Tag: government spending

Greetings from Spain

I arrived in Madrid yesterday for a speech to the annual Convention of Independent Financial Advisors, and it is somehow fitting that Spain was downgraded by Standard and Poor’s as I entered the country. I’m not a fan of the bond-rating agencies, and the fact that it has taken so long for Spain to be downgraded simply reinforces my skepticism about their value. So let’s focus instead on identifying the sources of Spain’s fiscal crisis. If you look at the OECD’s fiscal database, you will see that Spain’s short-run problem is solely the result of a growth in the burden of government spending. Over the past seven years, the budget in Spain has skyrocketed from 38.4 percent of GDP to 47.2 percent of GDP. And since tax revenues have stayed the same as a share of national economic output, it is difficult to see how anyone can conclude that the fiscal crisis is the result of inadequate revenue. In the long run, the problem also is excessive government spending, largely because demographic factors such as an aging population will push up outlays for pensions and health care.

In other words, Spain is in trouble for the same reason that Greece is in trouble. Government is too big and politicians are unwilling to take the modest steps that are needed to rein in dependency. This, of course, is exactly why there should not be a bailout. Subsidizing Greek politicians and Spanish politicians – regardless of whether the bailout comes from German taxpayers and/or the IMF – will send a signal to other European nations that there is an easy way out. But the “easy way out” simply postpones the day of reckoning and makes the eventual adjustment much more challenging. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post report:

European and International Monetary Fund officials on Wednesday were considering a dramatically increased $158 billion bailout package for Greece as the country’s debt crisis continued to ripple across Europe, with Standard & Poor’s downgrading the credit rating on Spain, the continent’s fourth-largest economy. …In Europe, the most intense focus remains on Greece, but fears were intensifying elsewhere, especially in Portugal and Spain. Though analysts noted that both countries are in better shape than Greece – with lower ratios of debt – they both shared large fiscal deficits and poor long-term economic prospects. On Wednesday, the government in Portugal announced that it would move up a program of painful spending cuts to shrink its budget deficit and shore up confidence amid signs that fearful depositors were moving capital out of Lisbon banks. After lowering Greek debt to junk bond status on Tuesday, Standard & Poor’s kept Spain at investment grade status, but lowered its rating one notch, to AA.

Don’t Give Up on the American People…at Least not Yet

Gloominess and despair are not uncommon traits among supporters of limited government – and with good reason. Government has grown rapidly in recent years and it is expected to get much bigger in the future. To make matters worse, it seems that the deck is stacked against reforms to restrain government. One problem is that 47 percent of Americans are exempt from paying income taxes, which presumably means they no longer have any incentive to resist big government. Mark Steyn recently wrote a very depressing column for National Review Online about this phenomenon, noting that, “By 2012, America could be holding the first federal election in which a majority of the population will be able to vote themselves more government lollipops paid for by the ever shrinking minority of the population still dumb enough to be net contributors to the federal treasury.” Walter Williams, meanwhile, has a new column speculating on whether this cripples the battle for freedom:

According to the Tax Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., research organization, nearly half of U.S. households will pay no federal income taxes for 2009…because their incomes are too low or they have higher income but credits, deductions and exemptions that relieve them of tax liability. This lack of income tax liability stands in stark contrast to the top 10 percent of earners, those households earning an average of $366,400 in 2006, who paid about 73 percent of federal income taxes. …Let’s not dwell on the fairness of such an arrangement for financing the activities of the federal government. Instead, let’s ask what kind of incentives and results such an arrangement produces and ask ourselves whether these results are good for our country. …Having 121 million Americans completely outside the federal income tax system, it’s like throwing chum to political sharks. These Americans become a natural spending constituency for big-spending politicians. After all, if you have no income tax liability, how much do you care about deficits, how much Congress spends and the level of taxation?

Steyn and Williams are right to worry, but the situation is not as grim as it seems for the simple reason that a good portion of the American people know the difference between right and wrong. Consider some of the recent polling data from Rasmussen, which found that “Sixty-six percent (66%) believe that America is overtaxed. Only 25% disagree. Lower income voters are more likely than others to believe the nation is overtaxed” and “75% of voters nationwide say the average American should pay no more than 20% of their income in taxes.” These numbers contradict the hypothesis that 47 percent of Americans (those that don’t pay income tax) are automatic supporters of class-warfare policy.

So why are the supposed free-riders not signing on to the Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda? There are probably several reasons, including the fact that many Americans believe in upward mobility, so even if their incomes currently are too low to pay income tax, they aspire to earn more in the future and don’t want higher tax rates on the rich to serve as a barrier. I’m not a polling expert, but I also suspect there’s a moral component to these numbers. There’s no way to prove this assertion, but I am quite sure that the vast majority of hard-working Americans with modest incomes would never even contemplate breaking into a rich neighbor’s house and stealing the family jewelry. So it is perfectly logical that they wouldn’t support using the IRS as a middleman to do the same thing.

A few final tax observations:

The hostility to taxation also represents opposition to big government (at least in theory). Rasumssen also recently found that, “Just 23% of U.S. voters say they prefer a more active government with more services and higher taxes over one with fewer services and lower taxes. …Two-thirds (66%) of voters prefer a government with fewer services and lower taxes.”

There is a giant divide between the political elite and ordinary Americans. Rasmussen’s polling revealed that, “Eighty-one percent (81%) of Mainstream American voters believe the nation is overtaxed, while 74% of those in the Political Class disagree.”

Voters do not want a value-added tax or any other form of national sales tax. They are not against the idea as a theoretical concept, but they wisely recognize the politicians are greedy and untrustworthy. Rasumussen found that “just 26% of all voters think that it is even somewhat likely the government would cut income taxes after implementing a sales tax. Sixty-six percent (66%) believe it’s unlikely to happen.”

Fiscal restraint is a necessary precondition for any pro-growth tax reform. If given a choice between a flat tax, national sales tax, value-added tax, or the current system, many Americans want reform, but it is very difficult to have a good tax system if the burden of government spending is rising. Likewise, it would be very easy to have a good tax system if we had a federal government that was limited to the duties outlined in Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution.

Republicans should never acquiesce to higher taxes. All these good numbers and optimistic findings are dependent on voters facing a clear choice between higher taxes and bigger government vs lower taxes and limited government. If Republicans inside the beltway get seduced into a “budget summit” where taxes are “on the table,” that creates a very unhealthy dynamic where voters instinctively try to protect themselves by supporting taxes on somebody else – and the so-called rich are the easiest target.

Last but not least, I can’t resist pointing out that I am part of a debate for U.S. News & World Report on the flat tax vs. the current system. For those of you who have an opinion on this matter, don’t hesitate to cast a vote.

Do Earmarks Crowd Out Local Private Investment?

The extent to which government spending either complements or crowds out private investment has long been one of the most heated debates in economics (and politics).  Generally economic theorists posit that an increase in government spending drives up interest rates, which increases the cost of private investment, accordingly reducing such investment.  Most macroeconomic models are build on this relationship. 

In an interesting new working paper, a trio of economists attack the question from a different angle.  They measure the impact of increased earmarks on the local economy receiving those earmarks, and compare the impact to areas not receiving the increased earmarks, which allows them to control for the overall macroeconomic environment.  Their finding: even in a setting where government spending is “free” to the recipients (but not free to the rest of us), such spending reduces private investment. 

More specifically, the authors examine what happens to a state when one of its senators becomes a chair of a powerful committee.  First, the obvious, upon taking a power chairmanship, the value of earmarks increase almost 50%.  This results in roughly a $200 million annual increase to the state.  But the authors find this is not simply a transfer from the rest of the country to the state, it also depresses private capital investment and R&D spending in the state.  On average, once a state has a senator obtain a powerful chairmanship, state level private investment in capital expenditures decreases $39 million annually and state private R&D decreases $34 million annually. 

For states seeking to get your senator into a powerful chairmanship:  be careful of what you wish for.  There’s no free lunch, even when someone else is paying.

Cutting Government Spending in a Recession

One of the topics Chris Edwards will be discussing with Glenn Beck this evening (5:00 EST, Fox) is the “Not-So-Great Depression” of 1920-21.

Cato Senior Fellow Jim Powell notes that President Warren G. Harding inherited from his predecessor Woodrow Wilson “a post–World War I depression that was almost as severe, from peak to trough, as the Great Contraction from 1929 to 1933 that FDR would later inherit.”

However, instead of calling for bigger government to right the economy, as President Obama did upon inheriting George Bush’s mess, Harding pushed for spending and tax cuts.

The result?

With Harding’s tax and spending cuts and relatively non-interventionist economic policy, GNP rebounded to $74.1 billion in 1922. The number of unemployed fell to 2.8 million— a reported 6.7 percent of the labor force— in 1922. So, just a year and a half after Harding became president, the Roaring Twenties were underway. The unemployment rate continued to decline, reaching an extraordinary low of 1.8 percent in 1926. Since then, the unemployment rate has been lower only once in wartime (1944), and never in peacetime.

The following chart shows federal spending from 1920 to 1940:

Unions and Government Debt

In a recent bulletin, I argued that public-sector unions impose various costs and burdens on state and local governments. Here is some more evidence.

The chart below shows a scatter plot of the union shares in state/local government workforces and state/local government debt levels as a share of state gross domestic product. Each blue dot is a U.S. state.

The variables are correlated – as the union share increases, a state tends to have a higher government debt load. The chart shows the fitted regression line in pink dots (R-square=0.27; F-stat=18; t-stat on the union share variable=4.2).

The correlation is likely caused by the fact that unionized government workers are powerful lobby groups that push for higher government-worker compensation and higher government spending in general.

(Thanks to Amy Mandler for data help and Andrew Biggs for suggestions. Andrew’s work on state debt is here).

Moody’s Mulls Downgrading U.S. Debt

The U.S. isn’t Greece.  Yet.

Moody’s is no longer so sure about the quality of Uncle Sam’s debt.  Reports the Christian Science Monitor:

The US needs to make significant government spending cuts or else risk losing its gold-plated credit rating that has made extensive borrowing so affordable, Moody’s Investor Service said late Monday.

The announcement was a sobering warning that the country’s burgeoning debt has weakened the country’s economic standing, and that US Treasury Bonds, traditionally a bullet-proof investment, could lose their sterling Aaa-rating if Washington cannot control its federal debt.

If Moody’s were to downgrade the country’s rating, the impact could be severe. It would signal to lenders worldwide that the US is no longer one of the safest places to invest money.

That, in turn, would threaten the country’s ability to borrow freely and extensively from other countries on favorable terms. Investors would likely demand a higher interest rate to finance US debt, which would push federal debt higher still.

“There’s a profound effect in this announcement,” says Max Fraad Wolff, a professor of economics at New School University in New York. “The US has always been the gold standard … and this begins to signal a fall or weakness in US global economic position. That’s a bit like a sea change.”

Obviously we are long overdue for some fiscal responsibility in Washington.  And that means cutting spending across the board.  Lawmakers might start by considering what programs are authorized by the Constitution–and the far larger number which represent unconstitutional political power grabs.

Keynesian Economics and the Wizard of Oz

When Dorothy and her friends finally reach Oz, they present themselves to the almighty Wizard, only to eventually discover that he is just an illusion maintained by a charlatan hiding behind a curtain. This seems eerily akin to to the state of Keynesian economics. It does not matter that Keynesianism isn’t working for Obama. It does not matter that it didn’t work for Bush, or for Japan in the 1990s, or for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. In the ultimate triumph of theory over reality, the Keynesians say all that matters is the macroeconomic model behind the curtain showing that more government spending leads to more jobs and growth. Consider the recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which claimed that Obama’s stimulus created at least one million jobs. As Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation noted:

CBO’s calculations are not based on actually observing the economy’s recent performance. Rather, they used an economic model that was programmed to assume that stimulus spending automatically creates jobs — thus guaranteeing their result. …The problem here is obvious. Once CBO decided to assume that every dollar of government spending increased GDP…, its conclusion that the stimulus saved jobs was pre-ordained.

But surely this can’t be true, you may be thinking. Our public servants in Washington would not make important policy decisions based on a model that automatically produces a certain result, would they? Peter Suderman of Reason pulls aside the curtain:

[T]hose reports rely on assumption-packed models that effectively predetermine their outcomes; what they say, in essence, is that the stimulus worked because we assume it did. …That’s especially true when estimating government spending’s productive effects, which is accomplished by plugging numbers into a formula that assumes that government spending produces a multiplier—an increased return for every government dollar spent. In other words, it extrapolates from how much money is put in rather than from what has actually come out. And it does so using a formula that dictates that if money is put in, even more money will come out. According to the CBO’s estimates, depending on how the money is spent, one dollar of government spending can produce total economic activity of up to $2.50. What a deal! …[F]or all practical purposes, the same multipliers that were used to predict how many jobs would be created are being used to estimate how many jobs have been created.

Interestingly, CBO’s analysis is completely schizophrenic. Its short-run budget numbers are based on free-lunch Keynesianism that assumes deficit-financed government spending boosts growth, while its long-run numbers are driven by an assumption that government borrowing is terrible for growth (which is why CBO actually claims higher taxes boost economic output — see, for example, Figure 3 of this CBO analysis). It is impossible to know whether the people at CBO actually believe their own work, or whether they are simply trying to please their political paymasters by producing results that (conveniently) match up with political preferences for more spending today and higher taxes tomorrow. You can draw your own conclusions, but keep in mind that CBO is now making the absurd claim that a giant new healthcare entitlement will reduce budget deficits.

But I digress. Let’s now give a defense of the Keynesian model. The folks at CBO and other Keynesians who publish estimates that inevitably turn out to be wrong (Mark Zandi comes to mind) will claim that they are right because they are predicting results compared to what otherwise would have happened. So when they claim that Obama’s so-called stimulus created jobs, they are really saying that the economy would have lost even more jobs if the government didn’t spend all that money. The problem with this approach is that there is no independent benchmark, but this is not why Keynesianism is wrong. Indeed, most of the economic profession relies on this kind of “counterfactual” analysis. Instead, the problem with Keynesianism is that it fails the empirical test. The Keynesians may be good at constructing models, but that doesn’t mean much if the models don’t match the real world. Here’s what Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise said in recent congressional testimony:

[M]ost economists learned in graduate school that models like those relied upon most heavily by the CBO provide nonsensical results. The reason the original large scale Keynesian Macro forecasting models were discarded by most of the profession is that they make a simple logical error in assuming that individuals do not change their behavior based on the expectation of future policy. …Professor Barro has been one of the primary contributors to the macroeconomic time series literature that has tried to estimate effects from observed economic data, rather than assume affects, as is done by the Keynesian models. …Barro’s analysis is based on econometric evidence, a reliance on experience. The CBO analysis is based almost exclusively on speculation within the context of Keynesian Macro models that were discredited decisively in the 1970s. …Dating at least back to the seminal work of Nelson (1972), economists have known that the empirical time series approach significantly outperforms macroeconomic models in forecasting competitions. …Ashley (1988) compares data-based time series forecasts to those from the large macro forecasters and concludes not only that the time series approach is superior, but that the macro forecasts were so bad that, “most of these forecasts are so inaccurate that simple extrapolation of historical trends is superior for forecasts more than a couple of quarters ahead.” …Finally, one should note that this literature, combined with an earlier public finance literature, raises questions concerning the welfare gain associated with short-term increases in spending. …Browning (1987) finds that the marginal cost ranges widely, between 10% and 300%. Thus, the welfare costs of paying the bill may be greater than the short-term boost to the economy from the most optimistic estimates. This literature would be consistent with Barro’s analysis that suggests the stimulus makes us worse off in the long run.