Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

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.

Congress May Hike VA Spending $400 Billion

Last week the Senate voted to greatly increase health care spending for veterans. If the new spending were made permanent, it would cost at least $385 billion over 10 years, as Nicole Kaeding noted. The House version of the bill would cost at least $477 billion if made permanent. The chambers will now work out a compromise bill, and—going out on a limb here—I’m guessing that the compromise is also a budget buster.

The bills would allow veterans to access health services from facilities outside of the Veterans Affairs (VA) system. The VA system needs a fundamental overhaul, but these bills would appear to just throw money at the problem without creating structural reforms.

The CBO score for the Senate bill is here and for the House bill here. For the House bill, CBO says spending would be $16 billion in 2015 and $28 billion 2016. The House bill would authorize the new spending until 2016, but if Congress extends it permanently the total costs would be $54 billion a year and about $477 billion over 10 years.

I can’t remember an instance when Congress has voted so quickly to spend so much money with so little debate and analysis. The CBO cautioned that their numbers are essentially only rough guesses. So the ultimate spending could be even higher than shown in the chart.

Edwards_VASpendingHouse

A Grim Update on European Tax Policy

I wrote the other day that Americans, regardless of all the bad policy we get from Washington, should be thankful we’re not stuck in an economic graveyard like Venezuela.

But we also should be happy we’re not Europeans. This is a point I’ve made before, usually accompanied by data showing that Americans have significantly higher living standards than their cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s now time to re-emphasize that message. The European Commission has issued its annual report on “Taxation Trends” and it is–at least for wonks and others who care about fiscal policy–a fascinating and compelling document.

If you believe in limited government, you’ll read the report in the same way you might look at a deadly traffic accident, filled with morbid curiosity and fear that you may eventually suffer the same fate.

But if you’re a statist, you’ll read the report like a 14-year old boy with his first copy of a girlie magazine, filled with fantasies about eventually getting to experience what your eyes are seeing.

Let’s start by giving the bureaucrats some credit for self-awareness. They openly admit that the tax burden is very onerous in the European Union.

The EU remains a high tax area. In 2012, the overall tax ratio, i.e. the sum of taxes and compulsory actual social contributions in the 28 Member States (EU-28) amounted to 39.4 % in the GDP-weighted average, nearly 15 percentage points of GDP over the level recorded for the USA and around 10 percentage points above the level recorded by Japan. The tax level in the EU is high not only compared to those two countries but also compared to other advanced economies; among the major non-European OECD members for which recent detailed tax data is available, Russia (35.6 % of GDP in 2011) and New Zealand (31.8 % of GDP in 2011) have tax ratios exceeding 30 % of GDP, while tax-to-GDP ratios for Canada, Australia and South Korea (2011 data) remained well below 30 %.

Catania’s Tax Amendment

On Friday, I waded into the heated debate regarding the D.C. Council’s tax reform package. I noted that the proposal is far from perfect, but it is a good first step towards reforming D.C.’s burdensome tax structure.

Shortly after I released my post, councilmember and mayoral candidate David Catania proposed a compromise: He would maintain the current sales tax exemption for the fitness industry. In exchange, he would change the way the corporate income tax rate is cut.

The original D.C. Council proposal would cut corporate income tax rates from the current 9.975 percent to 8.25 percent in 2019. Catania’s plan would also cut the corporate income tax rate to 8.25 percent, but it wouldn’t reach that level until 2020.

The chart below shows the two competing proposals.

In addition to taking a year longer to reach 8.25 percent, Catania’s plan includes higher tax rates in each and every year. Under this proposal, all corporate businesses would pay higher taxes in order to maintain the sales tax exemption for the fitness industry.

When I made this point a few days ago, supporters of Catania’s amendment said that my characterization wasn’t accurate. But Catania’s own press release on the issue acknowledges that businesses will pay more under this proposal. It says “the difference in the average annual tax savings for small businesses between the current version of the FY15 budget and the Catania Amendment amounts to just $15 or $1.25 per month. When factoring in all businesses—including the very largest—the difference in the total average business tax savings is only $346 annually or just $28.83 per month.”

I don’t have a strong view as to whether these increased taxes are a good swap for maintaining the current sales tax exemption. But I do know that even a D.C. corporate tax rate of 8.25 percent is still far above the U.S. state average of 4 percent.