Tag: big government

Obama’s New Stimulus Schemes: Same Song, Umpteenth Verse

Like a terrible remake of Groundhog Day, the White House has unveiled yet another so-called stimulus scheme. Actually, they have two new proposals to buy votes with our money. One plan is focused on more infrastructure spending, as reported by Politico.

Seeking to bolster the sluggish economy, President Barack Obama is using a Labor Day appearance in Milwaukee to announce he will ask Congress for $50 billion to kick off a new infrastructure plan designed to expand and renew the nation’s roads, railways and runways. …The measures include the “establishment of an Infrastructure Bank to leverage federal dollars and focus on investments of national and regional significance that often fall through the cracks in the current siloed transportation programs,” and “the integration of high-speed rail on an equal footing into the surface transportation program.”

The other plan would make permanent the research and development tax credit. The Washington Post has some of the details.

Under mounting pressure to intensify his focus on the economy ahead of the midterm elections, President Obama will call for a $100 billion business tax credit this week… The business proposal - what one aide called a key part of a limited economic package - would increase and permanently extend research and development tax credits for businesses, rewarding companies that develop new technologies domestically and preserve American jobs. It would be paid for by closing other corporate tax loopholes, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the policy has not yet been unveiled.

These two proposals are in addition to the other stimulus/job-creation/whatever-they’re-calling-them-now proposals that have been adopted in the past 20 months. And Obama’s stimulus schemes were preceded by Bush’s Keynesian fiasco in 2008. And by the time you read this, the Administration may have unveiled a few more plans. But all of these proposals suffer from the same flaw in that they assume growth is sluggish because government is not big enough and not intervening enough. Keynesian politicians don’t realize (or pretend not to realize) that economic growth occurs when there is an increase in national income. Redistribution plans, by contrast, simply change who is spending an existing amount of income. If the crowd in Washington really wants more growth, they should reduce the burden of government, as explained in this video.

 

The best that can be said about the new White House proposals is that they’re probably not as poorly designed as previous stimulus schemes. Federal infrastructure spending almost surely fails a cost-benefit test, but even bridges to nowhere carry some traffic. The money would generate more jobs and more output if left in the private sector, so the macroeconomic impact is still negative, but presumably not as negative as bailouts for profligate state and local governments or subsidies to encourage unemployment - which were key parts of previous stimulus proposals.

Likewise, a permanent research and development tax credit is not ideal tax policy, but at least the provision is tied to doing something productive, as opposed to tax breaks and rebates that don’t boost work, saving, and investment. We don’t know, however, what’s behind the curtain. According to the article, the White House will finance this proposal by “closing other corporate tax loopholes.” In theory, that could mean a better tax code. But this Administration has a very confused understanding of tax policy, so it’s quite likely that they will raise taxes in a way that makes the overall tax code even worse. They’ve already done this in previous stimulus plans by increasing the tax bias against American companies competing in world markets, so there’s little reason to be optimistic now. And don’t forget that the President has not changed his mind about imposing higher income tax rates, higher capital gains tax rates, higher death tax rates, and higher dividend tax rates beginning next January.
 
All that we can say for sure is that the politicians in Washington are very nervous now that the midterm elections are just two months away. This means their normal tendencies to waste money will morph into a pathological form of profligacy.

More Arguments against a Value-Added Tax

The biggest long-term threat to fiscal responsibility is a value-added tax, as I’ve explained here, here, here, here, and here. So I’m delighted to see a growing amount of research showing that a VAT is bad news. Jim Powell has an excellent column at Investor’s Business Daily that makes a rather obvious point about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of copying the tax policy of nations that are teetering on the edge of fiscal collapse (this cartoon has the same message in a more amusing fashion).

Drums are beating in Washington for a value-added tax in addition to the “stimulus” taxes, health care taxes, energy taxes and other taxes President Obama has imposed and wants to impose on hard-pressed taxpayers. Supposedly a value-added tax is a magic elixir for curing budget deficits and excessive debt. Quack remedy would be more like it. If it worked, you’d observe that countries with a VAT had budget surpluses and no debt problems. But almost every country that has a VAT is plagued with budget deficits and excessive debt. … No surprise that the worst financial basket cases all have a VAT. Iceland has the highest VAT rates, but this didn’t prevent its financial crisis and the near bankruptcy of its government. Italy’s VAT rates are almost as high, and its debt exceeds its GDP. Financial crises are looming in Spain and Portugal, and of course they have a VAT. Greece has a VAT, too, and when politicians ran out of money to pay government employees for more than a year’s worth of work every year, they rioted in the streets.  Great Britain has a VAT, and its government finances are in the worst shape since World War II — its budget deficit is expected to be bigger than that of Greece. Moreover, the OECD has acknowledged that “(VAT) tax and transfer wedges have discouraged firms from offering employment and individuals from taking it, reduced employment and increased inequality.”

And a new study by Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Cameron Smith finds evidence that a VAT would lead to bigger government.

VATs provide a significant amount of revenue. …But do these significant revenues cause government spending to grow larger? Or is it the case that adoption of a VAT is evidence of the desire for a larger government so that the causal arrow runs from a taste for Leviathan to a VAT, and not the reverse? …we find a statistically significant dynamic relationship between the rate of VAT taxation and the size of government. Although no single study is definitive, this is the first rigorous evidence that a VAT causes government to grow larger. …countries that adopted a VAT did in fact experience, on average, a 29 percent increase in the size of government. …The estimated coefficient of 0.262 indicates that adopting a VAT is associated with larger government. This estimate is statistically significant. …our results shift the burden of proof to those who deny that VATs fuel increases in the size of the public sector.

This study jumps into a long-running chicken-or-egg debate in the academic literature about whether higher taxes lead to higher spending or whether higher spending leads to higher taxes. This causality debate is interesting, but I’m not sure it really matters. A VAT is a terrible idea if it triggers bigger government, and a VAT is a bad idea if it merely finances bigger government. But I suspect this study is correct. The key thing to remember is that Milton Friedman was right when he warned that “In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.” This means that a VAT will allow more government spending and no reduction in deficits and debt, which is exactly what we see in Europe (and as Jim Powell noted in his column). Last but not least, this video summarizes the best arguments against a VAT.

New York Times Seeks Higher Taxes on the ‘Rich’ as Prelude to Higher Taxes on the Middle Class

In a very predictable editorial this morning, the New York Times pontificated in favor of higher taxes. Compared to Paul Krugman’s rant earlier in the week, which featured the laughable assertion that letting people keep more of the money they earn is akin to sending them a check from the government, the piece seemed rational. But that is damning with faint praise. There are several points in the editorial that deserve some unfriendly commentary.

First, let’s give the editors credit for being somewhat honest about their bad intentions. Unlike other statists, they openly admit that they want higher taxes on the middle class, stating that “more Americans — and not just the rich — are going to have to pay more taxes.” This is a noteworthy admission, though it doesn’t reveal the real strategy on the left.

Most advocates of big government understand that it will be impossible to turn America into a European-style welfare state without a value-added tax, but they don’t want to publicly associate themselves with that view until the political environment is more conducive to success. Most important, they realize that it will be very difficult to impose a VAT without seducing some gullible Republicans into giving them political cover. And one way of getting GOPers to sign up for a VAT is by convincing them that they have to choose a VAT if they don’t want a return to the confiscatory 70 percent tax rates of the 1960s and 1970s. Any moves in that direction, such as raising the top tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent next January, are part of this long-term strategy to pressure Republicans (as well as naive members of the business community) into a VAT trap.

Shifting to other assertions, the editorial claims that “more revenue will be needed in years to come to keep rebuilding the economy.”  That’s obviously a novel assertion, and the editors never bother to explain how and why more tax revenue will lead to a stronger economy. Are the folks at the New York Times not aware that both economic growth and living standards are lower in European nations that have imposed higher tax burdens? Heck, even the Keynesians agree (albeit for flawed reasons) that higher taxes stunt growth.

The editorial also asserts that, “Since 2002, the federal budget has been chronically short of revenue.” I suppose if revenues are compared to the spending desires of politicians, then tax collections are - and always will be - inadequate. The same is true in Greece, France, and Sweden. It doesn’t matter whether revenues are 20 percent of GDP or 50 percent of GDP. The political class always wants more.

But let’s actually use an objective measure to determine whether revenues are “chronically short.” The Democrat-controlled Congressional Budget Office stated in its newly-released update to the Economic and Budget Outlook that federal tax revenues historically have averaged 18 percent of GDP. They are below that level now because of the economic downturn, but CBO projects that revenues will climb above that level in a few years - even if all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent. Moreover, OMB’s historical data shows that revenues were actually above the long-run average in 2006 and 2007, so even the “since 2002” part of the assertion in the editorial is incorrect.

On the issue of temporary tax relief for the non-rich, the editorial is right but for the wrong reason. The editors rely on the Keynesian rationale, writing that, “low-, middle- and upper-middle-income taxpayers…tend to spend most of their income and the economy needs consumer spending” whereas “Tax cuts for the rich can safely be allowed to expire because wealthy taxpayers tend to save rather than spend their tax savings.”

I’ve debunked Keynesian analysis so often that I feel that I deserve some sort of lifetime exemption from dealing with this nonsense, but I’ll give it another try. Borrowing money from some people in the economy and giving it to some other people in the economy is not a recipe for better economic performance. Economic growth means we are increasing national income. Keynesian policy simply changes who is spending national income, guided by a myopic belief that consumer spending somehow is better than investment spending. The Keynesian approach didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, it didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s, and it hasn’t worked for Obama.

And it doesn’t matter if the Keynesian stimulus is in the form of tax rebates. Gerald Ford’s rebate in the 1970s was a flop, and George W. Bush’s 2001 rebate also failed to boost growth. Tax cuts can lead to more national income, but only if marginal tax rates on productive behavior are reduced so that people have more incentive to work, save, and invest. This is an argument for extending the lower tax rates for all income classes, but it’s important to point out that the economic benefits will be much greater if the lower tax rates are made permanent.

Last but not least, the editorial asserts that, “The revenue from letting [tax cuts for the rich] expire — nearly $40 billion next year — would be better spent on job-creating measures.” Not surprisingly, there is no effort to justify this claim. They could have cited the infamous White House study claiming that the so-called stimulus would keep unemployment under 8 percent, but even people at the New York Times presumably understand that might not be very convincing since the actual unemployment rate is two percentage points higher than what the Obama Administration claimed it would be at this point.

Congressional Budget Office Says We Can Maximize Long-Run Economic Output with 100 Percent Tax Rates

I hope the title of this post is an exaggeration, but it’s certainly a logical conclusion based on what is written in the Congressional Budget Office’s updated Economic and Budget Outlook. The Capitol Hill bureaucracy basically has a deficit-über-alles view of fiscal policy. CBO’s long-run perspective, as shown by this excerpt, is that deficits reduce output by “crowding out” private capital and that anything that results in lower deficits (or larger surpluses) will improve economic performance – even if this means big increases in tax rates.

CBO has also examined an alternative fiscal scenario reflecting several changes to current law that are widely expected to occur or that would modify some provisions of law that might be difficult to sustain for a long period. That alternative scenario embodies small differences in outlays relative to those projected under current law but significant differences in revenues: Under that scenario, most of the cuts in individual income taxes enacted in 2001 and 2003 and now scheduled to expire at the end of this year (except the lower rates applying to high-income taxpayers) are extended through 2020; relief from the AMT, which expired after 2009, continues through 2020; and the 2009 estate tax rates and exemption amounts (adjusted for inflation) apply through 2020. …Under those alternative assumptions, real GDP would be…lower in subsequent years than under CBO’s baseline forecast. …Under that alternative fiscal scenario, real GDP would fall below the level in CBO’s baseline projections later in the coming decade because the larger budget deficits would reduce or “crowd out” investment in productive capital and result in a smaller capital stock.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with CBO’s concern about deficits, but looking at fiscal policy through that prism is akin to deciding who wins a baseball game by looking at what happened during the 6th inning. Yes, government borrowing drains capital from the productive sector of the economy. And nations such as Greece are painful examples of what happens when governments go too far down this path. But taxes also undermine economic performance by reducing incentives to work, save, and invest. And nations such as France are gloomy reminders of what happens when punitive tax rates discourage productive behavior.

What’s missing for CBO’s analysis is any recognition or understanding that the real problem is excessive government spending. Regardless of whether spending is financed by borrowing or taxes, resources are being diverted from the private sector to government. In other words, government spending is the disease and deficits are basically a symptom of that underlying problem. Indeed, it’s worth noting that there’s not much evidence that deficits cause economic damage but plenty of evidence that bloated public sectors stunt growth. This video is a good antidote to CBO’s myopic focus on budget deficits.

When Keynesians Attack

If I was organized enough to send Christmas cards, I would take Richard Rahn off my list. I do one blog post to call attention to his Washington Times column and it seems like everybody in the world wants to jump down my throat. I already dismissed Paul Krugman’s rant and responded to Ezra Klein’s reasonable criticism. Now it’s time to address Derek Thompson’s critique on the Atlantic’s site.

At the risk of re-stating someone else’s argument, Thompson’s central theme seems to be that there are many factors that determine economic performance and that it is unwise to make bold pronouncements about Policy A causing Result B. If that’s what Thompson is saying, I very much agree (and if it’s not what he’s trying to say, then I apologize, though I still agree with the sentiment). That’s why I referred to Reagan decreasing the burden of government and Obama increasing the burden of government — I wanted to capture all the policy changes that were taking place, including taxation, spending, monetary policy, regulation, etc. Yes, the flagship policies (tax reduction for Reagan and so-called stimulus for Obama) were important, but other factors obviously are part of the equation.

The biggest caveat, however, is that one should always be reluctant to make sweeping claims about what caused the economy to do X or Y in a given year. Economists are terrible forecasters, and we’re not even very proficient when it comes to hindsight analysis about short-run economic fluctuations. Indeed, the one part of my original post that causes me a bit of regret is that I took the lazy route and inserted an image of the chart from Richard’s column. Excerpting some of his analysis would have been a better approach, particularly since I much prefer to focus on the impact of policies on long-run growth and competitiveness (which is what I did in my New York Post column from earlier this week  and also why I’m reluctant to embrace Art Laffer’s warning of major economic problems in 2011).

But a blog post is no fun if you just indicate where you and a critic have common ground, so let me identify four disagreements that I have with Thompson’s post:

(1) To reinforce his warning about making excessive claims about different recessions/recoveries, Thompson pointed out that someone could claim that Reagan’s recovery was associated with the 1982 TEFRA tax hike. I’ve actually run across people who think this is a legitimate argument, so it’s worth taking a moment to explain why it isn’t true.

When analyzing the impact of tax policy changes, it’s important to look at when tax changes were implemented, not when they were enacted (data on annual tax rates available here). Reagan’s Economic Recovery Tax Act was enacted in 1981, but the lower tax rates weren’t fully implemented until 1984. This makes it a bit of a challenge to pinpoint when the economy actually received a net tax cut. The tax burden may have actually increased in 1981, since the parts of the Reagan tax cuts that took effect that year were offset by the impact of bracket creep (the tax code was not indexed to protect against inflation until the mid-1980s). There was a bigger tax rate reduction in 1982, but there was still bracket creep, as well as previously-legislated payroll tax increases (enacted during the Carter years). TEFRA also was enacted in 1982, which largely focused on undoing some of the business tax relief in Reagan’s 1981 plan. People have argued whether the repeal of promised tax relief is the same as a tax increase, but that’s not terribly important for this analysis. What does matter is that the tax burden did not fall much (if at all) in Reagan’s first year and might not have changed too much in 1982.

In 1983, by contrast, it’s fairly safe to say the next stage of tax rate reductions was substantially larger than any concomitant tax increases. That doesn’t mean, of course, that one should attribute all changes in growth to what’s happening to the tax code. But it does suggest that it is a bit misleading to talk about tax cuts in 1981 and tax increases in 1983.

One final point: The main insight of supply-side economics is that changes in the overall tax burden are not as important as changes in the tax structure. As such, it’s also important to look at which taxes were going up and which ones were decreasing. This is why Reagan’s 1981 tax plan compares so favorably with Bush’s 2001 tax plan (which was filled with tax credits and other policies that had little or no impact on incentives for productive behavior).

(2) In addition to wondering whether one could argue that higher taxes triggered the Reagan boom, Thompson also speculates whether it might be possible to blame the tax cuts in Obama’s stimulus for the economy’s subsequent sub-par performance. There are two problems with that hypothesis. First, a substantial share of the tax cuts in the so-called stimulus were actually new spending being laundered through the tax code (see footnote 3 of this Joint Committee on Taxation publication). To the extent that the provisions represented real tax relief, they were much more akin to Bush’s non–supply side 2001 tax cuts and a far cry from the marginal tax-rate reductions enacted in 1981 and 2003. And since even big tax cuts have little or no impact on the economy if incentives to engage in productive behavior are unaffected, there is no reason to blame (or credit) Obama’s tax provisions for anything.

(3) Why doesn’t anyone care that the Federal Reserve almost always is responsible for serious recessions? This isn’t a critique of Thompson’s post since he doesn’t address monetary policy from this angle, but if we go down the list of serious economic hiccups in recent history (1974-75, 1980-82, and 2008-09), bad monetary policy inevitably is a major cause. In short, the Fed periodically engages in easy-money policy. This causes malinvestment and/or inflation, and a recession seems to be an unavoidable consequence. Yet the Fed seems to dodge any serious blame. At some point, one hopes that policy makers (especially Fed governors) will learn that easy-money policies such as artificially low interest rates are not a smart approach.

(4) Thompson writes, “Is Mitchell really saying that $140 billion on Medicaid, firefighters, teachers, and infrastructure projects are costing the economy five percentage points of economic growth?” No, I’m not saying that and didn’t say that, but I have been saying for quite some time that taking money out of the economy’s left pocket and putting it in the economy’s right pockets doesn’t magically increase prosperity. And to the extent money is borrowed from private capital markets and diverted to inefficient and counter-productive programs, the net impact on the economy is negative. Thompson also writes that, “Our unemployment picture is a little more complicated than ‘Oh my god, Obama is killing jobs by taking over the states’ Medicaid burden!’” Since I’m not aware of anybody who’s made that argument, I’m not sure how to respond. That being said, jobs will be killed by having Washington take over state Medicaid budgets. Such a move would lead to a net increase in the burden of government spending, and that additional spending would divert resources from the productive sector of the economy.

The moral of the story, though, is to let Richard Rahn publicize his own work.

Responding to Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein

I seem to have touched a raw nerve with my post earlier today on my International Liberty blog,  comparing Reagan and Obama on how well the economy performed coming out of recession. Both Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman have denounced my analysis (actually, they denounced me approving of Richard Rahn’s analysis, but that’s a trivial detail). Krugman responded by asserting that Reaganomics was irrelevant (I’m not kidding) to what happened in the 1980s. Klein’s response was more substantive, so let’s focus on his argument. He begins by stating that the recent recession and the downturn of the early 1980s were different creatures. My argument was about how strongly the economy rebounded, however, not the length, severity, causes, and characteristics of each recession. But Klein then cites Rogoff and Reinhardt to argue that recoveries from financial crises tend to be less impressive than recoveries from normal recessions.

That’s certainly a fair argument. I haven’t read the Rogoff-Reinhardt book, but their hypothesis seems reasonable, so let’s accept it for purposes of this discussion. Should we therefore grade Obama on a curve? Perhaps, but it’s also true that deep recessions usually are followed by more robust recoveries. And since the recent downturn was more severe than the the one in the early 1980s, shouldn’t we be experiencing some additional growth to offset the tepidness associated with a financial crisis?

I doubt we’ll ever know how to appropriately measure all of these factors, but I don’t think that matters. I suspect Krugman and Klein are not particularly upset about Richard Rahn’s comparisons of recessions and recoveries. The real argument is whether Reagan did the right thing by reducing the burden of government and whether Obama is doing the wrong thing by heading in the opposite direction and making America more like France or Greece. In other words, the fundamental issue is whether we should have big government or small government. I think the Obama Administration, by making government bigger, is repeating many of the mistakes of the Bush Administration. Krugman and Klein almost certainly disagree.

Subsidizing the OECD Is a Bad Investment for American Taxpayers

The federal government is capable of enormous waste, which obviously is bad news, but the worst forms of government spending are those that actually leverage bad things. Paying exorbitant salaries to federal bureaucrats is bad, for instance, but it’s even worse if they take their jobs seriously and promulgate new regulations and otherwise harass people in the productive sector of the economy. In a previous video on the economics of government spending, I called this the “negative multiplier” effect.

One of the worst examples of a negative multiplier effect is the $100 million that taxpayers spend each year to subsidize the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is an international bureaucracy that publishes lots of innocuous statistics but also advocates bigger government and higher taxes in America. This video has the unsavory details, including evidence of the OECD’s efforts to push a value-added tax, Al Gore-style carbon taxes, and Obamacare-type policies.

The OECD’s relentless advocacy of higher taxes (as well as its anti-tax competition agenda) is especially galling since the bureaucrats receive tax-free salaries. Maybe they would be more reasonable if they were not so insulated from the real-world consequences of big government.