Tag: Americans for Tax Reform

The Defense Lobby, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Bloomberg’s Roxana Tiron reports that Congress is nearing a deal to postpone some of the most contentious provisions of last year’s Budget Control Act (BCA) until March 2013, or later. This is good news for the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which has been lobbying since late last year to undo at least that portion of the BCA that pertained to the Pentagon’s budget (i.e. that portion that threatens to cut most deeply into its members’ profits).

Although the mechanics of sequestration’s across-the-board cuts are problematic, the scale of the Pentagon build-down would be modest by historical standards. And yet, the mere suggestion that sequestration might actually occur has sent the industry into apoplexy. The AIA’s campaign has included the release of a new report claiming that the BCA cuts could result in over 1 million lost jobs, and warnings that hundreds of thousands of workers would be receiving pink slips just a few days before the November elections.

In short, sequestration is a horror show, a Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the AIA’s public relations effort is designed to scare the wits out of the audience. “Sequestration,” explains Della Williams, the chief executive of Fort Worth-based Williams-Pyro Inc., “is surgery with a chain saw.”

But just as some people aren’t easily scared by campy slasher flicks, there are still a few people in Washington—especially Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR)—who are cheering for the guy with the chainsaw.

The two sides squared off in separate events last Thursday. At the Bloomberg Government Defense Conference, AIA President Marian Blakey, Reps. Norm Dicks (D-WA) and Randy Forbes (R-VA) and Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) called for bipartisan compromise on taxes in order to fund further Pentagon spending increases. Judging from the number of times that speakers invoked his name, Norquist posed a greater threat to national security than China or Iran. Levin, in particular, scorned ATR’s famed taxpayers’ pledge, and suggested that it was largely responsible for the impending catastrophe.

Norquist is characteristically unfazed by all this special interest pleading for more money. While Blakey and her congressional friends were attempting to rally the troops and rustle up more money, Norquist was reaffirming his opposition to higher taxes—including the closing of tax loopholes that generate more revenue—at a meeting on Capitol Hill. There is no Pentagon budget escape hatch in ATR’s pledge. If the defense industry wants more, it will have to get it from elsewhere in the budget.

The fight over sequestration, taxes, and the defense budget reveals text book cases of two perennial public policy realities: the politics of concentrated benefits, diffuse costs; and the economics of the seen vs. the unseen.

With respect to the first case, the defense industry, broadly defined, benefits disproportionately from Pentagon spending. And that industry can count many interested parties within its coalition. In addition to the defense companies, including the executives and the shareholders, there are also the workers’ at these firms (often represented by a union). Then there are the mayors and local officials who represent communities that are home to defense firms.

Given what is at stake, it is understandable that all of these groups have amped up their lobbying efforts to fend off sequestration. To take just one example, a single F-35 will cost, on average, nearly $125 million ($112.5 million for the aircraft, plus another $22 million for the engine). Prime contractor Lockheed Martin spent $15 million on lobbying in 2011 and is expected to spend even more this year. Such expenses can easily be justified to investors and shareholders if they are seen as protecting the company’s cash cow.

Individual taxpayers, by contrast, have little incentive to organize, and even less incentive to pool their money to fight against the AIA. The cost of the F-35, spread around to every taxpayer, amounts to about a dollar (if we just count the 122 million people who paid federal income taxes). Generally speaking, people do not scrutinize where every tax dollar goes; indeed, payroll tax withholding causes Americans to ignore what they pay in monthly taxes.

A few groups, including Norquist’s ATR, try to offset this imbalance of interests, and they have been reasonably successful. But Norquist’s pledges would be worthless if voters didn’t agree with him. But many do. In this poll (.pdf), for example, half of all respondents were opposed to having their taxes go up in order to pay for higher Pentagon spending.

The AIA’s other line of attack—the claim that substantial cuts in military spending will have a devastating impact on the economy, resulting in a million or more lost jobs—reveals the age-old broken-window fallacy. The AIA wants people to focus on that which is seen—defense workers who are laid off—and to ignore any consideration of how the economy as a whole will be better off if the resources that had previously gone to building planes and rockets are allocated elsewhere in the economy. These transitions are certainly difficult and painful for the individuals and firms involved, but they can be expected, all other factors being equal, to have salutary aggregate effects, especially over the long term. I’ll have more to say on that point later this week, drawing on my previous study of San Diego in the late 1950s, the early 1990s and the early 2000s.

In the meantime, I encourage you to read a succinct explanation of the broken-window fallacy from Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. And, if you’re really motivated, consider reading a less succinct, but more colorful, discussion of the phenomenon by Hazlitt’s intellectual forefather, the French philosopher Frédéric Bastiat.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Norquist Is Right, Coburn Is Wrong: Tax Increases Undermine Good Fiscal Policy

There’s a significant debate now taking place in Washington — largely behind closed doors, but sometimes covered by the media — on whether fiscal conservatives should maintain a rigid no-tax-increase position. One side of the debate features Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, which is the organization that maintains the no-tax-increase pledge. The other side features Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who is part of a small group of GOP senators who might be willing to increase the tax burden as part of a deal that supposedly reduces deficits.

I’m a huge fan of Senator Coburn, who was in favor of cutting wasteful spending before it became fashionable. His office, for instance, releases a “Pork Report” every couple of days. You shouldn’t read it if you have high blood pressure, because it will confirm (and reconfirm, and reconfirm, ad nauseum) your worst fears about tax dollars getting wasted.

Nonetheless, I’m on Grover’s side on this tax debate, for two reasons.

First, we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem or a deficit/debt problem. Red ink is undesirable, to be sure, but it is a symptom of the underlying problem of a government that is too big and spending too much.

But don’t believe me. Here is a chart from the House Budget Committee showing long-run projections for spending and revenues over the next 70 years. As you can see, the long-run fiscal shortfall is completely caused by higher spending. In other words, 100 percent of red ink is due to government spending. So why put taxes on the table?

But this chart actually understates the case against tax increases. It uses revenue numbers from the Congressional Budget Office’s “alternative” forecast, which shows taxes steady at 19.3 percent of GDP. That’s more than the historical average of about 18 percent of GDP, which surely indicates that revenues are not the problem.

However, that 19.3 percent estimate is completely artificial. As CBO states in its long-run forecast, “the alternative fiscal scenario also incorporates unspecified changes in tax law that would keep revenues constant as a share of GDP after 2020.”

I’ll actually be delighted if we can permanently keep federal revenues below 20 percent of GDP, but I’m not overly optimistic about that because the tax burden is projected to automatically increase over time. And I’m not talking about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts or the broadening of the alternative minimum tax. Yes, those factors would push up tax revenues (at least based on static revenue estimates), but the tax burden also is expected to climb because even modest economic growth slowly but surely pushes more and more people into higher tax brackets.

This second chart shows CBO’s estimate of personal income tax revenue based on current policy (as opposed to estimates based on current law, which includes already-legislated tax hikes). To be more specific, it shows how much revenue the government will collect from the individual income tax even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent and the AMT is indexed.

As you can see, the aggregate individual income tax burden will increase by roughly 5 percentage points of GDP when compared to the long-run average of about 8 percent of GDP (the CBO estimate only goes to 2035, so I extrapolated to show the same time period as the first chart). And remember, this is the forecast of what will happen to income tax revenues even if politicians don’t impose any new laws to coercively extract more revenue.

This might not be too bad if other taxes were falling, but that’s not what CBO is projecting. As such, this big increase in revenue from the individual income tax means that the overall tax burden will climb by approximately the same amount.

In other words, revenue likely will rise close to 25 percent of GDP as we approach the next century. So if we use this more realistic baseline, we can say that more than 100 percent of the long-run deficit problem is because spending is out of control.

The second reason for a firm no-tax-increase position is that higher taxes are a very ineffective way of reducing budget deficits. Indeed, tax increases generally backfire and lead to more red ink. To understand why, it’s important to put away the calculator and instead consider the real world of politics and public policy. For instance:

  • Tax increases rarely raise as much revenue as predicted by government forecasters. This is because of “Laffer Curve” effects, as taxpayers change their behavior to earn less income and/or report less income. Simply stated, people respond to incentives, and this means taxable income falls as tax rates increase.
  • Tax increases erode pressure to control spending. Why would politicians want to make tough decisions and upset special interest groups, after all, when there is going to be more revenue (or at least the expectation of more revenue)? Using more colloquial language, trying to control spending with higher taxes is like trying to cure alcoholics by giving them keys to a liquor store.
  • Milton Friedman was right when he said that “in the long run, government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.” In other words, if politicians think they can get away with deficits averaging, say, 5 percent of GDP in the long run, then the only impact of higher taxes is an equal amount of additional spending — while still retaining deficits of 5 percent of GDP.

The real-world evidence certainly points in this direction. We’ve seen “bipartisan budget summits” several times in Washington, and the result is more spending rather than lower deficits. Americans for Tax Reform has a good analysis of what happened after the two big budget summits in 1982 and 1990, but I think the problem is best captured by my adaptation of a famous Peanuts cartoon strip.

Every year, if my aging memory is correct, Lucy would ask Charlie Brown if he wanted to kick the football. At first, Charlie was skeptical. But Lucy always managed to trick him into giving it a try. And the inevitable result was Charlie Brown lying on his back wondering why he had been so foolish.

In the Washington version of this cartoon, Democrats hypnotize gullible Republicans with ostensibly sincere promises of future spending restraint. Republicans eventually acquiesce, naively assuming that Democrats will be their new BFFs in the fight against big government.

Needless to say, that’s not the way the story ends.

Ronald Reagan is reported to have said that the 1982 tax increase was the “biggest mistake” of his presidency. And since Congress never followed through on commitments to reduce spending by $3 for every $1 of higher taxes, he wryly remarked that “I’m still waiting on those three dollars of spending cuts I was promised from Congress.”

Like Reagan, Coburn wants to do the right thing. But good intentions are not the same as good policy. America’s fiscal challenge is too much spending. Government is too big and it is wasting too much money. Taking more money from the American people is not the way to solve that problem.

The Growing Chorus for Criminal Justice Reform

The American criminal justice system has long been flawed. This probably isn’t news to you. What is news is the emergence of a broad chorus of organizations and leaders from across the political spectrum speaking out in support of serious reform. A few examples:

The Smart on Crime Coalition released its recommendations (and in pdf) for the 112th Congress, providing ways that the federal government can help fix the criminal justice system. Congress creates, on average, a new criminal offense every week. The urge to overcriminalize just about everything needs to be replaced with serious thought about how broadly Congress writes laws so that the drive to lock up a few bad actors does not make felons of a large portion of the citizenry.

The Smart on Crime report also points out the need for reform of asset forfeiture laws, building on the excellent Policing for Profit report produced by the Institute for Justice last year.

Conservatives see the need for reform as well. Right on Crime makes the case for a number of policy changes that not only focus law enforcement resources but aim to save taxpayer dollars.

Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, a signatory to Right on Crime’s Statement of Principles, points to recent reforms in Texas at National Review:

When the Lone Star State’s incarceration rates were cut by 8 percent, the crime rate actually dropped by 6 percent. Texas did not simply release the prisoners, however. Instead, it placed them under community supervision, in drug courts, and in short-term intermediate sanctions and treatment facilities. Moreover, it linked the funding of the supervision programs to their ability to reduce the number of probationers who returned to prison. These strategies saved Texas $2 billion on prison construction. Does this mean Texas has gotten “soft on crime”? Certainly not. The Texas crime rate has actually dropped to its lowest level since 1973.

The lesson from Texas is that conservatives can push reforms that both keep Americans safe and save money, but only if we return to conservative principles of local control, performance-based funding, and free-market innovation.

As Radley Balko recently wrote at Reason, there are points where libertarians and conservatives will differ, but there is cause for optimism in the recognition that we can’t continue to lock up so many of our citizens. The United States accounts for 5% of the world’s population, yet 23% of the world’s reported prisoners. Hopefully Jim Webb’s National Criminal Justice Commission Act will end his Senate career on a positive note, and prompt serious changes to the way that the states and federal government deal with crime.

To gain an appreciation of the scope of the problem, check out Tim Lynch’s In the Name of Justice: Leading Experts Reexamine the Classic Article “The Aims of the Criminal Law” and Harvey Silverglate’s Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.

The False Choice Between a VAT and Impossible Spending Cuts

Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana has triggered a spat among policy wonks with his recent comments expressing sympathy for a value-added tax (VAT). Kevin Williamson of National Review is arguing that a VAT will probably be necessary because there is no hope of restraining spending. Ryan Ellis of Americans for Tax Reform jumped on Williamson for his “apostasy,” arguing that a VAT would be bad news for taxpayers. From a policy perspective, I’m very much against a VAT because it will finance bigger government, as explained in this video.


That being said, Kevin Williamson makes a good point when he says that some supply-siders have neglected the spending side of the fiscal ledger. And it certainly is true that Republicans don’t seem very interested in curtailing the growth of government. But does this mean, as Williamson argues, but that our choices are limited to 1) a 36 percent spending cut, 2) catastrophic deficits and debt, or 3) a European-style value-added tax.

I actually think it would be a great idea to reduce the budget by 36 percent. That would bring the burden of federal spending back down to where it was in 2003. Notwithstanding the screams from various interest groups that this would generate, nobody was starving in the streets when the budget was $2.3 trillion rather than today’s $3.5 trillion. But Kevin is unfortunately correct in noting that this type of fiscal reform won’t happen.

Kevin is wrong, however, in saying that we therefore have to choose between either Greek-style deficits or a VAT. According to the Congressional Budget Office, tax revenues over the next 10 years will increase by an average of about 7.3 percent each year - and that’s assuming the tax cuts are made permanent and the AMT is adjusted for inflation. Reducing red ink simply requires that politicians exercise a tiny bit of restraint so that spending grows by a lesser amount. This video walks through the numbers and shows how quickly the budget could be balanced with varying levels of spending discipline.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that the VAT has not prevented gigantic deficits in nations such as Greece, Japan, Ireland, Spain, England, etc, etc. Politicians in those nations implemented VATs, usually with promises that the money would be used to reduce other taxes and/or lower red ink, but all that happened was more spending and bigger government (this cartoon makes the point in a rather amusing fashion). In other words, Milton Friedman was right when he wrote that, ”In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.”