Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Tax Havens and Prosperity

The Central Intelligence Agency ranks 229 nations and territories based on per capita gross domestic product and a quick look at the list shows that tax havens dominate the top of the rankings. A majority of the top 20 jurisdictions are tax havens, based on the definition put forth in 2000 by the statists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Luxembourg, Bermuda, and Jersey (the one in the Channel Islands) top the list, while places like the Cayman Islands, Andorra, Hong Kong, and Switzerland also rank among the world’s richest jurisdictions. In an ideal world, other nations would emulate the so-called tax havens. Instead, high-tax nations persecute these jurisdictions as part of an effort to create an OPEC for politicians.

SCHIP’s Bad Bargain

According to a cost estimate released by the Congressional Budget Office last Friday, the Senate-passed legislation expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program would enroll an additional 6.1 million children in SCHIP and Medicaid. However, 2.1 million would lose their private health insurance. So while the legislation would provide government-run health care to 6.1 million children, it would reduce the number of uninsured children by only 4 million.

That’s government efficiency for you: extending health insurance to two children for the price of three!

I’ll be discussing SCHIP at a Capitol Hill Briefing with Patrick Fleenor of the Tax Foundation on September 13 (register now) and in an upcoming Cato Briefing Paper to be released the same day.

U.S. Manufacturing Sector Needs No Protection from Congress

Protectionist measures currently being considered on Capitol Hill would damage America’s manufacturing base and fail to take into account that the nation’s manufacturing sector is in fact booming. In “Thriving in a Global Economy: The Truth about U.S. Manufacturing and Trade,” Cato scholar Daniel J. Ikenson argues, “Justification for [protectionist] bills is predicated on the belief that manufacturing is in decline and that the failure of U.S. trade policy to address unfair competition is to blame. But those premises are wrong. The totality of evidence points to a robust manufacturing sector that has thrived on account of greater international trade.”

Unfair Criticism of the Fair Tax

Regular readers know that I think the flat tax is the more astute tax reform option, but I admire the Fair Tax because it has the same pro-growth features as a flat tax (low tax rate, no double-taxation of saving and investment, no special loopholes, etc). As such, I feel compelled to offer a partial defense against Bruce Bartlett’s anti-Fair Tax column in the Wall Street Journal. Bruce notes some of the political obstacles to a national sales tax, and I largely agree with those observations, but Bruce also says that Fair Tax advocates are wrong to advertise the “tax-inclusive” rate. It is true that ordinary Americans think of “tax-exclusive” rates when looking at state sales taxes, but the Fair Tax people are seeking to compare their proposal to the current income tax, which is calculated on a “tax-inclusive” basis. So while it’s true that sales tax advocates should not let people assume that the Fair Tax is calculated the same way as a state sales tax, this does not mean the “tax-inclusive” rate is not an appropriate measure when looking to overhaul the tax code. Bruce also cites the revenue estimates of the Joint Committee on Taxation as if they were carved on stone tablets, but the JCT has a long track record of inaccurate predictions because of their assumption that tax policy has no affect on economic growth. Using the JCT as an authority is akin to letting the other side serve as both player and umpire:

In reality, the FairTax rate is not 23%. Messrs. Linder and Chambliss get this figure by calculating the tax as if it were already incorporated into the price of goods and services. (This is known as the tax-inclusive rate.) Calculating it the conventional way that every other sales tax is calculated, with the tax on top of the price, yields a rate of 30%. (This is called the tax-exclusive rate.) The distinction is confusing, but think of it this way. If a product costs $1 at retail, the FairTax adds 30%, for a total of $1.30. Since the 30-cent tax is 23% of $1.30, FairTax supporters say the rate is 23% rather than 30%. …professional revenue estimators have always concluded that a national retail sales tax would have to be much, much higher than 23%. A 2000 estimate by Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation found the tax-inclusive rate would have to be 36% and the tax-exclusive rate would be 57%. In 2005, the U.S. Treasury Department calculated that a tax-exclusive rate of 34% would be needed just to replace the income tax, leaving the payroll tax in place. But if evasion were high then the rate might have to rise to 49%. If the FairTax were only able to cover the limited sales tax base of a typical state, then a rate of 64% would be required (89% with high evasion).

Soak the Rich with Lower Tax Rates

Ever since the supply-side tax rate reductions of 2003, the economy has prospered and this has generated a windfall of tax revenue for the Treasury. The Wall Street Journal notes [$] that the lion’s share of this new revenue is from upper-income taxpayers.

There are many factors that influence the economy’s performance, so this does not necessarily prove that the 2003 tax cuts “paid for themselves.” But the windfall certainly bolsters the argument that the right types of tax cuts (lower marginal tax rates) have a positive impact on growth and that this means at least some revenue feedback.

Writes the WSJ:

Since the Bush tax cuts of 2003, the budget deficit has fallen by $217 billion mostly because of a continuing torrid pace of revenue growth. …For the Bush tax cuts to have been a give-away to the rich, people paying the higher marginal tax rates would have to be carrying a smaller share of the income tax load. But the IRS data indicate that they are not paying less. Instead, they are paying more — lots more. More surprisingly, the richest 1%, 5% and 10% of the taxpayers are shouldering a larger percentage of the income tax burden at the federal level than the tax estimators said they would had the Bush tax cuts never materialized. …The amount of tax paid by those earning more than $1 million a year increased to $236 billion in 2005, up from $132 billion in 2003, the year of the tax cut. This was a 78% increase in taxes paid by millionaire households.

…[L]ower tax rates on capital gains and dividends also caused a huge jump in reported income. The National Bureau of Economic Research found an “unprecedented surge in regular dividend payments after the 2003” Bush tax cut. Likewise, the lowering of the capital gains tax was followed by a 150% increase in the amount of capital gains unlocked by the 15% tax rate. Lower tax rates expanded the tax base.

…The supply-side revenue effects on the rich are remarkable: Tax rates on higher incomes have been halved, but the federal tax share of the top 1% has nearly doubled.

Finally, Some Not-So-Bad News on the Budget

The big surprise in the Congressional Budget Office mid-year budget estimates released today isn’t that the year-to-year deficit shrank again.  Or that the long-term liabilities in Medicare and Social Security continue to impend. 

The surprise is that federal spending will only grow about 3% in the current fiscal year that ends this October.  That’s a big improvement over the annual average 7% growth we’ve seen since the first day of the George W. Bush presidency.

How did that happen?  Those familiar with my previous research will probably not be surprised to hear that the new political reality – divided government – has something to do with it.

True, agriculture subsidies are lower this year as a result of higher crop prices.  And the run-up in spending on a variety of programs in 2006 – like the payouts on flood insurance policies after Hurricane Katrina – was temporary.  The most remarkable factor in the trends, however, is that non-defense discretionary spending has been frozen for the first time since the maiden budget of the “Republican Revolution” Congress.  (If the trends CBO estimates hold for the remainder of the year, such spending might actually decline by $1 billion.) 

Sure, part of this is also the result of a decline in spending on federal Katrina relief.  But there’s something else going on, too.  Earlier this year, the new Democratic Congress decided to put the federal budget on auto-pilot until October.  Instead of passing new appropriations bills to fund the government for the entire year, they passed what is called a “continuing resolution” to keep the government operating. 

This didn’t happen because the Democrats were all that interested in spending less money.  They just wanted to get the old budget work left to them by the outgoing Republican Congress off the table so they could get on with more ideological-base-friendly legislation, like the minimum wage increase.  And the Democrats knew that the president might finally start vetoing legislation, too.  A protracted battle over the budget wasn’t something they wanted to spend their energy on in the first half of the year.  Thus, the auto-pilot continuing resolution: a piece of legislation that keeps the government running at basically the inflation-adjusted level of the previous year. 

With the White House veto strategy finally a credible threat*, it looks like we might have a similar sort of outcome on spending this year, too.  Isn’t divided government wonderful? 


* As I told David Jackson of USA Today a few weeks ago, George W. Bush “dislikes Democrats more than he likes big government.”

More Thoughts on Trade Enforcement

In addition to the sock safeguard action against Honduras, the U.S. government recently requested arbitration over alleged violations by Canada of the 2006 Softwood Lumber Agreement.  (We’ve written about this long-running dispute here, here, and elsewhere). Under the SLA, Canada is required to restrict the volume of its exports or impose an export tax (or some combination of the two) when the prevailing monthly price falls below U.S. $355 per million board feet.

The deal, which the Canadians signed with guns to their heads, was agreed during a period of a robust housing market and relatively high lumber prices.  With the decline of the U.S. housing market, lumber prices have gone south, and the stipulation that Canada intervene in the lumber market has kicked in.

Enforcement in this case, then, means that the housing market slump will endure longer than it has to.  Builders will be less capable of offsetting rising mortgage rates with lower priced homes, as the cost of their most important input remains artificially high.

Even the cost of nails should be expected to rise and for the same reason –  enforcement.  On Tuesday, the U.S. International Trade Commission determined preliminarily that imports of certain steel nails from China and the United Arab Emirates (co-winners of the 2006 Congressional Pinata of the Year Award) are being sold at less than fair value in the United States and causing material injury to domestic producers.   Additional duties are likely to be formalized by the end of the year. 

Thus, the administration’s indulgence of Congress’s demands for more trade enforcement will have the noble effect of making life more difficult, in particular, for Americans at the lower end of the income spectrum, who will need to devote more of their limited resources to housing and socks.  More often than not, trade enforcement is just another term for regressive taxation.