Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Bush IS a Big Spender

Investor’s Business Daily, responding to an article appearing in several McClatchy Company newspapers, argues that President Bush isn’t a big spender because outlays as a share of GDP are not that different today that they were during the Clinton years. But this analysis has two shortcomings:

First, it looks at average spending as a share of GDP over an administration’s total tenure. What matters more is that federal spending was down to just a bit more than 18 percent of GDP when President Clinton left office. It’s now more than 20 percent of GDP today.

More important, spending as a share of GDP involves both a numerator (government outlays) and a denominator (economic output). But consider what has happened to federal spending: by that measure, Bush unambiguously has been fiscally irresponsible.

This doesn’t mean that spending as a share of GDP is not an important measure. Indeed, IBD is correct to explain that it is the most appropriate measure of the overall burden of government relative to activity in the productive sector of the economy.

What does this say about the Bush years? Well, the good news is that the American economy has enjoyed strong growth since the supply-side 2003 tax rate reductions. The bad news is that a significant chunk of that new output has been diverted to government coffers.

The McClatchy piece says discretionary spending under Bush has risen an inflation-adjusted 5.3% in his first six years, outstripping the 4.6% under Johnson — and way above President Reagan’s meager 1.9%. By “almost any yardstick,” the article continues, Bush “generally exceeds the spending of his predecessors.” Any yardstick,” that is, except the most important of all — spending as a share of GDP. On this, Bush is actually lower than most of his predecessors. Spending as a share of GDP is the most important measure of the size of government, since it measures what government actually takes from the national economy.

More Laffer Curve Straw-Man Arguments

A column at the New Yorker’s website regurgitates the silly argument that the Laffer Curve is a myth unless every tax cut yields more revenue to the government:

The supply-side argument [is] that, in the United States, tax-rate cuts pay for themselves — that, after cutting taxes, the government actually ends up with more revenue.

As I’ve already explained (here and here), the Laffer Curve only implies more revenue in certain circumstances.

Unfortunately, a lot of Republican politicians don’t fully understand the issue, so they overstate the case and give fodder to those who want to prop up the existing revenue-estimating system (which is based on the even more absurd notion that changes in tax policy never have any impact on economic performance).

Ironically, the author admits later in the article that the Laffer Curve does exist:

[T]he absurd idea that tax cuts pay for themselves is based on an idea that is not at all absurd, which is that tax rates can have an impact on people’s behavior. Increase taxes too much, and people may work less (since they get to keep less of the income they earn) and invest less (since their gains will be taxed more heavily), and so the economy will grow more slowly. The opposite can happen if you cut taxes. (How much of an impact tax rates have — and how high taxes have to get before they have an impact — is a subject of much debate in economics, but it’s inarguable that they do matter.) What supply-siders have done is start with that reasonable idea and extrapolate it to unreasonable lengths.

Although Government Revenues Are at Record Levels, New York Times Complains About a “Dearth of Taxes”

In a remarkable editorial, the New York Times complains that revenues in America are too low. This is a stunning claim since a cursory look at budget numbers shows that revenues are at an all-time high in both nominal dollars and inflation-adjusted dollars. But the most remarkable part of the editorial is that the Times actually argues that low taxes mean that America is “ill prepared to compete”:

…the taxes collected last year by federal, state and local governments in the
United States amounted to 28.2 percent of gross domestic product. That rate was one of the lowest among wealthy countries - about five percentage points of GDP lower than Canada’s, and more than eight points lower than New Zealand’s. …the meager tax take leaves the United States ill prepared to compete. From universal health insurance to decent unemployment insurance, other rich nations provide their citizens benefits that the U.S. government simply cannot afford. …revenue will prove too low to face the challenges ahead.

The editorial conveniently forgets to explain, though, how America is less competitive because of supposedly inadequate taxation. Is it that our per capita GDP is lower than our higher-taxed neighbors in Europe? No, America’s per capita GDP is considerably higher. Is it that our disposable income is lower? It turns out that Americans enjoy a huge advantage in this measure. Is our economy not keeping pace? Interesting thought, but America’s been out-performing Europe for a long time. Could higher rates of unemployment be a sign of American weakness? Nice theory, but the data show better job numbers in the United States.

But give the New York Times some credit. It is not easy to argue that higher taxes are good for growth. So if you’re going to make a fool of yourself, you may as well cast evidence to the side and jump into the deep end of the pool.

Ann Coulter of the Left: Jonathan Chait

For those who think that it’s just conservatives, such as Ann Coulter, who are mean-spirited, they should check out the new book by Jonathan Chait, a senior editor of the New Republic, entitled The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics.

I managed to get through the introduction and first chapter of Mr. Chait’s book. Alas, I could read no more. Here are some of Chait’s characterizations of supply-side economists and supply-side economics–from the 1970s to the present day–in those first 44 pages:

“Pseudo-economists”, “cult of fanatical tax-cutters”, “amateurs and cranks”, “patently ludicrous ideas”, “preposterous ideas”, “theological opposition to taxation”, “ideological fanatics”, “insane”, “detachment from reality”, “extremism of their agenda”, “triumph of the extreme”, “a cult”, “quasi-religious”, “totalistic ideology”, “crank doctrine”, “sheer monomania”, “plain loopy”, “magical”, “sheer loons”, “deranged”, “wingnuttery”, “utterly deluded”, “crackpot economic theories”, “lunacy”, “ludicrous,” etc.

You get the idea.

Interestingly, Chait ends the first chapter arguing that “Tax rates under 40 percent simply do not have much effect on economic behavior.” Thus, he seems to be admitting that all those crackpots back in the 1970s and 1980s who cut income tax rates from 70% to the pre-Bush 40% might have been right after all.

Of course it’s not correct that tax rates of less than 40% don’t affect behavior. The Wall Street Journal has a front-page story today on the big efforts of Wal-Mart to reduce its effective state income tax rate of just 3.5%.

Finally, note that for Chait’s supply-side conspiracy theory to work, the cult would have had to include governments of every major industrial nation, because they have all cut top marginal rates since the 1970s. The top individual income tax rate across the 30 OECD countries has plunged by 26 percentage points since 1980. If that’s wingnuttery, then I’m all for it.

Will Poland Become the Next Flat Tax Country?

Germany’s statist politicians must be a bit uneasy about the recent election results next door. While they are probably happy that the populist-oriented incumbent government - which periodically got into disputes with Germany - was defeated, they will be very dismayed if the victorious Civic Platform Party follows through on promises to implement a 15 percent flat tax. As the biggest “new” member of the European Union, Poland would add considerable fuel to the tax-competition fire if it adopted a simple and pro-growth tax system. The Financial Times reports on the election and the market-oriented reforms advocated by the nation’s new leaders:

Foreign leaders and Poland’s business community on Monday welcomed the victory of the liberal Civic Platform party in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, predicting the revival of contacts iced up under the previous government and the restart of much-delayed economic reforms. …With more than 99 per cent of ballots counted, Civic Platform had 41.4 per cent of the vote, translating into 209 seats in the 460-member parliament. …Civic Platform is likely to form a coalition with the smaller Peasants party, which will have 31 seats. …Some of the most specific comments, concerning the party’s economic policies, were made by Zbigniew Chlebowski, a potential economy minister. He talked of introducing a flat 15 per cent tax by 2009 and said the government would privatise more energetically than its predecessor.

European Politicians Seeking to Export Big Government

The ideal trade policy is unilateral openness, which hopefully would be copied by other nations. But some argue that trade negotiations are a wise strategy, since one nation’s liberalization can be a carrot to obtain liberalization in other nations. Unfortunately, European politicians want to turn this strategy upside down by using liberalization as a stick to encourage other nations to adopt onerous European-style regulatory burdens. The EU Observer reports on this statist French-led gambit:

According to the European Commission, the EU should…”shape” globalisation. …Speaking at the EU summit Friday (19 October), French president Nicolas Sarkozy proved to be the strongest advocate of such a principle. “Let’s not be naive, we must demand a reciprocity”, he said, complaining about the severe environmental and social requirements placed upon EU businesses, but not followed by their non-European competitors.

America’s Future Foundation Panel on Health Care

Last month, I spoke on an AFF panel on health care reform. Click here to listen to the podcast.

It was a good exploration of the health care debate taking place within the free-market movement, and a good companion to my recent National Review Online article where I offer friendly advice to conservatives wrestling with health care reform.