Tag: fiscal policy

There Is No Libertarian or Conservative Argument for Higher Taxes

Eli Lehrer has an article on the FrumForum entitled “Five Revenue Raisers the GOP Should Back.” He argues it would be good to get rid of preferences such as the state and local tax deduction and the mortgage interest deduction, and he also asserts that there should be “user fees” for things such as transportation.

As an avid supporter of a flat tax and market pricing, I have no objection to these policies. Indeed, I would love to get rid of the state and local tax deduction so that taxpayers in Texas and Florida no longer have to subsidize the fiscal profligacy of politicians in California and New York.

But there is a giant difference between getting rid of certain tax preferences as part of revenue-neutral (or even better, tax-cutting) tax reform and getting rid of tax preferences in order to give politicians more revenue to spend.

The former is a noble goal. Who can argue, after all, with the idea of getting rid of the corrupt and punitive internal revenue code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax? Lots of loopholes are eliminated, so there are plenty of tax-raising provisions in tax reform. But every one of those provisions is offset by provisions that lower tax rates and get rid of double taxation of saving and investment.

The latter, by contrast, is an exercise in trying to lose with minimal damage – sort of the “French Army Theory” of taxation, surrender gracefully and hope that your new masters give you a few crumbs after their celebratory feast.

What is especially strange about this approach is that the Republicans who advocate higher taxes claim that they are political realists. Yet if we look at real-world evidence, the moment Republicans show their “realism” by putting taxes on the table, the entire debate shifts.

Instead of the debate being tax-hikes vs. no-tax-hikes, it becomes a debate over who-should-pay-more-tax. Republicans win the first debate. They get slaughtered in the second debate.

Remember when the first President Bush agreed to enter into tax-hike negotiations in 1990? He set out two conditions – that there should be a reduction in the capital gains tax and that there should be no increase in income tax rates. So what happened? As everyone with an IQ above room temperature predicted, the capital gains tax stayed the same and income tax rates increased.

Last but not least, this conversation only exists because some people have thrown in the towel, acquiescing to the idea that there is no way to balance the budget without higher taxes. Yet the Congressional Budget Office data shows that the budget can be balanced by 2020 simply by limiting annual spending growth to 2 percent.

Fiscal Report Card on the Governors

We released Cato’s report card on the fiscal policies of the governors today. We calculated data on the taxing and spending habits of 45 of the nation’s 50 governors, between 2008 to August 2010.

The governors are scored from 0 to 100 on seven separate taxing and spending variables. The scores are aggregated and converted to letter grades, A to F.

Four governors earned an “A” this year: Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. You can read the report to find out what these governors did right from our limited-government point of view.

As it turns out, the residents of these four states seem to like the fiscal stance of their winning governors, who favor tax cuts and spending restraint.

Pawlenty has a 52 percent approval rating in quite a liberal state.

Jindal has a 74 percent approval rating.

Manchin has a 69 percent approval rating.

Sanford has a 55 percent approval rating, despite the troubles in his personal life.

Governors shouldn’t just focus on being popular in a superficial sense. These polls tell us that governors who focus on cutting taxes and spending in an honest and intelligent way will be supported by the people.

It’s Simple to Balance the Budget without Higher Taxes

John Podesta of the Center for American Progress had a column in Politico yesterday asserting that “closing the budget gap entirely on the spending side would require draconian programmatic cuts.” He went on to complain that there are some people who “refuse to look at the revenue side of the ledger – while insisting that we dig the hole $830 billion deeper over the next decade by extending the Bush tax cuts.”
 
Not surprisingly, Mr. Podesta is totally wrong. It’s actually not that challenging to balance the budget. And it doesn’t even require any spending cuts, though it would be a very good idea to dramatically downsize the federal government. Here’s a chart showing this year’s spending and revenue totals. It then shows the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of how much revenues will grow, assuming all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent and assuming that the alternative minimum tax is adjusted for inflation. As you can see, balancing the budget is a simple matter of limiting the annual growth of federal spending.

So how is it that Mr. Podesta can spout sky-is-falling rhetoric about “draconian” cuts when all that’s needed is fiscal restraint? The answer is that politicians in Washington have concocted a self-serving budget process that automatically assumes that all previously-planned spending increases should occur. So if the politicians put us on a path to make government 8 percent bigger next year and there is a proposal to instead limit spending growth to 3 percent, that 3 percent increase gets portrayed as a 5 percent cut.
 
This is a great scam, at least for the political class. They get to buy more votes by boosting the burden of government spending, but they get to tell voters that they’re being fiscally responsible. And they get to claim that they have no choice but to raise taxes because there’s no other way to balance the budget. In the real world, though, this translates into bigger government and puts us on a path to a Greek-style fiscal nightmare.
 

The goal of fiscal policy should be smaller government, not fiscal balance. Deficits are just a symptom of a government that is too large, as I have explained elsewhere. But the good news is that spending discipline is the right answer, regardless of the objective. I explained this in more detail for a piece in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Here’s an excerpt.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government this year is spending almost $3.5 trillion. Tax receipts are estimated to be less than $2.2 trillion, which means a projected deficit of about $1.35 trillion. So can we balance the budget when there is that much red ink? And is it possible to eliminate deficits while also extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts? The answer is yes. …It’s a simple matter of mathematics. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that tax revenue will grow by an average of 7.3 percent annually over the next 10 years. Reducing the budget deficit is easy - so long as politicians increase overall spending by less than that amount. And with inflation projected to be about 2 percent over the same period, this is an ideal environment for some long-overdue fiscal discipline. If spending is simply capped at the current level with a hard freeze, the budget is balanced by 2016. If we limit spending growth to 1 percent each year, the budget is balanced in 2017. And if we allow 2 percent annual spending growth - letting the budget keep pace with inflation, the budget balances in 2020. …Interest groups that are used to big budget increases will be upset if spending growth is limited to 1 or 2 percent each year. It means entitlements will need to be reformed. It means we might need to get rid of programs and departments that are not legitimate functions of the federal government. You better believe that these changes will cause a lot of squealing by lobbyists and other insiders. But that complaining will be a sign that fiscal policy is finally heading in the right direction. The key thing to understand is that there is no need for tax increases. Politicians might not balance the budget if we say no to all tax increases. But the experience in Europe shows that oppressive tax burdens are not a recipe for fiscal balance either. Milton Friedman was correct many years ago 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.”

More Evidence of the Failed Stimulus

Not that we need more evidence, but here is a story from Los Angeles revealing that the city only created 55 jobs with $111 million of stimulus funds. This translates to a per-job cost of $2 million, which is a grossly inefficient rate of return. But this calculation is incomplete because it doesn’t measure how many jobs would have been created if the money had been left in the productive sector of the economy. Moreover, it’s also important to consider long-term costs such as the fact that Los Angeles now has more overhead, which will exacerbate the city’s fiscal problems.

A snippet:

The Los Angeles City Controller said on Thursday the city’s use of its share of the $800 billion federal stimulus fund has been disappointing. The city received $111 million in stimulus under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) approved by the Congress more than a year ago.

“I’m disappointed that we’ve only created or retained 55 jobs after receiving $111 million,” says Wendy Greuel, the city’s controller, while releasing an audit report.

…The audit says the numbers were disappointing due to bureaucratic red tape, absence of competitive bidding for projects in private sectors, inappropriate tracking of stimulus money and a laxity in bringing out timely job reports.

More Arguments against a Value-Added Tax

The biggest long-term threat to fiscal responsibility is a value-added tax, as I’ve explained here, here, here, here, and here. So I’m delighted to see a growing amount of research showing that a VAT is bad news. Jim Powell has an excellent column at Investor’s Business Daily that makes a rather obvious point about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of copying the tax policy of nations that are teetering on the edge of fiscal collapse (this cartoon has the same message in a more amusing fashion).

Drums are beating in Washington for a value-added tax in addition to the “stimulus” taxes, health care taxes, energy taxes and other taxes President Obama has imposed and wants to impose on hard-pressed taxpayers. Supposedly a value-added tax is a magic elixir for curing budget deficits and excessive debt. Quack remedy would be more like it. If it worked, you’d observe that countries with a VAT had budget surpluses and no debt problems. But almost every country that has a VAT is plagued with budget deficits and excessive debt. … No surprise that the worst financial basket cases all have a VAT. Iceland has the highest VAT rates, but this didn’t prevent its financial crisis and the near bankruptcy of its government. Italy’s VAT rates are almost as high, and its debt exceeds its GDP. Financial crises are looming in Spain and Portugal, and of course they have a VAT. Greece has a VAT, too, and when politicians ran out of money to pay government employees for more than a year’s worth of work every year, they rioted in the streets.  Great Britain has a VAT, and its government finances are in the worst shape since World War II — its budget deficit is expected to be bigger than that of Greece. Moreover, the OECD has acknowledged that “(VAT) tax and transfer wedges have discouraged firms from offering employment and individuals from taking it, reduced employment and increased inequality.”

And a new study by Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Cameron Smith finds evidence that a VAT would lead to bigger government.

VATs provide a significant amount of revenue. …But do these significant revenues cause government spending to grow larger? Or is it the case that adoption of a VAT is evidence of the desire for a larger government so that the causal arrow runs from a taste for Leviathan to a VAT, and not the reverse? …we find a statistically significant dynamic relationship between the rate of VAT taxation and the size of government. Although no single study is definitive, this is the first rigorous evidence that a VAT causes government to grow larger. …countries that adopted a VAT did in fact experience, on average, a 29 percent increase in the size of government. …The estimated coefficient of 0.262 indicates that adopting a VAT is associated with larger government. This estimate is statistically significant. …our results shift the burden of proof to those who deny that VATs fuel increases in the size of the public sector.

This study jumps into a long-running chicken-or-egg debate in the academic literature about whether higher taxes lead to higher spending or whether higher spending leads to higher taxes. This causality debate is interesting, but I’m not sure it really matters. A VAT is a terrible idea if it triggers bigger government, and a VAT is a bad idea if it merely finances bigger government. But I suspect this study is correct. The key thing to remember is that 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.” This means that a VAT will allow more government spending and no reduction in deficits and debt, which is exactly what we see in Europe (and as Jim Powell noted in his column). Last but not least, this video summarizes the best arguments against a VAT.

Congressional Budget Office Says We Can Maximize Long-Run Economic Output with 100 Percent Tax Rates

I hope the title of this post is an exaggeration, but it’s certainly a logical conclusion based on what is written in the Congressional Budget Office’s updated Economic and Budget Outlook. The Capitol Hill bureaucracy basically has a deficit-über-alles view of fiscal policy. CBO’s long-run perspective, as shown by this excerpt, is that deficits reduce output by “crowding out” private capital and that anything that results in lower deficits (or larger surpluses) will improve economic performance – even if this means big increases in tax rates.

CBO has also examined an alternative fiscal scenario reflecting several changes to current law that are widely expected to occur or that would modify some provisions of law that might be difficult to sustain for a long period. That alternative scenario embodies small differences in outlays relative to those projected under current law but significant differences in revenues: Under that scenario, most of the cuts in individual income taxes enacted in 2001 and 2003 and now scheduled to expire at the end of this year (except the lower rates applying to high-income taxpayers) are extended through 2020; relief from the AMT, which expired after 2009, continues through 2020; and the 2009 estate tax rates and exemption amounts (adjusted for inflation) apply through 2020. …Under those alternative assumptions, real GDP would be…lower in subsequent years than under CBO’s baseline forecast. …Under that alternative fiscal scenario, real GDP would fall below the level in CBO’s baseline projections later in the coming decade because the larger budget deficits would reduce or “crowd out” investment in productive capital and result in a smaller capital stock.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with CBO’s concern about deficits, but looking at fiscal policy through that prism is akin to deciding who wins a baseball game by looking at what happened during the 6th inning. Yes, government borrowing drains capital from the productive sector of the economy. And nations such as Greece are painful examples of what happens when governments go too far down this path. But taxes also undermine economic performance by reducing incentives to work, save, and invest. And nations such as France are gloomy reminders of what happens when punitive tax rates discourage productive behavior.

What’s missing for CBO’s analysis is any recognition or understanding that the real problem is excessive government spending. Regardless of whether spending is financed by borrowing or taxes, resources are being diverted from the private sector to government. In other words, government spending is the disease and deficits are basically a symptom of that underlying problem. Indeed, it’s worth noting that there’s not much evidence that deficits cause economic damage but plenty of evidence that bloated public sectors stunt growth. This video is a good antidote to CBO’s myopic focus on budget deficits.

With Tax Increases Looming, CBO Does About-Face and Frets about Deficits and Debt

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the Congressional Budget Office follows a predictable pattern of endorsing policies that result in bigger government. During the debate about the so-called stimulus, for instance, CBO said more spending and higher deficits would be good for the economy. It then followed up that analysis by claiming that the faux stimulus worked even though millions of jobs were lost. Then, during the Obamacare debate, CBO actually claimed that a giant new entitlement program would reduce deficits.

Now that tax increases are the main topic (because of the looming expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax bills), CBO has done a 180-degree turn and has published a document discussing the negative consequences of too much deficits and debt. A snippet:

[P]ersistent deficits and continually mounting debt would have several negative economic consequences for the United States. Some of those consequences would arise gradually: A growing portion of people’s savings would go to purchase government debt rather than toward investments in productive capital goods such as factories and computers; that “crowding out” of investment would lead to lower output and incomes than would otherwise occur.

…[A] growing level of federal debt would also increase the probability of a sudden fiscal crisis, during which investors would lose confidence in the government’s ability to manage its budget, and the government would thereby lose its ability to borrow at affordable rates. …If the United States encountered a fiscal crisis, the abrupt rise in interest rates would reflect investors’ fears that the government would renege on the terms of its existing debt or that it would increase the supply of money to finance its activities or pay creditors and thereby boost inflation.

At some point, even Republicans should be smart enough to figure out that this game is rigged. Then again, the GOP controlled Congress for a dozen years and failed to reform either CBO or its counterpart on the revenue side, the Joint Committee on Taxation (which is infamous for its assumption that tax policy has no impact on overall economic performance).