Topic: Health Care & Welfare

Jared Bernstein’s “Tax Reform” Assault on Pensions, IRAs and 401(k)s

The bad habit of defining “tax reform” in terms of fairness or “closing loopholes” sidesteps the most essential task of effective tax policy – namely, to collect taxes in ways that do the least possible damage to incentives for productive effort, investment and entrepreneurship.

The Joint Committee on Taxation list of “tax expenditures” is arbitrary accounting, not economics, and tax expenditures are not necessarily “loopholes.” These estimates do not take taxpayer behavior into account and therefore do not estimate revenues that could be raised by closing the so-called loopholes (e.g., a higher tax on capital gains would shrink asset sales and revenues). Policies that make sense in terms of economic incentives can therefore be portrayed as useless tax subsidies in the purely static accounting of “tax expenditures.”

For example, a recent New York Times article by former vice presidential adviser Jared Bernstein complains that tax deferral for retirement savings is unfair because, “most savings subsidies go to households that would surely save anyway, while almost nothing goes to the households that need help to save.” 

These “subsidies” for high-bracket taxpayers mainly consist of deferring rather than avoiding taxes, which only partly offsets the way savings are double-taxed. Even if higher-income households would actually save the same without 401(k) accounts (which contradicts research), they would still end up with much smaller retirement savings. Dividends and capital gains would then be repeatedly taxed, year after year, rather than being continually reinvested within a tax-deferred pension, IRA or 401(k) account. 

Estimated “subsidies” from tax deferral are deceptive: Instead of having recent dividends and capital gains taxed at a 15-20 percent rate in recent years, distributions from tax-deferred accounts will later be taxed at rates up to 39.6 percent. It’s a subsidy only if you don’t live much past 70.

Bernstein presents a graph showing the top 20 percent getting a 66 percent share of these “subsidies” for pensions and defined-contribution plans while the middle fifth gets only nine percent and the poorest 20 percent just two percent. What these figures actually demonstrate is that (1) people who work full-time for many years have more income to save than those who don’t, and that (2) people who pay no income tax cannot benefit from any policy that reduces taxable income, even temporarily.

There are five times as many workers in the top 20 percent than there are in the bottom 20 percent. To exclude young singles and old retirees, Gerald Mayer examined the work experience of households headed by someone between the working ages of 22 and 62. Average work hours among the poorest 20 percent still amounted to just 1,415 hours a year in 2010, while those in the middle fifth worked 2,771 hours, and the top 20 percent worked 4060 hours.

If Bernstein’s “subsidies” were properly expressed as shares of income, rather than as shares of foregone tax revenue, the differences nearly vanish. The Congressional Budget Office (the undisclosed source of his estimates) shows tax benefits for retirement savings worth only about twice as much to the top 20 percent (2 percent of net income) as to the middle 20 percent (0.9 percent of income). Retirement savings incentives appear to be worth only 0.4 percent of income to the poorest 20 percent, since they rarely owe taxes, yet annual benefits are a poor guide to lifetime benefits. Those in low income groups while they are young commonly move up to higher tax brackets by the time they start saving for retirement.

The alleged unfairness of lower-income households not getting the same dollar tax break as couples earning more than $115,100 (the top 20 percent) could be alleviated by reducing marginal tax rates on two-earner families. But Bernstein instead suggests “closing loopholes that make it easy for wealthy individuals to exceed contribution limits to tax-preferred accounts (as was found to be the case with Mitt Romney), reducing contribution limits for high-income filers, or simple limiting the value of tax breaks for the wealthiest of filers (e.g. allowing them to deduct such contributions at 28 percent instead of 39.6 percent.” None of these schemes would add a dime to the savings of low or middle-income households, of course, and they wouldn’t work.

It is not legal – and therefore not “easy”– to exceed strict contribution limits for high-income taxpayers, and Mitt Romney certainly did not do so.  What Romney did was to roll over qualified retirement plans into an IRA and then earn high compounded returns on very successful investments.  Similarly, albeit on a much smaller scale, I rolled-over a lump-sum pension into an IRA in 1990 when I changed jobs, and that IRA is now 12-times larger thanks to compound interest and bold investments.  Since I never contributed another dollar after 1990, tougher or lower contribution limits would have been entirely irrelevant.  

Bernstein’s final proposal is from the Obama budget – “allowing taxpayers to deduct contributions at 28 percent instead of 38.6 percent.” But that too is irrelevant. Any alleged “loopholes” for retirement savings have nothing to do with itemized deductions for top-bracket taxpayers, who are not allowed to deduct contributions to an IRA.  Failure to include employer contributions as taxable income is not an itemized deduction to begin with, nor is the exclusion from adjusted gross income for contributions to a Keogh retirement plan for the self-employed.  

In the process of giving “tax reform” a bad name, Jared Bernstein uses a sham fairness argument to justify arbitrary and unworkable anti-affluence policies that are irrelevant to any ill-defined problems. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Galston’s Not-So-Great Decoupling of Pay, Productivity, and Common Sense

Wall Street Journal columnist William A. Galston says “the Great Decoupling of wages and benefits from productivity [is] the biggest economic story of the past 40 years.”  Wow!  The Biggest Economic Story of the past 40 years!  Imagine that!  I have been researching such data longer than 40 years yet this particular story is so old (and so wrong) I had almost forgotten about it.   

The alleged decoupling of growth of pay from productivity, as Robert Gordon explained in 2009, “compares apples with oranges, and then oranges with bananas.” Median wages for the whole economy were deflated by the consumer price index, which exaggerated inflation and understated real income growth. Rapidly growing health and retirement benefits were often excluded. These muddled measures of real pay, which also failed to adjust for changing household size or hours, were compared to productivity of the nonfarm business sector, not the whole economy. And real output was calculated using GDP deflators that showed much less inflation than the CPI. With those errors, one estimate for the income-productivity gap from 1979-2007 was 1.46 percentage points, but Gordon’s adjustments shrunk that to a negligible 0.16. He also noted that mean and median incomes grew at remarkably similar rates, suggesting inequality did not explain much.

A 2013 study from the London School of Economics likewise found no significant gap between growth of compensation and productivity in the United States or UK (unlike the EU and Japan) if both measures are properly calculated with the same price index. The LSE study concluded that, “the debate around net decoupling in the UK and US is rather a distraction (it is actually more important in Continental Europe and Japan). Obtaining faster productivity growth is a highly desirable policy goal in the current climate of near recession as it will ultimately lead to faster wage growth and consumption.”

Galston tells other stories, such as “mobility has stalled” – which is indefensible nonsense. His allusion to the “past 40 years,” appears based on a Pew Research paper’s pointless claim that the “middle class” constituted a smaller share of adults in 2011 than in the idyllic year of 1971. As Pew Research hesitantly revealed, that is mainly because millions of people moved up – “the upper-income tier [earning more than double median income] rose to 20% of adults in 2011, up from 14% in 1971.”

All this statistical fog is thin camouflage for Galston’s invitation to grant authoritarian politicians and bureaucrats the discretion to somehow “link the tax rates individual firms have to the compensation practices they adopt.” That may well be the worst economic policy idea of the past 40 years, trailing barely behind Nixon’s dictatorial price controls.

Goldilocks, Canada, and the Size of Government

I feel a bit like Goldilocks.

Think about when you were a kid and your parents told you the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

You may remember that she entered the house and tasted bowls of porridge that were too hot and also too cold before she found the porridge that was just right.

And then she found a bed that was too hard, and then another that was too soft, before finding one that was just right.

Well, the reason I feel like Goldilocks is because I’ve shared some “Rahn Curve” research suggesting that growth is maximized when total government spending consumes no more than 20 percent of gross domestic product. I think this sounds reasonable, but Canadians apparently have a different perspective.

Back in 2010, a Canadian libertarian put together a video that explicitly argues that I want a government that is too big.

Now we have another video from Canada. It was put together by the Fraser Institute, and it suggests that the public sector should consume 30 percent of GDP, which means that I want a government that is too small.

My knee-jerk reaction is to be critical of the Fraser video. After all, there are examples - both current and historical - of nations that prosper with much lower burdens of government spending.

IRS Officials Created a New Entitlement Program, Because They Felt Like It

Over at DarwinsFool.com, I summarize a lengthy report issued by two congressional committees on how the Treasury Department, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Health and Human Services conspired to create a new entitlement program that is authorized nowhere in federal law. Here’s an excerpt in which I summarize the summary:

Here is what seven key Treasury and IRS officials told investigators.

In early 2011, Treasury and IRS officials realized they had a problem. They unanimously believed Congress had intended to authorize certain taxes and subsidies in all states, whether or not a state opted to establish a health insurance “exchange” under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. At the same time, agency officials recognized: (1) the PPACA plainly does not allow those taxes and subsidies in non-establishing states; (2) the law’s legislative history offers no support for their theory that Congress intended to allow them in non-establishing states; and (3) Congress had not given the agencies authority to treat non-establishing states the same as establishing states.

Nevertheless, agency officials agreed, again with apparent unanimity, to impose those taxes and dispense those subsidies in states with federal Exchanges, the undisputed plain meaning of the PPACA notwithstanding. Treasury, IRS, and HHS officials simply rewrote the law to create a new, unauthorized entitlement program whose cost “may exceed $500 billion dollars over 10 years.” (My own estimate puts the 10-year cost closer to $700 billion.)

The full post includes details some pretty stunning examples of how agency officials were derelict in their duty to execute faithfully the laws Congress enacts.

IRS Illegally Expands Obamacare

To encourage the purchase of health insurance, the Affordable Care Act added a number of deductions, exemptions, and penalties to the federal tax code. As might be expected from a 2,700-page law, these new tax laws have the potential to interact in unforeseen and counterintuitive ways. As first discovered by Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, one of the new tax provisions, when combined with state decisionmaking and Interal Revenue Service rulemaking, has given Obamacare yet another legal problem.

Here’s the deal: The legislation’s §1311 provides a generous tax credit for anyone who buys insurance from an insurance exchange “established by the State.” The provision was supposed to be an incentive for states to create their own exchanges, but only 16 states have opted to do so. In the other states, the federal government established its own exchange, as another section of the ACA specifies. But where §1311 only explicitly authorized a tax credit for people who buy insurance from a state exchange, the IRS issued a rule interpreting §1311 as also applying to purchases from federal exchanges.

This creative interpretation most obviously hurts employers, who are fined for every employee who receives such a tax credit/subsidy to buy an exchange plan when their employer fails to comply with the mandate to provide health insurance. But it also hurts some individuals, such as David Klemencic, a lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits challenging the IRS’s tax-credit rule. Klemencic lives in a state, West Virginia, that never established an exchange, and for various reasons he doesn’t want to buy any of the insurance options available to him. Because buying insurance would cost him more than 8% of his income, he should be immune from Obamacare’s tax on the decision not to buy insurance. After the IRS expanded §1311 to subsidize people in states with federal exchanges, however, Klemencic could’ve bought health insurance for an amount low enough to again subject him to the tax for not buying insurance.

Klemencic and his fellow plaintiffs argue that they face these costs only because the IRS exceeded the scope of its powers by extending a tax credit not authorized by Congress. The district court rejected that argument, ruling that, under the highly deferential test courts apply to actions by administrative agencies, the IRS only had to show that its interpretation of §1311 was reasonable—which the court was satisfied it had.

Cato and the Pacific Research Institute have now filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs on their appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. While it is manifestly the province of the judiciary to say “what the law is,” where the law’s text leaves no question as to its meaning—as is the case here with the phrase “established by the State”—it is neither right nor proper for a court to replace the laws passed by Congress with those of its own invention or the invention of civil servants. If Congress wants to extend the tax credit beyond the terms of the Affordable Care Act, it can do so by passing new legislation. The only reason for executive-branch officials not to go back to Congress for clarification, and instead legislate by fiat, is to bypass the democratic process, thereby undermining constitutional separation of powers.

This case ultimately isn’t about money, the wisdom of individual health care decisionmaking, or even political opposition to Obamacare. It’s about who gets to create the laws we live by: the democratically elected members of Congress or the bureaucrats charged with no more than executing the laws that Congress passes and the president signs.

Halbig v. Sebelius will be heard by the D.C. Circuit on March 25 (the same day that the Supreme Court hears the Hobby Lobby contraceptive-mandate cases).

New CBO Numbers Show a Remarkably Simple Path to a Balanced Budget

A just-released report from the bean counters at the Congressional Budget Office is getting lots of attention because the bureaucrats are now admitting that Obamacare will impose much more damage to the economy than they previously predicted.

Of course, many people knew from the start that Obamacare would be a disaster and that it would make the healthcare system even more dysfunctional, so CBO is way behind the curve.

Moreover, CBO’s deeply flawed estimates back in 2009 and 2010 helped grease the skids for passage of the President’s failed law, so I hardly think they deserve any applause for now producing more realistic numbers.

But today’s post isn’t about the Obamacare fiasco. I want to focus instead on some other numbers in the new CBO report.

The bureaucrats have put together their new 10-year “baseline” forecast of how much money the government will collect based on current tax laws and the latest economic predictions. These numbers show that tax revenue is projected to increase by an average of 5.4 percent per year.

As many readers already know, I don’t fixate on balancing the budget. I care much more about reducing the burden of government spending and restoring the kind of limited government our Founding Fathers envisioned.

But whenever the CBO publishes new numbers, I can’t resist showing how simple it is to get rid of red ink by following my Golden Rule of fiscal restraint.

George F. Will Weighs in on the Halbig Cases

Last year, along with Jonathan Adler, I published this law-review article that explains how the IRS has now begun to tax, borrow, and spend hundreds of billions of dollars ultra vires – that is, without any statutory authorization from Congress. Today, George F. Will writes about our research, and the lawsuits that have sprang from it, in his syndicated column: 

Someone you probably are not familiar with has filed a suit you probably have not heard about concerning a four-word phrase you should know about. The suit could blow to smithereens something everyone has heard altogether too much about, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (hereafter, ACA).

Scott Pruitt and some kindred spirits might accelerate the ACA’s collapse by blocking another of the Obama administration’s lawless uses of the Internal Revenue Service. Pruitt was elected Oklahoma’s attorney general by promising to defend states’ prerogatives against federal encroachment, and today he and some properly litigious people elsewhere are defending a state prerogative that the ACA explicitly created. If they succeed, the ACA’s disintegration will accelerate.

Pruitt is the plaintiff in, well, Pruitt v. Sebelius. I call these “the Halbig cases,” because even though Pruitt was first out of the gate, Halbig v. Sebelius is the farthest along of the four lawsuits that have been filed so far. 

Over at DarwinsFool.com, I tweak a couple of things Will writes about these cases, and give a little more context. For example, it’s not just four little words that prevent the IRS from taxing, borrowing, and spending those billions of dollars. It is a tightly worded set of eligibility rules that unequivocally precludes what the IRS is trying to do. Also, it is not accurate to say that these lawsuits would blow ObamaCare to smithereens. For more, including a classic Ferris Bueller clip, see here.

And click here for a comprehensive list of reference materials and commentary about the Halbig cases.