Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Higher Tax Rates and Lower Revenues 1925-36

My recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Hillary Parties Like It’s 1938,” is not just about FDR’s self-defeating “tax increases” in 1936-37.  It is also about the particularly huge across-the-board increase in marginal tax rates the Herbert Hoover pushed for and enacted retroactively in 1932.   The primary motive in 1932, as in 1936, was to raise more revenue.   Federal spending under President Hoover doubled from 3.4% of GDP in 1930 to 6.8% in 1932, and he believed that unprecedented spending spree required that tax rates be even more than doubled to “restore confidence.”

Unfortunately, things did not quite work out as planned.  Total federal revenues fell dramatically to less than $2 billion in 1932 and 1933 – after all tax rates had been at least doubled and the top rate raised from 25% to 63%.  That was a sharp decline from revenues of $3.1 billion in 1931 and more than $4 billion in 1930, when the top tax was just 25%.  

Some may object that this is unfair, arguing that revenues should be expressed as a share of GDP because GDP fell so sharply in 1932 and 1933.  But that begs a key question.  Comparing the drop in revenues to the even deeper drop in GDP would make sense only if the depth and duration of the 1932-33 drop in GDP had absolutely nothing to do with higher tax rates (including Smoot-Hawley tariffs).  Yet neither Keynesian nor supply-side economics would consider huge tax hikes are so harmless (though Keynesians, seeing no revenue gain, might come to the paradoxical conclusion the Hoover actually cut taxes).  

In any case, dividing weak revenues by even weaker GDP doesn’t help support the conventional wisdom that higher tax rates always bring higher revenues. Revenues fell even as a share of falling GDP –  from 4.1% in 1930 and 3.7% in 1931 to 2.8% in 1932 (the first year of the Hoover tax increase) and 3.4% in 1933. That illusory 1932-33 “increase” was entirely due to less GDP, not more revenue. 

Does Donald Trump Think Washington Politicians Should Have More of Our Money to Prop Up the Entitlement State?

I have a very straightforward rule when assessing politicians. Simply stated, if they are open to tax hikes, then it’s quite likely that they have no desire to control the size, cost, and power of the federal government.

Based on that rule, I’m skeptical about Donald Trump.

To understand my doubts, here are some passages from a story on the topic in the New York Times.

For years, Republicans have run for office on promises of cutting taxes… But this election cycle, the Republican presidential candidate who currently leads in most polls is taking a different approach… Mr. Trump has…suggested he would increase taxes on the compensation of hedge fund managers. And he has vowed to change laws that allow American companies to benefit from cheaper tax rates by using mergers to base their operations outside the United States.

These policy positions are raising a lot of eyebrows.

“All of those are anti-growth policies,” said David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth… “Those aren’t the types of things a typical Republican candidate would say,” said Michael R. Strain, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, referring to the candidate’s comments on hedge funds, support for entitlement spending and the imposing of trade tariffs.

And Trump’s failure to sign the no-tax-hike pledge exacerbates the concerns, particularly when combined with his inconsistent statements on tax reform.

Mr. Trump and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida are the only leading Republican candidates who have not signed a pledge to not raise taxes. …In an interview with Fox News last week, Mr. Trump said a flat tax would be a viable improvement to America’s tax system. Moments later, he suggested that a flat tax would be unfair because the rich would be taxed at the same rate as the poor.

Byron York of the Washington Examiner writes about Trump’s fiscal policy in the context of traditional Republican orthodoxy.

Trump is preparing a tax proposal that will again set him far apart from the party’s powers-that-be. …Trump has been sending signals that his tax proposal, which he says will be “comprehensive,” will include higher rates for some of the richest Americans, a position generally at odds with Republican orthodoxy. “I want to see lower taxes,” Trump said at an appearance in Norwood, Mass., on Friday night. “But on some people, they’re not doing their fair share.”

And if his campaign manager is accurately channeling Trump’s views, the candidate even equates higher taxes with making America great.

Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski would say little about Trump’s intentions, but noted that “Mr. Trump has said that he does not mind paying what is required to make our country great again.” Raising taxes on anyone, even the super rich, has generally been anathema to Republicans for a generation.

Wow, what’s next, a Biden-esque assertion that higher tax payments are patriotic?!?

Solyndra: A Case Study in Green Energy, Cronyism, and the Failure of Central Planning

Back in 2011 I wrote several times about the failure of Solyndra, the solar panel company that was well connected to the Obama administration. Then, as with so many stories, the topic passed out of the headlines and I lost touch with it. Today, the Washington Post and other papers bring news of a newly released federal investigative report:

Top leaders of a troubled solar panel company that cost taxpayers a half-billion dollars repeatedly misled federal officials and omitted information about the firm’s financial prospects as they sought to win a major government loan, according to a newly-released federal investigative report.

Solyndra’s leaders engaged in a “pattern of false and misleading assertions” that drew a rosy picture of their company enjoying robust sales while they lobbied to win the first clean energy loan the new administration awarded in 2009, a lengthy investigation uncovered. The Silicon Valley start-up’s dramatic rise and then collapse into bankruptcy two years later became a rallying cry for critics of President Obama’s signature program to create jobs by injecting billions of dollars into clean energy firms.

And why would it become such a rallying cry for critics? Well, consider the hyperlink the Post inserted at that point in the article: “[Past coverage: Solyndra: Politics infused Obama energy programs]” And what did that article report?

A Very Simple Plan to Balance the Budget by 2021

Earlier this month, Americans for Prosperity held a “Road to Reform” event in Las Vegas.

I got to be the warm-up speaker and made two simple points.

First, we made a lot of fiscal progress between 2009 and 2014 because various battles over debt limits, shutdowns, and sequestration actually did result in real spending discipline.

Second, I used January’s 10-year forecast from the Congressional Budget Office to explain how easy it would be to balance the budget with a modest amount of future spending restraint.

Here’s my speech:

Americans Want Politicians to Tackle Debt

A new poll by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation finds that 80 percent of Americans think that rising federal debt should be a top priority of policymakers. The poll also finds that:

… an overwhelming majority of voters (85%) are now calling for the President and Congress to spend more time addressing our nation’s long-term fiscal future. More than two-thirds (68%) say their concern about this vital issue has increased over the last few years, including nearly one-half (46%) who say it has increased “a lot.” Majorities of voters across party lines, including 53% of Democrats, 69% of Independents, and 84% of Republicans, say that their concerns about the debt have deepened in recent years.

The spokesman for the Peterson Foundation said that Americans “…want candidates to put forward plans to address our nation’s long-term fiscal challenges … Americans understand that putting our fiscal house in order is vital to ensure a growing, prosperous economy and are calling for more action from their leaders.” I agree with that, and so does the centrist group “First Budget,” which is trying to pin down candidates on fiscal specifics.

Scott Walker Hands $250 Million in Taxpayers’ Money to Billionaire Bucks Owners

Scott Walker touts his record as a fiscal conservative. But this morning, reports the Associated Press

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took a break from the presidential campaign trail Wednesday to commit $250 million in taxpayer money to pay for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Walker’s come under a lot of criticism from both left and right for his arena funding plan, including an article I wrote at the Huffington Post after he defended his plan on ABC’s “This Week.” Such deals are paid for by average taxpayers to benefit millionaire players and billionaire owners. But millionaires and billionaires have more influence than average taxpayers, and the pictures around stadium deals are great: 

Calling the new NBA stadium a “dynamic attraction for the entire state of Wisconsin,” Walker signed the bill at the Wisconsin State Fair Park surrounded by state lawmakers, local officials and Bucks team president Peter Feigin.

The economics, not so good. Walker has claimed a ”return on investment” of three to one, which he says is “a good deal” for the taxpayers. Economists disagree. As Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys wrote in a 2004 Cato study criticizing the proposed D.C. stadium subsidy, “The wonder is that anyone finds such figures credible….

Our conclusion, and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue, is that professional sports generally have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy. The net economic impact of professional sports in Washington, D.C., and the 36 other cities that hosted professional sports teams over nearly 30 years, was a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area.

Republican voters are looking for fiscal conservatives and straight talkers. We’re hearing a lot of denunciations of corporate welfare and crony capitalism. And here’s a leading conservative candidate for president sitting down in front of cameras to sign a bill handing $250 million in taxpayers’ money (Bloomberg says $400 million with interest) to wealthy owners of a sports team (some of whom, no doubt coincidentally, are large donors to his campaign), in defiance of free-market advocates and virtually all economists. Will the other Republican candidates take him on? Will they denounce this wasteful extravagance?

Or will we have to rely on John Oliver to do the job small-government Republicans ought to be doing?

More Keynesian Primitivism from the Congressional Budget Office

I never watched That ’70s Show, but according to Wikipedia, the comedy program “addressed social issues of the 1970s.”

Assuming that’s true, they need a sequel that addresses economic issues of the 1970s. And the star of the program could be the Congressional Budget Office, a Capitol Hill bureaucracy that apparently still believes - notwithstanding all the evidence of recent decades - in the primitive Keynesian view that a larger burden of government spending is somehow good for economic growth and job creation.

I’ve previously written about CBO’s fairy-tale views on fiscal policy, but wondered whether a new GOP-appointed director would make a difference. And I thought there were signs of progress in CBO’s recent analysis of the economic impact of Obamacare.

But the bureaucracy just released its estimates of what would happen if the spending caps in the Budget Control Act (BCA) were eviscerated to enable more federal spending. And CBO’s analysis was such a throwback to the 1970s that it should have been released by a guy in a leisure suit driving a Ford Pinto blaring disco music.

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