Tag: economic growth

The King’s Speech

His Royal Highness Prince Charles, who lives, well, like a king, off wealth that his ancestors stole, appears at a Washington Post conference to tell his still-recalcitrant former subjects to change their economic system. As befitting a hereditary aristocrat, coming from a long line of people used to issuing orders, with little interest in spontaneous order or actual economic growth, he finds an

urgent need for … the willingness of all aspects of society — the public, private and NGO [non-governmental organizations] sectors, large corporations and small organizations — to work together to build an economic model built upon resilience and diversity.

Sure thing, guv’nor, we’ll get right on that.

New Era of Big Government

The George W. Bush administration ushered in a new era of big government. The Obama administration has built on Bush’s profligacy, and the president’s new fiscal 2012 budget proposal would further cement the trend.

Spending as a percentage of GDP has increased dramatically since the surplus years of the late 1990s. As the chart shows, the president’s budget once again seeks a permanently high level of federal spending as a share of the economy:

While the numbers drop from their stimulus- and recession-induced highs, it is not because the president has suddenly decided that he desires a less active government. Rather, optimistic economic assumptions largely account for the slight retrenchment.

Tax increases and optimistic economic assumptions explain the projected rise in revenue as a share of the economy. While the president would like us to believe he’s found religion on spending cuts, he’s actually relying on a rosy economic forecast and sucking more money out of the private sector to reduce annual deficits.

Taking more money from the productive private economy to maintain destructively high levels of federal spending is not a recipe for economic growth. Therefore, this budget proposal is as dangerous as it is disingenuous. Fortunately, it’s also dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House.

OMB Director Lew on the New Budget

President Obama will release his budget blueprint for fiscal 2012 next week. If an op-ed penned by his budget director, Jacob Lew, in Sunday’s New York Times is any indication, the administration intends to continue fiddling while the government’s finances burn.

The title of the piece, “The Easy Cuts Are Behind Us,” is a real head-scratcher. Lew’s “easy cuts” are an apparent reference to the $20 billion in savings the president proposed in his previous budgets. Considering that the president proposed total spending of $3.8 trillion last year, $20 billion in gross cuts was an insignificant gesture to say the least. In reality, the Bush administration passed the spending baton to the Obama administration two years ago and it promptly sprinted off like Usain Bolt.

Lew says:

In a little over a week, President Obama will send Congress his budget for the 2012 fiscal year. The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.

Perhaps the current budgetary state of affairs is an expression of the administration’s values and aspirations. But while an unhealthy number of Americans have become accustomed to living at the expense of their neighbor via the government, which the budget does reflect, there is growing popular recognition that saddling future generations with back-breaking debt is morally bankrupt.

Lew says:

As the president said in his State of the Union address, now that the country is back from the brink of a potential economic collapse, our goal is to win the future by out-educating, out-building and out-innovating our rivals so that we can return to robust economic and job growth. But to make room for the investments we need to foster growth, we have to cut what we cannot afford. We have to reduce the burden placed on our economy by years of deficits and debt.

This zero-sum take on the global economy is ignorant. Economic growth in “rival” countries creates opportunities for economic growth in the United States and vice-versa. My trade colleagues can better cover this ground, but the idea that our government needs to export more debt in order to out-anything is preposterous. The U.S. already out-spends its “rivals” on education and what do we have to show for it?

If the administration is concerned with our economic competitiveness, it should be looking to restrain the federal government’s heavy-hand in the economy. The federal government alone now sucks up a quarter of the country’s economic output. More government “investments” for building fancy trains might provide Joe Biden with lots of ribbon-cutting photo-ops, but such gross misallocations of taxpayer resources are not a recipe for “robust economic and job growth.”

Lew says:

We cannot win the future, expand the economy and spur job creation if we are saddled with increasingly growing deficits. That is why the president’s budget is a comprehensive and responsible plan that will put us on a path toward fiscal sustainability in the next few years — a down payment toward tackling our challenges in the long term.

According to Lew, the administration plans to do this by freezing non-security discretionary spending for five years. But several paragraphs later he acknowledges that “Discretionary spending not related to security represents just a little more than one-tenth of the entire federal budget, so cutting solely in this area will never be enough to address our long-term fiscal challenges.”

Does Lew give even a hint as to how the administration plans to “address our long-term fiscal challenges”? Nope.

In the intervening paragraphs Lew does give us a taste of the “deeper cuts” that the president will propose next week. One cut would be $300 million, or 7.5 percent, in the Community Development Block Grant program, which funds critical federal concerns like funding facade renovations for a wine bar in Connecticut and expanding a brewery in Michigan.

The Community Service Block Grant program (change one word and, voilà, a new program) would be cut in half to save a whopping $350 million. Lew says this cut was not easy for the president because “These are the kinds of programs that President Obama worked with when he was a community organizer.”

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative would get chopped by 25 percent, or $125 million, which Lew calls “another difficult cut.” If that’s a “difficult” cut, one can only wonder what Lew would call the cuts needed to actually “address our long-term fiscal challenges.”

After punting on the long-term fiscal challenges and pretending that the relatively insignificant cuts the administration will propose represent “tough choices,” Lew begins his wrap up by warning against cutting spending:

We must take care to avoid indiscriminate cuts in areas critical to long-term growth like education, innovation and infrastructure — cuts that would stifle the economy just as it begins to recover.

The country cannot afford business as usual. And it certainly can’t afford business as has been conducted by this administration. Unfortunately, while the exact details of the president’s latest budget proposal remain to be seen, Lew’s op-ed indicates that this tiger isn’t about to change his stripes.

Tunisia: An Omen for Other U.S.-Backed Regimes in the Muslim World

The sudden collapse of the Tunisian government on Friday underscores the turmoil toward which the Muslim world  seems inescapably drifting.  As I wrote earlier today at The National Interest Online:

Today, as during the Cold War, policy makers in Washington seem to expect economic growth to act as a substitute for political liberty, thereby ignoring the instinctive desire for freedom. Despotic leaders love to adopt pseudo-economic “reforms” to mask their coercive measures and perpetuate the status quo, but in the end, the institutionalized oppression imposed by ruling elites cannot be appeased in that way. Time will tell whether Tunisia and its neighbors evolve toward a freer and more prosperous future. But either way, human history confirms that fundamental change is a gradual and often painful process, and that more often than not forces erected to suppress individual freedoms eventually break down or unravel…

Check it out!

How’s that Stimulus Working, Mr. President?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced this morning that the unemployment rate jumped to 9.8 percent last month. As you can see from the chart, the White House claimed that if we enacted the so-called stimulus, the unemployment rate today would be about 7 percent today.

It’s never wise to over-interpret the meaning on a single month’s data, and it’s also a mistake to credit or blame any one policy for the economy’s performance. But it certainly does seem that the combination of bigger government and more intervention is not a recipe for growth.

Maybe the President should reverse course and try free markets and smaller government. After the jump is a helpful six-minute tutorial.

Robert H. Frank’s Non-argument for Higher Tax Rates

In The New York Times, Robert H. Frank of Cornell University repeated his perpetual argument that high tax rates on the rich do no harm to demand (not supply) because the rich can just draw down savings, year after year,  to pay more taxes yet maintain a showy lifestyle.   Then he resorts to the old trick of asserting there is no “credible” evidence that tax disincentives and distortions have any ill effects on the economy.

Frank asks, rhetorically, if an increase in top tax rates might reduce economic growth.  And he replies, “There’s no credible evidence that it would.”   This is a timeworn trick among people too intellectually lazy to look for a single academic study or statistical fact.  

As I have shown before, Mr. Frank has a history of abusing bogus statistics culled from dubious sources. 

To simply assert “there’s no credible evidence,” however, is much worse than distorting the facts. 

It amounts to claiming that he has the ability and the right to suppress facts not to his liking. 

Over the past year I have repeatedly cited several major studies showing that pushing the highest marginal tax rates even higher is extremely dangerous to economic growth; Stanford economist Michael Boskin lists half a dozen of them in his latest Wall Street Journal op-ed.   

For Mr. Frank to assert that such studies are not “credible” simply reveals his own inability to find credible evidence to support his own untenable position.

Cutting Government the Canadian Way

I blogged about how Canadian government spending cuts since the mid-1990s coincided with strong economic growth.

Let’s take a closer look at the spending cuts. The chart shows Canadian federal spending from 1984 to 2009 in actual, or nominal, dollars. Spending includes all “discretionary” and “entitlement” programs, as we would call them, but excludes interest payments. (Data are here).

Spending peaked in the early 1990s, and it relied on massive deficit finance. As a result, interest costs were spiralling out of control. The prime minister and his finance minister–members of the center-left Liberal Party–decided to reverse course and start cutting.

They cut spending from $123 billion in in 1995 to $111 billion in 1997, a 10 percent reduction. Then they held spending at roughly the lower level for another three years. With the Canadian economy growing–due to pro-market reforms such as free trade with the United States–this amount of restraint was enough to start a virtuous cycle of falling interest costs and a shrinking government as a share of GDP.

Cutting total non-interest spending by 10 percent would be like cutting President Obama’s 2011 annual budget by $360 billion. Cato analysts could do that pretty easily, but for some reason American politicians–even of the conservative variety–so far seem to be alot more spineless than the politicians elected by Celine Dion and Anne Murray.

Canadian spending did grow during the past decade, but much less than U.S. government spending. Between 2000 and 2009, total Canadian federal spending increased 47 percent, but total U.S. federal spending rose 97 percent.

From a libertarian point of view, Canada’s spending cuts were modest. But the Canadian experience illustrates that a lot of progress can made if even modest cuts are made and then spending is constrained to grow at a slower rate than the overall economy.

For more on the Canadian fiscal reforms, see The Canadian Century by Brian Lee Crowley, Jason Clemens, and Niels Veldhuis.