Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Laffer Curve Explains Why Obama’s Class-Warfare Tax Policy Won’t Work

My main goal for fiscal policy is shrinking the size and scope of the federal government and lowering the burden of government spending. But I’m also motivated by a desire for better tax policy, which means lower tax rates, less double taxation, and fewer corrupting loopholes and other distortions.

One of the big obstacles to good tax policy is that many statists think that higher tax rates on the rich are a simple and easy way of financing bigger government. I’ve tried to explain that soak-the-rich tax policies won’t work because upper-income taxpayers have considerable ability to change the timing, level, and composition of their income.

Simply stated, when the tax rate goes up, their taxable income goes down. And that means it’s not clear whether higher tax rates lead to more revenue or less revenue. This is the underlying principle of the Laffer Curve.For more information, here’s a video from Prager University, narrated by UCLA Professor of Economics Tim Groseclose:

Groseclose does an excellent job, and I particularly like the data showing that the rich paid more to the IRS following Reagan’s tax cuts.

IRS Illegally Expands Obamacare

To encourage the purchase of health insurance, the Affordable Care Act added a number of deductions, exemptions, and penalties to the federal tax code. As might be expected from a 2,700-page law, these new tax laws have the potential to interact in unforeseen and counterintuitive ways. As first discovered by Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, one of the new tax provisions, when combined with state decisionmaking and Interal Revenue Service rulemaking, has given Obamacare yet another legal problem.

Here’s the deal: The legislation’s §1311 provides a generous tax credit for anyone who buys insurance from an insurance exchange “established by the State.” The provision was supposed to be an incentive for states to create their own exchanges, but only 16 states have opted to do so. In the other states, the federal government established its own exchange, as another section of the ACA specifies. But where §1311 only explicitly authorized a tax credit for people who buy insurance from a state exchange, the IRS issued a rule interpreting §1311 as also applying to purchases from federal exchanges.

This creative interpretation most obviously hurts employers, who are fined for every employee who receives such a tax credit/subsidy to buy an exchange plan when their employer fails to comply with the mandate to provide health insurance. But it also hurts some individuals, such as David Klemencic, a lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits challenging the IRS’s tax-credit rule. Klemencic lives in a state, West Virginia, that never established an exchange, and for various reasons he doesn’t want to buy any of the insurance options available to him. Because buying insurance would cost him more than 8% of his income, he should be immune from Obamacare’s tax on the decision not to buy insurance. After the IRS expanded §1311 to subsidize people in states with federal exchanges, however, Klemencic could’ve bought health insurance for an amount low enough to again subject him to the tax for not buying insurance.

Klemencic and his fellow plaintiffs argue that they face these costs only because the IRS exceeded the scope of its powers by extending a tax credit not authorized by Congress. The district court rejected that argument, ruling that, under the highly deferential test courts apply to actions by administrative agencies, the IRS only had to show that its interpretation of §1311 was reasonable—which the court was satisfied it had.

Cato and the Pacific Research Institute have now filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs on their appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. While it is manifestly the province of the judiciary to say “what the law is,” where the law’s text leaves no question as to its meaning—as is the case here with the phrase “established by the State”—it is neither right nor proper for a court to replace the laws passed by Congress with those of its own invention or the invention of civil servants. If Congress wants to extend the tax credit beyond the terms of the Affordable Care Act, it can do so by passing new legislation. The only reason for executive-branch officials not to go back to Congress for clarification, and instead legislate by fiat, is to bypass the democratic process, thereby undermining constitutional separation of powers.

This case ultimately isn’t about money, the wisdom of individual health care decisionmaking, or even political opposition to Obamacare. It’s about who gets to create the laws we live by: the democratically elected members of Congress or the bureaucrats charged with no more than executing the laws that Congress passes and the president signs.

Halbig v. Sebelius will be heard by the D.C. Circuit on March 25 (the same day that the Supreme Court hears the Hobby Lobby contraceptive-mandate cases).

Edwards’ Law of Government Cost Overruns

Here is a rule of thumb to remember when you hear about a proposed government project: If a politician says that it will cost $1, it will end up costing $2 or more. Call it Edwards’ Law.

A never-ending stream of articles reveals the chronic cost overrun problems of government weapon systems, computer upgrades, highway projects, and many other things. The government said that a ship would cost $220 million, and it ended costing $440 million. The government said that a bridge would cost $1.4 billion, and it ended up costing $6.4 billion. The government said that an office consolidation would cost $1.1 billion, and it ended up costing $2.6 billion.

What is the hidden force behind Edwards’ Law? Are governments simply inept, or do they deliberately low-ball initial cost estimates in order to get projects approved? After reading about dozens—probably hundreds—of such incidents over the years, I think the answer is both.

Regarding low-balling, David Boaz pointed out to me this admission from former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown:

“News that the Transbay Terminal is something like $300 million over budget should not come as a shock to anyone.”

We always knew the initial estimate was way under the real cost. Just like we never had a real cost for the Central Subway or the Bay Bridge or any other massive construction project. So get off it.

In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved.

The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

Based on Brown’s insight, Edwards’ Law can be reformulated: If a politician says that a project will cost $1, that’s just the down payment. The balance due will be at least another $1.

See here for more on cost overruns.

 

  

New CBO Numbers Show a Remarkably Simple Path to a Balanced Budget

A just-released report from the bean counters at the Congressional Budget Office is getting lots of attention because the bureaucrats are now admitting that Obamacare will impose much more damage to the economy than they previously predicted.

Of course, many people knew from the start that Obamacare would be a disaster and that it would make the healthcare system even more dysfunctional, so CBO is way behind the curve.

Moreover, CBO’s deeply flawed estimates back in 2009 and 2010 helped grease the skids for passage of the President’s failed law, so I hardly think they deserve any applause for now producing more realistic numbers.

But today’s post isn’t about the Obamacare fiasco. I want to focus instead on some other numbers in the new CBO report.

The bureaucrats have put together their new 10-year “baseline” forecast of how much money the government will collect based on current tax laws and the latest economic predictions. These numbers show that tax revenue is projected to increase by an average of 5.4 percent per year.

As many readers already know, I don’t fixate on balancing the budget. I care much more about reducing the burden of government spending and restoring the kind of limited government our Founding Fathers envisioned.

But whenever the CBO publishes new numbers, I can’t resist showing how simple it is to get rid of red ink by following my Golden Rule of fiscal restraint.

New CBO Budget Report

The CBO released its new budget outlook today. The chart below shows total federal spending since 2000. Spending was way up under Bush and the first two years of Obama, and roughly flat since then.

Note for wonks: I’ve taken TARP out of the data to remove a distortion in the historical trend. CBO included $151 billion in TARP outlays for 2009, and then reversed out most of it from reported outlays in later years. Without this adjustment, CBO shows a $151 billion spending spike in 2009 that did not actually occur.

Know Your Libertarian History: The Great Tax Revolt of the 1970s

One of the great libertarian victories of the past few decades was the tax revolt of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The inflation of the 1970s caused higher property taxes and income tax bracket creep, which led to California’s Proposition 13, the Kemp-Roth tax cut bill, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the 1981 tax cut, the deceleration of government spending, the further lowering of marginal rates in 1986—and a long period during which economic growth exceeded government growth.

This story isn’t told often in history books and popular media. Even with the boom in histories of modern conservatism, which in many instances focuses on the reaction to socialism and the welfare state, there is rarely a sense of the important arguments that free-market advocates were making. That’s why it’s important to have historians who understand economics and appreciate the value of limited government. One such historian is Brian Domitrovic, author of Econoclasts: The Rebels Who Sparked the Supply-Side Revolution and Restored American Prosperity.

In the latest issue of Cato Policy Report, the Cato Institute’s newsletter for Sponsors and friends, Domitrovic has a lead article titled “Tax Revolt! It’s Time to Learn from Past Success,” where he tells the story outlined above. If you get discouraged about the possibility of positive change, you should read it. Or read it if you just want to know more about the history of movements for limited government.

Also in the January-February Cato Policy Report: my editorial on Pope Francis, Nelson Mandela, and the longing for Utopia; leading scholars and policymakers on a century of central banking; and reports on NSA surveillance, jury nullification, and Cato’s recent policy studies.

Note that if you were a Cato Sponsor, you would get articles like this in your mailbox every month, along with the satisfaction of supporting the work of the Cato Institute. Become a Sponsor now!

For Europe’s Youth, Minimum Wages Mean Minimal Employment

Yesterday, in the wake of Tuesday’s State of the Union address, I poured cold water on President Obama’s claim that a hike in the minimum wage for federal contract workers would benefit the United States’ economy, pointing specifically to unemployment rates in the European Union. The data never lie: EU countries with minimum wage laws suffer higher rates of unemployment than those that do not mandate minimum wages. This point is even more pronounced when we look at rates of unemployment among the EU’s youth – defined as those younger than 25 years of age.

In the twenty-one EU countries where there are minimum wage laws, 27.7% of the youth demographic – more than one in four young adults – was unemployed in 2012. This is considerably higher than the youth unemployment rate in the seven EU countries without minimum wage laws – 19.5% in 2012 – a gap that has only widened since the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.

I will conclude yet again with a piece of wisdom from Nobelist Milton Friedman, who correctly noted that “the minimum wage law is most properly described as a law saying employers must discriminate against people who have low skills. That’s what the law says.