Tag: tax hikes

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.

Tax Increases are Coming!

Over the weekend Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who’s had a bit of trouble paying his own taxes, made it clear–in Washington-speak–that tax hikes are coming.  He appeared on air with George Stephanopoulos. 

Byron York of the Washington Examiner provides the transcript of the relevant Q&A:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Former deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman said it is no longer a matter of whether tax revenues should increase but how. Is he right?

GEITHNER: George, it is absolutely right and very important for everyone to understand we will not get this economy back on track, recovery will not be strong enough to sustain unless we can convince the American people that we’re going to have the will to bring these deficits down once recovery is firmly established. Remember we inherited a one point three trillion dollar deficit. The cumulative consequences of the policies this country pursued over the last 8 years left us with 6 million dollars of more debt than we would have had by making a bunch of commitments to cut taxes and add to spending without paying for those. We are not going to be able to afford to do that. And it is very important that people understand that. Our first priority now though is to get this economy back on track, make sure this financial system is repaired. Without that, we’re not going to get our deficits under control and the necessary path to fiscal responsibility, the necessary path to getting this country living within our means again is not just health care reform, to bring down those costs, but we’re going to a range of other things and that’s going to be a very difficult challenge for this country. We can do this, it just requires the will to act.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Including new revenues?

GEITHNER: Well, we’re going to have to look at – we’re going to have to do what’s necessary. Remember the critical thing is people understand that when we have recovery established, led by the private sector, then we have to bring these deficits down very dramatically. We have to bring them down to a level where the amount we’re borrowing from the world is stable at a reasonable level. And that’s going to require some very hard choices. And we’re going to have to do that in a way that does not add unfairly to the burdens that the average American already faces.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But that’s the dilemma, isn’t it?

GEITHNER: That is the dilemma.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Because when you look at health care reform again _ I know you believe it’s going to bend the cost curve over time. But the Congressional Budget office says, at best, the health care reform plans out there are going to be deficit-neutral over the next ten years. So to bring the deficits down, there is not enough money in the discretionary budget, we all know that. That means more revenues. The President has said that taxes won’t go up for any Americans earning under $250,000, but it doesn’t appear that he’s going to be able to keep that promise if you’re going to bring the deficits down.

GEITHNER: George, we can’t make these judgments yet about what exactly it’s going to take and we’re going to get there. But the very important thing, and no one is going to care about this more than the President of the United States, is for people to understand that we do not have a choice as a country, that if we want an economy that is going to grow in the future, people have to understand that we have to bring those deficits down. And it’s gonna, it’s going to difficult - hard for us to do and the path to that is through health care reform. But that’s necessary but not sufficient. We [are] going to do some other things too.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So revenues are on the table, as well?

GEITHNER: Again, we’re not at the point yet where we’re going to make a judgment about what it’s going to take. But the important thing –

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you’re not ruling it out, you can’t rule it out.

GEITHNER: I think what the country needs to do is understand we’re going to have to do what it takes, we’re going to do what’s necessary.

Everyone in Washington knows what Secretary Geithner means when he says “we’re going to do what’s necessary.”  His apparent equivocations are simply intended to provide the usual deniability for politicians with reelection campaigns to run.   

Tax increases are coming!