Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Against A Highly Regressive “Meat Tax”

Some economists want to make it more expensive for the less well-off to enjoy a clear revealed pleasure: eating red and processed meat.

The average household in the poorest fifth of the income distribution dedicates 1.3 percent of spending towards it. That’s over double average household spending in the richest quintile. Yet meat is now a new “public health” target. Once, lifestyle controls stopped at smoking and drinking. They recently expanded to soda and even caffeine. Now, even the hallowed steak is not sacred.

Last week, a report by University of Oxford academics calculated supposedly “optimal tax rates” on red meat (lamb, beef and pork) and processed meats (sausages, bacon, salami etc.) For the U.S., the recommend rates were as high as 34 percent and 163 percent, respectively. Such taxes, the report claims, could save 52,500 American lives per year.

To an economist, this approach might make theoretical sense. If the World Health Organization is right that eating meat increases risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes (in some cases, very much disputed claims), then consumption could increase healthcare costs. Some of these costs will be borne by others, through higher government spending or healthcare premiums. Imposing a tax equal to the true external costs of the next steak, lamb chop or burger patty one eats forces consumers to face the full social costs of their eating decisions. In turn, then, the tax will somewhat reduce consumption to a supposed “optimal” level.

Yet, in reality, the presence of external effects is no slam-dunk to justify taxes. One must also consider costs, unintended consequences and the ability of government to assess risk and harm accurately. In these areas, the meat tax advocates appear off-base. The result is their proposed tax rates look way too high, even in theory, and it’s doubtful they are the best means of improving economic welfare.

First, the methodology appears to add up healthcare costs from extra meat consumption as if they are all costs imposed on others. But at least part of extra healthcare or medication costs of meat-eaters affected by disease would be personally financed, rather than funded through higher insurance premiums, or Medicaid or Medicare spending.

“You Didn’t Build That”

Ronald Reagan’s legacy-defining tax cuts passed through Congress in 1981 and 1986 with broad Democratic support. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 on the other hand, failed to garner a single Democratic vote before President Trump signed it into law. In the latter case, the lack of concomitant spending cuts might allow one to frame this opposition as an act of fiscal prudence on the part of the Democrats. But the counterfactual - that if the legislation had also included a scaling back of Medicare benefits and a partial Social Security privatization then the Democrats would have leaped on board - strains credulity.

More likely, Democratic opposition is motivated, at least in part, by an increasingly ideological commitment to a European style social welfare state. Many Western European governments collect 40% or more of their GDP in taxes, while the United States collects just over half of that figure. In urging us to emulate the European model, the progressive left wing of the Democratic party not only downplays the perverse economic effects of higher taxes, they have taken to morally justifying progressive taxation as the “fair share” owed to society by those who have been successful in the private sector, on account of the government-provided goods and services which undoubtedly necessary to that success.

In 2011, U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, now among the front-runners for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, made this argument explicitly during a campaign event:

I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever.’ No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

In a 2012 campaign speech, President Obama reinforced this sentiment:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that.

These remarks no doubt build upon a foundation of truth: that some basic degree of public goods provision might be necessary to generate the conditions within which the private sector can thrive. But beyond illuminating a very basic economics insight, this line of argumentation falls far short of its goal: to justify progressive taxation as a part of the “underlying social contract” whereby private actors reimburse the government for the goods and services which they utilized en route to their success.

A Tale of Two Commuters

Imagine two commuters living equidistant from a downtown city law firm. One is an attorney at the firm, the other is her secretary. Each drives to work, thereby obtaining some value from the use of public roads. Each, in turn, imposes a roughly equal amount of depreciation on those roads, the cost of which must be defrayed via taxes. But what about the value “built” by each of them once they reach their office?

The attorney will almost certainly command a far higher salary than will her secretary. Insofar as these salaries emerge from a competitive market for labor, they reflect, at least within an order of magnitude, the respective marginal products of these commuters’ labor. But, crucially, the attorney’s higher salary is not attributable to a greater consumption of public goods. She traversed the same roads on the way to work as did her secretary. The two of them rely on the same police and fire departments. They may have even attended the same local, public K-12 schools. The attorney’s higher salary is instead attributable to her command over a set of skills and human capital which are more scarce - and more valuable - on the market than are secretarial skills. The salary differential, and the difference in productivity it reflects, cannot be explained by differential public goods consumption. In each case, some degree of public goods and services may be a necessary complement to these employees’ labor, but they are not sufficient to explain their differential success in earning taxable income. In what way is society justified in expropriating a greater percentage of the attorney’s income because her labor is more productive, and therefore commands a higher salary?

Imagine, next, two rival international shipping companies. They operate an identical tonnage of merchant ships. They make equal use of publicly subsidized port facilities. They make equal use of the protection of the U.S. Coast Guard, and each benefits equally from the placidity of international shipping lanes due to the presence of the U.S. Navy.

Company A has cultivated an efficient corporate culture: its CEO has designed an innovative process for acquiring talented managers, who in turn are capable of literally running a tight ship. Embezzlement and misfeasance are minimized. Company B, on the other hand, is dysfunctional at every level of analysis. The incompetence of its senior executives percolates into inept middle-management, who in turn fail to properly motivate their employees. For every ton of merchandise shipped, each relying to the same degree on the aforementioned public goods, Company B generates less taxable profit than Company A. But Company A’s greater tax burden cannot be attributable to greater public goods consumption by Company A. It is instead attributable to smarter management, more innovative practices, and an overall more functional corporate culture. In what way do Company A’s unique characteristics which make it competitive and profitable justify extracting from it a larger tax burden? These are not society’s contributions, for which the government is entitled to collect additional reimbursement.

The logic of “you didn’t build that” leads unavoidably to the following conclusion: few forms of proportional taxation, and certainly no progressive marginal rates, can be justified on the basis of public goods consumption. Not only does this line of reasoning fail in principle, but it would be utterly compromised during the actual practice of determining fiscal policy. Even if a wise philosopher-king were able to determine the precise percentage of a wealthy individual or a successful firm’s income which was attributable to their use of public goods, our Congress falls far short of that Platonic paragon. The statutory tax rates which emerge from the political process are a function of just that - politics. They reflect the relative balance of power at a moment in time between pro-tax and anti-tax constituencies, imperfectly filtered through their representatives and adulterated by a nauseating amount of interest-group influence. To expect them to reflect, instead, the amount of a person’s wealth which society helped “build” is simply fantasy.

Opportunity Zones Enrich Lucky Landowners

Last year’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act created “Opportunity Zones,” which are neighborhoods chosen by politicians to receive special tax breaks. The Wall Street Journal recently published on an op-ed and a news story on O-Zones. Here is my unpublished response:  

Steve Glickman provided lobbyist talking points in “Opportunity Is Coming to a City Near You” (Oct. 24), but the reality of the new “opportunity zones” was reported by Peter Grant the same day in “Tax-Break Zones Lure Buyers.”

Grant’s article indicates that the 8,700 tax-favored O-Zones were a get-rich-quick bonanza for current landowners as the tax breaks were rapidly capitalized in prices. Many thousands of landowners saw their property values jump by as much as 50 percent, but that means that many thousands of other landowners just outside the O-Zones got the shaft. Politicians have drawn lines down streets in cities across the nation bestowing wealth to people on one side and bypassing people on the other.

The whole exercise is unseemly and distortionary, and it has set in motion a lobbying frenzy for years to come as landowners near O-Zones will demand that the lines be redrawn. The get-rich bonanza for O-Zone lobbyists has just begun.

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Here are other commentaries on the new zones:

www.downsizinggovernment.org/opportunity-zones-fuel-corruption

www.downsizinggovernment.org/opportunity-zones-will-help-connected-developers-not-poor

www.downsizinggovernment.org/o-zones-fragment-america

www.cato.org/blog/opportunity-zones-whom

 

Walworth County Goes Debt-Free

The other day, I wrote about the disadvantages of state and local governments issuing general obligation debt. Those governments currently have more than $3 trillion in overall debt outstanding. Government borrowing enriches financial firms, encourages corruption, and magnifies the ultimate tax burden that citizens will bear for the related spending.

It is prudent and practical for states to operate with very little debt, as Idaho, Wyoming, and a few other states have shown.

Here is an inspiring editorial in The Gazette, published in Janesville, Wisconsin, home of outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan. Walworth County is near Janesville.

Local government officials everywhere take note: Walworth County is proving you can run a government and undertake capital projects without carrying any debt.

The concept—saving money instead of issuing bonds to pay for something you need—is radical in our debt-happy society.

Walworth County has been debt free since March, despite the construction of a $24 million health and human services building.

Taxpayers will be rewarded with a 2.8 percent drop in the tax levy—no small trick at a time of rising inflation and interest rates.

The county’s recent decision to pay off $9.1 million in debt while resisting the temptation to borrow is particularly praiseworthy. As a result, Walworth County might be the only debt-free county in Wisconsin.

Think about the significance of Walworth County’s accomplishment: It is spending within its means while saving money in anticipation of future needs.

It’s unheard of, for example, for a school district to save the money it will need for a new school. School district referendums calling for more bonding are as predictable as they are numerous.

Many of these referendums pass because taxpayers don’t realize they’re paying far more than the advertised price for a project, as Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, noted in his Monday column. He describes bonding as a hidden tax.

If Walworth County had decided to issue bonds to pay for its health and human services building (assuming a 4 percent interest rate over 30 years), taxpayers would have had to fork over nearly $23 million in interest, including an estimated $550,000 in underwriting and advisory fees, according to a municipal bond calculator at the website for Municipal Capital Markets Group.

By planning ahead, Walworth County is saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

Any unit of government wanting to follow Walworth County’s lead needs to be forewarned: Saving for a future project requires discipline and clear communication with voters. Many of the fiscal challenges this nation faces are a result of politicians viewing the world in one- or two-year increments, from one election to the next. Unfortunately, politicians don’t plan to be in office when the bills come due and the financial wreckage becomes apparent.

But once in a while, politicians surprise us by exercising restraint. When that happens, like a comet’s orbit approaching the sun, we should all take notice. Kudos to Walworth County for demonstrating government can function debt free.

 

Top-Scoring Governor Moving to Florida

Maine Governor Paul LePage announced that he will be moving to Florida at the end of his term.

LePage is a staunch fiscal conservative and has received an “A” on the past three Cato fiscal policy report cards. He fought for spending and tax cuts throughout his tenure, and he often decried the negative effects of big government.

Why is LePage moving to Florida? One of the reasons is that Florida has lower taxes than Maine:

I’ll tell you very, very simply: I have a house in Florida. I will pay no income tax and the house in Florida’s property taxes are $2,000 less than we were paying in Boothbay … At my age, why wouldn’t you conserve your resources and spend it on family (rather) than spend it on taxes?

Why indeed.

Florida has the most net in-migration of any state in the nation, as discussed in this study. It has no income or estate tax. Its state and local tax burden is much lower than the burdens in the Northeast. Maine is high-tax state, but New York is even worse. I wonder whether Governor Andrew Cuomo is considering Florida when he retires?

Relative to personal income, Florida runs its government at just half the cost of New York’s. Half the cost! That is like a Honda dealer trying to sell the Accord for $50,000 while the Toyota dealer across the street has the Camry for $25,000. It wouldn’t make any sense.

Perhaps the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is on Paul LePage’s mind. Because of the law, millions of households will become more sensitive to tax differences between the states. That may prompt an increased outflow of people from higher-tax to lower-tax states.

How should high-tax states respond to the outflows? It’s straightforward. They should run leaner governments with more efficient services to give taxpayers more value for their money. The Accord may have some features that the Camry doesn’t, but that would not double the cost.

Federal Jobs Guarantee Would Be Largest Single Global Employer, By Far

Max Gulker of the American Institute for Economic Research has a great short paper out summarizing the problems with a federal jobs guarantee. It echoes many of the issues that I raised about such a program on this blog.

One thing that is often underappreciated is just the sheer scale of the programs proposed. For reasons I outlined, the true numbers could potentially be much higher than the Levy Institute and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) worked proposals. But even taking their numbers as given, the estimated 10.7 million participants according to CBPP and 12.7-17.5 million from Levy would make the federal program by far the world’s largest employer, if thought as a single firm or entity.

Consider the striking chart below.

At the Levy report’s upper-bound estimate, the numbers employed would exceed the world’s nine largest employers combined. Even the CBPP’s lower estimate would only be marginally below the employment level of the world’s five largest employers combined.

Employment by entity

Mapping Interstate Migration

Millions of Americans move between states each year. These migration flows are influenced by numerous factors including job opportunities, climate, and housing costs. Interstate migration is also influenced by state and local taxes, as discussed in this recent study.

Internal Revenue Service data show that 2.8 percent of households moved to another state in 2016. The map below shows the net patterns of movement. People are leaving the red and purple states for the blue states.

The ratio of domestic gross in-migration to gross out-migration is shown for each state. In 2016, New York gained 142,722 households and lost 218,937 for a ratio of 0.65. Florida gained 307,022 households and lost 211,950 for a ratio of 1.45.

States losing population to other states have ratios of less than 1.0 and states gaining population have ratios of more than 1.0. People are generally moving out of the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West, but they are also leaving California, on net.

Here are some of the regional patterns:

  • The Northeast. New Hampshire enjoys net in-migration. It is a low-tax state with no individual income tax. Higher-tax Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont suffer net out-migration.
  • The Midwest. South Dakota enjoys modest net in-migration, while its higher-tax neighbors Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska suffer net out-migration. South Dakota is a low-tax state with no income tax. Neighbor Wyoming has net out-migration overall but has substantial net in-migration among high-earning households. Wyoming has no income tax.
  • The Southeast. Kentucky has suffered net out-migration for years, while its neighbor Tennessee has enjoyed net in-migration. Kentucky is a relatively high-tax state, while Tennessee is a low-tax state with no individual income tax.
  • The West. The largest destinations for out-migration from high-tax California are Texas, Washington, and Nevada—all low-tax states with no income taxes.

In this study, I divide the states between the 25 highest tax and 25 lowest tax, with taxes measured as state and local individual income, sales, and property taxes as a percent of personal income. In 2016, 286,431 households (with almost 600,000 people) moved, on net, from the 25 highest-tax states to the 25 lowest-tax states. Of the 25 highest-tax states, 24 of them had net out-migration in 2016. (Maine was the exception).

The 2017 federal tax reform law will likely intensify the patterns shown in the map of people moving from high-tax states to low-tax states. The law doubled standard deductions and capped state and local tax deductions. Those changes will reduce the number of households deducting state and local taxes from 42 million in 2017 to about 17 million in 2018. Those households will feel a larger bite from state and local taxes and become more sensitive to tax differences between the states.

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