Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Knowing about Segregationist Housing Policy Is the First Step to Justice

In education, there is a widespread belief: the federal government ended segregation. This is, of course, based on the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and subsequent federal efforts to end segregated schooling. But as a sobering new book by the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein makes clear, while all levels of government forced, coerced, or cajoled racial segregation through housing policy, the feds may have been the worst, and the crippling legacy of those actions may be much further reaching than even schooling policy.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America is essentially a catalogue of discriminatory housing policies perpetrated throughout the 20th Century, but peaking from the 1930s through the 1960s. It chronicles local injustices including police ignoring or even stoking mobs that tormented African Americans who dared buy a home in a white neighborhood, and states with segregationist intent mandating local referenda to approve low-income family public housing. But it is the federal government that seems to have had the most powerful hand in it all, if for no other reason than only it could sweep every American into the corners where it decided they did—or did not—belong.

Poverty, Politics, and (Crony) Profit

Earlier this week, PBS Frontline ran a documentary titled Poverty, Politics, and Profit discussing major barriers to housing America’s poor. The show centered on the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, a federal program that subsidizes low-income housing construction.

Chris Edwards described Frontline’s LIHTC investigation well here. In short, the show found LIHTC costs taxpayers 66% more, but produced 20,000 fewer housing units than 20 years ago. Frontline made the case that the program’s failure is partly due to poor oversight and attendant corruption.

For those unfamiliar with LIHTC, Frontline’s narrative about developers’ outsized profits may sound extraordinary. But PBS does well to highlight a problem that the social sciences have long provided evidence for. For example, in Rethinking Federal Housing Policy, economist Edward Glaeser suggests that LIHTC’s “prime beneficiaries are the recipients of the tax credits, not poor renters …. [there] is little doubt that … a significant portion of program benefits accrue to developers.” And on the issue of LIHTC oversight, the Government Accountability Office flatly stated in a 2015 report that “oversight of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program has been minimal.”

There are additional issues that were not covered in the Frontline piece. For one, the private market would produce the same housing in the absence of LIHTC subsidies. Economists call this phenomenon “crowd-out” and a recent study suggests “the impact of the [LIHTC] program on the [real] number of newly developed rental housing units appears to be small” because of it. In other words, LIHTC’s advocates are disingenuous when they pretend LIHTC-subsidized housing would not exist without government subsidy.

Low Income Housing Tax Cronyism

The Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) is a federal program that subsidizes the construction of housing for poor tenants. The $8 billion program suffers numerous failures, as discussed in this study. One problem is that the program’s subsidies may flow more to developers and financial institutions than to the needy population that is supposed to benefit.

National Public Radio investigated the LIHTC for a show aired yesterday. The joint investigation with PBS found that the program has “little federal oversight” and is producing “fewer units than it did 20 years ago, even though it’s costing taxpayers 66 percent more.” The investigation discovered that “little public accounting of the costs exists, even among government officials and regulators charged with monitoring the program.”

Here’s how the program works:

Every year, the IRS distributes a pool of tax credits to state and local housing agencies. Those agencies pass them on to developers. The developers then sell the credits to banks and investors for cash. Often, to find investors, developers will use middlemen called syndicators. The banks and investors get to take tax deductions, while the developers now have cash to build the apartments.

With lots of groups on the federal gravy train—state and local housing bureaucracies, developers, banks, syndicators, and investors—the LIHTC program has fortified itself politically. Developers apparently take a 15 percent cut on the total value of housing projects, while syndicators earned more than $300 million in fees last year.  

Some share of LIHTC subsidies disappear in corruption and fraud. NPR profiles a Miami-area criminal enterprise led by Biscayne Housing and Carlisle Development Group, which is “one of the country’s top affordable housing developers.” The companies stole $34 million from 14 LIHTC projects. Biscayne’s former head Michael Cox admits, “It was a construction kickback scheme … The scam was to submit grossly inflated construction numbers to the state in order to get more money than the project required and then have an agreement with the contractor to get it back during construction.”

No, an Above-Average P/E Ratio Does Not Show Stocks Are Overpriced

Writing in The Wall Street Journal on April 27–making another last-ditch pitch for a 20% border tax on business imports–Martin Feldstein asserts that unless corporate tax rate cuts are “offset” by tax increases on imports or payrolls then larger projected deficits would crash the stock market by raising long-term interest rates. “The markets’ current fragility,” he writes, “reflects overpriced assets–the S&P 500 price/earnings ratio is now 70% above its historical average–after a decade of excessively low long-term interest rates engineered by the Federal Reserve.” 

The odd notion that the Fed could somehow depress bond yields for a decade is an irrelevant ambiguity, since the whole point of Feldstein’s story is to claim budget deficits raise bond yields and higher bond yields threaten “overpriced” stocks.

In a recent blog, I found no evidence to support the dogma that bond yields rise and fall with rising or falling budget deficits (actual or projected). Wall Street Journal columnist Greg Ip opines that “interest rates haven’t responded to deficits lately because private investment has been so lackluster.” But that excuse makes interest rates dependent on private investment, not deficits, and leaves us tangled in circular illogic. If interest rates depend on private investment and deficits “crowd out private investment,” then interest rates could never respond to deficits because private investment would always be lackluster when deficits were large (which would also make deficits the opposite of a “fiscal stimulus”).

Switching from bonds to stocks in this blog, I find no evidence that the S&P 500 stock index is “overpriced” relative to long-term interest rates (which is the only meaning of “overpriced” that relates to Feldstein’s argument about deficits and bond yields).

Feldstein claims stocks are “overpriced” because “the S&P 500 price/earnings ratio is now 70% above its historical average.” But there is no reason to expect the p/e ratio to revert to its long-term average unless bonds yields revert to their long-term average.

Inverted P/E ratio Tracks Bond Yield

The Impact of Not Digging Holes

The American Public Transit Association (APTA) has a new report on the economic impact of President Trump’s proposal to stop wasting federal dollars on digging holes and filling them up. Actually, the report is about Trump’s proposal to stop wasting federal dollars building streetcars, light rail and other local rail transit projects, but the two have almost exactly the same effect.

The APTA report says that digging holes and filling them up would provide about 500,000 jobs (though it really means job-years, that is, 500,000 jobs for one year). Since APTA says it would take ten years to dig and fill the holes that Trump wants to stop funding, that’s 50,000 jobs a year.

However, nobody wants a job digging holes and filling them up. What they want is income. Since there is no market for refilled holes, the only source of income for digging and filling holes is tax dollars. So what APTA really wants Congress to do is take money away from workers and then give it back to them and call it jobs. That’s not very productive.

The APTA report also says that refilled holes create economic development that will generate another 300,000 more jobs (which again really means job-years). Supposedly, people like living, shopping, and working next to refilled holes and so they will clamor to have homes, stores, and offices built next to those holes.

I don’t believe that’s true, but let’s say it is. If we don’t dig and refill the holes, people will still need to live, shop, and work somewhere. So the homes, stores, and offices will still be built, though (if you believe in the hole-location theory) they might be built in some part of the city other than next to the undug holes. Thus, digging holes creates zero net secondary jobs.

In fact, digging and refilling holes probably creates negative secondary jobs for the cities digging them because someone has to pay for those holes. The federal capital grants program only pays half the cost of digging and refilling the holes, and the locals have to pay for the rest. After the holes are dug, local taxpayers have to pay most of the cost of maintaining the refilled holes as settling is likely to occur. The local construction and maintenance costs put a huge burden on the local tax base, and some businesses are likely to locate in a city that isn’t obligated to pay for such holes.

In comparing streetcars, light rail, and other forms of rail transit to holes, some people might think I am unfair to holes. After all, holes don’t require annual operating costs like rail transit, and their maintenance costs are also a lot lower. For example, Washington DC used federal dollars to dig some holes and put trains in them, and now it faces a $25 billion maintenance backlog. If they had just left the holes empty, or filled them with dirt–or better yet not dug them at all–they wouldn’t have to worry about who is going to pay for that backlog.

As Will Rogers once said, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” The rail transit construction of the past 50 years has dug a huge hole that has cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and coincided with (and arguably contributed to) a decline in per capita transit ridership.

Whether we are talking about holes or building rail transit, the effect is the same. APTA wants Congress to take money from taxpayers so it can give it back to them and claim it is giving them jobs. APTA also wants local governments to take money from taxpayers so they can claim they are making cities more productive. But neither holes nor rail transit produce the income needed to sustain jobs nor do they make urban areas more economically productive. All they do is enrich a few contractors while adding to the overall tax burden. That’s why I think Trump’s policy of ending federal support to holes and other strictly local projects is a good idea.

Lessons from the Reagan Tax Cuts

In a column in today’s  New York Times, Steven Rattner attacks Trump’s tax plan for being unrealistic. Since I also think the proposal isn’t very plausible, I’m not overly bothered by that message. However, Rattner tries to bolster his case by making very inaccurate and/or misleading claims about the Reagan tax cuts.

Given my admiration for the Gipper, those assertions cry out for correction. Starting with his straw man claim that the tax cuts were supposed to pay for themselves.

…four decades ago…the rollout of what proved to be among our country’s greatest economic follies — the alchemistic belief that huge tax cuts can pay for themselves by unleashing faster economic growth.

Neither Reagan nor his administration claimed that the tax cuts would be self-financing.

Instead, they simply pointed out that the economy would grow faster and that this would generate some level of revenue feedback.

Which is exactly what happened. Heck, even leftists agree that there’s a Laffer Curve. The only disagreement is the point where tax receipts are maximized (and I don’t care which side is right on that issue since I don’t want to enable bigger government).

Anyhow, Rattner also wants us to believe the tax cuts hurt the economy.

…the plan immediately made a bad economy worse.

This is remarkable blindness and/or bias. The double dip recession of 1980-1982 was the result of economic distortions caused by bad monetary policy (by the way, Reagan deserves immense credit for having the moral courage to wean the country from easy-money policy).

No, Higher Deficits Don’t Raise Long-Term Interest Rates

According to former Reagan adviser Martin Feldstein, “Higher projected budget deficits could raise long-term interest rates, potentially triggering… a serious economic downturn.”

Has that ever happened?

From 1977 to 1981 10-year bond yields nearly doubled, rising from about 7.4% to 13.9%, but budget deficits were relatively small, around 2.5% of GDP.  Budget deficits were doubled from 1984 to 1993 (about 5% of GDP), yet bond yields were nearly cut in half, falling from 12.4% to 5.9%. Bond yields were no lower from 1997 to 2000 when the budget moved into surplus. But yields fell dramatically in 2008-2012, a period of record budget deficits.

One possible objection is that larger budget deficits were caused by recessions, which is why bond yields did not rise with larger deficits or fall with surpluses.  The graph addresses this concern by using CBO estimates [.xls] of cyclically-adjusted budgets (“with automatic stabilizers,” in CBO vocabulary). Deficits and Bond Yields

Still, there is clearly no correlation between bond yields and any measure of yearly budget deficits and surpluses. And that is also true in other times and places – Japan’s chronic large deficits and debt being an obvious example.

Another possible objection centers on Feldstein’s use of the phrase “projected budget deficits,” as though the CBO’s notoriously inaccurate long-run projections could somehow have an entirely different effect from actual deficits. I criticized the analysis and evidence behind that conjecture in a Treasury Department presentation which was condensed and simplified in a Cato Institute paper. I found the underlying analysis illogical and contradictory and the evidence worthless.

There is no need to make up stories about alleged effects of deficits on bond yields in order to make a strong case for minimizing frivolous government borrowing (e.g., to pay for transfer payments or government employee compensation).

Chronic deficits add to accumulated debt, and that debt will have to be serviced with future taxes even if it is rolled-over indefinitely. That is reason enough for Congress to keep growth of federal spending below the growth of the private economy – a task which requires frugality in spending but also a tax and regulatory climate which minimizes impediments to investment, entrepreneurship, education and work.