Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Latest Income Tax Data

Data releases by the IRS attract much attention as pundits dig through to find out which types of taxpayers paid more or less income tax.

The Joint Committee on Taxation recently released its own data on federal income tax payments, which is somewhat different. The latest IRS data is for 2005, while the JCT data are estimates for 2006. Another difference is that the JCT data include estimates for nonfilers, which gives a more universal view of the population than the IRS data.

Here is a summary table based on the JCT data (see Table 2, page 37).

Observations:

  • 57.6% of households paid income tax in 2006, meaning that 42.4% did not pay any income tax.
  • Looking at the similar JCT table for 1990, that 42% nonpayer share is up from about 30%. Some of the reasons include the expansion of the earned income tax credit (EITC), the creation and expansion of the child tax credit, and President Bush’s new bottom tax rate of 10%.
  • The JCT data show that for 2006, 23 million filers received $43 billion in EITC, which is a key reason why most people at the bottom do not pay any tax.

As Sallie discusses, it is a problem for a democracy–particularly one less constrained by constitutional rules than in the past–to have such a large and growing share of residents not paying any tax because these folks are unconstrained in campaigning for more benefits for themselves at the expense of others.

(Yes, all workers pay federal payroll taxes, but that is often wiped-out for those at the bottom end by the receipt of EITC payments from the Treasury. And, of course, low-income workers receive an array of Social Security and Medicare benefits loosely tied to their payment of payroll taxes).

Bush IS a Big Spender, Pt. 2

Further to Dan’s post below, here’s the McClatchy story arguing that President Bush is the biggest spending president since LBJ. The article got lots of notice — probably because it was linked on the Drudge Report for most of Wednesday. 

The story is mostly old news — I’ve been making the same point for years. But, because it is based on updated data that I provided to the reporter, I’m happy to see the message ripple through the news cycle.

Clearly, the folks at IBD aren’t happy with the McClatchy story. They describe the notion that Bush can be called the biggest spender since LBJ as a “dishonest argument.” Their editorial in today’s edition points out that this claim is based on annual growth rates. That’s true, but the authors go on to say that a better measure of whether a president is a big spender or not should be based on how large government is as a share of GDP.

Funny thing is, I agree with them, and I’ve made that point before. But the argument the IBD editorial makes is misguided. (I won’t stoop to calling it “dishonest.” I don’t allege they deliberately falsified data, something that would obviously be dishonest in every sense. But calling the argument I’m making “dishonest” — well, them’s fightin’ words!)

To illustrate their point, the IBD editors published a chart detailing the average burden of government spending as a percentage of GDP by president. By this measure, George W. Bush has presided over an average spending burden of 20% of GDP during his time in office to date. That puts him around the middle of the presidential pack over the past 40 years.

That may not seem so bad. But a president who reduced government spending from 30% of GDP to 10% over his term in office would get the same ranking as Bush. So would a president who increased spending from 10% to 30%. Wouldn’t we call the latter a big spender and praise the former? Yes, we would and should.

What really matters here is the direction of the change. George W. Bush will likely leave office with a government spending burden higher (around 20%) than it was when he came to office (18.5%). That’s the way things trended in his first six years. Presidents Reagan and Clinton, on the other hand, presided over drops in the spending burden by this measure.

What’s stunning is how much smaller the federal spending burden would be if Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress had not drastically expanded all variety of domestic programs. If non-defense discretionary spending had simply increased at the rate of inflation and the Medicare drug benefit hadn’t been adopted, the spending burden would be around 18.5% today, just about where it was when President Bush assumed office in 2001. It would have been even lower if the president and Congress had cut some spending when they had the chance.

If signing into law every appropriations bill that crossed your desk in the first six years of your presidency — thereby allowing the federal budget to grow faster than the U.S. economy during those years — still doesn’t make you a big-spending president, I don’t know what would.

Bush IS a Big Spender

Investor’s Business Daily, responding to an article appearing in several McClatchy Company newspapers, argues that President Bush isn’t a big spender because outlays as a share of GDP are not that different today that they were during the Clinton years. But this analysis has two shortcomings:

First, it looks at average spending as a share of GDP over an administration’s total tenure. What matters more is that federal spending was down to just a bit more than 18 percent of GDP when President Clinton left office. It’s now more than 20 percent of GDP today.

More important, spending as a share of GDP involves both a numerator (government outlays) and a denominator (economic output). But consider what has happened to federal spending: by that measure, Bush unambiguously has been fiscally irresponsible.

This doesn’t mean that spending as a share of GDP is not an important measure. Indeed, IBD is correct to explain that it is the most appropriate measure of the overall burden of government relative to activity in the productive sector of the economy.

What does this say about the Bush years? Well, the good news is that the American economy has enjoyed strong growth since the supply-side 2003 tax rate reductions. The bad news is that a significant chunk of that new output has been diverted to government coffers.

The McClatchy piece says discretionary spending under Bush has risen an inflation-adjusted 5.3% in his first six years, outstripping the 4.6% under Johnson — and way above President Reagan’s meager 1.9%. By “almost any yardstick,” the article continues, Bush “generally exceeds the spending of his predecessors.” Any yardstick,” that is, except the most important of all — spending as a share of GDP. On this, Bush is actually lower than most of his predecessors. Spending as a share of GDP is the most important measure of the size of government, since it measures what government actually takes from the national economy.

More Laffer Curve Straw-Man Arguments

A column at the New Yorker’s website regurgitates the silly argument that the Laffer Curve is a myth unless every tax cut yields more revenue to the government:

The supply-side argument [is] that, in the United States, tax-rate cuts pay for themselves — that, after cutting taxes, the government actually ends up with more revenue.

As I’ve already explained (here and here), the Laffer Curve only implies more revenue in certain circumstances.

Unfortunately, a lot of Republican politicians don’t fully understand the issue, so they overstate the case and give fodder to those who want to prop up the existing revenue-estimating system (which is based on the even more absurd notion that changes in tax policy never have any impact on economic performance).

Ironically, the author admits later in the article that the Laffer Curve does exist:

[T]he absurd idea that tax cuts pay for themselves is based on an idea that is not at all absurd, which is that tax rates can have an impact on people’s behavior. Increase taxes too much, and people may work less (since they get to keep less of the income they earn) and invest less (since their gains will be taxed more heavily), and so the economy will grow more slowly. The opposite can happen if you cut taxes. (How much of an impact tax rates have — and how high taxes have to get before they have an impact — is a subject of much debate in economics, but it’s inarguable that they do matter.) What supply-siders have done is start with that reasonable idea and extrapolate it to unreasonable lengths.

Although Government Revenues Are at Record Levels, New York Times Complains About a “Dearth of Taxes”

In a remarkable editorial, the New York Times complains that revenues in America are too low. This is a stunning claim since a cursory look at budget numbers shows that revenues are at an all-time high in both nominal dollars and inflation-adjusted dollars. But the most remarkable part of the editorial is that the Times actually argues that low taxes mean that America is “ill prepared to compete”:

…the taxes collected last year by federal, state and local governments in the
United States amounted to 28.2 percent of gross domestic product. That rate was one of the lowest among wealthy countries - about five percentage points of GDP lower than Canada’s, and more than eight points lower than New Zealand’s. …the meager tax take leaves the United States ill prepared to compete. From universal health insurance to decent unemployment insurance, other rich nations provide their citizens benefits that the U.S. government simply cannot afford. …revenue will prove too low to face the challenges ahead.

The editorial conveniently forgets to explain, though, how America is less competitive because of supposedly inadequate taxation. Is it that our per capita GDP is lower than our higher-taxed neighbors in Europe? No, America’s per capita GDP is considerably higher. Is it that our disposable income is lower? It turns out that Americans enjoy a huge advantage in this measure. Is our economy not keeping pace? Interesting thought, but America’s been out-performing Europe for a long time. Could higher rates of unemployment be a sign of American weakness? Nice theory, but the data show better job numbers in the United States.

But give the New York Times some credit. It is not easy to argue that higher taxes are good for growth. So if you’re going to make a fool of yourself, you may as well cast evidence to the side and jump into the deep end of the pool.

Ann Coulter of the Left: Jonathan Chait

For those who think that it’s just conservatives, such as Ann Coulter, who are mean-spirited, they should check out the new book by Jonathan Chait, a senior editor of the New Republic, entitled The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics.

I managed to get through the introduction and first chapter of Mr. Chait’s book. Alas, I could read no more. Here are some of Chait’s characterizations of supply-side economists and supply-side economics–from the 1970s to the present day–in those first 44 pages:

“Pseudo-economists”, “cult of fanatical tax-cutters”, “amateurs and cranks”, “patently ludicrous ideas”, “preposterous ideas”, “theological opposition to taxation”, “ideological fanatics”, “insane”, “detachment from reality”, “extremism of their agenda”, “triumph of the extreme”, “a cult”, “quasi-religious”, “totalistic ideology”, “crank doctrine”, “sheer monomania”, “plain loopy”, “magical”, “sheer loons”, “deranged”, “wingnuttery”, “utterly deluded”, “crackpot economic theories”, “lunacy”, “ludicrous,” etc.

You get the idea.

Interestingly, Chait ends the first chapter arguing that “Tax rates under 40 percent simply do not have much effect on economic behavior.” Thus, he seems to be admitting that all those crackpots back in the 1970s and 1980s who cut income tax rates from 70% to the pre-Bush 40% might have been right after all.

Of course it’s not correct that tax rates of less than 40% don’t affect behavior. The Wall Street Journal has a front-page story today on the big efforts of Wal-Mart to reduce its effective state income tax rate of just 3.5%.

Finally, note that for Chait’s supply-side conspiracy theory to work, the cult would have had to include governments of every major industrial nation, because they have all cut top marginal rates since the 1970s. The top individual income tax rate across the 30 OECD countries has plunged by 26 percentage points since 1980. If that’s wingnuttery, then I’m all for it.

Will Poland Become the Next Flat Tax Country?

Germany’s statist politicians must be a bit uneasy about the recent election results next door. While they are probably happy that the populist-oriented incumbent government - which periodically got into disputes with Germany - was defeated, they will be very dismayed if the victorious Civic Platform Party follows through on promises to implement a 15 percent flat tax. As the biggest “new” member of the European Union, Poland would add considerable fuel to the tax-competition fire if it adopted a simple and pro-growth tax system. The Financial Times reports on the election and the market-oriented reforms advocated by the nation’s new leaders:

Foreign leaders and Poland’s business community on Monday welcomed the victory of the liberal Civic Platform party in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, predicting the revival of contacts iced up under the previous government and the restart of much-delayed economic reforms. …With more than 99 per cent of ballots counted, Civic Platform had 41.4 per cent of the vote, translating into 209 seats in the 460-member parliament. …Civic Platform is likely to form a coalition with the smaller Peasants party, which will have 31 seats. …Some of the most specific comments, concerning the party’s economic policies, were made by Zbigniew Chlebowski, a potential economy minister. He talked of introducing a flat 15 per cent tax by 2009 and said the government would privatise more energetically than its predecessor.