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Proposed Spending Cap in Brazil Could Be a Key for Economic Recovery and Renaissance

One of the most remarkable developments in the world of fiscal policy is that even left-leaning international bureaucracies are beginning to embrace spending caps as the only effective and successful rule for fiscal policy.

The International Monetary Fund is infamous because senior officials relentlessly advocate for tax hikes, but the professional economists at the organization have concluded in two separate studies (see here and here) that expenditure limits produce good results.

Likewise, the political appointees at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development generally push a pro-tax increase agenda, but professional economists at the Paris-based bureaucracy also have produced studies (see here and here) showing that spending caps are the only approach that leads to good results.

Heck, even the European Central Bank has jumped into the issue with a study that reaches the same conclusion.

This doesn’t mean balanced budget requirements are bad, by the way, but the evidence shows that they aren’t very effective since they allow lots of spending when the economy is expanding (and thus generating tax revenue). But when the economy goes into recession (causing a drop in tax revenue), politicians impose tax hikes in hopes of propping up their previous spending commitments.

With a spending cap, by contrast, fiscal policy is very stable. Politicians know from one year to the next that they can increase spending by some modest amount. They don’t like the fact that they can’t approve big spending increases in the years when the economy is expanding, but that’s offset by the fact that they don’t have to cut spending when there’s a recession and revenues are falling.

From the perspective of taxpayers and the economy, the benefit of a spending cap (assuming it is well designed so that it satisfies Mitchell’s Golden Rule) is that annual budgetary increases are lower than the long-run average growth of the private sector.

And nations that have followed such a policy have achieved very good results. The burden of government spending shrinks as a share of economic output, which naturally also leads to less red ink relative to the size of the private economy.

But it’s difficult to maintain spending discipline for multi-year periods. In most cases, governments that adopt good policy eventually capitulate to pressure from interest groups and start allowing the budget to expand too quickly.

That’s why the ideal policy is to make a spending cap part of a nation’s constitution.

That’s what happened in Switzerland early last decade thanks to a voter referendum. And that’s what has been part of Hong Kong’s Basic Law since it was approved back in 1990.

Unsettling Cotton Settlement at the WTO

Last week the U.S. government settled a long-running trade dispute with Brazil, winning taxpayers the privilege of continuing to subsidize America’s wealthy cotton farmers in exchange for our commitment to subsidize Brazilian cotton farmers, as well. That’s right! We get to pay U.S. cotton farming businesses to overproduce, export, and suppress global prices to the detriment of Brazilian (and other countries’) cotton farmers provided that we compensate the Brazilians to the tune of $300 million.

Some background. Ten years ago, in a case brought by Brazil, the WTO Dispute Settlement Body ruled that the United States was exceeding its subsidy allowances for domestic cotton farmers and that it should bring its practices into compliance with the relevant WTO agreements. After delays and half-baked U.S. efforts to comply, Brazil sought and received permission from the WTO to retaliate (or, in WTO parlance, to “withdraw concessions” because opening one’s own market in a world of mercantilist reciprocity is, perversely, considered a cost or concession). Under the threat of such retaliation, instead of bringing its cotton subsidies into WTO compliance, the U.S. government agreed to pay $147 million per year to Brazilian farmers so that it could continue subsidizing U.S. farmers beyond agreed limits. That arrangement prevailed for a few years until the funds were cut during the budget sequester earlier this year – an event that triggered a renewed threat of retaliation from Brazil, which now has been averted on account of last week’s $300 million settlement.

The Peterson Institute’s Gary Hufbauer characterized the agreement as a “good deal” because it ends the specter of soured bilateral relations, which $800 million of targeted retaliation against U.S. exporters and intellectual property holders would likely produce, for a reasonable price of $300 million “spread widely across the US population, around 90 cents a person.” In Hufbauer’s opinion:

Money damages, paid in this way, are much fairer, and do not destroy the benefits of international commerce, unlike concentrated retaliation against firms that had nothing to do with the original dispute. The WTO system is only designed to authorize such retaliation, but the US-Brazil settlement points the way towards a better way of satisfying breaches of WTO obligations.

While I share Hufbauer’s desire to avoid retaliation and soured relations, his rationale for endorsing the settlement seems a bit strained. If the settlement is justifiable because the costs are spread across 300-plus million Americans, then Hufbauer can probably lend his support to most subsidies, tariffs, and other forms of protectionism, which endure because the concentrated benefits accruing to the favor-seekers are paid through costs imposed, often imperceptibly, on a diffuse base of unorganized consumers or taxpayers. Does the smallness or the imperceptibility of the costs make it right? No, but it makes it easy to get away with, which is why I think it’s pennywise and pound foolish to endorse such outcomes. There are all sorts of federal subsidies to industries and tariffs on goods that may be small or imperceptible as a cost on a standalone basis at the individual level.  But when aggregated across programs, the costs to individuals become more significant. It’s death by 10,000 cuts.

Dilma Announces Spending Cuts in Brazil

The new Brazilian government of President Dilma Rousseff has announced spending cuts of 50 billion reais (approximately $30 billion) this year. This amounts to approximately 1.3% of the country’s estimated GDP for 2011. Despite good intentions, that is still a very timid effort in curbing the size of government in Brazil: Total government spending (including state and local levels) runs at almost 40% of GDP.

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