Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Our Depressingly Bipartisan Farm Policy

When Democrats regained control of Congress after the 2006 election, they promised to pursue fiscal discipline and bring the curtain down on “business as usual” and the “culture of corruption” in Washington. Apparently U.S. agricultural programs were exempted from any of those promises.

In a perfectly bipartisan vote yesterday, the Senate rejected a modest reform amendment to the 2007 farm bill. Sponsored by Sens. Richard Lugar, R-IN, and Frank Lautenburg, D-NJ, the amendment would have repealed Depression-era farm programs that deliver huge subsidies to a relatively small number of farmers who grow so-called program crops—corn, cotton, rice, wheat and soybeans—and import protection for sugar and dairy.

The amendment would have replaced those programs with a generously subsidized system of insurance. While still far removed from the free market, the proposed alternative would have been less costly and market-distorting than the current system.

Yet even such an incremental step away from our current command-and-control farm policies went down in flames by a 37 to 58 margin (Senate roll call vote no. 417). Voting against the reform were exactly 29 Democrats and 29 Republicans. When it comes to farm programs, neither party represents the majority of Americans who must pay the high cost of U.S. farm programs. [The Center for Trade Policy Studies has documented the cost and proposed a plan to bring U.S. farm programs into the 21st century.]

Not surprisingly, with the Iowa presidential caucuses less than three weeks away, the five senators who were absent from the vote are all busy running for president!

Does Jimmy Carter Really Speak for African Farmers?

Jimmy Carter’s grasp of economics apparently hasn’t sharpened in the 27 years since he imparted a wretched U.S. economy to his successor.  Or perhaps his poor-man-advocate bona fides should be scrutinized more closely.

In a Washington Post op-ed today, the former president rightly protests the egregious U.S. farm bill for its continuation of lavish subsidies to American commodities’ producers.  Carter explains how subsidies breed overproduction, which suppresses world commodity prices, thereby reducing the incomes of poor farmers in countries where commodities dominate the economy.

Carter favors proposed amendments to the current farm legislation that would replace subsidy programs with crop insurance programs to protect farmers against excessive loss, which is an improvement, though not a solution.

But, in the last paragraph of his article, Carter contradicts everything he writes before that, revealing himself to be no friend of poor farmers abroad or simply ignorant of economic processes.  He writes:

I am still a cotton farmer, and I have been in the fields in Mali, where all the work is done by families with small land holdings.  Cotton production costs 73 cents per pound in the United States and only 21 cents per pound in West Africa, so American farmers do need protection in the international marketplace.

Now wait a second.  This is a very curious statement.  If cotton production is so much cheaper in West Africa than in the United States, then more production should happen there and less should happen here.  If Carter is really interested in the well-being of West African farmers, “whose scant livelihood depends on cotton production,” he should advocate free trade in cotton.  Why instead does he advocate that U.S. farmers be protected in the international market place?  West African incomes will continue to suffer if U.S. subsidy programs are replaced by U.S. tariffs, which is what Carter seems to be advocating.  How does it help Malian farmers lift themselves out of poverty if they can’t effectively compete on their advantages?  Higher U.S. tariffs would only drive down the world price (as subsidies do) and likely compel other importer nations to raise tariffs to protect their own producers, shrinking the market further for Malian farmers.

Meanwhile, does Carter have any empathy for America’s lower income families?Apparently, not enough.  Protection of U.S. cotton farmers artificially raises the prices of textiles, which means that clothing and shoes are more expensive than they would be otherwise.  Expenditures on necessities, like clothing and food, account for a higher proportion of the budgets of lower income families.  Thus, artificially raising the prices of those products is akin to a regressive tax – it burdens those with less income disproportionately.

Perhaps Carter is not writing as the founder of the Carter Center, an international NGO, as the byline indicates, but as a small cotton farmer from Plains, Georgia, who believes the current subsidy system unfair because the big farms get most of the largesse.

There Is No Such Thing as Mandatory Federal Spending

Sometimes, governments lie.  For example, the U.S. government describes outlays for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as “mandatory” spending, in contrast to “discretionary” spending on things like national defense and bridges to nowhere.

Yet “mandatory” spending is not really mandatory.  It too is discretionary, and everyone knows it.  The only thing that makes “mandatory” spending different is that Congress creates legislative formulas that automatically determine spending levels, instead of determining spending levels each year through the regular appropriations process.  Congress can change those formulas at its discretion, which means that such spending is actually … discretionary.  Calling such spending “mandatory” is therefore a lie that serves only to conceal the choices Congress has made.

The U.S. government, its officers, and its agents should describe federal spending as either “automatic” or “appropriated.”  There is no such thing as mandatory federal spending.

Update: I stand corrected.

Three Cheers for Whoopi

It’s no fun when the IRS take a big bite out of your paycheck. But it’s even worse when the taxman makes you pay additional layers of tax on the same income. And the ultimate outrage is when the government imposes another layer of tax just because you die. Plenty of economists have complained that the death tax is a punitive form of double taxation that penalizes capital formation, but Whoopi Goldberg probably did more to advance the cause of death tax repeal when she pointed out the moral injustice of the current system during a recent episode of ABC’s The View.

Senate Farm Bill By the End of the Week?

The Senate re-commenced debating the farm bill on Friday, after Democrats and Republicans struck an agreement over the amendments process (see my earlier blog entry here). Senate leaders are hoping that they can get a bill passed by the holiday recess, and on to conference early in the new year.

Although President Bush has threatened to veto the bill that emerged from the Senate Agriculture Committee (the bill being debated now), as well as the House Farm Bill passed in July, powerful members of Congress don’t seem too rattled. According to a recent article, Colin Peterson (chair of the House Agriculture Committee) is fairly confident that he and President Bush can get together, just the two of them nice and cozy, and come to an agreement. The money quote:

…if we can get all of these other people out of this thing and just sit down and say, ‘Look, for the betterment of the country, hopefully we can work this out.’ That’s my plan.

By “all these other people”, Mr Peterson presumably means you and I, and anyone else who is unhappy with the current state of agriculture policy in America. So sit tight, everybody, and wait for the check (currently $288 billion worth).

Thomas Sorensen Avoids High Taxes

The International Herald Tribune does a great job describing tax competition in action in the European labor market.

Young Danes, often schooled abroad and inevitably fluent in English, are primed to quit Denmark for greener pastures. One reason is the income tax rate, which can reach 63 percent.

Denmark has fairly pro-market economic policies, ranking 15 in Economic Freedom of the World, and is enjoying solid economic growth. However, “success has given rise to an anxious search for talent among Danish companies, and focused attention on émigrés like Sorensen…The problem, employers and economists believe, has a lot to do with the 63 percent marginal tax rate paid by top earners in Denmark - a level that hits anyone making more than 360,000 Danish kroner, or about $70,000.”

The high taxes are driving out young and skilled Danes, many to London.

Danish taxes also contrast sharply with those in nearby London, often jokingly referred to among Danes as a Danish town, because so many of them live there. Lower taxes on high earners have been a centerpiece of the policy mix that has fed the rise of London as a global financial center since the 1980s.

Second Video Experiment

Many of you were kind enough to comment on the first video I narrated, which discussed the importance of a more competitive corporate tax system. Because of popular demand (perhaps a slight exaggeration), a second video has been released. This one discusses the vital role of tax competition as a constraint on government. Based in part on your suggestions, this new video was filmed in a real studio with professional equipment. And I even put on a coat and tie since a few people thought the casual look detracted from the message in the corporate tax video.

The message, of course, is what really matters in these videos. Regular readers of Cato-at-liberty surely have noticed that Chris Edwards and I regularly comment on the dramatic tax policy changes that are taking place all over the world. We would like to claim that this is because politicians are reading our papers, but a bigger factor is tax competition. Simply stated, because of globalization, it is much easier for the geese that lay golden eggs to fly across the border. This means governments are being forced to lower tax rates and reform tax systems.

This video, as well as a book that Chris and I are writing, explains this liberalizing process. But it’s not all good news; both the video and our future book warn that statist politicians want to curtail tax competition.

I would be very interested in receive feedback on this new video. Is the message compelling? Are footage and graphics being used effectively? Any thoughts or suggestions would be welcome.