Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

President Obama Plays While the Federal Budget Burns

The U.S. is bankrupt. Of course, Uncle Sam has the power to tax. But at some point even Washington might not be able to squeeze enough cash out of the American people to pay its bills.

President Barack Obama would have everyone believe that he has placed federal finances on sound footing. The deficit did drop from over a trillion dollars during his first years in office to “only” $439 billion last year. But the early peak was a result of emergency spending in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the new “normal” is just short of the pre-financial crisis record set by President George W. Bush. The reduction is not much of an achievement.

Worse, the fiscal “good times” are over. The Congressional Budget Office expects the deficit to jump this year, to $544 billion.

The deficit is not caused by too little money collected by Uncle Sam. Revenues are rising four percent this year, and will account for 18.3 percent of GDP, well above the last 50-year average of 17.4 percent. But outlays are projected to rise six percent, leaving expenditures at 21.2 percent of GDP, greater the 20.2 percent average of the last half century.

States Optimistic About Economic Futures Are More Economically Free

New data from Gallup suggests that residents in US states with freer markets are more optimistic about their state’s economic prospects. In their 50-State Poll, Gallup asked Americans what they thought about the current economic conditions in their own state as well as their economic expectations for the future. North Dakota (92%), Utah (84%), and Texas (82%) top the list as states with the highest share of residents who rate their current economic conditions as excellent or good.  In stark contrast, only 18% of Rhode Island residents, 23% of Illinois residents, and 28% of West Virginians rate their state’s economic conditions as excellent or good. Similarly Americans most optimistic about their state’s economic futures include Utah (83%) and Texas (77%) while states at the bottom include Illinois (34%) and West Virginia (36%).

What explains these stark differences in economic evaluations and expectations across US states? Could differences across states in economic freedom, such as government regulations on business, tax rates, government spending, and property rights protection, be part of the story?

Figure 1: Relationship Between State Economic Freedom Scores
and Residents’ Evaluations of Current Economic Conditions

 

 Source: Economic Freedom Index 2011, Freedom in the 50 States; Gallup 50-State Poll 2015

Tax Reform Revenues Wrongly Contrasted with Soaring CBO estimates

CBO Baseline Projected Revenue

When the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute claim any tax reform will “lose trillions” they are comparing their static estimates of revenues from those plans (which assume tax rates could double or be cut in half with no effect on growth or tax avoidance) to totally unrealistic “baseline” projections from the Congresional Budget Office.  Those CBO projections assume that rapid 2.4% annual increases in real hourly compensation over the next decade will push more people into higher tax brackets every year.  As a result, the average tax burden supposedly rises forever – from 17.7% of GDP in 2015 to 19.9% in 2045 and 23.8% by 2090.  And, typical of static estimates, this ever-increasing tax burden is imagined to have no bad effects on the economy.

Such a high level of federal taxation never happened in the past (20% was a record set in the tech stock boom of 2000) and it will never happen in the future.  In short, this is an entirely bogus basis by which to judge tax reform plans.

A far more sensible question would be this:

Will the Cruz or Rubio tax reforms raise just as much money as the Obama “tax increase” has – namely, 17.5% of GDP from 2013 to 2015. If so, then real tax revenues will grow faster after reform because real GDP growth will surely be at least 1.2% faster – or a middling 3.5% a year, which is all the cautious Tax Foundation estimates suggest.

Ted Cruz’s Defense Spending Plan: Lots of Debt, Not Much Strategy

Ted Cruz says the defense plan he unveiled Tuesday in South Carolina would give the U.S. military “more tooth, less tail.” Actually Cruz’s plan would produce more of everything, especially debt.

Cruz says that as President he’ll spend 4.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense for two years, and 4 percent thereafter. As the chart below shows, under standard growth predictions, Cruz’s plan produces a massive increase in military spending: about $1.2 trillion over what would be Cruz’s first term and $2.6 trillion over eight years. Details on the chart are at the end of this post.

The chart also shows how much Cruz’s plan exceeds the Budget Control Act’s caps on defense spending, which remain in force through 2021. Spending bills exceeding those caps trigger sequestration: across-the-board cuts that keep spending at the cap. So Cruz’s plan depends on Congress repealing the law. Experience suggests that Congress will instead trade on dodgy future savings to raise caps by twenty or thirty billion a year—about a tenth of what Cruz needs.

Cruz is relatively clear on the tooth—force structure—he hopes to buy. He’d grow the Army’s end strength to 1.4 million, with at least 525,000 in the active force. Those numbers are scheduled to fall to 980,000 and 450,000 in 2018. Cruz would “reverse the cuts to the manpower of the Marines,” which presumably means going from the current 182,000 active to the 202,000 peak size reached in 2011 for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Navy would grow from 287 to at least 350 ships, and the Air Force would add 1,000 aircraft to reach 6,000. The plan would also modernize each leg of the nuclear triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. It asserts that the triad is “on the verge of slipping away,” ignoring current plans to modernize each leg, needlessly.

A Libertarian Argument for Bernie Sanders?

Will Wilkinson notes that there is a libertarian argument for Bernie Sanders. I’m not sure I buy the precise point Wilkinson is making. Sanders says he wants to make the United States more like Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. And those countries do indeed rank higher than the United States in the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, compiled by my colleagues Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik. But Sanders wants to emulate those countries in the ways they are less free than the United States (i.e., expanding government transfers), not in the ways they are more free (taxes and regulation). I think this powerful Sanders ad featuring Eric Garner’s daughter Erica is a much better libertarian argument for Sanders.

The Fundamental Fallacy of Redistribution

The idea that government could redistribute income willy-nilly with impunity did not originate with Senator Bernie Sanders. On the contrary, it may have begun with two of the most famous 19th Century economists, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill.   Karl Marx, on the other side, found the idea preposterous, calling it “vulgar socialism.”

Mill wrote, “The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths.  There is nothing optional or arbitrary about them… . It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth.  That is a matter of human institution only.  The things once there, mankind, individually, can do with them as they like.”[1]

Mill’s distinction between production and distribution appears to encourage the view that any sort of government intervention in distribution is utterly harmless – a free lunch.  But redistribution aims to take money from people who earned it and give it to those who did not.  And that, of course, has adverse effects on the incentives of those who receive the government’s benefits and on taxpayers who finance those benefits.

David Ricardo had earlier made the identical mistake. In his 1936 book The Good Society (p. 196), Walter Lippmann criticized Ricardo as being “not concerned with the increase of wealth, for wealth was increasing and the economists did not need to worry about that.” But Ricardo saw income distribution as an interesting issue of political economy and “set out to ascertain ‘the laws which determine the division of the produce of industry among the classes who concur in its formation.’

Lippmann wisely argued that, “separating the production of wealth from the distribution of wealth” was “almost certainly an error. For the amount of wealth which is available for distribution cannot in fact be separated from the proportions in which it is distributed… . Moreover, the proportion in which wealth is distributed must have an effect on the amount produced.” 

The third classical economist to address this issue was Karl Marx.  There were many fatal flaws in Marxism, including the whole notion that a society is divided into two armies – workers and capitalists.[2]  Late in his career, however, Marx wrote a fascinating 1875 letter to his allies in the German Social Democratic movement criticizing a redistributionist scheme he found unworkable.  In this famous “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx was highly critical of “vulgar socialism” and considered the whole notion of “fair distribution” to be “obsolete verbal rubbish.”  In response to the Gotha’s program claim that society’s production should be equally distributed to all, Marx asked, “To those who do not work as well? … But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time… . This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor… It is, therefore, a right to inequality…”  

New Obama Budget: The Usual Reckless Spending Hikes…and a Big New Tax on American Energy Consumers

We have good news and bad news.

The good news is that President Obama has unveiled his final budget.

The bad news is that it’s a roadmap for an ever-growing burden of government spending. Here are the relevant details.

  • The President wants the federal budget to climb by nearly $1.2 trillion over the next five years.
  • Annual spending would jump by an average of about $235 billion per year.
  • The burden of government spending would rise more than twice as fast as inflation.
  • By 2021, federal government outlays will consume 22.4% of GDP, up from 20.4% of economic output in 2014.

I guess the President doesn’t have any interest in complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule, huh?

While all this spending is disturbing (should we really step on the accelerator as we approach the Greek fiscal cliff?), the part of this budget that’s really galling is the enormous tax increase on oil.

As acknowledged in a report by USA Today, this means a big tax hike on ordinary Americans (for what it’s worth, remember that Obama promised never to raise their taxes).

Consumers will likely pay the price for President Obama’s proposed $10 tax per-barrel of oil, an administration official and a prominent analyst said Thursday. Energy companies will simply pass along the cost to consumers, Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com, which tracks gas prices nationwide, said in an interview with USA TODAY. ….a 15-gallon fill-up would cost at least $2.76 more per day.  It would also affect people who use heating oil to warm their homes and diesel to fill their trucks.

Isn’t that wonderful. We’ll pay more to fill our tanks and heat our homes, and we’ll also pay more for everything that has oil as an input.