Tag: economics

Confusion over Confusion

On August 29th, I penned “Lagarde Confused, Again.” In it, I argued that Christine Lagarde, the new managing director of the International Monetary Fund, misdiagnosed Europe’s banking crisis.

Ms. Lagarde’s assertion that Europe’s banks “need urgent recapitalization” is based on faulty economics. While the higher capital-asset ratios that Ms. Lagarde extols are intended to strengthen banks (and economies), higher ratios destroy money and are “deflationary.” This is not what a struggling Europe needs. Indeed, higher capital-asset ratios imposed on Europe’s banks at this juncture would virtually ensure that Euroland would take another dive. In consequence, some of the banks that were made “safer” by Ms. Lagarde’s medicine would go to the wall.

Today, the Wall Street Journal’s lead editorial “A TARP for Europe?” adds to the confusion by enthusiastically endorsing Ms. Lagarde’s prescription.

New CBO Numbers Confirm - Once Again - that Modest Spending Restraint Can Balance the Budget

The Congressional Budget Office has just released the update to its Economic and Budget Outlook.

There are several things from this new report that probably deserve commentary, including a new estimate that unemployment will “remain above 8 percent until 2014.”

This certainly doesn’t reflect well on the Obama White House, which claimed that flushing $800 billion down the Washington rathole would prevent the joblessness rate from ever climbing above 8 percent.

Not that I have any faith in CBO estimates. After all, those bureaucrats still embrace Keynesian economics.

But this post is not about the backwards economics at CBO. Instead, I want to look at the new budget forecast and see what degree of fiscal discipline is necessary to get rid of red ink.

The first thing I did was to look at CBO’s revenue forecast, which can be found in table 1-2. But CBO assumes the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts will expire at the end of 2012, as well as other automatic tax hikes for 2013. So I went to table 1-8 and got the projections for those tax provisions and backed them out of the baseline forecast.

That gave me a no-tax-hike forecast for the next 10 years, which shows that revenues will grow, on average, slightly faster than 6.6 percent annually. Or, for those who like actual numbers, revenues will climb from a bit over $2.3 trillion this year to almost $4.4 trillion in 2021.

Something else we know from CBO’s budget forecast is that spending this year (fiscal year 2011) is projected to be a bit below $3.6 trillion.

So if we know that tax revenues will be $4.4 trillion in 2021 (and that’s without any tax hike), and we know that spending is about $3.6 trillion today, then even those of us who hate math can probably figure out that we can balance the budget by 2021 so long as government spending does not increase by more than $800 billion during the next 10 years.

Yes, you read that correctly. We can increase spending and still balance the budget. This chart shows how quickly the budget can be balanced with varying degrees of fiscal discipline.

The numbers show that a spending freeze balances the budget by 2017. Red ink disappears by 2019 if spending is allowed to grow 1 percent each year. And the deficit disappears by 2021 if spending is limited to 2 percent annual growth.

Not that these numbers are a surprise. I got similar results after last year’s update, and also earlier this year when the Economic and Budget Outlook was published.

Some of you may be thinking this can’t possibly be right. After all, you hear politicians constantly assert that we need tax hikes because that’s the only way to balance the budget without “draconian” and “savage” budget cuts.

But as I’ve explained before, this demagoguery is based on the dishonest Washington practice of assuming that spending should increase every year, and then claiming that a budget cut takes place anytime spending does not rise as fast as previously planned.

In reality, balancing the budget is very simple. Modest spending restraint is all that’s needed. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, particularly in a corrupt town dominated by interest groups, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and politicians.

But if we takes tax hikes off the table and somehow cap the growth of spending, it can be done. This video explains.

And we know other countries have succeeded with fiscal restraint. As is explained in this video.

Or we can acquiesce to the Washington establishment and raise taxes and impose fake spending cuts. But that hasn’t worked so well for Greece and other European welfare states, so I wouldn’t suggest that approach.

Is Obama Really Going to Propose Another Keynesian Stimulus?

Just last week, I made fun of Paul Krugman after he publicly said that a fake threat from invading aliens would be good for the economy since the earth would waste a bunch of money on pointless defense outlays.

Yesterday, there were rumors that Krugman stated that it would have been stimulative if the earthquake had been stronger and done more damage, but he exposed this as a prank (though it is understandable that many people – including me, I’m embarrassed to admit – initially assumed it was true since he did write that the 9-11 terrorist attacks boosted growth).

 But while Krugman is owed an apology by whoever pulled that stunt, the real problem is that President Obama and his advisers actually take Keynesian alchemy seriously.

And since President Obama is promising to unveil another “jobs plan” after his vacation, that almost certainly means more faux stimulus.

We don’t know what will be in this new package, but there are rumors of an infrastructure bank, which doubtlessly would be a subsidy for state and local governments. The only thing “shovel ready” about this proposal is that tax dollars will be shoveled to interest groups.

The other idea that seems to have traction is extending the current payroll tax holiday, which lowers the “employee share” of the payroll tax from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. The good news is that the tax holiday doesn’t increase the burden of government spending. The bad news is that temporary tax rate reductions probably have very little positive effect on economic output.

Lower tax rates are the right approach, to be sure (particularly compared to useless rebates, such as those pushed by the Bush White House in 2001 and 2008), but workers, investors, and entrepreneurs are unlikely to be strongly incentivized by something that might be seen as a one-year gimmick. Though I suppose if the holiday keeps getting extended, people may begin to think it is a semi-durable feature of the tax code, so maybe there will be some pro-growth impact.

In any event, we will see what the President unveils next month. I’ll be particularly interested in how his supposed short-run jobs proposal fits in with his long-run plan for dealing with red ink. He has been advocating for a “balanced approach” and “shared sacrifice” - but that’s Obama-speak for higher taxes, and we know that’s a damper on job creation and new investment.

As you can tell, I’m not optimistic. The best thing for growth would be to get the government out of the way. The Obama White House, though, thinks bigger government is good for the economy.

This stimulus video was produced last year and was designed for another jobs plan concocted by the Administration, but the message is still very appropriate.

Basic Economics for Financial Journalists and Other Dummies

While driving home last night, I had the miserable experience of listening to a financial journalist being interviewed about the anemic growth numbers that were just released.

I wasn’t unhappy because the interview was biased to the left. From what I could tell, both the host and the guest were straight shooters. Indeed, they spent some time speculating that the economy’s weak performance was bad news for Obama.

What irked me was the implicit Keynesian thinking in the interview. Both of them kept talking about how the economy would have been weaker in the absence of government spending, and they fretted that “austerity” in Washington could further slow the economy in the future.

This was especially frustrating for me since I’ve spent years trying to get people to understand that money doesn’t disappear if it’s not spent by government. I repeatedly explain that less government means more money left in the private sector, where it is more likely to create jobs and generate wealth.

In recent years, though, I’ve begun to realize that many people are accidentally sympathetic to the Keynesian government-spending-is-stimulus approach. They mistakenly think the theory makes sense because they look at GDP, which measures how national income is spent. They’d be much less prone to shoddy analysis if they instead focused on how national income is earned.

This should be at least somewhat intuitive, because we all understand that economic growth occurs when there is an increase in things that make up national income, such as wages, small business income, and corporate profits.

But as I listened to the interview, I began to wonder whether more people would understand if I used the example of a household.

Let’s illustrate by imagining a middle-class household with $50,000 of expenses and $50,000 of income. I’m just making up numbers, so I’m not pretending this is an “average” household, but that doesn’t matter for this analysis anyway.

Expenses                                                        Income                                  

Mortgage           $15,000                        Wages                $40,000

Utilities               $10,000                        Bank Interest       $1,000

Food                     $5,000                        Rental Income      $8,000

Taxes                  $10,000                        Dividends             $1,000

Clothing               $2,000

Health Care         $3,000

Other                   $5,000

The analogy isn’t perfect, of course, but think of this household as being the economy. In this simplified example, the household’s expenses are akin to the way the government measures GDP. It shows how income is allocated. But instead of measuring how much national income goes to categories such as consumption, investment, and government spending, we’re showing how much household income goes to things like housing, food, and utilities.

The income side of the household, as you might expect, is like the government’s national income calculations. But instead of looking at broad measures of things such wages, small business income, and corporate profits, we’re narrowing our focus to one household’s income.

Now let’s modify this example to understand why Keynesian economics doesn’t make sense. Assume that expenses suddenly jumped for our household by $5,000.

Maybe the family has moved to a bigger house. Maybe they’ve decided to eat steak every night. But since I’m a cranky libertarian, let’s assume Obama has imposed a European-style 20 percent VAT and the tax burden has increased.

Faced with this higher expense, the household – especially in the long run – will have to reduce other spending. Let’s assume that the income side has stayed the same but that household expenses now look like this.

Expenses                                                       

Mortgage           $15,000

Utilities                 $9,000        (down by $1,000)

Food                     $4,000        (down by $1,000)

Taxes                  $15,000        (up by $5,000)

Clothing               $2,000

Health Care         $3,000

Other                   $2,000        (down by $3,000)

Now let’s return to where we started and imagine how a financial journalist, applying the same approach used for GDP analysis,  would cover a news report about this household’s budget.

This journalist would tell us that the household’s total spending stayed steady thanks to a big increase in tax payments, which compensated for falling demand for utilities, food, and other spending.

From a household perspective, we instinctively recoil from this kind of sloppy analysis. Indeed, we probably are thinking, “Spending for other categories – things that actually make my life better – are down because the tax burden increased!!!”

But this is exactly how we should be reacting when financial journalists (and other dummies) tell us that government outlays are helping to prop up total spending in the economy.

The moral of the story is that government is capable of redistributing how national income is spent, but it isn’t a vehicle for increasing national income. Indeed, the academic evidence clearly shows the opposite to be true.

Let’s conclude by briefly explaining how journalists and others should be looking at economic numbers. And the household analogy, once again, will be quite helpful.

It’s presumably obvious that higher income is the best thing for our hypothetical family. A new job, a raise, better investments, an increase in rental income. Any or all of these developments would be welcome because they mean higher living standards and a better life. In other words, more household spending is a natural consequence of more income.

Similarly, the best thing for the economy is more national income. More wages, higher profits, increased small business income. Any or all of these developments would be welcome because we would have more money to spend as we see fit to enjoy a better life. This higher spending would then show up in the data as higher GDP, but the key thing to understand is that the increase in GDP is a natural result of more national income.

Simply stated, national income is the horse and GDP is the cart. This video elaborates on this topic, and watching it may be more enjoyable than reading my analysis.

The Gang of Six Is Back from the Dead: Contemplating the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Their Budget Plan

The on-again, off-again “Gang of Six” has come back on the scene and is offering a “Bipartisan Plan to Reduce Our Nation’s Deficits.”

The proposal is quite similar to the one put forth by the President’s Simpson-Bowles Commission, which isn’t too surprising since some of the same people are involved.

At this stage, all I’ve seen is this summary (A BIPARTISAN PLAN TO REDUCE OUR NATIONS DEFICITS v7), so I reserve the right to modify my analysis as more details emerge (and since I fully expect the plan to look worse when additional information is available, the following is an optimistic assessment.

The Good

  • Unlike President Obama, the Gang of Six is not consumed by class-warfare resentment. The plan envisions that the top personal income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent.
  • The corporate income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent as well, something that is long overdue since the average corporate tax rate in Europe is now down to 23 percent.
  • The alternative minimum tax (which should be called the mandatory maximum tax) will be repealed.
  • The plan would repeal the CLASS Act, a provision of Obamacare for long-term-care insurance that will significantly expand the burden of federal spending once implemented.
  • The plan targets some inefficient and distorting tax preference such as the health care exclusion.

The Bad

  • The much-heralded spending caps do not apply to entitlement programs. This is like going to the doctor because you have cancer and getting treated for a sprained wrist.
  • A net tax increase of more than $1 trillion (I expect that number to be much higher when further details are divulged).
  • The plan targets some provisions of the tax code – such as IRAs and 401(k)s) – that are not preferences, but instead exist to mitigate against the double taxation of saving and investment.
  • There is no Medicare reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.
  • There in no Medicaid reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.

The Ugly

  • The entire package is based on dishonest Washington budget math. Spending increases under the plan, but the politicians claim to be cutting spending because the budget didn’t grow even faster.
  • Speaking of spending, why is there no information, anywhere in the summary document, showing how big government will be five years from now? Ten years from now? The perhaps-all-too-convenient absence of this critical information should set off alarm bells.
  • There’s a back-door scheme to change the consumer price index in such a way as to reduce expenditures (i.e., smaller cost-of-living-adjustments) and increase tax revenue (i.e., smaller adjustments in tax brackets and personal exemptions). The current CPI may be flawed, but it would be far better to give the Bureau of Labor Statistics further authority, if necessary, to make changes. A politically imposed change seems like nothing more than a ruse to impose a hidden tax hike.
  • A requirement that the internal revenue code maintain the existing bias against investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other upper-income taxpayers. This “progressivity” mandate implies very bad things for the double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

This quick analysis leaves many questions unanswered. I particularly look forward to getting information on the following:

  1. How fast will discretionary spending rise or fall under the caps? Will this be like the caps following the 1990 tax-hike deal, which were akin to 60-mph speed limits in a school zone? Or will the caps actually reduce spending, erasing the massive increase in discretionary spending of the Bush-Obama years?
  2. What does it mean to promise Social Security reform “if and only if the comprehensive deficit reduction bill has already received 60 votes.” Who defines reform? And why does the reform have to focus on “75-year” solvency, apparently to the exclusion of giving younger workers access to a better and more stable system?
  3. Will federal spending under the plan shrink back down to the historical average of 20 percent of GDP? And why aren’t those numbers in the summary? The document contains information of deficits and debt, but those figures are just the symptoms of excessive spending. Why aren’t we being shown the data that really matters?

Over the next few days, we’ll find out what’s really in this package, but my advice is to keep a tight hold on your wallet.

New Study from Swedish Economists Allows Us to Quantify the Cost of the Bush-Obama Spending Binge

The United States has been on a decade-long spending binge. Thanks to the profligate policies of both Bush and Obama, the burden of federal spending has climbed to about 25 percent of economic output, up from 18.2 percent of GDP when Bill Clinton left office.

The political class tells us that more government is good for the economy since it an “investment” and/or a “stimulus.”

The academic research, however, tells a different story. Here are some brief excerpts from a recent study by two Swedish economists, including a critically important observation about the impact of bigger government on economic performance.

…most recent studies typically find a negative correlation between total government size and economic growth. …the most convincing studies are those most recently published. …In general, research has come very close to a consensus that in rich countries there is a negative correlation between total government size and growth. It appears fair to say that an increase in total government size of ten percentage points in tax revenue or expenditure as a share of GDP is on average associated with an annual lower growth rate of between one-half and one percentage point.

Let’s focus on the last sentence of the excerpt and contemplate the implications. The research cited above tells us that annual growth is 0.5 percentage point-1.0 percentage point lower if the burden of government rises by 10 percentage points of GDP. Well, the burden of federal spending has jumped by more than 5 percentage points of GDP during the Bush-Obama years, indicating that annual growth in America is now 0.25 percentage point-0.5 percentage point lower than it otherwise would be.

Now let’s take the best-case scenario, and assume that annual growth has only dropped by 0.25 percentage points, and consider what that means. It may not sound like much, but even small differences in growth rates become very important over time. For an average household over a 25-year period, the loss of 0.25 percentage points of growth means annual income will rise, but the total increase will be about $5,000 smaller by the 25th year.

The budgetary implications of growth also are rather important. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the economy’s performance has a large impact on tax receipts (more growth means higher incomes and more taxpayers) and a small effect on government spending (more growth means fewer people at the public trough). CBO even publishes a “sensitivity table” with specific estimates (Table B-1).

If we once again use the best-case scenario and assume the Bush-Obama spending binge has reduced annual growth by only 0.25 percentage points, the CBO numbers show this means more than $750 billion of additional red ink. This is something to keep in mind as the White House argues that job-killing class-warfare tax hikes will somehow improve the budget situation.

Let’s now return to the academic research. The authors included a very helpful table showing the results of recent studies on the relationship between the size of government and economic performance. Click on the image for a full-size look at how the majority of scholarly research this century confirms that big government is bad for prosperity.

For all intents and purposes, all this research shows that developed nations are on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve. Named after my Cato colleague Richard Rahn and explained in the video below, the Rahn Curve is sort of a spending version of the Laffer Curve.

It shows that growth is maximized by small governments that focus on core “public goods” like rule of law and protection of property rights. But when governments expand beyond a certain growth-maximizing level (the research says about 20 percent of GDP, by I explain in the video why the right number is probably much smaller), the result is slower growth and less prosperity.

With the exception of high-growth Hong Kong and Singapore, all developed nation have public sectors that consume at least 30 percent of economic output. This means that government spending is undermining prosperity all around the world. And since the burden of government spending is close to 40 percent of GDP in the United States…well, you can fill in the blanks.

Bacon, Duct Tape, and the Free Market

It’s hard to imagine how we would get through life without necessities like bacon and duct tape. But have you ever thought about how the free market gives you so much for so little?

Here’s a video that should be mandatory viewing in Washington. Too bad politicians didn’t watch it before imposing government-run health care.

And since we’re contemplating the big-picture issue of whether markets are better than statism, here’s some very sobering polling data from EurActiv:

A recent survey has found deep pessimism among European Commission staff on a wide range of issues, including the course of European integration over the past decade and the likelihood of success of the EU’s strategy for economic growth. Some 63% partially or totally agreed that “the European model has entered into a lasting crisis.”

This is remarkable. Even the statist über-bureaucrats of the European Commission realize the big-government house of cards is collapsing, yet politicians in Washington still want to make America more like Europe.