Tag: big government

Taxpayers Alliance Video Explains Tax Freedom Day in the U.K.

The Taxpayers Alliance has a brief but compelling video, entitled “How long do you work for the tax man?,” which shows how an ordinary worker in the United Kingdom spends more than one-half his day laboring for government. “What will they tax next?” is still the best policy video to come out of the U.K., in my humble opinion, but this one is very much worth watching – especially since America is becoming more like Europe with each passing day.

What makes the video particularly depressing is that it only considers the tax burden. Regulations and government spending also are a burden on average workers, largely because of foregone economic growth.

Will ‘Hauser’s Law’ Protect Us from Revenue-Hungry Politicians?

David Ranson had a good column earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal explaining that federal tax revenues historically have hovered around 19 percent of gross domestic product, regardless whether tax rates are high or low. One reason for this relationship, as he explains, is that the Laffer Curve is a real-world constraint on class warfare tax policy. When politicians boost tax rates, that motivates taxpayers to earn and/or report less income to the IRS:

The feds assume a relationship between the economy and tax revenue that is divorced from reality. Six decades of history have established one far-reaching fact that needs to be built into fiscal calculations: Increases in federal tax rates, particularly if targeted at the higher brackets, produce no additional revenue. For politicians this is truly an inconvenient truth. …tax revenue has grown over the past eight decades along with the size of the economy. It illustrates the empirical relationship first introduced on this page 20 years ago by the Hoover Institution’s W. Kurt Hauser—a close proportionality between revenue and GDP since World War II, despite big changes in marginal tax rates in both directions. “Hauser’s Law,” as I call this formula, reveals a kind of capacity ceiling for federal tax receipts at about 19% of GDP. …he tax base is not something that the government can kick around at will. It represents a living economic system that makes its own collective choices. In a tax code of 70,000 pages there are innumerable ways for high-income earners to seek out and use ambiguities and loopholes. The more they are incentivized to make an effort to game the system, the less the federal government will get to collect.

Several people have asked my opinion about the piece. I like the column, of course, but I’m not nearly so optimistic that 19 percent of GDP represents some sort of limit on the federal government’s taxing power. There are many nations in Europe with tax burdens closer to 50 percent, for instance, so governments obviously have figured how to extract much higher shares of national output. Part of the difference is because America has a federal system, and state and local governments collect taxes of about 10 percent of GDP. That still leaves a significant gap in total tax collections, though, so the real question is why American politicians are not as proficient as their European cousins at confiscating money from the private sector?

One reason is that European countries have value-added taxes, which are a disturbingly efficient way of generating more revenue. So does this mean that “Hauser’s Law” will protect us if politicians are too scared to impose a nationwide sales tax? That’s certainly a necessary condition for restraining government, but probably not a sufficient condition. If you look at the table, which is excerpted from the OECD’s annual Revenue Statistics publication, you can see that nations such as New Zealand and Denmark have figured out how to extract huge amounts of money using the personal and corporate income tax.

In some cases, tax rates are higher in other nations, but the main factor seems to be that the top tax rates in other nations are imposed at much lower levels of income. Americans don’t get hit with the maximum tax rate until our incomes are nine times the national average. In other nations, by contrast, the top tax rates take effect much faster, in some cases when taxpayers have just average incomes. In other words, European nations collect a lot more money because they impose much higher tax rates on ordinary people. Here’s a chart I put together a few years ago for a paper I wrote for Heritage (you can find updated numbers in Table 1.7 of this OECD website, but the chart will still look the same).

Europeans also sometimes impose high tax rates on rich people, but this is not the reason that tax receipts consume nearly 50 percent of GDP in some nations. Rich people in Europe, like their counterparts in America, have much greater ability to control the amount of taxable income that is earned and/or reported. These “Laffer Curve” responses limit the degree to which politicians can finance big government on the backs of a small minority.

But class-warfare tax rates on the rich do serve a very important political goal. Politicians understand that ordinary people will be less likely to resist oppressive tax rates if they think that those with larger incomes are being treated even worse. Simply stated, higher tax rates on the rich are a necessary precondition for higher tax rates on average taxpayers.

For “Hauser’s Law” to be effective, this means proponents of limited government need to fight two battles. First, they need to stop a VAT. Second, they need to block higher tax rates on the so-called rich in order to prevent higher tax rates on the middle class.

Rand Paul Challenges the Establishments

In his Kentucky Republican primary victory speech last night, Rand Paul took a well-placed shot at one of the more repulsive props used by Beltway politicians:

“We have come to take our government back from the special interests who think that the federal government is their own personal ATM … from the politicians who bring us over-sized fake checks emblazoned with their signature as if it was their money to give.”

The comment immediately brought to mind a C@L blog I wrote in 2008 that criticized the Senate Minority Leader from Kentucky, Republican Mitch McConnell, for being a hypocrite when it comes to big government spending.  I titled the post “The Bluegrass Porker” and included this picture:

That fellow on the right holding the fake, over-sized Treasury check is Mitch McConnell. Last night, Paul defeated McConnell’s hand-picked choice for the Republican nomination, Trey Grayson. Perfect.

I’d prefer to believe Paul’s victory last night was a repudiation of the GOP establishment as much as it was a repudiation of Washington in general. Popular discontent with the statist Democrat establishment in Washington is well recognized. But if Kentucky Republicans just signaled their displeasure with the statist Republican establishment, better days for liberty could be ahead.

England Is the New France

The chart below shows everything you need to know about why the United Kingdom is a fiscal disaster. Over the past 10 years, the burden of government spending has skyrocketed from 36.6 percent of GDP to more than 53 percent of GDP. Taxes, meanwhile, have remained largely unchanged, averaging about 40 percent of GDP.

Since the OECD numbers show that the fiscal crisis in the U.K. is solely the result of a bloated public sector, the obvious solution is … you guessed it, higher taxes.

David Cameron’s new coalition government has announced support for a higher capital gains tax and is signalling that this will be followed by an increase in the value-added tax.

There are some proposals to curtail the growth of spending, including some pay cuts for Prime Minster Cameron and other political figures, but I will be very surprised if those amount to more than window dressing. The United Kingdom, I fear, has gone past the point of no return in the journey toward becoming indistinguishable from the decrepit welfare states so common in the rest of Europe.

The Next Ronald Reagan?

Very rarely does one find a politician with the moral clarity to provide the blunt and necessary truth about a controversial issue, but that has finally happened. But this is a good news/bad news situation for American taxpayers. The good news is that a politician has proposed to slash both bureaucrat pay and public pensions and publicly stated that, “The state sector is like a fat man of 200kg sitting on the back of a 50kg little man who is the real economy.” The bad news is that this politician is the President of Romania. A caveat is probably appropriate at this stage. I have no idea whether Presdident Basescu actually is a genuine small-government proponent. Perhaps he is just an ordinary politician forced to do the right thing by extraordinary circumstances. Nonetheless, I have a hard time imagining we will see a better quote from an elected official this year. Here’s an excerpt from a story in the Irish Times:

President Traian Basescu said officials had decided…to reduce the pay of state employees by 25 per cent from next month and pensions and unemployment benefits by 15 per cent this year. …He said the cutbacks would also help reinvigorate an economy that is being crushed by a bloated and inefficient state sector, and allow Romania to avoid steep tax hikes that could hamper investment and destroy hopes of a swift recovery from recession. “This plan was inevitable. The state sector is like a fat man of 200kg sitting on the back of a 50kg little man who is the real economy,” said Mr Basescu, who narrowly won re-election at the end of last year.

Europe’s Über Bailout

I’m semi-impressed with the Europeans for choosing the hog-wild approach to bailouts. Not because it is good policy, but rather because it will be a useful demonstration of the old rule that bad policy begets more bad policy (which begets God knows what, but it won’t be pretty). The background is that many European nations have been over-spending, over-taxing, and over-regulating. This has created a poisonous combination of weak economies, pervasive dependency, and political corruption, with Greece being the nation farthest down the path to Krugman-topia. Europe’s political elite at first thought they could paper over the problems with a $140 billion Greek bailout. The ostensible motives were to stop contagion and to demonstrate “solidarity,” but behind-the-scenes lobbying by big European banks (which foolishly own a lot of government debt from profligate nations such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy) may have been the most important factor. Regardless of the real motive, the original bailout was a flop, so the political class has decided to go with the in-for-a-dime-in-for-a-dollar approach and commit nearly $1 trillion of other people’s money to prop up the continent’s welfare states. The Wall Street Journal reports on the issue, noting that American taxpayers will be involuntary participants thanks to the financial world’s keystone cops at the International Monetary Fund:

The European Union agreed on an audacious €750 billion ($955 billion) bailout plan in an effort to stanch a burgeoning sovereign debt crisis that began in Greece but now threatens the stability of financial markets world-wide. The money would be available to rescue euro-zone economies that get into financial troubles. The plan would consist of €440 billion of loans from euro-zone governments, €60 billion from an EU emergency fund and €250 billion from the International Monetary Fund. Immediately after the announcement, the European Central Bank said it is ready to buy euro-zone government and private bonds “to ensure depth and liquidity” in markets, and the U.S. Federal Reserve announced it would reopen swap lines with other central banks to make sure they had ample access to dollars.

Back when Greece first began to collapse, I argued that bankruptcy was the best option. And I noted more recently that my colleague Jeff Miron reached the same conclusion. Everything that has since happened reinforces this viewpoint. Here are a few additional observations on this latest chapter in the collapse of the welfare state.

1. A bailout does not solve the problem. It just means that taxpayers bear the cost rather than the banks that foolishly lent money to corrupt and incompetent governments.

2. A bailout rewards profligate politicians and creates a moral hazard problem by letting other politicians think that it is possible to dodge consequences for reckless choices.

3. A bailout undermines growth by misallocating capital, both directly via bailouts and indirectly by signaling to financial markets and investors that governments are a “safe” investment.

4. A bailout will cause a short-term rise in the market by directly or indirectly replenishing the balance sheets of financial institutions, but this will be completely offset by the long-run damage caused by moral hazard and capital misallocation.

The last point deserves a bit of elaboration. Assuming markets continue to rise, the politicians will interpret this to mean their policies are effective. But that is akin to me robbing my neighbor and then boasting about how my net wealth has increased. In the long run (which is probably not too long from now), though, this system will not work. At best, Europe’s political elite have postponed the day of reckoning and almost certainly created the conditions for an even more severe set of consequences. No wonder, when I was in Europe a couple of weeks ago, I kept running in to people who were planning on how to protect their families and their money when the welfare state scam unravels. Their biggest challenge, though, is finding someplace to go. People use to think the United States was a safe option, but the Bush-Obama policies of bigger government have pushed America much closer to European levels of fiscal instability.

The National Debt Is Huge, but Unfunded Liabilities Are America’s Real Red-Ink Challenge

I frequently argue that government spending is the problem, not budget deficits. Regardless of whether it is financed by taxing or borrowing, every penny of spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. I narrated a video explaining why excessive spending is bad from a theoretical perspective. I did another looking at the empirical evidence for smaller government. And I had another video discussing why deficits are a symptom and the real problem is bloated budgets.

Nonetheless, some people seem convinced that deficits and debt are the real problem. While I think that focus is a bit misguided, I certainly agree that there is something utterly immoral about spending today and imposing a fiscal burden on future taxpayers (especially since so much government spending is for current consumption and transfers).

But here’s some really depressing news for the anti-debt crowd. Today’s deficits and debt actually are just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a new video exposing the enormous unfunded liabilities resulting from entitlement programs. As the video explains, unfunded liabilities are promises by politicians that impose enormous long-term obligations for more spending and debt.

The narrator of the video is Kelly McDonough, a student at American University and a former Cato Institute intern. If this video is anywhere near as successful as the other video narrated by a former Cato intern, perhaps this will become a new tradition. That won’t be good for my video career, but it shows that the Cato Institute is doing a good job cultivating a new generation of freedom fighters.