Tag: economic growth

Chained CPI: A Stealth Tax Increase

As we close in on congressional votes to increase the federal debt limit, negotiators are coming up with all kinds of ideas to hike taxes. (Suspiciously, they haven’t revealed very many spending cut ideas so far).

One idea being discussed is to raise revenue by reducing the indexing of parameters in the income tax code. Currently, tax brackets and other features of the tax code are indexed to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). It is widely recognized that the CPI overestimates inflation for various reasons, as discussed here.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has developed a more accurate (and lower) measure of inflation, called chained CPI. If the tax code was indexed to chained CPI instead of CPI, the government would receive an automatic tax increase relative to current law every year until the end of time.

Switching to chained CPI is a very bad idea for two reasons:

  • It would create a large tax increase over the long run. And it would be an invisible annual tax increase on families and voters because there would be no obvious changes in their tax forms.
  • It would be an anti-growth tax increase because it would push families into higher tax brackets more quickly over time, subjecting them to higher marginal tax rates. The chained CPI proposal is essentially a proposal to increase marginal tax rates slowly and steadily over time.

Some economists may argue that the chained CPI proposal is a good idea because the tax code would more accurately reflect inflation, and it would. However, the tax code already contains a bias that pushes families into higher tax brackets over time, which is called “real bracket creep.” Real growth in the economy steadily moves taxpayers into higher rate brackets since the tax code is indexed for inflation but not real growth. The discussion in the Congressional Budget Office’s new long-range budget outlook implies that this will be an important force in raising federal revenues as a share of GDP in coming decades.

So I’ve got a better idea than indexing the tax code to chained CPI: indexing the tax code to nominal GDP growth. That would adjust for the effects of both inflation and real economic growth on tax code parameters, and it would prevent stealth tax rate increases under our graduated income tax system.

Tax Cuts, Loopholes, and Government Size

President Obama wants to raise revenues by reducing tax deductions and other tax breaks, which the administration calls “spending in the tax code.” Donald Marron of the Tax Policy Center argues that “hundreds of billions of dollars of spending are disguised as tax cuts.”

Don is a very good economist, and he is concerned that special interest tax breaks can misallocate resources the same way that spending subsidies do. I agree. But I’m also concerned that tax breaks and spending subsidies have different implications for the size of government, which is where I part ways with Don and the president.

The following Tax Policy Matrix helps sort out which sorts of tax cuts make economic sense when government size is also a consideration.

The government distorts the economy and reduces GDP through both its taxing and spending actions. One reason is that both taxes and spending cause individuals and businesses to change their behaviors and reallocate resources in suboptimal ways. The table has columns for tax and spending distortions. It also has a column for government debt because running deficits today may translate into higher levels of distortionary taxes tomorrow.

The table includes two Starve-the-Beast scenarios. “With Starve-the-Beast” means that tax cuts will reduce government spending to some extent over time. A narrow tax base shot full of loopholes creates allocation distortions, but if starve-the-beast works that sort of tax base also limits the government’s size creating a counterbalancing benefit to GDP.

In the short run, starve-the-beast may or may not work. Bill Niskanen says that it does not, but I think the effectiveness of it changes over time as political culture changes. In the 1980s and 1990s, policymakers took corrective actions when deficits rose, but the revival of Keynesianism in recent years changed the political culture and, for a while, nullified the fear of deficits for many politicians.

In the long run, it seems obvious that the inflow of tax revenues to the government is a hard check on spending because there are financial market limits to government borrowing.

Let’s go through the rows in the table:

Row 1. The government starts off with a balanced budget and with tax and spending systems that cause medium damage.

Row 2. The government cuts taxes $100 by way of a loophole. Tax distortions rise because marginal tax rates are unchanged and we’ve added a new distortion. Higher debt likely pushes up future tax distortions. This appears to be a poor policy choice.

Row 3. The government cuts taxes $100 by way of marginal rate cut. Tax distortions are reduced, which increases economic growth. The downside is higher debt. This may or may be a good policy depending on the quality of the tax cut. If the cut is to a very distortionary part of the tax code—such as the corporate income tax rate—this policy could make sense. One reason is that the deficit increase might end up being quite small because of the positive economic response to the pro-efficiency tax cut.

Row 4. With starve-the-beast operational, a special interest tax cut becomes a bit of a closer call. Tax distortions and debt rise, but government spending falls somewhat, so the net effect on the economy is unclear. However, I think there are considerations here aside from economics. Special interest tax breaks—such as the ethanol tax break—are troubling because they represent a corruption of the law, an affront to the American ideal of “equal justice under law.” So just on that basis, I’m against special interest breaks, and indeed am in favor replacing the current code with a flat tax.

Row 5. A pro-efficiency tax cut is very likely a winner if you assume that starve-the-beast is operational. Tax and spending distortions both fall, although there is a modest increase in debt.

So far we’ve left out the most important fiscal tool available to policymakers—spending cuts to unneeded and damaging programs to reduce government harm to the economy. The best policy choice would be to combine pro-growth tax cuts with spending cuts to harmful programs. That would reduce government distortions on both sides of the budget, and thus unambiguously increase GDP.

In sum, without matching spending cuts, tax cuts may or may not make sense depending on the type of cut and whether reducing Uncle Sam’s diet will force him to slim down in subsequent years. But it is a fiscal policy win-win to match spending cuts with cuts to the most damaging parts of the tax code.

Boehner’s Price for Increasing the Federal Debt Limit

House Speaker John Boehner, in his speech to the Economic Club of New York on Monday night, was very clear about the conditions for which he would support an increase in the federal debt limit:

… Without significant spending cuts and reforms to reduce our debt, there will be no debt limit increase.  And the cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given.

We should be talking about cuts of trillions, not just billions.

They should be actual cuts and program reforms, not broad deficit or debt targets that punt the tough questions to the future.

And with the exception of tax hikes – which will destroy jobs – everything is on the table.

Congress is institutionally incapable of formulating and approving a large responsible package of spending cuts in the next month or two, even if there were the basis for an agreement in the longer run.  The most likely outcome of this condition is that Congress would approve an increase in the debt limit for the next year or two with no significant amendments.  John Boehner would be the major loser from this outcome, for having talked tough and promised too much, without delivering anything to his party base.

Another possible outcome of this condition is that an increase in the debt limit would be deferred indefinitely.  This would lead to a period of fiscal anarchy in which total federal spending would have to be reduced to federal revenues on a month-by-month basis, and non-interest spending would have to be reduced about 40 percent with no political guidance on what activities are paid how much.

The House Republicans are better advised to sort out their priority budget changes in the longer run.  I suggest that it is desirable to maintain a commitment against any increase in tax rates but to consider major reductions in what is now roughly one trillion dollars of off-budget tax preferences; such reductions would increase both revenue and economic growth.  Finally, I  suggest that reductions in the defense budget should also be considered.  In a world in which the United States now faces no major power military threat, total real (inflation-adjusted) annual national security spending is now over twice that during the Ford and Carter administrations and over 40 percent of the total national security spending by all governments.

For the most part, I suggest, the Republican fiscal priorities are correct, but it will take better preparation and a longer time to implement these priorities.

The King’s Speech

His Royal Highness Prince Charles, who lives, well, like a king, off wealth that his ancestors stole, appears at a Washington Post conference to tell his still-recalcitrant former subjects to change their economic system. As befitting a hereditary aristocrat, coming from a long line of people used to issuing orders, with little interest in spontaneous order or actual economic growth, he finds an

urgent need for … the willingness of all aspects of society — the public, private and NGO [non-governmental organizations] sectors, large corporations and small organizations — to work together to build an economic model built upon resilience and diversity.

Sure thing, guv’nor, we’ll get right on that.

New Era of Big Government

The George W. Bush administration ushered in a new era of big government. The Obama administration has built on Bush’s profligacy, and the president’s new fiscal 2012 budget proposal would further cement the trend.

Spending as a percentage of GDP has increased dramatically since the surplus years of the late 1990s. As the chart shows, the president’s budget once again seeks a permanently high level of federal spending as a share of the economy:

While the numbers drop from their stimulus- and recession-induced highs, it is not because the president has suddenly decided that he desires a less active government. Rather, optimistic economic assumptions largely account for the slight retrenchment.

Tax increases and optimistic economic assumptions explain the projected rise in revenue as a share of the economy. While the president would like us to believe he’s found religion on spending cuts, he’s actually relying on a rosy economic forecast and sucking more money out of the private sector to reduce annual deficits.

Taking more money from the productive private economy to maintain destructively high levels of federal spending is not a recipe for economic growth. Therefore, this budget proposal is as dangerous as it is disingenuous. Fortunately, it’s also dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House.

OMB Director Lew on the New Budget

President Obama will release his budget blueprint for fiscal 2012 next week. If an op-ed penned by his budget director, Jacob Lew, in Sunday’s New York Times is any indication, the administration intends to continue fiddling while the government’s finances burn.

The title of the piece, “The Easy Cuts Are Behind Us,” is a real head-scratcher. Lew’s “easy cuts” are an apparent reference to the $20 billion in savings the president proposed in his previous budgets. Considering that the president proposed total spending of $3.8 trillion last year, $20 billion in gross cuts was an insignificant gesture to say the least. In reality, the Bush administration passed the spending baton to the Obama administration two years ago and it promptly sprinted off like Usain Bolt.

Lew says:

In a little over a week, President Obama will send Congress his budget for the 2012 fiscal year. The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.

Perhaps the current budgetary state of affairs is an expression of the administration’s values and aspirations. But while an unhealthy number of Americans have become accustomed to living at the expense of their neighbor via the government, which the budget does reflect, there is growing popular recognition that saddling future generations with back-breaking debt is morally bankrupt.

Lew says:

As the president said in his State of the Union address, now that the country is back from the brink of a potential economic collapse, our goal is to win the future by out-educating, out-building and out-innovating our rivals so that we can return to robust economic and job growth. But to make room for the investments we need to foster growth, we have to cut what we cannot afford. We have to reduce the burden placed on our economy by years of deficits and debt.

This zero-sum take on the global economy is ignorant. Economic growth in “rival” countries creates opportunities for economic growth in the United States and vice-versa. My trade colleagues can better cover this ground, but the idea that our government needs to export more debt in order to out-anything is preposterous. The U.S. already out-spends its “rivals” on education and what do we have to show for it?

If the administration is concerned with our economic competitiveness, it should be looking to restrain the federal government’s heavy-hand in the economy. The federal government alone now sucks up a quarter of the country’s economic output. More government “investments” for building fancy trains might provide Joe Biden with lots of ribbon-cutting photo-ops, but such gross misallocations of taxpayer resources are not a recipe for “robust economic and job growth.”

Lew says:

We cannot win the future, expand the economy and spur job creation if we are saddled with increasingly growing deficits. That is why the president’s budget is a comprehensive and responsible plan that will put us on a path toward fiscal sustainability in the next few years — a down payment toward tackling our challenges in the long term.

According to Lew, the administration plans to do this by freezing non-security discretionary spending for five years. But several paragraphs later he acknowledges that “Discretionary spending not related to security represents just a little more than one-tenth of the entire federal budget, so cutting solely in this area will never be enough to address our long-term fiscal challenges.”

Does Lew give even a hint as to how the administration plans to “address our long-term fiscal challenges”? Nope.

In the intervening paragraphs Lew does give us a taste of the “deeper cuts” that the president will propose next week. One cut would be $300 million, or 7.5 percent, in the Community Development Block Grant program, which funds critical federal concerns like funding facade renovations for a wine bar in Connecticut and expanding a brewery in Michigan.

The Community Service Block Grant program (change one word and, voilà, a new program) would be cut in half to save a whopping $350 million. Lew says this cut was not easy for the president because “These are the kinds of programs that President Obama worked with when he was a community organizer.”

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative would get chopped by 25 percent, or $125 million, which Lew calls “another difficult cut.” If that’s a “difficult” cut, one can only wonder what Lew would call the cuts needed to actually “address our long-term fiscal challenges.”

After punting on the long-term fiscal challenges and pretending that the relatively insignificant cuts the administration will propose represent “tough choices,” Lew begins his wrap up by warning against cutting spending:

We must take care to avoid indiscriminate cuts in areas critical to long-term growth like education, innovation and infrastructure — cuts that would stifle the economy just as it begins to recover.

The country cannot afford business as usual. And it certainly can’t afford business as has been conducted by this administration. Unfortunately, while the exact details of the president’s latest budget proposal remain to be seen, Lew’s op-ed indicates that this tiger isn’t about to change his stripes.

Tunisia: An Omen for Other U.S.-Backed Regimes in the Muslim World

The sudden collapse of the Tunisian government on Friday underscores the turmoil toward which the Muslim world  seems inescapably drifting.  As I wrote earlier today at The National Interest Online:

Today, as during the Cold War, policy makers in Washington seem to expect economic growth to act as a substitute for political liberty, thereby ignoring the instinctive desire for freedom. Despotic leaders love to adopt pseudo-economic “reforms” to mask their coercive measures and perpetuate the status quo, but in the end, the institutionalized oppression imposed by ruling elites cannot be appeased in that way. Time will tell whether Tunisia and its neighbors evolve toward a freer and more prosperous future. But either way, human history confirms that fundamental change is a gradual and often painful process, and that more often than not forces erected to suppress individual freedoms eventually break down or unravel…

Check it out!