Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) ably defends his "Roadmap for America's Future" in today's Washington Post. He doesn't mention Paul Krugman's attacks thereon, nor should he. (To read why, consult The Atlantic's Megan McArdle and Ted Gayer of the Tax Policy Center.)
I haven't officially weighed in on the health-care aspects of the Roadmap, but hope to do so in the near future. For the moment, I'll use Ryan's oped to stress a distinction that is crucial to thinking clearly about health care costs.
Ryan writes of the dangers of an un-reformed Medicare program (emphasis added):
Under an ever-expansive, all-consuming central government, costs will be contained with Washington's heavy hand imposing price controls, slashing benefits and arbitrarily rationing seniors' care.
While those forms of government rationing may reduce spending, that's not the same as reducing costs. On the contrary, those rationing measures may increase health care costs.
Suppose Medicare set its prices for hip and knee replacements so low that no medical-device manufacturer would provide the hardware and no surgeon would perform the procedures. Medicare spending on hip and knee replacements would fall. But costs may rise: more seniors would be walking around — or not walking around — in severe pain. Pain and reduced mobility are costs, even if they don't show up in the federal budget or household budgets. (Indeed, those costs would be so severe that overall Medicare spending could rise as seniors bought more wheelchairs, sought treatment for pressure sores, etc.). This is the main reason conservatives criticize Canada's Medicare system and the British National Health Service: reducing health care spending often increases costs.
I therefore request universal compliance with Cannon's First Rule of Economic Literacy: Never say costs when you mean spending.
House Republicans unveiled a bold strategy to cut 0.017 percent from the $3.7 trillion federal budget this week. Republican Whip Eric Cantor unveiled the GOP’s “YouCut” website, which includes five possible spending cuts for citizens to vote on. Mr. Cantor promised to take the favored cut to the House floor next week for members to consider.
The basic idea of YouCut is a good one — getting citizens actively involved in solving the government’s giant deficit problem and focusing congressional attention on cutting the bloated budget.
But the GOP leadership make themselves look silly by offering such small cuts. The suggested cuts on the new website average just $638 million in annual savings, which is just 0.017 percent of total federal spending. Put another way, it is just $1 of cuts for every $5,800 of federal spending. The average YouCut savings idea is just 0.04 percent of this year’s federal deficit of $1.6 trillion. So we would need 2,500 cuts of this size to balance the budget.
It’s a mystery why the Republican leadership can’t offer more than tiny spending reforms. They’ve got lots of sharp staffers who know how wasteful many large programs are and understand the need to terminate whole agencies. It’s true that YouCut will offer new cuts every week, but so far the cuts are very timid.
The second-largest YouCut idea this week is to refocus “community development” spending on those cities that are the most needy. But the whole idea of the federal government spending money on local projects such as parking lots is both economically absurd and an obvious violation of the Tenth Amendment.
Come on Republicans, you can do better. Terminating all of HUD’s $13 billion in annual community development spending, for example, ought to be an easy vote for any member claiming to be a fiscal conservative.
Some Republicans do understand the nation’s fiscal emergency and the need for bold action. Paul Ryan, for example, has his excellent roadmap proposal. But thus far with YouCut, we have the Empire State Building engulfed in flames and Mr. Cantor sending in a toddler with a squirt gun to solve the problem.
Still, the House Republicans have created a tool that citizens can use to get the message across about the need for much larger reforms. The YouCut website encourages people to send in their own budget-cutting ideas. I’ll be sending some in, and folks, feel free to borrow ideas from the “Spending Cut” tables on www.downsizinggovernment.org.
I don’t think conservative voters, tea party activists, and other citizens concerned about the nation’s economic future want to cut 0.017 percent from the budget. I think they want to cut 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent, or more. So send your suggestions into YouCut, and we will see whether the GOP puts away the squirt guns and pulls out the fire hoses.
Yet another show of that rare commodity, bipartisan efforts to reduce the size of government today. Four members of the House---two Republican and two Democrat---have sent a letter to President Obama, calling on him to reverse the insane policy of bribing Brazilian farmers with subsidies in an attempt to correct, in accordance with the perverse two-wrongs-make-a-right school of logic, for illegal U.S. subsidies. (There were other questionable parts of the deal with Brazil).
Barney Frank (D, MA), Ron Kind (D, WI), Paul Ryan (R, WI) and Jeff Flake (R, AZ) make compelling arguments for finding a better and more permanent solution to the dispute than the current (dodgy) deal with Brazil, including arguments about fiscal responsibility, the adverse effects of distorting markets in this way, and the implications for the U.S. economy of continuing to operate the cotton program in its current form.
They also cleverly allude to President Obama's emphasis on enforcement in his trade policy, pointing out that enforcement runs two ways:
Should we fail to effectively reform [the cotton] program now, American businesses and workers wil pay the price because we refused to write a law that complies with our international obligations. We cannot expect our trading partners to play by the rules if we are not willing to do the same. [emphasis added]
The press release from Rep. Flake's office contains some great quotes, too. Flake, for example, says, "This proposal takes our federal farm subsidy policy from the impractical to the absurd.”
But I'll give the last word to Rep. Frank, who has this gem to offer:
[T]he Obama administration apparently feels compelled to preserve our right to subsidize American cotton farmers by extending that subsidy to Brazilian cotton farmers. People looking for an illustration of the meaning of the phrase, ‘from bad to worse,’ need look no further.
Senators Ron Wyden and Judd Gregg recently introduced the "Bipartisan Tax Fairness and Simplification Act." There is a lot of interest in this plan, so I've put together some "pros" and "cons" from my small-government, flat-tax perspective.
INDIVIDUAL TAX CHANGES - PRO
- Scraps the alternative minimum tax.
- Cuts the number of rates from six to three.
- Reduces the tax subsidy for municipal bonds.
- Creates Lifetime Savings Accounts (LSAs)--like Roths IRAs except better because all withdrawals are tax-free. This is a very important reform, and by the way, one that Canada has enacted already. See here.
INDIVIDUAL TAX CHANGES - CON
- Keeps the top tax rate at 35 percent, which is quite a bit higher than the 28 percent acheived by the Tax Reform Act of 1986.
- Increases the top capital gains and dividend tax rate from 15 percent to 23 percent.
- Triples the standard deduction, which would likely take more people at the bottom end off the income tax rolls. That would simplify the code, but at the expense of increasing the demand for big government.
- Repeals the exclusion on income earned abroad by U.S. citizens, which would likely damage the operations of U.S. multinational companies.
- Retains all the most distortionary tax breaks under the individual code, including the mortgage interest deduction.
CORPORATE TAX CHANGES - PRO
- Cuts the top corporate tax rate to 24 percent. This is a crucial reform.
- Cuts corporate welfare spending, which Wyden-Gregg notes is about $90 billion a year, based on a Cato Institute analysis.
CORPORATE TAX CHANGES - CON
- Subjects the foreign income of U.S. multinational companies to immediate taxation. That tax approach is not followed by any major advanced economy, and it would put U.S. firms at a disadvantage in global markets.
- Broadens the business tax base in other ways that move in the wrong direction, such as repealing the expensing of energy exploration and development costs. Note that some of the plan's corporate base broadening ideas make sense--such as reducing the value of interest deductions--but only if the revenue raised is used to reduce the statutory rate (which it does seem to be here).
Overall, I would take the Wyden-Gregg plan over the current code. But Wyden-Gregg is a very limited reform compared to the Paul Ryan two-rate individual tax or the recent National Academy of Sciences tax plan, which features individual rates of 10 and 25 percent and a corporate rate of 25 percent.
Wyden-Gregg is a start, but it hardly simplifies the tax code at all and it doesn't reduce individual rates. However, it does cut the corporate rate and it includes LSAs, which would revolutionize personal savings. So we can take heart that supply side tax policies still garner some support on Capitol Hill.
For more on tax reform, see here.
While admitting that spending restraint is the ideal approach, Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution asks whether a value-added tax (VAT) might be the most desirable of all realistic options for dealing with an unsustainable budget situation.
Read his post for yourself, but I think a fair summary is that he is basically saying that a) there will be a crisis if we don't do something about future deficits, b) a crisis will result in very bad policy, and c) if we support a VAT now, we will at least be able to extract concessions from the other side.
I have no idea whether there will be a future crisis, but I think the rest of Tyler's argument is wrong.
But before explaining my position, let's start by stating what I assume to be our mutual objective, which is to control the size of government. We all agree that there is a problem because government is too big now, and it is projected to get even bigger because of the built-in growth of entitlement programs. One symptom of growing government is deficits, which are very large today and will be even bigger in the near future as more and more baby boomers retire and push up costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Our side (broadly speaking) wants to solve the budgetary situation by restraining the growth of government. One proposed solution is Congressman Paul Ryan's Roadmap Plan, which would reform entitlements and curtail other programs so that the long-term burden of federal spending is reduced to less than 20 percent of GDP. Since long-term federal tax revenues under current law - even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent - are expected to be about 19 percent of GDP, this solves the budet problem (the tax reform component of the Roadmap includes a VAT, which is a poison pill in an otherwise excellent plan, but let's set that aside for another day).
The left, by contrast, generally wants to let federal spending consume ever-larger shares of economic output, and they believe that increasing the tax burden is the right way of keeping the deficit from getting too large. No statist has put forth a detailed plan to match Rep. Ryan, but several high-ranking Democrats have made no secret about their desire for a VAT (see here, here, and here). And everyone agrees that a VAT is capable of extracting a lot of money from the productive sector of the economy.
These two visions are fundamentally incompatible, which helps to explain why there is a standoff. The bad guys do not want to control the size of government and the good guys do not want to raise taxes. But now we have to add one more piece to the puzzle. While gridlock normally is a good result, inaction to some degree favors the other side because entitlement programs automatically expand. The helps to explain why Tyler (with reluctance) thinks that it may be best to acquiesce to a VAT now rather than to wait for a fiscal crisis.
Now, let's explain why Tyler is wrong. First, it is far from clear that surrendering to a VAT now will result in better (less worse) policy than what will happen during a crisis. It certainly is true that some past crises have led to terrible policy, such as the failed policies of Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s or the more recent Bush-Paulson-Obama-Geithner TARP debacle. But at other points in time, a crisis atmosphere has paved the way for better policy, with Reagan's presidency being the most obvious example.
The wait-for-a-crisis strategy clearly is a bit of a gamble, but even if we lose, we get a VAT in the future rather than a VAT today. So what's the downside? Tyler and others might say that the future legislation in the midst of a crisis could be a vehicle for other bad provisions, but he offers no evidence for this proposition. And it may be the case that the other side would be forced to add good provisions instead. Moreover, the lack of a VAT in the period between today and the future crisis might help lead to some much-needed spending restraint.
What about Tyler's argument that the good guys could extract some concessions from the other side by putting a VAT on the table. This is horribly naive. Even though George Mason University is less than 20 miles from Washington, and even though Tyler is a renassaince man with many talents, he does not understand how Washington really works.
Imagine there is a budget summit where politicians from both sides get together to work on this supposed deal. Here are the inevitable ground rules - and the consequences they will produce:
1. The deal will be 50 percent spending cuts and 50 percent tax increases, but the supposed spending "cuts" will be nothing more than reductions in already-legislated increases. The tax increases, by contrast, will be on top of all the additional revenue that is already exepected under current law (not a trivial matter since receipts will be $1.5 trillion higher in 2015 than they are today according to OMB). For proponents of limited government, using the "current services baseline" as a benchmark in budget negotiations is like playing a five-minute basketball game after spotting the other team a 20-point lead.
2. All spending and revenue decisions will be examined through the prism of CBO income distribution tables, and the left will successfully insist that nothing is done to make the tax code less progressive. But since a VAT is a proportional tax, the only way of preserving overall progressivity is to raise tax rates on those wicked and evil rich people and/or to massively increase "refundable" tax credits (what normal people call income redistribution). Any proposal to lower income tax rates or eliminate the corporate income tax, as Tyler envisions, would be laughed out of the room (though Democrats will offer a fig leaf or two in order to seduce a sufficient number of gullible Republicans into supporting a terrible agreement, and that might include a cosmetic change to the corporate tax regime).
3. Many of the supposed spending cuts, for all intents and purposes, will be back-door tax increases on saving and investment. More specifically, a big chunk of the supposed spending cut portion of a budget deal will be from means-testing entitlement programs. This sounds good. After all, who wants to send a Social Security check to Bill Gates when he retires? But consider how such a system actually will work. The government will say that people with income (and/or assets) above a certain level are ineligible for some or all of the benefits available to less-fortunate retirees. From an economic persepective, this is very much akin to a higher tax rate on people who save and invest during their working years. And since means testing would only generate substantial budgetary savings if it applied to millions of regular people in addition to Bill Gates, we would wind up with a system that created big penalties on middle-class families who were dumb enough to save and invest.
I've already pontificated enough for one blog post, so let me summarize by stating that Tyler's approach, while not unreasonable, is about how to lose gracefully. Even if his strategy works perfectly, the result is bigger government. I'd much rather fight. If you want some inspiration for the battle, watch this video. If you haven't had enough of me already, here's my video explaining why the VAT is a horrible idea.
Update: Tyler has emailed to object to how his position is being characterized. He writes, "I am asking anti-VAT forces to strengthen their argument and am very clearly agnostic and certainly not calling for a VAT today." Everyone I've spoken with has interpreted his post as pro-VAT, and that's certainly how I read it, but I want to add this addendum to my post so people can see Tyler's response in case I'm not being fair.
We've got an IRS Commissioner who doesn't even do his own taxes, and is not embarrassed about it. We've got complex deductions that nobody understands, including the government, as the Maryland nurse with the MBA found out. We've got a Treasury Secretary and other high appointees who apparently cheated on their taxes. And we've got the Democrats hell-bent on greatly increasing the power and responsibilities of the overwhelmed IRS with their health care bill.
Now, more than ever, it's time to scrap the current income tax and put in a flat tax. Or at least we could take a big jump in that direction with a "Simplified Tax," as discussed in a new National Academies report. Get rid of all almost all deductions, exemptions, and credits and drop individual rates to 10 and 25 percent. While we're at it, let's drop the federal corporate rate to 25 percent or less.
For more on the two-rate tax idea, see my Options for Tax Reform and Rep. Paul Ryan's American Roadmap.
Like my colleague, Michael Cannon, I was convinced by the staff summary and general spin accompanying the Republican health care bill introduced by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Richard Burr (R-NC), and Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Devin Nunes (R-CA) that the bill headed, albeit more slowly, down the same road to government-run health care as expected Democratic proposals. However, a closer reading of the actual bill shows that, while there are still reasons for concern, it may be much better than originally advertised.
First, it should be pointed out that the centerpiece of the bill is an important change to the tax treatment of employer-provided health insurance. The Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez bill would replace the current tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance with a refundable tax credit of $2,300 per year an individual worker or $5,700 per year for family coverage. This move to personal, portable health insurance has long been at the heart of free market healthy care proposals. The bill would also expand health savings accounts and make important reforms to Medicaid and Medicare.
And, the bill should receive credit for what it does not contain. There is no individual or employer mandate. (I could live without the auto-enroll provisions, but they look more obnoxious than truly dangerous). There is no government board determining the cost-effectiveness of treatment. There is no “public option” competing with private insurance. In short, the bill avoids most of the really bad ideas for health reform featured in my recent Policy Analysis.
Other aspects are more problematic. The authors still seem far too attached to the idea of an exchange/connector/portal. The summary implied that states would be required to establish such mechanism. In reality, however, the bill merely creates incentives for states to do so. Moreover, I have been repeatedly assured that the bill’s authors are aiming for the more benign Utah-style “portal,” rather than the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Massachusetts “connector.” Still, I would be more comfortable if the staff summary had not singled out Massachusetts as the only state reform worthy of being called “an achievement.”
And, if states choose to set up an exchange, a number of federal requirements kick in, such as a requirement that at least one plan offered through the exchange provide benefits equal to those on the low cost FEHBP plan. There is also a guaranteed issue requirement.
Elsewhere, there are also requirements that states set up some type of risk-adjustment mechanism although the bureaucratic ex-post option that I criticized previously, appears to be only one option among many for meeting this requirement. And, I wish the authors hadn’t jumped on the health IT bandwagon. Health IT is a very worthy concept, but one better handled by the private sector.
And, if we should praise the bill for what it doesn’t include, we should criticize it in the same way. The bill does not include one of the best free market reform proposals of recent years, Rep. John Shadegg’s call for letting people purchase health insurance across state lines.
The bills (there are minor differences between the House and Senate versions) run to nearly 300 pages, and additional details, both good and bad, may emerge as I have more opportunity to study them. But for now, the bill, while flawed, looks to have far more good than bad.