Tag: fiscal policy

Iceland, Switzerland, and the Golden Rule of Fiscal Policy

Being a glass-half-full kind of guy, I look for kernels of good news when examining economic policy around the world. I once even managed to find something to praise about French tax policy. And I can assure you that’s not a very easy task.

I particularly try to find something positive to highlight when I’m a visitor. While in the Faroe Islands two days ago, for instance, I wrote about that jurisdiction’s new system of personal retirement accounts.

And now that I’m in Iceland, I want to focus on spending restraint.

As you can see from this chart, lawmakers in this island nation have done a reasonably good job of satisfying the Mitchell Golden Rule over the past couple of years. Nominal economic output has been growing by 6.1 percent annually, while government spending has risen by an average of 2.8 percent per year.

Iceland Spending Restraint

If Iceland continues to enjoy this level of growth and can maintain this modest degree of fiscal discipline, the burden of government spending will soon drop below 40 percent of GDP.

What America Can Learn from the Faroe Islands about Social Security Reform

I’m currently in the Faroe Islands, a relatively unknown and semi-autonomous part of Denmark located in the North Atlantic. Sort of like Greenland, but too small to appear on most maps.Faroe Islands

I’m in this chilly archipelago for a speech to the annual meeting of the Faroese People’s Party. According to Wikipedia, “the party is supportive of the economic liberalism.” But liberal in this context is classical liberal, so they’re my kind of people.

I spoke on the economics of fiscal policy and talked about issues such as my Golden Rule and the Laffer Curve, but today’s post is about what I learned, not what I said.

The current government of the Faroe Islands, which includes the People’s Party, has modernized its Social Security regime with a system of personal retirement accounts. Starting next January, workers will begin setting aside some of their income to finance a comfortable retirement income. When fully implemented, workers will be putting 15 percent of their income in their accounts, creating a system that’s even larger than the private retirement models in Australia and Chile.

So why did Faroese politicians take this step? Well, unlike politicians in most nations, they looked at the long-run data, saw that they had an aging population, realized that a tax-and-transfer scheme no longer could work, and decided to reform now instead of waiting for the old system to collapse.

Here’s a chart put together by the Nordic Council. As you can see, the Faroe Islands were (and other jurisdictions are) heading to an intolerable and unsustainable situation of too few workers and too many retirees.

Faroe Islands Age-Dependency Ratio

By the way, the same situation exists in the United States.

Our population is aging, the Baby Boomers are going into retirement, and birth rates have dropped. Our long-run numbers aren’t as grim as some other nations, but our Social Security system is basically insolvent.

Indeed, Social Security’s long-run deficit is measured in trillions, not billions. According to the most recent Trustee’s Report, deficits over the next 75 years are expected to equal $36 trillion. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

For what it’s worth, if a private insurance or pension company kept its books in the same was as Social Security, it would be forced into bankruptcy and its managers would be indicted for fraud..

But when politicians operate a Ponzi Scheme, we’re supposed to applaud them for compassion!

This is why it might be worth the cost if we sent the politicians in Washington on a junket (using their taxpayer-financed fleet of luxury jets) to Torshavn, the Faroese capital. They could eat some lamb and fish and learn what it’s like to responsibly address a problem before it becomes a crisis.

Or we could save the money and simply force them to watch my video on personal retirement accounts.

P.S. In you like gallows humor, you can enjoy some Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke, though it’s not overly funny when you realize it’s a depiction of reality.

P.P.S. You probably don’t want to know how Obama would like to “fix” the Social Security shortfall.

P.P.P.S. On Monday, I continue my tour of the North Atlantic with a speech in Iceland on the Laffer Curve. I don’t know if I’ll say anything memorable, but I’ll use the opportunity to learn more about some of that nation’s policies, including their very successful privatized fishery system. Iceland has some bad policies, of course, but it’s also worth noting that they wisely have rejected membership in the European Union, they’ve reduced the burden of government spending in recent years, and they also made the right decision when they decided (with help from an outraged electorate) to limit bailouts when their banks went bust. You won’t be surprised to learn, though, that the Paris-based OECD has been using American tax dollars to advocate bad fiscal policy in Iceland.

Keynesian Economics, Government Shutdowns, and Economic Growth

Keynesian economics is the perpetual motion machine of the left. You build a model that assumes government spending is good for the economy and you assume that there are zero costs when the government diverts money from the private sector.

With that type of model, you then automatically generate predictions that bigger government will “stimulate’ growth and create jobs. Heck, sometimes you even admit that you don’t look at real world numbers.

This perhaps explains why Keynesian economics has a long track record of failure. It didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. It didn’t work for Nixon, Ford, and Carter in the 1970s. It didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. And it hasn’t worked this century for either Bush or Obama.

For Any Fiscal Policy Question, Spending Restraint Is the Answer

Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. How to fix the mess at the IRS is a fiscal policy question, and that requires tax reform rather than spending restraint.

But allow me a bit of literary license. We just had a big debt limit battle in Washington and, after a lot of political drama, politicians kicked the can down the road.

So we need to ask ourselves whether that fight accomplished anything?

It did focus attention of the flaws of Obamacare, and I suppose there’s some value in that.

But the debt limit was not a vehicle - as has been the case in the past - for changes in fiscal policy. We didn’t get something good, like the sequester which resulted from the 2011 debt limit legislation. And we didn’t get something bad, like the tax hike in the 1985 debt limit legislation

Some are asking whether we should even have a debt limit. A number of critics have suggested we should get rid of the borrowing cap because it creates the risk of default. I think those concerns are very overblown.

I’m more persuaded by those who argue that the debt limit diverts attention from better options to improve fiscal policy.

Wise Words on Fiscal Sovereignty and Corporate Taxation (sort of) from Bill Clinton

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Bill Clinton. In part, that’s because economic freedom increased and the burden of government spending was reduced during his time in office.

Partisans can argue whether Clinton actually deserves the credit for these good results, but I’m just happy we got better policy. Heck, Clinton was a lot more akin to Reagan that Obama, as this Michael Ramirez cartoon suggests.

Moreover, Clinton also has been the source of some very good political humor, some of which you can enjoy here, here, here, here, and here.

Most recently, he even made some constructive comments about corporate taxation and fiscal sovereignty.

Here are the relevant excerpts from a report in the Irish Examiner.

It is up to the US government to reform the country’s corporate tax system because the international trend is moving to the Irish model of low corporate rate with the burden on consumption taxes, said the former US president Bill Clinton. Moreover, …he said. “Ireland has the right to set whatever taxes you want.” …The international average is now 23% but the US tax rate has not changed. “…We need to reform our corporate tax rate, not to the same level as Ireland but it needs to come down.”

Kudos to Clinton for saying America’s corporate tax rate “needs to come down,” though you could say that’s the understatement of the year. The United States has the highest corporate tax rate among the 30-plus nations in the industrialized world. And we rank even worse—94th out of 100 countries according to a couple of German economists—when you look at details of how corporate income is calculated.

Maybe the Real Lesson Is That It’s Best to Shut Down the Federal Government Before a New Fiscal Year Begins

The politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and interest groups in Washington are hyperventilating that the federal gravy train may get sidetracked for a day or two by a shutdown fight between Republicans and Democrats.

I’m not sure why they’re so agitated. After all, the shutdown is really just a slowdown since only non-essential bureaucrats are sent home. And everyone winds up getting paid for those unplanned vacations, which is why the bureaucrats I know are crossing their fingers for a lengthy confrontation.

But that describes what may happen when the new fiscal year begins tomorrow. What’s been happening in recent days, culminating today, is a feeding frenzy of end-of-the-fiscal-year wasteful spending.

Here are some details from a Washington Post expose.

This past week, the Department of Veterans Affairs bought $562,000 worth of artwork. In a single day, the Agriculture Department spent $144,000 on toner cartridges. And, in a single purchase, the Coast Guard spent $178,000 on “Cubicle Furniture Rehab.” …All week, while Congress fought over next year’s budget, federal workers were immersed in a separate frantic drama. They were trying to spend the rest of this year’s budget before it is too late. …If they don’t, the money becomes worthless to them on Oct. 1. And — even worse — if they fail to spend the money now, Congress could dock their funding in future years. The incentive, as always, is to spend. So they spent.

If you’re a taxpayer, you’ll be especially delighted to know that the “use it or lose it” spending orgy is so intense that federal contractors have to cater lunches for their sales staff. Can’t have them away from their desks, after all!

It was the return of one of Washington’s oldest bad habits: a blitz of expensive decisions, made by agencies with little incentive to save. Private contractors — worried that sequestration would result in a smaller spending rush this year — brought in food to keep salespeople at their desks. Federal workers quizzed harried colleagues in the hallways, asking if they had spent it all yet. …“Use it or lose it” season is not marked on any official government calendars. But in Washington, it is as real as Christmas. And as lucrative. …In 2012, for instance, the government spent $45 billion on contracts in the last week of September, according to calculations by the fiscal-conservative group Public Notice. That was more than any other week — 9 percent of the year’s contract spending money, spent in 2 percent of the year.

The IRS may win the prize for the most egregious example of last-minute waste.

In 2010, for instance, the Internal Revenue Service had millions left over in an account to hire new personnel. The money would expire at year’s end. Its solution was not a smart one. The IRS spent the money on a lavish conference. Which included a “Star Trek” parody video starring IRS managers. Which was filmed on a “Star Trek” set that the IRS paid to build. (Sample dialogue: “We’ve received a distress call from the planet NoTax.”)

But it’s not just tax collectors who flush our money down the toilet in creative ways.

One recent study, for instance, found that information technology contracts signed at year’s end often produced noticeably worse results than those signed in calmer times. …they listed dumb things they had seen bought: three years’ worth of staples. Portable generators that never got used. One said the National Guard bought so much ammunition that firing it all became a chore. “When you get BORED from shooting MACHINE GUNS, there is a problem,” an anonymous employee wrote.

Impressive examples of waste, though I confess I’m curious about the part about ammo and the National Guard. Does this mean bullets are like milk and have to be fired before an expiration date?

Beats me, but at least someone in the government acknowledged that (at least up to a point) it’s cool to fire a machine gun. Maybe that person should hook up with the Texas cop who likes tanks.

Oh, and you’ll be happy to know that spendaholic bureaucrats and crafty interest groups keep track of time zones so they can squander money until the very last second.

On Monday, Richer’s people will sell until midnight. Then they will keep selling. “Money rolls across the continent,” the feds say. Cash not spent in Washington might be spent by federal offices in California in the three hours before it is midnight there. When it is midnight in California — 3 a.m. in Washington — they will keep on. There are federal offices in Hawaii, after all. And it will still be three hours until midnight there.

Makes me think that we may need a slogan for the bureaucracy. Perhaps this modification of the Postal Service’s unofficial motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night - nor even different time zones - stays these bureaucrats from spending every possible penny of other people’s money.”

But let’s close on an upbeat note. Whether you give credit to the Tea Party, to Republicans, to gridlock, or to Obama, the good news is that the federal government in the past two years has been wasting money at a slower rate.

So taxpayers can smile…or at least not frown as much. The bureaucracy and contractors may be throwing a party today, but not with the same reckless abandon they displayed a between 2001 and 2010.

Testifying to the Joint Economic Committee about “Debt Limit Brinksmanship”

As we get closer to the debt limit, the big spenders in Washington are becoming increasingly hysterical about the supposed possibility of default if politicians lose the ability to borrow more money.

I testified yesterday to the Joint Economic Committee on “The Economic Costs of Debt-Ceiling Brinkmanship” and I explained (reiterating points I made back in 2011) that there is zero chance of default.

Why? Because, as I outline beginning about the 3:10 mark of the video, annual interest payments are about $230 billion and annual tax collections are approaching $3 trillion.

I actually made five points in my testimony. The first three should be quite familiar to regular readers.

First, America’s main fiscal problem is that government is too big. That’s the disease. Deficits and debt are symptoms of that underlying problem.

Second, you achieve good fiscal policy by following “Mitchell’s Golden Rule” so that government grows slower than private sector economic output.

Third, we’ve made some progress in the last two years thanks to genuine fiscal restraint, and we can balance the budget in a very short period of time if lawmakers impose a very modest bit of spending discipline in the future.

The fourth point, which I already discussed above, is that there’s no risk of default - unless the Obama Administration deliberately wants that to happen. But that’s simply not a realistic possibility.

My fifth and final point deserves a bit of extra discussion. I explained that Greece is now suffering through a very deep recession, with record unemployment and harsh economic conditions. I asked the Committee a rhetorical question: Wouldn’t it have been preferable if there was some sort of mechanism, say, 15 years ago that would have enabled some lawmakers to throw sand in the gears so that the government couldn’t issue any more debt?

Debt limit jokesYes, there would have been some budgetary turmoil at the time, but it would have been trivial compared to the misery the Greek people currently are enduring.

I closed by drawing an analogy to the situation in Washington. We know we’re on an unsustainable path. Do we want to wait until we hit a crisis before we address the over-spending crisis? Or do we want to take prudent and modest steps today - such as genuine entitlement reform and spending caps - to ensure prosperity and long-run growth.

Seems like the answer should be simple…at least if you’re not trying to get reelected by bribing voters with their own money.

P.S. My argument for short-term fighting today to avoid fiscal crisis in the future was advanced in greater detail by a Wall Street expert back in 2011.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some good debt limit cartoons by clicking here and here.