Tag: big government

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Which President Is the Biggest Spender of All?

A financial columnist named Rex Nutting recently triggered a firestorm of controversy by claiming that Barack Obama is not a big spender.

Here’s the chart he prepared, which certainly seems to indicate that Obama is a fiscal conservative. Not only that, it shows that Republicans generally are the big spenders, while Democrats are frugal with other people’s money.

In some ways, these numbers don’t surprise me. I’ve explained before that Bush bears a lot of blame for the big expansion in the burden of government this century, and I’ve specifically pointed out that he deserves the blame for most of the higher spending from the 2009 fiscal year (which began October 1, 2008).

That being said, Nutting’s numbers seemed a bit nutty. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Nutting’s numbers actually seem accurate, including the fact that he decided that Obama should be responsible for $140 billion of the spending in Bush’s last fiscal year (a number he may have taken from one of my posts).

But sometimes accurate can be misleading, so I decided to dig into the data.

I went to the Historical Tables of the Budget from the Office of Management and Budget, and I calculated all the numbers for every President since LBJ (with the exception of Gerald Ford, whose 2-year reign didn’t seem worth including).

But I corrected a big mistake in Nutting’s analysis. I adjusted the numbers for inflation, using OMB’s GDP deflator.

As you can see, this changes the results. My chart isn’t as pretty, but based on the inflation-adjusted average annual growth of outlays, it shows that Clinton was the most frugal president, followed by the first President Bush and Obama.

With his guns-n-butter Keynesianism, it’s no big surprise that LBJ ranks last. And “W” also gets a very low grade.

But then I figured we should take interest payments out of the budget and focus on inflation-adjusted “primary spending.” After all, Presidents shouldn’t be held responsible for the national debt that existed before they took office.

Looking at these numbers, it turns out that Obama does win the prize for being the most fiscally conservative president in recent memory. Reagan jumps to second place. Clinton is in third place, which won’t surprise people who watched this video, while W and LBJ again are in last place.

But I don’t want my Republican friends to get too angry with me, so let’s expand our analysis. Just as we don’t want to blame Presidents for net interest payments on debt that was accrued before their tenure, perhaps we should make sure they don’t get credit or blame for defense outlays that often are dictated by external events.

There’s obviously room for disagreement, but most people will agree that the Cold War and 9/11 meant higher defense spending, regardless of which party controlled the White House. Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet Empire inevitably meant lower military expenditures, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats were in charge.

So let’s now look at primary spending after subtracting defense outlays (still adjusting for inflation, of course). All of a sudden, Reagan jumps to the top of the list by a comfortable margin. LBJ and W continue to score poorly, but Nixon takes over last place.

But it’s also worth noting that Obama still scores relatively well, beating Clinton for second place. Inflation-adjusted domestic spending (which is mostly what we’re measuring) has grown by 2.0 percent annually during his three years in office.

So does that mean Obama deserves re-election? Well, before you answer, I want to make one final calculation. Just as there are good reasons to exclude interest payments because they’re not something a president can control, we also should take a look at what spending would be if we don’t count the cost of bailouts.

To be sure, these types of expenditures can be controlled, but if we go with the assumption that the federal government was going to re-capitalize the banking system (whether using the good FDIC-resolution approach or the corrupt TARP approach), then it seems that Presidents shouldn’t get arbitrary blame or credit simply because some financial institutions failed during their tenure.

So let’s take the preceding set of numbers and subtract out the long-run numbers for deposit insurance, as well as the TARP outlays since 2009. And keep in mind that repayments of TARP monies (as well as deposit insurance premiums) show up in the budget as “negative spending.”

As you can see, this produces a remarkable result. All of a sudden, Obama drops from second to second-to-last.

This is because there was a lot of TARP spending in Bush’s last fiscal year (FY2009), which created an artificially high benchmark. And then repayments by banks during Obama’s fiscal years counted as negative spending.

When you subtract out the big TARP spending surge, as well as the repayments, then Bush 43 doesn’t look quite as bad (though still worse than Carter and Clinton), while Obama takes a big fall.

In other words, Obama’s track record does show that he favors an expanding social welfare state. Outlays on those programs have jumped by 7.0 percent annually. And that’s after adjusting for inflation! Not as bad as Nixon, but that’s not saying much since he was one of America’s most statist presidents.

Allow me to conclude with some caveats. None of the tables perfectly captures what any president’s fiscal record. Even my first table may be wrong if you want to blame or credit presidents for the inflation that occurs on their watch. And there certainly are strong arguments that bailout spending and defense spending are affected by presidential policies rather than external events.

And keep in mind that presidents don’t have full power over fiscal policy. The folks on Capitol Hill are the ones who actually enact the bills and appropriate the money.

Moreover, the federal government is akin to a big rusty cargo ship that is traveling in a certain direction, and presidents are like tugboats trying to nudge the boat one way or the other.

But enough equivocating. The four different tables at least show more clearly which presidents presided over faster-growing government or slower-growing government. More importantly, the various tables provide a good idea of where most of the new spending was taking place.

We can presumably say Reagan and Clinton were comparatively frugal, and we can also say that Nixon, LBJ, and Bush 43 were relatively profligate. As for Obama, I think his tugboat is pushing in the wrong direction, but it’s only apparent when you strip out the distorting budgetary impact of TARP.

Should International Bureaucracies Get Taxing Powers or Direct Funding?

Over the years, I’ve strenuously objected to schemes that would enable international bureaucracies to levy taxes. That’s why I’ve criticized “direct funding” proposals, most of which seem to emanate from the United Nations.

Interestingly, the American left is somewhat divided on these schemes. House Democrats have expressed sympathy for global taxes, but the Obama administration has come out against at least certain worldwide tax proposals.

Unfortunately, proponents of global taxes are like the Energizer Bunny of big government, relentlessly pushing a statist agenda. If the world economy is growing, it’s time for a global tax. If the world economy is stagnant, it’s time for a global tax. If it’s hot outside or cold outside, it’s time for a global tax (since “global warming” is one of the justifications for global taxation, I’m not joking).

Given this ongoing threat, I’m glad that Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has put together a two-page Libertas explaining why international bureaucracies should not get taxing powers or direct funding.

…it would be imprudent to give international bureaucracies an independent source of revenue. Not only would this augment the already considerable risk of imprudent budgetary practices, it would exacerbate the pro-statism bias in these organizations. …The issue of taxing powers and direct funding has become an important issue because international organizations are challenging the contribution model and pushing for independent sources of revenue. The United Nations has been particularly aggressive in pushing for global taxes, seeking to expand its budget with levies on everything from carbon to financial transactions.

He then highlights one of the most dangerous proposals, a scheme by the World Health Organization to impose a “Solidarity Tobacco Contribution.”

Another subsidiary of the United Nations, the World Health Organization (WHO), is also looking to self-fund through global taxes. The WHO in 2010 publicly considered asking for global consumer taxes on internet activity, online bill paying, or the always popular financial transaction tax. Currently the WHO is pushing for increased excise taxes on cigarettes, but with an important condition that they get a slice of the added revenue. The so-called Solidarity Tobacco Contribution would provide billions of dollars to the WHO, but with no ability for taxpayers or national governments to monitor how the money is spent.

I have to give the left credit. They understand that few people are willing to defend tobacco, so proposing a global tax on cigarettes sounds noble, even though the real goal is to give the WHO a permanent stream of revenue.

Brian explains, though, why any global tax would be a mistake.

What all of these proposals have in common – in addition to their obvious intended use in promoting statist policies – is that they would erode the influence of national governments, reduce international accountability, promote waste, and undermine individual sovereignty and liberty. …Before long, international organizations will begin proposing – no doubt in the name of efficiency or reducing the burden on nation states – that affected taxpayers withhold and transfer taxes directly to the international body. This would effectively mean the end of the Westphalian system of sovereign nation states, and would result in a slew of new statist policies, and increased waste and corruption, as bureaucrats make use of their greater freedom to act without political constraint.

He concludes by noting that a global tobacco tax would be the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. Once the statists succeed in imposing the first global tax, it will simply be a matter of time before additional levies are imposed.

National governments should not be fooled. Any sort of taxing power or direct funding for international bureaucracies would undermine national sovereignty. More importantly, it will further weaken the ability of people to influence and control the policies to which they are subjected. Moreover, once the first global tax is imposed, the floodgates will be opened for similar proposals.

The point about fiscal sovereignty is also important. Not because national governments are keen to adopt good policy, but because nations at least have to compete against each other.

Over the years, tax competition among governments has led to lower tax rates on personal and corporate income, as well as reductions in the double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Politicians don’t like being pressured to lower tax rates, which is why international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, acting on behalf of Europe’s welfare states, are pushing to undermine tax competition. But so long as there’s fiscal sovereignty, governments will have a hard time imposing confiscatory tax burdens.

Any form of global taxation, however, cripples this liberalizing process since taxpayers would have no safe havens.

Daniel in the Looter’s Den: My Adventures at the UN

I was at the United Nations yesterday for something called “The High Level Thematic Debate on the State of the World Economy.”

Most speakers, including the secretary general of the United Nations, the president of the European Commission, Paul Volcker, and Joseph Stiglitz, to varying degrees blamed private markets for the fiscal and financial problems of the world. Not surprisingly, there also was a consensus for more government—usually wrapped up in buzzwords such as “sustainable development” and “equitable growth” and ”coolective action”

I spoke in the afternoon as part of a roundtable on the economic crisis (see full schedule here). There were five speakers on my panel, including yours truly. Here are my thoughts on what the others said.

Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, must have been part of the buzz-word contest I mentioned yesterday. Lots of rhetoric that theoretically was inoffensive, but I had the feeling that it translated into a call for more government. But maybe I’m paranoid, so who knows.

Professor Dato’ Dr. Zaleha Kamaruddin, rector of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, was an interesting mix. At some points, she sounded like Ron Paul, saying nice things about the gold standard and low tax rates. But she also called for debt forgiveness and other forms of intervention. She explicitly said she was providing Islamic insights, so perhaps the strange mix makes sense from that perspective.

Former U.S. senator Alan K. Simpson also was a mixed bag. Simpson was co-chair of President Obama’s fiscal commission, which I thought was a disappointment because it endorsed higher taxes and urged subpar entitlement changes rather than much-needed structural reforms. He also went after Grover Norquist because of the no-tax pledge, which I think is a valuable tool to keep Republicans from selling out for bigger government. All that being said, Senator Simpson is a promoter of smaller government and he wants lower tax rates. So while I disagree with some of his tactical decisions, he was an ally on the panel and would probably do a pretty good job if he was economic czar.

Last but not least, Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University was a statist, as one would expect based on what I wrote about him last year. We clashed the most, arguing about everything from tax havens to the size of government. Interestingly, we both said nice things about Sweden, but I was focusing on policies such as school choice and pension reform, while he admired the large public sector. But I will admit he was a nice guy. We sat next to each other and did find a bit of common ground in that we both were sympathetic to the way Sweden dealt with its financial crisis about 20 years ago (a version of the FDIC-resolution approach rather than the corrupt TARP bailout approach).

My message, by the way, was very simple: Higher taxes won’t work. The “growth” vs. “austerity” debate in Europe is really a no-win fight between those who want higher spending vs. those who want higher taxes. The only good answer is to restrain spending with—you guessed it—Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

The good news is that I wasn’t tarred and feathered. Indeed, I even got a modest amount of positive feedback. The bad news is that I doubt I moved the needle.

But at least the United Nations was willing to have contrary voices, unlike the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which once threatened to cancel a Global Tax Forum because of my short-lived participation.

Stop Using Slippery-Slope Arguments? Where Would that End?

Richard Thaler writes in the New York Times:

Justice Scalia is arguing that if the court lets Congress create a mandate to buy health insurance, nothing could stop Congress from passing laws requiring everyone to buy broccoli and to join a gym…Can anyone imagine Congress passing a broccoli mandate law, much less the court allowing it to take effect?

Yes annnnd…yes. Next question.

Surely, the justices have the conceptual resources to draw a distinction between the health care market and the market for broccoli. And even if they don’t, then all the briefs, the zillions of blog posts and a generation’s worth of economic literature can help them.

If drawing a constitutionally meaningful distinction between the markets for health insurance and broccoli is child’s play for Thaler, he should school all the brief- and blog-post-writers who so far have failed. That would have been a more productive use of his thousand words than his build-up to this thesis:

If you are opposed to a policy, state your case based on the merits — not on the imagined risk of what else might happen down the road. The path of that road is so unpredictable that it may even produce a U-turn.

Good grief. Slippery-slope arguments are about principles. As in, “If you concede this principle because you don’t mind the result here, you will no longer have it to protect you against that bad result there.” Thaler’s thesis would lead, for example, to all manner of civil-liberties violations by the state because there simply isn’t enough political support to protect all the civil liberties of various minorities. But Thaler doesn’t want us to think about things like consequences or the future.

The potential for U-turns makes no more sense as an argument against invoking slippery slopes principles, because principled arguments can help generate the U-turn that opponents of, say, ObamaCare want to see.

I take silly arguments like this to be evidence that ObamaCare supporters are in complete panic mode.

J.P. Morgan and Yahoo: Market Successes

Investment giant J.P. Morgan made a bad trade that cost its owners $2 billion. The responsible parties are losing their jobs. Yahoo’s CEO evidently misled people about his qualifications. As a result, he lost his job.

If you want to know why these are market successes, consider: Medicare and Medicaid lose at least 35 times as much per year to fraud and other improper payments, and Medicare wastes even more on medical care that does nothing to make patients healthier or happier. This happens year after year after year.

Now ask yourself: when was the last time someone got fired over those losses? And yet the politicians’ first reaction to the J.P. Morgan trade was greater oversight by the political system, which tolerates much greater losses than the market system that is currently disciplining J.P. Morgan.

Here’s hoping the Yahoo incident inspires some politician to crack down on people who embellish their resumes.