Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

FEMA Disaster Declarations

I am writing a study on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and looking at the issue of presidential disaster declarations. Under the 1988 Stafford Act, a state governor may request that the president declare a “major disaster” in the state if “the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments.”

The main purpose of declarations is to impose on federal taxpayers the relief and rebuilding costs that would otherwise fall on state and local taxpayers and individuals in the affected area. Federalism is central to disaster planning and response in the United States, and federal aid is only supposed to be for the most severe events. Unfortunately, the relentless political forces that are centralizing power in just about every policy area are also doing so in disaster policy.

Below is a chart of FEMA data showing the number of “major disasters” declared by presidents since 1974, when the current process was put in place. The number of declared disasters has soared as presidents have sought political advantage in handing out more aid. Presidents have been ignoring the plain language of the Stafford Act, which allows for aid only in the most severe situations.

In the chart, I marked with red bars the years that presidents ran for reelection. In those years, presidents have generally declared the most major disasters. That was true of Ronald Reagan in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1992, and Bill Clinton in 1996. George W. Bush declared the most disasters of his first term in his reelection year of 2004. The two presidents who do not fit the pattern are Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

Minimum Wage Solidarity Misplaced

Senate Democrats are anxious to bring the Minimum Wage Fairness Act (S. 1737) up for a vote to express their solidarity with “progressives.”  That solidarity, however, is misplaced. The bill is not a panacea for the prosperity of low-skilled workers; it is anti-free market and immoral—based on coercion not consent.

The bill would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 after two years, index it for inflation, and increase the minimum for tipped workers.  Those changes would substantially increase the cost of hiring low-skilled workers, lead to job losses and unemployment (especially in the longer run as businesses shift to labor-saving methods of production), and slow job growth.

Although there is virtually no chance this bill would pass, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) wants it to come to the floor so he and his compatriots can express their support for low-income workers (and for unions and others who support the minimum wage increase) in an election year.  “Democrats are focused on the future,” says Reid, and “we were elected to improve people’s lives.” 

No, There Are NOT Three Job Seekers for Every Job Opening

Unemployment benefits could continue up to 73 weeks until this year, thanks to “emergency” federal grants, but only in states with unemployment rates above 9 percent.  That gave the long-term unemployed a perverse incentive to stay in high-unemployment states rather than move to places with more opportunities.   

Before leaving the White House recently, former Presidential adviser Gene Sperling had been pushing Congress to reenact “emergency” benefits for the long-term unemployed.  That was risky political advice for congressional Democrats, ironically, because it would significantly increase the unemployment rate before the November elections.  That may explain why congressional bills only restore extended benefits through May or June.

Sperling argued in January that, “Most of the people are desperately looking for jobs. You know, our economy still has three people looking for every job (opening).”  PolitiFact declared that statement true.  But it is not true. 

The “Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey” (JOLTS) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not begin to measure “every job (opening).”  JOLTS asks 16,000 businesses how many new jobs they are actively advertising outside the firm.  That is comparable to the Conference Board’s index of help wanted advertising, which found almost 5.2 million jobs advertised online in February.  

With nearly 10.5 million unemployed, and 5.2 million jobs ads, one might conclude that our economy has two people looking for every job (opening)” rather than three.  But that would also be false, because no estimate of advertised jobs can possibly gauge all available jobs.

Consider this: The latest JOLTS survey says “there were 4.0 million job openings in January,” but “there were 4.5 million hires in January.”  If there were only 4.0 million job openings, how were 4.5 million hired?   Because the estimated measure of “job openings” was ridiculously low. It always is.

IRS Shouldn’t Force Taxpayers Into Tax-Maximizing Transactions

While tax evasion is a crime, the Supreme Court has long recognized that taxpayers have a legal right to reduce how much they owe, or avoid taxes all together, through careful tax planning. Whether that planning takes the form of an employee’s deferring income into a pension plan, a couple’s filing a joint return, a homeowner’s spreading improvement projects over several years, or a business’s spinning-off subsidiaries, so long as the actions are otherwise lawful, the fact they were motivated by a desire to lessen one’s tax burden doesn’t render them illegitimate.

The major limitation that the Court (and, since 2010, Congress) has placed on tax planning is the “sham transaction” rule (also known as the “economic substance” doctrine), which, in its simplest form, provides that transaction solely intended to lessen a commercial entity’s tax burden, with no other valid business purpose, will be held to have no effect on that entity’s income-tax assessment. The classic sham transaction is a deal where a corporation structures a series of deals between its subsidiaries, producing an income-loss on paper that is then used to lower the parent company’s profits (and thus its tax bill) without reducing the value of the assets held by the commercial entity as a whole.

We might quibble with a rule that effectively nullifies perfectly legal transactions, but a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit greatly expanded even the existing definition of “economic substance,” muddying the line between lawful tax planning and illicit tax evasion. At issue was Wells Fargo’s creation of a new non-banking subsidiary to take over certain unprofitable commercial leases. Because the new venture wasn’t a bank, it wasn’t subject to the same stringent regulations as its parent company. As a result, the holding company (WFC Holdings Corp.) was able to generate tens of millions of dollars in profits.

Chairman Ryan’s Budget: A Mixed Bag of Reforms

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan released his budget proposal yesterday, his last as committee chairman. This budget differs greatly from the budget request submitted by President Obama last month. Ryan would “cut” federal spending by $5.1 trillion over the next 10 years and calls upon Congress to pass pro-growth tax reform. However, Ryan’s budget is still a mixed bag from a small-government perspective.

Positive Reforms in Ryan’s budget:

  • Medicaid Block Grants: Ryan suggests block granting Medicaid to institute some fiscal sanity to this ever-growing program. This reform would reduce state government incentives to overspend and would allow them greater flexibility to innovate and cut costs. Federal spending would be reduced by $732 billion compared to baseline by this simple reform.
  • SNAP Block Grants: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“food stamps”) would also be block granted, saving $125 billion over 10 years compared to baseline. SNAP and Medicaid block grant reforms would copy the successful approach of welfare reforms in the 1990s.
  • Medicare Premium Support: Repeating a proposal from his last several budgets, Ryan suggests changing Medicare to a premium-support model. Rather than federal spending going to health care providers, it would be directed toward health care consumers. That would hopefully generate incentives to reduce costs and improve quality. It would also allow seniors to pick the health plan that most closely matches their needs.
  • Repeals ObamaCare Spending: Ryan’s budget repeals ObamaCare’s spending components. This is his largest reduction, which would save taxpayers $2 trillion over the next ten years.

Downsides to Ryan’s budget:

  • Social Security Reform: Ryan’s budget does not tackle Social Security reform, leaving almost one quarter of the federal budget unchanged. He calls on the president and Congress to submit recommendations to reform the program, but does not submit any suggestions of his own.
  • Higher Revenue Baseline: Chairman Ryan calls for pro-growth tax reform within his budget; however, he adopts the Congressional Budget Office’s current revenue baseline. This would keep the extra revenues generated from the numerous tax hikes enacted over the last several years.
  • Delayed Reforms: Perhaps due to political concerns, many of Ryan’s reforms would not start for several years. His SNAP block grant would not begin for five years, and his Medicare premium support model would not start until 2024.
  • Keeps Higher Spending: In December, Ryan and Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray agreed to increase discretionary spending levels for fiscal year 2014 and fiscal year 2015. This partly gutted the bipartisan Budget Control Act from 2011. Ryan’s budget retains the higher spending levels.

In sum, Ryan’s budget would not solve the government’s overspending problem. But it would be a good first step to reforming the federal behemoth.

Chairman Ryan’s Supposed Budget Slashing

Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget released today “cuts spending by $5.1 trillion over the next ten years,” the document claims. Similarly, the headline from the Washington Post says that Ryan’s budget “would slash $5 trillion over next decade.”

Yet looking at the details of Ryan’s proposal, the federal government will spend $1.5 trillion more in 2024 than it is expected to spend in 2014.

How can spending both be “slashed” and increased by $1.5 trillion? It’s because of the bizarre way that Washington discusses spending, which is known as baseline budgeting.

Here is a graph of Ryan’s proposed federal outlays.

 

The graph shows that under Ryan’s budget, federal spending increases every year.

But here is another graph showing Ryan’s spending compared to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) baseline projection of spending made in February.

Notice the gap? That’s the $5 trillion that is “slashed” from the federal budget.

In Washington, all spending proposals are compared to the CBO’s baseline projections. The CBO releases these projections a couple times a year, which are based on their estimates of current federal law. Every proposal is then compared to this baseline. Inside-Washington discussions of spending cuts or increases are relative to CBO’s figures.

But this is a very different way of thinking about budgeting than used by families, who don’t assume that their income will go up automatically every year. Families prioritize, and they cut back when they need to make the books balance. Sadly, few proposals in Congress make tough trade-offs and cut actual levels of spending.

Chairman Ryan’s budget would spend $42.6 trillion over the next ten years. Opponents will say that Ryan’s budget slashes federal spending, while supporters will say that it includes large budgetary savings. The reality is that Ryan’s budget would increase spending at an annual average rate of 3.5 percent, or from $3.54 trillion in 2014 to $5.0 trillion in 2024. Only in Washington would that be considered substantial restraint, let alone slashing.

Is Government Debt a Problem?

Based on what’s happened in Greece and other European nations, we know from real-world evidence that even nations from the developed world can spend themselves into debt trouble.

This has led to research that seeks to pinpoint when debt reaches a dangerous level.

Where’s the point where investors stop buying the debt? Where’s the point when interest on the debt becomes too much of a burden?

Most famously, a couple of economists crunched numbers and warned that nations may reach a tipping point when debt is about 90 percent of GDP.

I was not persuaded by this research for two reasons.

First, I think it’s far more important to focus on the underlying disease of too much government, and not get fixated on the symptom of too much borrowing. If I go see a doctor because of headaches and he discovers I have a brain tumor, I want him to address that problem and not get distracted by the fact that head pain is one of the symptoms.

Second, there are big differences between nations, and those differences have a big effect on whether investors are willing to buy government bonds. The burden of debt is about 240 percent of GDP in Japan and the nation’s economy is moribund, for instance, yet there’s no indication that the “bond vigilantes” are about to pounce. On the other hand, investors are understandably leery about buying Argentinian government debt, even though accumulated red ink is less than 40 percent of economic output.

So what about America, where government borrowing from the private sector now accounts for 82 percent of GDP? Have we reached a danger point for government debt?