Tag: tax increases

Budget Plans: Gang of Six and Senator Coburn

The “Gang of Six” senators has released an outline of budget reforms that would supposedly reduce deficits by $3.7 trillion over 10 years. Revenues would rise by at least $1 trillion, while spending would be theoretically trimmed by various procedural mechanisms. The plan promises to “strengthen the safety net,” “maintain investments,” and “maintain the basic structure” of Medicare and Medicaid, which doesn’t sound very reform-minded to me.

The Gang of Six plan is a grander version of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s recent debt-limit proposal, which was aimed at putting off any spending cuts. The Gang outline has a few specific cuts, but the document mainly consists of promises to restrain spending and raise taxes in the future.

I’m surprised that Sen. Tom Coburn supports the Gang plan because his office has just released a massive study chock-full of specific spending-cut ideas. The Gang plan is all about avoiding specifics, while Coburn’s plan has 621 pages of details.

Coburn’s “Back in Black” plan would reduce deficits by $9 trillion over the next decade. The plan includes some tax increases, but the core of the document is a line-by-line analysis of every department’s budget, with lists of programs to cut and terminate. The plan includes a wealth of useful information that will aid policymakers interested in cutting spending for years to come.

So congratulations to Roland, Joelle, and the whole Coburn team for their late nights spent pouring through the budget, and for their great job documenting their findings with more than 3,000 endnotes.

Every Senate and House office should perform a similar exercise of proposing specific cuts. The government faces a debt crisis, yet only Coburn, Sen. Rand Paul, and perhaps a few others in Congress have put any effort into identifying unneeded programs.

Look on the official websites of most members of Congress and you will see discussions in support of spending on education, seniors, energy, research, highways and many other activities. When members are in front of TV cameras, they sound like they take the debt crisis seriously, but most congressional websites reveal a different mindset where federal spending is always wonderful and helpful to society.

Coburn’s staff tells me that about a dozen staffers chipped in on its Back in Black effort in recent months. If other House and Senate offices went through such an exercise, it would help members clarify their positions about the role of government and help them think about spending trade-offs.

My summer homework assignment for every congressional office is to go through a Coburn/Paul-style budget downsizing exercise. That could lead to more serious spending debates and more concrete proposals than the generally meaningless bullets points issued by the Gang of Six.

Chained CPI: A Stealth Tax Increase

As we close in on congressional votes to increase the federal debt limit, negotiators are coming up with all kinds of ideas to hike taxes. (Suspiciously, they haven’t revealed very many spending cut ideas so far).

One idea being discussed is to raise revenue by reducing the indexing of parameters in the income tax code. Currently, tax brackets and other features of the tax code are indexed to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). It is widely recognized that the CPI overestimates inflation for various reasons, as discussed here.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has developed a more accurate (and lower) measure of inflation, called chained CPI. If the tax code was indexed to chained CPI instead of CPI, the government would receive an automatic tax increase relative to current law every year until the end of time.

Switching to chained CPI is a very bad idea for two reasons:

  • It would create a large tax increase over the long run. And it would be an invisible annual tax increase on families and voters because there would be no obvious changes in their tax forms.
  • It would be an anti-growth tax increase because it would push families into higher tax brackets more quickly over time, subjecting them to higher marginal tax rates. The chained CPI proposal is essentially a proposal to increase marginal tax rates slowly and steadily over time.

Some economists may argue that the chained CPI proposal is a good idea because the tax code would more accurately reflect inflation, and it would. However, the tax code already contains a bias that pushes families into higher tax brackets over time, which is called “real bracket creep.” Real growth in the economy steadily moves taxpayers into higher rate brackets since the tax code is indexed for inflation but not real growth. The discussion in the Congressional Budget Office’s new long-range budget outlook implies that this will be an important force in raising federal revenues as a share of GDP in coming decades.

So I’ve got a better idea than indexing the tax code to chained CPI: indexing the tax code to nominal GDP growth. That would adjust for the effects of both inflation and real economic growth on tax code parameters, and it would prevent stealth tax rate increases under our graduated income tax system.

$1 Trillion in Phony Spending Cuts?

In the Washington Post Friday, Ezra Klein partly confirmed what I fear the Republican strategy is for the debt-limit bill—get to the $2 trillion in cuts promised through accounting gimmicks. As I have also noted, Klein says that there is about $1 trillion in budget “savings” ($1.4 trillion with interest) to be found simply in the inflated Congressional Budget Office baseline for Iraq and Afghanistan. Klein says, “I’m told that a big chunk of these savings were included in the debt-ceiling deal” that Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Sen. Jon Kyl (D-AZ) are negotiating with the Democrats.

Republican leaders have promised that spending cuts in the debt-limit deal must be at least as large as the debt-limit increase, which means $2 trillion if the debt-limit is extended to reach the end of 2012. In a Daily Caller op-ed, I noted that you can find $1 trillion in “savings” from this phony war accounting and another $1 trillion by simply pretending that non-security discretionary will stay flat over the next decade.

There is more evidence that few, if any, real spending cuts are being discussed. One clue is that the media keeps quoting Joe Biden essentially saying that it was easy to reach agreement on the first $1 trillion in cuts.

The other suspicious thing is that the media keeps floating trial balloons for specific tax hikes, but I’ve seen very few trial balloons for specific spending cuts. Friday, the Washington Post story on the debt discussions mentions all kinds of ideas for raising taxes on high earners. A few days ago, news stories revealed that negotiators were talking about changing tax bracket indexing to create annual stealth increases in income taxes. The only item I’ve seen being discussed on the spending side is trimming farm subsidies.

If Republican and Democratic lawmakers were really discussing major spending cuts, then the media would be full of stories mentioning particular changes to entitlement laws to reduce benefits and stories about abolishing programs widely regarded as wasteful, such as community development grants.

I hope I’m wrong, but this is starting to look a lot like the phony $100 billion spending cut deal from earlier this year.

Sean, Rush, Greta, Glenn, Bill: When you get Republican leaders on your shows, get them to promise that they won’t use phony baseline accounting like war costs to reach the $2 trillion in cuts. The budget and the nation desperately need real cuts and real government downsizing.

Back-Door Tax Increases Are a Recipe for Bigger Government

Martin Feldstein’s on a roll, but not in a good way. Earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, he advocated throwing in the towel on reforming Social Security into a system of personal retirement accounts. Today, in the New York Times, he endorses big tax increases.

Rather odd positions for someone who served as Chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. The Gipper must be rolling in his grave.

To be fair, when compared to Obama’s tax-hike plan, Feldstein wants to raise taxes in ways that impose much less damage on the economy. Obama wants to raise tax rate on productive behavior, thus discouraging work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. Feldstein, by contrast, wants to cap various tax preferences.

Reducing the budget deficit and stopping the explosion of our national debt will require more tax revenue… But the need for more revenue needn’t mean higher tax rates. …tax revenues can be increased substantially by limiting the deductions, credits and exclusions that are essentially government spending by another name. …such tax expenditures create incentives for wasteful borrowing and spending; they have been factors in the mortgage crisis and the rising cost of health care. …here is a way to curb this loss of revenue without eliminating any individual deduction: limit the total tax saving for any individual to a maximum percentage of his total income. …What’s the result? Taxpayers with incomes of $25,000 to $50,000 would pay about $1,000 more in taxes; those with incomes of more than $500,000 might pay $40,000 more. The cap would affect more than 80 percent of taxpayers. Although they would continue to benefit from the mortgage deduction, the health insurance exclusion and other tax expenditures, their tax savings would not increase if they took out a larger mortgage or a more expensive insurance policy. … a 2 percent cap on tax expenditures in 2011 would raise tax revenue by $278 billion — nearly 30 percent of total projected income tax revenue for this year. The extra revenue would increase over time, reaching nearly half of the projected future fiscal deficits.

I’m not a fan of tax preferences. I agree with much of Professor Feldstein’s argument about the inefficiency and distortions that are created when government plays industrial policy with the tax code.

But there are good ways and bad ways of addressing the problem. If Professor Feldstein was proposing to cap or eliminate tax preferences as part of a plan that also lowered tax rates, that would be great news.

Unfortunately, Feldstein is proposing to cap tax preferences in order to funnel more money to Washington. But giving more tax revenue to politicians and bureaucrats, in the words of P.J. O’Rourke, would be like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.

The big problem with Feldstein’s approach is that any source of additional revenue will ease up the pressure to restrain government spending. There are several budget plans, such as Congressman Ryan’s proposal and the House Study Committee plan, that would significantly improve America’s fiscal position by restraining the growth of federal spending. But these pro-growth initiatives will have zero chance of getting enacted if politicians think more revenue is forthcoming.

America’s fiscal problem is too much spending, not insufficient revenue.

Yes, the tax code is riddled with terrible provisions that are both corrupt and economically inefficient. But those provisions should be eliminated as part of tax reform - not as part of a plan to give politicians an excuse to prop up big government.

Seven Reasons to Oppose Higher Taxes

As I have explained elsewhere, tax increases are a bad idea - unless you favor bigger government.

And I’ve already added my two cents to the tax debate between Senator Coburn and Grover Norquist regarding the desirability of higher taxes.

So it won’t surprise anyone to know that I fully agree with this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, which offers seven reasons why higher taxes are a bad idea.


The video is narrated by Piyali Bhattacharya of Young Americans for Liberty, and here are her seven reasons.

  1. Tax increases are not needed
  2. Tax increases encourage more spending
  3. Tax increases harm economic performance
  4. Tax increases foment social discord
  5. Tax increases almost never raise as much revenue as projected
  6. Tax increases encourage more loopholes
  7. Tax increases undermine competitiveness

I think reasons #1, #2, #3, and #5 are the most powerful.

To a considerable degree, my video on balancing the budget makes the same point as reason #1 about why higher taxes are unnecessary. Simply stated, balancing the budget merely requires a modest degree of fiscal discipline, such as capping spending so it only grows 2 percent per year.

And if tax increases are not needed to balance the budget, then the only purpose they serve is to facilitate a bigger burden of government spending, which is why I like reason #2.

And reason #3 is standard economic analysis, making the common-sense point that if you punish something, you get less of it. This is why it is so misguided to impose higher tax rates on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Last but not least, reason #5 is just another way of saying that the Laffer Curve is real, as I explain in this tutorial.

Obama’s Tax Increase Trigger: Punishing Taxpayers with Automatic Tax Hikes When Politicians Overspend

Responding to widespread criticism of his AWOL status on the budget fight, President Obama today unveiled a fiscal plan. It already is being criticized for its class warfare approach to tax policy, but the most disturbing feature may be a provision that punishes the American people with higher taxes if politicians overspend.

Called a “debt failsafe trigger,” Obama’s scheme would automatically raise taxes if politicians spend too much. According to the talking points distributed by the White House, the automatic tax increase would take effect “if, by 2014, the projected ratio of debt-to-GDP is not stabilized and declining toward the end of the decade.”

Let’s ponder what this means. If politicians in Washington spend too much and cause more red ink, which happens on a routine basis, Obama wants a provision that automatically would raise taxes on the American people.

In other words, they play and we pay. The last thing we need is a perverse incentive for even more reckless spending from Washington.

Norquist Is Right, Coburn Is Wrong: Tax Increases Undermine Good Fiscal Policy

There’s a significant debate now taking place in Washington — largely behind closed doors, but sometimes covered by the media — on whether fiscal conservatives should maintain a rigid no-tax-increase position. One side of the debate features Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, which is the organization that maintains the no-tax-increase pledge. The other side features Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who is part of a small group of GOP senators who might be willing to increase the tax burden as part of a deal that supposedly reduces deficits.

I’m a huge fan of Senator Coburn, who was in favor of cutting wasteful spending before it became fashionable. His office, for instance, releases a “Pork Report” every couple of days. You shouldn’t read it if you have high blood pressure, because it will confirm (and reconfirm, and reconfirm, ad nauseum) your worst fears about tax dollars getting wasted.

Nonetheless, I’m on Grover’s side on this tax debate, for two reasons.

First, we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem or a deficit/debt problem. Red ink is undesirable, to be sure, but it is a symptom of the underlying problem of a government that is too big and spending too much.

But don’t believe me. Here is a chart from the House Budget Committee showing long-run projections for spending and revenues over the next 70 years. As you can see, the long-run fiscal shortfall is completely caused by higher spending. In other words, 100 percent of red ink is due to government spending. So why put taxes on the table?

But this chart actually understates the case against tax increases. It uses revenue numbers from the Congressional Budget Office’s “alternative” forecast, which shows taxes steady at 19.3 percent of GDP. That’s more than the historical average of about 18 percent of GDP, which surely indicates that revenues are not the problem.

However, that 19.3 percent estimate is completely artificial. As CBO states in its long-run forecast, “the alternative fiscal scenario also incorporates unspecified changes in tax law that would keep revenues constant as a share of GDP after 2020.”

I’ll actually be delighted if we can permanently keep federal revenues below 20 percent of GDP, but I’m not overly optimistic about that because the tax burden is projected to automatically increase over time. And I’m not talking about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts or the broadening of the alternative minimum tax. Yes, those factors would push up tax revenues (at least based on static revenue estimates), but the tax burden also is expected to climb because even modest economic growth slowly but surely pushes more and more people into higher tax brackets.

This second chart shows CBO’s estimate of personal income tax revenue based on current policy (as opposed to estimates based on current law, which includes already-legislated tax hikes). To be more specific, it shows how much revenue the government will collect from the individual income tax even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent and the AMT is indexed.

As you can see, the aggregate individual income tax burden will increase by roughly 5 percentage points of GDP when compared to the long-run average of about 8 percent of GDP (the CBO estimate only goes to 2035, so I extrapolated to show the same time period as the first chart). And remember, this is the forecast of what will happen to income tax revenues even if politicians don’t impose any new laws to coercively extract more revenue.

This might not be too bad if other taxes were falling, but that’s not what CBO is projecting. As such, this big increase in revenue from the individual income tax means that the overall tax burden will climb by approximately the same amount.

In other words, revenue likely will rise close to 25 percent of GDP as we approach the next century. So if we use this more realistic baseline, we can say that more than 100 percent of the long-run deficit problem is because spending is out of control.

The second reason for a firm no-tax-increase position is that higher taxes are a very ineffective way of reducing budget deficits. Indeed, tax increases generally backfire and lead to more red ink. To understand why, it’s important to put away the calculator and instead consider the real world of politics and public policy. For instance:

  • Tax increases rarely raise as much revenue as predicted by government forecasters. This is because of “Laffer Curve” effects, as taxpayers change their behavior to earn less income and/or report less income. Simply stated, people respond to incentives, and this means taxable income falls as tax rates increase.
  • Tax increases erode pressure to control spending. Why would politicians want to make tough decisions and upset special interest groups, after all, when there is going to be more revenue (or at least the expectation of more revenue)? Using more colloquial language, trying to control spending with higher taxes is like trying to cure alcoholics by giving them keys to a liquor store.
  • Milton Friedman was right when he said that “in the long run, government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.” In other words, if politicians think they can get away with deficits averaging, say, 5 percent of GDP in the long run, then the only impact of higher taxes is an equal amount of additional spending — while still retaining deficits of 5 percent of GDP.

The real-world evidence certainly points in this direction. We’ve seen “bipartisan budget summits” several times in Washington, and the result is more spending rather than lower deficits. Americans for Tax Reform has a good analysis of what happened after the two big budget summits in 1982 and 1990, but I think the problem is best captured by my adaptation of a famous Peanuts cartoon strip.

Every year, if my aging memory is correct, Lucy would ask Charlie Brown if he wanted to kick the football. At first, Charlie was skeptical. But Lucy always managed to trick him into giving it a try. And the inevitable result was Charlie Brown lying on his back wondering why he had been so foolish.

In the Washington version of this cartoon, Democrats hypnotize gullible Republicans with ostensibly sincere promises of future spending restraint. Republicans eventually acquiesce, naively assuming that Democrats will be their new BFFs in the fight against big government.

Needless to say, that’s not the way the story ends.

Ronald Reagan is reported to have said that the 1982 tax increase was the “biggest mistake” of his presidency. And since Congress never followed through on commitments to reduce spending by $3 for every $1 of higher taxes, he wryly remarked that “I’m still waiting on those three dollars of spending cuts I was promised from Congress.”

Like Reagan, Coburn wants to do the right thing. But good intentions are not the same as good policy. America’s fiscal challenge is too much spending. Government is too big and it is wasting too much money. Taking more money from the American people is not the way to solve that problem.