Tag: paul ryan

A Value-Added Tax Is Not the Answer…Unless the Question Is How to Finance Bigger Government

While admitting that spending restraint is the ideal approach, Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution asks whether a value-added tax (VAT) might be the most desirable of all realistic options for dealing with an unsustainable budget situation.

Read his post for yourself, but I think a fair summary is that he is basically saying that a) there will be a crisis if we don’t do something about future deficits, b) a crisis will result in very bad policy, and c) if we support a VAT now, we will at least be able to extract concessions from the other side.

I have no idea whether there will be a future crisis, but I think the rest of Tyler’s argument is wrong.

But before explaining my position, let’s start by stating what I assume to be our mutual objective, which is to control the size of government. We all agree that there is a problem because government is too big now, and it is projected to get even bigger because of the built-in growth of entitlement programs. One symptom of growing government is deficits, which are very large today and will be even bigger in the near future as more and more baby boomers retire and push up costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Our side (broadly speaking) wants to solve the budgetary situation by restraining the growth of government. One proposed solution is Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap Plan, which would reform entitlements and curtail other programs so that the long-term burden of federal spending is reduced to less than 20 percent of GDP. Since long-term federal tax revenues under current law - even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent - are expected to be about 19 percent of GDP, this solves the budet problem  (the tax reform component of the Roadmap includes a VAT, which is a poison pill in an otherwise excellent plan, but let’s set that aside for another day).

The left, by contrast, generally wants to let federal spending consume ever-larger shares of economic output, and they believe that increasing the tax burden is the right way of keeping the deficit from getting too large. No statist has put forth a detailed plan to match Rep. Ryan, but several high-ranking Democrats have made no secret about their desire for a VAT (see here, here, and here). And everyone agrees that a VAT is capable of extracting a lot of money from the productive sector of the economy.

These two visions are fundamentally incompatible, which helps to explain why there is a standoff. The bad guys do not want to control the size of government and the good guys do not want to raise taxes. But now we have to add one more piece to the puzzle. While gridlock normally is a good result, inaction to some degree favors the other side because entitlement programs automatically expand. The helps to explain why Tyler (with reluctance) thinks that it may be best to acquiesce to a VAT now rather than to wait for a fiscal crisis.

Now, let’s explain why Tyler is wrong. First, it is far from clear that surrendering to a VAT now will result in better (less worse) policy than what will happen during a crisis. It certainly is true that some past crises have led to terrible policy, such as the failed policies of Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s or the more recent Bush-Paulson-Obama-Geithner TARP debacle. But at other points in time, a crisis atmosphere has paved the way for better policy, with Reagan’s presidency being the most obvious example.

The wait-for-a-crisis strategy clearly is a bit of a gamble, but even if we lose, we get a VAT in the future rather than a VAT today. So what’s the downside? Tyler and others might say that the future legislation in the midst of a crisis could be a vehicle for other bad provisions, but he offers no evidence for this proposition. And it may be the case that the other side would be forced to add good provisions instead. Moreover, the lack of a VAT in the period between today and the future crisis might help lead to some much-needed spending restraint.

What about Tyler’s argument that the good guys could extract some concessions from the other side by putting a VAT on the table. This is horribly naive. Even though George Mason University is less than 20 miles from Washington, and even though Tyler is a renassaince man with many talents, he does not understand how Washington really works.

Imagine there is a budget summit where politicians from both sides get together to work on this supposed deal. Here are the inevitable ground rules - and the consequences they will produce:

1. The deal will be 50 percent spending cuts and 50 percent tax increases, but the supposed spending “cuts” will be nothing more than reductions in already-legislated increases. The tax increases, by contrast, will be on top of all the additional revenue that is already exepected under current law (not a trivial matter since receipts will be $1.5 trillion higher in 2015 than they are today according to OMB). For proponents of limited government, using the “current services baseline” as a benchmark in budget negotiations is like playing a five-minute basketball game after spotting the other team a 20-point lead.

2. All spending and revenue decisions will be examined through the prism of CBO income distribution tables, and the left will successfully insist that nothing is done to make the tax code less progressive. But since a VAT is a proportional tax, the only way of preserving overall progressivity is to raise tax rates on those wicked and evil rich people and/or to massively increase “refundable” tax credits (what normal people call income redistribution). Any proposal to lower income tax rates or eliminate the corporate income tax, as Tyler envisions, would be laughed out of the room (though Democrats will offer a fig leaf or two in order to seduce a sufficient number of gullible Republicans into supporting a terrible agreement, and that might include a cosmetic change to the corporate tax regime).

3. Many of the supposed spending cuts, for all intents and purposes, will be back-door tax increases on saving and investment. More specifically, a big chunk of the supposed spending cut portion of a budget deal will be from means-testing entitlement programs. This sounds good. After all, who wants to send a Social Security check to Bill Gates when he retires? But consider how such a system actually will work. The government will say that people with income (and/or assets) above a certain level are ineligible for some or all of the benefits available to less-fortunate retirees. From an economic persepective, this is very much akin to a higher tax rate on people who save and invest during their working years. And since means testing would only generate substantial budgetary savings if it applied to millions of regular people in addition to Bill Gates, we would wind up with a system that created big penalties on middle-class families who were dumb enough to save and invest.

I’ve already pontificated enough for one blog post, so let me summarize by stating that Tyler’s approach, while not unreasonable, is about how to lose gracefully. Even if his strategy works perfectly, the result is bigger government. I’d much rather fight. If you want some inspiration for the battle, watch this video. If you haven’t had enough of me already, here’s my video explaining why the VAT is a horrible idea.

Update: Tyler has emailed to object to how his position is being characterized. He writes, “I am asking anti-VAT forces to strengthen their argument and am very clearly agnostic and certainly not calling for a VAT today.” Everyone I’ve spoken with has interpreted his post as pro-VAT, and that’s certainly how I read it, but I want to add this addendum to my post so people can see Tyler’s response in case I’m not being fair.

Reforming the Insane Tax Code

We’ve got an IRS Commissioner who doesn’t even do his own taxes, and is not embarrassed about it. We’ve got complex deductions that nobody understands, including the government, as the Maryland nurse with the MBA found out. We’ve got a Treasury Secretary and other high appointees who apparently cheated on their taxes. And we’ve got the Democrats hell-bent on greatly increasing the power and responsibilities of the overwhelmed IRS with their health care bill.

Now, more than ever, it’s time to scrap the current income tax and put in a flat tax. Or at least we could take a big jump in that direction with a “Simplified Tax,” as discussed in a new National Academies report. Get rid of all almost all deductions, exemptions, and credits and drop individual rates to 10 and 25 percent. While we’re at it, let’s drop the federal corporate rate to 25 percent or less.

For more on the two-rate tax idea, see my Options for Tax Reform and Rep. Paul Ryan’s American Roadmap.

GOP Health Care Alternative: Not as Bad as Advertised

Like my colleague, Michael Cannon, I was convinced by the staff summary and general spin accompanying the Republican health care bill introduced by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Richard Burr (R-NC), and Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Devin Nunes (R-CA) that the bill headed, albeit more slowly, down the same road to government-run health care as expected Democratic proposals. However, a closer reading of the actual bill shows that, while there are still reasons for concern, it may be much better than originally advertised.

First, it should be pointed out that the centerpiece of the bill is an important change to the tax treatment of employer-provided health insurance. The Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez bill would replace the current tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance with a refundable tax credit of $2,300 per year an individual worker or $5,700 per year for family coverage. This move to personal, portable health insurance has long been at the heart of free market healthy care proposals. The bill would also expand health savings accounts and make important reforms to Medicaid and Medicare.

And, the bill should receive credit for what it does not contain. There is no individual or employer mandate. (I could live without the auto-enroll provisions, but they look more obnoxious than truly dangerous). There is no government board determining the cost-effectiveness of treatment. There is no “public option” competing with private insurance. In short, the bill avoids most of the really bad ideas for health reform featured in my recent Policy Analysis.

Other aspects are more problematic. The authors still seem far too attached to the idea of an exchange/connector/portal. The summary implied that states would be required to establish such mechanism. In reality, however, the bill merely creates incentives for states to do so. Moreover, I have been repeatedly assured that the bill’s authors are aiming for the more benign Utah-style “portal,” rather than the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Massachusetts “connector.” Still, I would be more comfortable if the staff summary had not singled out Massachusetts as the only state reform worthy of being called “an achievement.”

And, if states choose to set up an exchange, a number of federal requirements kick in, such as a requirement that at least one plan offered through the exchange provide benefits equal to those on the low cost FEHBP plan. There is also a guaranteed issue requirement.

Elsewhere, there are also requirements that states set up some type of risk-adjustment mechanism although the bureaucratic ex-post option that I criticized previously, appears to be only one option among many for meeting this requirement. And, I wish the authors hadn’t jumped on the health IT bandwagon. Health IT is a very worthy concept, but one better handled by the private sector.

And, if we should praise the bill for what it doesn’t include, we should criticize it in the same way. The bill does not include one of the best free market reform proposals of recent years, Rep. John Shadegg’s call for letting people purchase health insurance across state lines.

The bills (there are minor differences between the House and Senate versions) run to nearly 300 pages, and additional details, both good and bad, may emerge as I have more opportunity to study them. But for now, the bill, while flawed, looks to have far more good than bad.

The Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunes Mandate-Price-Control Bill

Today, Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Richard Burr (R-NC), along with Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Devin Nunes (R-CA) announced that they will introduce a health care reform bill. If my reading of the bill summary is correct, their bill would:

  • Mandate that states create a new regulatory bureaucracy called a “State Health Insurance Exchange,”
  • Mandate that all plans offered through those exchanges meet federal regulatory standards,
  • Mandate “guaranteed issue” in those exchanges,
  • Mandate “uniform and reliable measures by which to report quality and price information,”
  • Impose price controls on those plans by prohibiting risk-rating,
  • Launch a government takeover of the “insurance” part of health insurance, by means of a “risk-adjustment” program intended to cope with the problems created by price controls, and
  • Fall just short of an individual mandate by setting up (mandating?) automatic enrollment in exchange plans at “places of employment, emergency rooms, the DMV, etc.” – essentially, trying to achieve universal coverage by nagging Americans to death.

Needless to say, I am troubled.

The bill summary is self-contradictory. On the one hand, it lists “No Tax Increases” as a core concept. Do its authors not know that imposing price controls on health insurance premiums imposes a tax on healthier-than-average consumers? And where do they think the money for “risk-adjustment” payments will come from? Heaven?

The bill sponsors seem to want to cement in place the monopoly regulation that currently exists at the state level – when they’re not encouraging Congress to take over that function. Have they abandoned their colleague Rep. John Shadegg’s (R-AZ) proposal to allow for competitive regulation of health insurance?

And if Massachusetts created an “exchange” on its own, why do other states need federal legislation?

The bill includes some ideas for which I have more sympathy, like its tax-credit proposal and expanding health savings accounts.

But the above provisions would sow the seeds of a government takeover of health care – so much so that The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein is salivating:

The word of the day is “convergence.” That – and that alone – is the definitive message of the conservative health reform alternative developed by Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Richard Burr (N.C.), as well as Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisc.). For now, some of the key provisions are about as clear as mud. The plan’s changes to the tax code, in particular, are impossible to discern. So I’ll do another post when I can get some clarity on those issues. The politics, however, are perfectly straightforward.

A superficial read of the Patients’ Choice Act – which I’ve uploaded here – would make you think you’re digging into a liberal bill. A fair chunk of the rhetoric is lifted straight from Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office. “It is time to publicly admit that the health care system in America is broken,” begins the document. “Health care is not a commodity in the traditional sense,” it continues. “States should provide direct oversight of health insurers to make sure they are playing by fair rules,” it demands. The way we pay private insurers in Medicare “wastes taxpayer dollars and lines the pockets of insurance executives,” it says. Elsewhere, it praises solutions that have worked in several European countries.”

And though it’s still too early to say how the policy fits together, it’s clear that many traditionally Democratic concepts have been embraced. To put it simply, the plan wants to encourage a version of the Massachusetts reforms – which it calls a “well-known, bi-partisan achievement of universal health care” – in every state. There are some differences, of course. The plan doesn’t have an individual mandate. It doesn’t have an obvious tax on employers. But it strongly endorses State Health Insurance Exchanges. And that, for Republicans, is a radical change in policy.

This idea – present in every Democratic proposal but absent in Arizona Sen.John McCain’s plan – would empower states to create heavily regulated marketplaces of insurers. The plans offered would have to “meet the same statutory standard used for the health benefits given to Members of Congress.” Cherrypicking would be discouraged through risk adjustment, which the PCA calls “a model that works in several European countries.” The government would automatically enroll individuals in plans whenever they interacted with a government agency and states would be able to join into regional cooperatives to increase the size of their risk pool.

In essence, Coburn, Burr, and Ryan are abandoning the individual market entirely. Like Democrats, they’re arguing that individuals cannot successfully navigate the insurance market, and they need the protection of government regulation and the bargaining power that comes from a large risk pool. This is literally the opposite approach from McCain, who attempted to unwind the employer-based insurance and encourage families to purchase health coverage on the individual market. The core elements of this plan, in other words, make it the same type of plan Democrats are offering. A plan that enlarges consumer buying pools rather than shrinks them. It’s pretty much exactly what I’d expect a Blue Dog Democrat to propose. And it’s further evidence that the argument over health reform is narrowing, rather than widening. And it’s narrowing in a direction that favors the Democrats.

UPDATE: After discussions with Sen. Coburn’s staff, I happily issued a few corrections. Still, concerns remain.