Tag: fiscal policy

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Tax Deal

Compared to ideal policy, the deal announced last night between congressional Republicans and President Obama is terrible.

Compared to what I expected to happen, the deal announced last night is pretty good.

In other words, grading this package depends on your benchmark. This is why reaction has been all over the map, featuring dour assessments from people like Pejman Yousefzadeh and cheerful analysis from folks such as Jennifer Rubin.

With apologies to Clint Eastwood, let’s review the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

The good parts of the agreement is the avoidance of bad things, sort of the political version of the Hippocratic oath – do no harm. Tax rates next year are not going to increase. The main provisions of the 2001 and 2003 tax acts are extended for two years – including the lower tax rates on dividends and capital gains. This is good news for investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other “rich” taxpayers who were targeted by Obama. They get a reprieve before there is a risk of higher tax rates. This probably won’t have a positive effect on economic performance since current policy will continue, but at least it delays anti-growth policy for two years.

On a lesser note, Obama’s gimmicky and ineffective make-work-pay credit, which was part of the so-called stimulus, will be replaced by a 2-percentage point reduction in the payroll tax. Tax credits generally do not result in lower marginal tax rates on productive behavior, so there is no pro-growth impact.  A lower payroll tax rate, by contrast, improves incentives to work. But don’t expect much positive effect on the economy since the lower rate only lasts for one year. People rarely make permanent decisions on creating jobs and expanding output on the basis of one-year tax breaks.

Another bit of good news is that the death tax will be 35 percent for two years, rather than 55 percent, as would have happened without an agreement, or 45 percent, which is what I thought was going to happen. Last but not least, there is a one-year provision allowing businesses to ”expense” new investment rather than have it taxed, which perversely happens to some degree under current law.

The Bad

The burden of government spending is going to increase. Unemployment benefits are extended for 13 months. And there is no effort to reduce spending elsewhere to “pay for” this new budgetary burden. A rising burden of federal spending is America’s main fiscal problem, and this agreement exacerbates that challenge.

But the fiscal cost is probably trivial compared to the human cost. Academic research is quite thorough on this issue, and it shows that paying people to remain out of work has a significantly negative impact on employment rates. This means many people will remain trapped in joblessness, with potentially horrible long-term consequences on their work histories and habits.

The agreement reinstates a death tax. For all of this year, there has not been a punitive and immoral tax imposed on people simply because they die. So even though I listed the 35 percent death tax in the deal in the “good news” section of this analysis because it could have been worse, it also belongs in the “bad news” section because there is no justification for this class-warfare levy.

The Ugly

As happens so often when politicians make decisions, the deal includes all sorts of special-interest provisions. There are various special provisions for politically powerful constituencies. As a long-time fan of a simple and non-corrupt flat tax, it is painful for me to see this kind of deal.

Moreover, the temporary nature of the package is disappointing. There will be very little economic boost from this deal. As mentioned above, people generally don’t increase output in response to short-term provisions. I worry that this will undermine the case for lower tax rates since observers may conclude that they don’t have much positive effect.

To conclude, I’m not sure if this is good, bad, or ugly, but we get to do this all over again in 2012.

Words I Don’t Say Very Often: ‘I Applaud Senate Republicans’

Much to my surprise, Senate Republicans held firm earlier today and blocked President Obama’s soak-the-rich proposal to raise tax rates next year on investors, entrepreneurs and small business owners.

I fully expected that GOPers would fold on this issue several months ago because Democrats were using the class-warfare argument that Republicans were holding the middle class hostage in order to protect “millionaires and billionaires.” Republicans usually have a hard time fighting back against such demagoguery, and I was especially pessimistic since every Republican senator had to stay united to block Senate Democrats from pushing through Obama’s plan for higher tax rates on the so-called rich.

But the GOP surprised me earlier this year with their united opposition to higher taxes, and they stayed strong again today in blocking a bill that would raise tax rates on upper-income taxpayers. Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times.

Republicans voted unanimously against the House-passed bill, and they were joined by four Democrats — Senators Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Jim Webb of Virginia — as well as by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut. “You don’t raise taxes if your ultimate goal, if the main thing is to create jobs,” said Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, echoing an argument made repeatedly by his colleagues during the floor debate. The Senate on Saturday also rejected an alternative proposal, championed by Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, to raise the threshold at which the tax breaks would expire to $1 million. Some Democrats said that the Republicans’ opposition to that plan showed them to be siding with “millionaires and billionaires” over the middle class.

Not only did GOPers stand firm, but they were joined by five other senators (including four that have to face the voters in 2012). This presumably means Democrats will now have to compromise and agree to a plan to extend all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

At the risk of being a Pollyanna, I wonder if the politics of hate and envy is falling out of fashion. Obama’s plan for higher tax rates hopefully is now dead, but that’s just one positive indicator. It’s also interesting that both of the big “deficit reduction” plans recently unveiled, the President’s Fiscal Commission and the Domenici-Rivlin Debt Reduction Task Force Report, endorsed lower marginal tax rates - including lower tax rates for those evil rich people. Both proposals also included lots of tax increases, so the overall tax burden would be significantly higher under both plans, but it is remarkable that the beltway insiders who dominated the two panels understood the destructive impact of class-warfare tax rates. Maybe they watched this video.

Tax Loopholes Are Corrupt and Inefficient, but They Should only Be Eliminated if Every Penny of New Revenue Is Used to Lower Tax Rates

There’s been a lot of heated discussion about various preferences, deductions, credits, shelters, and other loopholes in the tax code. Some of this debate has revolved around whether it is legitimate to refer to these provisions as “tax expenditures” or “subsidies.”

Michael Cannon vociferously argues that subsidies and expenditures only occur when the government takes money from person A and gives it to person B. On the other side of the debate are people like Josh Barro of the Manhattan Institute, who argues that tax preferences are akin to subsidies or expenditures since they can be just as damaging as government spending programs when looking at whether resources are efficiently allocated.

Since I’m a can’t-we-all-get-along, uniter-not-divider kind of person, allow me to suggest that this debate should be set aside. After all, we all agree that tax preferences can lead to inefficient outcomes. So let’s call them “tax distortions” and focus on the real issue, which is how best to eliminate them.

This is an important issue because both the Domenici-Rivlin Task Force and the Chairmen of the Simpson-Bowles Commission have unveiled plans that would reduce or eliminate many of these tax distortions and also lower marginal tax rates. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that their plans result in more revenue going to Washington. In other words, the tax increase resulting from fewer tax distortions is larger than the tax decrease resulting from lower tax rates. To put it bluntly, the plans would increase the overall tax burden.

Some argue that this is an acceptable price to pay. They point out, quite correctly, that lower tax rates will help the economy by improving incentives for productive behavior. And they also are right in arguing that fewer tax distortions will help the economy by improving efficiency. Seems like a win-win situation. What’s not to like?

The problem is on the spending side of the fiscal ledger. The Simpson-Bowles Commission and the Domenici-Rivlin Task Force were charged with figuring out how to reduce red ink. We already know from Congressional Budget Office data, however, that we can balance the budget fairly quickly by limiting the growth of government spending. As the chart illustrates, the deficit disappears by 2016-2017 with a hard freeze and goes away by 2019-2020 if spending increases by two percent each year (and this assumes all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent).

If tax revenue is increased, that simply means that the budget gets balanced at a higher level of spending. And since government spending, at current levels and composition, hinders economic growth by diverting labor and capital to less productive (or unproductive) uses, any proposal that enables higher levels of government spending will further undermine economic performance.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that this analysis is overly optimistic since it assumes that politicians actually will balance the budget. In all likelihood, as explained in today’s Wall Street Journal, any tax increase would probably be followed by even more spending. So if politicians raise the tax burden, we might still have a deficit of $685 billion in 2020 (CBO’s most-recent estimate assuming  all programs are left on auto-pilot), but the overall levels of both spending and taxes would be higher. This modified cartoon captures this real-world effect.

This is why revenue-neutral tax reform, like the flat tax, is the only pro-growth way of eliminating tax distortions.

Don’t Blame Ireland’s Mess on Low Corporate Tax Rates

Ireland is in deep fiscal trouble and the Germans and the French apparently want the politicians in Dublin to increase the nation’s 12.5 percent corporate tax rate as the price for being bailed out. This is almost certainly the cause of considerable smugness and joy in Europe’s high-tax nations, many of which have been very resentful of Ireland for enjoying so much prosperity in recent decades in part because of a low corporate tax burden.

But is there any reason to think Ireland’s competitive corporate tax regime is responsible for the nation’s economic crisis? The answer, not surprisingly, is no. Here’s a chart from one of Ireland’s top economists, looking at taxes and spending for past 27 years. You can see that revenues grew rapidly, especially beginning in the 1990s as the lower tax rates were implemented. The problem is that politicians spent every penny of this revenue windfall.

When the financial crisis hit a couple of years ago, tax revenues suddenly plummeted. Unfortunately, politicians continued to spend like drunken sailors. It’s only in the last year that they finally stepped on the brakes and began to rein in the burden of government spending. But that may be a case of too little, too late.

The second chart provides additional detail. Interestingly, the burden of government spending actually fell as a share of GDP between 1983 and 2000. This is not because government spending was falling, but rather because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector.

This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

But big government is never a free lunch. Government spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. This is now painfully apparent since there no longer is a revenue windfall to mask the damage.

There are lots of lessons to learn from Ireland’s fiscal/economic/financial crisis. There was too much government spending. Ireland also had a major housing bubble. And some people say that adopting the euro (the common currency of many European nations) helped create the current mess.

The one thing we can definitely say, though, is that lower tax rates did not cause Ireland’s problems. It’s also safe to say that higher tax rates will delay Ireland’s recovery. French and German politicians may think that’s a good idea, but hopefully Irish lawmakers have a better perspective.

Co-Chairmen of Obama’s Fiscal Commission Unveil Real Tax Increases and Fake Spending Cuts

I have many pet peeves, but one that causes me endless frustration is the Washington “spending cut” scam. This happens when politicians increase spending, but claim that they’re cutting spending because they previously had planned to make government even bigger.

The proposal unveiled yesterday by the Co-Chairman of President Obama’s Fiscal Commission is a good example. If you read through their report, it sounds like there are lots of spending cuts. But they never explain that these supposed cuts are really just reductions in previously-planned increases.

Here’s the bottom line. As shown in the graph, it is quite simple to balance the budget (and permanently extend all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts) if politicians simply limit spending growth. You can balance the budget within a few years with an overall cap on spending at current-year levels. But if you prefer a more moderate approach, you can let spending increase 2 percent each year and balance the budget by the end of the decade.

The proposal from the Fiscal Commission, incidentally, does not balance the budget - even though they have a big tax increase (which they assume will have zero negative impact on economic performance).

So what does this mean? Well, we know that the budget can be balanced (with the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts) if spending grows two percent each year. And we also know that the Fiscal Commission increases the tax burden, yet still doesn’t achieve fiscal balance. So this means that they must be letting spending grow much faster than 2 percent each year. I’m guessing 4-5 percent annual spending growth.

In other words, the Fiscal Commission is asking us to pay higher taxes so that government spending can grow at twice the rate of inflation. That’s not a good deal.

Moreover, that’s almost certainly a ridiculously naive best-case scenario. If past behavior is any indication (and it is), politicians will spend any additional tax revenue. Whenever there’s a budget summit, the folks who want higher taxes make all sorts of empty promises about spending discipline. And when the other side caves in on taxes, they grab the money and have a party.

Our Tax Dollars Are Funding Bureaucrats Who Advise Congress that Higher Taxes Increase Prosperity

I’ve already written about the terrible work of the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO did an awful job on the stimulus, for instance, repeatedly asserting that diverting money from the private sector to government somehow would create jobs. CBO also was a disaster on Obamacare, claiming that a giant new entitlement program would reduce budget deficits. And the legislative bureaucracy even has argued that higher tax rates boost growth.

That sounds absurd (and it is), but CBO is not the only taxpayer-funded bureaucracy on Capitol Hill producing this kind of nonsensical analysis. The Congressional Research Service just published a new report asserting that higher tax rates will boost economic performance. Here’s an excerpt from that CRS publication.

…it is ambiguous whether tax cuts lead to more or less work, saving, and investment. The expiration of the tax cuts would nevertheless reduce the budget deficit, absent other policy changes, which economic theory predicts would have a positive effect on the economy in the long run.

To be fair, CRS doesn’t actually claim higher taxes are good for growth. And neither does CBO. But CRS and CBO both assert that there is no clear evidence that higher taxes hurt growth. Budget deficits, however, supposedly have a very negative impact on economic performance according to these Capitol Hill bureaucrats. More specifically, CRS and CBO believe that government borrowing leads to higher interest rates, and they think that higher interest rates reduce investment. And since investment is a key to long-run growth, this leads them to endorse any policy – including higher taxes – that reduces red ink.

Taking the CRS and CBO analysis to its logical extreme (and neither bureaucracy has stated that there are limits to their methodology), tax rates of 100 percent would be the most effective way of maximizing prosperity.

This video explains that the real problem is spending, and that deficits are just a symptom of a government that is too big. This is not to say that CRS and CBO are completely wrong. We have record budget deficits and very low interest rates today, but it’s possible that interest rates might be even lower without all the red ink. And it’s certainly true that interest rates are one of the many factors that determine investment choices, so there’s nothing wrong with including them in the equation.

But magnitudes matter. For all intents and purposes, CRS and CBO want us to believe that more government borrowing will have a very significant impact on interest rates and that those higher interest rates will have a very negative impact on investment. Yet neither bureaucracy offers any evidence for these linkages, in large part because the academic research shows that the relationships between deficits, interest rates, and investment are weak.

By contrast, CRS and CBO have no problem supporting higher tax rates – including more double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Yet there is considerable evidence that punitive tax rates have a significant impact not only on decisions to earn income and be productive, but also on decisions whether to consume today or to save and invest (and thus consume in the future). CRS and CBO also assume, rather naively, that politicians would use any additional revenue for deficit reduction instead of new spending.

Let’s call this the triumph of left-wing theory over real-world evidence. To add insult to injury, the sloppy analysis at CRS and CBO is financed by our tax dollars. So we pay bureaucrats so they can tell politicians to seize more money from us. Gee, what’s not to love about a scam like that?

P.S. If Republicans are actually serious about restraining government spending, CRS and CBO are target-rich environments. Just saying.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Which Nation Has the Most Debt of All?

The Economist has a fascinating webpage that allows readers to look at all the world’s nations and compare them based on various measures of government debt (and for various years).

The most economically relevant measure is public debt as a share of GDP, and you can see that the United States is not in great shape, though many nations have more accumulated red ink (especially Japan, where debt is much higher than it is even in Greece).  As faithful readers of this blog already understand, the real issue is the size of government, but this site is a good indicator of nations that finance their spending in a risky fashion.

By the way, keep in mind that these figures do not include unfunded liabilities. For those who worry about debt, those are the truly shocking numbers (at least for the United States and other nations with government-run pension and health schemes).