Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Pentagon Bureaucracy: $125 Billion in Waste

The Washington Post has a blockbuster story today documenting vast overhead costs in the Department of Defense (DoD). Experts often lambast the DoD’s excessive bureaucracy, and I have charted the growth in the number of civilian DoD workers.

But the Post reveals remarkable new measures of the department’s bloat, based on a leaked study it obtained:

The Pentagon has buried an internal study that exposed $125 billion in administrative waste in its business operations amid fears Congress would use the findings as an excuse to slash the defense budget, according to interviews and confidential memos obtained by The Washington Post.

Pentagon leaders had requested the study to help make their enormous back-office bureaucracy more efficient and reinvest any savings in combat power. But after the project documented far more wasteful spending than expected, senior defense officials moved swiftly to kill it by discrediting and suppressing the results.

The study was produced last year by the Defense Business Board, a federal advisory panel of corporate executives, and consultants from McKinsey and Company. Based on reams of personnel and cost data, their report revealed for the first time that the Pentagon was spending almost a quarter of its $580 billion budget on overhead and core business operations such as accounting, human resources, logistics and property management.

The data showed that the Defense Department was paying a staggering number of people — 1,014,000 contractors, civilians and uniformed personnel — to fill back-office jobs far from the front lines. That workforce supports 1.3 million troops on active duty, the fewest since 1940.

The DoD’s effort to bury the study is appalling, but Pentagon waste is a complex problem. You can’t just chop $125 billion worth of “back office” jobs overnight. However, it is also true that the 1,014,000 such jobs—in logistics, procurement, and other activities—are the exact types of functions that have become vastly more efficient in the private sector.

Heritage Foundation Infrastructure Proposals

In a new report for the Heritage Foundation, Michael Sargent summarizes what we need on infrastructure from the incoming Trump administration. I agree with all of Michael’s points, which I paraphrase here:

  • Ignore rhetoric about crumbling highways and falling-down bridges. America’s infrastructure needs improvements, but the scare stories are off-base.
  • Reduce government red tape to speed investment.
  • Repeal harmful labor rules, which raise the costs of infrastructure construction.
  • Embrace privatization.
  • Approve energy projects blocked by the Obama administration.
  • Repeal the net neutrality regulations on the Internet.
  • Limit regulations on emerging technologies.
  • Cut the federal highway gas tax, end spending on urban transit, and reduce the federal role in highways.
  • Privatize air traffic control, eliminate subsidies for airports, and remove barriers for the states to restructure airports as self-funded businesses.
  • Do not pass a federal infrastructure spending stimulus.
  • Do not use repatriated corporate earnings for a government stimulus. If such revenues arise from corporate tax reform, use them to reduce the corporate tax rate.
  • Do not create new tax loopholes or subsidies for infrastructure.
  • Do not create a federal infrastructure bank. That would lead to more bureaucracy, subsidies, and central control.

I would add to Michael’s points that I share concerns expressed by Trump and others that America should have world-class infrastructure. But the way to get it is not through subsidies, regulations, and centralization. Instead, the incoming administration should focus on market-based reforms to privatize facilities, reduce subsidies and regulations, and increase competition.

For more information on infrastructure reforms, see here, here, here, and here.

TPC “Experts” Don’t Know Who Gets What Share of Trump Tax Cuts

According to Wall Street Journal writer Laura Saunders, future Treasury Secretary Mnuchin must be wrong because Tax Policy Center experts say so. Actually, Mr. Mnuchin may be partly right, but the experts are almost entirely wrong.

“Steven Mnuchin, the likely next Treasury secretary, this week said rich U.S. taxpayers won’t get “an absolute tax cut” under President-elect Donald Trump,” writes Ms. Saunders; “But that is not what Mr. Trump says in his taxation plan. In fact, under his approach the wealthy would receive an average tax cut of about $215,000 per household, experts say.” 

“What Mr. Trump says” is not at all the same as what some “experts say.” Expert or not, Tax Policy Center (TPC) estimates of who pays what under different tax rates are distressingly capricious.

Mr. Mnuchin appeared to be talking only about individual income taxes. That is why he suggested that lower marginal tax rates for high earners “will be offset by less deductions.” So long as we focus only on non-business taxes (including high salaries and dividends), Mr. Mnuchin was probably right. Indeed, according to Ms. Saunders’ experts, the lost revenue from lower tax rates over 10 years totals $1.49 trillion plus $145 billion from eliminating the 3.8% Obamacare surtax.  Yet those individual tax cuts are more than offset by $2.6 trillion in added revenue from Trump’s cap on itemized deductions and the loss of personal exemptions. More than doubling the standard deduction loses considerable revenue, but not from high-income taxpayers.

Ms. Saunders mentions only the loss of itemized deductions—not exemptions—and concludes “these limits don’t fully offset the effects of income- and estate-tax cuts for high earners proposed by Mr. Trump, according to experts.” 

Repealing the estate tax loses very little revenue, but it is arbitrary for the TPC to assign that lost revenue to people with high incomes because the estate tax is borne by heirs and charities—not dead people.

With estate tax repeal included, only 22% of the Trump tax cut goes to households (including investors) according to the TPC, with 44% of Trump tax cuts going to corporate earnings (and the rest to unincorporated business). 

Problems with Paid Family Leave Redux

Last week I wrote about the unintended consequences of the proposed DC family leave benefit, which is to be financed by a payroll tax on all employers in the District. 

My objections were that the tax increases the cost of operating in the District and that this will likely push some businesses contemplating opening in DC to Maryland or Virginia instead. The other objection I had was that it specified a benefit to be provided that not all companies may want to provide. In an ideal world companies would pay wages to workers and then allow workers to get their own insurance, pensions, transportation, food, and the like on their own and not have these things provided by their workplace. Today, the tax breaks afforded most fringe benefits behoove companies to give many of these things to their workers in lieu of wages, and that’s not efficient. 

I received a surprising amount of feedback from my article, most of which was positive—a first for me—and some readers suggested that I missed a couple issues relevant to the benefit. The first is that while tying the tax to payroll may make sense as far as this benefit is concerned, it also tends to make it more difficult for people to understand the true cost involved. 

A tax that’s .62% of payroll may not seem like a lot, but for a restaurant that has $1 million of revenue that translates to a tax of $2,100 a year, assuming that payroll is one-third of total revenue. For businesses other than restaurants, where payroll typically equals two-thirds of revenue, double that number. That amounts to 2.2% instead of 4.4% of profits, on top of the 8.95% DC corporate profits tax on revenue over $1 million. If they expand the tax to cover medical leave as well—which is on the table—that would add another thousand dollars or so to a restaurant’s cost of doing business. In fact, a better way to see this is as a 50% increase on the tax on business profits, except that this doesn’t vary much with the business cycle.

The other point a restaurant owner suggested to me is that their workers are typically young and part-time, and often have another job. In short, they see this as a benefit few of their twenty-something employees would claim, yet they still would be paying for it. Fortune 500 companies may find the tax easy to swallow, but not so for businesses like my local kebab house that are on the verge of hanging on. This tax, combined with a sharply higher minimum wage and other government mandates—such as the city’s inexplicable refusal to charge for-profit food trucks to use city-owned property for their business, increasing restaurants’ competition further—are hurting their bottom lines, and life is getting more precarious for businesses on the margins. 

How Much Defense is Enough? The Outlier’s Take

A new study from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, “How Much is Enough? Alternative Defense Strategies,” reports on military spending plans produced by teams from five think tanks, including Cato. CSBA asked each team to use its “Strategic Choices” software to make hundreds of choices amounting to a ten-year budget plan for the Pentagon and to provide a brief statement of their strategic rationale. The report includes those rationales, summaries of each budget, and comparative analysis of them.

As you can tell from the chart below, the Cato team’s answer was that way less is enough. We cut $1.1 trillion over the period. We’d have cut even more had the software allowed us to target all the spending going to “Overseas Contingency Operations,” intelligence programs and nuclear weapons. You can also see that our plan was the outlier. The others all raised spending—in AEI’s case, massively, by $1.3 trillion.

Tax Policy Center’s Flawed $6.2 Trillion Revenue Loss from Trump Tax Plan

A crucial graph in the Wall Street Journal article, “Trump Fiscal Plain Roils the GOP,” relies on estimates from the Tax Policy Center. Unfortunately, the TPC provides only static estimates of revenue effects of House Republican or Trump tax plans.  That is, they assume lower marginal tax rates on families and firms have literally no effect at all on tax avoidance or long-term economic growth. 

The Wall Street Journal graph purports to project budget deficits over the next 10 years under Congressional Budget Office (CBO) baseline, the House Republican tax plan and the Trump tax plan.  This is quite misleading, because all three scenarios treat future federal spending as given, unchangeable.  Federal spending rose from 17.6% of GDP in 2001 to 19.1% by 2007, and is now 20.7% in 2015. The 2017 Budget projects spending to reach to 22.4% by 2021 and keep rising. 

The CBO August baseline projects federal spending to total $50.2 trillion from 2017 to 2026, so a mere 5% reduction in that growth would exceed $2.5 trillion.

Under President-elect Trump’s revised tax proposal, claims the Tax Policy Center, “revenues would fall by $6.2 billion over the first decade before accounting for interest costs and macroeconomic effects. Including those factors, the federal debt would rise by at least $7 trillion over the first decade.” 

Do not confuse these alleged “macroeconomic effects” with dynamic analysis used in Tax Foundation models and academic studies. The Tax Foundation estimates, for example, that the House Republican tax plan “would reduce federal revenue by $2.4 trillion over the first decades on a static basis,” but that figure shrinks to $191 billion once they properly account for improved investment incentives,  greater labor and entrepreneurial effort and therefore faster economic growth. 

By contrast, the Tax Policy Center presents only “macro feedback” estimates for the Trump plan. The TPC Keynesian model and Penn-Wharton models assume that revenue losses are 2.6% of GDP, the same as static estimates.  But interest rates are higher, adding to deficits and debt.

Revenues from Trump Plan Unfairly Compared to Fanciful CBO Projections

Tax Policy Center estimate of a 10-year $6.2 trillion revenue loss is used to predict higher interest rates, and those higher interest rates prevent the economy from growing faster, which in turn vindicates the static assumption of a $6.2 trillion revenue loss.  

The circularity of this tangled fable is remarkably illogical.  How could interest rates remain higher if private investment is crowded out leaving GDP growth unchanged?

The TPC tells a similar story about the House Republican tax plan.  “Although the House GOP tax plan would improve incentives to save and invest, it would also substantially increase budget deficits unless offset by spending cuts, resulting in higher interest rates that would crowd out investment [emphasis added].”  This too is an unsupported assertion. The TPC analysis predicts more private savings and therefore cannot simply assume deficits “would crowd out investment.”