Tag: tax increase

The Gang of Six Is Back from the Dead: Contemplating the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Their Budget Plan

The on-again, off-again “Gang of Six” has come back on the scene and is offering a “Bipartisan Plan to Reduce Our Nation’s Deficits.”

The proposal is quite similar to the one put forth by the President’s Simpson-Bowles Commission, which isn’t too surprising since some of the same people are involved.

At this stage, all I’ve seen is this summary (A BIPARTISAN PLAN TO REDUCE OUR NATIONS DEFICITS v7), so I reserve the right to modify my analysis as more details emerge (and since I fully expect the plan to look worse when additional information is available, the following is an optimistic assessment.

The Good

  • Unlike President Obama, the Gang of Six is not consumed by class-warfare resentment. The plan envisions that the top personal income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent.
  • The corporate income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent as well, something that is long overdue since the average corporate tax rate in Europe is now down to 23 percent.
  • The alternative minimum tax (which should be called the mandatory maximum tax) will be repealed.
  • The plan would repeal the CLASS Act, a provision of Obamacare for long-term-care insurance that will significantly expand the burden of federal spending once implemented.
  • The plan targets some inefficient and distorting tax preference such as the health care exclusion.

The Bad

  • The much-heralded spending caps do not apply to entitlement programs. This is like going to the doctor because you have cancer and getting treated for a sprained wrist.
  • A net tax increase of more than $1 trillion (I expect that number to be much higher when further details are divulged).
  • The plan targets some provisions of the tax code – such as IRAs and 401(k)s) – that are not preferences, but instead exist to mitigate against the double taxation of saving and investment.
  • There is no Medicare reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.
  • There in no Medicaid reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.

The Ugly

  • The entire package is based on dishonest Washington budget math. Spending increases under the plan, but the politicians claim to be cutting spending because the budget didn’t grow even faster.
  • Speaking of spending, why is there no information, anywhere in the summary document, showing how big government will be five years from now? Ten years from now? The perhaps-all-too-convenient absence of this critical information should set off alarm bells.
  • There’s a back-door scheme to change the consumer price index in such a way as to reduce expenditures (i.e., smaller cost-of-living-adjustments) and increase tax revenue (i.e., smaller adjustments in tax brackets and personal exemptions). The current CPI may be flawed, but it would be far better to give the Bureau of Labor Statistics further authority, if necessary, to make changes. A politically imposed change seems like nothing more than a ruse to impose a hidden tax hike.
  • A requirement that the internal revenue code maintain the existing bias against investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other upper-income taxpayers. This “progressivity” mandate implies very bad things for the double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

This quick analysis leaves many questions unanswered. I particularly look forward to getting information on the following:

  1. How fast will discretionary spending rise or fall under the caps? Will this be like the caps following the 1990 tax-hike deal, which were akin to 60-mph speed limits in a school zone? Or will the caps actually reduce spending, erasing the massive increase in discretionary spending of the Bush-Obama years?
  2. What does it mean to promise Social Security reform “if and only if the comprehensive deficit reduction bill has already received 60 votes.” Who defines reform? And why does the reform have to focus on “75-year” solvency, apparently to the exclusion of giving younger workers access to a better and more stable system?
  3. Will federal spending under the plan shrink back down to the historical average of 20 percent of GDP? And why aren’t those numbers in the summary? The document contains information of deficits and debt, but those figures are just the symptoms of excessive spending. Why aren’t we being shown the data that really matters?

Over the next few days, we’ll find out what’s really in this package, but my advice is to keep a tight hold on your wallet.

The “Tax Expenditure” Con Job

For both political and policy reasons, the left is desperately trying to maneuver Republicans into going along with a tax increase. And they are smart to make this their top goal. After all, it will be very difficult – if not impossible – to increase the burden of government spending without more revenue coming to Washington.

But how to make this happen? President Obama is mostly arguing in favor of class-warfare tax increases, but that’s a non-serious gambit driven by 2012 political considerations. Moreover, there’s presumably zero chance that Republicans would surrender to higher tax rates on work, saving, and investment.

The real threat is back-door hikes resulting from the elimination and/or reduction of so-called tax breaks. The big spenders on the left are being very clever about this effort, appealing to anti-spending and pro-tax reform sentiments by arguing that it is important to get rid of “tax expenditures” and “spending in the tax code.”

recently warned, however, that GOPers shouldn’t fall for this sophistry, noting that “If legislation is enacted that results in more money coming into Washington, that is a tax increase.” I also explained that tax breaks are not spending, stating that “When politicians tax (or borrow) money from one person and give it to another, that’s government spending. But if politicians allow a person keep more of their own money, that’s a tax cut.”

To be sure, the tax code is riddled with inefficient and corrupt loopholes. But those provisions should be eliminated as part of fundamental tax reform, such as a flat tax. More specifically, every penny of revenue generated by shutting down tax preferences should be used to lower tax rates. This is a win-win situation that would make America more prosperous and competitive.

It’s also important to understand what’s a loophole and what isn’t. Ideally, you determine special tax breaks by first deciding on the right benchmark and then measuring how the current tax system deviates from that ideal. That presumably means all income should be taxed, but only one time.

So what can we say about the internal revenue code using this neutral benchmark? Well, there are lots of genuine loopholes. The government completely exempts compensation in the form of employer-provided health insurance, for instance, and everyone agrees that’s a special tax break. There’s also the standard deduction and personal exemptions, but most people think it’s appropriate to protect poor people from the income tax (though perhaps we’ve gone too far in that direction since only 49 percent of households now pay income tax).

Sometimes the tax code goes overboard in the other direction, however, subjecting some income to double taxation. Indeed, because of the capital gains tax, corporate income tax, personal income tax, and death tax, it’s possible for some types of income to be taxed as many of three or four times.

Double taxation is a special tax penalty, which is the opposite of a special tax break. The good news is that there are some provisions in the tax code, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, that reduce these tax penalties.

The bad news is that these provisions get added to “tax expenditure” lists, and therefore get mixed up with the provisions that provide special tax breaks. This may sound too strange to be true, but here’s a list of the biggest so-called tax expenditures from the Tax Policy Center (which is a left-leaning organization, but their numbers are basically the same as the ones found at the Joint Committee on Taxation).

Since this post already is too long, I’ll close by simply noting that items 2, 4, 7, 8, 11, and 12 are not loopholes. They are not “tax expenditures.” And they are not “spending in the tax code.” Every one of those provisions is designed to mitigate a penalty in the tax code.

So even if lawmakers have good motives (i.e., pursuing real tax reform such as the flat tax) when looking to get rid of special tax breaks, they need to understand what’s actually a loophole.

But since politicians rarely have good motives, there’s a real threat that they will take existing tax penalties and make them even worse. That’s another reason why tax increases should be a non-starter.

Senator Corker’s CAP Act: A Better Version of Gramm-Rudman to Reduce the Burden of Government

This Thursday, April 7, Senator Corker of Tennessee will be the opening speaker at the Cato Institute’s conference on “The Economic Impact of Government Spending” (an event that is free and open to the public, so register here if you want to attend).

The Senator will be discussing his proposal to cap and then gradually reduce the burden of government spending, measured as a share of gross domestic product. With federal outlays currently consuming about 25 percent of economic output, excessive federal spending is America’s main fiscal problem.

Corker’s proposal would put federal spending on a 10-year glide path so that it eventually shrinks to 20.6 percent of GDP. This chart, from the Senator’s upcoming presentation, shows that government will grow at a much slower pace as a result of this restraint. Indeed, total savings over the 10-year period, measured against a baseline that assumes the federal government is left on auto-pilot, would exceed $5 trillion.

There are two things to admire about Senator Corker’s CAP plan.

First, he correctly understands that the problem is the size of government. As explained in this video, spending is the problem and deficits are a symptom of that problem.

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.

Second, Corker’s legislation has a real enforcement mechanism. If Congress fails to produce a budget that meets the annual spending cap, there is a “sequester” provision that automatically takes a slice out of almost every federal program.

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.

Deconstructing the Revenue Side of Obama’s Budget

I looked yesterday at the spending side of Obama’s budget and found some good news and bad news. The good news was the absence of any big new initiative to expand the burden of government. That’s a welcome relief since the past couple of years have featured budget busting proposals such as the so-called stimulus scheme and a government-run healthcare plan.

The bad news is that the budget does nothing to undo any of the damage of the past two years. Nor does it undo any of the damage of the previous eight years. And because the President’s budget refuses to address entitlement spending, it certainly doesn’t do anything to avert the damage of rapidly expanding budgets over the next several decades.

Now let’s look at the tax side of the fiscal equation. In large part, the White House is recycling class warfare ideas from last year’s budget. The President wants higher tax rates, including higher taxes on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners. He also wants to increase the tax burden of American companies that are competing for market share in global markets.

These are remarkably misguided proposals. But what’s especially disappointing is that the Administration stuck with these bad ideas when the President’s own fiscal commission proposed lower tax rates and base broadening. Those proposals would have increased the overall tax burden, so they definitely were not pure supply-side economics. And the Commission also proposed an increase in the double taxation of saving and investment, which also would be unfortunate.

But at least the Commission proposed to do the wrong thing in a good way. Yes, taxes would have increased, but the damage would have been ameliorated by a better tax structure. Obama’s budget, by contrast, does the wrong thing in the worst way - increasing the tax burden while also making the tax system more unfair.

It’s also worth noting that the President decided to punt on the issue of corporate tax reform. This is remarkable since even he acknowledged during his State-of-the-Union address that America’s corporate tax rate is far too high in a competitive global economy.

Last but not least, it’s worth noting that Obama’s budget shows that tax revenues will rise above their long-run average of 18 percent of GDP - even if taxes are not increased by one penny.

America’s budget problem is too much spending, period.

The 1993 Clinton Tax Increase Did Not Lead to the Budget Surpluses of the Late 1990s

Proponents of higher taxes are fond of claiming that Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax increase was a big success because of budget surpluses that began in 1998.

That’s certainly a plausible hypothesis, and I’m already on record arguing that Clinton’s economic record was much better than Bush’s performance.

But this specific assertion it is not supported by the data. In February of 1995, 18 months after the tax increase was signed into law, President Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget issued projections of deficits for the next five years if existing policy was maintained (a “baseline” forecast). As the chart illustrates, OMB estimated that future deficits would be about $200 billion and would slightly increase over the five-year period.

In other words, even the Clinton Administration, which presumably had a big incentive to claim that the tax increase would be successful, admitted 18 months after the law was approved that there was no expectation of a budget surplus. For what it’s worth, the Congressional Budget Office forecast, issued about the same time, showed very similar numbers.

Since the Clinton Administration’s own numbers reveal that the 1993 tax increase was a failure, we have to find a different reason to explain why the budget shifted to surplus in the late 1990s.

Fortunately, there’s no need for an exhaustive investigation. The Historical Tables on OMB’s website reveal that good budget numbers were the result of genuine fiscal restraint. Total government spending increased by an average of just 2.9 percent over a four-year period in the mid-1990s. This is the reason why projections of $200 billion-plus deficits turned into the reality of big budget surpluses.

Republicans say the credit belongs to the GOP Congress that took charge in early 1995. Democrats say it was because of Bill Clinton. But all that really matters is that the burden of federal spending grew very slowly. Not only was there spending restraint, but Congress and the White House agreed on a fairly substantial tax cut in 1997.

To sum things up, it turns out that spending restraint and lower taxes are a recipe for good fiscal policy. This second chart modifies the first chart, showing actual deficits under this small-government approach compared to the OMB and CBO forecasts of what would have happened under Clinton’s tax-and-spend baseline.

Spending Restraint and Red Ink

I’m not a big fan of central banks, and I definitely don’t like multilateral bureaucracies, so I almost feel guilty about publicizing two recent studies published by the European Central Bank. But when such an institution puts out research that unambiguously makes the case for smaller government, it’s time to sit up and take notice. And since these studies largely echo the findings of recent research by the International Monetary Fund, we may have reached a point where even the establishment finally understands that government is too big.

The first study looks at real-world examples of debt reduction in 15 European nations and investigates the fiscal policies that worked and didn’t work. Entitled “Major Public Debt Reductions: Lessons From The Past, Lessons For The Future,” the report unambiguously concludes that spending restraint is the right way to reduce deficits and debt. Tax increases, by contrast, are not successful. The study doesn’t highlight this result, but the data clearly show that “revenue increases do not seem to have induced debt reductions, whereas cuts in primary expenditure seem to have contributed significantly in the case of major debt reductions.”

Here’s a key excerpt:

[T]his paper estimates several specifications of a logistic probability model to assess which factors determine the probability of a major debt reduction in the EU-15 during the period 1985-2009. Our results are three-fold. First, major debt reductions are mainly driven by decisive and lasting (rather than timid and short-lived) fiscal consolidation efforts focused on reducing government expenditure, in particular, cuts in social benefits and public wages. Revenue-based consolidations seem to have a tendency to be less successful. Second, robust real GDP growth also increases the likelihood of a major debt reduction because it helps countries to “grow their way out” of indebtedness. Here, the literature also points to a positive feedback effect with decisive expenditure-based fiscal consolidation because this type of consolidation appears to foster growth, in particular in times of severe fiscal imbalances.

The last part of this passage is especially worth highlighting. The authors found that reducing spending promotes faster economic growth. In other words, Obama did exactly the wrong thing with his so-called stimulus. The U.S. economy would have enjoyed much better performance if the burden of spending had been reduced rather than increased. One can only hope the statists at the Congressional Budget Office learn from this research.

Equally interesting, the report notes that reducing social welfare spending and reducing the burden of the bureaucracy are the two most effective ways of lowering red ink:

The estimation results indicate that expenditure-based consolidation which mainly concentrates on cuts in social benefits and government wages is more likely to lead to a major debt reduction. A significant decline in social benefits or public wages vis-a-vis the overall decline in the primary expenditure will increase the probability of a major debt reduction by 31 and 26 percent, respectively.

The other study takes a different approach, looking at the poor fiscal position of European nations and showing what would have happened if governments had imposed some sort of cap on government spending. Entitled “Towards Expenditure Rules And Fiscal Sanity In The Euro Area,” this report finds that restraining spending (what the study refers to as a “neutral expenditure policy”) would have generated much better results. 

Here are the main findings:

[T]he study assesses the impact of the fiscal stance on primary expenditure ratios and public debt ratios and, thus, provides a measure of prudence or imprudence of past expenditure policies. The study finds that on the basis of real time rules, expenditure and debt ratios in 2009 for the euro area aggregate would not have been much different with neutral expenditure policies than actually experienced.

…Primary expenditure ratios would have been 2-3½ pp [percentage points] of GDP lower for the euro area aggregate, 3-5pp of GDP for the euro area without Germany and up to over 10 pp of GDP lower in certain countries if expenditure policies had been neutral.

There’s a bit of academic jargon in that passage, but the authors are basically saying that some sort of annual limit on the growth of government spending is a smart fiscal strategy. And such rules, depending on the country, would have reduced the burden of government spending by as much as 10 percentage points of GDP. To put that figure in context, reducing the burden of government spending by that much in the United States would balance the budget overnight.

There are several ways of achieving such a goal. The report suggests a spending limit rule based on the growth of the overall economy, which is similar to a proposal being developed in the United States by Senator Corker of Tennessee. But it also could mean something akin to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, but intelligently revised to focus on annual spending rather than annual deficits. Some sort of limit on annual spending, perhaps based on population plus inflation like the old Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) in Colorado, also could be successful.

There are a couple of ways of skinning this cat. What’s important is that there needs to be a formula that limits how much spending can grow, and this formula should be designed so that the private sector grows faster than the public sector. And to make sure the formula is successful, it should be enforced by automatic spending cuts, similar to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings sequester provision.