Tag: economics

Germany’s Not a Good Role Model…Except When Compared to the Profligate U.S.

Last week in New York City, during my Intelligence Squared debate about stimulus, I pointed out that Germany is doing better than the United States and explained that they largely avoided any Bush/Obama Keynesian spending binges.

One of my opponents disagreed and asserted that I was wrong. Germany, this person argued, was dong better because it was more Keynesian thanks to “automatic stabilizers” that resulted in big spending increases.

This claim was made with such certainty that I wondered if I made a mistake.

Well, we were both right about Germany doing better. In the past few years, it has been enjoying yearly growth of about 3.5 percent while growth in the United States has remained below 3 percent.

But who was right about the key issue of whether Germany has been more Keynesian? At first, I was going to be lazy and not bother combing the data. But then I got motivated after reading an excellent post about Germany’s pro-growth reforms, written for National Review by Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center.

So I looked up the data on annual government spending in the United States and Germany and discovered that I was right (gee, what a shock). As the chart shows, the burden of government spending has increased faster in the United States. And that is true whether 2007 or 2008 is used as the base year.

To make sure the comparison was fair, I sliced the numbers every possible way. But the results were the same, regardless of whether state and local government spending was included, whether TARP spending was included, which base year was selected, or whether I used annual spending increases or multi-year spending increases.

In every single case, the burden of government spending grew faster in the United States from 2007 to 2011.

This does not mean Germany is a role model. Government spending in Germany is far too high and it continues to grow. All we can say is that Germany is not going in the wrong direction as fast as the United States.

Oh, I suppose we also can say that I was right and my opponent was wrong. The United States has been more Keynesian than Germany.

Speaking of Germany, I combed my archives and found only one post that said anything nice about German politicians.

My other German posts mocked the country’s scheme to tax prostitutes, mocked the government for losing the blueprints for its new spy headquarters, mocked the government for a money-losing scheme to tax coffee, and even mocked the supposedly conservative Chancellor for wanting to impose new taxes.

So even though Veronique is correct about some positive changes, the Germans have a long way to go.

Sequestration Is a Small Step in Right Direction, Not Something to Be Feared

I have sometimes wondered whether it is accurate to say that Republicans are the “Stupid Party.”

We’ll soon know the answer to that question. As part of the debt limit agreement, the politicians agreed to set up a “Supercommittee” comprised of six Republicans and six Democrats that was responsible for producing at least $1.2 trillion of supposed deficit reduction.

But the Democrats appointed a group of hardcore leftists to the Supercommittee, which means that it is virtually impossible to get the necessary seven votes for a good agreement. Indeed, the more relevant question is whether one or more of the Republicans surrenders to a big tax hike.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. The law says that there will be automatic spending reductions if the Supercommittee does not reach an agreement. The political establishment in Washington thinks that this outcome—known as sequestration—would be horrible.

They tell as that a sequester would mean “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts. The only “responsible” approach, we are told, is to go along with a tax increase.

This is hogwash. The automatic spending cuts are only “cuts” using Washington’s dishonest budget math. Here’s a chart showing how much spending will grow over the next 10 years, and the relatively tiny reduction in budgetary growth that will be caused if there is a sequester.

We’ve actually been down this path before. There was a small sequester back in the mid-1980s, shortly after the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law was enacted. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but the sequestration helped restrain the growth of spending and helped bring about a record amount of deficit reduction in 1987.

There was a similar (unsuccessful) fight in 1989. Here’s what then-Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon wrote in 1989.

…the sequester has become the focus of partisan debate . Each side accuses the other of being responsible for “deep and arbitrary” budget cuts . Some legislators say we should do whatever it takes to cancel the sequester, even if it means higher taxes. While a sequester is certainly not the ideal way to resolve this year’s budget dispute, there are reasons to believe that the fiscal discipline of a sequester is the medicine we need to cure the budget process. For all its drawbacks, a sequester is real deficit reduction . Instead of budget gimmicks, accounting tricks, phony cuts, and “revenue enhancements,” a sequester would reduce spending levels by a fixed percentage in eligible spending programs . In other words, unlike most deficit reduction packages, sequestration would actually reduce the deficit.

The only argument against a sequester, at least among conservatives, is that a sequester would impose too much of a burden on the defense budget. But I’ve already explained in this post that the defense budget will climb by about $100 billion under sequestration.

I don’t know whether Republicans are the stupid party, but I know they will be very stupid if they don’t take the sequester and declare victory.

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.

Look Before You Leap on Cain’s 9-9-9 Tax Plan

I like the overall approach of Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan. As I recently wrote, it focuses on lower tax rates, elimination of double taxation, and repeal of corrupt and inefficient loopholes.

But I included a very important caveat. The intermediate stage of his three-step plan would enable politicians to impose both an income tax and a national sales tax. I wrote in my earlier post that I had faith in Herman Cain’s motives, but I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of letting the crowd in Washington have an extra source of revenue.

After all, Europe’s welfare states began their march to fiscal collapse and economic stagnation after they added a version of a national sales tax on top of their pre-existing income taxes.

But it seems that I was too nice in my analysis of Mr. Cain’s plan. Josh Barro and Bruce Bartlett are both claiming that the business portion of Cain’s 9-9-9 is a value-added tax (VAT) rather than a corporate income tax.

In other words, instead of being a 9 percent flat tax-9 percent sales tax-9 percent corporate tax, Cain’s plan is a 9 percent flat tax-9 percent sales tax-9 percent VAT.

Let’s elaborate. The business portion of Cain’s plan apparently does not allow employers to deduct wages and salaries, which means – for all intents and purposes – that they would levy a 9 percent withholding tax on employee compensation. And that would be in addition to the 9 percent they presumably would withhold for the flat tax portion of Cain’s plan.

Employers use withholding in the current system, of course, but at least taxpayers are given credit for all that withheld tax when filling out their 1040 tax forms. Under Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, however, employees would only get credit for monies withheld for the flat tax.

In other words, there are two income taxes in Cain’s plan – the 9 percent flat tax and the hidden 9 percent income tax that is part of the VAT (this hidden income tax on wages and salaries, by the way, is a defining feature of a VAT).

This doesn’t make Cain’s plan bad from a theoretical perspective. The underlying principles are still sound – low tax rates, no double taxation, and no loopholes.

But if I was uneasy when I thought that the 9-9-9 plan added a sales tax on top of the income tax, then I am super-duper-double-secret-probation uneasy about adding a sales tax and a VAT on top of the income tax.

Here’s my video on the VAT, which will help you realize why this pernicious tax would be a big mistake.

Again, this doesn’t make Cain wrong if we’re grading based on economics or philosophy. My anxiety is a matter of real-world political analysis. I don’t trust politicians with new sources of revenue. Whether we give them big new sources of revenue or small new sources of revenue, they will always figure out ways of pushing up the tax rates so they can waste more money trying to buy votes.

Will Republicans Choose Sequester Savings or a Supercommittee Surrender?

The budget fights this year began with the “shutdown” battle, followed by the Ryan budget and then the debt limit. These fights have mostly led to uninspiring kiss-your-sister outcomes, which is hardly surprising given divided government.

Now the crowd in DC is squabbling over Obama’s latest stimulus/tax-the-rich scheme, though that’s really more of a test run by the White House to determine whether class warfare will be an effective theme for  the 2012 campaign.

The real budget fight, the one we should be closely monitoring, is what will happen with the so-called Supercommittee.

To refresh your memory, this is the 12-member entity created as part of the debt limit legislation. Split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, the Supercommittee is supposed to recommend $1.2 trillion-$1.5 trillion of deficit reduction over the next 10 years. Assuming, of course, that 7 out of the 12 members can agree on anything.

There are two critical things to understand about the Supercommittee.

With these points in mind, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that the Supercommittee is designed – at least from the perspective of the left – to seduce gullible Republicans into going along with a tax hike.

In other words, the likelihood that the Supercommittee will produce a good plan is about the same as seeing me in the outfield during the World Series (the real World Series, not this one).

Fortunately, there is a way to win this fight. All Republicans have to do is…(drum roll, please)…nothing.

To be more specific, if the Supercommittee can’t get a majority for a plan, then automatic budget cuts (a process known as sequestration) will go into effect. But don’t get too excited. We’re mostly talking about the DC version of spending cuts, which simply means that spending won’t rise as fast as previously planned.

But compared to an inside-the-beltway tax-hike deal, a sequester would be a great result.

You’re probably wondering if there’s a catch. After all, if Republicans can win a huge victory for taxpayers by simply rejecting the siren song of higher taxes, then isn’t victory a foregone conclusion?

It should be, but Republicans didn’t get the reputation of being the “Stupid Party” for nothing, and they are perfectly capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

There are three reasons why Republicans may fumble away victory, even though they have a first down on the opponent’s one-yard line.

If GOPers sell out for either of the first two reasons, then there’s really no hope. America will become Greece and we may as well stock up on canned goods, bottled water, and ammo.

The defense issue, though, is more challenging. Republicans instinctively want more defense spending, so Democrats are trying to exploit this vulnerability. They are saying – for all intents and purposes – that the defense budget will be cut unless GOPers agree to a tax hike.

Republicans should not give in to this budgetary blackmail.

I could make a conservative case for less defense spending, by arguing that the GOP should take a more skeptical view of nation building (the approach they had in the 1990s) and that they should reconsider the value of spending huge sums of money on an outdated NATO alliance.

But I’m going to make two other points instead, in hopes of demonstrating that a sequester is acceptable from the perspective of those who favor a strong national defense.

  • First, the sequester does not take place until January 2013, so defense hawks will have ample opportunity to undo the defense cuts - either through supplemental spending bills or because the political situation changes after the 2012 elections.
  • Second, the sequester is based on dishonest Washington budget math, so the defense budget would still grow, but not as fast as previously planned.

This chart shows what will happen to the defense budget over the next 10 years, based on Congressional Budget Office data comparing “baseline” outlays to spending under a sequester.

As you can see, even with a sequester, the defense budget climbs over the 10-year period by about $100 billion. And, as noted above, that doesn’t even factor in supplemental spending bills.

In other words, America’s national defense will not be eviscerated if there is a sequester.

Here’s the bottom line. The Supercommittee battle should be a no-brainer for the GOP.

They can capitulate on taxes, causing themselves political damage, undermining the economy, and enabling bigger government.

Or they can stick to their no-tax promise, generating significant budgetary savings with a sequester, and boosting economic performance by restraining the burden of government.

Happy Fiscal New Year (with an Unhappy Obama Hangover)

Today, October 1, is the first day of the 2012 fiscal year.

And if you’re wondering why America’s economy seems to have a hangover (this cartoon is a perfect illustration), it’s because politicians had a huge party with our money in FY2011.

We don’t have final numbers for the fiscal year that just ended, but let’s look at the CBO Monthly Budget Report, the CBO Economic and Budget Update, and the OMB Historical Tables, and see whether there’s anything worth celebrating.

  • The federal government spent about $3.6 trillion in FY2011, more money than any government has ever spent in a 12-month period in the history of the world.
  • The FY2011 budget is nearly double the burden of federal spending just 10 years earlier, when federal outlays consumed “only” $1.86 trillion.
  • The federal budget in FY2011 consumed about 24 percent of national output, up sharply compared to a spending burden in FY2001 of “just” 18.2 percent of GDP.
  • Defense spending is too high, and has increased by about $400 billion since 2001, but the vast majority of the additional spending is for domestic spending programs.
  • Federal tax revenue in FY2011 will be about $2.25 trillion, an increase of 7-8 percent over FY2010 levels.
  • Economic stagnation has affected tax revenues, which are lower than the $2.6 trillion level from FY2007.
  • Federal receipts amount to about 15.3 percent of GDP, below the long-run average of 18 percent of GDP.
  • The Congressional Budget Office does predict that revenues will rise above the 18-percent average - without any tax increases - by the end of the decade.
  • Record levels of government spending, combined with low revenues caused by a weak economy, will result in a $1.3 trillion deficit.
  • This is the third consecutive deficit of more than $1 trillion.
  • The publicly-held national debt (the amount borrowed from the private sector) is now more than $10 trillion.

With budget numbers like these, no wonder America has a fiscal hangover.

And let’s be blunt about assigning blame. Yes, Obama has been a reckless big spender, but he is merely continuing the irresponsible statist policies of his predecessor.

Fortunately, there is a solution. All we need to do is restrain the growth of federal spending, as explained in this video.

But we also know that it is difficult to convince politicians to do what’s right for the nation. And if they don’t change the course of fiscal policy, and we leave the federal government on autopilot, then America is doomed to become another Greece.

The combination of poorly designed entitlement programs (mostly Medicare and Medicaid) and an aging population will lead to America’s fiscal collapse.

Explaining the Perverse Impact of Double Taxation With a Chart

Whether I’m criticizing Warren Buffett’s innumeracy or explaining how to identify illegitimate loopholes, I frequently write about the perverse impact of double taxation.

By this, I mean the tendency of politicians to impose multiple layers of taxation on income that is saved and invested. Examples of this self-destructive practice include the death tax, the capital gains tax, and the second layer of tax of dividends.

Double taxation is particularly foolish since every economic theory—including socialism and Marxism—agrees that capital formation is necessary for long-run growth and higher living standards.

Yet even though this is a critically important issue, I’ve never been satisfied with the way I explain the topic. But perhaps this flowchart makes everything easier to understand.

There are a lot of boxes, so it’s not a simple flowchart, but the underlying message hopefully is very clear.

  1. We earn income.
  2. We then pay tax on that income.
  3. We then either consume our after-tax income, or we save and invest it.
  4. If we consume our after-tax income, the government largely leaves us alone.
  5. If we save and invest our after-tax income, a single dollar of income can be taxed as many as four different times.

You don’t have to be a wild-eyed supply-side economist to conclude that this heavy bias against saving and investment is not a good idea for America’s long-run prosperity.

There are various ways to protect yourself from double taxation, particularly by using IRAs and 401(k)s. You lock up your capital until retirement, but it is protected from double taxation.

Also, you cannot accumulate enough savings and investment to be subject to the death tax, though that’s not exactly aiming high.

But these strategies—and others—are not economically optimal. There should not be a tax bias against capital formation.

Too bad we can’t be more like Hong Kong, which has eliminated all extra layers of taxation.

That’s the benefit of real tax reform such as a flat tax. You get a low tax rate and you get rid of corrupt loopholes, but you also get rid of double taxation so that the IRS only gets one bite at the apple.