Tag: fiscal policy

You Should Support a Value-Added Tax…if You Want Bigger Government and More Debt

I testified before the House Ways & Means Committee yesterday. As always, my trip inside the belly of the beast was an interesting adventure.

The tax-writing committee was holding a hearing on the value-added tax. I was on a panel with five other witnesses, and all of the other people testifying were sympathetic to a VAT. But since I had truth on my side, that made it a fair fight (though it did cross my mind that it’s not a good sign when a Republican-controlled committee stacks the witnesses in favor of a European-style tax system).

I made two points. First, a VAT is less destructive than the current income tax. As such, if we somehow repealed the 16th Amendment and replaced it with something ironclad that would prevent the income tax from ever again haunting the land, I would gladly make a trade.

But that’s not going to happen, so my second point was to warn that the VAT would be a recipe for bigger government. And even though some of my fellow witnesses said the revenue could be used to reduce deficits, I pointed out that Europe adopted VATs beginning in the 1960s and that hasn’t stopped welfare states such as Greece and Portugal from spending themselves into a fiscal crisis.

This chart, which is similar to what I included in my testimony, compares spending and debt levels in EU-15 nations (Western Europe) and the United States. As you can see, the burden of spending and debt is onerous in America (red columns), but even worse in Europe (blue columns).

That doesn’t prove that a VAT causes bigger government and more debt, to be sure, but it certainly seems to suggest that the other side is smoking dope when they claim a VAT will lead to deficit reduction. Instead, it seems like Milton Friedman was right when he warned that, “In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.”

I made some of these points in my VAT video.

P.S. Here are three very good cartoons on the VAT (here, here, and here).

The Gang of Six Is Back from the Dead: Contemplating the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Their Budget Plan

The on-again, off-again “Gang of Six” has come back on the scene and is offering a “Bipartisan Plan to Reduce Our Nation’s Deficits.”

The proposal is quite similar to the one put forth by the President’s Simpson-Bowles Commission, which isn’t too surprising since some of the same people are involved.

At this stage, all I’ve seen is this summary (A BIPARTISAN PLAN TO REDUCE OUR NATIONS DEFICITS v7), so I reserve the right to modify my analysis as more details emerge (and since I fully expect the plan to look worse when additional information is available, the following is an optimistic assessment.

The Good

  • Unlike President Obama, the Gang of Six is not consumed by class-warfare resentment. The plan envisions that the top personal income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent.
  • The corporate income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent as well, something that is long overdue since the average corporate tax rate in Europe is now down to 23 percent.
  • The alternative minimum tax (which should be called the mandatory maximum tax) will be repealed.
  • The plan would repeal the CLASS Act, a provision of Obamacare for long-term-care insurance that will significantly expand the burden of federal spending once implemented.
  • The plan targets some inefficient and distorting tax preference such as the health care exclusion.

The Bad

  • The much-heralded spending caps do not apply to entitlement programs. This is like going to the doctor because you have cancer and getting treated for a sprained wrist.
  • A net tax increase of more than $1 trillion (I expect that number to be much higher when further details are divulged).
  • The plan targets some provisions of the tax code – such as IRAs and 401(k)s) – that are not preferences, but instead exist to mitigate against the double taxation of saving and investment.
  • There is no Medicare reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.
  • There in no Medicaid reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.

The Ugly

  • The entire package is based on dishonest Washington budget math. Spending increases under the plan, but the politicians claim to be cutting spending because the budget didn’t grow even faster.
  • Speaking of spending, why is there no information, anywhere in the summary document, showing how big government will be five years from now? Ten years from now? The perhaps-all-too-convenient absence of this critical information should set off alarm bells.
  • There’s a back-door scheme to change the consumer price index in such a way as to reduce expenditures (i.e., smaller cost-of-living-adjustments) and increase tax revenue (i.e., smaller adjustments in tax brackets and personal exemptions). The current CPI may be flawed, but it would be far better to give the Bureau of Labor Statistics further authority, if necessary, to make changes. A politically imposed change seems like nothing more than a ruse to impose a hidden tax hike.
  • A requirement that the internal revenue code maintain the existing bias against investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other upper-income taxpayers. This “progressivity” mandate implies very bad things for the double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

This quick analysis leaves many questions unanswered. I particularly look forward to getting information on the following:

  1. How fast will discretionary spending rise or fall under the caps? Will this be like the caps following the 1990 tax-hike deal, which were akin to 60-mph speed limits in a school zone? Or will the caps actually reduce spending, erasing the massive increase in discretionary spending of the Bush-Obama years?
  2. What does it mean to promise Social Security reform “if and only if the comprehensive deficit reduction bill has already received 60 votes.” Who defines reform? And why does the reform have to focus on “75-year” solvency, apparently to the exclusion of giving younger workers access to a better and more stable system?
  3. Will federal spending under the plan shrink back down to the historical average of 20 percent of GDP? And why aren’t those numbers in the summary? The document contains information of deficits and debt, but those figures are just the symptoms of excessive spending. Why aren’t we being shown the data that really matters?

Over the next few days, we’ll find out what’s really in this package, but my advice is to keep a tight hold on your wallet.

New Study from Swedish Economists Allows Us to Quantify the Cost of the Bush-Obama Spending Binge

The United States has been on a decade-long spending binge. Thanks to the profligate policies of both Bush and Obama, the burden of federal spending has climbed to about 25 percent of economic output, up from 18.2 percent of GDP when Bill Clinton left office.

The political class tells us that more government is good for the economy since it an “investment” and/or a “stimulus.”

The academic research, however, tells a different story. Here are some brief excerpts from a recent study by two Swedish economists, including a critically important observation about the impact of bigger government on economic performance.

…most recent studies typically find a negative correlation between total government size and economic growth. …the most convincing studies are those most recently published. …In general, research has come very close to a consensus that in rich countries there is a negative correlation between total government size and growth. It appears fair to say that an increase in total government size of ten percentage points in tax revenue or expenditure as a share of GDP is on average associated with an annual lower growth rate of between one-half and one percentage point.

Let’s focus on the last sentence of the excerpt and contemplate the implications. The research cited above tells us that annual growth is 0.5 percentage point-1.0 percentage point lower if the burden of government rises by 10 percentage points of GDP. Well, the burden of federal spending has jumped by more than 5 percentage points of GDP during the Bush-Obama years, indicating that annual growth in America is now 0.25 percentage point-0.5 percentage point lower than it otherwise would be.

Now let’s take the best-case scenario, and assume that annual growth has only dropped by 0.25 percentage points, and consider what that means. It may not sound like much, but even small differences in growth rates become very important over time. For an average household over a 25-year period, the loss of 0.25 percentage points of growth means annual income will rise, but the total increase will be about $5,000 smaller by the 25th year.

The budgetary implications of growth also are rather important. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the economy’s performance has a large impact on tax receipts (more growth means higher incomes and more taxpayers) and a small effect on government spending (more growth means fewer people at the public trough). CBO even publishes a “sensitivity table” with specific estimates (Table B-1).

If we once again use the best-case scenario and assume the Bush-Obama spending binge has reduced annual growth by only 0.25 percentage points, the CBO numbers show this means more than $750 billion of additional red ink. This is something to keep in mind as the White House argues that job-killing class-warfare tax hikes will somehow improve the budget situation.

Let’s now return to the academic research. The authors included a very helpful table showing the results of recent studies on the relationship between the size of government and economic performance. Click on the image for a full-size look at how the majority of scholarly research this century confirms that big government is bad for prosperity.

For all intents and purposes, all this research shows that developed nations are on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve. Named after my Cato colleague Richard Rahn and explained in the video below, the Rahn Curve is sort of a spending version of the Laffer Curve.

It shows that growth is maximized by small governments that focus on core “public goods” like rule of law and protection of property rights. But when governments expand beyond a certain growth-maximizing level (the research says about 20 percent of GDP, by I explain in the video why the right number is probably much smaller), the result is slower growth and less prosperity.

With the exception of high-growth Hong Kong and Singapore, all developed nation have public sectors that consume at least 30 percent of economic output. This means that government spending is undermining prosperity all around the world. And since the burden of government spending is close to 40 percent of GDP in the United States…well, you can fill in the blanks.

I Hope I’m Wrong, But Here’s Why Republicans Will Lose the Debt-Limit Fight

There are three reasons why I’m not very hopeful about the outcome of the debt-limit battle.

1. There is no unity in the GOP camp.

Republicans have been all over the map during this fight. Some of them want a balanced budget amendment. Some want a one-for-one deal of $2 trillion of spending cuts in exchange for a $2 trillion increase in the debt limit. Others want some sort of spending cap, akin to Senator Corker’s CAP Act. Some want to mix all these ideas together in a cut-cap-balance package. Others want Obamacare repeal.  And the latest proposal is Sen. McConnell’s proposal to let Obama unilaterally raise the debt limit.

These are mostly good ideas, but the failure to coalesce around one proposal – preferably one that is easy to understand – has made the Republican position difficult to define, defend, or advance.

2. The fear of demagoguery is high.

As I explained months ago, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner are trying to spook financial markets with hyperbolic warnings about a risk of default. This is blatant dishonesty and demagoguery, but Republicans are nervous that this tactic might be successful if there is a high-stakes showdown as the government’s borrowing authority runs out.

For those with short memories, this is what happened with TARP back in 2008. The initial bailout proposal was rejected, leading to short-run market gyrations, and many Republicans panicked and switched their votes to yes.

3. Republicans don’t control the Senate or the White House.

I’m stating the obvious, of course, but people seem to forget that any debt limit increase will need to get through the Senate and get signed by Obama.

Imagine you are Harry Reid or Barack Obama. Is there any reason why you would acquiesce to Republican demands? Yes, you need to at least pretend to care about big government, wasteful spending, and red ink, but why not hold firm and then strike a deal based on make-believe spending cuts? That’s exactly what happened during the “government-shutdown” debate earlier this year.

This post, incidentally, is not an attack on Republicans. I’m very willing to attack GOPers when they do the wrong thing, but I’m not sure they deserve to get hammered in this case.

Simply stated, I don’t think there’s a winning strategy, so I don’t see any point in going nuclear.

If nothing else, at least Republicans resisted the siren song of tax increases, which is not a trivial achievement since Democrats clearly were hoping to trick GOPers into giving up one of their strongest political positions.

I’m Willing to Go Along with President Obama’s ‘Balanced Approach’ to Deficit Reduction, but Only if We Use Honest Math

The President has issued an ultimatum that more tax revenue must be part of budget negotiations. Indeed, he endlessly repeats his desire for a “balanced approach,” implying that as much as 50 percent of the deficit reduction in any agreement should come from higher revenues.

Because I am a thoughtful, middle-of-the-road, pragmatic guy, I’m willing to accept the President’s ultimatum. I do have one tiny request, however, and that is for any such deal to be based on honest math.

What I mean by this is that I don’t want politicians to approve a budget that results in more spending, but then claim that they “cut spending” because the budget didn’t grow even faster. I want a spending cut to mean less spending (gee, what a novel idea).

And when they talk about new revenue, I want to see how much revenue the IRS is collecting this year, and measure revenue increases against that number. After all, the crowd in Washington should be happy to get more money, even if it is the result of benign factors such as more jobs being created, companies earning higher profits, and people getting more pay.

I assume these are reasonable requests. After all, this is how businesses and households operate their budgets, and I’m sure the political insiders wouldn’t want to use dishonest numbers to mislead voters (perish the thought!).

So what would a balanced approach look like, assuming we want to use honest math? The answer isn’t that complicated. I started with the latest estimates from the Congressional Budget Office for spending and revenues for this fiscal year (FY2011). I then assume, in the interest of a “balanced approach,” that spending should be cut by 5 percent each year and that revenues should climb by 5 percent each year.

The results, as illustrated by the graph, are remarkable. If we use a 50-50 deal of higher revenue and lower spending, we balance the budget in just five years. The President is right!

Taxpayers will be happy to know the “balanced approach” gets rid of red ink and also leaves enough room to make the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent. Heck, there would be enough left-over revenue to enact additional tax cuts. After all, since we’re looking for balance, there’s no need to let revenues grow by 7 percent or 8 percent each year.

So, Mr. President, do we have a deal? Should we use your “balanced approach” and eliminate today’s big deficit by cutting spending and raising revenue by equal amounts? You were serious about your request, right? Hello, is anybody there?

As you already realize, I don’t think the President actually means what he says about a “balanced approach.” Or, to be more specific, I think he’s happy to do a 50-50 deal, but only if “spending cuts” and “revenue increases” are defined in ways that enable the growth of government.

Inside the beltway, this is known as “baseline budgeting” or “current services budgeting.” But whatever it’s called, it is a dishonest way of presenting information to the American people, as explained in this video.

European Political Elite React to Deteriorating Fiscal Outlook with Decisive Moves to…Kill the Messenger

I’m not a big fan of the rating agencies. I’ve warned in TV interviews that they generally wait too long before downgrading profligate governments.

So when the rating agencies finally catch up to everyone else and lower their outlook for failing welfare states such as Greece and Portugal, one would think that this would be seen as a useful – albeit late – warning sign. But European politicians are not very happy about this development. At the risk of mixing metaphors, they want everyone to keep their heads buried in the sand and to continue complimenting the emperor on his new clothes.

Here are some excerpts from a BBC report.

The European Commission has strongly criticised international credit ratings agencies following the downgrade of Portugal by Moody’s. The Commission said the timing of the downgrade was “questionable” and raised the issue of the “appropriateness of behaviour” of the agencies in general. Earlier, Greek Foreign Minister Stavros Lambridinis said the agencies’ actions in the debt crisis had been “madness”. Ratings agencies have downgraded Greece and Portugal many times recently. …German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told a news conference that he wanted to “break the oligopoly of the ratings agencies” and limit their influence. …”The timing of Moody’s decision is not only questionable, but also based on absolutely hypothetical scenarios which are not in line at all with implementation,” said Commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj. “This is an unfortunate episode and it raises once more the issue of the appropriateness of behaviour of credit rating agencies.” Commission President Manuel Barroso added that the move by Moody’s “added another speculative element to the situation”.

This is not the first time this has happened, by the way. Back in January, I mocked the President of the European Council for whining that “bond vigilantes” had the nerve and gall to demand higher interest rates to compensate for the risk of lending money to incontinent governments.

The “Tax Expenditure” Con Job

For both political and policy reasons, the left is desperately trying to maneuver Republicans into going along with a tax increase. And they are smart to make this their top goal. After all, it will be very difficult – if not impossible – to increase the burden of government spending without more revenue coming to Washington.

But how to make this happen? President Obama is mostly arguing in favor of class-warfare tax increases, but that’s a non-serious gambit driven by 2012 political considerations. Moreover, there’s presumably zero chance that Republicans would surrender to higher tax rates on work, saving, and investment.

The real threat is back-door hikes resulting from the elimination and/or reduction of so-called tax breaks. The big spenders on the left are being very clever about this effort, appealing to anti-spending and pro-tax reform sentiments by arguing that it is important to get rid of “tax expenditures” and “spending in the tax code.”

recently warned, however, that GOPers shouldn’t fall for this sophistry, noting that “If legislation is enacted that results in more money coming into Washington, that is a tax increase.” I also explained that tax breaks are not spending, stating that “When politicians tax (or borrow) money from one person and give it to another, that’s government spending. But if politicians allow a person keep more of their own money, that’s a tax cut.”

To be sure, the tax code is riddled with inefficient and corrupt loopholes. But those provisions should be eliminated as part of fundamental tax reform, such as a flat tax. More specifically, every penny of revenue generated by shutting down tax preferences should be used to lower tax rates. This is a win-win situation that would make America more prosperous and competitive.

It’s also important to understand what’s a loophole and what isn’t. Ideally, you determine special tax breaks by first deciding on the right benchmark and then measuring how the current tax system deviates from that ideal. That presumably means all income should be taxed, but only one time.

So what can we say about the internal revenue code using this neutral benchmark? Well, there are lots of genuine loopholes. The government completely exempts compensation in the form of employer-provided health insurance, for instance, and everyone agrees that’s a special tax break. There’s also the standard deduction and personal exemptions, but most people think it’s appropriate to protect poor people from the income tax (though perhaps we’ve gone too far in that direction since only 49 percent of households now pay income tax).

Sometimes the tax code goes overboard in the other direction, however, subjecting some income to double taxation. Indeed, because of the capital gains tax, corporate income tax, personal income tax, and death tax, it’s possible for some types of income to be taxed as many of three or four times.

Double taxation is a special tax penalty, which is the opposite of a special tax break. The good news is that there are some provisions in the tax code, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, that reduce these tax penalties.

The bad news is that these provisions get added to “tax expenditure” lists, and therefore get mixed up with the provisions that provide special tax breaks. This may sound too strange to be true, but here’s a list of the biggest so-called tax expenditures from the Tax Policy Center (which is a left-leaning organization, but their numbers are basically the same as the ones found at the Joint Committee on Taxation).

Since this post already is too long, I’ll close by simply noting that items 2, 4, 7, 8, 11, and 12 are not loopholes. They are not “tax expenditures.” And they are not “spending in the tax code.” Every one of those provisions is designed to mitigate a penalty in the tax code.

So even if lawmakers have good motives (i.e., pursuing real tax reform such as the flat tax) when looking to get rid of special tax breaks, they need to understand what’s actually a loophole.

But since politicians rarely have good motives, there’s a real threat that they will take existing tax penalties and make them even worse. That’s another reason why tax increases should be a non-starter.