Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Hillary’s Housing Policy Prescription

Yesterday, Hillary announced her latest policy prescription to increase low-cost housing: don’t hold your breath, it’s anything but original. The basic prescription is simply to double down on tax subsidies for housing developers. 

To that end, Hillary proposes enlarging the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program and shifting the tax burden from housing developers and financial institutions back to taxpayers.

Here are a few reasons she should reconsider:

  1. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit program (hereafter “the subsidy”) crowds out market-provided low-cost housing. That means taxpayers are paying for low-cost housing that would otherwise be provided by the market for free.
  2. The IRS has proven entirely inept in its role as administrator of the subsidy. This is not a controversial point (the Government Accountability Office agrees).
  3. The subsidy has a highly fragmented, complex system of delivery, which means it is inefficient, and by extension, expensive.
  4. As a consequence, the subsidy doesn’t even stack up well against comparable housing subsidies: research describes the subsidy as 19-44% more expensive than comparable housing subsidies.
  5. To make matters worse, the subsidy is often not viable as a stand-alone. Forty percent or more of housing units receiving this subsidy end up utilizing other subsidies, while they’re at it.
  6. The subsidy is a tax expenditure and as such does not appear as an outlay on the federal budget. This means that Congress never has to confront any of the problems noted to this point.

Still unconvinced? Here are a few more reasons why expansions of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program should be opposed.

Review of Side Effects and Complications: The Economic Consequences of Health-Care Reform

In the latest issue of Cato Journal, I review Casey Mulligan’s book, Side Effects and Complications: The Economic Consequences of Health-Care Reform.

Some ACA supporters claim that, aside from a reduction in the number of uninsured, there is no evidence the ACA is having the effects Mulligan predicts. The responsible ones note that it is difficult to isolate the ACA’s effects, given that it was enacted at the nadir of the Great Recession, that anticipation and implementation of its provisions coincided with the recovery, and that administrative and congressional action have delayed implementation of many of its taxes on labor (the employer mandate, the Cadillac tax). There is ample evidence that, at least beneath the aggregate figures, employers and workers are responding to the ACA’s implicit taxes on labor…

Side Effects and Complications brings transparency to a law whose authors designed it to be opaque.

Have a look (pp. 734-739).

The Unsung Economic Success Story of New Zealand

When writing a few days ago about the newly updated numbers from Economic Freedom of the World, I mentioned in passing that New Zealand deserves praise “for big reforms in the right direction.”

And when I say big reforms, this isn’t exaggeration or puffery.

Back in 1975, New Zealand’s score from EFW was only 5.60. To put that in perspective, Greece’s score today is 6.93 and France is at 7.30. In other words, New Zealand was a statist basket cast 40 years ago, with a degree of economic liberty akin to where Ethiopia is today and below the scores we now see in economically unfree nations such as Ukraine and Pakistan.

But then policy began to move in the right direction; between 1985 and 1995 especially, the country became a Mecca for market-oriented reforms. The net result is that New Zealand’s score dramatically improved and it is now comfortably ensconced in the top-5 for economic freedom, usually trailing only Hong Kong and Singapore.

To appreciate what’s happened in New Zealand, let’s look at excerpts from a 2004 speech by Maurice McTigue, who served in the New Zealand parliament and held several ministerial positions.

He starts with a description of the dire situation that existed prior to the big wave of reform.

Growth in Federal Worker Pay Slows

New data on worker pay in the government and private sector has been released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. There is good news: the pace of federal pay increases slowed during 2015, while the pace of private-sector pay increases picked up. 

After increasing 3.9 percent in 2014, average compensation for federal government civilian workers increased 1.9 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, average private-sector compensation increased 1.4 percent in 2014, but then sped up to a 3.8 percent increase in 2015.

Private workers thus closed the pay gap a little with federal workers in 2015, but there is a lot of catch up to do. In 2015 federal workers had average compensation (wages plus benefits) of $123,160, which was 76 percent higher than the private-sector average of $69,901. This essay examines the data in more detail.

Average federal compensation grew much faster than average private-sector compensation during the 1990s and 2000s. But the figure shows that federal increases have roughly equaled private-sector increases since 2010. President Obama modestly reined in federal pay increases after the spendthrift Bush years. Will the next president continue the restraint?

 

For background on federal pay issues and the BEA data, see here.

 

Is Mobility a Right or a Privilege?

Michael Lind, a co-founder of left-leaning New America, is urging the federal government to create universal mobility accounts that would give everyone an income tax credit, or, if they owe no taxes, a direct subsidy to cover the costs of driving. He argues that social mobility depends on personal mobility, and personal mobility depends on access to a car, so therefore everyone should have one.

This is an interesting departure from the usual progressive argument that cars are evil and we should help the poor by spending more on transit. Lind responds to this view saying that transit and transit-oriented developments “can help only at the margins.” He applauds programs that help low-income people acquire inexpensive, used automobiles, but–again–thinks they are not enough.

Lind is virtually arguing that automobile ownership is a human right that should be denied to no one because of poverty. While I agree that auto ownership can do a lot more to help people out of poverty than more transit subsidies, claiming that cars are a human right goes a little to far.

Did The U.S. Lose 2.4 Million Jobs from China Imports?

A major Wall Street Journal article claims, “A group of economists that includes Messrs. Hanson and Autor estimates that Chinese competition was responsible for 2.4 million jobs lost in the U.S. between 1999 and 2011.”  In a recent interview with the Minneapolis Fed, however, David Autor said, “That 2 million number is something of an upper bound, as we stress.” The central estimate was a 10% job loss which works out to 1.2 million jobs in 2011, rather than 2.4 million.  Since 2011, however, the U.S. added 600,000 manufacturing jobs – while imports from China rose by 21% – so both the job loss estimate and its alleged link to trade (rather than recession) need a second look.

“The China Shock,” by David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson examined the effect of manufactured imports from one country (China) on local U.S. labor markets. That is interesting and useful as far as it goes.  But a microeconomic model designed for local “commuting zones” cannot properly be extended to the entire national economy without employing a macroeconomic model.  

For one thing, the authors look only at one side of trade – imports – and only between two countries.  They ignore rising U.S. exports to China - including soaring U.S. service exports to China.  They are at best discussing one side of bilateral trade. And they fail to consider spillover effects of China’s soaring imports from other countries (such as Australia, Hong Kong and Canada) which were then able to use the extra income to buy more U.S. exports. 

Autor, Dorn and Hanson offer a seemingly rough estimate that “had import competition not grown after 1999” then there would have been 10% more U.S. manufacturing jobs in 2011.  In that hypothetical “if-then” sense, they suggest that “direct import competition [could] amount to 10 percent of the realized job loss” from 1999 to 2011. 

The Reason Why the Poverty Rate Fell

The massive decline in the U.S. poverty rate reported today by the Census (it fell from 14.8% of all families below to the poverty line to just 13.5%, the largest drop since the 1960s) may have come as a surprise to many economists and political commentators but it should not have. The one thing we have learned from the last three business cycles is that the poor benefit greatly from sustained economic growth.

When a recession occurs the unemployment rate can fall quickly, but it usually takes a long time before it returns to its previous pre-recession levels. no matter how aggressive our infrastructure spending may be. What eventually helps low-income workers is an economy where labor–skilled and unskilled–becomes difficult to find. When that happens companies bid against one another to find workers or else become creative-perhaps by investing in labor-saving equipment or else taking a chance on workers who haven’t been in the labor market for a while and don’t have the most sterling resumes.

When the unemployment rate approached 4.5% in the late 1990s poverty rates also declined significantly, as wages all across the income distribution grew steadily. Productivity grew smartly as well during this time–while the facile explanation for this was that businesses finally managed to take advantage of IT innovations, the same companies that were using IT to boost productivity were also the same ones that hire lots of low income workers (i.e. big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target) and they had every incentive to figure out how to do more with fewer workers, who were becoming more expensive. In Chicago the grocery chain Dominick’s sought out people living in government housing projects and spent significant resources training them to work for them, with surprising success. In Peoria another grocery chain, Kroger’s, worked with a local social service organization to train and employ young adults with Down Syndrome to work in their stores, also with a great deal of success. With luck more firms will have the need to get creative on employment soon.