Tag: fiscal policy

The Great Hillsdale College Debate: Flat Tax or Fair Tax?

I’m at Hillsdale College in Michigan for a conference on taxation. The event is called “The Federal Income Tax: A Centenary Consideration,” though I would have called it something like “100 Years of Misery from the IRS.”

I’m glad to be here, both because Hillsdale proudly refuses to take government money (which would mean being ensnared by government rules) and also because I’ve heard superb speeches by scholars such as Amity Shlaes (author of The Forgotten Man, as well as a new book on Calvin Coolidge that is now on my must-read list) and George Gilder (author of Wealth and Poverty, as well as the forthcoming Knowledge and Power).

My modest contribution was to present “The Case for the Flat Tax,” and I was matched up - at least indirectly, since there were several hours between our presentations - against former Congressman John Linder, who gave “The Case for the Fair Tax.”

I was very ecumenical in my remarks.  I pointed out the flat tax and sales tax (and even, at least in theory, the value-added tax) all share very attractive features.

  • A single (and presumably low) tax rate, thus treating taxpayers equally and minimizing the penalty on productive behavior.
  • No double taxation of saving and investment since every economic theory agrees that capital formation is key to long-run growth.
  • Elimination of all loopholes (other than mechanisms to protect the poor from tax) to promote efficiency and reduce corruption.
  • Dramatically downsize and neuter the IRS by replacing 72,000 pages of complexity with simple post-card sized tax forms.

For all intents and purposes the flat tax and sales tax are different sides of the same coin. The only real difference is the collection point. The flat tax takes a bite of your income as it is earned and the sales tax takes a bite of your income as it is spent.

That being said, I do have a couple of qualms about the Fair Tax and other national sales tax plans.

First, I don’t trust politicians. I can envision the crowd in Washington adopting a national sales tax (or VAT) while promising to phase out the income tax over a couple of years. But I’m afraid they’ll discover some “temporary” emergency reason to keep the income tax, followed by another “short-term” excuse. And when the dust settles, we’ll be stuck with both an income tax and a sales tax.

As we know from the European VAT evidence, this is a recipe for even bigger government. That’s a big downside risk.

I explore my concerns in this video.

To be sure, there are downside risks to the flat tax. It’s quite possible, after all, that we could get a flat tax and then degenerate back to something resembling the current system (though that’s still better than being France!).

My second qualm is political. The Fair Tax seems to attract very passionate supporters, which is admirable, but candidates in competitive states and districts are very vulnerable to attacks when they embrace the national sales tax.

On dozens of occasions over the past 15-plus years, I’ve had to explain to reporters that why anti-sales tax demagoguery is wrong.

So I hope it’s clear that I’m not opposed to the concept. Heck, I’ve testified before Congress about the benefits of a national sales tax and I’ve debated on C-Span about how the national sales tax is far better than the current system.

I would be delighted to have a national sales tax, but what I really want is a low-rate, non-discriminatory system that isn’t biased against saving and investment.

Actually, what I want is a very small federal government, which presumably could be financed without any broad-based tax, but that’s an issue for another day.

Returning to the issue of tax reform, there’s no significant economic difference between the flat tax and the sales tax debate. What we’re really debating is how to replace the squalid internal revenue code with something worthy of a great nation.

And if there are two paths to the same destination and one involves crossing an alligator-infested swamp and the other requires a stroll through a meadow filled with kittens and butterflies, I know which one I’m going to choose. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but I think you get my point.

Exposing Washington’s Dishonest Budget Math

I’ve repeatedly tried to expose pervasive fiscal dishonesty in Washington.

In these John Stossel and Judge Napolitano interviews, for instance, I explain that the crooks in DC have created a system that allows them to claim they’re cutting the budget when the burden of government spending actually is rising.

This sleazy system is designed in part to deceive the American people, and the current squabbling over the fiscal cliff is a good example. The President claims he has a “balanced approach” that involves budget cuts, but look at the second chart at this link and you will see that he’s really proposing bigger government.

This dishonest approach also was used by the President’s Fiscal Commission and last year’s crummy debt limit deal was based on this form of fiscal prevarication.

Here are some key excerpts from a Wall Street Journal editorial exposing this scam.

…President Obama and John Boehner are playing by the dysfunctional Beltway rules. The rules work if you like bigger government, but Republicans need a new strategy, which starts by exposing the rigged game of “baseline budgeting.” …numbers have no real meaning because they are conjured in the wilderness of mirrors that is the federal budget process. Since 1974, Capitol Hill’s “baseline” has automatically increased spending every year according to Congressional Budget Office projections, which means before anyone has submitted a budget or cast a single vote. Tax and spending changes are then measured off that inflated baseline, not in absolute terms. …Democrats designed this system to make it easier to defend annual spending increases and to portray any reduction in the baseline as a spending “cut.” Chris Wallace called Timothy Geithner on this “gimmick” on “Fox News Sunday” this week, only to have the Treasury Secretary insist it’s real. …in the current debate the GOP is putting itself at a major disadvantage by negotiating off the phony baseline. …If Republicans really want to slow the growth in spending, they need to stop playing by Beltway rules and start explaining to America why Mr. Obama keeps saying he’s cutting spending even as spending and deficits keep going up and up and up.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that other nations rely on this crooked system, most notably the United Kingdom, which supposedly is imposing “savage” cuts even though government spending keeps rising (and they fooled Paul Krugman, though he seems to make a habit of misreading foreign fiscal and economic data).

But let’s return to the American fiscal situation. Republicans almost certainly will lose the battle over the fiscal cliff because they meekly are playing cards with a rigged deck controlled by the other side.

They should expose this scam by using nominal numbers and looking at year-over-year changes in both taxes and spending. I did that last year and showed how simple it is to balance the budget in a short period of time.

They key thing to understand is that (barring a recession) tax revenues rise every year. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office projects that tax revenue will climb by an average of more than 6 percent annually over the next 10 years - even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent.

So all that’s really needed to bring red ink under control is a modest bit of spending restraint. This video is from 2010, but the analysis is still completely relevant today.

It’s amazing how good things happen when you follow the Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

Laszewski on ObamaCare: ‘Get Ready for Some Startling Rate Increases’

The invaluable Robert Laszweski:

The Affordable Care Act: Ten Months to Launch “Obamacare”––Get Ready for Some Startling Rate Increases

[…]

I conducted an informal survey of a number of insurers…None of the people I talked to are academics or work for a think tank. None of them are in the spin business inside the Beltway. Every one of them has the responsibility for coming up with the correct rates their companies will have to charge…

On average, expect a 30% to 40% increase in the baseline cost of individual health insurance to account for the new premium taxes, reinsurance costs, benefit mandate increases, and underwriting reforms…

In states with the least mandates or for health insurance companies with the tightest underwriting now, the increase could be a lot more…

[E]xpect individual health insurance rates for people in their 20s and early 30s to about double…

Will the feds be ready to provide an insurance exchange in all of the states that don’t have one on October 1, 2013?

I have no idea. And neither does anyone else I talk to inside the Beltway. We only hear vague reports that parts of the new federal exchange information systems are in testing.

The former CIA director couldn’t get away with an affair in this town but the Obama administration has a complete lid on just where they are on health insurance exchanges and haven’t shown any willingness to want to talk about their progress toward launching on time––except to tell us all not to worry.

We are all worried. I would not want to be responsible for the work that remains and only have ten months to do it…

The Republicans said this would not work. If it does not launch on time, or does with serious problems, I would not want to be an incumbent Democrat.

I told them not to call this the “Affordable Care Act.”

Meet the Press, Check the Facts

This Sunday (2 December 2012), David Gregory hosted a lively session of NBC’s Meet the Press. The focus of Sunday’s program was the so-called Fiscal Cliff. Gregory rounded up many of the usual Washington suspects, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and drilled them on their talking points.

Several times, in the course of Gregory’s questioning, he referred to President Bill Clinton’s tough 1993 budget deal. Throughout the broadcast, Gregory kept stressing the fact that the 1993 deal included defense cuts. For Gregory, those cuts were the flavor of the day.

This isn’t surprising. Indeed, most members of Washington’s chattering classes parrot the line that the economy boomed during the Clinton years because Clinton was the beneficiary of the so-called peace dividend, which allowed him to cut defense expenditures.

In fact, if we look carefully at the federal budget numbers, while Clinton did cut defense expenditures, as a percent of GDP, the majority of the Clinton squeeze came from non-defense expenditures. Indeed, as can be seen in the accompanying table, the non-defense squeeze accounted for 2.2 percentage points of President Clinton’s 3.9 total percentage point reduction in the relative size of the federal government.

Clinton squeezed the budget and squeezed hard, from all major angles. This was a case in which a president’s actions actually matched his rhetoric. Recall that, in his 1996 State of the Union address, he declared that “the era of big government is over.”

Clinton’s 1993 deal marked the beginning of the most dramatic decline in the federal government’s share of the U.S. economy since Harry Truman left office. The Clinton administration reduced government expenditures, as a percent of GDP, by 3.9 percentage points. Since 1952, no other president has even come close. At the end of his second term, President Clinton’s big squeeze left the size of government, as a percent of GDP, at 18.2 percent—the lowest level since 1966.

The table contains the facts. President Clinton knew how to squeeze both defense and non-defense federal expenditures. Indeed, he squeezed non-defense a bit harder than defense. Since 1952, the only other president who has been able to reduce the relative share of non-defense expenditures was Ronald Reagan. Forget the “peace dividend”—it’s all about the Clinton “squeeze dividend.”

ObamaCare’s Magical Premium Tax

The Department of Health and Human Services has announced it will unilaterally impose a (legally questionable) 3.5-percent premium tax on health plans purchased through the ObamaCare Exchanges it operates.

According to The New York Times, an HHS spokeswoman “predicted that insurers would not raise prices” in response to the tax.

If that’s the case, why not make it 35 percent?

ObamaCare Implementation News

Here’s some ObamaCare implementation news from around the interwebs:

  • Minnesota Facing Bigger Bill For State’s Health Insurance Exchange”: Kaiser Health News reports Minnesota has increased its spending projections for operating the state’s ObamaCare Exchange by somewhere between 35-80 percent for 2015. Spending on the Exchange will rise by another 19 percent in the following year.
  • The Wall Street Journal  defends the 25-30 states that aren’t gullible enough to create an Exchange and therefore take the blame for ObamaCare’s higher-than-projected costs.
  • Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has announced she will not implement an Exchange. That creates another potential state-plaintiff, millions of potential employer-plaintiffs, and (by my count) 430,000 potential individual plaintiffs who could join Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt in challenging the IRS’s illegal ObamaCare taxes. It also means that Arizona can start luring jobs away from tax-happy California. There are four Hostess bakeries in California that might be looking to relocate.
  • I’m enjoying a friendly debate with The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn and University of Michigan law professor Samuel Bagenstos over whether the those taxes really do violate federal law and congressional intent (spoiler alert: they do). I owe Bagenstos a response.
  • PolitiFact Georgia rated false my claim that operating an ObamaCare Exchange would violate Georgia law. I explain here why it is indeed illegal for Georgia (and 13 other states) to implement an Exchange.
  • ThinkProgress.org reports, “Romney’s Transition Chief Is Encouraging States To Implement Obamacare.” A better headline would have been, “Government Contractor Encourages More Government Contracts.”
  • The Washington Examiner editorializes, “In California…state regulators have warned…insurance premiums will rise by as much as 25 percent once the exchange comes online…That’s the best-case scenario.” And, “In 2014, seven Democratic Senate seats will be up for grabs in states Mitt Romney carried (Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia). Unless Obama’s HHS bureaucrats pull off an unprecedented miracle of central planning, Obamacare could well sink Democrats again in 2014, the same way it did in 2010.”