Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Costs Skyrocket for Air and Space

Smithsonian leaders have revealed that renovating the Air and Space museum in Washington, D.C. will cost almost $1 billion. That’s the equivalent of an army of 10,000 workers earning $100,000 each for a year to fix it up. Geez, government projects are expensive!

My letter in the Washington Post today proposes that rather than hitting taxpayers, museum visitors should pay for the renovation:

Regarding the June 23 Style article “Estimate for Air and Space facelift closes in on $1 billion”:

About $250 million of the ballooning makeover costs for the National Air and Space Museum will come from private donations, leaving a $750 million bill for taxpayers.

But rather than burdening taxpayers, how about charging visitors? The Post noted that the museum gets 7 million visitors a year, so a modest $5 fee would raise $35 million a year and pay back the makeover costs over 21 years.

Aside from the greater fairness of charging users rather than taxpayers, fees would limit demand and thus improve the visitor experience at the overcrowded institution. User fees for Air and Space — and other Smithsonian museums — would also help level the playing field with private D.C. museums, such as the International Spy Museum.

There is one more advantage of user pays. The Post notes that the estimated cost of the renovation has already skyrocketed from earlier figures of $250 million and $600 million (a common pattern). If the museum were required to fully cover renovation costs through voluntary donations and user fees, Smithsonian executives would have a strong incentive to find design savings and control construction costs.  

House Republican Tax Plan

House Republicans have released a proposal for major tax reform. Kudos to Ways and Means chairman Kevin Brady for stepping up to the plate and planning ahead for 2017. Brady and his staff did extensive outreach to think tank experts and the GOP caucus, and they have come up with a blueprint that focuses on savings, investment, simplification, and economic growth.  

The GOP plan would cut the top personal income tax rate from 40 percent to 33 percent, while consolidating the bracket structure from 7 rates to 3. The plan would reduce the top tax rate on small businesses to 25 percent, and it would repeal the estate tax and alternative minimum tax.

The corporate tax rate would be cut from 35 percent to 20 percent. That would be the single most important thing that the next Congress could do for the U.S. economy. Corporations build factories, buy equipment, and hire workers to earn after-tax profits. Slashing the marginal tax rate by 15 points would substantially increase the after-tax profits companies could earn on new investments, and they would respond accordingly. More capital investment would mean more job opportunities and higher wages for American workers.

Taxpayers Railroaded in California

In this essay on government construction projects, I discuss how promoters use “strategic misrepresentation” to subdue taxpayer opposition and get dubious spending schemes approved. The low-balling of projected costs is a tried and true deception used by infrastructure promoters the world over.

A variation on the strategy was apparently used to gain support for California’s expensive bullet train project. The Los Angeles Times reports that while people were aware that taxpayers would pay the system’s huge construction costs, officials promised that the operating costs would be covered by rail system revenues, not taxpayers. That promise appears to have been a fraud:

When a Spanish firm submitted a bid last year to help build the California bullet train, it cautioned that taxpayer money probably would be needed to keep the system operating.

Having reviewed data on 111 high-speed train lines around the world, construction giant Ferrovial said, it found that all but three could not make ends meet.

“More than likely, the California high speed rail will require large government subsidies for years to come,” the proposal said. 

That warning, however, was expunged from the version of Ferrovial’s proposal posted on the state’s website. The only record of it was on a data disk provided to The Times and others under a public records act request.

The state rail authority repeatedly has asserted that it will not need a subsidy and that every high-speed system in the world operates without taxpayer assistance — despite significant evidence to the contrary. A number of projects around the world have failed financially, others require direct operating subsidies and many more benefit from government taxes and regulations on competing airline and highway systems, according to audits, studies and interviews.

But in asking taxpayers to help build the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line, officials assured the state would be able to pay the operating costs purely from the system’s revenues — and thus not sap money needed for social services, education or other projects.

When California voters committed the $9 billion in bonds in 2008, the measure stipulated that the system would have to operate without future public funding.

How can citizens fight such deceptions? This episode illustrates the importance of citizen engagement and transparency in government fiscal matters. It was not a state auditor that discovered the operating subsidy cover-up, but a concerned citizen doing some poking around:

The change in Ferrovial’s proposal was first noticed this spring by Morris Brown, a Bay Area resident and former Caltech chemistry professor who closely monitors documents and statements issued by the bullet authority.

    

Philadelphia’s Soda Tax

The Philadelphia City Council has voted to become the second city in the United States to impose a tax on the sale of particular types of sweetened beverages. The tax applies to sugared soda, diet soda, sports drinks and more, while excluding drinks that are more than half milk or fruit, as well as drinks to which sugar is added such as coffee. The tax will be 1.5 cents per ounce, amounting to 18 cents per standard size can of soda or $1 per two-liter bottle.

Public health advocates often propose taxes on sugary drinks, colloquially known as “soda taxes,” as a means of improving public health outcomes. They argue that such beverages disproportionately cause obesity and that consumers of sugary beverages impose external costs on others through higher medical costs associated with obesity.

The evidence supporting the disproportionate effect of sugar beverages on obesity is not powerful.  An article in Obesity Review concluded, “The current evidence does not demonstrate conclusively that nutritively sweetened beverage consumption has uniquely contributed to obesity or that reducing NSB consumption will reduce BMI levels in general.” 

And the externalities of the obese also appear to be minimal.  “The existing literature … suggests that obese people on average do bear the costs and benefits of their eating and exercise habits.”

But for purposes of discussion assume that consumption of such beverages does result in obesity and its health effects, which, in turn, create costs for others.  Are the taxes a good corrective?

Funding the FBI

On Fox News last night, Megyn Kelly agreed with her guest James Kallstrom that the FBI needs a larger budget. The horrific attack in Orlando has raised the issue of whether the FBI has sufficient resources to investigate potential terrorists.

I don’t know how large the FBI budget should be. The agency does fill a lot of crucial roles, including tackling never-ending corruption in federal, state, and local governments.

But I do know that the FBI has not been starved; its budget has grown rapidly. The chart, from DownsizingGovernment.org, shows that FBI spending in constant 2016 dollars has more than tripled since 1990, from $2.7 billion to $9.1 billion. 

In the Federal Workforce Every Employee Is Above Average

A new report from the Government Accountability Office finds that virtually every one of the 1.2 million employees in their study received a rating at or above “fully successful,” compared to only 0.1 percent who were deemed “unacceptable,” which might be surprising given the scandals that have rocked multiple agencies in recent years and the fact that these employees are people, prone to making mistakes or every day struggles like everyone else. Milton Friedman once asked “where in the world you find these angels who are going to organize society for us?” If these performance ratings are to be believed, they’re already in the federal workforce, which might surprise anyone who has followed the developments at the VA or TSA. The extremely skewed distribution of ratings highlighted in the report highlight the shortcomings of the current evaluation system, which makes it harder to actually address any real problems with the performance of federal employees.

Distribution of Performance Ratings, 2013

 

Source: GAO

Note: Ratings for permanent, non-senior executive service employees.

The authors of the report used data from the Office of Personnel Management to analyze performance ratings for permanent, non-Senior Executive Service employees who received a rating for fiscal year 2014. While there are some exclusions, like the U.S. Postal Service and intelligence agencies, the 24 agencies included “are generally the largest federal agencies and account for more than 98 percent of the federal workforce.” According to the ratings, not only are there virtually no underperforming employees, but many of them go above and beyond the call of duty: 27.4 percent were rated as “exceeds fully successful” and a remarkable 33.1 percent received the highest rating of “outstanding.” While agencies use ratings systems with different numbers of levels, the pattern remains the same: almost every employee rates as “fully successful” or above, with roughly 0.1 percent rating as “unacceptable.”

Things are even rosier when breaking the ratings down by occupational category. The clerical group, which accounts for 4.2 percent of these workers, is the only one of six occupational categories where more than one percent of workers received either an “unacceptable” or “minimally successful” rating. According to the feedback from the ratings systems, coming across a less than stellar federal worker in the administrative, professional, or technical fields is like finding a needle in a haystack. These federal workers are people, fallible like anyone else, so a distribution so heavily skewed towards positive ratings makes the system less credible.

Distribution of Performance Ratings by Occupational Category, 2013

Source: GAO

Note: Ratings for permanent, non-senior executive service employees.

The performance feedback is even more skewed towards stellar when the authors look at workers in higher grades of the General Schedule. Roughly 78 percent of workers in the highest group received one of the top two ratings, compared to 0.4 percent who received anything less than “fully successful.” 

Distribution of Performance Ratings by GS Group, 2013

Source: GAO

Note: Ratings for permanent, non-senior executive service employees.

The authors delve into some of the difficulties in trying to normalize the ratings system from a situation where nearly everyone is a top performer: “[a] cultural shift might be needed among agencies and employees to acknowledge that a rating of ‘fully successful’ is already a high bar and should be valued and regarded and that ‘outstanding’ is a difficult level to achieve.” When more than a third of the covered federal employees, and roughly 46 percent of higher level GS employees received this “outstanding” rating, the system loses much of its value. At this point, the ratings have more in common with the participation trophies found in little league than a meaningful feedback system to address shortcomings and improve performance. In one sense, taxpayers aren’t the only ones done a disservice by this poorly functioning system, as more competent federal workers are indistinguishable from their less able peers, and promotions cease to be based on things related to actual job performance. Having a functional evaluations system is even more important outside of the private sector, where market forces convey valuable information about which methods and employees are successful through profits and losses. As my colleague Chris Edwards has explained, the absence of these market mechanisms one of the reasons for the failures in federal bureaucracy.

As this report notes, the “transparency and credibility of the performance management process is enhanced when meaningful performance distinctions are made.” Given the government’s problems with transparency and credibility in so many other spheres, is it any surprise that the performance evaluation system struggles with the same issues? Until these agencies are able to address this “long-standing challenge,” it seems we’ll just have to take their word for it that virtually every one of these federal employees is above average, and hundreds of thousands are “outstanding.”

 

Much Higher Tax Rates in 2013 Left Top 1% Taxes About the Same

Top Tax Rate and Taxes Paid

A timely new blog post from the Tax Foundation points out that, “taxes on the rich are much higher than they’ve been in recent years. Between 2008 and 2012, the top 1 percent of households paid an average tax rate of 28.8 percent. However, in 2013, this figure spiked to 34.0 percent, as a result of tax increases in the “fiscal cliff” deal and the Affordable Care Act”.

“Readers should check out the new CBO report,” the authors suggest, “and reflect for themselves about whether or not high-income Americans are now paying their fair share of taxes.”

The trouble is that the tax rate alone can’t tell us how much the Top 1% paid in taxes: To know how much taxes were paid by the Top 1% requires knowing how much income they reported to the IRS.  The reason this matters is that there is ample evidence that the “elasticity of taxable income” is very high among top taxpayers, which simply means they find ways to report less income if marginal tax rates go up.  This doesn’t require lawyers or loopholes: Avoid capital gains tax by not selling assets and/or shifting into exempt assets (housing up to $500k); avoid the dividend tax by holding tax-exempt bonds; defer personal tax on business income by retaining earnings within a C-corporation; avoid punitive tax rates on second earners by becoming a one-earner household; retire early, etc.

Looking at the same thing from a different angle, the graph shows that average taxes actually paid by the Top 1% grew rapidly after the tax rate on capital gains was cut from 28 percent to 20 percent in 1997. Taxes paid by the Top 1% grew even more rapidly after 2003 when the tax rate on capital gains and dividends was further reduced to 15 percent and the top tax on salaries and unincorporated businesses was cut from 39.6 percent to 35 percent.  If you want the rich to pay more taxes, cut their tax rates.  

As it turns out, 2013 showed that we can’t just assume higher tax rates mean docile taxpayers will simply write bigger checks to the U.S. Treasury. On the contrary, when the average tax rate on the Top 1% increased by 18.4 percent in 2013, the amount of income reported by the Top 1% fell by 15.4 percent – from $1,856,000 in 2012 to $1,571,600. The net effect was almost a wash, in terms of taxes actually paid. According to the CBO, average federal taxes paid by the Top 1% were $530,128 in 2013 –virtually unchanged from $529,056 in 2012. 

Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton propose even more increases in top tax rates on income and capital gains (to 54.2 percent with Sanders, 43.6 percent with Clinton), ostensibly to finance their lavish government spending plans.  But even a relatively small dose of this same poison failed to raise significant revenue from the Top 1% in 2013, partly because of the drag on the overall economy from reduced incomes and incentives.