Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Cato Spending Charts

How much does Congress spend on Veterans Affairs, the IRS, or Customs and Border Protection? How much has spending increased over time?

You can answer those questions quickly and easily with Cato’s updated charting tool for the federal budget.

The tool allows you to plot real outlays for about 500 departments, agencies, and programs, 1970-2014. All data is from the Office of Management and Budget.

The chart page opens blank. Click “+” to open a department and then check boxes for the departments, agencies, and programs you want to plot.

To save your chart as an image or a pdf, right click on it.

This chart shows spending on the three largest federal agencies. The data is in constant 2014 dollars.

California, Drought, and Water Policy

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Stanford economics professor Edward Lazear provides an economist’s view of the California drought situation:

Many parts of the country, notably California and Texas, are experiencing intense drought… Yet weather isn’t the only problem: government-dictated prices, coupled with restrictions on the transfer of water, have made a bad situation much worse.

That is true. Freeing up markets would go a long way toward easing water battles and water shortages throughout the American West. Government controls on water transfers and prices suppress markets, and the resulting distortions harm the economy and the environment.

Lazear’s proposals make sense, but he overlooks one key reform: getting the federal government out of the water business. Much of the water infrastructure in the West is owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and its policies are a fundamental problem, as Peter Hill and I discuss in this essay.

Hill and I examine Reclamation’s history of waste, bureaucratic arrogance, pork barrel politics, and environmental damage. We discuss water rights, water prices, and water economics. We recommend that Reclamation’s assets be transferred to state governments, or even better to the private sector.

Reclamation’s massive Central Valley Project, for example, should be handed over to the State of California. The CVP was originally supposed to be a state project. It was approved by the California legislature and by a state referendum in 1933. But then the state decided to lobby Washington for funding and was successful, so the federal government took it over.

But it is time to stop central-planning America’s water policies. Water issues in the West are far too complex for a distracted Washington to deal with properly. The states have different legal structures for water rights, different types of farming, and different access to groundwater. So the states should be the ones to control their water infrastructure, which would allow them to tailor their policies to the unique challenges they each face.

Big Business Clashes with Libertarians and Tea Party over Ex-Im Bank

Two weeks ago I wrote about the efforts of big business to defeat libertarian-leaning legislators in states across the country. To confirm my point, on the same day the article appeared the Michigan Chamber of Commerce endorsed the opponent of Rep. Justin Amash, the one of whom I had written, “Most members of Congress vote for unconstitutional bills. Few of them make it an explicit campaign promise.”

Now a battle is brewing in Congress that pits libertarians and Tea Party supporters against the country’s biggest businesses. The Wall Street Journal headlines, “GOP’s Attack on Export-Import Bank Alarms Business Allies.” The “rise of tea-party-aligned lawmakers” is threatening this most visible example of corporate welfare, and David Brat’s attacks on “crony capitalism” in his surprise defeat of Eric Cantor have made some Republicans nervous. Amash told the Journal, “There are some large corporations that would like corporate welfare to continue.”

The biggest beneficiaries of Ex-Im’s billions are companies such as Boeing, General Electric and Caterpillar,  according to Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center. Cato scholars have made the same point, including Aaron Lukas and Ian Vasquez in 2002 and Sallie James in 2011.

Matthew Yglesias of Vox notes, “The Export-Import Bank is a great example of the kind of thing a libertarian populist might oppose. That’s because the bank is a pretty textbook example of the government stepping in to arbitrarily help certain business owners.” And he points out that supporters of the Bank include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the AFL-CIO, Haley Barbour, and Dick Gephardt. He could have added Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) said he worried about “a libertarian theology that’s really starting to creep in.” I hope he’s right.

Small Is Beautiful

Thank you for reading the Cato blog and doing what you do to help spread freedom. Now you have the chance to advocate liberty every day while you are going to work or running errands.

New at the Cato store is this handsome DownsizingGovernment.org bumper sticker.

 

The sticker is appropriate for bumpers, hoods, fenders, and windshields, or even around your home on garage doors and mailboxes.

And here’s a special deal for Cato blog readers: the first 25 people to email my assistant Nick (nzaiac [at] cato [dot] org) with their street address will receive a free sticker.

And there’s more: members of Congress and top White House aides are eligible for as many free stickers as will fit on their Lexus and BMW bumpers! More than anybody else, these folks need a daily reminder that Small is Beautiful When It Comes to Government.

The Truth about Military Spending

In April, the CBO projected – based on current law – that the Pentagon would spend roughly $606 billion dollars in 2015. The just-passed House defense budget spends $570.4 billion. Both figures assumed, among other things, that we we would spend about $79 billion for overseas contingency operations (OCO), which is mainly for the war in Afghanistan. We have since learned that the Obama administration’s actual OCO request is likely to be “substantially smaller” than $79 billion, so perhaps $560 or $565 billion in total Pentagon spending when combined with their earlier base budget request.

One glance at Cato’s latest infographic* will tell you that even the lowest of these figures is too high.

For a little perspective, CBO’s original estimate of $606 billion dollars is roughly $10 billion more – in inflation-adjusted dollars – than the Pentagon spent in 2005, when the United States was engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is close to the United States’ Cold War peak of $611 billion in 1985, when the Soviet Union was spending an estimated $590 billion. Today, however, the United States is out of Iraq and is winding down its war in Afghanistan, and its nearest competitors – Russia and China – combined spend less than half as much as the United States on their militaries. Yet, some on the right continue to believe that Pentagon cuts should be off limits, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), who argues that the United States should be spending much more on its military.

Rep. Ryan’s budget proposal would have busted the current spending caps to a tune of nearly $50 billion a year for the next decade. This would have amounted to $500 billion more than is currently projected, and around $1.7 trillion more than was spent in the decade following the Cold War. Incredibly, Ryan called for more spending while admitting that “the Department of Defense has repeatedly revised downward its estimates of the budgetary resources necessary to meet the nation’s security objectives.” Think about that: The military says that it does not need additional funding to meet its objectives, yet Ryan insisted that it should receive more money anyway. Luckily, if the budget that recently passed the House is any indication, few of Ryan’s colleagues seem to agree. Indeed, it now seems almost certain that we will spend less than CBO projected, and far less than Ryan called for. 

Why Piketty Was Mistaken for Endorsing the Zucman & Saez Slide Show

I will have more to say about this fairly soon, but this might serve as a preview.

Thomas Piketty is now advising innocent readers of his book to (1) not demand a refund or dump the book used on Amazon, and (2) ignore his own flawed estimates of top 1% U.S. wealth shares and instead utilize a PowerPoint by Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez.  Zucman and Saez use capital income reported on individual tax returns (dividends, interest, rent and capital gains) to infer ownership of capital assets, and not just greater realization of gains or portfolio shifts from tax-exempt bonds to dividend-paying stock.

That might be semi-plausible if businesses and professionals were not free to report income on either corporate or individual tax forms, and if tax rates never changed. But this methodology can’t possibly work after the huge tax rate reductions of 1986 (for partnerships & SubS corps), 1997 (capital gains) and 2003 (dividends and capital gains).  The reason it can’t work was fairly well explained by Piketty, Saez and Stantcheva in the original unsanitized version of a paper they published this February (which I have cited beforebut also critiqued):

There is a clear negative overall correlation between the [reported] top 1% income share and the top marginal tax rate: …  [T]he top 1% income share has increased significantly since 1980 after the top tax rate  has been greatly lowered… . [T]he top 1% income share more than doubled from around 8% in the late 1970s to around 18% in last five years, while the net-of-tax (retention) rate increased from 30% (when the top marginal tax rate was 70%) to 65% (when the top tax rate is 35%).”

Ex-Im Bank Weakens American Capitalism

One of the policy fissures in the Republican Party is over business subsidies, and the current debate about the Export-Import Bank illustrates the conflict. The Ex-Im Bank is one of many corporate welfare or crony capitalist programs that litter the federal budget. The Bank’s authorization runs out in September, and so Congress must act if it wants to extend the operations of this business subsidy machine.

Veronique de Rugy at Mercatus and Sallie James at Downsizing Government have looked at the Bank’s operations and discussed why the economics of the Bank do not make sense. Veronique says, “the Export-Import Bank is one of the least defensible corporatist boondoggles that taxpayers are forced to subsidize.”

The main problem with corporate welfare programs like Ex-Im is often overlooked. It is that they undermine American capitalism by weakening the recipient businesses. All subsidies can change the behavior of recipients, and nearly always in a negative way. Just like individual welfare programs reduce work incentives, corporate welfare dulls the competitiveness of recipient companies.

Corporate welfare focuses the energy of business executives on Washington and away from the marketplace. It gives companies a crutch, an incentive not to make the innovations needed to remain on the leading edge. It induces recipient businesses to make foolhardy decisions, as we saw with export subsidies for Enron. And corporate welfare often steers business capital into dead-end markets favored by politicians, and away from uses that would be more productive and profitable in the long run.

Here are some of the points made by Veronique and Sallie about Ex-Im:

  • Veronique: The Bank backs less than 2 percent of the value of total U.S. exports.
  • Veronique: The Bank mainly subsidies very large businesses, not small businesses.      
  • Veronique: Taxpayer exposure to possible Bank losses is rising.
  • Sallie: Export subsidies cannot substantially change the U.S. trade balance, even if that were a good idea.
  • Sallie: The Bank’s activities may slightly shift the U.S. employment mix, but they do not raise overall employment.
  • Sallie: The Bank’s aid to some foreign businesses—such as foreign airlines—comes at the expense of U.S. businesses.

For more on the problems with corporate welfare, see my 2012 congressional testimony on Corporate Welfare Spending vs. the Entrepreneurial Economy.