Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

The Reason Why the Poverty Rate Fell

The massive decline in the U.S. poverty rate reported today by the Census (it fell from 14.8% of all families below to the poverty line to just 13.5%, the largest drop since the 1960s) may have come as a surprise to many economists and political commentators but it should not have. The one thing we have learned from the last three business cycles is that the poor benefit greatly from sustained economic growth.

When a recession occurs the unemployment rate can fall quickly, but it usually takes a long time before it returns to its previous pre-recession levels. no matter how aggressive our infrastructure spending may be. What eventually helps low-income workers is an economy where labor–skilled and unskilled–becomes difficult to find. When that happens companies bid against one another to find workers or else become creative-perhaps by investing in labor-saving equipment or else taking a chance on workers who haven’t been in the labor market for a while and don’t have the most sterling resumes.

When the unemployment rate approached 4.5% in the late 1990s poverty rates also declined significantly, as wages all across the income distribution grew steadily. Productivity grew smartly as well during this time–while the facile explanation for this was that businesses finally managed to take advantage of IT innovations, the same companies that were using IT to boost productivity were also the same ones that hire lots of low income workers (i.e. big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target) and they had every incentive to figure out how to do more with fewer workers, who were becoming more expensive. In Chicago the grocery chain Dominick’s sought out people living in government housing projects and spent significant resources training them to work for them, with surprising success. In Peoria another grocery chain, Kroger’s, worked with a local social service organization to train and employ young adults with Down Syndrome to work in their stores, also with a great deal of success. With luck more firms will have the need to get creative on employment soon.

Another Lesson from Bastiat: So-Called Employment Protection Legislation Is Bad News for Workers

Frederic Bastiat, the great French economist (yes, such creatures used to exist) from the 1800s, famously observed that a good economist always considers both the “seen” and “unseen” consequences of any action.

A sloppy economist looks at the recipients of government programs and declares that the economy will be stimulated by this additional money that is easily seen, whereas a good economist recognizes that the government can’t redistribute money without doing unseen damage by first taxing or borrowing it from the private sector.

A sloppy economist looks at bailouts and declares that the economy will be stronger because the inefficient firms that stay in business are easily seen, whereas a good economist recognizes that such policies imposes considerable unseen damage by promoting moral hazard and undermining the efficient allocation of labor and capital.

We now have another example to add to our list. Many European nations have “social protection” laws that are designed to shield people from the supposed harshness of capitalism. And part of this approach is so-called Employment Protection Legislation, which ostensibly protects workers by, for instance, making layoffs very difficult.

Anatomy of a Brutal Tax Beating

Based on the title of this column, you may think I’m going to write about oppressive IRS behavior or punitive tax policy.

Those are good guesses, but today’s “brutal tax beating” is about what happens when a left-leaning journalist writes a sophomoric column about tax policy and then gets corrected by an expert from the Tax Foundation.

The topic is the tax treatment of executive compensation, which is somewhat of a mess because part of Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax hike was a provision to bar companies from deducting executive compensation above $1 million when compiling their tax returns (which meant, for all intents and purposes, an additional back-door 35-percent tax penalty on salaries paid to CEO types). But to minimize the damaging impact of this discriminatory penalty, particularly on start-up firms, this extra tax didn’t apply to performance-based compensation such as stock options.

In a good and simple tax system, which taxes income only one time (including business income), the entire provision would be repealed.

But when Alvin Chang, a graphics reporter from Vox, wrote a column on this topic, he made the remarkable claim that somehow taxpayers are subsidizing big banks because the aforementioned penalty does not apply to performance-based compensation.

…the government doesn’t tax performance-based pay for…any…top bank executive in America. Unlike regular salaries — where the government takes out taxes to pay for Medicare, Social Security, and all other sorts of things — US tax code lets banks deduct the big bonuses they give to their executives. … The solution most Americans want is to either heavily tax CEO pay over a certain amount, or to set a strict cap on how much CEOs can make, relative to their workers. As long as this loophole is open, though, it makes sense for banks to continue paying executives these huge sums. ..for now, taxpayers are still ponying up to help make wealthy bankers even wealthier, because the US tax code encourages it.

Since Mr. Chang is a graphics reporter, you won’t be surprised that he included several images to augment his argument.

Corporate Inversions

Among industrialized countries, the United States has the highest official corporate tax rate and one of the highest effective tax rates. To take advantage of lower taxes in other countries, some U.S. firms elect to sell themselves to smaller foreign firms, a process called “inversion.”

For shareholders of those firms, the tax consequences of inversions are complicated. Some are harmed by the move while others benefit. Individual shareholders, who own shares in taxable accounts, are taxed on the increased value of their shares. This can result in different tax outcomes from inversions for shareholders who have held the stock for a long time prior to the inversion and short-term shareholders (including corporate officers exercising company stock options).

In the summer issue of Regulation, I described a new research paper that investigates 73 inversions that occurred from 1983 to 2014. For those investors who had owned stock for three years, half of the inversions resulted in a negative return. So if many long-term shareholders lose money on inversions, why do they occur?

Federal Government: Monopoly on Worst Experiences

According to opinion polls, Americans think that the federal government is too large and powerful. Most people do not trust the federal government to handle problems. Only one-third of people think that the government gives competent service, and the public’s “customer satisfaction” with federal services is lower than for virtually all private services. I discussed these sad realities in this study. reports today on a new customer satisfaction study:

Despite a major push by the Obama administration in recent years, the federal government “still fails at customer experience,” according to Forrester Research’s Customer Experience Index.

The federal government finished dead last among 21 major industries, and had five of the eight worst scores of the 319 brands, leading Forrester to note that government has a “near monopoly on the worst experiences.”

Notably, ranked last among all brands …, the departments of Education and Veterans Affairs, the Transportation Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, Medicaid and the Small Business Administration rated in the bottom 6 percent of all brands.

This was not a small-sample poll. Forrester’s Index was based on perceptions from surveys of 122,500 adult customers.

“For me, the most compelling point is that federal agencies are clustered near the bottom of the index,” Rick Parrish, senior analyst at Forrester, told Nextgov. “So many agencies that have been working hard haven’t shown improvement. You see a lot of action, a lot of arm-waving and noise, but not a lot of progress.” Even the worst brands in the worst industries—TV and internet service providers, and some airlines—generally outperformed federal agencies.

An irony of Big Government is that even as Congress has created hundreds of new programs to supposedly help people, and dishes out more than $2 trillion a year in subsidies, the public has not grown fonder of the government. Instead, people have become more alienated from it, and more disgusted by its poor performance.

For more on government failure, see here.

Ending Fed Ed Would Hardly Be Pure Loss

The Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) has sounded the alarm: Donald Trump’s proposal to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education (ED) would be pure loss because a lot of people use federal education money. Lost jobs, lost college access, lost learning. Which makes sense if you assume that the federal government miracles money into existence, people can’t adjust to changing circumstances, and federal control can only help.

Of course, the federal government does not just will money into existence. It does spend far more than it has, but sooner or later someone is going to have to pay for that. And money arriving through taxation comes from people who may have used it for other, more productive things. Taxpayers may have spent it on new businesses, or housing, or food, or lots of other things that would have potentially grown the economy and created new jobs. Or heck, just made them happier. So there are costs—maybe big ones—that CAPAF ignored: opportunity costs.

Then there are costs to dealing with ED demands. Yes, as CAPAF points out, the department has a relatively small workforce—about 4,300 full-time equivalent employees—but that is in part because ED makes states do a lot of the administrative heavy lifting, forcing them to hire a lot of bureaucrats. There is also a sizeable compliance cost that goes with federal programs. The latest available numbers I could find were from a 1998 report—pretty old—but that precedes the No Child Left Behind Act, which greatly expanded federal management. That report suggested that for every dollar sent to Washington only 85 cents made it back to local districts, and noted that there were nearly three times as many state employees being funded by federal money as ED employees.

How would ED be eliminated? While it is unclear how Trump would do it—details do not seem to be his thing—he would likely phase the department out, not just kill it all at once. Of course, he could just move the programs elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy. But assuming that by killing ED he means to kill the programs, he would probably phase them out, leaving states, districts, colleges, and students time to adjust. And if he were to couple phasing out the programs with, say, proportionate tax relief, or even just block grants to states, that money could still be used for education! It would not necessarily mean any lost teacher jobs, student aid, or anything else. It could just mean that instead of losing 15 cents in bureaucratic processing for each dollar, taxpayers could keep the whole buck!

Would trimming what we spend necessarily even be bad educationally? Signs pretty clearly point to “no.” As the graph below shows, as well as this report on SAT scores, large spending increases haven’t come close to producing commensurate improvements in achievement, at least as measured by standardized tests for high school kids. Those scores have essentially sat still. Same for staffing: In roughly the same period as is covered in the graph, public schools went from about 14 students per staff member, to just 8 students, approaching a doubling of employees per child. Even the high-school graduation rate “all-time highs” that sound so nice aren’t: CAPAF cited a report based on only four years of data, and longer-term data show in 1969–70—close to when the feds first got heavily involved in education—the average freshman graduation rate for public schools was 78.7 percent. As of 2012–13—the latest data on the chart—it was 81.9 percent. Hardly a huge increase, and possibly one inflated by “credit recovery” and other dubious practices. Oh, and the feds coerced states to adopt a single curriculum standard—the Common Core—only to see tremendous backlash after the public finally became aware of what had been foisted on them. At the very least, great political acrimony and stomach-churning educational turbulence have been the result.

The evidence—more of which can be found here—suggests that in K–12 education, federal involvement may well be a loss, not a gain.

How about higher ed? Federal student aid, it is becoming increasingly certain, has largely translated into skyrocketing prices, major non-completion, credential inflation, and big student debt. Hardly the pure affordability effect that is all CAPAF discusses. You can get more in-depth on higher education here.

There is one other thing that ought to be mentioned, though it may seem passé: Washington has no constitutional authority to meddle in education outside of DC itself, federal installations, and prohibiting state and local discrimination in education provision. Yet the vast majority of what ED does goes far beyond those things. Ignoring the Constitution comes with costs all of its own, which CAPAF—and everyone else—may learn very quickly if there is a President Trump and he, among other things, unilaterally tries to change federal education policy. You know, like President Obama.

CAPAF portrays the U.S. Department of Education as all gain, and it’s possible ending all pain. But there is a whole other side to federal education meddling: costs. And they are big.

European Commission Launches Shakedown of Apple, Asserts Low Taxes Are “State Aid”

Working the world of public policy, I’m used to surreal moments.

Such as the assertion that there are trillions of dollars of spending cuts in plans that actually increase spending. How do you have a debate with people who don’t understand math?

Or the oft-repeated myth that the Reagan tax cuts for the rich starved the government of revenue. How can you have a rational discussion with people who don’t believe IRS data?

And let’s not overlook my personal favorite, which is blaming so-called tax havens for the financial crisis, even though places such as the Cayman Islands had nothing to do with the Fed’s easy-money policy or with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies.

These are all example of why my hair is turning gray.

But I’ll soon have white hair based on having to deal with the new claim from European bureaucrats that countries are guilty of providing subsidies if they have low taxes for companies.

I’m not joking. This is basically what’s behind the big tax fight between Apple, Ireland, and the European Commission.