Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Federal Gas Tax: LaHood Makes No Sense

Former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood lobbied for a federal gas tax increase in a Washington Post letter the other day. The letter captures the illogic and misrepresentation that influences the highway funding debate.

Hugh Hewitt was right on target in his May 31 op-ed, “Trump should raise this tax,” about boosting the federal gas tax to address our nation’s crumbling roads and bridges. The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon has not been increased in 24 years. Imagine living today on the same salary you made in 1993. That’s the dire situation facing our infrastructure: We’re supporting our roads and bridges using outdated budgets that fail to meet the demands of 2017.

On this important issue, Congress must look to the 22 states that have raised their gas taxes since 2013. States leading the way are “red” states such as Wyoming, Georgia and Idaho and “blue” states such as California, Maryland and Vermont. The list also includes New Jersey, with a Republican governor and Democratic-controlled legislature. Infrastructure is a bipartisan issue. It’s time our federal government takes the action for which Republicans and Democrats have been tirelessly advocating.

Over the years, gridlock and finger-pointing have prevented real action on addressing our infrastructure challenges. All the while, traffic congestion has worsened, potholes have multiplied, and our roads and bridges have further deteriorated.

Here are some problems with LaHood’s position:

First Problem. As former transportation chief, LaHood must know that his own department publishes data showing that the condition of the nation’s bridges has steadily improved for two decades, while the condition of highways has been stable in recent years and improved in some cases since the 1990s. (Highway data summarized here and here. Bridge data here). Why does he say “… bridges have further deteriorated” when he surely knows that is not correct?

Second Problem. The 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993, and its real value has eroded since then. However, the gas tax rate was more than quadrupled between 1983 and 1993 from 4 cents to 18.4 cents. The 1983 rate would be 9.8 cents in today’s dollars, so the real gas tax rate has risen substantially since then. Even if “potholes have multiplied,” the blame would go to the increasing diversion of plentiful gas tax funds to non-highway uses such as urban rail.

Third Problem. The final issue is the internal inconsistency of LaHood’s position. His first paragraph complains that federal gas taxes are not high enough. But his second paragraph says that 22 states have raised their own gas taxes in just the past four years, which logically negates the need for a federal gas tax increase. The states that have the highest demands for new highway funds are apparently already taking action. Great, problem solved.

In my new Cato study on infrastructure, I note that 98 percent of U.S. streets and highways are owned by state and local governments. The states are entirely capable of funding such infrastructure they own without federal aid. States can tax, borrow, collect user charges, and attract private investment to fund their highways, bridges, airports, and seaports.

Are there any advantages to raising federal gas taxes over raising state gas taxes? How is federal funding of state-owned infrastructure superior to state funding? LaHood and other advocates don’t tell us. Instead, they wave their arms, prattle about crumbling roads and multiplying potholes, and always demand more centralized spending and control.

How Is Revenue Neutrality to Be Judged?

Any serious efforts to improve the tax system inevitably comes up against dubious assertions that such changes won’t improve economic growth or reduce tax avoidance, and will therefore not be “revenue neutral” but will simply increase deficits and debt for no reason.

The easiest way to block growth-oriented tax reforms is to insist that any such changes must be “revenue neutral” even in the short run.  However, that goal typically relies on uncritical acceptance of dubious estimates of (1) how much “baseline” revenue the existing system will bring in over 10-20 years, and (2) how much revenue a better tax system would bring in under the conventional and official assumption that higher or lower marginal tax rates on added income have no significant effect on anything.

As Harvard economist Greg Mankiw importantly notes, “A key question is how revenue neutrality is to be judged.” 

Before Congress could even attempt to be “revenue neutral” they must first have credible estimates of future revenue under the current tax regime.  Unfortunately, the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation have so far provided only incredible projections.  

Here are links to my critiques of official revenue projections for corporate and individual income taxes. 

For Congress to judge “revenue neutrality” on the basis of these extremely flawed hyper-static CBO/JCT estimates would be economically and fiscally irresponsible.

Trump Pursues Air Traffic Control Reform

The Trump administration will highlight its infrastructure agenda this week. As outlined in its recent budget, the administration plans to reduce regulations on construction projects and attract private investment to traditionally government activities, such as air traffic control (ATC).

Trump will “deliver remarks in the White House Rose Garden about his vision for separating air traffic control from the federal government,” and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao will testify to Congress on the issue. The administration has just released principles for ATC reform.

The Hill says that ATC reform has run into a “buzz saw of opposition on Capitol Hill,” but that is not a fair characterization. There is always opposition to any legislation that reduces the government’s role in anything. That’s Washington. But ATC reform has momentum, and a bill has been passed out of the House transportation committee to move ATC operations from the bureaucratic Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to a private, nonprofit corporation.

The airlines are for it, the key labor union is for it, aviation experts are for it, and the second-largest nation on earth did it. Canada privatized its system in 1996, and today the nonprofit Nav Canada is on the leading edge of ATC efficiency and innovation. The image below shows Iridium satellites that will form the basis of an advanced navigation system for aircraft called Aireon. Nav Canada leads the revolutionary project in an international partnership—a partnership that does not include the FAA. The system will generate “more efficient use of airspace, substantial fuel savings, fewer delays and significantly enhance safety over large parts of the world.”

What is the opposition The Hill refers to? The corporate jet lobby—the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA)—is against reform, and it raises the spectre of higher fees under a privatized system. But aircraft charges under the privatized Canadian system have fallen, not risen. The latest data show that “Nav Canada has seen its inflation-adjusted user fees fall 45 percent lower than the aviation taxes they replaced,” notes Marc Scribner of CEI.

The opposition of NBAA’s leadership to reform is short-sighted. Over the long term, NBAA members will be best served by an advanced and dynamic private ATC system, not one mired in bureaucracy and unstable government funding. NBAA members should research the successful Canadian reforms themselves because the record is clear.

Kudos to President Trump and Secretary Chao for rebuffing the special interests on this issue, and pursuing reforms to the overall benefit of the aviation industry and flying public.

For an overview of ATC reform, see here. For Reason’s resources on the issue, see here.

Corp Tax: JCT Revenue Estimate Is Bad but CBO Analysis Is Good

I recently questioned two connected remarks by Wall Street Journal reporter Richard Rubin that (1) “Each percentage-point reduction in the 35% corporate tax rate cuts federal revenue by about $100 billion over a decade” and that (2) “independent analyses show economic growth can’t cover all the costs of rate cuts.”

That first remark–about each percentage-point reduction in the rate losing $100 billion over a decade–is an interpretation of pages 178-79 from a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on “Options for Reducing the Deficit.”

But the CBO was just talking about raising the corporate rate by one point, not cutting it 10-20 points. That can’t be converted into a rule of thumb because each percentage point reduction in the top corporate tax rate can’t lose the exact same amount of dollars. A percentage point reduction in a 35% rate loses more static revenue than a percentage point reduction in a 30% rate, which loses more than a percentage point reduction in a 25% rate, and so on. 

Yet even for a single percentage point, I called the $100 billion 10-year projection a “bad estimate” because it assumes zero change in the economy and zero change in tax avoidance (“elasticity”).

CBO corp tax baseline plus 1%

Federal Role in Infrastructure

As part of its 2018 budget proposal, the Trump administration has introduced a plan to improve the nation’s infrastructure. The administration intends to reduce regulatory barriers on infrastructure projects and encourage greater private investment. It has also proposed increasing federal spending on infrastructure by $200 billion over 10 years.

A new Cato study provides input to the debate by examining infrastructure ownership and funding. Some people assume that the federal government plays the main role in infrastructure, but the states and private sector own 97 percent of U.S. nondefense infrastructure, and they fund 94 percent of it.

However, the federal government is the tail that wags the dog—its regulations, taxes, and subsidies affect the level and efficiency of state, local, and private infrastructure investment. The study argues that reforms to these federal interventions and privatization are the paths to higher-performance infrastructure.

Cut the Corporate Tax Rate; Drop the BAT.

We will never achieve a good tax reform by trusting bad revenue estimates.

According to Wall Street Journal reporter Richard Rubin, “Each percentage-point reduction in the 35% corporate tax rate cuts federal revenue by about $100 billion over a decade, and independent analyses show economic growth can’t cover all the costs of rate cuts.”

Economic growth does not have to “cover all the cost” to make that $100 billion-per-point rule of thumb almost all wrong.  If extra growth covered only 70% the cost of a lower rate, the static estimates would be 70% wrong.  Yet the other 30% would be wrong too, because it ignores reduced tax avoidance.  Mr. Rubin’s bookkeepers’’ rule-of-thumb implicitly assumes zero “elasticity” of reported taxable profits. Corporations supposedly make no more effort to avoid a 35% tax than to avoid a 25% tax.

Acceptance of this simplistic thumb rule – which imagines a 35% corporate rate could raise $1 trillion more over a decade than a 25% rate – explains why Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady still insists a big new import tax is needed to “pay for” a lower corporate tax rate. 

In this view, a border adjustment tax (BAT) is depicted as a tax increase for some companies to offset a tax cut for others.  No wonder the idea has been ruinously divisive – with major exporters lobbying hard for a BAT and major retailers, refiners and automakers vehemently opposed.  Mr. Rubin declares the BAT “dead or on political life support,” while nevertheless accepting that it would and should raise an extra $1 trillion over a decade – assuming no harm to the economy and no effect on trade deficits.

Like Mr. Rubin, Reuters claims “Trump could have trouble getting the rate much below 30 percent without border adjustability.”  That is false even on its own terms because the Ryan-Brady plan would eliminate deductibility of interest expense, which is enough to “pay for” cutting the rate to 25% on a static basis.  Adding a BAT appears to cut the rate further to 20%, but the effective Ryan-Brady rate is really closer to 25% because the import tax and lost interest deduction are not a free lunch.

In any case, the entire premise is wrong. There is no need to “pay for” cutting a 35% corporate “much below 30 percent” because nearly every major country has already done that and ended up with far more corporate tax revenue than the U.S. collects with its 35% tax.  

The average OECD corporate tax rate has been near 25% since 2008, and revenue from that tax averaged 2.9% of GDP.  The U.S. federal tax rate is 35% and revenue averaged just 1.9% of GDP.  Ireland’s 12.5% corporate rate, by contrast, brought in 2.4% of GDP from 2008 to 2015.

Sweden cut the corporate tax rate from 28% to 22% since 2013 and corporate tax revenues rose from 2.6% of GDP in 2012 to 3% in 2015 according to the OECD. Britain’s new 20% corporate tax in 2015 brought in 2.5% of GDP according the same source, unchanged from 2013 when the rate was 23%. 

The Wall Street Journal Declares “Creditor Emptor”

Last week the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page criticized the investors who lent money to Puerto Rico as being naive about political risks and suggested that they more or less deserve the massive haircuts currently being proposed.  However, this is a puzzling perspective that misconstrues the legal issue at hand—and bodes poorly for the next government that gets in such a mess.

Disregarding the Commonwealth’s constitutional requirement to prioritize general obligation debt above other obligations is not a regrettable necessity, as the Journal seems to suggest, but a violation of the law. Such a step is not only unnecessary but also portends long-run ramifications that would be to the detriment of the island’s residents.

The Journal mistakenly places its faith in the island’s recently announced fiscal plan, which bases its sparse debt repayments on the island’s supposedly ongoing economic contraction. In fact, Puerto Rico’s nominal GDP is at an all-time high (as are tax revenues), having grown 20% over the last decade. While the Journal praises the fiscal plan’s ostensible parsimony, spending actually grows by 12% over the next decade—it’s the 80% reduction in debt payments that makes it appear as if Puerto Rico’s government has restrained anything. To essentially forego any serious spending reforms when there is a fiscal oversight commission in place to take the political heat is mystifying—as is the Wall Street Journal’s facile praise of this approach. It’s also worth remembering that Puerto Rico’s government employs a much greater proportion of its workforce than any state in the union, so this notion that there’s nothing to cut in their budget doesn’t hold water.

If Puerto Rico does succeed in escaping its obligations to secured creditors, look for a stampede in the bond markets, as lenders come to realize there is no such thing as a safe government bond or an ironclad legal protection. What happens in Puerto Rico is going to be perceived by the bond markets as the model for Illinois—and Kentucky and California before too long.

What Puerto Rico threatens to establish is that regardless of any contractual agreements or constitutional pledges, all bets are off when a government not covered by Chapter 9 bankruptcy can’t pay its debts.