Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

The School Choice Revolution Continues

The teacher unions are not having a very good year. Utah is on the verge of a sweeping school choice plan, and South Carolina may be next.

The Wall Street Journal explains:

South Carolina could be next. Legislation is now being drafted to allow nearly 200,000 poor students to opt out of failing public schools by giving them up to $4,500 a year to spend on private school tuition. Middle class parents would be eligible for a $1,000 tax credit.

Governor Mark Sanford, a Republican, also wants to create more choice within the public system by consolidating school districts so students who can’t afford to live in a certain zip code aren’t forced into the worst public schools — a system that now consigns thousands of African-American students to failing schools. In his State of the State Address last month, Mr. Sanford branded the current districts a “throwback to the era of segregation.” The comment drew hardly a flutter in the legislature, he told us, because “everyone knows it’s true.”

Despite a 137% increase in education spending over the past two decades and annual per pupil spending that exceeds $10,000, South Carolina schools trail the nation in performance. The state ranks 50th in SAT scores, only half of its students graduate from high school in four years and only 25% of eighth graders read at grade level. The Governor’s budget puts it this way: “The more we expose students to public education, the worse they do.”

In last year’s elections three legislators paid for their opposition to school choice with their seats. One freshman reformer is Representative Curtis Brantley, an African-American Democrat from rural Jasper County who defeated a white incumbent in a June primary. He told us he supports school choice because something must be done to shake up the status quo.

Flat Tax in Romania

Romania’s flat tax is generating results that would make French politicians delirious with joy — huge increases in tax revenue. Income tax collections jumped 44.7 percent in 2005, the year the flat tax was introduced. (Sadly, the increased revenue isn’t keeping pace with Romanian government spending; as the country works to meet the various conditions for EU membership, its budget deficit is growing, which has led to complaints from Brussels.)

Rather than learn from this “Laffer Curve” example, the high-tax nations that dominate the EU are complaining about Romania’s “harmful tax competition.” A Hungarian news service reports:

Romania increased spending on roads, railways, pensions and other areas last year, mainly in December, to bring standards closer to those in the EU, which it joined on January 1.

…The Finance Ministry said today the government boosted revenue to 31.8% of GDP last year from 30.3% the previous year, helping meet a key EU recommendation. EU Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said last year that budget revenue as a proportion of GDP was lower than in any EU nation and recommended the country increase it. Economic growth, which the government has estimated at about 8% last year from 4.1% in 2005, also stimulated revenue collection, the finance ministry said.

…Romanian government spending increased 25% last year in nominal terms and accounted for 33.5% of GDP, from 31.2% in 2005, the ministry said. Income tax collection rose 44.7% to 9.8 billion lei ($3.8 billion). Romania has said income tax revenue has consistently increased since January 1, 2005, when it introduced a flat tax of 16% on corporate and personal income, the lowest in eastern Europe. It replaced a corporate tax rate of 25% and a personal income tax rate of as high as 40%.

More Evidence of FEMA Incompetence

Failure is rewarded in Washington, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is a prime example. Its squandering of money after last year’s hurricane season was astounding even by government standards.

If Republicans had a shred of principles, they would have used the fiasco to argue that responding to natural disasters is not a proper role of the federal government. Instead, FEMA gets a bigger budget.

The Associated Press reports on new evidence of FEMA’s reckless stewardship of taxpayer funds: 

In the neighborhood President Bush visited right after Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. government gave $84.5 million to more than 10,000 households. But Census figures show fewer than 8,000 homes existed there at the time.

…The pattern was repeated in nearly 100 neighborhoods damaged by the hurricanes. At least 162,750 homes that didn’t exist before the storms may have received a total of more than $1 billion in improper or illegal payments, the AP found. The AP analysis discovered the government made more home grants than the number of homes in one of every five neighborhoods in the wake of Katrina.

…[T]he AP’s findings are similar to those of a February report by the Government Accountability Office, which found hurricane aid was used to pay for guns, strippers and tattoos. The GAO concluded that between $600 million and $1.4 billion was improperly spent on Katrina relief alone. In one neighborhood GAO scrutinized, at least one person gave an address as a cemetery. Records show FEMA gave 27,924 assistance grants worth $293 million in that neighborhood. The AP’s analysis shows only 18,590 homes existed, meaning up to $98 million in aid could have been disbursed improperly or illegally.

Unsurprising News from the Pentagon

The Washington Post reports yesterday on cost overruns for weapons procurement. “It is not unusual for weapons programs to go 20 to 50 percent over budget, the Government Accountability Office found.”

That’s for sure. As I’ve documented, it’s not unusual for weapons to more than double in cost. I’m talking about the F/A-22 Raptor, the V-22 Osprey, the CH-47F helicopter, the Patriot missile, and on and on. See here, and see the discussion in Downsizing the Federal Government.

The same pattern occurs in federal highway projects, energy projects, and many other government endeavors.

Part of the reason this occurs is that contractors and government officials have a quiet understanding that the initial cost numbers that are used to get projects launched should be low-balled. Both sides know that later on, after projects are underway, excuses can be found to raise the price tag. “The scope of work has expanded.” “We couldn’t have foreseen those additional problems.” “The mission requirements have changed.” “There are new regulatory requirements.”

It doesn’t really matter. Once the money is flowing to certain states and jobs are at stake, no member of Congress has an incentive to be frugal with taxpayer money. 

Not Overstated

Last year, Jagadeesh Gokhale and I estimated [pdf] that state and local governments were sitting on about $1.4 trillion of promised, but unfunded, health care costs for their workers.

The Economist kindly discussed our estimate in their November 18 issue, but noted: “Even if Messrs Edwards and Gokhale have overstated the problem …”

It turns out that we hugely understated the problem for at least one state. We had New Jersey down for $20 billion, but news from that state today indicates that taxpayers may get hit with a $78 billion tab for state worker health costs unless are reforms are made (or $8,500 for every resident of the state).

New at Cato Unbound: Alan Reynolds’ Income Distribution Heresies

In a speech yesterday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke worried that rising income inequality may make Joe and Joanne Lunchbox “less willing to accept the dynamism … so essential to economic progress,” which would be bad. ”Bernanke Warns of Economic Inequality,” Forbes’ headline tolls. 

Bernanke is evidently sold on what economists call the ”skill based technical change” hypothesis, which basically says that new technology has increased the productivity, and thus the wages, of high-skilled workers faster than it has for low-skilled workers. Bernanke sagely advises us not to look to globalization as the source of increasing inequality, and urges a broader diffusion of the kinds of skills that really pay off in today’s economy.

But is there actually something to be worried about? Is income inequality really widening at all? Are the incomes of the wealthiest increasing faster than those of the rest of us?

As it happens, those are the question of this month’s edition of Cato Unbound, “Interrogating Inequality,” which kicks off today!

It turns out these questions are a lot harder than they seem, and the answers turn on which set of government statistics — each with its own special biases — one consults. In this month’s lead essay, “Income Distribution Heresies,” Cato’s own Alan Reynolds — who set off a firestorm of controversy with a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month disputing the received wisdom about growing inequality — clarifies and refines his argument that massively increasing income inequality is an illusion. Replying to Reynolds, we’ll have the Brookings Institution’s Gary Burtless, University of Oregon economist and econ-blogger Mark Thoma, Cornell University inequality specialist Richard Burkhauser, and the Germano-Italian econo-duo Dirk Krueger and Fabrizio Perri, of the Universities of Pennsylvania and Minnesota (and the Minneapolis Fed), respectively.

So … is the specter of rising income inequality a statistical quirk or not? What’s really going on, income distribution-wise? Why not pay more attention to the wealth and consumption numbers, in any case? Only Cato Unbound readers will really be in the know.

Goldman Sachs Predicts Recession if Bush Tax Cuts Expire

The Congressional Budget Office predicts a budget surplus in 2012, but only because it assumes the Bush tax cuts expire in 2011 (a reasonable assumption) and that this will lead to a flood of new tax revenue (a very unreasonable assumption). A TCS Daily column by James Pethokoukis notes that this leads the Wall Street firm of Goldman Sachs to predict a recession in 2011:
Deficits are often used as reason for higher taxes, such as in 1993 and 1982. But to believe in higher taxes as sound economic policy in coming years, you also have to believe in the CBO’s cheery forecast that hundreds of billion of dollars in new taxes will have little or no effect on economic growth. Now you don’t have to be an acolyte of supply-side guru Arthur Laffer to find that sort of “static analysis” a little weird. Most Americans probably would. So, apparently, did the economic team at Goldman Sachs, the old employer of Robert Rubin, President Bill Clinton’s second treasury secretary. Thus the firm’s econ wonks decided to try and simulate the real-world effect of letting the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of 2010. Using the respected Washington University Macro Model, Goldman reset the tax code to its pre-Bush status, assumed all tax cuts expired, and watched how the economy reacted as 2011 began. What did the firm see? Well, in the first quarter of 2011 the economy dropped 3 percentage points below what it would have been otherwise. “Absent a tailwind to growth from some other source,” the analysis concludes, “this would almost surely mark the onset of a recession.”