Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Krugman’s ‘Gotcha’ Moment Leaves Something to Be Desired

I’ve had some fun over the years by pointing out that Paul Krugman has butchered numbers when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as FranceEstoniaGermany, and the United Kingdom.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that he wants to catch me making an error. But I’m not sure his “gotcha” moment is very persuasive. Here’s some of what he wrote for today’s New York Times.

Gov. Jerry Brown was able to push through a modestly liberal agenda of higher taxes, spending increases and a rise in the minimum wage. California also moved enthusiastically to implement Obamacare. …Needless to say, conservatives predicted doom. …Daniel J. Mitchell of the Cato Institute declared that by voting for Proposition 30, which authorized those tax increases, “the looters and moochers of the Golden State” (yes, they really do think they’re living in an Ayn Rand novel) were committing “economic suicide.”

Kudos to Krugman for having read Atlas Shrugged, or for at least knowing that Rand sometimes referred to “looters and moochers.” Though I have to subtract points because he thinks I’m a conservative rather than a libertarian.

But what about his characterization of my position? Well, he’s right, though I’m predicting slow-motion suicide. Voting for a tax hike isn’t akin to jumping off the Golden Gate bridge. Instead, by further penalizing success and expanding the burden of government, California is engaging in the economic equivalent of smoking four packs of cigarettes every day instead of three and one-half packs.

ALEC Report on State Tax Expenditures

State policymakers often look for ways to attract investment, companies, talent, and residents to their states. Sometimes they do it with sensible and broad-based reforms, such as reducing business regulations, increasing school quality, or lowering and simplifying making taxes. Unfortunately, another way they try to do it is to provide narrow tax benefits and subsidies to particular businesses and industries.

Every state does it. Illinois provides a tax credit for the film industry. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has frequently provided tax credits to resident companies that agree not to relocate to other states. Florida Governor Rick Scott has provided benefits to companies that agree to move to Florida. Many other states have similar policies.

These types of tax provisions are called “tax expenditures” or “tax incentives.” They include narrow breaks to income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, and other taxes. Federally, the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) defines a tax expenditure as “any reduction in income tax liabilities that results from special tax provisions or regulations that provide tax benefits to particularly taxpayers.” The JCT estimates that the federal government provided approximately $1.3 trillion in tax expenditures in 2013.

Tallying  state tax expenditures is much more difficult because state tax systems are different and there is no official national scorekeeper. A new report from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) sought to accomplish that  task.  In the report, the authors totaled the  tax expenditures within every state based on state-published reports. According to their research, state tax expenditures total about $228 billion for personal and business taxes and $260 billion for sales taxes. 

ALEC’s report is an excellent first stab at calculating state tax expenditures. However, five states—Alabama, Alaska, Nevada, South Dakota, and Wyoming—do not report on the value of their tax expenditures. Other states, such as Arkansas and Missouri, publish “infrequent or incomplete” data. There are also varying levels of reporting data: California only publishes information on tax expenditures valued at greater than $5 million, while Arizona only includes ones valued at greater than $703.

The ALEC authors note that not all of these tax expenditures represent cronyism on the part of state policymakers. For one thing, there is disagreement over what tax items are distortionary or unjustified. Some provisions on official tax expenditure lists move a state’s tax system closer to a low, broad, and neutral tax base and are justified, such as allowing capital expensing. Lower rates on capital gains help offset the  double taxation of capital under the income tax system. Also, exempting business-to-business transactions prevents tax pyramiding.

A large portion of the provisions tallied by ALEC are narrow and distort the economy, such as Hollywood film tax credits. To make matters worse, some tax expenditures are “refundable,” meaning that recipients receive money from the government if they do not have a tax liability. Policymakers use this trick to hide part of the cost of spending on the tax side of the budget.

The large-scale provision of tax credits, deductions, and exclusions to specific industries or companies is an  acknowledgement by state policymakers that taxes matter in business decision-making. But a much better way to grow state economies is to simplify tax codes and cut marginal tax rates.

Corporate Tax Inversions Made Simple

Numerous responses to my article in the New York Times yesterday about corporate tax inversions indicated a lack of understanding. Related articles by Levin, Johnston, and Huang similarly suggested that further enlightenment is needed.

The following chart should simplify the issue for NYT readers, columnists, and policymakers.

All data from KPMG. Global average is for 134 countries.

CITR

Is Fiscal Constraint a Bug or a Feature?

A Washington Post profile of Art Pope, political donor and now budget director of North Carolina, finds a flaw in his fiscal management:

For all of his pull, the revolution Pope helped set in motion is not going quite as planned. The tax overhaul, styled in part off ideas promoted by Pope-backed groups, has contributed to tight finances in North Carolina at a time when other states are flush with cash.

Is that bad? Fiscal conservatives such as Pope just might think that budgetary constraints are a good thing, perhaps especially when revenues would otherwise be rising, leading to profligacy. State governments have a tendency to overspend when the economy booms, and then face difficult adjustments in downturns. Limits on overspending, whether constitutional constraints or tax reductions, should be seen as a feature, not a bug, in state fiscal systems.

By the way, this Post profile of Pope, who is a contributor to the Cato Institute, is not exactly positive, but it’s nothing like Jane Mayer’s 2011 profile in the New Yorker, which I dubbed “Snidely Whiplash in North Carolina.”

Politicians Befriend Big Business, Undermine Free Market

The recent primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was one of the bigger shocks to American politics in some time. Congressional leaders, known to bring home the bacon for local folks, usually are handily reelected.

But Cantor’s loss will do more than simply reshuffle the biggest offices on Capitol Hill. He gave lip service to fiscal responsibility but was, argued Nick Gillespie of Reason, “atrocious and hypocritical in all the ways that a Republican can be,” constantly voting to grow government.

Indeed, Cantor’s constituency was as much corporate America as it was Virginia voters. Business was counting on him to help reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, known as “Boeing’s Bank” for lavishing extensive benefits on one company; extend terrorism risk insurance, which transfers financial liability for loss from firms to taxpayers; and preserve Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which nearly wrecked the economy while subsidizing homeowners, builders, and lenders. 

CBO Long-Term Spending Projections

The Congressional Budget Office has released new long-term projections of federal spending and debt. Without reforms, spending is expected to rise steadily and dangerously as a share of the economy in coming decades. The chart below shows spending under CBO’s “extended alternative” scenario, which assumes that politicians keep current policies in place. Spending would rise from 17.6 percent of GDP in 2000, to 20.4 percent this year, to 31.8 percent by 2040.

Under that scenario, federal debt held by the public would rise from 74 percent of GDP this year to a giant 170 percent by 2040. But if spending and debt were to rise along that trajectory, we would surely have a major financial and economic meltdown long before we got to 2040.

Our fiscal outlook is actually much worse than reflected in this scenario. That’s because under the basic extended alternative, CBO does not take into account the negative effects of rising spending and debt on GDP over the long term. CBO does have a special chapter in their report looking at some of these negative effects—but only some of them. In this testimony, I mention reasons why the outlook is worse than under the CBO baseline.

    

Government Infrastructure and Political Enthusiasm

Most politicians are optimistic about the government’s ability to intervene and solve problems. That’s one reason why they run for office. Neocons, for example, have excessive faith that foreign intervention can fix the world, while liberals embrace the misguided idea that subsidies and regulations can boost the economy.

On infrastructure, we’ve seen political enthusiasm leading to overpromised and underdelivered projects since the founding of the nation. The construction of the National Road—funded by Congress beginning in 1806—was fraught with problems. The Army Corps of Engineers has been known for boondoggles since the 19th century. In recent decades, government infrastructure has become so notorious for waste that The Simpsons had an episode about a failed monorail scheme.

Chapter 1 of Burton and Anita Folsoms’ book, Uncle Sam Can’t Count, examined the inefficiency of the government’s fur-trading infrastructure from 1795 to 1825. Chapter 2 of the book looked at how 19th century subsidies for steamship transportation were wasteful and damaging.

Chapter 3 of the book looks at the orgy of state government canal building from the 1820s to the 1840s. Here is the basic story:

  • New York State funds construction of the Erie Canal, which opens in 1825.
  • The Erie Canal is a big success, which spurs canal fever across the nation and encourages other state governments to hand out subsidies. Government canal schemes are launched in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, and Illinois. There is particular excitement about subsidized “internal improvements” among Whig politicians, including Abraham Lincoln.
  • However, politicians overestimate the demand for canals in their states and underestimate the costs and difficulty of construction. They do not recognize that the Erie Canal is uniquely practical and economic as it traverses relatively flat land and connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic.
  • Some of the state-sponsored canals are huge boondoggles and are abandoned. And other than the Erie Canal, all of the state canals sustain heavy losses, including other subsidized canals in New York.
  • After the failures, numerous states privatize their infrastructure and change their constitutions to prevent politicians from wasting further money on such schemes.

Thomas DiLorenzo writes about these issues here. And Clifford Thies goes into detail about the canal follies in this Cato Journal article. As these authors discuss, governments unfortunately made similar mistakes subsidizing railroads in the 19th century.

Perhaps our current political leaders are not funding escalators to nowhere—as they did on The Simpsons monorail episode—but today’s uneconomic streetcars and high-speed rail schemes are not that much different.