Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Warren Buffett’s Faulty Tax Math

Class-warfare activists were delighted when Warren Buffett recently complained that his tax rate was too low and that his secretary was subject to a higher effective tax rate. The various news reports, including the excerpt below from Tax-news.com, do not provide any detail on Buffett’s taxes, but he almost certainly was being either dishonest or ignorant.

It is probably safe to assume that Buffett receives lots of dividend income and that he also declares a considerable amount of capital gains, both of which are subject to a 15 percent tax rate on an individual tax return. What he did not mention, however, is that corporations pay a 35 percent tax before distributing dividends to shareholders, so the actual effective tax rate on that portion of Buffett’s income is closer to 50 percent.

The capital gains tax is another example of double taxation. An increase in the value of a stock is a reflection of an anticipated increase in the future income stream from that stock. Yet that income stream will be taxed (usually two times!) when it occurs. The real effective rate on that portion of Buffett’s income is harder to calculate, but it certainly will be far higher than 15 percent.

Shifting gears, Buffett’s calculations almost surely include Social Security payroll taxes, which only apply to the first $90,000 of income in exchange for not providing huge benefit payments to rich retirees. Indeed, the overall program is highly progressive once benefit payments are added to the equation, so Buffett’s secretary gets a better deal than he does from Social Security (though both would be better off with a system of personal retirement accounts).

Last but not least, if Buffett really thinks he is not paying enough to government, he can write a check to George Bush, Ted Kennedy, and Nancy Pelosi. But he should not try to assuage his feelings of guilt by seeking higher taxes on other people:

Warren Buffett, perhaps the most successful investors of modern times and one of the world’s wealthiest men, has spoken out against the U.S. tax system which allows him to pay proportionately less of his multi-million dollar annual income in taxes than his cleaning lady. Addressing attendees at the $4,600-a-place fund-raising dinner for the Hilary Clinton presidential campaign, Buffett, who runs investment group Berkshire Hathaway and is reputedly worth $52 billion, told the 600 Wall Street bankers and money managers that: “(We) pay a lower part of our income in taxes than our receptionists do, or our cleaning ladies, for that matter. If you’re in the luckiest 1 per cent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 per cent.” According to Buffett, he makes no use of tax shelters to mitigate his tax liability, but still managed to pay an average tax rate of 17.7% on his $46 million income last year. By comparison, his secretary, who earned $60,000, paid tax at 30%.

Zimbabwean Economics Spreads to Capitol Hill

In Zimbabwe, the government is ordering businesses to cut prices and threatening to jail executives who don’t comply, in an attempt to deal with inflation that is now variously estimated at somewhere between 4,000 and 20,000 percent a year.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill both houses of Congress have passed legislation establishing stiff penalties for those found guilty of gasoline price gouging. The bill directs the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department to go after oil companies, traders, or retail operators if they take “unfair advantage” or charge “unconscionably excessive” prices for gasoline and other fuels in an “energy emergency.” (The complex energy legislation is still working its way through both houses, though both have endorsed the price-gouging provisions.)

How’d’ja like to be the bureaucrat charged with enforcing such vague and emotional language, or the businessperson trying not to incur a 10-year jail sentence for doing something “unfair” or “unconscionably excessive”? It’d be sort of like living in, you know, Zimbabwe.

Did Congress offer bureaucrats and businesses any more specific guidance? You bet they did. H.R. 6 and S. 1263 define an ”unconscionably excessive price” as a price that

(A)(i) represents a gross disparity between the price at which it was offered for sale in the usual course of the supplier’s business immediately prior to the President’s declaration of an energy emergency;

(ii) grossly exceeds the price at which the same or similar crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillate was readily obtainable by other purchasers in the affected area; or

(iii) represents an exercise of unfair leverage or unconscionable means on the part of the supplier, during a period of declared energy emergency; and

(B) is not attributable to increased wholesale or operational costs outside the control of the supplier, incurred in connection with the sale of crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillates.

So that seems reasonable clear: it’s a price that is “gross” or “unfair” or (redundantly enough) “unconscionable.” And it can only happen during a “Federal energy emergency”:

(a) IN GENERAL- If the President finds that the health, safety, welfare, or economic well-being of the citizens of the United States is at risk because of a shortage or imminent shortage of adequate supplies of crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillates due to a disruption in the national distribution system for crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillates (including such a shortage related to a major disaster (as defined in section 102(2) of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act 42 U.S.C. 5122(2))), or significant pricing anomalies in national energy markets for crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillates, the President may declare that a Federal energy emergency exists.

In the United States, unlike Zimbabwe, we have the rule of law. That means vague, emotional, and nonsensical laws can only be passed upon a vote of both houses of Congress and the approval of the president.

It Dawns Upon Gore

This Fast Company profile of Al Gore (via Jim Henley) contains this delicious nugget:

One problem he had in politics, he says, was identifying an issue too early–“ ‘predawn’ is the term I use”–to be able to act on it. But “in the business world, particularly at a time when things are moving so swiftly, if you can see it early, you can make a business opportunity out of it.” He pauses. “For whatever reason, the business world rewards a long-term perspective more than the political world does.”

“For whatever reason”!

It may be that “predawn” Al Gore has killer entrepreneurial instincts, but, being the scion of a political family, just got caught in the wrong game. However, I suspect he landed on the board of Apple, for example, for reasons other than his proven track record as a market ace. And the $175,000 speakers fee may have something to do with his having won the popular vote in a contest against one of history’s most unpopular presidents. But we can only hope that Gore’s many new business ventures help create new wealth and earn him and a bunch of other people a ton of money. For whatever reason, the incentives provided by markets to look further in the future than the next election tend to do us all a lot of good.     

Announcing the Anti-Universal Coverage Club

Inspired by National Review’s recent editorial and Andrew Sullivan’s embrace of same (as well as by Greg Mankiw), I have decided it would be fun and educational to keep tally of those who reject the idea that federal or state governments should strive to provide every American with health insurance.  Call it the Anti-Universal Coverage Club.

Here are the guiding principles of the Anti-Universal Coverage Club:

  1. Health policy should focus on making health care of ever-increasing quality available to an ever-increasing number of people.
  2. To achieve “universal coverage” would require either having the government provide health insurance to everyone or forcing everyone to buy it.  Government provision is undesirable, because government does a poor job of improving quality or efficiency.  Forcing people to get insurance would lead to a worse health-care system for everyone, because it would necessitate so much more government intervention.
  3. In a free country, people should have the right to refuse health insurance.
  4. If governments must subsidize those who cannot afford medical care, they should be free to experiment with different types of subsidies (cash, vouchers, insurance, public clinics & hospitals, uncompensated care payments, etc.) and tax exemptions, rather than be forced by a policy of “universal coverage” to subsidize people via “insurance.”

If you’d like to join the Anti-Universal Coverage Club, let me know by posting something to your own blog, or by emailing me mcannon [at] cato [dot] org (here).  Feel free to forward items from other like-minded individuals.

I predict that neither the American Medical Association, nor the Federation of American Hospitals, nor America’s Health Insurance Plans will join the Anti-Universal Coverage Club.

Cheney’s Secret Failure

The Washington Post has been running a huge series on the power and influence of Vice President Cheney. The first two parts examined his immense influence on the administration’s response to 9/11, “pushing the envelope” of presidential power (not to mention vice-presidential power) and crafting the administration’s position on the use of torture — or rather “cruel, inhuman or degrading” methods of questioning.

But the third part, although written with the same sinister soundtrack, tells a very different story. The Post reporters seem to want us to be alarmed by Cheney’s power over fiscal policy and by his relentless push to reduce the burdens of taxes and spending on the American people. But there’s a problem with that story: not only is fiscal conservatism a good thing — unlike, say, secret authorization for domestic surveillance — but if Cheney’s goal was to constrain spending, he failed utterly.

Jo Becker and Barton Gellman report on Cheney’s power over the budget:

Cheney has changed history more than once, earning his reputation as the nation’s most powerful vice president. His impact has been on public display in the arenas of foreign policy and homeland security, and in a long-running battle to broaden presidential authority. But he has also been the unseen hand behind some of the president’s major domestic initiatives….

And it was Cheney who served as the guardian of conservative orthodoxy on budget and tax matters….

The vice president chairs a budget review board, a panel the Bush administration created to set spending priorities and serve as arbiter when Cabinet members appeal decisions by White House budget officials. The White House has portrayed the board as a device to keep Bush from wasting time on petty disagreements, but previous administrations have seldom seen Cabinet-level disputes in that light. Cheney’s leadership of the panel gives him direct and indirect power over the federal budget — and over those who must live within it….

Cheney often stepped in if he sensed the administration was softening its commitment to Republican “first principles,” Bolten said, and he was “a pretty vigorous voice for holding the line on spending and for holding the line on tax cuts.” Longtime Cheney adviser Mary Matalin said the vice president brings a “spine quotient” to internal debates.

To a fiscal conservative, this all sounds just fine: The most powerful vice president in American history, known as a strong conservative, is put in charge of fiscal policy and forces bureaucrats and Cabinet officers to “live within the budget.”

But we know the rest of the story: President Bush has increased federal spending at a faster pace than any president since Lyndon Johnson — or indeed faster. (And it is by no means all defense and homeland security spending.)

The Post reporters never quite tell us that, though there are some hints:

Cheney shared conservative trepidations about the president’s signature education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, which gave the federal government more control over K-12 education. He has griped privately to confidants, such as economist and CNBC host Lawrence Kudlow, about the administration’s failure to control spending. And in robust internal White House discussions, he raised concerns about the cost of the administration’s decision to expand Medicare to include a new multibillion-dollar drug entitlement, but bowed to the political reality that the president had to fulfill a campaign promise….

“Dick once told me that our president is a ‘big-government conservative,’” said former senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), in a recollection disputed by Cheney’s office. “Now, Dick keeps his opinions to himself whenever he disagrees with the administration, as he should. But I believe that Dick is a small-government conservative.”

In a way, Cheney’s story is the story of the Bush administration: Where they pushed bad policies, policies that dramatically expand the power of the federal government and infringe on our liberties, they have had much success. When Cheney and occasionally Bush backed good policies, policies that would constrain government, they failed miserably. Indeed, if Vice President Cheney is indeed a “small-government conservative” who used his unprecedented power to “hold the line” for “conservative orthodoxy on budget and tax matters,” he has been a failure of Carteresque proportions.

Maybe taxpayers would be better off if Cheney had had his own staff prepare a secret federal budget and implement it without input from Bush’s staff, relevant Cabinet officers, Congress, or the courts.

Jurisdictional Competition is the Only Hope for Europe’s Taxpayers

A new report from the European Commission shows that the tax burden continues to climb. The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that tax competition is forcing politicians to lower corporate rates and to consider lowering tax rates on labor. A Dow Jones report notes that Eastern European nations are having a good effect since their low-rate tax systems are forcing reforms elsewhere in Europe:

Eurostat said the E.U.’s tax burden remained below the high of 41.0% reached in 1999. The tax burden last increased in 2003. Taxes on work rose to 35.2% from 35.1% in the E.U., and to 36.8% from 36.2% in the euro zone. Eurostat said the decline in labor taxes that began at the turn of the century had come to a halt “despite a wide consensus on the desirability of reducing labor taxes.” E.U. governments have agreed that persuading more Europeans to work is essential if the bloc is to remain economically competitive with the U.S. and Asia. Cutting taxes on work is seen as a vital step in that direction. Eurostat said that although taxes on work remained below the 2000 high of 36.5%, they are “much higher…than in the other main industrialized economies.” …there is growing evidence of tax competition between E.U. members that is pushing tax rates down. In general, new E.U. members from eastern Europe have lower top rates of income and corporation tax. Fearing that companies may move production to the new members, some older members of the E.U. have begun to cut corporation tax rates, including Germany and the U.K..

Is Efficient Government A Good Thing?

One of the behind-the-scenes initiatives of President Bush’s budget staff the past six years has been something called the Program Assessment Ratings Tool (PART) analysis. It’s an effort to measure the “effectiveness” and “efficiency” of nearly 1,000 federal programs. Each program is graded on how well it achieves its “goals,” with marks ranging from “effective” (the equivalent of an A grade) to “ineffective” (the equivalent of an F grade).

In Tuesday’s Investor’s Business Daily op-ed section, Ernest Christian and Gary Robbins take a look at the results to date of the effort:

Congress is about to wave its wand over nearly $1 trillion of additional “discretionary” spending that will, among other things, perpetuate or increase funding for nearly 500 expenditure programs that are not even “moderately effective,” according to the Office of Management and Budget. This includes more than 200 expenditure programs that have failing grades of D or F.

By our calculations, the OMB study, called Program Assessment Ratings Tool (PART), further reveals that on average more than half of all federal expenditure programs are falling about 50% short of their stated goals.

This means that out of every dollar spent, 50 cents may possibly be accomplishing something worthwhile, but the remaining 50 cents might as well have been poured down a rat hole. In these cases alone, the cost of government incompetence is over $250 billion per year.

The list of programs with the lowest grades might make any supporter of limited government point wildly and say, “Told you so!” This rogue’s gallery includes the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s pork-filled Community Development Block Grants, the Department of Education’s Even Start literacy program, and Amtrak.

But what about the ones that received the equivalent of an A or B grade – those programs that are “effective” or “moderately effective”? That list includes homeless assistance grants, agricultural export subsidies, Indian housing loan guarantees, the non-insured crop assistance program, and corporate welfare programs like the Trade and Development Agency which subsidizes overseas demand for the products of various corporations.

The main activity these programs are really “efficient” at is spending your money in new and interesting ways on things they shouldn’t be spending your money on in the first place.

Take the non-insured crop assistance program, for instance. This program subsidizes farmers who aren’t holding a federal crop insurance policy in the event of a crop-damaging natural disaster. What did it do to earn the honor of being listed as “moderately effective”? It became very good at increasing the number of crops eligible for subsidies.

Sure, knowing when the government is losing money to fraud or mismanagment is important. But it makes more sense to determine whether these programs should exist at all before deciding what they should be “efficient” at doing. Besides, an efficient but unjustified wealth-redistribution program might actually be worse than an inefficient one. The former will likely be better at finding innovative ways of expanding the scope of its operations.

Slapping the “efficiency” label on certain federal programs is a bit like putting lipstick on a pig. You can dress up Leviathan, but it’s still Leviathan.