As of February, the US is in a recession, and Texas is no different. While the cause is different than prior recessions, people’s financial struggles are the same.
With the voluntary social distancing and forced disruptions by state and local governments due to COVID-19, economic activity has collapsed, people have lost their jobs, and employers have lost their business. This economic recession means the state of Texas may face a shortfall in tax receipts compared with prior projections.
For example, the Texas Comptroller notes in a recent report that sales tax collections are the state’s biggest source of tax receipts, and they have declined greatly this year as many Texans are out of work, stuck at home, or simply adjusting their spending habits. The Texas budget will face a drop in oil-related taxes as well, as oil prices have fluctuated drastically in recent months.
When the Texas Legislature passed the 2020-21 budget last year, they could not have known the novel coronavirus and its effects. Now, Texas leaders must take action to adapt in these hard times.
In order to deal with a likely shortfall in tax receipts given the state’s balanced budget amendment, the state government can usually:
1) Raise taxes,
2) Use funds in the Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF), and/or
3) Lower government spending.
Raising taxes would only make the problems Texans face worse by raising the cost of living at a time when they’re already struggling financially.
Using the ESF is a viable option. However, with an expected total of $9 billion in the fund going into the 2021 Legislative Session and a sufficient fund balance needed for a high credit rating, there may not be too much to tap.
Therefore, the most responsible choice is to decrease government spending. Texas leaders have experience with this solution, and it can help to reignite the dynamic Texas economy.
In 2003, The Honorable Talmadge Heflin helped to navigate a $10 billion shortfall in tax receipts as Chairman of the Texas House Committee on Appropriations. Describing the success in 2003, Chairman Heflin wrote, “we dealt with the shortfall through targeted budget cuts and avoided raising taxes on already hard-pressed Texas families.” This is sage advice, and we would do well to follow it.
Then-Texas Governor Rick Perry adopted a budgeting strategy called “zero-based budgeting” that encouraged responsible spending. Further, the heads of state agencies and legislators worked together to find workable solutions for the budget gap. For example, 12 state agencies were consolidated into 5 agencies, and this effort saved taxpayers $1 billion.
Solutions are possible if our leaders are willing to work hard to make necessary changes.
While the big three Texas leaders have asked for some state agencies to find savings of 5% to cover some losses, the Foundation has called for all state agencies to find 15% in savings so there is shared sacrifice with Texas families, and their tax burden won’t increase.
There is a fourth consideration this time around as the U.S. Congress has provided federal funds to Texas through the CARES Act with $8.3 billion to state government and $3.1 billion to local governments. This means even more money is sloshing around, but the Legislature must not let federal funds be counted as permanent funds to the budget like some did in 2011 and then consider there to be cuts to government education or other programs when those funds dried up. There weren’t cuts to government education then but that false claim continues to scare people.
We must work to rejuvenate the Texas economy and the lives and livelihoods of Texans by ending the government’s shutdown of society, rein in wasteful spending, and permanently roll back unnecessary regulations so families can flourish.
This has been a wild year.
For me, my family moved last year from our beloved Texas to Virginia for my job with the extraordinary folks at the White House.
While there, I helped write the president’s budget that found taxpayer savings of a record $4.6 trillion over a decade, made permanent the Trump tax cuts, noted the need for a fiscal rule, highlighted the coming generational storm of debt, and made eliminating wasteful spending a top priority.
I helped craft the economic assumptions in the budget with 3% growth for years that balanced the budget over time if Congress simply followed the pro-growth vision of tax cuts, deregulation, energy independence, and improved trade deals that had already worked so well.
We had the pesky impeachment process that kept things extra busy around the office, but that failed political attempt was soon over with but a whimper.Then there were rumblings about COVID-19 that started in China. The virus spread globally. And soon was infecting Americans.
I subsequently found myself in the Situation Room for meetings regarding economic issues and was constantly reviewing the financial, economic, and health data to find trends, evidence, and indicators of the next step to address the spread.
There was a presidential declaration of a national emergency and White House guidance on how to safely practice social distancing to flatten the infection curve to not overwhelm hospitals.
It’s important to note that the White House didn’t shut down anything. State and local governments made those calls. And later, when the White House released its suggestions on how to safely end the shutdowns, federalism rightfully played a key role.
For someone from Houston, Texas (and a rock drummer as a young adult), this year was a whirlwind.
Leaving McLean, Virginia heading to Texas, I noticed few cars on the road and practically everyone wearing masks. We stopped in Nashville, Tennessee for a night, where they had more activity but still many people had masks. Our next stop was in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma where for the most part you couldn’t tell things had been shut down. And then we drove to Round Rock, which is just north of Austin, and there was lots more activity and some people wearing masks.
It felt like time travel—from a less prosperous past, with less freedom, to a better time with more prosperity for all.
While all 50 states have announced some form of a phased end to their shutdown, what we’ve generally seen is that Republican-dominated states like Texas, are moving forward much faster than Democrat-dominated states like Virginia. This means there will be less economic activity and larger fiscal problems in many blue states compared with red states.
And this will result in less hope for millions of people who are looking forward to getting back to work or finding a new job, reopening their business, and leaving a legacy. Moreover, the economic gains and declining inequality during the blue collar boom of the first three years of the Trump administration will likely be shattered as state and local leaders keep some form of lockdowns in place.
The more than $9 trillion of taxpayer money, which is half of the private sector’s annual output, authorized by Congress and making its way through either government coffers at every level or being leveraged by the Federal Reserve will be the largest redistribution of funds ever.
This unfair redistribution will be even worse if Congress chooses to bailout states (even more than it already has). Yet blue states are calling for such bailouts to deliver them from years of fiscal mismanagement and longer shutdowns. This will mean further increasing the national debt above total economic output and further increasing unfunded liabilities of “entitlement” programs of at least $100 trillion. Clearly, nothing is free as we will be paying for this now, our children will later, and so on at this pace.
Congress should just say no to bailouts, and instead have governors do like Gov. Abbott (R-TX) did and ask agencies to cut their budgets (just as families are having to do).
What a year it has been. Just the last couple of months have felt much longer. But we’re America, and we will once again be the beacon of hope for people across the globe. What we need is our God-given freedoms. The government’s role is not to save us; its role is simply to ensure those freedoms.
Don’t let this Great Disruption crush the hopes and dreams of millions of more Americans. Let’s end the shutdowns so people can control their destiny once more and reach the historic prosperity we had just a few months ago.
Could you have imagined, just a few short months ago when we had one of the best U.S. economies on record, that we would be facing one of the worst today?
It’s difficult to do.
But the disruptions caused by fear of COVID-19 and the shutdowns ordered by state and local governments have dramatically changed our lives — so much so that it’s difficult for many to have hope in a prosperous future. This recession should be called the Great Disruption.
But we can look to that roaring economic situation in February for guidance in finding the path to increasing our freedoms and flourishing now, no matter the circumstance.
This begins with responsibly ending the shutdowns ASAP.
We should look at the data and understand there is still a need to protect our vulnerable populations — but our kids should get back to school and us healthy adults should get back to work.
We take on risk every day, and even the shutdowns aren’t without risk. The data keep pouring in, demonstrating that in this case, the cure has been worse than the disease.
Researchers from top institutions looked at the data on fatalities related to COVID-19 and those losses of life from unemployment and missed health care due to the shutdowns. What they find is startling: “the disease has been responsible for 800,000 lost years of life so far” while the lockdowns are responsible for a conservative estimate of “at least 700,000 lost years of life every month, or about 1.5 million so far.”
In other words, the costs of the shutdowns on lost life-years is almost double that from COVID-19.
The value of life is hard to measure because each one is beautiful. That’s why it’s disturbing that the deaths from issues related to the shutdowns seem to be far exceeding those directly related to the disease.
Economist Casey Mulligan, who is a Professor at the University of Chicago and was recently the Chief Economist at the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, has been tracking the daily cumulative costs of the COVID-19 pandemic at pandemiccosts.com.
Mulligan notes that these costs were at least $1.3 trillion in total, or $10,954 per household through May 22. This includes mortality costs and market and nonmarket costs of shutting down the economy.
And this is just through May 22.
Consider the lost economic output on an annualized basis of -5 percent in the first quarter of 2020 and of a projected record -40 percent in the second. Compare this with the growth we could have had if pro-growth policies in President Trump’s budget that I helped craft had been implemented, and that’s roughly $2 trillion in lost prosperity.
If you add the more than $9 trillion Congress has approved in financial assistance packages, then you’re talking about nearly half of the economy being redistributed in some capacity — in a very short period.
This is certainly the greatest disruption ever and the swiftest redistribution ever — both of which will cause massive distortions throughout our livelihoods, including for future generations, and will need to be corrected soon.
And now, states are asking for more federal bailouts (when they’ve already been authorized to get about $1 trillion).
Bailouts will only enable blue states to extend their costly shutdowns and continue their poor fiscal policies, which long predate the pandemic. Yet House Democrats are prepared to grant the states’ requests, as they have passed another $1 trillion in state bailouts in the HEROES Act.
We must not let this happen.
Let’s not let this COVID-19 crisis go to waste, though. Let’s learn from our mistake — shutting down the economy is a cure clearly worse than the disease.
What should the path forward look like? Responsibility, not restrictions. Social distancing, not shutdowns. And governments and civil society must be better prepared for major costly events.
After ending the shutdowns, a way to ensure this is by passing the Workplace Recovery Act.
This Act would direct federal funds to assist any business that experienced losses due to the shutdowns out of their control. It would provide the operating cash businesses need to survive and employ workers. And while I’d prefer not one more dime be authorized, this proposal would work as a targeted automatic stabilizer until normality returns where businesses hire workers to not waste taxpayer money.
And if there’s a double-dip recession caused by shutdowns due to another wave of COVID-19, then Congress doesn’t need to pass more massive spending bills that bankrupt future generations. The WRA isn’t a silver bullet, but it will help give Americans confidence that no other legislation yet has.
We’ve had a natural experiment on how to deal with a pandemic. There were the best of intentions. But as Milton Friedman said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”
The results show we have much to learn, but an important one is governments should never shutdown our freedoms again.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D., is Chief Economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, Texas. He is the former Associate Director for Economic Policy of the Office of Management and Budget at the Executive Office of the President.
During most of my time at the White House over the last year, America was experiencing one of the best labor markets ever.
The White House called it a blue-collar boom. And they were right.
Then the Wuhan Virus changed everything. As Americans became infected, the resulting fear brought the dynamic blue-collar boom to a frozen standstill. Examining the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations’ measure of mobility by state reveals that people started practicing social distancing well before state and local governments shut down society. Subsequently, official government-mandated shutdowns solidified the ensuing fear and economic destruction.
It’s important to know where we’ve been in order to know how we should proceed.
The first thing to note is that we should never shut down the economy again. This should not be a precedent; it should be a lesson about how families, employers, and state and local governments must be better prepared to deal with these types of economic downturns in the future.
Where were we in February 2020, before this catastrophe happened?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ total nonfarm jobs data shows there was a fantastic monthly average of 216,000 new jobs created for the three months through February. In only two months, the U.S. economy added 465,000 jobs—24,000 more jobs than the Congressional Budget Office projected for the entirety of 2020 in its final pre-2016 election forecast.
More than 7 million jobs had been added since the 2016 election–5 million more than the CBO’s pre-2016 projection. The robust job creation contributed to the unemployment rate dropping to just 3.5 percent—the lowest in 50 years. The last time unemployment was that low, Nixon was president, and the first man just landed on the moon. The lives of Americans have improved much in the last half-century.
During the boom, wages continued to rise faster than the general level of prices. And not only had income inequality declined, but wealth inequality was also declining, as the wealth of the bottom half increased three times faster than the top half.
After struggling through the Obama years, the manufacturing sector added more than 500,000 jobs during Trump’s tenure. Construction jobs also increased substantially more than pundits and many economists thought possible.
This was before the Great Disruption of COVID-19 and the government shutdowns that unsettled our lives and ruined the livelihoods of millions of Americans.
Starting down the road to recovery begins with understanding how reached those earlier peaks.
During his time in office, President Trump implemented a barrage of pro-growth policies. Tax cuts, deregulation, energy abundance, and reformed trade deals unleashed the immense capabilities of American ingenuity. The result was a level of human flourishing not seen in most people’s lifetime.
Many claimed during the Obama administration that slow growth and declining opportunities were to be the “new normal” for the U.S. economy. Yet in just a short three years under Trump, those claims were proven wrong. In place of the economic malaise under Obama, came a new institutional framework supporting increased freedom and a genuine chance for all Americans to prosper.
Pro-growth policies that support free markets and free people will help us climb out of the economic despair we’re mired in. Instead, unexpected, unfortunate events sent many asking for handouts from taxpayers.
When you combine what was passed in legislation directly to people or programs with the amount authorized to the Federal Reserve to leverage for funding opportunities, Congress gave them plenty—to the tune of more than $9 trillion. But this policy could very well lead to a deepening and extending of the economic downturn, similar to what we witnessed during the Great Depression and Great Recession of 2008.
Furthermore, we haven’t even spent it all. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that more than $5 trillion hasn’t been allocated yet. Now is not the time to grant more requests for bailouts.
Research conducted by Casey Mulligan, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, shows that the costs of the pandemic and from the shutdowns have exceeded nearly $14,000 per household and the life years lost from increased unemployment and missed health care have been double those lost from COVID-19. Ultimately, the amount of fear Americans felt about the worrisome virus, along with the mixed signals from Congress, made the situation worse. We need to end the shutdowns before more damage is done.
If the pandemic hadn’t hit, the nation’s 130 million private-sector workers could have generated $16 trillion of income in 2020. Large sectors of the economy are reeling—from leisure and hospitality to retail, to manufacturing, to construction. Consider that if half of all private-sector workers and their employers are idled for three months, then $2 trillion in economic activity or 10% of GDP will be destroyed.
Unfortunately, most of the lost GDP will not be coming back, at least not very soon. It is reasonable to assume a return to a lower level of output and return to growth over time, in a check-shaped growth pattern as pent up demand and supply eventually get going again. But more importantly, the longer the shutdown lasts, the smaller the growth will be afterward as production will be inhibited with fewer employers in business and impacted supply chains.
This can change quickly, however, if we implement pro-growth policies. The path forward should consist of ways to get businesses operating and people back to work. One template for how to get this done is the recovery agenda advocated by the think tank I work for. By supporting the Workplace Recovery Act, suspending all payroll taxes, and permanently eliminating regulations that were suspended during the crisis, we can get the American economy roaring again.
For the sake of America’s future generations, we must get our fiscal house in order at all levels of government. We must impose strict fiscal rules that limit government spending, move to a less burdensome tax system, and reform welfare programs to build a system of opportunity and prosperity.
Ultimately, we need more freedom, not more government. Achieving this will allow us to soar back to the economic heights before this Great Disruption and much higher still. All we need is the political will to get it done.
Originally published in The Federalist
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.