Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Government Gold-Plating

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) released his annual Wastebook this past week. It contains a laundry list of doozies. The U.S. government’s gold-plating operations included $190,000 to study compost digested by worms, $297 million for the purchase of an unused mega blimp, and $1 million on a Virginia bus stop where only 15 people can huddle under a half-baked roof. These questionable (read: absurd) expenditures only represent the tip of the iceberg.

In addition to supporting members of Congress and civil servants, U.S. taxpayers support welfare recipients. And they support them lavishly, too. Hawaii, Massachusetts, and D.C. residents receive sizeable welfare payments (read: salaries). Indeed, the magnitude of these payments exceeds the average salary of an American teacher, as well as a soldier deployed in Afghanistan, by at least $10,000 per year.

The public can forget all the clap-trap they are hearing about austerity. Indeed, a fairly dull knife could cut billions of dollars from the U.S. government’s largess. 

Wading Through Disability Paperwork

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) provides benefits to 11 million individuals, costing $140 billion annually. Its trust fund will become insolvent by 2016, so policymakers have little time to reform the system.

Funding is not the only issue facing the program. A new report from the Washington Post highlights the long list of disability cases waiting to be adjudicated.

Individuals apply to the Social Security Administration (SSA) to claim disability benefits. The file is reviewed by an administrator who makes an initial ruling, with 32 percent of applicants qualifying. Individuals who are denied can appeal the ruling. Eleven percent of appeals are approved for benefits. More than 633,000 individuals are waiting on initial claims with 170,000 waiting on appeal.

An individual’s second appeal goes to one of SSA’s 1,445 judges, whom are tasked with more than 990,000 individuals waiting on appeals. The average wait for a hearing is longer than a year.

The backlog for a hearing before an appeals judge is not new. It started during the Gerald Ford administration and SSA has never caught up. The agency tried various tactics to solve the problem, but nothing seemed to work.

Several years ago, the SSA tried a different approach. The SSA pressured judges to decide 500 cases annually, but that led to a different problem.

Wastebook: 100 Silly Government Projects

The office of Senator Tom Coburn released its fifth annual “Wastebook.” The report highlights “100 silly, unnecessary, and low priority projects” funded by federal tax dollars or government debt. The 100 projects in this year’s report cost taxpayers $25 billion and represent the enormous scale of the federal government.

Among the waste in the report:

  • The National Institutes of Health’s grant-making is roundly criticized. NIH provided $533,000 to study the “effects of meditation…from reading Buddhist texts,” $1.5 million to develop a smartphone game to help parents of children with picky-eating habits, $387,000 to provide Swedish massages to rabbits, and $371,000 to study whether moms love dogs or their own children more.
  • The National Science Foundation awarded an $856,000 grant to train three mountain lions to use treadmills to study mountain lions’ use of energy while hunting. This follows NSF’s earlier grant to study shrimps’ ability to walk on treadmills.
  • A small bridge in Morrison, Colorado may be removed and rebuilt for violating the federal government’s “Buy American” provision. The original bridge, built with $52,000 in federal highway dollars, contains $3,300 in American steel that was rolled into sheets in Canada. Reconstruction costs are estimated at $20,000.
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development provided a $1.4 million grant to build a luxury hotel in Cary, North Carolina. The hotel features afternoon tea, facials, and an “upscale cocktail bar.” There are 50 hotels within 15 minutes of driving distance.

The report also includes several other boondoggles that I’ve highlighted recently:

  • Customs and Border Protection built 21 homes in Ajo, Arizona for its agents. CBP overpaid for land, added unnecessary amenities, and wasted $4.6 million on these extravagant homes.
  • The Department of Homeland Security’s vehicle fleet is underutilized. Fifty-nine percent of the agency’s vehicles are driven less than 12,000 miles a year, wasting up to $48.6 million.

These projects represent a fraction of the federal government’s almost $4 trillion in annual spending, but illustrate a larger trend. Agencies spend wildly and Congress refuses to provide the necessary oversight.

Entrenched interests encourage policymakers to allow wasteful spending to continue. For instance, the Department of Agriculture tried to close a $2 million sheep research station in Idaho, but “politicians in the region stepped in to keep it open.”  There are many similar examples.

Policymakers applaud themselves for the recent drop in the budget deficit, but Senator Coburn’s “Wastebook” shows that a lot of work is left to complete.

Abusing Federal Paid Leave

Compensation for federal civilian employees is more generous than private-sector workers. Federal workers receive better benefits than their non-governmental counterparts in particular, and generous paid leave benefits are one of the federal advantages. A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggests that federal agencies are abusing this benefit.

The Washington Post summarizes the GAO findings regarding the number of workers who are being paid for staying home:

53,000 civilian employees were kept home for one to three months during the three fiscal years that ended in September 2013. About 4,000 were idled for three months to a year and several hundred for one to three years. This is the first time the government has calculated the scope and cost of administrative leave.

The Office of Personnel Management permits paid leave for many reasons including jury duty and snow days. But those types of absence do not require one to three months of time out of the office. Instead, it appears that agencies are shifting employees to paid leave for months at a time while dealing with performance issues:

Auditors found that supervisors used wide discretion in putting employees on leave, including for alleged violations of government rules and laws, whistleblowing, doubts about trust­worthiness, and disputes with colleagues or bosses. Some employees remain on paid leave while they challenge demotions and other punishments.

This practice varies from the private sector where paid leave is used infrequently. The Washington Post notes that in the private sector “an employee accused of wrongdoing either stays at the office and is reassigned or is suspended without pay,” generally within days to minimize costs.

All told, GAO estimates that federal employees collected $775 million in salary while on leave. Employees continue to receive other benefits as well. Time on leave counts towards pension and pay increase calculations, and employees continue to accrue vacation and sick days.

GAO acknowledges that this cost estimate understates the problem because it only includes three-fifths of the federal civilian workforce. Leave is not tracked for the remaining employees.

Abusive practices are not a new phenomenon. As early as 1958, the comptroller general found excessive use of leave and ruled that it should not be used for more than 24 hours for employees under investigation.

Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Jon Tester of Montana are working on legislation to overhaul this practice. If passed, the legislation “would narrowly define the circumstances in which employees can be kept home” and “pay would be limited to a few days,” to match private-sector practices. Limiting this abusive practice would save millions in unnecessary expense.

TFSAs Spur Canada Savings Revolution

A tax reform is spurring a savings revolution in Canada. Amity Shlaes and I wrote about Canada’s Tax-Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs) in the Wall Street Journal in August. We think that such accounts would be a fantastic policy reform for America. They would simplify the taxation of savings, encourage families to save more, and spur stronger economic growth.

Toronto firm, Investor Economics, has released new data confirming the popularity of TFSAs. In just the past year, TFSA account assets increased 34 percent, and the number of accounts increased 16 percent. In June 2014, 13 million Canadians held $132 billion in TFSA assets. Given that the U.S. population is about 10 times that of Canada, it would be like 130 million Americans pouring $1.3 trillion into a new personal savings vehicle.

The chart shows the rapid growth of TFSAs since they were introduced in 2009:

 

  

There are 27.7 million Canadian adults, so about 47 percent of them own a TFSA, according to the data from Investor Economics. A 2013 survey by a bank found a similar figure of 48 percent. In just five years, TFSAs have become the most popular savings vehicle in Canada, outstripping the Canadian version of 401(k)s. TFSA growth is expected to continue, and the accounts may soon play a central role in virtually every family’s financial planning.

The American vehicle most similar to the TFSA is the Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA). But Roths are far inferior, and thus just 16 percent of U.S. households own them. Indeed, just 38 percent of U.S. households hold any type of IRA, even though these accounts have been around a lot longer than TFSAs.

TFSAs are like supercharged Roth IRAs. Here are some of the key features: 

  • Individuals can deposit up to $5,500 after-tax each year. Annual contribution limits accumulate if you do not use them. So if you contribute $2,000 this year, you will be able to put away $9,000 next year ($3,500+$5,500).
  • All account earnings and withdrawals are tax-free.
  • Withdrawals can be made at any time for any reason with no penalties or taxes. That greatly simplifies the accounts and increases liquidity, both of which encourage added savings.
  • There are no income limits and no withdrawal requirements. All Canadian adults can contribute and withdraw at any time during their lives.
  • TFSAs can be opened at any bank branch or online. They can hold bank deposits, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and other types of assets.
  • TFSAs are great for all types of saving, including saving to buy a home, a car, or to start a business, and saving for health expenses, unemployment, or retirement.    

Why are we letting Canadians have all the fun? Everyone agrees that Americans don’t save enough, so why don’t we kick-start a home-grown savings revolution with a U.S. version of TFSAs? Former Treasury official Ernest Christian has long championed similar accounts, which he and I call Universal Savings Accounts (USAs). Canada has now run the real-world experiment on such accounts, and it has succeeded brilliantly.

TFSAs, or USAs, are a better way to handle savings in the tax code. Currently, many people are scared off by the complexity of U.S. savings vehicles and by the lack of liquidity in retirement accounts. TFSAs solve these problems. Members of Congress and presidential aspirants for 2016 who are interested in a popular, pro-growth, and pro-family reform to champion—this is what you are looking for. 

OMB Director Sets a Low Bar for Deficit Reform

Jonathan House reported [$] in the Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. government’s budget deficit narrowed in its 2014 fiscal year to its lowest level in six years, as an improving economy boosted tax revenues.

The annual deficit for fiscal year 2014 fell 29% to $483.35 billion, the Treasury Department said Wednesday… the lowest deficit since 2008. …

The 2014 deficit fell to 2.8% of the country’s gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic output. This measure, preferred by economists because it offers greater context, was at its lowest level since the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2007.

“This is not only a reduction of the deficit, it’s also a return to fiscal normalcy,” said White House budget director Shaun Donovan.

The Obama administration’s definition of “fiscal normalcy” is a deficit just under half a trillion dollars, larger than in any year before 2009.

The national debt, which was about $5.7 trillion when George W. Bush entered office and $11 trillion when he turned the White House over to Barack Obama, is now at just a shade under $18 trillion. And the director of the Office of Management and Budget declares that a “return to fiscal normalcy.” Where is Warren Harding now that we need him? 

But hold on, there’s more: Donovan also noted that the federal government has abandoned its “harmful excessive budget austerity.” So we can expect more spending, and more deficits, and more debt, in the years to come.

Accuracy of Macroeconomic Forecasts

One of my first professional jobs 25 years ago was with the economic forecasting firm DRI/McGraw-Hill. It was fun work, but I noticed that the firm’s gross domestic product forecasts with models hundreds of equations long were no better than simple forecasts based on the interest rate yield curve.

I’m sure that macroeconomic models have grown more sophisticated today, but they still can’t predict very well. Former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, Edward Lazear, has a terrific piece today describing the inaccuracy of government forecasting models:

My analysis of 1999–2013 reveals that the [Congressional Budget Office]’s real GDP growth forecasts for the next year were off, on average, by 1.7 percentage points, either too high or low. Administration forecasts were similarly off by a slightly larger 1.8 percentage points on average, also too high or too low. Given that the average growth rate during this period was only 2.1%, errors of this magnitude are substantial.

Perhaps most damning: History is a better predictor of annual growth than government forecasts. Simply assuming that GDP growth will be 3.1% in each year—the average annual rate for the 30 years that precede the study period—results in an average forecast error of 1.5 percentage points.

Lazear’s article should be posted above the desk of every reporter and pundit writing about the macroeconomy. And it should be kept in mind by politicians, who often claim that such-and-such policy will create such-and-such number of jobs based on such models.

The lesson for federal budget policy should be one of prudence. We don’t know where the economy is headed, so policymakers should cut spending, zero out deficits, and start paying down debt now while we’re enjoying a run of sustained growth.