Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

More Infrastructure? Cut Business Taxes

Infrastructure is in the news as policymakers face a deadline to pass a new highway bill. President Obama visited the Tappan Zee Bridge yesterday and said that “rebuilding America … shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” and then cast blame on the Republicans.

The president is right that America ought to have better infrastructure. But the leaders of both parties are overlooking the most straightforward and powerful way to do it: slashing taxes on business investment.

Most of America’s infrastructure is provided by the private sector, not governments. In fact, private infrastructure spending—on factories, freight rail, cell phone towers, pipelines, refineries, and many other items—is more than four times larger than federal, state, and local government infrastructure spending combined. BEA Table 1.5.5 shows that gross private fixed investment in 2013 was $2.56 trillion, while investment by all levels of government was $606 billion.

Private investment was $2.05 trillion when you take out residential. And government investment was $448 billion when you take out defense. Thus, when infrastructure is measured this way, private investment is also more than four times larger than government investment.

Why do U.S. companies spend more than $2 trillion a year on infrastructure? They do it in the hopes of earning profits years down the road from often risky investments. The government stands in the way of these growth-generating investments by confiscating a large share of those profits with income taxes.

We have the highest federal-state corporate income tax rate in the world at 40 percent, which sends a strong signal to manufacturers, utilities, energy firms, and other infrastructure companies not to expand and upgrade their facilities. If policymakers want infrastructure, they should slash the federal corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent, which is the rate in Canada after recent reforms.

Another reform is “capital expensing,” meaning allowing businesses to immediately deduct the cost of new fixed investments. That tax treatment would be a huge simplification, and it would end the anti-investment bias in our income tax system. In recent years, Congress has passed temporary and partial capital expensing measures, but we really need a permanent policy change so that businesses could plan for the long term.

Also, expensing should be expanded to include business structures, such as factory buildings, and not just business equipment as has been the case in recent years. The chart at the bottom shows that real U.S. investment in structures was hammered by the recession and still remains at disturbingly low levels (BEA Table 1.5.6).

Cost Overruns Fuel “Transportation Cliff”

Congress is currently debating options to solve the “transportation cliff.” Broadly, the federal government spends more on highways and transit than it collects in fuel tax revenue, which has depleted the Highway Trust Fund. One reason for the imbalance is the federal government’s inability to control costs on projects. Federal transportation projects frequently go over budget.

This morning’s Washington Post details a cost overrun in Congress’ back yard. Arlington County, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., is building a 4.5 mile street car project. Costs are currently estimated at $358 million—up $100 million from original estimates and up $48 million from just last year. If the project goes ahead, federal taxpayers are on the hook for $140 million of the project’s costs.

This is just one of many examples of government transportation projects going over budget. Transportation cost overruns are not new. A Government Accountability Office report of federal highway projects found that a quarter of them went over budget. Costs of the infamous Big Dig in Boston grew from $2.6 billion to $14 billion.

A study by Danish economists in 2003 examined 258 large transportation projects across Europe and North America. Eighty-six percent of projects went over budget; the average cost overrun was 28 percent. Rail projects were the worst offenders, with an average cost overrun of 45 percent.

Why does this happen? In the United States, cost overruns are partly caused by the complex nature of transportation funding, which reduces political responsibility. The federal government collects much of the revenue, divides it up, and sends it back to the states. Grants are handed out mostly by formula, and the states are generally not rewarded for using the money in an efficient and frugal manner.

As a result, neither level of government has an incentive to control costs. When a project goes over budget, the federal government often points the finger at the state government and the state often returns the gesture. GAO frankly said that “this fragmented approach impedes effective decision making.”

Controlling spending on projects would help to close the $14 billion annual gap between spending and revenue in the Highway Trust Fund. Unfortunately, the new Senate highway bill actually increases spending, and it fails to address wasteful spending problems such as cost overruns.

A better approach is the TEA proposal by Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Tom Graves, which would devolve most highway and transit spending to the states. State and local governments would have stronger incentives to control project costs if it were their own taxpayers footing the bill.

Cut Spending Because Government Hurting Nation

I have posted an updated plan to cut spending by one fifth and balance the federal budget. These cuts are not the only ones needed, but they are a mix of reasonable reforms spread broadly across the government.

A new poll discussed in Govexec.com finds that “Americans have more confidence in the abilities of individuals and local organizations to effect positive political and social change in this country than they do in the federal government … Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they believed the federal government was ‘mostly hurting’ the country with respect to the ‘major issues and challenges’ confronting America today.”

My fellow Americans, you have it exactly right. The enormous size of the federal government is harming the economy, society, individual freedom, and good governance in the nation. That is why spending cuts would be a good idea whether or not the federal government was running budget deficits.

Some economists claim that cutting government spending would hurt the economy, but that idea is based on faulty Keynesian theories. In fact, federal spending cuts would shift resources from often mismanaged and damaging government programs to more productive private sector activities, thus increasing overall productivity, output, and incomes.

The federal government’s fiscal mess is an opportunity to make reforms that would both spur growth and expand freedom. My new plan includes a menu of cuts to individual subsidies, business subsidies, so-called entitlements, aid to the states, and the military. There are also numerous activities that can be removed from the federal budget by privatization, such as air traffic control, passenger rail, and electric utilities.

These and other reforms are discussed further in essays at DownsizingGovernment.org.

Piketty Should Focus on Increasing the Scope of Markets, Not Expanding the Power of Government

In his best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press), French economist Thomas Piketty is concerned with equality of outcome, not equality under a rule of law safeguarding one’s unalienable rights to liberty and property. 

He finds that inequality of income and wealth is increasing as the return on capital assets exceeds the growth of real GDP.  His policy for reducing inequality is to use the power of government to impose very high marginal tax rates on the incomes of the rich and near rich, and also impose an annual wealth tax.  His goal is “to put an end to such incomes.”

Piketty’s leveling schemes in the pursuit of “social justice” would undermine the primacy of property rights under the U.S. Constitution, adversely affect incentives to save and invest, stifle entrepreneurship, and slow economic growth. He seems more interested in penalizing the rich than in thinking of ways to create wealth by expanding opportunities for market exchange.

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).