Tag: Tax Reform

Post-Debate Analysis: Debunking Obama’s Flawed Assertions on Tax Deductions and Corporate Welfare

In a violation of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, my brutal overseers at the Cato Institute required me to watch last night’s debate (you can see what Cato scholars said by clicking here).

But I will admit that it was good to see Obama finally put on the defensive, something that almost never happens since the press protects him (with one key exception, as shown in this cartoon).

This doesn’t mean I like Romney, who would probably be another Bush if he got to the White House.

On the specifics, I obviously didn’t like Obama’s predictable push for class warfare tax policy, but I’ve addressed that issue often enough that I don’t have anything new to add.

I was irked, though, by Obama’s illiteracy on the matter of business deductions for corporate jets, oil companies, and firms that “ship jobs overseas.”

Let’s start by reiterating what I wrote last year about how to define corporate income: At the risk of stating the obvious, profit is total revenues minus total costs. Unfortunately, that’s not how the corporate tax system works.

Sometimes the government allows a company to have special tax breaks that reduce tax liabilities (such as the ethanol credit) and sometimes the government makes a company overstate its profits by not allowing it to fully deduct costs.

During the debate, Obama was endorsing policies that would prevent companies from doing the latter.

The irreplaceable Tim Carney explains in today’s Washington Examiner. Let’s start with what he wrote about oil companies.

…the “oil subsidies” Obama points to are broad-based tax deductions that oil companies also happen to get. I wrote last year about Democratic rhetoric on this issue: “tax provisions that treat oil companies like other companies become a ‘giveaway,’…”

I thought Romney’s response about corrupt Solyndra-type preferences was quite strong.

Here’s what Tim wrote about corporate jets.

…there’s no big giveaway to corporate jets. Instead, some jets are depreciated over five years and others are depreciated over seven years. I explained it last year. When it comes to actual corporate welfare for corporate jets, the Obama administration wants to ramp it up — his Export-Import Bank chief has explicitly stated he wants to subsidize more corporate-jet sales.

By the way, depreciation is a penalty against companies, not a preference, since it means they can’t fully deduct costs in the year they are incurred.

On another matter, kudos to Tim for mentioning corrupt Export-Import Bank subsidies. Too bad Romney, like Obama, isn’t on the right side of that issue.

And here’s what Tim wrote about “shipping jobs overseas.”

Obama rolled out the canard about tax breaks for “companies that ship jobs overseas.” Romney was right to fire back that this tax break doesn’t exist. Instead, all ordinary business expenses are deductible — that is, you are only taxed on profits, which are revenues minus expenses.

Tim’s actually too generous in his analysis of this issue, which deals with Obama’s proposal to end “deferral.” I explain in this post how the President’s policy would undermine the ability of American companies to earn market share when competing abroad - and how this would harm American exports and reduce American jobs.

To close on a broader point, I’ve written before about the principles of tax reform and explained that it’s important to have a low tax rate.

But I’ve also noted that it’s equally important to have a non-distortionary tax code so that taxpayers aren’t lured into making economically inefficient choices solely for tax reasons.

That’s why there shouldn’t be double taxation of income that is saved and invested, and it’s also why there shouldn’t be loopholes that favor some forms of economic activity.

Too bad the folks in government have such a hard time even measuring what’s a loophole and what isn’t.

President Obama’s Corporate Tax Reform Rearranges the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

American companies are hindered by what is arguably the world’s most punitive corporate tax system. The federal corporate rate is 35 percent, which climbs to more than 39 percent when you add state corporate taxes. Among developed nations, only Japan is in the same ballpark, and that country is hardly a role model of economic dynamism.

But the tax rate is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s also critically important to look at the government’s definition of taxable income. If there are lots of corrupt loopholes – such as ethanol – that enable some income to escape taxation, then the “effective” tax rate might be rather modest.

On the other hand, if the government forces companies to overstate their income with policies such as worldwide taxation and depreciation, then the statutory tax rate understates the actual tax burden.

The U.S. tax system, as the chart suggests, is riddled with both types of provisions.

This information is important because there are good and not-so-good ways of lowering tax rates as part of corporate tax reform. If politicians decide to “pay for” lower rates by eliminating loopholes, that creates a win-win situation for the economy since the penalty on productive behavior is reduced and a tax preference that distorts economic choices is removed.

But if politicians “pay for” the lower rates by expanding the second layer of tax on U.S. companies competing in foreign markets or by changing depreciation rules to make firms pretend that investment expenditures are actually net income, then the reform is nothing but a re-shuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Now let’s look at President Obama’s plan for corporate tax reform.

  • The good news is that he reduces the tax rate on companies from 35 percent to 28 percent (still more than 32 percent when state corporate taxes are added to the mix).
  • The bad news is that he exacerbates the tax burden on new investment and increases the second layer of taxation imposed on American companies competing for market share overseas.

In other words, to paraphrase the Bible, the President giveth and the President taketh away.

This doesn’t mean the proposal would be a step in the wrong direction. There are some loopholes, properly understood, that are scaled back.

But when you add up all the pieces, it is largely a kiss-your-sister package. Some companies would come out ahead and others would lose.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough to measurably improve incomes for American workers. In a competitive global economy, where even Europe’s welfare states recognize reality and have lowered their corporate tax rates, on average, to 23 percent, the President’s proposal at best is a tiny step in the right direction.

Cannon’s Second Rule of Economic Literacy

…appears at the end of this a poor, unsuccessful letter I sent to the editor of the Washington Post:

After quoting a scholar who expresses the economic consensus that the rising cost of employer-purchased health benefits “means lower wages and salaries,” “New study shows health insurance premium spikes in every state” [Nov. 17] immediately contradicts that consensus by stating, “employers are attempting to shift health costs onto their workers” by “asking employees to shoulder a larger share of the premium.”

If workers bear the cost of employer-paid health benefits in the form of lower wages and salaries, then increasing the employee-paid portion of the premium is not a cost-shift.  Workers would have borne those costs either way.

Employers cannot shift to workers a cost that workers already bear.

See Cannon’s First Rule of Economic Literacy.

Grading Perry’s Flat Tax: Some Missing Homework, but a Solid B+

Governor Rick Perry of Texas has announced a plan, which he outlines in the Wall Street Journal, to replace the corrupt and inefficient internal revenue code with a flat tax. Let’s review his proposal, using the principles of good tax policy as a benchmark.

1. Does the plan have a low, flat rate to minimize penalties on productive behavior?

Governor Perry is proposing an optional 20 percent tax rate. Combined with a very generous allowance (it appears that a family of four would not pay tax on the first $50,000 of income), this means the income tax will be only a modest burden for households. Most important, at least from an economic perspective, the 20-percent marginal tax rate will be much more conducive to entrepreneurship and hard work, giving people more incentive to create jobs and wealth.

2. Does the plan eliminate double taxation so there is no longer a tax bias against saving and investment?

The Perry flat tax gets rid of the death tax, the capital gains tax, and the double tax on dividends. This would significantly reduce the discriminatory and punitive treatment of income that is saved and invested (see this chart to understand why this is a serious problem in the current tax code). Since all economic theories - even socialism and Marxism - agree that capital formation is key for long-run growth and higher living standards, addressing the tax bias against saving and investment is one of the best features of Perry’s plan.

3. Does the plan get rid of deductions, preferences, exemptions, preferences, deductions, loopholes, credits, shelters, and other provisions that distort economic behavior?

A pure flat tax does not include any preferences or penalties. The goal is to leave people alone so they make decisions based on what makes economic sense rather than what reduces their tax liability. Unfortunately, this is one area where the Perry flat tax falls a bit short. His plan gets rid of lots of special favors in the tax code, but it would retain deductions (for those earning less than $500,000 yearly) for charitable contributions, home mortgage interest, and state and local taxes.

As a long-time advocate of a pure flat tax, I’m not happy that Perry has deviated from the ideal approach. But the perfect should not be the enemy of the very good. If implemented, his plan would dramatically boost economic performance and improve competitiveness.

That being said, there are some questions that need to be answered before giving a final grade to the plan. Based on Perry’s Wall Street Journal column and material from the campaign, here are some unknowns.

1. Is the double tax on interest eliminated?

A flat tax should get rid of all forms of double taxation. For all intents and purposes, a pure flat tax includes an unlimited and unrestricted IRA. You pay tax when you first earn your income, but the IRS shouldn’t get another bite of the apple simply because you save and invest your after-tax income. It’s not clear, though, whether the Perry plan eliminates the double tax on interest. Also, the Perry plan eliminates the double taxation of “qualified dividends,” but it’s not clear what that means.

2. Is the special tax preference for fringe benefits eliminated?

One of the best features of the flat tax is that it gets rid of the business deduction for fringe benefits such as health insurance. This special tax break has helped create a very inefficient healthcare system and a third-party payer crisis. It is unclear, though, whether this pernicious tax distortion is eliminated with the Perry flat tax.

3. How will the optional flat tax operate?

The Perry plan copies the Hong Kong system in that it allows people to choose whether to participate in the flat tax. This is attractive since it ensures that nobody can be disadvantaged, but how will it work? Can people switch back and forth every year? Is the optional system also available to all the small businesses that use the 1040 individual tax system to file their returns?

4. Will businesses be allowed to “expense” investment expenditures?

The current tax code penalizes new business investment by forcing companies to pretend that a substantial share of current-year investment outlays take place in the future. The government imposes this perverse policy in order to get more short-run revenue since companies are forced to artificially overstate current-year profits. A pure flat tax allows a business to “expense” the cost of business investments (just as they “expense” workers wages) for the simple reason that taxable income should be defined as total revenue minus total costs.

Depending on the answers to these questions, the grade for Perry’s flat tax could be as high as A- or as low as B. Regardless, it will be a radical improvement compared to the current tax system, which gets a D- (and that’s a very kind grade).

Here’s a brief video for those who want more information about the flat tax.

Last but not least, I’ve already received several requests to comment on how Perry’s flat tax compares to Cain’s 9-9-9 plan.

At a conceptual level, the plans are quite similar. They both replace the discriminatory rate structure of the current system with a low rate. They both get rid of double taxation. And they both dramatically reduce corrupt loopholes and distortions when compared to the current tax code.

All things considered, though, I prefer the flat tax. The 9-9-9 plan combines a 9 percent flat tax with a 9 percent VAT and a 9 percent national sales tax, and I don’t trust that politicians will keep the rates at 9 percent.

The worst thing that can happen with a flat tax is that we degenerate back to the current system. The worst thing that happens with the 9-9-9 plan, as I explain in this video, is that politicians pull a bait-and-switch and America becomes Greece or France.

‘Gang of Six’ Plan Is Lousy

My colleague Dan Mitchell discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly in the deficit reduction plan released by the bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Six.”  As Dan noted, the plan is more of an outline and a complete assessment isn’t possible until more details emerge. However, the fact that President Obama immediately embraced the plan ought to tell proponents of limited government all they need to know.

Here are some random thoughts on the plan:

  • There’s nothing impressive about the “immediate” $500 billion in deficit reduction. That figure includes revenue increases, so it’s not even $500 billion in spending cuts. And I’m not sure why they say “immediate” when they probably mean that the reductions would occur over the next several fiscal years. The deficit alone for next year will probably be at least $1 trillion.
  • The plan promises about $2.5 trillion in spending reductions over 10 years. As I’ve been pointing out, $2 trillion in spending cuts isn’t a lot when compared to the $46 trillion the government is projected to spend over the next decade. See this Cato video for more.
  • Tax reform is fine; more revenue for the government is not. Transferring more resources from the private sector to the government is a loser for both economic and individual liberty. In addition, the plan’s requirement that tax reform “maintain or improve the progressivity of the tax code” would result in more Americans viewing the federal government’s spending programs as a “free lunch.”
  • My anti-tax credentials are beyond question: I equate taxation with theft. But I don’t like debt-financed spending any more than I like tax-financed spending. Had anti-tax advocates and Republicans put the same amount of effort into restraining spending during the Bush/Republican Congress years as they did in cutting taxes, we might not be facing the prospect of a large tax increase today. Unfortunately, I see little evidence that that lesson has been learned.
  • The plan does almost nothing to rein in the scope of federal government’s activities. It doesn’t seem to matter which party or ideological faction on Capitol Hill releases a plan – conservatives, moderates, and liberals all apparently assume that the federal government should continue doing everything that it currently does. Generally speaking, Democrats want more tax revenue to maintain an expansive government. Republicans talk about smaller government, but only a handful can articulate exactly what programs or functions they’d eliminate. It’s more common to hear Republicans blubber on about “reducing waste, fraud, and abuse” in government programs and “saving” the pillars of the welfare state (Social Security and Medicare) for “future generations.”
  • Our global military presence would make a Roman emperor blush and our Founding Fathers roll over in their graves, but there’s nothing in this plan to suggest that the military-industrial complex faces any threat.

In sum, if you’re hoping that debt reduction will be brought about through a reduction in the federal warfare/welfare state, you’re going to have to wait for a different plan. And the sad truth is that no such plan is going to materialize anytime soon – at least not one that will get through Congress and signed by the president. But look on the bright side – we’re not Greece! Not yet.

The Gang of Six Is Back from the Dead: Contemplating the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Their Budget Plan

The on-again, off-again “Gang of Six” has come back on the scene and is offering a “Bipartisan Plan to Reduce Our Nation’s Deficits.”

The proposal is quite similar to the one put forth by the President’s Simpson-Bowles Commission, which isn’t too surprising since some of the same people are involved.

At this stage, all I’ve seen is this summary (A BIPARTISAN PLAN TO REDUCE OUR NATIONS DEFICITS v7), so I reserve the right to modify my analysis as more details emerge (and since I fully expect the plan to look worse when additional information is available, the following is an optimistic assessment.

The Good

  • Unlike President Obama, the Gang of Six is not consumed by class-warfare resentment. The plan envisions that the top personal income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent.
  • The corporate income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent as well, something that is long overdue since the average corporate tax rate in Europe is now down to 23 percent.
  • The alternative minimum tax (which should be called the mandatory maximum tax) will be repealed.
  • The plan would repeal the CLASS Act, a provision of Obamacare for long-term-care insurance that will significantly expand the burden of federal spending once implemented.
  • The plan targets some inefficient and distorting tax preference such as the health care exclusion.

The Bad

  • The much-heralded spending caps do not apply to entitlement programs. This is like going to the doctor because you have cancer and getting treated for a sprained wrist.
  • A net tax increase of more than $1 trillion (I expect that number to be much higher when further details are divulged).
  • The plan targets some provisions of the tax code – such as IRAs and 401(k)s) – that are not preferences, but instead exist to mitigate against the double taxation of saving and investment.
  • There is no Medicare reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.
  • There in no Medicaid reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.

The Ugly

  • The entire package is based on dishonest Washington budget math. Spending increases under the plan, but the politicians claim to be cutting spending because the budget didn’t grow even faster.
  • Speaking of spending, why is there no information, anywhere in the summary document, showing how big government will be five years from now? Ten years from now? The perhaps-all-too-convenient absence of this critical information should set off alarm bells.
  • There’s a back-door scheme to change the consumer price index in such a way as to reduce expenditures (i.e., smaller cost-of-living-adjustments) and increase tax revenue (i.e., smaller adjustments in tax brackets and personal exemptions). The current CPI may be flawed, but it would be far better to give the Bureau of Labor Statistics further authority, if necessary, to make changes. A politically imposed change seems like nothing more than a ruse to impose a hidden tax hike.
  • A requirement that the internal revenue code maintain the existing bias against investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other upper-income taxpayers. This “progressivity” mandate implies very bad things for the double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

This quick analysis leaves many questions unanswered. I particularly look forward to getting information on the following:

  1. How fast will discretionary spending rise or fall under the caps? Will this be like the caps following the 1990 tax-hike deal, which were akin to 60-mph speed limits in a school zone? Or will the caps actually reduce spending, erasing the massive increase in discretionary spending of the Bush-Obama years?
  2. What does it mean to promise Social Security reform “if and only if the comprehensive deficit reduction bill has already received 60 votes.” Who defines reform? And why does the reform have to focus on “75-year” solvency, apparently to the exclusion of giving younger workers access to a better and more stable system?
  3. Will federal spending under the plan shrink back down to the historical average of 20 percent of GDP? And why aren’t those numbers in the summary? The document contains information of deficits and debt, but those figures are just the symptoms of excessive spending. Why aren’t we being shown the data that really matters?

Over the next few days, we’ll find out what’s really in this package, but my advice is to keep a tight hold on your wallet.

A Fiscal Royal Wedding

The British royal wedding was splendid, and the bride and groom were a great match. As a fiscal wonk, my idea of a royal match-up would be marrying corporate tax cuts and business subsidy cuts. The Obama administration is talking about corporate tax cuts and Republicans are talking about cuts to farm subsidies. Might they get together over a cup of tea and work out nuptials?

The global average corporate tax rate has fallen over the last decade from 32 to 25 percent (KPMG, page 79). We have been stuck with a highly damaging 40% federal-state rate. Canada is chopping its combined federal-provincial rate to 25 percent. The Conservative government just won a parliamentary majority, which promises even more pro-investment changes for our largest trading partner.

Consider a Japanese car company deciding where to build its next North American plant. Should it choose a place with a 25 percent tax and stable government finances, or a place with a 40 percent tax and soaring government debt threatening major tax hikes?

The American economy is sputtering, and today we learned that the unemployment rate is back up to 9 percent. If the Obama administration wants to get the economy booming before next year’s election, it should push for a cut in the federal corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent or lower. And it should put aside all this stuff about “closing corporate loopholes.” A lot of supposed corporate loopholes aren’t loopholes to begin with, and as soon as you start trying to cut the real loopholes, half the business community lines up against reform and nothing gets done. Furthermore, if we chopped the corporate rate, the economic distortions caused by loopholes would decline.

Anyway, the largest corporate “loopholes” are probably “homemade loopholes,” which start disappearing automatically if we cut the tax rate. With a high tax rate, corporations have fashioned all kinds of financial structures to avoid taxes. Corporate tax experts agree that the mobility of the corporate tax base is high and rising. If we sharply cut our corporate rate, reported income would increase substantially as multinationals shift their profits into the United States. (For more on this, see my book).

A corporate tax cut would spur capital investment and economic growth. In 2005, the Joint Committee on Taxation used two macro models to look at the effects of various fiscal reform packages. By far, the largest positive impacts on GDP came from matching a corporate tax rate cut with federal spending cuts. (See charts 1c and 1d). The JCT found that:

A decrease in the corporate income tax rate primarily affects the economy through increasing the after-tax rate of return on corporate capital, which provides incentives for increased investment in corporate capital. Over time, this increased investment results in more goods and services and higher total output. It also results in higher labor productivity, leading to increased wages and employment.

So, let’s get cracking on a corporate tax rate cut. Forget about the corporate loopholes, and instead match a rate cut with cuts to business subsidies, such as farm handouts.

Let’s also put aside the idea of tying corporate tax reform to individual tax reform, as Ways and Means chairman David Camp has suggested. That’s just a recipe for gridlock. Obama is offering up corporate tax reform — for the sake of jobs and the economy, Republicans should jump on that opportunity right away.