Tag: economics

Who’s Winning the Race to Fiscal Destruction: Europe or the United States?

Even though the unwashed masses decided that I didn’t win my stimulus debate in New York City, I continue my fight for the hearts and minds of the American people.

I’m now taking part in a debate for U.S. News & World Report on “Who Is Handling Its Debt Crisis Better: United States or Europe?”

This was a tough question. I asked the organizer whether I could vote none of the above, but I was told I had to pick an option.

As you can see, I said the United States was doing a better job - but only by default.

Our long-run outlook is grim, but at least we still have time to reform the entitlement programs and save America… The only major difference is that European nations are farther down the path to fiscal collapse. The welfare state was adopted earlier in Europe and government spending among euro nations now consumes a staggering 49 percent of economic output. This heavy fiscal burden, especially when combined with onerous tax systems, helps explain why growth is anemic. …the United States still can turn things around. Greece, Italy, and other welfare states have probably passed the point of no return, but it’s still possible for American lawmakers to fix the entitlement crisis by turning Medicaid over to the states , modernizing Medicare into a premium-support system, and transitioning to a system of personal retirement accounts for younger workers. If those reforms don’t take place, the consequences won’t be pleasant. To be blunt, there won’t be an IMF to bail out the United States.

For all intents and purposes, I contend that America can be saved if something like the Ryan budget is approved.

You can vote on this page on whether you like or dislike what I said, as well as what the other participants said.

Helping to Explain Greece’s Collapse in a Single Picture

Politicians in Europe have spent decades creating a fiscal crisis by violating Mitchell’s Golden Rule and letting government grow faster than the private sector.

As a result, government is far too big today, and nations such as Greece are in the process of fiscal collapse.

But that’s the good news – at least relatively speaking. Over the next few decades, the problems will get much worse because of demographic change and unsustainable promises to spend other people’s money.

(By the way, America will suffer the same fate in the absence of reforms.)

Here’s one stark indicator of why Greece is in the toilet.

Look at the skyrocketing number of people riding in the wagon of government dependency (and look at these cartoons to understand why this is so debilitating).

 

By the way, Greece’s population only increased by a bit more than 16 percent during this period. Yet the number of bureaucrats jumped by far more than 100 percent.

And don’t forget that this chart just looks at the number of bureaucrats, not their excessive pay and bloated pensions.

With this in mind, do you agree with President Obama and want to squander American tax dollars on a bailout for Greece?

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.