Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

No Honor Among Cronies: Maryland’s House of Cards Sequel

The state of Maryland has doled out more than $26 million in tax-credit subsidies to the hit Netflix series House of Cards, which films in the state. Last month in this space, my colleague David Boaz compared the arrangement itself to a House of Cards plot line: “It’s hard to imagine a better example of rent-seeking, crony capitalism, and conspiracy between the rich, the famous, and the powerful against the unorganized taxpayers.”

Shortly after he wrote, the plot began taking further twists reminiscent of fiction. In response to demands from the show’s producers for even steeper subsidies as the price of staying to film more seasons, some lawmakers decided to remind the Hollywood crowd who held the guns in the relationship:

Responding to a threat that the “House of Cards” television series may leave Maryland if it doesn’t get more tax credits, the House of Delegates adopted budget language … requiring the state to seize the production company’s property if it stops filming in the state. …

Del. William Frick, a Montgomery County Democrat, proposed the provision, which orders the state to use the right of eminent domain to buy or condemn the property of any company that has claimed $10 million or more credits against the state income tax. The provision would appear to apply only to the Netflix series, which has gotten the bulk of the state credits.

This smash-‘n’-grab approach to the use of eminent domain power is something of a local specialty in the Old Line State. In 1984, a bill was introduced in the Maryland legislature authorizing an eminent domain takeover of the Baltimore Colts, which had been eyeing the exits. In reaction, the owner packed the team into vans at night and moved to Indianapolis. In 2009, Gov. Martin O’Malley threatened eminent domain to keep the famed Preakness Stakes horse race, including its trademarks, copyrights, and contracts, from leaving Baltimore. (It stayed.)

Close the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program

The Government Accountability Office’s annual duplication report is out. This year, the report highlights 30 ways that the federal government can save money. One way is to terminate the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) program, which provides government-subsidized loans to companies that make fuel-efficient cars. The program has been a failure, and it has cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Established by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, ATVM was authorized to provide a total of $25 billion in loans for projects that “support the production of fuel-efficient, advanced technology vehicles and components in the United States.” Companies that participated in the program could borrow funds directly from the government with very little out-of-pocket expenses—participants only had to pay some upfront borrowing costs. But Congress made the program even more lucrative in 2009 by provided $7.5 billion to help offset those borrowing costs.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has issued five ATVM loans totaling $8.4 billion so far—with an additional $3.3 billion in borrowing costs. In its promotional material for the program, DOE highlights three of the recipients: Ford Motor Company, Nissan North America, and Tesla Motors.

However, these DOE materials don’t mention loans to two other companies, Fisker Automotive and Vehicle Production Group (VPG). I think I know why: taxpayers lost almost $200 million on those two loans.

Fisker Automotive borrowed $529 million from the federal government to produce its luxury car, Karma. The loan was touted by the administration, including by Vice President Biden. Biden said “the story of Fisker is a story of ingenuity of an American company, a commitment to innovation by the U.S. government and the perseverance of the American auto industry.”

The car was a flop from the beginning. It was recalled, and it received poor performance ratings. Fisker lost an estimated $35,000 on each vehicle sold. A year after issuing the loan, DOE halted Fisker’s borrowing authority after the company had already borrowed $192 million. Fisker filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter. Only $50 million of the $192 million has been recovered for taxpayers.

Vehicle Production Group had financial and production problems as well. In addition, its loan was questioned due to the political connection between its adviser and the White House. The adviser was a fundraiser for the White House and “headed Obama’s vice presidential selection committee in 2008.” The company quietly folded costing taxpayers the full $50 million loan.

The taxpayer losses from Fisker and VPG were in addition to the losses from other federal energy loans to companies such as Solyndra and Abound Solar. After all the bad press from these failed energy subsidies, demand for the loans dried up. According to a March 2013 report from GAO, DOE was no longer considering applications for the remaining $16.6 billion in loan authority and $4.2 billion in borrowing cost subsidies. Auto companies told GAO that the “costs of participating outweigh the benefits.”

However, Congress still has not rescinded ATVM’s loan authority. DOE could start reissuing loans under the failed program at any point, and it is re-launching its promotional efforts. Closing the program would not only save taxpayers money, it would reduce government interventions in the energy and automobile markets. For reformers in Congress, this change should be a no-brainer.

Government Keeps Growing

Political scientist Matt Grossmann discussed the results of his research on federal government growth in the Washington Post last week.

I combed through hundreds of history books covering American public policy since 1945, tracking the most significant domestic policy changes that made it into law and the actors that historians credit for those changes. Of the 509 most significant domestic policies passed by Congress, only one in five were conservative, in that they contracted the scope of government funding, regulation or responsibility. More than 60 percent were liberal: They clearly expanded government. The others offered a mix of liberal or conservative components or took no clear ideological direction.

Grossman mentioned one of the structural reasons why this has happened:

Liberal policies are self-reinforcing because they create beneficiaries who act as constituencies for their continuation and expansion. Policy debates center on what additional actions government should take, not whether to discontinue existing roles.

Grossman is essentially saying that not only has the size of the federal government expanded, but so has the scope. The problem is not just that programs such as Medicare keep growing, but also that Congress keeps adding new programs.

The following chart shows an official count of the number of federal benefit, subsidy, and aid programs—Medicare, farm subsidies, food stamps, and more than 2,000 others. The source is the CFDA website for recent years and hard copy CFDA catalogs for the older years.

Why Did Western Nations Continue to Prosper in the 20th Century even though Fiscal Burdens Increased?

In the pre-World War I era, the fiscal burden of government was very modest in North America and Western Europe. Total government spending consumed only about 10 percent of economic output, most nations were free from the plague of the income tax, and the value-added tax hadn’t even been invented.

Today, by contrast, every major nation has an onerous income tax and the VAT is ubiquitous. Those punitive tax systems exist largely because—on average—the burden of government spending now consumes more than 40 percent of GDP.


To be blunt, fiscal policy has moved dramatically in the wrong direction over the past 100-plus years. And thanks to demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs, things are going to get much worse, according to Bank of International Settlements, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and International Monetary Fund projections.

While those numbers, both past and future, are a bit depressing, they also present a challenge to advocates of small government. If taxes and spending are bad for growth, why did the United States (and other nations in the Western world) enjoy considerable prosperity all through the 20th century? I sometimes get asked that question after speeches or panel discussions on fiscal policy. In some cases, the person making the inquiry is genuinely curious. In other cases, it’s a leftist asking a “gotcha” question.

Long-Run GDP

I’ve generally had two responses.

Jeb Bush’s Fiscal Record

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is considering running for president. One good thing about presidential contenders who have been governors is that they have a measurable track record.

Part of that record is captured by Cato’s biennial “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors.” This report issues grades of “A” to “F” to governors based on their taxing and spending policies. Here at Cato we believe in small government, so we award grades of “A” to the governors who cut taxes and spending the most.

Steve Moore and other Cato authors graded Bush four times during his eight years in office. In 2000 Bush received a “B.” In 2002 he scored an “A.” In 2004 he was down to a “B” again. In 2006 he fell to a “C.”

The basic story from the Cato reports is that Jeb Bush was a prolific tax cutter, but he let spending rise quickly toward the end of his tenure. Like George W. Bush, Jeb was good on taxes, but apparently not so good on spending.

Jeb Bush was in office from 1999 to 2007. Florida general fund spending increased from $18.0 billion to $28.2 billion during those eight years, or 57 percent. Total state spending increased from $45.6 billion to $66.1 billion, or 45 percent. (This is NASBO data from here and here). Over those eight years, Florida’s population grew 16 percent and the CPI, which measures inflation, grew 24 percent.

The chart on page 5 of this state budget document shows that total spending was restrained in Bush’s first term, but then rose quite rapidly in his second term. Similarly, the table on page 14 here shows the second-term budget expansion under Bush.

This Fall, look for Cato’s 2014 Report Card, which will include grades for Christie, Pence, Jindal, Perry, Walker, and other possible presidential candidates.

50 Years of Federal Spending

Fifty years ago, one of the biggest-spending presidents in U.S. history was settling into office after coming to power the prior November. Lyndon Johnson signed into law Medicare, Medicaid, and hundreds of subsidy programs for the states and cities.

Johnson was followed in office by one of the worst presidents of the 20th century in terms of domestic policy. Richard Nixon added and expanded many programs, and he helped to cement in place the array of new federal interventions pioneered by Johnson.

The chart below shows federal spending over the five decades since Johnson. Spending is divided into four components and measured as a share of gross domestic product (GDP).

Blue Line: Entitlement spending soared from the mid-1960s to the early-1980s. Medicare and Medicaid grew rapidly after being created in 1965, and Nixon signed into law numerous large increases in Social Security for current recipients. A month before the 1972 election, Social Security recipients received a letter informing them that Nixon had just signed a law bumping up their benefits by 20 percent. The recent spike in spending stems from increases in Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and other programs.

Black Line: Defense spending spiked in the late 1960s due to the Vietnam War. The number of U.S. troops in Vietnam peaked in 1968, then fell steadily after that. The Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush defense build-ups are also visible on the chart.

Red Line: Defense spending fell as a share of GDP in the 1970s, while nondefense discretionary spending rose. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, nondefense spending was restrained under Reagan and Bill Clinton, but then rose under George W. Bush in the 2000s.

Green Line: Bush and Barack Obama have been lucky budgeters because federal interest costs have been low during the past decade, despite the large deficits run by these two presidents. The luck won’t last: under its baseline, CBO projects that interest costs will rise from 1.3 percent of GDP today, to 2.7 percent by 2020, and to 4.1 percent by 2030.

Update: All data from the 2015 Federal Budget, Historical Tables, Table 8.4.

The Golden Rule of Spending Restraint

My tireless (and probably annoying) campaign to promote my Golden Rule of spending restraint is bearing fruit.

The good folks at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal allowed me to explain the fiscal and economic benefits that accrue when nations limit the growth of government.

Here are some excerpts from my column, starting with a proper definition of the problem.

What matters, as Milton Friedman taught us, is the size of government. That’s the measure of how much national income is being redistributed and reallocated by Washington. Spending often is wasteful and counterproductive whether it’s financed by taxes or borrowing.

So how do we deal with this problem?

I’m sure you’ll be totally shocked to discover that I think the answer is spending restraint.

More specifically, governments should be bound by my Golden Rule.

Ensure that government spending, over time, grows more slowly than the private economy. …Even if the federal budget grew 2% each year, about the rate of projected inflation, that would reduce the relative size of government and enable better economic performance by allowing more resources to be allocated by markets rather than government officials.

I list several reasons why Mitchell’s Golden Rule is the only sensible approach to fiscal policy.

A golden rule has several advantages over fiscal proposals based on balanced budgets, deficits or debt control. First, it correctly focuses on the underlying problem of excessive government rather than the symptom of red ink. Second, lawmakers have the power to control the growth of government spending. Deficit targets and balanced-budget requirements put lawmakers at the mercy of economic fluctuations that can cause large and unpredictable swings in tax revenue. Third, spending can still grow by 2% even during a downturn, making the proposal more politically sustainable.

The last point, by the way, is important because it may appeal to reasonable Keynesians. And, in any event, it means the Rule is more politically sustainable.

I then provide lots of examples of nations that enjoyed great success by restraining spending. But rather than regurgitate several paragraphs from the column, here’s a table I prepared that wasn’t included in the column because of space constraints.

It shows the countries that restrained spending and the years that they followed the Golden Rule. Then I include three columns of data. First, I show how fast spending grew during the period, followed by numbers showing what happened to the overall burden of government spending and the change to annual government borrowing.

Golden Rule Examples

Last but not least, I deal with the one weakness of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. How do you convince politicians to maintain fiscal discipline over time?

I suggest that Switzerland’s “debt brake” may be a good model.

Can any government maintain the spending restraint required by a fiscal golden rule? Perhaps the best model is Switzerland, where spending has climbed by less than 2% per year ever since a voter-imposed spending cap went into effect early last decade. And because economic output has increased at a faster pace, the Swiss have satisfied the golden rule and enjoyed reductions in the burden of government and consistent budget surpluses.

In other words, don’t bother with balanced budget requirements that might backfire by giving politicians an excuse to raise taxes.

If the problem is properly defined as being too much government, then the only logical answer is to shrink the burden of government spending.

Last but not least, I point out that Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas has legislation, the MAP Act, that is somewhat similar to the Swiss Debt Brake.

We know what works and we know how to get there. The real challenge is convincing politicians to bind their own hands.