Tag: taxation

McConnell Had It Right: Government Should Not Pursue Universal Coverage

I’m a bit late to this party, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) was of course right to tell Fox News’ Chris Wallace last weekend that the federal government should not pursue universal coverage:

Wallace: In your replacement [for ObamaCare], how would you provide universal coverage?

McConnell: Well, first let me say the single best thing we can do for the American health care system is to get rid of ObamaCare…

Wallace: But if I may sir, you talk about “repeal and replace.” How would you provide universal coverage?

McConnell: …We need to go step by step to replace it with more modest reforms…that would deal with the principal issue, which is cost…

Wallace: …What specifically are you going to do to provide universal coverage to the 30 million people who are uninsured?

McConnell: That is not the issue. The question is, how can you go step by step to improve the American health care system…

Wallace: …If you repeal ObamaCare, how would you protect those people with pre-existing conditions?

McConnell: …That’s the kind of thing that ought to be dealt with at the state level…

Naturally, the Church of Universal Coverage caught the vapors. But Time’s Mark Halperin says McConnell’s stance, while embarrassing, is “not a politically dangerous place to be”:

McConnell would have seemed less evasive and could have stopped Wallace in his tracks had he said, “We will not pursue universal coverage because that causes more people–not fewer–to fall through the cracks in our health care sector.”

‘Health Law Critics Prepare to Battle Over Insurance Exchange Subsidies’

The New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Critics of the new health care law, having lost one battle in the Supreme Court, are mounting a challenge to President Obama’s interpretation of another important provision, under which the federal government will subsidize health insurance for millions of low- and middle-income people.

Starting in 2014, the law…offers subsidies to help people pay for insurance bought through markets known as insurance exchanges.

At issue is whether the subsidies will be available in exchanges set up and run by the federal government in states that fail or refuse to establish their own exchange…

“The language of the statute is explicit,” Mr. Blumstein said. “Subsidies accrue to people who obtain coverage through state-run exchanges. The I.R.S. tries to get around that by providing subsidies for all insurance exchanges. That interpretation will almost certainly be challenged by someone.”

The most likely challenger, Mr. Blumstein said, is an employer penalized because one or more of its employees receive subsidies through a federal exchange. Employers may be subject to financial penalties if they offer no coverage or inadequate coverage and at least one of their full-time employees receives subsidies.

Michael F. Cannon, director of health policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said the link between subsidies and penalties was a crucial part of the law.

“Those tax credits trigger the penalties against employers,” Mr. Cannon said. If workers cannot receive subsidies in states with a federal exchange, their employers cannot be penalized, he said.

Tax credits are not subsidies, of course. But ObamaCare’s $800 billion of refundable premium-assistance tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies are three parts subsidy (i.e., government spending) and only one part tax reduction.

Anti-Universal Coverage Club in the Washington Post

Ezra Klein:

Michael Cannon, director of health-care policy at the libertarian Cato Institute, formed the “Anti-Universal Coverage Club,” whose members “reject the idea that government should ensure that all individuals have health insurance.” This attitude is now the norm within the Republican Party, even if it is rarely acknowledged so starkly.

Dear Republicans: You’re welcome.

Is the Individual Mandate a Tax?

From my 2010 paper “Obama’s Prescription for Low-Wage Workers; High Implicit Taxes, Higher Premiums”:

President Obama argues that a legal requirement for individuals to purchase health insurance is not a tax. Yet many economists, including some of President Obama’s economic advisers, consider it to be a type of tax.

Princeton University health economist Uwe Reinhardt writes, “[Just because] the fiscal flows triggered by [the] mandate would not flow directly through the public budgets does not detract from the measure’s status of a bona fide tax.”

MIT health economist Jonathan Gruber writes, “Suppose … the government mandated that everyone buy full insurance at the average price… . This would not be a very attractive plan to careful consumers … who could view themselves as essentially being taxed in order to support this market, by paying higher premiums than they should based on their risk.”

President Obama’s National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers writes, “Essentially, mandated benefits are like public programs financed by benefit taxes.”

Sherry Glied, President Obama’s appointee to assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services, writes, “The individual mandate … is in many respects analogous to a tax. It requires people to make payments for something whether they want it or not.”

When the Clinton administration proposed an individual mandate in 1993, the CBO went so far as to treat the mandatory premiums that Americans would pay as federal revenues and include them in the federal budget. So far, the CBO has not done the same for the mandates in the House and Senate bills. (As Reinhardt suggests, that does not imply that those mandates are not a tax.)

Each bill would also impose penalties on individuals (and employers) who do not comply with the health-insurance mandates. Those penalties would be paid to the Internal Revenue Service along with one’s income taxes.

“Conservatives’ Last Legal Option to Invalidate Obamacare”

The New Republic reports on an issue that Jonathan Adler and I have been highlighting: an IRS rule that will tax employers and subsidize private health insurance companies without congressional authorization. Why would the IRS issue such a rule? Perhaps because ObamaCare could collapse without it.

The post quotes another law professor who acknowledges the Obama administration faces a serious problem:

“It’s fairly decent textual case,” says Kevin Outterson, a professor at Boston University Law School, and health care blogger for The Incidental Economist. And if it stood, he says, the consequences could be disastrous.

Disastrous for ObamaCare, that is. But as Adler and I have written previously, if  saving ObamaCare means letting the IRS tax employers without congressional authorization, then ObamaCare is not worth saving.

The Laffer Curve Wreaks Havoc in the United Kingdom

Back in 2010, I excoriated the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, noting that David Cameron was increasing tax rates and expanding the burden of government spending (including an increase in the capital gains tax!).

I also criticized Cameron for leaving in place the 50 percent income tax rate imposed by his feckless predecessor, and was not surprised when experts began to warn that this class-warfare tax hike might actually result in less revenue because the reduction in taxable income could be more significant than the increase in the tax rate.

In other words, bad policy might lead to a turbo-charged version of the Laffer Curve.

Allow me to elaborate. In most cases, punitive tax hikes do raise revenue, but not as much as politicians predict. As explained in this three-part video series, this is because it takes a very significant reduction in taxable income to offset the revenue-generating impact of the higher tax rate.

But if a tax increase imposes a lot of damage and taxpayers have enough flexibility in their financial affairs, then it’s possible that a tax hike can lose revenue (or, as we saw with Reagan’s “tax cuts for the rich,” a well-designed reduction in tax rates can actually generate higher revenue).

With that background knowledge, let’s now take a closer look at David Cameron’s tax increases. They’ve been in place for a while, so we can look at some real-world data. Allister Heath of City AM has the details.

Something very worrying is happening to the UK’s public finances. Income tax and capital gains tax receipts fell by 7.3 per cent in May compared with a year ago, according to official figures. Over the first two months of the fiscal year, they are down by 0.5 per cent. This is merely the confirmation of a hugely important but largely overlooked trend: income and capital gains tax (CGT) receipts were stagnant in 2011-12, edging up by just £414m to £151.7bn, from £151.3bn, a rise of under 0.3 per cent. By contrast, overall tax receipts rose 3.9 per cent.

Is this because the United Kingdom is cutting tax rates? Nope. As we mentioned in the introduction, Cameron is doing just the opposite.

…overall taxes on labour and capital have been hiked: the 50p tax was introduced from April 2010 (and will fall to a still high 45p in April 2013), those earning above £150,000 have lost their personal allowance, CGT has risen to 28 per cent, many workers have been dragged into higher tax thresholds, and so on. In theory, if one were to believe the traditional static model of tax, beloved of establishment economists, this should have meant higher receipts, not lower revenues.

So what’s the problem? Well, it seems that there’s thing called the Laffer Curve.

…there is a revenue-maximising rate of tax – and that if you set rates too high, you raise less because people work less, find ways of avoiding tax or quit the country. The world isn’t static, it is dynamic; people respond to tax rates, just as they respond to other prices. Laffer told a gathering at the Institute of Economic Affairs that this is definitely true in the UK today – and the struggling tax take revealed in the official numbers suggest that he is right. Tax rates and levels are so high as to be counterproductive: slashing capital gains tax would undoubtedly increase its yield, for example. Many self-employed workers are delaying incomes as much as possible until the new, lower top rate of tax kicks in.

Allister’s column also makes the critical point that not all taxes are created equal.

…higher VAT is also damaging growth, though it is still yielding more. Some taxes can still raise more – but try doing that with income tax, CGT or corporation tax and the result is now clearly counter-productive. These taxes are maxed out; they have been pushed beyond their ability to raise revenues.

Last but not least, he makes an essential point about the role of bad spending policy.

The problem is that spending is too high – central government current expenditure is up by 3.7 per cent year on year in April-May – not that taxes are too low. The result is that the April-May budget deficit reached £30.7bn, some £6.2bn higher than a year ago.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that Paul Krugman has been whining about “spending cuts” in the United Kingdom, even though the burden of the public sector has been climbing. But given his outlandish errors about Estonia, we shouldn’t be surprised.

But that’s not the point of this post. The relevant question is why do politicians pursue bad policy and why do some economists aid and abet bad policy?

For politicians, I think the answer is easy. They simply care about getting elected and holding power. So if they think class-warfare tax policy is the way of achieving those narcissistic goals, they’ll push higher tax rates. Even if it means lower revenue, notwithstanding their usual desire to have more money so they can buy more votes.

I’m more mystified by the behavior of economists. Let’s look at a couple of examples. Justin Wolfers and Mark Thoma recently cited some survey data to claim that the Laffer Curve was universally rejected by the profession.

But as James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute explained, the survey actually showed just the opposite, with economists by a margin of nearly 5-1 agreeing that lower tax rates could boost GDP (and therefore taxable income).

Those economists did say that a reduction in tax rates, based on current levels, would not cause taxable income to jump by a large enough amount to fully offset the revenue-losing impact of the lower tax rate. But the Laffer Curve says that only happens in extreme circumstances, so there’s zero contradiction.

So why did Wolfers and Thoma create a straw man in an attempt to discredit the Laffer Curve?

I have no idea, but Republican politicians probably deserve some of the blame. Too many of them make silly claims that “all tax cuts pay for themselves,” even when talking about new credits and deductions that have no positive impact on economic performance.

To the extent that Wolfers, Thoma, and others think that’s what the Laffer Curve is all about, then their skepticism is warranted.

But if that’s the case, they should read what Art Laffer actually wrote so they can be more accurate in the future. Or they can watch these three videos.

Part I describes the theory.

Part II describes the evidence.

And Part III explains the sloppy and inaccurate revenue-estimating methodology of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

But if they think I’m too biased or that Art is similarly misguided, then they should look at some of the evidence produced by other economists.

The sooner they get up to speed on these issues, the sooner they can help give politicians good advice so that the Laffer Curve doesn’t cause more unpleasant surprises.