Tag: data

Euro VAT for America?

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.

E-Verify: The Surveillance Solution

The federal government will keep data about every person submitted to the “E-Verify” background check system for 10 years.

At least that’s my read of the slightly unclear notice describing the “United States Citizenship Immigration Services 009 Compliance Tracking and Monitoring System” in today’s Federal Register. (A second notice exempts this data from many protections of the Privacy Act.)

To make sure that people aren’t abusing E-Verify, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Verification Division, Monitoring and Compliance Branch will watch how the system is used. It will look for misuse, such as when a single Social Security Number is submitted to the system many times, which suggests that it is being used fraudulently.

How do you look for this kind of misuse (and others, more clever)? You collect all the data that goes into the system and mine it for patterns consistent with misuse.

The notice purports to limit the range of people whose data will be held in the system, listing “Individuals who are the subject of E-Verify or SAVE verifications and whose employer is subject to compliance activities.” But if the Monitoring Compliance Branch is going to find what it’s looking for, it’s going to look at data about all individuals submitted to E-Verify. “Employer subject to compliance activities” is not a limitation because all employers will be subject to “compliance activities” simply for using the system.

In my paper on electronic employment eligibility verification systems like E-Verify, I wrote how such systems “would add to the data stores throughout the federal government that continually amass information about the lives, livelihoods, activities, and interests of everyone—especially law-abiding citizens.”

It’s in the DNA of E-Verify to facilitate surveillance of every American worker. Today’s Federal Register notice is confirmation of that.

Questions for Heritage: REAL ID

The Heritage Foundation’s “The Foundry” blog has a post up called “Questions for Secretary Napolitano: Real ID.”

Honest advocates on two sides of an issue can come to almost perfectly opposite views, and this provides an example, because I find the post confused, wrong, or misleading in nearly every respect.

Let’s give it a brief fisking. Below, the language from the post is in italics, and my comments are in roman text:

Does the Obama Administration support the implementation of the Real ID Act?

(Hope not … .)

Congress has passed two bills that set Real ID standards for driver’s licenses in all U.S. jurisdictions.

REAL ID was a federal law that Congress passed in haste as an attachment to a military spending bill in early 2005. To me, “REAL ID standards” are the standards in the REAL ID Act. I’m not sure what other bill the post refers to.

Given the legitimate fear of REAL ID creating a federal national ID database, section 547 of the Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance, and Continuing Appropriations Act, 2009 barred the creation of a new federal database or federal access to state databases with the funds in that bill. (Thus, these things will be done with other funds later.)

The Court Security Improvement Act allowed federal judges and Supreme Court Justices to withhold their addresses from the REAL ID database system, evidently because the courts don’t believe the databases would be secure.

And in the last Congress, bills were introduced to repeal REAL ID in both the House and Senate. Congress has been backing away from REAL ID since it was rammed through, with Senators like Joe Lieberman (I-CT) calling REAL ID unworkable.

It’s unclear what the import of the sentence is, but if it’s trying to convey that there is a settled consensus around the REAL ID law, that is not supported by its treatment in Congress.

The Real ID legislation does not create a federal identification card, but it does set minimum security standards for driver’s licenses.

This sentence is correct, but deceptive.

REAL ID sets federal standards for state identification cards and drivers’ licenses, refusing them federal acceptance if they don’t meet these standards. Among those standards is uniformity in the data elements and a nationally standardized machine readable technology. Interoperable databases and easily scanned cards mean that state-issued cards would be the functional equivalent of a federally issued card.

People won’t be fooled if their national ID cards have the flags of their home states on them. When I testified to the Michigan legislature in 2007, I parodied the argument that a state-issued card is not a national ID card: “My car didn’t hit you — the bumper did!”

All states have either agreed to comply with these standards or have applied for an extension of the deadline.

It’s true that all states have either moved toward complying or not, but that’s not very informative. What matters is that a dozen states have passed legislation barring their own participation in the national ID plan. A couple of states received deadline extensions from the Department of Homeland Security despite refusing to ask for them. Things are not going well for REAL ID.

Secure identification cards will make fraudulent documents more difficult to obtain and will also simplify employers’ efforts to check documents when verifying employer eligibility.

It’s true that REAL ID would make it a little bit harder to get - or actually to use - fraudulent documents, because it would add some very expensive checks into the processes states use when they issue cards.

It’s not secure identification cards that make fraudulent documents harder to obtain - the author of this post has the security problems jumbled. But, worse, he or she excludes mentioning that a national ID makes it more valuable to use fraudulent documents. When a thing is made harder to do, but proportionally more valuable to do, you’ll see more of it. REAL ID is not a recipe for a secure identity system; it’s a recipe for a more expensive and invasive, but less secure identity system.

Speaking of invasive, this sentence is a confession that REAL ID is meant to facilitate background checks on American workers before they can work. This is a process I wrote about in a paper subtitled “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.” The dream of easy federal background checks on all American workers will never materialize, and we wouldn’t want that power in the hands of the federal government even if we could have it.

Real ID is a sensible protection against identify fraud.

The Department of Homeland Security’s own economic analysis of REAL ID noted that only 28% of all reported incidents of identity theft in 2005 required the presentation of an identification document like a driver’s license. And it said REAL ID would reduce those frauds “only to the extent that the [REAL ID] rulemaking leads to incidental and required use of REAL ID documents in everyday transactions, which is an impact that also depends on decisions made by State and local governments and the private sector.”

Translation: REAL ID would have a small, but speculative effect on identity fraud.

Congress is set to introduce legislation next week that could largely repeal the Real ID.

The bill I’ve seen is structured just like REAL ID was, and it requires states to create a national ID just like REAL ID did. REAL ID is dying, but the bill would revive REAL ID, trying to give it a different name.

Some groups oppose this version of REAL ID because it takes longer to drive all Americans into a national ID system and frustrates their plans to do background checks on all American workers. But it’s still the REAL ID Act’s basic plan for a national ID.

The Administration should put pressure on Congress to ensure that this legislation does not effectively eliminate the Real ID standards.

Why the administration would pressure Congress to maintain the national ID law in place - by any name - is beyond me. REAL ID is unworkable, unwanted, and unfixable.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano signed legislation as Arizona’s governor to reject the REAL ID Act. Her predecessor at DHS, Michael Chertoff, talked tough about implementing the law but came up just shy of lighting the paper bag in which he left it on Napolitano’s doorstep.

The REAL ID revival bill that is being so widely discussed is likely to be both the national ID plan that so many states have already rejected and deeply unsatisfying to the anti-immigrant crowd. Congress rarely fails to grasp a lose-lose opportunity like this, so I expect it will be introduced and to see it’s sponsors award themselves a great deal of self-congratulations for their courageous work. You can expect that to receive a fisking here too.

You Just Can’t Say That

Let’s get one thing straight: As I’ve noted on numerous occasions, you can’t look just at National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results – especially only between two years – and attribute gains or losses to specific laws or programs. There are simply too many variables at play in education – federal laws, state laws, school choice, child nutrition, teacher quality, parents’ attitudes, the weather – to confidently assert that any one is responsible for changing scores. Indeed, it is possible that nothing government has done has had any effect, and every trend just reflects changing attitudes toward education among students themselves.

And yet, some reporters identify something akin to a god variable anyway, as the Associated Press did in its coverage of the new NAEP long-term-trends report:

The biggest gains came from low-achieving students. That is probably not an accident — the federal No Child Left Behind law and similar state laws have focused on improving the performance of minority and poor children, who struggle the most.

Now, there are a lot of problems with this statement, including that several of the lowest-achieving percentiles by age and subject saw no statistically significant changes in scores between 2004 and 2008; many groups had periods of faster gains before NCLB (though we don’t even have clear before and after-NCLB data points); and NAEP offers no income-based score breakdowns, only the proxy of parents’ education – and that just for 13 and 17-year-olds in mathematics. But the biggest problem is that, all of these factual problems aside, there is no way to ascribe score changes to specific laws or government policies. The data just aren’t there.

Fortunately, most of the coverage of the NAEP report has been pretty reasonable, including from the Washington Post and New York Times. But the AP reaches a lot of people, and that means many Americans are going to get “news” about the latest NAEP findings that is little more than unsupportable conjecture.

Robert H. Frank, A 200% Tax Even Socialists Will Hate

In the latest issue of Forbes, Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank is pushing “A Tax Even Libertarians Can Love.” I hope he wasn’t counting on this libertarian’s support.

What he advocates is “replacing the income tax with a progressive tax on spending. …A family’s income minus its savings is its consumption, and that amount minus a large standard deduction – say, $30,000 a year for a family of four – would be its taxable consumption. …Rates would start low, perhaps 20%, then rise gradually with total consumption. …With savings tax-exempt, top marginal tax rates on consumption would have to be significantly higher than current top rates on income.”

His concept of “significantly higher” includes tax rates of 100-200% on marginal income that isn’t saved.  This is about minimizing affluence, not maximizing revenues.  There is ample evidence from Emmanuel Saez and others that the amount of reported income drops sharply as marginal tax rates rise above 25-30% (and even less on capital gains).

In his 2007 book, Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, Frank suggests marginal tax rates of 50% above $220,000  and rising to 200%.  Since seniors (like me) commonly finance retirement from past savings, Frank’s tax scheme amounts to rapid confiscation of past savings.

For young people, Frank’s tax can’t possibly encourage savings because it discourages earning any income in the first place.  Consumption is, after all, the motive for both earning and saving.   The prospect of facing future consumption taxes of 50-200% would surely discourage saving much, because the rewards from invested savings (namely, future consumption) would be subjected to such prohibitive tax brackets. Under this steeply progressive tax on unsaved income, any income exempt from taxes today would be subject to brutal taxes whenever folks wanted to buy anything of value, like a car or house, or to retire on their accumulated savings.

In another April 25 piece in The New York Times, Mr. Frank shifts from promoting confiscatory taxes on consumption to defending small tweaks to the current tax regime. “The current [tax] system is much fairer than many people believe, and the president’s proposal will make it both fairer and more efficient.” That comment was aimed at the tea parties.  Yet tax party protesters clearly understood, as Frank does not, that the president’s first wave of proposed tax increases come nowhere near paying for his grandiose spending plans.  My estimate of last October, that Obama’s plans would add $4.3 trillion to the deficits over ten years is now looking much too generous, if not wildly optimistic.

In the New York Times piece, Frank argues that income differences are mainly a matter of luck.  As he often does, Frank pretends to possess evidence about this topic that other economists have missed.  He says, “economists have only begun to realize [that] pay differences often vastly overstate differences in performance.”

In his book, whenever Frank alludes to what “the evidence suggests,” his sources are usually suspect, obsolete or invisible. He claims “regulations, like cartoons are data.”  He cites an unpublished master’s thesis, unidentified surveys and “casual impressions.”

Frank  claims “happiness can be measured reliably” by brain waves.  Explaining this better in the Economic Journal in 1997, he noted that people who say they are happy show “greater electrical activity in the left prefrontal region of the brain” which “is rich in receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, higher concentrations of which been shown independently to be correlated with positive affect.”  If we accept the amount of dopamine in the brain as the gauge of happiness, however, then the happiest people are those who routinely abuse crack and meth.

In the second chapter of Falling Behind, his first graph lists a Census Bureau URL as the source for household income data from 1949 to 1979.  Click on that link and you will find the data only go back to 1967.   In reality, all of Frank’s income and wealth graphs actually came from Chris Hartman at inequality.org. Hartman is not an economist or statistician, but a “researcher, writer, editor, and graphic designer with experience in politics, higher education, and publishing.”  Hartman’s non-facts used in Robert Frank’s first graph actually came from a 1994 book from the Economic Policy Institute, reflecting the “authors’ analysis…  of unpublished census data.” Frank’s comparison of CEO pay with “average wages” came from Hartman’s flawed calculations for United for a Fair Economy, which were critiqued on page 131 of my textbook Income and Wealth. And Frank’s demonstrably false claim that “asset ownership has become even more heavily concentrated during recent years” is likewise from inequality.org.

In short, Professor Frank often bases his remarkably strong opinions on fragile facts.

Private Zips Past Public

Govexec.com reports: “Private sector zips past government in Recovery Act tracking.”

If you want to find out where governments are spending the $800 billion in federal stimulus money, the story reports that you would do better to go to www.recovery.org than www.recovery.gov. The latter is the government website that stimulus-overseer, VP Joe Biden, could not remember the name of. The former is a project of the business research firm Onvia.

The private www.recovery.org does have useful data and charts. But Onvia should have paired the chart ”Estimated Jobs Created by State” with another one titled “Estimated Jobs Destroyed by State” to illustrate the financing burden of all the new spending.

The Beginnings of Earmark Transparency

Under reforms announced in March, House members have to publicly declare the earmarks they’re requesting from the Appropriations Committee. Most of the requests have now been published and WashingtonWatch.com has assembled a state-by-state catalogue of links to Members’ earmark requests.

Getting earmark requests published is progress. Getting them published in uniform, machine-readable formats would allow the public to do really thorough oversight of all the projects that Members of Congress think federal taxpayer dollars should go to.

In December, we had a policy forum called “Just Give Us the Data!” where we explored some of the current issues in government transparency.