Tag: fiscal policy

The Simple and Predictable Story of Fiscal Bankruptcy in Cyprus

With all the fiscal troubles in Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy, there’s not much attention being paid to Cyprus.

But the Mediterranean island nation is a good case study illustrating the economic dangers of big government.

For all intents and purposes, Cyprus is now bankrupt, and the only question that remains to be answered is whether it will get handouts from the IMF-ECB-EC troika, handouts from Russia, or both. Here’s some of what has been reported by AP.

Cyprus’ president on Thursday defended his government’s decision to seek financial aid from the island nation’s eurozone partners while at the same time asking for a loan from Russia, insisting that the two are perfectly compatible. …Cyprus, with a population of 862,000 people, last week became the fifth country that uses the euro currency to seek a European bailout… The country is currently in talks with the so-called ‘troika’ — the body made up of officials from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — on how much bailout money it will need and the conditions that will come attached. Locked out of international markets because of its junk credit rating status, Cyprus is paying its bills thanks to a €2.5 billion ($3.14 billion) Russian loan that it clinched last year. But that money is expected to run out by the end of the year.

So what caused this mess? Is Cyprus merely the helpless and innocent victim of economic turmoil in nearby Greece?

That’s certainly the spin from Cypriot politicians, but the budget data shows that Cyprus is in trouble because of excessive spending. This chart, based on data from the International Monetary Fund, shows that the burden of government spending has jumped by an average of 8.3 percent annually since the mid-1990s.

My Golden Rule of fiscal policy is that government spending should grow slower than economic output. Nations that follow that rule generally enjoy good results, while nations that violate that rule inevitably get in trouble.

Interestingly, if Cypriot politicians had engaged in a very modest amount of spending restraint and limited annual budgetary increases to 3 percent, there would be a giant budget surplus today and the burden of government spending would be down to 21.4 percent of GDP, very close to the levels in the hyper-prosperous jurisdictions of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Actually, that’s not true. If the burden of government spending had grown as 3 percent instead of 8.3 percent, economic growth would have been much stronger, so GDP would have been much larger and the public sector would be an ever smaller share of economic output.

Speaking of GDP, the burden of government spending in Cyprus, measured as a share of GDP, has climbed dramatically since 1995.

A simple way to look at this data is that Cyprus used to have a Swiss-sized government and now it has a Greek-sized government. Government spending is just one of many policies that impact economic performance, but is anyone surprised that this huge increase in the size of the public sector has had a big negative impact on Cyprus?

Interestingly, if government spending had remained at 33.9 percent of GDP in Cyprus, the nation would have a big budget surplus today. Would that have required huge and savage budget cuts? Perhaps in the fantasy world of Paul Krugman, but politicians could have achieved that modest goal if they had simply limited annual spending increases to 6 percent.

But that was too “draconian” for Cypriot politicians, so they increased spending by an average of more than 8 percent each year.

What’s the moral of the story? Simply stated, the fiscal policy variable that matters most is the growth of government. Cyprus got in trouble because the burden of government grew faster than the productive sector of the economy.

That’s the disease, and deficits and debt are the symptoms of that underlying problem.

Europe’s political elite doubtlessly will push for higher taxes, but that approach - at best - simply masks the symptoms in the short run and usually exacerbates the disease in the long run.

HHS Offers to Pay Six Years of Operating Costs for Some States’ ObamaCare Exchanges

That’s my read of this.

ObamaCare gives HHS the authority to make unlimited grants to help states create Exchanges. But that authority expires on December 31, 2014. HHS just issued an announcement that they will issue grants right up to midnight on December 31—and that some of those grants will be so big that they will last for five years:

Q4: What is the last day that a State can spend its award?

A4: Grantees are encouraged to drawdown funding within their budget period (up to one year for Level One and up to three years for Level Two grants); however, at the recommendation of CCIIO’s State Officer and at the discretion of the Grant Management Officer, grantees may receive a no-cost extension that will allow them to spend funding up to the expiration date of the project period. At HHS’s discretion, a project period can be extended for a maximum of five years past the date of the award. Note, however, that all spending of §1311(a) funds awarded under a cooperative agreement must be consistent with the scope of the statute, FOA, and terms and conditions of the awarded cooperative agreement. [Emphasis added.]

The last sentence is there just to make sure no one suspects them of violating the law, wink-wink.

Since HHS can make unlimited grants in the first year that Exchanges are supposed to operate (2014), this means HHS is trying to pay for the operating expenses of some states’ Exchanges for six years (2014-2019).

Is the Individual Mandate a Tax?

From my 2010 paper “Obama’s Prescription for Low-Wage Workers; High Implicit Taxes, Higher Premiums”:

President Obama argues that a legal requirement for individuals to purchase health insurance is not a tax. Yet many economists, including some of President Obama’s economic advisers, consider it to be a type of tax.

Princeton University health economist Uwe Reinhardt writes, “[Just because] the fiscal flows triggered by [the] mandate would not flow directly through the public budgets does not detract from the measure’s status of a bona fide tax.”

MIT health economist Jonathan Gruber writes, “Suppose … the government mandated that everyone buy full insurance at the average price… . This would not be a very attractive plan to careful consumers … who could view themselves as essentially being taxed in order to support this market, by paying higher premiums than they should based on their risk.”

President Obama’s National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers writes, “Essentially, mandated benefits are like public programs financed by benefit taxes.”

Sherry Glied, President Obama’s appointee to assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services, writes, “The individual mandate … is in many respects analogous to a tax. It requires people to make payments for something whether they want it or not.”

When the Clinton administration proposed an individual mandate in 1993, the CBO went so far as to treat the mandatory premiums that Americans would pay as federal revenues and include them in the federal budget. So far, the CBO has not done the same for the mandates in the House and Senate bills. (As Reinhardt suggests, that does not imply that those mandates are not a tax.)

Each bill would also impose penalties on individuals (and employers) who do not comply with the health-insurance mandates. Those penalties would be paid to the Internal Revenue Service along with one’s income taxes.

“Conservatives’ Last Legal Option to Invalidate Obamacare”

The New Republic reports on an issue that Jonathan Adler and I have been highlighting: an IRS rule that will tax employers and subsidize private health insurance companies without congressional authorization. Why would the IRS issue such a rule? Perhaps because ObamaCare could collapse without it.

The post quotes another law professor who acknowledges the Obama administration faces a serious problem:

“It’s fairly decent textual case,” says Kevin Outterson, a professor at Boston University Law School, and health care blogger for The Incidental Economist. And if it stood, he says, the consequences could be disastrous.

Disastrous for ObamaCare, that is. But as Adler and I have written previously, if  saving ObamaCare means letting the IRS tax employers without congressional authorization, then ObamaCare is not worth saving.

‘The IRS Overstepped Its Bounds and Lacked the Power to Rewrite the Law’

Of course, that is just Reuters paraphrasing me:

Under the new healthcare law, individuals can shop and purchase health insurance through government-created exchanges. If a state refuses to set up its own exchange, the law allows the federal government to set one up instead. Due to a glitch in the original statute, individuals are only eligible for a tax credit if they buy insurance through a state exchange, not a federal one. That allows states to disrupt the system by refusing to set up their own exchanges. To fix this technical problem, the Internal Revenue Service issued a new rule, making the tax credit available for people who purchase insurance on federal exchanges. Conservative watchdogs, including Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute, say the IRS overstepped its bounds and lacked the power to rewrite the law. While no lawsuit has been filed yet, “we’re watching the whole exchange issue now,” said Diane Cohen of the Goldwater Institute.

One addition and three corrections.

  1. By spending that money illegally and issuing those illegal tax credits, the IRS is also triggering an illegal tax against employers (i.e., ObamaCare’s employer mandate).
  2. It’s not a “glitch.” It is a deliberate design feature.
  3. When the IRS lacks statutory authority to tax people or spend taxpayer dollars, but does both anyway, that lack of authority is not “technical problem.” It is called “taxation without representation.” And it is a very bad thing.
  4. I am not a conservative.

ObamaCare Lost on the Medicaid Mandate & Commerce Power. It May Yet Lose on the Tax Power.

Supporters of the Obama health law are incorrectly reading the Supreme Court’s ruling as a victory.

First, the ruling severely limited the Obama health law’s Medicaid expansion, effectively giving states the green light to refuse to expand their Medicaid programs. Coupled with the fact that the statute already enables states to block the other half-trillion dollars of new entitlement spending, the law is in a very precarious position.

Second, the Court ruled 5-4 that the individual mandate is not a legitimate use of the Commerce Power. That too is a defeat for the government, even if it is of no immediate consequence.

Third, while the Court upheld the individual mandate as a tax, that ruling may be vulnerable to legal challenge.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “The Federal Government ‘is acknowledged by all to be one of enumerated powers,’” and, “The Constitution’s express conferral of some powersmakes clear that it does not grant others.” So it is interesting that Roberts did not specify exactly what type of constitutionally authorized tax the mandate is.

As Cato chairman Bob Levy wrote in 2011, that’s not an easy thing to do:

Assume, however, the Supreme Court ultimately disagrees and finds that the penalty for not purchasing health insurance is indeed a tax. Nevertheless, say opponents of PPACA, the tax would be unconstitutional. They underscore that taxes are of three types—income, excise, or direct. Each type must meet specified constitutional constraints. Because the mandate penalty under PPACA does not satisfy any of the constraints, it is not a valid tax.

Income taxes, authorized by the Sixteenth Amendment, must (by definition) be triggered by income. Yet the mandate penalty is triggered by the nonpurchase of insurance. Except for an exemption available to low-income families, the amount of the penalty depends on age, family size, geographic location, and smoking status. So the penalty is not an income tax.

Excise taxes are assessed on selected transactions. Because the penalty arises from a nontransaction, perhaps it qualifies as a reverse excise tax. If so, it has to be uniform across the country (U.S. Const., Art. I, sec. 8). But the penalty varies by location, so it cannot be a constitutional excise tax.

Direct taxes are assessed on persons or their property. Because the penalty is imposed on nonownership of property, perhaps it could be classified as a reverse direct tax. But direct taxes must be apportioned among the states by population (U.S. Const., Art. I, sec. 2). The mandate penalty is assessed on individuals without regard to any state’s population. Hence, it is not a lawful direct tax.

On the last point, Roberts agreed: ”A tax on going without health insurance does not fall within any recognized category of direct tax.” But then what kind of constitutionally authorized tax is it?

The dissent suggests the Court has given this issue scant attention:

Finally, we must observe that rewriting [the mandate] as a tax in order to sustain its constitutionality would force us to confront a difficult constitutional question: whether this is a direct tax that must be apportioned among the States according to their population. Art. I, §9, cl. 4. Perhaps it is not (we have no need to address the point); but the meaning of the Direct Tax Clause is famously unclear, and its application here is a question of first impression that deserves more thoughtful consideration than the lick-and-a-promise accorded by the Government and its supporters. The Government’s opening brief did not even address the question—perhaps because, until today, no federal court has accepted the implausible argument that [the mandate] is an exercise of the tax power. And once respondents raised the issue, the Government devoted a mere 21 lines of its reply brief to the issue…At oral argument, the most prolonged statement about the issue was just over 50 words…One would expect this Court to demand more than fly-by-night briefing and argument before deciding a difficult constitutional question of first impression.

There is even less discussion about what type of constitutionally authorized tax the mandate is.

I’m not a lawyer. But it seems to me there may be room here for the same individual citizens who brought this case to again file suit against the federal government for trying to impose an unconstitutional tax. It may seem unlikely that Roberts would reverse himself on the Tax Power issue. Then again, since he never specified what type of constitutionally permissible tax the mandate is, perhaps voting to strike the mandate would not be reversing himself.