Tag: fiscal policy

Challenge for Keynesian Anti-Sequester Hysterics, Part II: Why Did America’s Economy Boom When Reagan and Clinton Cut Spending?

Triggered by an appearance on Canadian TV, I asked yesterday why we should believe anti-sequester Keynesians. They want us to think that a very modest reduction in the growth of government spending will hurt the economy, yet Canada enjoyed rapid growth in the mid-1990s during a period of substantial budget restraint. I make a similar point in this debate with Robert Reich, noting that  the burden of government spending was reduced as a share of economic output during the relatively prosperous Reagan years and Clinton years:

Being a magnanimous person, I even told Robert he should take credit for the Clinton years since he was labor secretary. Amazingly, he didn’t take me up on my offer.

Challenge for Keynesian Anti-Sequester Hysterics, Part I: Why Did Canada’s Economy Boom When the Burden of Spending Was Sharply Reduced?

In this appearance on Canadian TV, I  debunk anti-sequester hysteria, pointing out that “automatic budget cuts” merely restrain government so that it grows $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years rather than $2.5 trillion.

I also point out that we shouldn’t worry about government employees getting a slight haircut since federal bureaucrats are overcompensated. Moreover, I warn that some agencies may deliberately try to inconvenience people in an attempt to extort more tax revenue.

But I think the most important point in the interview was the discussion of what happened in Canada in the 1990s.

This example is important because the Obama White House is making the Keynesian argument that a smaller burden of government spending somehow will translate into less growth and fewer jobs.

Nobody should believe them, of course, since they used this same discredited theory to justify the so-called stimulus and all their predictions were wildly wrong.

But the failed 2009 stimulus showed the bad things that happen when government spending rises, and maybe the big spenders want us to think the relationship doesn’t hold when government gets put on a diet?

Well, here’s some data from the International Monetary Fund showing that the Canadian economy enjoyed very strong growth when policymakers imposed a near-freeze on government outlays between 1992 and 1997. 


For more information on this remarkable period of fiscal restraint, as well as evidence of what happened in other nations that curtailed government spending, here’s a video with lots of additional information.

By the way, we also have a more recent example of successful budget reductions. Estonia and the other Baltic nations ignored Keynesian snake-oil when the financial crisis hit and instead imposed genuine spending cuts.

The result? Growth has recovered and these nations are doing much better than the European countries that decided that big tax hikes and/or Keynesian spending binges were the right approach.

Paul Krugman, not surprisingly, got this wrong.

Defending Cato from Paul Krugman’s Inaccurate Assertions

Writing for the New York Times, Paul Krugman has a new column promoting more government spending and additional government regulation. That’s a dog-bites-man revelation and hardly noteworthy, of course, but in this case he takes a swipe at the Cato Institute.

The financial crisis of 2008 and its painful aftermath…were a huge slap in the face for free-market fundamentalists. …analysts at right-wing think tanks like…the Cato Institute…insisted that deregulated financial markets were doing just fine, and dismissed warnings about a housing bubble as liberal whining. Then the nonexistent bubble burst, and the financial system proved dangerously fragile; only huge government bailouts prevented a total collapse.

Upon reading this, my first reaction was a perverse form of admiration. After all, Krugman explicitly advocated for a housing bubble back in 2002, so it takes a lot of chutzpah to attack other people for the consequences of that bubble.

But let’s set that aside and examine the accusation that folks at Cato had a Pollyanna view of monetary and regulatory policy. In other words, did Cato think that “deregulated markets were doing just fine”?

Hardly. If Krugman had bothered to spend even five minutes perusing the Cato website, he would have found hundreds of items by scholars such as Steve Hanke, Gerald O’Driscoll, Bert Ely, and others about misguided government regulatory and monetary policy. He could have perused the remarks of speakers at Cato’s annual monetary conferences. He could have looked at issues of the Cato Journal. Or our biennial Handbooks on Policy.

The tiniest bit of due diligence would have revealed that Cato was not a fan of Federal Reserve policy and we did not think that financial markets were deregulated. Indeed, Cato scholars last decade were relentlessly critical of monetary policy, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Community Reinvestment Act, and other forms of government intervention.

Heck, I imagine that Krugman would have accused Cato of relentless and foolish pessimism had he reviewed our work  in 2006 or 2007.

I will confess that Cato people didn’t predict when the bubble would peak and when it would burst. If we had that type of knowledge, we’d all be billionaires. But since Krugman is still generating income by writing columns and doing appearances, I think it’s safe to assume that he didn’t have any special ability to time the market either.

Krugman also implies that Cato is guilty of historical revisionism.

…many on the right have chosen to rewrite history. Back then, they thought things were great, and their only complaint was that the government was getting in the way of even more mortgage lending; now they claim that government policies, somehow dictated by liberals even though the G.O.P. controlled both Congress and the White House, were promoting excessive borrowing and causing all the problems.

I’ve already pointed out that Cato was critical of government intervention before and during the bubble, so we obviously did not want government tilting the playing field in favor of home mortgages.

It’s also worth nothing that Cato has been dogmatically in favor of tax reform that would eliminate preferences for owner-occupied housing. That was our position 20 years ago. That was our position 10 years ago. And it’s our position today.

I also can’t help but comment on Krugman’s assertion that GOP control of government last decade somehow was inconsistent with statist government policy. One obvious example would be the 2004 Bush Administration regulations that dramatically boosted the affordable lending requirements for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which surely played a role in driving the orgy of subprime lending.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The burden of government spending almost doubled during the Bush years, the federal government accumulated more power, and the regulatory state expanded. No wonder economic freedom contracted under Bush after expanding under Clinton.

But I’m digressing. Let’s return to Krugman’s screed. He doesn’t single out Cato, but presumably he has us in mind when he criticizes those who reject Keynesian stimulus theory.

…right-wing economic analysts insisted that deficit spending would destroy jobs, because government borrowing would divert funds that would otherwise have gone into business investment, and also insisted that this borrowing would send interest rates soaring. The right thing, they claimed, was to balance the budget, even in a depressed economy.

Actually, I hope he’s not thinking about us. We argue for a smaller burden of government spending, not a balanced budget. And we haven’t made any assertions about higher interest rates. We instead point out that excessive government spending undermines growth by undermining incentives for productive behavior and misallocating labor and capital.

But we are critics of Keynesianism for reasons I explain in this video. And if you look at current economic performance, it’s certainly difficult to make the argument that Obama’s so-called stimulus was a success.

But Krugman will argue that the government should have squandered even more money. Heck, he even asserted that the 9-11 attacks were a form of stimulus and has argued that it would be pro-growth if we faced the threat of an alien invasion.

In closing, I will agree with Krugman that there’s too much “zombie” economics in Washington. But I’ll let readers decide who’s guilty of mindlessly staggering in the wrong direction.

Jack Lew’s Cayman Adventure

Every so often you get a “teaching moment” in Washington. We now have one excellent example, as President Obama’s nominee for treasury secretary has been caught with his hand in the “tax haven” cookie jar. Mr. Lew not only invested some of his own money in a Cayman-based fund, he also was in charge of a Citi Bank division that had over 100 Cayman-domiciled funds. This provides an opportunity to educate lawmakers about the “offshore” world.

As you can imagine, Republicans are having some fun with this issue. Mitt Romney was subjected to a lot of class warfare demagoguery during the 2012 campaign because he had invested some of his wealth in a Cayman fund. GOPers are now hoisting Lew on a petard and grilling him about the obvious hypocrisy of a “progressive” utilizing—both personally and professionally—a jurisdiction that commits the unforgivable crime of not imposing income tax.

In a sensible world, Lew would be able to say what everyone in the financial world already understands: the Cayman Islands are an excellent, fully legal, tax-neutral platform for investment funds because 1) there’s no added layer of tax, 2) there’s good rule of law, and, 3) foreigners can invest in the American economy without creating any nexus with the IRS. But we don’t live in a sensible world, so Lew instead wants us to believe he didn’t realize that the funds were domiciled in Cayman.

I guess all the other wealthy progressives with offshore-based investments were probably also unaware, right?

Anyhow, I’m taking a glass-half-full perspective on this kerfuffle since it gives me an opportunity to educate more people on why tax havens are a liberalizing and positive force in the global economy.

Exposing the Absurdity of Washington’s Anti-sequester Hysteria

To save America from the supposedly “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts caused by sequestration, President Obama has instead asked Congress to approve an alternative fiscal package containing additional tax increases.

So why is the sequester so bad? Does it slash the budget by 50 percent? Does it shut down departments, programs, and agencies?

Sounds good to me. We need to reduce the burden of government spending, so some genuine budget cuts would be very desirable.

The pro-spending lobbies in Washington certainly are acting as if spending would be “cut to the bone.” As documented by my colleague Tad DeHaven, they’re claiming horrible things will happen.

So what’s the real story? Well, the Congressional Budget Office today released its annual Budget and Economic Outlook, and Tables 1-1 and 1-5 allow us to see the “brutal” impact of the sequester.

As you can see from this chart, the sequester will “cut” spending so much that the budget will grow by “only” $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years.

Sequester 2013

Rather anticlimactic, I admit. No widows dying in snowbanks. No blood flowing in the streets.

So you can let the women and children back in the room. It turns out that all the hyperbole and hysteria about the sequester is based on the dishonest Washington definition of a budget cut—i.e., when spending doesn’t rise as fast as projected in some artificial baseline.

Yes, some parts of the budget are disproportionately impacted, such as defense. But even the defense budget climbs over the 10-year period and the United States will still account for close to 50 percent of global military outlays when the dust settles.

The bottom line is that there’s no reason to worry about the sequester and there’s certainly no reason to go along with Obama’s plan to replace the sequester with a tax-heavy budget deal.

The Great Hillsdale College Debate: Flat Tax or Fair Tax?

I’m at Hillsdale College in Michigan for a conference on taxation. The event is called “The Federal Income Tax: A Centenary Consideration,” though I would have called it something like “100 Years of Misery from the IRS.”

I’m glad to be here, both because Hillsdale proudly refuses to take government money (which would mean being ensnared by government rules) and also because I’ve heard superb speeches by scholars such as Amity Shlaes (author of The Forgotten Man, as well as a new book on Calvin Coolidge that is now on my must-read list) and George Gilder (author of Wealth and Poverty, as well as the forthcoming Knowledge and Power).

My modest contribution was to present “The Case for the Flat Tax,” and I was matched up - at least indirectly, since there were several hours between our presentations - against former Congressman John Linder, who gave “The Case for the Fair Tax.”

I was very ecumenical in my remarks.  I pointed out the flat tax and sales tax (and even, at least in theory, the value-added tax) all share very attractive features.

  • A single (and presumably low) tax rate, thus treating taxpayers equally and minimizing the penalty on productive behavior.
  • No double taxation of saving and investment since every economic theory agrees that capital formation is key to long-run growth.
  • Elimination of all loopholes (other than mechanisms to protect the poor from tax) to promote efficiency and reduce corruption.
  • Dramatically downsize and neuter the IRS by replacing 72,000 pages of complexity with simple post-card sized tax forms.

For all intents and purposes the flat tax and sales tax are different sides of the same coin. The only real difference is the collection point. The flat tax takes a bite of your income as it is earned and the sales tax takes a bite of your income as it is spent.

That being said, I do have a couple of qualms about the Fair Tax and other national sales tax plans.

First, I don’t trust politicians. I can envision the crowd in Washington adopting a national sales tax (or VAT) while promising to phase out the income tax over a couple of years. But I’m afraid they’ll discover some “temporary” emergency reason to keep the income tax, followed by another “short-term” excuse. And when the dust settles, we’ll be stuck with both an income tax and a sales tax.

As we know from the European VAT evidence, this is a recipe for even bigger government. That’s a big downside risk.

I explore my concerns in this video.

To be sure, there are downside risks to the flat tax. It’s quite possible, after all, that we could get a flat tax and then degenerate back to something resembling the current system (though that’s still better than being France!).

My second qualm is political. The Fair Tax seems to attract very passionate supporters, which is admirable, but candidates in competitive states and districts are very vulnerable to attacks when they embrace the national sales tax.

On dozens of occasions over the past 15-plus years, I’ve had to explain to reporters that why anti-sales tax demagoguery is wrong.

So I hope it’s clear that I’m not opposed to the concept. Heck, I’ve testified before Congress about the benefits of a national sales tax and I’ve debated on C-Span about how the national sales tax is far better than the current system.

I would be delighted to have a national sales tax, but what I really want is a low-rate, non-discriminatory system that isn’t biased against saving and investment.

Actually, what I want is a very small federal government, which presumably could be financed without any broad-based tax, but that’s an issue for another day.

Returning to the issue of tax reform, there’s no significant economic difference between the flat tax and the sales tax debate. What we’re really debating is how to replace the squalid internal revenue code with something worthy of a great nation.

And if there are two paths to the same destination and one involves crossing an alligator-infested swamp and the other requires a stroll through a meadow filled with kittens and butterflies, I know which one I’m going to choose. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but I think you get my point.