Tag: economics

Entitlement Spending Is America’s Biggest Fiscal Challenge, but Discretionary Spending Is Still Far too High

If America descends into Greek-style fiscal chaos, there’s no doubt that entitlement programs will be the main factor. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Disability are all fiscal train wrecks today, and the long-run outlook for these programs is frightful.

Just look at these numbers from the Bank for International Settlements and OECD to see how our fiscal future is bleaker than many of Europe’s welfare states.

Simply stated, if we don’t implement the right kind of entitlement reform, our children and grandchildren at some point will curse our memory.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about other parts of the budget, including the so-called discretionary programs that also have been getting bigger and bigger budgets over time.

That’s why I want to add some additional analysis to Veronique de Rugy’s recent piece in National Review Online, which might lead some to mistakenly conclude that these programs are “shrinking” and being subject to a “Big Squeeze.”

…there is another number to look at in that budget. It’s the shrinking share of the budget consumed by discretionary spending (spending on things like defense and infrastructure) to make space for mandatory spending and interest. This is the Big Squeeze. …in FY 2014 mandatory spending plus interest will eat up 67 percent of the budget, leaving discretionary spending with 33 percent of the budget (down from 36 percent in FY 2012). Now by FY 2023, mandatory and interest spending will consume 77 percent of the total budget. Discretionary spending will be left with 23 percent of the budget.

She’s right that discretionary spending is becoming a smaller share of the budget, but it’s important to realize that this is solely because entitlement outlays are growing faster than discretionary spending.

Here’s some data from the Historical Tables of the Budget, showing what is happening to spending for both defense discretionary and domestic discretionary. And these are inflation-adjusted numbers, so the we’re looking at genuine increases in spending.

Discretionary Spending FY62-14

As you can see, defense outlays have climbed by about $100 billion over the past 50 years, while outlays for domestic discretionary programs have more than tripled.

If that’s a “Big Squeeze,” I’m hoping that my household budget experiences a similar degree of “shrinking”!

Veronique obviously understands these numbers, of course, and is simply making the point that politicians presumably should have an incentive to restrain entitlement programs so they have more leeway to also buy votes with discretionary spending.

But I’d hate to think that an uninformed reader would jump to the wrong conclusion and decide we need more discretionary spending.

Particularly since the federal government shouldn’t be spending even one penny for many of the programs and department that are part of the domestic discretionary category. Should there be a federal Department of Transportation? A federal Department of Housing and Urban Development? A federal Department of Agriculture?

No, NO, and Hell NO. I could continue, but you get the idea.

The burden of federal government spending in the United States is far too high and it should be reduced. That includes discretionary spending and entitlement spending.

P.S. For those who don’t have the misfortune of following the federal budget, “entitlements” are programs that are “permanently appropriated,” which simply means that spending automatically changes in response to factors such as eligibility rules, demographic shifts, inflation, and program expansions. Sometimes these programs (such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc) are referred to as “mandatory spending.”

The other big part of the budget is “discretionary spending” or “appropriations.” These are programs funded by annual spending bills from the Appropriations Committees, often divided into the two big categories of “defense discretionary” and “nondefense discretionary.”

Margaret Thatcher and the Battle of the 364 Keynesians

With the death of Margaret Thatcher, and the ensuing profusion of commentary on her legacy, it is worth looking back at an overlooked chapter in the Thatcher story. I am referring to her 1981 showdown with the Keynesian establishment—a showdown that the Iron Lady won handily. Before getting caught up with the phony “austerity vs. fiscal stimulus” debate, the chattering classes should take note of how Mrs. Thatcher debunked the Keynesian “fiscal factoid.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a factoid is “an item of unreliable information that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.” The standard Keynesian fiscal policy prescription for the maintenance of non-inflationary full employment is a fiscal factoid. The chattering classes can repeat this factoid on cue: to stimulate the economy, expand the government’s deficit (or shrink its surplus); and to rein in an overheated economy, shrink the government’s deficit (or expand its surplus).

Even the economic oracles embrace the fiscal factoid. That, of course, is one reason that the Keynesians’ fiscal mantra has become a factoid. No less than Nobelist Paul Krugman repeats it ad nauseam. Now, the new secretary of the treasury, Jack Lew (who claims no economic expertise), is in Europe peddling the fiscal factoid.

Unfortunately, the grim reaper finally caught up with Margaret Thatcher—but not before she laid waste to 364 wrong-headed British Keynesians.

In 1981, Prime Minister Thatcher made a dash for confidence and growth via a fiscal squeeze. To restart the economy, Mrs. Thatcher instituted a fierce attack on the British fiscal deficit, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy. Her moves were immediately condemned by 364 distinguished economists. In a letter to The Times, they wrote a knee-jerk Keynesian response: “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”

Mrs. Thatcher was quickly vindicated. No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures to that letter than the economy boomed. Confidence in the British economy was restored, and Mrs. Thatcher was able to introduce a long series of deep, free-market reforms.

As for the 364 economists (who included seventy-six present or past professors, a majority of the Chief Economic Advisors to the Government in the post-WWII period, and the president, as well as nine present or past vice-presidents, and the secretary general of the Royal Economic Society), they were not only wrong, but also came to look ridiculous.

In the United States, the peddlers of the fiscal factoid have never suffered the intellectual humiliation of their British counterparts. In consequence, American Keynesians can continue to peddle snake oil with reckless abandon and continue to influence policy in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

According to Washington Post Exposé, People Who Utilize Tax Havens Are Far More Honest than Politicians

Using data stolen from service providers in the Cook Islands and the British Virgin Islands, the Washington Post published a supposed exposé of Americans who do business in so-called tax havens.

Since I’m the self-appointed defender of low-tax jurisdictions in Washington, this caught my attention. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t joking when he warned that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” I’m constantly fighting against anti-tax haven schemes that would undermine tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty.

Even if it means a bunch of international bureaucrats threaten to toss me in a Mexican jail or a Treasury Department official says I’m being disloyal to America. Or, in this case, if it simply means I’m debunking demagoguery.

The supposedly earth-shattering highlight of the article is that some Americans linked to offshore companies and trusts have run afoul of the legal system.

Among the 4,000 U.S. individuals listed in the records, at least 30 are American citizens accused in lawsuits or criminal cases of fraud, money laundering or other serious financial misconduct.

But the real revelation is that people in the offshore world must be unusually honest. Fewer than 1 percent of them have been named in a lawsuit, much less been involved with a criminal case.

This is just a wild guess, but I’m quite confident that you would find far more evidence of misbehavior if you took a random sample of 4,000 Americans from just about any cross-section of the population.

Identifying the Right “Depreciation” Tax Policy

I’m normally reluctant to write about “depreciation” because I imagine eyes glazing around the world. After all, not many people care about the tax treatment of business investment expenses.

But I was surprised by the positive response I received after writing a post about Obama’s demagoguery against “tax loopholes” for corporate jets. So with considerable trepidation let’s take another look at the issue.

First, a bit of background. Every economic theory agrees that investment is a key for long-run growth and higher living standards. Even Marxist and socialist theory agrees with this insight (though they foolishly think government somehow is competent to be in charge of investments).

Let’s look at two remarkable charts, starting with one that shows the very powerful link between total investment and wages for workers.

 

As you can see, if we want people to earn more money, it definitely helps for there to be more investment. More “capital” means that workers have higher productivity, and that’s the primary determinant of wages and salary.

Our second chart shows how the internal revenue code treats income that is consumed compared to how it penalizes income that is saved and invested. Simply stated, the current system is very biased against capital formation because of the combined impact of capital gains taxes, corporate income taxes, double taxes on dividends, and death taxes.

Indeed, one of the reasons why the right kind of tax reform will generate more prosperity is that double taxation of saving and investment is eliminated. With either a flat tax or national sales tax, economic activity is taxed only one time. No death tax, no capital gains tax, no double tax on dividends in either plan.

All of this background information helps underscore why it is especially foolish for the tax code to specifically penalize business investment. And this happens because companies have to “depreciate” rather than “expense” their investments.

Question of the Week: What’s the Right Point on the Laffer Curve?

Back in 2010, I wrote a post entitled “What’s the Ideal Point on the Laffer Curve?

Except I didn’t answer my own question. I simply pointed out that revenue maximization was not the ideal outcome.

I explained that policy makers instead should seek to maximize prosperity, and that this implied a much lower tax rate.

But what is that tax rate, several people have inquired?

The simple answer is that the tax rate should be set to finance the legitimate functions of government.

But that leads to an obvious follow-up question. What are those legitimate functions?

According to my anarcho-capitalist friends, there’s no need for any public sector. Even national defense and courts can be shifted to the private sector.

In that case, the “right” tax rate obviously is zero.

But what if you’re a squishy, middle-of-the-road moderate like me, and you’re willing to go along with the limited central government envisioned by America’s Founding Fathers?

That system operated very well for about 150 years and the federal government consumed, on average, only about 3 percent of economic output. And even if you include state and local governments, overall government spending was still less than 10 percent of GDP.

Moreover, for much of that time, America prospered with no income tax.

But this doesn’t mean there was no tax burden. There were federal excise taxes and import taxes, so if the horizontal axis of the Laffer Curve measured “Taxes as a Share of GDP,” then you would be above zero.

Or you could envision a world where those taxes were eliminated and replaced by a flat tax or national sales tax with a very low rate. Perhaps about 5 percent.

So I’m going to pick that number as my “ideal” tax rate, even though I know that 5 percent is just a rough guess.

For more information about the growth-maximizing size of government, watch this video on the Rahn Curve.

There are two key things to understand about my discussion of the Rahn Curve.

First, I assume in the video that the private sector can’t provide core public goods, so the discussion beginning about 0:33 will irk the anarcho-capitalists. I realize I’m making a blunt assumption, but I try to keep my videos from getting too long and I didn’t want to distract people by getting into issues such as whether things like national defense can be privatized.

Second, you’ll notice around 3:20 of the video that I explain why I think the academic research overstates the growth-maximizing size of government. Practically speaking, this seems irrelevant since the burden of government spending in almost all nations is well above 20 percent-25 percent of GDP.

But I hold out hope that we’ll be able to reform entitlements and take other steps to reduce the size and scope of government. And if that means total government spending drops to 20 percent-25 percent of GDP, I don’t want that to be the stopping point.

At the very least, we should shrink the size of the state back to 10 percent of economic output.

And if we ever get that low, then we can have a fun discussion with the anarcho-capitalists on what else we can privatize.

P.S. If a nation obeys Mitchell’s Golden Rule for a long enough period of time, government spending as a share of GDP asymptotically will approach zero. So perhaps there comes a time where my rule can be relaxed and replaced with something akin to the Swiss debt brake, which allows for the possibility of government growing at the same rate as GDP.

“Everyone Will Have to Decide For Themselves”

Alessandro Acquisti is one of my favorite privacy researchers, and a quote he gave the New York Times about consumer privacy is all Acquisti, right down to the Italian-born locution.

“Should people be worried? I don’t know,” he said with a shrug in his office at Carnegie Mellon. “My role is not telling people what to do. My role is showing why we do certain things and what may be certain consequences. Everyone will have to decide for themselves.”

Alas, Times reporter Somini Sengupta did not report on Acquisti as neutrally as Acquisti reports on privacy.

We don’t always act in our own best interest, his research suggests. We can be easily manipulated by how we are asked for information. Even something as simple as a playfully designed site can nudge us to reveal more of ourselves than a serious-looking one.

It is just as plausible that people mouth a desire for privacy but then act more consistently with their self-interest when they reveal information that provides them fuller interaction, free Internet content, and broader commercial choices.

Read more of Acquisti on his Economics of Privacy page.

Targeting Multinationals, the OECD Launches New Scheme to Boost the Tax Burden on Business

I’ve been very critical of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Most recently, I criticized the Paris-based bureaucracy for making the rather remarkable assertion that a value-added tax would boost growth and employment.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Now the bureaucrats have concocted another scheme to increase the size and scape of government. The OECD just published a study on “Addressing Base Erosion and Profit Shifting” that seemingly is designed to lay the groundwork for a radical rewrite of business taxation.

In a new Tax & Budget Bulletin for Cato, I outline some of my concerns with this new “BEPS” initiative.

…the BEPS report…calls for dramatic changes in corporate tax policy based on the presumption that governments are not seizing enough revenue from multinational companies. The OECD essentially argues that it is illegitimate for businesses to shift economic activity to jurisdictions that have more favorable tax laws. …The core accusation in the OECD report is that firms systematically—but legally—reduce their tax burdens by taking advantage of differences in national tax policies.

Ironically, the OECD admits in the report that revenues have been trending upwards.

…the report acknowledges that “… revenues from corporate income taxes as a share of gross domestic product have increased over time. …Other than offering anecdotes, the OECD provides no evidence that a revenue problem exists. In this sense, the BEPS report is very similar to the OECD’s 1998 “Harmful Tax Competition” report, which asserted that so-called tax havens were causing damage but did not offer any hard evidence of any actual damage.

To elaborate, the BEPS scheme should be considered Part II of the OECD’s anti-tax competition project. Part I was the attack on so-called tax havens, which began back in the mid- to late-1990s.