Tag: Entitlements

In Tallinn, Helping to Protect the People of Estonia from Krugmanomics

Last month, I exposed some major errors that Paul Krugman committed when he criticized Estonia for restraining the burden of government spending.

My analysis will be helpful since I am now in Estonia for a speech about economic reform, and I wrote a column that was published today by the nation’s main business newspaper.

But just in case you’re one of the few people in the world who isn’t fluent in the local language, the Mises Institute Estonia was kind enough to post an English version.

Here are some of the key points I made. I started by explaining one of Krugman’s main blunders.

Krugman’s biggest mistake is that he claimed that spending cuts caused the downturn, even though the recession began in 2008 when government spending was rapidly expanding. It wasn’t until 2009 that the burden of government spending was reduced, and that was when the economy began to grow again. In other words, Krugman’s Keynesian theory was completely wrong. The economy should have boomed in 2008 and suffered a recession beginning in 2009. Instead, the opposite has happened.

I then pointed out that Estonia’s long-run performance has been admirable.

…the nation’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. Economic output has doubled in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period – including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

But I’m not a mindless cheerleader (though I might become one if any of the local women gave me the time of day), so I took the opportunity to identify areas where public policy needs improvement.

This doesn’t mean Estonia’s policy is perfect. Spending was reduced in 2009 and 2010, but now it is climbing again. This is unfortunate. Government spending consumes about 40 percent of GDP, which is a significant burden on the private sector.

Being a thoughtful guy, I then made suggestions for pro-growth changes.

Estonia should copy the Asian Tiger economies of Singapore and Hong Kong. These jurisdictions have maintained very high growth for decades in part because the burden of the public sector is only about 20 percent of GDP. …Estonia already has a flat tax, which is very important for competitiveness. The key goal should be to impose a spending cap, perhaps similar to Switzerland’s very successful “debt brake.” Under the Swiss system, government spending is not allowed to grow faster than population plus inflation. And since nominal GDP usually expands at a faster rate, this means that the relative burden of government spending shrinks over time. By slowly but surely reducing the amount of GDP diverted to fund government, this would enable policymakers to deal with the one area where Estonia’s tax system is very unfriendly. Social insurance taxes equal about one-fourth of the cost of hiring a worker, thus discouraging job creation and boosting the shadow economy.

And I elaborated on why reform of social insurance is not just a good idea, but should be viewed as an absolute necessity.

Reducing the heavy burden of social insurance taxes should be part of a big reform to modernize programs for healthcare and the elderly. A major long-term challenge for Estonia is that the population is expected to shrink. The World Bank and the United Nations both show that fertility rates are well below the “replacement rate,” meaning that there will be fewer workers in the future. That’s a very compelling reason why it is important to expand personal retirement accounts and allow the “pre-funding” of healthcare. It’s a simple matter of demographic reality.

In other words, Estonia doesn’t have a choice. If they don’t reform their entitlement programs, the burden of government spending will rise dramatically, which would mean a higher tax burden and/or substantial government debt.

We also need entitlement reform in the United States. Our demographics aren’t as bad as Estonia’s, but we all know - as I explained in my post about Cyprus - that bad things happen sooner or later if government spending grows faster than the economy’s productive sector.

Paul Ryan’s Spending Plan

House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has introduced his annual budget blueprint. The plan will likely pass the House but won’t become law this year.

However, the plan signals the direction that House Republicans want to go in budget battles with the Democrats this year, and it also shows the likely thrust of policy under a possible Republican president next year.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Total federal outlays would fall from $3,624 billion this year to $3,530 billion next year. Those figures are $24 billion less than under President Obama’s budget this year and $187 billion next year.
  • Of the $187 billion savings compared to Obama next year, $38 billion would come from discretionary programs, $146 billion from so-called entitlements, and $3 billion from interest costs.
  • Ryan’s proposed spending in 2022 of $4,888 billion would be a modest 13 percent less than Obama’s proposed spending that year. That’s a useful statistic to remember when you read the inevitable stories about how Ryan would slash, burn, and pillage the government safety net.
  • Indeed, Ryan’s proposed increase in federal spending from $3,624 billion this year to $4,888 by 2022 represents fairly robust annual average growth of three percent.
  • As a share of GDP, the Ryan budget would trim outlays from 23.4 percent this year to 19.8 percent by 2022. That reduction would simply get spending back to around the normal historical level. And note that spending would still be higher than the 18.2 percent achieved in the last two years under President Clinton.
  • Ryan would repeal the 2010 health care law and reform Medicare by transitioning to a consumer-choice model. Those changes are expected to reduce annual outlays in 2022 by $258 billion.
  • Perhaps a more important proposal is the block-granting of Medicaid and other entitlement programs such as food stamps. Those Ryan reforms would save $313 billion annually by 2022.
  • Converting entitlements to block grants would allow the federal government to clamp down on federal costs while giving the states strong incentives to improve program efficiency.
  • The Ryan budget does not propose Social Security reform. Paul Ryan favors major reforms to this program, but he apparently thinks that reforming health care and other entitlements is a higher priority right now.
  • Aside from a few obvious targets—such as high-speed rail and the 2010 health care law—the Ryan budget shies away from abolishing specific programs, agencies, and departments.
  • Too often the Ryan budget proposes to fix broken programs when the proper reform would be elimination. Ryan proposes to “consolidate” federal job-training programs, for example, but these programs have a history of failure over the last five decades. Furthermore, job training is not a proper federal role within the U.S. constitutional structure.

In sum, Ryan’s proposals would make modest reforms to the giant federal welfare state. By Washington standards the Ryan plan is bold, and Paul Ryan certainly deserves his reputation as the sharpest and most energetic budget reformer on Capitol Hill.

However, there is too much happy talk in the Ryan plan about how failed big-government programs can be made to work better, and not enough focus on terminating activities that are properly state, local, and private in nature.

P.S. I think my budget-cutting plan is a better one.

Our Constitution Is Out of Step with the Rest of the World

Is the Constitution out of date? That’s the impression that comes across from an article in yesterday’s New York Times, written by the paper’s crack Supreme Court reporter, Adam Liptak. It comes in turn from an article he points to by two law professors, David S. Law at Washington University in St. Louis and Mila Versteeg at the University of Virginia, scheduled for the June New York University Law Review. In it the authors conclude that the Constitution appears to be losing its appeal as a model for constitution drafters in other countries, despite its having served that role up until as recently as 1987, the year of its bicentennial. So what’s changed over the past quarter century?

Unfortunately, from the Times article we don’t get a clear picture of just how it is that the constitutions other countries have drafted in recent years differ from our own, except for the emphasis throughout the piece on rights. Yet right there is a clue about what’s going on. On that score, in fact, Liptak cites striking comments Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made in a television interview during a visit to Egypt last week:

“I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012,” she said. She recommended, instead, the South African Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the European Convention on Human Rights.

Liptak then notes, not entirely accurately, that “the rights guaranteed by the American Constitution are parsimonious by international standards, and they are frozen in amber.”

To be sure, the rights enumerated in our Constitution and in the amendments that were added later, including in the Bill of Rights, are few in number. But numbers alone, like rights alone, tell only part of our constitutional story. To tell the story more fully and accurately, we have to step back a bit.

It’s true that our Framers, unlike many others, especially more recently, did not focus their attention on rights. Instead, they focused on powers— and for good reason. Because we have an infinite number of rights, depending on how they’re defined, the Framers knew that they couldn’t possibly enumerate all of them. But they could enumerate the government’s powers, which they did. Thus, given that they wanted to create a limited government, leaving most of life to be lived freely in the private sector rather than through public programs of the kind we have today, the theory of the Constitution was simple and straightforward: where there is no power there is a right, belonging either to the states or to the people. The Tenth Amendment makes that crystal clear. Rights were thus implicit in the very idea of a government of limited powers. That’s the idea that’s altogether absent from the modern approach to constitutionalism—with its push for far reaching “active” government—about which more in a moment.

During the ratification debates in the states, however, opponents of the new Constitution, fearing that it gave the national government too much power, insisted that, as a condition of ratification, a bill of rights be added—for extra caution. But that raised a problem: by ordinary principles of legal reasoning, the failure to enumerate all of our rights, which again was impossible to do, would be construed as meaning that only those that were enumerated were meant to be protected. To address that problem, therefore, the Ninth Amendment was written, which reads: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Over the years, unfortunately, that amendment has been misunderstood  and largely ignored; but it was meant to make clear that the people “retained” a vast number of rights beyond those expressly enumerated in the document.

Thus, the rights expressly enumerated in the Constitution may be “parsimonious,” but understood in light of the larger theory of the document, they are not. Neither, moreover, are they “frozen in amber,” because the courts are called on regularly to interpret and apply them in the varying factual contexts that surround the cases or controversies that are brought before them. Thus, the right to freedom of speech has been read to entail the right to desecrate the flag, and the right to liberty has been read to entail the right to engage in sexual practices that others may dislike. Judges may sometimes fail to draw the proper inferences, of course, or draw inferences not entailed. But that says nothing about the Constitution itself.

The idea, then, that our Constitution is terse and old and guarantees relatively few rights—a point Liptak draws from the authors of the article and the people he interviews—does not explain the decline in the document’s heuristic power abroad. Nor does “the commitment of some members of the Supreme Court to interpreting the Constitution according to its original meaning in the 18th century” explain its fall from favor. Rather, it’s the kind of rights our Constitution protects, and its strategy for protecting them, that distinguishes it from the constitutional trends of recent years. First, as Liptak notes, “we are an outlier in prohibiting government establishment of religion,” and we recognize the right to a speedy and public trial and the right to keep and bear arms. But second, and far more fundamentally, our Constitution is out of step in its failure to protect “entitlements” to governmentally “guaranteed” goods and services like education, housing, health care, and “periodic holidays with pay” (Article 24 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights). And right there, of course, is the great divide, and the heart of the matter.

The modern view, which we too have followed, at least statutorily if not constitutionally, is to recognize all manner of “entitlements” of a kind that can be provided only through massive governmental institutions that engage in material and regulatory redistribution. We are constitutionally out of step in that, to be sure. Countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal are far ahead of us.

New Congressional Budget Office Numbers Once Again Show that Modest Spending Restraint Would Eliminate Red Ink

Back in 2010, I crunched the numbers from the Congressional Budget Office and reported that the budget could be balanced in just 10 years if politicians exercised a modicum of fiscal discipline and limited annual spending increases to about two percent yearly.

When CBO issued new numbers early last year, I repeated the exercise and again found that the same modest level of budgetary restraint would eliminate red ink in about 10 years.

And when CBO issued their update last summer, I did the same thing and once again confirmed that deficits would disappear in a decade if politicians didn’t let the overall budget rise by faster than two percent each year.

Well, the new CBO 10-year forecast was released this morning. I’m going to give you three guesses about what I discovered when I looked at the numbers, and the first two don’t count.

Yes, you guessed it. As the chart illustrates (click to enlarge), balancing the budget doesn’t require any tax increases. Nor does it require big spending cuts (though that would be a very good idea).

Even if we assume that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent, all that is needed is for politicians to put government on a modest diet so that overall spending grows by about two percent each year. In other words, make sure the budget doesn’t grow faster than inflation.

Tens of millions of households and businesses manage to meet this simple test every year. Surely it’s not asking too much to get the same minimum level of fiscal restraint from the crowd in Washington, right?

At this point, you may be asking yourself whether it’s really this simple. After all, you’ve probably heard politicians and journalists say that deficits are so big that we have no choice but to accept big tax increases and “draconian” spending cuts.

But that’s because politicians use dishonest Washington budget math. They begin each fiscal year by assuming that spending automatically will increase based on factors such as inflation, demographics, and previously legislated program changes.

This creates a “baseline,” and if they enact a budget that increases spending by less than the baseline, that increase magically becomes a cut. This is what allowed some politicians to say that last year’s Ryan budget cut spending by trillions of dollars even though spending actually would have increased by an average of 2.8 percent each year.

Needless to say, proponents of big government deliberately use dishonest budget math because it tilts the playing field in favor of bigger government and higher taxes.

There are two important caveats about these calculations.

1. We should be dramatically downsizing the federal government, not just restraining its growth. Even if he’s not your preferred presidential candidate, Ron Paul’s proposal for an immediate $1 trillion reduction in the burden of federal spending is a very good idea. Merely limiting the growth of spending is a tiny and timid step in the right direction.

2. We should be focusing on the underlying problem of excessive government, not the symptom of too much red ink. By pointing out the amount of spending restraint that would balance the budget, some people will incorrectly conclude that getting rid of deficits is the goal.

Last but not least, here is the video I narrated in 2010 showing how red ink would quickly disappear if politicians curtailed their profligacy and restrained spending growth.

Other than updating the numbers, the video is just as accurate today as it was back in 2010. And the concluding message—that there is no good argument for tax increases—also is equally relevant today.

P.S. Some people will argue that it’s impossible to restrain spending because of entitlement programs, but this set of videos shows how to reform Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

P.P.S. Some people will say that the CBO baseline is unrealistic because it assumes the sequester will take place. They may be right if they’re predicting politicians are too irresponsible and profligate to accept about $100 billion of annual reductions from a $4,000 billion-plus budget, but that underscores the core message that there needs to be a cap on total spending so that the crowd in Washington isn’t allowed to turn America into Greece.

Five Lessons for America from the European Fiscal Crisis

I’ve written about the fiscal implosion in Europe and warned that America faces the same fate if we don’t reform poorly designed entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

But this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, narrated by an Italian student and former Cato Institute intern, may be the best explanation of what went wrong in Europe and what should happen in the United States to avoid a similar meltdown.

I particularly like the five lessons she identifies.

1. Higher taxes lead to higher spending, not lower deficits. Miss Morandotti looks at the evidence from Europe and shows that politicians almost always claim that higher taxes will be used to reduce red ink, but the inevitable result is bigger government. This is a lesson that gullible Republicans need to learn - especially since some of them want to acquiesce to a tax hike as part of the “Supercommitee” negotiations.

2. A value-added tax would be a disaster. This was music to my ears since I have repeatedly warned that the statists won’t be able to impose a European-style welfare state in the United States without first imposing this European-style money machine for big government.

3. A welfare state cripples the human spirit. This was the point eloquently made by Hadley Heath of the Independent Women’s Forum in a recent video.

4. Nations reach a point of no return when the number of people mooching off government exceeds the number of people producing. Indeed, Miss Morandotti drew these two cartoons showing how the welfare state inevitably leads to fiscal collapse.

5. Bailouts don’t work. This also was a powerful lesson. Imagine how much better things would be in Europe if Greece never received an initial bailout. Much less money would have been flushed down the toilet and this tough-love approach would have sent a very positive message to nations such as Portugal, Italy, and Spain about the danger of continued excessive spending.

If I was doing this video, I would have added one more message. If nations want a return to fiscal sanity, they need to follow “Mitchell’s Golden Rule,” which simply states that the private sector should grow faster than the government.

This rule is not overly demanding (spending actually should be substantially cut, including elimination of departments such as HUD, Transportation, Education, Agriculture, etc), but if maintained over a lengthy period will eliminate all red ink. More importantly, it will reduce the burden of government spending relative to the productive sector of the economy.

Unfortunately, the politicians have done precisely the wrong thing during the Bush-Obama spending binge. Government has grown faster than the private sector. This is why this new video is so timely. Europe is collapsing before our eyes, yet the political elite in Washington think it’s okay to maintain business-as-usual policies.

Please share widely…before it’s too late.

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.

New Video Shows the War on Poverty Is a Failure

The Center for Freedom and Prosperity has released another “Economics 101” video, and this one has a very powerful message about the federal government’s so-called War on Poverty.

As explained by Hadley Heath of the Independent Women’s Forum, the various income redistribution schemes being imposed by Washington are bad for taxpayers – and bad for poor people.

The video has a plethora of useful information, but the data on the poverty rate is particularly compelling. Prior to the War on Poverty, the United States was getting more prosperous with each passing year and there were dramatic reductions in the level of destitution.

But once the federal government got involved in the mid-1960s, the good news evaporated. Indeed, the poverty rate has basically stagnated for the past 40-plus years, usually hovering around 13 percent depending on economic conditions.

Another remarkable finding in the video is that poor people in America rarely suffer from material deprivation. Indeed, they have wide access to consumer goods that used to be considered luxuries - and they also have more housing space than the average European (and with Europe falling apart, the comparisons presumably will become even more noteworthy).

The most important message of the video, however, is that small government and economic freedom are the best answers for poverty. As Hadley explains, poor people can be liberated to live meaningful, self-reliant lives if we can reduce the heavy burden of the federal government.

Last but not least, the video doesn’t address every issue in great detail, and there are three additional points that should be added to any discussion of poverty.

  1. The biggest beneficiaries of the current system are the army of bureaucrats that receive very comfortable salaries administering various programs.
  2. The Obama Administration is looking to re-define poverty in a way that would expand the welfare state and increase the burden of redistribution programs.
  3. The welfare reform legislation of the 1990s was a small step in the right direction because it eliminated a federal entitlement and shifted responsibility back to the state level. This success story should be replicated for programs such as Medicaid.

This last point is worth emphasizing because it is also one of the core messages of the video. The federal government has done a terrible job dealing with poverty. The time has come to get Washington out of the racket of income redistribution.