Tag: government spending

Dishonest British Budgeting…Just Like We Do It in America

According to news coverage, United Kingdom Prime Minister Cameron is imposing deep and savage budget cuts. I was interviewed by the BBC recently, for instance, and asked whether 25 percent spending reductions were too harsh. And here’s an excerpt from a New York Times story that is very representative of the news coverage.

Like a shipwrecked sailor on a starvation diet, the new British coalition government is preparing to shrink down to its bare bones as it cuts expenditures by $130 billion over the next five years and drastically scales back its responsibilities. The result, said the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a research group, will be “the longest, deepest sustained period of cuts to public services spending” since World War II. …Public-sector unions are planning a series of strikes. Charities — which Mr. Cameron has said should take over some of the responsibilities now held by the state — say that they are at risk of collapse because they are so dependent on government money. And the chief executive of the Supreme Court, the country’s highest, said she did not know whether the court would be able to function at all if its budget were cut by 40 percent.

To be blunt, this type of analysis is completely false. There are no budget cuts in the United Kingdom, at least in terms of total government spending. Instead, the politicians are measuring cuts against some imaginary baseline, which is the same scam that happens in Washington. So if spending increases by 4 percent instead of 7 percent, that is characterized as a 3 percent budget reduction. The chart shows what is happening with overall government spending in the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding phony stories about budget cuts, spending in Prime Minister Cameron’s first year is climbing by more than 4 percent – twice as fast as needed to keep pace with inflation.

This doesn’t mean that Cameron isn’t doing anything right. There is a two-year pay freeze for bureaucrats, for instance, which is at least a small step in the right direction. But the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition is not a good role model for those who want limited government and fiscal responsibility. There are promises of spending restraint in future years, but those belong in the I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it category. Spending is supposed to increase by less than 1 percent in next year’s budget, for instance, but politicians are very good with tough talk of fiscal discipline in future years. But if we judge them by what they’re doing today rather than what they’re claiming will happen in the future, Cameron’s policies leave much to be desired.

The tax side of the fiscal equation is even more depressing. There is small reduction in the corporate tax rate, but otherwise there is considerable bad news. The new government is leaving in place the new 50 percent top tax rate imposed by Gordon Brown as an election-year class-warfare gimmick. It is boosting the capital gains tax rate from 18 percent to 28 percent. And it increased the VAT rate from 17.5 percent to 20 percent.

New York Times Seeks Higher Taxes on the ‘Rich’ as Prelude to Higher Taxes on the Middle Class

In a very predictable editorial this morning, the New York Times pontificated in favor of higher taxes. Compared to Paul Krugman’s rant earlier in the week, which featured the laughable assertion that letting people keep more of the money they earn is akin to sending them a check from the government, the piece seemed rational. But that is damning with faint praise. There are several points in the editorial that deserve some unfriendly commentary.

First, let’s give the editors credit for being somewhat honest about their bad intentions. Unlike other statists, they openly admit that they want higher taxes on the middle class, stating that “more Americans — and not just the rich — are going to have to pay more taxes.” This is a noteworthy admission, though it doesn’t reveal the real strategy on the left.

Most advocates of big government understand that it will be impossible to turn America into a European-style welfare state without a value-added tax, but they don’t want to publicly associate themselves with that view until the political environment is more conducive to success. Most important, they realize that it will be very difficult to impose a VAT without seducing some gullible Republicans into giving them political cover. And one way of getting GOPers to sign up for a VAT is by convincing them that they have to choose a VAT if they don’t want a return to the confiscatory 70 percent tax rates of the 1960s and 1970s. Any moves in that direction, such as raising the top tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent next January, are part of this long-term strategy to pressure Republicans (as well as naive members of the business community) into a VAT trap.

Shifting to other assertions, the editorial claims that “more revenue will be needed in years to come to keep rebuilding the economy.”  That’s obviously a novel assertion, and the editors never bother to explain how and why more tax revenue will lead to a stronger economy. Are the folks at the New York Times not aware that both economic growth and living standards are lower in European nations that have imposed higher tax burdens? Heck, even the Keynesians agree (albeit for flawed reasons) that higher taxes stunt growth.

The editorial also asserts that, “Since 2002, the federal budget has been chronically short of revenue.” I suppose if revenues are compared to the spending desires of politicians, then tax collections are - and always will be - inadequate. The same is true in Greece, France, and Sweden. It doesn’t matter whether revenues are 20 percent of GDP or 50 percent of GDP. The political class always wants more.

But let’s actually use an objective measure to determine whether revenues are “chronically short.” The Democrat-controlled Congressional Budget Office stated in its newly-released update to the Economic and Budget Outlook that federal tax revenues historically have averaged 18 percent of GDP. They are below that level now because of the economic downturn, but CBO projects that revenues will climb above that level in a few years - even if all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent. Moreover, OMB’s historical data shows that revenues were actually above the long-run average in 2006 and 2007, so even the “since 2002” part of the assertion in the editorial is incorrect.

On the issue of temporary tax relief for the non-rich, the editorial is right but for the wrong reason. The editors rely on the Keynesian rationale, writing that, “low-, middle- and upper-middle-income taxpayers…tend to spend most of their income and the economy needs consumer spending” whereas “Tax cuts for the rich can safely be allowed to expire because wealthy taxpayers tend to save rather than spend their tax savings.”

I’ve debunked Keynesian analysis so often that I feel that I deserve some sort of lifetime exemption from dealing with this nonsense, but I’ll give it another try. Borrowing money from some people in the economy and giving it to some other people in the economy is not a recipe for better economic performance. Economic growth means we are increasing national income. Keynesian policy simply changes who is spending national income, guided by a myopic belief that consumer spending somehow is better than investment spending. The Keynesian approach didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, it didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s, and it hasn’t worked for Obama.

And it doesn’t matter if the Keynesian stimulus is in the form of tax rebates. Gerald Ford’s rebate in the 1970s was a flop, and George W. Bush’s 2001 rebate also failed to boost growth. Tax cuts can lead to more national income, but only if marginal tax rates on productive behavior are reduced so that people have more incentive to work, save, and invest. This is an argument for extending the lower tax rates for all income classes, but it’s important to point out that the economic benefits will be much greater if the lower tax rates are made permanent.

Last but not least, the editorial asserts that, “The revenue from letting [tax cuts for the rich] expire — nearly $40 billion next year — would be better spent on job-creating measures.” Not surprisingly, there is no effort to justify this claim. They could have cited the infamous White House study claiming that the so-called stimulus would keep unemployment under 8 percent, but even people at the New York Times presumably understand that might not be very convincing since the actual unemployment rate is two percentage points higher than what the Obama Administration claimed it would be at this point.

Congressional Budget Office Says We Can Maximize Long-Run Economic Output with 100 Percent Tax Rates

I hope the title of this post is an exaggeration, but it’s certainly a logical conclusion based on what is written in the Congressional Budget Office’s updated Economic and Budget Outlook. The Capitol Hill bureaucracy basically has a deficit-über-alles view of fiscal policy. CBO’s long-run perspective, as shown by this excerpt, is that deficits reduce output by “crowding out” private capital and that anything that results in lower deficits (or larger surpluses) will improve economic performance – even if this means big increases in tax rates.

CBO has also examined an alternative fiscal scenario reflecting several changes to current law that are widely expected to occur or that would modify some provisions of law that might be difficult to sustain for a long period. That alternative scenario embodies small differences in outlays relative to those projected under current law but significant differences in revenues: Under that scenario, most of the cuts in individual income taxes enacted in 2001 and 2003 and now scheduled to expire at the end of this year (except the lower rates applying to high-income taxpayers) are extended through 2020; relief from the AMT, which expired after 2009, continues through 2020; and the 2009 estate tax rates and exemption amounts (adjusted for inflation) apply through 2020. …Under those alternative assumptions, real GDP would be…lower in subsequent years than under CBO’s baseline forecast. …Under that alternative fiscal scenario, real GDP would fall below the level in CBO’s baseline projections later in the coming decade because the larger budget deficits would reduce or “crowd out” investment in productive capital and result in a smaller capital stock.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with CBO’s concern about deficits, but looking at fiscal policy through that prism is akin to deciding who wins a baseball game by looking at what happened during the 6th inning. Yes, government borrowing drains capital from the productive sector of the economy. And nations such as Greece are painful examples of what happens when governments go too far down this path. But taxes also undermine economic performance by reducing incentives to work, save, and invest. And nations such as France are gloomy reminders of what happens when punitive tax rates discourage productive behavior.

What’s missing for CBO’s analysis is any recognition or understanding that the real problem is excessive government spending. Regardless of whether spending is financed by borrowing or taxes, resources are being diverted from the private sector to government. In other words, government spending is the disease and deficits are basically a symptom of that underlying problem. Indeed, it’s worth noting that there’s not much evidence that deficits cause economic damage but plenty of evidence that bloated public sectors stunt growth. This video is a good antidote to CBO’s myopic focus on budget deficits.

When Keynesians Attack

If I was organized enough to send Christmas cards, I would take Richard Rahn off my list. I do one blog post to call attention to his Washington Times column and it seems like everybody in the world wants to jump down my throat. I already dismissed Paul Krugman’s rant and responded to Ezra Klein’s reasonable criticism. Now it’s time to address Derek Thompson’s critique on the Atlantic’s site.

At the risk of re-stating someone else’s argument, Thompson’s central theme seems to be that there are many factors that determine economic performance and that it is unwise to make bold pronouncements about Policy A causing Result B. If that’s what Thompson is saying, I very much agree (and if it’s not what he’s trying to say, then I apologize, though I still agree with the sentiment). That’s why I referred to Reagan decreasing the burden of government and Obama increasing the burden of government — I wanted to capture all the policy changes that were taking place, including taxation, spending, monetary policy, regulation, etc. Yes, the flagship policies (tax reduction for Reagan and so-called stimulus for Obama) were important, but other factors obviously are part of the equation.

The biggest caveat, however, is that one should always be reluctant to make sweeping claims about what caused the economy to do X or Y in a given year. Economists are terrible forecasters, and we’re not even very proficient when it comes to hindsight analysis about short-run economic fluctuations. Indeed, the one part of my original post that causes me a bit of regret is that I took the lazy route and inserted an image of the chart from Richard’s column. Excerpting some of his analysis would have been a better approach, particularly since I much prefer to focus on the impact of policies on long-run growth and competitiveness (which is what I did in my New York Post column from earlier this week  and also why I’m reluctant to embrace Art Laffer’s warning of major economic problems in 2011).

But a blog post is no fun if you just indicate where you and a critic have common ground, so let me identify four disagreements that I have with Thompson’s post:

(1) To reinforce his warning about making excessive claims about different recessions/recoveries, Thompson pointed out that someone could claim that Reagan’s recovery was associated with the 1982 TEFRA tax hike. I’ve actually run across people who think this is a legitimate argument, so it’s worth taking a moment to explain why it isn’t true.

When analyzing the impact of tax policy changes, it’s important to look at when tax changes were implemented, not when they were enacted (data on annual tax rates available here). Reagan’s Economic Recovery Tax Act was enacted in 1981, but the lower tax rates weren’t fully implemented until 1984. This makes it a bit of a challenge to pinpoint when the economy actually received a net tax cut. The tax burden may have actually increased in 1981, since the parts of the Reagan tax cuts that took effect that year were offset by the impact of bracket creep (the tax code was not indexed to protect against inflation until the mid-1980s). There was a bigger tax rate reduction in 1982, but there was still bracket creep, as well as previously-legislated payroll tax increases (enacted during the Carter years). TEFRA also was enacted in 1982, which largely focused on undoing some of the business tax relief in Reagan’s 1981 plan. People have argued whether the repeal of promised tax relief is the same as a tax increase, but that’s not terribly important for this analysis. What does matter is that the tax burden did not fall much (if at all) in Reagan’s first year and might not have changed too much in 1982.

In 1983, by contrast, it’s fairly safe to say the next stage of tax rate reductions was substantially larger than any concomitant tax increases. That doesn’t mean, of course, that one should attribute all changes in growth to what’s happening to the tax code. But it does suggest that it is a bit misleading to talk about tax cuts in 1981 and tax increases in 1983.

One final point: The main insight of supply-side economics is that changes in the overall tax burden are not as important as changes in the tax structure. As such, it’s also important to look at which taxes were going up and which ones were decreasing. This is why Reagan’s 1981 tax plan compares so favorably with Bush’s 2001 tax plan (which was filled with tax credits and other policies that had little or no impact on incentives for productive behavior).

(2) In addition to wondering whether one could argue that higher taxes triggered the Reagan boom, Thompson also speculates whether it might be possible to blame the tax cuts in Obama’s stimulus for the economy’s subsequent sub-par performance. There are two problems with that hypothesis. First, a substantial share of the tax cuts in the so-called stimulus were actually new spending being laundered through the tax code (see footnote 3 of this Joint Committee on Taxation publication). To the extent that the provisions represented real tax relief, they were much more akin to Bush’s non–supply side 2001 tax cuts and a far cry from the marginal tax-rate reductions enacted in 1981 and 2003. And since even big tax cuts have little or no impact on the economy if incentives to engage in productive behavior are unaffected, there is no reason to blame (or credit) Obama’s tax provisions for anything.

(3) Why doesn’t anyone care that the Federal Reserve almost always is responsible for serious recessions? This isn’t a critique of Thompson’s post since he doesn’t address monetary policy from this angle, but if we go down the list of serious economic hiccups in recent history (1974-75, 1980-82, and 2008-09), bad monetary policy inevitably is a major cause. In short, the Fed periodically engages in easy-money policy. This causes malinvestment and/or inflation, and a recession seems to be an unavoidable consequence. Yet the Fed seems to dodge any serious blame. At some point, one hopes that policy makers (especially Fed governors) will learn that easy-money policies such as artificially low interest rates are not a smart approach.

(4) Thompson writes, “Is Mitchell really saying that $140 billion on Medicaid, firefighters, teachers, and infrastructure projects are costing the economy five percentage points of economic growth?” No, I’m not saying that and didn’t say that, but I have been saying for quite some time that taking money out of the economy’s left pocket and putting it in the economy’s right pockets doesn’t magically increase prosperity. And to the extent money is borrowed from private capital markets and diverted to inefficient and counter-productive programs, the net impact on the economy is negative. Thompson also writes that, “Our unemployment picture is a little more complicated than ‘Oh my god, Obama is killing jobs by taking over the states’ Medicaid burden!’” Since I’m not aware of anybody who’s made that argument, I’m not sure how to respond. That being said, jobs will be killed by having Washington take over state Medicaid budgets. Such a move would lead to a net increase in the burden of government spending, and that additional spending would divert resources from the productive sector of the economy.

The moral of the story, though, is to let Richard Rahn publicize his own work.

Peter Ferrara’s Too-Nice Attack on Phony Washington Budget Deals

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peter Ferrara of the Institute for Policy Innovation explains that Washington budget deals don’t work because politicians never follow through on promised spending cuts. This is a very relevant argument, since President Obama’s so-called Deficit Reduction Commission supposedly is considering a deal featuring $3 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases (disturbingly reminiscent of what was promised — but never delivered — as part of the infamous 1982 TEFRA budget scam).

Washington’s traditional approach to balancing the budget is to negotiate an agreement on a package of benefit cuts and tax increases. President Obama’s deficit commission seems likely to recommend just this strategy in December. The problem is that it never works. What happens is the tax increases get permanently adopted into law. But the spending cuts are almost never fully adopted and, even if they are, they are soon swept away in the next spendthrift budget. Then — because taxes weaken incentives to produce — the tax increases don’t raise the revenue that Congress initially projected and budgeted to spend. So the deficit reappears.

In 1982, congressional Democrats promised President Ronald Reagan $3 in spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. Reagan went to his grave waiting for those spending cuts. Then there was the budget deal in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush agreed to violate his famous campaign pledge — “Read my lips, no new taxes,” he had said in 1988 — in pursuit of a balanced budget. But after the deal, the deficit increased substantially: to $290 billion in 1992 from $221 billion in 1990.

As the excerpt indicates, Peter’s column is solid and everything he writes is correct, but it suffers from one major sin of omission. He should have exposed the dishonest practice of using “current services” or “baseline” budgeting. This is the clever Washington practice of assuming that all previously planned spending increases should go into effect and categorizing any budget that increases spending by a lower amount as a spending cut. In other words, if the hypothetical “baseline” budget increases by 7 percent, and a budget is proposed that increases spending by 4 percent, that 4 percent spending increase magically gets transformed into a 3 percent spending cut.
Politicians love “current services” or “baseline” budgeting for two reasons. First, it allows them to have their cake and eat it too. They can simultaneously shovel more money to interest groups while telling voters they are “cutting” spending. Second, it rigs the process in favor of bigger government. This is because lawmakers who actually propose to restrain the growth of spending can be lambasted for wanting “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts totaling “trillions of dollars” when all they’re actually proposing is to have spending grow by less than the so-called baseline. But since people in the real world use honest math rather than “current services” math, they assume that spending is being reduced next year by some large amount compared to what is being spent this year. And if the phony budget cut numbers sound too big (especially for specific programs such as Medicare or Medicaid), they sometimes conclude that it would be better to raise taxes.

Speaking of which, the same misleading process works on the revenue side of the budget. The politicians automatically get to keep whatever additional revenue is generated by population growth and higher incomes, which is not trivial since revenue in a typical year grows faster than nominal GDP. But when they do a budget deal featuring X dollars of tax increases for every Y dollars of spending cuts, the additional taxes are always on top of the revenue increases that already are occurring. And since the supposed spending cuts invariably are nothing more than reductions in planned increases, it should come as no surprise that the burden of spending always seems to increase.
Defenders of “current services” or “baseline” budgeting will respond by arguing that spending should automatically increase because of factors such as inflation and demographic change (i.e., more seniors signing up for Medicare). Indeed, they will point out that the government is legally obligated to spend more money for entitlement programs based on current law.
But that’s not the point. The issue is whether the American people are being presented with honest numbers. If the fans of big government want to argue that spending should increase by 7 percent for various reasons, they should openly and honestly explain what they are trying to do. And if they disagree with lawmakers who want spending to increase by 4 percent, they should be forthright and tell voters that “this proposal does not increase spending by enough because of…” and list the reasons why they want spending to grow even faster.
Unfortunately, deceptive budget practices in Washington are a feature, not a bug. But if you pay close attention, they are very revealing. If the President’s Deficit Reduction Commission uses “baseline” or “current services” budgeting as a benchmark for determining spending “cuts” and tax increases, that’s a good sign that the crowd in Washington wants to pull a fast one on the American people.

Are These Examples of Washington Corruption?

The “appearance of impropriety” is often considered the Washington standard for corruption and misbehavior. With that in mind, alarm bells began ringing in my head when I read this Washington Times report about Jacob Lew, Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget. A snippet:

President Obama’s choice to be the government’s chief budget officer received a bonus of more than $900,000 from Citigroup Inc. last year — after the Wall Street firm for which he worked received a massive taxpayer bailout. The money was paid to Jacob Lew in January 2009, about two weeks before he joined the State Department as deputy secretary of state, according to a newly filed ethics form. The payout came on top of the already hefty $1.1 million Citigroup compensation package for 2008 that he reported last year. Administration officials and members of Congress last year expressed outrage that executives at other bailed-out firms, such as American International Group Inc., awarded bonuses to top executives. State Department officials at the time steadfastly refused to say if Mr. Lew received a post-bailout bonus from Citigroup in response to inquiries from The Washington Times. But Mr. Lew’s latest financial disclosure report, provided by the State Department on Wednesday, makes clear that he did receive a significant windfall. …The records show that Mr. Lew received the $944,578 payment four days after he filed his 2008 ethics disclosure.

Why did Citigroup decide to hire Lew, a career DC political operator, for $1.1 million? As a former political aide, lobbyist, lawyer, and political appointee, what particular talents did he have to justify that salary to manage an investment division? Did the presence of Lew (as well as other Washington insiders such as Robert Rubin) help Citigroup get a big bucket of money from taxpayers as part of the TARP bailout? Did Lew’s big $900K in 2009 have anything to do with the money the bank got from taxpayers? Is it a bit suspicious that he received his big windfall bonus four days after filing a financial disclosure?

See if you can draw any conclusion other than this was a typical example of the sleazy relationship of big government and big business.

Lest anyone think I’m being partisan, let’s now look at another story featuring Senator Richard Shelby. The Alabama Republican and his former aides have a nice relationship that means more campaign cash for him, lucrative fees for them, and lots of our tax dollars being diverted to such recipients as the state’s university system. Here are some of the sordid details:

Since 2008, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby has steered more than $250 million in earmarks to beneficiaries whose lobbyists used to work in his Senate office — including millions for Alabama universities represented by a former top staffer. In a mix of revolving-door and campaign finance politics, the same organizations that have enjoyed Shelby’s earmarks have seen their lobbyists and employees contribute nearly $1 million to Shelby’s campaign and political action committee since 1999, according to federal records. …Shelby’s earmarking doesn’t appear to run afoul of Senate rules or federal ethics laws. But critics said his tactics are part of a Washington culture in which lawmakers direct money back home to narrow interests, which, in turn, hire well-connected lobbyists — often former congressional aides — who enjoy special access on Capitol Hill.

Some people think the answer to such shenanigans is more ethics laws, corruption laws, and campaign-finance laws, but that’s like putting a band-aid on a compound fracture. Besides, it is quite likely that no laws were broken, either by Lew, Citigroup, Shelby, or his former aides. This is just the way Washington works, and the beneficiaries are the insiders who know how to milk the system. The only way to actually reduce both legal and illegal corruption in Washington is to shrink the size of government. The sleaze will not go away until politicians have less ability to steer our money to special interests — whether they are Wall Street banks or Alabama universities. This video elaborates: