Tag: big government

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.

Peter Ferrara’s Too-Nice Attack on Phony Washington Budget Deals

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peter Ferrara of the Institute for Policy Innovation explains that Washington budget deals don’t work because politicians never follow through on promised spending cuts. This is a very relevant argument, since President Obama’s so-called Deficit Reduction Commission supposedly is considering a deal featuring $3 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases (disturbingly reminiscent of what was promised — but never delivered — as part of the infamous 1982 TEFRA budget scam).

Washington’s traditional approach to balancing the budget is to negotiate an agreement on a package of benefit cuts and tax increases. President Obama’s deficit commission seems likely to recommend just this strategy in December. The problem is that it never works. What happens is the tax increases get permanently adopted into law. But the spending cuts are almost never fully adopted and, even if they are, they are soon swept away in the next spendthrift budget. Then — because taxes weaken incentives to produce — the tax increases don’t raise the revenue that Congress initially projected and budgeted to spend. So the deficit reappears.

In 1982, congressional Democrats promised President Ronald Reagan $3 in spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. Reagan went to his grave waiting for those spending cuts. Then there was the budget deal in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush agreed to violate his famous campaign pledge — “Read my lips, no new taxes,” he had said in 1988 — in pursuit of a balanced budget. But after the deal, the deficit increased substantially: to $290 billion in 1992 from $221 billion in 1990.

As the excerpt indicates, Peter’s column is solid and everything he writes is correct, but it suffers from one major sin of omission. He should have exposed the dishonest practice of using “current services” or “baseline” budgeting. This is the clever Washington practice of assuming that all previously planned spending increases should go into effect and categorizing any budget that increases spending by a lower amount as a spending cut. In other words, if the hypothetical “baseline” budget increases by 7 percent, and a budget is proposed that increases spending by 4 percent, that 4 percent spending increase magically gets transformed into a 3 percent spending cut.
 
Politicians love “current services” or “baseline” budgeting for two reasons. First, it allows them to have their cake and eat it too. They can simultaneously shovel more money to interest groups while telling voters they are “cutting” spending. Second, it rigs the process in favor of bigger government. This is because lawmakers who actually propose to restrain the growth of spending can be lambasted for wanting “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts totaling “trillions of dollars” when all they’re actually proposing is to have spending grow by less than the so-called baseline. But since people in the real world use honest math rather than “current services” math, they assume that spending is being reduced next year by some large amount compared to what is being spent this year. And if the phony budget cut numbers sound too big (especially for specific programs such as Medicare or Medicaid), they sometimes conclude that it would be better to raise taxes.

Speaking of which, the same misleading process works on the revenue side of the budget. The politicians automatically get to keep whatever additional revenue is generated by population growth and higher incomes, which is not trivial since revenue in a typical year grows faster than nominal GDP. But when they do a budget deal featuring X dollars of tax increases for every Y dollars of spending cuts, the additional taxes are always on top of the revenue increases that already are occurring. And since the supposed spending cuts invariably are nothing more than reductions in planned increases, it should come as no surprise that the burden of spending always seems to increase.
 
Defenders of “current services” or “baseline” budgeting will respond by arguing that spending should automatically increase because of factors such as inflation and demographic change (i.e., more seniors signing up for Medicare). Indeed, they will point out that the government is legally obligated to spend more money for entitlement programs based on current law.
 
But that’s not the point. The issue is whether the American people are being presented with honest numbers. If the fans of big government want to argue that spending should increase by 7 percent for various reasons, they should openly and honestly explain what they are trying to do. And if they disagree with lawmakers who want spending to increase by 4 percent, they should be forthright and tell voters that “this proposal does not increase spending by enough because of…” and list the reasons why they want spending to grow even faster.
 
Unfortunately, deceptive budget practices in Washington are a feature, not a bug. But if you pay close attention, they are very revealing. If the President’s Deficit Reduction Commission uses “baseline” or “current services” budgeting as a benchmark for determining spending “cuts” and tax increases, that’s a good sign that the crowd in Washington wants to pull a fast one on the American people.

Are These Examples of Washington Corruption?

The “appearance of impropriety” is often considered the Washington standard for corruption and misbehavior. With that in mind, alarm bells began ringing in my head when I read this Washington Times report about Jacob Lew, Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget. A snippet:

President Obama’s choice to be the government’s chief budget officer received a bonus of more than $900,000 from Citigroup Inc. last year — after the Wall Street firm for which he worked received a massive taxpayer bailout. The money was paid to Jacob Lew in January 2009, about two weeks before he joined the State Department as deputy secretary of state, according to a newly filed ethics form. The payout came on top of the already hefty $1.1 million Citigroup compensation package for 2008 that he reported last year. Administration officials and members of Congress last year expressed outrage that executives at other bailed-out firms, such as American International Group Inc., awarded bonuses to top executives. State Department officials at the time steadfastly refused to say if Mr. Lew received a post-bailout bonus from Citigroup in response to inquiries from The Washington Times. But Mr. Lew’s latest financial disclosure report, provided by the State Department on Wednesday, makes clear that he did receive a significant windfall. …The records show that Mr. Lew received the $944,578 payment four days after he filed his 2008 ethics disclosure.

Why did Citigroup decide to hire Lew, a career DC political operator, for $1.1 million? As a former political aide, lobbyist, lawyer, and political appointee, what particular talents did he have to justify that salary to manage an investment division? Did the presence of Lew (as well as other Washington insiders such as Robert Rubin) help Citigroup get a big bucket of money from taxpayers as part of the TARP bailout? Did Lew’s big $900K in 2009 have anything to do with the money the bank got from taxpayers? Is it a bit suspicious that he received his big windfall bonus four days after filing a financial disclosure?

See if you can draw any conclusion other than this was a typical example of the sleazy relationship of big government and big business.

Lest anyone think I’m being partisan, let’s now look at another story featuring Senator Richard Shelby. The Alabama Republican and his former aides have a nice relationship that means more campaign cash for him, lucrative fees for them, and lots of our tax dollars being diverted to such recipients as the state’s university system. Here are some of the sordid details:

Since 2008, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby has steered more than $250 million in earmarks to beneficiaries whose lobbyists used to work in his Senate office — including millions for Alabama universities represented by a former top staffer. In a mix of revolving-door and campaign finance politics, the same organizations that have enjoyed Shelby’s earmarks have seen their lobbyists and employees contribute nearly $1 million to Shelby’s campaign and political action committee since 1999, according to federal records. …Shelby’s earmarking doesn’t appear to run afoul of Senate rules or federal ethics laws. But critics said his tactics are part of a Washington culture in which lawmakers direct money back home to narrow interests, which, in turn, hire well-connected lobbyists — often former congressional aides — who enjoy special access on Capitol Hill.

Some people think the answer to such shenanigans is more ethics laws, corruption laws, and campaign-finance laws, but that’s like putting a band-aid on a compound fracture. Besides, it is quite likely that no laws were broken, either by Lew, Citigroup, Shelby, or his former aides. This is just the way Washington works, and the beneficiaries are the insiders who know how to milk the system. The only way to actually reduce both legal and illegal corruption in Washington is to shrink the size of government. The sleaze will not go away until politicians have less ability to steer our money to special interests — whether they are Wall Street banks or Alabama universities. This video elaborates:

Taxes Are for the Little People, not John Kerry

In the future, dictionary publishers should get rid of their existing definitions for “hypocrisy” and replace them with a photo of Massachusetts Sen.ator John Kerry. He’s just been caught committing the horrible sin of saving his family more than $500,000 by domiciling his new yacht in Rhode Island (which is a tax haven for such luxuries) rather than his home state. Or at least Senator Kerry says that tax planning is a horrible sin when conducted by “Benedict Arnold” companies and facilitated by those wicked tax havens. But I guess that it’s not such a bad thing when Senator Kerry is protecting his wealth. For the rest of us peasants, it’s our job to meekly get in line and submit to whatever taxes Senator Kerry graciously decides to impose.

The Boston Herald reports:

Sen. John Kerry, who has repeatedly voted to raise taxes while in Congress, dodged a whopping six-figure state tax bill on his new multimillion-dollar yacht by mooring her in Newport, R.I. Isabel — Kerry’s luxe, 76-foot New Zealand-built Friendship sloop with an Edwardian-style, glossy varnished teak interior, two VIP main cabins and a pilothouse fitted with a wet bar and cold wine storage — was designed by Rhode Island boat designer Ted Fontaine. But instead of berthing the vessel in Nantucket, where the senator summers with the missus, Teresa Heinz, Isabel’s hailing port is listed as “Newport” on her stern. Could the reason be that the Ocean State repealed its Boat Sales and Use Tax back in 1993, making the tiny state to the south a haven — like the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and Nassau — for tax-skirting luxury yacht owners? Cash-strapped Massachusetts still collects a 6.25 percent sales tax and an annual excise tax on yachts. Sources say Isabel sold for something in the neighborhood of $7 million, meaning Kerry saved approximately $437,500 in sales tax and an annual excise tax of about $70,000. …[S]tate Department of Revenue spokesguy Bob Bliss confirmed the senator “is under no obligation to pay the commonwealth sales tax.”

Maybe the French Aren’t So Bad After All

I like poking fun at French politicians for being hopeless statists, and I always assumed that French voters shared their collectivist sympathies. But according to new polling data reported by the Financial Times, there may be a Tea Party revolt brewing in France. Among major European nations, the French are most in favor of smaller government. Sacre Bleu!

European governments have solid public support, at least for now, for the spending cuts they are making in an effort to boost economic recovery, according to the latest Financial Times/Harris opinion poll. …The poll’s results point to a fiscal conservatism among the European public that contrasts with the eagerness with which most governments ran up high deficits to protect jobs and living standards as the crisis unfolded. …Asked if public spending cuts were necessary to help long-term economic recovery, 84 per cent of French people, 71 per cent of Spaniards, 69 per cent of Britons, 67 per cent of Germans and 61 per cent of Italians answered Yes. …Asked if they preferred public spending cuts or tax rises as a way to reduce budget deficits and national debts, strong majorities in the five EU countries as well as the US were in favour of spending cuts. Similarly conservative views on public expenditure emerged when people were asked if EU governments were right to engage in large-scale deficit-spending after the 2008 crisis. In all five EU countries, a majority – ranging from 68 per cent in France and Italy to 54 per cent in the UK – said the governments were wrong to have done so.