Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

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.

historical-size-of-govt

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.

FEMA Disaster Declarations

I am writing a study on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and looking at the issue of presidential disaster declarations. Under the 1988 Stafford Act, a state governor may request that the president declare a “major disaster” in the state if “the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments.”

The main purpose of declarations is to impose on federal taxpayers the relief and rebuilding costs that would otherwise fall on state and local taxpayers and individuals in the affected area. Federalism is central to disaster planning and response in the United States, and federal aid is only supposed to be for the most severe events. Unfortunately, the relentless political forces that are centralizing power in just about every policy area are also doing so in disaster policy.

Below is a chart of FEMA data showing the number of “major disasters” declared by presidents since 1974, when the current process was put in place. The number of declared disasters has soared as presidents have sought political advantage in handing out more aid. Presidents have been ignoring the plain language of the Stafford Act, which allows for aid only in the most severe situations.

In the chart, I marked with red bars the years that presidents ran for reelection. In those years, presidents have generally declared the most major disasters. That was true of Ronald Reagan in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1992, and Bill Clinton in 1996. George W. Bush declared the most disasters of his first term in his reelection year of 2004. The two presidents who do not fit the pattern are Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

Minimum Wage Solidarity Misplaced

Senate Democrats are anxious to bring the Minimum Wage Fairness Act (S. 1737) up for a vote to express their solidarity with “progressives.”  That solidarity, however, is misplaced. The bill is not a panacea for the prosperity of low-skilled workers; it is anti-free market and immoral—based on coercion not consent.

The bill would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 after two years, index it for inflation, and increase the minimum for tipped workers.  Those changes would substantially increase the cost of hiring low-skilled workers, lead to job losses and unemployment (especially in the longer run as businesses shift to labor-saving methods of production), and slow job growth.

Although there is virtually no chance this bill would pass, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) wants it to come to the floor so he and his compatriots can express their support for low-income workers (and for unions and others who support the minimum wage increase) in an election year.  “Democrats are focused on the future,” says Reid, and “we were elected to improve people’s lives.”