Tag: economic growth

New Video Has Important Message: Freedom and Prosperity vs. Big Government and Stagnation

The folks from the Koch Institute put together a great video a couple of months ago looking at why some nations are rich and others are poor.

That video looked at the relationship between economic freedom and various indices that measure quality of life. Not surprisingly, free markets and small government lead to better results.

Now they have a new video that looks at recent developments in the United States. Unfortunately, you will learn that the U.S. is slipping in the wrong direction.

The entire video is superb, but there are two things that merit special praise, one because of intellectual honesty and the other because of intellectual effectiveness.

1. The refreshingly honest aspect of the video is its non-partisan tone. It explains, in a neutral fashion, that Bush undermined prosperity by making government bigger and that Obama is undermining prosperity by increasing the burden of government.

2. The most important and effective argument in the video, at least from my perspective, is that it shows clearly that a larger government necessarily comes at the expense of the productive sector of the economy. Pay extra-close attention around the 2:00 mark.

It’s also worth pointing out that there are several policies that impact on economic performance. The Koch Institute video focuses primarily on the key issues of fiscal policy and regulation, but trade, monetary policy, property rights, and rule of law are examples of other policies that also are very important.

This video, narrated by yours truly, looks at economic growth from this more comprehensive perspective.

The moral of the story from both videos is very straightforward. If the answer is bigger government, you’ve asked a very strange question.

Trade Helps Explain Texas-Sized Job Growth

As its governor, Rick Perry, weighs a run for the White House, Texas has drawn attention for its healthy job growth. Since the recession ended in June 2009, Texas has accounted for half of the net new jobs added to the U.S. economy, according to the lead story in this morning’s USA Today. That’s quite a record for one lone state.

We’ll leave it to others for now to argue over how much credit Gov. Perry can claim. Some credit surely goes to high oil prices, fueling job growth in a sector important to the Texas economy. Another reason for its relatively strong job growth is a friendly business climate, including no state income tax and relatively light regulations. And for those who scapegoat trade for the nation’s persistently high unemployment rate, consider that Texas is the nation’s number one trading state. As the USA Today story notes:

Overseas shipments by Texas’ strong computer, electronics, petrochemical and other industries rose 21% last year, compared with 15% for the nation, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. The state also benefits from its proximity to Latin American countries that are big importers of U.S. goods … The surge creates jobs for Texas manufacturers and ports.

As I can attest from recent speaking engagements in San Antonio and Laredo, Texans have embraced their state’s position as the nation’s leading gateway for trade with NAFTA-partner Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

While politicians and union bosses from other states grumble about allegedly unfair trade, the latest trade and job numbers show that the people of Texas are making the most of the opportunities created by our more open economy.

 

Chained CPI: A Stealth Tax Increase

As we close in on congressional votes to increase the federal debt limit, negotiators are coming up with all kinds of ideas to hike taxes. (Suspiciously, they haven’t revealed very many spending cut ideas so far).

One idea being discussed is to raise revenue by reducing the indexing of parameters in the income tax code. Currently, tax brackets and other features of the tax code are indexed to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). It is widely recognized that the CPI overestimates inflation for various reasons, as discussed here.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has developed a more accurate (and lower) measure of inflation, called chained CPI. If the tax code was indexed to chained CPI instead of CPI, the government would receive an automatic tax increase relative to current law every year until the end of time.

Switching to chained CPI is a very bad idea for two reasons:

  • It would create a large tax increase over the long run. And it would be an invisible annual tax increase on families and voters because there would be no obvious changes in their tax forms.
  • It would be an anti-growth tax increase because it would push families into higher tax brackets more quickly over time, subjecting them to higher marginal tax rates. The chained CPI proposal is essentially a proposal to increase marginal tax rates slowly and steadily over time.

Some economists may argue that the chained CPI proposal is a good idea because the tax code would more accurately reflect inflation, and it would. However, the tax code already contains a bias that pushes families into higher tax brackets over time, which is called “real bracket creep.” Real growth in the economy steadily moves taxpayers into higher rate brackets since the tax code is indexed for inflation but not real growth. The discussion in the Congressional Budget Office’s new long-range budget outlook implies that this will be an important force in raising federal revenues as a share of GDP in coming decades.

So I’ve got a better idea than indexing the tax code to chained CPI: indexing the tax code to nominal GDP growth. That would adjust for the effects of both inflation and real economic growth on tax code parameters, and it would prevent stealth tax rate increases under our graduated income tax system.

Tax Cuts, Loopholes, and Government Size

President Obama wants to raise revenues by reducing tax deductions and other tax breaks, which the administration calls “spending in the tax code.” Donald Marron of the Tax Policy Center argues that “hundreds of billions of dollars of spending are disguised as tax cuts.”

Don is a very good economist, and he is concerned that special interest tax breaks can misallocate resources the same way that spending subsidies do. I agree. But I’m also concerned that tax breaks and spending subsidies have different implications for the size of government, which is where I part ways with Don and the president.

The following Tax Policy Matrix helps sort out which sorts of tax cuts make economic sense when government size is also a consideration.

The government distorts the economy and reduces GDP through both its taxing and spending actions. One reason is that both taxes and spending cause individuals and businesses to change their behaviors and reallocate resources in suboptimal ways. The table has columns for tax and spending distortions. It also has a column for government debt because running deficits today may translate into higher levels of distortionary taxes tomorrow.

The table includes two Starve-the-Beast scenarios. “With Starve-the-Beast” means that tax cuts will reduce government spending to some extent over time. A narrow tax base shot full of loopholes creates allocation distortions, but if starve-the-beast works that sort of tax base also limits the government’s size creating a counterbalancing benefit to GDP.

In the short run, starve-the-beast may or may not work. Bill Niskanen says that it does not, but I think the effectiveness of it changes over time as political culture changes. In the 1980s and 1990s, policymakers took corrective actions when deficits rose, but the revival of Keynesianism in recent years changed the political culture and, for a while, nullified the fear of deficits for many politicians.

In the long run, it seems obvious that the inflow of tax revenues to the government is a hard check on spending because there are financial market limits to government borrowing.

Let’s go through the rows in the table:

Row 1. The government starts off with a balanced budget and with tax and spending systems that cause medium damage.

Row 2. The government cuts taxes $100 by way of a loophole. Tax distortions rise because marginal tax rates are unchanged and we’ve added a new distortion. Higher debt likely pushes up future tax distortions. This appears to be a poor policy choice.

Row 3. The government cuts taxes $100 by way of marginal rate cut. Tax distortions are reduced, which increases economic growth. The downside is higher debt. This may or may be a good policy depending on the quality of the tax cut. If the cut is to a very distortionary part of the tax code—such as the corporate income tax rate—this policy could make sense. One reason is that the deficit increase might end up being quite small because of the positive economic response to the pro-efficiency tax cut.

Row 4. With starve-the-beast operational, a special interest tax cut becomes a bit of a closer call. Tax distortions and debt rise, but government spending falls somewhat, so the net effect on the economy is unclear. However, I think there are considerations here aside from economics. Special interest tax breaks—such as the ethanol tax break—are troubling because they represent a corruption of the law, an affront to the American ideal of “equal justice under law.” So just on that basis, I’m against special interest breaks, and indeed am in favor replacing the current code with a flat tax.

Row 5. A pro-efficiency tax cut is very likely a winner if you assume that starve-the-beast is operational. Tax and spending distortions both fall, although there is a modest increase in debt.

So far we’ve left out the most important fiscal tool available to policymakers—spending cuts to unneeded and damaging programs to reduce government harm to the economy. The best policy choice would be to combine pro-growth tax cuts with spending cuts to harmful programs. That would reduce government distortions on both sides of the budget, and thus unambiguously increase GDP.

In sum, without matching spending cuts, tax cuts may or may not make sense depending on the type of cut and whether reducing Uncle Sam’s diet will force him to slim down in subsequent years. But it is a fiscal policy win-win to match spending cuts with cuts to the most damaging parts of the tax code.

Boehner’s Price for Increasing the Federal Debt Limit

House Speaker John Boehner, in his speech to the Economic Club of New York on Monday night, was very clear about the conditions for which he would support an increase in the federal debt limit:

… Without significant spending cuts and reforms to reduce our debt, there will be no debt limit increase.  And the cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given.

We should be talking about cuts of trillions, not just billions.

They should be actual cuts and program reforms, not broad deficit or debt targets that punt the tough questions to the future.

And with the exception of tax hikes – which will destroy jobs – everything is on the table.

Congress is institutionally incapable of formulating and approving a large responsible package of spending cuts in the next month or two, even if there were the basis for an agreement in the longer run.  The most likely outcome of this condition is that Congress would approve an increase in the debt limit for the next year or two with no significant amendments.  John Boehner would be the major loser from this outcome, for having talked tough and promised too much, without delivering anything to his party base.

Another possible outcome of this condition is that an increase in the debt limit would be deferred indefinitely.  This would lead to a period of fiscal anarchy in which total federal spending would have to be reduced to federal revenues on a month-by-month basis, and non-interest spending would have to be reduced about 40 percent with no political guidance on what activities are paid how much.

The House Republicans are better advised to sort out their priority budget changes in the longer run.  I suggest that it is desirable to maintain a commitment against any increase in tax rates but to consider major reductions in what is now roughly one trillion dollars of off-budget tax preferences; such reductions would increase both revenue and economic growth.  Finally, I  suggest that reductions in the defense budget should also be considered.  In a world in which the United States now faces no major power military threat, total real (inflation-adjusted) annual national security spending is now over twice that during the Ford and Carter administrations and over 40 percent of the total national security spending by all governments.

For the most part, I suggest, the Republican fiscal priorities are correct, but it will take better preparation and a longer time to implement these priorities.

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.