Tag: debt

On Greece: Plus Ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

People keep asking me what I think about Europe’s most recent crisis (read: Greece). Well, my sentiments are exactly the same as they were in April 2012, when my Globe Asia column was titled: “China and Greece – Here We Go Again.”

Here’s what I wrote on Greece: “And if you think the political chattering classes in the U.S. are dangerous, take a look at Europe, where the elites are fighting economic reality with all their might — a fight they will lose. Indeed, they have built an economic doomsday machine. And when it comes to Greece, don’t fool yourselves into believing that the recent huge debt restructuring exercise will allow Europe’s politicos to pull their chestnuts out of the fire. Greece’s annual broad money (M3) growth rate has been in negative territory for every month since February 2010, and it is currently contracting at a fantastic 17.5%. In the words of former President George W. Bush (not Yogi Berra): ‘This sucker is going down.’ You can forget all the calculations and soothing noises coming from Europe.”

Yes. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The Golden Rule of Spending Restraint

My tireless (and probably annoying) campaign to promote my Golden Rule of spending restraint is bearing fruit.

The good folks at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal allowed me to explain the fiscal and economic benefits that accrue when nations limit the growth of government.

Here are some excerpts from my column, starting with a proper definition of the problem.

What matters, as Milton Friedman taught us, is the size of government. That’s the measure of how much national income is being redistributed and reallocated by Washington. Spending often is wasteful and counterproductive whether it’s financed by taxes or borrowing.

So how do we deal with this problem?

I’m sure you’ll be totally shocked to discover that I think the answer is spending restraint.

More specifically, governments should be bound by my Golden Rule.

Ensure that government spending, over time, grows more slowly than the private economy. …Even if the federal budget grew 2% each year, about the rate of projected inflation, that would reduce the relative size of government and enable better economic performance by allowing more resources to be allocated by markets rather than government officials.

I list several reasons why Mitchell’s Golden Rule is the only sensible approach to fiscal policy.

A golden rule has several advantages over fiscal proposals based on balanced budgets, deficits or debt control. First, it correctly focuses on the underlying problem of excessive government rather than the symptom of red ink. Second, lawmakers have the power to control the growth of government spending. Deficit targets and balanced-budget requirements put lawmakers at the mercy of economic fluctuations that can cause large and unpredictable swings in tax revenue. Third, spending can still grow by 2% even during a downturn, making the proposal more politically sustainable.

The last point, by the way, is important because it may appeal to reasonable Keynesians. And, in any event, it means the Rule is more politically sustainable.

I then provide lots of examples of nations that enjoyed great success by restraining spending. But rather than regurgitate several paragraphs from the column, here’s a table I prepared that wasn’t included in the column because of space constraints.

It shows the countries that restrained spending and the years that they followed the Golden Rule. Then I include three columns of data. First, I show how fast spending grew during the period, followed by numbers showing what happened to the overall burden of government spending and the change to annual government borrowing.

Golden Rule Examples

Last but not least, I deal with the one weakness of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. How do you convince politicians to maintain fiscal discipline over time?

I suggest that Switzerland’s “debt brake” may be a good model.

Can any government maintain the spending restraint required by a fiscal golden rule? Perhaps the best model is Switzerland, where spending has climbed by less than 2% per year ever since a voter-imposed spending cap went into effect early last decade. And because economic output has increased at a faster pace, the Swiss have satisfied the golden rule and enjoyed reductions in the burden of government and consistent budget surpluses.

In other words, don’t bother with balanced budget requirements that might backfire by giving politicians an excuse to raise taxes.

If the problem is properly defined as being too much government, then the only logical answer is to shrink the burden of government spending.

Last but not least, I point out that Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas has legislation, the MAP Act, that is somewhat similar to the Swiss Debt Brake.

We know what works and we know how to get there. The real challenge is convincing politicians to bind their own hands.

Is Government Debt a Problem?

Based on what’s happened in Greece and other European nations, we know from real-world evidence that even nations from the developed world can spend themselves into debt trouble.

This has led to research that seeks to pinpoint when debt reaches a dangerous level.

Where’s the point where investors stop buying the debt? Where’s the point when interest on the debt becomes too much of a burden?

Most famously, a couple of economists crunched numbers and warned that nations may reach a tipping point when debt is about 90 percent of GDP.

I was not persuaded by this research for two reasons.

First, I think it’s far more important to focus on the underlying disease of too much government, and not get fixated on the symptom of too much borrowing. If I go see a doctor because of headaches and he discovers I have a brain tumor, I want him to address that problem and not get distracted by the fact that head pain is one of the symptoms.

Second, there are big differences between nations, and those differences have a big effect on whether investors are willing to buy government bonds. The burden of debt is about 240 percent of GDP in Japan and the nation’s economy is moribund, for instance, yet there’s no indication that the “bond vigilantes” are about to pounce. On the other hand, investors are understandably leery about buying Argentinian government debt, even though accumulated red ink is less than 40 percent of economic output.

So what about America, where government borrowing from the private sector now accounts for 82 percent of GDP? Have we reached a danger point for government debt?

We Need a Debate about the Size of Government, but It Helps to Understand Basic Fiscal Facts

Self awareness is supposed to be a good thing, so I’m going to openly acknowledge that I have an unusual fixation on the size of government.

I don’t lose a wink of sleep thinking about deficits, but I toss and turn all night fretting about the overall burden of government spending.

My peculiar focus on the size and scope of government can be seen in this video, which explains that spending is the disease and deficits are just a symptom.

Moreover, my Golden Rule explicitly targets the spending side of the budget. And I also came up with a “Bob Dole Award” to mock those who mistakenly dwell on deficits.

With all this as background, you’ll understand why I got excited when I started reading Robert Samuelson’s column in today’s Washington Post.

Well, there’s a presidential whopper. Obama is right that the role of the federal government deserves an important debate, but he is wrong when he says that we’ve had that debate. Just the opposite: The White House and Congress have spent the past five years evading the debate. They’ve argued over federal budget deficits without addressing the underlying issues of what the government should do, what programs are unneeded, whether some beneficiaries are undeserving… The avoidance is entirely bipartisan. Congressional Republicans have been just as allergic to genuine debate as the White House and its Democratic congressional allies.

Three Cheers for the Rule of Law: Holding Deadbeat Debtor Argentina to Account

Being a creditor is a thankless task. The worst offenders are governments, whose leaders constantly promise their peoples a free lunch, dinner, and more. 

Argentina is a typical offender. One of the world’s richest nations at the end of World War II, the South American country embraced political authoritarianism and economic populism. In the most recent Economic Freedom of the World rating Argentina came in at 137 of the 152 nations rated. 

The country’s worst measure is rule of law, which is reflected in its treatment of international creditors—and steadfast resistance to U.S. court rulings ordering Buenos Aires to pay its debts.

In 2001 Argentina defaulted on nearly $100 billion in debt. The Argentine people essentially had a wild party and woke up with a hangover. Their first reaction was to stiff the fools who had extended credit. Owners of roughly 93 percent of the debt gave in and restructured their paper, accepting huge write-offs.

For Any Fiscal Policy Question, Spending Restraint Is the Answer

Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. How to fix the mess at the IRS is a fiscal policy question, and that requires tax reform rather than spending restraint.

But allow me a bit of literary license. We just had a big debt limit battle in Washington and, after a lot of political drama, politicians kicked the can down the road.

So we need to ask ourselves whether that fight accomplished anything?

It did focus attention of the flaws of Obamacare, and I suppose there’s some value in that.

But the debt limit was not a vehicle - as has been the case in the past - for changes in fiscal policy. We didn’t get something good, like the sequester which resulted from the 2011 debt limit legislation. And we didn’t get something bad, like the tax hike in the 1985 debt limit legislation

Some are asking whether we should even have a debt limit. A number of critics have suggested we should get rid of the borrowing cap because it creates the risk of default. I think those concerns are very overblown.

I’m more persuaded by those who argue that the debt limit diverts attention from better options to improve fiscal policy.

Testifying to the Joint Economic Committee about “Debt Limit Brinksmanship”

As we get closer to the debt limit, the big spenders in Washington are becoming increasingly hysterical about the supposed possibility of default if politicians lose the ability to borrow more money.

I testified yesterday to the Joint Economic Committee on “The Economic Costs of Debt-Ceiling Brinkmanship” and I explained (reiterating points I made back in 2011) that there is zero chance of default.

Why? Because, as I outline beginning about the 3:10 mark of the video, annual interest payments are about $230 billion and annual tax collections are approaching $3 trillion.

I actually made five points in my testimony. The first three should be quite familiar to regular readers.

First, America’s main fiscal problem is that government is too big. That’s the disease. Deficits and debt are symptoms of that underlying problem.

Second, you achieve good fiscal policy by following “Mitchell’s Golden Rule” so that government grows slower than private sector economic output.

Third, we’ve made some progress in the last two years thanks to genuine fiscal restraint, and we can balance the budget in a very short period of time if lawmakers impose a very modest bit of spending discipline in the future.

The fourth point, which I already discussed above, is that there’s no risk of default - unless the Obama Administration deliberately wants that to happen. But that’s simply not a realistic possibility.

My fifth and final point deserves a bit of extra discussion. I explained that Greece is now suffering through a very deep recession, with record unemployment and harsh economic conditions. I asked the Committee a rhetorical question: Wouldn’t it have been preferable if there was some sort of mechanism, say, 15 years ago that would have enabled some lawmakers to throw sand in the gears so that the government couldn’t issue any more debt?

Debt limit jokesYes, there would have been some budgetary turmoil at the time, but it would have been trivial compared to the misery the Greek people currently are enduring.

I closed by drawing an analogy to the situation in Washington. We know we’re on an unsustainable path. Do we want to wait until we hit a crisis before we address the over-spending crisis? Or do we want to take prudent and modest steps today - such as genuine entitlement reform and spending caps - to ensure prosperity and long-run growth.

Seems like the answer should be simple…at least if you’re not trying to get reelected by bribing voters with their own money.

P.S. My argument for short-term fighting today to avoid fiscal crisis in the future was advanced in greater detail by a Wall Street expert back in 2011.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some good debt limit cartoons by clicking here and here.