Tag: revenue

Injustice of State Subsidies

My colleague Chris Edwards made a good point yesterday in his post on the injustice of federal subsidies.  The wrangling between the states to haul in the federal largesse is wasteful, and getting worse.  But the underlying issue in the article Chris cites — a state using taxpayer money to lure a company away from another state — is another wasteful activity that is all too common.

Instead of competing with other states to attract industry by lowering taxes and reducing regulations, it seems most state governors prefer a politically opportunistic method I call “press release economics.”  Here’s how it works:

A state “economic development” agency offers an out-of-state company (or even an out-of-country company) tax breaks and/or direct subsidies to locate some or all of its business operations in that state.  Most likely, the business would have located there anyhow due to myriad factors including demographics, transportation logistics, and workforce capabilities.  Sometimes several states will engage in a “bidding war” to get a business to set up shop within their borders.  The governor of the “winning” state will then issue a press release citing the new jobs and capital his administration has just brought to the state.  The locating company usually tells the press that the winning state’s package helped seal the deal.  The company and the governor’s press staff then typically arrange a photo-op at an orchestrated ground-breaking ceremony for the new facilities.

If a state is already bleeding jobs, as is often the case in the current economy, such press releases and photo-ops can be a political coup.  Moreover, the governor will have given up, or foregone, relatively little in tax revenue in comparison to, say, cutting the state corporate income tax.  This also leaves the governor with more money to spend on various vote-buying programs. I’m picking on governors, but the legislature generally prefers the press-release economics route for similar reasons.  And if you’re a governor, why risk the headache of engaging the legislature in a fight over reducing corporate taxes, unemployment taxes, or any other tax — including personal income taxes and sales taxes — that effect industry when you can take the easy win?

Am I too cynical?  Actually, I had first-hand experience with this issue when I worked in state government.  My suggestion that the governor eliminate or reduce the state’s high corporate income tax rate, and “pay for it” — at least in part — by getting rid of the state’s corporate welfare apparatus, was routinely ignored for the reasons I cited above.  That one would be hard-pressed to find support among the economics profession for the state corporate welfare give-away game means little to the majority of policymakers and their minions who naturally favor short-term political gain over long-term economic gain.  That other companies already located within the state are stuck paying the regular tax rate, and are thus put at a competitive disadvantage, is a secondary or non-concern as well.

Another issue that I won’t delve into here is the fact that these giveaways often blow up in a state’s face when the locating company ends up not producing the jobs it promised and/or it relocates to another state or country after pocketing the free taxpayer money.  Anyhow, journalists should be on the lookout for more press-release economics schemes coming from the states as revenues remain tight and politicians become desperate to demonstrate they’re “doing something.”  Journalists should examine a state’s tax structure when a taxpayer giveaway is announced to see if perhaps the governor is masking economic-unfriendly fiscal policies.

Note: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford proposed late last year to do exactly what I recommended: eliminate the state’s corporate income tax, offset in part by the elimination of corporate tax incentives.  There is hope.

Euro VAT for America?

Desperate for fresh revenues to feed the giant spending appetite of President Obama, Democratic policymakers are talking up ‘tax reform’ as a way to reduce the deficit. Some are considering a European-style value-added tax (VAT), which would have a similar effect as a national sales tax, and be a large new burden on American families.

A VAT would raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year for the government, even at a 10-percent rate. The math is simple: total U.S. consumption in 2008 was $10 trillion. VATs usually tax about half of a nation’s consumption or less, say $5 trillion. That means that a 10% VAT would raise about $500 billion a year in the United States, or about $4,300 from every household. Obviously such a huge tax hit would fundamentally change the American economy and society, and for the worse.

Some fiscal experts think that a VAT would solve the government’s budget problems and reduce the deficit, as the Washington Post noted yesterday. That certainly has not happened in Europe where the average VAT rate is a huge 20 percent, and most nations face large budget deficits just as we do. The hard truth for policymakers to swallow is that the only real cure for our federal fiscal crisis is to cut spending.

Liberals like VATs because of the revenue-raising potential, but some conservatives are drawn to the idea of using VAT revenues to reduce the corporate tax rate. The Post story reflected this in noting “A 21 percent VAT has permitted Ireland to attract investment by lowering the corporate tax rate.” That implies that the Irish government lost money when it cut its corporate rate, but actually the reverse happened in the most dramatic way.

Ireland installed a 10% corporate rate for certain industries in the 1980s, but also steadily cut its regular corporate rate during the 1990s. It switched over to a 12.5% rate for all corporations in 2004. OECD data show that as the Irish corporate tax rate fell, corporate tax revenues went through the roof – from 1.6% of GDP in 1990, to 3.7% in 2000, to 3.8% in 2006.

In sum, a VAT would not solve our deficit problems because Congress would simply boost its spending even higher, as happened in Europe as VAT rates increased over time. Also, a VAT is not needed to cut the corporate income tax rate because a corporate rate cut would be self-financing over the long-term as tax avoidance fell and economic growth increased.

Greedy Politicians Intrigued by Value-Added Tax to Finance European-Style Welfare State in America

The Washington Post reports that there is growing interest among politicians for a form of national sales tax known as the value-added tax (VAT). But rather than use the VAT to replace the income tax, the politicians want a new source of revenue to expand the burden of government. The story explains:

With… President Obama pushing a trillion-dollar-plus expansion of health coverage, some Washington policymakers are taking a fresh look at a money-making idea long considered politically taboo: a national sales tax. Common around the world, including in Europe, such a tax – called a value-added tax, or VAT – has not been seriously considered in the United States. But advocates say few other options can generate the kind of money the nation will need… At a White House conference earlier this year on the government’s budget problems, a roomful of tax experts pleaded with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner to consider a VAT. A recent flurry of books and papers on the subject is attracting genuine, if furtive, interest in Congress. And last month, after wrestling with the White House over the massive deficits projected under Obama’s policies, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee declared that a VAT should be part of the debate. “There is a growing awareness of the need for fundamental tax reform,” Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said in an interview. “I think a VAT and a high-end income tax have got to be on the table.” …”While we do not want to rule any credible idea in or out as we discuss the way forward with Congress, the VAT tax, in particular, is popular with academics but highly controversial with policymakers,” said Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for White House Budget Director Peter Orszag. Still, Orszag has hired a prominent VAT advocate to advise him on health care: Ezekiel Emanuel, brother of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and author of the 2008 book “Health Care, Guaranteed.” Meanwhile, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker, chairman of a task force Obama assigned to study the tax system, has expressed at least tentative support for a VAT. “Everybody who understands our long-term budget problems understands we’re going to need a new source of revenue, and a VAT is an obvious candidate,” said Leonard Burman, co-director of the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, who testified on Capitol Hill this month about his own VAT plan.

Not surprisingly, the Washington Post did not bother to quote any free-market people who oppose giving politicians a new source of money. For what it is worth, I wrote a piece for National Review in 2005 that explains why a VAT is a terrible idea. The core arguments are just as relevant today as they were then:

A VAT might have some theoretically attractive features, but it is a perniciously effective way of raising revenues and inevitably leads to bigger government. The best evidence comes from Europe. Back in the mid-1960s, the burden of government in Europe wasn’t that much higher than it was in the United States. Tax revenues consumed about 30 percent of gross domestic product in Europe. The U.S. had a small advantage: The tax burden, including state and local governments, was about 27 percent of GDP. But then European governments started adopting the VAT. Denmark was the first to do so in 1967. France and Germany followed, with many other European nations imposing the tax within 5 years. For politicians, the VAT was great news. Besides being a new source of revenue, the VAT has been a disturbingly easy tax to increase since it’s built into the price of products and hidden from consumers. Moreover, even small increases generate a big pile of revenue because the tax base is so broad. The tax has become so easy to raise that VAT rates in Europe average more than 20 percent. For taxpayers, however, the news has been disastrous. Thanks to this levy, the burden of government in Europe today is much higher than it is in the U.S. On average, taxes consume about 41 percent of Europe’s economic output. While other taxes have also climbed, the VAT certainly has helped finance the explosion of social welfare spending that creates such a drag on European economies. In the U.S., by contrast, the total tax burden as a share of GDP is about where it was 40 years ago — 27 percent… Many European governments…claimed that more destructive taxes would be reduced or repealed once the VAT was implemented. In the short term, this was true: As late as 1975, taxes on income and profits were lower in the EU than they were in the U.S. But this was a transitory phenomenon. Income-tax rates quickly began climbing and almost immediately jumped above U.S. levels. Ironically, the VAT facilitated higher tax rates on income since politicians often argued that a higher VAT had to be accompanied by higher income-tax burdens to ensure the tax burden wasn’t being shifted to lower-income taxpayers. There is only one scenario that would make a VAT acceptable. If U.S. lawmakers were willing to repeal the 16th Amendment and abolish all taxes on income, a VAT would be an acceptable risk. But until that happens, taxpayers should vigorously resist the Europeanization of America.

“They Don’t Have the Money to Pay Us Back”

When they let their guard down, politians can say the most revealing things.  In today’s Wall Street Journal, representatives of local governments in California attacked Governor Schwarnenegger’s plan to borrow $2 billion from local property tax revenues to cover some of the state’s budget shortfalls.  In response, Don Knabe, chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisiors said, “They’re hijacking our dollars.  They don’t have the money to pay us back.  It’s a joke.” 

Given that California doesn’t have the money to pay back borrowing from its local government, it’s likely they might not be able to pay back borrowing from private investors either.  To solve this problem, we have the Municipal Bond Insurance Enhancement Act, on which the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing this week.  To encourage investors to buy California’s risky debt, the federal government would cover any losses to the investor.  We’re told that the federal government would charge bond-issuing governments insurance premiums to cover any losses, but the federal government’s history of setting rates based on politics rather than risk (have you looked at the health of the National Flood Insurance Program lately?) guarantees that the taxpayer would likely have to cover billions in losses on any guarantee of California’s debt.

Social Security: Debating the Ostriches

Over at Salon, Michael Lind takes me to task for raising the alarm about the latest Social Security Trustees report showing that a) Social Security’s insolvency date is growing closer, and b) the system’s unfunded liabilities have increased dramatically since last year’s report.

Like most of those who resist having an honest debate about Social security’s finances, Lind relies on a combination of economic flim-flam and political sophistry to obscure the true problem. For example, Lind points out that when I quote the Trustee’s assertion that the system’s unfunded liabilities currently top $17.5 trillion, that “assumes there are no changes made between now and eternity.” Well, duh! All estimates of US budget deficits assume that spending won’t be cut or taxes raised enough to eliminate the deficit. In fact, when I get my Visa bill and it shows how much I owe, it doesn’t tell me anything about whether I will or can pay that bill in the future. Obviously, if we raise Social Security taxes, cut Social Security benefits (or create personal accounts), we can reduce or even eliminate the program’s unfunded liabilities.

Lind then returns to the hoary idea of the Trust Fund. He objects to my characterization of the Trust fund “contains no actual assets. Instead, it contains government bonds that are simply IOUs, a measure of how much the government owes the system.” This, he says, is the same as saying “government bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, a government that has never defaulted on its obligations in its entire existence since 1776, are not actual assets?” He points out that millions of Americans invest in government bonds through their retirement programs and consider them assets. “Are U.S. government bonds “actual assets” when they are part of IRAs but not “actual assets” when they are owed to the Social Security system?” he asks.

That’s right. If I write you an IOU, you have an asset and I have a debt. If I write an IOU to myself, the asset and debt cancel each other out. I haven’t gained anything, else it would be a whole lot easier to pay my bills. When Lind invests in a government bond, he has an asset and the government has a liability. But when the government issues a bond to itself (ie. Social Security), the asset and liability cancel each other out. There’s no net increase in assets.

But don’t take my word for it. This is what Bill Clinton’s budget had to say about the Trust Fund in FY2000:

These Trust Fund balances are available to finance future benefit payments…but only in a bookkeeping sense….They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of Trust Fund balances, therefore, does not by itself have any impact on the government’s ability to pay benefits.

Lind then switches course and says, ok, forget about the Trust Fund. Think about Social Security like we do about defense spending. “Why do we never hear of the “unfunded liabilities” of Pentagon spending – the third of the big three spending programs (Social Security, Medicare, defense) that take up most of the federal budget? Defense spending comes out of general revenues, not a dedicated tax.”

Actually, that is a valid comparison. Both defense and Social Security spending for any given year are ultimately paid for out of that year’s tax revenue. The composition of the tax revenue is largely irrelevant. And, when taxes don’t equal expenditures, we get budget deficits. Those deficits will eventually have to be paid for by raising taxes or cutting spending.

Current projections by the Congressional Budget Office suggest that unless we reform entitlements programs, government spending will reach 40 percent of GDP by mid-century. Paying for all that government will be a crushing burden of debt and taxes for our children and grandchildren.

No amount of obfuscation by defenders of the status quo can obscure that fact.

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Revenge of the Laffer Curve

Steve Moore and Art Laffer have an excellent column in today’s Wall Street Journal. They explain that high-tax states drive repel entrepreneurs and investors, leading to a pronounced Laffer Curve effect. Productive people either leave the state or choose to earn and report less taxable income. And because growth is weaker than in low-tax states, there also is a negative impact on lower-income and middle-class people:

Here’s the problem for states that want to pry more money out of the wallets of rich people. It never works because people, investment capital and businesses are mobile: They can leave tax-unfriendly states and move to tax-friendly states. …Updating some research from Richard Vedder of Ohio University, we found that from 1998 to 2007, more than 1,100 people every day including Sundays and holidays moved from the nine highest income-tax states such as California, New Jersey, New York and Ohio and relocated mostly to the nine tax-haven states with no income tax, including Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and Texas. We also found that over these same years the no-income tax states created 89% more jobs and had 32% faster personal income growth than their high-tax counterparts. …Dozens of academic studies – old and new – have found clear and irrefutable statistical evidence that high state and local taxes repel jobs and businesses. …Examining IRS tax return data by state, E.J. McMahon, a fiscal expert at the Manhattan Institute, measured the impact of large income-tax rate increases on the rich ($200,000 income or more) in Connecticut, which raised its tax rate in 2003 to 5% from 4.5%; in New Jersey, which raised its rate in 2004 to 8.97% from 6.35%; and in New York, which raised its tax rate in 2003 to 7.7% from 6.85%. Over the period 2002-2005, in each of these states the “soak the rich” tax hike was followed by a significant reduction in the number of rich people paying taxes in these states relative to the national average.

Interestingly, the Baltimore Sun last week published an article noting that the soak-the-rich tax imposed last year is backfiring. There are fewer rich people, less taxable income, and lower tax revenue. To be sure, some of this is the result of a nationwide downturn, but the research cited by Moore and Laffer certainly suggest that the state revenue shortfall will continue even after than national economy recovers:

A year ago, Maryland became one of the first states in the nation to create a higher tax bracket for millionaires as part of a broader package of maneuvers intended to help balance the state’s finances and make the tax code more progressive. But as the state comptroller’s office sifts through this year’s returns, it is finding that the number of Marylanders with more than $1 million in taxable income who filed by the end of April has fallen by one-third, to about 2,000. Taxes collected from those returns as of last month have declined by roughly $100 million. …Karen Syrylo, a tax expert with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied against the millionaire bracket, said she has heard from colleagues who are attorneys and accountants that their clients moved out of state to avoid the new tax rate. She said that some Maryland jurisdictions boast some of the highest combined state and local income tax burdens in the country. “Maryland is such a small state, and it is so easy to move a few miles south to Virginia or a few miles north to Pennsylvania,” Syrylo said. “So there are millionaires who are no longer going to be filing Maryland tax returns.”

With President Obama proposing higher tax rates for the entire nation, perhaps this is a good time to remind people about the three-part video series on the Laffer Curve that I narrated. If you have not yet had a chance to watch them, the videos are embedded here for your viewing pleasure:

How Does It Feel to Be at the Table Now?

On Monday, the Obama administration held a well-publicized love-fest with lobbyists for the health care industry.  It turns out that rather than a “game-changer,” the event was a fraud.  And the industry got burned.

At the time, President Obama called it a “a watershed event in the long and elusive quest for health care reform”:

Over the next 10 years — from 2010 to 2019 — [these industry lobbyists] are pledging to cut the rate of growth of national health care spending by 1.5 percentage points each year — an amount that’s equal to over $2 trillion.

By an amazing coincidence, $2 trillion is just enough to pay for Obama’s proposed government takeover of the health care sector.

Yet The New York Times reports that isn’t the magnitude of spending reductions the lobbyists thought they were supporting:

Hospitals and insurance companies said Thursday that President Obama had substantially overstated their promise earlier this week to reduce the growth of health spending… [C]onfusion swirled in Washington as the companies’ trade associations raced to tamp down angst among members around the country.

Health care leaders who attended the meeting…say they agreed to slow health spending in a more gradual way and did not pledge specific year-by-year cuts…

My initial reaction to Monday’s fairly transparent media stunt was: “I smell a rat.  Lobbyists never advocate less revenue for their members.  Ever.” The lobbyists are proving me right, albeit slowly.  (Take your time, guys.  I don’t mind.)

The Obama administration seems a little less clear on that rule.  Again, The New York Times:

Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform, said “the president misspoke” on Monday and again on Wednesday when he described the industry’s commitment in similar terms. After providing that account, Ms. DeParle called back about an hour later on Thursday and said: “I don’t think the president misspoke. His remarks correctly and accurately described the industry’s commitment.”

How did the industry find itself in this position? Politico reports:

The group of six organizations with a major stake in health care…had been working in secret for several weeks on a savings plan.

But they learned late last week that the White House wanted to go public with the coalition. One health care insider said: “It came together more quickly than it should have.” A health-care lobbyist said the participants weren’t prepared to go live with the news over the weekend, when the news of a deal, including the $2 trillion savings claim, was announced by White House officials to reporters.

Gosh, it’s almost like the White House strong-armed the lobbyists in order to create a false sense of agreement and momentum.  Pay no attention to that discord behind the curtain!

At the time, I also hypothesized that this “agreement” was a clever ploy by all parties to pressure a recalcitrant Congressional Budget Office to assume that the Democrat’s reforms would produce budgetary savings.  “Otherwise, health care reform is in jeopardy,” says Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).  Turns out there was no agreement, and the industry was just being used.

American Hospital Association president Richard Umbdenstock was more right than he knew when he told that group’s 230 members:

There has been a tremendous amount of confusion and frankly a lot of political spin.

Merriam-Webster lists “to engage in spin control (as in politics)” as its seventh definition of the word “spin.”  Its second definition is “to form a thread by extruding a viscous rapidly hardening fluid — used especially of a spider or insect.” Which reminds me…

CORRECTION: My initial reaction to Monday’s media stunt – “I smell a rat” – was transcribed incorrectly.  It should have read, “I smell arachnid.”

(HT: Joe Guarino for the pointers.)