Tag: budget

Political Alchemy, Part I: Turning Spending Increases into Tax Cuts

Politicians in Washington have come up with something far more impressive than turning lead into gold or water into wine. Using self-serving budget rules, they can increase the burden of government spending and say they are cutting taxes instead.

This bit of legerdemain is made possible, thanks to the convolutions of the personal income tax, by adopting or expanding refundable tax credits. But in this case, “refundable” does not mean the government is returning money to taxpayers. Instead, it means that money is being redistributed to people who do not earn enough to be subject to the income tax.

This is hardly a trivial issue. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the amount of income redistribution being laundered through the tax code is now so large that the bottom 40 percent of the population has a negative “effective” income tax rate. In simple terms (though perhaps with profound political implications), the income tax is a revenue generator for a big share of the population.

And the problem is going to get worse if the President’s budget is approved. Buried in the fine print, on pages 188-189 of the Analytical Perspective of the Budget, you will see that the President is proposing to increase this hidden form of spending by more than $152 billion over the next 10 years.

It is worth noting that proponents argue that it is OK to classify this new spending as tax cuts because it somehow offsets other tax payments, especially the payroll tax. I’m sympathetic to lower taxes on everybody, including the poor, but surely it is better to be honest and simply cut the taxes that people pay. The current methodology, by contrast, is open to abuse. Heck, I’m surprised politicians don’t classify other forms of spending as tax cuts. Maybe corporate welfare can be reclassified as a corporate tax cut. (I better stop lest I give the political class any ideas.)

Defenders also assert that some so-called refundable tax credits, particularly the earned income tax credit, are designed to encourage work. That is partly true, but credits like the EITC are withdrawn as income climbs, and this means poor people face punitive marginal tax rates, so the overall effect on hours worked may be negligible.

The right approach, of course, is to get the federal government out of the racket of redistributing income.

Obama’s Big Tax Hike on U.S. Multinationals Means Fewer American Jobs and Reduced Competitiveness

The new budget from the White House contains all sorts of land mines for taxpayers, which is not surprising considering the President wants to extract another $1.3 trillion over the next ten years. While that’s a discouragingly big number, the details are even more frightening. Higher tax rates on investors and entrepreneurs will dampen incentives for productive behavior. Reinstating the death tax is both economically foolish and immoral. And higher taxes on companies almost surely is a recipe for fewer jobs and reduced competitiveness.

The White House is specifically going after companies that compete in foreign markets. Under current law, the “foreign-source” income of multinationals is subject to tax by the IRS even though it already is subject to all applicable tax where it is earned (just as the IRS taxes foreign companies on income they earn in America). But at least companies have the ability to sometimes delay when this double taxation occurs, thanks to a policy known as deferral. The White House thinks that this income should be taxed right away, though, claiming that “…deferring U.S. tax on the income from the investment may cause U.S. businesses to shift their investments and jobs overseas, harming our domestic economy.”

In reality, deferral protects American companies from being put at a competitive disadvantage when competing with companies from other nations. As I explained in this video, this policy protects American jobs. Coincidentally, the American Enterprise Institute just held a conference last month on deferral and related international tax issues. Featuring experts from all viewpoints, there was very little consensus. But almost every participant agreed that higher taxes on multinationals will lead to an exodus of companies, investment, and jobs from America. Obama’s proposal is good news for China, but bad news for America.

Tuesday Links

  • What we can learn from Hugo Chavez: “The lesson for all of us, north and south of the border, is watch our presidents closely, and check them when they try to slip their constitutional bonds.”

There Is Some Budget Good News, but It Is Actually Really Bad News

The Office of Management and Budget has released the President’s FY2011 budget and the Congressional Budget Office has released its semi-annual Budget and Economic Outlook. Much of the coverage of these documents has focused on deficit numbers. This is not a trivial concern, particularly since the Bush-Obama policies of bigger government have dramatically boosted red ink.

But the most important numbers in the budget documents are the estimates of what is happening to government spending. The good news is that burden of government spending is projected to decline over the next few years from about 25 percent of GDP to less than 23 percent of GDP.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that federal government outlays only consumed 18.2 percent of economic output when Bush took office. In other words, notwithstanding the good news cited above, the size and scope of government has increased dramatically since 2001. The worse news is that the long-run spending forecasts show a cataclysmic expansion in the burden of government. The “optimistic” estimate is that the federal government will consume more than 30 percent of GDP by 2050 and 40 percent of GDP by 2080.

Less Is More in Education Funding

Spend more money on education, the President says? Actually, we should be looking there for savings … here are some of the numbers:

State governments spent 35 percent of their general funds on K–12 education in 2007, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. In contrast, Medicaid — which is continually singled out as a problematic state-budget item, even though most Medicaid funds come from the federal government — accounted for just 17 percent of general-fund expenditures. Combined, state and local governments spend 27 cents of every dollar they collect on public K–12 education system, but only 8 cents on Medicaid.

Biased Budget Reporting

I was certainly surprised to see Barack Obama propose any sort of spending freeze. Less surprising, however, is how it’s been reported.

For reasons that I admit escape me, it is apparently a law of journalism that any budget-related act will be made to look as stingy as possible. Remember this when you read the news.

Spending increases that were planned all along aren’t considered increases at all and do not make the news. Unplanned increases, those over and above the planned ones, are reported as though only the unplanned parts were increases. Large spending increases get extra praise for boldness. Reductions in the rate of spending growth are called “spending cuts.” Real though tiny cuts are described as draconian measures. We would probably have to invent a new word, something scary with reference to the intimate anatomy, if significant, across-the-board spending cuts ever arrived. Within most of our lifetimes, this has never happened.

Today’s reporting fits the pattern perfectly. The Washington Post headline proclaims, “Obama to Propose Freeze on Government Spending.” The New York Times declares, “Obama to Seek Freeze on Some Spending to Trim Deficits.” It is, we learn, “an initiative intended to signal his seriousness about cutting the budget deficit.”

Wonderful! Or stingy! Or both!

But not, you know, accurate. The details are in the fine print, and they don’t remotely live up to the headlines. The freeze applies only to discretionary spending. It doesn’t touch military or entitlement programs, and these are the large majority of the budget. It may not even be a meaningful freeze on the discretionary portion, as my colleague Dan Mitchell points out. And it’s only down in the fifth paragraph where the Times notes that “The estimated $250 billion in savings over 10 years would be less than 3 percent of the roughly $9 trillion in additional deficits the government is expected to accumulate over that time.”

In other words, today’s news is a virtual nothing with almost no likelihood of being carried through anyway. If this is “intended to signal seriousness,” I wonder what an unserious proposal would look like. I also wonder what sort of proposals we’d get from our politicians if our media reported on budget matters without its deeply ingrained bias against fiscal discipline.

Vermont’s Education Spending

I happened to catch the January 7 State of the State speech by Gov. Jim Douglas of Vermont on C-SPAN. It was a sober and serious presentation that laid out the facts about higher taxes and excessive spending, which are problems in just about every state.

Douglas on excessive education staffing Vermont:

Since 1997, school staffing levels have increased by 23 percent, while our student population has decreased by 11.5 percent. The number of teacher’s aides has gone up 43 percent. The number of support staff has gone up 48 percent. For every four fewer students a new teacher, teacher’s aide or staff person was hired. There are 11 students for every teacher – the lowest ratio in the country – and a staggering five students for every adult in our schools. With personnel costs accounting for 80 percent of total school spending, it’s no wonder that our K-12 system is among the most expensive in the nation at $14,000 per student per year.

Current staffing and compensation levels cannot be maintained as the student count continues to decline. If we simply move from our current 11 to 1 student/teacher ratio to 13 to 1, we would still have one of the lowest ratios in the country, while saving as much as $100 million. If we want to make education costs sustainable, we must return balance to classrooms. I propose that over four years we bring our statewide student/teacher ratio to affordable levels.

Douglas on excessive education bureaucracy:

Our school governance structures are a vestige of the 19th century and, like our unsustainable personnel costs, must be reformed. We have 290 separate school districts –- one for every 312 students –- 63 different supervisory bodies and a State Board of Education. That’s a total of 354 different education governing bodies for a state with only 251 towns.

Douglas on education financing:

At the root of our education funding challenge is a system that’s substantially eroding local control. Each year the connection between your school budget vote and your property tax bill becomes more and more distant… our education funding regime has grown into an unmanageable maze of exemptions, deductions, prebates, rebates, cost-shifts and hidden funding sources. Overlapping rings of complexity keep all but a few experts from understanding the many moving pieces. This is not good tax policy, not good government, and, if you ask most Vermonters, not good for much of anything. It’s time to pull back the curtains and let the sun shine in on how education is funded. Transparency – Who is paying? What are we paying for? What are the results?

Douglas on excessive education regulations:

Currently, Vermont schools are prohibited by law from accessing out-of-state distance learning programs … If a school sought to provide a new Chinese program for this student, or even a group of students, they would have to hire a new teacher with the expertise – a costly step. Allowing students to access approved distance learning programs from around the country is a simple, affordable change we can make to improve quality.

Excessive staffing, complex bureaucracy, complex financing, and excessive regulation are problems in government education systems across the country. There is no better time than today, when states have large budget gaps, to tackle these chronic problems. 

So kudos to Douglas. His speech was a contrast to that of Colorado’s Gov. Bill Ritter, who followed him on C-SPAN uttering the usual lofty but vacuous speech we expect of most politicians.