Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Republicans Embrace Bad Economics and Bad Policy

To be blunt, Republicans are heading in the wrong direction on fiscal policy. They have full control of the executive and legislative branches, but instead of using their power to promote Reaganomics, it looks like we’re getting a reincarnation of the big-government Bush years.

As Yogi Berra might have said, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”

Let’s look at the evidence. According to The Hill, the Keynesian virus has infected GOP thinking on tax cuts.

Republicans are debating whether parts of their tax-reform package should be retroactive in order to boost the economy by quickly putting more money in people’s wallets.

That is nonsense. Just as giving people a check and calling it “stimulus” didn’t help the economy under Obama, giving people a check and calling it a tax cut won’t help the economy under Trump.

Tax cuts boost growth when they reduce the marginal tax rate on productive behavior such as work, saving, investment, or entrepreneurship. When that happens, people have an incentive to generate more income. And that leads to more national income, a.k.a., economic growth.

Borrowing money from the economy’s left pocket and then stuffing checks (oops, I mean retroactive tax cuts) in the economy’s right pocket, by contrast, simply reallocates national income.

New Study on Federal Highway Policies

The federal government plays a large role in the nation’s highways through the funding of aid programs for the states and the imposing of top-down regulations. Congress passed a major highway bill in 2015 that authorized $305 billion in spending over five years, of which $226 billion was for highways and most of the rest for urban transit.

The Trump administration is promising a fresh approach to highway spending and regulation. What are the main problems with current highway policies, and what reforms should the administration pursue?

Transportation expert Gabriel Roth and I examine these questions in a new study at DownsizingGovernment.org. We review the history of federal highway interventions, describe the inefficiencies of federal aid and regulations, and discuss possible reforms.

We argue that Americans would be better off if federal highway and transit spending, fuel taxes, and related regulations were cut. The states can more efficiently tackle their transportation needs with a reduced federal role, and they would be more likely to pursue privatization and other market-based reforms.

Our primer on federal highway policies is here.

Progressivity of Taxes and Transfers in the US and UK

“Europe’s Taxes Aren’t as Progressive as Its Leaders Like to Think,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Joseph C. Sternberg yesterday. Citing tax expert Stefan Bach from the German Institute for Economic Research, Sternberg shows how Germany’s tax system is only mildly progressive overall. Sternberg therefore states that politicians need to “tackle” indirect taxation if they want to have a major impact on the economy.

Now, Sternberg is undoubtedly right that broad-based tax systems which incorporate social contributions and VATs tend to be less progressive than those which rely more heavily on progressive income taxes. That is, if we narrowly look at the effects of taxes alone, rather than government spending. But does it make any economic sense to look at a tax system in isolation?

Good economic theory would suggest that to the extent we care about progressivity and redistribution, revenues should be collected in the least distortionary way possible, with redistribution done via cash transfers. So judging the desirability of a tax system by its degree of progressivity is not a good starting point. From an economic perspective, the assessment should be how distortionary different taxation systems across the world are. European tax systems have huge problems in this regard, but their progressivity or otherwise should not be a major consideration.

The second and more important related point is that assessing progressivity should not seek to separate the issues of taxes from transfers. To judge progressivity, one must look at the position of households across the income spectrum after both, not least because one person’s taxes are (now or later) another person’s cash transfer.

I cannot find figures to do this for Germany, but am familiar with some headline UK and US stats.

Every year when the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) releases its publication The effects of taxes and benefits on household income, historical datasets a similar lament to Sternberg’s arises. Calculating total taxes paid as a proportion of gross income (market income plus government cash transfers), critics of the tax system assert that the poorest quintile pay 35.0% of their gross income in taxes, on average, which is almost identical to the average 34.1% for the top quintile (2015/16 figures). Like Sternberg, many conclude that the tax system is not progressive enough.

Yet a few seconds’ thought to what these figures show highlights how misleading this is. Gross income (the denominator in the calculation) includes cash transfers, which are transfers from one group to another. That a household uses money redistributed to it to spend, in turn paying what the ONS describes as indirect taxes (things like VAT, beer duty, tobacco duty, the TV license and fuel duty), can hardly be described as “regressive”.  This is akin to taking from Peter to pay Paul and then saying that – because Paul spends a large proportion of this money – the  tax system is unfair.

Antitrust for Fun and Profit: The Democrats’ Better Deal (Part 1)

“Is Amazon getting too big?” asks Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein, in a 4000-word column seeking justification for the Democrat Party’s quixotic pledge to “break up big companies” in its recent “Better Deal.” “Just this week,” notes Pearlstein, “Democrats cited stepped-up antitrust enforcement as a centerpiece of their plan to deliver ‘a better deal’ for Americans should they regain control of Congress and the White House.” He concludes by saying “it sometimes takes a little public power to keep private power in check.” But maybe it takes a lot of public power to write antitrust lawyers some big checks.

Politics aside, the question “Is Amazon getting too Big?” should have nothing to do with antitrust, which is supposedly about preventing monopolies from charging high prices. Surely no sane person would dare accuse Amazon of monopoly or high prices. 

Even Mr. Pearlstein has doubts: “Is Amazon so successful, is it getting so big, that it poses a threat to consumers or competition? By current antitrust standards, certainly not… Here is a company, after all, known for disrupting and turbocharging competition in every market it enters, lowering prices and forcing rivals to match the relentless efficiency of its operations and the quality of its service. That is, after all, usually how firms come to dominate an industry…”

That should have ended this story “by current antitrust standards.” But if we simply lower those standards, then “Better Way” antitrust shakedown threats could become far more numerous, unpredictable, and lucrative for politically-generous antitrust law firms

Among the 19 largest law firm contributions to political parties in 2015/2016, according to Open Secrets, all but one, Jones Day, contributed overwhelmingly to Democrats. More to the point, all of these law firms contributing most generously to the Democratic Party are specialists in antitrust and mergers: They appear on U.S. News list of top Antitrust attorneys. And the Trial Lawyers Association (now disguised as “American Association for Justice”) contributed over $2.1 million to Democrats, over $1 million to liberal organizations and $67,500 to Republicans.

Antitrust law is a very big, profitable and concentrated industry. Antitrust lawyers’ have a special interest in greatly expanding the reach and grip of antitrust law. They were surely delighted by Pearlstein’s prominent endorsement of law journal paper by Lina Khan, a 28-year old student and fellow at the “liberal-leaning” think tank New America.

Ms. Kahn believes it self-evident that low operating profits must prove Amazon is “choosing to price below-cost.” That’s uninformed accounting. What low profits actually show is that Amazon has been plowing-back rapidly expanding cash flow into capital expenditures, such cloud computing, a movie studio, and unique consumer electronics (Kindle and Echo).

 “If Amazon is not a monopolist, Khan asks, why are financial markets pricing its stock as if it is going to be?” That’s uninformed finance theory. Investors rightly see Amazon’s current and future growth of cash flow (the result of expensive investments) as the source of future dividends and/or capital gains (more net assets per share).

D.C. Metro: Silver Line Slump

For years, Randal O’Toole has warned governments that urban rail systems usually make no economic or practical sense. They are more expensive and less flexible than bus systems. But cities keep making wildly optimistic assumptions about rail costs and ridership, and new lines keep getting built. It is a triumph of politics over experience.

The other day, the Washington Post reported ridership data on phase 1 of D.C. Metro’s Silver Line:

But of the five stations that opened in July 2014, only the end-of-line Wiehle-Reston station has come close to projected ridership. At three stops in Tysons — McLean, Greensboro and Spring Hill — ridership is a mere fraction of what planners projected in a 2004 environmental impact report. In May of this year, for example, average daily weekday ridership was 1,618 at the McLean station, slightly below the 1,634 in May 2015 and well below the 3,803 the Silver Line was projected to serve in its first year of operation, according to the 2004 report.

So actual ridership on some parts of this Northern Virginia line are less than half of the original estimate. By the way, the cost of the project ended up almost doubling from what the planners and politicians had promised. Federal taxpayers picked up part of the tab.

Phase 2 of the project is under construction, and it will extend the Silver Line to Dulles Airport, 28 miles from D.C. The project never made sense to me. The airport already has the dedicated and congestion-free Dulles Access Road that connects the airport to the inner suburbs and downtown.

Let’s say you are a NYC businesswomen flying into Dulles for some lobbying in D.C. If you take the rail system, it will probably take you much longer to get downtown than if you took a taxi along the Access Road. Then when you get off the Metro downtown, you may still need a cab to get to your final destination.

Or let’s say you are a Virginia family flying out of Dulles on vacation. Would you want to drive to a Metro station with all your bags, leave your car parked there, and then risk missing your plane by taking the unreliable rail system? I don’t think so. I’ll bet ridership on Phase 2 of the Silver Line will come in low as well.

For decades, federal subsidies have induced state and local officials to build costly and inefficient light- and heavy-rail systems when bus systems and highway expansion generally make more sense. Congress should end the bias in favor of rail by ending federal aid for urban transit, as discussed at DownsizingGovernment.org.

Has L.A. Avoided Being an Olympic Sucker?

This week, the worst-kept secret in international sports became official: Paris will host the 2024 Olympic Summer Games and Los Angeles will host in 2028. There were plenty of happy faces in Paris and L.A. over the announcement—and there should be some in Boston too.

Just 2.5 years ago, Boston was a frontrunner in the sweepstakes for the 2024 Games. A group of city businessmen put together a multi-billion-dollar plan for the Games, including proposed construction of a large, temporary stadium for the main events and a beach volleyball venue that would be erected on Boston Common. The group then set to work getting political leaders and the public onboard.

In an article forthcoming in the fall issue of Regulation, Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist and internationally renowned expert on the finances of mega-events like the Olympics, tells what happened next:

At first, Bostonians were excited by the Olympic prospect, inspired by claims that the event would yield long-lasting benefits in economic stimulus, international prestige, and tourism. But then they began to learn from people like Zimbalist that hosting the Olympics usually isn’t the net positive that proponents claim.

He writes of recent American Olympic history:

Lake Placid 1980 experienced cost overruns of 321% and ultimately required a bailout. The State of New York contributed $63 million (17% of total costs) and the federal government spent $179 million (50% of total costs). … Atlanta 1996 had cost overruns of 147%. … Approximately one-third of all spending—$823 million—came from taxpayers. … The federal government planned to spend $342 million on the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The Salt Lake City municipal government planned to spend $75 million and the Utah state government committed an additional $150 million. The final public bill was considerably higher.

Outside the United States, the Olympic experience has been even worse; barrels of red ink and/or horrifying events marked the Mexico City Games of 1968, the Munich Games of 1972, the Montreal Games of 1976, the Athens Games of 2004, the Sochi Games of 2014, and the Rio Games of 2016. And afterward, Zimbalist writes, the costs continue:

Beijing 2008’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium has been converted into a museum for tourists to visit at $12 a pop, but there is little interest. Meanwhile, the facility costs millions of dollars annually to operate and maintain. Rio’s Olympic Park has many venues that were slated for post-game use, but there was either no money to convert them or there were no private developers willing to take on the responsibility of remodeling and management. As in Athens (2004), most of Rio’s venues are now falling into disuse. London’s $700 million Olympic Stadium has been converted (at a $400 million additional public expense) into a new stadium for the West Ham soccer club, but West Ham had a perfectly good stadium beforehand.

As for claims that the Olympics bring tourism benefits, he argues this probably isn’t true on net. Major cities like Boston already attract plenty of tourists, but they’ll be inclined to stay away during the Olympics because of the chaos of the Games. And the Lyle Lanley notion that the Games would “put Boston on the map”? Well, Boston is already a pretty big dot on the map.

Taxpayers Dodge a $35 Million Bullet in Prince William County, Virginia

I’m delighted to learn from Eric Boehm at Reason that a $35 million stadium subsidy is “pretty close to dead” after Potomac Nationals owner Art Silber pulled the matter from the Prince William Board of County Supervisors consideration ahead of a planned vote July 18. However, taxpayers in other Northern Virginia counties may still be at risk, as the Nationals search for a less fiscally responsible county board nearby. 

I wrote about the Nationals’ attempt to milk the taxpayers last month:

The county found a consulting firm to produce, as it has done for many governments, an optimistic economic analysis: It suggests that a new stadium would generate 288 jobs, $175 million in economic impact, and $4.9 million in tax revenue over a 30-year lease. Similar studies have proven wildly optimistic in the past. In 2008 the Washington Post reported that Washington Nationals attendance had fallen far short of what a 2005 study predicted. As Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys wrote in a 2004 Cato study criticizing the proposed Nationals stadium subsidy, “The wonder is that anyone finds such figures credible.”…

Silber and the board of supervisors want the taxpayers to know that this time is different; their $35 million bond issue isn’t a government giveaway:

In Prince William, the board of supervisors is considering a proposal in which it would use bond money to build the stadium. The team would then reimburse the county the entire cost over the course of a 30-year lease.

“We’ve all read about certain professional sports teams threatening to leave if a local government doesn’t buy them a new stadium. The exact opposite is happening here,” said Tom Sebastian, a senior vice president with JBG. “The Potomac Nationals have agreed to pay 100 percent of the cost to construct a new stadium so that they can stay in Prince William County.”

I will gladly pay you Tuesday, 30 years from now, for a hamburger today.

Congratulations to Americans for Prosperity, Supervisor Pete Candland and his colleagues, and especially to the taxpayers of Prince William County. 

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