Tag: incentives

Would the Schools Work Better If They Outlawed All Competitors?

In the Washington Post, columnist Courtland Milloy praises the “profound egalitarian insights” and “radical oneness” of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (and billionaire Warren Buffett):

“I believe we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education’s power to reverse generational poverty,” Rhee wrote. “But I am learning that it is a radical concept to even suggest this. Warren Buffett [the billionaire investor] framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today’s problems in urban education. ‘Make private schools illegal,’ he said, ‘and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.’ “

Milloy’s not satisfied that Rhee is taking on entrenched interests, firing principals and teachers who aren’t doing a good job, and apparently actually improving the schools in the District of Columbia. No, he’s attracted to the “radical concept” of outlawing private schools and forcing everyone in the District into the same schools, with no hope of escape. There would be one method of escape, of course: moving to the suburbs.  And you can bet that lots more people would do that if Milloy and Rhee got their way.

I wonder what a total government monopoly on education would look like. Are Buffett and Rhee right that a government monopoly forced on every citizen would work well? Would work so well that it would “solve the problems of urban education … and reverse generational poverty”?

Well, one answer might be glimpsed on the same page B3 where part of Milloy’s column appeared. In an adjacent column, columnist John Kelly discussed his “Kafkaesque” five-hour visit to the state of Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration:

I was at the MVA. I was in Hell.

I know that complaining about the MVA or the DMV is the last refuge of a scoundrel columnist, but I don’t care. You don’t know what it was like. You weren’t there, man. I spent five hours at the Beltsville MVA on Thursday. Five hours. I could have driven to New York in that time….

I thought: Can this really be happening? Can I really have stepped into a Kafka story? Shouldn’t every counter be filled with employees working as fast as possible? Shouldn’t management be out there helping, and Maryland state troopers, too? This is the Katrina of waiting, people.

The MVA, of course, is a monopoly government bureaucracy. Everyone must go there – CEOs, diplomats, even Washington Post columnists. And yet, somehow, that has not led to the MVA equivalent of solving problems and reversing poverty. Five hours to get a drivers’ license just might be worse performance than that of the public schools.

It’s the system, Mr. Milloy and Ms. Rhee. Monopolies don’t have much incentive to improve. Give everyone the chance to go to a different supplier, and then you’ll see improvement. Giant Food wouldn’t last long if it took five hours to buy your groceries – because it has competitors. But as long as the schools are a near-monopoly, and the MVA or DMV is a total monopoly, don’t expect real improvement.

What’s the Ideal Point on the Laffer Curve?

There’s been a bit of chatter in the blogosphere about a recent post on Ezra Klein’s blog, featuring estimates from various economists about the revenue-maximizing tax rate. It won’t come as a surprise that people on the right tended to give lower estimates and folks on the left had higher guesses. Donald Luskin of National Review estimated 19 percent, for instance, while Emmanuel Saez, Dean Baker, Bruce Bartlett, and Brad DeLong all gave answers around 70 percent.

There are two things that are worth noting.

First, every single answer is to the right of the Joint Committee on Taxation. The revenue-estimators on Capitol Hill assume that taxes have no impact on overall economic performance. As such, even confiscatory tax rates have very little impact on taxable income. The JCT operates in a totally non-transparent fashion, so it is difficult to know whether they would say the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 90 percent, 95 percent, or 100 percent, but it is remarkable that a mini-bureaucracy with so much power is so far out of the mainstream (it’s even more remarkable that Republicans controlled Congress for 12 years, yet never fixed this problem, but that’s a separate story).

Second, very few of the respondents made the critically important observation that it should not be the goal of tax policy to maximize revenue. After all, the revenue-maximizing point is where the damage to the overall economy is so great that taxable income falls enough to offset the impact of the higher tax rates. Greg Mankiw of Harvard and Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal indicated they understood this point since they both explained that the long-run revenue-maximizing rate was lower than the short-run revenue-maximizing rate. But Martin Feldstein of Harvard explicitly addressed this issue and hit the nail on the head.

Why look for the rate that maximizes revenue? As the tax rate rises, the “deadweight loss” (real loss to the economy) rises. So as the rate gets close to maximizing revenue the loss to the economy exceeds the gain in revenue…. I dislike budget deficits as much as anyone else. But would I really want to give up say $1 billion of GDP in order to reduce the deficit by $100 million? No. National income is a goal in itself. That is what drives consumption and our standard of living.

For more information, I think my three-part video series on the Laffer Curve is a good summary of the key issues. I posted them in May 2009, but Cato-at-Liberty has been growing rapidly and many people have not seen them. Part I addresses the theory, and explicitly notes that policy makers should target the growth-maximizing tax rate rather than the revenue-maximizing tax rate. Part II reviews some of the evidence, including analysis of the huge increase in taxable income and tax revenue from upper-income taxpayers following the Reagan tax-rate reductions. Part III looks at the Joint Committee on Taxation’s dismal performance.


The Joint Committee on Taxation’s Voodoo Economics

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent editorial this morning on the obscure – but critically important – issue of measuring what happens to tax revenue in response to changes in tax policy. This is sometimes known as the dynamic scoring versus static scoring debate and sometimes referred to as the Laffer Curve controversy.

The key thing to understand is that the Joint Committee on Taxation (which produces revenue estimates) assumes that even big changes in tax policy have zero macroeconomic impact. Adopt a flat tax? The JCT assumes no effect on the economic performance. Double tax rates? The JCT assumes no impact on growth.

The JCT does include a few microeconomic effects into its revenue-estimating models (an increase in gas taxes, for instance, would reduce gasoline consumption), but it is quite likely that they underestimate the impact of high tax rates on incentives to work, save, and invest. We don’t know for sure, though, because the JCT refuses to make its methodology public. This raises a rather obvious question: Why is the JCT so afraid of transparency? Here’s some of what the WSJ had to say about the issue, including some comparisons of what the JCT predicted and what happened in the real world.

…it’s worth reviewing whether Joint Tax estimates are accurate. This is especially important now, because President Obama and Democrats in Congress want to allow the 2003 tax cuts to expire on January 1 for individuals earning more than $200,000. The JCT calculates that increasing the tax rates on capital gains, dividends and personal income will raise nearly $100 billion a year. …we are not saying that every tax cut “pays for itself.” Some tax cuts—such as temporary rebates—have little impact on growth and thus they may lose revenue more or less as Joint Tax predicts. Cuts in marginal rates, on the other hand, have substantial revenue effects, as economic studies have shown. …So how well did Joint Tax do when it predicted a giant revenue decline from the 2003 investment tax cuts? Not too well. We compared the combined Congressional Budget Office and Joint Tax estimate of revenues after the 2003 tax cuts were enacted with the actual revenues collected from 2003-2007. In each year total federal revenues came in substantially higher than Joint Tax predicted—$434 billion higher than forecast over the five years. …As for capital gains tax receipts, they nearly tripled from 2003 to 2007, even though the capital gains tax rate fell to 15% from 20%. Yet the behavioral models that Mr. Barthold celebrates predicted that the capital gains cuts would cost the government just under $10 billion from 2003-07 when the actual capital gains revenues over five years were $221 billion higher than JCT and CBO predicted. …Estimating future federal tax revenues is an inexact science to be sure. Our complaint is that Joint Tax typically overestimates the revenue gains from raising tax rates, while overestimating the revenue losses from tax rate cuts. This leads to a policy bias in favor of higher tax rates, which is precisely what liberal Democrats wanted when they created the Joint Tax Committee.

All of the revenue-estimating issues are explained in greater detail in my three-part video series on the Laffer Curve. Part I looks at the theory. Part II looks at the evidence. Part III, which can be watched below, analyzes the role of the Joint Committee on Taxation and speculates on why the JCT refuses to be transparent.


The Deadly Impact of the Death Tax

Australia got rid of its death tax in 1979. A couple of Aussie academics investigated whether the elimination of the tax had any impact on death rates. They found the ultimate example of supply-side economics, as reported in the abstract of their study.

In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that our results are driven by misreporting, our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

It looks like this experiment is going to be repeated in the United States, but in the opposite direction. There was a rather unsettling article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. The story begins with a description of how the death tax rate dropped from 45 percent in 2009 to zero in 2010, and then notes the huge implications of a scheduled increase to 55 percent in 2011.

Congress, quite by accident, is incentivizing death. When the Senate allowed the estate tax to lapse at the end of last year, it encouraged wealthy people near death’s door to stay alive until Jan. 1 so they could spare their heirs a 45% tax hit. Now the situation has reversed: If Congress doesn’t change the law soon—and many experts think it won’t—the estate tax will come roaring back in 2011. …The math is ugly: On a $5 million estate, the tax consequence of dying a minute after midnight on Jan. 1, 2011 rather than two minutes earlier could be more than $2 million; on a $15 million estate, the difference could be about $8 million.

The story then features several anecdotes from successful people, along with observations from those who deal with wealthy taxpayers. The obvious lesson is that taxpayers don’t want the IRS to confiscate huge portions of what has been saved and invested over lifetimes of hard work.

“You don’t know whether to commit suicide or just go on living and working,” says Eugene Sukup, an outspoken critic of the estate tax and the founder of Sukup Manufacturing, a maker of grain bins that employs 450 people in Sheffield, Iowa. Born in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl, the 81-year-old Mr. Sukup is a National Guard veteran and high school graduate who founded his firm, which now owns more than 70 patents, with $15,000 in 1963. He says his estate taxes, which would be zero this year, could be more that $15 million if he were to die next year. …Estate planners and doctors caution against making life-and-death decisions based on money. Yet many people ignore that advice. Robert Teague, a pulmonologist who ran a chronic ventilator facility at a Houston hospital for two decades, found that money regularly figured in end-of-life decisions. “In about 10% of the cases I handled at any one time, financial considerations came into play,” he says. In 2009, more than a few dying people struggled to live into 2010 in hopes of preserving assets for their heirs. Clara Laub, a widow who helped her husband build a Fresno, Calif., grape farm from 20 acres into more than 900 acres worth several million dollars, was diagnosed with advanced cancer in October, 2009. Her daughter Debbie Jacobsen, who helps run the farm, says her mother struggled to live past December and died on New Year’s morning: “She made my son promise to tell her the date and time every day, even if we wouldn’t,” Mrs. Jacobsen says. …Mr. Aucutt, who has practiced estate-tax law for 35 years, expects to see “truly gruesome” cases toward the end of the year, given the huge difference between 2010 and 2011 rates.

The obvious question, of course, is whether politicians will allow the tax to be reinstated. The answer is almost certainly yes, but it’s also going to be interesting to see if they try to impose the tax retroactively on people who died this year.

So far in 2010, an estimated 25,000 taxpayers have died whose estates are affected by current law, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. That group includes least two billionaires, real-estate magnate Walter Shorenstein and energy titan Dan Duncan. …”Enough very wealthy people have died whose estates have the means to challenge a retroactive tax, and that could tie the issue up in the courts for years,” says tax-law professor Michael Graetz of Columbia University.

It should go without saying, by the way, that the correct rate for the death tax is zero. It’s also worth noting that this is an issue that shows that incentives do matter.

Will Higher Tax Rates in 2011 Cause an Economic Collapse?

Art Laffer has a compelling column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where he makes the case that future tax rate increases will cause considerable economic damage because people have an incentive to maximize income this year to take advantage of current tax rates – resulting in an artificial drop in economic activity next year. In effect, this will be a reverse version of the experiment in the early 1980s, when entrepreneurs and investors had an incentive to postpone economic activity since Reagan’s tax rate reductions were phased in over several years. I am reluctant to endorse Art’s prediction that the “economy will collapse,” since even good economists are lousy forecasters. But we certainly will see a large degree of tax planning, which will lead to less revenue than expected next year. And the higher tax rates will inhibit growth, though it is impossible to predict whether this means 2.1 percent growth instead of 2.3 percent growth, for instance, or 0.5 percent growth instead of 0.6 percent growth.

On or about Jan. 1, 2011, federal, state and local tax rates are scheduled to rise quite sharply. …the highest federal personal income tax rate will go 39.6% from 35%, the highest federal dividend tax rate pops up to 39.6% from 15%, the capital gains tax rate to 20% from 15%, and the estate tax rate to 55% from zero. …Tax rates have been and will be raised on income earned from off-shore investments. Payroll taxes are already scheduled to rise in 2013 and the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) will be digging deeper and deeper into middle-income taxpayers. And there’s always the celebrated tax increase on Cadillac health care plans. State and local tax rates are also going up in 2011 as they did in 2010. Tax rate increases next year are everywhere. …if people know tax rates will be higher next year than they are this year, what will those people do this year? They will shift production and income out of next year into this year to the extent possible. As a result, income this year has already been inflated above where it otherwise should be and next year, 2011, income will be lower than it otherwise should be. …In 1981, Ronald Reagan—with bipartisan support—began the first phase in a series of tax cuts passed under the Economic Recovery Tax Act (ERTA), whereby the bulk of the tax cuts didn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 1983. Reagan’s delayed tax cuts were the mirror image of President Barack Obama’s delayed tax rate increases. For 1981 and 1982 people deferred so much economic activity that real GDP was basically flat (i.e., no growth), and the unemployment rate rose to well over 10%. But at the tax boundary of Jan. 1, 1983 the economy took off like a rocket, with average real growth reaching 7.5% in 1983 and 5.5% in 1984. It has always amazed me how tax cuts don’t work until they take effect. Mr. Obama’s experience with deferred tax rate increases will be the reverse. The economy will collapse in 2011. …The result will be a crash in tax receipts once the surge is past. If you thought deficits and unemployment have been bad lately, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Fannie Mae and Greece’s Problems Enabled by Basel

On the surface the failures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would appear to have little connection to the fiscal crisis in Greece, outside of both occurring in or around the time of a global financial crisis.  Of course in the case of Fannie and Freddie, primary blame lies with their management and with Congress.  Primary blame for Greece’s problems clearly lies with the Greek government. 

Neither Greece or Fannie would have been able to get into as much trouble, however, if financial institutions around the world had not loaded up on their debt.  One reason, if not the primary reason, for bailing out both Greece and the US’s government sponsored enterprises is the adverse impact their failures would have on the banking system.

Yet bankers around the world did not blindly load up on both Greek and GSE debt, they were encouraged to by the bank regulators via the Basel capital standards.  Under Basel, the amount of capital a bank is required to hold against an asset is a function of its risk category.  For the highest risk assets, like corporate bonds, banks are required to hold 8%.  Yet for those seen as the lowest risk, short term government bonds, banks aren’t required to hold any capital.  So while you’d have to hold 8% capital against say, Ford bonds, you don’t have to hold any capital against Greek debt.  Depending on the difference between the weights and the debt yields, such a system provides very strong incentives to load up on the highest yielding bonds of the least risky class.  Fannie and Freddie debt required holding only 1.6% capital.  Very small losses in either Greek or GSE debt would cause massive losses to the banks, due to their large holdings of both.

The potential damage to the banking system from the failures of Greece and the GSEs is not the result of a free market run wild.  It was the very clear and predictable result of misguided and mismanaged government policies meant to create a steady market for government borrowing.

Pelosi: ObamaCare Helps Artists Avoid Hassle of Working

ObamaCare creates incentives not to climb the economic ladder.  It also creates incentives not to work at all; able-bodied people can quit their jobs, safe in the knowledge that the suckers working man will foot the bill for any health care they may need.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thinks that’s a not a bug, but a feature of the new law, at least if those able-bodied non-paycheck earners are artists.  (HT: CNS News.)

Repeal the bill.