Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Highway Bill: The Unmentionable Option

In an article about federal highway legislation yesterday, the Washington Post illustrated the art of advocacy journalism cloaked as news reporting. The article explored different options for raising federal taxes $100 billion to fund state highways. It quotes three transportation lobbyists and included scare lines about the supposed consequences of not raising taxes (“… hundreds of thousands of construction jobs put at risk…”).

The article does not mention that spending cuts are an option for the upcoming highway bill. Everyone agrees that there is a large gap in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), but gaps can be closed either by tax hikes or spending cuts. Yet the “transportation advocates” the Post talked to agreed, “until there is consensus on finding more money, transportation may be doomed to limp along in perpetual crisis.”

Nonsense. As I testified here, federal spending cuts would balance the HTF and solve the crisis, while spurring greater efficiency and innovation in U.S. transportation as the states played a larger role. The Post did not bother to explore that option, despite support from conservatives in Congress, prominent think tanks, and independent transportation experts.

In the election, Congress swung decidedly in a small-government direction, but the Post’s reporting did not reflect that reality, and instead presented only the lobbyist point of view. The Post’s silence on the spending-cut option is all the more striking because the newspaper admits that it would be very difficult to raise transportation taxes due to political and public opposition.

It will be interesting to see how Congress closes the HTF gap before the May expiration of the current highway bill. I hope that we have a robust debate on all the options and that the Washington Post changes course and presents its readers with a more balanced perspective.

Ivanpah: Time to End the Subsidies

Ivanpah in California is the world’s largest solar project. The project is owned by Google and NRG Energy, and is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Ivanpah originally received a $1.6 billion loan from the Department of Energy (DOE) in 2011. Now the company is asking for another government subsidy to pay off its original loan.

Ivanpah’s loan guarantee came from the Section 1705 program created by the 2009 stimulus law. Section 1705 provided up to $18 billion in loan guarantees to “certain renewable energy systems, electric power transmission systems and leading-edge biofuels.” The program was temporary, with loans available until the end of fiscal year 2011. Unlike previous energy loan guarantee programs, Congress even provided subsidies to borrowers to pay the fees on loans.. As a consequence, firms were able to get a federal loan guarantee without any direct expenditure, providing a large incentive for firms to take advantage. By the end of the Section 1705 program in September 2011, DOE approved 27 projects totaling $14.5 billion.

Business failures among these loan recipients were common, the most famous being Solyndra. Solyndra, a solar-panel manufacturer, received a $535 million loan guarantee before filing bankruptcy. An analysis by the Reason Foundation found that 10 of the 27 recipients under Section 1705 experienced some sort of financial trouble.

The survival of Ivanpah is still up in the air. The project came online in December 2013. From January to August 2014, the project generated just one quarter of its predicted amount of electricity.

In February, the company asked DOE for permission to delay payments on its loan. According to the Wall Street Journal, DOE gave Ivanpah a one-year extension on the $132 million first payment. A second subcomponent—the loan is divided among three subcomponents—delayed a June payment of $159 million to December.

Now, Ivanpah is asking for $539 million in cash from the federal government. This time, Ivanpah is targeting a Department of Treasury tax credit program that reimburses renewable energy projects for up to 30 percent of project costs.

Nominal Earnings Growth and Money Illusion (Real Wages Are Rising)

Wall Street Journal columnist E.S. Browning presents a graph titled “Wages Still Soft …  hourly wage gains have been sluggish.”   It shows the percentage change in average hourly earnings from a year earlier.  That rate of change slowed from about 3.5 percent in early 2009 to 1.5 percent in late 2012 before rising to 2.2-2.4 percent in recent months.   The upside, in Browning’s view, is that “wage gains still aren’t big enough to push inflation higher.”  In reality, wage gains never push inflation higher, but inflation can certainly push real wages lower.

The trouble with Browning’s graph is that it shows only changes in nominal earnings – unadjusted for the huge drop in inflation after July 2008 when the year-to-year increase in consumer prices reached 5.5 percent in July 2008 (up from 1.9 percent in August of 2007).  Nominal wage gains miss the real story.

In the graph shown below, I adjust the same hourly earnings figures for inflation by using the PCE deflator.  Note that real earnings rose rapidly when inflation dropped to zero or less in 2009 – when Browning’s chart begins.  But employers could not afford to pay rising wages when their prices were falling, so employment collapsed.

Measured in 2009 dollars, real average hourly earnings for production and nonsupervisory workers have been rising slowly but surely for two years – from $18.55 in October 2012 to $18.95 in October 2014, or 1.1 percent a year.  That’s not so terrible considering the slow pace of growth of GDP and productivity.

Despite hazardous chatter from the likes of Paul Krugman and Larry Summers about U.S. inflation being too low, the truth is that low inflation has been raising U.S. real wages even as confused politicians and journalists erroneously bemoan slow growth in nominal wages.

Research Shows that Small Government Is Efficient Government

I’ve argued that we’ll get better government if we make it smaller.

And Mark Steyn humorously observed, “our government is more expensive than any government in history – and we have nothing to show for it.”

But can these assertions be quantified?

I had an email exchange last week with a gentleman from Texas who wanted to know if I had any research on the efficiency of government. He specifically wanted to know the “ratio of federal tax dollars collected to the actual delivery of the service.”

That was a challenge. If he simply wanted examples of government waste, I could have overloaded his inbox.

But he wanted an efficiency measure, which requires apples-to-apples comparisons to see which jurisdictions are delivering the most output (government services) compared to input (how much is spent on those services).

My one example was in the field of education, where I was ashamed to report that the United States spends more per student than any other nation, yet we get depressingly mediocre results (though that shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who has looked at this jaw-dropping chart comparing spending and educational performance).

But his query motivated me to do some research and I found an excellent 2003 study from the European Central Bank. Authored by Antonio Afonso, Ludger Schuknecht, and Vito Tanzi, the study specifically examines the degree to which governments are providing value, and at what cost.

SHOP Exchange Glitches

Open enrollment for Obamacare’s second year begins next week. In the chaotic launch of HealthCare.gov, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) delayed the launch of the sister portal for small businesses. Now, the health insurance exchange for small businesses is expected to open, but it is still plagued with problems.

The Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) provides an online portal for small businesses with fewer than 50 employees to purchase insurance. The website allows employers to provide a contribution towards an employee’s health insurance purchase.

A new report from the New York Times summarizes the issues discovered during recent testing:

For example, they said, some health insurance plans approved for sale on the exchange did not show up on the website. The site worked well with some web browsers, like Chrome, but not with others, like Internet Explorer and Firefox. Premiums and other charges for some plans were erroneously displayed as percentages rather than dollar amounts — 350 percent rather than $350, for example. For some households, the principal subscriber was listed as a dependent, or vice versa.

HHS is claiming that the website will be functional when open enrollment starts on November 15.

The future success of SHOP is doubtful even if HHS gets the website working. States had the option of creating their own SHOP or relying on the federal exchange. Several states decided to launch their exchanges last year. The results were lackluster:

California signed up 1.4 million people through its individual exchange, but its small-business exchange enrolled only 1,700 companies, with 11,500 employees and dependents. In Minnesota, the small-business exchange signed up 190 employers covering 1,500 people.

The low participation is not surprising since businesses can still purchase insurance outside of an exchange. The primary reason to use a SHOP exchange would be to receive a tax credit. Firms with fewer than 25 workers who purchase via the exchange are eligible for a tax credit to help offset the cost of the employer contribution. Credits can be as large as 50 percent of the employer contribution.

However, the tax credit is unlikely to induce many small businesses to use the exchange. Only a small number of eligible businesses claimed the previous version of the tax credit, which did not require the extra step of a SHOP purchase. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), many employers did not claim it due to the complexity in its calculations. Adding another requirement suggests even fewer employers will take advantage of the credit.  Additionally, GAO estimates that very few small firms offer health insurance as benefit to employees because the tax credit is small. Firms are not encouraged to provide the benefit.

HHS had an additional year to get its SHOP website development right. Reports suggest that HHS is still not ready, despite the large cost. But even if the website becomes functional, success of the overall SHOP program looks unlikely.

Are Well-Meaning but Misguided Conservatives Being Seduced by the Value-Added Tax?

Having a vision of a free society doesn’t mean libertarians are incapable of common-sense political calculations.

For example, the long-run goal is to dramatically shrink the size and scope of the federal government, both because that’s how the Founding Fathers wanted our system to operate and because our economy will grow much faster if labor and capital are allocated by economic forces rather than political calculations. But in the short run, I’m advocating for incremental progress in the form of modest spending restraint.

Why? Because that’s the best that we can hope for at the moment.

Another example of common-sense libertarianism is my approach to tax reform. One of the reasons I prefer the flat tax over the national sales tax is that I don’t trust that politicians will get rid of the income tax if they decide to adopt the Fair Tax. And if the politicians suddenly have two big sources of tax revenue, you better believe they’ll want to increase the burden of government spending.

Which is what happened (and is still happening) in Europe when value-added taxes were adopted.

And that’s a good segue to today’s topic, which deals with a common-sense analysis of the value-added tax.

Here’s the issue: I’m getting increasingly antsy because some very sound people are expressing support for the VAT.

I don’t object to their theoretical analysis. They say they don’t want the VAT in order to finance bigger government. Instead, they argue the VAT should be used only to replace the corporate income tax, which is a far more destructive way of generating revenue.

And if that was the final–and permanent–outcome of the legislative process, I would accept that deal in a heartbeat. But notice I added the requirement about a “permanent” outcome. That’s because I have two requirements for such a deal:

1. The corporate income tax could never be reinstated.

2. The VAT could never be increased.

And this shows why theoretical analysis can be dangerous without real-world considerations. Simply stated, there is no way to guarantee those two requirements without amending the Constitution, and that obviously isn’t part of the discussion.

Report Concludes that Yucca Mountain Is Safe

For decades, the federal government has struggled with the issue of storing waste from commercial nuclear reactors and defense-related nuclear activities. The government has spent billions of dollars planning for nuclear waste disposal, but the creation of a permanent storage site is years behind schedule due to federal mismanagement and safety concerns. A new report confirms that the current proposed site, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, is safe for use.

The United States has more than 65,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel with the volume expected to double by 2055. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 aimed to create a permanent disposal site for radioactive waste by 1998. After many studies, Yucca Mountain was chosen as the single national disposal site in 1987, and engineers and construction crews went to work. Between 2001 and 2007 the project’s total life-cycle cost estimate increased from $77 billion to $106 billion, measured in constant 2012 dollars.

To fund the project, the 1982 Act created a fee or tax on all nuclear electric utilities charged on the basis of kilowatt hours generated. The fee generated $750 million annually for the Nuclear Waste Fund, which accumulated a balance on paper of more than $25 billion.

In 2010, the Obama administration, with strong urging from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, decided to close down the Yucca Mountain site. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that the administration did not cite any “technical or safety issues” for the closure. The administration also did not include other options for storage, but instead set up a committee to study the issue. Apparently, Reid did not want the site in his state under any circumstances, regardless of any previous agreements between the nuclear industry and the government.  

The abrupt closure created a bizarre situation; electric utilities and their customers were paying $750 million annual tax to store nuclear waste at Yucca, but those storage plans were halted. In November 2013 an appeals court ordered the Department of Energy to stop collecting the Nuclear Waste Fund fee and resume planning for the site. Energy Secretary Moniz suspended the fee in 2014.

The appeals court also ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume the site’s licensing process. Now, the long-awaited safety report confirms that the Yucca Mountain site meets project requirements. The New York Times summarized the report saying that it “concluded that the design had the required multiple barriers, to assure long-term isolation of radioactive materials.” Storage is expected to be safe within the site for one million years.

The administration must now decide how to proceed. It can ignore the report and try to push the issue of nuclear storage onto the next administration, or it can reopen the permitting process and ignore the wishes of Majority Leader Reid.

The issue of nuclear waste is complex, but federal mismanagement and the actions of the Obama administration have delayed a long-term solution.