Back in 2010, I crunched the numbers from the Congressional Budget Office and reported that the budget could be balanced in just 10 years if politicians exercised a modicum of fiscal discipline and limited annual spending increases to about two percent yearly.
When CBO issued new numbers early last year, I repeated the exercise and again found that the same modest level of budgetary restraint would eliminate red ink in about 10 years.
And when CBO issued their update last summer, I did the same thing and once again confirmed that deficits would disappear in a decade if politicians didn’t let the overall budget rise by faster than two percent each year.
Well, the new CBO 10-year forecast was released this morning. I’m going to give you three guesses about what I discovered when I looked at the numbers, and the first two don’t count.
Yes, you guessed it. As the chart illustrates (click to enlarge), balancing the budget doesn’t require any tax increases. Nor does it require big spending cuts (though that would be a very good idea).
Even if we assume that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent, all that is needed is for politicians to put government on a modest diet so that overall spending grows by about two percent each year. In other words, make sure the budget doesn’t grow faster than inflation.
Tens of millions of households and businesses manage to meet this simple test every year. Surely it’s not asking too much to get the same minimum level of fiscal restraint from the crowd in Washington, right?
At this point, you may be asking yourself whether it’s really this simple. After all, you’ve probably heard politicians and journalists say that deficits are so big that we have no choice but to accept big tax increases and “draconian” spending cuts.
But that’s because politicians use dishonest Washington budget math. They begin each fiscal year by assuming that spending automatically will increase based on factors such as inflation, demographics, and previously legislated program changes.
This creates a “baseline,” and if they enact a budget that increases spending by less than the baseline, that increase magically becomes a cut. This is what allowed some politicians to say that last year’s Ryan budget cut spending by trillions of dollars even though spending actually would have increased by an average of 2.8 percent each year.
Needless to say, proponents of big government deliberately use dishonest budget math because it tilts the playing field in favor of bigger government and higher taxes.
There are two important caveats about these calculations.
1. We should be dramatically downsizing the federal government, not just restraining its growth. Even if he’s not your preferred presidential candidate, Ron Paul’s proposal for an immediate $1 trillion reduction in the burden of federal spending is a very good idea. Merely limiting the growth of spending is a tiny and timid step in the right direction.
2. We should be focusing on the underlying problem of excessive government, not the symptom of too much red ink. By pointing out the amount of spending restraint that would balance the budget, some people will incorrectly conclude that getting rid of deficits is the goal.
Last but not least, here is the video I narrated in 2010 showing how red ink would quickly disappear if politicians curtailed their profligacy and restrained spending growth.
Other than updating the numbers, the video is just as accurate today as it was back in 2010. And the concluding message—that there is no good argument for tax increases—also is equally relevant today.
P.P.S. Some people will say that the CBO baseline is unrealistic because it assumes the sequester will take place. They may be right if they’re predicting politicians are too irresponsible and profligate to accept about $100 billion of annual reductions from a $4,000 billion-plus budget, but that underscores the core message that there needs to be a cap on total spending so that the crowd in Washington isn’t allowed to turn America into Greece.
I don’t blame Democrats for wanting to seduce Republicans into a tax-increase trap. Indeed, I completely understand why some Democrats said their top political goal was getting the GOP to surrender the no-tax-hike position.
I’m mystified, though, why some Republicans are willing to walk into such a trap. If you were playing chess against someone, and that person kept pleading with you to make a certain move, wouldn’t you be a tad bit suspicious that your opponent really wasn’t trying to help you win?
When I talk to the Republicans who are open to tax hikes, they sometimes admit that their party will suffer at the polls for agreeing to the hikes, but they say it’s the right thing to do because of all the government red ink.
I suppose that’s a noble sentiment, though I find that most GOPers who are open to tax hikes also tend to be big spenders, so I question their sincerity (with Senator Coburn being an obvious exception).
But even if we assume that all of them are genuinely motivated by a desire to control deficits and debt, shouldn’t they be asked to provide some evidence that higher taxes are an effective way of fixing the fiscal policy mess?
I’m not trying to score debating points. This is a serious question.
European nations, for instance, have been raising taxes for decades, almost always saying the higher taxes were necessary to balance budgets and control red ink. Yet that obviously hasn’t worked. Europe’s now in the middle of a fiscal crisis.
So why do some people think we should mimic the French and the Greeks?
But we don’t need to look overseas for examples. Look at what’s happened in Illinois, where politicians recently imposed a giant tax hike.
The Wall Street Journal opined this morning on the results. Here are the key passages:
Run up spending and debt, raise taxes in the naming of balancing the budget, but then watch as deficits rise and your credit-rating falls anyway. That’s been the sad pattern in Europe, and now it’s hitting that mecca of tax-and-spend government known as Illinois.
…Moody’s downgraded Illinois state debt to A2 from A1, the lowest among the 50 states. That’s worse even than California.
…This wasn’t supposed to happen. Only a year ago, Governor Pat Quinn and his fellow Democrats raised individual income taxes by 67% and the corporate tax rate by 46%. They did it to raise $7 billion in revenue, as the Governor put it, to “get Illinois back on fiscal sound footing” and improve the state’s credit rating. So much for that.
…And—no surprise—in part because the tax increases have caused companies to leave Illinois, the state budget office confesses that as of this month the state still has $6.8 billion in unpaid bills and unaddressed obligations.
In other words, higher taxes led to fiscal deterioration in Illinois, just as tax increases in Europe have been followed by bad outcomes.
Whenever any politician argues in favor of a higher tax burden, just keep these two points in mind:
1. Higher taxes encourage more government spending.
2. Higher taxes don’t raise as much money as politicians claim.
The combination of these two factors explains why higher taxes make things worse rather than better. And they explain why Europe is in trouble and why Illinois is in trouble.
The relevant issue is whether the crowd in Washington should copy those failed examples. As this video explains, higher taxes are not the solution.
Heck, I’ve already explained that more than 100 percent of America’s long-fun fiscal challenge is government spending. So why reward politicians for overspending by letting them confiscate more of our income?
Austan Goolsbee, the former Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, had a column in the Wall Street Journal that argues government spending isn’t too high.
Here’s the relevant passage from his column.
The true fiscal challenge is 10, 20 and 30 years down the road. An aging population and rising health-care costs mean that spending will rise again and imply a larger size of government than we have ever had but with all the growth coming from entitlements—while projected federal revenues as a percentage of GDP after the rate cuts of the 2000s will likely remain below even historic levels of 18%.
But he’s completely wrong when he implies that the problem is because taxes will stay below the long-run average of 18 percent of economic output. Here’s a chart I posted last year showing that tax receipts will soon rise above the long-tun average - even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent. And these numbers are from the left-of-center Congressional Budget Office.
It’s rather shocking that a former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers isn’t aware of this CBO data. Or, if he is aware of the data, it’s unseemly that he would deliberately mislead readers.
But let’s set aside any discussion of why Goolsbee made such a fatuous claim about revenue. What really matters is that this is a debate about fiscal policy and the size of government.
The folks on the left want to convince us that inadequate revenue is causing deficits, both in the short run and long run.
We can see that they’re wrong in the short run.
But what’s especially remarkable is that they are wildly wrong about the future. The long-run data from the Congressional Budget Office shows that the federal tax burden over the next 70-plus years will jump to more than 30 percent of GDP.
This CBO baseline data assumes the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire, so it exaggerates the increase in the future tax burden compared to current policy. But even if you correct for this assumption and reduce tax receipts by about 2-percentage points of GDP (and presumably even more than that in the long run), it’s clear that the tax burden will be far above the historical average of 18 percent of GDP.
It’s easy to understand why Goolsbee ignores this data. After all, why report on information that completely debunks the left-wing argument about the supposed need to increase the tax burden.
But this isn’t the first time Goolsbee’s been wrong about tax policy. Let’s dig into the 2010 archives and share this video, which takes apart his arguments for class-warfare tax policy.
So what’s the bottom line? Well, we know Goolsbee and other leftists are being deceptive about taxation.
But my main takeaway is that I wish the left would be honest and admit that taxes already are projected to increase. And I’d like them to level with the American people and admit that they want the tax burden to climb even faster because they want government to get even bigger.
My Iowa caucus predictions from yesterday were hopelessly wrong, probably because I was picking with my heart rather than my head. As I noted a couple of weeks ago, Mitt Romney’s openness to a value-added tax makes him a dangerously flawed candidate, and I hoped Iowa voters shared my concern.
In a column for today’s Wall Street Journal, I elaborated on those concerns, explaining why a VAT is bad fiscal policy. I had three main points. First, I noted that the big spenders need a VAT in order to achieve a European-sized welfare state in America.
… the left needs a VAT. It is the only realistic way to collect the huge amount of revenue that will be necessary to finance the mountainous benefits promised by our entitlement programs. Which is exactly what happened in Europe, where welfare-state policies only became feasible after VATs were adopted, beginning in the late 1960s.
Second, I explained that the left favors this giant tax on the middle class because they want more money and soak-the-rich taxes don’t generate much revenue.
First, there aren’t enough wealthy people to finance big government. According to IRS data from before the recession, when we had the most rich people with the most income, there were about 321,000 households with income greater than $1 million, and they had aggregate taxable income of about $1 trillion. That’s a lot of money, but it wouldn’t balance the budget even if the government confiscated every penny—and if it did, how much income do you suppose would be available in year two? Second, higher tax rates don’t raise as much revenue as expected. Upper-income individuals are far more likely to rely on interest, dividends and capital gains—and it is much easier to control the timing, level and composition of capital income, so as to avoid exposing it to the tax man.
Third, I debunked the foolish notion that a VAT creates a “level playing field” for American exporters.
…some manufacturers are willing to overlook the VAT’s flaws because the tax is “border adjusted.” This means that there is no VAT on exports, while the tax is imposed on imports. For mercantilists worried about trade deficits, this is a positive feature that they claim will put America on a “level playing field.” But that misunderstands how a VAT works. Under our current tax system, American goods sold in America don’t pay a VAT—but neither do German-produced goods or Japanese-produced goods that are sold in America because their VAT tax is rebated on exports. Meanwhile, any American-produced goods sold in Germany or Japan are hit by a VAT, as are all other goods. In other words, there already is a level playing field. To be sure, there will also be a level playing field if America adopts a VAT. But it won’t make any difference to international trade. All that will happen is that the politicians in Washington will get more money whenever any products are sold.
But I didn’t limit myself to economic analysis. I also warned that Mitt Romney might be an even greater threat on this issue than Barack Obama.
Unsurprisingly, President Obama is favorably inclined toward a VAT, having recently claimed that it is “something that has worked for other countries.” And yet it’s unlikely that the president would propose a VAT, in large part because he is fixated on class-warfare tax hikes. If he did, almost every Republican in Congress would be opposed, even if only for partisan reasons. But what if a VAT sympathizer like Mr. Romney wins next November and decides that his plan for a lower corporate tax rate is only possible if accompanied by a VAT? There will be quite a few Republicans who like that idea because they want to do something nice for their lobbyist friends in the business community. And there will be many Democrats drawn to the plan because they realize that they need this new source of revenue to enable bigger government. That’s a win-win deal for politicians and a terrible deal for taxpayers.
This point deserves some elaboration. Why is the VAT a do-or-die issue?
Simply stated, the United States is in grave danger of becoming a European-style welfare state. Indeed, that will automatically happen in the next few decades because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs.
This is why there is a desperate need to reform programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. But politicians almost certainly won’t adopt the needed reforms if they have the ability to instead confiscate more money from taxpayers - especially if they have a new tax like the VAT, which is a money machine for bigger government.
To be blunt, I’m not a big fan of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But my animosity isn’t because OECD bureaucrats threatened to have me arrested and thrown in a Mexican jail.
Instead, I don’t like the Paris-based bureaucracy because it pushes a statist agenda of bigger government. This Center for Freedom and Prosperity study has all the gory details, revealing that OECD bureaucrats endorsed Obamacare, supported the failed stimulus, and are big advocates of a value-added tax for America.
And I am very upset that the OECD gets a giant $100 million-plus subsidy every year from American taxpayers. For all intents and purposes, we’re paying for a bunch of left-wing bureaucrats so they can recommend that the United States adopt that policies that have caused so much misery in Europe. And to add insult to injury, these socialist pencil pushers receive tax-free salaries.
And now, just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, the OECD has opened a new front in its battle against free markets. The bureaucrats from Paris have climbed into bed with the hard left at the AFL-CIO and are pushing a class-warfare agenda. Next Wednesday, the two organizations will be at the union’s headquarters for a panel on “Divided We Stand - Tackling Growing Inequality Now.”
Co-sponsoring a panel at the AFL-CIO’s offices, it should be noted, doesn’t necessarily make an organization guilty of left-wing activism and misuse of American tax dollars. But when you look at other information on the OECD’s website, it quickly becomes apparent that the Paris-based bureaucracy has launched a new project to promote class-warfare.
For instance, the OECD’s corruption-tainted Secretary-General spoke at the release of a new report on inequality and was favorable not only to higher income tax rates, but also expressed support for punitive and destructive wealth taxes.
Over the last two decades, there was a move away from highly progressive income tax rates and net wealth taxes in many countries. As top earners now have a greater capacity to pay taxes than before, some governments are re-examining their tax systems to ensure that wealthier individuals contribute their fair share of the tax burden. This aim can be achieved in several different ways. They include not only the possibility of raising marginal tax rates on the rich but also…reassessing the role of taxes on all forms of property and wealth.
And here’s some of what the OECD stated in its press release on income differences.
The OECD underlines the need for governments to review their tax systems to ensure that wealthier individuals contribute their fair share of the tax burden. This can be achieved by raising marginal tax rates on the rich.
Like Obama, the folks at the OECD like to talk about “fair share.” These passages sounds like they could have been taken from one of Obama’s hate-and-envy speeches on class warfare.
But the fact that a bunch of Europeans support Obama’s efforts to Europeanize America is not a surprise. The point of this post is that the OECD shouldn’t be using American tax dollars to promote Obama’s class-warfare agenda.
Here’s a video showing some of the other assaults against free markets by the OECD. This is why I’ve written that the $100 million-plus that American taxpayers send to Paris may be - on a per dollar basis - the most destructively wasteful part of the entire federal budget.
One last point is that the video was produced more than one year ago, which was not only before this new class-warfare campaign, but also before the OECD began promoting a global tax organization designed to undermine national sovereignty and promote higher taxes and bigger government.
In other words, the OECD is far more destructive and pernicious than you think.
And remember, all this is happening thanks to your tax dollars being sent to Paris to subsidize these anti-capitalism statists.
Rather than get into a lengthy discourse about the proper role of the federal government or an analysis of how the Bush-Obama spending binge worsened America’s fiscal situation, I think this chart from a previous post says it all.
Republicans are considering a surrender on taxes because they are afraid that a deadlock will lead to a sequester, which would mean automatic budget savings. And the sequester, according to these politicians, would “cut” the budget too severely.
But as the chart illustrates, that is utter nonsense.
There are only budget cuts if you use dishonest Washington budget math, which magically turns spending increases into spending cuts simply because the burden of government isn’t expanding even faster.
If we use honest math, we can see what this debate is really about. Should we raise taxes so that government spending can grow by more than $2 trillion over the next 10 years?
Or should we have a sequester so that the burden of federal spending climbs by “only” $2 trillion?
The fact that this is even an issue tells us a lot about whether the GOP has purged itself of the big-government virus of the Bush years.
A few Republicans say that a sellout on tax hikes is necessary to protect the defense budget from being gutted, but this post shows that defense spending will climb by about $100 billion over the next 10 years under a sequester. And that doesn’t even count all the supplemental funding bills that doubtlessly will be enacted.
In other words, anyone who says we need to raise taxes instead of taking a sequester is really saying that we need to expand the burden of government spending.
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