Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

The Final Nail in the Keynesian Coffin?

I wrote earlier this year about the “perplexing durability” of Keynesian economics. And I didn’t mince words.

Keynesian economics is a failure. It didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. It didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. And it didn’t work for Bush or Obama in recent years. No matter where’s it’s been tried, it’s been a flop. So why, whenever there’s a downturn, do politicians resuscitate the idea that bigger government will “stimulate” the economy?

And I specifically challenged Keynesians in 2013 to explain why automatic budget cuts were supposedly a bad idea given that the American economy expanded when the burden of government spending shrank during the Reagan and Clinton years.

I also issued that same challenge one day earlier, asking Keynesians to justify their opposition to sequestration given that Canada’s economy prospered in the 1990s when government spending was curtailed.

It seems that the evidence against Keynesianism is so strong that only a fool, a politician, or a college professor could still cling to the notion that bigger government lead to more growth.

Fortunately, it does appear that there’s a growing consensus against this free-lunch theory.

A Practical (and Semi-Optimistic) Plan to Tame the Federal Leviathan

Like a lot of libertarians and small-government conservatives, I’m prone to pessimism. How can you be cheerful, after all, when you look at what’s been happening in our lifetimes.

New entitlement programs, adopted by politicians from all parties, are further adding to the long-run spending crisis.

The federal budget has become much bigger, luring millions of additional people into government dependency.

The tax code has become even more corrupt and complex, with more than 4,600 changes just between 2001 and 2012 according to a withering report from outgoing Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

And let’s not forget the essential insight of “public choice” economics, which tells us that politicians care first and foremost about their own interests rather than the national interest. So what’s their incentive to address these problems, particularly if there’s some way to sweep them under the rug and let future generations bear the burden?

And if you think I’m being unduly negative about political incentives and fiscal responsibility, consider the new report from the European Commission, which found that politicians from EU member nations routinely enact budgets based on “rosy scenarios.” As the EU Observer reported:

EU governments are too optimistic about their economic prospects and their ability to control public spending, leading to them continually missing their budget targets, a European Commission paper has argued. …their growth projections are 0.6 percent higher than the final figure, while governments who promise to cut their deficit by 0.2 percent of GDP, typically tend to increase their gap between revenue and spending by the same amount.

Needless to say, American politicians do the same thing with their forecasts. If you don’t believe me, just look at the way the books were cooked to help impose Obamacare.

But set aside everything I just wrote because now I’m going to tell you that we’re making progress and that it’s actually not that difficult to constructively address America’s fiscal problems.

First, let’s look at how we’ve made progress. I just wrote a piece for The Hill. It’s entitled “Republicans are Winning the Fiscal Fight” and it includes lots of data on what’s been happening over the past five years, including the fact that there’s been no growth in the federal budget.

Senator Coburn’s Final Report

One the best U.S. senators of recent decades is leaving. No one has spotlighted the ongoing waste in federal spending more than Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. In his farewell address, he advised his colleagues: “Your whole goal is to protect the United States of America, its Constitution and its liberties … it’s not to provide benefits for your state.” As if to underline Coburn’s point, the Washington Post yesterday described how Senator Roger Wicker helped pour $349 million down the drain on an unused NASA facility in his home state of Mississippi.

One of Coburn’s strategies has been to use his expert staff to write investigative reports on federal activities. The huge collection of reports his staff has produced is remarkable. Each one is a big fat indictment of malfunctioning government.

Seeing this stream of high-quality and fun-to-read reports over the years has made wonder what the staffs of the other 99 senators do with their time. Every senator ought to be using his taxpayer-funded staff to try to save taxpayer money. Every senator ought to be digging into the giant $3.6 trillion spending empire that they have collectively created and trying to cut out some of the fat.

Coburn’s final report released last week is another impressive document. Coming in at 320 pages, Tax Decoder digs through the massive federal tax code and highlights hundreds of special deals, carve-outs, and illogical breaks. Tax Decoder’s findings are too voluminous to summarize here, and even seasoned tax wonks will find interesting stuff that they did not know.

Consider the chapter on nonprofit organizations, which spans 42 pages and is buttressed by 462 endnotes. This part of the tax code is a complex mess rife with abuse. Coburn’s staff found that Lady Gaga’s charity raised $2.6 million and handed out just $5,000 one year in benefits, while spending the rest on salaries, promotions, and parties. The Kanye West Foundation spent $572,383 one year, but not a dime on charity.The Cancer Fund for America raised $80 million, but handed out just $890,000 to cancer patients.

While the GAO—an arm of Congress—investigates federal activities, its reports are usually dry and timid. The agency’s role is not to upset its political masters. Similarly, most members of Congress don’t want to upset their colleagues, and so they shy away from criticizing wasteful spending directed to any state, not just their own. It’s easier for them to follow the herd, play the game, grab benefits, and hopefully cruise to safe reelection. Many outside groups and reporters do a great job investigating the government, but senators are in a uniquely powerful and privileged position to lead the charge. 

That’s why Senator Coburn and his staff filled a void with their reports. They uncovered idiocy in the budget, and they informed the public with the juicy details. Many members of Congress say that the government spends too much, but they shy away from specifics. But now that Tom Coburn is going, which members are willing to step up to the plate?   

The Federal Spending Juggernaut

Over the weekend, the Senate approved the $1.1 trillion Cromnibus spending package, which funds parts of the government through September 2015.

The ink isn’t even dry on this spending bill, and already big spenders in Congress are gearing up to increase next year’s spending above agreed upon limits. The Wall Street Journal describes the situation:

After four years of a divided Congress, Republicans will take full control of both chambers in January with hopes of passing individual spending bills under an orderly process rarely seen in recent years. But complicating their task will be the return of the across-the-board spending cuts known as the “sequester” birthed out of the 2011 debt-ceiling deal, which set caps on spending for the next decade.

A two-year bipartisan budget deal brokered by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) eased those cuts for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. But the $1.1 trillion bill passed over the weekend, which will fund most of the government through September 2015, marks the final stretch of that agreement.

In fiscal 2016 the cuts return in full force. Lawmakers broadly agree the reductions inflict blunt pain on the federal budget. But Democrats and Republicans are at odds about how to mitigate them in a dispute likely to grow in intensity during the coming months.

Government Job Security

Federal employees are generally overpaid. Federal, civilian employees made $81,076 in 2013 in wages, on average, compared to $55,424 in the private sector. Their benefit packages are particularly out of line with the private sector. Total compensation including wages and benefits for federal, civilian employees was $115,524 in 2013, on average, compared to $66,357 in the private sector.

A new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that the advantages of government employment include more than just higher compensation.  Government jobs are more secure, and employees are more likely to keep their jobs during economic downturns.

The authors of the study, Jason L. Kopelman and Harvey S. Rosen, used data for 800,000 workers from 1984 to 2012 to study the differences in job loss rates between workers in the private and public sectors. They wanted to determine how the differentials changed during recessions. They asked: Are government jobs more secure during recessions?

The results are striking. According to the researchers, “public sector jobs, while not generally recession-proof, do offer more security than private sector jobs, and the advantage widens during recessions. These patterns are present across genders, races, and educational groups.”

The researchers found that private sector workers are 4.2 percent more likely to lose their jobs than federal employees during nonrecession periods. The gap grows during recessions; private workers are 6.5 percent more likely to lose their jobs than federal employees. During the Great Recession, the gap narrowed slightly. Private workers were only 5.3 percent more likely than federal employees to lose their jobs.

The results for state and local government employees are similar. Private sector workers are 4.6 percent more likely than local government employees and 4.7 percent than state government employees to lose their jobs during a recession.

The study does not discuss the causes of the high federal job security, but a number of reasons seem obvious: civil service protections, the strength of federal employee unions, manager unwillingness to fire poor performers, and the greater budget stability in the government than the private sector.

In sum, the new NBER study provides input to the discussion about federal versus private pay. Federal workers received generous compensation packages, but they enjoy other advantages as well, such as higher job security.

Details of the Cromnibus

Last night, House and Senate negotiators released the legislative text for the government’s newest spending bill, dubbed the “Cromnibus.” The bill authorizes the government to spend $1.01 trillion on discretionary programs between now and September 30, 2015. The total spending level honors last year’s Ryan-Murray budget deal, but also makes a number of important changes to federal law.

These changes include:

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The EPA’s funding was cut by $60 million over last fiscal year. The agency’s budget has been cut by 21 percent since fiscal year 2010.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS): Following President Obama’s executive action on immigration, Republican sought to limit funding for DHS. According to the deal, DHS is only funded through February. The incoming Congress will need to fund the agency for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS): The IRS’ budget is cut by $345.6 million.

ObamaCare: The bill does not cut funding to ObamaCare implementation, but it also does not include any new funding to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Internal Revenue Service, the two agencies with primary implementation responsibilities. The bill also limits ObamaCare’s risk corridor provision, which provided a bailout to insurance companies.

Marijuana: The District of Columbia voted overwhelmingly in November to legalize marijuana. The Cromnibus halts the legalization process.

Yucca Mountain: The bill continues funding for the proposed nuclear storage site. Earlier this year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmed Yucca Mountain’s safety.

Overseas Contingency Operations: The budget deal also provides $64 billion in funding for military operations, including $5 billion for the fight against ISIS. The $64 billion is in addition to the $1.01 trillion in discretionary spending.

Internet Tax Moratorium: The federal moratorium on state and local internet taxes continues for one year.

 

Debunking the Debunking of Dynamic Scoring and the Laffer Curve

Many statists are worried that Republicans may install new leadership at the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) and Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

This is a big issue because these two score-keeping bureaucracies on Capitol Hill tilt to the left and have a lot of power over fiscal policy.

The JCT produces revenue estimates for tax bills, yet all their numbers are based on the naive assumption that tax policy generally has no impact on overall economic performance. Meanwhile, CBO produces both estimates for spending bills and also fiscal commentary and analysis, much of it based on the Keynesian assumption that government spending boosts economic growth.

I personally have doubts whether congressional Republicans are smart enough to make wise personnel choices, but I hope I’m wrong.

Matt Yglesias of Vox also seems pessimistic, but for the opposite reason.

He has a column criticizing Republicans for wanting to push their policies by using “magic math” and he specifically seeks to debunk the notion - sometimes referred to as dynamic scoring or the Laffer Curve - that changes in tax policy may lead to changes in economic performance that affect economic performance.

He asks nine questions and then provides his version of the right answers. Let’s analyze those answers and see which of his points have merit and which ones fall flat.

But even before we get to his first question, I can’t resist pointing out that he calls dynamic scoring “an accounting gimmick from the 1970s” in his introduction. That is somewhat odd since the JCT and CBO were both completely controlled by Democrats at the time and there was zero effort to do anything other than static scoring.

I suppose Yglesias actually means that dynamic scoring first became an issue in the 1970s as Ronald Reagan (along with Jack Kemp and a few other lawmakers) began to argue that lower marginal tax rates would generate some revenue feedback because of improved incentives to work, save, and invest.

Now let’s look at his nine questions and see if we can debunk his debunking:

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