Author Archives: Aaron Merrill

CAP Act: Baby Steps Towards Fiscal Responsibility – Tentative and Toothless

This afternoon Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) will introduce legislation to “force Congress to dramatically cut spending over 10 years”. From the Senator’s website:

At a time when many families have been forced to tighten their pocketbooks, Congress must also learn to do the same. This bill isn’t just about cutting back this year or next year; it’s about instilling permanent discipline to keep spending at a responsible level,” McCaskill said.

The Commitment to American Prosperity Act, the “CAP Act,” would:

(1) Put in place a 10-year glide path to cap all spending – discretionary and mandatory – to a declining percentage of the country’s gross domestic product, eventually bringing spending down from the current level, 24.7 percent of GDP, to the 40-year historical level of 20.6 percent, and

(2) If Congress fails to meet the annual cap, authorize the Office of Management and Budget to make evenly distributed, simultaneous cuts throughout the federal budget to bring spending down to the pre-determined level. Only a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress could override the binding cap …

I’m very pessimistic about this, for many reasons. Procedurally, the Act only institutes a new budgetary point of order, which can be overridden with super-majority votes in both houses. That is, the Act doesn’t compel anyone to act fiscally responsibly unless they’re inclined to do so. If we had such restrained legislators, a cap wouldn’t be necessary to begin with. Currently the House can override budgetary points of order with a simple majority vote, so this is an improvement, but not one I expect to have serious results.

The technical aspects of the Cap Act are similarly merit-less. First, the baselines are all skewed; why should we accept 20.6% of GDP spending as the new ‘normal’? Historically, Federal receipts average right around 18% of GDP, so locking in 20% would still put us on a trajectory towards systemic deficits. Given that we’re starting from a baseline where Federal debt rapidly approaches 100% of GDP, this isn’t a responsible plan to reign in spending. Similarly, the “lookback GDP” guidelines will count 2009, 2010, and 2011 spending, which has already exploded far beyond what is fiscally sustainable, or historically precedented. The “glide path” isn’t a serious measure of fiscal sustainability; it places us, in just five years, at the same debt-to-gdp ratio that trigged an economic meltdown in Greece last year. So the bill doesn’t set reasonable baselines, it doesn’t do anything to address the deficit, and if Matt’s work with similar TELs in the states holds, high-income economies like ours tend to use spending caps as excuses to grow spending beyond the levels they otherwise would.

There are some technical merits, but they’re merely cosmetic. Bringing Social Security back ‘on-budget’ is a good start, but this bill still leaves massive loopholes for ’emergency spending’, which the New York Times called a new way of political life six years ago. That trend hasn’t changed one iota since; if anything it’s gotten worse. A unified Democratic Congress couldn’t pass any budget last year. It’s one of the few constitutional powers actually entrusted to the Congress, and they failed. Which leads to my separation-of-powers concerns with this legislation. It’s unclear from a first reading, but where is the authority for Congress to entrust sequestration power with OMB, an executive branch agency?

Finally, there are massive political concerns with the legislation. It seems poised as a cover for fiscally irresponsible co-sponsors like McCaskill and John McCain (who both supported TARP and the GM Bailout; McCaskill also voted for Obamacare while McCain has his own big government medical plan to push) to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility. We’ve already seen that movie, and it was terrible the first time.

In sum, I don’t see any reason the bill would restrain spending to a responsible or sustainable level. The bill has some good ideas, but they’re wandering in a wilderness of bad ones. The impulse is good, the execution is terrible.

Note: Sorry a rough draft went up on the RSS feed earlier, WordPress is a cruel mistress sometimes.

Tim Pawlenty on Public-Sector Unions

Minnesota’s Governor has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, arguing that the growth of public-sector unions presents a major problem for any small-government reformers.

Federal employees receive an average of $123,049 annually in pay and benefits, twice the average of the private sector. And across the country, at every level of government, the pattern is the same: Unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt.

Governor Pawlenty notes three principals he’d like reformers to consider. First, normalize pay between the private and public sectors.

Second, get the numbers right. Government should start using the same established accounting standards that private businesses are required to use, so we can accurately assess unfunded liabilities.

Third, we need to end defined-benefit retirement plans for government employees. Defined-benefit systems have created a financial albatross for taxpayers. The private sector dropped them years ago in favor of the clarity and predictability of defined-contribution models such as 401(k) plans. This change alone can save taxpayers trillions of dollars.

Our own Eileen Norcross champions both these policies. Her recent paper, The Crisis in Public Sector Pension Plans, co-authored with AEI’s Andrew Biggs, uses New Jersey’s public-sector unions as a case study for the growing government work-force. They also discuss the moral hazard inherent in defined benefit plans:

From the perspective of workers, defined benefit pensions in the public sector are risk-free; they are guaranteed benefits by the state, which has the power to tax. This means, of course, that from the perspective of the taxpayer, the liability is a near-certainty. The discount rate chosen to value future liabilities in the plan, therefore, should reflect the low-risk character of the benefits promised to workers.

From the government’s perspective, it is appealing to use a higher discount rate to estimate plan liabilities because it produces a lower annual contribution. By contrast, a low discount rate will result in a higher annual contribution required by the employer (in this case, the government) to fund pension obligations.

Eileen and Andrew were also part of a Mercatus panel discussion with Utah State Senator Dan Liljenquist, Scott Pattison of the National Association of State Budget Officers and Jim Musser of Mercatus. Today she also released another paper, Getting an Accurate Picture of State Pension Liabilities.

Last year I addressed the incentive for governments to gamble with public employees’ retirement savings in an op-ed. Giving public employees control of their own savings is essential for any kind of fair relationship between governments, their employees, and the taxpayers. An accurate accounting system is crucial to any fiscally responsible discussion.

Correction: In my AOL piece there is an error: I wrote “Then there was New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, who from 1998 to 2003 held “pension holidays,” suspending employee payments into the pension system so workers could spend the money elsewhere. . . . Today, New Jersey’s public pensions lack billions of dollars in funding, and both public employees and taxpayers will suffer.” Instead, the piece should read “so employers“, i.e, the state of New Jersey, could spend the funds elsewhere. Thanks to reader John for bringing that misstatement to my attention.

Tax Cuts, or Hikes, Are a Sideshow

Washington State is considering implementing a personal income tax. Much like the federal debate over extending or expiring the Bush tax cuts, this debate is a sideshow to the real issue. In our recent Capitol Hill Campus course, Dr. Bruce Yandle laid out these two charts which point to the real problem in state and federal budgets; spending.

First, this chart tracks the top marginal tax rates versus federal revenue as a percent of GDP.

The government’s take of the economy has remained relatively constant since 1960, despite wild fluctuations in how we “soak the rich”. Washington’s proposed tax would only affect those house-holds making more than $200,000, so one should expect this pattern, or lack thereof, to hold for Washington’s gross state product.

The second part of the story is this; as government spending increases, there is a measurable decline in the economy.

With only one outlier in fifty-four years of data, this strong correlation indicates that spending cuts pay for themselves with a growing economy. In turn, that should produce more overall revenue with reasonable tax rates. If you live beyond your means, the problem isn’t your income, it’s your spending habit. Sometimes it’s better to take a small slice of the pie, but make the pie itself bigger.

Tax Foundation attorney Joe Henchman put the incentive mechanics this way:

Yes, such taxes will generally raise revenue in the short term without a sudden exodus of wealthy people fleeing to the state next door… . But over the medium term, the taxes will negatively impact location decisions. People expanding old businesses or creating new ones will incorporate the higher cost of doing business into their decision-making, and steer clear of the state.

States and the federal government need to break this destructive cycle.

The Road Home?

Our own Daniel Rothschild testified last week before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, about the role of state and federal governments in obstructing home building in devastated New Orleans neighborhoods. From Louisiana’s Daily World:

Daniel Rothschild, director of the Gulf Coast Recovery Project at George Mason University, said the problem isn’t necessarily that government officials are discriminating, but that they’re becoming overly involved in recovery efforts.

“Federal and state policies designed to rebuild homes sowed confusion and uncertainty, making it difficult for people to make informed choices about how, when and where to rebuild,” Rothschild said.

He said the government should set clear, simple rules, then get out of the way to allow rebuilding to take place from the ground up.

“Community leaders, clergy, social entrepreneurs have leveraged social capital and local knowledge to spur rebuilding, and over 1 million Americans have volunteered their time, some for weeks and some for years,” he said. “They got it fixed and built houses one at a time.”

For more Mercatus work on the problems created by post-disaster government uncertainty, and how we could encourage rebuilding efforts, see some of our extensive publications on the subject.

Bill Gates Gets It

In the Wall Street Journal, John Fund reports on the Aspen Ideas Festival, a large gathering of innovators and creative policy thinkers. Discussing education reform, he points out that Bill Gates seems to agree with Eileen and Veronique on the problems of fiscal illusion.

Mr. Gates said a big part of the problem [with education spending] is “fraudulent” state budgeting systems, which fail accurately to account for the cost of pension promises. A legislator who “says ‘yes’ doesn’t feel any pain at all,” he said. Thus the “accounting fraud” that lets politicians treat generous teacher pensions as a free lunch rewards them for spending more on retired teachers than on current students.

As Eileen and co-author Andrew Biggs put it:

Given the costs and risks inherent in the defined benefit plan to taxpayers, as well as the political incentives for legislators to over promise benefits to public sector workers while shirking on the state’s contributions, the state should close the current defined benefit plan to new workers and expand the existing defined contribution plans for all new state and local workers. Shifting employees to a defined contribution plan would ensure that New Jersey’s pension system for its public sector workforce is sustainable in the long term and reward younger workers with a guaranteed employer contribution to their individual retirement.

As Mr. Gates is well aware, this problem isn’t some Sopranos-state anomaly, it’s common practice at all levels of American governance. If we want to move forward on fixing our institutions, we have to get an accurate picture of how badly they’re being mismanaged, and eliminate those harmful practices. Students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers are all in this together.

The Bottom Falls Out

Ezra Klein conjured up a fanciful reason why the stimulus spending hasn’t stimulated… anything. Matt and Eileen broke it down pretty thoroughly. Today, Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Veronique de Rugy has some visual evidence to rebut Ezra’s Keynsian dreams.

Klein is exactly wrong when he writes:

Uncertain about the future, [consumers] spend less now. The role of the government is to step up and keep the economy moving until consumer confidence returns.

Uncertainty isn’t a side-effect of a downturn, it’s a primary cause. In the recent bust, asset values were drastically skewed. If the government “keep[s] the economy moving,” confidence can’t ever return; everyone knows the old status quo was horribly flawed. Ezra, like Krugman, believes that government spending can drive an economy. Veronique’s chart neatly dispels the illusion that public spending can effectively supplement (or supplant) the private sector.

BP Now Breaking Windows?

The Wall Street Journal reminds us of the musical dénouement from The Life of Brian.

[In the] 1979 comedy from the Monty Python team, the hero ends up whistling the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” despite having his hands nailed on each side of a cross.

It seems British Petroleum took that lesson to heart. Fortunately, the company found the bright side of the oil spill, which sounds a lot like Bastiat’s broken window fallacy. Planet BP, an online internal publication sent “reporters” to the gulf, and interviewed some locals who still love the big sunflower. From the WSJ:

“Much of the region’s [nonfishing boat] businesses — particularly the hotels — have been prospering because so many people have come here from BP and other oil emergency response teams,” another report says. Indeed, one tourist official in a local town makes it clear that “BP has always been a very great partner of ours here…We have always valued the business that BP sent us.”

Milton Friedman called this the most persistent economic fallacy in history. Moving money around isn’t the same as growing the economy. The broken window fallacy lauds simple currency exchanges to replace senseless destruction, instead of focusing on growing the total productivity. It’s like running in place, but believing you’ll win a race.

Yandle Redux

Yesterday I contra-posed Greg Mankiw’s view of stimulus spending against economic realities explained by Bruce Yandle. Last night I noticed this new video, from Reason.tv, in which Dr. Yandle explains in his own words the bootleggers and baptists theory, and talks about it in the context of other regulatory schemes.

The video shows both the depth and breadth of Dr. Yandle’s knowledge and insights, but also captures his gentle humility. It’s a privilege to work with him.

Like Taking Cyanide For A Headache

Greg Mankiw has a long article in National Affairs on the proper way to align incentives and stimulus spending:

Economists will no doubt long debate whether Cash for Clunkers passed a cost-benefit test. (Some early results, from Burton Abrams and George Parsons of the University of Delaware, suggest not.) But the fact that people responded to the incentive as they did — nearly 680,000 cars were purchased — suggests that a broader, more comprehensive program of incentives, such as an investment tax credit, might have stimulated spending even more.

Of course, not all tax cuts or credits are created equal, just as not all direct government spending is. One popular idea in recent years, for instance, has been a tax cut for businesses that make new hires. Indeed, the jobs bill signed by President Obama in March put in place a targeted payroll-tax exemption for some small businesses that hire people who have been unemployed for two months or more; several members of Congress have proposed broader tax cuts for businesses that hire new employees. The premise behind these policies is that, because unemployment is so high even as the economy begins to recover, we should create incentives for businesses to place unemployed workers into jobs.

There is a case to be made for a broad-based payroll-tax cut that might have this effect, but a narrower tax cut for new hires suffers from some major flaws. The basic problem is that we do not know how to properly define — or enforce a definition of — a “new hire.” Presumably we do not want a business to hire Peter by firing Paul and to then call Peter a new hire; this would cause a great deal of inefficient churning in the labor force (not to mention a great deal of unpleasantness for all the Pauls).

In this video from Mercatus’ Capitol Hill Campus, Dr. Bruce Yandle, Dean Emeritus at Clemson University’s College of Business and Behavioral Sciences, points out the faulty premise that stimulus spending increases demand. Instead, he shows that cash for clunkers and the recently expired first-time home-buyer credit simply shifted demand in time.

In short, for an incentive to actually stimulate an increase in demand, it would have to cost significantly more than the benefit created by increased economic activity. Mankiw himself explains that uncertainty is a recurring problem in economic planning:

The negative effects are even more challenging to trace. For example, if people observe the government issuing substantial debt (required to finance a stimulus), they may anticipate higher future taxes and therefore cut back on their current consumption. Increased government borrowing may also drive up long-term interest rates, which could make it difficult for people to borrow money and could therefore reduce spending today. Obviously, recovery.gov has no way to take account of these consequences, either.

Dr. Yandle presents the counter-point that economic uncertainty is not just an unfortunate side-effect of directed planning and incentives. Uncertainty is a prime driver of economic stagnation, both fiscally and psychologically. When economic rules and incentives change rapidly, private investors and business owners have to question their entire rational decision-making process.

Suddenly, planning a business is like building a house on quicksand. The point of stimulus spending is to offset a drop in aggregate demand, and hope that economic growth offsets the cost of the spending.

However, aggregate demand drops, as it did in 2008, because asset values become skewed. Aggregate demand needs time to reset, while consumers and producers determine the appropriate level of supply and demand under new conditions. The market seeks to correct uncertainty. By introducing new rules and incentives, stimulus spending time-shifts this realignment, but doesn’t supplement it. It adds more uncertainty to an already infuriatingly complex puzzle. That’s why such massive spending hasn’t had any noticeable effect on unemployment; it’s probable that Washington, with the best of intentions, has made hiring people more difficult for a longer period of time. It’s the same reason cash-for-clunkers was such a dismal failure, and the home-buyer credit shows the same symptoms.

Far from being a momentary side-effect of stimulus spending, uncertainty is a systemic problem with interventionist economic policy. The poison is worse than the medicine.