Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

CBO Projections Are No Basis for Claiming Tax Reform “Loses Trillions”

I recently wrote in The Hill on Donald Trump’s fiscal plan. The graph below clarifies some of my comments.

CBO REVENUE PROJECTIONS

Estimates purporting to show the new, evolving Trump/Ryan Tax Reform must “lose trillions” over 10-20 years are usually static – meaning they assume lower marginal tax rates on labor and capital have zero effect on economic growth or tax avoidance.  Yet that is a relatively small part of the problem.

Even if static estimates made any sense, the alleged revenue losses would still be wildly exaggerated because they compare estimated revenues from reform plans with “baseline” revenues projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  

As the graph shows, CBO projections pretend that revenues from the existing individual income tax will somehow rise as a share of GDP every year –forever– reaching levels never before seen in U.S. history, even in World War II. 

Real wages in the CBO forecast supposedly rise so rapidly that more and more middle-income taxpayers are pushed into higher and higher tax brackets.  Since tax reform eliminates the highest tax brackets, it thwarts these sneaky tax increases and thus appears to “lose money.” But the CBO’s phantom projections are sheer fantasy and no basis for rejecting sensible tax reforms to encourage more business investment and greater labor force participation.

 

A Cartoon that Tells You Everything You Need to Know about International Bureaucracies

Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. There are lots of things you should know - most bad, though some good - about international bureaucracies.

That being said, regular readers know that I get very frustrated with the statist policy agendas of both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I especially object to the way these international bureaucracies are cheerleaders for bigger government and higher tax burdens. Even though they ostensibly exist to promote greater levels of prosperity!

I’ve written on these issues, ad nauseam, but perhaps dry analysis is only part of what’s needed to get the message across. Maybe some clever image can explain the issue to a broader audience (something I’ve done before with cartoons and images about the rise and fall of the welfare state, the misguided fixation on income distribution, etc).

It took awhile, but I eventually came up with (what I hope is) a clever idea. And when a former Cato intern with artistic skill, Jonathan Babington-Heina, agreed to do me a favor and take the concept in my head and translate it to paper, here are the results.

I think this hits the nail on the head.

Excessive government is the main problem plaguing the global economy. But the international bureaucracies, for all intents and purposes, represent governments. The bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD need to please politicians in order to continue enjoying their lavish budgets and exceedingly generous tax-free salaries.

So when there is some sort of problem in the global economy, they are reluctant to advocate for smaller government and lower tax burdens (even if the economists working for these organizations sometimes produce very good research on fiscal issues).

Instead, when it’s time to make recommendations, they push an agenda that is good for the political elite but bad for the private sector. Which is exactly what I’m trying to demonstrate in the cartoon,

But let’s not merely rely on a cartoon to make this point.

In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Hassett discuss the intersection of economic policy and international bureaucracies. They start by explaining that these organizations would promote jurisdictional competition if they were motivated by a desire to boost growth.

…economic theory has a lot to say about how they should function. …they haven’t achieved all of their promise, primarily because those bodies have yet to fully understand the role they need to play in the interconnected world. The key insight harkens back to a dusty economics seminar room in the early 1950s, when University of Michigan graduate student Charles Tiebout…said that governments could be driven to efficient behavior if people can move. …This observation, which Tiebout developed fully in a landmark paper published in 1956, led to an explosion of work by economists, much of it focusing on…many bits of evidence that confirm the important beneficial effects that can emerge when governments compete. …A flatter world should make the competition between national governments increasingly like the competition between smaller communities. Such competition can provide the world’s citizens with an insurance policy against the out-of-control growth of massive and inefficient bureaucracies.

Using the European Union as an example, Hubbard and Hassett point out the grim results when bureaucracies focus on policies designed to boost the power of governments rather than the vitality of the market.

…as Brexit indicates, the EU has not successfully focused solely on the potentially positive role it could play. Indeed, as often as not, one can view the actions of the EU government as being an attempt to form a cartel to harmonize policies across member states, and standing in the way of, rather than advancing, competition. …an EU that acts as a competition-stifling cartel will grow increasingly unpopular, and more countries will leave it.

They close with a very useful suggestion.

If the EU instead focuses on maximizing mobility and enhancing the competition between states, allowing the countries to compete on regulation, taxation, and in other policy areas, then the union will become a populist’s dream and the best economic friend of its citizens.

Unfortunately, I fully expect this sage advice to fall upon deaf ears. The crowd in Brussels knows that their comfortable existence is dependent on pleasing politicians from national governments.

And the same is true for the bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD.

The only practical solution is to have national governments cut off funding so the bureaucracies disappear.

But, to cite just one example, why would Obama allow that when these bureaucracies go through a lot of effort to promote his statist agenda?

Language Matters: Call It Low-Cost Housing

Housing affordability is an issue that’s been paid considerable attention over the previous two decades, but it doesn’t show signs of meaningful improvement. This even despite the almost $50 billion HUD spends in taxpayer dollars annually on solving the affordability crisis and related concerns.

So what gives? One likely culprit is the language we use to describe the problem.

Take the word “affordable.” Affordable housing – used in a public policy context – is a misnomer of sorts: affordability implies the ability to pay for something given your budget. But budgets vary considerably between households, and so the definition of affordability varies considerably, too.

There are only two – improbable – ways that any given housing could be affordable to the aggregate U.S. population. One option is that everyone’s incomes are identical. Another option is that housing is altogether free.

The VAT Laffer Curve: A Lesson for India

India’s move to replace varying federal, state and interstate sales tax with a uniform Value Added Tax (VAT) makes a lot of sense (unlike Brazil which has high sales taxes and a 19% VAT). 

Yet India should take care not to let the 17.3% tax rate creep up, because VAT too is subject to the “Laffer Curve.”

VAT Revenues Never Exceed 10 percent of GDP

As the graph shows (using 2013 OECD data) the VAT never brings in revenue higher than 10% GDP even in countries that mistakenly raised the VAT to 20% or more - 23% in Greece and Ireland, 25% in Scandanavian countries, 26% in Iceland, 27% in Hungary. New Zealand collected 9.7% of GDP with a 15% standard VAT, while countries with much higher VATs brought in less.

No tax fails to inflict economic damage, of course, which holds down the revenue collected from income and payroll taxes. A study by James Alm of Tulane University and Asmaa El-Ganainy of the IMF found “a one percentage point increase in the VAT rate leads to roughly a one percent reduction in the level of aggregate consumption in the short run and to a somewhat larger reduction in the long run.” Such a reduction in consumer spending means fewer jobs, wages and profits, so a higher VAT leads to lower revenue from taxes on personal income and profits – a fact borne out by Japan’s experience.

How Growth Can Impact Spending and Why Spending Doesn’t Necessarily Drive Growth

The New York Times, in its infinite wisdom, has figured out how poor states can become rich states: simply put, they need only to increase taxes and spending. It recently publish a piece entitled “the Path to Prosperity is Blue” which suggested that the states that have maintained solid growth the last three decades largely owe that growth to high state government spending, and it suggested that the poor states follow that formula as well. 

The statistical derivation of this conclusion comes from the fact that the wealthiest states of the U.S. tend to be blue states, which have higher taxes and spending. By this logic, spending drives growth. 

While there is indeed a relationship between a state’s spending and its GDP, the causality is completely contrary to what the Times portrays. The reality is that states that become prosperous invariably spend more money. Some of that can represent more spending on public goods–Connecticut does seem to have better schools than Mississippi–but far more of it is simply captured by government interests. While California may have made have created a quality public university system in the 1950s and 1960s with its newfound wealth, the reason its taxes are so high today is because it has a ruinous public pension system it needs to finance. Their high spending isn’t doing its citizenry any good at all. 

New York City and California. two high tax regions, became prosperous in large part because they were (and remain) a hub for immigrants and ambitious, entrepreneurial Americans who helped create the industries that to this day drive the economies of each state. California’s defense and IT industry did benefit from public investment as well, of course, but it was investment from the federal government, and in each case it merely served as a catalyst for the development of industries that went far beyond the government’s initial investment. 

To tell Mississippi that it could become prosperous and pull its citizenry out of poverty if it only doubled taxes is an absurd notion that amounts to economic malpractice. What Mississippi has to do is figure out how to attract and retain talented individuals, which is easier said than done. Unfortunately, the Jacksons and Peorias of the world are not lures to the ambitious Indian engineer or Chinese IT professional, who’d rather take their chances in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, or anywhere else where the quality of life is good and jobs are plenty.

The lesson to take away from a comparison of the economic status of the fifty states is that economies of agglomeration is a vaguely-understood but critically important phenomenon, location matters, and that it is enormously difficult for states to pivot when their main industries falter. None of these can be said to be driven by government spending.

Sales Tax Holidays Make for Terrible Tax Policy

This weekend Virginia and Maryland begin a sales tax holiday for the worthy-sounding goal of helping to reduce the cost for parents shopping for school clothes and supplies for their children. But a sales tax holiday makes for terrible tax policy.

The problem is that most of it is inevitably captured by the merchants, who anticipate increased demand for their goods during the holiday and respond by keeping prices higher than they otherwise would be. As a result it utterly fails to achieve its ostensible purpose. 

It’s easy to see that this is true if we considered doing the opposite and had a short term sales-tax spike. With a short-run sales tax spike people would do their best to evade the tax–either by delaying their shopping until the tax expired or shopping elsewhere. Stores would be forced to eat most of the tax if they wanted to keep their customers coming to the store during the spike. If the increase were permanent no such evasion would be possible and stores would fully pass the tax to the customer. In the long run such evasion would be difficult or impossible so prices would rise enough to pass the tax along to the customer.

A sales tax holiday, and the attendant publicity that comes with it, pushes shoppers to hit the stores during that period. Savvy store owners respond by holding more sales before and after the holiday, knowing that the holiday makes makes such sales unnecessary. Studies on tax holidays confirm this behavior. 

Sales tax holidays not only fail to save shoppers any money but they also allow politicians to pretend they are doing a tax favor for their constituents, and help convince a few voters that their state’s tax code isn’t all that bad after all. The reality is otherwise. 

Why Tax Credits Aren’t Controversial & Why They Should Be

Ah, tax credits. The answer to all of our environmental, social, and urban cares. Or so they say.

This spring, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) cheerfully joined forces to expand the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program. Their bill was subsequently referred to the Senate Finance Committee, which Hatch chairs. LIHTC provides select developers with tax credits for building affordable housing units, and the newly minted Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act of 2016 would enlarge the LIHTC program by 50%, which puts the program at about $11 billion annually. If it’s anything like previous expansions of the program, it will surely draw broad bi-partisan support.

This brings us to a rather heartwarming aspect of tax credit programs more generally: tax credits appeal to democrats and republicans alike. In an age of acute political polarization, such collaboration seems to be the essence of civility and fraternization that the American public so longs for. Or is it?

Enter the alternative hypothesis: tax credits get a free pass because people think that tax credits are free. Unfortunately, as Milton Friedman said, TANSTAAFL, or “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” and someone, somewhere paid for that hotdog and chips. So the question is who’s paying for tax credits?

The answer – if you’re not utilizing the credits – is probably you. That is because although select businesses or individuals are writing off taxes owed, the total U.S. tax burden is consistent or growing. Unlike across-the-board cuts that reduce taxes for everyone and are designed to support economic growth, LIHTC and other tax credit programs choose special businesses or individuals to reduce taxes for. So in the absence of reductions in spending, you’re just moving the money around, akin to any other direct subsidy (e.g. ethanol). When Uncle Sam needs to collect, the American tax payer is still on the hook.

Of course indirectly, we all “pay” for tax credits due to the slower economic growth caused by the misallocation of capital.

What’s more, tax credits operate outside of the annual Congressional appropriations process, and do not appear as an expenditure on the federal budget. In other words, a tax credit program may be completely ineffective at accomplishing program goals and never warrant so much as a side-eye come budget season.

This is particularly problematic for LIHTC, which National Bureau of Economic Research, Journal of Housing Economics, and Journal of Public Economics studies all found subsidize affordable units by displacing affordable units that would otherwise be provided by the private market. Economist Ed Glaeser agrees: “current research finds that LIHTC is not very effective along any important dimension—other than to benefit developers and their investors.” In other words, rather than improving welfare, LIHTC may actually just improve corporate welfare.

In the case of LIHTC and other tax credit programs, regular budgetary oversight would provide an opportunity to determine whether there is a better use for our collective resources, whether the program is achieving its objectives, and whether the country has the political will to continue supporting the program. Yet tax credit programs are protected from these basic questions by their very design.

And that is why tax credits are a problem. But out of sight on the federal budget outlay, out of mind. In the meantime, Congress will continue to play a cute little bipartisan game until American taxpayers get suspicious about all of that celebrated bipartisan collaboration happening in Washington.