Topic: Regulatory Studies

Tax Cuts, Loopholes, and Government Size

President Obama wants to raise revenues by reducing tax deductions and other tax breaks, which the administration calls “spending in the tax code.” Donald Marron of the Tax Policy Center argues that “hundreds of billions of dollars of spending are disguised as tax cuts.”

Don is a very good economist, and he is concerned that special interest tax breaks can misallocate resources the same way that spending subsidies do. I agree. But I’m also concerned that tax breaks and spending subsidies have different implications for the size of government, which is where I part ways with Don and the president.

The following Tax Policy Matrix helps sort out which sorts of tax cuts make economic sense when government size is also a consideration.

The government distorts the economy and reduces GDP through both its taxing and spending actions. One reason is that both taxes and spending cause individuals and businesses to change their behaviors and reallocate resources in suboptimal ways. The table has columns for tax and spending distortions. It also has a column for government debt because running deficits today may translate into higher levels of distortionary taxes tomorrow.

The table includes two Starve-the-Beast scenarios. “With Starve-the-Beast” means that tax cuts will reduce government spending to some extent over time. A narrow tax base shot full of loopholes creates allocation distortions, but if starve-the-beast works that sort of tax base also limits the government’s size creating a counterbalancing benefit to GDP.

In the short run, starve-the-beast may or may not work. Bill Niskanen says that it does not, but I think the effectiveness of it changes over time as political culture changes. In the 1980s and 1990s, policymakers took corrective actions when deficits rose, but the revival of Keynesianism in recent years changed the political culture and, for a while, nullified the fear of deficits for many politicians.

In the long run, it seems obvious that the inflow of tax revenues to the government is a hard check on spending because there are financial market limits to government borrowing.

Let’s go through the rows in the table:

Row 1. The government starts off with a balanced budget and with tax and spending systems that cause medium damage.

Row 2. The government cuts taxes $100 by way of a loophole. Tax distortions rise because marginal tax rates are unchanged and we’ve added a new distortion. Higher debt likely pushes up future tax distortions. This appears to be a poor policy choice.

Row 3. The government cuts taxes $100 by way of marginal rate cut. Tax distortions are reduced, which increases economic growth. The downside is higher debt. This may or may be a good policy depending on the quality of the tax cut. If the cut is to a very distortionary part of the tax code—such as the corporate income tax rate—this policy could make sense. One reason is that the deficit increase might end up being quite small because of the positive economic response to the pro-efficiency tax cut.

Row 4. With starve-the-beast operational, a special interest tax cut becomes a bit of a closer call. Tax distortions and debt rise, but government spending falls somewhat, so the net effect on the economy is unclear. However, I think there are considerations here aside from economics. Special interest tax breaks—such as the ethanol tax break—are troubling because they represent a corruption of the law, an affront to the American ideal of “equal justice under law.” So just on that basis, I’m against special interest breaks, and indeed am in favor replacing the current code with a flat tax.

Row 5. A pro-efficiency tax cut is very likely a winner if you assume that starve-the-beast is operational. Tax and spending distortions both fall, although there is a modest increase in debt.

So far we’ve left out the most important fiscal tool available to policymakers—spending cuts to unneeded and damaging programs to reduce government harm to the economy. The best policy choice would be to combine pro-growth tax cuts with spending cuts to harmful programs. That would reduce government distortions on both sides of the budget, and thus unambiguously increase GDP.

In sum, without matching spending cuts, tax cuts may or may not make sense depending on the type of cut and whether reducing Uncle Sam’s diet will force him to slim down in subsequent years. But it is a fiscal policy win-win to match spending cuts with cuts to the most damaging parts of the tax code.

‘Gainful Employment’ Regs Softened, Still a Diversionary Sideshow

The hotly anticipated – and dreaded – “gainful employment” regulations aimed at for-profit colleges were released this morning, and based on media reports the big news is that they are a little more lenient than originally expected. Most importantly, schools that fail to meet debt-to-income and debt-repayment requirements will not be cut off from federal student aid – the financial crack on which almost every college and university depends – until 2015.

That’s the big news, at least as reported. But it isn’t the important story.

The real story remains that the Obama administration, and at least the education leadership in the Senate, continues to divert the public’s eye towards for-profit schools when the entire higher education system is a waste-engorged, parasitic mess.

Yes, for-profit schools have low program completion rates, but the overall six-year completion rate for four-year programs is just around 57 percent. And yes, for-profit schools leave many students with big debt, but the average debt for all four-year undergraduate students who have taken loans is around $24,000. And yes, students at for-profit institutions draw heavily on the public treasury to pay for the studies they don’t complete, but higher education overall is a gigantic leech feeding off  taxpayers, taking in hundreds of billions of dollars every year from all levels of government. And it is ever-growing aid to students from vote-hungry federal politicians that is likely the most potent force enabling rampant price inflation and massive college overconsumption. After all, the price becomes a lot less important – and extravagances more enticing – when someone else is footing much of the bill.

Now that these rules have been published, let’s move on to what really needs to happen: Phasing out government subsidies for the entire draining Ivory Tower.

Antidumping Reform Crucial to U.S. Competitiveness

The Cato Institute today published its 13th policy paper on the topic of antidumping. “Economic Self-Flagellation: How U.S. Antidumping Policy Subverts the National Export Initiative” describes with compelling anecdotes and data how the outdated assumptions of a 90-year-old law—one purported to “level the playing field” and protect U.S. companies from “unfair” foreign competition—conspire with its overzealous application to erode the competitiveness of U.S. firms.

During the decade from January 2000 through December 2009, the U.S. government imposed 164 antidumping measures on a variety of products from dozens of countries. A total of 130 of those 164 measures restricted (and in most cases, still restrict) imports of intermediate goods and raw materials used by downstream U.S. producers in the production of their final products. Those restrictions raise the costs of production for the downstream firms, weakening their capacity to compete with foreign producers in the United States and abroad.

In all of those cases, trade-restricting antidumping measures were imposed without any of the downstream companies first having been afforded opportunities to demonstrate the likely adverse impact on their own business operations. This is by design. The antidumping statute forbids the administering authorities from considering the impact of prospective duties on consuming industries—or on the economy more broadly—when weighing whether or not to impose duties.

That asymmetry has always been insane, but given the emergence and proliferation of transnational production and supply chains and cross-border investment (i.e., globalization)—evidenced by the fact that 55% of all U.S. import value consists of raw materials, intermediate goods, and capital equipment (the purchases of U.S. producers)—it is now nothing short of self-flagellation.

Most of those import-consuming, downstream producers—those domestic victims of the U.S. antidumping law—are also struggling U.S. exporters. In fact those downstream companies are much more likely to export and create new jobs than are the firms that turn to the antidumping law to restrict trade. Antidumping duties on magnesium, polyvinyl chloride, and hot-rolled steel, for example, may please upstream, petitioning domestic producers, who can subsequently raise their prices and reap greater profits. But those same “protective” duties are extremely costly to U.S. producers of auto parts, paint, and appliances, who require those inputs for their own manufacturing processes.

President Obama acknowledges as much. On August 11, 2010, at a White House signing ceremony, the president offered the following rationale for a bill that he was about to sign into law:

The Manufacturing Enhancement Act of 2010 will create jobs, help American companies compete, and strengthen manufacturing as a key driver of our economic recovery. And here’s how it works. To make their products, manufacturers—some of whom are represented here today—often have to import certain materials from other countries and pay tariffs on those materials. This legislation will reduce or eliminate some of those tariffs, which will significantly lower costs for American companies across the manufacturing landscape—from cars to chemicals; medical devices to sporting goods. And that will boost output, support good jobs here at home, and lower prices for American consumers.

Higher input prices stemming from antidumping measures are only the first assault on these downstream firms. The next wave usually takes the form of stiffer competition from firms in countries where there are no antidumping duties on the critical input. As a result, the foreign competition often operates at a cost advantage in the United States and in other markets that enables it to sell profitably at lower prices than U.S. firms can charge.

Accordingly, the profits of downstream firms are squeezed by both higher costs, due to import restrictions, and lower revenues, due to lost sales. As a consequence, countless U.S. producers in downstream industries—including firms that were once thriving in the United States and foreign markets—have suffered severe losses, contraction, and bankruptcy.

Again, the administration is well aware of this connection. Indeed, the U.S. Trade Representative launched a formal complaint against China in the WTO for that country’s restrictions on exports of certain crucial raw materials, providing the following rationale:

China maintains a number of measures that restrain exports of raw material inputs for which it is the top, or near top, world producer. These measures skew the playing field against the United States and other countries by creating substantial competitive benefits for downstream Chinese producers that use the inputs in the production and export of numerous processed steel, aluminum and chemical products and a wide range of further processed products.

Moreover, the USTR demonstrates an appreciation for the fact that restrictions on upstream products generate downstream costs that compound at successive stages in the production supply chain:

These raw material inputs are used to make many processed products in a number of primary manufacturing industries, including steel, aluminum and various chemical industries. These products, in turn become essential components in even more numerous downstream products.

If you need more evidence that the antidumping status quo is weighted heavily against import-consuming U.S. industries, consider this gem: three of the nine mineral raw materials that are the subject of the U.S. case against China in the WTO (magnesium, silicon metal, and coke) are simultaneously subject to U.S antidumping restrictions. That’s right! With our own import restrictions firmly in place, the United States is suing China to remove its export restrictions on the same products. That sounds like an excellent use of resources.

As a final indignity, many U.S. exporters suffer the wrath of foreign antidumping restrictions and other forms of protectionism that are often the result of persistent U.S. opposition to antidumping reform, as well as outright retribution for specific U.S. antidumping actions. Among recent victims are U.S. exporters to China of automobiles, fiber optic cable, chicken, grain, and paper. In countless ways, the antidumping status quo subverts U.S. competitiveness and is an albatross around the neck of the U.S. economy.

To bestow real and enduring benefits upon the U.S. economy, the antidumping law should be reformed to—at a minimum—give legal standing to manufacturers and workers in consuming industries; require the administering authorities to conduct an analysis of the economic impact of prospective antidumping duties and to deny imposition if the costs exceed a certain threshold; and require that any antidumping duties imposed not be excessive.

Obama as Reluctant Deregulator: Four Months Later

When President Obama, following his midterm “shellacking” at the polls, announced his belated conversion to the cause of regulatory relief, I was skeptical. I noted that, despite the reputation of OIRA chief Cass Sunstein as a brilliant scholar with an openness to cost-benefit analysis rare on the Left, the first two years of the Obama administration had been marked by a tremendous ramping up of regulatory burdens on the economy, both in areas of new legislation (ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank) and in new agency rulemakings gearing up from the “ultras” — ardently pro-regulatory appointees like Margaret Hamburg at FDA, Lisa Jackson at EPA, and David Michaels at OSHA. I also observed that in boasting of its deregulatory accomplishments, the administration chose an exceedingly minor example (saccharin’s reclassification as not being a hazardous waste) in which no one important seemed to have been pushing on the opposite side. That suggested that the Obama White House might lack the stomach to press deregulation when doing so might actually offend pro-regulation constituencies.

Yesterday the administration announced the results of its comprehensive review in which more than two dozen agencies looked at existing regulations to identify areas where burdens could be reduced [WaPo, AEI Enterprise, Wayne Crews/CEI]. As Cary Coglianese notes at the Penn Program on Regulation’s RegBlog,

[M]any of the initial rules agencies have proposed to put under the microscope seem underwhelming. Frequently they are what might be considered “paperwork” rules, with agencies hoping to find ways to streamline reporting and make more information available online. The Treasury Department, for example, plans to review an Internal Revenue Service regulation so as to correct instructions about where to file for a tax refund or credit. The Commerce Department’s plan identifies, among other things, the rule governing the “application number” and “filing date” for patents.

There’s nothing wrong with streamlining paperwork, of course, but it’s a cause that even “ultras” can get behind. Indeed, one of the largest line-item claims of savings comes from an OSHA plan “to finalize a proposed rule that would harmonize U.S. hazard classifications and labels with those used by other nations, which is expected to result in an annualized $585 million in estimated savings for employers.” As Coglianese notes, “few of the rules listed in the plans as targets for review are the salient regulatory issues of the day.” Tellingly, one of the most significant retreats on a regulatory issue in recent weeks — the EPA’s decision to pull back expensive new regulations on boiler emissions — is not boasted about, perhaps because the retreat is intended to be only temporary.

I do note with a ripple of “great minds think alike” satisfaction that Sunstein did advance, as one of his central examples of a new administration accomplishment, the EPA’s very belated recognition that spills of milk on dairy farms are not “oil spills” requiring elaborate containment and remediation measures. I had been writing about that one in this space for a while, and had specifically cited it in January as an example of the sort of craziness the Obamanauts should be trying to address if they want to be taken seriously on the issue of deregulation.

Don’t Cut Red Tape, Shut Down the Factory

In the Wall Street Journal today, Cass Sunstein—the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and erstwhile Harvard Law School professor—wants us to know what he and the Obama Administration are up to. In an op-ed that seems more like an advertisement (“the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, accept no substitute!”), Sunstein describes the “unprecedented government-wide review of regulations already on the books so that we can improve or remove those that are out-of-date, unnecessary, excessively burdensome or in conflict with other rules.”

Sunstein discusses OSHA eliminating “1.9 million annual hours of redundant reporting burdens on employers,” the Department of Health and Human Services “reconsidering burdensome regulatory requirements, including paperwork burdens, now placed on hospitals and doctors to ask whether those requirements actually benefit patients,” and the Department of the Interior “reviewing cumbersome, outdated regulations under the Endangered Species Act to clarify and expedite procedures for approval of conservation agreements.”

Also on the chopping block are “regulations that require the use of outdated technologies” and a regulation that defines milk as “oil” and subjects it “to costly rules designed to prevent oil spills.” Lost in the discussion are the obvious questions: how did these admittedly useless and burdensome regulations ever get adopted in the first place? What sort of backward organization would require 1.9 million hours of redundant reporting? Has anyone in the EPA ever cleaned up spilled milk before? What’s to keep all this from happening again?

“Cutting government waste” is the mantra for those politicians who regard certain government programs as sacred cows. President Obama hopes to pay for a sizeable part of his health care overhaul by eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse” in Medicare. Speaking at Cato yesterday, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty said he wouldn’t cut defense spending, but he would try to make defense “more efficient.”

These sacred cows, however, have a severe eating disorder. The binge and purge cycle that politicians occasionally put them through does nothing to eliminate the underlying disease. Governmental agencies are inherently inefficient and wasteful because they have few reasons not to be. Searching out government waste is a chimerical mission that should raise fundamental questions about the nature of government, not about whether milk is oil.

The National Equalization of Opportunity Board

The National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint last month to stop Boeing from building its new 787 in South Carolina rather than Washington State. As Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore explain in today’s Wall Street Journal, the Board’s action stems from Boeing’s declaration that it cannot “afford a work stoppage every three years” as has been happening in Washington. The New York Times seems to endorse the NLRB complaint, implying that the federal government must force companies to do business in agency-shop states like Washington, because otherwise they couldn’t compete with more efficient right-to-work states like South Carolina.

Laffer and Moore claim that the NLRB’s move is unprecedented, but it is actually highly reminiscent of the “Equalization of Opportunity Bill.” The EOB forbade entrepreneurs from owning more than one business, in order to allow less efficient, less capable entrepreneurs to compete with them. The EOB is, of course, a measure enacted by the United States Government in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Yet more evidence that the Obama administration is not only conversant with Rand’s classic, it is using the book as a policy model. It’s just a little confused as to which characters were the heroes and which the bad guys.

Obama’s GM Quagmire

Media are reporting this morning that the Treasury has decided to hold off on selling any of its remaining 500 million shares of General Motors stock until at least July. The Obama administration had hoped to divest as soon as possible  after May 22, but GM’s stock price hasn’t been cooperating.

As much as the president doesn’t want the odor of nationalization following him on the campaign trail, the administration is equally concerned about having to explain why it took a $10 billion to $20 billion direct loss by divesting when it did. By deferring sales until July, the administration presumably is hoping for a stock price boost from second quarter earnings. But that is unlikely for several reasons, which I explained in the Daily Caller yesterday. Here’s the gist in a few passages from that op-ed:

The soonest the U.S. Treasury can sell the remaining 500 million shares (according to terms of the initial public offering) is May 22, but the administration would also like to “make the taxpayers whole.” The problem for the president on that score is that the stock price — even in the wake of this week’s earnings report — isn’t cooperating. As of this morning’s opening bell, GM stock was valued at $31.07 per share. If all of the 500 million remaining publicly-owned shares could be sold at that price, the Treasury would net less than $16 billion. Add that to the $23 billion raised from the initial public offering last November, and the “direct” public loss on GM is about $11 billion — calculated as a $50 billion outlay minus a $39 billion return.

To net $50 billion, those 500 million public shares must be sold at an average price of just over $53 — a virtual impossibility anytime soon. Why? The most significant factor suppressing the stock value is the market’s knowledge that the largest single holder of GM stock wants to unload about 500 million shares in the short term. That fact will continue to trump any positive news about GM and its profit potential, not that such news should be expected.

Projections about gasoline prices vary, but as long as prices at the pump remain in the $4 range, GM is going to suffer. Among major automakers, GM is most exposed to the downside of high gasoline prices. Despite all of the subsidies and all of the hoopla over the Chevy Volt (only 1,700 units have been sold through April 2011) and the Chevy Cruse (now subject to a steering column recall that won’t help repair negative quality perceptions), GM does not have much of a competitive presence in the small car market. Though GM held the largest overall U.S. market share in 2010, it had the smallest share (8.4%) of the small car market, which is where the demand will be if high gas prices persist. GM will certainly have to do better in that segment once the federally mandated average fleet fuel efficiency standards rise to 35.5 miles per gallon in 2016.

Deservedly reaping what it sowed, the administration finds itself in an unenviable position. It can entirely divest of GM in the short term at what would likely be a $10-to-$15 billion taxpayer loss (the stock price will drop if 500 million shares are put up for sale in a short period) and face the ire of an increasingly cost- and budget-conscious electorate. Or the administration can hold onto the stock, hoping against hope that GM experiences economic fortunes good enough to more than compensate for the stock price-suppressing effect of the market’s knowledge of an imminent massive sale, while contending with accusations of market meddling and industrial policy.

Or, the administration can do what it is going to do: First, lower expectations that the taxpayer will ever recover $50 billion. Here’s a recent statement by Tim Geithner: “We’re going to lose money in the auto industry… We didn’t do these things to maximize return. We did them to save jobs. The biggest impact of these programs was in the millions of jobs saved.” That’s a safe counterfactual, since it can never be tested or proved. (There are 225,000 fewer jobs in the auto industry as of March 2011 than there were in November 2008, when the bailout process began.)

Second, the administration will argue that the Obama administration is only on the hook for $40 billion (the first $10 billion having come from Bush). In a post-IPO, November 2010 statement revealing of a man less concerned with the nation’s finances than his own political prospects, President Obama asserted: “American taxpayers are now positioned to recover more than my administration invested in GM, and that’s a good thing.” (My emphasis).

The administration should divest as soon as possible, without regard to the stock price. Keeping the government’s tentacles around a large firm in an important industry will keep the door open wider to industrial policy and will deter market-driven decision-making throughout the industry, possibly keeping the brakes on the recovery. Yes, there will be a significant loss to taxpayers. But the right lesson to learn from this chapter in history is that government interventions carry real economic costs.