Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

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. 

Harvard Study of CBO Reports Says Nothing New or Interesting about King v. Burwell

Vox’s Sarah Kliff reports that Harvard University’s Theda Skocpol has produced a study purporting to show Congress intended for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) to authorize health-insurance subsidies through exchanges established by the federal government—even though the statute expressly and repeatedly says those subsidies are available only “through an Exchange established by the State.” Whether the PPACA authorizes those subsidies in the 36 states with federal exchanges is the question presented in King v. Burwell. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in King on March 4, with a ruling expected by June. Unfortunately for the administration and its supporters, Skocpol offers nothing either new or that supports the notion that Congress intended something other than what it expressly said in the statute.

What evidence does Skocpol claim to have found in support of her counter-textual interpretation of congressional intent? She combs through 68 analyses issued by the Congressional Budget Office during 2009 and 2010. She finds that in none of those reports did the CBO entertain the idea that the PPACA’s exchange subsidies might be available in some states but not others. She interprets this as both “excellent evidence” and “the best objective evidence we have that no one in Congress considered premium subsidies restricted to certain states to be either possible or desirable.”

Yeah, about that.

An alert Vox reader already informed Kliff that the claim that CBO never considered the possibility of exchange subsidies in some states but not others isn’t exactly true. The comprehensive health care bill approved by Democrats on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee in 2009 (S. 1679) would have given states four years to establish exchanges themselves, after which point the federal government would establish an exchange. As my partner-in-crime-fighting Jonathan Adler and I write in an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court in King:

S. 1679 asked each state to adopt certain health insurance regulations, and either establish an Exchange itself or ask the federal government to establish one “in” the state… S. 1679 withheld Exchange subsidies, as well as many of its insurance regulations, for up to four years until the state complied.

The CBO scored S. 1679 assuming that some states would establish exchanges early and some would not. Thus the agency’s cost projections assumed that exchange subsidies would be available in some states but not in others. So we’ve already got a problem with Skocpol’s analysis.

Adam Smith on Infrastructure

I love Adam Smith. He didn’t get everything right, but he got the big things right. Oftentimes, he really nailed it.

Today, I woke up early and my newspaper had not arrived yet. So I cracked open The Wealth of Nations on the infrastructure section, Book V, Part III.

With the highway bill soon in front of Congress, and there being lots of agitation to increase federal funding, Smith had words of wisdom for policymakers. He advocated user-pays and decentralization.

Smith said user-pays is often possible, is equitable, and prevents political corruption, as opposed to what we saw with the Bridge to Nowhere:

It does not seem necessary that the expence of those public works should be defrayed from that public revenue, as it is commonly called, of which the collection and application are in most countries assigned to the executive power. The greater part of such public works may easily be so managed, as to afford a particular revenue sufficient for defraying their own expence, without bringing any burden upon the general revenue of the society.

A highway, a bridge, a navigable canal, for example, may in most cases be both made and maintained by a small toll upon the carriages which make use of them: a harbour, by a moderate port-duty upon the tunnage of the shipping which load or unload in it.

… When the carriages which pass over a highway or a bridge, and the lighters which sail upon a navigable canal, pay toll in proportion to their weight or their tunnage, they pay for the maintenance of those public works exactly in proportion to the wear and tear which they occasion of them. It seems scarce possible to invent a more equitable way of maintaining such works.

… When high roads, bridges, canals, &c. are in this manner made and supported by the commerce which is carried on by means of them, they can be made only where that commerce requires them, and consequently where it is proper to make them. Their expence too, their grandeur and magnificence, must be suited to what that commerce can afford to pay. They must be made consequently as it is proper to make them. A magnificent high road cannot be made through a desart country where there is little or no commerce, or merely because it happens to lead to the country villa of the intendant of the province, or to that of some great lord to whom the intendant finds it convenient to make his court. A great bridge cannot be thrown over a river at a place where nobody passes, or merely to embellish the view from the windows of a neighbouring palace: things which sometimes happen, in countries where works of this kind are carried on by any other revenue than that which they themselves are capable of affording.

Smith said that when user revenues are not enough to pay for useful infrastructure, it should be funded by local governments, not the national government. The result will be higher quality services, lower costs, and less chance of abuse:

Even those public works which are of such a nature that they cannot afford any revenue for maintaining themselves, but of which the conveniency is nearly confined to some particular place or district, are always better maintained by a local or provincial revenue, under the management of a local and provincial administration, than by the general revenue of the state, of which the executive power must always have the management. Were the streets of London to be lighted and paved at the expence of the treasury, is there any probability that they would be so well lighted and paved as they are at present, or even at so small an expence?

… The abuses which sometimes creep into the local and provincial administration of a local and provincial revenue, how enormous soever they may appear, are in reality, however, almost always very trifling, in comparison of those which commonly take place in the administration and expenditure of the revenue of a great empire. They are, besides, much more easily corrected.

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.”