Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

If the Laws are Inconvenient, Just Change Them: The Dubious Legality of Another Puerto Rican Reform

The FT published a piece this week suggesting that it’s actually perfectly legal for the Puerto Rican government–which is on the brink of insolvency–to change its constitution and repudiate its guarantee to general obligation bondholders, in a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that makes me convinced that Jacques Derrida has won the war for the hearts and minds of America’s youth.

The article’s proposal is at once banal and unserious, and much of it they credit to their students, presumably because they recognize this: the first is that while the Puerto Rican constitution may guarantee the payment to the general obligation bondholders with the full faith and credit of the government, that doesn’t mean that the commonwealth’s government couldn’t just change the constitution and eliminate this pesky promise. Legality achieved! Laws change all the time–even constitutions–they aver, and debtors shouldn’t be surprised if that happens in a way that just happens to hurt them financially.  

Another way for the commonwealth to get around the constitutional promises, they suggest, is to make use of provision 3105 of Puerto Rico’s civil code, which “recognises that creditors sometimes have a duty not to enforce debt in ways that prejudice other creditors.”

The other creditors in this instance are the retirees and state employees of Puerto Rico, who may see their wages or pension benefits frozen as a part of the island’s financial reforms. Doing such a thing is, in their perspective, always and everywhere a disaster, and setting aside the law is justifiable because of the harm that would be done if other government spending were ever forced to be cut in order to pay the island’s debt.

Rep. Roger Williams on Tax Reform

The House Ways and Means Committee is holding hearings on tax reform in advance of major restructuring next year should a Republican win the White House.

Today, Rep. Roger Williams presents his plan to the committee. The congressman’s Jumpstart America legislation is a good plan, but I would make it better in these ways:

  • Individual Income Tax Rates. Williams would reduce the current seven tax rates (10, 15, 25, 28, 33, 35, and 39.6 percent) to four (10, 15, 20, and 30). I would go to two rates (10 and 25), as envisioned in a previous Paul Ryan tax plan.
  • Individual Savings. Williams would cut the top tax rates on dividends and capital gains from 23.8 to 15 percent. That’s great, but I would add Universal Savings Accounts to any tax overhaul, as I’ve proposed and Sen. Flake and Rep. Brat have introduced.
  • Corporate Income Tax Rates. Williams would cut the federal corporate rate from 35 to 20 percent. I would slash it further to Donald Trump’s proposed 15 percent.
  • Corporate Foreign Earnings. Williams would reduce taxes on repatriated foreign earnings. I would scrap worldwide taxation of corporations and go to a territorial system, allowing tax-free repatriation.
  • Estate Tax. Williams would eliminate the estate or death tax. I agree.
  • Depreciation. Williams would scrap the business depreciation system and go to expensing, or immediate write-off, of capital investments. I agree.
  • Payroll Taxes. Williams would cut the federal payroll tax rate by 2 percentage points. Instead, I would allow workers to redirect 6 percentage points of the tax into private Social Security accounts, while cutting traditional benefits. To workers, that would feel like a large tax cut because they would gain ownership of their retirement contributions, which currently disappear from their paychecks into a government black hole.

The current tax code is a mess, and it should be overhauled. We should transition to a low-rate flat tax, and the Williams plan and my improvements would be good first steps.

So kudos to Rep. Williams for putting a specific pro-growth plan on the table. Other members of Congress should follow suit to aid the Ways and Means Committee in drafting legislation.

Americans For Tax Reform provides a useful summary of Williams’ plan. I provide an overview of tax reform options here.

The 1994 Clinton Crime Bill

With the New York primary just days away, a policy fight has erupted on the left regarding the 1994 Clinton Crime Bill.  I have a piece today over at Newsweek on the subject.  Here’s an excerpt:

The Crime Bill maddens today’s BLM activists because it earmarked $7.9 billion in grants to the states for the building of prisons. To be eligible for the funds, states had to meet certain conditions. The idea was to encourage the states to embrace the stricter policies found in the federal system, which had abolished parole and limited good time credits for prisoners, which allow well behaved inmates to earn an earlier release date.

Many states were eager to do just that. During the 1990s, America was building a new prison every week, on average. And as soon as those facilities opened up, they were soon operating beyond their original design capacity.

Many of the prisoners were young minority men, nonviolent drug offenders who were serving mandatory minimum sentences….

Hillary has tried to sound like a reformer, saying, “We need a true national debate about how to reduce our prison population while keeping our communities safe.”  

Such throwaway lines are not nearly enough for BLM activists. For them (and others too), support for the 1994 Crime Bill is the political equivalent of Hillary’s vote to support the Iraq war: It was a key indicator of policy judgment—and the Clintons failed the test.

I also point out that Cato’s 1995 Handbook for Congress called for repealing the Clinton Crime Bill precisely because it would lock up thousands and thousands of people who do not belong there.  We urged policymakers to call off the drug war and to reserve prison space for violent offenders.  Alas, Congress turned away from our policy advice. 

Balancing the Federal Budget

Donald Trump says, “we’ve got to start balancing budgets,” and promises that he is “going to cut spending big league.” Trump provides few specifics, but his impulse is certainly commendable.

Ted Cruz offers a much more detailed plan, which includes abolishing four cabinet departments and a couple dozen agencies and programs. The presidential candidate is right that the “current and projected rates of government growth are unsustainable, irresponsible, and constitutionally indefensible.”

Large spending cuts should be on the agenda when the next president enters office in 2017. Spending cuts would spur economic growth by shifting resources from lower-valued government activities to higher-valued private ones. Cuts would expand freedom by giving people more control over their lives and reducing the regulations that come with spending programs.

What should the next president cut? I have updated a plan at DownsizingGovernment to cut dozens of agencies and programs across the budget. I’ve included cuts to entitlements, business subsidies, aid to the states, and other items. The cuts would not only balance the budget and begin reducing the government’s massive debt, but they would also enhance our civil liberties by dispersing power from Washington.

See the new spending cut plan here.

Sweden Isn’t a Good Role Model for Bernie Sanders

Senator Bernie Sanders wants to dramatically increase the burden of government and he claims that his policies won’t lead to economic misery because nations such as Sweden show that you can be a prosperous country with a big welfare state.

Perhaps, but there are degrees of prosperity. And a large public sector imposes a non-trivial burden on Nordic nations, resulting in living standards that lag U.S. levels according to OECD data.

Moreover, according to research by a Swedish economist, people of Scandinavian descent in America produce and earn much more than their counterparts at home.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Nordic Model.

But there actually are some things we can learn from places such as Sweden. And not just things to avoid.

As Johan Norberg explains in this short video, there are some very good policies in his home country. Indeed, in some ways, his nation is more free market than America.

I especially like Johan’s explanation about how Sweden became a rich country before the welfare state was adopted.

And he’s right that Sweden had a smaller government and a lower tax burden than the United States for a long period.

Ranking States for Income Taxes and Government Efficiency

There’s no agreement on the most important variable for state tax competitiveness.

I’m sympathetic to the final option, in part because of my disdain for the income tax. And if an income tax is imposed, I prefer a simple and fair flat tax.

With that in mind, here’s a fascinating infographic I received via email. I don’t know if Reboot Illinois is left wing, right wing, or apolitical, but they did a very good job. I particularly like the map showing zero-income tax states (gray), flat tax states (red), and states with so-called progressive tax schemes (blue).

For what it’s worth, Illinois taxpayers should fight as hard as possible to preserve the state’s flat tax. If the politicians get the power to discriminate among income classes, it will just be a matter of time before all taxpayers are hit by higher rates.

Now let’s shift to the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Like any good libertarian, I generally focus on the size of government. I compare France with Hong Kong and that tells me that big is bad and small is good.

But regardless of whether a government is large or small, it’s desirable if it spends money efficiently and generates some benefit. I shared, for instance, a fascinating study on “public sector efficiency” from the European Central Bank and was not surprised to see that nations with smaller public sectors got much more bang for the buck (with Singapore easily winning the prize for the most efficient government).

So I was very interested to see that WalletHub put together a report showing each state’s “return on investment” based on how effectively it uses tax monies to achieve desirable outcomes for education, health, safety, economy, and infrastructure, and pollution.

I’m not completely comfortable with the methodology (is it a state government’s fault if the population is more obese and therefore less healthy, for instance, and what about adjusting for demographic factors such as age and race?), but I nonetheless think the study is both useful and interesting.

Here are the best and worst states.

One thing that should stand out is that the best states are dominated by zero-income tax states and flat tax states.

The worst states, by contrast, tend to have punitive tax systems (Alaska is a bit of an outlier because it collects - and squanders - a lot of revenue from oil).

P.S. WalletHub put together some fascinating data on which cities get a good return on investment (i.e., bang for the back) for spending on police and education.

How to Get a Piece of the Taxpayers’ Money

Two articles in the same section of the Washington Post remind us of how government actually works. First, on page B1 we learn that it pays to know the mayor:

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has pitched her plan to create family homeless shelters in almost every ward of the city as an equitable way for the community to share the burden of caring for the neediest residents.

But records show that most of the private properties proposed as shelter sites are owned or at least partly controlled by major donors to the mayor. And experts have calculated that the city leases­ would increase the assessed value of those properties by as much as 10 times for that small group of landowners and developers.

Then on B5 an obituary for Martin O. Sabo, who was chairman of the House Budget Committee and a high-ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, reminds us of how federal tax dollars get allocated:

Politicians praised Mr. Sabo, a Norwegian Lutheran, for his understated manner and ability to deliver millions of dollars to the Twin Cities for road and housing projects, including the Hiawatha Avenue light-rail line and the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center.

Gov. Mark Dayton (D) said Minnesota has important infrastructure projects because of Mr. Sabo’s senior position on the House Appropriations Committee.

We all know the civics book story of how laws get made. Congress itself explains the process to young people in slightly less catchy language than Schoolhouse Rock: