Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

DC’s Paid Family Leave Bucks the Trend—and Economics

As the Washington DC City Council prepares to vote on a bill that would provide workers in Washington, DC up to 11 weeks of paid family leave upon the birth of a child, a fundamental question remains unanswered: how much should government intervene in how employers compensate workers?

The federal government does so quite a bit at present. By exempting employer-provided health insurance from income taxes, our tax law is responsible for the fact that a majority of Americans get their health insurance from their employer. The exemption is also largely responsible for the fact that so many of these employers have what can only be described as overly generous health insurance plans, which can cover health care expenses both routine and exceptional.

The tax code also nudged American businesses to provide pensions as well, since the money set aside in a defined benefit plan generally isn’t taxed. When pension law created the tax breaks for employer-provided health insurance these spouted up instead.

In the heyday of unionism, labor union leaders pushed for more fringe benefits for their workers, often more fervently than they sought out wage increases. They did so in part because of the tax break—why not get a tax-free benefit for workers rather than have workers pay for the same benefit with after-tax wages, they reasoned—and partly because such benefits could be made more durable than other forms of compensation. For instance, the UAW contracts in the 1970s-1990s typically provided health insurance for laid-off workers for up to a year after they were let go, and sometimes longer.

This wasn’t necessarily a good thing for the U.S. economy. Rigid compensation meant that companies resorted to overtime when demand picked up rather than hire more workers. While it also deterred them from laying off workers when there was a downturn in demand since the attendant cost savings would be slight, the short-term stability was an ephemeral benefit to workers. There were fewer jobs available as a result and it did nothing to encourage employment growth in such industries.

Some of these benefits were jettisoned—or at least scaled back—after the bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler in 2008—fifteen years after at Caterpillar—and today the manufacturing workers in a union are much more likely to have a 401k, health insurance with co-pays, deductibles and a monthly contribution, and modest ancillary benefits.

Unions changed course only in part because of their reduced leverage after the diminution of manufacturing in the U.S. economy. They also perceived that their workers would rather have money than an additional benefit. Also, the realization that many workers’ manufacturing jobs may be less permanent than a generation ago also helped change demand. A long-term benefit means little for someone who worries that their job may not exist after the next recession.

Does “Wagner’s Law” Mean Libertarians Should Acquiesce to Big Government?

There’s a lot of speculation in Washington about what a Trump Administration will do on government spending. Based on his rhetoric it’s hard to know whether he’ll be a big-spending populist or a budget-cutting businessman.

But what if that fight is pointless?

Back in October, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center wrote a very interesting—albeit depressing—article about the potential futility of trying to reduce the size of government. He starts with the observation that government tends to get bigger as nations get richer.

“Wagner’s Law” says that as an economy’s per capita output grows larger over time, government spending consumes a larger share of that output. …Wagner’s Law names a real, observed, robust empirical pattern. …It’s mainly the positive relationship between rising demand for welfare services/transfers and rising GDP per capita that drives Wagner’s Law.

I’ve also written about Wagner’s Law, mostly to debunk the silly leftist interpretation that bigger government causes more wealth (in other words, they get the causality backwards), but also to point out that other policies matter and that some big-government nations have wisely mitigated the harmful economic impact of excessive spending and taxation by having very pro-market policies in areas such as trade and regulation.

In any event, Will includes a chart showing that there certainly has been a lot more redistribution spending in the United States over the past 70 years, so it certainly is true that the political process has produced results consistent with Wagner’s Law. As America has become richer, voters and politicians have figured out how to redistribute ever-larger amounts of money.

By the way, this data is completely consistent with my recent column that pointed out how defense spending plays only a minor role in America’s fiscal challenge.

Fumbling Federal Finances

The federal government has suffered from waste, fraud, and abuse in its spending programs for decades—actually, centuries. A federal effort in the 1790s to run Indian trading posts, for example, was plagued by inefficiency. For almost as long, studies have been documenting the waste. An 1836 Ways and Means Committee report, for example, criticized river and harbor projects for being chronically overbudget.

The wasteful spending continues today, and the latest effort to document it is Senator James Lankford’s new study, “Federal Fumbles: 100 Ways the Government Dropped the Ball.” The study describes projects such as “$495,000 to fund a temporary exhibit for sights, sounds, tastes and yes, even smells of the Medieval period” and $2 million for a “multi-year study about kids’ eating emotions, and how they don’t like to eat food that’s been sneezed on.”

Spending on such dubious projects represents only a small share of the $4 trillion federal budget. However, Lankford’s examples illustrate the broader overspending disease that afflicts Congress and the executive branch, which I discuss here and here. Lankford’s projects are not just random failures: they stem from structural features of the government that induce politicians and agency officials to spend on low-value activities.

Senator Lankford will discuss his report at a Cato forum on Capital Hill, Wednesday at noon. Tom Schatz, Justin Bogie, and I will comment on the report and examine prospects for cutting spending during the Trump administration. All are invited.

To explore the structural reasons for ongoing waste in federal spending, see “Why the Federal Government Fails” and essays here.

Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon, Andrew Jackson, and Infrastructure

On his radio show last night, Mark Levin asked his audience whether they thought President-elect Donald Trump would turn out to be a big-government Richard Nixon or a small-government Ronald Reagan. On the infrastructure issue, I fear that we may be headed in a big government direction.

Trump, of course, is a “populist,” not a small-government conservative. His advisor, Stephen Bannon, indicated the other day what that means:

Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” Stephen K. Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter. “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.

Bannon should know that on fiscal policy, Jackson’s populism was anti-debt and small government. Echoing Thomas Jefferson’s views, Jackson thought that federal debt undermined liberty, and he pushed to eradicate it. Jackson’s views were in tune with the public, which strongly supported frugality in the federal government.

Jackson and his allies were dubious of federal investments in infrastructure (“internal improvements”). His vice president, Martin Van Buren, thought that “Congress had no power to construct roads and canals within the states.” He said that spending on such projects “was sure in the end to impoverish the National Treasury by improvident grants to private companies and State works, and to corrupt Federal legislation by the opportunities it would present for favoritism.”

On assuming office, Jackson made a list of his priorities, including “the Public debt paid off, the Tariff modified and no power usurped over internal improvements.” In his first inaugural address, he promised “extinguishment of the national debt, the unnecessary duration of which is incompatible with real independence.” Jackson famously vetoed funding of Kentucky’s Maysville Road in 1830, citing constitutional objections and his goal of debt elimination.

Jackson was also skeptical of federal investments for practical reasons. In his 1830 message to Congress, he said, “Positive experience, and a more thorough consideration of the subject, have convinced me of the impropriety as well as inexpediency of such investments.” One practical concern was what we now call “crony capitalism.” Jackson noted that when the government gave some initial subsidies to companies, they tended to get hooked on the hand-outs and kept coming back for more.

In his book about the Jackson era, Carl Lane concluded that federal debt elimination, “Americans in the Jacksonian era believed, would improve the material quality of life in the United States. It would reduce taxes, increase disposable income, reduce the privileges of the creditor class, and, in general, generate greater equality as well as liberty.”

Back then, the belief was that a frugal federal government that balanced its books and did not interfere in state and local matters would secure liberty and benefit average citizens. That is the type of Jacksonian populism that Bannon and Trump should pursue.

Airport Plan for Trump Administration

During the election campaign, Donald Trump complained that “our airports are like from a Third World country.” Indeed, America’s airports could be a lot better. The problem is that they are virtually all owned by governments and run as bureaucracies.

By contrast, many airports abroad are private and run in a more entrepreneurial fashion. Almost half of European Union airports have been privatized, including the main airports in Antwerp, Budapest, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lisbon, London, Birmingham, Brussels, Copenhagen, Naples, Rome, Venice, Vienna, and Zurich.

Robert Poole and I explore airport reforms in a new Cato study, “Privatizing U.S. Airports.” We examine the early history of U.S. airports, discuss global reform trends, explain the advantages of privatization, and describe the needed policy changes.

In the early years of commercial aviation, the major airports in numerous U.S. cities were privately owned. Unfortunately, government policies squeezed out the private airports over time. We can and should correct that mistake, and bring back the entrepreneurs to the airport industry.

We don’t know yet how transportation policies will shape up under the new president, but the incoming administration should know that airports and air traffic control are ripe for major reforms.

Airports are a crucial part of America’s infrastructure. Privatization would increase efficiency and innovation, and thus generate benefits to travelers and the broader economy.

Fixing the Federal Budget Process

On Friday, the Heritage Foundation held a conference entitled “Budget Process Reforms in the Next Congress.” Paul Winfree organized the event and provided opening remarks.

The federal budget process is a mess. Congress does not pass bills on time, and then jams huge omnibus measures through at the last minute. Spending exceeds revenues by $600 billion a year and rising. Congress does not scrutinize programs to see whether the benefits actually outweigh the costs. And most of the budget grows on auto-pilot, allowing politicians to pretend that they are not responsible for the government’s massive debt.

I was on the first panel, which looked at budgeting lessons from other countries. Barry Poulson and John Merrifield discussed Switzerland’s “debt brake” and proposed that the U.S. federal government adopt a similar budget cap. Dan Mitchell also likes the Swiss debt brake. In my remarks, I agreed that a cap was a good idea, but argued that a simpler restraint would be better, such as a 3 percent annual growth limit on total outlays.

What we really need is for Congress and incoming President Trump to focus on eliminating low-value programs. I provided evidence that politicians are capable of major spending cuts. In particular, Canada cut federal spending from 23 percent of GDP in the early 1990s to 14 percent by 2015. (Unfortunately, Canada has recently elected a government that seems to believe that deficit spending and debt helps the economy, despite the country’s own experience over two decades that shows the opposite).

On the second panel, former federal budget official Marcus Peacock described how federal agencies tend to maximize their costs, while private businesses focus on minimizing their costs and improving efficiencies. Fiscal restraint can lead to innovation, he argued.

On the third panel, Rick May and George Everly of the House and Senate Budget Committees, respectively, described Republican efforts to overhaul congressional budget procedures. Background materials on these efforts are here.

If you are interested in budget issues and enjoy free lunches, please attend our November 30 panel on Capitol Hill featuring Senator James Lankford. The senator will describe wasteful programs he found in the budget, and experts will discuss spending-cut opportunities during the Trump administration.

Go Big and Grant Milton Friedman His Wish

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis) held a press conference a few days ago where he said that GOP control of the Congress and White House afforded his party the opportunity “to go big, to go bold.”  There has been talk of rolling back regulations and Obamacare.  That’s good news, but Ryan should consider a bigger and bolder move: End federal income tax withholding. 

The “political establishment” has created a situation where the U.S. is trillions of dollars in debt.  How will the new Congress address that?  The fiscal scandal is too abstract for many voters to grasp so too many of them don’t think twice about supporting new spending measures, such as free college tuition or what have you.  To build the necessary political support for otherwise unpopular spending cuts, Ryan should quickly move to end federal income tax withholding.  If American households would stop viewing their tax refund checks as happy windfalls from politicians and instead better understood how much big government is costing them every year, one would expect to see louder demands to bring runaway spending under control and to downsize the scope of federal programs and operations.  The GOP honeymoon will be over in a few months.  Ending federal withholding will help build support for spending cuts over the next few years and perhaps beyond.

Ironically, it was the late, great Milton Friedman who helped devise the modern income tax withholding system when he worked in the Treasury Department during World War II.  He was fixated on tax collection efficiency at that time, not limiting the size of government.  Late in his life, Friedman said that he wished “there were some way of abolishing withholding now.”  Former congressman Dick Armey (R-Tex) proposed ending withholding when the GOP took control of the House in 1994, but Bill Clinton was never going to sign that measure into law.  Now that the GOP has both the Congress and the White House, it has a real opportunity to go big and bold.  Grant Friedman his wish and get our fiscal house in order.

For related Cato scholarship, go here.