Tag: economics

Look Before You Leap on Cain’s 9-9-9 Tax Plan

I like the overall approach of Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan. As I recently wrote, it focuses on lower tax rates, elimination of double taxation, and repeal of corrupt and inefficient loopholes.

But I included a very important caveat. The intermediate stage of his three-step plan would enable politicians to impose both an income tax and a national sales tax. I wrote in my earlier post that I had faith in Herman Cain’s motives, but I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of letting the crowd in Washington have an extra source of revenue.

After all, Europe’s welfare states began their march to fiscal collapse and economic stagnation after they added a version of a national sales tax on top of their pre-existing income taxes.

But it seems that I was too nice in my analysis of Mr. Cain’s plan. Josh Barro and Bruce Bartlett are both claiming that the business portion of Cain’s 9-9-9 is a value-added tax (VAT) rather than a corporate income tax.

In other words, instead of being a 9 percent flat tax-9 percent sales tax-9 percent corporate tax, Cain’s plan is a 9 percent flat tax-9 percent sales tax-9 percent VAT.

Let’s elaborate. The business portion of Cain’s plan apparently does not allow employers to deduct wages and salaries, which means – for all intents and purposes – that they would levy a 9 percent withholding tax on employee compensation. And that would be in addition to the 9 percent they presumably would withhold for the flat tax portion of Cain’s plan.

Employers use withholding in the current system, of course, but at least taxpayers are given credit for all that withheld tax when filling out their 1040 tax forms. Under Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, however, employees would only get credit for monies withheld for the flat tax.

In other words, there are two income taxes in Cain’s plan – the 9 percent flat tax and the hidden 9 percent income tax that is part of the VAT (this hidden income tax on wages and salaries, by the way, is a defining feature of a VAT).

This doesn’t make Cain’s plan bad from a theoretical perspective. The underlying principles are still sound – low tax rates, no double taxation, and no loopholes.

But if I was uneasy when I thought that the 9-9-9 plan added a sales tax on top of the income tax, then I am super-duper-double-secret-probation uneasy about adding a sales tax and a VAT on top of the income tax.

Here’s my video on the VAT, which will help you realize why this pernicious tax would be a big mistake.

Again, this doesn’t make Cain wrong if we’re grading based on economics or philosophy. My anxiety is a matter of real-world political analysis. I don’t trust politicians with new sources of revenue. Whether we give them big new sources of revenue or small new sources of revenue, they will always figure out ways of pushing up the tax rates so they can waste more money trying to buy votes.

Will Republicans Choose Sequester Savings or a Supercommittee Surrender?

The budget fights this year began with the “shutdown” battle, followed by the Ryan budget and then the debt limit. These fights have mostly led to uninspiring kiss-your-sister outcomes, which is hardly surprising given divided government.

Now the crowd in DC is squabbling over Obama’s latest stimulus/tax-the-rich scheme, though that’s really more of a test run by the White House to determine whether class warfare will be an effective theme for  the 2012 campaign.

The real budget fight, the one we should be closely monitoring, is what will happen with the so-called Supercommittee.

To refresh your memory, this is the 12-member entity created as part of the debt limit legislation. Split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, the Supercommittee is supposed to recommend $1.2 trillion-$1.5 trillion of deficit reduction over the next 10 years. Assuming, of course, that 7 out of the 12 members can agree on anything.

There are two critical things to understand about the Supercommittee.

With these points in mind, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that the Supercommittee is designed – at least from the perspective of the left – to seduce gullible Republicans into going along with a tax hike.

In other words, the likelihood that the Supercommittee will produce a good plan is about the same as seeing me in the outfield during the World Series (the real World Series, not this one).

Fortunately, there is a way to win this fight. All Republicans have to do is…(drum roll, please)…nothing.

To be more specific, if the Supercommittee can’t get a majority for a plan, then automatic budget cuts (a process known as sequestration) will go into effect. But don’t get too excited. We’re mostly talking about the DC version of spending cuts, which simply means that spending won’t rise as fast as previously planned.

But compared to an inside-the-beltway tax-hike deal, a sequester would be a great result.

You’re probably wondering if there’s a catch. After all, if Republicans can win a huge victory for taxpayers by simply rejecting the siren song of higher taxes, then isn’t victory a foregone conclusion?

It should be, but Republicans didn’t get the reputation of being the “Stupid Party” for nothing, and they are perfectly capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

There are three reasons why Republicans may fumble away victory, even though they have a first down on the opponent’s one-yard line.

If GOPers sell out for either of the first two reasons, then there’s really no hope. America will become Greece and we may as well stock up on canned goods, bottled water, and ammo.

The defense issue, though, is more challenging. Republicans instinctively want more defense spending, so Democrats are trying to exploit this vulnerability. They are saying – for all intents and purposes – that the defense budget will be cut unless GOPers agree to a tax hike.

Republicans should not give in to this budgetary blackmail.

I could make a conservative case for less defense spending, by arguing that the GOP should take a more skeptical view of nation building (the approach they had in the 1990s) and that they should reconsider the value of spending huge sums of money on an outdated NATO alliance.

But I’m going to make two other points instead, in hopes of demonstrating that a sequester is acceptable from the perspective of those who favor a strong national defense.

  • First, the sequester does not take place until January 2013, so defense hawks will have ample opportunity to undo the defense cuts - either through supplemental spending bills or because the political situation changes after the 2012 elections.
  • Second, the sequester is based on dishonest Washington budget math, so the defense budget would still grow, but not as fast as previously planned.

This chart shows what will happen to the defense budget over the next 10 years, based on Congressional Budget Office data comparing “baseline” outlays to spending under a sequester.

As you can see, even with a sequester, the defense budget climbs over the 10-year period by about $100 billion. And, as noted above, that doesn’t even factor in supplemental spending bills.

In other words, America’s national defense will not be eviscerated if there is a sequester.

Here’s the bottom line. The Supercommittee battle should be a no-brainer for the GOP.

They can capitulate on taxes, causing themselves political damage, undermining the economy, and enabling bigger government.

Or they can stick to their no-tax promise, generating significant budgetary savings with a sequester, and boosting economic performance by restraining the burden of government.

Happy Fiscal New Year (with an Unhappy Obama Hangover)

Today, October 1, is the first day of the 2012 fiscal year.

And if you’re wondering why America’s economy seems to have a hangover (this cartoon is a perfect illustration), it’s because politicians had a huge party with our money in FY2011.

We don’t have final numbers for the fiscal year that just ended, but let’s look at the CBO Monthly Budget Report, the CBO Economic and Budget Update, and the OMB Historical Tables, and see whether there’s anything worth celebrating.

  • The federal government spent about $3.6 trillion in FY2011, more money than any government has ever spent in a 12-month period in the history of the world.
  • The FY2011 budget is nearly double the burden of federal spending just 10 years earlier, when federal outlays consumed “only” $1.86 trillion.
  • The federal budget in FY2011 consumed about 24 percent of national output, up sharply compared to a spending burden in FY2001 of “just” 18.2 percent of GDP.
  • Defense spending is too high, and has increased by about $400 billion since 2001, but the vast majority of the additional spending is for domestic spending programs.
  • Federal tax revenue in FY2011 will be about $2.25 trillion, an increase of 7-8 percent over FY2010 levels.
  • Economic stagnation has affected tax revenues, which are lower than the $2.6 trillion level from FY2007.
  • Federal receipts amount to about 15.3 percent of GDP, below the long-run average of 18 percent of GDP.
  • The Congressional Budget Office does predict that revenues will rise above the 18-percent average - without any tax increases - by the end of the decade.
  • Record levels of government spending, combined with low revenues caused by a weak economy, will result in a $1.3 trillion deficit.
  • This is the third consecutive deficit of more than $1 trillion.
  • The publicly-held national debt (the amount borrowed from the private sector) is now more than $10 trillion.

With budget numbers like these, no wonder America has a fiscal hangover.

And let’s be blunt about assigning blame. Yes, Obama has been a reckless big spender, but he is merely continuing the irresponsible statist policies of his predecessor.

Fortunately, there is a solution. All we need to do is restrain the growth of federal spending, as explained in this video.

But we also know that it is difficult to convince politicians to do what’s right for the nation. And if they don’t change the course of fiscal policy, and we leave the federal government on autopilot, then America is doomed to become another Greece.

The combination of poorly designed entitlement programs (mostly Medicare and Medicaid) and an aging population will lead to America’s fiscal collapse.

Explaining the Perverse Impact of Double Taxation With a Chart

Whether I’m criticizing Warren Buffett’s innumeracy or explaining how to identify illegitimate loopholes, I frequently write about the perverse impact of double taxation.

By this, I mean the tendency of politicians to impose multiple layers of taxation on income that is saved and invested. Examples of this self-destructive practice include the death tax, the capital gains tax, and the second layer of tax of dividends.

Double taxation is particularly foolish since every economic theory—including socialism and Marxism—agrees that capital formation is necessary for long-run growth and higher living standards.

Yet even though this is a critically important issue, I’ve never been satisfied with the way I explain the topic. But perhaps this flowchart makes everything easier to understand.

There are a lot of boxes, so it’s not a simple flowchart, but the underlying message hopefully is very clear.

  1. We earn income.
  2. We then pay tax on that income.
  3. We then either consume our after-tax income, or we save and invest it.
  4. If we consume our after-tax income, the government largely leaves us alone.
  5. If we save and invest our after-tax income, a single dollar of income can be taxed as many as four different times.

You don’t have to be a wild-eyed supply-side economist to conclude that this heavy bias against saving and investment is not a good idea for America’s long-run prosperity.

There are various ways to protect yourself from double taxation, particularly by using IRAs and 401(k)s. You lock up your capital until retirement, but it is protected from double taxation.

Also, you cannot accumulate enough savings and investment to be subject to the death tax, though that’s not exactly aiming high.

But these strategies—and others—are not economically optimal. There should not be a tax bias against capital formation.

Too bad we can’t be more like Hong Kong, which has eliminated all extra layers of taxation.

That’s the benefit of real tax reform such as a flat tax. You get a low tax rate and you get rid of corrupt loopholes, but you also get rid of double taxation so that the IRS only gets one bite at the apple.

Eight Questions for Protectionists

When asked to pick my most frustrating issue, I could list things from my policy field such as class warfare or income redistribution.

But based on all the speeches and media interviews I do, which periodically venture into other areas, I suspect protectionism vs. free trade is the biggest challenge.

So I want to ask the protectionists (though anybody is free to provide feedback) how they would answer these simple questions.

1. Do you think politicians and bureaucrats should be able to tell you what you’re allowed to buy?

As Walter Williams has explained, this is a simple matter of freedom and liberty. If you want to give the political elite the authority to tell you whether you can buy foreign-produced goods, you have opened the door to endless mischief.

2. If trade barriers between nations are good, then shouldn’t we have trade barriers between states? Or cities?

This is a very straightforward challenge. If protectionism is good, then it shouldn’t be limited to national borders.

3. Why is it bad that foreigners use the dollars they obtain to invest in the American economy instead of buying products?

Little green pieces of paper have little value to foreign companies. They only accept those dollars in exchange for products because they intend to use them, either to buy American products or to invest in the U.S. economy. Indeed, a “capital surplus” is the flip side of a “trade deficit.” This generally is a positive sign for the American economy (though I freely admit this argument is weakened if foreigners use dollars to “invest” in federal government debt).

4. Do you think protectionism would be necessary if America did pro-growth reforms such as a lower corporate tax rate, less wasteful spending, and reduced red tape?

There are thousands of hard-working Americans that have lost jobs because of foreign competition. At some level, this is natural in a dynamic economy, much as candle makers lost jobs when the light bulb was invented. But oftentimes American producers can’t meet the challenge of foreign competition because of bad policy from Washington. When I think of ordinary Americans that have lost jobs, I direct my anger at the politicians in DC, not a foreign company or foreign workers.

5. Do you think protectionism would help, in the long run, if we don’t implement pro-growth reforms?

If we travel down the path of protectionism, politicians will use that as an excuse not to implement pro-growth reforms. This condemns America to a toxic combination of two bad policies - big government and trade distortions. This will destroy far more jobs and opportunity that foreign competition.

6. Do you recognize that, by creating the ability to offer special favors to selected industries, protectionism creates enormous opportunities for corruption?

Most protectionism in America is the result of organized interest groups and powerful unions trying to prop up inefficient practices. And they only achieve their goals by getting in bed with the Washington crowd in a process that is good for the corrupt nexus of interest groups-lobbyists-politicians-bureaucrats.

7. If you don’t like taxes, why would you like taxes on imports?

A tariff is nothing but a tax that politicians impose on selected products. This presumably makes protectionism inconsistent with the principles of low taxes and limited government.

8. Can you point to nations that have prospered with protectionism, particularly when compared to similar nations with free trade?

Some people will be tempted to say that the United States was a successful economy in the 1800s when tariffs financed a significant share of the federal government. That’s largely true, but the nation’s rising prosperity surely was due to the fact that we had no income tax, a tiny federal government, and very little regulation. And I can’t resist pointing out that the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff didn’t exactly lead to good results.

We also had internal free trade, as explained in this excellent short video on the benefits of free trade, narrated by Don Boudreaux of George Mason University and produced by the Institute for Humane Studies.

My closing argument is that people who generally favor economic freedom should ask themselves whether it’s legitimate or logical to make an exception in the case of foreign trade.

The Federal Reserve, the ‘Twist,’ Inflation, QE3, and Pushing on a String

In a move that some are calling QE3, the Federal Reserve announced yesterday that it will engage in a policy called “the twist” – selling short-term bonds and buying long-term bonds in hopes of artificially reducing long-term interest rates. If successful, this policy (we are told) will incentivize more borrowing and stimulate growth.

I’ve freely admitted before that it is difficult to identify the right monetary policy, but it certainly seems like this policy is – at best – an ineffective gesture. This is why the Fed’s various efforts to goose the economy with easy money have been described as “pushing on a string.”

Here are two related questions that need to be answered.

1. Is the economy’s performance being undermined by high long-term rates?

Considering that interest rates are at very low levels already, it seems rather odd to claim that the economy will suddenly rebound if they get pushed down a bit further. Japan has had very low interest rates (both short-run and long-run) for a couple of decades, yet the economy has remained stagnant.

Perhaps the problem is bad policy in other areas. After all, who wants to borrow money, expand business, create jobs, and boost output if Washington is pursuing a toxic combination of excessive spending and regulation, augmented by the threat of higher taxes.

2. Is the economy hampered by lack of credit?

Low interest rates, some argue, may not help the economy if banks don’t have any money to lend. Yet I’ve already pointed out that banks have more than $1 trillion of excess reserves deposited at the Fed.

Perhaps the problem is that banks don’t want to lend money because they don’t see profitable opportunities. After all, it’s better to sit on money than to lend it to people who won’t pay it back because of an economy weakened by too much government.

The Wall Street Journal makes all the relevant points in its editorial.

The Fed announced that through June 2012 it will buy $400 billion in Treasury bonds at the long end of the market—with six- to 30-year maturities—and sell an equal amount of securities of three years’ duration or less. The point, said the FOMC statement, is to put further “downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and help make broader financial conditions more accommodative.” It’s hard to see how this will make much difference to economic growth. Long rates are already at historic lows, and even a move of 10 or 20 basis points isn’t likely to affect many investment decisions at the margin. The Fed isn’t acting in a vacuum, and any move in bond prices could well be swamped by other economic news. Europe’s woes are accelerating, and every CEO in America these days is worried more about what the National Labor Relations Board is doing to Boeing than he is about the 30-year bond rate. The Fed will also reinvest the principal payments it receives on its asset holdings into mortgage-backed securities, rather than in U.S. Treasurys. The goal here is to further reduce mortgage costs and thus help the housing market. But home borrowing costs are also at historic lows, and the housing market suffers far more from the foreclosure overhang and uncertainty encouraged by government policy than it does from the price of money. The Fed’s announcement thus had the feel of an attempt to show it is doing something to help the economy, even if it can’t do much. …the economy’s problems aren’t rooted in the supply and price of money. They result from the damage done to business confidence and investment by fiscal and regulatory policy, and that’s where the solutions must come. Investors on Wall Street and politicians in Washington want to believe that the Fed can make up for years of policy mistakes. The sooner they realize it can’t, the sooner they’ll have no choice but to correct the mistakes.

Let’s also take this issue to the next level. Some people are explicitly arguing in favor of more “quantitative easing” because they want some inflation. They argue that “moderate” inflation will help the economy by indirectly wiping out some existing debt.

This is a very dangerous gambit. Letting the inflation genie out of the bottle could trigger 1970s-style stagflation. Paul Volcker fires a warning shot against this risky approach in a New York Times column. Here are the key passages.

…we are beginning to hear murmurings about the possible invigorating effects of “just a little inflation.” Perhaps 4 or 5 percent a year would be just the thing to deal with the overhang of debt and encourage the “animal spirits” of business, or so the argument goes. The siren song is both alluring and predictable. …After all, if 1 or 2 percent inflation is O.K. and has not raised inflationary expectations — as the Fed and most central banks believe — why not 3 or 4 or even more? …all of our economic history says it won’t work that way. I thought we learned that lesson in the 1970s. That’s when the word stagflation was invented to describe a truly ugly combination of rising inflation and stunted growth. …What we know, or should know, from the past is that once inflation becomes anticipated and ingrained — as it eventually would — then the stimulating effects are lost. Once an independent central bank does not simply tolerate a low level of inflation as consistent with “stability,” but invokes inflation as a policy, it becomes very difficult to eliminate. …At a time when foreign countries own trillions of our dollars, when we are dependent on borrowing still more abroad, and when the whole world counts on the dollar’s maintaining its purchasing power, taking on the risks of deliberately promoting inflation would be simply irresponsible.

Last but not least, here is my video on the origin of central banking, which starts with an explanation of how currency evolved in the private sector, then describes how governments then seized that role by creating monopoly central banks, and closes with a list of options to promote good monetary policy.

And I can’t resist including a link to the famous “Ben Bernank” QE2 video that was a viral smash.

One Simple Reason (and Two Easy Steps) to Show Why Obama’s Soak-the-Rich Tax Hikes Won’t Work

It’s hard to keep track of all the tax hikes that President Obama is proposing, but it’s very simple to recognize his main target – the evil, nasty, awful people known as the rich.

Or, as Obama identifies them, the “millionaires and billionaires” who happen to have yearly incomes of more than $200,000.

Whether the President is talking about higher income tax rates, higher payroll tax rates, an expanded alternative minimum tax, a renewed death tax, a higher capital gains tax, more double taxation of dividends, or some other way of extracting money, the goal is to have these people foot the bill for a never-ending expansion of the welfare state.

This sounds like a pretty good scam, at least if you’re a vote-buying politician, but there is one little detail that sometimes gets forgotten. Raising the tax burden is not the same as raising revenue.

That may not matter if you’re trying to win an election by stoking resentment with the politics of hate and envy. But it is a problem if you actually want to collect more money to finance a growing welfare state.

Unfortunately (at least from the perspective of the class-warfare crowd), the rich are not some sort of helpless pinata that can be pilfered at will.

The most important thing to understand is that the rich are different from the rest of us (or at least they’re unlike me, but feel free to send me a check if you’re in that category).

Ordinary slobs like me get the overwhelming share of our income from wages and salaries. The means we are somewhat easy victims when the politicians feel like raping and plundering. If my tax rate goes up, I don’t really have much opportunity to protect myself by altering my income.

Sure, I can choose not to give a speech in the middle of nowhere for $500 because the after-tax benefit shrinks. Or I can decide not to write an article for some magazine because the $300 payment shrinks to less than $200 after tax. But my “supply-side” responses don’t have much of an effect.

For rich people, however, the world is vastly different. As the chart shows, people with more than $1 million of adjusted gross income get only 33 percent of their income from wages and salaries. And the same IRS data shows that the super-rich, those with income above $10 million, rely on wages and salaries for only 19 percent of their income.

This means that they – unlike me and (presumably) you – have tremendous ability to control the timing, level, and composition of their income.

Indeed, here are two completely legal and very easy things that rich people already do to minimize their taxes - but will do much more frequently if they are targeted for more punitive tax treatment.

  1. They will shift their investments to stocks that are perceived to appreciate in value. This means they can reduce their exposure to the double tax on dividends and postpone indefinitely taxes on capital gains.  They get wealthier and the IRS collects less revenue.
  2. They will shift their investments to municipal bonds, which are exempt from federal tax. They probably won’t risk their money on debt from basket-case states such as California and Illinois (the Greece and Portugal of America), but there are many well-run states that issue bonds. The rich will get steady income and, while the return won’t be very high, they don’t have to give one penny of their interest payments to the IRS.

For every simple idea I can envision, it goes without saying that clever lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, and financial planners can probably think of 100 ways to utilize deductions, credits, preferences, exemptions, shelters, exclusions, and loopholes. This is why class-warfare tax policy is so self-defeating.

And all of this analysis doesn’t even touch upon the other sure-fire way to escape high taxes - and that’s to simply decide to be less productive. Most high-income people are hard-charging types who are investing money, building businesses, and otherwise engaging in behavior that is very good for them - but also very good for the economy.

But you don’t have to be an Ayn Rand devotee to realize that many people, to varying degrees, choose to “go Galt” when they feel that the government has excessively undermined the critical link between effort and reward.

Indeed, if Obama really wants to “soak the rich,” he might want to abandon his current approach and endorse a simple and fair flat tax. As explained in this video, this pro-growth reform does lead to substantial “Laffer Curve” effects.

But you don’t have to believe the video. You can check out this data, straight from the IRS website, showing how those evil rich people paid much more to the IRS after Reagan cut their tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent in the 1980s.