Tag: federal deficits

Stimulus Now, Restraint Later?

Journalists have been repeating lately that “economists say” that we need yet more government spending now to keep on goosing the economy, even though – to be sure – we will need to cut back on spending at some point in the undefined future, to avoid the fate of Greece. Well, maybe some economists. But I’m sure this “economists agree” claim is no more true today than it was a year ago. Here’s one example, from NYU economist Mario J. Rizzo, coauthor with Cato senior fellow Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr. of The Economics of  Time and Ignorance:

But let’s look at the arguments made by the opponents of fiscal stimulus.

Some have argued that, as deficits increase, people now offset the putative stimulus by increasing their savings in anticipation of future tax increases. So there is no stimulus now.

Others have argued that, for example, extending unemployment insurance (again) to those unemployed for more than six months will increase the length of unemploymentnow (by subsidizing it) while failing to stimulate.

The stimulus failure is due to the relatively small increase in spending induced by non-permanent increases in income (as unemployment insurance is certainly not permanent source of income). Even more, producers know that the spending is non-permanent so it is unlikely to result in increased employment of labor. Thus, there is no stimulus now; in fact if unemployment continues there is a kind of anti-stimulus now.

Austrians have argued that failing to allow the housing market to adjust by both fiscal and monetary propping-up measures, worsens the situation now by prolonging the inevitable adjustment to a bubble sector. As the adjustment is dragged out and the rest of the economy suffers the dampening effectsnow. This must include the uncertainty as to when (in calendar time) the market will be allowed to adjust.

In empirical work, John Taylor finds that to the extent there was some effect of the fiscal stimulus it was very small and lasted only a matter of two or three months for each major injection. So I guess the long run is four or five months by this reckoning:

Compared with the 2008 stimulus, the 2009 stimulus was larger, but the amount paid in checks was smaller and more drawn out. Nevertheless, there is still no noticeable effect on consumption. I also show the timing of the “Cash for Clunkers” program in Figure 7; it did encourage some consumption, but did not last and cannot be considered an effective method to stimulate the economy. In addition, my analysis of the government spending part of the stimulus is that it too had little positive impact.

Even frameworks that stress future consequences of current stimulus need not be long-run theories in the calendar sense. For example, if the anticipated taxes required to pay off or service current deficits consist of rises in marginal income tax rates, output will be considerably lower and the real interest rates higher in a matter of a couple of years than without stimulus.

The upshot of all of this is that the anti-stimulus economists are not claiming we must trade off benefits now for some long-term pie-in-the-sky benefits. Most are saying: The stimulus route leads to (almost) no benefits now as well as costs later.

What’s the Future for Supply-Side Economics?

Kevin Williamson has a long-overdue piece in National Review making two essential points about supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve. First, he explains that tax cuts are not the fiscal equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Simply stated, too many Republicans have fallen into very sloppy habits. They oftentimes fail to understand the difference between “supply-side” tax rate reductions that actually improve incentives to engage in productive behavior and social-engineering tax cuts that simply allow people to keep more money, regardless of whether they create more wealth. This does not necessarily mean the latter form of tax cuts are bad, but they definitely do not boost economic performance and generate revenue feedback. Moreover, even when GOPers are talking about supply-side tax cuts, they frequently exaggerate the positive effects by claiming that lower tax rates “pay for themselves.” I certainly think that can happen, and I give real-world examples in this video on the Laffer Curve (including Reagan’s lower tax rates on those evil rich people), but self-financing tax cuts are not common.

Williamson’s second point is that the true fiscal burden is best measured by looking at how much government is spending. I might quibble with his description of deficits as a form of deferred taxation since technically debt can be rolled over in perpetuity, but his main point is right on the mark. There is no doubt that most forms of government spending – regardless of the means of financing – harm growth by diverting money from the productive sector of the economy (technically, the economic damage occurs because capital and labor are misallocated and incentives are diminished, but let’s not get too wonky). Here are some excerpts from Williamson’s article:

Properly understood, there were no Reagan tax cuts. In 1980 federal spending was $590 billion and in 1989 it was $1.14 trillion; you don’t get Reagan tax cuts without Tip O’Neill spending cuts. Looked at from the proper perspective, we haven’t really had any tax cuts to speak of — we’ve had tax deferrals. …even during periods of strong economic growth, there has been nothing to indicate that our economy is going to grow so fast that it will surmount our deficits and debt without serious spending restraint. This should be a shrieking klaxon of alarm for conservatives still falling for happy talk about pro-growth tax cuts and strategic Laffer Curve optimizing. …The exaggeration of supply-side effects — the belief that tax-rate cuts pay for themselves or more than pay for themselves over some measurable period — is more an article of faith than an economic fact. But it’s a widespread faith: George W. Bush argued that tax cuts would serve to increase tax revenues. So did John McCain. …It is true that tax cuts can promote growth, and that the growth they promote can help generate tax revenue that offsets some of the losses from the cuts. …The problem with magical supply-siderism is that it gives Republicans a rhetorical and intellectual framework in which to ignore spending — just keep cutting taxes, the argument goes, and somebody else will eventually have to cut spending. The results speak for themselves: Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott and Bill Frist all know how to count, but, under their leadership, Republicans spent all the money the country had and then some.

Now that we’ve chastised Republicans, it’s time to turn our attention to the Democrats. We know they are bad on spending (I often joke that Republicans expand government out of stupidity, while Democrats do it for reasons of malice), so let’s focus on their approach to Laffer Curve issues. If the GOP is guilty of being too exuberant, the Democrats and their allies at the Joint Committee on Taxation (the bureaucracy on Capitol Hill that estimates the revenue impact of tax policy changes) are guilty of deliberate blindness. The current methodology used by the JCT (with the full support of the Democrats) is to assume that changes in tax policy – regardless of magnitude – have zero impact on economic performance. If you double tax rates, the JCT assumes the economy is unaffected and people earn just as much taxable income. If you replace the IRS with a flat tax, the JCT assumes there is no effect on macroeconomic performance. Sounds unbelievable, but this video has the gory details, including when my former boss, Senator Bob Packwood was told by JCT that revenues would rise year after year even if the government imposed a 100 percent tax rate.

Interestingly, the European Central Bank just released a new study showing that there are substantial Laffer Curve affects and that lower tax rates generate large amounts of revenue feedback. In a few cases (Sweden and Denmark), the researchers even conclude that some lower tax rates would be in that rare category of self-financing tax cuts. But the key point from this ultra-establishment institution is that changes in tax rates do lead to changes in taxable income. This means it is an empirical question to determine the revenue impact. Here’s a key excerpt from the study’s conclusion:

We show that there exist robust steady state Laffer curves for labor taxes as well as capital taxes. …EU-14 countries are much closer to the slippery slopes than the US. More precisely, we find that the US can increase tax revenues by 30% by raising labor taxes but only 6% by raising capital income taxes, while the same numbers for EU-14 are 8% and 1% respectively. …We find that for the US model 32% of a labor tax cut and 51% of a capital tax cut are self-financing in the steady state. In the EU-14 economy 54% of a labor tax cut and 79% of a capital tax cut are self-financing. We therefore conclude that there rarely is a free lunch due to tax cuts. However, a substantial fraction of the lunch will be paid for by the efficiency gains in the economy due to tax cuts.

Contrary to over-enthusiastic Republicans and deliberately-dour Democrats, the Laffer Curve/supply-side economics debate is not a binary choice between self-financing tax cuts and zero-impact tax cuts. Yes, there are examples of each, but the real debate should focus on which types of tax reforms generate the most bang for the buck. In the 1980s, the GOP seems to have the right grasp of this issue, focusing on lowering tax rates and reducing the discriminatory tax bias against saving and investment. This approach generated meaningful results. As Nobel laureate Robert Lucas wrote, “The supply side economists, if that is the right term for those whose research we have been discussing, have delivered the largest genuinely free lunch that I have seen in 25 years of this business, and I believe we would be a better society if we followed their advice.”

But identifying and advocating pro-growth tax reforms, as Williamson notes, is just part of the battle. The real test of fiscal responsibility if controlling the size of government. Republicans miserably failed at this essential task during the Bush year. If they want to do the right thing for the nation, and if they want to avert a Greek-style fiscal collapse, they should devote most of their energies to reducing the burden of government spending.

CBO on Obama Debt Orgy

This week the Congressional Budget Office released its analysis of the president’s FY2011 budget. The CBO projects that combined deficits for 2011-2020 under the president’s budget will be $1.2 trillion (for a total of $9.7 trillion) higher than the Office of Management & Budget’s forecast.

The CBO projects that debt held by the public as a percentage of GDP will be significantly higher:

One major reason why the CBO projects higher deficits than the OMB is because the CBO projects that cumulative revenue over the period will be lower (its economic growth assumptions aren’t as rosy as the OMB’s).

But a lack of revenues isn’t the big problem. The CBO projects that revenues as a percentage GDP would rebound from 14.5 percent in FY2010 to 19.6 percent in FY2020. The big problem is that spending as a percentage of GDP is projected to remain at post-war record highs throughout the decade:

A Value-Added Tax Is Not the Answer…Unless the Question Is How to Finance Bigger Government

While admitting that spending restraint is the ideal approach, Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution asks whether a value-added tax (VAT) might be the most desirable of all realistic options for dealing with an unsustainable budget situation.

Read his post for yourself, but I think a fair summary is that he is basically saying that a) there will be a crisis if we don’t do something about future deficits, b) a crisis will result in very bad policy, and c) if we support a VAT now, we will at least be able to extract concessions from the other side.

I have no idea whether there will be a future crisis, but I think the rest of Tyler’s argument is wrong.

But before explaining my position, let’s start by stating what I assume to be our mutual objective, which is to control the size of government. We all agree that there is a problem because government is too big now, and it is projected to get even bigger because of the built-in growth of entitlement programs. One symptom of growing government is deficits, which are very large today and will be even bigger in the near future as more and more baby boomers retire and push up costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Our side (broadly speaking) wants to solve the budgetary situation by restraining the growth of government. One proposed solution is Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap Plan, which would reform entitlements and curtail other programs so that the long-term burden of federal spending is reduced to less than 20 percent of GDP. Since long-term federal tax revenues under current law - even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent - are expected to be about 19 percent of GDP, this solves the budet problem  (the tax reform component of the Roadmap includes a VAT, which is a poison pill in an otherwise excellent plan, but let’s set that aside for another day).

The left, by contrast, generally wants to let federal spending consume ever-larger shares of economic output, and they believe that increasing the tax burden is the right way of keeping the deficit from getting too large. No statist has put forth a detailed plan to match Rep. Ryan, but several high-ranking Democrats have made no secret about their desire for a VAT (see here, here, and here). And everyone agrees that a VAT is capable of extracting a lot of money from the productive sector of the economy.

These two visions are fundamentally incompatible, which helps to explain why there is a standoff. The bad guys do not want to control the size of government and the good guys do not want to raise taxes. But now we have to add one more piece to the puzzle. While gridlock normally is a good result, inaction to some degree favors the other side because entitlement programs automatically expand. The helps to explain why Tyler (with reluctance) thinks that it may be best to acquiesce to a VAT now rather than to wait for a fiscal crisis.

Now, let’s explain why Tyler is wrong. First, it is far from clear that surrendering to a VAT now will result in better (less worse) policy than what will happen during a crisis. It certainly is true that some past crises have led to terrible policy, such as the failed policies of Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s or the more recent Bush-Paulson-Obama-Geithner TARP debacle. But at other points in time, a crisis atmosphere has paved the way for better policy, with Reagan’s presidency being the most obvious example.

The wait-for-a-crisis strategy clearly is a bit of a gamble, but even if we lose, we get a VAT in the future rather than a VAT today. So what’s the downside? Tyler and others might say that the future legislation in the midst of a crisis could be a vehicle for other bad provisions, but he offers no evidence for this proposition. And it may be the case that the other side would be forced to add good provisions instead. Moreover, the lack of a VAT in the period between today and the future crisis might help lead to some much-needed spending restraint.

What about Tyler’s argument that the good guys could extract some concessions from the other side by putting a VAT on the table. This is horribly naive. Even though George Mason University is less than 20 miles from Washington, and even though Tyler is a renassaince man with many talents, he does not understand how Washington really works.

Imagine there is a budget summit where politicians from both sides get together to work on this supposed deal. Here are the inevitable ground rules - and the consequences they will produce:

1. The deal will be 50 percent spending cuts and 50 percent tax increases, but the supposed spending “cuts” will be nothing more than reductions in already-legislated increases. The tax increases, by contrast, will be on top of all the additional revenue that is already exepected under current law (not a trivial matter since receipts will be $1.5 trillion higher in 2015 than they are today according to OMB). For proponents of limited government, using the “current services baseline” as a benchmark in budget negotiations is like playing a five-minute basketball game after spotting the other team a 20-point lead.

2. All spending and revenue decisions will be examined through the prism of CBO income distribution tables, and the left will successfully insist that nothing is done to make the tax code less progressive. But since a VAT is a proportional tax, the only way of preserving overall progressivity is to raise tax rates on those wicked and evil rich people and/or to massively increase “refundable” tax credits (what normal people call income redistribution). Any proposal to lower income tax rates or eliminate the corporate income tax, as Tyler envisions, would be laughed out of the room (though Democrats will offer a fig leaf or two in order to seduce a sufficient number of gullible Republicans into supporting a terrible agreement, and that might include a cosmetic change to the corporate tax regime).

3. Many of the supposed spending cuts, for all intents and purposes, will be back-door tax increases on saving and investment. More specifically, a big chunk of the supposed spending cut portion of a budget deal will be from means-testing entitlement programs. This sounds good. After all, who wants to send a Social Security check to Bill Gates when he retires? But consider how such a system actually will work. The government will say that people with income (and/or assets) above a certain level are ineligible for some or all of the benefits available to less-fortunate retirees. From an economic persepective, this is very much akin to a higher tax rate on people who save and invest during their working years. And since means testing would only generate substantial budgetary savings if it applied to millions of regular people in addition to Bill Gates, we would wind up with a system that created big penalties on middle-class families who were dumb enough to save and invest.

I’ve already pontificated enough for one blog post, so let me summarize by stating that Tyler’s approach, while not unreasonable, is about how to lose gracefully. Even if his strategy works perfectly, the result is bigger government. I’d much rather fight. If you want some inspiration for the battle, watch this video. If you haven’t had enough of me already, here’s my video explaining why the VAT is a horrible idea.

Update: Tyler has emailed to object to how his position is being characterized. He writes, “I am asking anti-VAT forces to strengthen their argument and am very clearly agnostic and certainly not calling for a VAT today.” Everyone I’ve spoken with has interpreted his post as pro-VAT, and that’s certainly how I read it, but I want to add this addendum to my post so people can see Tyler’s response in case I’m not being fair.

House Democrats Choose Dishonesty

I’m not a fan of the House Democrats’ proposed takeover of the health care sector.  (If there’s one thing that legislation is not, it’s “reform.”)  But at least House Democrats were honest enough to include the cost of the $245 billion bump in Medicare physician payments in their legislation, unlike some committee chairmen I could mention.

Unfortunately, House Democrats have since decided that dishonesty is the better strategy.  They, like Senate Democrats, now plan to strip that additional Medicare spending out of health “reform” and enact it separately.  (Democrats are already trying to exempt that spending from pay-as-you-go rules, making it easier for them to expand our record federal deficits.)  Why enact it separately?  Because excising that spending from the “reform” legislation reduces the cost of health “reform”!

But why stop there?  Heck, enact all the new spending separately, and the cost of “reform” would plummet!  Enact the new Medicaid spending separately, and the cost of “reform” would fall by $438 billion! Do it with the subsidies to private health insurance companies, and the cost of “reform” would plunge by $773 billion!  All that would be left of “reform” would be tax increases and Medicare payment cuts.  Health “reform” would dramatically reduce federal deficits!  Huzzah!

Except it wouldn’t, because at the end of the day Congress would be spending the same amount of money.

The only good news may be this.  If this dishonest budget gimmick succeeds, then Congress will have “fixed” Medicare’s physician payments.  Absent that “must pass” legislation, the Democrats health care takeover would lose momentum, and would have to stand on its own merit.  That would be good for the Republic, though not for the legislation.

(Cross-posted at Politico’s Health Care Arena.)

Obama’s Spending Theory

President Obama focused on budget and economic issues in his press conference last night. One concern raised by reporters was that federal deficits were exploding and that Obama’s big spending plans would seem to make the problem worse.

Obama’s response was essentially that higher spending reduces the debt problem, which would strike most people as paradoxical to say the least:

Here’s what I do know: If we don’t tackle energy, if we don’t improve our education system, if we don’t drive down the costs of health care, if we’re not making serious investments in science and technology and our infrastructure, then we won’t grow [the economy by] 2.6 percent, we won’t grow 2.2 percent. We won’t grow. And so what we’ve said is, let’s make the investments that ensure that we meet our growth targets that put us on a pathway to growth as opposed to a situation in which we’re not making those investments and we still have trillion-dollar deficits.

First note that Obama’s budget would drive government health care costs up, not down. But aside from that technicality, the economics of Obama’s theory don’t make any sense.

Government spending on infrastructure, education, science and energy are already at high levels. For example, infrastructure spending today is as high as it was during the 1950s, and higher than it has been in recent decades. If government worked efficiently—as liberals believe it does—then all the highest-valued uses of taxpayer money would already be funded. At the margin, the only place for Obama’s new spending would be on low-value items of less economic importance.

Thus, Obama’s new college subsidies might induce some added young people to attend college, but most of those people are probably pretty marginal students because the high-quality students are already going to college. The marginal students might pick up some added skills, but at the cost of higher tax burdens and less economic output in the years when those folks are out of the workforce. Liberals assume that more spending on any activity they are interested in, whether public or private, is always better, but the real goal of economic policy is to find the optimum because all spending has a cost. (And the optimum level of government spending on most things is pretty darn low, or zero, in my view).

Obama is essentially claiming that even with federal, state and local spending at about one-third of GDP, there are government spending projects left over that are so powerful that “we won’t grow” if they don’t happen.

Serious economists know that that is nonsense. Most government activities have negative effects on growth, not positive effects. Take the largest federal program, Social Security, which will consume about $660 billion in taxpayer money this year. The program is a negative on economic growth because it suppresses personal savings and the taxes to fund it create large distortions. Lots of liberal economists support such transfer programs for non-economic or “social” reasons, but few economists would argue that they expand GDP on net.