Tag Archives: Argentina

Michael Greve on American federalism and pensions

In a recent series of blog posts (h/t Arnold Kling), Michael Greve of AEI discusses the parallels between current American federalism and the trajectory that Argentina followed last century. Essentially, decades of “cooperative federalism” and trillions in transfer payments from the federal government to the states has put us on the course of ruin. This long-running arrangement has set the stage for the $4.5 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities owed to public workers, Obamacare, and ultimately an Argentinian future.

States rely on federal spending to implement the federal government’s policy agenda – most notably in the Medicaid program. Greve makes a provocative comparison: Medicaid is a “fiscal pact” similar to the arrangements between Argentina’s federal and state governments.

Federal transfers come with fiscal illusion. There is the incentive to overspend on the state level. And indeed we have seen the greatest growth in government on the state and local level since the post World War II period.

When states end up in trouble they can reasonably expect a bailout from the feds (ARRA is not the first bailout, nor is it likely to be the last). But what happens when both parties are broke?  Might pension liabilities accruing in the states be filled in with a soft bailout (e.g. an education spending package which can be applied to pay for benefits).  Alternatively, we might see an Argentinian-inspired solution: roll the pension obligations of troubled states into a federal corporation. In Argentina’s experience the federal pension corporation found itself with obligations several times larger than projected leading to a devaluation of the payout to retirees.

This is just one potential scenario. But, Greve’s main point is well taken. For reformers (of all ideological persuasions) who insist block grants will restore federalism‘s balance of power and fiscal discipline, think again. “Devolution” was much talked about in the 1990s as a means of restoring federalism but as implemented, it did nothing of the sort. The transfers keep coming just in different forms. Greve’s (Buchanan-based analysis) concludes it is not that cooperative federalism is broken, it has never been tried. 

Economic Freedom In Decline

Today, the Fraser Institute released the 2011 version of the Economic Freedom of the World report. Authored by James Gwartney of Florida State University, Robert Lawson of Southern Methodist University, and Joshua Hall of Beloit College, the index is an annual measure of economic freedom. Drawing on 42 data points gathered from each of 141 countries, it assigns each nation an economic freedom score. The score reflects the degree to which citizens in the nation enjoy economic freedom as characterized by “personal choice, voluntary exchange coordinated by markets, freedom to enter and compete in markets, and protection of persons and their property from aggression by others.”

Chapter 3 of the new report features an essay by Jean-Pierre Chauffour, lead economist of the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Region. In Figure 3.1, reproduced below, Chauffour shows the relationship between economic freedom and the log of per capita income (adjusting for purchasing power parity).

But economic freedom seems to be about more than just per capita income. Readers of Neighborhood Effects know that scores of peer-reviewed studies have examined the relationship between economic freedom and all sorts of measures of well being. The overwhelming evidence is that economic freedom is positively related to things humans like (per capita income of the poor, life expectancy, access to clean water, etc.) and negative related to things humans don’t like (poverty, child labor, etc.). Some of the most sophisticated studies have even tried to disentangle cause and effect.

So where do we stand? The data are lagged, so this year’s report now calculates economic freedom through 2009. There are some bright spots. For example:

The chain-linked summary ratings of Uganda, Zambia, Nicaragua, Albania, and Peru have improved by three or more points since 1990.

There is also some bad news:

 ….In contrast, the summary ratings of Venezuela, Zimbabwe, United States, and Malaysia fell by eight tenths of a point or more between 1990 and 2009, causing their rankings to slip.

In fact, those countries that slipped the most since 2000 were: Argentina, Iceland, Ireland, the United States, and Venezuela.

To see just how far the U.S. has fallen, consider the graph below. The first phase shows the U.S. (chain-linked) economic freedom score from 1970 through 2000. It is slow and steady progress the whole way. The second phase shows the U.S. score from 2000 onward. It is a dramatic and precipitous drop. Notice, by the way, that the ascendant periods lasts through three presidents of two different parties. The descent also seems to have persisted irrespective of the party in office. It seems that the policies that impact economic freedom are not strongly related to partisanship.

Mercatus has its own state-level measure of economic freedom, developed by Jason Sorens of the University of Buffalo (SUNY) and William Ruger of Texas State University.

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Addendum: Here is Arnold Kling on the report. Here is David Henderson. Here is Mark Steyn. Here is Robert Lawson.

The Backdoor Bailouts

The Washington Post reports:

States that have borrowed billions of dollars from the federal government to cover the soaring cost of unemployment benefits would get immediate relief from the Obama administration under a plan to suspend interest payments for the next two years.

According to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, the President’s proposal, “prevents future state bailouts, because in the future, states are going to have to rationalize what they offer and how they pay for it.” I’m not convinced.

First, a little background:

The unemployment system is jointly administered by the states and the federal government. To finance the program, both states and the feds tax the first $7,000 of wages paid to each worker, while some states choose to tax income earned beyond that first $7,000.

As the Post reports:

In tough times, states routinely borrow from the federal government to pay benefits. But when states have an outstanding balance for at least two years, federal law triggers an automatic increase in the federal tax to repay the loan. Such tax hikes already have taken effect or are imminent in Michigan, Indiana and South Carolina.

What the Post doesn’t mention (but Bloomberg does), is: “From 2009 until this year, the loans had been interest-free under a provision of the economic-stimulus program.”

Now the President wants to go further, suspending any interest payments the states owe to the federal government for the next two years. In 2014, he would then change the tax base so that instead of taxing the first $7,000 of wages, the feds and the states would each tax the first $15,000. 

It is this aspect of the proposal that the press secretary, evidently, believes “prevents future state bailouts.” This might be true if we assume that policy makers won’t respond to the extra tax revenue by increasing spending. But more fundamentally, it seems to me that the press secretary is glossing over the fact that the first part of the plan—suspension of interest payments—is a bailout.

For historical context, I turned to Robert Inman. In the first chapter of Fiscal Decentralization and the Challenge of Hard Budget Constraints, he writes (p. 57):

The first major wave of lower government defaults occurred during the 1840s, when eight states (Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania) and the Territory of Florida defaulted.

Maryland Representative William Cost Johnson (you can’t make that name up!) led the effort. As Inman explains, the rest of Congress didn’t agree with Mr. Cost; they refused to bail out the states (p. 57):

Importantly, opponents of a bailout stressed the strategic implications of such a policy; bailouts would signal an accommodating central government and encourage future deficits, defaults, and ultimately inefficient local governments. Congress said no, and there have been no state defaults since.

This marked a turning point in federal-state relations: through recessions, depressions and countless state fiscal crises, the strong no-bailout rule has survived nearly two centuries.

This made the US federal system unique. Unlike local governments in other countries, US states could not run up huge bills and export the costs to their neighbors. As Inman explains, other countries are not so fortunate to have such a strong no-bailout rule (p. 35):

The recent financial crises in Argentina and Brazil, largely precipitated by excessive local government borrowing, are prominent recent examples of how a fiscally irresponsible local sector can impose significant economic costs on a national economy.

The strong no-bailout rule in the US, however, has not prevented the federal government from increasing its role in state finance. Over the years, federal grants to state governments have steadily grown. Now, there are over 1,120 federal programs that are designed to aid the states. Today, federal funding now pays for nearly 1/3rd of all state spending.

What I find particularly alarming, however, is the recent growth in ad hoc state aid programs that are designed to offset short-term fiscal crunches. To me, these look an awful lot like bailouts. Consider the $135 billion in state aid in the stimulus which included:

  • A state fiscal stabilization fund designed to shore up deficits
  • A temporary increase in the federal Medicaid matching formula (FMAP)
  • Grants for various local projects from teachers to firefighters to police
  • The aforementioned interest-free loans for unemployment insurance
  • And much more

On top of that, the President successfully lobbied for an extension of the “temporary” FMAP increase and an extension of the federal-state unemployment insurance program (he was less-successful in last summer’s attempt to wrangle another $50 billion in state and local aid).

If somehow they could see this, I suspect that the senators and representatives who stopped a state bailout over 170 years ago might wonder if their “no bailout” stance really still stands.