New projections from the Congressional Budget Office show that without reforms rising federal spending will fundamental reshape America’s economy, and not in a good way. Under the CBO’s “alternative fiscal scenario,” the federal government will consume an 86 percent greater share of the economy in 2035 than it did a decade ago (33.9 percent of GDP compared to 18.2 percent).
The CBO report and many centrist budget wonks focus more on the problem of rising federal debt than on rising spending. As a result, many wonks clamor for a “balanced” package of spending cuts and tax increases to solve our fiscal problems. But CBO projections show that the long-term debt problem is not a balanced one—it is caused by historic increases in spending, not shortages of revenues.
This chart shows CBO’s alternative scenario projections, which assume no major fiscal policy changes. All recent tax cuts are extended and entitlement programs are not reformed.
Let’s look at federal revenues first (blue bars). In President Clinton’s last year of 2001, revenues were abnormally high at 19.5 percent of GDP as a result of the booming economy. Over the last four decades, federal revenues as share of GDP have fluctuated around about 18 percent of GDP. The tech boom a decade ago helped generate large capital gains realizations. CBO data show that capital gains tax revenues were $100 billion in 2001, or 1 percent of GDP (see page 85). By contrast, the CBO expects capital gains taxes to be $48 billion in 2011, or just 0.3 percent of GDP (see page 93).
In 2011, revenues are way down because of the poor economy. Some people complain that the Bush tax cuts drained the Treasury, but note that revenues were 18.2 percent of GDP in 2006 and 18.5 percent in 2007, when the economy was growing and the Bush cuts were in place.
Looking ahead, the CBO projects that with all current tax cuts in place and AMT relief extended, revenues will rise to 18.4 percent of GDP by 2021, or a bit above the normal levels of recent decades. For 2035, the CBO assumes that revenues would be fixed at the same 18.4 percent, but their discussion reveals that “real bracket creep” would actually keep pushing up revenues as a share of the economy beyond 2021.
In sum, CBO projections reveal no shortage of revenues. The problem is on the spending side, as the red bars in the chart illustrate. As a result of the Bush/Obama spending boom, federal outlays soared from 18.2 under President Clinton to 24.1 percent this year. With no reforms to entitlement programs, outlays will be 33.9 percent of GDP by 2035, which is 86 percent higher than the Clinton level.
By the way, the CBO nets Medicare premiums out of outlays, which makes spending look a little smaller than it really is. Using gross Medicare spending, total federal outlays will be 35 percent of GDP by 2035.
Also note that CBO data (and other U.S. government data) low-ball government spending in other ways compared to OECD measurement standards. The OECD puts federal/state/local government spending in the United States at 41 percent of GDP in 2011. More than four out of ten dollars we earn are already being gobbled up by our governments.
If the federal government grows by 10 percentage points of GDP by 2035 per CBO, American governments will be consuming more than half of everything produced in the nation.
To fix the problem, see here.
Today POLITICO Arena asks
Will implementing President Obama's Fiscal Commission recommendations require that everyone take a hit?
My response (with tax insights from Jagadeesh Gokhale):
President Obama's Fiscal Commission Report offers a useful start in reducing our budget deficits and national debt, but it hardly goes far enough. As several of my Cato colleagues have just noted here, here, here, and here, the report recognizes, to its credit, that our corporate income tax structure puts U.S. corporations at a considerable competitive disadvantage against their foreign competitors. And the report keeps military spending cuts on the table, even if there is much more to be cut. Yet by proposing a reduction in government spending from 24.3 percent of GDP today to 21.8 percent over the next 15 years -- total federal spending as recently as 2000 was just 18.4 percent of GDP -- it plays the old Washington game of calling a slower increase than previously projected a “cut.”
As for taxes, this report should be read in the context of a powerful argument in last Friday's Wall Street Journal to the effect that over the past six decades, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP have averaged just under 19 percent, regardless of the top marginal personal income tax rate or whether taxes were cut or raised. What this suggests is that low tax rates spur income growth to leave the government’s revenues undiminished over the long-term. High tax rates do the opposite. It doesn’t take a large leap of faith to believe that this effect would be stronger for those who earn more and pay more in taxes. Indeed, among high earners are the nation’s business leaders -- innovators who create new products and jobs -- who would respond positively to the growth opportunity provided by a stable, low-tax-rate environment. So those who believe that we help ourselves by more heavily taxing the rich need to ask themselves whether it might not be better to cut rates and keep them stable instead. Wouldn’t that promote a robust economy and lift all boats -- with the government continuing to generate 19 percent in revenues?
None of this has anything to do, of course, with whether our current out-of-control federal government is constitutionally authorized to do all it is doing. But it's a start toward returning the government to within its constitutional limits. Had those limits been respected -- as the Framers understood, unlike New Deal progressives -- we wouldn't be in this mess.
Fiscal crises have a predictable pattern.
Step 1 occurs when the economy is prospering and tax revenues are growing faster than forecast.
Step 2 is when politicians use the additional money to increase government spending.
Step 3 is that politicians do not treat the extra tax revenue like a temporary windfall and budget accordingly.Instead, they adopt policies - more entitlements, more bureaucrats - that permanently expand the burden of the public sector.
Step 4 occurs when the economy stumbles (in part because more resources are being diverted from the productive sector to the government) and tax revenues stagnate. If the resulting fiscal gap is large enough, as it is in places such as Greece and California, a crisis atmosphere is created.
Step 5 takes place when politicians solemnly proclaim that "tough measures" are necessary, but very rarely does that mean a reversal of the policies that caused the mess. Instead, the result in higher taxes.
Greece is now at this stage. I've already argued that perhaps bankruptcy is the best option for Greece, and I showed the data proving that Greece has a too-much-spending crisis rather than a too-little-revenue crisis. I've also commented elsewhere about the feckless behavior of Greek politicians. Sadly, it looks like things are getting even worse. The government has announced a huge increase in the value-added tax, pushing this European version of a national sales tax up to 21 percent. On the spending side of the ledger, though, the government is only proposing to reduce bonuses that are automatically given to bureaucrats three times per year. Here's an excerpt from the Associated Press report, including a typically hysterical responses from a Greek interest group:
Government officials said the measures would include cuts in civil servant's annual pay through reducing their Easter, Christmas and vacation bonuses by 30 percent each, and a 2 percentage point increase in sales tax to bring it to 21 percent from the current 19 percent. ...One government official, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the official announcement, said...that "we have exhausted our limits." ..."It is a very difficult day for us ... These cuts will take us to the brink," said Panayiotis Vavouyious, the head of the retired civil servants' association.
Now, time for some predictions. It is unlikely that higher taxes and cosmetic spending restraint will solve Greece's fiscal problem. Strong global growth would make a difference, but that also seems doubtful. So Greece will probably move to Step 6, which is a bailout, though it is unclear whether the money will come from other European nations, the European Commission, and/or the European Central Bank.
Step 7 is when politicians in nations such as Spain and Italy decide that financing spending (i.e., buying votes) with money from German and Dutch taxpayers is a swell idea, so they continue their profligate fiscal policies in order to become eligible for bailouts. Step 8 is when there is no more bailout money in Europe and the IMF (i.e., American taxpayers) ride to the rescue. Step 9 occurs when the United States faces a fiscal criss because of too much spending.
For Step 10, read Atlas Shrugged.
The CBO report that said the health care bill won't raise deficits makes it clear that the Baucus bill’s reduction in future budget deficits comes not from controlling government spending or reducing health care costs, but because of a rapid escalation in tax revenues.
The bill imposes a 40 percent excise tax on health-insurance plans that offer benefits in excess of $8,000 for an individual plan and $21,000 for a family plan. Insurers would almost certainly pass this tax on to consumers via higher premiums. As inflation pushes insurance premiums higher in coming years, more and more middle-class families would find themselves caught up in the tax.
In fact, overall, the tax increases in the bill are more than double the amount of deficit reduction. This isn’t a health care efficiency bill or a cost containment bill. It is a tax and spend bill, pure and simple.
Matt Yglesias has a post up looking at the PISA scores, and he seems to imply that for-profit schooling has been tried and found wanting in Sweden and the U.S.:
The big difference is that many Swedish charters are run by for-profit firms. We’ve had some experiments with that in the U.S. and it hasn’t worked very well. Nobody’s really found a great way of making consistent profits running K-12 schools in America.
Of course even he notes that Sweden’s schools are highly regulated by the state.
And in the U.S., the difficulty of succeeding in for-profit education just might have something to do with that government monopoly on k-12 education and the $560 billion or so in tax revenues that fund it. Maybe.
Most politicians and other advocates of tax harmonization are clever enough to pretend that they do not want higher tax rates. Instead, they assert that their proposals are merely ways of reducing evasion and making tax systems more efficient. So it is rather surprising that the Prime Minister of Finland has a column in the Financial Times, where he admits that various governments should conspire to simultaneously raise tax rates in order to finance big government:
The overall tax rate will have to rise as well over the longer term. In some areas that can be done without much consultation between the countries. For example, property taxes or inheritance taxes can largely be determined at the national level without adverse economic consequences. But such taxes will not raise significant amounts of revenue. Only changes in value added tax, various excise taxes or taxes on earned and capital income can make a real difference. However, raising such taxes can have detrimental effects on economic activity. This is especially so when a country acts on its own: capital and people can respond by migrating to jurisdictions with lower rates. Deeper co-operation is therefore necessary if tax revenues are to be increased in a way that truly helps fiscal consolidation. ...It is important that different countries do not find themselves with very different tax solutions. We should avoid tax competition and the damage this would cause to Europe’s economic growth. ...member countries could agree, for example, to change the levels of certain taxes in parallel. Parallel measures would help all of Europe: tax competition risk would be reduced and the public finances of individual countries would improve. Such co-ordinated tax changes could set also an important global example. In particular, it might encourage the US – with lower tax levels in most areas – to do what has to be done to address its spiralling budget deficit.
In the column, Prime Minister Vanhanen even suggests that the United States might be tempted to join the tax cartel. This has always been a goal of the Europeans since an OPEC for politicians without the United States will not work any better than the real OPEC without Saudi Arabia. One of my first videos -- back in late 2007 -- was on this topic, and it is embedded below for those who did not have a chance to view it.