Tag: Deficits

Public Pensions as Property Rights

On Thursday I noted that former California House Speaker Willie Brown said we shouldn’t worry about the cost of government workers’ pensions because “My guess is that the State of California, like most places involved with pensions, is going to cease to pay them.”

My former colleague Andrew Biggs, writing at The American, says Speaker Brown and I are, believe it or not, too optimistic:

In most states, accrued public-sector pension benefits carry an effective property right, either through legal rulings or outright constitutional provisions. As Donald Kohn, the vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, put it, “For all intents and purposes, accrued benefits have turned out to be riskless obligations.”

Some states interpret these rights as prospective, meaning that not only does a public-sector employee have a right to the benefits he’s already earned, but he has a right to continue earning benefits at the same rate no matter how financially unsustainable the pension formula may be. These provisions make state pension benefits far more assured than even Social Security, which the federal government can legally cut at anytime.

Plus, he says, the pension shortfalls are even larger than most analysts think.

Resume worrying.

What’s the Future for Supply-Side Economics?

Kevin Williamson has a long-overdue piece in National Review making two essential points about supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve. First, he explains that tax cuts are not the fiscal equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Simply stated, too many Republicans have fallen into very sloppy habits. They oftentimes fail to understand the difference between “supply-side” tax rate reductions that actually improve incentives to engage in productive behavior and social-engineering tax cuts that simply allow people to keep more money, regardless of whether they create more wealth. This does not necessarily mean the latter form of tax cuts are bad, but they definitely do not boost economic performance and generate revenue feedback. Moreover, even when GOPers are talking about supply-side tax cuts, they frequently exaggerate the positive effects by claiming that lower tax rates “pay for themselves.” I certainly think that can happen, and I give real-world examples in this video on the Laffer Curve (including Reagan’s lower tax rates on those evil rich people), but self-financing tax cuts are not common.

Williamson’s second point is that the true fiscal burden is best measured by looking at how much government is spending. I might quibble with his description of deficits as a form of deferred taxation since technically debt can be rolled over in perpetuity, but his main point is right on the mark. There is no doubt that most forms of government spending – regardless of the means of financing – harm growth by diverting money from the productive sector of the economy (technically, the economic damage occurs because capital and labor are misallocated and incentives are diminished, but let’s not get too wonky). Here are some excerpts from Williamson’s article:

Properly understood, there were no Reagan tax cuts. In 1980 federal spending was $590 billion and in 1989 it was $1.14 trillion; you don’t get Reagan tax cuts without Tip O’Neill spending cuts. Looked at from the proper perspective, we haven’t really had any tax cuts to speak of — we’ve had tax deferrals. …even during periods of strong economic growth, there has been nothing to indicate that our economy is going to grow so fast that it will surmount our deficits and debt without serious spending restraint. This should be a shrieking klaxon of alarm for conservatives still falling for happy talk about pro-growth tax cuts and strategic Laffer Curve optimizing. …The exaggeration of supply-side effects — the belief that tax-rate cuts pay for themselves or more than pay for themselves over some measurable period — is more an article of faith than an economic fact. But it’s a widespread faith: George W. Bush argued that tax cuts would serve to increase tax revenues. So did John McCain. …It is true that tax cuts can promote growth, and that the growth they promote can help generate tax revenue that offsets some of the losses from the cuts. …The problem with magical supply-siderism is that it gives Republicans a rhetorical and intellectual framework in which to ignore spending — just keep cutting taxes, the argument goes, and somebody else will eventually have to cut spending. The results speak for themselves: Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott and Bill Frist all know how to count, but, under their leadership, Republicans spent all the money the country had and then some.

Now that we’ve chastised Republicans, it’s time to turn our attention to the Democrats. We know they are bad on spending (I often joke that Republicans expand government out of stupidity, while Democrats do it for reasons of malice), so let’s focus on their approach to Laffer Curve issues. If the GOP is guilty of being too exuberant, the Democrats and their allies at the Joint Committee on Taxation (the bureaucracy on Capitol Hill that estimates the revenue impact of tax policy changes) are guilty of deliberate blindness. The current methodology used by the JCT (with the full support of the Democrats) is to assume that changes in tax policy – regardless of magnitude – have zero impact on economic performance. If you double tax rates, the JCT assumes the economy is unaffected and people earn just as much taxable income. If you replace the IRS with a flat tax, the JCT assumes there is no effect on macroeconomic performance. Sounds unbelievable, but this video has the gory details, including when my former boss, Senator Bob Packwood was told by JCT that revenues would rise year after year even if the government imposed a 100 percent tax rate.

Interestingly, the European Central Bank just released a new study showing that there are substantial Laffer Curve affects and that lower tax rates generate large amounts of revenue feedback. In a few cases (Sweden and Denmark), the researchers even conclude that some lower tax rates would be in that rare category of self-financing tax cuts. But the key point from this ultra-establishment institution is that changes in tax rates do lead to changes in taxable income. This means it is an empirical question to determine the revenue impact. Here’s a key excerpt from the study’s conclusion:

We show that there exist robust steady state Laffer curves for labor taxes as well as capital taxes. …EU-14 countries are much closer to the slippery slopes than the US. More precisely, we find that the US can increase tax revenues by 30% by raising labor taxes but only 6% by raising capital income taxes, while the same numbers for EU-14 are 8% and 1% respectively. …We find that for the US model 32% of a labor tax cut and 51% of a capital tax cut are self-financing in the steady state. In the EU-14 economy 54% of a labor tax cut and 79% of a capital tax cut are self-financing. We therefore conclude that there rarely is a free lunch due to tax cuts. However, a substantial fraction of the lunch will be paid for by the efficiency gains in the economy due to tax cuts.

Contrary to over-enthusiastic Republicans and deliberately-dour Democrats, the Laffer Curve/supply-side economics debate is not a binary choice between self-financing tax cuts and zero-impact tax cuts. Yes, there are examples of each, but the real debate should focus on which types of tax reforms generate the most bang for the buck. In the 1980s, the GOP seems to have the right grasp of this issue, focusing on lowering tax rates and reducing the discriminatory tax bias against saving and investment. This approach generated meaningful results. As Nobel laureate Robert Lucas wrote, “The supply side economists, if that is the right term for those whose research we have been discussing, have delivered the largest genuinely free lunch that I have seen in 25 years of this business, and I believe we would be a better society if we followed their advice.”

But identifying and advocating pro-growth tax reforms, as Williamson notes, is just part of the battle. The real test of fiscal responsibility if controlling the size of government. Republicans miserably failed at this essential task during the Bush year. If they want to do the right thing for the nation, and if they want to avert a Greek-style fiscal collapse, they should devote most of their energies to reducing the burden of government spending.

Thursday Links

There Is Some Budget Good News, but It Is Actually Really Bad News

The Office of Management and Budget has released the President’s FY2011 budget and the Congressional Budget Office has released its semi-annual Budget and Economic Outlook. Much of the coverage of these documents has focused on deficit numbers. This is not a trivial concern, particularly since the Bush-Obama policies of bigger government have dramatically boosted red ink.

But the most important numbers in the budget documents are the estimates of what is happening to government spending. The good news is that burden of government spending is projected to decline over the next few years from about 25 percent of GDP to less than 23 percent of GDP.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that federal government outlays only consumed 18.2 percent of economic output when Bush took office. In other words, notwithstanding the good news cited above, the size and scope of government has increased dramatically since 2001. The worse news is that the long-run spending forecasts show a cataclysmic expansion in the burden of government. The “optimistic” estimate is that the federal government will consume more than 30 percent of GDP by 2050 and 40 percent of GDP by 2080.

Defending Obama…Again

I caught a lot of flack from my Republican friends for my post blaming the FY2009 deficit on Bush instead of Obama. Well, I must be a glutton for punishment because I can’t resist jumping (albeit reluctantly) to Obama’s defense again. I’m venting my spleen for two reason. First, FoxNews.com posted a story headlined “Obama Shatters Spending Record for First-Year Presidents” and noted that:

President Obama has shattered the budget record for first-year presidents – spending nearly double what his predecessor did when he came into office and far exceeding the first-year tabs for any other U.S. president in history. In fiscal 2009 the federal government spent $3.52 trillion …That fiscal year covered the last three-and-a-half months of George W. Bush’s term and the first eight-and-a-half months of Obama’s.

This story was featured on the Drudge Report, so it has received a lot of attention. Second, Bush’s former Senior Adviser wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal eviscerating Obama for big budget deficits. Given Bush’s track record, this took considerable chutzpah, but what really nauseated me was this passage:

When Mr. Obama was sworn into office the federal deficit for this year stood at $422 billion. At the end of October, it stood at $1.42 trillion.

I’m a big fan of criticizing Obama’s profligacy, but it is inaccurate and/or dishonest to blame him for Bush’s mistakes. At the risk of repeating my earlier post, the 2009 fiscal year began on October 1, 2008, and the vast majority of the spending for that year was the result of Bush Administration policies. Yes, Obama did add to the waste with the so-called stimulus, the omnibus appropriation, the CHIP bill, and the cash-for-clunkers nonsense, but as the chart illustrates, these boondoggles only amounted to just a tiny percentage of the FY2009 total – about $140 billion out of a $3.5 trillion budget.

There are some subjective aspects to this estimate, to be sure. Supplemental defense spending could boost Obama’s share by another $25 billion, but Bush surely would have asked for at least that much extra spending, so I didn’t count that money but individual readers can adjust the number if they wish. Also, Obama used some bailout money for the car companies, but I did not count that as a net increase in spending since the bailout funds were approved under Bush and I strongly suspect the previous Administration also would have funneled money to GM and Chrysler. In any event, I did not give Obama credit for the substantial amount of TARP funds that were repaid after January 20, so the net effect of all the judgment calls certainly is not to Bush’s disadvantage.

Let’s use an analogy. Obama’s FY2009 performance is like a relief pitcher who enters a game in the fourth inning trailing 19-0 and allows another run to score. The extra run is nothing to cheer about, of course, but fans should be far more angry with the starting pitcher. That having been said, Obama since that point has been serving up meatballs to the special interests in Washington, so his earned run average may actually wind up being worse than his predecessor’s. He promised change, but it appears that Obama wants to be Bush on steroids.

Don’t Blame Obama for Bush’s 2009 Deficit

Some critics are lambasting President Obama for record deficits. This is not a productive line of attack, largely because it puts the focus on the wrong variable. America’s fiscal problem is excessive government spending, and deficits are merely a symptom of that underlying disease. Moreover, if deficits are perceived as the problem, that means both spending restraint and higher taxes are solutions. The political class, needless to say, will choose the latter approach 99 percent of the time. A higher tax burden, however, simply means that debt-financed spending is replaced by tax-financed spending, which is akin to jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, or vice-versa.

In addition to being theoretically misguided, critics sometimes blame Obama for things that are not his fault. Listening to a talk radio program yesterday, the host asserted that Obama tripled the budget deficit in his first year. This assertion is understandable, since the deficit jumped from about $450 billion in 2008 to $1.4 trillion in 2009. As this chart illustrates, with the Bush years in green, it appears as if Obama’s policies have led to an explosion of debt.

But there is one rather important detail that makes a big difference. The chart is based on the assumption that the current administration should be blamed for the 2009 fiscal year. While this makes sense to a casual observer, it is largely untrue. The 2009  fiscal year began October 1, 2008, nearly four months before Obama took office. The budget for the entire fiscal year was largely set in place while Bush was in the White House. So is we update the chart to show the Bush fiscal years in green, we can see that Obama is partly right in claiming that he inherited a mess (though Obama actually deserves a small share of the blame for Bush’s last deficit since earlier this year he pushed through both an “omnibus” spending bill and the so-called stimulus bill that increased FY2009 spending).

It should go without saying that this post is not an argument for Obama’s fiscal policy. The current President promised change, but he is continuing the wasteful and profligate policies of his big-spending predecessor. That is where critics should be focusing their attention.

Obamacare Will Be a Budget Buster

Does anyone think that a huge new entitlement program will lead to lower budget deficits? Sounds implausible, yet proponents of government-run healthcare claim this is the case according to the official estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation.

To use a technical phrase, this is hogwash. This new 6-1/2 minute video, narrated by yours truly, gives 12 reasons why Obamacare will lead to higher deficits - including real-world evidence showing how Medicare and Medicaid are much more costly than originally projected.

By the way, this video doesn’t even touch on the mandate issue, which Michael Cannon explains is not being counted in order to make the cost of government-run healthcare less shocking.