Mitchell’s Golden Rule

The Five Most Important Takeaways from Trump’s Budget

It’s both amusing and frustrating to observe the reaction to President Trump’s budget.

I’m amused that it is generating wild-eyed hysterics from interest groups who want us to believe the world is about to end.

But I’m frustrated because I’m reminded of the terribly dishonest way that budgets are debated and discussed in Washington. Simply stated, almost everyone starts with a “baseline” of big, pre-determined annual spending increases and they whine and wail about “cuts” if spending doesn’t climb as fast as previously assumed.

Here are the three most important things to understand about what the President has proposed.

First, the budget isn’t being cut. Indeed, Trump is proposing that federal spending increase from $4.06 trillion this year to $5.71 trillion in 2027.

 

The United Kingdom and the Benefits of Spending Restraint

When I debate one of my leftist friends about deficits, it’s often a strange experience because none of us actually care that much about red ink.

I’m motivated instead by a desire to shrink the burden of government spending, so I argue for spending restraint rather than tax hikes that would “feed the beast.”

And folks on the left want bigger government, so they argue for tax hikes to enable more spending and redistribution.

I feel that I have an advantage in these debates, though, because I share my table of nations that have achieved great results when nominal spending grows by less than 2 percent per year.

The table shows that nations practicing spending restraint for multi-year periods reduce the problem of excessive government and also address the symptom of red ink.

I then ask my leftist buddies to please share their table showing nations that got good results from tax increases. And the response is…awkward silence, followed by attempts to change the subject. I often think you can even hear crickets chirping in the background.

I point this out because I now have another nation to add to my collection.

From the start of last decade up through the 2009-2010 fiscal year, government spending in the United Kingdom grew by 7.1 percent annually, far faster than the growth of the economy’s productive sector. As a result, an ever-greater share of the private economy was being diverted to politicians and bureaucrats.

Beginning with the 2010-2011 fiscal year, however, officials started complying with my Golden Rule and outlays since then have grown by an average of 1.6 percent per year.

New CBO Numbers and the Simple Formula for Good Fiscal Policy, Part II

Based on new 10-year fiscal estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, I wrote yesterday that balancing the budget actually is very simple with a modest bit of spending restraint.

If lawmakers simply limit annual spending increases to 1 percent annually, the budget is balanced by 2022. If spending is allowed to grow by 2 percent annually, the budget is balanced by 2025. And if the goal is balancing the budget by the end of the 10-year window, that simply requires that spending grow no more than 2.63 percent annually.

I also pointed out that this wouldn’t require unprecedented fiscal discipline. After all, we had a de facto spending freeze (zero percent spending growth) from 2009-2014.

And in another previous column, I shared many other examples of nations that achieved excellent fiscal results with multi-year periods of spending restraint (as defined by outlays growing by an average of less than 2 percent).

Today, we’re going to add tax cuts to our fiscal equation.

Some people seem to think it’s impossible to balance the budget if lawmakers are also reducing the amount of tax revenue that goes to Washington each year.

And they think big tax cuts, such as the Trump plan (which would reduce revenues over 10 years by $2.6 trillion-$3.9 trillion according to the Tax Foundation), are absurd and preposterous.

After all, if politicians tried to simultaneously enact a big tax cut and balance the budget, it would require deep and harsh spending cuts that would decimate the federal budget, right?

Nope. Not at all.

They just need to comply with my Golden Rule.

 

 

New CBO Numbers and the Simple Formula for Good Fiscal Policy, Part I

The Congressional Budget Office, as part of The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2017 to 2027, has just released fiscal projections for the next 10 years.

This happens twice every year. As part of this biannual exercise, I regularly (most recently here and here) dig through the data and highlight the most relevant numbers.

Let’s repeat that process. Here’s what you need to know from CBO’s new report.

  • Under current law, tax revenues over the next 10 years are projected to grow by an average of 4.2 percent each year.
  • If left on autopilot, the burden of government spending will rise by an average of 5.2 percent each year.
  • If that happens, the federal budget will consume 23.4 percent of economic output in 2027 compared to 20.7 percent of GDP in 2017.
  • Under that do-nothing scenario, the budget deficits jumps to $1.4 trillion by 2027.

But what happens if there is a modest bit of spending restraint? What if politicians decide to comply with my Golden Rule and limit how fast the budget grows every year?

This shouldn’t be too difficult. After all, even with Obama in the White House, there was a de facto spending freeze between 2009-2014. In other words, all the fights over debt limits, sequesters, and shutdowns actually yielded good results.

So if the Republicans who now control Washington are serious about protecting the interests of taxpayers, it should be relatively simple for them to adopt good fiscal policy.

And if GOPers actually decide to do the right thing, the grim numbers in the CBO’s new report quickly turn positive.

  • If spending is frozen at 2017 levels, there’s a budget surplus by 2021.
  • If spending is allowed to grow 1 percent annually, there’s a budget surplus by 2022.
  • If spending is allowed to grow 2 percent annually, there’s a budget surplus by 2025.
  • If spending is allowed to grow 2.63 percent annually, the budget is balanced in 10 years.
  • With 2.63 percent spending growth, the burden of government spending drops to 18.4 percent of GDP by 2027.

To put all these numbers in context, inflation is supposed to average about 2 percent annually over the next decade.

Even the IMF Agrees that Spending Caps Are Effective

It’s not very often that I applaud research from the International Monetary Fund.

That international bureaucracy has a bad track record of pushing for tax hikes and other policies to augment the size and power of government (which shouldn’t surprise us since the IMF’s lavishly compensated bureaucrats owe their sinecures to government and it wouldn’t make sense for them to bite the hands that feed them).

But every so often a blind squirrel finds an acorn. And that’s a good analogy to keep in mind as we review a new IMF report on the efficacy of “expenditure rules.”

The study is very neutral in its language. It describes expenditure rules and then looks at their impact. But the conclusions, at least for those of us who want to constrain government, show that these policies are very valuable.

In effect, this study confirms the desirability of my Golden Rule! Which is not why I expect from IMF research, to put it mildly.

For Any Fiscal Policy Question, Spending Restraint Is the Answer

Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. How to fix the mess at the IRS is a fiscal policy question, and that requires tax reform rather than spending restraint.

But allow me a bit of literary license. We just had a big debt limit battle in Washington and, after a lot of political drama, politicians kicked the can down the road.

So we need to ask ourselves whether that fight accomplished anything?

It did focus attention of the flaws of Obamacare, and I suppose there’s some value in that.

But the debt limit was not a vehicle - as has been the case in the past - for changes in fiscal policy. We didn’t get something good, like the sequester which resulted from the 2011 debt limit legislation. And we didn’t get something bad, like the tax hike in the 1985 debt limit legislation

Some are asking whether we should even have a debt limit. A number of critics have suggested we should get rid of the borrowing cap because it creates the risk of default. I think those concerns are very overblown.

I’m more persuaded by those who argue that the debt limit diverts attention from better options to improve fiscal policy.

Tax and Expenditure Limits: The Challenge of Turning Mitchell’s Golden Rule from Theory into Reality

The main goal of fiscal policy should be to shrink the burden of government spending as a share of economic output. Fortunately, it shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve this modest goal. All that’s required is to make sure the private sector grows faster than the government.

But it’s very easy for me to bluster about “all that’s required” to satisfy this Golden Rule. It’s much harder to convince politicians to be frugal. Yes, it happened during the Reagan and Clinton years, and there also have been multi-year periods of spending discipline in nations such as Estonia, New Zealand and Canada.

But these examples of good fiscal policy are infrequent. And even when they do happen, the progress often is reversed when a new crop of politicians take power. Federal spending has jumped to about 23 percent of GDP under Bush and Obama, for instance, after falling to 18.2 percent of economic output at the end of the Clinton years.

This is why many advocates of limited government argue that some sort of external force is needed to somehow limit the tendency of politicians to over-tax and over-spend.

I’ve argued on many occasions that tax competition is an important mechanism for restraining the greed of the political class. But even in my most optimistic moments, I realize that it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Another option is budget process reform. If you can somehow convince politicians to tie their own hands (in the same way that alcoholics can sometimes be convinced to throw out all their booze), then perhaps rules can be imposed that improve fiscal policy.

But what sort of rules? Europe has “Maastricht” requirements that theoretically limit deficits and debt, and 49 states have some sort of balanced budget requirement, but these policies have been very unsuccessful - perhaps because they mistakenly focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of government spending.

Are there any budget process reforms that do work? Well, I’ve written about Switzerland’s “debt brake,” which has generated some good results over the past 10 years because it actually imposes an annual spending cap.

Some American states also impose expenditure limits. Have they been successful?

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