Tag: fiscal policy

Tax Cuts, Loopholes, and Government Size

President Obama wants to raise revenues by reducing tax deductions and other tax breaks, which the administration calls “spending in the tax code.” Donald Marron of the Tax Policy Center argues that “hundreds of billions of dollars of spending are disguised as tax cuts.”

Don is a very good economist, and he is concerned that special interest tax breaks can misallocate resources the same way that spending subsidies do. I agree. But I’m also concerned that tax breaks and spending subsidies have different implications for the size of government, which is where I part ways with Don and the president.

The following Tax Policy Matrix helps sort out which sorts of tax cuts make economic sense when government size is also a consideration.

The government distorts the economy and reduces GDP through both its taxing and spending actions. One reason is that both taxes and spending cause individuals and businesses to change their behaviors and reallocate resources in suboptimal ways. The table has columns for tax and spending distortions. It also has a column for government debt because running deficits today may translate into higher levels of distortionary taxes tomorrow.

The table includes two Starve-the-Beast scenarios. “With Starve-the-Beast” means that tax cuts will reduce government spending to some extent over time. A narrow tax base shot full of loopholes creates allocation distortions, but if starve-the-beast works that sort of tax base also limits the government’s size creating a counterbalancing benefit to GDP.

In the short run, starve-the-beast may or may not work. Bill Niskanen says that it does not, but I think the effectiveness of it changes over time as political culture changes. In the 1980s and 1990s, policymakers took corrective actions when deficits rose, but the revival of Keynesianism in recent years changed the political culture and, for a while, nullified the fear of deficits for many politicians.

In the long run, it seems obvious that the inflow of tax revenues to the government is a hard check on spending because there are financial market limits to government borrowing.

Let’s go through the rows in the table:

Row 1. The government starts off with a balanced budget and with tax and spending systems that cause medium damage.

Row 2. The government cuts taxes $100 by way of a loophole. Tax distortions rise because marginal tax rates are unchanged and we’ve added a new distortion. Higher debt likely pushes up future tax distortions. This appears to be a poor policy choice.

Row 3. The government cuts taxes $100 by way of marginal rate cut. Tax distortions are reduced, which increases economic growth. The downside is higher debt. This may or may be a good policy depending on the quality of the tax cut. If the cut is to a very distortionary part of the tax code—such as the corporate income tax rate—this policy could make sense. One reason is that the deficit increase might end up being quite small because of the positive economic response to the pro-efficiency tax cut.

Row 4. With starve-the-beast operational, a special interest tax cut becomes a bit of a closer call. Tax distortions and debt rise, but government spending falls somewhat, so the net effect on the economy is unclear. However, I think there are considerations here aside from economics. Special interest tax breaks—such as the ethanol tax break—are troubling because they represent a corruption of the law, an affront to the American ideal of “equal justice under law.” So just on that basis, I’m against special interest breaks, and indeed am in favor replacing the current code with a flat tax.

Row 5. A pro-efficiency tax cut is very likely a winner if you assume that starve-the-beast is operational. Tax and spending distortions both fall, although there is a modest increase in debt.

So far we’ve left out the most important fiscal tool available to policymakers—spending cuts to unneeded and damaging programs to reduce government harm to the economy. The best policy choice would be to combine pro-growth tax cuts with spending cuts to harmful programs. That would reduce government distortions on both sides of the budget, and thus unambiguously increase GDP.

In sum, without matching spending cuts, tax cuts may or may not make sense depending on the type of cut and whether reducing Uncle Sam’s diet will force him to slim down in subsequent years. But it is a fiscal policy win-win to match spending cuts with cuts to the most damaging parts of the tax code.

The “I-Told-You-So” Blog Post about the Completely Predictable Failure of the Greek Bailout

Way back in February of 2010, I wrote that a Greek bailout would be a failure. Not surprisingly, the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund and the political elite from other European nations ignored my advice and gave tens of billions of dollars to Greece’s corrupt politicians.

The bailout happened in part because politicians and international bureaucrats (when they’re not getting arrested for molesting hotel maids) have a compulsion to squander other people’s money. But it also should be noted that the Greek bailout was a way of indirectly bailing out the big European banks that recklessly lent money to a profligate government (as explained here).

At the risk of sounding smug, let’s look at my four predictions from February 2010 and see how I did.

1. The first prediction was that “Bailing out Greece will reward over-spending politicians and make future fiscal crises more likely.” That certainly seems to be the case since Europe is in even worse shape, so I’ll give myself a gold star.

2. The second prediction was that “Bailing out Greece will reward greedy and short-sighted interest groups, particularly overpaid government workers.” Given the refusal of Greek politicians to follow through with promised cuts and privatizations, largely because of domestic resistance, it seems I was right again. As such, I’ll give myself another pat on the back.

3. My third prediction was that “Bailing out Greece will encourage profligacy in Spain, Italy, and other nations.” Again, events certainly seem to confirm what I warned about last year, so let’s put this one in the win column as well.

4. Last but not least, my fourth prediction was that “Bailing out Greece is not necessary to save the euro.” Well, since everybody is now talking about two possible non-bailout options—either a Greek default (a “restructuring” in PC terms) or a Greek return to using the drachma—and acknowledging that neither is a threat to the euro, it seems I batted 4-4 in my predictions.

But there’s no reward for being right. Especially when making such obvious predictions about the failure of big-government policies. So now we’re back where we were early last year, with Greece looking for another pile of money. Here’s a brief blurb from Reuters.

The European Union is racing to draft a second bailout package for Greece to release vital loans next month and avert the risk of the euro zone country defaulting, EU officials said on Monday.

If this second bailout happens (and it probably will), then I will make four new predictions. But I don’t need to spell them out because they’ll be the same ones I made last year.

We’ve reached the lather-rinse-repeat stage of fiscal collapse for the welfare state.

New Paper Explains Why Low-Tax Jurisdictions Should Resist OECD Attacks against Tax Competition and Fiscal Sovereignty

One of the biggest threats against global prosperity is the anti-tax competition project of a Paris-based international bureaucracy known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD, acting at the behest of the European welfare states that dominate its membership, wants the power to tell nations (including the United States!) what is acceptable tax policy.

I’ve previously explained why the OECD is a problematic institution - especially since American taxpayers are forced to squander about $100 million per year to support the parasitic bureaucracy.

For all intents and purposes, high-tax nations want to create a global tax cartel, sort of an “OPEC for politicians.” This issue is increasingly important since politicians from those countries realize that all their overspending has created a fiscal crisis and they are desperate to figure out new ways of imposing higher tax rates. I don’t exaggerate when I say that stopping this sinister scheme is absolutely necessary for the future of liberty.

Along with Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, I just wrote a paper about these issues. The timing is especially important because of an upcoming “Global Forum” where the OECD will try to advance its mission to prop up uncompetitive welfare states. Here’s the executive summary, but I encourage you to peruse the entire paper for lots of additional important info.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has an ongoing anti-tax competition project. This effort is designed to prop up inefficient welfare states in the industrialized world, thus enabling those governments to impose heavier tax burdens without having to fear that labor and capital will migrate to jurisdictions with better tax law. This project received a boost a few years ago when the Obama Administration joined forces with countries such as France and Germany, which resulted in all low-tax jurisdictions agreeing to erode their human rights policies regarding financial privacy. The tide is now turning against high-tax nations – particularly as more people understand that ever-increasing fiscal burdens inevitably lead to Greek-style fiscal collapse. Political changes in the United States further complicate the OECD’s ability to impose bad policy. Because of these developments, low-tax jurisdictions should be especially resistant to new anti-tax competition initiatives at the Bermuda Global Forum.

To understand why this issue is so important, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

 

And here’s a shorter video on the same subject, narrated by Natasha Montague from Americans for Tax Reform.

Last but not least, here’s a video where I explain why the OECD is a big waste of money for American taxpayers.

Who’s Right on Medicare Reform, Ryan and Rivlin or Obama and Gingrich?

This new video, narrated by yours truly, discusses a proposal to solve Medicare’s bankrupt finances by replacing an unsustainable entitlement with a “premium-support” system for private insurance, also known as vouchers.

This topic is very hot right now, in part because Medicare reform is included in the budget approved by House Republicans, but also because Newt Gingrich inexplicably has decided to echo White House talking points by attacking Congressman Ryan’s voucher plan.

Drawing considerably from the work of Michael Cannon, the video has two sections. The first part reviews Congressman Ryan’s proposal and notes that it is based on a plan put together with Alice Rivlin, who served as Director of the Office of Management and Budget under Bill Clinton. Among serious budget people (as opposed to the hacks on Capitol Hill), this is an important sign of bipartisan support.

The video also notes that the “voucher” proposal is actually very similar to the plan that is used by Members of Congress and their staff. This is a selling point that proponents should emphasize since most Americans realize that lawmakers would never subject themselves to something that didn’t work.

The second part discusses the economics of the health care sector, and explains the critical need to address the third-party payer crisis. More specifically, 88 percent of every health care dollar in America is paid for by someone other than the consumer. People do pay huge amounts for health care, to be sure, but not at the point of delivery. Instead, they pay high tax burdens and have huge shares of their compensation diverted to pay for insurance policies.

I’ve explained before that this inefficient system causes spiraling costs and bureaucratic inefficiency because it erodes any incentive to be a smart shopper when buying health care services (much as it’s difficult to maintain a good diet by pre-paying for a year of dining at all-you-can-eat restaurants).  In other words, government intervention has largely eroded market forces in health care. And this was true even before Obamacare was enacted.

Medicare reform, by itself, won’t solve the third-party payer problem, but it could be part of the solution - especially if seniors used their vouchers to purchase real insurance (i.e., for large, unexpected expenses) rather than the inefficient pre-paid health plans that are so prevalent today.

Could Technical Default Today Save America from Greek-Style Fiscal Disaster in the Future?

There’s a lot of buzz about a Wall Street Journal interview with Stanley Druckenmiller, in which he argues that a temporary delay in making payments on U.S. government debt (which technically would be a default) would be a small price to pay if it resulted in the long-term spending reforms that are needed to save America from becoming another Greece.

One of the world’s most successful money managers, the lanky, sandy-haired Mr. Druckenmiller is so concerned about the government’s ability to pay for its future obligations that he’s willing to accept a temporary delay in the interest payments he’s owed on his U.S. Treasury bonds—if the result is a Washington deal to restrain runaway entitlement costs. “I think technical default would be horrible,” he says from the 24th floor of his midtown Manhattan office, “but I don’t think it’s going to be the end of the world. It’s not going to be catastrophic. What’s going to be catastrophic is if we don’t solve the real problem,” meaning Washington’s spending addiction. …Mr. Druckenmiller’s view on the debt limit bumps up against virtually the entire Wall Street-Washington financial establishment. A recent note on behalf of giant banks on the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee warned of a “severe and long-lasting impact” if the debt limit is not raised immediately. …This week more than 60 trade associations, representing virtually all of American big business, forecast “a massive spike in borrowing costs.” On Thursday Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke raised the specter of a market crisis similar to the one that followed the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. As usual, the most aggressive predictor of doom in the absence of increased government spending has been Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. In a May 2 letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Mr. Geithner warned of “a catastrophic economic impact” and said, “Default would cause a financial crisis potentially more severe than the crisis from which we are only now starting to recover.”

Mr. Druckenmiller is not overly impressed by this hyperbole. The article continues with this key passage.

“Here are your two options: piece of paper number one—let’s just call it a 10-year Treasury. So I own this piece of paper. I get an income stream obviously over 10 years … and one of my interest payments is going to be delayed, I don’t know, six days, eight days, 15 days, but I know I’m going to get it. There’s not a doubt in my mind that it’s not going to pay, but it’s going to be delayed. But in exchange for that, let’s suppose I know I’m going to get massive cuts in entitlements and the government is going to get their house in order so my payments seven, eight, nine, 10 years out are much more assured,” he says. Then there’s “piece of paper number two,” he says, under a scenario in which the debt limit is quickly raised to avoid any possible disruption in payments. “I don’t have to wait six, eight, or 10 days for one of my many payments over 10 years. I get it on time. But we’re going to continue to pile up trillions of dollars of debt and I may have a Greek situation on my hands in six or seven years. Now as an owner, which piece of paper do I want to own? To me it’s a no-brainer. It’s piece of paper number one.” …”Russia had a real default and two or three years later they had all-time low interest rates,” says Mr. Druckenmiller. In the future, he says, “People aren’t going to wonder whether 20 years ago we delayed an interest payment for six days. They’re going to wonder whether we got our house in order.”

This is a very compelling argument, but it overlooks one major problem – the complete inability of Republicans to succeed in forcing fiscal reform using this approach.

Here’s a sure-fire prediction, assuming GOPers in the House actually are willing to engage in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Obama on the debt limit.

  • There will be lots of political drama.
  • We will get to a point where the federal government exhausts its borrowing authority.
  • At that point, either Geithner or Bernanke (or probably both) will make some completely dishonest statements designed to rattle financial markets.
  • The establishment media will echo those statements.
  • The stock market and/or bond market will have a negative reaction.
  • Republican resolve will evaporate like a drop of water in the Mojave Desert.
  • The debt limit will be increased without any meaningful fiscal reform.

For all intents and purposes, this is what happened with the TARP vote in 2008. There were basically two choices of how to deal with the financial crisis. The establishment wanted a blank-check bailout, while sensible people wanted the “FDIC-resolution” approach (similar to what was used during the savings & loan bailouts about 20 years ago, which bails out retail customers but wipes out shareholders, bondholders and senior management). Republicans initially held firm and defeated the first TARP vote, but then they folded when the Washington-Wall Street establishment scared markets.

I hope I’m wrong in my analysis, but I don’t see how Republicans could win a debt limit fight. At least not if they demand something like the Ryan budget. The best possible outcome would be budget process reform such as Senator Corker’s CAP Act, which would impose caps on future spending, enforced by automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Because it postpones the fiscal discipline until after the vote, that legislation has a chance of attracting enough bipartisan support to overcome opposition from Obama and other statists.

As a Matter of Fact, the Baltic Nations Are a Success Story

I got a few cranky emails after my post suggesting the United States should copy the Baltic nations and implement genuine spending cuts. These emailers were upset that I favorably commented on the fiscal discipline of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia while failing to reveal that these nations were suffering from high unemployment.

From the tone of this correspondence, my new friends obviously think this is a “gotcha” moment. The gist of their messages is that the economic downturn that hit the Baltic nations is proof that the free-market model has failed, and that I somehow was guilty of a cover-up.

That’s certainly a strange interpretation, especially since I specifically noted that the three nations had suffered from an economic downturn. There’s no questioning the fact that unemployment spiked upwards because of the global financial crisis, which was especially damaging to the Baltics since they all had real estate bubbles.

But let’s deal with the bigger issue, which is whether this downturn is proof that the free market failed (and, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that all three Baltic nations are free market even though only Estonia gets high scores in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings).

If you look at the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database, it does show that the Baltic nations had serious economic downturns. Indeed, if we look at the data from 2008 to the present, the recession was far deeper in those nations than in Western Europe and North America.

So at first glance, it seems my critics have a point.

But what happens if you look at a longer period of data? The IMF has data for all three Baltic nations going back to 1999. And if we look at the entire 12-year period, it turns out that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have enjoyed comparatively strong growth. Indeed, as seen in the chart below the jump, they even surpass Hong Kong.

In other words, the Baltic nations may have suffered larger-than-average economic downturns, but they also enjoyed stronger-than-average booms. And the net effect is that they are now in much better shape than the nations that had smaller recessions but also less-robust growth.

A sophisticated critic may look at the data and say they’re meaningless because convergence theory suggests that middle-income countries almost always will grow faster than rich nations. That’s a fair point, so let’s now compare the three Baltic nations to three other nations that were at the same level of development at the turn of this century.

As you can see, the Baltic nations are doing substantially better than other middle-income nations. By the way, skeptics should feel free to peruse the IMF data to confirm that I didn’t cherry-pick nations to make my point (indeed, I deliberately picked Thailand since it was emerging from the Asian financial crisis and is an example of a nation that enjoyed very good growth in the 2000-2011 period).

The point of this post is not that the Baltic nations are perfect. Estonia is ranked 12th in the Economic Freedom rankings, which is impressive, but Lithuania is 33rd and Latvia is 55th. Those aren’t bad scores considering that these nations are recovering from communist tyranny, to be sure, but Hong Kong isn’t in any danger of being dethroned.

Instead, my argument is that the Baltic nations are making slow but steady progress, and I’m quite confident that the recent decisions by these nations to reduce the burden of government spending will help put them back on an above-average growth path.

That is something the United States should emulate.

Let’s Copy the Baltic Nations and Really Cut Spending

All the talk of spending cuts in Washington is fictitious. Even the House Republican Study Committee budget allows spending to increase, on average, by 1.7 percent each year for the next decade. The Ryan budget, which critics deride for its “savage” cuts, allows spending to rise by an average of 2.8 percent each year. And Obama’s budget allows spending to climb, on average, by 4.7 percent each year—which is more than twice the projected rate of inflation.

Too bad American policymakers can’t copy the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Like the United States, these nations got in fiscal trouble, thanks to the combination of excessive spending and an economic downturn triggered by falling real estate prices.

But unlike the United States, these nations didn’t follow the Keynesian policy of more deficit spending. Lawmakers in the Baltic nations recognized, to borrow the words of Dan Hannan, that “you cannot spend your way out of recession or borrow your way out of debt.”

So they reduced spending. Not in the Washington sense, where politicians get to increase spending and call it a cut because outlays didn’t rise even faster. The Baltic nations imposed real cuts. And not just for one year, but in both 2009 and 2010. Here’s the data from the European Union for the Baltic nations.

Interestingly, it appears that fiscal restraint has been very successful for the Baltic nations. After suffering a steep downturn, economic growth has returned. Amazingly, Estonia is even back to having a budget surplus.

It’s also worth noting that other nations have enjoyed great success with fiscal restraint. This video shows how Canada, Ireland, Slovakia, and New Zealand dramatically reduced the burden of government spending by freezing or capping outlays. Not quite as impressive as what’s happened in the Baltics, but definitely very good compared to what’s been happening in the United States.