Tag: Mitchell’s Golden Rule

In Tallinn, Helping to Protect the People of Estonia from Krugmanomics

Last month, I exposed some major errors that Paul Krugman committed when he criticized Estonia for restraining the burden of government spending.

My analysis will be helpful since I am now in Estonia for a speech about economic reform, and I wrote a column that was published today by the nation’s main business newspaper.

But just in case you’re one of the few people in the world who isn’t fluent in the local language, the Mises Institute Estonia was kind enough to post an English version.

Here are some of the key points I made. I started by explaining one of Krugman’s main blunders.

Krugman’s biggest mistake is that he claimed that spending cuts caused the downturn, even though the recession began in 2008 when government spending was rapidly expanding. It wasn’t until 2009 that the burden of government spending was reduced, and that was when the economy began to grow again. In other words, Krugman’s Keynesian theory was completely wrong. The economy should have boomed in 2008 and suffered a recession beginning in 2009. Instead, the opposite has happened.

I then pointed out that Estonia’s long-run performance has been admirable.

…the nation’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. Economic output has doubled in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period – including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

But I’m not a mindless cheerleader (though I might become one if any of the local women gave me the time of day), so I took the opportunity to identify areas where public policy needs improvement.

This doesn’t mean Estonia’s policy is perfect. Spending was reduced in 2009 and 2010, but now it is climbing again. This is unfortunate. Government spending consumes about 40 percent of GDP, which is a significant burden on the private sector.

Being a thoughtful guy, I then made suggestions for pro-growth changes.

Estonia should copy the Asian Tiger economies of Singapore and Hong Kong. These jurisdictions have maintained very high growth for decades in part because the burden of the public sector is only about 20 percent of GDP. …Estonia already has a flat tax, which is very important for competitiveness. The key goal should be to impose a spending cap, perhaps similar to Switzerland’s very successful “debt brake.” Under the Swiss system, government spending is not allowed to grow faster than population plus inflation. And since nominal GDP usually expands at a faster rate, this means that the relative burden of government spending shrinks over time. By slowly but surely reducing the amount of GDP diverted to fund government, this would enable policymakers to deal with the one area where Estonia’s tax system is very unfriendly. Social insurance taxes equal about one-fourth of the cost of hiring a worker, thus discouraging job creation and boosting the shadow economy.

And I elaborated on why reform of social insurance is not just a good idea, but should be viewed as an absolute necessity.

Reducing the heavy burden of social insurance taxes should be part of a big reform to modernize programs for healthcare and the elderly. A major long-term challenge for Estonia is that the population is expected to shrink. The World Bank and the United Nations both show that fertility rates are well below the “replacement rate,” meaning that there will be fewer workers in the future. That’s a very compelling reason why it is important to expand personal retirement accounts and allow the “pre-funding” of healthcare. It’s a simple matter of demographic reality.

In other words, Estonia doesn’t have a choice. If they don’t reform their entitlement programs, the burden of government spending will rise dramatically, which would mean a higher tax burden and/or substantial government debt.

We also need entitlement reform in the United States. Our demographics aren’t as bad as Estonia’s, but we all know - as I explained in my post about Cyprus - that bad things happen sooner or later if government spending grows faster than the economy’s productive sector.

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.

Which President Is the Biggest Spender, Part II

Last week, I jumped into the surreal debate about whether Obama has been the most fiscally conservative president in recent history.

I sliced the historical data from the Office of Management and Budget a couple of ways, showing that overall spending has grown at a relatively slow rate during the Obama years. Adjusted for inflation, both total spending and primary spending (total spending minus interest payments) have been restrained.

So does this make Obama a fiscal conservative?

And how can these numbers make sense when the President saddled the nation with the faux stimulus and ObamaCare?

Good questions. It turns out that Obama’s supposed frugality is largely the result of how TARP is measured in the federal budget. To put it simply, TARP pushed spending up in Bush’s final fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008) and then repayments from the banks (which count as “negative spending”) artificially reduced spending in subsequent years.

The combination of those two factors made a big difference in the numbers. Here’s another table from my prior post, looking at how the presidents rank when you subtract both defense and the fiscal impact of deposit insurance and TARP.

All of a sudden, Obama drops down to the second-to-last position, sandwiched between two of the worst presidents in American history. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

But this ranking is incomplete. At that point, I was trying to gauge Obama’s record on domestic spending, and the numbers certainly provide some evidence that he is a stereotypical big-spending liberal.

But the main debate is about which president was the biggest overall spender. So I’ve run through the numbers again, and here’s a new table looking at the rankings based on average annual changes in inflation-adjusted primary spending, minus the distorting impact of deposit insurance and TARP.

Obama is still in the second-to-last position, but spending is increasing by “only” 5.5 percent per year rather than 7.0 percent annually. This is obviously because defense spending is not growing as fast as domestic spending.

Reagan remains in first place, though his score drops now that his defense buildup is part of the calculations. Clinton, conversely, stays in second place but his score jumps because he benefited from the peace dividend after Reagan’s policies led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Let’s now look at these numbers from a policy perspective. Rahn Curve research shows that government is far too big today, so the goal of fiscal policy should be to restrain the burden of government spending relative to economic output.

This means that policy moves in the right direction when government grows more slowly than the private sector, as it did under Reagan and Clinton.

But if government spending is growing faster than the productive sector of the economy, as has been the case during the Bush-Obama years, then a nation eventually will become Greece.

Switzerland’s ‘Debt Brake’ Is a Role Model for Spending Control and Fiscal Restraint

I’ve argued, ad nauseam, that the single most important goal of fiscal policy is (or should be) to make sure the private sector grows faster than the government. This “golden rule” is the best way of enabling growth and avoiding fiscal crises, and I’ve cited nations that have made progress by restraining government spending.

But what’s the best way of actually imposing such a rule, particularly since politicians like using taxpayer money as a slush fund?

Well, the Swiss voters took matters into their own hands, as I describe in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Americans looking for a way to tame government profligacy should look to Switzerland. In 2001, 85% of its voters approved an initiative that effectively requires its central government spending to grow no faster than trendline revenue. The reform, called a “debt brake” in Switzerland, has been very successful. Before the law went into effect in 2003, government spending was expanding by an average of 4.3% per year. Since then it’s increased by only 2.6% annually.

So how does this system work?

Switzerland’s debt brake limits spending growth to average revenue increases over a multiyear period (as calculated by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance). This feature appeals to Keynesians, who like deficit spending when the economy stumbles and tax revenues dip. But it appeals to proponents of good fiscal policy, because politicians aren’t able to boost spending when the economy is doing well and the Treasury is flush with cash. Equally important, it is very difficult for politicians to increase the spending cap by raising taxes. Maximum rates for most national taxes in Switzerland are constitutionally set (such as by an 11.5% income tax, an 8% value-added tax and an 8.5% corporate tax). The rates can only be changed by a double-majority referendum, which means a majority of voters in a majority of cantons would have to agree.

In other words, the debt brake isn’t a de jure spending cap, but it is a de facto spending cap. And capping the growth of spending (which is the underlying disease) is the best way of controlling red ink (the symptom of excessive government).

Switzerland’s spending cap has helped the country avoid the fiscal crisis affecting so many other European nations. Annual central government spending today is less than 20% of gross domestic product, and total spending by all levels of government is about 34% of GDP. That’s a decline from 36% when the debt brake took effect. This may not sound impressive, but it’s remarkable considering how the burden of government has jumped in most other developed nations. In the U.S., total government spending has jumped to 41% of GDP from 36% during the same time period.

Switzerland is moving in the right direction and the United States is going in the wrong direction. The obvious lesson (to normal people) is that America should copy the Swiss. Congressman Kevin Brady has a proposal to do something similar to the debt brake.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R., Texas), vice chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, has introduced legislation that is akin to the Swiss debt brake. Called the Maximizing America’s Prosperity Act, his bill would impose direct spending caps, but tied to “potential GDP.” … Since potential GDP is a reasonably stable variable (like average revenue growth in the Swiss system), this approach creates a sustainable glide path for spending restraint.

In some sense, Brady’s MAP Act is akin to Sen. Corker’s CAP Act, but the use of “potential GDP” makes the reform more sustainable because economic fluctuations don’t enable big deviations in the amount of allowable spending.

To conclude, we know the right policy. It is spending restraint. We also know a policy that will achieve spending restraint. A binding spending cap. The problem, as I note in my op-ed, is that “politicians don’t want any type of constraint on their ability to buy votes with other people’s money.”

Overcoming that obstacle is the real challenge.

P.S. A special thanks to Pierre Bessard, the President of Switzerland’s Liberales Institut. He is a superb public intellectual and his willingness to share his knowledge of the Swiss debt brake was invaluable in helping me write my column.

European Central Bank Research Shows that Government Spending Undermines Economic Performance

Europe is in the midst of a fiscal crisis caused by too much government spending, yet many of the continent’s politicians want the European Central Bank to purchase the dodgy debt of reckless welfare states such as Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal in order to prop up these big government policies.

So it’s especially noteworthy that economists at the European Central Bank have just produced a study showing that government spending is unambiguously harmful to economic performance. Here is a brief description of the key findings.

…we analyse a wide set of 108 countries composed of both developed and emerging and developing countries, using a long time span running from 1970-2008, and employing different proxies for government size… Our results show a significant negative effect of the size of government on growth. …Interestingly, government consumption is consistently detrimental to output growth irrespective of the country sample considered (OECD, emerging and developing countries).

There are two very interesting takeaways from this new research. First, the evidence shows that the problem is government spending, and that problem exists regardless of whether the budget is financed by taxes or borrowing. Unfortunately, too many supposedly conservative policy makers fail to grasp this key distinction and mistakenly focus on the symptom (deficits) rather than the underlying disease (big government).

The second key takeaway is that Europe’s corrupt political elite is engaging in a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which is when one bad government policy is used to justify another bad government policy. In this case, they undermined prosperity by recklessly increasing the burden of government spending, and they’re now using the resulting fiscal crisis as an excuse to promote inflationary monetary policy by the European Central Bank.

The ECB study, by contrast, shows that the only good answer is to reduce the burden of the public sector. Moreover, the research also has a discussion of the growth-maximizing size of government.

… economic progress is limited when government is zero percent of the economy (absence of rule of law, property rights, etc.), but also when it is closer to 100 percent (the law of diminishing returns operates in addition to, e.g., increased taxation required to finance the government’s growing burden – which has adverse effects on human economic behaviour, namely on consumption decisions).

This may sound familiar, because it’s a description of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of the spending version of the Laffer Curve. This video explains.

The key lesson in the video is that government is far too big in the United States and other industrialized nations, which is precisely what the scholars found in the European Central Bank study.

Another interesting finding in the study is that the quality and structure of government matters.

Growth in government size has negative effects on economic growth, but the negative effects are three times as great in non-democratic systems as in democratic systems. …the negative effect of government size on GDP per capita is stronger at lower levels of institutional quality, and ii) the positive effect of institutional quality on GDP per capita is stronger at smaller levels of government size.

The simple way of thinking about these results is that government spending doesn’t do as much damage in a nation such as Sweden as it does in a failed state such as Mexico.

Last but not least, the ECB study analyzes various budget process reforms. There’s a bit of jargon in this excerpt, but it basically shows that spending limits (presumably policies similar to Senator Corker’s CAP Act or Congressman Brady’s MAP Act) are far better than balanced budget rules.

…we use three indices constructed by the European Commission (overall rule index, expenditure rule index, and budget balance and debt rule index). …The former incorporates each index individually whereas the latter includes interacted terms between fiscal rules and government size proxies. Particularly under the total government expenditure and government spending specifications…we find statistically significant positive coefficients on the overall rule index and the expenditure rule index, meaning that having these fiscal numerical rules improves GDP growth for these set of EU countries.

This research is important because it shows that rules focusing on deficits and debt (such as requirements to balance the budget) are not as effective because politicians can use them as an excuse to raise taxes.

At the risk of citing myself again, the number one message from this new ECB research is that lawmakers - at the very least - need to follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule and make sure government spending grows slower than the private sector. Fortunately, that can happen, as shown in this video.

But my Golden Rule is just a minimum requirement. If politicians really want to do the right thing, they should copy the Baltic nations and implement genuine spending cuts rather than just reductions in the rate of growth in the burden of government.