Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Cutting Spending Is the Best Approach

On Monday, the White House will release President Obama’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016. The president is expected to reemphasize his previous fiscal approach of higher spending coupled with higher taxes, while completely ignoring the country’s long-term fiscal problems.

A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) provides evidence of the best way to solve those problems, should the president decide to tackle the nation’s fiscal mess. The study, by Alberto Alesina, Omar Barbiero, and others, tries to answer one central question: What is the best way for a country to rebalance policy to solve a fiscal crisis?  

The study looked at Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development member countries and their response to the financial crisis from 2009 to 2013. Following the crisis, many of those countries became burdened by large amounts of debt and deficit as a result of rising spending and falling revenues. Government spending grew to an average of 43 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) within the European Union.

With a fiscal crisis on the horizon, many of the countries turned to so-called “austerity” measures in order to promote economic growth. Some countries adopted policies that focused on increasing revenue to close budget gaps, while others focused spending cuts. Researchers distinguished between fiscal plans based on spending cuts and those based upon tax increases.

The researchers found that spending cuts, not tax increases, are the best way to resolve a fiscal crisis. According to the researchers, “Fiscal adjustments based upon cuts in spending appear to have been much less costly, in terms of output losses, than those based upon tax increases.” Tax-based fiscal plans are an inefficient solution to fiscal problems in the long-term. An average tax-based plan with a size of 1 percent of total GDP was shown to shrink the economy by almost twice that amount over the next three years.

The NBER study provides valuable insight regarding the effectiveness of different types of fiscal adjustment plans. Fiscal plans emphasizing cuts in spending are more successful in promoting economic growth in the long term.

Thanks to Kristina Pepe for her excellent research assistance on this piece.

Pentagon Spending and Bureaucratic Bloat

There are major spending battles on the Washington agenda this year, including over the defense budget. Congress needs to decide whether to stick with capped spending levels agreed to in 2011, or allow its past restraint efforts to unravel.

Republican defense hawks want to bust the spending caps, while the small-government wing of the party wants to hold the line. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) told the Wall Street Journal, “We’ve been spending too much on defense for years because we have a lot of waste within the Department of Defense … There’s room to cut, and I think we are perfectly capable of staying within the sequester caps.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) noted, “To defend ourselves, we need a lean, mean fighting machine that doesn’t waste money on a bloated civilian bureaucracy.”

Amash and Paul’s position is buttressed by a new GAO study on the management bloat in Department of Defense (DoD) headquarters.

It is also buttressed by looking at DoD civilian and uniformed employment levels. The chart below shows that civilian DoD employment has grown 105,000 since 2001, while uniformed employment has grown just 22,000. Based on numbers in the chart, the ratio of bureaucrats-to-soldiers has increased from 47 percent in 2001 to 54 percent in 2014. But with the advance of computer power and other technologies, one would think that the bureaucratic overhead costs of our fighting force would be falling over time, not increasing.

How much could we save by improving bureaucratic efficiencies, and cutting the number of Pentagon civilians by at least the apparent excess of about 100,000? Annual pay and benefits for federal civilians is about $120,000 a year, so we could save roughly $12 billion a year by trimming this aspect of Pentagon bloat.

All data from the “Analytical Perspectives” sections of the FY2003 and FY2015 federal budgets. Data for 2014 are OMB estimates.

Taxing Us to Spy on Us

Reading some Frederic Bastiat last night, I circled his observation that the government takes advantage of citizen passivity to increase its power, often by promising to “cure all the ills of mankind.” The government initiates “in the guise of actual services, what are nothing but restrictions; thereafter the nation pays, not for being served, but for being disserved.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that we pay our hard-earned tax dollars for the federal government to spy on us on the highways. Americans might think they are footing the $29 billion annual bill for the Department of Justice to secure our freedoms, but instead the department is abusing those freedoms:

The Justice Department has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of vehicles around the U.S., a secret domestic intelligence-gathering program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists, according to current and former officials and government documents.

The database raises new questions about privacy and the scope of government surveillance. The existence of the program and its expansion were described in interviews with current and former government officials, and in documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information Act request and reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. It is unclear if any court oversees or approves the intelligence-gathering.

The documents show that the DEA also uses license-plate readers operated by state, local and federal law-enforcement agencies to feed into its own network and create a far-reaching, constantly updating database of electronic eyes scanning traffic on the roads to steer police toward suspects.

“Any database that collects detailed location information about Americans not suspected of crimes raises very serious privacy questions,’’ said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. “It’s unconscionable that technology with such far-reaching potential would be deployed in such secrecy. People might disagree about exactly how we should use such powerful surveillance technologies, but it should be democratically decided, it shouldn’t be done in secret.’’

The disclosure of the DEA’s license-plate reader database comes on the heels of other revelations in recent months about the Justice Department, as well as the agencies it runs, gathering data about innocent Americans as it searches for criminals. In November, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Marshals Service flies planes carrying devices that mimic cellphone towers in order to scan the identifying information of Americans’ phones as it searches for criminal suspects and fugitives.

Why do government officials try to keep such programs secret? I suspect it’s because they know they are disserving us by undermining our liberties. As for members of Congress, they often do little more than say government spying on us “raises concerns,” but the license plate program is a good opportunity for them to stand up to the executive branch and put a stop to it.

Notes:

The Journal’s report is not an entirely new revelation. In this essay, I mentioned that the Department of Homeland Security also has a license plate spying program.

Walter Olson weighs-in here.

The Failed HealthCare.gov Launch

The launch of HealthCare.gov in 2013 was a disaster. A new report from the Health and Human Services Inspector General (IG) describes how the department mishandled the website’s construction. The department failed to follow federal contracting rules, and did not have a cohesive plan for the website. This led to cost overruns and project delays, and HealthCare.gov’s eventually rocky start.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) was given primary responsibility within HHS for HealthCare.gov launch. For the report, the IG reviewed 60 CMS contracts for the project. These contracts were awarded to 33 different companies.

One problem with these contracts was not designating a single company as the project lead. According to the IG, CMS “missed the opportunity” to designate a “single point-of-contact with responsibility for integrating contractors’ efforts and communicating the common project goal to all 33 companies.” A project of this complexity needs a central command to oversee project development. CMS failed to assign one.  

Another problem was that CMS only sought bids from a small group of previously-used companies. CMS claimed this was to speed along the contracting process, but it left the agency with limited options. For instance, CMS received only four bids for one of the main contracts. Three were determined to be technically insufficient leaving CMS with only one choice, CGI Federal. In other instances, CMS only solicited or received bids from one company.

Additionally, CMS did not consider the previous contractor performance for many bids even though federal contracting rules require it. CMS did not access the main performance management database in the case of CGI Federal, which had had previous missteps with the department.

Compounding the mistakes, CMS selected contract types that put the government, not the contractor, at risk in the case of cost overruns for five of the six main contracts. Taxpayers are paying dearly for CMS’ choice. One contract grew from $58 million to $207 million. The six major contracts for HealthCare.gov grew in costs from $464 million to $824 million.

The IG summarized the findings:

When awarding the Federal Marketplace [HealthCare.gov] contracts, CMS did not meet all requirements and did not leverage all available acquisition planning tools, oversight activities, or contracting approaches to identify and mitigate risks…Because CMS did not leverage all of these tools, it operated without a comprehensive roadmap when awarding the Federal Marketplace contracts.

Construction of HealthCare.gov was a complex technical project. CMS’ mismanagement made the task even more difficult and even more expensive.  

Slashing the Budget?

I’ve written before about the propensity of journalists to declare modest budget cuts—or reductions in the rate of growth of government spending—in apocalyptic terms such as “slashing” and “draconian.” I was thus amused by this line in a Washington Post editorial today:

Mr. Hogan is slashing those payments by half, which will mean cuts approaching 1 percent to the school budgets of both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The editorial is generally sympathetic to budget cuts proposed by the new governor of Maryland, and of course the “extra funding from Annapolis mainly to cover higher teacher salaries” may actually be subject to larger cuts. Still, when the impact on the county school budget is “approaching 1 percent,” I’d think “slashing” is, well, overkill.

Obama Presidency by the Numbers

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address. In addition to the lofty rhetoric and self congratulations, the president will likely claim that the federal government’s budget has improved during his tenure.

It is true that  the deficit has decreased in recent years due partly to  large tax increases, which have helped the government but not the economy. Also, spending levels have stabilized, partly due to Republican efforts to slow discretionary spending growth. However, these are temporary trends. Spending is expected to explode in coming years, which will fuel larger deficits and higher levels of debt. The nation’s longer term fiscal outlook is a mess.

Comparing today’s budget situation to the situation at the beginning of President Obama’s tenure is difficult. President Obama took office in January of 2009, several months into fiscal year 2009. Spending in 2009 was $3.5 trillion, up from $3.0 trillion in 2008. Part of the higher spending in 2009 was attributable to  the Bush administration, but President Obama’s big stimulus bill passed in February 2009 also added to the increase.

Obama Capital Gains Tax Proposal

President Obama’s economic policies always seem to be a zero-sum proposition with winners and losers. Usually the losers are all Americans, who suffer from slower economic growth.

The president’s new tax proposals are a case in point. One damaging item is a proposal to raise the top federal capital gains tax rate from 24 percent to 28 percent. That would come on top of his previous increase from 15 percent.

Despite what the president and his political advisors may think, low capital gains tax rates are not some sort of unjustified loophole. We’ve had reduced rates virtually the entire time we have had an income tax, and for very good reasons. Low capital gains tax rates are crucially important for spurring entrepreneurship, investment, and growth.

Recognizing that, nearly every other high-income nation has a reduced capital gains tax rate. The average top long-term rate in the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations is just 18 percent, according to Tax Foundation. By contrast, the U.S. rate (including state taxes) would jump to 32 percent under the Obama plan—far higher than the rate in most other nations.

For more, see my op-ed in Daily Caller today.

 

Wonk note: Data is from Tax Foundation and my Cato study. Unlike TF, I did not include the effect of the limitation of itemized deductions, which slightly increases the effective rate.