Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Grading the Camp Tax Reform Plan

To make fun of big efforts that produce small results, the Roman poet Horace wrote, “The mountains will be in labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth.”

That line sums up my view of the new tax reform plan introduced by Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

To his credit, Chairman Camp put in a lot of work. But I can’t help but wonder why he went through the time and trouble. To understand why I’m so underwhelmed, let’s first go back in time.

Back in 1995, tax reform was a hot issue. The House Majority Leader, Dick Armey, had proposed a flat tax. Congressman Billy Tauzin was pushing a version of a national sales tax. And there were several additional proposals jockeying for attention.

To make sense of the clutter, I wrote a paper for the Heritage Foundation that demonstrated how to grade the various proposals that had been proposed.

Chairman Murray’s Memo: More of the Same

Today, Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray sent her caucus a memo on the country’s fiscal outlook. She details the “$3.3 trillion in deficit reduction put in place over the last few years;” a likely refrain in President Obama’s budget next week. However, Chairman Murray’s memo leaves much to be desired.

The first section of Murray’s memo highlights the various ways that the deficit has been reduced over the last several years by Congress and the President. The bulk of savings are from the discretionary spending caps put into place by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011. Another large share of deficit reduction came from $727 billion in tax increases over the last several years. All told, Murray counts $3.3 trillion in deficit reduction. This is an incredibly small step to tackling our $4 trillion budget.

But after detailing all of the great things this fiscal restraint is doing for the country, Chairman Murray completely turns course. Instead of detailing additional ways to cut spending and continue these marginal improvements, she starts a laundry list of needed government “investments”—spending programs. She calls for more spending on infrastructure, jobs programs, a minimum wage increase, and increased funding for research and development.

Also notably, she also does not include future sequester cuts in her numbers; an implicit acknowledgement that she does not plan to keep those promised cuts.

Chairman Murray’s memo also fails to acknowledge the impending fiscal crisis. According to the most recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, the country’s debt and deficit are stable for the next few years, but by 2017 they increase dramatically again. CBO expects the deficit to rise to 4% of GDP by the end of the decade. Even though, revenues as a percent of GDP will be close to historical levels, Chairman Murray calls for more tax hikes, ignoring the real driver of our fiscal issues: spending.

The refrain from many over the last year has been that the deficit is back under control, and that Congress should go back to wildly spending. Chairman Murray’s memo follows that path. It fails to acknowledge the need for fiscal restraint and sets the stage for next week’s release of the President’s budget.

Bank Tax Is Wrong “Fix” for Too-Big-To-Fail

Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee Dave Camp is soon to roll out a plan for comprehensive tax reform. He is to be commended for doing so. Our tax code is an absolute mess with incentives for all sorts of bad behavior. Early reports suggest, however, that Congressman Camp will also include a “bank tax” to both raise revenue and address the “Too-Big-To-Fail” (TBTF) status of our nation’s largest banks. While the evidence overwhelmingly suggests to me that TBTF is real, with extremely harmful effects on our financial system, I fear Camp’s approach will actually make the problem worse, increasing the market perception that some entities will be rescued by the federal government.

Bloomberg reports the plan would raise “would raise $86.4 billion for the U.S. government over the next decade…would likely affect JPMorgan Chase & Co, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.” The proposal would do so by assessing a 3.5 basis-point tax on assets exceeding $500 billion.

While standard Pigouvian welfare analysis would recommend a tax to internalize any negatives externalities, TBTF is not like pollution, it isn’t something large banks create. It is something the government creates by coming to their rescue. I don’t see TBTF as a switch, but rather a dial between 100 percent chance of a rescue and zero. By turning the banks into a revenue stream for the federal government, we would likely move that dial closer to 100 percent–and that is in the wrong direction. For the same reason, I have opposed efforts to tax Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the past. The solution is not to bind large financial institutions and the government closer together, as a bank tax would, but to further separate government and the financial sector. Just over a year ago, I laid out a path for doing so in National Review. Were we to truly end bailouts, limiting government is the only way to get that dial close to zero.   

If we want to use the tax code to reduce the harm of financial crises, then we should focus on reducing the preferences for debt over equity, which drive so much of the leverage in our financial system.  I’ve suggest such here in more detail. There are also early reports that Camp’s plan will reduce some of these debt preferences. Let’s hope those remain in the plan.

Folly of Federal Flood Insurance

Subsidized flood insurance is one of the many federal programs that is counter to both sound economic policy and sound environmental policy. Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in 1968 to help homeowners in flood-prone areas purchase insurance. The FEMA-run program covers floods from river surges and storms on the seacoasts.

In recent years, the NFIP has gone hugely into debt and it may be bailed-out by taxpayers at some point. The program has encouraged people to build homes in areas that are too hazardous to safely occupy. It has encouraged towns to expand development in flood-prone areas. And the program undermines constitutional federalism by prompting the federal government to reach its regulatory tentacles into local zoning issues.

The NFIP subsidizes wealthy people with multiple payouts after their homes on the seacoasts are repeatedly destroyed. The program is very bad policy—a seemingly good idea to policymakers in the 1960s that has ended up creating growing distortions.

When I started reading about the NFIP recently, I was surprised to learn that Congress made sensible reforms to it in 2012 under the Biggert-Waters Act. The best reform would be a complete repeal of the NFIP, but in the meantime the 2012 law was a good start at reducing the program’s costs and distortions.

Alas, the prospect of Congress staying on a pro-market, pro-environment reform path was apparently too good to be true. No sooner had the ink dried on the 2012 law than members of Congress began trying to reverse the reforms.

This week, Congress will be voting on a bill that backtracks on the 2012 reforms. I have not studied the details of the new bill, but Diane Katz at the Heritage Foundation has penned a nice overview.

Congress against Budget Reform: Voting to Hike Subsidies for People Who Build in Flood Plains

Uncle Sam is essentially broke.  But the federal government keeps spending.  The House is voting this week on a measure already adopted by the U.S. Senate to suspend money-saving reforms adopted less than two years ago.

In 1968 Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program, shifting the cost of disasters from people who chose to live in flood-prone areas to taxpayers who don’t.  Over time Congress kept cutting premiums.  By 1982 two-thirds of participants received a subsidy.

NFIP turned into foolishness squared.  The first cost is financial:  the federal government keeps insurance premiums low for people who choose to build where they otherwise wouldn’t.  The Congressional Research Service figured that the government charges about one-third of the market rate for flood insurance.  The second cost is environmental:  Washington essentially pays participants to build on environmentally-fragile lands that tend to flood. 

Uncle Sam also has a propensity to spend billions more to rebuild public buildings and infrastructure in flood zones. 

Although not every NFIP beneficiary is wealthy, CRS noted:  “Some critics point out that the costs—financial risk and ecological damage—are widely distributed to taxpayers across the country and the benefits, by contrast are disproportionately enjoyed by wealthy counties and by owners of vacation homes.”

NFIP’s overall liability is $1.3 trillion.  Today total program debt is about $25 billion.  Economists Judith Kildow and Jason Scorse warned that “the flood insurance program is a fiscal time bomb for the government.” 

So disastrous were the program’s finances that even Congress felt the need to act.  In July 2012 legislators approved the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act in an attempt to make the NFIP more accurate, efficient, and solvent.  For different properties rates were increased and subsidies were cut.  Overall, the legislation was expected to save about $25 billion.

The amendment worked—too well.  Insurance bills began increasing.  People used to living well at taxpayer expense complained to their legislators.  Interest groups which profit from property sales also raced to Capitol Hill,  

So now reform co-sponsor Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Ca.) is pushing to delay the reforms until 2018.  Of course, in 2018 no one will be more willing to pay higher premiums, and undoubtedly will again lobby for further relief from Congress.

Explained Waters:  “Never in our wildest dreams did we think the premium increases would be what they appear to be today.”  Her new legislation, backed by a mix of Republicans and Democrats, would bar increases in premiums and reductions in subsidies for some properties, restore earlier subsidies for others, and mandate an “affordability study.”

Said Waters:  “neither Democrats nor Republican envisioned it would reap the kind of harm and heartache that may result from this law.”  She was echoed by Nicholas Pinter, a professor at Southern Illinois University, who advocated reforms but also “compassion for Americans living on flood-prone lands.” 

As I point out in my new article on Forbes online: 

Actually, those people need to be held responsible for their actions.  Compassion should be accorded taxpayers, who have suffered for decades.  Mississippi Commissioner of Insurance Mike Chaney said the NFIP should not make up its shortfall from homeowners who “simply followed the rules.”  But if not them, who?  After all, they received the benefits of the subsidized insurance.

At the end of January, the Senate voted to effectively kill the 2012 reform.  That would “return the program to a state of insolvency,” Shai Akabas of the Bipartisan Policy Center told the New York Times

The Republican House leadership has approved a vote on a companion measure.  Even the White House criticized Congress’ potential U-turn.

In fact, the 2012 measure didn’t go far enough.  Congress should eliminate federally-subsidized flood insurance—entirely.  There is no justification for turning Uncle Sam into a back-stop for wealthy vacationers and other privileged recipients of federal largesse.

Like Uncle Sam, NFIP is broke.  It should be killed, not reformed.  Legislators should start exhibiting compassion for American taxpayers.

The Missing Data in Krugman’s German Austerity Narrative

There’s an ongoing debate about Keynesian economics, stimulus spending, and various versions of fiscal austerity, and regular readers know I do everything possible to explain that you can promote added prosperity by reducing the burden of government spending.

Simply stated, we get more jobs, output, and growth when resources are allocated by competitive markets. But when resources are allocated by political forces, cronyism and pork cause inefficiency and waste.

That’s why statist nations languish and market-oriented countries flourish.

Paul Krugman has a different perspective on these issues, which is hardly a revelation. But I am surprised that he often times doesn’t get the numbers quite right when he delves into specific case studies.

He claimed that spending cuts caused an Estonian economic downturn in 2008, but the government’s budget actually skyrocketed by 18 percent that year.

He complained about a “government pullback” in the United Kingdom even though the data show that government spending was climbing faster than inflation.

He even claimed that Hollande’s election in France was a revolt against austerity, notwithstanding the fact that the burden of government spending rose during the Sarkozy years.

My colleague Alan Reynolds pointed out that Krugman mischaracterized the supposed austerity in the PIIGS nations such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

We have another example to add to the list.

He now wants us to believe that Germany has been a good Keynesian nation.

Fannie and Freddie Offset Reported Government Spending

The federal government took control of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (F&F) in 2008 and have bailed them out with $189 billion of taxpayer money.

Today the mortgage companies have returned to profitability and are paying the government dividends. All profits earned by the companies since August 2012 are going to the federal government, as discussed by the CRS and the Washington Post.

How large are the F&F dividends? You can find out from a number of data sources:

  • FHFA (Table 2) shows that Fannie has paid a cumulative $114 billion in dividends to the government, while Freddie has paid $71 billion.
  • FHFA data show that F&F together paid $131 billion in dividends in calendar 2013, which matches what BEA Table 3.2 shows for federal “income receipts from assets” (dividend portion).
  • CBO (p. 101) says that F&F dividends received by the government were $97 billion in fiscal 2013 and will be $81 billion in fiscal 2014. Curiously, the CBO does not report how large future dividends are expected to be because they account for F&F going forward based on a net subsidy approach.

Here is the important thing for budget wonks and reporters: the money now pouring into the Treasury from F&F is not counted as “revenues” but as “offsetting receipts.” Those receipts are subtracted from federal spending before the “net outlays” reported by CBO and OMB, which people may wrongly assume is total federal spending.

Thus the government was reported to have spent $3.5 trillion in fiscal 2013, but without the F&F offset spending was $3.6 trillion. It is a similar story in 2014. And without the F&F dividends, federal deficits would be about $100 billion a year greater than reported.

Looking ahead, a fear is that with the return to profitability of F&F, politicians will get hooked on the inflows of cash, particularly since it has the magical effect of reducing reported spending. Reformers should press on with privatization and severing government ties to the mortgage companies as soon as possible.

A further discussion of offsetting receipts is here. Mark Calabria discusses F&F here and here.