President Obama’s Fiscal Commission has produced a serious and sobering analysis of the government’s budget mess, and it provides some of the needed solutions. Three of the report’s main themes are on target: the need to make government leaner, the need to cut business taxes to generate economic growth, and the need to impose tighter budget rules to discipline spending.
The report rejects the view of many Democratic leaders that the welfare state built over the last 80 years must be defended against any and all budget cuts. “Every aspect of the discretionary budget must be scrutinized, no agency can be off limits, and no program that spends too much or achieves too little can be spared. The federal government can and must adapt to the 21st century by transforming itself into a leaner and more efficient operation.” How lean the government should be, and how many agencies to eliminate, will be the central fiscal debate in coming years. Downsizing government is the order of the day.
The report recognizes the need to spur economic growth, particularly by cutting the corporate tax rate. “The corporate income tax, meanwhile, hurts America’s ability to compete… statutory rates in the U.S. are significantly higher than the average for industrialized countries … and our method of taxing foreign income is outside the norm…. the current system puts U.S. corporations at a competitive disadvantage against their foreign competitors.” The report recommends cutting the 35 percent federal corporate tax rate to 28 percent or less to respond to the Global Tax Revolution and to “make America the best place to start a business and create jobs.”
Finally, the report suggests that Congress impose new procedures to enforce budget restraint. However, the rules suggested by the commission are complex and not tight enough. It would be simpler and more powerful to impose a cap on overall federal spending. For example, a law could require that the government’s overall budget not grow faster than general inflation each year else the president would sequester spending across-the-board. Such a cap would be easy for the public to understand and enforce.
In sum, the report provides a useful menu of reform options that incoming members of a more conservative Congress can pursue next year. We need bigger spending cuts than the commission has laid out—as I’ve outlined in this balanced-budget plan—but the commission deserves credit for spurring a national discussion on how to downsize the federal government.
Many people assume that Europe is the land of high-tax welfare states and America is an outpost of laissez-faire capitalism. We should be so lucky. The burden of government in America is still lower than it is in the average European nation, but the United States is a lot closer to France than it is to Hong Kong -- and the trend is not comforting.
We recently endured the embarrassing spectacle of President Obama arguing with Europeans that they should increase the burden of government spending. Now we have a new report from the European Commission indicating that the average corporate tax rate in member nations of the European Union has plummeted to just 23.5 percent while the corporate tax rate in the U.S. has stagnated at 35 percent. In the past dozen years alone, as the chart illustrates, the average corporate tax rate in the European Union has dropped by nearly 12 percentage points. To make matters worse, the corporate tax rate in America actually is closer to 40 percent if state tax burdens are added to the mix.
This is not to say that European politicians are reading Hayek and Friedman (or watching Dan Mitchell videos on corporate taxation). Almost all of the positive reforms are because of tax competition. Thanks to globalization, it is increasingly easy for labor and (especially) capital to cross national borders to escape bad policy. As such, nations now have to compete for jobs and investment, and this liberalizing process is particularly powerful among nations that are neighbors.
Not surprisingly, European politicians despise tax competition and instead would prefer to impose a one-size-fits-all policy of tax harmonization. These efforts to create a tax cartel have a long history, beginning even before Reagan and Thatcher lowered tax rates and triggered the modern era of tax competition. The European Commission originally wanted to require a minimum corporate tax rate of 45 percent. And as recently as 1992, there were an effort to require a minimum corporate tax rate of 30 percent.
Fortunately, the politicians did not succeed in any of these efforts. As such, tax competition remains alive and corporate tax rates continue to fall. What remains to be seen, however, is whether America will join the race to lower corporate tax rates -- and more jobs and investment.
- A real stimulus: To create jobs, repeal the corporate-income tax.
- As if times weren't hard enough: The individual mandate on health insurance would impose high implicit taxes on low-wage workers. For more on this, read the new Cato study on burdens the health care legislation will place on the poor.
- Hot off the press: New issue of Regulation magazine looks at lessons from the financial crisis and property rights.
- Even though the government is running massive deficits, interest rates and inflation are low. So, what's the problem?
- Podcast: "Bernanke's Conceit" featuring Mark A. Calabria.
At a conference yesterday, White House National Economic Council Director Larry Summers repeated a superficial critique of the U.S. corporate income tax that we've heard often from the Obama administration.
Politico notes that Summers suggested "that U.S. corporate tax rates are relatively low, despite complaints from U.S. corporations." And they quote him: “If you look at taxes paid by corporations as a fraction of profits, they’re actually very low” because the U.S. tax code is replete with “evasion and avoidance.”
The Obama team's solution to the supposed problem is to pile more complex IRS rules and regulations on U.S. corporations and to increase taxes on their foreign earnings.
There are lots of problems here. One is the implication that the U.S. corporate tax is uniquely subject to evasion and avoidance. It isn't. Corporate income taxes around the globe are subject to large avoidance and evasion pressures because of globalization and technological advance.
That is one of the main reasons why virtually every other industrial nation has dramatically cut its corporate tax rate over the last decade or so. But the United States has not followed suit, and that's why U.S. corporations are having to put large efforts into avoidance.
The latest data from KPMG shows that the U.S. federal/state rate is 40 percent--tied with Libya for the third-highest rate among 116 countries surveyed. The chart shows the average rate for the 30 OECD nations.
Summers may be right that U.S. corporate taxes are "low" when measured as a share of profits, although that calculation is more complex than you might think (For example, is he talking about domestic taxes divided by domestic profits, domestic taxes divided by worldwide profits, or something else?)
Anyway, Larry is referring to a measure of the average tax rate. But, generally, it is statutory rates that drive avoidance, and so it is the very high U.S. statutory rate that is helping to shrink federal taxes paid and thus drive down the average rate that Larry is worried about.
Note that lower statutory corporate rates over the last two decades have been associated with higher corporate tax revenues, as Figure 1 illustrates here. Thus, if Larry wants a higher average rate, he should propose cutting the U.S. statutory rate.
Summers apparently wants corporations to "help the country" by paying more taxes. But Larry must know that it is individual workers, consumers, and savers who actually bear the burden of the corporate tax. These people are "the country" and they would be helped by dramatically cutting the corporate tax rate and boosting the economy.
Social Security benefits are indexed for inflation, but because inflation has been roughly zero for the past year, the adjustment formula implies no increase in benefits this year. Nevertheless,
President Obama on Wednesday attempted to preempt the announcement that Social Security recipients will not get an increase in their benefit checks for the first time in three decades, encouraging Congress to provide a one-time payment of $250 to help seniors and disabled Americans weather the recession.
Obama endorsed the idea, which is expected to cost at least $13 billion, as the administration gropes for ways to sustain an apparent economic rebound without the kind of massive spending package that critics could label a second stimulus act.
This is outrageous on four levels:
1. If the president thinks the economy needs more stimulus, he should say that explicitly and have an honest debate.
2. This is the wrong kind of stimulus. Any further stimulus should consist of reductions in marginal tax rates, such as a cut in the corporate income tax (or better yet, repeal).
3. All Social Security recipients already have a moderate guaranteed income, and many have significant income beyond their Social Security benefits. This kind of transfer has no plausible justification as redistribution for the needy.
4. Sending checks to seniors is a blatant attempt to buy their support for Obamacare, which promises to cut Medicare spending substantially.
C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z
My colleague Chris Edwards made a good point yesterday in his post on the injustice of federal subsidies. The wrangling between the states to haul in the federal largesse is wasteful, and getting worse. But the underlying issue in the article Chris cites — a state using taxpayer money to lure a company away from another state — is another wasteful activity that is all too common.
Instead of competing with other states to attract industry by lowering taxes and reducing regulations, it seems most state governors prefer a politically opportunistic method I call "press release economics." Here's how it works:
A state "economic development" agency offers an out-of-state company (or even an out-of-country company) tax breaks and/or direct subsidies to locate some or all of its business operations in that state. Most likely, the business would have located there anyhow due to myriad factors including demographics, transportation logistics, and workforce capabilities. Sometimes several states will engage in a "bidding war" to get a business to set up shop within their borders. The governor of the "winning" state will then issue a press release citing the new jobs and capital his administration has just brought to the state. The locating company usually tells the press that the winning state's package helped seal the deal. The company and the governor's press staff then typically arrange a photo-op at an orchestrated ground-breaking ceremony for the new facilities.
If a state is already bleeding jobs, as is often the case in the current economy, such press releases and photo-ops can be a political coup. Moreover, the governor will have given up, or foregone, relatively little in tax revenue in comparison to, say, cutting the state corporate income tax. This also leaves the governor with more money to spend on various vote-buying programs. I'm picking on governors, but the legislature generally prefers the press-release economics route for similar reasons. And if you're a governor, why risk the headache of engaging the legislature in a fight over reducing corporate taxes, unemployment taxes, or any other tax — including personal income taxes and sales taxes — that effect industry when you can take the easy win?
Am I too cynical? Actually, I had first-hand experience with this issue when I worked in state government. My suggestion that the governor eliminate or reduce the state's high corporate income tax rate, and "pay for it" — at least in part — by getting rid of the state's corporate welfare apparatus, was routinely ignored for the reasons I cited above. That one would be hard-pressed to find support among the economics profession for the state corporate welfare give-away game means little to the majority of policymakers and their minions who naturally favor short-term political gain over long-term economic gain. That other companies already located within the state are stuck paying the regular tax rate, and are thus put at a competitive disadvantage, is a secondary or non-concern as well.
Another issue that I won't delve into here is the fact that these giveaways often blow up in a state's face when the locating company ends up not producing the jobs it promised and/or it relocates to another state or country after pocketing the free taxpayer money. Anyhow, journalists should be on the lookout for more press-release economics schemes coming from the states as revenues remain tight and politicians become desperate to demonstrate they're "doing something." Journalists should examine a state's tax structure when a taxpayer giveaway is announced to see if perhaps the governor is masking economic-unfriendly fiscal policies.
Note: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford proposed late last year to do exactly what I recommended: eliminate the state's corporate income tax, offset in part by the elimination of corporate tax incentives. There is hope.
Desperate for fresh revenues to feed the giant spending appetite of President Obama, Democratic policymakers are talking up ‘tax reform’ as a way to reduce the deficit. Some are considering a European-style value-added tax (VAT), which would have a similar effect as a national sales tax, and be a large new burden on American families.
A VAT would raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year for the government, even at a 10-percent rate. The math is simple: total U.S. consumption in 2008 was $10 trillion. VATs usually tax about half of a nation's consumption or less, say $5 trillion. That means that a 10% VAT would raise about $500 billion a year in the United States, or about $4,300 from every household. Obviously such a huge tax hit would fundamentally change the American economy and society, and for the worse.
Some fiscal experts think that a VAT would solve the government's budget problems and reduce the deficit, as the Washington Post noted yesterday. That certainly has not happened in Europe where the average VAT rate is a huge 20 percent, and most nations face large budget deficits just as we do. The hard truth for policymakers to swallow is that the only real cure for our federal fiscal crisis is to cut spending.
Liberals like VATs because of the revenue-raising potential, but some conservatives are drawn to the idea of using VAT revenues to reduce the corporate tax rate. The Post story reflected this in noting "A 21 percent VAT has permitted Ireland to attract investment by lowering the corporate tax rate." That implies that the Irish government lost money when it cut its corporate rate, but actually the reverse happened in the most dramatic way.
Ireland installed a 10% corporate rate for certain industries in the 1980s, but also steadily cut its regular corporate rate during the 1990s. It switched over to a 12.5% rate for all corporations in 2004. OECD data show that as the Irish corporate tax rate fell, corporate tax revenues went through the roof -- from 1.6% of GDP in 1990, to 3.7% in 2000, to 3.8% in 2006.
In sum, a VAT would not solve our deficit problems because Congress would simply boost its spending even higher, as happened in Europe as VAT rates increased over time. Also, a VAT is not needed to cut the corporate income tax rate because a corporate rate cut would be self-financing over the long-term as tax avoidance fell and economic growth increased.