Tag: budget deficit

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Tax Subsidy, Either

I hit a nerve with my post, “There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Tax Expenditure.”  To recap: The federal tax code has credits, deductions, exemptions, and exclusions that reduce tax revenue.  By convention, budget experts call that forgone revenue a “tax expenditure,” a “tax subsidy,” or even “backdoor spending in the tax code.”  This is incorrect.  To claim that forgone tax revenue is a government expenditure implies that the money at stake actually belongs to the government, which is graciously letting taxpayers keep it, rather than to the people who earned it.  Government is not spending that money; it is merely not extracting that money from the private sector.  Statists deliberately use terms like “tax expenditure” precisely because that erroneous impression obscures their efforts to raise your taxes.

Less than an hour after posting, Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress Action Fund called me “daringly inaccurate.”  (Why be timid?)  The Manhattan Institute’s Josh Barro devoted a very thoughtful 1,155 words to the topic at NRO.

Yglesias explains in an email:

I understand why you might want to object to the “tax expenditure” phrasing, but surely we can agree that there’s such a thing as a “tax subsidy,” right? If the government declares that fuel-efficient hybrid cars are now tax-deductible, that’s a subsidy to the makers and purchasers of Priuses.

I’m afraid I cannot agree to that.

  • The term “tax expenditure” is nonsense because not taking Peter’s money, conditional on Peter buying a Prius, is not the same as spending the same amount of money on a Prius.  The outcome may be exactly the same.  But no one can spend money that he doesn’t possess.
  • The term “tax subsidy” is likewise nonsense because a subsidy involves giving something to someone else.  Not taking Peter’s money, conditional on Peter buying a Prius, is not a subsidy to Peter.  The government is not giving Peter anything.  Nor is it a subsidy to Paul, even though he profits from Prius sales: the government is not giving anything to Paul, either.  Again, the outcome may be exactly the same as a government subsidy.  Notably, Paul’s income rises.   Yet it does not rise because Paul received a subsidy.  Paul’s income rises because the state used coercion in a different way: to alter, for Peter, the cost of a Prius relative to other uses of Peter’s income.
  • To see the absurdity, consider what it would mean to eliminate a “tax subsidy.”  All else equal, eliminating an actual government subsidy reduces the tax burden.  Eliminating a “tax subsidy” increases someone’s tax burden.  Which is the whole point, isn’t it?

Barro makes more of our disagreement than actually exists.

  • We agree targeted tax preferences are harmful.  (I argue, for example, that the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance operates more like a tax hike than a tax break because, among other atrocities, it denies the typical parent control over $10,000 of her earnings.)
  • We agree they expand government power.
  • We agree government should account for them.  (Along those lines, the Congressional Budget Office has developed a concept it calls the “federal budgetary commitment to health care,” which is the sum of all federal health spending and all tax revenue forgone due to health-related tax loopholes.  The CBO calls them “tax expenditures” –  grrrr.  I dislike “budgetary commitment” for the same reason: the government can’t commit resources it doesn’t possess. But the CBO is on to something. We need an aggregate measure of “federal budgetary interference in the economy.”)
  • Finally, Barro and I probably agree that Congress should simultaneously eliminate all such loopholes and reduce marginal payroll- and income-tax rates – perhaps to zero.

I reject the term “tax expenditure” – as distinct from the concept – because it is nonsensical and biases the debate toward more government control of the economy and our lives.   Barro asks what term I’d prefer. Until someone comes up with something pithier than “tax revenue forgone due to targeted tax preferences,” I’ll stick with that.

Republican Agenda: Privatization

In coming months, new Republican members of Congress will be looking for ways to cut the budget deficit and also to increase economic growth. One way to do both is to privatize government assets, such as the U.S. Postal Service, Amtrak, and the air traffic control system.

Privatization can reduce deficits from the one-time gain of an asset sale and from the elimination of annual taxpayer subsidies. Privatization can spur economic growth by moving resources from moribund government agencies to the higher-productivity and more innovative private sector.

A new report by a trade magazine specializing in privatization confirms that the United States lags many nations on innovative infrastructure financing. Public Works Financing has been tallying data on “public-private partnerships” around the world since 1985. PPP is sort of half way toward the full privatization of government assets such as highways. I prefer full privatization (such as this highway), but PPP has swept the world in recent years and it is a step in the direction of market reform.

Public Works Financing is subscription only, but I can summarize a few findings from their October annual survey.

  • Since 1985, the magazine has tallied 1,867 PPP infrastructure projects worldwide valued at $712 billion. U.S. projects represented just 8 percent of the total value.
  • With a population about 10 percent as large as the United States, Canada had 53 percent of the U.S. PPP deal value. With a population of a similar size as the United States, Europe has had five times the value of PPP deals.
  • Of the 35 top global transportation firms doing PPP deals, the United States had only one firm, Flour, which was ranked number 33. Countries with firms heavily involved in PPP include Spain, Australia, China, and France. American entrepreneurs are apparently losing out because U.S. policymakers are asleep at the switch regarding private sector infrastructure financing.

Examples of PPP in the United States include the project to widen the Capital Beltway in Virginia, which involves the firms Transurban and Flour, and the leasing of the Indiana Toll Road, which involves Cintra and Macquarie. These deals aren’t full privatization, but they will hopefully bring some market efficiencies into an area of the economy dominated by the government over the last half century.

Congress is expected to write a major transportation authorization bill next year. The likely GOP chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, John Mica, has a more favorable view of private infrastructure than the prior Democratic chairmen. However, it is not clear that some of the incoming Republicans really understand the anti-spending message that voters delivered on Tuesday. Regarding President Obama’s $8 billion in wasteful high-speed rail subsidies, Mica did not call for killing them, but just for making them “better directed.”

The election ended the debate over whether to cut federal spending, but the debate about cutting particular programs has just begun.

British Military Cuts, Conservatives, and Neocons

Yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron announced Britain’s biggest defense cuts since World War II. The cuts affect the British military across the board.

The Army will shed 7,000 troops; the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force will each lose 5,000 personnel; the total workforce in the Ministry of Defence, including civilians, will contract by 42,000. The Navy’s destroyer fleet will shrink from 23 to 19. Two aircraft carriers – already under construction – will be completed, but one of the two will be either mothballed or sold within a few years. Whether the one remaining flattop in the British fleet will actually deploy with an operational fixed-wing aircraft is an open question. They’ve decided to jettison their Harriers; a technological marvel when it was first introduced, it has a limited range and a poor safety record. In its place, the Brits still intend to purchase Joint Strike Fighters, but not the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version.

And right on cue, Max Boot argues in today’s Wall Street Journal, following the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano’s example, that fiscal conservatives should not use these cuts as an example of how to reign in deficits. According to Boot and Carafano, military spending is off-limits. Period.

But as I note at The Skeptics, most Americans do not buy into this argument:

In Boot’s telling, Cameron’s decision inevitably places a heavier burden on the shoulders of American taxpayers and American troops.

But why should Americans perform a function for other governments that they are obligated by tradition, law and reason to perform for themselves? Defense is, as Boot notes, “one of the core responsibilities of government.” I would go one better: defense is one of the only legitimate responsibilities for government. So why does Max Boot think that Americans should simply resign themselves to take on this burden, doing for others what they should do for themselves?

I suspect that he fears that most Americans are not comfortable with the role that he and his neoconservative allies have preached for nearly two decades, hence his preemptive shot across the bow of the incoming congressional class that will have been elected on a platform of reducing the burden of government. True, the public is easily swayed, and not inclined to vote on foreign policy matters, in general, but as I noted here on Monday, it seems unlikely that the same Tea Partiers who want the U.S. government to do less in the United States are anxious to do more everywhere else. And, indeed, such sentiments are not confined to conservatives and constitutionalists who are keenly aware of government’s inherent limitations. Recent surveys by the Chicago Council of on Global Affairs (.pdf) and the Pew Research Center (here) definitively demonstrate that the public writ large is anxious to shed the role of global policeman.

Click here to read the entire post.

Cut (Really Cut) Military Spending

Today ForeignPolicy.com has a feature article examining possible “Plan B’s for Obama,” with contributions coming from numerous experts. My contribution to the feature is titled “Cut (Really Cut) Military Spending.”

It is time for President Obama and the administration to finally notice the increasing calls—from across the political spectrum—that the Pentagon’s budget should not be off limits when reducing the deficit.  From the Foreign Policy article:

Despite all the hype about Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his cuts of big-ticket military projects, the Pentagon’s $680 billion budget is actually slated to increase in coming years. This is unconscionable at a time when taxpayers are under enormous stress and when the U.S. government must reduce spending across the board. Barack Obama can save big bucks without undermining U.S. security – but only if he refocuses the military on a few, core missions.

The hawks will scream, but America will be just fine. Obama can capitalize on the country’s unique advantages – wide oceans to the east and west, friendly neighbors to the north and south, a dearth of powerful enemies globally, and the wealth to adapt to dangers as they arise – by adopting a grand strategy of restraint. The United States could shed the burden of defending other countries that are able to defend themselves, abandon futile efforts to fix failed states, and focus on those security challenges that pose the greatest threat to America. A strategic shift of this magnitude will not only reduce conflict and make the United States safer, but it will enable Obama to reshape the military to suit this more modest set of objectives, at a price that’s far easier for taxpayers to swallow.

Click here to read the full article

Prof. Krugman Is Wrong, Again

Prof. Paul Krugman asserts in his New York Times column of May 31st that “Both textbook economics and experience say that slashing spending when you’re still suffering from high unemployment is a really bad idea – not only does it deepen the slump, but it does little to improve the budget outlook, because much of what governments save by spending less they lose as a weaker economy depresses tax receipts.”

While Prof. Krugman and most other fiscalists believe this to be self-evident, it is not.  Indeed, this fiscalist dogma fails to withstand the indignity of empirical verification.  Prof. Paul Krugman’s formulation fails to mention the state of confidence.  This is an important oversight.  As Keynes himself put it: “The state of confidence, as they term it, is a matter to which practical men pay the closest and most anxious attention.”

By ignoring the confidence factor, economic theory can lead to wildly incorrect conclusions and misguided policies.  Just consider naive Keynesian fiscal theory – the type presented (as Prof. Krugman notes) in textbooks and embraced by most policymakers and the general public.  According to Keynesian theory, an expansionary fiscal policy (an increase in government spending and/or a decrease in taxes) stimulates the economy, at least for a year or two after the fiscal stimulus.  To put the brakes on the economy, Keynesians counsel a fiscal contraction.

A positive fiscal multiplier is the keystone for Keynesian fiscal theory because it is through the multiplier that changes in the budget balance are transmitted to the economy.  With a positive multiplier, there is a positive relationship between changes in the fiscal deficit and economic growth: larger deficits stimulate growth and smaller ones slow things down.

So much for theory.  What about the real world?  Suppose a country has a very large budget deficit.  As a result, market participants might be worried that a further loosening of fiscal conditions would result in more inflation, higher risk premiums and much higher interest rates.  In such a situation, the fiscal multipliers may be negative.  Fiscal expansion would then dampen economic activity and a fiscal contraction would increase economic activity.  These results would be just the opposite of those predicted by naive Keynesian fiscal theory.

The possibility of a negative fiscal multiplier rests on the central role played by confidence and expectations about the course of future policy.  If, for example, a country with a very large budget deficit and high level of debt (estimated U.S. deficit and debt levels as a percentage of GDP for 2010 are 10.3% and 63.2%, respectively) makes a credible commitment to significantly reduce the deficit, a confidence shock will ensue and the economy will boom, as inflation expectations, risk premiums and long-term interest rates decline.

There have been many cases in which negative fiscal multipliers have been observed.  The Danish fiscal squeeze of 1983-86 and the Irish stabilization of 1987-89 are notable.  The fiscal deficits that preceded the Danish and Irish fiscal squeezes were clearly unsustainable, and risk premiums and interest rates were extremely high.  Confidence shocks accompanied the fiscal squeezes, and with negative multipliers in play, the Danish and Irish economies took off.  (Evidence from the U.S. is presented in an article by Professors Jason E. Taylor and Richard K. Vedder which appears in the current May/June 2010 issue of the Cato Policy Report.)

Margaret Thatcher also made a dash for confidence and growth via a fiscal squeeze.  To restart the economy in 1981, Thatcher instituted a fierce attack on the British deficit, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy.  Her moves were immediately condemned by 364 distinguished economists.  In a letter to the Times of London, they wrote a knee-jerk Keynesian (Prof. Krugman-type) response: “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”  Thatcher was quickly vindicated.  No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures than the economy boomed.  People had confidence in Britain again, and Thatcher was able to introduce a long series of deep free-market reforms.

While Prof. Krugman’s authority is weighty, his arguments and evidence are slender.

The Greek Model

It was a good idea to get science and democracy from the ancient Greeks. It’s not such a good idea to get fiscal policy from the modern Greeks.

But that’s the way we’re headed.

Greece has a budget deficit of 13.6 percent. We’re not in that league – ours is only 10.6 percent, the highest level since 1945.

Greece has a public debt of 113 percent of GDP. We’re not there yet. But the 2009 Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports show the combined unfunded liability of these two programs has reached nearly $107 trillion.

Under President Obama’s budget, debt held by the public would grow from $7.5 trillion (53 percent of GDP) at the end of 2009 to $20.3 trillion (90 percent of GDP) at the end of 2020. It could rise to 215 percent of GDP in 30 years. Welcome to Greece.

Here’s a graphic presentation of the official debt and real net liabilities of various countries, including the United States and Greece at the right. (From the Telegraph, apparently based on Jagadeesh Gokhale’s report.)

offbalancesheet

And here’s a Heritage Foundation chart on where the national debt is headed in the coming decade:

Paul Krugman wrote, “My prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the [fiscal] crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt. And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar.” Now he was writing in 2003, when a different president was in office, but he was also warning about the possibility of a ten-year deficit of $3 trillion. Presumably the same warnings apply to today’s much larger deficit projections. And he was absolutely right to fear that government would turn to inflation as a supposed solution.

Furor over Government Employees

Concern about the pay, benefits, and performance of government employees seems to be growing. Chris Edwards’s articles on how government pay is outpacing private-sector pay have generated media attention, cartoons, and angry rebuttals from the head of the federal Office of Personnel Management. Steven Greenhut has a new book, Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation, and is writing lots of newspaper articles on the high costs of government unions, also the topic of a recent Cato Policy Analysis. New Jersey unions are not finding much sympathy as they try to hold on to their raises, benefits, pensions, and work rules in the face of Gov. Chris Christie’s attempt to cut the budget. Liberal journalist Mickey Kaus is running for the U.S. Senate, trying to warn California’s voters and the Democratic Party about the excessive power and destructive influence of public employee unions.

And now Saturday Night Live. The zeitgeist-riding comedy show had a truly harsh sketch this weekend about the “Public Employee of the Year Awards.” It touched every element of popular resentment toward government workers: “people with government jobs are just like workers everywhere – except for the lifetime job security, guaranteed annual raises, early retirement on generous pensions, and full medical coverage with no deductibles, office visit fees, or copayments” – “retirement on full disability” by an obviously young and healthy worker – “Surliest and Least Cooperative State Employee” – “3200 hours [a year] on the job, all of it overtime” – New York school janitors living in Florida – employees with two current jobs and full disability – an entire workday at the DMV without serving a single customer – no-work contracts –  surprisingly early closings – and “he’s on break.”

Time for unions to start worrying?