Tag: fiscal policy

CBO’s Tax Expenditure Report Uses Wrong Benchmark, Overstates Loopholes

As a long-time advocate of tax reform, I’m not a fan of distortionary loopholes in the tax code. Ideally, we would junk the 74,000-page internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax - meaning one low rate, no double taxation, and no favoritism.*

The right kind of tax reform would generate more growth and also reduce corruption in Washington. Politicians no longer would have the ability to create special tax breaks for well-connected contributors.

But we won’t get to the right destination if we have the wrong map, and this is why a new report about “tax expenditures” from the Congressional Budget Office is so disappointing.

As you can see from this excerpted table, CBO makes the same mistake as the Tax Policy Center and assumes that there should be double taxation of income that is saved and invested. As such, they list IRAs and 401(k)s as tax expenditures, even though those provisions merely enable people to avoid being double-taxed.

Likewise, the CBO report assumes that there should be double taxation of dividends and capital gains, so provisions to guard against such destructive policies also are listed as tax expenditures.

CBO Tax Expenditure List

The Real Reason Politicians Want a Bigger Bite of Apple

Earlier this month, I explained four reasons why the Apple “tax avoidance” issue is empty political demagoguery.

And Rand Paul gave some great remarks at a Senate hearing, excoriating some of his colleagues for trying to pillage the company.

But this Robert Ariail cartoon may be the best summary of the issue.

Arial Apple Cartoon

What makes this cartoon so effective is that it properly and cleverly identifies what’s really driving the political class on this issue. They want more revenue to finance a bigger burden of government spending.

When I did my contest for best political cartoonist, I picked a cartoon about Greece and euro for Robert Ariail’s entry. While I still think that was a very good cartoon, this Apple cartoon would probably take its place if I did a new contest.

OECD Study Admits Income Taxes Penalize Growth, Acknowledges that Tax Competition Restrains Excessive Government

I have to start this post with a big caveat.

I’m not a fan of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The international bureaucracy is infamous for using American tax dollars to promote a statist economic agenda. Most recently, it launched a new scheme to raise the tax burden on multinational companies, which is really just a backdoor way of saying that the OECD (and the high-tax nations that it represents) wants higher taxes on workers, consumers, and shareholders. But the OECD’s anti-market agenda goes much deeper.

Now that there’s no ambiguity about my overall position, I can admit that the OECD isn’t always on the wrong side. Much of the bad policy comes from its committee system, which brings together bureaucrats from member nations.

The OECD also has an economics department, and they sometimes produce good work. Most recently, they produced a report on the Swiss tax system that contains some very sound analysis, including a rejection of Obama-style class warfare and a call to lower income tax burdens.

Shifting the taxation of income to the taxation of consumption may be beneficial for boosting economic activity (Johansson et al., 2008 provide evidence across OECD economies). These benefits may be bigger if personal income taxes are lowered rather than social security contributions, because personal income tax also discourages entrepreneurial activity and investment more broadly.

I somewhat disagree with the assertion that payroll taxes do more damage than VAT taxes. They both drive a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. But the point about income taxes is right on the mark.

Tax and Expenditure Limits: The Challenge of Turning Mitchell’s Golden Rule from Theory into Reality

The main goal of fiscal policy should be to shrink the burden of government spending as a share of economic output. Fortunately, it shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve this modest goal. All that’s required is to make sure the private sector grows faster than the government.

But it’s very easy for me to bluster about “all that’s required” to satisfy this Golden Rule. It’s much harder to convince politicians to be frugal. Yes, it happened during the Reagan and Clinton years, and there also have been multi-year periods of spending discipline in nations such as Estonia, New Zealand and Canada.

But these examples of good fiscal policy are infrequent. And even when they do happen, the progress often is reversed when a new crop of politicians take power. Federal spending has jumped to about 23 percent of GDP under Bush and Obama, for instance, after falling to 18.2 percent of economic output at the end of the Clinton years.

This is why many advocates of limited government argue that some sort of external force is needed to somehow limit the tendency of politicians to over-tax and over-spend.

I’ve argued on many occasions that tax competition is an important mechanism for restraining the greed of the political class. But even in my most optimistic moments, I realize that it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Another option is budget process reform. If you can somehow convince politicians to tie their own hands (in the same way that alcoholics can sometimes be convinced to throw out all their booze), then perhaps rules can be imposed that improve fiscal policy.

But what sort of rules? Europe has “Maastricht” requirements that theoretically limit deficits and debt, and 49 states have some sort of balanced budget requirement, but these policies have been very unsuccessful - perhaps because they mistakenly focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of government spending.

Are there any budget process reforms that do work? Well, I’ve written about Switzerland’s “debt brake,” which has generated some good results over the past 10 years because it actually imposes an annual spending cap.

Some American states also impose expenditure limits. Have they been successful?

Huge Value-Added Tax Increases in Europe Show Why Washington Politicians Should Never Be Given a New Source of Tax Revenue

The most important, powerful, and relevant argument against the value-added tax in the short run is that we can balance the budget in just five years by capping spending so it grows at the rate of inflation, a very modest level of fiscal restraint.

The most important, powerful, and relevant argument against the value-added tax in the long run is that more than 100 percent of America’s long-term fiscal problem is too much spending.

So why even consider giving politicians a new source of revenue such as the VAT, particularly since this hidden form of national sales tax helped cause the European fiscal crisis by facilitating a bigger welfare state?*

And now Europeans are doubling down on that failed approach, thus confirming that politicians will rarely make necessary spending reforms if they think more revenue can be squeezed from taxpayers.

Here’s a chart taken from the recent European Commission report on taxation trends in the EU. As you can see, the average VAT rate in Europe has jumped by nearly 2 percentage points in just five years.

VAT EU Increase

As I explained last week, European politicians also have been increasing income tax rates, so taxpayers are getting punished when they earn their income and they’re getting punished when they spend their income.

Which helps to explain why much of Europe is suffering from economic stagnation. Given the perverse incentives created by redistributionist fiscal policy, it makes more sense to climb in the wagon of government dependency.

For more information, here’s my video that describes the VAT and explains why it’s a bad idea.

*The same thing is now happening in Japan.

P.S. I don’t know if you’ll want to laugh or cry, but the tax-free bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development actually argue that the VAT is good for jobs and growth.

Where Are the European Spending Cuts?

Paul Krugman recently tried to declare victory for Keynesian economics over so-called austerity, but all he really accomplished was to show that tax-financed government spending is bad for prosperity.

More specifically, he presented a decent case against the European-IMF version of “austerity,” which has produced big tax increases.

But what happens if nations adopt the libertarian approach, which means “austerity” is imposed on the government, rather than on taxpayers?

In the past, Krugman has also tried to argue that European nations have erred by cutting spending, but this has led to some embarrassing mistakes.

Now we have some additional evidence about the absence of spending austerity in Europe. A leading public finance economist from Ireland, Constantin Gurdgiev, reviewed the IMF data and had a hard time finding any spending cuts:

…in celebration of that great [May 1] socialist holiday, “In Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy and France tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand jobs and an end to years of belt-tightening”. Except, no one really asked them what did the mean by ‘belt-tightening’. …let’s check out expenditure side of Europe’s ‘savage austerity’ story… The picture hardly shows much of any ‘savage cuts’ anywhere in sight.

As seen in his chart, Constantin compared government spending burdens in 2012 to the average for the pre-recession period, thus allowing an accurate assessment of what’s happened to the size of the public sector over a multi-year period.

Austerity in Europe

Here are some of his conclusions from reviewing the data:

Of the three countries that experienced reductions in Government spending as % of GDP compared to the pre-crisis period, Germany posted a decline of 1.26 percentage points (from 46.261% of GDP average for 2003-2007 period to 45.005% for 2012), Malta posted a reduction of just 0.349 ppt and Sweden posted a reduction of 1.37 ppt.

No peripheral country - where protests are the loudest - or France et al have posted a reduction. In France, Government spending rose 3.44 ppt on pre-crisis level as % of GDP, in Greece by 4.76 ppt, in Ireland by 7.74 ppt, in Italy by 2.773 ppt, in Portugal by 0.562 ppt, and in Spain by 8.0 ppt.

Average Government spending in the sample in the pre-crisis period run at 44.36% of GDP and in 2012 this number was 48.05% of GDP. In other words: it went up, not down.

…All in, there is no ‘savage austerity’ in spending levels or as % of GDP.

I’ll add a few additional observations.

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.