Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Refereeing the Cheney-Greenspan Debate

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Vice President Cheney presents a friendly rejoinder to Alan Greenspan’s recent comments about the fiscal profligacy of the George W. Bush years. In it, Cheney notes:

On the spending side of the ledger, I can’t dispute Alan’s general notion that the federal government is too big and spends too much money–we’ve agreed on that point since we both worked in the Ford administration more than 30 years ago. President Bush feels the same way, and that’s why he has steadily reduced the annual rate of growth in non-security discretionary spending.

The key here is to notice that Cheney is only referring to “non-security discretionary spending.” What Cheney wrote isn’t necessarily wrong. But to make it true, you need to ignore all spending on entitlements (like Medicare and Social Security), everything the Pentagon does, and interest payments on the national debt.

What you’re left with is a very small slice of the budget. About 13%, actually. Asking Greenspan to grade the president using only this very narrow criterion is like asking your college to re-compute your graduation-day GPA using only four of the classes you took.

Why ignore the rest of the budget? After all, the Bush administration did have a hand in expanding many parts of it – the Medicare drug benefit is Exhibit A. Nor is everything the Pentagon does related to the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the rising costs of the national debt are a result of the GOP’s unwillingness to cut spending in the face of deficits.

So, what if we put everything back into the mix except the money spent on the Department of Homeland Security, the security-related functions of other federal agencies, and the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan? (The last of these has been estimated by the Congressional Budget Office as recently as January of this year.)

Doing that, you’ll notice the growth rate has not declined steadily. In fact, as you can see in the chart below, the rate has jumped all over the place. It never went below 3% and, thanks to election-year spending sprees, sometimes went as high as 9%. The average annual growth rate since 2001 was 5.8% – faster than the average annual growth of GDP during that period (4.5%) and almost twice inflation (3%).

Looks to me like Alan Greenspan is on the right side of this fight.

Senate Now Debating the Manner in Which to Fleece You

After a disastrous result in the House of Representatives, the farm bill debate has moved on to the Senate, where the main conflict is about how to provide assistance to farmers. Senator Max Baucus (D, MT), who sits on the Agriculture Committe but also holds the purse strings as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, favors a permanent weather-related disaster relief fund alongside more “traditional” farm subsidies. The Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Tom Harkin (D, IA) prefers government subsidies based on farm revenue rather than commodity prices, and more spending on “renewable fuels” and conservation of farmlands.

Sen. Harkin wants about $10 billion dollars over the amount currently slated for farm programs to pay for his pet projects, but Sen. Baucus has made it clear that if Sen. Harkin wants more money, then he has to dance somewhat to Mr. Baucus’ tune. Sen. Harkin has in recent days appeared more open to a “modest” permanent disaster-assistance program if it means he gets his money (see here). Something tells me that Sen. Harkin’s definition of “modest” might be different to mine. Nor am I convinced that a permanent disaster relief trust fund would prevent Congress from approving extra disaster funds along the way.

The administration has issued a veto threat, but on ominous grounds. For example, the administration does not like the tax package that the House approved to pay for extra money for food stamps and sees the House income cap of $1 million dollars annual adjusted gross income as an insufficiently tight means test. As well they might, because it would affect only 7,000 farmers.

The veto threat is ominous because (a) it is based on things that are minimal and easily fixed relative to the entire package itself and (b) President Bush passed the similar 2002 farm bill without too much wailing and gnashing of teeth. At no point has the administration seriously questioned the rationale for these programs. While the President may have little to lose this time by vetoing the thing, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns is reportedly seeking the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Chuck Hagel in Nebraska in 2008. Secretary Johanns has pushed strongly for reforms of farm programs until now, but presumably he would not want to campaign after being behind a farm bill veto.

Here’s an idea: instead of spreading the love around to more farmers (like the $1.6 billion in extra spending for fruit and vegetable growers who have traditionally missed out on largess), tinkering with the income limit and changing the method by which we give money to farmers, how about we scrap the whole thing altogether? See here and here for starters.

Experimental Video on Lowering the Corporate Tax Rate

Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity is exploring how videos can be used to advance economic liberty. For his first attempt, he asked me to be a guinea pig, so I have the dubious honor of narrating this video on America’s uncompetitive corporate tax system.

We want some feedback. If you have a chance to watch the video, let me know 1) whether you think the length (almost 9-1/2 minutes) is too long or too short, 2) whether there is too much or too little humor, 3) whether the graphs, charts and other footage match the narration, and 4) whether the case for a lower corporate rate is made in a cogent and cohesive fashion. I’ve already been told that “Celtic” is not pronounced correctly, so no need to pile on regarding that mistake. Andy also knows that he needs to improve the lighting for his second video, so no need to comment on that either. Thanks in advance for any suggestions.

If You Want To Be Loved, Try Being a Swede

No matter what we do, it seems like the world wants to hug us. We build a welfare state and the world loves it.  Try to reduce it, like the present government, and Roger Cohen in the New York Times says it’s funky.

But, ok, it is funky, moderately funky. The four center-right parties that make up the Swedish government since a year ago are influenced by market-liberal ideas from authors and think tanks, and some of the ministers wrote those books themselves. Three of the parties have fairly influential libertarian factions, and the leader of the fourth has said that he has Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on his bedside table. So expect more tax cuts, privatisation of state companies, an entrenched school voucher system, more private providers and competition in health care and a strong emphasis on deregulation and free trade.

But don’t expect labor market deregulation. When the trade unions organize 80 percent of the workers you don’t pick a fight. And don’t expect a real reduction in public spending. When everybody lives on everybody else’s expense, no one wants to be the first to try to quit. 

Above all, the government will act moderately. The biggest coalition party is actually called “the moderates”, and its ideology is called liberal-conservative – where liberal means liberal (it always confuses Americans), but conservative means that you shouldn’t be too serious, rapid or radical about your liberal ideals.

So in the end, the government will just tip the balance in an intact Swedish middle way between Anglo-Saxon and Continental. Open up and deregulate (after all, this is the country where the social democrats praise free trade) but also tax and spend (after all, this is the country where the new center-right prime minister says that “We don’t want to take away anything, we just want to add.”)

Americans Shifting to Zero-Income Tax States

A story in the Kansas City Star reveals that millions of Americans are moving to states without income taxes. Not surprisingly, politicians and revenue bureaucrats from high-tax states are monitoring escaping taxpayers in hopes of retaining the ability to seize a portion of their income:

No-income-tax states such as Florida, Nevada and Texas are looking increasingly attractive to people getting ready for retirement. …But before you move to a tax haven, it’s important to pay attention to the fine print of how to move. It’s easy to make seemingly minor mistakes that can trigger a painful audit — and a hefty bill — from the high-tax jurisdiction you thought you had left behind. …Some relatively high-tax states are increasingly cracking down on individuals who claim to have moved out of state, but still maintain strong connections to their former homes. Massachusetts plans to hire additional tax examiners in the next few months, some of whom will be assigned to a special “domicile unit” as part of its tax-audit program. … state income tax rates can run as high as 10.3 percent in California and 8.97 percent in New Jersey. Besides Florida, Nevada and Texas, other states with no state income tax for individuals include Washington, Alaska, South Dakota and Wyoming. New Hampshire and Tennessee don’t have a broad wage-based income tax but do tax interest and dividends. …from April 2000 through June 2006, there was a net migration of 2.3 million people moving from states with income taxes to states with no income taxes, an average of more than 1,000 people moving per day, says Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, based on an analysis of census data.

Greenspan Condemns Profligate Republicans

The Wall Street Journal reports that the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board strongly criticizes President Bush and congressional Republicans for wasting so much money on ill-conceived government programs:

In a withering critique of his fellow Republicans, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan says in his memoir that the party to which he has belonged all his life deserved to lose power last year for forsaking its small-government principles. In “The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World,” published by Penguin Press, Mr. Greenspan criticizes both congressional Republicans and President George W. Bush for abandoning fiscal discipline. …Mr. Greenspan, who calls himself a “lifelong libertarian Republican,” writes that he advised the White House to veto some bills to curb “out-of-control” spending while the Republicans controlled Congress. He says President Bush’s failure to do so “was a major mistake.” Republicans in Congress, he writes, “swapped principle for power. They ended up with neither. They deserved to lose.” …”Little value was placed on rigorous economic policy debate or the weighing of long-term consequences,” he writes.