Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

A Poison Pill for China?

Last week top Chinese and American economic officials met in Washington for the second “Strategic Economic Dialogue.” While trade and exchange rates grabbed all the headlines, one less publicized subject was advice from the American side on how the Chinese can promote consumption in their domestic economy.

More consumption would presumably mean the Chinese would buy more American products and send less of their excess savings to the United States, leading eventually to a smaller Chinese trade surplus with the United States and the world.

How did U.S. government officials propose to promote more consumption in China? The Chinese were advised by their American friends to “create a social safety net for its population, similar to the Social Security and Medicare programs in the United States, so Chinese residents do not need to continue to save as much as 50 percent of their income for their retirement and future medical needs,” according to one trade newsletter.

Whoa. Would China’s economic managers really want to saddle its population with the same unsustainable government promises that characterize our two biggest entitlement programs? As my Cato colleagues have long noted, and as USA Today reported on its front page this week, the unfunded liabilities wracked up by those two programs has now reached more than $45 trillion (yes, that’s trillion).

I suppose saddling the Chinese economy with a huge, unfunded government obligation would be one way to “level the playing field.”

Canadian Tax Exiles

Thanks to high tax rates, two successful Canadian artists have escaped to Switzerland. Both Shania Twain and Luc Plamondon have decided that the Canadian residence is not worth the price if government seizes too much of their income. One politician calls tax migration a form of “economic treason,” but the real problem is greedy politicians who think that successful people should be milk cows for wasteful government. The Montreal Gazette reports:

He’s one of Quebec’s highest-profile tax avoiders - moving to Ireland, and then to Switzerland to avoid paying Canadian and Quebec income taxes. For the last few weeks, successful songwriter Luc Plamondon is also the owner of an Order of Canada pin, presented to those who, through their achievements, set an example for other Canadians. Ironically, the presentation of Plamondon’s Order of Canada pin by Governor-General Michaelle Jean in a private ceremony last month comes as the Conservative government is moving to crack down on tax avoidance by Canadian companies. …some MPs, such as Liberal finance critic John McCallum, say they see nothing wrong with electing a residence outside Canada to avoid Canadian taxes, others, like New Democrat MP Pat Martin, strongly condemn the practice. “I call it economic treason to be a tax fugitive,” said Martin, suggesting that Plamondon return his Order of Canada pin. …In 1999, three years before he was named to the Order of Canada, Plamondon moved to Ireland, saying he was doing it to avoid high federal and provincial taxes in Canada and to take advantage of its special tax breaks for artists. “There is an enormous number of writers and musicians from around the world who have moved to Ireland because of the tax savings,” Plamondon said when he sold his Montreal home. …Among the other residents of the Montreux area is Canadian singer Shania Twain, also an Order of Canada recipient. …David Perry, senior research associate with the Canadian Tax Foundation, said countries like Canada, which has higher tax rates than some other countries, risk having some of their most successful citizens elect to live outside the country of their birth. “Any country that has had a very high level of taxation on the rich … soon finds itself exporting that type of talent.” A minority of wealthy Canadians elect to reside outside the country to escape its taxes, and the practice is less common than it once was, he said. However, it nevertheless increases the frustration for other Canadians left to bear the tax burden, he said.

Tony Soprano Earmarks

A commentary from Jeff Birnbaum of the Washington Post aired on American Public Media’s Marketplace yesterday.  The topic was the evolving alternative to earmarks, what Birnbaum calls “phonemarks.” 

Here’s the basic idea (from the transcript available at the Marketplace website):

Eager to avoid the bad publicity of legislative earmarking, lawmakers are secretly calling or writing bureaucrats and demanding that they fund their pet projects by fiat. These projects-via-telephone, or “phonemarks,” are the hottest new gimmick on the Washington scene.

Executive branch officials can dole out millions of dollars with impunity. And they avoid the scrutiny of the public, since they are done quietly and without any disclosure.

Earmarks actually have to be written down in a public law. Phonemarks, on the other hand, are accomplished through bureaucratic sleight-of-hand and nobody but the lawmaker and the bureaucrat need to know for sure.

My preferred descriptor is “Tony Soprano earmarks.”  As I wrote in a January 22 column for Business Week:

Even if transparency leads to fewer earmarks, there are no promises these projects won’t reappear in other ways and other places. The congressional budget process is nothing if not a game of reinvention. You could call spending items Happy Funtime Projects instead and sock them away in another part of the budget, but they will remain the coin of the realm on K Street.

Of course, Congress could simply give a bucket of money to an agency with no strings attached. But then a member of the Appropriations Committee would write a letter to the department head suggesting something like: “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if Project X got some of this pot of money?”

Can you really blame a government department head who reads a letter like that—from a member of Congress who controls his budget and oversees his agency—and obliges? It would strike anyone in that position as similar to Tony Soprano saying to the corner grocery store owner: “Nice little place you got here. Damn shame if anything were to happen to it.”

Now for a secret.  The big problem in Washington isn’t earmarks.  They’re just a symptom of the real problem: policymakers who believe the federal government should be all things to all people.  Pork projects – disclosed or not – are inevitable in such an environment no matter what you call ‘em.      

Tax Competition Catches the Attention of the International Herald Tribune

An article in the IHT reports on the rush to cut corporate tax rates in Europe. The story appropriately credits tax competition, though the story is incomplete in that it should mention the reductions in death taxes, wealth taxes, capital taxes, as well as the flat tax revolution in Eastern and Central Europe:

A tax-cut war is spreading across Europe as leaders of the Continent’s biggest economies give up criticizing smaller neighbors for cutting business-tax rates and decide to join them instead. … It comes after Ireland and new European Union members from Eastern Europe succeeded in attracting investment, and irking their larger rivals, with tax rates of less than 20 percent, among the world’s lowest. … The EU’s average corporate tax rate at the end of 2006 was a record low of 26 percent, and more cuts are in the works this year. … The rush to lower business taxes is a turnaround for the biggest European countries, whose governments once complained that their neighbors were engaging in “tax dumping” and threatened to cut aid to them. Just three years ago, Sarkozy, then the French finance minister, sought EU support to implement a minimum corporate tax rate throughout the bloc. Feeding the complaints were business-tax reductions by Poland, Slovakia and Hungary before their EU entry in 2004. Poland cut its levy to 19 percent from 27 percent. Slovakia adopted a flat-tax rate of 19 percent, down from 25 percent, and Hungary went to 16 percent from 18 percent. The lower rates helped lure operations from companies in higher-tax countries. PSA Peugeot Citroën, an automaker based in Paris, and Siemens, an engineering company based in Munich, for example, moved some production to Slovakia. … Supporters of lower corporate taxes point to the success of Ireland, whose 12.5 percent rate, the lowest in the developed world, is down from 47 percent in 1988. That proved a magnet for such U.S.-based technology companies as Microsoft, Intel and Dell and helped Ireland’s economy grow more than three times the rate of the euro area in the past decade, while still running a budget surplus in nine of the 10 years. … a study of 86 countries last year by KPMG International … showed corporate tax cuts allowed countries to attract and retain business investment with little loss of revenue.

Corporate-Style Accounting Shows Growing Burden of Entitlements

A feature story in USA Today reveals the staggering burden of entitlement programs if future deficits are recognized today. These figures are revealing, but they can also be misleading. The key concern, for instance, should be the size of government in the future, not the share that is debt-financed. Funded liabilities and unfunded liabilities, after all, both result in the transfer of resources from the productive sector to government. Another problem with corporate accounting is that it assumes that political promises are binding. In reality, politicians can enact laws to completely eliminate unfunded liabilities (though they are more likely to pass bills to make the problem worse). Even with these caveats, however, the data is sobering since the numbers show that the U.S. is destined to become a European-style welfare state unless dramatic reforms are implemented:

The federal government recorded a $1.3 trillion loss last year — far more than the official $248 billion deficit — when corporate-style accounting standards are used, a USA TODAY analysis shows. The loss reflects a continued deterioration in the finances of Social Security and government retirement programs for civil servants and military personnel. The loss — equal to $11,434 per household — is more than Americans paid in income taxes in 2006. …Modern accounting requires that corporations, state governments and local governments count expenses immediately when a transaction occurs, even if the payment will be made later. The federal government does not follow the rule, so promises for Social Security and Medicare don’t show up when the government reports its financial condition. Bottom line: Taxpayers are now on the hook for a record $59.1 trillion in liabilities, a 2.3% increase from 2006. That amount is equal to $516,348 for every U.S. household. …Unfunded promises made for Medicare, Social Security and federal retirement programs account for 85% of taxpayer liabilities. State and local government retirement plans account for much of the rest. This hidden debt is the amount taxpayers would have to pay immediately to cover government’s financial obligations.

I’ll Take the Frying Pan over the Fire

Via Ars Technica, here’s a Quad-Cities Online report on the state of Illinois using $1 million in taxpayer dollars to fund litigation in support of an unconstitutional ban on video game violence. The money was taken from other budget areas, including public health, welfare, and economic development.

The ideal would be to give the money back to taxpayers. It rightly belongs to them. But given the choice between using the funds to erode free speech rights or using them to support the welfare state, I’ll take the welfare state.

Of Tax Credits and Government Subsidies

Previously on Cato-at-Liberty, Michael Cannon (post 1, post 2) and Andrew Coulson (post 1, post 2) argued with Jason Furman (on health care) and Sara Mead (on education) about the nature of tax credits and tax breaks.

Furman and Mead claim that tax credits and breaks, because they represent forgone tax revenue, are little different than government subsidies (with a raft of implications). Cannon and Coulson (for various reasons) disagree.

The great “a-ha” moment of the discussion came when Mead pointed to Cato scholars’ criticism of ethanol tax credits as subsidies or “tax expenditures.” Even other Cato scholars agree that ‘tax credit’ equals ‘government subsidy,’ she says.

Surprisingly, up to this point, the argument has largely ignored the use of the credited money/forgone government revenue. I would argue the use of the credited money is fundamental to determining if the credit/tax break is a subsidy.

In the case of an education credit, it is true that government would lose revenue because of the credit. But government has also assumed the obligation to educate the nation’s children, and government would be released from that obligation in the case of the child whose schooling is funded by the credited money. Is the credit, thus, a subsidy?

Consider: If Joe owes his bank a $10 fee for its services and, instead of sending Joe a bill, the bank simply deducts that amount from his account, we wouldn’t describe Joe as subsidizing the bank (or the bank as subsidizing Joe). Likewise, if government has assumed the obligation to educate little Johnny, but instead Joe pays Johnny’s tuition and receives a government tax credit as a result, it seems incorrect to say that Joe has received a subsidy. Instead, just as with the bank and Joe, the education credit represents a net adjustment of Joe’s obligation to government and government’s obligation to little Johnny.

Now, there may be reasons why government should not make this adjustment, but those reasons would not include that the adjustment is a subsidy to Joe. The only subsidy in this system is government’s taking on the obligation to provide little Johnny with schooling — a subsidy that I assume Mead finds acceptable.

Parenthetical #1: I suppose there is one condition under which Joe’s education tax credit should be considered a subsidy: if government education expenditures aren’t about educating Johnny, but about providing jobs for unionized public school workers. Thus, Joe’s paying for Johnny’s tuition at a private school wouldn’t be fulfilling government’s intended obligation. But surely, no one thinks that government education policy is about benefiting unions and bureaucrats instead of educating kids, right?

Health care tax benefits (e.g., HSAs, tax deductions for medical expenses, the tax-free status of employer-provided medical coverage) are a murkier subject. There is no explicit government financial obligation to provide the entire nation with health care (though supporters of socialized medicine claim there should be such an obligation — and, I assume, they are intellectually consistent and support tax breaks and credits for the private provision of health care).

There are, however, legally established government obligations to provide health coverage to the poor (Medicaid, SCHIP, et al.), the elderly (Medicare, Medicaid, et al.) and to guarantee everyone access to care. It may be that the various medical tax credits and insurance tax breaks help government to fulfill those obligations at lower cost than other policies. If that is the case, then tax breaks and credits may be part of the optimal policy for fulfilling that obligation (and Furman would be arguing for a policy change detrimental to welfare).

Parenthetical #2: Full disclosure here — I’m of the camp that health care expenditures should be treated no differently, tax-wise, than other expenditures, and that government has no special a priori obligation to provide health care or health coverage.

Now, juxtapose the above two situations with ethanol tax credits and the other sorts of tax breaks that Cato scholars regularly decry. While there are legally established government obligations to provide schooling for children and health benefits to certain sub-groups of the population, there is (that I’m aware) no government obligation to provide American citizens with corn-based energy for transportation.

Parenthetical #3: I ignore the wacky claim that the U.S. government has an obligation to provide ”energy security” so the nation is protected from evil Canadian and Mexican oil sheiks.

This means that there is no government obligation that ethanol producers can fulfill privately, and thus receive a tax credit or tax break. The ethanol industry’s tax breaks and benefits are not simply “squaring accounts” in the manner as Joe, little Johnny, and the government. The ethanol tax benefits seem to be clear cases of government subsidy, and they should be criticized as such.

Where does this reasoning leave the discussion between Cannon and Coulson on the one hand, and Furman and Mead on the other? At the very least, it seems Coulson’s position is fully consistent with Cato’s general critique of subsidies. Further, given the premise that government has some special obligation to provide health care, Cannon’s position also seems consistent with Cato’s general critique of subsidies.

I am curious, though, whether the Left’s sudden concern over subsidies is consistent with positions they take on health care, education, and other policy areas….