Tag: fiscal policy

New GAO Study Mistakenly Focuses on Make-Believe Tax Expenditures

I’m very leery of corporate tax reform, largely because I don’t think there are enough genuine loopholes on the business side of the tax code to finance a meaningful reduction in the corporate tax rate.

That leads me to worry that politicians might try to “pay for” lower rates by forcing companies to overstate their income.

Based on a new study about so-called corporate tax expenditures from the Government Accountability Office, my concerns are quite warranted.

The vast majority of the $181 billion in annual “tax expenditures” listed by the GAO are not loopholes. Instead, they are provisions designed to mitigate mistakes in the tax code that force firms to exaggerate their income.

Here are the key findings.

In 2011, the Department of the Treasury estimated 80 tax expenditures resulted in the government forgoing corporate tax revenue totaling more than $181 billion. …approximately the same size as the amount of corporate income tax revenue the federal government collected that year. …According to Treasury’s 2011 estimates, 80 tax expenditures had corporate revenue losses. Of those, two expenditures accounted for 65 percent of all estimated corporate revenues losses in 2011 while another five tax expenditures—each with at least $5 billion or more in estimated revenue loss for 2011—accounted for an additional 21 percent of corporate revenue loss estimates.

Sounds innocuous, but take a look at this table from the report, which identifies the “seven largest corporate tax expenditures.”

GAO Tax Expenditure Table

To be blunt, there’s a huge problem in the GAO analysis. Neither depreciation nor deferral are loopholes.

Entitlement Spending Is America’s Biggest Fiscal Challenge, but Discretionary Spending Is Still Far too High

If America descends into Greek-style fiscal chaos, there’s no doubt that entitlement programs will be the main factor. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Disability are all fiscal train wrecks today, and the long-run outlook for these programs is frightful.

Just look at these numbers from the Bank for International Settlements and OECD to see how our fiscal future is bleaker than many of Europe’s welfare states.

Simply stated, if we don’t implement the right kind of entitlement reform, our children and grandchildren at some point will curse our memory.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about other parts of the budget, including the so-called discretionary programs that also have been getting bigger and bigger budgets over time.

That’s why I want to add some additional analysis to Veronique de Rugy’s recent piece in National Review Online, which might lead some to mistakenly conclude that these programs are “shrinking” and being subject to a “Big Squeeze.”

…there is another number to look at in that budget. It’s the shrinking share of the budget consumed by discretionary spending (spending on things like defense and infrastructure) to make space for mandatory spending and interest. This is the Big Squeeze. …in FY 2014 mandatory spending plus interest will eat up 67 percent of the budget, leaving discretionary spending with 33 percent of the budget (down from 36 percent in FY 2012). Now by FY 2023, mandatory and interest spending will consume 77 percent of the total budget. Discretionary spending will be left with 23 percent of the budget.

She’s right that discretionary spending is becoming a smaller share of the budget, but it’s important to realize that this is solely because entitlement outlays are growing faster than discretionary spending.

Here’s some data from the Historical Tables of the Budget, showing what is happening to spending for both defense discretionary and domestic discretionary. And these are inflation-adjusted numbers, so the we’re looking at genuine increases in spending.

Discretionary Spending FY62-14

As you can see, defense outlays have climbed by about $100 billion over the past 50 years, while outlays for domestic discretionary programs have more than tripled.

If that’s a “Big Squeeze,” I’m hoping that my household budget experiences a similar degree of “shrinking”!

Veronique obviously understands these numbers, of course, and is simply making the point that politicians presumably should have an incentive to restrain entitlement programs so they have more leeway to also buy votes with discretionary spending.

But I’d hate to think that an uninformed reader would jump to the wrong conclusion and decide we need more discretionary spending.

Particularly since the federal government shouldn’t be spending even one penny for many of the programs and department that are part of the domestic discretionary category. Should there be a federal Department of Transportation? A federal Department of Housing and Urban Development? A federal Department of Agriculture?

No, NO, and Hell NO. I could continue, but you get the idea.

The burden of federal government spending in the United States is far too high and it should be reduced. That includes discretionary spending and entitlement spending.

P.S. For those who don’t have the misfortune of following the federal budget, “entitlements” are programs that are “permanently appropriated,” which simply means that spending automatically changes in response to factors such as eligibility rules, demographic shifts, inflation, and program expansions. Sometimes these programs (such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc) are referred to as “mandatory spending.”

The other big part of the budget is “discretionary spending” or “appropriations.” These are programs funded by annual spending bills from the Appropriations Committees, often divided into the two big categories of “defense discretionary” and “nondefense discretionary.”

A Tax Haven Primer for the New York Times

I could only use 428 words, but I highlighted the main arguments for tax havens and tax competition in a “Room for Debate” piece for the New York Times.

I hope that my contribution is a good addition to the powerful analysis of experts such as Allister Heath and Pierre Bessard.

I started with the economic argument.

[T]ax havens are very valuable because they discourage anti-growth tax policy. Simply stated, it is very difficult for governments to impose and enforce confiscatory tax rates when investors and entrepreneurs can shift their economic activity to jurisdictions with better tax policy. Particularly if those nations have strong policies on financial privacy, thus making it difficult for uncompetitive high-tax nations to track and tax flight capital. Thanks to this process of tax competition, with havens playing a key role, top personal income tax rates have dropped from an average of more than 67 percent in 1980 to about 42 percent today. Corporate tax rates also have plummeted, falling from an average of 48 percent to 24 percent.

…Lawmakers also were pressured to lower or eliminate death taxes and wealth taxes, as well as to reduce the double taxation of interest, dividends and capital gains. Once again, tax havens deserve much of the credit because politicians presumably would not have implemented these pro-growth reforms if they didn’t have to worry that the geese with the golden eggs might fly away to a confidential account in a well-run nation like Luxembourg or Singapore.

Since I didn’t have much space, I couldn’t go into much greater detail. Below the jump is a video that elaborates on the economic benefits of tax havens, including an explanation of why fiscal sovereignty is a big part of the debate.

Question of the Week: What’s the Right Point on the Laffer Curve?

Back in 2010, I wrote a post entitled “What’s the Ideal Point on the Laffer Curve?

Except I didn’t answer my own question. I simply pointed out that revenue maximization was not the ideal outcome.

I explained that policy makers instead should seek to maximize prosperity, and that this implied a much lower tax rate.

But what is that tax rate, several people have inquired?

The simple answer is that the tax rate should be set to finance the legitimate functions of government.

But that leads to an obvious follow-up question. What are those legitimate functions?

According to my anarcho-capitalist friends, there’s no need for any public sector. Even national defense and courts can be shifted to the private sector.

In that case, the “right” tax rate obviously is zero.

But what if you’re a squishy, middle-of-the-road moderate like me, and you’re willing to go along with the limited central government envisioned by America’s Founding Fathers?

That system operated very well for about 150 years and the federal government consumed, on average, only about 3 percent of economic output. And even if you include state and local governments, overall government spending was still less than 10 percent of GDP.

Moreover, for much of that time, America prospered with no income tax.

But this doesn’t mean there was no tax burden. There were federal excise taxes and import taxes, so if the horizontal axis of the Laffer Curve measured “Taxes as a Share of GDP,” then you would be above zero.

Or you could envision a world where those taxes were eliminated and replaced by a flat tax or national sales tax with a very low rate. Perhaps about 5 percent.

So I’m going to pick that number as my “ideal” tax rate, even though I know that 5 percent is just a rough guess.

For more information about the growth-maximizing size of government, watch this video on the Rahn Curve.

There are two key things to understand about my discussion of the Rahn Curve.

First, I assume in the video that the private sector can’t provide core public goods, so the discussion beginning about 0:33 will irk the anarcho-capitalists. I realize I’m making a blunt assumption, but I try to keep my videos from getting too long and I didn’t want to distract people by getting into issues such as whether things like national defense can be privatized.

Second, you’ll notice around 3:20 of the video that I explain why I think the academic research overstates the growth-maximizing size of government. Practically speaking, this seems irrelevant since the burden of government spending in almost all nations is well above 20 percent-25 percent of GDP.

But I hold out hope that we’ll be able to reform entitlements and take other steps to reduce the size and scope of government. And if that means total government spending drops to 20 percent-25 percent of GDP, I don’t want that to be the stopping point.

At the very least, we should shrink the size of the state back to 10 percent of economic output.

And if we ever get that low, then we can have a fun discussion with the anarcho-capitalists on what else we can privatize.

P.S. If a nation obeys Mitchell’s Golden Rule for a long enough period of time, government spending as a share of GDP asymptotically will approach zero. So perhaps there comes a time where my rule can be relaxed and replaced with something akin to the Swiss debt brake, which allows for the possibility of government growing at the same rate as GDP.

Targeting Multinationals, the OECD Launches New Scheme to Boost the Tax Burden on Business

I’ve been very critical of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Most recently, I criticized the Paris-based bureaucracy for making the rather remarkable assertion that a value-added tax would boost growth and employment.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Now the bureaucrats have concocted another scheme to increase the size and scape of government. The OECD just published a study on “Addressing Base Erosion and Profit Shifting” that seemingly is designed to lay the groundwork for a radical rewrite of business taxation.

In a new Tax & Budget Bulletin for Cato, I outline some of my concerns with this new “BEPS” initiative.

…the BEPS report…calls for dramatic changes in corporate tax policy based on the presumption that governments are not seizing enough revenue from multinational companies. The OECD essentially argues that it is illegitimate for businesses to shift economic activity to jurisdictions that have more favorable tax laws. …The core accusation in the OECD report is that firms systematically—but legally—reduce their tax burdens by taking advantage of differences in national tax policies.

Ironically, the OECD admits in the report that revenues have been trending upwards.

…the report acknowledges that “… revenues from corporate income taxes as a share of gross domestic product have increased over time. …Other than offering anecdotes, the OECD provides no evidence that a revenue problem exists. In this sense, the BEPS report is very similar to the OECD’s 1998 “Harmful Tax Competition” report, which asserted that so-called tax havens were causing damage but did not offer any hard evidence of any actual damage.

To elaborate, the BEPS scheme should be considered Part II of the OECD’s anti-tax competition project. Part I was the attack on so-called tax havens, which began back in the mid- to late-1990s.

The Ryan Budget: Is Returning to Clinton-Era Levels of Fiscal Restraint Really Asking too Much?

It can be very frustrating to work at the Cato Institute and fight for small government.

Consider what’s happened the past couple of days.

Congressman Paul Ryan introduces a budget and I dig through the numbers with a sense of disappointment because government spending will grow by an average of 3.4 percent annually, much faster than needed to keep pace with inflation.

But I don’t even want government to grow as fast as inflation. I want to reduce the size and scope of the federal government.

I want to shut down useless and counterproductive parts of Leviathan, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Agriculture, etc, etc…

I want to restore limited and constitutional government, which we had for much of our nation’s history, with the burden of federal spending consuming only about 3 percent of economic output.

So I look at the Ryan budget in the same way I look at sequestration – as a very modest step to curtail the growth of government. Sort of a rear-guard action to stem the bleeding and stabilize the patient.

But, to be colloquial, it sure ain’t libertarian Nirvana (though, to be fair, the reforms to Medicare and Medicaid are admirable and stem in part from the work of Cato’s healthcare experts).

But my frustration doesn’t exist merely because the Ryan budget is just a small step.

I also have to deal with the surreal experience of reading critics who assert that the Ryan budget is a cut-to-the-bone, harsh, draconian, dog-eat-dog, laissez-faire fiscal roadmap.

If only!

To get an idea of why this rhetoric is so over-the-top hysterical, here’s a chart showing how fast government spending is supposed to grow under the Ryan budget, compared to how fast it grew during the Clinton years and how fast it has been growing during the Bush-Obama years.

Ryan Clinton vs Bush Obama

I vaguely remember taking the SAT test in high school and dealing with questions entitled, “One of these things is not like the others.”

Well, I would have received a perfect score if asked to identify the outlier on this chart.

Bush and Obama have been irresponsible big spenders, while Clinton was comparatively frugal.

And all Paul Ryan is proposing is that we emulate the policy of the Clinton years.

Now ask yourself whether the economy was more robust during the Clinton years or the Bush-Obama years and think about what that implies for what we should do today about the federal budget.

At the very least, we should be copying what those “radical” Canadians and other have done, which is to impose some genuine restraint of government spending.

The Swiss debt brake, which is really a spending cap, might be a good place to start.

Senator Patty Murray Is Right…and Completely Wrong…about the 1990s

I wrote about the Ryan budget two days ago, praising it for complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule and reforming Medicare and Medicaid.

But I believe in being honest and nonpartisan, so I also groused that it wasn’t as good as the 2011 and 2012 versions.

Now it’s time to give the same neutral and dispassionate treatment to the budget proposed by Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

But I’m going to focus on a theme rather than numbers.

One part of her budget got me particularly excited. Her Committee’s “Foundation for Growth” blueprint makes a very strong assertion about the fiscal and economic history of the Clinton years.

The work done in the 1990s helped grow the economy, create jobs, balance the budget, and put our government on track to eliminate the national debt.

As elaborated in this passage, the 42nd President delivered very good results.

President Bill Clinton entered office in 1993 at a time when the country was facing serious deficit and debt problems. The year before, the federal government was taking in revenue equal 17.5 percent of GDP, but spending was 22.1 percent of the economy—a deficit of 4.7 percent. …The unemployment rate went from 7 percent at the beginning of 1993 to 3.9 percent at the end of 2000. Between 1993 and 2001, our economy gained more than 22 million jobs and experienced the longest economic expansion in our history.

And the Senate Democrats even identified one of the key reasons why economic and fiscal policy was so successful during the 1990s.

…federal spending dropped from 22.1 percent of GDP to 18.2 percent of GDP.

I fully agree with every word reprinted above. That’s the good news.

So what, then, is the bad news?

Well, Senator Murray may have reached the right conclusion, but she was wildly wrong in her analysis. For all intents and purposes, she claims that the 1993 tax hike produced most of the good results.

President Clinton’s 1993 tax deal…brought in new revenue from the wealthiest Americans and…our country created 22 million new jobs and achieved a balanced budget. President Clinton’s tax policies were not the only driver of economic growth, but our leaders’ ability to agree on a fiscally sustainable and economically sound path provided valuable certainty for American families and businesses.

First, let’s dispense with the myth that the 1993 tax hike balanced the budget. I obtained the fiscal forecasts that were produced by both the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget in early 1995 because I wanted to see whether a balanced budget was predicted.

As you can see in the chart, both of those forecasts showed perpetual deficits of about $200 billion. And these forecasts were made nearly 18 months after the Clinton tax hike was implemented.

So if even the White House’s own forecast from OMB didn’t foresee a balanced budget, what caused the actual fiscal situation to be much better than the estimates?

The simple answer is that spending was restrained. You can give credit to Bill Clinton. You can give credit to the GOP Congress that took power in early 1995. You can give the credit to both.

But regardless of who gets the credit, the period of spending restraint that began at that time was the change that produced a budget surplus, not the tax hike that was imposed 18 months earlier and which was associated with perpetual red ink.

But spending restraint tells only part of the story. With the exception of the 1993 tax hike, the Clinton years were a period of shrinking government and free market reform.

Take a look at my homemade bar chart to compare the good policies of the 1990s with the bad policies. It’s not even close.

You may be thinking that my comparison is completely unscientific, and you’re right. I probably overlooked some good policies and some bad policies.

And my assumptions about weighting are very simplistic. Everything is equally important, with a big exception in that I made the government spending variable three times as important as everything else.

Why? Well, I think reducing the burden of government spending during the Clinton years was a major achievement.

But maybe we shouldn’t rely on my gut instincts. So let’s set aside my created-at-the-spur-of-the-moment bar chart and look at something that is scientific.

This chart is taken directly from Economic Freedom of the World, which uses dozens of variables to measure the overall burden of government.

As you can see, the United States score improved significantly during the Clinton years, showing that economic freedom was expanding and the size and scope of government was shrinking.

In other words, Patty Murray is correct. She is absolutely right to claim that Bill Clinton’s policies “helped grow the economy, create jobs, balance the budget.”

Now she needs to realize that those policies were small government and free markets.