Archives: 06/2011

Medicare Reform: Throwing Wasserman-Schultz ‘to the Wolves’

On CBS’s Face the Nation, Democratic National Committee chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (FL) said this of the House Republicans’ Medicare reform plan:

Republicans have a plan to end Medicare as we know it. What they would do is they would take the people who are younger than 55 years old today and tell them ‘You know what? You’re on your own. Go and find private health insurance in the healthcare insurance market, we’re going to throw you to the wolves and allow insurance companies to deny you coverage and drop you for pre-existing conditions. We’re going to give you X amount of dollars and you figure it out.

That ‘s the version of Wasserman-Shultz’s quote that the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler sent me.  Kessler also told me that the DNC cited me as a source for Wasserman-Shultz’s claims:

Michael Cannon: The Ryan Plan Would Provide More Subsidies To Seniors With Pre-Existing Conditions But Wouldn’t Guarantee Coverage. Michael Cannon, the Director of Health Policy Studies at Cato said during congressional testimony on the Ryan plan, “Thank you for the opportunity, Congressman. I think that lots of – all seniors under the chairman’s proposal, as I understand it, will be able to obtain health insurance coverage. And that’s the – that is because the payment they receive from the federal government to purchase that coverage will be adjusted for income so that lower-income people will get larger vouchers if you will. He doesn’t call them that, I’ll use the V word. And they’ll also be risk-adjusted so that people with severe illnesses will get larger vouchers and be able to purchase insurance coverage that will cover a lot of people who have a pre-existing condition. [HEARING OF THE HEALTH CARE, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, CENSUS AND THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE HOUSE OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE, 4/5/11]

The Actual Amount More Seniors With Pre-Existing Conditions Would Receive Had Not Been Set Out In The Ryan Budget. Michael Cannon, the Director of Health Policy Studies at Cato said during congressional testimony on the Ryan plan, “That would be a result of the rules, the specific risk-adjustment rule that haven’t been spelled out in his budget. But you would have sick people getting a lot more money.” [HEARING OF THE HEALTH CARE, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, CENSUS AND THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE HOUSE OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE, 4/5/11]

Empasis in original.

Kessler judged Wasserman-Shultz’s claim to be “bogus.”  FactCheck.org said it was “simply wrong.”

Kessler quoted me in his fact-check, but I think he left out the most important parts.  So here’s my entire email response to Kessler:

This is some high-octane idiocy.

Ryan’s plan says that insurance companies could not turn away seniors.  I’m not sure whether that means only (A) that insurers must issue a policy to all applicants (i.e., guaranteed issue) or whether Ryan’s plan would go further and (B) prevent insurers from charging sick enrollees more (i.e., price controls).  I hope Ryan would not include such price controls, but I see hints that that’s where he’s leaning.  If so, then the Ryan plan would include the very government guarantee that the DNC is complaining isn’t there.   It’d be a lousy guarantee, but it’d be there.

Regardless, the DNC’s attacks are still bunk.

If insurers can charge sick Medicare enrollees whatever they want, and Medicare gives sick enrollees enough money to cover those higher premiums, who needs price controls?  High premiums aren’t scary if you have the money to pay them.  A fair question would be whether the vouchers would be large enough.  The best evidence available (from the Dartmouth Atlas) suggests that one third of spending in traditional Medicare is pure waste.  That is a huge margin of safety: it means that the vouchers could be one-third less than what a Medicare enrollee would otherwise spend without reducing access to necessary care.  The quotes they took from me completely undercut their attacks on the Ryan plan.  I hope they keep quoting me.

Experts widely acknowledge that traditional Medicare exposes seniors to unnecessary and even harmful services.  And Medicare is rapidly consuming more and more of every American’s paycheck.  I can’t imagine anything more irresponsible than defending Medicare as we know it.

Health Care Odds & Ends

A few highlights from this week’s health care news:

  • Politico reports that Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) is a former health insurance executive. (He was a hospital executive.)
  • Suzy Khimm writes that to fix the problems created by centralized planning of the health care sector, we need more centralized planning of the health care sector.
  • The Obama administration  blows the doors open on the colossal failure that are ObamaCare’s high-risk pools, but doesn’t bother to say where the  money is coming from.

How’s that Housing Stimulus Working Out for You?

Yesterday Case-Shiller released their monthly housing price index.  Surprise, it fell by 4.2% in the first quarter of 2011.  I’ve been predicting a decline of about 6% over the course of 2011 (might need to adjust that).  Of course, this should come as no surprise.  We’ve spent the last couple of years trying to re-create the bubble, with little success.  While there’s been a home-buyer tax credit, the largest stimulus has been extremely cheap credit on the part of the Federal Reserve.  The problem with all these subsidies is they ignore the fact that eventually the housing market will come back to fundamentals.  And those fundamentals are demographics and income.  You cannot over long periods of time sustain house price increases without increases in incomes.  Loose credit only gets you so far.  Prices have already fallen enough to pretty much wipe out the entire value of the home-buyer tax credit.

Even worse than putting off the inevitable correction, subsidies that maintain prices above construction costs result in additional supply being added to an already glutted market.  While housing starts are near historic lows - they are still positive.  And worse, they are higher in the very markets in which we don’t want more building.  That permitting activity is twice as high in Phoenix as in San Diego, despite being of similar size, illustrates the perverse incentives of trying to re-inflate the bubble via demand subsides.  In supply-constrained markets you simply maintain prices at unaffordable levels - San Diego is still 54% above its 2000 price level - while in easy-to-build markets you add to the glut - prices in Phoenix are now back to 2000 levels. 

House prices were always going to find their “true” bottom. The question was simply: did we want to get there right away, or drag out the process? Washington chose the course of dragging out the process, at considerable cost.  I believe dragging out the process has only further spooked potential buyers.  Any buyer today has to suspect that further price declines are possible.  We need to get to the point where the only direction is up.  We aren’t there yet.  Policymakers continue to ignore the basics of supply and demand.  Unfortunately the rest of us pay the price for their doing so.

Wednesday Links

With the Support of the Obama Administration, Paris-Based OECD Now Wants De Facto World Tax Organization as Part of Its Anti-Tax Competition Campaign

I’ve been battling the Organization for Economic Cooperation for years, ever since the Paris-based bureaucracy unveiled its “harmful tax competition” project in the late 1990s. Controlled by Europe’s high-tax welfare states, the OECD wants to prop up the fiscal systems of nations such as Greece and France by hindering the flow of jobs and capital to low-tax jurisdictions.

Guided by a radical theory know as Capital Export Neutrality, the OECD wants to impose global tax rules that would prevent taxpayers from ever having the ability to benefit from better tax law in other jurisdictions. This is why, for instance, the international bureaucrats are anxious to undermine national tax laws – such as America’s favorable treatment of bank deposits from overseas – that enable people to escape onerous tax regimes.

Bolstered by support from the Obama Administration, the OECD now is taking its campaign to the next level. At its Global Tax Forum in Bermuda, which ends later today, the bureaucrats unveiled a new scheme that effectively would result in the creation of something akin to a World Tax Organization.

The vehicle for this effort is a Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters. This may sound dry and technical, but the OECD wants all nations to participate in this pact, which has existed for a couple of decades but was radically expanded last year to give high-tax governments sweeping new powers to impose bad tax law on income generated in low-tax jurisdictions.

But the real smoking gun is that the OECD has put itself in charge of the “co-ordinating body” that will have enormous powers to interpret the agreement, modify the pact, and resolve disputes – thus giving itself the ability to serve as judge, jury, and executioner.

This is a profoundly dangerous development with all sorts of very troubling implications. Since I’m in Bermuda trying to destabilize this effort, I don’t have time for extensive analysis, but here’s a press release from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity and here are some of my immediate concerns.

  1. Higher tax burdens. If high-tax governments succeed is imposing this Multilateral Convention (insert “World Tax Organization” whenever you see that term), tax competition will be undermined and politicians will respond by increasing tax burdens. This is why nations such as France have been pushing this scheme, of course, and why left-wing academics have long dreamed of this type of arrangement.
  2. Risk to human rights. Amazingly, the Multilateral Convention is open to repressive regimes, which then would have access to all sorts of sensitive and confidential taxpayer information. Already, the thuggish dictatorship of Azerbaijan has signed up, as well as the unstable nation of Moldova and the corrupt government of Mexico. The implications are grim, including the sale of private data to criminal gangs, the loss of sensitive information to hackers, and the direct misuse of American tax returns.
  3. Loss of sovereignty. For all intents and purposes, the Multilateral Convention outlaws certain pro-growth tax policies and discourages others. Equally worrisome, it creates a system allowing foreign tax collectors to cross borders. The Obama Administration has specifically acquiesced to this provision, so perhaps we will soon see corrupt Mexican tax authorities harassing businesses and individuals on American soil.
  4. Outlawing tax avoidance. The OECD historically has tried to portray its efforts as a fight against tax evasion, but the Multilateral Convention explicitly talks about “combating tax avoidance.” This should not be a surprise since the Capital Export Neutrality ideology is based on the notion that taxpayers should have zero ability to lower their tax burdens. This means we can fully expect an assault on all forms of tax planning, with American companies almost sure to be among the first to be in the OECD’s crosshairs.

The final insult to injury is that American taxpayers are the biggest funders of the OECD, providing nearly one-fourth of the bureaucracy’s bloated budget. So our tax dollars are being used by OECD bureaucrats (who receive tax-free salaries!) to dream up new ways of increasing our tax burdens. In case you need any additional reasons to despise this bureaucracy, here’s a video detailing its anti-free market activities.

 

And since I’m recycling some videos, here’s one explaining why tax competition is so important.

Are U.S. Corporate Taxes Low?

In a new column, Bruce Bartlett argues that U.S. corporate taxes are the lowest in the OECD, and therefore there is no need to reduce them. As usual, Bruce frames the debate as between sensible center-left economists like himself vs. crackpot Republicans. Yet on this issue, the great majority of serious tax scholars agree that a corporate tax rate cut is long overdue. Indeed, there is such broad agreement among experts that even the Obama White House is considering a corporate rate cut.

Bruce offers only weak and deceptive data in support of his views:

One would not know from the Republican document that corporate taxes are expected to raise just 1.3 percent of GDP in revenue this year, about a third of what it was in the 1950s.

This statistic does not show what Bruce pretends it shows. Corporate income taxes are paid by a subset of businesses called “C” corporations. But the share of total U.S. business income reported by C corporations has plunged in recent decades with the rise in other business structures, particularly LLCs and S corporations.

In a 2007 article in Tax Notes, PwC economist Peter Merrill showed that the share of total U.S. business income reported by C corporations fell from 71 percent in 1987 to just 49 percent by 2004. C corporations are less important business structures than they used to be, so it is to be expected that corporate taxes as a share of GDP has fallen.

Another way to see the relative decline in C corporations is to look at the ratio of C corporation revenues to GDP. In 1980, for example, C corporation revenues were more than two times larger than GDP ($6.1 trillion to $2.8 billion), but by 2008 C corporation revenues were only about 1.5 times larger than GDP ($22 trillion to $14 trillion). (Revenues from the IRS corporate report for those two years).

Bruce’s centerpiece is a table showing that U.S. corporate taxes as a share of GDP were 1.8 percent in 2008, a lower share than in other OECD countries. But the rise in LLCs and S corporations in the United States makes this table almost useless in furthering Bruce’s argument. C corporations may simply represent a smaller share of the overall economy in the United States than in other countries. To make his point, Bruce would need to show that taxes as a share of corporate profits are lower in the United States than elsewhere.

If taxes are low historically and in comparison with our global competitors, how are Republicans able to maintain that taxes are excessively high? They do so by ignoring the effective tax rate and concentrating solely on the statutory tax rate.

The effective tax rate Bruce refers to is the average effective rate, which is the rate he calculates in the faulty manner of taxes as a share of GDP. However, marginal effective rates are generally considered to be more important for international competitiveness. When Toyota is considering expanding its North American production at one of its U.S. or Canadian locations, it will look at the marginal effective tax rate in the two countries. And when it comes to marginal effective corporate tax rates, the United States has one of the highest rates in the world, according to a Cato study by tax scholars Jack Mintz and Duanjie Chen.

The economic importance of statutory tax rates is blown far out of proportion by Republicans looking for ways to make taxes look high when they are quite low.

Actually, statutory corporate tax rates are extremely important in the modern global economy because of the high mobility of corporate profits. In general, marginal effective tax rates drive real investment flows, but statutory corporate rates drive cross-border movements of reported income. Politicians frequently express their outrage at corporations pushing their profits offshore through transfer pricing and other techniques, but they could fix the problem anytime they wanted by slashing the uniquely high U.S. statutory corporate rate.   

This brings us back again to Bruce’s statistic that U.S. corporate taxes as a share of GDP are low at just 1.8 percent. Another reason that figure is low is that the high U.S. statutory rate is pushing reported income offshore through avoidance and evasion. If we cut the statutory corporate rate, the apparent low burden that Bruce points to would increase. This chart shows the inverse relationship between statutory corporate taxes and corporate taxes as a share of GDP.

By the way, if the importance of statutory corporate rates were “blown far out of proportion” as Bruce says, then why has every other advanced economy put so much effort into reducing its statutory rate over the last two decades? The answer is that liberal, centrist, and conservative governments around the world have understood that a country imposing a high statutory corporate rate shoots itself in the foot in today’s competitive world economy.

To sum up:

  • The U.S. has a low average effective corporate rate when measured incorrectly as a share of GDP, as Bruce does. The low rate results from the relative decline in C corporation business activity, the high U.S. statutory rate driving profits offshore, and the high U.S. marginal effective rate suppressing real investment.
  • The U.S. has one of the highest statutory corporate tax rates in the world. The high statutory rate drives reported income offshore, and it is also an important component of the marginal effective tax rate faced by companies.
  • The U.S. has one of the highest marginal effective corporate tax rates in the world according to some calculations, which likely reduces U.S. capital investment substantially. After all, “corporate taxes are the most harmful type of tax for economic growth,” according to the OECD.

 For more, see Global Tax Revolution.

Inflation Expert

Who knows more about inflation, Richard Galanti or Ben Bernanke? I maintain that, when it comes to the facts, Mr. Galanti knows more than the Fed chairman. Galanti is the CFO of Costco Wholesale Corp.

The Wall Street Journal reported last Thursday (May 26th) on a conference call with Mr. Galanti. He said “we saw quite a bit of inflationary pricing” in the 3rd quarter.

Price increases occurred in a broad range of products” dry dog food (3.5%). Detergents (10%+), plastic products (8-9%). Costco will “hold prices as long as we can.” When it can no longer, the consumer will face rising prices.

Costco is a good leading indicator of inflation at the retail level. It turns over inventory quickly, and is leading other retailers in restocking at higher prices. Costco offers a forward-looking view of consumer price inflation.

Meanwhile the Fed and its chairman, Ben Bernanke, rely on backward looking measures of inflation, like the CPI. That index, and the “core” component that excludes food and energy prices, overweight the depressed housing sector. And they are yesterday’s news.

For years, American consumers have benefitted from cheap imports from China and India. When those countries liberalized and opened up to global commerce, Americans got the benefit of the hard work and low wages of 2 ½ billion workers. The era of cheap labor is coming to an end, and with it the flood of imports that held down prices in the U.S. Especially in China, wage rates are rising rapidly.

Heretofore, the flood of dollars has chiefly affected asset prices and inflation in other countries. The flow through to U.S. consumer prices will now be quicker. You’ll experience it when you go to Costco to restock.