Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

The False Promise of “Buy American”

If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, where will President Trump turn when his “America First” policies lay waste to the very people he professes to be helping?

The ideas conjured by “Buy American” may appeal to many of President Trump’s supporters, but the phrase is merely a euphemism for doling political spoils, featherbedding, and protectionism. The president may score points with union bosses, import-competing producers, and some workers, but at great expense to taxpayers, workers and businesses more broadly.

Cordoning off the estimated $1.7 trillion U.S. government procurement market to U.S. suppliers would mean higher price tags, fewer projects funded, and fewer people hired. In today’s globalized economy, where supply chains are transnational and direct investment crosses borders, finding products that meet the U.S.-made definition is no easy task, as many consist of components made in multiple countries. And by precluding foreign suppliers from bidding, any short-term increases in U.S. economic activity and jobs likely would be offset by lost export sales – and the jobs that go with them – on account of copycat protectionism abroad.

Privatize Washington’s Metro System

Some members of Congress are considering restructuring DC Metro’s management and oversight. Big reforms are needed given the disastrous service, safety, and financial performance of the system in recent years.

Why not privatize Metro? Countries around the world have been privatizing their transportation infrastructure in order to improve management and efficiency. Privatizing Metro buses would be straightforward, but even privatizing the subway system would not be an unheard of reform.

Hong Kong privatized its subway system in 2000. In a recent study on infrastructure, McKinsey reported:

Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation has defied the odds and delivered significant financial and social benefits: excellent transit, new and vibrant neighborhoods, opportunities for real-estate developers and small businesses, and the conservation of open space. The whole system operates on a self-sustaining basis, without the need for direct taxpayer subsidies.

MTR’s railway system covers 221 kilometers and is used by more than five million people each weekday. It not only performs well—trains run on schedule 99.9 percent of the time—but actually makes a profit: $1.5 billion in 2014. MTR fares are also relatively low compared with those of metro systems in other developed cities. The average fare for an MTR trip in 2014 was less than $1.00, well under base fares in Tokyo (about $1.50), New York ($2.75), and Stockholm (about $4.00).

That sounds pretty darn good. The average fare on the DC Metro is about $3. The on-time record of Metro is unclear, but in technical terms I think “crappy” best describes it. Note that Hong Kong’s 99.9 percent on-time record means that “of the average 5.2 million passenger trips made on the MTR heavy rail and light rail networks on each normal weekday, 5.195 million passengers safely reach their destinations within 5 minutes of their scheduled arrival times.” In 2014, “the system ran for 120 consecutive days without a single delay over eight minutes.” Wow.

That stellar performance induces strong demand for the Hong Kong system, which in turn generates high fare revenues. The ratio of passenger fares to operating costs is a high 185 percent, which means that fares fully cover operating costs and part of capital costs. MTR raises other funds for capital from real estate deals under which it gains from land value increases near stations. The Hong Kong system is profitable and unsubsidized. By contrast, the average ratio of fares to operating costs for U.S. subway systems is just 46 percent, and the systems are heavily subsidized.

The MTR is probably the best-run subway system in the world. The system is an “immaculately clean, well-signposted, cheap, regular, convenient system.” And there’s free Wi-Fi in most stations.

The system is so admired that MTR has been contracted to run systems in other cities. CNN says: “MTR Corporation now operates the London Overground, and two lines of the Beijing Metro, as well as parts of the Shenzhen and Hangzhou Metro systems in China, the Melbourne Metro in Australia and the Stockholm Metro in Sweden … London Overground enhanced its punctuality from 88.4% in 2007 to 96.7% in 2013 after MTR took over its operation for a year.”

Can we get MTR Corporation to expand into Washington? Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans wants a federal takeover of Metro, but how about a private takeover?

Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment

As Obama administration officials head for the door at the Department of the Treasury, they have released a new study on infrastructure. The study—completed by outside consultants—profiles 40 large transportation and water projects that the authors believe would generate economic growth.

For each project, the study gives the estimated benefits, costs, and benefit-cost ratio. Many of the 40 projects appear to be worthwhile, such as an $8 billion Hampton Roads highway project with a benefit-cost ratio of 4.0. The report is silent on who should fund each project, but such high returns suggest that the states have a strong incentive to invest by themselves without aid from Washington.

What the states need from Washington is not money but to get out of the way. The Treasury report suggests that some “major challenges to completion” of projects are imposed by governments.

One challenge is “significantly increased capital costs:”

Capital costs of transportation and water infrastructure have increased much faster than the general rate of inflation over the past 20 years … Increased capital costs are also a product of enhanced design standards and regulatory requirements related to performance, safety, environmental protection, reliability, and resiliency.

Another challenge is “extended program and project review and permitting processes:”

Successful completion of the review and permitting processes required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions, is an important part of project development. NEPA helps promote efforts to prevent or eliminate damage to the environment, but has also extended the schedule and generally increased the cost of implementing major infrastructure projects. This is a long-standing challenge that has spanned the last 20 to 30 years. Studies conducted for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) concluded that the average time to complete a NEPA study increased from 2.2 years in the 1970s, to 4.4 years in the 1980s, to 5.1 years in the 1995 to 2001 period, to 6.6 years in 2011.

Other FHWA data show that the number of environmental laws and executive orders creating barriers to transportation projects increased from 26 in 1970 to about 70 today, as shown in the chart below sourced from a trade association.

The upshot? The incoming Trump administration can spur infrastructure investment by working with Congress to repeal rules that unnecessarily delay projects and increase costs. Other steps include cutting the corporate tax rate to increase private investment and ending the bias against the private provision of facilities such as airports.

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

 

Devolving Federal Lands

The federal government owns 28 percent of the land in the United States, including about half of the land in the 11 westernmost states. Federal agencies are poor land managers in many ways, and the government’s top-down regulations on land use are frustrating to many Westerners, as I discuss in studies here and here.

Much federal land would generate more value if it were owned by the states or the private sector. Economic and environmental needs would be better balanced by local policymakers than by the unaccountable bureaucracies in faraway Washington. Increased federal control over lands does not automatically benefit the environment, as liberals seem to think. Instead, it usually creates disincentives for sound environmental management.

The good news is that the House took a step toward devolving federal lands yesterday, as reported by the Washington Post:

House Republicans on Tuesday changed the way Congress calculates the cost of transferring federal lands to the states and other entities, a move that will make it easier for members of the new Congress to cede federal control of public lands.

Many Republicans, including House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), have been pushing to hand over large areas of federal land to state and local authorities, on the grounds that they will be more responsive to the concerns of local residents.

But…

Rep. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter Tuesday to fellow Democrats urging them to oppose the rules package on the basis of that proposal.

“The House Republican plan to give away America’s public lands for free is outrageous and absurd,” Grijalva said in a statement. “This proposed rule change would make it easier to implement this plan by allowing the Congress to give away every single piece of property we own, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value.”

Rep. Grijalva gets it backwards. Devolving ownership would increase the value of federal lands to Americans, not reduce it. And far from being “outrageous and absurd,” devolution was the general policy of the government for much of the nations’ history. The federal government privatized 792 million acres of land between 1781 and 1940, and it transferred 470 million acres of land to the states.

President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee to head the Department of the Interior apparently lean against devolving federal lands. But I hope they reconsider, as there are 640 million acres of diverse lands we are talking about here. I am not saying that we should privatize Yellowstone. But what about the Bureau of Land Management’s 250 million acres, which is mainly used for cattle grazing?

Today, artificially low federal grazing fees encourage overgrazing. Federal ownership also makes ranchers insecure about their tenures, such that they have an incentive to overstock grazing lands and a disincentive to make long-term investments to improve the lands. Privatizing grazing lands would create more secure property rights, and thus encourage ranchers to improve their stewardship of the lands. That would benefit the economy and the environment.

A good first step for the Trump administration would be to create a detailed inventory of federal land holdings. Then the administration should work with Congress and the states to identify those parcels that might be better managed by state and local governments, nonprofit groups, and businesses.

 

Concerns about the”Border Adjustable” Tax Plan from the House GOP, Part II

I wrote yesterday to praise the Better Way tax plan put forth by House Republicans, but I added a very important caveat: The “destination-based” nature of the revised corporate income tax could be a poison pill for reform.

I listed five concerns about a so-called destination-based cash flow tax (DBCFT), most notably my concerns that it would undermine tax competition (folks on the left think it creates a “race to the bottom” when governments have to compete with each other) and also that it could (because of international trade treaties) be an inadvertent stepping stone for a government-expanding value-added tax.

Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has just authored a new study on the DBCFT. Here’s his summary description of the tax.

The DBCFT would be a new type of corporate income tax that disallows any deductions for imports while also exempting export-related revenue from taxation. This mercantilist system is based on the same “destination” principle as European value-added taxes, which means that it is explicitly designed to preclude tax competition.

Since CF&P was created to protect and promote tax competition, you won’t be surprised to learn that the DBCFT’s anti-tax competition structure is a primary objection to this new tax.

First, the DBCFT is likely to grow government in the long-run due to its weakening of international tax competition and the loss of its disciplinary impact on political behavior. … Tax competition works because assets are mobile. This provides pressure on politicians to keep rates from climbing too high. When the tax base shifts heavily toward immobile economic activity, such competition is dramatically weakened. This is cited as a benefit of the tax by those seeking higher and more progressive rates. …Alan Auerbach, touts that the DBCFT “alleviates the pressure to reduce the corporate tax rate,” and that it would “alter fundamentally the terms of international tax competition.” This raises the obvious question—would those businesses and economists that favor the DBCFT at a 20% rate be so supportive at a higher rate?

Brian also shares my concern that the plan may morph into a VAT if the WTO ultimately decides that is violates trade rules.

Second, the DBCFT almost certainly violates World Trade Organization commitments. …Unfortunately, it is quite possible that lawmakers will try to “fix” the tax by making it into an actual value-added tax rather than something that is merely based on the same anti-tax competition principles as European-style VATs. …the close similarity of the VAT and the DBCFT is worrisome… Before VATs were widely adopted, European nations featured similar levels of government spending as the United States… Feeding at least in part off the easy revenue generate by their VATs, European nations grew much more drastically over the last half century than the United States and now feature higher burdens of government spending. The lack of a VAT-like revenue engine in the U.S. constrained efforts to put the United States on a similar trajectory as European nations.

And if you’re wondering why a VAT would be a bad idea, here’s a chart from Brian’s paper showing how the burden of government spending in Europe increased once that tax was imposed.

Concerns about the”Border Adjustable” Tax Plan from the House GOP, Part I

The Republicans in the House of Representatives, led by Ways & Means Chairman Kevin Brady and Speaker Paul Ryan, have proposed a “Better Way” tax plan that has many very desirable features.

And there are many other provisions that would reduce penalties on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. No, it’s not quite a flat tax, which is the gold standard of tax reform, but it is a very pro-growth initiative worthy of praise.

That being said, there is a feature of the plan that merits closer inspection. The plan would radically change the structure of business taxation by imposing a 20 percent tax on all imports and providing a special exemption for all export-related income. This approach, known as “border adjustability,” is part of the plan to create a “destination-based cash flow tax” (DBCFT).

When I spoke about the Better Way plan at the Heritage Foundation last month (my portion of the panel starts about 1:11:00 if you want to skip ahead), I highlighted the good features of the plan in the first few minutes of my brief remarks, but raised my concerns about the DBCFT in my final few minutes.

Allow me to elaborate on those comments with five specific worries about the proposal.

Navy Corruption Scandal

The Washington Post has published another report on the Glenn Defense Navy scandal. For more than a decade, the head of Glenn Defense, Leonard Glenn Francis, cozied up to Navy leaders in the Pacific to win lucrative contracts for resupplying ships. He cashed in on overpriced contracts and fraudulent invoices, and he had numerous moles inside the Navy to ensure his continued enrichment.

Francis wined and dined Navy officers, providing them with gifts, prostitutes, and other favors to get their help and protection. The episode is appalling in so many ways, and it has disturbing implications: If Navy officers were so easily seduced by this Singapore con artist, are leaders in other military and intelligence services just as vulnerable to old-fashioned, low-tech bribes?

Here are some highlights from the Post:

The Navy allowed the worst corruption scandal in its history to fester for several years by dismissing a flood of evidence that the rotund Asian defense contractor was cheating the service out of millions of dollars and bribing officers with booze, sex and lavish dinners, newly released ­documents show.

The Singapore-based contractor, Leonard Glenn Francis, found it especially easy to outwit the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), the renowned law enforcement agency that has inspired one of the longest-running cop shows on television.

Starting in 2006, in response to a multitude of fraud complaints, NCIS opened 27 separate investigations into Francis’s company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia. In each of those instances, however, NCIS closed the case after failing to dig up sufficient evidence to take action against the firm, according to hundreds of pages of law enforcement records ­obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act.

Known as Fat Leonard for his 350-pound physique, Francis held lucrative contracts to resupply U.S. warships and submarines in ports throughout Asia. He was also legendary within the Navy for throwing hedonistic parties, often with prostitutes, to entertain sailors.

Other Navy documents obtained by The Post show that staffers at U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters were so worried about the potential for trouble that they drafted a new ethics policy to discourage Navy personnel from accepting favors from Francis. But their effort was blocked for more than two years by admirals who were friendly with the contractor, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Despite rising signs of widespread fraud, the Navy kept awarding business to Francis’s company. In 2011, Glenn Defense won deals valued at $200 million to service U.S. vessels at ports stretching from the Russian Far East to Australia.

Besides Francis, 12 people — including an admiral and nine other Navy personnel — have pleaded guilty to federal crimes. Five other defendants still face charges.

Justice Department officials say there is no end in sight to the investigation and that 200 people have fallen under scrutiny. Among them are about 30 current or retired admirals, according to Navy ­officials.

… In exchange for paid sex with prostitutes, cash and luxury vacations, Francis’s informants fed him a near-daily diet of classified material and inside information that enabled him to keep gouging the Navy and outfox his pursuers for years, according to court records.

A prior Washington Post story on the scandal is here.

A study examining federal bureaucratic failure is here.