Topic: General

Anatomy of a Brutal Tax Beating

Based on the title of this column, you may think I’m going to write about oppressive IRS behavior or punitive tax policy.

Those are good guesses, but today’s “brutal tax beating” is about what happens when a left-leaning journalist writes a sophomoric column about tax policy and then gets corrected by an expert from the Tax Foundation.

The topic is the tax treatment of executive compensation, which is somewhat of a mess because part of Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax hike was a provision to bar companies from deducting executive compensation above $1 million when compiling their tax returns (which meant, for all intents and purposes, an additional back-door 35-percent tax penalty on salaries paid to CEO types). But to minimize the damaging impact of this discriminatory penalty, particularly on start-up firms, this extra tax didn’t apply to performance-based compensation such as stock options.

In a good and simple tax system, which taxes income only one time (including business income), the entire provision would be repealed.

But when Alvin Chang, a graphics reporter from Vox, wrote a column on this topic, he made the remarkable claim that somehow taxpayers are subsidizing big banks because the aforementioned penalty does not apply to performance-based compensation.

…the government doesn’t tax performance-based pay for…any…top bank executive in America. Unlike regular salaries — where the government takes out taxes to pay for Medicare, Social Security, and all other sorts of things — US tax code lets banks deduct the big bonuses they give to their executives. … The solution most Americans want is to either heavily tax CEO pay over a certain amount, or to set a strict cap on how much CEOs can make, relative to their workers. As long as this loophole is open, though, it makes sense for banks to continue paying executives these huge sums. ..for now, taxpayers are still ponying up to help make wealthy bankers even wealthier, because the US tax code encourages it.

Since Mr. Chang is a graphics reporter, you won’t be surprised that he included several images to augment his argument.

Are ITT Alternatives Much Better?

The outcome was certain the moment federal and state regulators spilled blood in the water and swarmed ITT Technical Institutes, but today it became official: ITT is going out of business. No proven guilt, just accused to death. But we’ve been over all that.

What is worth pointing out now are the alternatives to ITT. I’ve recently seen a couple of stories from Ohio about community colleges offering to take in students stranded by ITT’s demise, and thought it might be worth doing a little comparison between Ohio ITT branches—I mean, former branches—and these would-be rescuers.

Here is some broad info from the federal College Scorecard on Ohio ITT branches, and it is certainly not great: Annual after-aid costs ranging from $21,212 to $24,258, graduation rates from “not available” to 52 percent, and salary after attending of $38,400, which appears to be listed for most ITT campuses nationwide.

How about those community colleges?

I couldn’t find Butler Tech or Great Oaks on the Scorecard, but Cuyahoga Community College has an annual after-aid student cost of $5,832—enabled by upfront taxpayer subsidies—but only a 6 percent graduation rate and an annual salary after attending of $27,600. Cincinnati State Technical and Community College has an annual cost of $7,021, a graduation rate of 22 percent, and a salary of $29,700. The community colleges are cheaper than ITT, but their outcomes appear appreciably worse.

The Scorecard, importantly, is a seriously flawed tool, but it comes from the very federal government that has targeted ITT, and it gives the kind of first-blush data that have readily been employed to attack the for-profit sector. What I looked at is also, of course, anecdotal. But what it suggests is that the alternatives to ITT, at least in Ohio, are probably no better than ITT was, and may well be worse. Which supports what you’ve read here many times, and which broader evidence upholds: For-profit colleges are not distinctly terrible. It is the whole, federally distorted system that is a wreck.

Police Misconduct — The Worst Case in August

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct site, we have selected the worst case for the month of August. It’s the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). 

Although the misconduct has been festering for many years, our selection is based upon the investigative findings of the Department of Justice, which were published in a report last month.

Here are a few of those findings:

  • The BPD engages in a pattern or practice of making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests;
  • The BPD engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force;
  • The BPD engages in a pattern or practice of retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally-protected speech;
  • The BPD has allowed violations of policy to go unaddressed even when they are widespread or involve serious misconduct;
  • The BPD has failed to take action against offenders known to engage in repeated misconduct.

Because the problems run deep, it would be a mistake to focus all of our attention on the police department itself. The political establishment of Baltimore knew there were problems, but failed to address them. It remains to be seen whether the reform rhetoric we have been hearing will be followed by real action.

 

Ending Fed Ed Would Hardly Be Pure Loss

The Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) has sounded the alarm: Donald Trump’s proposal to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education (ED) would be pure loss because a lot of people use federal education money. Lost jobs, lost college access, lost learning. Which makes sense if you assume that the federal government miracles money into existence, people can’t adjust to changing circumstances, and federal control can only help.

Of course, the federal government does not just will money into existence. It does spend far more than it has, but sooner or later someone is going to have to pay for that. And money arriving through taxation comes from people who may have used it for other, more productive things. Taxpayers may have spent it on new businesses, or housing, or food, or lots of other things that would have potentially grown the economy and created new jobs. Or heck, just made them happier. So there are costs—maybe big ones—that CAPAF ignored: opportunity costs.

Then there are costs to dealing with ED demands. Yes, as CAPAF points out, the department has a relatively small workforce—about 4,300 full-time equivalent employees—but that is in part because ED makes states do a lot of the administrative heavy lifting, forcing them to hire a lot of bureaucrats. There is also a sizeable compliance cost that goes with federal programs. The latest available numbers I could find were from a 1998 report—pretty old—but that precedes the No Child Left Behind Act, which greatly expanded federal management. That report suggested that for every dollar sent to Washington only 85 cents made it back to local districts, and noted that there were nearly three times as many state employees being funded by federal money as ED employees.

How would ED be eliminated? While it is unclear how Trump would do it—details do not seem to be his thing—he would likely phase the department out, not just kill it all at once. Of course, he could just move the programs elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy. But assuming that by killing ED he means to kill the programs, he would probably phase them out, leaving states, districts, colleges, and students time to adjust. And if he were to couple phasing out the programs with, say, proportionate tax relief, or even just block grants to states, that money could still be used for education! It would not necessarily mean any lost teacher jobs, student aid, or anything else. It could just mean that instead of losing 15 cents in bureaucratic processing for each dollar, taxpayers could keep the whole buck!

Would trimming what we spend necessarily even be bad educationally? Signs pretty clearly point to “no.” As the graph below shows, as well as this report on SAT scores, large spending increases haven’t come close to producing commensurate improvements in achievement, at least as measured by standardized tests for high school kids. Those scores have essentially sat still. Same for staffing: In roughly the same period as is covered in the graph, public schools went from about 14 students per staff member, to just 8 students, approaching a doubling of employees per child. Even the high-school graduation rate “all-time highs” that sound so nice aren’t: CAPAF cited a report based on only four years of data, and longer-term data show in 1969–70—close to when the feds first got heavily involved in education—the average freshman graduation rate for public schools was 78.7 percent. As of 2012–13—the latest data on the chart—it was 81.9 percent. Hardly a huge increase, and possibly one inflated by “credit recovery” and other dubious practices. Oh, and the feds coerced states to adopt a single curriculum standard—the Common Core—only to see tremendous backlash after the public finally became aware of what had been foisted on them. At the very least, great political acrimony and stomach-churning educational turbulence have been the result.

The evidence—more of which can be found here—suggests that in K–12 education, federal involvement may well be a loss, not a gain.

How about higher ed? Federal student aid, it is becoming increasingly certain, has largely translated into skyrocketing prices, major non-completion, credential inflation, and big student debt. Hardly the pure affordability effect that is all CAPAF discusses. You can get more in-depth on higher education here.

There is one other thing that ought to be mentioned, though it may seem passé: Washington has no constitutional authority to meddle in education outside of DC itself, federal installations, and prohibiting state and local discrimination in education provision. Yet the vast majority of what ED does goes far beyond those things. Ignoring the Constitution comes with costs all of its own, which CAPAF—and everyone else—may learn very quickly if there is a President Trump and he, among other things, unilaterally tries to change federal education policy. You know, like President Obama.

CAPAF portrays the U.S. Department of Education as all gain, and it’s possible ending all pain. But there is a whole other side to federal education meddling: costs. And they are big.

DEA Plans to Ban Kratom

Kratom is a plant that, according to users, relieves pain, reduces anxiety, and aids withdrawal from opioids like heroin.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, however, believes kratom is dangerous and has no valid medical use. So the DEA is placing kratom in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which effectively bans legal use of the drug.

The DEA’s decision prompted one user to send me this email:

I’ve read many of your posts online, and remembered you today as I heard some news that, I fear, is going to change my life for the worse. I’m sure you are aware that very soon kratom is going to be banned nationwide.

Full disclosure: I do depend on kratom for anxiety and (very) occassional pain from back spasms. About five years ago kratom gave me my life back after finally weening myself from prescription pain medication. I take it every day, and I’ve never had to increase the amount. This amazes me.

I am a successful high school teacher, husband, and father. I have a master’s degree in education and I work hard to take care of my family. I have refused, and will continue to refuse, to become a ward of the pharmaceutical industry. Which I suppose, in the eyes of the DEA, now makes me a felon.

I am writing to ask you if you have any advice at all for how to fight this. I am writing writing writing … senators and health officials … posting on forums, donating money. This all feels quite futile.

So I guess I’m also, not so subtly, asking you if you believe there is any way you could help. You are an expert in this field. Your voice would be heard much more clearly than a high school teacher in Southwest Ohio. What you might say I do not know. But I do know there are thousands of people right now who are frightened and angry, and my gut tells me this ban could cause many to suffer. But of course I am also being selfish.

When Exchanges Collapse, ObamaCare Penalizes You Even If Coverage Is Unaffordable

MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 02: Martha Lucia (L) sits with Rudy Figueroa, an insurance agent from Sunshine Life and Health Advisors, as she picks an insurance plan available in the third year of the Affordable Care Act at a store setup in the Mall of the Americas on November 2, 2015 in Miami, Florida. Open Enrollment began yesterday for people to sign up for a 2016 insurance plan through the Affordable Care Act. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In opeds at Time and National Review Online, I discuss how ObamaCare’s health-insurance Exchange has collapsed in Pinal County, Arizona, throwing some 10,000 residents out of their ObamaCare plans. Charles Gaba of ACASignUps.net and Cynthia Cox of the Kaiser Family Foundation asked me to explain a claim I make in the NRO piece:

Obamacare will still penalize those residents if they don’t buy coverage — even if the amount they must pay increases tenfold or more.

Before I explain, let me first apologize on behalf of the Affordable Care Act’s authors for the complicated mess that follows.

ObamaCare’s individual mandate penalizes taxpayers who fail to purchase health insurance. But there are so many exemptions that of the 33 million or so people who lacked insurance in 2014, the IRS levied the penalty against only 6.6 million tax filers (which actually represents a larger number, maybe 17 million people).

For example, the Affordable Care Act exempts “individuals who cannot afford coverage” from the penalty. You qualify for this exemption if your “required contribution” exceeds roughly 8.13 percent of your household income. For individuals who don’t have access to a suitable employer plan, the “required contribution” is equal to “the annual premium for the lowest cost bronze plan available in the individual market through the Exchange in the State in the rating area in which the individual resides,” minus “the amount of the credit allowable under section 36B for the taxable year (determined as if the individual was covered by a qualified health plan offered through the Exchange for the entire taxable year).” In other words, if you would have to pay more than 8.13 percent of your income for an ObamaCare plan, even after accounting for premium subsidies, then coverage is unaffordable for you and ObamaCare doesn’t penalize you for not buying coverage.

You would think this exemption would somehow apply to the 10,000 residents of Pinal County, for whom coverage will become dramatically more expensive when the Exchange collapses. If those folks are like Exchange enrollees in the rest of the country, the vast majority of them (85 percent or so) receive premium subsidies. When their Exchange coverage disappears next year, so will those subsidies. If they wish to purchase coverage off the Exchange, they will face, for the first time, the actual cost of ObamaCare coverage. Given that the amount Pinal County residents will have to pay for ObamaCare coverage could rise by several multiples, from a fraction of the premium to the full premium, given that the lowest-income enrollees will see the largest increases, given that the large year-to-year rate increases occurring nationwide will only add to the suffering, you would think the ACA’s unaffordability exemption would somehow cover those 10,000 Pinal County residents. But you would be wrong.

Maryland’s Governor Is Giving People More Time for Walley World – Like It or Not

Maybe because Chevy Chase is in his state—the town, of course, not the actor—Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) yesterday signed an executive order essentially forbidding any school district in the state from starting the academic year before Labor Day, or from ending after June 15. That he announced it at an event in Ocean City, Maryland—a big summer beach destination—left no question that this was largely at the behest of the state’s tourism industry.

Marylanders, you will have more vacation time.

But what if you don’t want to travel the holiday road right up to Labor Day? What if you’d like to start school a week or three early, and maybe trade some summer days for a longer winter break, or heck, maybe some extra time off in April? Too bad: The governor knows what you need better than you do. Or, at least, he knows what other people—the tourism lobby—needs.

Of course this is a big violation of the local control many people think should be a hallmark of public schooling. It hasn’t been for a long time, but if you are going to have government schooling it makes sense for decisions to be made at the lowest levels possible so as to best serve the needs of unique communities. But what if your schedule doesn’t conform with a lot of people—maybe the majority—in your community?

All of this points to one solution if you want what you think is best for your family: educational freedom. Attach money to kids and let parents choose schools where educators might decide to start before Labor Day, or after Labor Day, or to have online content available 24/7, or to send you homeschooling curricula, or…you get the point.

Maybe you want to have your kids in school before Labor Day. Walley World shouldn’t get to tell you you can’t.