Spending Cuts and Tax Cuts Should Be an All-of-the-Above Option, Not an Either-Or Choice

Daniel J. Mitchell
Posted: Sep 02, 2012 12:01 AM

I’m in Slovenia where I just finished indoctrinating educating a bunch of students on the importance of Mitchell’s Golden Rule as a means of restraining the burden of government spending.

And I emphasized that the fiscal problem in Europe is the size of government, not the fact that nations are having a hard time borrowing money. As explained in this video, spending is the disease and deficits are one of the symptoms.

This is also an issue in the United States, and Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal is worried that the GOP ticket is debt-obsessed and doesn’t have sufficient enthusiasm for lower tax rates and tax reform.

Stylistically, Paul Ryan’s Republican convention speech last night was a grand slam. …But was it the growth message that supply-siders wanted to hear, or debt-clock obsession? There were clearly apocalyptic claims. “Before the math and the momentum overwhelm us all, we are going to solve this nation’s economic problems,” said Mr. Ryan in reference to the federal rea ink. “I’m going to level with you; we don’t have that much time.” …In fact, he talked about turning around the economy with “tax fairness.” Ugh, that’s an Obama term. …Larry Kudlow of CNBC and a former Reagan economist tells me, “Paul’s speech just didn’t have the growth, tax-cutting message. We didn’t even get the words tax reform. I don’t know what happened, but it worries me.” It’s a question of priorities. Are Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan signaling that they will put spending cuts ahead of pro-growth tax-rate cuts?

I share Steve’s concern, but with a twist.

I’m not worried that the Republicans will put spending cuts ahead of tax cuts. I’m worried that they won’t do spending cuts at all (even using the dishonest DC definition) and therefore wind up getting seduced into some sort of tax-increase deal that facilitates bigger government.

As a general rule, it is always good to do spending cuts (however defined). And it is always good to lower tax rates. And if you can do both at the same time, even better.

But since I have low expectations, I’ll be delighted if we “merely” manage to get entitlement reform during a Romney-Ryan Administration. That would mean some progress on the spending side and presumably reduce the risk of bad things (like a VAT!) on the revenue side.

Almost All Nations Are Heading for Collapse, but Greece Is Special (in a Bad Way)

I wrote yesterday that the United Kingdom is doomed because there isn’t a political party with the vision or courage to restrain the welfare state.

At various points, I’ve also expressed pessimism about the future of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Ireland, and even the United States.

Simply stated, almost all western nations suffer from the same toxic combination of dependency, demographic decline, and poorly structured entitlement programs.

But some nations are heading in the wrong direction more rapidly than others, and Greece is best example (perhaps I should say worst example?) of a country that is careening toward catastrophe.

It’s such a basket case that I’m not sure whether the politicians or the people deserve the lion’s share of the blame.

  •  The politicians deserve blame because they treat public office as a tool for self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement, largely by steering taxpayer money to friends, cronies, contributors, and supporters. Sometimes they do this in a search for votes. Sometimes in a search for cash.
  •  The people deserve blame because they view the state as a magical source of freebies and they see no economic or moral problem with using a coercive government to steal from fellow citizens. They realize the system is corrupt, which is why they seek to evade taxes, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to live at the expense of others.

In a best-case scenario, this type of dysfunctional system reduces prosperity. But when the number of people mooching off the state reaches a critical mass (as illustrated by these two cartoons), then you get societal meltdown.

Which is a good description of what’s happening in Greece.

And even when the government is on the verge of collapse and there’s pressure for reform, the political elite somehow figure out how to screw things up.

The latest example is the possible creation of “special economic zones.” When I first glanced at the story excerpted below, I thought this meant the Greek government was going to create something akin to “enterprise zones” featuring lower tax rates and less red tape.

Because I’m a supporter of the law applying equally to everybody, I’m not a big fan of such policies. I want to reduce the burden of government, of course, but I want that approach for entire countries, not just a handful of areas selected by politicians.

But at least the concept is good, right?

Not when Greek politicians are involved. They have taken the worst features of enterprise zones and combined them with the worst features of redistributionism. Here’s some of the story from Ekathimerini.

The government is paving the way for negotiations with the European Commission regarding the creation of special economic zones (SEZ) in Greece, Development Minister Costis Hatzidakis confirmed on Tuesday in Athens. …“SEZ will give a boost to the basis of the real economy,” said Hatzidakis, reiterating that the existing labor legislation will be fully respected. ..This forms part of the 10-point priority plan Hatzidakis announced yesterday aimed at boosting growth. Changes to the investment incentives law and the fast-track regulations will be completed within the next 15 days. The bill to be prepared will include subsidies of up to 80 percent for smaller companies… Public-private partnerships will be used for bolstering regional growth.

So the zones will keep all the bad labor laws, but provide big subsidies and create “public-private partnerships” (i.e., cronyism).

I hate to sound negative all the time, but that sounds precisely like the kind of nonsense that put Greece in a ditch to begin with.

To be fair, the article does talk about targeted tax relief and accelerated procedures for dealing with red tape. But that’s not exactly good news. Targeted tax cuts are a form of discrimination and they create an environment favorable to lobbying and corruption. And while it seems like good news to approve licenses more quickly, why not just get rid of bureaucratic hurdles? After all, this is the country (this is not a joke) that requires stool samples from entrepreneurs seeking to set up online companies.

It’s very hard to have any optimism after reading this type of story. Greece surely is an example of statism run amok, but let’s return to the point I made above about almost all other western nations heading in the same direction. Greece may be closest to the fiscal cliff, but the rest of us are driving in the same direction.

And if you think this is overheated rhetoric (yes, I’m prone to hyperbole), check out these dismal numbers from the Bank for International Settlements and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

P.S. The BIS and OECD numbers show that the United States is in worse shape – in the long run – than every European welfare state. I assume this is largely based on assumptions of health care spending rising more rapidly in America. The bad news is that this is a reasonable assumption (thanks to our third-party payer problem). The good news is that we can easily solve the problem with a combination of entitlement reform (which deals with a direct cause of third-party payer) and tax reform (which deals with an indirect cause of third-party payer).