Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Frank Underwood Wants a Subsidy

House of Cards is a Netflix television series about a powerful, manipulative politician who gets what he wants with little regard for the public good. Here’s an example:

“House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey is booked to appear in Annapolis on Friday night as the fate of a tax credit that has benefited the production of his Netflix series hangs in the balance.

Gerard E. Evans, an Annapolis-based lobbyist for the show, has invited the entire Maryland General Assembly to a local wine bar to meet the two-time Academy Award winner who plays the scheming Vice President Frank Underwood in the series. An invitation describes the event as “an evening of Annapolis, D.C. and Hollywood.”…

The visit is scheduled just a few days after the Senate voted to increase the amount the state can spend next year, to $18.5 million, on a tax credit that rewards movie and television production companies that choose to film in Maryland. “House of Cards” has been the biggest beneficiary in recent years.

The House of Delegates has yet to act on the bill, with about two and a half weeks remaining in this year’s 90-day legislative session in Maryland. Evans said he has been encouraged by recent meetings with House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and other key delegates.

A few weeks before the second season of “House of Cards” debuted online, the show’s production company sent letters to Busch and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) making clear they could film elsewhere if the debate over the tax credit didn’t end well.

It’s hard to imagine a better example of rent-seeking, crony capitalism, and conspiracy between the rich, the famous, and the powerful against the unorganized taxpayers. A perfect House of Cards story.

The Tax Foundation has been covering film tax credits in general and the House of Cards saga in particular. The Mackinac Center has been campaigning against Michigan’s film tax credits, and Gov. Rick Snyder has tried to rein in the program. But it’s hard to beat Frank Underwood.

 

Death Of An Honest Taxman

The New York Times notes the death at age 100 in Atlanta of Randolph Thrower, “a Republican lawyer who headed the IRS under President Richard M. Nixon from 1969 to 1971 before losing his job for resisting White House efforts to punish its enemies through tax audits.” When White House staffers began pressuring Mr. Thrower to apply hostile tax scrutiny to the Administration’s critics, including journalists and Senators, he assumed President Nixon had no knowledge of what was happening and requested a meeting with the chief executive so as to warn him. Instead he was summarily fired, with the White House putting out the story that Thrower had departed “for personal reasons.”

In White House tapes and memos released in later years, Nixon described the situation differently. “May I simply reiterate for the record that I wish Randolph Thrower, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, removed at the earliest feasible opportunity,” he wrote on Jan. 21, 1971, five days before the White House announced that Mr. Thrower was stepping down.

That May, as the administration continued to look for a successor to Mr. Thrower, Nixon made clear what kind of IRS commissioner he wanted. “I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch,” he was recorded as saying, “that he will do what he is told, that every income tax return I want to see I see” and “that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends.”

It’s a good thing Nixon isn’t in power any more.

Government Infrastructure Is Inefficient Everywhere

An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today indicates that Edwards’ Law of Cost Overruns is an international standard. If a politician says that a project will cost $100 million, it will end up costing $200 million or more.

The WSJ piece by Bent Flyvbjerg and Atif Ansar examines the results of an Oxford University study looking at 245 dam projects around the world. The projects had a “dismal track record” in terms of sticking to their promised budgets. The “actual construction costs of large dams are globally on average 96 percent higher than their budgets,” say Flyvbjerg and Ansar. That means a doubling, which is right in line with Edwards’ Law.

Rachel Maddow has drawn the lesson from Hoover Dam that big government projects are really great. But Flyvbjerg and Ansar describe a more typical government project: “Brazil’s Itaipu Dam was built in the 1970s. It cost nearly $20 billion, 240 percent more in real terms than predicted and it impaired Brazil’s public finances for three decades.”

I’ve written in detail about the history of U.S. government dam building, which has been chock-full of economic and environmental mismanagement. One reason for large cost overruns is that policymakers lie or conceal. I wrote that the Bureau of Reclamation “began constructing the Grand Coulee Dam with $63 million in funding from Congress, but it later became clear that the agency had a $270 million project in mind.” And I wrote regarding Jerry Brown’s father that “in pushing for approval of the huge State Water Project in California in 1959, Gov. Pat Brown kept throwing out a bogus cost estimate of $1.75 billion, even though he knew it would cost far more, as he later admitted.”

Liberals, such as Maddow, who hunger for big government infrastructure projects would cure their misguided lust by reading Cadillac Desert. Written by an environmentalist, I think it is one of the best public policy books of recent decades.

I’ve written about government cost overruns here, partly drawing from Flyvbjerg’s excellent research on the topic.

Private Funding of Science?

According to textbook economics, government funding is crucial to scientific progress and technological innovation.  The reasoning is that pure science (e.g., the structure of DNA) underlies most applied science (e.g., genetic testing).  Pure science, however, is easily copied once discovered, so it cannot earn significant profits. Private actors therefore underinvest in pure science, and applied science suffers. In economics lingo, pure science is a public good because knowledge is non-excludable.

This perspective is reasonable but hardly decisive. Government funding suffers bureaucratic inefficiences and risks politicization of the nation’s research agenda (e.g., an excessive focus on defense research). And even if some role for government makes sense, the right amount is hard to gauge; no evidence shows that current amounts are insufficient.

In addition, the textbook argument assumes that private actors will not fund basic research. Yet as this New York Times piece documents, private actors contribute mightily to scientific research:

Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, .. set up a brain science institute in Seattle, to which he donated $500 million, and Fred Kavli, a technology and real estate billionaire, … then established brain institutes at Yale, Columbia and the University of California. …

The new philanthropists represent the breadth of American business, people like Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor (and founder of the media company that bears his name), James Simons (hedge funds) and David H. Koch (oil and chemicals), among hundreds of wealthy donors. Especially prominent, though, are some of the boldest-face names of the tech world, among them Bill Gates (Microsoft), Eric E. Schmidt (Google) and Lawrence J. Ellison (Oracle). 

So far, Mr. Ellison, listed by Forbes magazine as the world’s fifth-richest man, has donated about half a billion dollars to science. …

The philanthropists’ projects are as diverse as the careers that built their fortunes. George P. Mitchell, considered the father of the drilling process for oil and gas known as fracking, has given about $360 million to fields like particle physics, sustainable development and astronomy — including $35 million for the Giant Magellan Telescope, now being built by a private consortium for installation atop a mountain in Chile. …

Eli Broad, who earned his money in housing and insurance, donated $700 million for a venture between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to explore the genetic basis of disease. Gordon Moore of Intel has spent $850 million on research in physics, biology, the environment and astronomy. The investor Ronald O. Perelman, among other donations, gave more than $30 million to study women’s cancers — money that led to Herceptin, a breakthrough drug for certain kinds of breast cancer. Nathan P. Myhrvold, a former chief technology officer at Microsoft, has spent heavily on uncovering fossil remains of Tyrannosaurus rex, and Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund, has lent his mega-yacht to hunts for the elusive giant squid. 

Whether a role remains for government funding is not clear; perhaps the projects funded by private investors will not address the breadth of important questions in basic science.

And government funding has undoubtedly supported huge amounts of valuable research; that is not in dispute, only whether the research would have occurred even without government.

The wealth of private funding nevertheless suggests that outrage over cuts to science budgets is misguided. The private sector will fill much, perhaps all, of the gap.

Another Defective IMF study on Inequality and Redistribution

IMF Warns on the Dangers of Inequality,” screams the headline of a story by Ian Talley in the Wall Street Journal. The IMF – which Talley dubs “the world’s top economic institution”– is said to be “warning that rising income inequality is weighing on global economic growth and fueling political instability.” 

This has been a familiar chorus from the White House/IMF songbook since late 2011, when President Obama’s Special Assistant David Lipton became Deputy Managing Director of the IMF.  It echoes a December 2012 New York Times piece, “Income Inequality May Take Toll on Growth,” and a January 14, Financial Times feature, “IMF warns on threat of income inequality.”  This isn’t news.

Talley writes, “The IMF … says advanced and developing economies need to raise more revenues through taxes, focusing on progressive taxation that moves more of the burden for social security, health care and other state benefits to the high-income earners.” That isn’t news either.  The IMF has an ugly history of advising countries to raise tax rates, with disastrous results.  The inequality crusade is just a new pretext for old mistakes.

New York Times Op-ed on Infrastructure

My op-ed in today’s New York Times has prompted numerous critical comments on the NYT website. Let me address some of them.

Some readers questioned the linked source for my statement that infrastructure spending in the United States is about the same level as in other high-income countries. This fact does need some explanation, but I didn’t have room to include it in the op-ed. The data I cited were emailed to me by the author of the linked OECD report. It is national accounts data on gross fixed investment. I charted the data here in Figure 2.

Some readers wondered about my definition of “infrastructure.” That word is often used loosely. The definition that makes sense to me is the broad one of gross fixed investment, which includes such items as government highways and private pipelines and factories. The data are available from BEA Table 1.5.5, where you can see that private investment—even aside from residential—dwarfs government investment.

One reader expressed a common view that in traveling abroad you often find nicer airports than in this country. I think that’s correct, and often those foreign airports are private or partly private, while ours are government-owned.

Numerous readers pointed to shortcomings of particular private companies, and some of those complaints are surely correct. Private companies often screw up, but my experience is that governments screw up more because of deep, structural incentive problems. Furthermore, private markets have the powerful built-in mechanism of competition to fix problems over time, whereas government shortcomings often go unaddressed. Where there is a lack of competition in private markets, policymakers should focus on opening entry to increase it.

Raise Minimum Wage, Kill Jobs

During his State of the Union address, President Obama announced that he intended to raise minimum wages to $10.10/hour for certain workers. Based on data from EU countries, it is clear that minimum wage laws kill jobs. I concluded that hiking the minimum wage will kill jobs in the U.S., too. Executives surveyed in the Duke University/CFO Magazine Global Business Outlook Survey agree.

Chief Financial Officers from around the world were interviewed and the majority of them concurred: a minimum wage increase from $7.25/hour to $10.10/hour would kill a significant number of jobs.

Here’s what the CFOs had to say: