Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Highways and the Federal Gas Tax

Another day, another news article supportive of raising the federal gas tax. This time it’s the Wall Street Journal. The article notes that there is strong public opposition to raising gas taxes, but then proceeds to give us the arguments in favor of it, but none against. So for the next reporter writing about raising the gas tax, here are some policy reasons against it.

Let me zero in on two points made by the Journal story.

First, it says, “elected officials from both parties are treading into the debate cautiously, framing the issue around improving highway safety and local economies by repairing a growing backlog of troubled roads and bridges.”

I don’t think that’s true about a “growing backlog.” In fact, our highways and bridges appear to be improving, not getting more “troubled.” Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data show that of the nation’s 600,000 bridges, the share that is “structurally deficient” has fallen from 22 percent in 1992 to 10 percent in 2013. The share that is “functionally obsolete” has also fallen.

Meanwhile, the surface quality of the interstate highways has steadily improved. A study by Federal Reserve economists examining FHWA data found that “since the mid-1990s, our nation’s interstate highways have become indisputably smoother and less deteriorated.” And they concluded that the Interstate system is “in good shape relative to its past condition.”

The Journal says, “The federal levy … has stood at 18.4 cents a gallon since the first year of the Clinton administration, despite multiple proposals over the years to raise it. Over the past decade, Congress has approved higher spending for highway construction but hasn’t raised the tax to pay for it, creating periodic funding crises.”

It’s true that Congress has not raised the gas tax recently, but that’s because the American people have been consistently against it in polls. The problem is that Congress has gone ahead and jacked up spending anyway. So we don’t have a “funding” crisis, but a “spending” crisis.

Gas tax supporters say that it is time to raise the tax because it has not been raised in two decades. What they leave out of the story is that the gas tax rate more than quadrupled between 1982 and 1994 from 4 cents per gallon to 18.4 cents, as shown in the chart below the jump. Thus, looking at the whole period since 1982, federal gas tax revenues have risen at a robust annual average rate of 6.1 percent (based on Tax Foundation data). So, again, we have a spending crisis, not a funding crisis.

Dynamic Scoring in Congress

The House of Representatives voted this week to establish rules for the 114th Congress. One rule change requires that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) dynamically score legislation. The change is a much-needed reform to the federal budgeting process.

The current legislative scoring process completed by CBO and JCT is generally called static scoring. It currently incorporates some microeconomic behaviorial responses to projected changes in federal spending and taxes.

But static scoring misses a big piece of the puzzle. It assumes that the size of the economy is constant. It does not include an analysis of the economy-wide responses to  policy changes. By constrast, dynamic scoring  acknowledges the obvious fact that actions of Congress could affect gross domestic product (GDP). 

Consider a hypothetical income tax increase from 35 to 40 percent. The tax increase may cause  individuals to work fewer hours and businesses to reduce their capital investment. Those sorts of decisions will be made by millions of individuals and businesses in response to tax changes. In aggregate, these responses would affect GDP. Dynamic scoring includes these macroeconomic responses.

Contrary to some opponents, dynamic scoring is not new to CBO. CBO has used dynamic scoring before. The large immigration bill in 2013 was dynamically scored to show how less stringent immigration policy could foster economic growth. CBO estimated the economic growth effects of the 2009 stimulus. And CBO’s long run spending projections include supplementary forecasts that include the effects of future spending, taxes, and deficits on economic growth. The House rule change requires that CBO and JCT use dynamic scoring on all  legislative cost estimates above a certain magnitude.

Dynamic scoring is not perfect. Its results are influenced by the assumptions made by the models used to produce the results. For this reason, CBO should make its models, assumptions, and data available to outside experts so it can receive feedback from scholars and improve its methods. But static scoring is even less perfect than dynamic scoring. Its assumption of constant GDP leads to results that are biased against policies that lead to economic growth, such as tax rate reductions.

Dynamic scoring will not be a cure-all, but it will be a helpful tool so policymakers can better weigh  policy options. Providing Congress with the best information available on policies to help grow the economy seems like a no-brainer. Congress should understand how its actions affect economic output. This rule change starts the new Congress off on the right foot.

State Spending Machine Keeps on Rolling during Recession

While other matters dominate the headlines, American governments continue to spend more money, despite the presumed effects of the Great Recession. Washington Post reporter Abha Bhattarai lays out the latest details:

State and local governments in Maryland, Virginia and the District spent $7.82 billion more than they collected in revenue between 2007 and 2012, during the throes of the economic downturn, according to data released from the U.S. Census Bureau last month….

State and local governments in Virginia spent $1.03 billion more than they took in between 2007 and 2012, while expenditures in Maryland outpaced earnings by $6.07 billion….

Nationally, state and local governments spent $118.15 billion more than they collected between 2007 and 2012. Total expenditures during that period increased by 18.2 percent, from $2.7 trillion to $3.2 trillion, while total revenue declined 3.2 percent over the same five-year period, from $3.1 trillion to $3.0 trillion.

Over that five-year period, plenty of businesses, families, and nonprofits found their revenue declining by more than three percent, and most responded by spending less.

Of course, it’s often said that governments spend when times are good and the tax revenue is rolling in, then find themselves over-extended and facing painful cuts when growth slows down. But the evidence above suggests that governments just keep spending even as the money stops rolling in. It’s exceedingly difficult to get governments to spend less, especially when every government dollar helps to create pro-spending constituencies who will resist cuts. Spending interests never rest; taxpayer groups have to work twice as hard just to hold the line.

One side note: The online headline for this article is

State, local governments continue to spend more than they earn

Actually, I don’t think governments “earn” money. Merriam-Webster defines “earn” as “to receive as return for effort and especially for work done or services rendered.” Governments don’t earn, they take. Just try saying “I don’t find your services worth the money, and I won’t be renewing my contract.”

For more on state government spending, see Cato’s latest “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors.”

 

Another “Oops” Moment for Paul Krugman

I’m tempted to feel a certain degree of sympathy for Paul Krugman.

As a leading proponent of the notion that bigger government stimulates growth (a.k.a., Keynesian economics), he’s in the rather difficult position of rationalizing why the economy was stagnant when Obama first took office and the burden of government spending was rising.

And he also has to somehow explain why the economy is now doing better at a time when the fiscal burden of government is declining.

But you have to give him credit for creativity. Writing in the New York Times, he attempts to square the circle.

Let’s start with his explanation for results in the United States.

…in America we haven’t had an official, declared policy of fiscal austerity — but we’ve nonetheless had plenty of austerity in practice, thanks to the federal sequester and sharp cuts by state and local governments.

If you define “austerity” as spending restraint, Krugman is right. Overall government spending has barely increased in recent years.

But then Krugman wants us to believe that there’s been a meaningful change in fiscal policy in the past year or so. Supposedly there’s been less so-called austerity and this explains why the economy is doing better.

The good news is that we…seem to have stopped tightening the screws: Public spending isn’t surging, but at least it has stopped falling. And the economy is doing much better as a result. We are finally starting to see the kind of growth, in employment and G.D.P., that we should have been seeing all along… What held us back was unprecedented public-sector austerity…now that this de facto austerity is easing, the economy is perking up.

But where’s his evidence? Whether you look at OMB data, IMF data, or OECD data, all those sources show that overall government spending has been steadily shrinking as a share of GDP ever since 2009.

Loosie In the Streets, With Patdowns

In a Saturday editorial, the Washington Post calls for further hiking Maryland’s tobacco tax so as to push the state’s smuggled-cigarettes rate, currently around 20%, closer to New York state’s Bloomberg-influenced, nation-leading 57%. The New York policy has proved a highly effective way to bring petty and not-always-so-petty crime to New Yorkers’ everyday lives. With I-95, I-70 and other corridors, Maryland is already one of the most accessible states for contraband smugglers, and if the Post has its way organized gangs on the streets of Baltimore stand to get their hands on a new cash engine that, as one Brooklyn distributor is said to have boasted on wiretap, is “better than selling drugs.” What could go wrong?

P.S. The Post’s editorial never even mentions smuggling or evasion of the law, let alone bring up the Eric Garner case in Staten Island, although the Post’s own news analysts and opinion writers have repeatedly explored the role of taxes in that case. Is it too much to ask of the Post editorialists that they keep up with their own paper?

[cross-posted from my blog on Maryland issues, Free State Notes]

The Final Nail in the Keynesian Coffin?

I wrote earlier this year about the “perplexing durability” of Keynesian economics. And I didn’t mince words.

Keynesian economics is a failure. It didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. It didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. And it didn’t work for Bush or Obama in recent years. No matter where’s it’s been tried, it’s been a flop. So why, whenever there’s a downturn, do politicians resuscitate the idea that bigger government will “stimulate” the economy?

And I specifically challenged Keynesians in 2013 to explain why automatic budget cuts were supposedly a bad idea given that the American economy expanded when the burden of government spending shrank during the Reagan and Clinton years.

I also issued that same challenge one day earlier, asking Keynesians to justify their opposition to sequestration given that Canada’s economy prospered in the 1990s when government spending was curtailed.

It seems that the evidence against Keynesianism is so strong that only a fool, a politician, or a college professor could still cling to the notion that bigger government lead to more growth.

Fortunately, it does appear that there’s a growing consensus against this free-lunch theory.

A Practical (and Semi-Optimistic) Plan to Tame the Federal Leviathan

Like a lot of libertarians and small-government conservatives, I’m prone to pessimism. How can you be cheerful, after all, when you look at what’s been happening in our lifetimes.

New entitlement programs, adopted by politicians from all parties, are further adding to the long-run spending crisis.

The federal budget has become much bigger, luring millions of additional people into government dependency.

The tax code has become even more corrupt and complex, with more than 4,600 changes just between 2001 and 2012 according to a withering report from outgoing Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

And let’s not forget the essential insight of “public choice” economics, which tells us that politicians care first and foremost about their own interests rather than the national interest. So what’s their incentive to address these problems, particularly if there’s some way to sweep them under the rug and let future generations bear the burden?

And if you think I’m being unduly negative about political incentives and fiscal responsibility, consider the new report from the European Commission, which found that politicians from EU member nations routinely enact budgets based on “rosy scenarios.” As the EU Observer reported:

EU governments are too optimistic about their economic prospects and their ability to control public spending, leading to them continually missing their budget targets, a European Commission paper has argued. …their growth projections are 0.6 percent higher than the final figure, while governments who promise to cut their deficit by 0.2 percent of GDP, typically tend to increase their gap between revenue and spending by the same amount.

Needless to say, American politicians do the same thing with their forecasts. If you don’t believe me, just look at the way the books were cooked to help impose Obamacare.

But set aside everything I just wrote because now I’m going to tell you that we’re making progress and that it’s actually not that difficult to constructively address America’s fiscal problems.

First, let’s look at how we’ve made progress. I just wrote a piece for The Hill. It’s entitled “Republicans are Winning the Fiscal Fight” and it includes lots of data on what’s been happening over the past five years, including the fact that there’s been no growth in the federal budget.