Tag: federal budget

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Tax Subsidy, Either

I hit a nerve with my post, “There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Tax Expenditure.”  To recap: The federal tax code has credits, deductions, exemptions, and exclusions that reduce tax revenue.  By convention, budget experts call that forgone revenue a “tax expenditure,” a “tax subsidy,” or even “backdoor spending in the tax code.”  This is incorrect.  To claim that forgone tax revenue is a government expenditure implies that the money at stake actually belongs to the government, which is graciously letting taxpayers keep it, rather than to the people who earned it.  Government is not spending that money; it is merely not extracting that money from the private sector.  Statists deliberately use terms like “tax expenditure” precisely because that erroneous impression obscures their efforts to raise your taxes.

Less than an hour after posting, Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress Action Fund called me “daringly inaccurate.”  (Why be timid?)  The Manhattan Institute’s Josh Barro devoted a very thoughtful 1,155 words to the topic at NRO.

Yglesias explains in an email:

I understand why you might want to object to the “tax expenditure” phrasing, but surely we can agree that there’s such a thing as a “tax subsidy,” right? If the government declares that fuel-efficient hybrid cars are now tax-deductible, that’s a subsidy to the makers and purchasers of Priuses.

I’m afraid I cannot agree to that.

  • The term “tax expenditure” is nonsense because not taking Peter’s money, conditional on Peter buying a Prius, is not the same as spending the same amount of money on a Prius.  The outcome may be exactly the same.  But no one can spend money that he doesn’t possess.
  • The term “tax subsidy” is likewise nonsense because a subsidy involves giving something to someone else.  Not taking Peter’s money, conditional on Peter buying a Prius, is not a subsidy to Peter.  The government is not giving Peter anything.  Nor is it a subsidy to Paul, even though he profits from Prius sales: the government is not giving anything to Paul, either.  Again, the outcome may be exactly the same as a government subsidy.  Notably, Paul’s income rises.   Yet it does not rise because Paul received a subsidy.  Paul’s income rises because the state used coercion in a different way: to alter, for Peter, the cost of a Prius relative to other uses of Peter’s income.
  • To see the absurdity, consider what it would mean to eliminate a “tax subsidy.”  All else equal, eliminating an actual government subsidy reduces the tax burden.  Eliminating a “tax subsidy” increases someone’s tax burden.  Which is the whole point, isn’t it?

Barro makes more of our disagreement than actually exists.

  • We agree targeted tax preferences are harmful.  (I argue, for example, that the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance operates more like a tax hike than a tax break because, among other atrocities, it denies the typical parent control over $10,000 of her earnings.)
  • We agree they expand government power.
  • We agree government should account for them.  (Along those lines, the Congressional Budget Office has developed a concept it calls the “federal budgetary commitment to health care,” which is the sum of all federal health spending and all tax revenue forgone due to health-related tax loopholes.  The CBO calls them “tax expenditures” –  grrrr.  I dislike “budgetary commitment” for the same reason: the government can’t commit resources it doesn’t possess. But the CBO is on to something. We need an aggregate measure of “federal budgetary interference in the economy.”)
  • Finally, Barro and I probably agree that Congress should simultaneously eliminate all such loopholes and reduce marginal payroll- and income-tax rates – perhaps to zero.

I reject the term “tax expenditure” – as distinct from the concept – because it is nonsensical and biases the debate toward more government control of the economy and our lives.   Barro asks what term I’d prefer. Until someone comes up with something pithier than “tax revenue forgone due to targeted tax preferences,” I’ll stick with that.

Will the Deficit Compel Congress to Cut Military Spending?

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, Megan Scully notes the military spending cuts contained within a proposal by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of the president’s deficit reduction commission. Scully asks: “How feasible would it be for lawmakers to make these kinds of cuts to defense?…What kind of sway will fiscal hawks have in the next Congress - and will it be enough to push through sweeping defense cuts over the objections from pro-defense members of their party?”

Government spending across the board must be cut, I explain, beginning especially with entitlements.  I continue:

Other spending must also be on the table, however, and that includes the roughly 23 percent of the federal budget that goes to the military. This often poses a particular challenge for Republicans given their traditional support for military spending and their professed commitment to fiscal discipline. But it need not be particularly difficult. If Republicans reaffirm that the core function of government, many would say one of the only core functions of government, is defense (strictly speaking), then the path to a politically sustainable and economically sound defense posture is clear: a military geared to defending the United States and its vital national interests, and not permanently deployed as the world’s policeman and armed social worker. Such a posture would allow for a smaller Army and Marine Corps as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are drawn to a close (as they should be), deep cuts in the Pentagon’s civilian work force, which has grown dramatically over the past 10 years, and sensible reductions in the nuclear arsenal. More modest cuts are warranted in intelligence and R&D. Finally, significant changes in a number of costly and unnecessary weapons and platforms, including terminating the V-22 Osprey and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and greater scrutiny of the F-35 program, for example, must also be in the mix….

Serious cuts to military spending… must be part of a broader strategic reset that ends the free-riding of wealthy and stable allies around the world, and that takes a more balanced and objective view of our relative strategic advantages and our enviable security.

 You can read the rest of my response here.

What Spending Should the GOP Cut?

Congratulations to the wave of Republicans who successfully ran on promises to tackle rising government debt and cut the hugely bloated federal budget. On the campaign trail, most candidates were not very specific about how they would cut the budget, but when they come to Washington they will be looking for good reform targets.

Newcomers to Congress can find a wealth of budget-cutting ideas in recent plans by various D.C. think tanks:

Cato’s website, www.downsizinggovernment.org, also provides a treasure trove of spending cuts, and I will be publishing a detailed budget-reform plan in coming days. 

Some of the above budget plans include tax increases, but voters gave a resounding message yesterday that they want Congress to focus on cutting spending, not raising taxes.

Out of the starting gate next year, fiscal reformers in Congress should push for an across-the-board cut to discretionary spending for the rest of the current fiscal year. One approach would be for House leaders to propose a continuing resolution that extends spending at last year’s levels, less some substantial percentage cut applied to every program.

For the upcoming fiscal year of 2012, reformers need to carefully target some major program cuts and eliminations. The president and the Democrats in the Senate will likely resist proposed cuts, but the point is to further the national debate that has begun about the proper size and scope of the federal government.

Some initial targets for GOP reformers, with rough annual savings, could include: community development subsidies ($15 billion), public housing subsidies ($9 billion), urban transit subsidies ($9 billion), and foreign development aid ($18 billion). On the entitlement side, initial cuts could include raising the retirement age for Social Security and introducing progressive price indexing to reduce the growth rate of future benefits.

We will not get federal spending under control unless we begin a national discussion about specific cuts. And we won’t get that discussion unless enough members of Congress start pushing for specific cuts. Ronald Reagan was able to make substantial cuts to state grants in the early 1980s because policymakers had discussed such reforms throughout the 1970s. Republicans in the mid-1990s were able to reform welfare because of the extended debate on the issue that preceded it.

The electorate wants spending cuts, and they will support the policymakers who take the lead on cuts if they are pursued in a forthright and serious-minded manner.

Boehner Endorses More Medicare Spending: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss?

While flipping through the radio on my way to pick my son up from school yesterday afternoon, I was dumbfounded to hear Congressman John Boehner talk about repealing Obama’s Medicare cuts on Sean Hannity’s show.

I wasn’t shocked that Boehner was referring to non-existent cuts (Medicare spending is projected to jump from $519 billion in 2010 to $677 billion in 2015 according to the Congressional Budget Office). I’ve been dealing with Washington’s dishonest definition of “spending cuts” for decades, so I’m hardly fazed by that type of routine inaccuracy.

But I was amazed that the presumptive future Speaker of the House went on a supposedly conservative talk radio show and said that increasing Medicare spending would be on the agenda of a GOP-controlled Congress. (I wondered if I somehow misinterpreted what was being said, but David Frum heard the same thing)

To be fair, Boehner also said that he wanted to repeal ObamaCare, so it would be unfair to claim that the interview was all Bush-style, big-government conservatism. But it is not a positive sign that Boehner is talking about more spending before he’s even had a chance to pick out the drapes for his new office.

Charitable Donations to the Government

The New York Times took a look at people who voluntarily send money to Washington in order to help pay down the federal debt. Last year, the Bureau of the Public Debt received $3.1 million in such donations. Looking at the federal budget, I found a total of $241 million in “gifts and contributions” for fiscal year 2010.

Charitable donations to the federal government are insignificant when compared to donations made to private charities. A Cato essay on welfare spending points out that Americans contribute more than $300 billion a year to organized private charities and volunteer more than 8 billion hours a year to charitable activities, which can be valued at about $158 billion.

Thus when given the choice, people overwhelmingly entrust their donations to private charities not the government. One can only imagine what donations to private charities would be if government at all levels didn’t confiscate trillions of our dollars in taxes every year.

Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, decided several years ago to leave most of his fortune to private charities. Buffett is notorious for advocating tax increases to support government spending. Yet, when he made the decision to donate his wealth, Buffett went with the private sector instead of the government.

A frustrating aspect of today’s public policy debate is that many pundits seem oblivious to the fact that the private sector could take care of those people truly in need if it was allowed to retain more of its earnings from the clutches of government. The government “crowds out” all kinds of private efforts and resources. If the government were to recede, private sector efforts to aid the needy would expand.

Obama and Infrastructure

The President is continuing his push for the federal government to go deeper into debt in order to fund infrastructure projects. While nobody disputes that the country has infrastructure needs, the precarious nature of federal and state finances indicate that policymakers need to starting thinking outside the box. Specifically, policymakers should be looking to make it easier for the private sector to fund and operate infrastructure projects.

As my colleagues Chris Edwards and Peter Van Doren have explained, the main problem with government infrastructure spending is the lack of efficiency:

More roads and transit capacity may or may not make sense depending on whether the benefits exceed the costs. One sure way to find out is to have private provision and user charges. If users are not willing to pay the costs of extra or newer capacity, then calls for taxpayer involvement probably imply subsidy of some at the expense of others rather than efficiency.

A lot of what the the president wishes to spend taxpayer money on – for example, high-speed rail – is of questionable economic value. Unfortunately, policymakers all too often allocate resources on the basis of politics rather than economics.

For more on this topic, interested readers should check out our essays on the Department of Transportation. Also, an essay on privatization argues that “The benefits to the federal budget of privatization would be modest, but the benefits to the economy would be large as newly private businesses would innovate and improve their performance.”

A Thousand Cuts

That’s the title of a recent paper from the liberal Center for American Progress, which attempts to demonstrate “what reducing the federal budget deficit through large spending cuts could really look like.”

The authors, Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden, issue a challenge that I whole-heartedly embrace:

By showing sets of specific spending cuts we hope to deepen the discussion of where deficit reduction is going to come from. The challenge we issue is this: If you think all or most of the deficit problem should be dealt with on the spending side, are you then willing to own the cuts we outline? If not, then it’s time to go public with what your cuts are, with at least the same level of precision we do—no gimmicks, “sunsets,” or other games. No infomercial claims that you’ve got a magic elixir that gets the same results for half the money.

My colleague Chris Edwards anticipated this challenge with his 2005 book Downsizing the Federal Government. The book led to the creation of Cato’s Downsizing Government website, which is going department-by-department to outline specific — and substantial — spending cut recommendations.

The CAP authors lay out specific spending cuts of $255 billion in fiscal year 2015, which is the projected figure necessary to achieve a balanced “primary budget” in that year. (The primary budget is total spending minus outlays for servicing the federal debt). The White House’s most recent projections show “primary” spending of $3.8 trillion in FY2015, so we’re talking about an overall reduction of about 7 percent.

Ettlinger and Linden acknowledge that their proposed spending cuts will invite criticism. For instance, the authors only conjure up $57 billion in spending cuts from “entitlement” programs, which are the chief drivers of our unsustainable fiscal direction. More than 40 percent of the cuts come from defense. While many conservatives will have a problem with defense cuts, it’s definitely something Cato scholars support. In fact, the proposed cuts match up well with defense cuts proposed in a new policy analysis written by my colleagues Ben Friedman and Chris Preble.

Where we part ways with the authors of the paper is the presumption that “most spending cuts are painful, and in some ways, harmful.” There are two sides to the spending coin. As the Downsizing website repeatedly demonstrates, government spending not only inflicts pain on those who are forced to pay for it, but it also has harmful effects on the economy and even those who it purportedly helps.

Ettlinger and Linden also make a claim that is both subjective and obvious: “The truth is that, contrary to popular wisdom, most federal government dollars go to good and popular things.”

Even if one accepts, for the sake of argument, that most federal spending goes to “good things,” there’s still the tiny little question of whether the government should undertake the spending. What about the possibility — we’d say reality — that there are superior private and voluntary alternatives to the federal government assuming responsibility for doing “good things”?

From a moral perspective, it’s important to remember that everything “good” the government does necessarily comes with a “bad” given that government forcibly takes from one to give to another.

The authors claim that federal dollars go to “popular things.” Of course, subsidies are always popular with the recipients. Farm subsidies are popular with farmers, weapons programs are popular with defense contractors, and subsidized student loans are popular with students. As Frederic Bastiat so succinctly put it, “The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”

Regardless, Ettlinger and Linden deserve credit for moving the ball in the direction of a serious debate on which government programs can be cut. As they correctly note, the position that all we need is “just a little belt-tightening and reductions in wasteful government spending” is “nonsense.”