Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Transportation Cliff or Pothole?

Recent news reports have zeroed in on Washington’s next “cliff,” the “transportation cliff” that is expected to happen when the federal Highway Trust Fund runs out of money sometime this summer. Most of those articles have a hidden agenda: to increase spending for transit even though transit now gets 20 percent of federal surface transport dollars but carries little more than 1 percent of the travel carried by automobiles (about 55 billion passenger miles by transit vs. 4.3 trillion passenger miles in cars and light trucks). This post will explain some of the politics of the transportation cliff.

1. Why are we about to go off a transportation cliff?

Since 1956, federal highway programs have been financed with federal gasoline taxes. Those revenues go into the so-called Highway Trust Fund (“so-called” because it’s no longer very trustworthy) and then are distributed to the states for highway construction and maintenance. In 1982, Congress began dedicating a small but growing share of gas taxes to transit. Today, more than 20 percent of federal gas taxes are spent on transit, and there is no guarantee that the remaining 80 percent goes for highways, as Congress often diverts some of that money to such things as bike paths, national park visitor centers, museums, and other local pork barrel projects.

Congress reauthorizes this spending every few years. Traditionally, an authorization bill provides a spending ceiling. But the 2005 reauthorization bill made spending mandatory, meaning the ceiling was also the floor. (In 2012, Congress passed another reauthorization bill. That one didn’t mandate spending, but Congress went ahead and spent to the limit anyway, knowing full well that this would mean the Highway Trust Fund would be exhausted by sometime in 2014.)

When the 2008 financial crisis led to a reduction in driving, gas tax revenues failed to keep up with spending. Since then, Congress has had to supplement gas taxes with about $55 billion in general funds in order to keep the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money.

Anti-auto interest groups often portray these supplements as highway subsidies. But they would not be necessary if Congress weren’t diverting 20 percent of gas tax revenues to transit. Although more money goes to highways than to transit, because highways are so much more heavily used, federal subsidies to transit are about 80 times as great, per passenger mile, as federal subsidies to highways.

Highway Bill: Another Spending Test for the GOP

I testified yesterday to the Senate Finance Committee regarding federal highway and transit funding.

I appreciated the committee’s willingness to hear views different than the usual pro-spending positions of the Transportation Establishment, which includes nearly all Democrats, many Republicans active in transportation, and dozens of business, engineering, and construction lobby groups. I discussed reasons why decentralizing transportation funding and decision making would be the best policy approach.

Politically, the highway issue will be very interesting to watch in coming months. Congress needs to act because the Highway Trust Fund faces a huge gap between spending and revenues of at least $14 billion annually. The revenues mainly come from the federal gasoline tax, which everyone agrees is not going to be raised anytime soon.

What should Congress do? To believers in budget restraint, federalism, and efficient infrastructure investment, the answer is obvious: policymakers should reduce federal spending to match revenues. Heritage scholars examine the federalism angle in this piece. I discuss efficient infrastructure investment in this piece.

However, some Republicans apparently want to raise revenues to match today’s high spending levels. If Republicans go in that direction, it will be one more failure to align their policy actions with the fiscally conservative language that peppers their speeches and media comments.

Many Republicans chose the big-spending route on last year’s budget agreement and this year’s farm bill. What route will they take on an upcoming highway bill?

The Growing Threat of a Wealth Tax

Allister Heath, the superb economic writer from London, recently warned that governments are undermining incentives to save.

And not just because of high tax rates and double taxation of savings. Allister says people are worried about outright confiscation resulting from possible wealth taxation.

It is clear that individuals, when at all possible, need to accumulate more financial assets. …Tragically, it won’t happen. A lack of trust in the system is one important explanation. People simply don’t believe the government – and politicians of all parties – when it comes to long-terms savings and pensions. They worry, with good reason, that the rules will keep changing; they are afraid that savers are an easy target and that they will eventually be hit by a wealth tax.

Are savers being paranoid? Is Allister being paranoid?

Well, even paranoid people have enemies, and this already has happened in countries such as Poland and Argentina. Moreover, it appears that plenty of politicians and bureaucrats elsewhere want this type of punitive levy.

Here are some passages from a Reuters report.

Germany’s Bundesbank said on Monday that countries about to go bankrupt should draw on the private wealth of their citizens through a one-off capital levy before asking other states for help.

Since data from the IMF, OECD, and BIS show that almost every industrialized nation will face a fiscal crisis in the next decade or two, people with assets understandably are concerned that their necks will be on the chopping block when politicians are scavenging for more cash to prop up failed welfare states.

Though to be fair, the Bundesbank may simply be sending a signal that German taxpayers don’t want to pick up the tab for fiscal excess in nations such as France and Greece. And it also acknowledged such a tax would harm growth.

“(A capital levy) corresponds to the principle of national responsibility, according to which tax payers are responsible for their government’s obligations before solidarity of other states is required,” the Bundesbank said in its monthly report. …the Bundesbank said it would not support an implementation of a recurrent wealth tax, saying it would harm growth.

Other German economists, however, openly advocate for wealth taxes on German taxpayers.

…governments should consider imposing one-off capital levies on the rich… In Germany, for example, two thirds of the national wealth belongs to the richest 10% of the adult population. …a one-time capital levy of 10% on personal net wealth exceeding 250,000 euros per taxpayer (€500,000 for couples) could raise revenue of just over 9% of GDP. …In the other Eurozone crisis countries, it would presumably be possible to generate considerable amounts of money in the same way.

The pro-tax crowd at the International Monetary Fund has a similarly favorable perspective, relying on absurdly unrealistic conditions to argue that a wealth tax wouldn’t hurt growth. Here’s some of what the IMF asserted in its Fiscal Monitor last October.

The sharp deterioration of the public finances in many countries has revived interest in a “capital levy”— a one-off tax on private wealth—as an exceptional measure to restore debt sustainability. The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible and there is a belief that it will never be repeated, does not distort behavior (and may be seen by some as fair).

More Spending without New Taxes?

Wellesley, Mass., the town I live in, sent residents this message earlier today:

In April 2014, the Wellesley Annual Town Meeting approved … the acquisition of property at 494 Washington Street…  A few citizens, determined to derail the acquisition, obtained sufficient signatures to put a referendum on the ballot requiring voters to confirm the Town Meeting vote.

A YES vote on Question 1 … confirms the action taken by Town Meeting…  

There is NO tax increase associated with this vote; the acquisition will be financed using short-term debt under the levy.

Sentences like that last one are enough to make an economist’s head explode. Why? Because more debt-financed expenditure now means higher taxes later. It’s that simple. So the Town’s claim is spin, not truth.  

A Decent but Underwhelming Jobs Report

The headlines from today’s employment report certainly seem positive.

The unemployment rate has dropped to 6.3 percent and there are about 280,000 new jobs.*

But if you dig into the details of the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you find some less-than-exciting data.

First, here is the chart showing total employment over the past 10 years.

Total Employment

This shows a positive trend, and it is good that the number of jobs is climbing rather than falling.

But it’s disappointing that we still haven’t passed where we were in 2008.

Indeed, the current recovery is miserable and lags way behind the average of previous recoveries.

But the really disappointing news can be found by examining the data on how many working-age people are productively employed.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has two different data sets that measure the number of people working as a share of the population.

Here are the numbers on the labor force participation rate.

Labor Force Participation

As you can see, we fell down a hill back in 2008 and there’s been no recovery.

The same is true for the employment-population ratio, which is the data I prefer for boring, technical reasons.

Emplyment Population Ratio

Though I should acknowledge that the employment-population ratio does show a modest uptick, so perhaps there is a glimmer of good news over the past few years.

But it’s still very disappointing that this number hasn’t bounced back since our economic output is a function of how much labor and capital are productively utilized.

In other words, the official unemployment rate could drop to 4 percent and the economy would be dismal if that number improved for the wrong reason.

* Perhaps the semi-decent numbers from last month are tied to the fact that Congress finally stopped extending subsidies paid to people for staying unemployed?

DoD’s Misaligned Incentives

The Department of Defense procurement problems are extensive. Last week, my colleague Chris Edwards discussed a failed DoD attempt to replace the president’s helicopter fleet. The project was canceled after several years due to large cost overruns and schedule delays, which ended up wasting $3.2 billion.

Now, a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) provides further insights into the DoD’s troubled procurement processes. GAO tracked the progress of 80 weapons systems, which have total projected costs of $1.5 trillion. Combined, all of these projects have gone over budget by a huge $448 billion. Furthermore, 42 percent of them had cost overruns greater than 25 percent.

Many of them are also well behind schedule. GAO estimates that the average project is 28 months behind schedule, up from 23 months in fiscal year 2011.

The GAO report does highlight some small improvements with DoD’s handling of the projects, albeit with a caveat: “the enormity of the investment in acquisitions of weapon systems and its role in making U.S. fighting forces capable, warrant continued attention and reform.”

Aside from huge cost overruns, the GAO also details numerous other problems within the DoD procurement process. For one thing, DoD officials face incentives that are often misaligned with taxpayer interests. Some of these incentives call for DoD officials’ close relationships with contractors, and constant demands by senior officials and policymakers for new and better technology.

The “funding dynamics” within the DoD is another problem. The agency’s officials, unlike their counterparts in private industries, are functionally rewarded for over-budget projects according to the report:

There are several characteristics about the way programs are funded that create incentives in decision-making that can run counter to sound acquisition practices… In DoD, there can be few consequences if funds are not used efficiently. For example, as has often been the case in the past, agency budgets generally do not fluctuate much year to year and, programs that experience problems tend to eventually receive more funding to get well. Also, in DoD, new products in the form of budget line items can represent revenue. An agency may be able to justify a larger budget if it can win approval for more programs. Thus, weapon system programs can be viewed both as expenditures and revenue generators.

Once weapon system procurements get underway, it is very unlikely that they will be canceled before completion. So for projects that turn into white elephants, Congress and Defense officials tend to throw good money after bad.

The GAO also notes that, unfortunately for taxpayers, these issues are not new: “while some progress has been made, too often GAO reports on the same kinds of problems with acquisition programs today that it did over 20 years ago.” In testimony before Congress yesterday, Frank Kendall, the under secretary of defense for acquisitions, said, “I’ve seen any number of attempts to improve defense acquisition. My view is many of the things we have tried have had little discernible impact.”

Major procurement reforms are clearly needed at the Defense Department. But until that happens, misaligned incentives within Congress and the DoD will continue to waste billions of taxpayer dollars.

All Aboard the Privatization Train

With the expiration of the current federal highway bill in a few months, the infrastructure issue is heating up. Newspapers are ginning up interest with stories about deficient and falling down bridges (e.g. here and here).

Diane Rehm kindly invited me to her NPR show this morning to discuss how we should move ahead with financing infrastructure. I pointed to the advantages of devolving funding to state governments and the private sector. America should embrace the global movement towards privatization and public-private partnerships for highways, bridges, airports, and other facilities.

Even Japan—previously known for its pork-barrel infrastructure spending—is beginning to embrace privatization, notes this piece at NextCity.org (h/t Nick Zaiac):

Over a 15-year period starting in 1987, the Japanese government undertook one of the most ambitious privatizations in history, moving its most heavily traveled railways from public ownership into private hands. The privatization of Japanese National Railways – whose assets on Honshu (Japan’s main island) were split into three separate companies (JR East, Central and West, each centered around one of Japan’s three major metropolitan areas) – was a roaring business success. JR East, which runs commuter, intercity and Shinkansen lines in Tokyo and the surrounding region, doubled its revenue over the 15-year period, cut its payroll by a third, upped its per-capita passenger-miles by two-thirds, all while cutting the number of accidents by nearly 60 percent and keeping fares more or less flat.

Now Osaka, Japan is looking to repeat the magic, but this time on its city subway network – which, if successful, would be the first government subway system in the country to be sold off.

… The move follows on the heels of the sale of another one of the prefecture’s railways, the … Semboku Rapid Railway.

… Not to be outdone, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is considering selling its 46.6 percent stake in Tokyo Metro.