So far the Obama administration has been enjoying the ultimate fiscal free lunch. Massive borrowing, massive spending, lower taxes, and low interest rates.
Alas, all good things must come to an end.
Reports the New York Times:
The nation’s debt clock is ticking faster than ever — and Wall Street is getting worried.
As the Obama administration racks up an unprecedented spending bill for bank bailouts, Detroit rescues, health care overhauls and stimulus plans, the bond market is starting to push up the cost of trillions of dollars in borrowing for the government.
Last week, the yield on 10-year Treasury notes rose to its highest level since November, briefly touching 3.17 percent, a sign that investors are demanding larger returns on the masses of United States debt being issued to finance an economic recovery.
While that is still low by historical standards — it averaged about 5.7 percent in the late 1990s, as deficits turned to surpluses under President Bill Clinton — investors are starting to wonder whether the United States is headed for a new era of rising market interest rates as the government borrows, borrows and borrows some more.
Already, in the first six months of this fiscal year, the federal deficit is running at $956.8 billion, or nearly one seventh of gross domestic product — levels not seen since World War II, according to Wrightson ICAP, a research firm.
Debt held by the public is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to rise from 41 percent of gross domestic product in 2008 to 51 percent in 2009 and to a peak of around 54 percent in 2011 before declining again in the following years. For all of 2009, the administration probably needs to borrow about $2 trillion.
The rising tab has prompted warnings from the Treasury that the Congressionally mandated debt ceiling of $12.1 trillion will most likely be breached in the second half of this year.
Last week, the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee, a group of industry officials that advises the Treasury on its financing needs, warned about the consequences of higher deficits at a time when tax revenues were “collapsing” by 14 percent in the first half of the fiscal year.
“Given the outlook for the economy, the cost of restoring a smoothly functioning financial system and the pending entitlement obligations to retiring baby boomers,” a report from the committee said, “the fiscal outlook is one of rapidly increasing debt in the years ahead.”
While the real long-term interest rate will not rise immediately, the committee concluded, “such a fiscal path could force real rates notably higher at some point in the future.”
Alas, this is just the beginning. Three quarters of the spending in the misnamed stimulus bill (it would more accurately be called the "Pork and Social Spending We've Been Waiting Years to Foist on the Unsuspecting Public Bill") occurs next year and beyond, when most economists expect the economy to be growing again. Moreover, much of the so-called stimulus outlays do nothing to actually stimulate the economy, being used for income transfers and the usual social programs.
However, we will be paying for these outlays for years. Even as, the Congressional Budget Office warns, the GDP ultimately shrinks as federal expenditures and borrowing "crowd out" private investment. Indeed, the CBO figures that incomes will suffer a permanent decline--even as taxes are climbing dramatically to pay off all of the debt accumulated by Uncle Sam.
And you don't want to think about the total bill as Washington bails out (almost $13 trillion worth so far) everyone within reach, "stimulates" (the bill passed earlier this year ran $787 billion) everything within reach, and spends money (Congress approved a budget of $3.5 trillion for next year) within reach. Indeed, according to CBO, the president's budget envisions increasing the additional collective federal deficit between 2010 and 2019 from $4.4 trillion to $9.3 trillion.) Then there will be more federal spending for wastral government entities, such as the Federal Housing Administration; failing banks, which are being closed at a record rate by the FDIC; pension pay-offs for bankrupt companies, administered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation; and covering the big tab being up run up by Social Security and Medicare, which currently sport unfunded liabilities of around $100 trillion.
Oh, to be an American taxpayer -- and especially a young American taxpayer -- who will be paying Uncle Sam's endless bills for the rest of his or her life!
In the latest issue of Forbes, Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank is pushing “A Tax Even Libertarians Can Love.” I hope he wasn’t counting on this libertarian’s support.
What he advocates is “replacing the income tax with a progressive tax on spending. ...A family's income minus its savings is its consumption, and that amount minus a large standard deduction -- say, $30,000 a year for a family of four -- would be its taxable consumption. ...Rates would start low, perhaps 20%, then rise gradually with total consumption. ...With savings tax-exempt, top marginal tax rates on consumption would have to be significantly higher than current top rates on income.”
His concept of “significantly higher” includes tax rates of 100-200% on marginal income that isn’t saved. This is about minimizing affluence, not maximizing revenues. There is ample evidence from Emmanuel Saez and others that the amount of reported income drops sharply as marginal tax rates rise above 25-30% (and even less on capital gains).
In his 2007 book, Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, Frank suggests marginal tax rates of 50% above $220,000 and rising to 200%. Since seniors (like me) commonly finance retirement from past savings, Frank’s tax scheme amounts to rapid confiscation of past savings.
For young people, Frank’s tax can’t possibly encourage savings because it discourages earning any income in the first place. Consumption is, after all, the motive for both earning and saving. The prospect of facing future consumption taxes of 50-200% would surely discourage saving much, because the rewards from invested savings (namely, future consumption) would be subjected to such prohibitive tax brackets. Under this steeply progressive tax on unsaved income, any income exempt from taxes today would be subject to brutal taxes whenever folks wanted to buy anything of value, like a car or house, or to retire on their accumulated savings.
In another April 25 piece in The New York Times, Mr. Frank shifts from promoting confiscatory taxes on consumption to defending small tweaks to the current tax regime. “The current [tax] system is much fairer than many people believe, and the president’s proposal will make it both fairer and more efficient.” That comment was aimed at the tea parties. Yet tax party protesters clearly understood, as Frank does not, that the president’s first wave of proposed tax increases come nowhere near paying for his grandiose spending plans. My estimate of last October, that Obama’s plans would add $4.3 trillion to the deficits over ten years is now looking much too generous, if not wildly optimistic.
In the New York Times piece, Frank argues that income differences are mainly a matter of luck. As he often does, Frank pretends to possess evidence about this topic that other economists have missed. He says, “economists have only begun to realize [that] pay differences often vastly overstate differences in performance.”
In his book, whenever Frank alludes to what “the evidence suggests,” his sources are usually suspect, obsolete or invisible. He claims “regulations, like cartoons are data.” He cites an unpublished master’s thesis, unidentified surveys and “casual impressions.”
Frank claims “happiness can be measured reliably” by brain waves. Explaining this better in the Economic Journal in 1997, he noted that people who say they are happy show “greater electrical activity in the left prefrontal region of the brain” which “is rich in receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, higher concentrations of which been shown independently to be correlated with positive affect.” If we accept the amount of dopamine in the brain as the gauge of happiness, however, then the happiest people are those who routinely abuse crack and meth.
In the second chapter of Falling Behind, his first graph lists a Census Bureau URL as the source for household income data from 1949 to 1979. Click on that link and you will find the data only go back to 1967. In reality, all of Frank’s income and wealth graphs actually came from Chris Hartman at inequality.org. Hartman is not an economist or statistician, but a "researcher, writer, editor, and graphic designer with experience in politics, higher education, and publishing." Hartman's non-facts used in Robert Frank’s first graph actually came from a 1994 book from the Economic Policy Institute, reflecting the “authors’ analysis. . . of unpublished census data.” Frank’s comparison of CEO pay with “average wages” came from Hartman’s flawed calculations for United for a Fair Economy, which were critiqued on page 131 of my textbook Income and Wealth. And Frank’s demonstrably false claim that “asset ownership has become even more heavily concentrated during recent years” is likewise from inequality.org.
In short, Professor Frank often bases his remarkably strong opinions on fragile facts.
The headline from Stateline.org's top story today reads, "State budget gaps top $200 billion; fee, tax hikes in the works." But as Chris Edwards noted back in February, these so-called "budget gaps" are mainly fiction. Put simply, previous revenue forecasts overstated the amount of money that would be coming into state coffers. Now that revenues are drying up because of the slow economy, state politicians can't spend the amount of money they intended.
For individuals and businesses, the economic downturn and resulting financial crimp means less spending and more prudence. For politicians and those living at the expense of taxpayers, it means raising taxes to keep the spending spigots turned on. As the table below shows, total state spending has increased at an excessive pace this decade:
Too often journalists report on the present plight of pro-tax and spend policymakers without considering decisions made in the past. Readers should bear the above table in mind the next time they come across such amnesic reporting .
Here are a couple of dishes Cato Institute scholars cooked up for Tax Day:
- Writing for National Review Online, Chris Edwards warns against the dangers of rapidly increasing government spending:
When filling out your tax forms, you might want to think for a second about where all that money is going. After federal spending roughly doubled in the Bush years, it is growing by leaps and bounds under President Obama. What’s more, the federal government is increasing the scope of its activities — it is intervening in many areas that used to be left to state and local governments, businesses, charities, and individuals.
There are now a staggering 1,804 subsidy programs in the federal budget. Hundreds of programs were added this decade, and the recent stimulus bill added even more. The result is that we are in the midst of the largest federal gold rush at taxpayer expense since the 1960s.
- At Townhall, Dan Mitchell rails against the current tax code:
Beginning as a simple two-page form in 1913, the internal revenue code has morphed into a complex nightmare that simultaneously hinders compliance by honest people and rewards cheating by Washington insiders and other dishonest people.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The tax code also penalizes economic growth, distorts taxpayer behavior, undermines American competitiveness, invites corruption and promotes inefficiency.
- At CNSNews.com, Edwards argues that policymakers should give Americans the low and simple tax code that they deserve.
- Also, don't miss the new Cato video that reveals how troubling the American tax system really is.
I was a panelist for a Tax Notes forum on April 3 regarding Obama's tax policies. The other panelists were Len Burman of the Urban Institute and Gene Steuerle of the Peterson Foundation. It was an expert and ideologically diverse panel, but nobody was fond of Obama's fiscal policy direction. (In the photo, that's former CBO director Rudy Penner to my left. Photo credit to Derek Squires)
Tax Notes summarized the discussion: "A diverse panel of economists and tax specialists largely agreed ... that President Obama's tax and budget plans at best would fail to forestall long-term fiscal ruin and could even hasten its arrival." One point of agreement was that the tax code is too complex and it doesn't need the complicated new tax credits that Obama has proposed.
Where we differed was on the need for added federal revenue, and herein lies the big tax policy battle ahead. Len thought that some form of new value-added tax (VAT) was inevitable in order that the government could raise more money. I am increasingly hearing that argument from top fiscal scholars, and I fear that the drumbeat for a VAT will get louder.
Dan Mitchell and I are dead-set against a VAT because it will be a tool to fund even larger government, as we discuss in Global Tax Revolution. But supporters of limited government need to start watching this issue and making preparations to ward off a Euro-style money machine.
The Obama administration seems obsessed with making American taxpayers eat toxic assets. And I’m not talking about bad paper, derivatives, or any other inscrutable financial stinkers. I’m talking about good ol’ American public schooling.
Truth be told, after listening to the president’s presser last night, even I started to think that the key to American economic success is “investing” in education. After all, once you’ve heard something for about the twentieth time, you start to believe it. I mean, that’s how propaganda works, right? But somehow my mind refused to give in, and it forced me to remember:
We’ve been “investing” in government schools for decades, and have been reaping nothing but AIG-like results!
I actually laid out the startlingly awful returns we’ve gotten for our education dollars in several blog entries last month, but thought I’d revisit the basic, revolting facts one more time. I want it to be absolutely clear that lavishing more money on education isn’t change, nor, given what we get for the money, could it possibly be the key to long-term economic success.
So what have we invested? Let’s start with total outlays for elementary through post-secondary education, taken from table 26 of the latest Digest of Education Statistics. In 1969 we spent a total of $347 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2007, we spent $981 billion, a 183 percent increase.
How about public k-12 spending on a per-pupil basis? Again using Digest data (table 181) – which understates total expenditures by excluding such things as “state administration expenditures” – we can see that we’ve been spending increasingly sizable amounts. After adjusting for inflation, in 1969 we spent $5,161 per child. By 2005, that number had more than doubled, hitting $11,643. And what has that “investment” yielded?
Other than massive bloat, bupkus! Looking at National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend scores for 17-year-olds – essentially, our schools’ final products – we see almost complete academic stagnation. In mathematics, the average scale score was 304 (out of 500) in 1973, and only a measly 3 points higher in 2004! That’s a one percent increase in math outcomes for a roughly 100 percent increase in funding! And that actually beats the “return” in reading, where 17-year-olds were at 285 in 1971 and, yup, 285 in 2004!
How about higher education? Here we don’t have very good outcome measures and it is difficult to break down overall per-pupil expenditures. What we do have, however, suggests another bad investment.
To get a feel for expenditures, we can examine the State Higher Education Executive Officers report (figure A) showing that total revenue collected per full-time-equivalent student at public institutions, adjusted for inflation, grew from $8,463 in 1983 to $11,037 in 2008, a 30 percent increase. We can also look at aid per student, most of which came through government. According to data from the College Board (table 3), in 1983 the average full-time-equivalent student received $3,769 in inflation-adjusted aid. In 2007 she got $10,392, a 176 percent increase.
What are the returns on these investments? Again, lots of bloat, but from what we can tell, relatively little of educational value. Graduation rates, for one thing, seem to be falling.
According to the Population Studies Center, within eight years of graduating high school, 51.1 percent of students in the high school class of 1972 had finished college degrees. In contrast, only 45.3 percent of 1992’s high school class had done the same. And grads seem to be getting less well educated; according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, between 1992 and 2003 literacy levels dropped for both Americans whose education maxed out at a bachelor’s degree and those with graduate degrees. Whether it was graduates’ ability to read prose, documents, or handle math, scores went down while costs went up.
So all told, what do we have to show for our education investment? Pretty much just empty bank accounts. And yet, some politicians just can’t seem to get enough of those toxic assets!
House Approves 90 Percent 'Bonus Tax'
Sparked by outrage over the bonus checks paid out to AIG executives, the House approved a measure Thursday that would impose a 90 percent tax on employee bonuses for companies that receive more than $5 billion in federal bailout funds.
Chris Edwards, Cato's director of tax policy studies, says the outrage over AIG is misplaced:
While Congress has been busy with this particular inquisition, the Federal Reserve is moving ahead with a new plan to shower the economy with a massive $1.2 trillion cash infusion — an amount 7,200 times greater than the $165 million of AIG retention bonuses.
So members of Congress should be grabbing their pitchforks and heading down to the Fed building, not lynching AIG financial managers, most of whom were not the ones behind the company’s failures.
Cato executive vice president David Boaz says this type of selective taxation is a form of tyranny:
The rule of law requires that like people be treated alike and that people know what the law is so that they can plan their lives in accord with the law. In this case, a law is being passed to impose taxes on a particular, politically unpopular group. That is a tyrannical abuse of Congress’s powers.
On a related note, Cato senior fellow Richard W. Rahn defended the use of tax havens in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, saying the practice will only become more prevalent as taxes increase in the United States:
U.S. companies are being forced to move elsewhere to remain internationally competitive because we have one of the world's highest corporate tax rates. And many economists, including Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas, have argued that the single best thing we can do to improve economic performance and job creation is to eliminate multiple taxes on capital gains, interest and dividends. Income is already taxed once, before it is invested, whether here or abroad; taxing it a second time as a capital gain only discourages investment and growth.
Obama to Stop Raids on State Marijuana Distributors
Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that the president would end federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries that were common under the Bush administration.
It's about time, says Tim Lynch, director of Cato's Project on Criminal Justice:
The Bush administration’s scorched-earth approach to the enforcement of federal marijuana laws was a grotesque misallocation of law enforcement resources. The U.S. government has a limited number of law enforcement personnel, and when a unit is assigned to conduct surveillance on a California hospice, that unit is necessarily neglecting leads in other cases that possibly involve more violent criminal elements.
The Cato Institute hosted a forum Tuesday in which panelists debated the politics and science of medical marijuana. In a Cato daily podcast, Dr. Donald Abrams explains the promise of marijuana as medicine.
• A new video tells the troubling story of Susette Kelo, whose legal battle with the city of New London, Conn., brought about one of the most controversial Supreme Court rulings in many years. The court ruled that Kelo’s home and the homes of her neighbors could be taken by the government and given over to a private developer based on the mere prospect that the new use for her property could generate more tax revenue or jobs. As it happens, the space where Kelo’s house and others once stood is still an empty dustbowl generating zero economic impact for the town.
• Daniel J. Ikenson, associate director of Cato's Center for Trade Policy Studies, explains why the recent news about increasing protectionism will be short-lived.
• Writing in the Huffington Post, Cato foreign plicy analyst Malou Innocent says Americans should ignore Dick Cheney's recent attempt to burnish the Bush administration's tarnished legacy.
• Reserve your spot at Cato University 2009: "Economic Crisis, War, and the Rise of the State."