Tag: big government

Greetings from Spain

I arrived in Madrid yesterday for a speech to the annual Convention of Independent Financial Advisors, and it is somehow fitting that Spain was downgraded by Standard and Poor’s as I entered the country. I’m not a fan of the bond-rating agencies, and the fact that it has taken so long for Spain to be downgraded simply reinforces my skepticism about their value. So let’s focus instead on identifying the sources of Spain’s fiscal crisis. If you look at the OECD’s fiscal database, you will see that Spain’s short-run problem is solely the result of a growth in the burden of government spending. Over the past seven years, the budget in Spain has skyrocketed from 38.4 percent of GDP to 47.2 percent of GDP. And since tax revenues have stayed the same as a share of national economic output, it is difficult to see how anyone can conclude that the fiscal crisis is the result of inadequate revenue. In the long run, the problem also is excessive government spending, largely because demographic factors such as an aging population will push up outlays for pensions and health care.

In other words, Spain is in trouble for the same reason that Greece is in trouble. Government is too big and politicians are unwilling to take the modest steps that are needed to rein in dependency. This, of course, is exactly why there should not be a bailout. Subsidizing Greek politicians and Spanish politicians – regardless of whether the bailout comes from German taxpayers and/or the IMF – will send a signal to other European nations that there is an easy way out. But the “easy way out” simply postpones the day of reckoning and makes the eventual adjustment much more challenging. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post report:

European and International Monetary Fund officials on Wednesday were considering a dramatically increased $158 billion bailout package for Greece as the country’s debt crisis continued to ripple across Europe, with Standard & Poor’s downgrading the credit rating on Spain, the continent’s fourth-largest economy. …In Europe, the most intense focus remains on Greece, but fears were intensifying elsewhere, especially in Portugal and Spain. Though analysts noted that both countries are in better shape than Greece – with lower ratios of debt – they both shared large fiscal deficits and poor long-term economic prospects. On Wednesday, the government in Portugal announced that it would move up a program of painful spending cuts to shrink its budget deficit and shore up confidence amid signs that fearful depositors were moving capital out of Lisbon banks. After lowering Greek debt to junk bond status on Tuesday, Standard & Poor’s kept Spain at investment grade status, but lowered its rating one notch, to AA.

Ed Morrissey on The Struggle to Limit Government

Ed Morrissey kindly mentioned The Struggle to Limit Government and responds to the advice for Tea Partiers in my video.

Morrissey says:

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that some Tea Partiers “like” big government; it’s more like some aren’t enthusiastic about dismantling as much of the federal government as others, especially the more doctrinaire libertarians.

In the video I noted that polls showed a majority of the people who identify with the Tea Party movement also thought the entitlement programs were worth their cost. My colleague, Jagadeesh Gokhale, has estimated that paying for current entitlements would require 9 percent of GNP in perpetuity. This is unlikely. Entitlements will have to be changed since too much has been promised. People who think the programs have been worth their cost are not likely initially to support reining in the entitlements. In saying that, I expressed a concern, not a prediction. It may be that Tea Party people will also come to recognize, as Ed Morrissey does, that the entitlement state cannot continue.

I said in the video that Tea Party people should recognize that “Democrats are not always the enemy.” Morrissey rightly says I should not talk about enemies in domestic politics. He adds that the current House Democratic caucus does not deserve support because its leaders favor expanding government. He’s right. Divided government is what we need now. However, I had in mind the more centrist Democrats that supported the tax and spending cuts of 1981 and the tax reform of 1986. I am urging Tea Party people to avoid becoming too partisan. Perhaps some of them will still be in Congress in 2011.

Then there’s the question of foreign policy and defense spending. In the video I said that a limited government movement like the Tea Party should start thinking outside the box on spending. I suggested rethinking America’s expansive commitments in foreign affairs as a way to reduce our military spending.  I did not deny – who could deny it? – that the Constitution entrusts the common defense to the federal government. I also recognize that the United States continues to have enemies. The question is: what should the government do to provide the common defense consistent with limited government?

In the past decade, we have spent enormous sums trying to transform two nations and the entire Middle East into liberal democracies. This was our “forward strategy” for dealing with terrorism. It reminded me of past Progressive crusades at home and abroad.   The strategy was a domestic political disaster, and we shall see whether our massive outlays eventually produce stability in Iraq or Afghanistan. For my part, I remain partial to the conservative virtues of realism, restraint, and prudence in dealing with other nations.

The United States is currently spending about half of all military spending in the world. We have some room for restraint without endangering American lives. We will still have a Navy that protects trade routes to the extent they are threatened. As I said in the video, we need to rethink our overall place in the world if we are to corral the big government beast. The Tea Party folks can lead the way here.

The Pentagon is not most of the federal budget. It is the only part historically, however, that can vary downward as well as upward. Sometime soon, the non-defense parts of the budget are going to have to vary downward rather than just upward.  Being serious about limiting government, however, requires that all spending be considered. Since I think the Tea Party movement is serious about cutting government, it would be better if they had a look at all spending from the start.

Advice to Tea Partiers

The Tea Party movement may endure, but its endurance will be a testament to its ability to understand that cutting government means having a long-term focus, says John Samples, author of the Cato book The Struggle to Limit Government.  In a new video, Samples outlines an assessment of what Tea Partiers should do if they want to sustain an effort to cut government.

He offers five pieces of advice for members of the Tea Party movement:

1. Republicans aren’t always your friends.

2. Some tea partiers like big government.

3. Democrats aren’t always your enemies.

4. Smaller government demands restraint abroad.

5. Leave social issues to the states.

Conrad’s Budget Proposal

Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad has released his budget plan for the next five years. The following are some thoughts on the proposal:

  • Conrad proposes total federal spending for FY2011 equal to 25 percent of GDP, which would match the current fiscal year’s post-war record.
  • Conrad says his proposal will cut spending as a share of the economy by 11 percent. This sounds okay until you realize that out-year spending would still be substantially above the norm at 22 percent of GDP.
  • Conrad says his plan will cut the deficit as a share of the economy by 70 percent. But he’s starting from a Mount Everest-sized deficit of $1.4 trillion this year. Besides, his projected deficits for the next five years would add another $3.9 trillion to the debt.
  • Conrad gets to his lower future deficits through tax increases. In addition to marginal tax rate increases on singles earning over $200,000 ($250,000 for couples), the alternative minimum tax would increase starting in 2012, and estate taxes in 2011. Conrad says “lawmakers will have to find revenues elsewhere in the budget” to provide AMT and estate tax relief in future years. Assuming Congress doesn’t suddenly find the gumption to offset the tax relief with spending cuts, more debt or tax increases elsewhere will be its solution.
  • Conrad includes Obama’s proposal to freeze non-security discretionary funding for three years. Unfortunately, this segment of spending only amounts to 13 percent of the budget. As Chris Edwards has pointed out, actual spending will be higher as previously authorized stimulus spending sloshes forward.
  • Conrad supports throwing more taxpayer money down the drain for failed federal experiments like education and Head Start.
  • Conrad’s proposal includes a $2 billion reconciliation instruction, which could be a vehicle for getting more big government with 50 Senate votes. Last year’s budget resolution also contained a $2 billion reconciliation instruction that was used to facilitate passage of the gargantuan health care bill.
  • With regard to the nation’s long-term fiscal woes, Conrad punts the ball to the president’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. But this commission might be just a stalking horse for huge tax increases, which aren’t “responsible” and isn’t “reform.”

In sum, there’s not much difference between Conrad’s proposal and the President’s. Both would continue the massive spending, deficits, and debt that are bankrupting the country.

Don’t Give Up on the American People…at Least not Yet

Gloominess and despair are not uncommon traits among supporters of limited government – and with good reason. Government has grown rapidly in recent years and it is expected to get much bigger in the future. To make matters worse, it seems that the deck is stacked against reforms to restrain government. One problem is that 47 percent of Americans are exempt from paying income taxes, which presumably means they no longer have any incentive to resist big government. Mark Steyn recently wrote a very depressing column for National Review Online about this phenomenon, noting that, “By 2012, America could be holding the first federal election in which a majority of the population will be able to vote themselves more government lollipops paid for by the ever shrinking minority of the population still dumb enough to be net contributors to the federal treasury.” Walter Williams, meanwhile, has a new column speculating on whether this cripples the battle for freedom:

According to the Tax Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., research organization, nearly half of U.S. households will pay no federal income taxes for 2009…because their incomes are too low or they have higher income but credits, deductions and exemptions that relieve them of tax liability. This lack of income tax liability stands in stark contrast to the top 10 percent of earners, those households earning an average of $366,400 in 2006, who paid about 73 percent of federal income taxes. …Let’s not dwell on the fairness of such an arrangement for financing the activities of the federal government. Instead, let’s ask what kind of incentives and results such an arrangement produces and ask ourselves whether these results are good for our country. …Having 121 million Americans completely outside the federal income tax system, it’s like throwing chum to political sharks. These Americans become a natural spending constituency for big-spending politicians. After all, if you have no income tax liability, how much do you care about deficits, how much Congress spends and the level of taxation?

Steyn and Williams are right to worry, but the situation is not as grim as it seems for the simple reason that a good portion of the American people know the difference between right and wrong. Consider some of the recent polling data from Rasmussen, which found that “Sixty-six percent (66%) believe that America is overtaxed. Only 25% disagree. Lower income voters are more likely than others to believe the nation is overtaxed” and “75% of voters nationwide say the average American should pay no more than 20% of their income in taxes.” These numbers contradict the hypothesis that 47 percent of Americans (those that don’t pay income tax) are automatic supporters of class-warfare policy.

So why are the supposed free-riders not signing on to the Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda? There are probably several reasons, including the fact that many Americans believe in upward mobility, so even if their incomes currently are too low to pay income tax, they aspire to earn more in the future and don’t want higher tax rates on the rich to serve as a barrier. I’m not a polling expert, but I also suspect there’s a moral component to these numbers. There’s no way to prove this assertion, but I am quite sure that the vast majority of hard-working Americans with modest incomes would never even contemplate breaking into a rich neighbor’s house and stealing the family jewelry. So it is perfectly logical that they wouldn’t support using the IRS as a middleman to do the same thing.

A few final tax observations:

The hostility to taxation also represents opposition to big government (at least in theory). Rasumssen also recently found that, “Just 23% of U.S. voters say they prefer a more active government with more services and higher taxes over one with fewer services and lower taxes. …Two-thirds (66%) of voters prefer a government with fewer services and lower taxes.”

There is a giant divide between the political elite and ordinary Americans. Rasmussen’s polling revealed that, “Eighty-one percent (81%) of Mainstream American voters believe the nation is overtaxed, while 74% of those in the Political Class disagree.”

Voters do not want a value-added tax or any other form of national sales tax. They are not against the idea as a theoretical concept, but they wisely recognize the politicians are greedy and untrustworthy. Rasumussen found that “just 26% of all voters think that it is even somewhat likely the government would cut income taxes after implementing a sales tax. Sixty-six percent (66%) believe it’s unlikely to happen.”

Fiscal restraint is a necessary precondition for any pro-growth tax reform. If given a choice between a flat tax, national sales tax, value-added tax, or the current system, many Americans want reform, but it is very difficult to have a good tax system if the burden of government spending is rising. Likewise, it would be very easy to have a good tax system if we had a federal government that was limited to the duties outlined in Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution.

Republicans should never acquiesce to higher taxes. All these good numbers and optimistic findings are dependent on voters facing a clear choice between higher taxes and bigger government vs lower taxes and limited government. If Republicans inside the beltway get seduced into a “budget summit” where taxes are “on the table,” that creates a very unhealthy dynamic where voters instinctively try to protect themselves by supporting taxes on somebody else – and the so-called rich are the easiest target.

Last but not least, I can’t resist pointing out that I am part of a debate for U.S. News & World Report on the flat tax vs. the current system. For those of you who have an opinion on this matter, don’t hesitate to cast a vote.

The Joy of Tax Serfdom

Like a good peasant, I have already filed an extension, so I am at least temporarily compliant with the friendly people at the IRS. But since it is tax day, perhaps a slight bit of criticism of the tax code is warranted. I have already posted my video on the flat tax and warned about the risks of adding a value-added tax on top of the income tax in another video. I also posted a very successful video narrated by a former Cato intern about the harsh compliance costs of the internal revenue code. So it is time to reach into the archives and post this classic video produced by Caleb Brown and Austin Bragg of the Cato Institute.

P.S. Not that I would ever want to put my thumb on the scale of any contest, but I am defending the flat tax in an online debate for U.S. News & World Report with someone who favors the current system. You can cast a vote if you have an opinion on the matter.

P.P.S. Caleb has independently produced a video on the meaning of free enterprise. With politicians acting as if the business community is an ATM machine to finance a bigger welfare state, Caleb’s video puts a human face on what it means to be a risk-taking entrepreneur.

Bush Was a Statist, Not a Conservative

A former White House speechwriter, Mark Thiessen, has jumped to the defense of his former boss, writing for the Washington Post that George W. Bush “established a conservative record without parallel.” Even by the loose standards of Washington, that is a jaw-dropping assertion. I’ve been explaining for years that Bush was a big-government advocate, even writing a column back in 2007 for the Washington Examiner pointing out that Clinton had a much better economic record from a free-market perspective. I also groused to the Wall Street Journal the following year about Bush’s dismal performance.

“Bush doesn’t have a conservative legacy” on the economy, said Dan Mitchell, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Tax-rate reductions are the only positive achievement, and those are temporary … Everything else that has happened has been permanent, and a step toward more statism.” He cited big increases in the federal budget, along with continuing subsidies in agriculture and transportation, new Medicare drug benefits, and increased federal intervention in education and housing.

Let’s review the economic claims in Mr. Thiessen’s column. He writes:

The thrust of their argument is that Bush expanded the size of government dramatically – and they are absolutely right. Federal spending grew significantly on Bush’s watch, and this is without question a black mark on his record. (Federal spending also grew dramatically under Ronald Reagan, though he was dealt a Democratic Congress, whereas Bush had six years of Republican leadership on Capitol Hill.)

Since federal spending almost doubled in Bush’s eight years, it’s tempting to summarily dismiss this assertion, but let’s cite a few additional facts just in case someone is under the illusion that Bush was on the side of taxpayers. And let’s specifically compare Bush to Reagan since Mr. Thiessen seems to think they belong in the same ball park. This article by Veronique de Rugy is probably a good place to begin since it compares all Presidents and shows that Bush was a big spender compared to Reagan…and to Clinton. Chris Edwards has similar data, capturing all eight years of Bush’s tenure. But the most damning evidence comes from the OMB’s Historical Tables, which show that Reagan reduced both entitlements and domestic discretionary spending as a share of GDP during his two terms.  Bush (and I hope nobody is surprised) increased the burden of spending in both of these categories.That’s the spending side of the ledger. Let’s now turn to tax policy, where Thiessen writes:

Bush enacted the largest tax cuts in history – and unlike my personal hero, Ronald Reagan, he never signed a major tax increase into law.

Using the most relevant measures, such as changes in marginal tax rates or comparing the impact of each President’s tax changes on revenues as a share of GDP, Bush’s tax cuts are far less significant than the Reagan tax cuts. But there presumably is some measure, perhaps nominal revenues over some period of years, showing the Bush tax cuts are larger, so we’ll let that claim slide. The more relevant issue to address is the legacy of each President. Reagan did sign several tax increases after his 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act, but the cumulative effect of those unfortunate compromises was relatively modest compared to the positive changes in his first year. When he left office, he bequeathed to the nation a tax code with meaningful and permanent tax rate reductions. The Bush tax cuts, by contrast, expire at the end of this year, and virtually all of the pro-growth provisions will disappear. This doesn’t mean Bush’s record on taxes was bad, but it certainly does not compare to the Gipper’s. But what about other issue, such as trade? Thiessen writes:

Bush enacted free-trade agreements with 17 nations, more than any president in history.

Those are some positive steps, to be sure, but they are offset by the protectionist moves on steel and lumber. I’m not a trade expert, so I don’t know if Bush was a net negative or a net positive, but at best it’s a muddled picture and Thiessen certainly did not present the full story. And speaking of sins of omission, his section on health care notes:

Bush created Health Savings Accounts – the most important free-market health-care reform in a generation. And he courageously stood up to Congressional Democrats when they sought to use the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to nationalize health care – and defeated their efforts.

Conveniently missing from this analysis, though, is any mention of the utterly irresponsible prescription drug entitlement. There is no doubt that Bush’s net impact on health care was to saddle America with more statism. Indeed, I’d be curious to see some long-run numbers on the impact of Bush’s prescription drug entitlement and the terrible plan Obama just imposed on America. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the negative fiscal impact of both plans was comparable. Shifting gears, let’s now turn to education policy, where Thiessen writes:

Bush won a Supreme Court ruling declaring school vouchers constitutional and enacted the nation’s first school-choice program in the District of Columbia.

Bush deserves some credit on school choice, but his overall education record is characterized by more spending and centralization. Thanks in part to his no-bureaucrat-left-behind plan, the budget for the Department of Education grew significantly and federal spending on elementary, secondary, and vocational education more than doubled. Equally worrisome, federal bureaucrats gained more control over education policy. Finally, Thiessen brags about Bush’s record on Social Security reform:

Bush fought valiantly for a conservative priority no American president had ever dared to touch: Social Security reform, with private accounts that would have given millions of our citizens a stake in the free market system. His effort failed, but he deserves credit from conservatives for staking his second term in office on this effort.

This is an area where the former President does deserve some credit. So even though the White House’s failure to ever put forth a specific proposal was rather frustrating, at least Bush did talk about real reform and the country would be better off today if something had been enacted.

This addresses all the economic claims in Thiessen’s article, but we can’t give Bush a complete grade until we examine some of the other issues that were missing from the column. On regulatory issues, the biggest change implemented during the Bush year was probably Sarbanes-Oxley – a clear example of regulatory overkill. Another regulatory change, which turned out to be a ticking time bomb, was the expansion of the “affordable-lending” requirements for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

And speaking of Fannie and Freddie, no analysis of Bush’s record would be complete without a discussion of bailouts. Without getting too deep in the issue, the most galling part of what Bush did was not necessarily recapitalizing the banking system (a good chunk of which was required by government deposit insurance anyhow), but rather the way it happened. During the savings & loan bailout 20 years ago, at least incompetent executives and negligent shareholders were wiped out. Government money was used, but only to pay off depositors and/or to pay healthy firms to absorb bankrupt institutions. Bush and Paulson, by contrast, exacerbated all the moral hazard issues by rescuing the executives and shareholders who helped create the mess. Last but not least, let’s not forget that Bush got the ball rolling on auto-industry bailouts.

If all of this means Bush is a “conservative record without parallel,” then Barack Obama must be the second coming of Ronald Reagan.