Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

We’re from the Government, and We’re Here to Help You Buy a House

There has been some good analysis of this week’s much-hyped agreement between the U.S. Treasury Department – which facilitated the meeting, we are told, but didn’t use any form of coercion – and mortgage lenders to bail out assist homeowners in danger of being slammed with a much higher monthly payment on their subprime mortgage come January. But there are some elements of the deal that haven’t been greeted with much skepticism – or, indeed, haven’t been reported much at all.

For starters, Treasury secretary Henry Paulson insists the agreement won’t cost taxpayers money. What he really should have said is that it won’t cost federal taxpayers money. But it might cost state taxpayers money. The White House will push Congress to let state governments issue tax-free bonds to fund programs that help homeowners refinance their mortgage. Those bonds have to be paid off by taxpayers some day. I usually like federalism, but this is not the sort I’ve grown to love.

Another part of the deal is to allow the Federal Housing Administration to expand its programs and help refinance 200,000 mortgages. As Paulson reminded reporters, the administration is asking Congress to increase the ceiling on the amount of FHA loans and lower the down-payment requirements to below the current rate of 3% of the home price. And here I was thinking big loans that were handed out with little or no money down were part of what got us into this problem in the first place. Silly me.

Nor is it really clear that the administration’s approach here won’t actually cost federal taxpayers money, either. The proposal allows the FHA to charge loan insurance premiums based on risk, like private lenders do. Currently, all FHA mortgage holders – at a high-risk of default or not – are charged the same amount.  You realize this is a much-needed change when you discover that currently the FHA is running deficit of $143 million because so many of its loans have gone bad and the premiums it collects from all loans isn’t enough to cover the losses. But, as Bloomberg News reports, the post-refinancing default rate of the subprime loans that the White House now wants the FHA to play with could be between 40 to 60 percent.  Taxpayers might get stuck paying for these loans after all.

The implicit theme of these proposals is that Uncle Sam might just be better at this mortgage business thing than the private sector. I guess it might be tiresome to insert a joke here about the U.S. Postal Service, eh?

More Cheerful Evidence of Tax Competition

Gordon Brown’s greed for more tax revenue is probably going to backfire. Britain’s “non-doms” bring considerable prosperity to London, but the Financial Times reports that there already is evidence that they are moving to Switzerland - and taking the UK’s hedge-fund industry with them - because of the Labour government’s compulsive desire for bigger government:

Scores of London-based hedge fund managers are moving part of their operations to Switzerland in readiness for a proposed UK tax crackdown on non-domiciled residents, according to Kinetic Partners, an investment management consultancy. London has become a popular base for the industry, with the city’s 950 or so hedge fund firms managing about 80 per cent of European hedge fund assets. But according to David Butler, founding member of Kinetic, at least 40 per cent of the founders of the consultancy’s 300-plus hedge fund clients are non-domiciles and they are reportedly getting increasingly jittery about the likelihood of a harsher tax regime. … From next April, non-doms who have lived in the UK for more than seven years will face a £30,000 a year levy if they choose to keep their offshore income and gains out of the tax net. However, a greater threat to the hedge fund industry comes from proposals to crack down on offshore trusts that also allow non-doms to escape tax on their investments. “Remove this [exemption] and the general view that is starting to prevail is that £30,000 is the thin end of the wedge,” said Mr Butler. … “There will come a time when people are using the UK just for their finance and back office operations. The key value operations will move offshore.”

This is why tax competition is so important. Politicians (at least some of them) are learning that the geese with the golden eggs can fly across the border. This means that there is growing pressure to lower tax rates and reduce the tax bias against saving and investment. So long as international bureaucracies such as the OECD and European Commission do not succeed in their efforts to cripple tax competition, more and more governments will implement better tax policy. Not because they want to, but because a competitive global economy is forcing them to do the right thing.

More Tax Harmonization in Europe

In an unfortunate development, Luxembourg has finally surrendered to demands from other European governments and agreed that online retailers in the tiny duchy should be deputy tax collectors for other European nations. This means that shoppers in countries with high value-added taxes no longer will be able to buy goods and services and benefit from Luxembourg’s 15 percent VAT. This episode is illustrative of the anti-tax competition mentality in Europe, but America faces the same danger. Politicians from high-tax states want to impose a similar scheme (see here and here) in the United States. The International Herald Tribune has the sad details:

Plans to apply sales tax in the country in which services are consumed, rather than the location of the company that sells them, are the latest assault on Luxembourg’s ability to act as a tax haven. …With its low rates of sales tax, or value added tax, Luxembourg has attracted many of the biggest names in online sales, including companies like, Skype and PayPal. Luxembourg levies VAT at 15 percent, the minimum allowed under EU rules. But most EU countries have a higher rate, making the small but prosperous duchy an attractive location for companies offering electronic services. …Until Tuesday, Luxembourg had blocked proposals to levy sales tax at the place of consumption, saying the change would cost it €220 million, or $324 million, a year, equivalent to 1 percent of its economic activity. Taxation matters require unanimous agreement within the EU, but a country like Luxembourg - which has a population of only 429,000 - finds it difficult to withstand pressure from other countries if it isolated. …The deal was welcomed by larger countries, which stand to increase their revenue.

Peru May Become Latin America’s Next Success Story

The Senate passed the free trade agreement with Peru on Tuesday and it could not have come at a better time. That’s because Peru is increasingly distinguishing itself in the region as a successful market democracy. More than five years of sustained high growth (Peru grew 8 percent last year) are transforming the economy and spreading development to regions of the country that have traditionally benefited little from past progress. Unlike other countries in the region such as Argentina or Venezuela that are also experiencing rapid growth, Peru’s growth is characterized by widespread investment and wealth creation as opposed to redistribution or the mere effects of high world commodity prices.

Why is Peru succeeding? Again, unlike various other South American countries, it has sustained the far-reaching market reforms of the early to mid 1990s, has deepened some of them, and maintained sound macro-economic polices. The policies of openness and stability are paying off. Anybody who has been visiting Peru during the past 15 years as I have has noticed vast improvements in countless areas of national and everyday life, including notable progress in the past several years. The center of Lima, notoriously crime-ridden and dirty, has become safe and attractive. That kind of revitalization has occurred throughout the city and in major cities and towns of Peru. Consumer goods and services—cell phones, household appliances, and private education, for example—previously unavailable or in short supply have proliferated and serve all markets, rich and poor.

A change in values more oriented to a modern society may also slowly be taking place. The majority of Peruvians supported the FTA with the United States. The quality of service and attention to detail seems to have improved among Peruvian workers and management across a broad array of businesses. Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa recently noted that he was now much more hopeful about Peru, not because of Peru’s positive economic indicators, but rather because “something profound seems to have changed in the culture of the country. One would have to be blind not to see that.”

In his excellent and new book, La Revolución Capitalista en el Perú (The Capitalist Revolution in Peru), leading Peruvian journalist Jaime de Althaus carefully details some of the changes in Peruvian society.

Traditional and non-traditional exports have boomed, with the latter experiencing higher growth. Peru has now become an exporter of software, to the tune of $20 million last year and growing at a rate of 25 percent.

The middle class is growing. The gap between the rich and the poor and between Lima and the rest of the country has also shrunk. Income gains have been proportionately greater for the poor than for the rich.

Peruvian companies—many of them new—have become successful nationally and internationally, not only exporting abroad, but setting up plants and offices abroad in areas as diverse as textiles, soft drinks, mining, milk products, clothing, banking and detergents. Some Peruvian companies have seen their businesses nationalized in Evo Morales’s Bolivia.

Vast areas of the Peruvian coast that have long been desert have turned green as a result of the “silent agroindustrial revolution” that has also taken place in some parts of the interior. Peru’s produce is now diverse, ranging from sugar cane to paprika to asparagus.

Personal credit as a share of total credit has tripled in the past ten years and now accounts for about 24 percent of total credit.

Department stores and other businesses now regularly cater to the “popular” classes. Enormous malls have been built and are now thriving in some of the poorest sections of Lima.

President Alan Garcia, whose first term in office during the second half of the 1980s was a disaster, is building on this progress and—I never thought I would say this—is so far turning out to be pretty good. In recent weeks he has written two articles in El Comercio, the country’s leading newspaper, in which he sets out a bold vision of promoting growth that has set off an intense national debate and spurred the leading news magazine, Caretas, to put “The Turn to the Right” on a recent cover.

Garcia has called for Peru to grow at Asian levels for years to come. He has accused bureaucrats, NGOs, environmentalists and special interests of blocking important policy changes that would increase growth and reduce poverty. He has made specific proposals to allow private investment in large parts of the jungle so as to export wood and to better protect the region from those who illegally log it; he has called on the private titling of large areas of land so that those with resources can exploit that land; he has called on dramatically increasing private investment in mining and other natural resources in Peru; he has called for allowing more private investment in the fishing industry; he has called for hydro-electric dams to built throughout Peru by private capital, rather than the state; he has called for the state to give up property that it does not use and give up functions that are better performed by others. And so on.

Peru is experiencing market success and may still see more of it. Thus also it has become an embarrassment for Hugo Chavez, who has neighboring Bolivia and Ecuador as client states and is pouring a lot of resources into the Peruvian countryside in a campaign to promote his anti-capitalist ideology. Peru has become a key country in Latin America’s ideological battle between the modernizers and the populists.

A lot still needs to be done in Peru before it can be declared a success story. For example, property and land still needs to be titled in the mountains, taxes are still very high, bureaucratic regulations remain onerous, labor laws are extremely rigid, the educational system is terrible. But the free trade agreement will help because it will give permanence to trade policy; and policy stability and competition have been key to Peru’s success thus far. If Alan Garcia can complete Peru’s unfinished agenda, he will have finally pushed the country into modernity and would go down not only as one of the greatest presidents of Peru, but also of Latin America at a critical time in the region’s history.

Independence in 1776 to Dependence on 1776

I recently updated data I presented last year on the total number of federal subsidy programs.

It turns out that the federal government currently operates 1,776 subsidy programs. These include subsidies for states, cities, individuals, non-profit groups, and businesses.

As the chart shows, the number of subsidy programs has increased 25 percent since 2000. 

George W. Bush: He’s no Thomas Jefferson.

Taxes in 2009

All the Democratic presidential candidates appear to agree that taxes must go up.

We have been here before. Bill Clinton promised tax cuts in 1992 and then supported increases. Democrats in Congress supported Clinton’s tax hikes just as they had voted for the 1990 tax increases.

The result? Democrats lost almost one-quarter (63 seats) of their House caucus in the elections for the 103rd and 104th Congress. The Republican president that proposed the 1990 increases lost two years later.

The current group of Democratic presidential contenders may have forgotten this history lesson. I suspect congressional Democrats running next year will remember it.

The High Price of Too-Low Administrative Costs

Supporters of “Medicare-for-All” (and other reforms that would give the U.S. government primary responsibility for purchasing everyone’s medical care) boast that Medicare demonstrates that government can reduce administrative costs below those in America’s bloated, inefficient private sector.  They’re wrong, as Ben Zycher ably demonstrates.

But even if Medicare’s administrative costs are lower, that’s not a virtue

Why?  As David Hyman wryly argues in Medicare Meets Mephistopheles, Medicare keeps administrative costs down by shoveling money out the door with very little oversight.  Similarly, Tyler Cowen argues that administrative costs are efficient if they pay for themselves by reducing unnecessary spending.

Today’s New York Times offers an illustration of how Medicare’s too-low administrative costs leads to waste:

Medicare spends billions of dollars each year on products and services that are available at far lower prices from retail pharmacies and online stores, according to an analysis of federal data by The New York Times. The government agency has paid above-market costs for dozens of items, a comparison of Medicare figures with retail catalogs finds.

For example, last year Medicare spent more than $21 million on pumps to help older and disabled men attain erections, paying about $450 for the same device that is available online for as little as $108. Even for a simple walking cane, which can be purchased online for about $11, the government pays $20, according to government data.

These widespread price discrepancies, including those for oxygen services, have been noted in dozens of regulatory reports.

Private insurers incur administrative costs to make sure they (and their customers) aren’t getting ripped off.  Medicare doesn’t.  The Times article also illustrates why Medicare usually can’t:

[W]hen officials and politicians have tried to cut these costs, they have often encountered a powerful foe: the companies that sell these devices, who ask their elderly customers to serve, in effect, as unpaid lobbyists, calling and writing to their representatives in Congress, protesting at rallies, and even participating in political attacks against individual lawmakers who take on the issue.

“These industries rely on a basic threat: If you mess with us, we can turn the seniors against you,” said former Senator Alan K. Simpson, Republican of Wyoming, who tried cutting Medicare payments while he was in Congress…

Many of those battles focus on the $427 billion Medicare program. Because of fierce patient and corporate lobbying, for instance, Medicare still pays prices for many items that are based on rates established in the early 1980s, when devices were often much more expensive than they are now.

Even as the actual cost of many machines and services has fallen, Medicare has only occasionally lowered what it pays.

To argue for single-payer on the basis of Medicare’s administrative costs is the equivalent of arguing that, because I can set fire to a pallet of $100 bills with a cigarette lighter and a can of gasoline, I should be entrusted with even more pallets of cash because my administrative costs are such a small share of the money involved.

So staggeringly efficient, this Medicare.