Martin Feldstein’s on a roll, but not in a good way. Earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, he advocated throwing in the towel on reforming Social Security into a system of personal retirement accounts. Today, in the New York Times, he endorses big tax increases.
Rather odd positions for someone who served as Chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. The Gipper must be rolling in his grave.
To be fair, when compared to Obama’s tax-hike plan, Feldstein wants to raise taxes in ways that impose much less damage on the economy. Obama wants to raise tax rate on productive behavior, thus discouraging work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. Feldstein, by contrast, wants to cap various tax preferences.
Reducing the budget deficit and stopping the explosion of our national debt will require more tax revenue… But the need for more revenue needn’t mean higher tax rates. …tax revenues can be increased substantially by limiting the deductions, credits and exclusions that are essentially government spending by another name. …such tax expenditures create incentives for wasteful borrowing and spending; they have been factors in the mortgage crisis and the rising cost of health care. …here is a way to curb this loss of revenue without eliminating any individual deduction: limit the total tax saving for any individual to a maximum percentage of his total income. …What’s the result? Taxpayers with incomes of $25,000 to $50,000 would pay about $1,000 more in taxes; those with incomes of more than $500,000 might pay $40,000 more. The cap would affect more than 80 percent of taxpayers. Although they would continue to benefit from the mortgage deduction, the health insurance exclusion and other tax expenditures, their tax savings would not increase if they took out a larger mortgage or a more expensive insurance policy. … a 2 percent cap on tax expenditures in 2011 would raise tax revenue by $278 billion — nearly 30 percent of total projected income tax revenue for this year. The extra revenue would increase over time, reaching nearly half of the projected future fiscal deficits.
I’m not a fan of tax preferences. I agree with much of Professor Feldstein’s argument about the inefficiency and distortions that are created when government plays industrial policy with the tax code.
But there are good ways and bad ways of addressing the problem. If Professor Feldstein was proposing to cap or eliminate tax preferences as part of a plan that also lowered tax rates, that would be great news.
Unfortunately, Feldstein is proposing to cap tax preferences in order to funnel more money to Washington. But giving more tax revenue to politicians and bureaucrats, in the words of P.J. O’Rourke, would be like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.
The big problem with Feldstein’s approach is that any source of additional revenue will ease up the pressure to restrain government spending. There are several budget plans, such as Congressman Ryan’s proposal and the House Study Committee plan, that would significantly improve America’s fiscal position by restraining the growth of federal spending. But these pro-growth initiatives will have zero chance of getting enacted if politicians think more revenue is forthcoming.
America’s fiscal problem is too much spending, not insufficient revenue.
Yes, the tax code is riddled with terrible provisions that are both corrupt and economically inefficient. But those provisions should be eliminated as part of tax reform - not as part of a plan to give politicians an excuse to prop up big government.
As I have explained elsewhere, tax increases are a bad idea - unless you favor bigger government.
And I’ve already added my two cents to the tax debate between Senator Coburn and Grover Norquist regarding the desirability of higher taxes.
So it won’t surprise anyone to know that I fully agree with this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, which offers seven reasons why higher taxes are a bad idea.
The video is narrated by Piyali Bhattacharya of Young Americans for Liberty, and here are her seven reasons.
I think reasons #1, #2, #3, and #5 are the most powerful.
To a considerable degree, my video on balancing the budget makes the same point as reason #1 about why higher taxes are unnecessary. Simply stated, balancing the budget merely requires a modest degree of fiscal discipline, such as capping spending so it only grows 2 percent per year.
And if tax increases are not needed to balance the budget, then the only purpose they serve is to facilitate a bigger burden of government spending, which is why I like reason #2.
And reason #3 is standard economic analysis, making the common-sense point that if you punish something, you get less of it. This is why it is so misguided to impose higher tax rates on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.
Last but not least, reason #5 is just another way of saying that the Laffer Curve is real, as I explain in this tutorial.
According to an article in the New York Times, the Obama Administration is seriously examining a proposal to reduce America’s anti-competitive 35 percent corporate tax rate.
The Obama administration is preparing to inject an unpredictable new variable into its economic policy clash with Republicans: a plan to overhaul corporate taxes. Economic advisers have nearly completed the process initiated in January by the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, at President Obama’s behest. That process, intended to make the United States more competitive internationally, has explored the willingness of business leaders to sacrifice loopholes in return for lowering the top corporate tax rate, currently 35 percent. The approach officials are now discussing would drop the top rate as low as 26 percent, largely by curbing or eliminating tax breaks for depreciation and for domestic manufacturing.
This may be a worthwhile proposal, but this is an example where it would be wise to “look before you leap.” Or, for fans of Let’s Make a Deal, let’s see what’s behind Door Number 2.
To judge Obama’s plan, it is important to have the right benchmark. An ideal corporate tax system obviously should have a low tax rate. And it also should have no double taxation (tax corporate income at the business level or tax it at the individual level, but don’t tax it at both levels).
But it’s also important to have a simple and neutral system. The right definition of corporate income for any given year is (or should be) total revenue minus total costs. What’s left is income.
This may seem to be a statement of the obvious, but it’s not the way the corporate tax code works. The system has thousands of complicated provisions, some of which provide special loopholes (such as the corrupt ethanol credit) that allow firms to understate their income, and some of which impose discriminatory penalties by forcing companies to overstate their income.
Consider the case of depreciation. The vast majority of people understandably have no idea what this term means, but it sounds like a special tax break. After all, who wants big corporations to lower their tax bills by taking advantage of something that sounds so indecipherable.
In reality, though, depreciation simply refers to the tax treatment of investment costs. Let’s say a company buys a new machine (which would increase productivity and thus boost wages) for $10 million. Under a sensible and simple tax system, that company would include that $10 million when adding up all their costs, which then would be subtracted from total revenue to determine income.
But the corporate tax code doesn’t let companies properly recognize the cost of new investments. Instead, they are only allowed to deduct (depreciate) a fraction of the cost the first year, followed by more the next year, and so on and so on depending on the specific depreciation rules for different types of investments.
To keep the example simple, let’s say there is “10-year straight line depreciation” for the new machine. That means a company can only deduct $1 million each year and they have to wait an entire decade before getting to fully deduct the cost of the new machine.
Ultimately, the firm does deduct the full $10 million, but the delay (in some cases, about 40 years) means that a company, for all intents and purposes, is being taxed on a portion of its investment expenditures. This is because they lose the use of their money, and also because even low levels of inflation mean that deductions are worth significantly less in future years than they are today.
To put it in terms that are easy to understand, imagine if the government suddenly told you that you had to wait 10 years to deduct your personal exemption!
Let’s now circle back to President Obama’s proposal. With the information we now have, there is no way of determining whether this proposal is a net plus or a net minus. A lower rate is great, of course, but perhaps not if the government doesn’t let you accurately measure your expenses and therefore forces you to overstate your income.
I’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
P.S. It’s also important to understand that a “deduction” in the business tax code does not imply loophole. If you remember the correct definition of business income (total revenue minus total costs), this means a business gets to “deduct” its expenses (such as wages paid to workers) from total revenue to determine taxable income. Some deductions are loopholes, of course, which is why a simple, fair, and honest system should be based on cash flow. Which is how business are treated under the flat tax.
America is in fiscal peril in the short run because of a 10-year spending binge by Bush and Obama and in the long run because of a toxic combination of entitlement programs and demographics.
Congressman Paul Ryan has introduced a budget plan to address America’s fiscal crisis, but Senator Reid and President Obama have summarily rejected his proposal, so it appears the United States will continue to drift in the wrong direction.
Something is needed to compel action. One might think that such an impetus would have been provided by the recent decision by Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the fiscal outlook for the United States. But this development hasn’t affected the spending culture in Washington.
But there is hope. Senator Corker has legislation that would force Congress to act – and automatically impose fiscal discipline if they don’t. His bill caps – and then slowly reduces – government spending as a share of national economic output (gross domestic product).
I’ve already written about the merits of this proposal, including an explanation of the all-important enforcement mechanism of sequestration (automatic spending cuts). Here’s Senator Corker’s description of his plan, as delivered at a Cato Institute conference on the Economic Impact of Government Spending.
To build on the Senator’s comments, there are two things that deserve special emphasis.
Unfortunately, many policy makers focus on the budget deficit, which often makes them susceptible to misguided policies such as higher taxes. At best, such an approach merely substitutes one bad way of financing federal spending with another bad way of financing federal spending. And it’s much more likely that higher taxes will simply lead to more spending, thus exacerbating the real problem.
Modeled after a similar provision in the successful Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law of the 1980s, this sequester puts real teeth in the CAP Act and ensures that the burden of government spending actually would be reduced.
Some people complain that Senator Corker’s plan is too timid and that it doesn’t balance the budget by 2021. While it would be desirable to impose additional fiscal restraint, the Tennessee Senator has deliberately chosen a more modest goal in order to attract support from colleagues on the other side of the aisle. And he does have Democratic co-sponsors, something that is critical given the composition of the Senate.
Since I’m just a policy wonk, I’ll leave it to the other people to argue about what’s feasible in the current political environment. My final comment, though, is that we’re on an unsustainable path that will lead to the end of American exceptionalism and turn the United States into a decrepit, European-style welfare state. So I’m not going to complain if someone has a plan that finally moves policy in the right direction, albeit not quite as fast as I prefer.
By taking advantage of “must-pass” pieces of legislation, Republicans have three chances this year to restrain the burden of government. They didn’t do very well with the “CR fight” over appropriated spending for the rest of FY2011, which was their first opportunity. I was hoping for an extra-base hit off the fence, but the GOP was afraid of a government shutdown and negotiated from a position of weakness. As such, the best interpretation is that they eked out an infield single.
The next chance to impose fiscal discipline will be the debt limit. Currently, the federal government “only” has the authority to borrow $14.3 trillion (including bookkeeping entries such as the IOUs in the Social Security Trust Fund). This is a very big number, but America’s gross federal debt will hit that limit soon, perhaps May or June.
Republicans say they will not raise the debt limit unless such legislation is accompanied by meaningful fiscal reforms. The political strategists in the Obama White House understandably want to blunt any GOP effort, so they are claiming that any delay in passing a “clean debt limit” will have catastrophic consequences. Specifically, they are using Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke to create fear and uncertainty in financial markets.
Just a few days ago, for instance, the Treasury Secretary was fanning the flames of a financial meltdown, as noted by Bloomberg:
“Default would cause a financial crisis potentially more severe than the crisis from which we are only now starting to recover,” Geithner said. “For these reasons, default by the United States is unthinkable.”
The Fed Chairman also tried to pour gasoline on the fire. Here’s a passage from an article in the New York Times earlier this year:
Mr. Bernanke said the debt ceiling should not be used as a negotiating tactic, warning that even the possibility of the United States not being able to pay its creditors could create panic in the debt markets.
There are two problems with these statements from Geithner and Bernanke. First, it is a bit troubling that the Treasury Secretary and Fed Chairman are major players in a political battle. The Treasury Secretary, like the Attorney General, traditionally is supposed to be one of the more serious and non-political people in a President’s cabinet. And the Fed Chairman is supposed to be completely independent, yet Bernanke is becoming a mouthpiece for Obama’s fiscal policy.
But let’s set aside this first concern and focus on the second problem, which is whether Geithner and Bernanke are being honest. Simply stated, does a failure to raise the debt limit mean default? According to a wide range of expert opinion, the answer is no.
Donald Marron, head of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and former Director of the Congressional Budget Office, explained what actually would happen in an article for CNN Money.
Our monthly bills average about $300 billion, while revenues are about $180 billion. If we hit the debt limit, the federal government would be able to pay only 60 cents of every dollar it should be paying. But even that does not mean that we will default on the public debt. Geithner would then choose which creditors to pay promptly and which to defer. …Geithner would undoubtedly keep making payments on the public debt, rolling over the outstanding principal and paying interest. Interest payments are relatively small, averaging about $20 billion per month, and paying them on time is essential to America’s enviable position in world capital markets.
And here is the analysis of Stan Collender, one of Washington’s elder statesman on budget issues (and definitely not a small-government conservative).
There is so much misinformation and grossly misleading talk about what will happen if the federal debt ceiling isn’t increased that, before any more unnecessary bloodcurdling language is used that increases everyone’s anxiety, it’s worth taking a few steps back from the edge. …if a standoff on raising the debt ceiling lasts for a significant amount of time, the alternatives to borrowing eventually may not be enough to provide the government with the cash it needs to meet its obligations. Even at that point, however, a default wouldn’t be automatic because payments to existing bondholders could be made the priority while payments to others could be delayed for months.
The Economist magazine also is nonplussed by the demagoguery coming from Washington.
Tim Geithner, the treasury secretary, sent Congress a letter on January 6th describing in gory detail the “catastrophic economic consequences” such an event would entail. …Even with no increase in the ceiling, the Treasury can easily service its existing debt; it is free to roll over maturing issues, and tax revenue covers monthly interest payments by a large multiple. But in that case it would have to postpone paying something else: tax refunds, Medicare or Medicaid payments, civil-service salaries, or Social Security (pensions) cheques.
There are countless other experts I could cite, but you get the point. The United States does not default if the debt limit remains at $14.3 trillion. The only exception to that statement is that default is possible if the Treasury Secretary makes a deliberate (and highly political) decision to not pay bondholders. And while Geithner obviously is willing to play politics, even he would be unlikely to take this step since it is generally believed that the Treasury Secretary may be personally liable if there is a default.
The purpose of this post is not to argue that the debt limit should never be raised. That would require an instant 40 percent reduction in the size of government. And while that may be music to my ears (and some people are making that argument), I have zero faith that politicians would let that happen. Instead, my goal is to help fiscal conservatives understand that Geithner and Bernanke are being dishonest and that they should not be afraid to hold firm in their demands for real reform in exchange for a debt limit increase.
Last but not least, with all this talk about the debt limit, it’s worth reminding everyone that deficits and debt are merely symptoms of too much government spending. As this video explains, spending is the disease and debt is merely one of the symptoms.
By the way, the final chance this year to impose spending restraint will be around October 1, when the 2011 fiscal year expires and the 2012 fiscal year begins. But I won’t be holding my breath for anything worthwhile if Republicans screw up on the debt limit just like they failed to achieve much on the CR fight.
Responding to widespread criticism of his AWOL status on the budget fight, President Obama today unveiled a fiscal plan. It already is being criticized for its class warfare approach to tax policy, but the most disturbing feature may be a provision that punishes the American people with higher taxes if politicians overspend.
Called a “debt failsafe trigger,” Obama’s scheme would automatically raise taxes if politicians spend too much. According to the talking points distributed by the White House, the automatic tax increase would take effect “if, by 2014, the projected ratio of debt-to-GDP is not stabilized and declining toward the end of the decade.”
Let’s ponder what this means. If politicians in Washington spend too much and cause more red ink, which happens on a routine basis, Obama wants a provision that automatically would raise taxes on the American people.
In other words, they play and we pay. The last thing we need is a perverse incentive for even more reckless spending from Washington.
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