Tag: government spending

The G-20 Fiscal Fight: A Pox on Both Their Houses

Barack Obama and Angela Merkel are the two main characters in what is being portrayed as a fight between American “stimulus” and European “austerity” at the G-20 summit meeting in Canada. My immediate instinct is to cheer for the Europeans. After all, “austerity” presumably means cutting back on wasteful government spending. Obama’s definition of “stimulus,” by contrast, is borrowing money from China and distributing it to various Democratic-leaning special-interest groups.
 
But appearances can be deceiving. Austerity, in the European context, means budget balance rather than spending reduction. As such, David Cameron’s proposal to boost the U.K.’s value-added tax from 17.5 percent to 20 percent is supposedly a sign of austerity even though his Chancellor of the Exchequer said a higher tax burden would generate “13 billion pounds we don’t have to find from extra spending cuts.”
 
Raising taxes to finance a bloated government, to be sure, is not the same as Obama’s strategy of borrowing money to finance a bloated government. But proponents of limited government and economic freedom understandably are underwhelmed by the choice of two big-government approaches.
 
What matters most, from a fiscal policy perspective, is shrinking the burden of government spending relative to economic output. Europe needs smaller government, not budget balance. According to OECD data, government spending in eurozone nations consumes nearly 51 percent of gross domestic product, almost 10 percentage points higher than the burden of government spending in the United States.
 
Unfortunately, I suspect that the “austerity” plans of Merkel, Cameron, Sarkozy, et al, will leave the overall burden of government relatively unchanged. That may be good news if the alternative is for government budgets to consume even-larger shares of economic output, but it is far from what is needed.
 
Unfortunately, the United States no longer offers a competing vision to the European welfare state. Under the big-government policies of Bush and Obama, the share of GDP consumed by government spending has jumped by nearly 8-percentage points in the past 10 years. And with Obama proposing and/or implementing higher income taxes, higher death taxes, higher capital gains taxes, higher payroll taxes, higher dividend taxes, and higher business taxes, it appears that American-style big-government “stimulus” will soon be matched by European-style big-government “austerity.”
 
Here’s a blurb from the Christian Science Monitor about the Potemkin Village fiscal fight in Canada:

This weekend’s G-20 summit is shaping up as an economic clash of civilizations – or at least a clash of EU and US economic views. EU officials led by German chancellor Angela Merkel are on a national “austerity” budget cutting offensive as the wisest policy for economic health, ahead of the Toronto summit of 20 large-economy nations. Ms. Merkel Thursday said Germany will continue with $100 billion in cuts that will join similar giant ax strokes in the UK, Italy, France, Spain, and Greece. EU officials say budget austerity promotes the stability and market confidence that are prerequisites for their role in overall recovery. Yet EU pro-austerity statements in the past 48 hours are also defensive – a reaction to public statements from US President Barack Obama and G-20 chairman Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s president, that the overall effect of national austerity in the EU will harm recovery. They are joined by US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, investor George Soros, and Nobel laureate and columnist Paul Krugman, among others, arguing that austerity works against growth, and may lead to a recessionary spiral.

Hey, UK: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

As the chart below indicates, the United Kingdom has a large budget deficit solely because government spending has increased to record levels (OECD data). Unfortunately, the new Tory-Liberal coalition government has decided that taxpayers should be punished for all the over-spending that occurred when the Labor government was in charge.

The Telegraph reports that the top capital gains rate will jump to 28 percent, up from 18 percent (the new government foolishly thinks this will result in more revenue). But the biggest change is that the value-added tax will increase to 20 percent. According to Business Week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the British equivalent of Treasury Secretary) actually bragged that the VAT increase was good since it would generate “13 billion pounds we don’t have to find from extra spending cuts.” Here are some further details from Business Week about the disappointing fiscal news from London.

British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne increased the value-added tax rate to 20 percent from 17.5 percent in the first permanent change to the levy on sales of goods and services in almost two decades. “The years of debt and spending make this unavoidable,” Osborne told Parliament in London in his emergency budget today as he announced a package of spending cuts and tax increases to cut the U.K.’s record deficit. …“We understand that the budget deficit needs to be tackled but we think the focus needs to be cutting public spending over tax rises,” Krishan Rama, a spokesman for the industry lobby group, the British Retail Consortium, said in a telephone interview yesterday. …VAT has remained at 17.5 percent in every year except one since 1991, when John Major’s Conservative administration raised the rate from 15 percent to help plug a deficit.

The one tiny glimmer of good news from the budget is that the corporate tax rate is being reduced from 28 percent to 24 percent, which is probably a reflection of the strong and virtuous tax competition that is forcing greedy governments to lower tax rates in order to attract and/or retain business activity. There also is a two-year pay freeze for government bureaucrats, but this is hardly good news since a 30-percent pay cut is needed to bring compensation down to private sector levels.

Re. Ezra Klein: Did State and Local Anti-stimulus Nullify Federal Stimulus?

A recent Washington Post column by Ezra Klein dreamed up a new excuse for the conspicuous failure of Obama’s so-called stimulus plan.   Klein argues that the stimulus of federal spending has been offset by the “anti-stimulus” of fiscal austerity by state and local governments.  For proof he quotes Bruce Bartlett, who is fast becoming the favorite go-to guy for liberals seeking conservative allies in their endless quest for more spending and taxes. 

Bartlett says, “When the history of the current crisis is written, much of the blame will be placed on the sharp fiscal contraction of state and local governments.  I think economists will view this as a preventable error equivalent to the Fed’s passive shrinkage of the money supply in the early 1930s.”

A historian himself, Bartlett imagines this to be a question that will have to be pondered by historians in the distant future.   But it is easy to identify each sector’s direct contribution to the overall growth rate of real GDP from a St. Louis Fed publication, “National Economic Trends.” 

State and local government spending was rising during the first three quarters of the recession, and the drop in the fourth quarter of 2008 accounted for just 0.25% of the 5.37% annualized decline in GDP.  In the first quarter of 2009, state and local spending subtracted  just 0.19% from real GDP, but federal spending subtracted more (0.33%) due to cuts in defense spending.  Government obviously made only a minor contribution to the 6.4% drop in overall GDP.
  
In the second quarter of 2009, state and local spending was way up (by 0.48%), as was federal spending (0.85%).  But the private economy did not begin expanding until the third quarter – when government spending stopped diverting so many resources to unproductive uses.
 
The table shows that government spending on goods and services had nothing to do with the recovery (transfer payments don’t contribute to GDP).  

As a matter of simple accounting, the state and local sector has been a very minor negative force −scarcely comparable to the Fed’s inaction in 1930-32

Federal purchases, whether for heavily-subsidized ”green jobs” or shovel-ready pork, have been virtually irrelevant during the last two quarters.

Contributions to Real GDP Growth
……………………..  3rd…… 4th…… 1st qtr

Real GDP              2.2         5.6             3.0%
Private                   1.6         5.8             3.4
Federal                  0.6        0.0            0.1
State & Local     -0.1      -0.3           -0.5

Dan Mitchell Gets Results

I gave a speech in Hungary about two weeks ago and now the government has announced a big step in the direction of better fiscal policy. My role was about as meaningful as the rooster crowing, followed by the sunrise, but this is still good news. According to Reuters, “Hungary’s new government plans to introduce a flat personal income tax of 16 percent from 2011, as well as a 15 percent cut in public sector wages.” Those are the headline initiatives, but the fiscal reform package includes other good policies. Here’s a blurb from The Economist.

After a three-day emergency cabinet meeting over the weekend, Viktor Orban, the prime minister, announced the government’s new economic programme this afternoon. The battered forint quickly jumped almost 2% in response. …The introduction of a 16% flat personal income tax is a daring move, and could have important repercussions beyond balancing the state’s books. Unemployment, or at least that element of it which is declared, is nudging 12%, and one reason is Hungary’s cumbersome bureacracy and heavy tax burden. Now Mr Orban has announced that corporation tax for companies with annual profits of less than 500m forints will be reduced from 19% to 10%. Ten more small and bothersome taxes are set to be abolished altogether.

A few years ago, when several nations each year were adopting the flat tax, I arbitrarily decided that this rock classic would be the theme song of the tax reform movement. Sadly, it doesn’t look like we’ll get to play it in America anytime soon.

You Don’t Need to Waste More Money to Shrink Government

It’s rather symbolic of what’s wrong with Washington that a commission ostensibly created to promote deficit reduction is seeking a bigger budget, as noted in the Tax Notes story excerpted below. Rather than impose a bigger burden on taxpayers, though, I will generously suggest that they could easily fulfill their mandate by perusing Cato’s Downsizing Government website. And if they really want to do the right thing, they can always just look at Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution and get rid of existing programs and activities that are not enumerated powers of the federal government.

Saddled with a tight deadline and great expectations, members of President Obama’s deficit reduction commission say they may not have the resources necessary to meet their task. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which the president created through an executive order in February, is charged with developing a plan by December 1 that would stabilize the budget deficit by 2015 and reduce the federal debt over the long term. The group is widely expected to consider a combination of tax reforms and spending cuts. But despite the weighty demands, the panel has only a fraction of the staff and budget of standing congressional committees. The panel’s own cochairs and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have criticized the meager resources and called for more support. …The White House has set aside the resources to provide the equivalent of four full-time salaries and $500,000 in operating costs for the commission, fiscal commission Executive Director Bruce Reed told Tax Analysts.

(h/t: TaxProf)

Prof. Krugman Is Wrong, Again

Prof. Paul Krugman asserts in his New York Times column of May 31st that “Both textbook economics and experience say that slashing spending when you’re still suffering from high unemployment is a really bad idea – not only does it deepen the slump, but it does little to improve the budget outlook, because much of what governments save by spending less they lose as a weaker economy depresses tax receipts.”

While Prof. Krugman and most other fiscalists believe this to be self-evident, it is not.  Indeed, this fiscalist dogma fails to withstand the indignity of empirical verification.  Prof. Paul Krugman’s formulation fails to mention the state of confidence.  This is an important oversight.  As Keynes himself put it: “The state of confidence, as they term it, is a matter to which practical men pay the closest and most anxious attention.”

By ignoring the confidence factor, economic theory can lead to wildly incorrect conclusions and misguided policies.  Just consider naive Keynesian fiscal theory – the type presented (as Prof. Krugman notes) in textbooks and embraced by most policymakers and the general public.  According to Keynesian theory, an expansionary fiscal policy (an increase in government spending and/or a decrease in taxes) stimulates the economy, at least for a year or two after the fiscal stimulus.  To put the brakes on the economy, Keynesians counsel a fiscal contraction.

A positive fiscal multiplier is the keystone for Keynesian fiscal theory because it is through the multiplier that changes in the budget balance are transmitted to the economy.  With a positive multiplier, there is a positive relationship between changes in the fiscal deficit and economic growth: larger deficits stimulate growth and smaller ones slow things down.

So much for theory.  What about the real world?  Suppose a country has a very large budget deficit.  As a result, market participants might be worried that a further loosening of fiscal conditions would result in more inflation, higher risk premiums and much higher interest rates.  In such a situation, the fiscal multipliers may be negative.  Fiscal expansion would then dampen economic activity and a fiscal contraction would increase economic activity.  These results would be just the opposite of those predicted by naive Keynesian fiscal theory.

The possibility of a negative fiscal multiplier rests on the central role played by confidence and expectations about the course of future policy.  If, for example, a country with a very large budget deficit and high level of debt (estimated U.S. deficit and debt levels as a percentage of GDP for 2010 are 10.3% and 63.2%, respectively) makes a credible commitment to significantly reduce the deficit, a confidence shock will ensue and the economy will boom, as inflation expectations, risk premiums and long-term interest rates decline.

There have been many cases in which negative fiscal multipliers have been observed.  The Danish fiscal squeeze of 1983-86 and the Irish stabilization of 1987-89 are notable.  The fiscal deficits that preceded the Danish and Irish fiscal squeezes were clearly unsustainable, and risk premiums and interest rates were extremely high.  Confidence shocks accompanied the fiscal squeezes, and with negative multipliers in play, the Danish and Irish economies took off.  (Evidence from the U.S. is presented in an article by Professors Jason E. Taylor and Richard K. Vedder which appears in the current May/June 2010 issue of the Cato Policy Report.)

Margaret Thatcher also made a dash for confidence and growth via a fiscal squeeze.  To restart the economy in 1981, Thatcher instituted a fierce attack on the British deficit, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy.  Her moves were immediately condemned by 364 distinguished economists.  In a letter to the Times of London, they wrote a knee-jerk Keynesian (Prof. Krugman-type) response: “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”  Thatcher was quickly vindicated.  No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures than the economy boomed.  People had confidence in Britain again, and Thatcher was able to introduce a long series of deep free-market reforms.

While Prof. Krugman’s authority is weighty, his arguments and evidence are slender.

Bureaucrats vs. Taxpayers

The political process often resembles an unseemly racket as politicians take money from people who earn it and give it to another group in exchange for campaign cash and political support. The modern bureaucracy is a good example. Government workers have now become a cosseted elite, with generous pay, extravagant benefits, lavish pensions, and ironclad job security. In exchange for this privileged status, they reward the politicians with millions of dollars of support and a host of in-kind contributions.  I have documented many of these outrages in my “Taxpayers vs. Bureaucrats” series at the International Liberty blog. Well, now we have a video detailing how the government workforce has morphed into a fiscal nightmare for taxpayers.

There are three things in the video that deserve special emphasis. First, bureaucrats are vastly overpaid. The government data cited in the video show that total compensation for the federal civil service is twice as high, on average, as it is for workers in the productive sector of the economy. There are some bureaucrats who deserve above-average pay, such as scientists dealing with nuclear weapons, but it is outrageous that the average drone in the federal bureaucracy is getting twice as much compensation as the taxpayers (serfs) who pay their salaries.

Second, this mini-documentary debunks the silly argument (put forth by government employee unions, of course) that bureaucrats are underpaid compared to the private sector. The Department of Labor has data looking at voluntary departure rates by profession. If government workers were being underpaid, you would expect them to be more likely to leave their jobs in order to take new positions in the (supposedly higher paid) private sector. Instead, the video reveals that people in the private sector are six times more likely to switch jobs than federal bureaucrats.

Third, the video concludes with the essential point that most federal bureaucrats should be paid nothing because they work for departments and agencies that should not exist.

Last but not least, Chris Edwards deserves special mention. Much of the material in this video came from his work on this issue.