Tag: big government

The Fiscal Equivalent of Defining Deviancy Down

Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky may be the most unpopular man in Washington right now. And, as you may surmise, this means he is doing something admirable (envision Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and you’ll have the right context).

Republicans and Democrats want to rush through a bill to spend more money on everything from highways to healthcare to joblessness. Senator Bunning is simply saying that the new spending should be financed by reallocating some of the unspent money from the so-called stimulus. For this modest proposal, Bunning is being treated like a porcupine at a nudist camp, with both Republicans and Democrats expressing irritation that he is making it harder for them to buy votes with other people’s money.

I am delighted that Senator Bunning is putting some roadblocks in the path of bigger government, but this episode also illustrates how our hopes and expectations have been eroded. For all intents and purposes, Sen. Bunning is saying that if we want to waste money on A, B, and C, then we should not waste as much money on X, Y, and Z.

Even in the unlikely event that he succeeds, all Bunning will have accomplished to keep a bloated federal government at its current size, which is about twice as big as it was when Bill Clinton left office about nine years ago.

Whatever happened to getting rid of the Department of Education and Department of Energy? Who has a proposal to get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development? Are any politicians even talking about getting rid of the Department of Transportation? Or Department of Commerce? I could go on, but I’m already getting suicidally depressed.

Three cheers for Senator Bunning, but it says a lot about the era of Bush-Obama profligacy that his very modest proposal is seen as a radical idea.

Great Moments in (Anti) Stimulus

There were many reasons to oppose last year’s so-called stimulus legislation. But perhaps one of the most compelling reasons is that politicians and bureaucrats inevitably do really stupid things because the federal budget is a racket designed to funnel the maximum amount of money to powerful interest groups. Here’s a great example from a story linked on Kausfiles.com. A city in New Hampshire wanted to stick its snout in the trough in order to subsidize a water treatment plant, but eventually decided to reject the money because the local government’s out-of-pocket costs would increase - primarily thanks to corrupt rules designed to line the pockets of union bosses, but also because of protectionist requirements and a mind-boggling $100,000 of paperwork expenses:

As stimulating as it might have sounded at the time, the city recently declined $2.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for its new water treatment plant because federal wage regulations would have forced the city to pay more for the project. …the low bidder — Penta Corporation — presented final cost of $21 million with the stimulus funds and $17.3 million without. So the city said thanks, but no thanks, to the stimulus funds. “It just didn’t make sense,” said Deputy Public Works Director David Allen. “It was going to cost us more money to take the money.” Stimulus funds mandate workers are paid using Davis-Bacon Wage Determination, which sets the pay scale for workers on federal projects and added $2.5 million to the bottom line. The “Buy American” provision would’ve added another $500,000 and Allen said there would have been significant administrative costs — upwards of $100,000 — for the city to track it the way the government requires over the course of the two-year project.

A Value-Added Tax Is Not the Answer…Unless the Question Is How to Finance Bigger Government

While admitting that spending restraint is the ideal approach, Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution asks whether a value-added tax (VAT) might be the most desirable of all realistic options for dealing with an unsustainable budget situation.

Read his post for yourself, but I think a fair summary is that he is basically saying that a) there will be a crisis if we don’t do something about future deficits, b) a crisis will result in very bad policy, and c) if we support a VAT now, we will at least be able to extract concessions from the other side.

I have no idea whether there will be a future crisis, but I think the rest of Tyler’s argument is wrong.

But before explaining my position, let’s start by stating what I assume to be our mutual objective, which is to control the size of government. We all agree that there is a problem because government is too big now, and it is projected to get even bigger because of the built-in growth of entitlement programs. One symptom of growing government is deficits, which are very large today and will be even bigger in the near future as more and more baby boomers retire and push up costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Our side (broadly speaking) wants to solve the budgetary situation by restraining the growth of government. One proposed solution is Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap Plan, which would reform entitlements and curtail other programs so that the long-term burden of federal spending is reduced to less than 20 percent of GDP. Since long-term federal tax revenues under current law - even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent - are expected to be about 19 percent of GDP, this solves the budet problem  (the tax reform component of the Roadmap includes a VAT, which is a poison pill in an otherwise excellent plan, but let’s set that aside for another day).

The left, by contrast, generally wants to let federal spending consume ever-larger shares of economic output, and they believe that increasing the tax burden is the right way of keeping the deficit from getting too large. No statist has put forth a detailed plan to match Rep. Ryan, but several high-ranking Democrats have made no secret about their desire for a VAT (see here, here, and here). And everyone agrees that a VAT is capable of extracting a lot of money from the productive sector of the economy.

These two visions are fundamentally incompatible, which helps to explain why there is a standoff. The bad guys do not want to control the size of government and the good guys do not want to raise taxes. But now we have to add one more piece to the puzzle. While gridlock normally is a good result, inaction to some degree favors the other side because entitlement programs automatically expand. The helps to explain why Tyler (with reluctance) thinks that it may be best to acquiesce to a VAT now rather than to wait for a fiscal crisis.

Now, let’s explain why Tyler is wrong. First, it is far from clear that surrendering to a VAT now will result in better (less worse) policy than what will happen during a crisis. It certainly is true that some past crises have led to terrible policy, such as the failed policies of Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s or the more recent Bush-Paulson-Obama-Geithner TARP debacle. But at other points in time, a crisis atmosphere has paved the way for better policy, with Reagan’s presidency being the most obvious example.

The wait-for-a-crisis strategy clearly is a bit of a gamble, but even if we lose, we get a VAT in the future rather than a VAT today. So what’s the downside? Tyler and others might say that the future legislation in the midst of a crisis could be a vehicle for other bad provisions, but he offers no evidence for this proposition. And it may be the case that the other side would be forced to add good provisions instead. Moreover, the lack of a VAT in the period between today and the future crisis might help lead to some much-needed spending restraint.

What about Tyler’s argument that the good guys could extract some concessions from the other side by putting a VAT on the table. This is horribly naive. Even though George Mason University is less than 20 miles from Washington, and even though Tyler is a renassaince man with many talents, he does not understand how Washington really works.

Imagine there is a budget summit where politicians from both sides get together to work on this supposed deal. Here are the inevitable ground rules - and the consequences they will produce:

1. The deal will be 50 percent spending cuts and 50 percent tax increases, but the supposed spending “cuts” will be nothing more than reductions in already-legislated increases. The tax increases, by contrast, will be on top of all the additional revenue that is already exepected under current law (not a trivial matter since receipts will be $1.5 trillion higher in 2015 than they are today according to OMB). For proponents of limited government, using the “current services baseline” as a benchmark in budget negotiations is like playing a five-minute basketball game after spotting the other team a 20-point lead.

2. All spending and revenue decisions will be examined through the prism of CBO income distribution tables, and the left will successfully insist that nothing is done to make the tax code less progressive. But since a VAT is a proportional tax, the only way of preserving overall progressivity is to raise tax rates on those wicked and evil rich people and/or to massively increase “refundable” tax credits (what normal people call income redistribution). Any proposal to lower income tax rates or eliminate the corporate income tax, as Tyler envisions, would be laughed out of the room (though Democrats will offer a fig leaf or two in order to seduce a sufficient number of gullible Republicans into supporting a terrible agreement, and that might include a cosmetic change to the corporate tax regime).

3. Many of the supposed spending cuts, for all intents and purposes, will be back-door tax increases on saving and investment. More specifically, a big chunk of the supposed spending cut portion of a budget deal will be from means-testing entitlement programs. This sounds good. After all, who wants to send a Social Security check to Bill Gates when he retires? But consider how such a system actually will work. The government will say that people with income (and/or assets) above a certain level are ineligible for some or all of the benefits available to less-fortunate retirees. From an economic persepective, this is very much akin to a higher tax rate on people who save and invest during their working years. And since means testing would only generate substantial budgetary savings if it applied to millions of regular people in addition to Bill Gates, we would wind up with a system that created big penalties on middle-class families who were dumb enough to save and invest.

I’ve already pontificated enough for one blog post, so let me summarize by stating that Tyler’s approach, while not unreasonable, is about how to lose gracefully. Even if his strategy works perfectly, the result is bigger government. I’d much rather fight. If you want some inspiration for the battle, watch this video. If you haven’t had enough of me already, here’s my video explaining why the VAT is a horrible idea.

Update: Tyler has emailed to object to how his position is being characterized. He writes, “I am asking anti-VAT forces to strengthen their argument and am very clearly agnostic and certainly not calling for a VAT today.” Everyone I’ve spoken with has interpreted his post as pro-VAT, and that’s certainly how I read it, but I want to add this addendum to my post so people can see Tyler’s response in case I’m not being fair.

The Hayek Boom

Bruce Caldwell, editor of The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek and Director of the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, writes in today’s Washington Post about the booming interest in Hayek:

Friedrich Hayek, Nobel-prize winning economist and well-known proponent of free markets, is having a big month. He was last seen rap-debating with John Maynard Keynes in the viral video above, (in which Hayek is portrayed as the sober voice of reason while Keynes overindulges at a party at the Fed). His 1944 book, “The Road to Serfdom,” provided the theme for John Stossel’s Fox Business News program on Valentine’s Day.

Hayek, who died in 1992, is also reemerging as a bestselling author. A new edition of Hayek’s seminal book, “The Road to Serfdom,” was published in March 2007 by the University of Chicago Press as part of a series called “The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek,” for which I serve as editor. For over a year-and-a-half, the book sold respectably, at a clip of about 600 copies a month.

But then, in November 2008, sales more than quadrupled, and they haven’t slowed down since. What’s more, the Kindle edition went on sale in late May 2009 and is now the best-selling book that the University of Chicago Press has offered in that format.

I reported on the rising sales of The Road to Serfdom last July. I argued that a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Dick Armey had sent sales jumping in February. Caldwell has a slightly different answer. After noting the general concern about President Obama’s big-government program and the talk about socialized medicine, he writes:

But perhaps the biggest stimulus to sales was, well, the stimulus package. The macroeconomic analyses of John Maynard Keynes had gone quickly out of vogue in the 1970s, when a decade of stagflation delivered a death blow to the notion of Keynesian fine-tuning of the economy. But in early 2009, people were talking about Keynes again, and indeed the fiscal stimulus package, to the extent that it had a theoretical underpinning, would find one in Keynesian economics….

Because Keynes and Hayek actually did have a great debate over their rival theoretical models of a monetary economy in the early 1930s, just as the Slump of 1930 was turning into the Great Depression, it seemed natural for opponents of these policies to turn to Hayek’s writings. (For those who are interested in this episode, I recommend a perusal of volume 9 of The Collected Works, Contra Keynes and Cambridge.)

Not only is “The Road to Serfdom” still relevant in our own time, it has something else going for it, too. It is actually readable. Anyone who has tried to master Keynes’s “General Theory,” or for that matter Hayek’s rival title “Prices and Production,” will find the going pretty tough.

Not so for “The Road to Serfdom,” a book that was condensed by Reader’s Digest in April 1945, just as the war in Europe was ending. Plus, “The Road to Serfdom” is, simply put, a great, evocative title. And with 10 percent unemployment, people certainly have more time to read it.

In the end, however, I think that the underlying reason for the sustained interest in Hayek’s book is that it taps into a profound dissatisfaction in the public mind with the machinations of its government. Both Presidents Bush and Obama have presided over huge growth in the size of the federal government and in the size of the federal deficit, with little obvious effect on unemployment. Things seem out of control.

Whether it was the financial crisis, the stimulus package, Dick Armey’s endorsement, or general fears about the growth of government, I’m glad to see people rediscovering F. A. Hayek. His ideas are a good foundation for a coherent and consistent response to the collectivist resurgence that now seems to be on the defensive.

The Federal Government Is Bribing States to Create More Welfare Dependency?!?

If you want to get depressed or angry, the New York Times has an article celebrating the effort by politicians at all levels of government to lure more people into the food stamp program. New York City is running ads in foreign languagues asking people to stick their snouts in the public trough. The City is even signing up prisoners when they get out of jail. The state of New York, meanwhile, actually set up quotas for enrolling new recipients. And on the federal level, there apparently is a program that gives states “bonuses” for putting more people on the dole. No wonder one out of every eight Americans is receiving food stamps. By the way, this is not just the fault of Democrats. The ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee is a big defender of the program, in part because of the sordid pact among urban and rural politicians to support each other’s handouts. And President George W. Bush’s food stamp administrator actually had the gall to assert “food stamps is not welfare.” No wonder the burden of federal spending skyrocketed during the reign of so-called compassionate conservatism. The correct policy, of course, is to get the federal government out of the welfare business. If Mayor Bloomberg thinks it is a “civic duty” to expand food stamps, he should see whether New York City voters agree with him - and want to foot the bill.

A decade ago, New York City officials were so reluctant to give out food stamps, they made people register one day and return the next just to get an application. The welfare commissioner said the program caused dependency and the poor were “better off” without it. Now the city urges the needy to seek aid (in languages from Albanian to Yiddish). Neighborhood groups recruit clients at churches and grocery stores, with materials that all but proclaim a civic duty to apply — to “help New York farmers, grocers, and businesses.” There is even a program on Rikers Island to enroll inmates leaving the jail. “Applying for food stamps is easier than ever,” city posters say. …These changes, combined with soaring unemployment, have pushed enrollment to record highs, with one in eight Americans now getting aid. “I’ve seen a remarkable shift,” said Senator Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican and prominent food stamp supporter. “People now see that it’s necessary to have a strong food stamp program.” …The program has commercial allies, in farmers and grocery stores, and it got an unexpected boost from President George W. Bush, whose food stamp administrator, Eric Bost, proved an ardent supporter. “I assure you, food stamps is not welfare,” Mr. Bost said in a recent interview. Still, some critics see it as welfare in disguise and advocate more restraints. …The federal government now gives bonuses to states that enroll the most eligible people. …In 2008, the program got an upbeat new name: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP. …Since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took office eight years ago, the rolls have doubled, to 1.6 million people… Albany made a parallel push to enroll the working poor, setting an explicit goal for caseload growth. “This is all federal money — it drives dollars to local economies,” said Russell Sykes, a senior program official. But Mr. Turner, now a consultant in Milwaukee, warns that the aid encourages the poor to work less and therefore remain in need. “It’s going to be very difficult with large swaths of the lower middle class tasting the fruits of dependency to be weaned from this,” he said.

There Is Some Budget Good News, but It Is Actually Really Bad News

The Office of Management and Budget has released the President’s FY2011 budget and the Congressional Budget Office has released its semi-annual Budget and Economic Outlook. Much of the coverage of these documents has focused on deficit numbers. This is not a trivial concern, particularly since the Bush-Obama policies of bigger government have dramatically boosted red ink.

But the most important numbers in the budget documents are the estimates of what is happening to government spending. The good news is that burden of government spending is projected to decline over the next few years from about 25 percent of GDP to less than 23 percent of GDP.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that federal government outlays only consumed 18.2 percent of economic output when Bush took office. In other words, notwithstanding the good news cited above, the size and scope of government has increased dramatically since 2001. The worse news is that the long-run spending forecasts show a cataclysmic expansion in the burden of government. The “optimistic” estimate is that the federal government will consume more than 30 percent of GDP by 2050 and 40 percent of GDP by 2080.

Obama’s Spending Freeze: Is It Real or Is He Copying Bush?

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the Obama Administration will propose a three-year freeze for a portion of the budget known as “non-defense discretionary” spending. Many critics will correctly note that this is like going on a drunken binge in Vegas and then temporarily joining Alcoholics Anonymous. Others will point out that more than 80 percent of the budget has been exempted, which also is an accurate criticism. Nonetheless, even a partial freeze would be a semi-meaningful achievement.

But don’t get too excited yet. It is not clear whether the White House is proposing a genuine spending freeze, meaning “budget outlays” for these programs stay at $447 billion for three years, or a make-believe freeze that applies only to “budget authority.” This is an enormously important distinction. Budget outlays matter because they represent the actual burden of government spending. Budget authority, by contrast, is a bookkeeping measure that – at best – signals future intentions. During the profligate Bush years, for instance, apologists for the Administration tried to appease fiscal conservatives by asserting that budget authority was growing at ever-slower rates. In some cases, they were technically correct, but their arguments were deceptive because real-world spending kept climbing to record levels. And needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), future intentions never became reality.

Domestic discretionary spending soared from less than $350 billion to more than $600 billion during the Bush years (and rose almost another $100 billion in Obama’s first year!). If the Obama Administration proposes a genuine outlay freeze, he will be taking a genuine (albeit small) step in the right direction. If the “freeze” applies only to budget authority, however, that will be another indication we are in George W. Bush’s third term.

To attack the $1.4 trillion deficit, the White House will propose limits on discretionary spending unrelated to the military, veterans, homeland security and international affairs, according to senior administration officials. Also untouched are big entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The freeze would affect $447 billion in spending, or 17% of the total federal budget, and would likely be overtaken by growth in the untouched areas of discretionary spending. It’s designed to save $250 billion over the coming decade, compared with what would have been spent had this area been allowed to rise along with inflation. …administration officials acknowledged the freeze is directed at only a small part of overall spending, but that fiscal discipline has to start somewhere. President Obama had requested a 7.3% increase last year in the areas he now seeks to freeze.