Tag: welfare state

The Value-Added Tax Must Be Stopped - Unless We Want America to Become Greece

Sooner or later, there will be a giant battle in Washington over the value-added tax. The people who want bigger government (and the people who are willing to surrender to big government) understand that a new source of tax revenue is needed to turn the United States into a European-style social welfare state. But that’s exactly why the VAT is a terrible idea.

I explain why in a column for Reuters. The entire thing is worth reading, but here’s an excerpt of some key points.

Many Washington insiders are claiming that America needs a value-added tax (VAT) to get rid of red ink. …And President Obama says that a VAT is “something that has worked for other countries.” Every single one of these assertions is demonstrably false. …One of the many problems with a VAT is that it is a hidden levy. …VATs are imposed at each stage of the production process and thus get embedded in the price of goods. And because the VAT is hidden from consumers, politicians find they are an easy source of new revenue – which is one reason why the average VAT rate in Europe is now more than 20 percent! …Western European nations first began imposing VATs about 40 years ago, and the result has been bigger government, permanent deficits and more debt. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, public debt is equal to 74 percent of GDP in Western Europe, compared to 64 percent of GDP in the United States (and the gap was much bigger before the Bush-Obama spending spree doubled America’s debt burden). The most important comparison is not debt, but rather the burden of government spending. …you don’t cure an alcoholic by giving him keys to a liquor store, you don’t promote fiscal responsibility by giving government a new source of revenue. …To be sure, we would have a better tax system if proponents got rid of the income tax and replaced it with a VAT. But that’s not what’s being discussed. At best, some proponents claim we could reduce other taxes in exchange for a VAT. Once again, though, the evidence from Europe shows this is a naive hope. The tax burden on personal and corporate income is much higher today than it was in the pre-VAT era. …When President Obama said the VAT is “something that has worked for other countries,” he should have specified that the tax is good for the politicians of those nations, but not for the people. The political elite got more money that they use to buy votes, and they got a new tax code, enabling them to auction off loopholes to special interest groups.

You can see some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT by clicking here, here, and here.

For further information on why the VAT is a horrible proposal, including lots of specific numbers and comparisons between the United States and Western Europe, here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Deconstructing the Spending Side of Obama’s Proposed FY2012 Budget

President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 has been released and there is lots of rhetoric in Washington about “budget cuts.”

At first glance, this seems warranted. According to the just-released fiscal blueprint, the federal government is spending about $3.8 trillion this year and the President is proposing to spending a bit more than $3.7 trillion next year. In other words, the White House is going beyond a budget freeze and is actually proposing to spend $90 billion less next year than is being spent this year.

That certainly seems consistent with my proposal to solve America’s fiscal problems by restraining the growth of spending.

But you won’t find a smile on my face. This new budget may be better than Obama’s first two fiscal blueprints, but that’s damning with faint praise. The absence of big initiatives such as the so-called stimulus scheme or a government-run healthcare plan simply means that there’s no major new proposal to accelerate America’s fiscal decline.

But neither is there any plan to undo the damage of the past 10 years, which resulted in a doubling in the burden of government spending during a period when inflation was less than 30 percent.

Moreover, many of the supposed budget savings (such as nearly $40 billion of lower jobless benefits) are dependent on better economic performance. I certainly hope the White House is correct about faster growth and more job creation, but they’ve been radically wrong for the past two years and it might not be wise to rely on optimistic assumptions.

Some of the fine print in the budget also is troubling, such as Table 4.1 of OMB’s Historical Tables of the Budget, which shows that some agencies are getting huge increases, including:

  • 17 percent more money for International Assistance Programs;
  • 24 percent more money for the Executive Office of the President;
  • 13 percent for the Department of Transportation; and
  • 12 percent more for the Department of State.

But these one-year changes in outlays are dwarfed by the 10-year trend. Since 2001, spending has skyrocketed in almost every part of the budget. Even with the supposed “cuts” in Obama’s budget, there will be:

  • 112 percent more spending for the Department of Agriculture;
  • 100 percent more spending for the Department of Education;
  • 154 percent more spending for the Department of Energy;
  • 110 percent more spending for the Department of Health and Human Services;
  • 175 percent more spending for the Department of Labor; and
  • 82 percent for the Department of Transportation.

And remember that inflation was less than 30 percent during this period.

The budget needs to be dramatically downsized, yet the President has proposed that we tread water.

But even that’s too optimistic. America’s real fiscal challenge is that the burden of government spending will dramatically increase in coming decades, thanks largely to an aging population and poorly designed entitlement programs. Barring some sort of change, the United States will suffer the same problems that are now afflicting failed welfare states such as Greece and Portugal.

On the issue of entitlement reform, however, the President is missing in action. He’s not even willing to embrace the timid proposals of his own Fiscal Commission.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the tax side of the President’s budget.

To Fix the Budget, Bring Back Reagan…or Even Clinton

President Obama unveiled his fiscal year 2012 budget today, and there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that there’s no major initiative such as the so-called stimulus scheme or the government-run healthcare proposal. The bad news, though, is that government is far too big and Obama’s budget does nothing to address this problem.

But perhaps the folks on Capitol Hill will be more responsible and actually try to save America from becoming a big-government, European-style welfare state. The solution may not be easy, but it is simple. Lawmakers merely need to restrain the growth of government spending so that it grows slower than the private economy.

Actual spending cuts would be the best option, of course, but limiting the growth of spending is all that’s needed to slowly shrink the burden of government spending relative to gross domestic product.

Fortunately, we have two role models from recent history that show it is possible to control the federal budget. This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity uses data from the Historical Tables of the Budget to demonstrate the fiscal policy achievements of both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Some people will want to argue about who gets credit for the good fiscal policy of the 1980s and 1990s.

Bill Clinton’s performance, for instance, may not have been so impressive if he had succeeded in pushing through his version of government-run healthcare or if he didn’t have to deal with a Republican Congress after the 1994 elections. But that’s a debate for partisans. All that matters is that the burden of government spending fell during Bill Clinton’s reign, and that was good for the budget and good for the economy. And there’s no question he did a much better job than George W. Bush.

Indeed, a major theme in this new video is that the past 10 years have been a fiscal disaster. Both Bush and Obama have dramatically boosted the burden of government spending – largely because of rapid increases in domestic spending.

This is one of the reasons why the economy is weak. For further information, this video looks at the theoretical case for small government and this video examines the empirical evidence against big government.

Another problem is that many people in Washington are fixated on deficits and debt, but that’s akin to focusing on symptoms and ignoring the underlying disease. To elaborate, this video explains that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending rather than too much debt.

Last but not least, this video reviews the theory and evidence for the “Rahn Curve,” which is the notion that there is a growth-maximizing level of government outlays. The bad news is that government already is far too big in the United States. This is undermining prosperity and reducing competitiveness.

Bright Spots in Fiscal Commission Report

President Obama’s Fiscal Commission has produced a serious and sobering analysis of the government’s budget mess, and it provides some of the needed solutions. Three of the report’s main themes are on target: the need to make government leaner, the need to cut business taxes to generate economic growth, and the need to impose tighter budget rules to discipline spending.

The report rejects the view of many Democratic leaders that the welfare state built over the last 80 years must be defended against any and all budget cuts. “Every aspect of the discretionary budget must be scrutinized, no agency can be off limits, and no program that spends too much or achieves too little can be spared. The federal government can and must adapt to the 21st century by transforming itself into a leaner and more efficient operation.” How lean the government should be, and how many agencies to eliminate, will be the central fiscal debate in coming years. Downsizing government is the order of the day.

The report recognizes the need to spur economic growth, particularly by cutting the corporate tax rate. “The corporate income tax, meanwhile, hurts America’s ability to compete… statutory rates in the U.S. are significantly higher than the average for industrialized countries … and our method of taxing foreign income is outside the norm…. the current system puts U.S. corporations at a competitive disadvantage against their foreign competitors.” The report recommends cutting the 35 percent federal corporate tax rate to 28 percent or less to respond to the Global Tax Revolution and to “make America the best place to start a business and create jobs.”

Finally, the report suggests that Congress impose new procedures to enforce budget restraint. However, the rules suggested by the commission are complex and not tight enough. It would be simpler and more powerful to impose a cap on overall federal spending. For example, a law could require that the government’s overall budget not grow faster than general inflation each year else the president would sequester spending across-the-board. Such a cap would be easy for the public to understand and enforce.

In sum, the report provides a useful menu of reform options that incoming members of a more conservative Congress can pursue next year. We need bigger spending cuts than the commission has laid out—as I’ve outlined in this balanced-budget plan—but the commission deserves credit for spurring a national discussion on how to downsize the federal government.

Good Point

In his recent book Ill Fares the Land, a passionate defense of the democratic socialist ideal, the historian Tony Judt writes that Hayek would have been (justly) doomed to obscurity if not for the financial difficulty experienced by the welfare state, which was exploited by conservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Yes, if Hayek had been wrong about the viability of the welfare state, then his warnings would have had less resonance.

This line appears in a generally thoughtful treatment of how The Road to Serfdom has stayed in print for decades and become a bestseller in the past two years. The article by Jennifer Schuessler appeared in the New York Times Book Review last July, but has only just come to my attention.

Overstating Differences Within the Tea Party

In a long essay in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, “What the Tea Partiers Really Want,” University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt argues, as the subtitle puts it, that “the passion behind the populist insurgency is less about liberty than a particularly American idea of karma.” Taking his cue from Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe’s claim in their new book, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, that tea partiers “just want to be free, … so long as we don’t infringe on the same freedom of others,” Haidt notes that his research shows that while self-described libertarians agree most strongly with that view, liberals are not far behind, in contrast with the social conservatives “who make up the bulk of the tea party,” who are more tepid in their endorsement of that idea.

So why are libertarians and conservatives largely teamed up in the tea party? Haidt doesn’t really answer that question. Rather, his main aim, as noted, is to show that the tea party’s moral passion is not so much about liberty as about “an old and very conservative idea” of karma, which “combines the universal human desire that moral accounts should be balanced with a belief that, somehow or other, they will be balanced.” In other words, “kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it’s just a law of the universe, like gravity.”

Yet in “the last 80 years of American history” the welfare state has undermined that moral balance, Haidt continues, nowhere more clearly, recently, than with the Bush bank bailout, using taxpayer dollars, which Armey and Kibbe claim was the real start of the tea-party movement.

Listen, for example, to Rick Santelli’s “rant heard ‘round the world” on CNBC last year and its most famous lines: “The government is promoting bad behavior,” and “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors’ mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” It’s a rant about karma, not liberty.

Haidt is certainly on to something here. And he develops and illustrates his thesis in some detail, including how the modern liberals’ focus on equality, and their attraction to government programs securing it, makes them uneasy with this karma, separating them from libertarians and conservatives. But he also argues that research that he and a colleague have done on “the five main psychological ‘foundations’ of morality” shows that “libertarians are morally a bit more similar to liberals than to conservatives,” leading him to conclude that it’s not clear how long the tea party blend of libertarians and conservatives can stay blended.

I won’t go into the details of Haidt’s five main psychological foundations of morality, except to say that, at least as presented in this essay, they raise as many questions as they answer. I will add, however, that lumping people into even self-identified ideological groupings is always problematic, since any such “group” will be constituted by individuals with a range of views and tendencies. Moreover, and more important, the contrast Haidt draws between liberty and what he calls karma is doubtless overdrawn. After all, the “libertarian” focus on liberty and the “conservative” focus on “karma” most often come to the same thing, at bottom. The “conservative” notion of individual responsibility, coupled with positive and negative sanctions, is fully realized only in a regime of liberty of a kind that “libertarians” have long promoted. In fact, to flesh that out more fully, the Journal has another useful essay this morning on the editorial page, Peter Berkowitz’s “Why Liberals Don’t Get the Tea Party Movement.” Much to think about as we cruise to the elections little more than two weeks away.

Should the U.S. Restrict Immigration?

Recent debates about Arizona’s new immigration law have taken as self-evident that immigration restrictions are good policy, with the only question being which level of government should enforce the law, and how. Yet the case for immigration restrictions is far from convincing.

Advocates of these restrictions rely on four possible arguments. First, that immigration dilutes existing languages, religions, family values, cultural norms, and so on. Second, that immigrants flock to countries with generous social welfare programs, leading to urban slums and inundated social networks. Third, that immigration can harm the sending country if the departing immigrants are high-skilled labor. Fourth, that immigration lowers the income of native, low-skill workers.

All of these arguments are wrong, overstated, or misguided. Immigration may change cultural values or norms, but nothing suggests this is a negative. Many societies flourish because they have incorporated new businesses, cultures, foods, and so on. More important, immigrants normally assimilate to the pre-existing culture provided government policy does not segregate them from the rest of society. In the past rich countries have incorporated large immigration flows with modest adjustment costs. Many of these immigrants lived in difficult conditions at first, but within a generation they achieved middle class status or better.

The possibility that immigration puts pressure on the welfare state is a reasonable concern, although existing evidence does not suggest this is a major problem. In any case, the possibility that a generous social safety net might encourage immigration is a reason to moderate this safety net, rather than a reason to restrict immigration. Indeed, expanded immigration might create pressure to keep the welfare state modest.

The risk that immigration drains high-skilled labor from poor countries is real, but this kind of immigration has positive impacts on the sending country that mitigate against any negatives. The possibility of migration to a high-wage country generates an incentive to acquire education, and only some of those educated actually leave. The threat of a brain drain nudges poor countries away from bad policies-such as excessive tax rates-that generate the brain drain in the first place. Many immigrants send remittances to friends or relatives in their country of origin. Plus, if borders were really open, many immigrants would seek education abroad but return to their home country, knowing they could leave if economic factors so dictated. Similarly, with open borders many immigrants would pursue temporary stays in higher wage countries. Temporary migration is common in many countries now, and was common in the U.S. before the tightening of immigration rules in the 1910s and 1920s. Temporary migration raises fewer of the standard concerns than permanent migration, while still helping many people in low-wage countries.

Concern for the poor, assuming this includes the poor in other countries, argues for vastly expanded immigration since many potential immigrants are much poorer than the natives whose wages they might depress. Only a bizarre view of equity favors people earning the minimum wage in rich countries over people near starvation in developing countries.

The conclusion that open borders is the best immigration policy is all the stronger because attempts to restrict immigration have their own negatives. These include the direct costs of border controls, the creation of a violent black market for immigration, and incentives for corruption. Further, immigration may have beneficial effects on productivity by fostering competition and introducing new ideas, approaches, business models, products, and so on. At the same time, many people in receiving countries enjoy the influence of new cultures. Immigrants also work at jobs for which the native supply is small.

Reasonable people can argue that immigration should increase gradually to moderate the transition costs. But any reasonable balancing implies vastly expanded immigration relative to current levels. This would improve the welfare of poor people in other countries far more than foreign aid.

C/P at psychologytoday.com