California, Here We Come

Next week the Cato Institute will hold seminars in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. The program is the same both places.

Leda Cosmides, one of the world’s leading evolutionary psychologists, will kick things off at 11 a.m. with a talk on our intuitive ideas about fairness and justice. Then Cato’s Michael Tanner will warn about the horrors of Obamacare and Dan Mitchell will tell us that it doesn’t matter because the country’s going to be bankrupt anyway.  Former California congressman and Senate candidate, and potential governor, Tom Campbell will wrap things up after lunch with a  discussion of the state’s fiscal predicament.

A sobering program for sobering times. Sign up now!

Taxpayers and the Federal Diary

The Federal Diary column in the Washington Post is a curious piece of newspaper real estate. Most newspaper columns are aimed at the broad general public, but this column is aimed directly at the few hundred thousand government workers in the DC region. The result is that it takes a very government- and union-centric view of the world. The fact that the federal civilian workforce costs taxpayers an enormous $300 billion or so every year is beside the point for the column.

In a briefing with reporters yesterday, the head of the Office of Personnel Management complained about a Lou Dobbs television bit that featured this data that I assembled from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The Federal Diary columnist called me yesterday about the data, and I explained to him the shortcomings of the OPM claims that federal workers are underpaid.

Unfortunately, the Federal Diary today simply parrots the OPM’s claims, calling the Dobbs/Edwards/BEA data “misleading.” Yet this data clearly shows that federal compensation has taken off like a rocket this decade.

Today’s column, like many of the Federal Diary columns, is about how to improve the pay, benefits, and working conditions of federal workers. What about the taxpayers who foot the bill? To provide some balance, the Post ought to at least have a side-by-side column entitled “Federal Taxpayers’ Diary.”

Prop 13 and the California Fiscal Crisis

In the Washington Post today, columnist Harold Meyerson blames 1978’s Proposition 13 for today’s budget mess in California. That claim is not supported by the data.

First note that California’s current fiscal crisis is in its state budget. Prop 13 puts restraints on local property taxes.

Second, the most recent Census data show that total state and local general revenues in California were $293 billion in fiscal 2006. Of that, $37 billion was property tax revenue, or  just 13 percent of the total. Meyerson is arguing that that level of property taxes is too low, but it is hard to see how the recent crisis could have been caused by a three-decade old constraint on such a small fraction of overall state and local revenues.

Third, on a per-capita basis, California is in the middle of the pack on property tax collections, thus even though property taxes were cut three decades ago, California governments still get a decent pound of flesh from property owners in the state.

Fourth, Prop 13 placed a supermajority requirement on state tax increases, which Meyerson laments. But that restraint has certainly not led to undertaxation in California. After an initial dip in total state/local tax revenues as a share of income in the late-1970s, California’s tax take has been steady or rising. Estimates for 2008 put the state sixth highest with respect to state and local taxes as a percentage of state incomes.

Virginians’ Happiness Frustrates DMV

Showing off those pearly whites frustrates facial recognition software used by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, so DMV workers are instructing motorists not to smile for their driver license photos. It’s a story worthy of The Onion, but it’s apparently true.

Facial recognition is just another way that governments are looking to keep tabs on citizens and residents. The need for specific no-smiling instructions will recede over time as national ID systems facilitate government control and make life in America naturally unhappy.

Secretary of Behavior Modification

George Will recently accused Obama’s token Republican, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, of being the “Secretary for Behavior Modification” because of his support for programs designed to coerce people into driving less. Speaking before the National Press Club on May 21, LaHood pleaded guilty as charged.

In the video of LaHood’s presentation, he was asked if the administration’s “livability initiative” is really “an effort to make driving more tortuous and to coerce people out of their cars.” His answer: “It is a way to coerce people out of their cars, yeah.”

The next question was, “Some conservative groups are wary of the livable communities program, saying it’s an example of government intrusion into people’s lives. How do you respond?” His complete answer: “About everything we do around here is government intrusion in people’s lives.”

While these are certainly quotable, defenders of “livability” (code for “transportation by any mode but automobile”) would be quick to point out that all of LaHood’s examples are aimed at giving people choices other than driving: walkways, bike paths, streetcars, light rail. LaHood never mentions any actual techniques aimed at coercing people out of their cars.

Yet those coercive techniques are a major part of the livability campaign, as shown by Portland, Oregon, which LaHood touted as “the example” of a livability program. The most important of these techniques is to divert highway user fees to expensive forms of transportation that receive little use. Portland is deliberately allowing congestion to grow while it spends money collected from highway users on streetcars and light rail.

Not that Portland’s program is very successful. Despite spending more than $2 billion on rail transit since 1980, transit’s share of Portland-area commuting declined from 9.8 percent in 1980 to 6.9 percent in 2007. (The table says 6.5 percent but that includes the people who worked at home.)

Much of the money that Portland does spend on roads goes into “traffic calming,” a euphemism for “congestion building.” This consists of putting barriers in roads, speed humps, narrowing streets, and turning auto lanes into exclusive bike lanes. Portland’s official objective (see table 1.2) is to allow rush-hour traffic to grow to near-gridlock levels (“level of service F”) on most major freeways and arterials.

“People don’t like spending an hour and a half getting to work,” said LaHood. But if more congestion is a key part of “livability,” then a lot more people are going to be doing that under the administration’s plans.

Beyond not seeing anything wrong with government coercion, LaHood can’t see the difference between transportation systems that pay for themselves (such as the interstate highways) and transportation systems that require huge subsidies (such as streetcars and light rail). “If somebody wants to ride streetcars or light rail to work,” says LaHood, then it is up to the government to provide it for them.

What if someone wants to take a helicopter to work? Or a dirigible or rocketship or a personal limousine? Does LaHood really believe that, just because someone wants something, all other taxpayers should fund it?

When in Congress, LaHood was known as a “moderate Republican.” I guess that is a euphemism for “central planner in waiting.”

Euro VAT for America?

Desperate for fresh revenues to feed the giant spending appetite of President Obama, Democratic policymakers are talking up ‘tax reform’ as a way to reduce the deficit. Some are considering a European-style value-added tax (VAT), which would have a similar effect as a national sales tax, and be a large new burden on American families.

A VAT would raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year for the government, even at a 10-percent rate. The math is simple: total U.S. consumption in 2008 was $10 trillion. VATs usually tax about half of a nation’s consumption or less, say $5 trillion. That means that a 10% VAT would raise about $500 billion a year in the United States, or about $4,300 from every household. Obviously such a huge tax hit would fundamentally change the American economy and society, and for the worse.

Some fiscal experts think that a VAT would solve the government’s budget problems and reduce the deficit, as the Washington Post noted yesterday. That certainly has not happened in Europe where the average VAT rate is a huge 20 percent, and most nations face large budget deficits just as we do. The hard truth for policymakers to swallow is that the only real cure for our federal fiscal crisis is to cut spending.

Liberals like VATs because of the revenue-raising potential, but some conservatives are drawn to the idea of using VAT revenues to reduce the corporate tax rate. The Post story reflected this in noting “A 21 percent VAT has permitted Ireland to attract investment by lowering the corporate tax rate.” That implies that the Irish government lost money when it cut its corporate rate, but actually the reverse happened in the most dramatic way.

Ireland installed a 10% corporate rate for certain industries in the 1980s, but also steadily cut its regular corporate rate during the 1990s. It switched over to a 12.5% rate for all corporations in 2004. OECD data show that as the Irish corporate tax rate fell, corporate tax revenues went through the roof – from 1.6% of GDP in 1990, to 3.7% in 2000, to 3.8% in 2006.

In sum, a VAT would not solve our deficit problems because Congress would simply boost its spending even higher, as happened in Europe as VAT rates increased over time. Also, a VAT is not needed to cut the corporate income tax rate because a corporate rate cut would be self-financing over the long-term as tax avoidance fell and economic growth increased.