Tag: JCT

How Is Revenue Neutrality to Be Judged?

Any serious efforts to improve the tax system inevitably comes up against dubious assertions that such changes won’t improve economic growth or reduce tax avoidance, and will therefore not be “revenue neutral” but will simply increase deficits and debt for no reason.

The easiest way to block growth-oriented tax reforms is to insist that any such changes must be “revenue neutral” even in the short run.  However, that goal typically relies on uncritical acceptance of dubious estimates of (1) how much “baseline” revenue the existing system will bring in over 10-20 years, and (2) how much revenue a better tax system would bring in under the conventional and official assumption that higher or lower marginal tax rates on added income have no significant effect on anything.

As Harvard economist Greg Mankiw importantly notes, “A key question is how revenue neutrality is to be judged.” 

Before Congress could even attempt to be “revenue neutral” they must first have credible estimates of future revenue under the current tax regime.  Unfortunately, the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation have so far provided only incredible projections.  

Here are links to my critiques of official revenue projections for corporate and individual income taxes. 

For Congress to judge “revenue neutrality” on the basis of these extremely flawed hyper-static CBO/JCT estimates would be economically and fiscally irresponsible.

Debunking the Debunking of Dynamic Scoring and the Laffer Curve

Many statists are worried that Republicans may install new leadership at the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) and Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

This is a big issue because these two score-keeping bureaucracies on Capitol Hill tilt to the left and have a lot of power over fiscal policy.

The JCT produces revenue estimates for tax bills, yet all their numbers are based on the naive assumption that tax policy generally has no impact on overall economic performance. Meanwhile, CBO produces both estimates for spending bills and also fiscal commentary and analysis, much of it based on the Keynesian assumption that government spending boosts economic growth.

I personally have doubts whether congressional Republicans are smart enough to make wise personnel choices, but I hope I’m wrong.

Matt Yglesias of Vox also seems pessimistic, but for the opposite reason.

He has a column criticizing Republicans for wanting to push their policies by using “magic math” and he specifically seeks to debunk the notion - sometimes referred to as dynamic scoring or the Laffer Curve - that changes in tax policy may lead to changes in economic performance that affect economic performance.

He asks nine questions and then provides his version of the right answers. Let’s analyze those answers and see which of his points have merit and which ones fall flat.

But even before we get to his first question, I can’t resist pointing out that he calls dynamic scoring “an accounting gimmick from the 1970s” in his introduction. That is somewhat odd since the JCT and CBO were both completely controlled by Democrats at the time and there was zero effort to do anything other than static scoring.

I suppose Yglesias actually means that dynamic scoring first became an issue in the 1970s as Ronald Reagan (along with Jack Kemp and a few other lawmakers) began to argue that lower marginal tax rates would generate some revenue feedback because of improved incentives to work, save, and invest.

Now let’s look at his nine questions and see if we can debunk his debunking:

A Weak Defense of an Illegal Fix to an ObamaCare Glitch

In this November 16 op-ed, Jonathan Adler and I explain how the Obama administration is trying to save ObamaCare (“the Affordable Care Act”) by creating tax credits and government outlays that Congress hasn’t authorized.  (The administration describes this “premium assistance” solely as tax credits.)  This week, the administration tried to reassure everybody that no, they’re not doing anything illegal.

Here’s how IRS commissioner Douglas H. Shulman responded to a letter from two dozen members of Congress (emphasis added):

The statute includes language that indicates that individuals are eligible for tax credits whether they are enrolled through a State-based Exchange or a Federally-facilitated Exchange. Additionally, neither the Congressional Budget Office score nor the Joint Committee on Taxation technical explanation of the Affordable Care Act discusses excluding those enrolled through a Federally-facilitated Exchange.

And here is how HHS tried to dismiss the issue (emphasis added):

The proposed regulations issued by the Treasury Department, and the related proposed regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, are clear on this point and supported by the statute. Individuals enrolled in coverage through either a State-based Exchange or a Federally-facilitated Exchange may be eligible for tax credits. …Additionally, neither the Congressional Budget Office score nor the Joint Committee on Taxation technical explanation discussed limiting the credit to those enrolled through a State-based Exchange.

These statements show that the administration’s case is weak, and they know it.

When government agencies say that a statute indicates they are allowed to do X, or that their actions are supported by that statute, it’s a clear sign that the statute does not explicitly authorize them to do what they’re trying to do. If it did, they would say so. (A Treasury Department spokeswoman offers a similarly worded rationale.)

In our op-ed, Adler and I explain why the statutory language to which these agencies refer does not create the sort of ambiguity that might enable the IRS to get away with offering premium assistance in federal Exchanges anyway. (Nor does the fact that the CBO and the JCT misread portions of this 2,000-page law create such ambiguity.) That’s because there is no ambiguity in that language. There is only a desperate search for ambiguity because the law clearly says what supporters don’t want it to say.

Finally, the fact that these two statements are so similar shows that the administration considers this glitch to be a serious problem and wants everyone on the same page.

Washington & Lee University law professor Timothy Jost is an ObamaCare supporter and a leading expert on the law.  He is also too honest for government service, for he has acknowledged that ObamaCare “clearly” does not authorize premium assistance in federal Exchanges, and that it is only “arguabl[e]” that federal courts will let the administration get away with offering it. (Again, in our op-ed, Adler and I explain why that argument falls flat.)

After reading the administration’s statements, Adler writes, ”If that’s all they got, they should be worried.”

The Laffer Curve Wins Again: Snooki 1 – IRS 0

The Laffer Curve is the simple notion that higher tax rates don’t necessarily generate as much loot as politicians expect because taxpayers have less incentive to earn and/or report income.

And it works in both directions. Lower tax rates don’t lose as much revenue as politicians fear because better tax policy leads to more taxable income.

In a few cases, higher tax rates may even lose revenue and lower tax rates may generate additional receipts. The IRS collected a lot more tax from upper-income taxpayers, for instance, after Reagan slashed the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

Over the past few years, I’ve shown lots of evidence from around the world (England, Spain, and France) and in various states (Illinois, Oregon, Florida, Maryland, and New York) to make the case that it is foolish to ignore the Laffer Curve. Not surprisingly, leftists never seem to learn.

More recently, I’ve explained why Obama’s class-warfare tax policy is especially misguided because of Laffer Curve effects.

But I sometimes wonder whether I make any progress with these arguments. Maybe I’m being too much of a wonk? Perhaps I need an example that strikes a chord with regular people.

I don’t know if that’s true, but let’s give it a try. I now have an example of the Laffer Curve for the MTV audience. Best of all, the story is from USA Today.

The IRS got red-faced trying to collect the new tanning tax, burning a hole in estimates on how much the levy would bring in to federal coffers, a new report said Thursday. …Tanning tax receipts for that nine-month period totaled $54.4 million, the report found. That was below projections by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, which had estimated the tax would raise $50 million in the last three months of fiscal year 2010 and $200 million for the full 2011 fiscal year.


Supply-Side Snooki?

Let’s deconstruct the numbers from the article. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that this new “Snooki” tax (part of the awful Obamacare legislation) was going to raise about $50 million every three months.

Yet during the first nine months, the tax raised just $54.4 million, not $150 million.

To be fair, some of this huge revenue shortfall may be a result of short-run factors associated with levying a new tax, but does anyone think the actual revenues will match the JCT’s estimates at any point in the future? If you think that will happen, get in touch with me so we can make a friendly wager.

Why am I willing to put my money where my mouth is? Simple, the government’s revenue estimators have been consistently wrong for decades because they use models that assume tax policy has no impact on economic performance.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, watch this video.

This is why I said last year that reforming the biased methodology at JCT was an important test of whether the GOP was genuinely on the side of taxpayers.

Debunking the Left’s Tax Burden Deception

I testified yesterday before the Joint Economic Committee about budget process reform. As part of the Q&A session after the testimony, one of the Democratic members made a big deal about the fact that federal tax revenues today are “only” consuming about 15 percent of GDP. And since the long-run average is about 18 percent of GDP, we are all supposed to conclude that a substantial tax hike is needed as part of what President Obama calls a “balanced approach” to red ink.

But it’s not just statist politicians making this argument. After making fun of his assertion that Obama is a conservative, I was hoping to ignore Bruce Bartlett for a while, but I noticed that he has a piece on the New York Times website also implying that America’s fiscal problems are the result of federal tax revenues dropping far below the long-run average of 18 percent of GDP.

In a previous post, I noted that federal taxes as a share of gross domestic product were at their lowest level in generations. The Congressional Budget Office expects revenue to be just 14.8 percent of G.D.P. this year; the last year it was lower was 1950, when revenue amounted to 14.4 percent of G.D.P. But revenue has been below 15 percent of G.D.P. since 2009, and the last time we had three years in a row when revenue as a share of G.D.P. was that low was 1941 to 1943. Revenue has averaged 18 percent of G.D.P. since 1970 and a little more than that in the postwar era.

To be fair, both the politician at the JEC hearing and Bruce are correct in claiming that tax revenues this year are considerably below the historical average.

But they are both being a bit deceptive, either deliberately or accidentally, in that they fail to show the CBO forecast for the rest of the decade. But I understand why they cherry-picked data. The chart below shows, rather remarkably, that tax revenues (the fuschia line) are expected to be back at the long-run average (the blue line) in just three years. And that’s even if the Bush tax cuts are made permanent and the alternative minimum tax is frozen.

It’s also worth noting the black line, which shows how the tax burden will climb if the Bush tax cuts expire (and also if millions of new taxpayers are swept into the AMT). In that “current law” scenario, the tax burden jumps considerably above the long-run average in just two years. Keep in mind, though, that government forecasters assume that higher tax rates have no adverse impact on economic performance, so it’s quite likely that neither tax revenues nor GDP would match the forecast.

Overhauling CBO and JCT Is a Real Test of GOP Resolve, not the ‘Pledge to America’

While I’m glad Republicans are finally talking about smaller government, I’ve expressed some disappointment with the GOP Pledge to America. Why “reform” Fannie and Freddie, I asked, when the right approach is to get the government completely out of the housing sector. Jacob Sullum of Reason is similarly underwhelmed. He writes:

In the “Pledge to America” they unveiled last week, House Republicans promise they will “launch a sustained effort to stem the relentless growth in government that has occurred over the past decade.” Who better for the job than the folks who ran the government for most of that time? …Republicans, you may recall, had a spending spree of their own during George W. Bush’s recently concluded administration, when both discretionary and total spending doubled – nearly 10 times the growth seen during Bill Clinton’s two terms. In fact, says Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, “President Bush increased government spending more than any of the six presidents preceding him, including LBJ.” Republicans controlled the House of Representatives for six of Bush’s eight years.

Redemption is a good thing, however, so maybe the GOP actually intends to do the right thing this time around. One key test is whether Republicans do a top-to-bottom housecleaning at both the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation.

These Capitol Hill bureaucracies are not well known, but they have enormous authority and influence. As the official scorekeepers of spending (CBO) and tax (JCT) bills, these two bureaucracies can mortally wound legislation or grease the skids for quick passage.

Unfortunately, that clout gets used to dramatically tilt the playing field in favor of bigger government. It was CBO that claimed that Obama’s stimulus created jobs, even though the head of CBO was forced to admit that the jobs-created number was the result of a Keynesian model that was rigged to show exactly that result . You would think that would shame the bureaucrats into producing honest numbers, but CBO continues to produce absurd job creation estimates regardless of the actual rate of unemployment.

CBO favors deficits and debt when it is asked to analyze proposals for more spending, but it rather conveniently changes its tune when the discussion shifts to tax increases. Since we’re on the topic of twisted economic analysis, CBO actually relies on a model which, for all intents and purposes, predicts that economic performance is maximized with 100 percent tax rates.

The Joint Committee on Taxation, meanwhile, is infamous for its assumption that taxes have no impact - at all - on economic output. In other words, instead of showing a Laffer Curve, JCT would show a straight line, with tax revenues continuing to rapidly climb even as tax rates approach 100 percent.  This creates a huge bias against good tax policy, yet JCT is impervious to evidence that its approach is wildly flawed.

And don’t forget that CBO and JCT both bear responsibility for Obamacare since they cranked out preposterous estimates that a giant new entitlement would lead to lower budget deficits.

Not that we need additional evidence, but the head of the CBO just repeated his higher-taxes-equal-more-growth nonsense in testimony to the Senate Budget Committee. With this type of mindset, is it any surprise that fiscal policy is such a mess?

Douglas Elmendorf said extending breaks due to expire at year’s end would increase demand in the next few years by putting more money in consumers’ pockets. Over the long term, he said, the tax cuts would hurt the economy because the government would have to borrow so much money to finance them that it would begin competing with private companies seeking loans. That, in turn, would drive up interest rates, Elmendorf said.

I’ve already written once about how the GOP sabotaged itself when it didn’t fix the problems with these scorekeeping bureaucracies after 1994. If Republicans take power and don’t raze CBO and JCT, they will deserve to become a permanent minority party.