for the grant. State and local taxpayers are unlikely to be as fortunate. And while taxpayers lose when government places a bad bet, the broader economy also loses when politicians redirect capital toward less productive uses (in this case, completely unproductive). 

Flabeg’s demise is a reminder that it isn’t just the federal government that’s shoveling corporate welfare. Not only do state and local government subsidize commercial interests, but the handouts are often coordinated with the feds. With Uncle Sam putting money in the pot, state and local governments can find the temptation to participate in a press release announcing the creation of X number of jobs irresistible. 

Just ask former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (see here, here, and here). 

On a final note, the head of a Pennsylvania environmental group offered this reaction to the Flabeg news: 

The reason government steps into these cases is because they are too risky to get private capital…But as with private investments, some companies fail.

Yes, private investments do fail. But as I note in a paper on corporate welfare, “Businesses and venture capital firms make many mistakes as well, but their losses are private and not foisted involuntarily on taxpayers.” 

Yay Authoritarianism!

Cato-at-Liberty readers who are enjoying—or, at least, chronicling—our nation’s slide down The Road to Serfdom will have to add Neil Irwin’s Washington Post Outlook piece, “Why the financial crisis was bad for democracy,” to their travelogue:

In a democratic society, there will always be tension over which decisions should be made by expert appointees, and which by those with the legitimacy and accountability that come with competing for citizens’ votes. The technocrats can make complex decisions quickly, quietly and efficiently. The words “quick, “quiet” and “efficient” are rarely applied to the U.S. Senate or the Italian Parliament — but these institutions are imbued with an authority that comes directly from the people, the explicit consent of the governed.

So, in a crisis, which do you want: unaccountable decisiveness or inefficient accountability?

Consciously or not, we’ve made our choice: The financial crisis and its long, ugly aftermath have marked the triumph of the technocrats…

None of this is a great way to run a society. Like most journalists, I believe in transparency and accountability. I wish the Federal Reserve’s policy meetings were broadcast on C-SPAN. Instead, we get written transcripts five years later. (That still beats Europe, where such information is under lock and key for 30 years.)

Yet, when the world is on the brink, decisive problem-solving trumps the niceties of democratic process. I won’t like it much — but I’ll take it.

Authoritarianism cannot take hold without intellectual support, and Friedrich Hayek couldn’t have described the rationale better himself. Just equally well. Almost verbatim, actually.

For more, see my paper (with Diane Cohen) on IPAB and this Cato policy forum on IPAB and Dodd-Frank. And of course, read Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom while it’s still legal.

Margaret Thatcher and the Battle of the 364 Keynesians

With the death of Margaret Thatcher, and the ensuing profusion of commentary on her legacy, it is worth looking back at an overlooked chapter in the Thatcher story. I am referring to her 1981 showdown with the Keynesian establishment—a showdown that the Iron Lady won handily. Before getting caught up with the phony “austerity vs. fiscal stimulus” debate, the chattering classes should take note of how Mrs. Thatcher debunked the Keynesian “fiscal factoid.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a factoid is “an item of unreliable information that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.” The standard Keynesian fiscal policy prescription for the maintenance of non-inflationary full employment is a fiscal factoid. The chattering classes can repeat this factoid on cue: to stimulate the economy, expand the government’s deficit (or shrink its surplus); and to rein in an overheated economy, shrink the government’s deficit (or expand its surplus).

Even the economic oracles embrace the fiscal factoid. That, of course, is one reason that the Keynesians’ fiscal mantra has become a factoid. No less than Nobelist Paul Krugman repeats it ad nauseam. Now, the new secretary of the treasury, Jack Lew (who claims no economic expertise), is in Europe peddling the fiscal factoid.

Unfortunately, the grim reaper finally caught up with Margaret Thatcher—but not before she laid waste to 364 wrong-headed British Keynesians.

In 1981, Prime Minister Thatcher made a dash for confidence and growth via a fiscal squeeze. To restart the economy, Mrs. Thatcher instituted a fierce attack on the British fiscal deficit, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy. Her moves were immediately condemned by 364 distinguished economists. In a letter to The Times, they wrote a knee-jerk Keynesian response: “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”

Mrs. Thatcher was quickly vindicated. No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures to that letter than the economy boomed. Confidence in the British economy was restored, and Mrs. Thatcher was able to introduce a long series of deep, free-market reforms.

As for the 364 economists (who included seventy-six present or past professors, a majority of the Chief Economic Advisors to the Government in the post-WWII period, and the president, as well as nine present or past vice-presidents, and the secretary general of the Royal Economic Society), they were not only wrong, but also came to look ridiculous.

In the United States, the peddlers of the fiscal factoid have never suffered the intellectual humiliation of their British counterparts. In consequence, American Keynesians can continue to peddle snake oil with reckless abandon and continue to influence policy in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

New Cato Policy Analysis on Regulatory Protectionism

Just in time for today’s release of my and Bill Watson’s new PA, “Regulatory Protectionism: A Hidden Threat to Free Trade” comes a feature article [$] in the specialist trade (in both senses of the word) publication, Inside U.S. Trade on the likely obstacles to a U.S-EU preferential trade agreement (a recent Cato event also hosted a discussion on this topic). And, in an inadvertent PR coup for us, it focusses almost entirely on how regulations and other non-tariff barriers (NTBs) in each economy might inhibit a successful result to negotiations:  

The shifting nature of domestic policies and agricultural trade between the United States and the European Union over the last several decades means that while some traditional trade irritants are no longer present, others have been introduced that will likely prove difficult to unravel in the context of trans-Atlantic bilateral negotiations. Whereas bilateral trade irritants previously centered on export subsidies and competition in third markets for commodities like wheat, now the disagreements primarily relate to non-tariff barriers (NTBs), including divergent scientific standards, food safety regulations and other issues that are hindrances to bilateral trade… But the difficulty in negotiating these issues is that, because they ostensibly relate to consumer health and safety, governments cannot easily make “trade-offs,” as they can with tariffs. Observers believe that this is the chief reason that the talks over agriculture promise to be so difficult.

Indeed. As we discuss in our paper, tariffs and other conventional trade barriers have fallen over the years, so the barriers that remain are more regulatory in nature, and more sensitive to negotiate. What we’re essentially left with is the difficult issues. They get to the heart of national sovereignty and, on a practical level, require the participation of regulatory administrators who may have very little or no trade negotiation knowledge or experience. They also have little incentive to concede their power. Whereas trade negotiators are paid to, well, negotiate, regulators are paid to inhibit commerce. They face asymmetric rewards: a huge fuss if something goes wrong, not many kudos if they remove the reins and let commerce thrive. Under those conditions, it should be no surprise that they are risk-averse. So this trade agreement will not be easy to complete. In the meantime, though, there is much the United States can do to limit the ability of regulators to shackle the economy with burdensome—and potentially illegal—requirements that limit choice and expose American businesses to retaliatory sanctions. For example, ensure WTO obligations are taken seriously and adhered to. From our paper:  

Prior to implementing a new regulation, federal agencies should be required to evaluate the possibility that less trade-restrictive alternatives could meet regulatory goals as effectively as their preferred proposal. Also, the U.S. government should not dilute or bypass the multilateral rules of the WTO through bilateral or regional negotiations that accept managed protectionism. This paper uses a number of recent examples of protectionist regulations to show that the enemies of regulatory protectionism are transparency and vigilance. Policymakers should be skeptical of regulatory proposals backed by the target domestic industry and of proposals that lack a plausible theory of market failure.

Read the whole thing here. And if you are in D.C. or near a computer next Thursday, watch our event to launch the paper.

Ohio, Missouri Introduce the Health Care Freedom Act 2.0

Ohio Reps. Ron Young (R-Leroy Twp.) and Andy Thompson (R-Marietta), and Missouri Sen. John Lamping (R-St. Louis County), have introduced legislation—we call it the Health Care Freedom Act 2.0—that would suspend the licenses of insurance carriers who accept federal subsidies through one of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s (PPACA) health insurance Exchanges. At first glance, that might seem to conflict with or otherwise be preempted by the PPACA. Neither is the case. Instead, the HCFA 2.0 would require the IRS to implement the PPACA as Congress intended.

Here’s why. Under the PPACA, if an employer doesn’t purchase a government-prescribed level of health benefits, some of its workers may become eligible to purchase subsidized coverage through a health insurance “exchange.” When the IRS issues the subsidy to an insurance company on behalf of one of those workers, that payment triggers penalties against the employer. Firms with 100 employees could face penalties as high as $140,000.

Congress authorized those subsides, and therefore those penalties, only in states that establish a health insurance Exchange. If a state defers that task to the federal government, as 33 states including Missouri and Ohio have done, the PPACA clearly provides that there can be no subsidies and therefore no penalties against employers. The IRS has nevertheless announced it will implement those subsidies and penalties in the 33 states that have refused to establish Exchanges. Applying those measures in non-establishing states violates the clear language of the PPACA and congressional intent. See Jonathan H. Adler and Michael F. Cannon, “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA,” Health Matrix: Journal of Law-Medicine 23 (2013): 119-195.

Whether legal or illegal, those penalties also violate the freedoms protected by the Health Care Freedom Amendment to Ohio’s Constitution, and Missouri’s original Health Care Freedom Act, which voters in each state ratified by overwhelming majorities. The Ohio (HB 91) and Missouri (SB 473) bills would protect employers and workers from those penalties, and thereby uphold the freedoms enshrined in Missouri statute and Ohio’s Constitution, by suspending the licenses of insurance carriers that accept those subsidies.

The question arises whether the PPACA would preempt such a law. It does not. The HCFA 2.0 neither conflicts with federal law, nor attempts to nullify federal law, nor is preempted by federal law.

The HCFA 2.0 concerns a field of law—insurance licensure—that has traditionally been a province of the states under their police powers. In preemption cases, courts “start with the assumption that the historic police powers of the States were not to be superseded by the Federal Act unless that was the clear and manifest purpose of Congress.” Wyeth v. Levine, 129 S. Ct. 1187, 1194-95 (2009). Courts then must determine whether the state law in question is nevertheless trumped by express or implied federal preemption.