Tag: savings

The Baucus-Hatch “Blank Slate” Approach to Tax Reform Isn’t Blank

I’m a big proponent of tax reform, so at first I was very excited to learn that Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) were launching an effort to clean up the tax code.

But on closer inspection, I don’t think this will lead to a simple and fair system like the flat tax. Or even a national sales tax (assuming we could trust politicians not to pull a bait-and-switch, adding a new tax and never getting rid of the income tax).

But judge for yourself. Here’s some of what’s contained in a letter they sent to their colleagues, starting with some language about the growing complexity of the tax code and the compliance cost for taxpayers.

…since then, the economy has changed dramatically and Congress has made more than 15,000 changes to the tax code. The result is a tax base riddled with exclusions, deductions and credits. In addition, each year, it costs individuals and businesses more than $160 billion to comply with the tax code. The complexity, inefficiency and unfairness of the tax code are acting as a brake on our economy. We cannot afford to be complacent.

Sounds good, though they also could have mentioned other indicators of nightmarish complexity, such as the number of pages in the tax code, the number of special tax provisions, or the number of pages in the 1040 instruction manual.

I’m a bit mystified, however, at the low-ball estimate of $160 billion of compliance costs. As explained in this video, there are far higher estimates that are based on very sound methodology.

But perhaps I’m nit-picking. Let’s see with Senators Baucus and Hatch want to do.

In order to make sure that we end up with a simpler, more efficient and fairer tax code, we believe it is important to start with a “blank slate”—that is, a tax code without all of the special provisions in the form of exclusions, deductions and credits and other preferences that some refer to as “tax expenditures.”

I don’t like the term “tax expenditure” since it implies that the government taking money from person A and giving it to person B is equivalent to the government simply letting person B keep their own money. These two approaches may be economically equivalent in certain cases, but they’re not morally equivalent.

Once again, however, I may be guilty of nit-picking.

That being said, there is a feature of the “blank slate” approach which does generate legitimate angst. There’s a footnote in the letter that states that the Joint Committee on Taxation is in charge of determining so-called tax expenditures.

A complete list of these special tax provisions as defined by the non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation.

This is very troubling. The JCT may be non-partisan, but it’s definitely not non-ideological. These are the bureaucrats, for instance, who assume that the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 100 percent! Moreover, the JCT uses the “Haig-Simons” tax system as a benchmark, which means they start with the assumption that there should be pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

This is not nit-picking. The definition of “tax expenditure” is a critical policy decision, not something to be ceded to the other side before the debate even begins.

As illustrated by this chart, the tax code is very biased against saving and investment.

Between the capital gains tax, the corporate income tax, the double tax on dividends, and the death tax, it’s possible for a single dollar of income to be taxed as many as four different times.

This is a very foolish policy, particularly since every school of thought in the economics profession agrees that capital formation is a key to long-run growth. Even the Marxists and socialists!

Unexpected Praise for Australia’s Private Social Security System

As part of my “Question of the Week” series, I said that Australia probably would be the best option if the United States suffered some sort of Greek-style fiscal meltdown that led to a societal collapse.*

One reason I’m so bullish on Australia is that the nation has a privatized Social Security system called “Superannuation,” with workers setting aside 9 percent of their income in personal retirement accounts (rising to 12 percent by 2020).

Established almost 30 years ago, and made virtually universal about 20 years ago, this system is far superior to the actuarially bankrupt Social Security system in the United States.

Probably the most sobering comparison is to look at a chart of how much private wealth has been created in Superannuation accounts and then look at a chart of the debt that we face for Social Security.

To be blunt, the Aussies are kicking our butts. Their system gets stronger every day and our system generates more red ink every day.

And their system is earning praise from unexpected places. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, led by a former Clinton Administration official, is not a bastion of laissez-faire thinking. So it’s noteworthy when it publishes a study praising Superannuation.

Australia’s retirement income system is regarded by some as among the best in the world. It has achieved high individual saving rates and broad coverage at reasonably low cost to the government.

Since I wrote my dissertation on Australia’s system, I can say with confidence that the author is not exaggerating. It’s a very good role model, for reasons I’ve previously discussed.

Here’s more from the Boston College study.

The program requires employers to contribute 9 percent of earnings, rising to 12 percent by 2020, to a tax-advantaged retirement plan for each employee age 18 to 70 who earns more than a specified minimum amount. …Over 90 percent of employed Australians have savings in a Superannuation account, and the total assets in these accounts now exceed Australia’s Gross Domestic Product. …Australia has been extremely effective in achieving key goals of any retirement income system. …Its Superannuation Guarantee program has generated high and rising levels of saving by essentially the entire active workforce.

The study does include some criticisms, some of which are warranted. The system can be gamed by those who want to take advantage of the safety net retirement system maintained by the government.

Australia’s means-tested Age Pension creates incentives to reduce one’s “means” in order to collect a higher means-tested benefit. This can be done by spending down one’s savings and/or investing these savings in assets excluded from the Age Pension means test. What makes this situation especially problematic is that workers can currently access their Superannuation savings at age 55, ten years before becoming eligible for Age Pension benefits at 65. This ability creates an incentive to retire early, live on these savings until eligible for an Age Pension, and collect a higher benefit, sometimes referred to as “double dipping.”

Though I admit dealing with this issue may require a bit of paternalism. Should individuals be forced to turn their retirement accounts into an income stream (called annuitization) once they reach retirement age?

Identifying the Right “Depreciation” Tax Policy

I’m normally reluctant to write about “depreciation” because I imagine eyes glazing around the world. After all, not many people care about the tax treatment of business investment expenses.

But I was surprised by the positive response I received after writing a post about Obama’s demagoguery against “tax loopholes” for corporate jets. So with considerable trepidation let’s take another look at the issue.

First, a bit of background. Every economic theory agrees that investment is a key for long-run growth and higher living standards. Even Marxist and socialist theory agrees with this insight (though they foolishly think government somehow is competent to be in charge of investments).

Let’s look at two remarkable charts, starting with one that shows the very powerful link between total investment and wages for workers.

 

As you can see, if we want people to earn more money, it definitely helps for there to be more investment. More “capital” means that workers have higher productivity, and that’s the primary determinant of wages and salary.

Our second chart shows how the internal revenue code treats income that is consumed compared to how it penalizes income that is saved and invested. Simply stated, the current system is very biased against capital formation because of the combined impact of capital gains taxes, corporate income taxes, double taxes on dividends, and death taxes.

Indeed, one of the reasons why the right kind of tax reform will generate more prosperity is that double taxation of saving and investment is eliminated. With either a flat tax or national sales tax, economic activity is taxed only one time. No death tax, no capital gains tax, no double tax on dividends in either plan.

All of this background information helps underscore why it is especially foolish for the tax code to specifically penalize business investment. And this happens because companies have to “depreciate” rather than “expense” their investments.

By Grapthar’s Hammer… What a Savings

Researchers Patrick Wolf and Michael McShane write in the National Review Online today that the DC Opportunity Scholarships Program saves money. They estimate that the ultimate net savings from the private school choice program’s initial 5 year trial period will amount to $113 million ($183 million in savings set against a cost of $70 million). That’s good news, but I, like Alan Rickman’s character in Galaxy Quest, am somewhat ambivalent about this savings figure.

The trouble is that the real savings are substantially greater, because the above estimate doesn’t seem to take into account not having to pay for these students to attend DC public schools (which would have been necessary, without the private school scholarship program). And as readers of this blog may remember, DC spends a whole lotta money on its public schools. Just shy of $30,000 per student, per year in fact. Assuming that the average program enrollment during the trial period was 1,500 students, it saved taxpayers an additional… $225 million. Added to the Wolf/McShane figure, the total savings is $338 million—for just a tiny program.

By Grapthar’s Hammer, that IS a savings!

Big Government Cripples Incentives to Save, Promotes Risky Culture of Immediate Gratification

America’s political elite is nauseating for many reasons, but perhaps most of all when they blame others for problems that are caused by misguided government policies. A stark example is the way they attacked the Facebook billionaire who moved to Singapore because of punitive taxation and class-warfare policy.

Today, let’s look at an example that affects almost everybody rather than just a handful of rich people. Many people in Washington sanctimoniously say that American households and businesses are too focused on the short term and that we don’t save enough.

But as I explain in this CBNC interview, tax and spending policies from Washington have undermined the incentive to save.

Allow me to elaborate on three of my examples.

1. Look at this post comparing the red ink from America’s bankrupt Social Security system with the huge levels of private savings generated by Australia’s system of personal retirement accounts.

Good politicians would respond by copying Australia and reforming Social Security. But good politicians are like unicorns.

2. Or look at this chart showing the extensive double taxation in our tax code, as well as these international comparisons of how America over-taxes dividends and capital gains.

Good politicians would respond by junking the tax code and adopting a flat tax, which has no double taxation of income that is saved and invested. But good politicians are like the Loch Ness Monster.

3. And consider the fact that the Obama Administration has just imposed a regulation that will discourage foreigners from depositing money in American banks, thus driving capital from the U.S. economy.

Good politicians would minimize the damage of anti-savings policies by keeping America a haven for foreign capital. But good politicians are like Bigfoot.

The moral of the story, just in case you haven’t picked up on the theme, is that bad things happen because politicians can’t resist expanding the burden of government when they should be doing the opposite. Which is why this poster is funny, but in a painful way.

P.S. I should have mentioned that some politicians think that we can boost savings by imposing a value-added tax! This is not only a perverse example of Mitchell’s law, but it’s also completely illogical.

A VAT does not change the incentive to save since current consumption and future consumption are equally taxed. But it does reduce the amount of money people have, thus reducing both private consumption and private savings.

Statists would argue that a new tax will reduce the budget deficit and thus reduce the amount of private savings that is being used to finance government debt. That’s only true, though, if you’re naive enough to think politicians won’t spend the new revenue. Good luck with that.

Obama vs. Romney on Public School Jobs

In a high-profile presser on the economy last Friday, President Obama’s central proposal was to hire more public employees. Then, in his weekly address, he argued that hiring more public school teachers would allow the U.S. to educate its way to prosperity. His Republican presidential rival, Governor Romney, has recommended precisely the opposite: reducing the size of government to boost private sector job growth–and he, too, mentions public school teachers. So… who’s right?

First, let’s look at public school employment and student enrollment over time.

As the chart makes clear, enrollment is only up 8.5% since 1970, whereas employment is up 96.2%. In other words, the public school workforce has grown 11 times faster than enrollment over the past 40 years. What difference does that make in economic terms? If we went back to the staff-to-student ratio we had in 1970, we’d be saving… $210 billion… annually.

Wait a minute, though! Research by economist Rick Hanushek and others has found that improved student achievement boosts economic growth. So if the 2.9 million extra public school employees we’ve hired since 1970 have improved achievement substantially, we might well be coming out ahead economically. So let’s look at those numbers…

Uh oh. Despite hiring nearly 3 million more people and spending a resulting $210 billion more every year, achievement near the end of high school has stagnated in math and reading and actually declined slightly in science since 1970. This chart also shows the cost of sending a student all the way through the K-12 system–the total cost per pupil of each graduating class from 1970 to the present. As you can see, on a per pupil basis, a K-12 education has gone from about $55,000 to about $150,000 in real, inflation-adjusted terms.

The implications of these charts are tragic: the public school monopoly is warehousing 3 million people in jobs that appear to have done nothing to improve student learning. Our K-12 government school system simply does not know how to harness the skills of our education workforce, and so is preventing these people from contributing to our economy while consuming massive quantities of tax dollars. So what would hiring even more people into that system do for our economy…

More on the Ex-Im Bank

Last week I blogged about Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) proposal to devote $20 billion of the Export-Import Bank’s funds to promoting manufacturing exports, and why that was a bad idea.

But I realize that my recent call to “X Out the Ex-Im Bank” will be facing some very entrenched interests in Washington, and some well-funded lobby groups. The Bank has historically attracted bipartisan support, and a renewal of its charter sailed through the House Committee on Financial Services earlier this year. The Washington establishment loves this program.

My friend and long-time Ex-Im Bank supporter Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics published a critique a few weeks ago of my analysis, and calls for a doubling of Ex-Im’s authorization cap (from $100 billion to $200 billion). His piece is a fair characterization of my arguments, and at least Gary tries to counter them with actual facts and analysis (not always a given in an increasingly poisonous trade policy environment).  But it seems to me that Gary focuses his critique on my assessment of the effectiveness of the Bank. That’s fair enough, of course, but I tried in my paper to make the point that the efficiency or efficacy of the Ex-Im Bank’s activities is kind of irrelevant. The important point, which Gary did not address, is that it is simply not the proper role of the federal government to be in this business at all, even if they can operate “efficiently” (which I do not concede in any case). Where in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to be involved in the export credit business (a business, by the way, that benefits mainly large, profitable companies)?

My opposition to the Bank, in other words, is at a more fundamental level.  On an empirical level—and this is where Gary’s critique is focused—can markets work well enough in trade finance, and if not, can government intervention work better? Gary points to the Bank’s low default rate as evidence that private markets are missing good opportunities:

These figures suggest that the Ex-Im Bank plays a large role in facilitating exports to countries that encounter reluctance from private banks but nonetheless are not ‘bad risks.” Judging by its low default rate, the Ex-Im Bank’s risk assessment seems more correct than the private market.

But I would argue that its low default rate suggests the Ex-Im Bank’s backing is unnecessary. We don’t know that private credit wasn’t available to finance those exports. And even if it wasn’t, private credit not always being available on terms that the trading partners would like does not necessarily signify market failure. So a finance company missed an opportunity that may have paid out. So what? Maybe they had even better opportunities available to them that we (and bureaucratic Washington) don’t know about, or they simply wanted to hold on to their capital for future investment or to meet new reserve standards. The would-be exporter might miss out, but government intervention to direct that private capital (either through mandates, or siphoning it through the Ex-Im Bank) would come at another producer’s or bank shareholders’ expense.

Gary argues that:

Ex-Im’s capability should be strengthened so that the United States can respond when official finance offered by other countries violates the principles of fair competition…Successful multilateral negotiations…are certainly a superior option to tit-for-tat retaliation…[but]…without sufficient leverage…it is difficult to see what will bring China and India to the negotiating table.

But will China and India (and others) see higher Ex-Im funding as “leverage” to bring them to the table, or will it be seen as just the next step in the escalating arms race of subsidized export credit? I suspect, and fear, the latter.

Gary rejects my call to dismantle the Ex-Im Bank, and in fact suggests the government increase the scope of Ex-Im financing to cover 5 percent (rather than the current 2 percent) of total U.S.exports. That seems pretty arbitrary to me. Why stop at 5 percent? Heck, with the Ex-Im Bank being “self-financing” and all, why not go for 100 percent?

Lastly, Gary repudiates my “orthodox free-market reasoning” and the suggestion, attributed to me, that “… the dollar exchange rate alone determines the volume of U.S. exports or the size of the U.S. trade deficit.”  Exchange rates do not equilibrate to keep trade balances at zero, but to keep them in line with the savings and investment balance. The United States has been running persistent deficits because savings has fallen short of investment for many years.

Similarly, Gary takes issue with my analysis on the net effect of Ex-Im financing on jobs:

 …nor do we agree that free markets are sufficiently self- regulating to ensure a constant and low rate of unemployment…If [that proposition] described the American economy, the United States [unemployment would not be stuck at 9 percent-plus.

Here Gary seems to ignore the many interventions in labor markets that can keep unemployment high, no matter what the exchange rate. I’m certainly not under any illusions that the U.S. economy would be totally free market were it not for the existence of the Ex-Im Bank, and I don’t think my paper implied that, either.

Gary and I, not to mention others who study the Ex-Im Bank, will no doubt continue to debate these issues as the Ex-Im Bank’s charter expiry date comes closer.