Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

The State of Washington Should Learn a Very Important Lesson from Connecticut about the Dangers of an Income Tax

Every so often, I get asked why I’m so rigidly opposed to tax hikes in general and so vociferously against the imposition of new taxes in particular.

In part, my hostility is an ideological reflex. When pressed, though, I’ll confess that there are situations - in theory - where more taxes might be acceptable.

But there’s a giant gap between theory and reality. In the real world, I can’t think of a single instance in which higher taxes led to a fiscally responsible outcome.

That’s true on the national level. And it’s also true at the state level.

Speaking of which, the Wall Street Journal is - to put it mildly - not very happy at the tax-aholic behavior of Connecticut politicians. Here’s some of what was in a recent editorial.

The Census Bureau says Connecticut was one of six states that lost population in fiscal 2013-2014, and a Gallup poll in the second half of 2013 found that about half of Nutmeg Staters would migrate if they could. Now the Democrats who run the state want to drive the other half out too. That’s the best way to explain the frenzy by Governor Dannel Malloy and the legislature to raise taxes again… Mr. Malloy promised last year during his re-election campaign that he wouldn’t raise taxes, but that’s what he also said in 2010. In 2011 he signed a $2.6 billion tax hike promising that it would eliminate a budget deficit. Having won re-election he’s now back seeking another $650 million in tax hikes. But that’s not enough for the legislature, which has floated $1.5 billion in tax increases. Add a state-wide municipal sales tax that some lawmakers want, and the total could hit $2.1 billion over two years.

In other words, higher taxes in recent years have been used to fund more spending.

And now the politicians are hoping to play the same trick another time.

The Folly of Centralized Spending

I’ve argued that the centralization of government spending in Washington over the past century has severely undermined good governance. Citizens get worse outcomes when funding and decisionmaking for education, infrastructure, and other things are made by the central government rather than state and local governments and the private sector. The problem is the same in the European Union, as a new article in Bloomberg on the funding of Polish airports illustrates:

Local authorities are spending some 205 million zloty ($58 million), including more than $44 million in EU subsidies, to build runways and a new terminal that could accommodate more than 1 million passengers a year. The Olsztyn Mazury Airport is scheduled to open next January, but traffic and revenue forecasts developed by the project’s backers are “very far from reality,” says Jacek Krawczyk, a former chairman of LOT Polish airlines who advises the EU on aviation policy through its European Economic and Social Committee.

Szymany adds to a burgeoning supply of costly new airports across Poland. Since 2007, the EU has spent more than €600 million ($666 million) to build or renovate a dozen Polish airports.

… Mostly, though, Poland’s new airports have been a financial bust. A report in December by the European Court of Auditors found that EU-subsidized airport projects in Poland, as well as others in Estonia, Greece, Italy, and Spain, had “produced poor value for money.” Traffic at most airports fell far short of projections, and there was little evidence of broader economic benefits, such as job creation, the report found.  

With respect to U.S. infrastructure, there is ongoing pressure to increase federal investment, despite decades of experience on the inefficiency of it. Politicians and lobby groups constantly complain that America does not spend enough on infrastructure. But they rarely discuss how to ensure efficiency in spending, or cite any advantages of federal spending over state, local, and private spending.

I’ve discussed the many downsides to federal aid for infrastructure and other local activities here and here. But I was alerted to an additional argument against aid from this Regulation article by William Fischel and this book by James Bennett. Federal aid encourages local governments to expropriate private property, often for dubious purposes.

The article and book discuss the expropriation of Detroit homes for the benefit of General Motors in the 1980s. The “Poletown” project would not have happened without $200 million in federal and state loans and grants to the city. So Fischel makes the point that (abusive) government uses of eminent domain—such as the Kelo case in New London, Connecticut—are encouraged by the flow of federal and state funds to cities. That is, money for “economic development” and the like.

State and local governments would make better decisions if they were responsible for their own funding of programs and projects. The annual flow of more than $600 billion in federal aid to state and local governments should be phased out over time and eliminated.

Proven Reforms to Restrain Leviathan

Back in March, I shared a remarkable study from the International Monetary Fund which explained that spending caps are the only truly effective way to achieve good fiscal policy.

And earlier this month, I discussed another good IMF study that showed how deficit and debt rules in Europe have been a failure.

In hopes of teaching American lawmakers about this international evidence, the Cato Institute put together a forum on Capitol Hill to highlight the specific reforms that have been successful.

I moderated the panel and began by pointing out that there are many examples of nations that have enjoyed good results thanks to multi-year periods of spending restraint.

I even pointed out that we actually had an unintentional - but very successful - spending freeze in Washington between 2009 and 2014.

But the problem, I suggested, is that it is very difficult to convince politicians to sustain good policy on a long-run basis. The gains of good policy (such as what was achieved in the 1990s) can quickly be erased by a spending binge (such as what happened during the Bush years).

Paid Leave’s Effects on Job Prospects

Expanded maternity and child care benefits are expected to be a pillar of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. These policies seek to make it easier for women to balance the challenges of being a working mother. While they may well be well-intentioned, but they backfire. The New York Times highlighted the downside.

First, the article focused on maternal leave policies in Spain:

Spain passed a law in 1999 giving workers with children younger than 7 the right to ask for reduced hours without fear of being laid off. Those who took advantage of it were nearly all women.

Over the next decade, companies were 6 percent less likely to hire women of childbearing age compared with men, 37 percent less likely to promote them and 45 percent more likely to dismiss them, according to a study led by Daniel Fernández-Kranz, an economist at IE Business School in Madrid. The probability of women of childbearing age not being employed climbed 20 percent. Another result: Women were more likely to be in less stable, short-term contract jobs, which are not required to provide such benefits.

The results in Chile were similar:

Corporate Welfare by James T. Bennett

Across my desk this morning: James Bennett’s new book, Corporate Welfare: Crony Capitalism That Enriches the Rich.

Bennett is a highly regarded George Mason professor of economics and a prolific author of public policy books. His new book opens with a discussion of corporate welfare in the Early Republic, and then provides four case studies on more recent issues. The case studies are the Supersonic Transport (SST) project of the 1960s, state and local economic development subsidies, the use of eminent domain in Detroit to benefit General Motors, and the Export-Import Bank.

The last item is timely given the current battle over Ex-Im between the fiscal reform and business-subsidy wings of the Republican Party. It is an important battle because a win for reform on Ex-Im might generate momentum to wean American businesses off of other types of subsidies. I also think that ending Ex-Im would make recipient businesses more competitive and efficient in the long run. Subsidies produce industrial weakness, not strength.

Here’s what I said about Corporate Welfare on the book’s dust jacket:

Professor Bennett begins his excellent new book about corporate welfare with Alexander Hamilton’s misguided schemes. Fortunately, those schemes were mainly blocked in the early Republic by the Jeffersonian party. The problem today—as Bennett skillfully documents—is that business subsidies are a bipartisan disease, chronic at all levels of government. Few politicians stand up for the taxpayer, despite citizen opposition to hand-outs from across the political spectrum. Hopefully, Bennett’s stomach-turning stories will convince more people of the evils of crony capitalism.

Pataki’s Fiscal Record

George Pataki, the governor of New York from 1995 to 2006, is expected to announce the launch of his presidential campaign tomorrow. Pataki joins an already crowded Republican field and is expected to highlight his record as governor to win support. A review of Pataki’s record presents a question: which Pataki will be running for the presidency?

Pataki’s first several years in office showed promise, from a small-government perspective. He proclaimed that his administration was “overthrowing all the unworkable liberal abstractions of the past and replacing them with a revolution of conservative ideas.” His actions matched his claims. His first two budgets included a number of spending cuts. New York general fund spending decreased five percent in his first year.  He eliminated 12,000 of the state’s 200,000 government jobs. In total, spending was cut by $2 billion. Pataki coupled his spending cuts with tax cuts. He cut the personal income tax by 25 percent

His actions during those two years earned him an “A” on Cato’s Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors in 1996. The authors of the report said that Pataki “had far and away the most impressive fiscal record in his first two years” among the 20 new governors covered in the report.

Pataki seems to have lost his zeal for fiscal restraint after his first two years. He supported a 55 cent increase to the cigarette tax and followed it with another 39 cent increase in the tax. He pushed for a $1.5 billion bond issue for infrastructure. General fund spending increased by seven percent from fiscal year 1998 to fiscal year 1999. It continued to grow after that. It grew five percent from fiscal year 2004 to 2005, nine percent from fiscal year 2005 to 2006, and an astounding 10.6 percent from fiscal year 2006 to 2007. 

Balanced Budget Requirements Don’t Work as Well as Spending Limits

When I first came to Washington back in the 1980s, there was near-universal support and enthusiasm for a balanced budget amendment among advocates of limited government.

The support is still there, I’m guessing, but the enthusiasm is not nearly as intense.

There are three reasons for this drop.

  1. Political reality - There is zero chance that a balanced budget amendment would get the necessary two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. And if that happened, by some miracle, it’s highly unlikely that it would get the necessary support for ratification in three-fourths of state legislatures.
  2. Unfavorable evidence from the states - According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, every state other than Vermont has some sort of balanced budget requirement. Yet those rules don’t prevent states like California, Illinois, Connecticut, and New York from adopting bad fiscal policy.
  3. Favorable evidence for the alternative approach of spending restraint - While balanced budget rules don’t seem to work very well, policies that explicitly restrain spending work very well. The data from Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado is particularly persuasive.

Advocates of a balanced budget amendment have some good responses to these points. They explain that it’s right to push good policy, regardless of the political situation. Since I’m a strong advocate for a flat tax even though it isn’t likely to happen, I can’t argue with this logic.

Regarding the last two points, advocates explain that older versions of a balanced budget requirement simply required a supermajority for more debt, but newer versions also include a supermajority requirement to raise taxes. This means - at least indirectly - that the amendment actually is a vehicle for spending restraint.