“Our practical choice is not between a tax-cut deficit and budgetary surplus. It is between two kinds of deficits: a chronic deficit of inertia, as the unwanted result of inadequate revenues and a restricted economy; or a temporary deficit of transition, resulting from a tax cut designed to boost the economy, increase tax revenues, and achieve . . . a budget surplus.” John F. Kennedy


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Jun 15 2012

Austerity: A Balanced Approach?

C.M. Phippen

Concerns are spreading that Germany is on the verge of losing its safe-haven status for investors. According to Bill Blain, co-head of the special situations group at Newedge Group Ltd, “[Germany] isn’t a pure safe haven anymore.” As it finds itself potentially on the hook for an additional 100 billion euros ($125 billion) after the EU bailout of Spanish banks earlier this month, investors are starting to see the cracks in the foundation of what has been a star in the EU economies.

Not only does the most recent bailout scare off private investors from Spain, who know they will be the last in line if the country does eventually default, but most analysts fear this bailout is only one of many. Estimates of future liquidity injections in Spain alone are as high as 700 billion euros, which would decimate the EU rescue funds.

Despite German fiscal restraint, high worker productivity and relatively low levels of unemployment, apparently a system where a minority put in the serious work and everybody else lives off of their largess while sipping margaritas, is an unsustainable system.

As Angela Merkel recently stated, “Germany’s powers are not unlimited,” and “All the (aid) packages will ring hollow if you overestimate Germany’s strength.” Even the German economy can be dragged down by too many dependents pulling at it for too long.

It’s time for the rest of the European countries to start playing by the rules of success, the rules of true austerity.

In Britain, promises to reform social programs and cut taxes and spending were made by Gordon Brown just before leaving office, but instead he increased the top marginal income tax rate. In 2011-2012, spending increased, the public pension system is still not reformed and “the government increased the capital gains tax, national insurance tax and value-added tax along with other fees and duties.”

In Spain, while the retirement age was increased from 65 to 67, no structural reforms have been made to entitlements. Additionally, myriad tax rates have been increased, from income and property taxes to tobacco taxes (up 28 percent). While the current budget calls for spending cuts as well as tax increases, there is little chance that the tax increases will bring in the expected revenue because of a lack of economic growth. With entitlement spending unchecked, deficits are projected to continue rising.

France’s spending increased $33.4 billion between 2009 and 2010, and $29.5 billion in 2011. The Socialist government there also plans to implement a new 75% top marginal income tax rate for anyone earning over $1.3 million, in addition to an increase in the corporate income tax rate. At the same time, they are promising significant public sector hiring, a decrease in the retirement age and an increase in the minimum wage, which has been shown to price the least skilled workers out of the labor market.

According to recent research, a “balanced approach” to austerity (isn’t that the new progressive catch phrase?) doesn’t end well. An austerity program that involves both tax increases and spending cuts does not successfully stabilize debt and leads to economic contractions in the marketplace.

Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna looked at 107 examples of austerity in developed countries over a period of 30 years and found that spending cuts without tax increases were the key to significant debt to GDP ratio reductions. They also discovered that when those spending cuts were accompanied by structural reforms, easy monetary policy and a liberalization of markets, economic expansion was most often the result.

Across the ocean here at home, the story is, unfortunately, much the same. While we could continue down our current path of demonizing the rich and blaming them for not paying their fair share (who can possibly believe that the top 5 percent paying 59 percent of federal income taxes while earning only 35 percent of total national income is somehow not their “fair share”?!), all the while threatening onerous taxes and regulations, we wonder why corporations are sitting on massive amounts of cash and refusing to hire new workers.

President Obama’s claim that his policies would “have this done” (fixing the economy) within three years and Clinton’s encouragement in 2010 to “vote ‘em out” if the economy weren’t fixed in two years lead me to think that this administration is honestly and genuinely surprised that their understanding of the economy just isn’t reality.

Welcome to the world the rest of us live in . . .

Aug 31 2011

President Obama’s Bank of China

See my article about the national debt published in August 2011′s edition of Smart Girl Nation, entitled President Obama’s Bank of China.

May 23 2011

The Debt Ceiling and Fiscal Responsibility

What is with the hysteria surrounding the debt limit? Why are the Democrats refusing to have a discussion regarding the issues surrounding the debt ceiling and fiscal austerity?

It is a fact that all things being equal, a growing economy brings in more taxes than a stagnant or shrinking one. It is a fact that reducing tax rates stimulates growth and leads to greater tax receipts (courtesy John F. Kennedy). It is a fact that we cannot continue on the current path of fiscal irresponsibility (courtesy Barack Obama).

If we want our federal government to have access to more money (I’m not sure I do), then reducing taxes to a point where optimum growth will occur is the best way to achieve that goal, not raising the debt ceiling so we can borrow more every time we max out the national credit card. I concur with John F. Kennedy,

Our practical choice is not between a tax-cut deficit and budgetary surplus. It is between two kinds of deficits: a chronic deficit of inertia, as the unwanted result of inadequate revenues and a restricted economy; or a temporary deficit of transition, resulting from a tax cut designed to boost the economy, increase tax revenues, and achieve . . . a budget surplus.

The next step would be to get spending in line. We all know that no matter how much money the treasury has, it spends more. Tax rates could be raised to 90%, 100% even, and not only would our federal government spend every dime of it, but they would certainly borrow against it to finance even more great projects to buy votes . . . ah, rather, to serve the people. I recently wrote about the idiocy of such a plan, entitled The Rich, Taxes, and Government Debt.

The most powerful tool of the politician has become our tax dollars. Our money, taken by the force of law, is spent to buy votes and power, and often in ways that work against the interests of those paying the bill. It only seems fair (the President’s ears should perk right up now) that those who are going to be on the line for this new spending (taxpayers) have the right to require some fiscal responsibility from those doing the spending.

President Barack Obama, in May of 2009, warned that the current level of deficit spending was unsustainable and would lead to skyrocketing interest rates for Americans and have a “dampening effect on our economy.” Of course, that was when it was George Bush’s spending.

Thank goodness we (or some of you, rather) elected a fiscally responsible president; one who did more deficit spending in his first three years in office than all presidents before him combined; one whose budget proposals will not only double our national debt within the next decade, but quadruple the net interest costs of carrying that debt (as a result of those increased interest rates, coupled with increased debt); one whose tax and spend philosophy will cause us to spend more money on interest payments than on “education, roads and all other nondefense discretionary spending combined” within eight years. Yet each year in office he has preached the virtues and necessity of decreased federal spending – 2009, 2010, and again in 2011 – and despite the soothing words, reality bears out a less than soothing picture.

According to budget analysis, “90 percent of the rising long-term budget deficits are driven by rising spending, and just 10 percent of the rising deficits are caused by falling revenues” and our President has admitted that our federal government has a spending problem, yet he is asking Congress for an increased ability to borrow without any limitations on their (and his) ability to continue spending recklessly.

How about this:

In the 1980s and 1990s, Washington consistently spent $21,000 per household (adjusted for inflation). Simply returning to that level would balance the budget by 2012 without any tax hikes. Alternatively, returning to the $25,000 per household level (adjusted for inflation) that Washington spent before the current recession would likely balance the budget by 2019 without any tax hikes.

Simple, really, and the easy part is the President claims to already agree with me.

Apr 19 2011

Signs of Destruction

C.M. Phippen

As I’ve tried to better understand the events leading up to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, I’m haunted by a comment made by Charles Gasparino in The Sellout. He stated that as corporate bond prices lost value in the rapidly declining market of June 2007, there was a dramatic “flight to quality of investors selling corporate bonds and snapping up supersafe Treasuries” (Gasparino, p 265), the bonds considered the safest available.

At about the same time, in June of 2007, the rating agencies (Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s) began downgrading mortgage-backed securities, despite the fact that they had been showing signs of deterioration for a year or two prior while still maintaining consistent AAA ratings.

One-and-a-half years earlier, in late 2005, AIG made the decision to no longer insure CDOs underwritten by US financial institutions because of the lax standards in US subprime lending (Gasparino, p 226). At about the same time, Bill Gross of PIMCO was warning about falling housing prices and defaults.

Now let’s jump to 2011. Over the past two years, the Fed has pumped nearly $3 trillion into the economy by purchasing US treasuries (QE1, QE2, and reinvestment of maturing treasuries). This in addition to all those purchased by private investors fleeing toxic CDOs.

In February, Bill Gross of PIMCO, “one of the largest investors in the Treasury market,” announced that he would be selling Treasuries and just one month later, with no holdings of US government debt, began shorting them.

In a major shift, China has begun pouring money into hard assets and away from US government debt.

A former advisor to China’s central bank, Yu Yongding, recently “likened the U.S. Treasury market to a ‘giant Ponzi scheme,’ arguing that Federal Reserve buying of Treasuries has artificially kept bond prices high, but that they would eventually fall to levels which reflected fundamentals of the U.S. economy.”

S&P just lowered the outlook on US debt from stable to negative, signaling the potential eventual loss of the AAA credit rating and “a sign that the ratings agency has doubts about prospects for taking effective action to curb deficits and debt.”

To argue that deficits and debt can be reduced by raising taxes as opposed to cutting spending would be to ignore the realities of history. Regardless of marginal federal tax rates, revenue raised has always remained fairly consistent, at about 18% of GDP. In fact, raising capital gains rates could likely have the opposite effect, as more people have historically sold more assets during lower-rate periods than higher-rate, when taxes collected on gains have historically plummeted. Interestingly, lowering capital gains tax rates in a high-growth business environment has been one of the only ways shown to actually create outliers in this equation – increased percentages of revenue above the 18% norm.

All the while, President Obama’s budget would add $9.5 trillion to the debt from 2011-2021, a near doubling in just 10 years! Just as many of the major players on Wall Street spent the years leading up to their firms’ meltdowns playing golf and entertaining, we seem to have a president equally oblivious to the eventual destruction being sown all around him. While it looks like many of the American people have learned from the mistakes of the past decade and are willing to accept the changes that entails, the lack of foresight and leadership emanating from the capitol is the very essence of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

Apr 14 2011

The Rich, Taxes, and Government Debt

C.M. Phippen

I recently came across a genuinely bitter, angry liberal who was absolutely convinced that the only way to get us out of our debt mess of $14.26 trillion was simply to tax the rich and large corporations so they pay their “fair share!” (Just curious, but what is it about “large” corporations that makes them inherently evil, while “small” corporations are apparently acceptable. I’m wondering if the disdain also applies to a company that makes huge profits while employing very few people – does it fall into the category of “large” and bad or “small” and still good?) Anyway, it’s about time that the Michael Moore logic of there being enough money in this country to pay off our debt, it just needs to be redistributed to the people who didn’t earn it, needs to be put to rest.

Interestingly enough, Walter Williams discusses the economics of such a strategy in an article today.

Let me lay out the basics:
*If we were to tax every household in the US making over $250,000 a year at a rate of 100% on the amount exceeding that $250,000, we would bring in $1.4 trillion. (Better yet, if we were to take 100% of everything those greedy bastards earn, it would bring in $1.97 trillion – that’s what you get for being more productive than the solid citizen making $249,999!)
*If we were to take the profits of every Fortune 500 company, that would amount to another $400 billion.
*If we were to confiscate the entire net worth of all 400 billionaires in the US (who do they think they are owning businesses, homes, and jewelry anyway? Those things should only be owned by the poor; oh yeah, that home thing for the poor didn’t work out so well . . . ), that would equal $1.3 trillion.

The grand total we will have raised would be $3.67 trillion, which will run our government for a whopping 9 months or so! Now that we have all the money of the rich our debt problem will surely be solved, won’t it? Oh, we still will have a debt of $14.26 trillion and no way to fund anymore government programs because those who know how to run businesses efficiently and productively would have just been forcefully dissuaded from doing so, in the US anyway? Uh oh. Any better suggestions out there?