Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Using Markets to Solve Water Shortages

South Florida is suffering a water shortage, but the shortage only exists because politicians are unwilling to allow market-based pricing. There is no shortage in the markets for air conditioners, automobiles, and haircuts, but that is because prices are allowed to rise and fall to reflect market conditions.

An article posted at TCSDaily.com offers a first-hand account of living with government-imposed price restrictions and draws an appropriate analogy to the price controls that caused gasoline shortages in the 1970s:

So here we are, in the spring of 2007, with rain below average, with a low lake level, little else in the way of reservoirs, and a water shortage. What is the response? Well, a rational response might be to price a scarce commodity such that people will use it only as they need it, and not frivolously. …Instead, we get the response of the local commissars. So, not allowing the market to work, and not allowing prices to provide signals to the participants, they have decided to run our lives for us.

…I live at an odd numbered address. That means that if I want to water my lawn, I can only do it on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday mornings, from four to eight AM. I can water my plants with a hose on the same days, but only between five and seven PM. My neighbors across the street, and behind my house on the next block, get Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday.

…Over thirty years ago, in the first OPEC oil embargo, the government, rather than allowing prices to rise to account for the reduced supply, told people when they could purchase gas based on the parity of their license plate — even one day, odd the next. My recollection was that this did nothing to alleviate the shortage — the lines remained. The problem was only solved when Nixon-era price controls on oil were lifted, the market was allowed to work, and oil prices eventually (and it didn’t take all that long) fell to historical lows.

…[H]ere’s a radical concept. How about pricing the commodity to the market? Maybe, if people had to pay more for water to water their lawn, they’d use less of it? Yes, I know that it’s hard to believe, but there really are some people out there who buy less of something if the price is higher.

Mauvaises Idées

The International Herald Tribune reports that Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party candidate for the French presidency, wants to impose price controls on banking services. She also wants to distort the allocation of credit by having the government guarantee loans to young people.

These ideas do not make economic sense, but they are a sign of pogress. Thirty years ago, a Socialist in France would be arguing for nationalization of banks. At this rate, maybe the Socialists will be advocating free market ideas within 300 years:

In a French presidential campaign with recurrent anti-capitalist undertones, the Socialist Party candidate, Ségolène Royal, took aim at banks Tuesday, accusing them of penalizing the poor with low interest rates on savings and high overdraft fees.

…Banks should pay customers more interest on current accounts than the 0.5 percent to 3 percent common today, Royal said. They should also credit bank accounts on the day a transfer is made, and give every young person with a “project” a free €10,000 loan that would be guaranteed by the state.

The Tax Code Nightmare Continues

Money, a personal finance magazine, periodically used to conduct a test by sending a hypothetical family’s tax information to dozens of professional tax preparers, an exercise that generated a wide array of results because of the tax code’s complexity. Unfortunately, it seems Money no longer conducts this test. But USA Today has stepped up to the plate, albeit in a more limited way. It asked for a tax return from four preparers and got - gee, what a surprise - four different results:

In 1913, the CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter, which spells out the U.S. tax code in all its riveting detail, was 400 pages long. In 2007, it contained 67,204 pages. As the tax code turns ever more unwieldy, deciphering it has become more art than science, tax experts say. With the April 17 deadline approaching, USA TODAY decided to test this theory by asking three veteran tax pros — two enrolled agents and one certified public accountant — to prepare a tax return for a hypothetical family, the Baileys. …All the preparers came up with varying results.

To its credit, USA Today draws the obvious conclusion and denounces the current tax code. Unfortunately, other than making some generic comments about the need for reform, the newspaper does not explain why fundamental reform like a flat tax is the only solution:

The fact that they couldn’t agree is testament to how impossibly complex the tax code has become. It also illustrates the utter contempt Congress has for the Baileys and their real-life contemporaries. This year, individuals and companies will spend about $300 billion, according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation, on tax preparation costs. To put that in perspective, that is a 20% levy on top of the $1.5 trillion they will actually pay in taxes. Some 60% of filers — including IRS Commissioner Mark Everson — will pay a professional to do their taxes for them.

New Estonian Government Plans to Lower Flat Tax Rate

The International Herald Tribune reports that the new government in Estonia plans to lower the rate on the flat tax from 22 percent to 18 percent. Estonia already ranks as one of the world’s most laissez-faire economies. Reducing the flat tax rate - which was originally imposed at a rate of 26 percent - will further enhance Estonian competitiveness and increase the power of tax competition in Europe:

Estonian lawmakers on Wednesday gave Prime Minister Andrus Ansip the go-ahead to form a new center-right government that is expected to cut the Baltic country’s flat income tax. …Ansip’s center-right Reform Party, the conservative IRL union and the centrist Social Democrats agreed earlier this week on a coalition platform. They plan to continue market-friendly policies in the country of 1.3 million, including reducing the flat tax from 22 percent to 18 percent by 2011. High-tech Estonia has one of the European Union’s fastest-growing economies, and some economists credit the flat tax, which means everyone pays the same tax rate as opposed to the progressive rate that most European countries use.

Czech Government Officially Proposes Flat Tax

Although its prognosis is unclear because of the ruling government’s lack of a firm majority in parliament, the Czech government has unveiled its flat tax. Combined with reductions in social welfare spending, the tax reform could dramatically boost Czech competitiveness and put more pressure on Western Europe’s welfare states. Tax-news.com reports:

The Czech government has announced a raft of major tax reform plans, which include a flat tax on personal income, a significant reduction in tax on corporate income, and changes to the value-added tax regime. Under the proposals announced by Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, if approved Czech taxpayers will pay a 15% flat tax on their personal income, while companies will see their income tax rate drop to 19% from the current 24% by 2010. At present personal income tax rates vary according to wages, and range from 12% to 32%. The lower rate of value-added tax will increase under these reforms to 9% from 5%, but the headline rate will remain unchanged at 19%. …with the tax cuts accompanied by some major cuts in welfare spending, such as unemployment benefits and healthcare, the government is sure to encounter opposition from the left.

But We Can Trust the Government, Right?

A common criticism of Social Security choice (and defense of the Social Security status quo) is that there are dishonest actors in private markets who would put people’s private account assets at risk of (in the words of the AFL-CIO) “corruption, waste and Enron-ization.” These critics argue that society is much better off keeping Social Security in the honest, benevolent hands of Uncle Sam.

What must these critics be thinking about today’s NYT above-the-fold article on teacher pension fund shenanigans in New Jersey? The lede says it all:

In 2005, New Jersey put either $551 million, $56 million or nothing into its pension fund for teachers. All three figures appeared in various state documents — though the state now says that the actual amount was zero.

Like many state and local government pension systems, New Jersey’s is woefully underfunded compared to the benefits it will have to pay in the future. (This situation will make headlines in the coming years, as state and local governments begin to disclose their pension fund and retirement benefit system shortfalls in accordance with a recent GASB requirement.) In New Jersey’s case, the shortfall is more than has been publicly acknowledged, however: “an analysis of its records by The New York Times shows that in many cases, New Jersey has overstated even what it has claimed to be contributing, sometimes by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Talk about the Enronization of retirement benefits…

What should be especially troubling to SS choice opponents is that New Jersey has a number of “good government” provisions on its books, including one requiring any new state spending be paid for using a specified revenue source. When the state sweetened its pension benefits a few years ago, lawmakers supposedly complied with the law. Moreover, New Jersey officials told the NYT that there is no impropriety in the pension fund’s accounting — everything (including the apparent misstatements) is on the level.

So, despite “the right” legal safeguards, despite accounting mandates, despite the existence of a special interest (aka the state’s teachers’ union) with strong incentive to make sure the teachers’ pension fund is healthy, and despite the fund’s handling by supposedly honest, benevolent government, New Jersey’s teachers’ pension fund is “in dire shape, with a serious deficit.”

Choice opponents do have a reasonable concern that bad actors in investment markets could harm private accounts. But they fail to acknowledge that bad actors (and even non-bad actors) can — and do — harm public pensions. Wouldn’t it be sensible to allow people to put their public pension nest eggs in many different private investment baskets (some of which may be susceptible to bad actors) instead of keeping those eggs all in one Social Security basket (also susceptible to bad actors)?

At the very least, wouldn’t it be sensible to give people a choice of which bad actor risk they’d rather run?

Review of Barber’s Consumed

I have a review in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) of Benjamin Barber’s new book Consumed, which examines the supposed perils of material plenty. The book’s unsubtle subtitle makes it clear enough where Barber stands: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.  

Here’s a sample of my take on Barber:

[Barber] sees the explosion of consumer choices today and assumes that Americans are growing ever more materialistic: The more gadgets, gizmos and fripperies the marketplace serves up, the more deeply we fall under commerce’s evil spell. In fact, the opposite is true.

Political scientist Ronald Inglehart has exhaustively documented a world-wide shift toward “postmaterialist” values, in which, as he puts it, the “emphasis on economic achievement as the top priority is now giving way to an increasing emphasis on the quality of life.” The more stuff we have, the less interested we become in simply accumulating more and the more we seek out instead the intangible satisfactions of memorable experiences, meaningful work and self-realization.

The existence of books like Mr. Barber’s proves the point. In an amusing irony, the progress of capitalist development creates a continuing demand for fulminations against the evils of materialism. Thus do anti-market intellectuals like Benjamin Barber find their niche in the consumerist cornucopia they so revile.

For my further thoughts on the revolutionary social consequences of capitalist mass affluence, check out my forthcoming book (out next month) The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture.