Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

The Six Most Important Takeaways from CBO’s New Long-Run Fiscal Forecast

The Congressional Budget Office has just released the 2016 version of its Long-Term Budget Outlook.

It’s filled with all sorts of interesting data if you’re a budget wonk (and a bit of sloppy analysis if you’re an economist).

If you’re a normal person and don’t want to wade through 118 pages, you’ll be happy to know I’ve taken on that task.

And I’ve grabbed the six most important images from the report.

First, and most important, we have a very important admission from CBO that the long-run issue of ever-rising red ink is completely the result of spending growing too fast. I’ve helpfully underlined that portion of Figure 1-2.

And if you want to know the underlying details, here’s Figure 1-4 from the report.

Once again, I’ve highlighted the most important portions. On the left side of Figure 1-4, you’ll see that the health entitlements are the main problem, growing so fast that they outpace even the rapid growth of income taxation. And on the right side, you’ll see confirmation that our fiscal challenge is the growing burden of federal spending, exacerbated by a rising tax burden.

And if you want more detail on health spending, Figure 3-3 confirms what every sensible person suspected, which is that Obamacare did not flatten the cost curve of health spending.

Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and other government health entitlements are projected to consume ever-larger chunks of economic output.

Now let’s turn to the revenue side of the budget.

Figure 5-1 is important because it shows that the tax burden will automatically climb, even without any of the class-warfare tax hikes advocated by Hillary Clinton.

And what this also means is that more than 100 percent of our long-run fiscal challenge is caused by excessive government spending (and the Obama White House also has confessed this is true).

Let’s close with two additional charts.

We’ll start with Figure 8-1, which shows that things are getting worse rather than better. This year’s forecast shows a big jump in long-run red ink.

There are several reasons for this deterioration, including sub-par economic performance, failure to comply with spending caps, and adoption of new fiscal burdens.

The bottom line is that we’re becoming more like Greece at a faster pace.

Last but not least, here’s a chart that underscores why our healthcare system is such a mess.

Figure 3-1 shows that consumers directly finance only 11 percent of their health care, which is rather compelling evidence that we have a massive government-created third-party payer problem in that sector of our economy.

Yes, this is primarily a healthcare issue, especially if you look at the economic consequences, but it’s also a fiscal issue since nearly half of all health spending is by the government.

P.S. If these charts aren’t sufficiently depressing, just imagine what they will look like in four years.

Postal Reform: Timid Americans and Bold Europeans

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has lost more than $50 billion since 2007, even though it enjoys legal monopolies over letters, bulk mail, and access to mailboxes. The USPS has a unionized, bureaucratic, and overpaid workforce. And as a government entity, it pays no income or property taxes, allowing it to compete unfairly with private firms in the package and express delivery businesses.

As we discussed yesterday at a Cato forum on Capitol Hill, the USPS needs a major overhaul. It should be privatized and opened to competition.

But instead of reform, congressional Republicans are moving forward with legislation that tinkers around the edges. Their bill adjusts retiree health care, hikes stamp prices, and retains six-day delivery despite a 40 percent drop in letter volume since 2000. The bill would also create “new authority to offer non-postal products,” thus threatening to increase the tax-free entity’s unfair competition against private firms.

The Democrats overseeing postal issues are happy as larks with the GOP bill, which appears to be a victory for unionized postal workers. You might wonder what the point of electing Republicans to Congress is if they are just going to let Democrats run the show in defense of unions and monopolies.

Republicans see their party as the one favoring free enterprise and competition. Yet those pro-growth goals are obliterated in America’s tightly regulated postal monopoly. When it comes to the postal industry, federal law defends bureaucracy and bans entrepreneurship, and the GOP seems to have no problem with that.

Costs Skyrocket for Air and Space

Smithsonian leaders have revealed that renovating the Air and Space museum in Washington, D.C. will cost almost $1 billion. That’s the equivalent of an army of 10,000 workers earning $100,000 each for a year to fix it up. Geez, government projects are expensive!

My letter in the Washington Post today proposes that rather than hitting taxpayers, museum visitors should pay for the renovation:

Regarding the June 23 Style article “Estimate for Air and Space facelift closes in on $1 billion”:

About $250 million of the ballooning makeover costs for the National Air and Space Museum will come from private donations, leaving a $750 million bill for taxpayers.

But rather than burdening taxpayers, how about charging visitors? The Post noted that the museum gets 7 million visitors a year, so a modest $5 fee would raise $35 million a year and pay back the makeover costs over 21 years.

Aside from the greater fairness of charging users rather than taxpayers, fees would limit demand and thus improve the visitor experience at the overcrowded institution. User fees for Air and Space — and other Smithsonian museums — would also help level the playing field with private D.C. museums, such as the International Spy Museum.

There is one more advantage of user pays. The Post notes that the estimated cost of the renovation has already skyrocketed from earlier figures of $250 million and $600 million (a common pattern). If the museum were required to fully cover renovation costs through voluntary donations and user fees, Smithsonian executives would have a strong incentive to find design savings and control construction costs.  

House Republican Tax Plan

House Republicans have released a proposal for major tax reform. Kudos to Ways and Means chairman Kevin Brady for stepping up to the plate and planning ahead for 2017. Brady and his staff did extensive outreach to think tank experts and the GOP caucus, and they have come up with a blueprint that focuses on savings, investment, simplification, and economic growth.  

The GOP plan would cut the top personal income tax rate from 40 percent to 33 percent, while consolidating the bracket structure from 7 rates to 3. The plan would reduce the top tax rate on small businesses to 25 percent, and it would repeal the estate tax and alternative minimum tax.

The corporate tax rate would be cut from 35 percent to 20 percent. That would be the single most important thing that the next Congress could do for the U.S. economy. Corporations build factories, buy equipment, and hire workers to earn after-tax profits. Slashing the marginal tax rate by 15 points would substantially increase the after-tax profits companies could earn on new investments, and they would respond accordingly. More capital investment would mean more job opportunities and higher wages for American workers.

Taxpayers Railroaded in California

In this essay on government construction projects, I discuss how promoters use “strategic misrepresentation” to subdue taxpayer opposition and get dubious spending schemes approved. The low-balling of projected costs is a tried and true deception used by infrastructure promoters the world over.

A variation on the strategy was apparently used to gain support for California’s expensive bullet train project. The Los Angeles Times reports that while people were aware that taxpayers would pay the system’s huge construction costs, officials promised that the operating costs would be covered by rail system revenues, not taxpayers. That promise appears to have been a fraud:

When a Spanish firm submitted a bid last year to help build the California bullet train, it cautioned that taxpayer money probably would be needed to keep the system operating.

Having reviewed data on 111 high-speed train lines around the world, construction giant Ferrovial said, it found that all but three could not make ends meet.

“More than likely, the California high speed rail will require large government subsidies for years to come,” the proposal said. 

That warning, however, was expunged from the version of Ferrovial’s proposal posted on the state’s website. The only record of it was on a data disk provided to The Times and others under a public records act request.

The state rail authority repeatedly has asserted that it will not need a subsidy and that every high-speed system in the world operates without taxpayer assistance — despite significant evidence to the contrary. A number of projects around the world have failed financially, others require direct operating subsidies and many more benefit from government taxes and regulations on competing airline and highway systems, according to audits, studies and interviews.

But in asking taxpayers to help build the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line, officials assured the state would be able to pay the operating costs purely from the system’s revenues — and thus not sap money needed for social services, education or other projects.

When California voters committed the $9 billion in bonds in 2008, the measure stipulated that the system would have to operate without future public funding.

How can citizens fight such deceptions? This episode illustrates the importance of citizen engagement and transparency in government fiscal matters. It was not a state auditor that discovered the operating subsidy cover-up, but a concerned citizen doing some poking around:

The change in Ferrovial’s proposal was first noticed this spring by Morris Brown, a Bay Area resident and former Caltech chemistry professor who closely monitors documents and statements issued by the bullet authority.

    

Philadelphia’s Soda Tax

The Philadelphia City Council has voted to become the second city in the United States to impose a tax on the sale of particular types of sweetened beverages. The tax applies to sugared soda, diet soda, sports drinks and more, while excluding drinks that are more than half milk or fruit, as well as drinks to which sugar is added such as coffee. The tax will be 1.5 cents per ounce, amounting to 18 cents per standard size can of soda or $1 per two-liter bottle.

Public health advocates often propose taxes on sugary drinks, colloquially known as “soda taxes,” as a means of improving public health outcomes. They argue that such beverages disproportionately cause obesity and that consumers of sugary beverages impose external costs on others through higher medical costs associated with obesity.

The evidence supporting the disproportionate effect of sugar beverages on obesity is not powerful.  An article in Obesity Review concluded, “The current evidence does not demonstrate conclusively that nutritively sweetened beverage consumption has uniquely contributed to obesity or that reducing NSB consumption will reduce BMI levels in general.” 

And the externalities of the obese also appear to be minimal.  “The existing literature … suggests that obese people on average do bear the costs and benefits of their eating and exercise habits.”

But for purposes of discussion assume that consumption of such beverages does result in obesity and its health effects, which, in turn, create costs for others.  Are the taxes a good corrective?

Funding the FBI

On Fox News last night, Megyn Kelly agreed with her guest James Kallstrom that the FBI needs a larger budget. The horrific attack in Orlando has raised the issue of whether the FBI has sufficient resources to investigate potential terrorists.

I don’t know how large the FBI budget should be. The agency does fill a lot of crucial roles, including tackling never-ending corruption in federal, state, and local governments.

But I do know that the FBI has not been starved; its budget has grown rapidly. The chart, from DownsizingGovernment.org, shows that FBI spending in constant 2016 dollars has more than tripled since 1990, from $2.7 billion to $9.1 billion.