Tag: economics

The National Debt Is Huge, but Unfunded Liabilities Are America’s Real Red-Ink Challenge

I frequently argue that government spending is the problem, not budget deficits. Regardless of whether it is financed by taxing or borrowing, every penny of spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. I narrated a video explaining why excessive spending is bad from a theoretical perspective. I did another looking at the empirical evidence for smaller government. And I had another video discussing why deficits are a symptom and the real problem is bloated budgets.

Nonetheless, some people seem convinced that deficits and debt are the real problem. While I think that focus is a bit misguided, I certainly agree that there is something utterly immoral about spending today and imposing a fiscal burden on future taxpayers (especially since so much government spending is for current consumption and transfers).

But here’s some really depressing news for the anti-debt crowd. Today’s deficits and debt actually are just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a new video exposing the enormous unfunded liabilities resulting from entitlement programs. As the video explains, unfunded liabilities are promises by politicians that impose enormous long-term obligations for more spending and debt.

The narrator of the video is Kelly McDonough, a student at American University and a former Cato Institute intern. If this video is anywhere near as successful as the other video narrated by a former Cato intern, perhaps this will become a new tradition. That won’t be good for my video career, but it shows that the Cato Institute is doing a good job cultivating a new generation of freedom fighters.

Monday Links

  • The case for high-deductible health insurance:  “Of every dollar spent on health care in this country, just 13 cents is paid for by the person actually consuming the goods or services….As long as someone else is paying, consumers have every reason to consume as much health care as is available….This all but guarantees that health care costs and spending will continue their unsustainable path. And that is a path leading to more debt, higher taxes, fewer jobs and a reduced standard of living for all Americans.”
  • Reality: The real housing crisis was the bubble, not the bust. “Washington must stop and re-learn basic economics. First, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. In the case of housing, as a country, we built too much. The cure is to build less.”

Federal Job Creation

The board game Monopoly first took off during the Great Depression. A different game has become popular during today’s Great Recession. In this game, politicians race against high unemployment to create jobs in order to save their own. The players (politicians) have unlimited tax and borrowing authority, and can call upon friendly economists to help them maneuver. The players even get to keep score, although the media can penalize shoddy scorekeeping. Ultimately, voters will decide which players win and lose in the fall elections.

Okay, I’m being facetious. But as politicians continue to throw trillions of dollars at the economy in a vain effort to create jobs, and the media continues to go along with it by obsessing over meaningless job counts, the entire spectacle has become surreal. If government job creation is a game, the losers have been the taxpayers underwriting it, as well as the employers (and their employees) who are closing shop, laying off workers, or not hiring because of uncertainty over what big government schemes will be next.

Two news articles point to this “regime uncertainty” being generated by Washington.

First, the government’s chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, received a somewhat hostile reception at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas according to the BBC:

“The government doesn’t spur innovation or entrepreneurship. The government often gets in the way,” said Mr. [Gary] Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) which stages CES.

It [CEA] also had little support for President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus act calling it “panic spending” and warned of the growing federal deficit.

“The government is often a barrier,” said Mr. Shapiro. “High taxes and regulatory bureaucracy are barriers.”

Mr. Chopra’s response was typical of the political-bureaucratic mindset:

He said the US government was planning a summit with a number of chief executives from the “most innovative companies in the country to directly advise us to make government more efficient and more effective”.

Ah, another summit.

In the other article, the CNBC headline says it all: “Many Reluctant to Hire Because of New Taxes, Rules.” The article makes it clear that what businesses don’t need is another orchestrated summit:

The prospect of increased federal and state regulation and taxes has been particularly disruptive to the hiring plans of small- and medium-sized businesses, which have historically generated about two-thirds of the nation’s jobs. “I don’t really see the private sector hiring much in the next few months,” says Brian Bethune, an economist at Global Insight. “For the small-business sector there is just too much uncertainty about what happens beyond 2010.”

In reporting that its small business optimism index fell for the second straight month in December, the National Federation of Independent Business Tuesday said members’ No. 2 reason for not expanding payrolls was the prospect of government policy initiatives…”We’re hearing it more and more from our membership,” says Bill Rys, the NFIB’s tax counsel. “At the federal level, there’s uncertainty about tax rates, health care costs, energy costs. You also have what’s going on at the state and local levels, with new fees and taxes. They’re reluctant to jump back in.”

Unfortunately, instead of heeding the business community’s message, the Obama administration is focusing its energies on tinkering with the game’s scorekeeping. From ABC News:

The Obama administration has taken some heat and mockery for using the nebulous and non-economic term of jobs being “saved or created” by the $787 billion stimulus program.

So it’s gotten rid of it.

In a little-noticed December 18, 2009 memo from Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag the Obama administration is changing the way stimulus jobs are counted.

The memo, first noted by ProPublica, says that those receiving stimulus funds no longer have to say whether a job has been saved or created.

“Instead, recipients will more easily and objectively report on jobs funded with Recovery Act dollars,” Orszag wrote.

In other words, if the project is being funded with stimulus dollars – even if the person worked at that company or organization before and will work the same place afterward – that’s a stimulus job.

The American people are rightly growing tired of this nonsense. But it’s important that they understand that the idea of government job creation was flawed from the get-go. The government cannot simply wave a magic wand and create jobs without making private sector jobs disappear at the same time because of higher taxing and borrowing. There is no free lunch with government.

Don’t Trust Economists

Sometimes a picture really does tell a thousand words. Here’s a chart, based on data from the Philadelphia Fed, showing actual economic results compared to the predictions of professional economists. As you can see, my profession does a wretched job. Comparisons based on predictions from the IMF, OECD, CBO, and OMB doubtlessly would generate equally embarrassing results. This does not mean economists are idiots (insert obvious joke here), but it is an additional reason why Keynesianism is misguided. If economists are unable to predict what’s going to happen with the economy in the near future, why should we expect anything positive when politicians tinker with short-run economic performance? That’s especially the case when they pass so-called stimulus legislation that increases the burden of government spending.

This doesn’t mean that economists - and others - are never accurate with predictions. But I am quite confident that we will never see an economic model that successfully predicts future economic fluctuations.

h/t: James Montier, via Paul Kedrosky, via Andrew Sullivan

Monday Links

CBO, the Wizard of Oz, and the Keynesian Fairy Tale

The Obama Administration said that the so-called stimulus was necessary so that the unemployment rate would not rise above 8 percent. Indeed, the White House warned that the joblessness rate would climb to 9 percent if lawmakers did not approve the $787 billion package. Critics responded by explaining that making government bigger would divert resources from the productive sector of the economy and hurt growth. These skeptics also noted that nations using “Keynesian” policy, such as the United States in the 1930s and Japan in the 1990s, did not generate good results. And since the unemployment rate is now above 10 percent, it certainly seems like opponents were correct.

But now the supposedly non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has jumped to the defense of the White House, estimating that the spending bill actually generated beween 600,000 and 1.6 million jobs. How can that be, you may ask, when the number of jobs has fallen by more than 3 million? The CBO neatly sidesteps that real-world concern by moving the goalposts, using a slightly more sophisticated version of Obama’s “jobs created or saved” alchemy. Their jobs-created estimate is compared to a make-believe baseline of how many jobs there would be “without the law.”

CBO estimates that in the third quarter of calendar year 2009, an additional 600,000 to 1.6 million people were employed in the United States, and real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) was 1.2 percent to 3.2 percent higher, than would have been the case in the absence of ARRA. …CBO’s current estimates differ only slightly from those CBO prepared in March 2009. At that time, CBO projected that in the third quarter of 2009, U.S. employment would be higher by 600,000 to 1.5 million people with ARRA than it would be without the law, and real GDP would be 1.1 percent to 3.0 percent higher. CBO’s new estimates reflect small revisions to earlier projections of the timing and magnitude of changes to spending and revenues under ARRA. …Economic output and employment in the spring and summer of 2009 were lower than CBO had projected at the beginning of the year. But in CBO’s judgment, that outcome reflects greater-than-projected weakness in the underlying economy rather than lower-than-expected effects of ARRA.

Needless to say, this means there is no objective benchmark. The unemployment rate could jump to 15 percent and total job losses could reach 10 million, but CBO would continue to say, for all intents and purposes, that the results from their Keynesian model are more important than any real-world numbers. This is the fiscal policy version of the Wizard of Oz, and we’re supposed to ignore reality just as Dorothy and friends were supposed to ignore the man behind the curtain.

To be fair, there is nothing inherently wrong with CBO’s methodology. Economic analysis frequently requires people to make assumptions about how the world would behave with or without a certain policy. So the real question is whether Keynesian economics makes sense from a theoretical perspective, whether there is any supporting evidence, and whether there are more compelling alternatives. Click the links and decide for yourself.

Greedy Local Politicians Attempt to Grab Revenue Far Outside Their Borders

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the tax competition battle, which largely revolves around high-tax governments attempting to track – and tax – economic activity that migrates to lower-tax jurisdictions. But this is not just a global fight between decrepit welfare states such as France and fiscal havens such as the Cayman Islands. American states also compete with each other, and there are numerous examples of high-tax states such as California and New York trying to grab money from people who escape to zero-income tax states such as Nevada and Florida. The fight even exists at the local level, and a good example is the attempt by politicians to tax faraway online travel agencies. The Orange County Register opines about these extraterritorial tax grabs:

A recent legal victory for some Texas cities against online travel companies over hotel taxes may have given Anaheim officials hope for their own case, but they shouldn’t start celebrating just yet. Other cities have not fared as well in similar lawsuits. …Here’s what Fairview Heights, Anaheim and other cities wanted to change: In a typical transaction, a traveler picks a hotel and books a room, stays there, and pays the hotel a room charge plus a local occupancy tax based on the room charge. The hotel keeps the room charge and forwards the tax money to the government. Enter online travel companies like Expedia, Hotels.com, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity, which allow travelers to sort through hotels and book a room on a central Web site. These companies do not reserve or resell hotel rooms, but act as intermediaries to facilitate the transaction between hotel and traveler. The hotel receives an amount for the room, on which the city’s hotel tax is based. Let’s say I search a Web site and book a $100 hotel room. The online company charges me $10 for their service. Anaheim argues that hotel occupancy tax should be paid not only on the $100 room charge, but also on the $10 service fee. …A federal bill is pending to limit hotel taxes to amounts collected by a hotel for occupancy purposes, excluding service fees and markups by intermediaries. The Constitution permits Congress to pass such laws if there is a danger that state and city laws are interfering with interstate commerce. Hotel taxes are attractive to local politicians because they are a way to shift the tax burden to “outsiders.” But because every U.S. city has a hotel tax, we’re all somebody else’s “outsider.” The net result is that everyone is taxing everyone else in an unaccountable way, and unless the cities and their lawyers are stopped, in an unpredictable way, too.