Tag: tax cuts

Obama’s Fiscal Commission: The Good and Bad

The co-chairs of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform released a draft report yesterday on how to reduce federal budget deficits.

Despite the liberal savaging the report is taking as some sort of conservative plot, its proposals are really center-left in orientation. That said, there is some good stuff in the report, which will be useful for incoming Republicans looking to tackle the budget mess.

Good Ideas and Positive Directions

The report provides a menu of possible spending cuts for incoming Republican members of Congress to consider, particularly Tea Party members, who proposed to cut the budget during their campaigns.

The report proposes to reduce spending from 25 percent of GDP currently to 21 percent over the long run. That’s a good start, but we need to pursue deeper cuts, as discussed on www.downsizinggovernment.org. After all, federal spending was just 18 percent of GDP in President Clinton’s last two years in office.

I like that the report suggests a broad array of budget cuts, including defense, nondefense, and entitlement programs. Everything needs to be cut, including programs traditionally defended by both liberals and conservatives.

The report proposes to cut $200 billion from discretionary spending by 2015 from Obama’s proposed spending that year of $1,309 billion. That’s a 15 percent cut. However, the word “cut” needs to be qualified because discretionary outlays were $1,041 billion in the pre-stimulus year of 2007, and they were just $615 billion in the pre-Bush year of 2000.

The report recommends an array of Medicare and Social Security cuts. That’s great, but the report doesn’t include the fundamental structural reforms—such as Social Security individual accounts and Medicare vouchers—that are needed to reduce costs and provide benefits to the broader economy, such as boosting savings and improving health care quality.

The direction of the proposed tax reforms is positive. The co-chairs propose to reduce or repeal narrow deductions and other special tax benefits, while reducing marginal tax rates. The idea to treat capital gains and dividends as ordinary income, however, reveals a faulty understanding of the proper tax treatment of capital.

The report proposes to cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 26 percent, while moving to territorial treatment for foreign investment. It suggests making “America the best place to start and run a business and create jobs.” That’s a laudable goal, but to fulfill it we need to bring the rate down to, say, 15 percent.

The report’s goal of reducing the damaging buildup of federal debt is laudable. Government overspending is the nation’s primary fiscal problem, but spending financed by debt creates an array of problems that are additionally troubling.

Bad Ideas and Shortcomings

The report proposes to raise taxes by $1 trillion over the next decade. But the federal budget crisis is caused by overspending not undertaxing. The election results showed that most Americans understand that, but the message hasn’t penetrated the beltway yet.

The report’s discretionary spending cuts are timid. For example, farm subsidies are cut by just $3 billion, just a fraction of their annual cost of about $20 billion. Farm prices and farm incomes are at high levels these days, so now would be a good time to repeal farm subsidies completely.

The report characterizes tax deductions and exemptions as “spending in the tax code.” That is becoming common parlance in Washington, but it is incorrect. Yes, the mortgage interest deduction and other narrow benefits distort the economy and ought to be abolished, but they also reduce the flow of revenues to Washington, which is a good thing.

The report makes faulty and naïve arguments often heard from centrists about government “investments.” While we need to cut spending, we also need to “invest in education, infrastructure, and high-value R&D” the report says. But why does the federal government need to be involved in education? Why can’t we privatize infrastructure investment? If certain R&D is so “high-value,” wouldn’t the private sector do it?

Along the same lines, the report calls for the creation of a “Cut-and-Invest Committee” to move spending from “outdated” programs to “high-priority long-term investments.” That’s just naïve. The government will never be an efficient allocator of resources, and that’s why we need to shrink it, not just make it run better.

Finally, the commission should have placed more emphasis on fundamental restructuring of government, and not just spending trims. This is true with the entitlement proposals. But also with areas such as infrastructure spending—we don’t need higher gas taxes and government spending for infrastructure, we need privatization.

Monday Links

  • Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron: “Economists find weak or contradictory evidence that higher government spending spurs the economy. Substantial research, however, does find that tax cuts stimulate the economy and that fiscal adjustments—attempts to reduce deficits by raising taxes or lowering expenditure—work better when they focus on tax cuts.”

State of the Union Fact Check

Cato experts put some of President Obama’s core State of the Union claims to the test. Here’s what they found.

THE STIMULUS

Obama’s claim:

The plan that has made all of this possible, from the tax cuts to the jobs, is the Recovery Act. That’s right – the Recovery Act, also known as the Stimulus Bill. Economists on the left and the right say that this bill has helped saved jobs and avert disaster.

Back in reality: At the outset of the economic downturn, Cato ran an ad in the nation’s largest newspapers in which more than 300 economists (Nobel laureates among them) signed a statement saying a massive government spending package was among the worst available options. Since then, Cato economists have published dozens of op-eds in major news outlets poking holes in big-government solutions to both the financial system crisis and the flagging economy.

CUTTING TAXES

Obama’s claim:

Let me repeat: we cut taxes. We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. We cut taxes for small businesses. We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers. We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children. We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college. As a result, millions of Americans had more to spend on gas, and food, and other necessities, all of which helped businesses keep more workers.

Back in reality: Cato Director of Tax Policy Studies Chris Edwards: “When the president says that he has ‘cut taxes’ for 95 percent of Americans, he fails to note that more than 40 percent of Americans pay no federal incomes taxes and the administration has simply increased subsidy checks to this group. Obama’s refundable tax credits are unearned subsidies, not tax cuts.”

Visit Cato’s Tax Policy Page for much more on this.

SPENDING FREEZE

Obama’s claim
:

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years.

Back in reality: Edwards: “The president’s proposed spending freeze covers just 13 percent of the total federal budget, and indeed doesn’t limit the fastest growing components such as Medicare.

“A better idea is to cap growth in the entire federal budget including entitlement programs, which was essentially the idea behind the 1980s bipartisan Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law. The freeze also doesn’t cover the massive spending under the stimulus bill, most of which hasn’t occurred yet. Now that the economy is returning to growth, the president should both freeze spending and rescind the remainder of the planned stimulus.”

Plus, here’s why these promised freezes have never worked in the past and a chart illustrating the fallacy of Obama’s spending claims.

JOB CREATION

Obama’s claim:

Because of the steps we took, there are about two million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed. 200,000 work in construction and clean energy. 300,000 are teachers and other education workers. Tens of thousands are cops, firefighters, correctional officers, and first responders. And we are on track to add another one and a half million jobs to this total by the end of the year.

Back in reality: Cato Policy Analyst Tad Dehaven: “Actually, the U.S. economy has lost 2.7 million jobs since the stimulus passed and 3.4 million total since Obama was elected. How he attributes any jobs gains to the stimulus is the fuzziest of fuzzy math. ‘Nuff said.”

Using Gasoline to Douse a Fire? OECD Thinks Higher Tax Rates Will Help Iceland’s Faltering Economy

Republicans made many big mistakes when they controlled Washington earlier this decade, so picking the most egregious error would be a challenge. But continued American involvement with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development would be high on the list. Instead of withdrawing from the OECD, Republicans actually increased the subsidy from American taxpayers to the Paris-based bureaucracy. So what do taxpayers get in return for shipping $100 million to the bureaucrats in Paris? Another international organization advocating for big government.

The OECD, for example, is infamous for trying to undermine tax competition. It also has recommended higher taxes in America on countless occasions. And now it is suggesting that Iceland impose high tax increases - even though Iceland’s economy is in big trouble and the burden of government spending already is about 50 percent of GDP:

Both tax increases and spending cuts will be needed, although the former are easier to introduce immediately. The starting point for the tax increases should be to reverse tax cuts implemented over the boom years, which Iceland can no longer afford. This would involve increases in the personal income tax… Just undoing the past tax cuts is unlikely to yield enough revenue. In choosing other measures, priority should be given to those that are less harmful to economic growth, such as broadening tax bases, or that promote sustainable development, such as introducing a carbon tax.

‘No Child Left a Dime’

That’s my favorite placard from the Washington tea party protests on Saturday. No Child Left a Dime underlines perhaps the central concern of the protesters – the ongoing massive fiscal irresponsibility in Washington by both parties.

We’ve got deficits of more more than $1 trillion for years to come. Federal debt will approach World War Two levels within a decade. Even so, the Democrats are trying to ram through a $1 trillion health care expansion, and the head of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, is defending against any cuts to Medicare, the program that is the single biggest threat to taxpayers. People are marching not just because Obama and the Democrats are scaring their pants off, but because most Republicans in positions of power are spendthrifts as well.

The chart illustrates that no child will be left a dime because the government will have it all. This is the CBO’s “alternative fiscal scenario,” which essentially means the business-as-usual scenario if Congress doesn’t cut anything in coming years.

Note that the most rapidly growing box, the white box, is the program that Michael Steele doesn’t want to touch. The program is expected to grow by 6.3 percent of GDP by 2050. In today’s money, 6.3 percent of GDP is about $900 billion a year in added spending. So it’s like Steele doesn’t see anything wrong with tomorrow’s young families forking over an additional $900 billion a year in taxes on this one program, or about $7,700 a year for every American household.

It’s worse than that. The biggest box on the chart by 2050 is interest on the government debt, and by far the biggest contributor to the growth in interest is Medicare. So including interest, Michael Steele’s (ridiculous) Medicare position is sort of like supporting a more than $10,000 tax hike on every young family for this one program.

Come on Republicans, you can do better than that. How about starting simply by proposing some of CBO’s modest and commonsense Medicare reforms like raising deductibles?

(By the way, interest costs rise in coming years because of an excess of spending, not a shortage of revenues. Under this CBO scenario, all current tax cuts are extended, and yet federal revenues still rise as a share of GDP over time above the historical norm of recent decades).

‘Tax Cuts’ and Welfare Spending

A story in the Washington Post today is headlined: “Obama Would Keep $85 Billion in Tax Breaks for Working Poor.”

The “tax breaks” in question are expansions in the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit. The Post story repeatedly calls the expansions “tax breaks” and “tax cuts.” The budget expert quoted in the story calls them “tax cuts,” and so does a House staffer and a spokesperson for the president.

But these are not tax cuts. They are expansions in the refundability of provisions in the tax code. That means that households that pay no federal income tax will receive larger welfare checks from the government under these Obama proposals.

Obama has proposed a slew of “tax cuts” that are partly welfare payments. The chart below shows the share of the 2010-2019 dollar values of these proposals that are actually increased federal spending, and not reductions in taxes. (Calculated from OMB’s May summary tables).

200909_edwards_blog

The Post reporter and the budget analyst quoted in the story are both fiscal experts, and they know that these “tax cuts” are not really tax cuts. But there is a growing problem in fiscal discussions that words are getting flipped upside down to mean the opposite of what a layman would understand them to mean. A classic example is how the dollar value of true tax cuts is nearly always referred to in news articles as a “cost” rather than a “saving.”

Steny Hoyer’s use of the phrase “paid for” in the health debate is another example of how Washington-speak is confusing the heck out of people.

British Economic Suicide

A Bloomberg story on one cause of the ongoing British economic disaster under Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

Andrew Wesbecher moved to London from New York in 2006 to sell software to banks and hedge funds. This month he joined the exodus of American expatriates fleeing high taxes and the city’s shrinking financial industry … Americans are heading home as Britain plans a 50 percent tax rate for those who earn more than 150,000 pounds ($248,000) a year and employers cut benefits for workers living abroad, reducing the allure of London. That comes a year after the U.K. said foreigners who have lived in the country for more than seven years must pay 30,000 pounds annually or give up the special status that shields overseas income from British taxes.

Since the 1980s, London has boomed as an international city open to the world’s entrepreneurs and their wealth, and perhaps home to more billionaires than any other city. The British economy as a whole has done quite well, pulled ahead by London and driven by a new free-market spirit in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts. Thatcher rightly argued that her cuts to income tax rates “provided a huge boost to incentives, particularly for those talented, internationally mobile people so essential to economic success.”  High tax rates at the top end were a “symbol of socialism” that she wanted to scrap.

Brown is killing the free-market goose that laid the golden eggs of Britain’s success. I really don’t understand the vision of such politicians – don’t they know what they are doing? I want people to be successful. I want entrepreneurs to create wealth. I love growing, vibrant cities.  Why do some people want to destroy all that?