Tag: government spending

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.

The Real Dysfunction: A $17 Trillion National Debt

Gentlemen may cry default, default, but there will be no default. (With apologies to Patrick Henry.)

Once again the media are full of talk about dysfunction and default, as the partial government shutdown threatens to linger until the federal government hits the limit of its borrowing capacity, possibly on Oct. 17. The parties in Congress are still far apart on passing a budget bill to keep the government running, and Republicans are also promising not to raise the debt ceiling without some spending reforms.

If in fact Congress doesn’t raise the ceiling by mid-October—or by November 1 or so, when the real crunch might come—then the federal government would be forbidden to borrow any more money beyond the legal limit of $16.699 trillion. But it would still have enough money to pay its creditors as bonds come due. The government will take in something like $225 billion in October, but it wants to spend about $108 billion more than that. You see the problem. If it can’t borrow that $108 billion—to cover its bills for one month—then it will have to delay some checks. 

Now the U.S. Treasury isn’t full of stupid people. Back in 2011, when the debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion was about to be reached, the Washington Post reported:

The Treasury has already decided to save enough cash to cover $29 billion in interest to bondholders, a bill that comes due Aug. 15, according to people familiar with the matter.

You can bet they’re making similar plans today.

Back in that summer of discontent I talked to a journalist who was very concerned about the “dysfunction” in Washington. So am I. But I told her then what’s still true today: that the real problem is not the dysfunctional process that’s getting all the headlines, but the dysfunctional substance of governance. Congress and the president will work out the debt ceiling issue, if not by October 17 then a few days later. The real dysfunction is a federal budget that doubled in 10 years, unprecedented deficits as far as the eye can see, and a national debt bursting through its statutory limit of $16.699 trillion and heading toward 100 percent of GDP.

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.

A Rare Sign of Fiscal Sanity in France

We have an amazing man-bites-dog story today.

Let’s begin with some background information. A member of the European Commission recently warned that:

“Tax increases imposed by the Socialist-led government in France have reached a “fatal level”…[and] that a series of tax hikes since the Socialists took power 14 months ago – including €33bn in new taxes this year – threatens to “destroy growth and handicap the creation of jobs”.

Given the pervasive statism of the European Commission, that was a remarkable admission.

But the Commissioner who issued that warning, Olli Rehn, is Finnish, so French politicians presumably don’t listen to his advice any more than they listen to the thoughtful, well-meaning, and generous suggestions I make.

Indeed, based on the actions of the current President and the former President, we can say with great confidence that French politicians compete over who can pursue the most misguided policies.

But maybe, just maybe, there are some people inside France who realize the house of cards is in danger of collapse.

Here are some excerpts from a story I never thought I would read. At least one senior official in France has woken up to the dangers of ever-rising taxes and an always-growing burden of government spending.

France’s state auditor urged the government Tuesday to redouble efforts to limit spending rather than increases taxes… The head of the state auditor, Didier Migaud, said the interruption in deficit reduction stemmed primarily from lower-than-expected tax revenue, due to the weak economy. Yet, he said “the spiraling welfare debt was particularly abnormal and particularly dangerous.” During his first year in power, President François Hollande relied on large tax increases to plug holes in public finances, including social programs such as pensions, unemployment benefits and health care. But economic stagnation in 2012, coupled with a mild recession at the start of 2013, has waylaid the plan, while both companies and households are crying foul over what some have called “a tax overdose.” Mr. Migaud added his voice, saying: “The strategy of fixing the system by collecting new revenue is reaching its limits.”

Before any further analysis, I have to make one correction to the story. Hollande’s plan was not “waylaid” by a recession. Instead, his policies doubtlessly helped cause a recession. You don’t impose huge tax hikes on productive behavior without some sort of negative impact on economic performance.

So the “holes in public finances” are at least partially a result of the Laffer Curve. As I’ve repeatedly warned, higher tax rates rarely - if ever - collect as much money as politicians expect.

Returning to the specific case of France, the fiscal variable that should set off the most alarm bells is that the burden of government spending has soared to 57 percent of GDP. And based on projections from the BIS, OECD, and IMF, that number is going to get even worse in the future.

This is the data that presumably has convinced Monsieur Migaud that France is approaching the point of no return on taxes and spending.

Interestingly, the French people may be ahead of their politicians. Polling data from 2010 and 2013 show that ordinary people very much understand the need to limit the size and scope of government.

Heck, a majority of French people have said they would be interested in escaping to the United States if they had the opportunity. And successful people already have been leaving the country because of punitive tax rates.

But I’m not sure I believe the aforementioned polls. If the French people genuinely have sound views, why do they keep electing bad politicians? Of course, the same thing could be said about the United States, so perhaps I shouldn’t throw stones in my glass house.

P.S. My favorite example of government running amok in France is the law threatening three years in jail if you say your husband is a fat slob or if you accuse your wife of being a nag.

P.P.S. The most vile French official may be the current Prime Minister, who actually had the gall to complain that some of his intended victims weren’t quietly entering the slaughterhouse.

P.P.P.S. Just in case you think I’m exaggerating about France being a fiscal hellhole, more than 8,000 households last year were subjected to a tax burden of more than 100 percent . Obama must be very envious.

It’s Amazingly Simple to Balance the Budget

I’m testifying tomorrow to the Joint Economic Committee about “The Economic Costs of Debt-Ceiling Brinkmanship.”

I won’t give away what I’m going to say (though you can probably figure out my views rather easily by reading this, this, and this), but I do want to share a chart from my testimony.

It shows that it is remarkably simple to balance the budget with a modest amount of spending restraint.

Based on Congressional Budget Office data, we can balance the budget in just three years if spending grows by “only” 1 percent per year.

Balanced Budget with Spending Restraint

The chart also shows that you can balance the budget in just four years if spending is allowed to grow “just” two percent annually.

And if you for some reason think that the burden of government spending should rise faster than inflation, then we can balance the budget in seven years by restraining spending so that it grows 3 percent each year.

Here are a couple of relevant observations.

Can You Spell L-A-F-F-E-R C-U-R-V-E?

I’m thinking of inventing a game, sort of a fiscal version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Only the way my game will work is that there will be a map of the world and the winner will be the blindfolded person who puts his pin closest to a nation such as Australia or Switzerland that has a relatively low risk of long-run fiscal collapse.

That won’t be an easy game to win since we have data from the BIS, OECD, and IMF showing that government is growing far too fast in the vast majority of nations.

We also know that many states and cities suffer from the same problems.

A handful of local governments already have hit the fiscal brick wall, with many of them (gee, what a surprise) from California.

The most spectacular mess, though, is about to happen in Michigan.

The Washington Post reports that Detroit is on the verge of fiscal collapse.

After decades of sad and spectacular decline, it has come to this for Detroit: The city is $19 billion in debt and on the edge of becoming the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. An emergency manager says the city can make good on only a sliver of what it owes—in many cases just pennies on the dollar.

This is a dog-bites-man story. Detroit’s problems are the completely predictable result of excessive government. Just as statism explains the problems of Greece. And the problems of California. And the problems of Cyprus. And the problems of Illinois.