Tag: tax increase

The “Tax Expenditure” Con Job

For both political and policy reasons, the left is desperately trying to maneuver Republicans into going along with a tax increase. And they are smart to make this their top goal. After all, it will be very difficult – if not impossible – to increase the burden of government spending without more revenue coming to Washington.

But how to make this happen? President Obama is mostly arguing in favor of class-warfare tax increases, but that’s a non-serious gambit driven by 2012 political considerations. Moreover, there’s presumably zero chance that Republicans would surrender to higher tax rates on work, saving, and investment.

The real threat is back-door hikes resulting from the elimination and/or reduction of so-called tax breaks. The big spenders on the left are being very clever about this effort, appealing to anti-spending and pro-tax reform sentiments by arguing that it is important to get rid of “tax expenditures” and “spending in the tax code.”

recently warned, however, that GOPers shouldn’t fall for this sophistry, noting that “If legislation is enacted that results in more money coming into Washington, that is a tax increase.” I also explained that tax breaks are not spending, stating that “When politicians tax (or borrow) money from one person and give it to another, that’s government spending. But if politicians allow a person keep more of their own money, that’s a tax cut.”

To be sure, the tax code is riddled with inefficient and corrupt loopholes. But those provisions should be eliminated as part of fundamental tax reform, such as a flat tax. More specifically, every penny of revenue generated by shutting down tax preferences should be used to lower tax rates. This is a win-win situation that would make America more prosperous and competitive.

It’s also important to understand what’s a loophole and what isn’t. Ideally, you determine special tax breaks by first deciding on the right benchmark and then measuring how the current tax system deviates from that ideal. That presumably means all income should be taxed, but only one time.

So what can we say about the internal revenue code using this neutral benchmark? Well, there are lots of genuine loopholes. The government completely exempts compensation in the form of employer-provided health insurance, for instance, and everyone agrees that’s a special tax break. There’s also the standard deduction and personal exemptions, but most people think it’s appropriate to protect poor people from the income tax (though perhaps we’ve gone too far in that direction since only 49 percent of households now pay income tax).

Sometimes the tax code goes overboard in the other direction, however, subjecting some income to double taxation. Indeed, because of the capital gains tax, corporate income tax, personal income tax, and death tax, it’s possible for some types of income to be taxed as many of three or four times.

Double taxation is a special tax penalty, which is the opposite of a special tax break. The good news is that there are some provisions in the tax code, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, that reduce these tax penalties.

The bad news is that these provisions get added to “tax expenditure” lists, and therefore get mixed up with the provisions that provide special tax breaks. This may sound too strange to be true, but here’s a list of the biggest so-called tax expenditures from the Tax Policy Center (which is a left-leaning organization, but their numbers are basically the same as the ones found at the Joint Committee on Taxation).

Since this post already is too long, I’ll close by simply noting that items 2, 4, 7, 8, 11, and 12 are not loopholes. They are not “tax expenditures.” And they are not “spending in the tax code.” Every one of those provisions is designed to mitigate a penalty in the tax code.

So even if lawmakers have good motives (i.e., pursuing real tax reform such as the flat tax) when looking to get rid of special tax breaks, they need to understand what’s actually a loophole.

But since politicians rarely have good motives, there’s a real threat that they will take existing tax penalties and make them even worse. That’s another reason why tax increases should be a non-starter.

Senator Corker’s CAP Act: A Better Version of Gramm-Rudman to Reduce the Burden of Government

This Thursday, April 7, Senator Corker of Tennessee will be the opening speaker at the Cato Institute’s conference on “The Economic Impact of Government Spending” (an event that is free and open to the public, so register here if you want to attend).

The Senator will be discussing his proposal to cap and then gradually reduce the burden of government spending, measured as a share of gross domestic product. With federal outlays currently consuming about 25 percent of economic output, excessive federal spending is America’s main fiscal problem.

Corker’s proposal would put federal spending on a 10-year glide path so that it eventually shrinks to 20.6 percent of GDP. This chart, from the Senator’s upcoming presentation, shows that government will grow at a much slower pace as a result of this restraint. Indeed, total savings over the 10-year period, measured against a baseline that assumes the federal government is left on auto-pilot, would exceed $5 trillion.

There are two things to admire about Senator Corker’s CAP plan.

First, he correctly understands that the problem is the size of government. As explained in this video, spending is the problem and deficits are a symptom of that problem.

Unfortunately, many policy makers focus on the budget deficit, which often makes them susceptible to misguided policies such as higher taxes. At best, such an approach merely substitutes one bad way of financing federal spending with another bad way of financing federal spending. And it’s much more likely that higher taxes will simply lead to more spending, thus exacerbating the real problem.

Second, Corker’s legislation has a real enforcement mechanism. If Congress fails to produce a budget that meets the annual spending cap, there is a “sequester” provision that automatically takes a slice out of almost every federal program.

Modeled after a similar provision in the successful Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law of the 1980s, this sequester puts real teeth in the CAP Act and ensures that the burden of government spending actually would be reduced.

Deconstructing the Revenue Side of Obama’s Budget

I looked yesterday at the spending side of Obama’s budget and found some good news and bad news. The good news was the absence of any big new initiative to expand the burden of government. That’s a welcome relief since the past couple of years have featured budget busting proposals such as the so-called stimulus scheme and a government-run healthcare plan.

The bad news is that the budget does nothing to undo any of the damage of the past two years. Nor does it undo any of the damage of the previous eight years. And because the President’s budget refuses to address entitlement spending, it certainly doesn’t do anything to avert the damage of rapidly expanding budgets over the next several decades.

Now let’s look at the tax side of the fiscal equation. In large part, the White House is recycling class warfare ideas from last year’s budget. The President wants higher tax rates, including higher taxes on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners. He also wants to increase the tax burden of American companies that are competing for market share in global markets.

These are remarkably misguided proposals. But what’s especially disappointing is that the Administration stuck with these bad ideas when the President’s own fiscal commission proposed lower tax rates and base broadening. Those proposals would have increased the overall tax burden, so they definitely were not pure supply-side economics. And the Commission also proposed an increase in the double taxation of saving and investment, which also would be unfortunate.

But at least the Commission proposed to do the wrong thing in a good way. Yes, taxes would have increased, but the damage would have been ameliorated by a better tax structure. Obama’s budget, by contrast, does the wrong thing in the worst way - increasing the tax burden while also making the tax system more unfair.

It’s also worth noting that the President decided to punt on the issue of corporate tax reform. This is remarkable since even he acknowledged during his State-of-the-Union address that America’s corporate tax rate is far too high in a competitive global economy.

Last but not least, it’s worth noting that Obama’s budget shows that tax revenues will rise above their long-run average of 18 percent of GDP - even if taxes are not increased by one penny.

America’s budget problem is too much spending, period.

The 1993 Clinton Tax Increase Did Not Lead to the Budget Surpluses of the Late 1990s

Proponents of higher taxes are fond of claiming that Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax increase was a big success because of budget surpluses that began in 1998.

That’s certainly a plausible hypothesis, and I’m already on record arguing that Clinton’s economic record was much better than Bush’s performance.

But this specific assertion it is not supported by the data. In February of 1995, 18 months after the tax increase was signed into law, President Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget issued projections of deficits for the next five years if existing policy was maintained (a “baseline” forecast). As the chart illustrates, OMB estimated that future deficits would be about $200 billion and would slightly increase over the five-year period.

In other words, even the Clinton Administration, which presumably had a big incentive to claim that the tax increase would be successful, admitted 18 months after the law was approved that there was no expectation of a budget surplus. For what it’s worth, the Congressional Budget Office forecast, issued about the same time, showed very similar numbers.

Since the Clinton Administration’s own numbers reveal that the 1993 tax increase was a failure, we have to find a different reason to explain why the budget shifted to surplus in the late 1990s.

Fortunately, there’s no need for an exhaustive investigation. The Historical Tables on OMB’s website reveal that good budget numbers were the result of genuine fiscal restraint. Total government spending increased by an average of just 2.9 percent over a four-year period in the mid-1990s. This is the reason why projections of $200 billion-plus deficits turned into the reality of big budget surpluses.

Republicans say the credit belongs to the GOP Congress that took charge in early 1995. Democrats say it was because of Bill Clinton. But all that really matters is that the burden of federal spending grew very slowly. Not only was there spending restraint, but Congress and the White House agreed on a fairly substantial tax cut in 1997.

To sum things up, it turns out that spending restraint and lower taxes are a recipe for good fiscal policy. This second chart modifies the first chart, showing actual deficits under this small-government approach compared to the OMB and CBO forecasts of what would have happened under Clinton’s tax-and-spend baseline.

New CBO Numbers Re-Confirm that Balancing the Budget Is Simple with Modest Fiscal Restraint

Many of the politicians in Washington, including President Obama during his State of the Union address, piously tell us that there is no way to balance the budget without tax increases. Trying to get rid of red ink without higher taxes, they tell us, would require “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts.

I would like to slash the budget and free up resources for private-sector growth, so that sounds good to me. But what’s the truth?

The Congressional Budget Office has just released its 10-year projections for the budget, so I crunched the numbers to determine what it would take to balance the budget without tax hikes. Much to nobody’s surprise, the politicians are not telling the truth.

The chart below shows that revenues are expected to grow (because of factors such as inflation, more population, and economic expansion) by more than 7 percent each year. Balancing the budget is simple so long as politicians increase spending at a slower rate. If they freeze the budget, we almost balance the budget by 2017. If federal spending is capped so it grows 1 percent each year, the budget is balanced in 2019. And if the crowd in Washington can limit spending growth to about 2 percent each year, red ink almost disappears in just 10 years.

These numbers, incidentally, assume that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent (they are now scheduled to expire in two years). They also assume that the AMT is adjusted for inflation, so the chart shows that we can balance the budget without any increase in the tax burden.

I did these calculations last year, and found the same results. And I also examined how we balanced the budget in the 1990s and found that spending restraint was the key. The combination of a GOP Congress and Bill Clinton in the White House led to a four-year period of government spending growing by an average of just 2.9 percent each year.

We also have international evidence showing that spending restraint - not higher taxes - is the key to balancing the budget. New Zealand got rid of a big budget deficit in the 1990s with a five-year spending freeze. Canada also got rid of red ink that decade with a five-year period where spending grew by an average of only 1 percent per year. And Ireland slashed its deficit in the late 1980s by 10 percentage points of GDP with a four-year spending freeze.

No wonder international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary fund and European Central Bank are producing research showing that spending discipline is the right approach.

This video provides all the details.

Spending Restraint and Red Ink

I’m not a big fan of central banks, and I definitely don’t like multilateral bureaucracies, so I almost feel guilty about publicizing two recent studies published by the European Central Bank. But when such an institution puts out research that unambiguously makes the case for smaller government, it’s time to sit up and take notice. And since these studies largely echo the findings of recent research by the International Monetary Fund, we may have reached a point where even the establishment finally understands that government is too big.

The first study looks at real-world examples of debt reduction in 15 European nations and investigates the fiscal policies that worked and didn’t work. Entitled “Major Public Debt Reductions: Lessons From The Past, Lessons For The Future,” the report unambiguously concludes that spending restraint is the right way to reduce deficits and debt. Tax increases, by contrast, are not successful. The study doesn’t highlight this result, but the data clearly show that “revenue increases do not seem to have induced debt reductions, whereas cuts in primary expenditure seem to have contributed significantly in the case of major debt reductions.”

Here’s a key excerpt:

[T]his paper estimates several specifications of a logistic probability model to assess which factors determine the probability of a major debt reduction in the EU-15 during the period 1985-2009. Our results are three-fold. First, major debt reductions are mainly driven by decisive and lasting (rather than timid and short-lived) fiscal consolidation efforts focused on reducing government expenditure, in particular, cuts in social benefits and public wages. Revenue-based consolidations seem to have a tendency to be less successful. Second, robust real GDP growth also increases the likelihood of a major debt reduction because it helps countries to “grow their way out” of indebtedness. Here, the literature also points to a positive feedback effect with decisive expenditure-based fiscal consolidation because this type of consolidation appears to foster growth, in particular in times of severe fiscal imbalances.

The last part of this passage is especially worth highlighting. The authors found that reducing spending promotes faster economic growth. In other words, Obama did exactly the wrong thing with his so-called stimulus. The U.S. economy would have enjoyed much better performance if the burden of spending had been reduced rather than increased. One can only hope the statists at the Congressional Budget Office learn from this research.

Equally interesting, the report notes that reducing social welfare spending and reducing the burden of the bureaucracy are the two most effective ways of lowering red ink:

The estimation results indicate that expenditure-based consolidation which mainly concentrates on cuts in social benefits and government wages is more likely to lead to a major debt reduction. A significant decline in social benefits or public wages vis-a-vis the overall decline in the primary expenditure will increase the probability of a major debt reduction by 31 and 26 percent, respectively.

The other study takes a different approach, looking at the poor fiscal position of European nations and showing what would have happened if governments had imposed some sort of cap on government spending. Entitled “Towards Expenditure Rules And Fiscal Sanity In The Euro Area,” this report finds that restraining spending (what the study refers to as a “neutral expenditure policy”) would have generated much better results. 

Here are the main findings:

[T]he study assesses the impact of the fiscal stance on primary expenditure ratios and public debt ratios and, thus, provides a measure of prudence or imprudence of past expenditure policies. The study finds that on the basis of real time rules, expenditure and debt ratios in 2009 for the euro area aggregate would not have been much different with neutral expenditure policies than actually experienced.

…Primary expenditure ratios would have been 2-3½ pp [percentage points] of GDP lower for the euro area aggregate, 3-5pp of GDP for the euro area without Germany and up to over 10 pp of GDP lower in certain countries if expenditure policies had been neutral.

There’s a bit of academic jargon in that passage, but the authors are basically saying that some sort of annual limit on the growth of government spending is a smart fiscal strategy. And such rules, depending on the country, would have reduced the burden of government spending by as much as 10 percentage points of GDP. To put that figure in context, reducing the burden of government spending by that much in the United States would balance the budget overnight.

There are several ways of achieving such a goal. The report suggests a spending limit rule based on the growth of the overall economy, which is similar to a proposal being developed in the United States by Senator Corker of Tennessee. But it also could mean something akin to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, but intelligently revised to focus on annual spending rather than annual deficits. Some sort of limit on annual spending, perhaps based on population plus inflation like the old Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) in Colorado, also could be successful.

There are a couple of ways of skinning this cat. What’s important is that there needs to be a formula that limits how much spending can grow, and this formula should be designed so that the private sector grows faster than the public sector. And to make sure the formula is successful, it should be enforced by automatic spending cuts, similar to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings sequester provision.

Will the Last Person to Leave Illinois Please Turn Off the Lights?

There is a very bizarre race happening in Illinois. The Governor and the leaders of the State Senate and General Assembly are trying to figure out how to ram through a massive tax increase, but they’re trying to make it happen before new state lawmakers take office tomorrow. The Democrats will still control the state legislature, but their scheme to fleece taxpayers would face much steeper odds because of GOP gains in last November’s elections.

As a result, the Illinois version of a lame-duck session has become a nightmare, sort of a feeding frenzy of tax-crazed politicians. Here’s the Chicago Tribune’s description of the massive tax hike being sought by the Democrats.

The 3 percent rate now paid by individuals and families would rise to 5 percent in one of the largest state tax increases in Illinois history. …Also part of the plan is a 46 percent business tax increase. The 4.8 percent corporate tax rate would climb to 7 percent… In addition, lawmakers are looking at a $1-a-pack increase in the state’s current 98-cent tax on cigarettes. …Democrats will still control the new General Assembly that gets sworn in Wednesday, their numbers were eroded by Republicans in the November election. With virtually no Republican support for higher taxes, Democratic leaders contend it will be easier to gain support for a tax hike in a legislature with some retiring members no longer worried about facing the voters.

If Governor Quinn and Democratic leaders win their race to impose a massive tax hike, that will then trigger another race. Only this time, it will be a contest to see how many productive people “go Galt” and leave the state. John Kass, a columnist for the Tribune, points out that the Democrats’ plan won’t work unless politicians figure out how to enslave taxpayers so they can’t escape the kleptocracy known as Illinois.

The warlords of Madiganistan — that bankrupt Midwestern state once known as Illinois — are hungry to feed on our flesh once again. This time the ruling Democrats are planning a…state income tax increase, with more job-killing taxes on corporations… A few tamed Republicans also want to join in and support a tax deal, demonstrating their eagerness to play the eunuch in the court of the pasha. And though they’ve been quite ingenious, waiting for the end of a lame-duck legislative session to do their dirty work, they forgot something important. They forgot to earmark some extra funds for that great, big wall. You know, that wall they’re going to need, 60 feet high, the one with razor wire on top and guard towers, equipped with police dogs and surrounded by an acid-filled moat. The wall they’re going to have to build around the entire state, to keep desperate taxpayers from fleeing to Indiana, Wisconsin and other places that want jobs and businesses and people who work hard for a living. …With the state billions upon billions in debt, and the political leaders raising taxes, borrowing billions more and not making any substantive spending cuts, we’ve reached a certain point in our history. The tipping point. Taxes grow. Employers run. The jobs leave. High-end wage earners have the mobility to escape. What’s left are the low-end workers who are stuck here. …the Democrats aren’t about to disappoint their true constituents. So they don’t cut, they tax. Because the true constituents of the Democratic warlords are the public service unions and the special interests that benefit from all that spending. Why should politicians make cuts and anger the people that give them power, the power that allows them access to treasure? …we reach another tipping point: The point at which those who are tied to government, either through contracts or employment, actually outnumber those who are not tied to government. Do the math on Election Day.

Illinois is America’s worst state, based on what it costs to insure state debt. The greedy politicians in Springfield think a tax hike will give them enough money to pay bondholders and reward special-interest groups. But that short-sighted approach is based on the assumption that people and businesses will cheerfully bend over and utter the line made famous by Animal House: “Thank you, sir! May I have another?”

Moving across state lines is generally not something that happens overnight. But this giant tax hike is sure to be the tipping point for a few investors, entrepreneurs, rich people, and employers. Each year, more and more of them will decide they can be more successful and more profitable by re-domiciling in low-tax states. When that happens, Illinois politicians will get a lesson about the Laffer Curve, just as happened in Maryland, Oregon, and New York.