Tag: Bruce Bartlett

Debunking the Left’s Tax Burden Deception

I testified yesterday before the Joint Economic Committee about budget process reform. As part of the Q&A session after the testimony, one of the Democratic members made a big deal about the fact that federal tax revenues today are “only” consuming about 15 percent of GDP. And since the long-run average is about 18 percent of GDP, we are all supposed to conclude that a substantial tax hike is needed as part of what President Obama calls a “balanced approach” to red ink.

But it’s not just statist politicians making this argument. After making fun of his assertion that Obama is a conservative, I was hoping to ignore Bruce Bartlett for a while, but I noticed that he has a piece on the New York Times website also implying that America’s fiscal problems are the result of federal tax revenues dropping far below the long-run average of 18 percent of GDP.

In a previous post, I noted that federal taxes as a share of gross domestic product were at their lowest level in generations. The Congressional Budget Office expects revenue to be just 14.8 percent of G.D.P. this year; the last year it was lower was 1950, when revenue amounted to 14.4 percent of G.D.P. But revenue has been below 15 percent of G.D.P. since 2009, and the last time we had three years in a row when revenue as a share of G.D.P. was that low was 1941 to 1943. Revenue has averaged 18 percent of G.D.P. since 1970 and a little more than that in the postwar era.

To be fair, both the politician at the JEC hearing and Bruce are correct in claiming that tax revenues this year are considerably below the historical average.

But they are both being a bit deceptive, either deliberately or accidentally, in that they fail to show the CBO forecast for the rest of the decade. But I understand why they cherry-picked data. The chart below shows, rather remarkably, that tax revenues (the fuschia line) are expected to be back at the long-run average (the blue line) in just three years. And that’s even if the Bush tax cuts are made permanent and the alternative minimum tax is frozen.

It’s also worth noting the black line, which shows how the tax burden will climb if the Bush tax cuts expire (and also if millions of new taxpayers are swept into the AMT). In that “current law” scenario, the tax burden jumps considerably above the long-run average in just two years. Keep in mind, though, that government forecasters assume that higher tax rates have no adverse impact on economic performance, so it’s quite likely that neither tax revenues nor GDP would match the forecast.

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.

Bending the Cost Curve: Ryan’s Roadmap Would Succeed Where ObamaCare Fails

From my oped in today’s Investors Business Daily:

Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) “Roadmap for America’s Future” proposes even tighter limits on Medicare’s growth, leading columnist Bruce Bartlett to opine, “the Medicare actuaries have shown the absurdity of the Ryan plan by denying that Medicare cuts already enacted into law are even worthy of projecting into the future.”

On the contrary, experience and public choice theory suggest that the Ryan plan has a better shot at reducing future Medicare outlays than past efforts, because the Roadmap would change the lobbying game that fuels Medicare’s growth.

For more on Ryan’s Roadmap, click here.  For more on Medicare, read David Hyman’s Medicare Meets Mephistopheles.  For more on public choice economics, click here.

Re. Ezra Klein: Did State and Local Anti-stimulus Nullify Federal Stimulus?

A recent Washington Post column by Ezra Klein dreamed up a new excuse for the conspicuous failure of Obama’s so-called stimulus plan.   Klein argues that the stimulus of federal spending has been offset by the “anti-stimulus” of fiscal austerity by state and local governments.  For proof he quotes Bruce Bartlett, who is fast becoming the favorite go-to guy for liberals seeking conservative allies in their endless quest for more spending and taxes. 

Bartlett says, “When the history of the current crisis is written, much of the blame will be placed on the sharp fiscal contraction of state and local governments.  I think economists will view this as a preventable error equivalent to the Fed’s passive shrinkage of the money supply in the early 1930s.”

A historian himself, Bartlett imagines this to be a question that will have to be pondered by historians in the distant future.   But it is easy to identify each sector’s direct contribution to the overall growth rate of real GDP from a St. Louis Fed publication, “National Economic Trends.” 

State and local government spending was rising during the first three quarters of the recession, and the drop in the fourth quarter of 2008 accounted for just 0.25% of the 5.37% annualized decline in GDP.  In the first quarter of 2009, state and local spending subtracted  just 0.19% from real GDP, but federal spending subtracted more (0.33%) due to cuts in defense spending.  Government obviously made only a minor contribution to the 6.4% drop in overall GDP.
  
In the second quarter of 2009, state and local spending was way up (by 0.48%), as was federal spending (0.85%).  But the private economy did not begin expanding until the third quarter – when government spending stopped diverting so many resources to unproductive uses.
 
The table shows that government spending on goods and services had nothing to do with the recovery (transfer payments don’t contribute to GDP).  

As a matter of simple accounting, the state and local sector has been a very minor negative force −scarcely comparable to the Fed’s inaction in 1930-32

Federal purchases, whether for heavily-subsidized ”green jobs” or shovel-ready pork, have been virtually irrelevant during the last two quarters.

Contributions to Real GDP Growth
……………………..  3rd…… 4th…… 1st qtr

Real GDP              2.2         5.6             3.0%
Private                   1.6         5.8             3.4
Federal                  0.6        0.0            0.1
State & Local     -0.1      -0.3           -0.5

Should Republicans Have Compromised to Produce a Less-Bad Healthcare Bill?

Writing for Forbes, Bruce Bartlett puts forth an interesting hypothesis that healthcare legislation could have been made better (hopefully he meant to write “less destructive”) if the GOP had been willing to compromise with Democrats:

Democrats desperately wanted a bipartisan bill and would have given a lot to get a few Republicans on board. This undoubtedly would have led to enactment of a better health bill than the one we are likely to get. But Republicans never put forward an alternative health proposal. Instead, they took the position that our current health system is perfect just as it is.

Bruce makes several compelling points in the article, especially when he notes that it will be virtually impossible to repeal a bad bill after 2010 or 2012, but there are good reasons to disagree with his analysis. First, he is wrong in stating that Republicans were united against any compromise. Several GOP senators spent months trying to negotiate something less objectionable, but those discussions were futile. Also, I’m not sure it’s correct to assert Republicans took a “the current system is perfect” position. They may not have offered a full alternative (they did have a few good reforms such as allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines), but their main message was that the Democrats were going to make the current system worse. Strikes me as a perfectly reasonable position, one that I imagine Bruce shares.

Let’s explore Bruce’s core hypothesis: Would compromise have generated a better bill? It’s possible, to be sure, but there are also several reasons why that approach may have backfired:

1. It’s not clear a policy of compromise would have produced a less-objectionable bill. Would Senate Democrats have made more concessions to Grassley and Snowe rather than Lieberman and Nelson (much less whether the “concessions” would have been good policy)? And even if Reid made some significant (and positive) concessions, is there any reason to think those reforms would have survived a conference committee with the House? Yet the compromising Republicans probably would have felt invested in the process and obliged to support the final bill — even if the conference committee produced something worse than the original Senate Democrat proposal.

2. A take-no-prisoners strategy may be high risk, but it can produce high rewards. In the early 1990s, the Republicans took a no-compromise position when fighting Bill Clinton’s health plan (aka, Hillarycare), and that strategy was ultimately successful. We still don’t know the final result of this battle (much less how events would have transpired with a different strategy), but if the long-term goal is to minimize government expansion, a no-compromise approach is perfectly reasonable.

3. A principled opposition to government-run healthcare will help win other fights. The Democrats ultimately may win the healthcare battle, but the leadership will have been forced to spend lots of time and energy, and also use up lots of political chits. Does anyone now think they can pass a “climate change” bill? The answer, almost certainly, is no.

4. A principled approach can be good politics, which can eventually lead to good policy. Democrats wanted a few Republicans on board in part to help give them political cover. The aura of bipartisanship would have given Democrats a good talking point for the 2010 elections (“My opponent is being unreasonable since even X Republicans also supported the legislation”). That fig leaf does not exist now, which makes it more likely that Democrats will pay a heavy price during the midterm elections. It is impossible to know whether 2010 will be a 1994-style rout or whether the newly-elected Republicans will quickly morph into Bush-style big-government conservatives (who often do more damage to liberty than Democrats), but at least there is a reasonable likelihood of more pro-liberty lawmakers.

When all is said and done, Bruce’s strategy is not necessarily wrong, but it does guarantee defeat. Government gets bigger and freedom diminishes. For reasons of principle and practicality, Republicans should do the right thing.

Bruce Bartlett’s VAT Delusions

I’ve known and liked Bruce Bartlett for more than 20 years, so you can imagine my dismay that he is now arguing for a value-added tax (VAT). I’m not sure whether his mind has been captured as part of a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or if he’s just been hanging around Washington for too long, but his implication that it is possible to be a pro-market conservative while supporting a huge new tax to finance bigger government is absurd.

Conservatives (not counting the big spenders who call themselves “compassionate conservatives”) share the libertarian goal of smaller government. And trying to achieve smaller government by raising taxes is akin to treating alcoholics by giving them keys to a liquor store.

The VAT is a particularly bad idea because it would be a huge new source of revenue, as Bartlett acknowledges in an article for Forbes.com:

Based on the experience in other countries, I estimate that a U.S. VAT could realistically tax about a third of the gross domestic product (GDP), which would raise close to $50 billion per percentage point. If we adopted Europe’s average VAT rate of 20%, we could raise $1 trillion per year in 2009 dollars.

He makes the point that a VAT does not do as much damage, per dollar raised, as the personal or corporate income tax, but so what? That would only be a compelling argument if the VAT was used to eliminate other taxes. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, that’s not what he’s proposing.

Interestingly, even though his core argument is that we should adopt a VAT to give the government additional revenue, Bartlett tries to be all things to all people by mentioning that a VAT could replace other taxes:

Replacing the corporate tax with a VAT would unquestionably improve the competitiveness of all U.S. exporters.

Even here, though, his argument is misleading. A VAT would have no impact on U.S. exporters. All the benefits would occur only because the corporate income tax would disappear. Not that this matters since Bartlett is not advocating for that position.

He then continues to muddy the waters by citing Senator DeMint’s legislation, presumably to make it seem as if his plan is good by association.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., introduced legislation (S. 1240) to establish a business consumption tax that is, in essence, a VAT.

There is a gigantic difference, of course, between Bartlett and DeMint. The senator proposes to replace the internal revenue code, whereas Bartlett wants to augment it.

He then complains that supporters of limited government attack his plan for facilitating bigger government, but he offers no refutation. That is no surprise since Bartlett is throwing in the towel, saying we should have a VAT since it is hopeless to fight against growing government:

[W]henever I suggest the idea of a VAT for the U.S., I am attacked by supply-siders and assorted right-wingers. The other day my friend Larry Kudlow criticized me for wanting to “Europeanize the American economy.” Their concern is that the VAT is a money machine that will lead to higher taxes and bigger government precisely because it is such a “good” tax. I myself held this same view for many years. But eventually I decided that it was stupid to oppose something because of its virtues. Opposing a VAT because it’s too good is like breaking up with your girlfriend because she is too beautiful.

The last line is clever, but ridiculous. The more appropriate analogy is that you are married to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Bartlett wants you to take the Wicked Witch of the West as a second wife.

If you want the real story on the VAT, watch this video.

Money in Politics, Virigina Edition

Bruce Bartlett has a good opinion piece on money in politics in Forbes.  He mostly focuses on self-funding candidates who rarely win even when they contribute large sums to their own campaigns.  The recent Democratic gubernatorial primary in Virginia, which Bartlett mentions, saw Terry McAuliffe spend over $7 million and lose badly.  McAuliffe financed his bid in the usual way by attracting contributions. His success at fundraising may have cost him votes in the end.

Despite the McAuliffe example and others mentioned by Bartlett, people still believe “only money matters in politics” or “money buys elections.” The truth is, money matters but not all that much. Other factors, like circumstances, partisanship and the quality of  the candidate, have more effect on the outcome of any election. It is true that incumbent members of Congress generally raise more than their challengers and almost always defeat them. But if you take into account the quality of a challenger, money has little effect on the outcome of a race.

We hear little these days about money buying elections. The people who complain about the power of money to subvert democracy are almost always on the left. If money buys elections, is Obama’s presidency a subversion of democracy? After all, the current president is the most successful fundraiser in American history, and not all of his money came from small contributors. But Obama didn’t buy the election of 2008. He was running against an unpopular administration with the economy mired in a deep recession. Obama was a skillful candidate who ran an effective campaign. John McCain could have matched Obama’s fundraising and the Republican still would have lost.

Money is overrated in politics. Just ask Terry McAuliffe.