Tag: deficit

The Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of Fiscal Policy

The fault line in American politics is often not between Republicans and Democrats, but rather between taxpayers and the Washington political elite. Here are two examples that symbolize why economic policy is such a mess:

First, we have President George W. Bush’s former top aide, Karl Rove, making the case in the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration has been fiscally irresponsible. That’s certainly true, but as I’ve pointed out on previous occasions (here and here), Rove has zero credibility on these issues. In the excerpt below, Rove attacks Obama for earmarks, but this corrupt form of pork-barrel spending skyrocketed during the Bush years. Rove rips Obama for government-run healthcare, but Rove helped push through Congress a reckless new entitlement for prescription drugs. He attacks Obama for misusing TARP, but the Bush administration created that no-strings-attached bailout program.

Those are examples of hypocrisy, but Rove also is willing to prevaricate. He blames Obama for boosting the burden of government spending to 24 percent of GDP, but it was the Bush administration that boosted the federal government from 18.2 percent of GDP in 2001 to 24.7 percent of GDP in 2009. Obama is guilty of following similar policies and maintaining a bloated budget, but it was Bush (with Rove’s guidance) that drove the economy into a fiscal ditch.

Here’s some of Rove:

The president’s problem is largely a mess of his own making. Deficit spending did not begin when Mr. Obama took office. But he and his Democratic allies have supported, proposed, passed or signed and then spent every dime that’s gone out the door since Jan. 20, 2009. Voters know it is Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders who approved a $410 billion supplemental (complete with 8,500 earmarks) in the middle of the last fiscal year, and then passed a record-spending budget for this one. Mr. Obama and Democrats approved an $862 billion stimulus and a $1 trillion health-care overhaul, and they now are trying to add $266 billion in “temporary” stimulus spending to permanently raise the budget baseline. It is the president and Congressional allies who refuse to return the $447 billion unspent stimulus dollars and want to use repayments of TARP loans for more spending rather than reducing the deficit. It is the president who gave Fannie and Freddie carte blanche to draw hundreds of billions from the Treasury. It is the Democrats’ profligacy that raised the share of the GDP taken by the federal government to 24% this fiscal year. This is indeed the road to fiscal hell, and it’s been paved by the president and his party.

Second, we have Nancy Pelosi claiming that paying people to remain unemployed is a good way of creating jobs. She’s been appropriately mocked for this assertion, but keep in mind that she is accurately regurgitating standard Keynesian theory. It doesn’t matter that Keynesianism didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s, and didn’t work for Bush in 2008. Proponents of this approach have a childlike faith in the Keynesian model and its ability to generate very specific (albeit completely inaccurate) numbers.

Here are two videos that offer the policy-wonk version of a steel cage match. In one corner, we have the Speaker of the House arguing that subsidizing joblessness is a “stimulus” strategy. In the other corner, I explain why transferring money from the economy’s left pocket to the right pocket is not a recipe for growth.

 

Dan Mitchell Gets Results

I gave a speech in Hungary about two weeks ago and now the government has announced a big step in the direction of better fiscal policy. My role was about as meaningful as the rooster crowing, followed by the sunrise, but this is still good news. According to Reuters, “Hungary’s new government plans to introduce a flat personal income tax of 16 percent from 2011, as well as a 15 percent cut in public sector wages.” Those are the headline initiatives, but the fiscal reform package includes other good policies. Here’s a blurb from The Economist.

After a three-day emergency cabinet meeting over the weekend, Viktor Orban, the prime minister, announced the government’s new economic programme this afternoon. The battered forint quickly jumped almost 2% in response. …The introduction of a 16% flat personal income tax is a daring move, and could have important repercussions beyond balancing the state’s books. Unemployment, or at least that element of it which is declared, is nudging 12%, and one reason is Hungary’s cumbersome bureacracy and heavy tax burden. Now Mr Orban has announced that corporation tax for companies with annual profits of less than 500m forints will be reduced from 19% to 10%. Ten more small and bothersome taxes are set to be abolished altogether.

A few years ago, when several nations each year were adopting the flat tax, I arbitrarily decided that this rock classic would be the theme song of the tax reform movement. Sadly, it doesn’t look like we’ll get to play it in America anytime soon.

You Don’t Need to Waste More Money to Shrink Government

It’s rather symbolic of what’s wrong with Washington that a commission ostensibly created to promote deficit reduction is seeking a bigger budget, as noted in the Tax Notes story excerpted below. Rather than impose a bigger burden on taxpayers, though, I will generously suggest that they could easily fulfill their mandate by perusing Cato’s Downsizing Government website. And if they really want to do the right thing, they can always just look at Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution and get rid of existing programs and activities that are not enumerated powers of the federal government.

Saddled with a tight deadline and great expectations, members of President Obama’s deficit reduction commission say they may not have the resources necessary to meet their task. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which the president created through an executive order in February, is charged with developing a plan by December 1 that would stabilize the budget deficit by 2015 and reduce the federal debt over the long term. The group is widely expected to consider a combination of tax reforms and spending cuts. But despite the weighty demands, the panel has only a fraction of the staff and budget of standing congressional committees. The panel’s own cochairs and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have criticized the meager resources and called for more support. …The White House has set aside the resources to provide the equivalent of four full-time salaries and $500,000 in operating costs for the commission, fiscal commission Executive Director Bruce Reed told Tax Analysts.

(h/t: TaxProf)

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.

Greece’s Problem Is High Tax Rates, Not Tax Evasion

The New York Times has an article describing widespread tax evasion in Greece, along with an implication that the country’s fiscal crisis is largely the result of unpaid taxes and could be mostly solved if taxpayers were more obedient to the state. This is grossly inaccurate. A quick look at the budget numbers reveals that tax revenues have remained relatively constant in recent years, consuming nearly 40 percent of GDP. The burden of government spending, by contrast, has jumped significantly and now exceeds 50 percent of Greek economic output.

The article also is flawed in assuming that harsher enforcement is the key to compliance. As this video shows, even the economists at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development admit that tax evasion is driven by high tax rates (which is remarkable since the OECD is the international bureaucracy pushing for global tax rules to undermine tax competition and reduce fiscal sovereignty).

Ironically, the New York Times article quotes Friedrich Schneider of Johannes Kepler University in Austria, but only to provide an estimate of Greece’s shadow economy. The reporter should have looked at an article that Schneider wrote for the International Monetary Fund, which found that:

Macroeconomic and microeconomic modeling studies based on data for several countries suggest that the major driving forces behind the size and growth of the shadow economy are an increasing burden of tax and social security payments… The bigger the difference between the total cost of labor in the official economy and the after-tax earnings from work, the greater the incentive for employers and employees to avoid this difference and participate in the shadow economy. …Several studies have found strong evidence that the tax regime influences the shadow economy. …In Austria, the burden of direct taxes (including social security payments) has been the biggest influence on the growth of the shadow economy… Other studies show similar results for the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and the United States. In the United States, analysis shows that as the marginal federal personal income tax rate increases by one percentage point, other things being equal, the shadow economy grows by 1.4 percentage points. …A study of Quebec City in Canada shows that people are highly mobile between the official and the shadow economy, and that as net wages in the official economy go up, they work less in the shadow economy. This study also emphasizes that where people perceive the tax rate as too high, an increase in the (marginal) tax rate will lead to a decrease in tax revenue.

It is worth noting the Schneider’s research also shows why Obama’s tax policy is very misguided. The President wants to boost the top tax rate by nearly five percentage points, and that’s on top of the big increase in the tax rate on saving and investment included in Obamacare. Based on Schneider’s research, we can expect America’s underground economy to expand.

Shifting back to Greece, Schneider does not claim that tax rates are the only factor determining compliance. But his research indicates that more onerous enforcement regimes are unlikely to put much of a dent in tax evasion unless accompanied by better tax policy (i.e., lower tax rates). Moreover, compliance also is undermined by the rampant corruption and incompetence of the Greek government, but that problem won’t be solved unless politicians reduce the size and scope of the public sector. Needless to say, that’s not very likely. So when I read some of the details in this excerpt from the New York Times, much of my sympathy is for taxpayers rather than the greedy politicians that turned Greece into a fiscal mess:

In the wealthy, northern suburbs of this city, where summer temperatures often hit the high 90s, just 324 residents checked the box on their tax returns admitting that they owned pools. So tax investigators studied satellite photos of the area — a sprawling collection of expensive villas tucked behind tall gates — and came back with a decidedly different number: 16,974 pools. That kind of wholesale lying about assets, and other eye-popping cases that are surfacing in the news media here, points to the staggering breadth of tax dodging that has long been a way of life here. …Such evasion has played a significant role in Greece’s debt crisis, and as the country struggles to get its financial house in order, it is going after tax cheats as never before. …To get more attentive care in the country’s national health system, Greeks routinely pay doctors cash on the side, a practice known as “fakelaki,” Greek for little envelope. And bribing government officials to grease the wheels of bureaucracy is so standard that people know the rates. They say, for instance, that 300 euros, about $400, will get you an emission inspection sticker. …Various studies have concluded that Greece’s shadow economy represented 20 to 30 percent of its gross domestic product. Friedrich Schneider, the chairman of the economics department at Johannes Kepler University of Linz, studies Europe’s shadow economies; he said that Greece’s was at 25 percent last year and estimated that it would rise to 25.2 percent in 2010.

Bernanke’s Hollow Deficit Warning

Even though I’ve been in Washington almost 25 years, I am endlessly amazed at the chutzpah of people who support higher spending and bigger government while piously lecturing the rest of us about the need to control deficits. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is a good (though “bad” might be a better term) example of this hypocrisy. He was an avid supporter of bailouts and so-called stimulus, yet the Washington Post reports that he is now hectoring us to be fiscally responsible:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned Wednesday that Americans may have to accept higher taxes or changes in cherished entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security if the nation is to avoid staggering budget deficits that threaten to choke off economic growth. “These choices are difficult, and it always seems easier to put them off – until the day they cannot be put off anymore,” Bernanke said in a speech. “But unless we as a nation demonstrate a strong commitment to fiscal responsibility, in the longer run we will have neither financial stability nor healthy economic growth.”

Senator Bunning Exposes Washington’s Fiscal Frauds

President Obama and many other politicians in Washington are big fans of pay-as-you-go budgeting, which means they want any new spending or tax relief offset (or “paid for”) with tax increases or spending cuts from other parts of the budget. Or at least that’s what they claim. But when Senator Bunning took them at their word and blocked a $10 billion spending bill because his colleagues were unwilling to make some tiny changes elsewhere, he was treated like a leper. Even his Republicans colleagues largely disapproved of his actions (so much for having learned any lessons from the drubbings they took at the polls in 2006 and 2008). Attacked from all sides, Bunning eventually relented in exchange for an offset vote (which was defeated, of course). What makes this episode interesting is not the specific policies that were being considered. As I posted earlier this week, Bunning was not even trying to shrink the size of government. Indeed, his “offset” was actually a tax increase (getting rid of a special tax break for paper manufacturing).

But this incident does expose the gross hypocrisy of the supposed deficit hawks in Washington. President Obama and the Democrats (and many Republicans) pretend they care about deficits, but their concerns magically disappear whenever there is a chance to buy votes by spending other people’s money. When tax cuts or tax increases are being debated, however, many of these same politicians piously declare their unwavering opposition to red ink (unless, of course, it’s a special tax break for a contributor). But perhaps it’s no surprise to discover that politicians think higher taxes are the solution to the over-spending problem in Washington.

What about the organizations that supposedly exist to fight deficits, such as the Concord Coalition and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (they should be fighting spending instead, but let’s set that issue aside). Folks from these groups often ask politicians to be courageous and make “tough choices.” So I went to the Concord Coalition’s homepage and was shocked, shocked to find nothing about Bunning’s effort. I checked the blog and the press releases and found lots of tough rhetoric, but not one word of praise (or one word of any sort) for a Senator who tried to put the Concord Coalition’s words into action. And what about the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget? Same song, second verse. Not a mention of Bunning on the homepage, blog, or in the press releases. (See update below)

Anybody care to make any predictions whether these groups will be similarly silent when President Obama’s “Fiscal Responsibility Commission” unveils a big tax hike?

Mea Culpa: On another matter, I have to confess an error. I did an interview for NBC affiliate stations on the financial mess at the Postal Service. I haven’t spent any time on that issue, so I quickly scanned some material from my Cato colleagues Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven and saw that Congress had given an indirect bailout to the Postal Service by suspending $4 billion of required pre-funding for retiree health benefits. I then went on the air and said that this was a taxpayer subsidy for the Postal Service’s lavish pay and benefits. The Postal Service does have lavish pay and benefits, and the indirect bailout may lead to a direct infusion of taxpayer money at some point in the near future, but what I said I was wrong because no taxpayer money is currently being allocated (and I would have avoided the mistake if I paid closer attention to what Chris and Tad wrote). So, please, postal workers, don’t go…um…postal on me.

Mea Culpa, Part II: I am getting sloppy in my old age. Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget nailed me fair and square. CFRB did say something nice about Bunning on its blog back on February 26. I should have scrolled down farther. I did just check the Concord Coalition blog, all the way back to the beginning of the year, and was relieved (from a personal perspective, not on policy grounds) to find no mention of Bunning’s effort.