My latest podcast, “IPAB: ObamaCare’s Next Constitutional Hurdle.”
My latest podcast, “IPAB: ObamaCare’s Next Constitutional Hurdle.”
Democrats and the left will squeal that Paul Ryan’s budget proposal is a massive threat to the poor, the sick, the elderly, etc, etc. It’s baloney, but a part of me thinks that he might deserve it. Why? Because the excessive rhetoric employed by the left to criticize lower spending levels for domestic welfare programs isn’t much different than the excessive rhetoric Ryan uses to argue against sequestration-induced reductions in military spending. For instance, Ryan speaks of the “devastation to America’s national security” that sequestration would allegedly cause. (See Christopher Preble’s The Pentagon Budget: Myth vs. Reality).
Now I’m sure that I’ll receive emails admonishing me for failing to recognize that the Constitution explicitly gives the federal government the responsibility to defend the nation while the constitutionality of domestic welfare programs isn’t quite so clear. Okay, but what are Ryan’s views on the constitutionality of domestic welfare programs?
At the outset of Ryan’s introduction to his plan, he quotes James Madison and says that the Founders designed a “Constitution of enumerated powers, giving the federal government broad authority over only those matters that must have a single national response, while sharply restricting its authority to intrude on those spheres of activity better left to the states and the people.” That’s nice, but then he proceeds to make statements like this:
But when government mismanagement and political cowardice turn this element of the social contract into an empty promise, seniors are threatened with denied access to care and the next generation is threatened with a debt that destroys its hard earned prosperity. Both consequences would violate President Lyndon B. Johnson’s pledge upon signing the Medicare law: ‘No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine…No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts.’ To fulfill Johnson’s pledge in the 21st century, America’s generations-old health and retirement security programs must be saved and strengthened.
Social contract? Well, so much for those enumerated limits on federal power.
Ryan’s “Statement of Constitutional and Legal Authority” only cites Congress’s general power to tax and spend. Based on the contents of his proposal, which would do little to rein in the federal government’s scope, one could conclude that Ryan’s view of federal power is almost as expansive as that of his Democratic colleagues. Yes, Ryan would reduce the size of government by reducing federal spending as a percentage of GDP. But as I often point out, promises to reduce spending in the future don’t mean a lot when you have a federal government that has the ability to spend money on pretty much any activity that it wants. And under Ryan’s plan, the federal government would be able to continue spending money on pretty much any activity that it wants.
President Obama’s budget proposal was unveiled today, generating all sorts of conflicting statements from both parties.
Some of the assertions wrongly focus on red ink rather than the size of government. Others rely on dishonest Washington budget math, which means spending increases magically become budget cuts simply because outlays are growing at a slower rate than previously planned.
When you strip away all the misleading and inaccurate rhetoric, here’s the one set of numbers that really matters. If we believe the President’s forecasts (which may be a best-case scenario), the burden of federal spending will grow by $2 trillion between this year and 2022.
In all likelihood, the actual numbers will be worse than this forecast.
The President’s budget, for instance, projects that the burden of federal spending will expand by less than 1 percent next year. That sounds like good news since it would satisfy Mitchell’s Golden Rule.
But don’t believe it. If we look at the budget Obama proposed last year, federal spending was supposed to fall this year. Yet the Obama Administration now projects that outlays in 2012 will be more than 5 percent higher than they were in 2011.
The most honest assessment of the budget came from the President’s Chief of Staff, who openly stated that, “the time for austerity is not today.”
With $2 trillion of additional spending (and probably more), that’s the understatement of the century.
What makes this such a debacle is that other nations have managed to impose real restraints on government budgets. The Baltic nations have made actual cuts to spending. And governments in Canada, New Zealand, Slovakia, and Ireland generated big improvements by either freezing budgets or letting them grow very slowly.
I’ve already pointed out that the budget could be balanced in about 10 years if the Congress and the President displayed a modest bit of fiscal discipline and allowed spending to grow by no more than 2 percent annually.
But the goal shouldn’t be to balance the budget. We want faster growth, more freedom, and constitutional government. All of these goals (as well as balancing the budget) are made possible by reducing the burden of federal spending.
After much wrangling and consternation, the Greek government has agreed to the latest round of “drastic austerity measures,” the most significant of which is the promise to cut 15,000 government jobs. In return, the Greeks will receive 130 billion euros ($170 billion) of European bailout money to keep the Greek state afloat and, crucially, in the eurozone. That, anyway, is the plan.
The leaders of the political parties that “support” the Greek technocratic (i.e. unelected) government still have to approve the cuts, which they might not do because the unions threaten a general strike. But, there are additional problems as well. First, many of those 15,000 government workers will likely come from the ranks of those who are close to retirement. While the number of government workers will thus shrink, the government’s unsustainable social security burden will worsen. Second, the government workforce (i.e. public servants and employees of the Greek parastatals) account for over 22 percent of the Greek labor force of 4.4 million. That means that the number of people working for the government will decline from 968,000 to 953,000—a reduction of 1.6 percent. And that is what amounts to a “drastic austerity measure” in Greece!
I don’t blame Democrats for wanting to seduce Republicans into a tax-increase trap. Indeed, I completely understand why some Democrats said their top political goal was getting the GOP to surrender the no-tax-hike position.
I’m mystified, though, why some Republicans are willing to walk into such a trap. If you were playing chess against someone, and that person kept pleading with you to make a certain move, wouldn’t you be a tad bit suspicious that your opponent really wasn’t trying to help you win?
When I talk to the Republicans who are open to tax hikes, they sometimes admit that their party will suffer at the polls for agreeing to the hikes, but they say it’s the right thing to do because of all the government red ink.
I suppose that’s a noble sentiment, though I find that most GOPers who are open to tax hikes also tend to be big spenders, so I question their sincerity (with Senator Coburn being an obvious exception).
But even if we assume that all of them are genuinely motivated by a desire to control deficits and debt, shouldn’t they be asked to provide some evidence that higher taxes are an effective way of fixing the fiscal policy mess?
I’m not trying to score debating points. This is a serious question.
European nations, for instance, have been raising taxes for decades, almost always saying the higher taxes were necessary to balance budgets and control red ink. Yet that obviously hasn’t worked. Europe’s now in the middle of a fiscal crisis.
So why do some people think we should mimic the French and the Greeks?
But we don’t need to look overseas for examples. Look at what’s happened in Illinois, where politicians recently imposed a giant tax hike.
The Wall Street Journal opined this morning on the results. Here are the key passages:
Run up spending and debt, raise taxes in the naming of balancing the budget, but then watch as deficits rise and your credit-rating falls anyway. That’s been the sad pattern in Europe, and now it’s hitting that mecca of tax-and-spend government known as Illinois.
…Moody’s downgraded Illinois state debt to A2 from A1, the lowest among the 50 states. That’s worse even than California.
…This wasn’t supposed to happen. Only a year ago, Governor Pat Quinn and his fellow Democrats raised individual income taxes by 67% and the corporate tax rate by 46%. They did it to raise $7 billion in revenue, as the Governor put it, to “get Illinois back on fiscal sound footing” and improve the state’s credit rating. So much for that.
…And—no surprise—in part because the tax increases have caused companies to leave Illinois, the state budget office confesses that as of this month the state still has $6.8 billion in unpaid bills and unaddressed obligations.
In other words, higher taxes led to fiscal deterioration in Illinois, just as tax increases in Europe have been followed by bad outcomes.
Whenever any politician argues in favor of a higher tax burden, just keep these two points in mind:
1. Higher taxes encourage more government spending.
2. Higher taxes don’t raise as much money as politicians claim.
The combination of these two factors explains why higher taxes make things worse rather than better. And they explain why Europe is in trouble and why Illinois is in trouble.
The relevant issue is whether the crowd in Washington should copy those failed examples. As this video explains, higher taxes are not the solution.
Heck, I’ve already explained that more than 100 percent of America’s long-fun fiscal challenge is government spending. So why reward politicians for overspending by letting them confiscate more of our income?
Europe is in the midst of a fiscal crisis caused by too much government spending, yet many of the continent’s politicians want the European Central Bank to purchase the dodgy debt of reckless welfare states such as Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal in order to prop up these big government policies.
So it’s especially noteworthy that economists at the European Central Bank have just produced a study showing that government spending is unambiguously harmful to economic performance. Here is a brief description of the key findings.
…we analyse a wide set of 108 countries composed of both developed and emerging and developing countries, using a long time span running from 1970-2008, and employing different proxies for government size… Our results show a significant negative effect of the size of government on growth. …Interestingly, government consumption is consistently detrimental to output growth irrespective of the country sample considered (OECD, emerging and developing countries).
There are two very interesting takeaways from this new research. First, the evidence shows that the problem is government spending, and that problem exists regardless of whether the budget is financed by taxes or borrowing. Unfortunately, too many supposedly conservative policy makers fail to grasp this key distinction and mistakenly focus on the symptom (deficits) rather than the underlying disease (big government).
The second key takeaway is that Europe’s corrupt political elite is engaging in a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which is when one bad government policy is used to justify another bad government policy. In this case, they undermined prosperity by recklessly increasing the burden of government spending, and they’re now using the resulting fiscal crisis as an excuse to promote inflationary monetary policy by the European Central Bank.
The ECB study, by contrast, shows that the only good answer is to reduce the burden of the public sector. Moreover, the research also has a discussion of the growth-maximizing size of government.
… economic progress is limited when government is zero percent of the economy (absence of rule of law, property rights, etc.), but also when it is closer to 100 percent (the law of diminishing returns operates in addition to, e.g., increased taxation required to finance the government’s growing burden – which has adverse effects on human economic behaviour, namely on consumption decisions).
The key lesson in the video is that government is far too big in the United States and other industrialized nations, which is precisely what the scholars found in the European Central Bank study.
Another interesting finding in the study is that the quality and structure of government matters.
Growth in government size has negative effects on economic growth, but the negative effects are three times as great in non-democratic systems as in democratic systems. …the negative effect of government size on GDP per capita is stronger at lower levels of institutional quality, and ii) the positive effect of institutional quality on GDP per capita is stronger at smaller levels of government size.
The simple way of thinking about these results is that government spending doesn’t do as much damage in a nation such as Sweden as it does in a failed state such as Mexico.
Last but not least, the ECB study analyzes various budget process reforms. There’s a bit of jargon in this excerpt, but it basically shows that spending limits (presumably policies similar to Senator Corker’s CAP Act or Congressman Brady’s MAP Act) are far better than balanced budget rules.
…we use three indices constructed by the European Commission (overall rule index, expenditure rule index, and budget balance and debt rule index). …The former incorporates each index individually whereas the latter includes interacted terms between fiscal rules and government size proxies. Particularly under the total government expenditure and government spending specifications…we find statistically significant positive coefficients on the overall rule index and the expenditure rule index, meaning that having these fiscal numerical rules improves GDP growth for these set of EU countries.
This research is important because it shows that rules focusing on deficits and debt (such as requirements to balance the budget) are not as effective because politicians can use them as an excuse to raise taxes.
At the risk of citing myself again, the number one message from this new ECB research is that lawmakers - at the very least - need to follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule and make sure government spending grows slower than the private sector. Fortunately, that can happen, as shown in this video.
But my Golden Rule is just a minimum requirement. If politicians really want to do the right thing, they should copy the Baltic nations and implement genuine spending cuts rather than just reductions in the rate of growth in the burden of government.
After three years and $4 trillion in combined deficit spending, unemployment remains stubbornly high and the economy sluggish. That people are still asking what the government can do to stimulate the economy is mind-boggling.
That the Keynesian-inspired deficit spending binge did create jobs isn’t in question. The real question is whether it created any net jobs after all the negative effects of the spending and debt are taken into account. How many private-sector jobs were lost or not created in the first place because of the resources diverted to the government for its job creation? How many jobs are being lost or not created because of increased uncertainty in the business community over future tax increases and other detrimental government policies?
Don’t expect the disciples of interventionist government to attempt an answer to those questions any time soon. It has simply become gospel in some quarters that massive deficit spending is necessary to get the economy back on its feet.
The idea that government spending can “make up for” a slow-down in private economic activity has already been discredited by the historical record—including the Great Depression and Japan’s recent “lost decade.”
Our own history offers evidence that reducing the government’s footprint on the private sector is the better way to get the economy going.
Take for example, the “Not-So-Great Depression” of 1920-21. Cato Institute scholar Jim Powell notes that President Warren G. Harding inherited from his predecessor Woodrow Wilson “a post-World War I depression that was almost as severe, from peak to trough, as the Great Contraction from 1929 to 1933 that FDR would later inherit.” Instead of resorting to deficit spending to “stimulate” the economy, taxes and government spending were cut. The economy took off.
Similarly, fears at the end of World War II that demobilization would result in double-digit unemployment when the troops returned home were unrealized. Instead, spending was dramatically reduced, economic controls were lifted, and the returning troops were successfully reintegrated into the economy.
Therefore, the focus of policymakers in Washington should be on fostering long-term economic growth instead of futilely trying to jump-start the economy with costly short-term government spending sprees. In order to reignite economic growth and job creation, the federal government should enact dramatic cuts in government spending, eliminate burdensome regulations, and scuttle restrictions on foreign trade.
The budgetary reality is that policymakers today have no choice but to drastically reduce spending if we are to head off the looming fiscal train wreck. Stimulus proponents generally recognize that our fiscal path is unsustainable, but they argue that the current debt binge is nonetheless critical to an economic recovery.
There’s no more evidence for this belief than there is for the existence of the tooth fairy.
Not only has Washington’s profligacy left us worse off, our children now face the prospect of reduced living standards and crushing debt.
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