Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Bernanke’s Fallacious Fiscal Facts

In a speech on Friday, outgoing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke defended his record of extraordinary policy interventions. One of his framing techniques is to claim that extreme monetary efforts were needed in the last few years—from his Keynesian perspective—to offset “contractionary” fiscal policy.

Here’s what Bernanke said about federal fiscal policy:

To this list of reasons for the slow recovery … I would add one more significant factor—namely, fiscal policy. Federal fiscal policy was expansionary in 2009 and 2010. Since that time, however, federal fiscal policy has turned quite restrictive.

Here I show that federal deficits in 2011, 2012, and 2013 were an enormous $1.3 trillion, $1.1 trillion, and $680 billion, respectively. In Keynesian terms, those deficits are the farthest thing from “quite restrictive” fiscal policy. To Keynesians, those deficits should have made the economy boom, yet the United States has had the slowest recovery since World War II.

Here’s what Bernanke said about state fiscal policy:

In addition, throughout much of the recovery, state and local government budgets have been highly contractionary, reflecting their adjustment to sharply declining tax revenues. To illustrate the extent of fiscal tightness, at the current point in the recovery from the 2001 recession, employment at all levels of government had increased by nearly 600,000 workers; in contrast, in the current recovery, government employment has declined by more than 700,000 jobs, a net difference of more than 1.3 million jobs. There have been corresponding cuts in government investment, in infrastructure for example, as well as increases in taxes and reductions in transfers.

Bernanke is trying to pull the wool over your eyes here. He calls state/local budgets “highly contractionary,” but notice how he does not give the actual budget numbers, and instead jumps to employment and infrastructure.

The following chart shows total state/local government spending from BEA Table 3.3. Spending in recent years has been “flat,” not “highly contractionary.” (For 2013, I used the average of the first three quarters). By the way, this BEA table also shows that state/local deficits have been up in recent years compared to before the recession, which is also not “contractionary.”

On employment, Bernanke resorts to the convoluted statistic of 1.3 million and provides no context. Total employment at all levels of government is available here from the BLS. In November, there were 21.9 million government workers in the United States. As Bernanke notes, that is down about 700,000 since the end of 2009. But that’s only a cut of three percent, which surely is not “highly contractionary.”

Besides, the government worker reduction is “contractionary” to Keynesians in the sense that wage payments are ended for 700,000 workers. But those aggregate wage payments are tiny in the $17 trillion U.S. economy. If those workers had earned, on average, say $60,000 a year, that amounts to only $42 billion less in government spending. And those wages are part of overall state/local spending, which the chart showed has been flat, not declining.

The bottom line is that efforts by Keynesian economists to blame the slow U.S. recovery on government fiscal contraction is not supported by the facts, even if such a theory made any sense.

Dean’s Dilemma: Capitalism or Welfare for Senator Heller?

Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada has co-sponsored a bill to revive the emergency unemployment insurance program. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is pleased as punch that Heller is breaking with the “tea party folks” on the issue.

What’s Heller justification for taking the big government side and jacking up welfare spending? He says: “Providing a safety net for those in need is one of the most important functions of the federal government. As Nevada’s unemployment rate continues to top the charts nationwide, many families and individuals back home do not know how they are going to meet their basic needs.”

Perhaps Heller should spend more time with the “tea party folks.” They would direct him to this document to see whether handouts are indeed “one of the most important functions of the federal government.” And they would explain to him the concept of federalism: If Nevadans want larger UI benefits, their own legislature could provide them without having to loot the national treasury.

Yet Heller styles himself as a staunch fiscal conservative—a tea partier—so he should know this. From Heller’s biography on his Senate website:

Since coming to Congress, Heller has fought for smaller government, the elimination of wasteful spending, and a balanced budget. He has been at the forefront of the fight for fiscal responsibility in Washington, voted against hundreds of billions in tax increases, and fought the expansion of government and out-of-control spending. Heller is also the only member of the Nevada delegation to vote against the Wall Street bailout. In addition, Heller has fought for fiscal policies that promote economic recovery and believes controlling government spending will create an environment where businesses can flourish and foster long-term economic growth.

Not only that, but Heller thinks that “big government is not the answer to fixing our economy. Congress needs to control wasteful spending and shrink the size of government… Capitalism is the foundation of America’s prosperity. We should embrace these principles, not run from them.”

Furthermore, Heller argues that “this government has been on a massive spending spree for too long, and it is time for this reckless behavior to end. As an opponent of the stimulus and the only member of the Nevada delegation to vote against the bailout, I believe it is critical to rein in spending, address the yearly deficits, and get government debt under control.”

Those are all laudable goals. I couldn’t have said it better myself. But it is just empty rhetoric if one also goes around supporting borrow-and-spend welfare legislation.

Boost Worker Pay - and Make the United States More Competitive - by Gutting the Corporate Income Tax

The business pages are reporting that Chrysler will be fully owned by Fiat after that Italian company buys up remaining shares.

I don’t know what this means about the long-term viability of Chrysler, but we can say with great confidence that the company will be better off now that the parent company is headquartered outside the United States.

This is because Chrysler presumably no longer will be obliged to pay an extra layer of tax to the IRS on any foreign-source income.

Italy, unlike the United States, has a territorial tax system. This means companies are taxed only on income earned in Italy but there’s no effort to impose tax on income earned - and already subject to tax - in other nations.

Under America’s worldwide tax regime, by contrast, U.S.-domiciled companies must pay all applicable foreign taxes when earning money outside the United States - and then also put that income on their tax returns to the IRS!

And since the United States imposes the highest corporate income tax in the developed world and also ranks a dismal 94 out of 100 on a broader measure of corporate tax competitiveness, this obviously is not good for jobs and growth.

No wonder many American companies are re-domiciling in other countries!

Maybe the time has come to scrap the entire corporate income tax. That’s certainly a logical policy to follow based on a new study entitled, “Simulating the Elimination of the U.S. Corporate Income Tax.”

Written by Hans Fehr, Sabine Jokisch, Ashwin Kambhampati, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, the paper looks at whether it makes sense to have a burdensome tax that doesn’t even generate much revenue.

The U.S. Corporate Income Tax…produces remarkably little revenue - only 1.8 percent of GDP in 2013, but entails major compliance and collection costs. The IRS regulations detailing corporate tax provisions are tome length and occupy small armies of accountants and lawyers. …many economists…have suggested that the tax may actually fall on workers, not capitalists.

It’s a Very Merry Christmas for Washington Insiders

Last year, while writing about the corrupt and self-serving behavior at the IRS, I came up with a theorem that explains day-to-day behavior in Washington.

Simply stated, government is a racket that benefits the D.C. political elite by taking money from average people in America

I realize this is an unhappy topic to be discussing during the Christmas season, but the American people need to realize that they are being pillaged by the insiders that control Washington and live fat and easy lives at our expense.

If you don’t believe me, check out this map showing that 10 of the 15 richest counties in America are the ones surrounding our nation’s imperial capital.

Who would have guessed that the wages of sin are so high?

D.C., itself, isn’t on the list. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people living large inside the District.

Carbon Taxes vs. Carbon Subsidies

To address global warming, many economists advocate raising carbon taxes while lowering income taxes or other distorting taxes. This makes sense in principle—if global warming concerns are valid—but in practice the approach can easily generate more cost than benefit.

For those who believe global warming merits a policy response, therefore, the question is whether any policy change can generate greater benefit than cost.

The answer is yes: removal of existing carbon subsidies. As documented by economist Lucas Davis (Berkeley), many countries keep gasoline and diesel prices far below market levels, thus encouraging over-consumption. These subsidies harm economic efficiency, independent of global warming.

Other policies have the same features as carbon subsidies: they reduce economic efficiency and encourage over-consumption of energy. One example is the deductibility of mortgage interest, which means bigger houses and therefore higher heating and cooling bills. A second example is agriculture subsidies, which encourage production in inefficient locales that require energy-intensive techniques like irrigation.

Repeal of all such policies is thus a no-brainer. When policy is shooting the economy in the foot, the best response is less shooting, not new taxes to fund a bullet-proof shoe.

Bernanke’s View of Fiscal Policy

Federal Reserve chairmen are famous for their opaque but sophisticated-sounding comments designed to make it appear that they know more about the shape of the economy than they really do. But outgoing chairman Ben Bernanke’s direct and transparent assertions yesterday about fiscal policy also left me scratching my head.

In response to a reporter’s question about why the economy has not created more jobs:

Bernanke saw several of the usual reasons: the nature of the financial crisis, the housing bust and trouble in Europe. But he added one more. ‘On the whole, except for in 2009, we’ve had very tight fiscal policy,’ he said. ‘People don’t appreciate how tight fiscal policy has been.’

In the usual (and weird) Keynesian view of the economy, government deficits are stimulative while surpluses are “tight” or destimulative. The following chart (based on CBO) shows that in the four years after 2009, we had $4.4 trillion of federal deficit spending, or supposed Keynesian stimulus. Calling that “very tight fiscal policy” is absurd.

Edwards Chart

Low Job Satisfaction in the Federal Bureaucracy

Other than providing generous pay and fat pensions, many federal agencies are not great places to work, according to federal employees themselves on a new survey.

A Washington Post story summarized the OPM results:

 “The average government worker comes in 13 points below the average private-sector employee in terms of job satisfaction, according to the ‘Best Places to Work in the Federal Government’ report.

‘This is an ongoing train crash,’ said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service.

Hay Group, which collaborated on the data, found that job satisfaction in the private sector was not only higher than in the public sector, it even climbed since last year — from 70.0 to 70.7 points out of 100 — all while the government numbers fell.

Of the 10 questions that both public and private employees answered, government scored higher on only question: Do you like the kind of work you do?

On every other question, including how well colleagues cooperate and how well management keeps employees informed, private-sector workers gave their organizations higher marks.”

During the Bush years, government failures were explained away by liberal pundits as being the result of a Republican administration that (supposedly) did not believe in government. But the government-loving Obama administration has now been in office five years and federal employees are more dissatisfied than they have been in at least a decade.

Many liberal experts—such as these folks—will admit that the government bungles a lot of its activities. They usually call for reforms like more coordination, reduced overlap, and better leadership to solve the government’s mismanagement problems.

However, the government will never operate as effectively as private enterprise for many reasons. One is that government workplaces will always be buried under piles of rules and regulations that frustrate workers and stifle initiative. Another is that the government has rigid pay structures that don’t differentiate between the slackers and the hard workers. Ludwig von Mises discussed some of the fundamental differences between private enterprises and government bureaus in his book Bureaucracy seven decades ago. Little has changed since then, despite repeated efforts to “reinvent government.”

One reason why our federal government is a particularly poor performer is that it has become so large, complex, and immune to oversight. If Americans want Washington to work better, they should insist that it be downsized as much as possible. Some agencies should be abolished, such as the lowest scoring agency on the new survey, the Economic Development Administration, which is an unneeded pork barrel machine. Other agencies should be privatized, such as the low-scoring Transportation Security Administration.

Less would be more when it comes to government and its performance.