Tag: fiscal policy

The National Debt Is Huge, but Unfunded Liabilities Are America’s Real Red-Ink Challenge

I frequently argue that government spending is the problem, not budget deficits. Regardless of whether it is financed by taxing or borrowing, every penny of spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. I narrated a video explaining why excessive spending is bad from a theoretical perspective. I did another looking at the empirical evidence for smaller government. And I had another video discussing why deficits are a symptom and the real problem is bloated budgets.

Nonetheless, some people seem convinced that deficits and debt are the real problem. While I think that focus is a bit misguided, I certainly agree that there is something utterly immoral about spending today and imposing a fiscal burden on future taxpayers (especially since so much government spending is for current consumption and transfers).

But here’s some really depressing news for the anti-debt crowd. Today’s deficits and debt actually are just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a new video exposing the enormous unfunded liabilities resulting from entitlement programs. As the video explains, unfunded liabilities are promises by politicians that impose enormous long-term obligations for more spending and debt.

The narrator of the video is Kelly McDonough, a student at American University and a former Cato Institute intern. If this video is anywhere near as successful as the other video narrated by a former Cato intern, perhaps this will become a new tradition. That won’t be good for my video career, but it shows that the Cato Institute is doing a good job cultivating a new generation of freedom fighters.

The Greek Model

It was a good idea to get science and democracy from the ancient Greeks. It’s not such a good idea to get fiscal policy from the modern Greeks.

But that’s the way we’re headed.

Greece has a budget deficit of 13.6 percent. We’re not in that league – ours is only 10.6 percent, the highest level since 1945.

Greece has a public debt of 113 percent of GDP. We’re not there yet. But the 2009 Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports show the combined unfunded liability of these two programs has reached nearly $107 trillion.

Under President Obama’s budget, debt held by the public would grow from $7.5 trillion (53 percent of GDP) at the end of 2009 to $20.3 trillion (90 percent of GDP) at the end of 2020. It could rise to 215 percent of GDP in 30 years. Welcome to Greece.

Here’s a graphic presentation of the official debt and real net liabilities of various countries, including the United States and Greece at the right. (From the Telegraph, apparently based on Jagadeesh Gokhale’s report.)


And here’s a Heritage Foundation chart on where the national debt is headed in the coming decade:

Paul Krugman wrote, “My prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the [fiscal] crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt. And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar.” Now he was writing in 2003, when a different president was in office, but he was also warning about the possibility of a ten-year deficit of $3 trillion. Presumably the same warnings apply to today’s much larger deficit projections. And he was absolutely right to fear that government would turn to inflation as a supposed solution.

CBO, the Wizard of Oz, and the Keynesian Fairy Tale

The Obama Administration said that the so-called stimulus was necessary so that the unemployment rate would not rise above 8 percent. Indeed, the White House warned that the joblessness rate would climb to 9 percent if lawmakers did not approve the $787 billion package. Critics responded by explaining that making government bigger would divert resources from the productive sector of the economy and hurt growth. These skeptics also noted that nations using “Keynesian” policy, such as the United States in the 1930s and Japan in the 1990s, did not generate good results. And since the unemployment rate is now above 10 percent, it certainly seems like opponents were correct.

But now the supposedly non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has jumped to the defense of the White House, estimating that the spending bill actually generated beween 600,000 and 1.6 million jobs. How can that be, you may ask, when the number of jobs has fallen by more than 3 million? The CBO neatly sidesteps that real-world concern by moving the goalposts, using a slightly more sophisticated version of Obama’s “jobs created or saved” alchemy. Their jobs-created estimate is compared to a make-believe baseline of how many jobs there would be “without the law.”

CBO estimates that in the third quarter of calendar year 2009, an additional 600,000 to 1.6 million people were employed in the United States, and real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) was 1.2 percent to 3.2 percent higher, than would have been the case in the absence of ARRA. …CBO’s current estimates differ only slightly from those CBO prepared in March 2009. At that time, CBO projected that in the third quarter of 2009, U.S. employment would be higher by 600,000 to 1.5 million people with ARRA than it would be without the law, and real GDP would be 1.1 percent to 3.0 percent higher. CBO’s new estimates reflect small revisions to earlier projections of the timing and magnitude of changes to spending and revenues under ARRA. …Economic output and employment in the spring and summer of 2009 were lower than CBO had projected at the beginning of the year. But in CBO’s judgment, that outcome reflects greater-than-projected weakness in the underlying economy rather than lower-than-expected effects of ARRA.

Needless to say, this means there is no objective benchmark. The unemployment rate could jump to 15 percent and total job losses could reach 10 million, but CBO would continue to say, for all intents and purposes, that the results from their Keynesian model are more important than any real-world numbers. This is the fiscal policy version of the Wizard of Oz, and we’re supposed to ignore reality just as Dorothy and friends were supposed to ignore the man behind the curtain.

To be fair, there is nothing inherently wrong with CBO’s methodology. Economic analysis frequently requires people to make assumptions about how the world would behave with or without a certain policy. So the real question is whether Keynesian economics makes sense from a theoretical perspective, whether there is any supporting evidence, and whether there are more compelling alternatives. Click the links and decide for yourself.

Greedy Local Politicians Attempt to Grab Revenue Far Outside Their Borders

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the tax competition battle, which largely revolves around high-tax governments attempting to track – and tax – economic activity that migrates to lower-tax jurisdictions. But this is not just a global fight between decrepit welfare states such as France and fiscal havens such as the Cayman Islands. American states also compete with each other, and there are numerous examples of high-tax states such as California and New York trying to grab money from people who escape to zero-income tax states such as Nevada and Florida. The fight even exists at the local level, and a good example is the attempt by politicians to tax faraway online travel agencies. The Orange County Register opines about these extraterritorial tax grabs:

A recent legal victory for some Texas cities against online travel companies over hotel taxes may have given Anaheim officials hope for their own case, but they shouldn’t start celebrating just yet. Other cities have not fared as well in similar lawsuits. …Here’s what Fairview Heights, Anaheim and other cities wanted to change: In a typical transaction, a traveler picks a hotel and books a room, stays there, and pays the hotel a room charge plus a local occupancy tax based on the room charge. The hotel keeps the room charge and forwards the tax money to the government. Enter online travel companies like Expedia, Hotels.com, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity, which allow travelers to sort through hotels and book a room on a central Web site. These companies do not reserve or resell hotel rooms, but act as intermediaries to facilitate the transaction between hotel and traveler. The hotel receives an amount for the room, on which the city’s hotel tax is based. Let’s say I search a Web site and book a $100 hotel room. The online company charges me $10 for their service. Anaheim argues that hotel occupancy tax should be paid not only on the $100 room charge, but also on the $10 service fee. …A federal bill is pending to limit hotel taxes to amounts collected by a hotel for occupancy purposes, excluding service fees and markups by intermediaries. The Constitution permits Congress to pass such laws if there is a danger that state and city laws are interfering with interstate commerce. Hotel taxes are attractive to local politicians because they are a way to shift the tax burden to “outsiders.” But because every U.S. city has a hotel tax, we’re all somebody else’s “outsider.” The net result is that everyone is taxing everyone else in an unaccountable way, and unless the cities and their lawyers are stopped, in an unpredictable way, too.

Crist and Cato

Florida’s airwaves are alive with the sound of Governor Charlie Crist’s radio advertisement trumpeting his grade of “A” on Cato’s “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors.”

I am pleased that Gov. Crist values Cato’s ratings because we work hard to make them accurate and nonpartisan. But the radio ad is making many fiscally conservative Floridians scratch their heads because of the governor’s recent policy actions.

The governor earned his Cato grade in last year’s report mainly because of his large property tax cuts and moderate spending approach. The grade was based purely on quantitative data on revenues, general fund spending, and tax rate changes.

However, since I wrote the report in mid-2008, the governor seems to have fallen off the fiscal responsibility horse.

In particular, Crist approved a huge $2.2 billion tax increase for the fiscal 2010 budget, even though he had promised that $12 billion in federal “stimulus” money showered on Florida over three years would obviate the need for tax increases.

About $1 billion of the tax increases are on cigarette consumers, which will particularly harm moderate-income families. The rest of the increases are in the form of higher costs for often mandatory services, such as automobile registration, which is really just a sneaky form of tax increases.

These tax increases will be particularly painful to Floridians in the short-term because of the recession. But Crist has also jeopardized the state’s long-term finances with his expanded subsidies for hurricane insurance. Hurricanes are a major challenge in Florida, but giving big subsidies to coastal property owners, driving private insurers out of the state, and guaranteeing a massive state bailout when the next hurricane hits strikes me as the height of fiscally irresponsibility.

More on the Crist campaign here.

Are Living Standards Higher in Denmark or the United States?

The left loves Scandinavia, but for the wrong reason. Nations such as Denmark and Sweden have much to admire, particularly their open markets, low levels of regulation, sound money, and honest governments. Indeed, if fiscal policy is removed from the equation, both Denmark and Sweden are more laissez-faire than the United States according to Economic Freedom of the World (as I noted in this recent video).

But fiscal policy is where the Scandinavians have serious problems. Taxes are confiscatory, punishing people who work, save, and invest. High levels of government spending, meanwhile, reduce economic growth by diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy and funneling them into the stifling welfare state.

Not surprisingly, this is the reason why statists admire Scandinavian nations. Matthew Yglesias, for instance, recently expressed his great admiration for Denmark. And I suppose I would agree with him if asked to pick the world’s best welfare state. I’ve been to the country several times and there is no question that laissez-faire policies in areas other than fiscal policy have helped the nation remain relatively prosperous.

But Yglesias is a bit lovestruck about the Danes (an understandable impulse for non-economic reasons), and it leads him to make some rather strange assertion — presumably because he wants us to believe that Denmark’s good points are because of (rather than in spite of) an onerous fiscal burden. What jumped out at me was his claim that Danes enjoy a “higher average material standard of living” than Americans. I’m not sure where he gets that, since the World Bank, CIA, United Nations, and IMF all show that the United States has more per-capita economic output.

To be fair, measures of per-capita gross domestic product are not a  perfect measure, even if they are adjusted for purchasing power parity. So let’s take a look at other statistics that try to compare living standards. The two that I found (perhaps Yglesias found others, in which case I look forward to his identifying the source) are from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and, coincidentally, the Danish Finance Ministry.

The OECD, many of you already know, is not my favorite organization. The bureaucracy’s anti-tax competition campaign is a reprehensible attempt to hinder the flow of jobs and capital from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions. So surely nobody will claim that the OECD is a collection of market fundamentalists trying to manipulate statistics to make high-tax nations look bad. So let’s now look at this chart, which is based on the OECD’s calculations of average individual consumption per capita, pegged against an average for member nations of 100. It certainly appears that living standards in the United States are much higher.


Now let’s look at numbers from the Danish Finance Ministry. The bureaucrats there, in response to a parliamentary request, put together figures on per-capita individual consumption and per-capita private consumption.


I suspect the Finance Ministry is not trying to make Denmark look bad compared to the United States, yet the data certainly suggest that Americans enjoy higher living standards than their Danish counterparts.

Do You Like Swedish Models?

No, not these kind. Instead, I’m in Stockholm for a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, and this gathering of classical liberals (i.e., the Adam Smith types that believe in freedom, not the modern liberals that favor collectivism) has featured some discussion of the Scandinavian social welfare state - often referred to as the Swedish Model.

What is particularly interesting is that Sweden is not the left-wing paradise that some imagine. Yes, government is far too big, consuming about 50 percent of economic output. But Sweden also has an extensive system of school choice. Equally remarkable, Sweden has a system of personal retirement accounts. Indeed, if one removed fiscal policy variables from the ratings, Sweden would be more free market than the United States in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But even in the area of fiscal policy, Sweden is making progress. In recent years, policy makers have abolished both the death tax and the wealth tax. And the corporate tax rate has been reduced significantly below the U.S. level.

Sweden often is cited as an example of a nation that proves a big welfare state is not an obstacle to being a rich society. But as I wrote in my study comparing the United States and the Nordic nations:

Many prosperous nations in Western Europe have large welfare states. This leads unsophisticated observers to sometimes assume that high tax rates and high levels of government spending do not hinder growth. Indeed, they sometimes even conclude that bigger government somehow facilitates growth. …This analysis puts the cart before the horse. It is possible for a nation to become rich and then adopt a welfare state. …A poor nation that adopts the welfare state, however, is unlikely to ever become rich. Before the 1960s, Nordic nations had modest levels of taxation and spending. They also enjoyed—and still enjoy—laissez-faire policies and open markets in other areas. These are the policies that enabled Nordic nations to prosper for much of the 20th century. Once their countries became rich, politicians in Nordic nations focused on how to redistribute the wealth that was generated by private-sector activity. This sequence is important. Nordic nations became rich, and then government expanded. This expansion of government has slowed growth, but slow growth for a rich nation is much less of a burden than slow growth in a poor nation.