Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

May Day in Latin America

This Tuesday, May 1, Venezuelan ruler Hugo Chavez will take control “of Venezuela’s last remaining privately run oil projects.” The symbolism is obvious: the socialist May Day. Last year, Bolivian president Evo Morales sent his soldiers to occupy the gas fields in his country on May Day.

So I’m reminded, as I was last year, that May 1 is also the anniversary of the institution of private retirement accounts in Chile. Since then Chile has been a great economic success story.

Perhaps 25 or 50 years from now, we will know whether Chile’s privatization or Bolivia’s and Venezuela’s nationalizations brought a higher standard of living to their citizens.

“The Most Important Health Care Legislation of Our Lifetimes”

That is how Gov. Mitch Daniels describes his health care reform plan (which the Indiana legislature passed last night) in an email his staff helpfully forwarded my way.  According to the Indianapolis Star, Daniels’ plan will:

  • Expand Medicaid eligibility for pregnant women and children
  • Provide health insurance subsidies to individuals making $20,420 and families of four making $41,300 per year (i.e., 200 percent of the federal poverty level)
  • Provide those beneficiaries with $500 of free preventive care and $1,100 in a health savings account
  • Institute a “slacker mandate” that requires insurers to allow children to remain on their parents’ insurance policy up to age 24
  • Increase the cigarette tax by $0.44/pack, to $0.995/pack

Daniels was understandably moved.  Here is his full quote:

The health plan passed last night can fairly be described as the most important health care legislation of our lifetimes.  I have asked a host of people whether they can think of a better example and nobody has.  I am excited about the passage of the plan and what it can mean for uninsured Hoosiers and for low-income children, and, of course, to try to bring down the second-highest smoking rate in America.

Did Gov. Daniels (R!!) bother checking with anyone who has actually set foot outside of Indiana?  Whatever the case, here are a few things the Daniels plan will also do:

  • Crowd-out private coverage
  • Encourage cigarette smuggling and related crime
  • Trap more Indianans Hoosiers in low-wage jobs
  • Re-create in Medicaid the dependence problems that Congress sought to eliminate with welfare reform
  • Impose a brutally regressive tax on the poor.  According to Harvard’s Kip Viscusi: “The usual concerns about regressive taxes involve those that are regressive in percentage terms, that is, the poor pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than do the wealthy. Cigarette taxes are actually so regressive that the poor pay a much higher absolute level of taxes than do the wealthy. In 1990, people who made under $10,000 per year paid almost twice as much in cigarette taxes as those who made $50,000 and above. The people who will bear the cigarette taxes are not the legislators who enact them but rather the janitors and support staff for the legislature.
  • Cost more than projected

When conservatives finally do start questioning why so many supposed good guys keep turning to the Dark Side, they might launch their inquisition with an examination of the Medicaid program, which makes Democratic and Republican governors alike this very tempting offer: big government at one-half the price.

Mallaby, Penn & Teller on Immigration

Sebastian Mallaby’s Washington Post column today on immigration is simply outstanding. After providing evidence that hard-working people who have crossed the border without the state’s stamp of approval do not increase the rate of unemployment, cost the average taxpayer nothing, and at worst depress wages of native high school drop-outs by 9 percent, Mallaby makes the argument that many otherwise decent people seem unable to make: the well-being of immigrants counts, too:

[A]lthough the concern for high-school dropouts is welcome, it must be weighed against the aspirations of migrants. Is it right to push native workers’ pay up by 2 percent [a generous estimate of the gain from tighter restrictions on liberty of movement] if that means depriving poor Mexicans of a chance to triple their incomes?

Of course it isn’t, and given that the total economic effect of immigration on U.S. households is a wash, the big ramp-up in enforcement spending beloved by immigration hawks is an egregious waste of money. But no politician is going to say that.

Another excellent, and rather more entertaining, rejoinder to nativist hysteria is Penn and Teller’s new immigration episode of Bullsh*t, available here for your viewing pleasure.

Irish Policy Makers Resist Tax Harmonization

Tax-news.com reports on the growing concern in Ireland about European Union plans to harmonize the definition of taxable income for corporations. Such a scheme, particularly if it is voluntary, is not automatically objectionable. But Irish lawmakers correctly fear that a common tax base is merely the first step on the path to harmonized (and higher) tax rates:

European Union Taxation Commissioner Laszlo Kovacs has reportedly told Irish business leaders that formal plans for a common EU corporate tax base will be unveiled by the European Commission next week. …despite Kovacs’s assurances that the system would be optional for businesses, many member states, including Ireland, are strongly opposed to the CCCTB plans, wary that it would be the first step towards the harmonisation of corporate tax rates across the EU, an idea favoured by France and Germany. If this was the case, Ireland would certainly have a lot to lose, as its 12.5% corporate tax rate has been cited as a major ingredient in Ireland’s economic revival in recent years, and investors certainly would not welcome European interference with Ireland’s corporate tax regime. Consequently, organisations such as IBEC, and Irish politicians, have been lobbying in opposition of CCCTB. …Irish MEP Eoin Ryan…told MEPs that he “cannot and will not accept” moves towards a common corporate tax base. “Tax competition is healthy for the economic development of the European Union. It provides a clear incentive to European Governments to manage their public finances carefully and to build a corporate tax regime that encourages enterprise,” he stated. “The bottom line here is that no one size fits all policy covering corporate taxation matters in Europe is going to succeed. It is neither sensible nor realistic to seek convergence of corporate tax rates across Europe. EU member states have different demographic and social priorities. EU member states need to use their corporate taxation policies in different ways so as to entice foreign direct investment into their countries and generate employment.”

Send Your Wish-Lists to Senator Clinton

In a press release yesterday, presidential candidate Sen. Hilary Clinton (D, NY) spoke about her commitment to “rural economic development.” Her commitment was demonstrated by introducing a bill in March called the Rural Investments to Strengthen our Economy Act (RISE Act), which provides employer tax credits for “rural entrepreneurs and small business.”

“The RISE Act will increase jobs, wages and other financial incentives allowing individuals to decide where they live by their desire, not by limited opportunities,” said Senator Clinton (emphasis added).

Really? So if I want to live in, say, one of those townhouses in Georgetown, then the government will take money from other people and buy it for me? Awesome.

(For more discussion on rural America, please attend or view online our forum today on the latest trade policy analysis from Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, “Freeing the Farm: A Farm Bill for All Americans”)

Stacked Deck

The Senate Agriculture Committee continues their hearings today with a focus on Title I – that’s the part of the farm bill that deals with farm subsidies. In the list of witnesses (available here), you will see significant representation from the main commodity groups (corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and a few others) and farmer groups (American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union). From what I can see, only two witnesses (out of the list of sixteen due to appear) could be expected to give a different take on farm programs: the North American Millers Association, as a user of commodities, might speak up about the damage commodity programs do to markets, and Bread for the World are rightly concerned about the effect of American farm subsidies on poor people around the world.

To be sure, farmers are affected by these programs and deserve a seat at the witness table. But where are the taxpayer groups? The food producer associations? Is the Committee even interested in the effects these programs have on the rest of us who pay for farm welfare? I guess that’s a rhetorical question.

Getting It Wrong (Again) on Social Security

Yesterday, the Social Security Trustees released their annual report on the programs finances and much of the national news media thought they saw good news. “Extra Year Expected for Retirement Funds,” was a typical headline, with nearly all the media reports focusing on the Trustees’ projection that the Social Security Trust Fund would be exhausted in 2041, a year later than was projected last year.

But, of course, that date is meaningless. The Trust Fund is not a pile of money that can be used to pay Social Security benefits. It is simply an accounting measure of how much money the system owes, a collection of IOUs. No one explained it better than the Clinton administration in its 2000 budget message.

These Trust Fund balances are available to finance future benefit payments…but only in a bookkeeping sense….They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of large Trust Fund balances, therefore, does not by itself have any impact on the government’s ability to pay benefits.

The important date in the Trustees’ Report is 2017, just 10 years from now. That is when Social Security will begin running a deficit. At that point, Social Security will have to begin redeeming the special issue bonds held by the Trust Fund. Since the federal government has no extra money with which to redeem these bonds (note our ongoing budget deficit), it will have to raise taxes, borrow more, or cut other government spending.

Moreover, the failure to reform Social Security has allowed the program’s financial problems to get worse. The system’s total unfunded liabilities are now $15.6 trillion (in discounted present value terms). That’s $100 billion worse than last year, despite $600 billion in savings from changes in technical assumptions.  And, of course, workers still have no legal, contractual, or property rights to their benefits.

That doesn’t sound much like good news to me.