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Posts Tagged ‘Republicans’

I periodically try to explain that there’s a big difference between being pro-market and pro-business.

Simply stated, policy makers shouldn’t try to penalize businesses with taxes, mandates, and regulations.

But neither should politicians seek to subsidize businesses. That’s why I’m against bailouts, subsidies, and other distortions that provide special favors for politically connected companies.

I have nothing against companies earning money, to be sure, but I want them to earn their profits in the marketplace rather than lining their pockets by using the coercive power of government to rig the rules of the game.

But I don’t just have disdain for companies that stick their snouts in the public trough. I also have little regard for the politicians that enable this sordid type of business by trading campaign cash for corporate welfare.

I realize that’s a strong assertion, but I can’t think of any legitimate reason to support handouts for big companies. And I get especially angry when giveaways are facilitated by politicians who claim to support free markets.

Let’s look at two examples, the Export-Import Bank and the Obamacare bailout for big insurance corporations.

I’ve previously argued that the Export-Import Bank is a squalid example of corruption and I’ve shared a video that explains why it’s economically foolish to subsidize a handful of big exporters.

To augment those arguments, here’s some of what Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University Georgia recently wrote in a column for Real Clear Markets. He correctly warns that certain GOP politicians are to blame if the Export-Import Bank stays alive.

The Export-Import Bank is everything that Republicans should stand against. It is crony capitalism at its worst. It is corporate welfare, taxing American families to boost corporate profits. It ever forces firms to potentially subsidize a competitor. There is simply no need for this government agency. Republicans in Congress should make a stand and show voters that Republicans believe in free markets and small government, even if some big businesses complain. The Ex-Im Bank should not be reauthorized. …Over the last decade or so, the Democrats have increasingly become the party of big business, stealing that crown away from Republicans because of the Democrats’ willingness to engage in crony capitalism and actively pick winners and losers in our economy. While Republicans are still thought of as the pro-business party, and other actions by the Democrats are clearly anti-business (Obamacare, environmental over-regulation), large multinational corporations like Boeing and GE have donated money to Democrats and generally profited from their political alliances with them. If Republicans want to make gains among (lower) middle-class voters, one of the things that could help is to convince voters that they are on the side of the people and not big corporations. The Ex-Im Bank reauthorization is a perfect opportunity to do just that. …Income redistribution is wrong especially when the money is going to big and profitable companies.

Ryan Ellis of Americans for Tax Reform agrees. Writing for Forbes, he looks at both the policy and politics of Export-Import Bank handouts.

The ExIm bank is an export subsidy program, giving money to certain companies…in the hopes that gives them a leg up in international trade.  It’s been criticized for decades by free traders and those who simply oppose corporate welfare spending out of Washington. …the ExIm bank will sunset on its own on September 30th.  All Congress has to do is let nature take its course, and this corporate welfare program simply goes away forever.

Sounds like we should have a guaranteed victory from free markets over intervention, right?

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.  Ryan explains that Republicans may shoot themselves in the foot by trying to rescue this reprehensible example of cronyism.

Charging in at the last minute to save ExIm only makes the House GOP look beholden to K Street.  It also looks like they are flip-flopping from where they were back in the summer.  …ExIm reauthorization…is likely to take a GOP grassroots focused on President Obama’s failures and full of midterm election intensity, and turn them inward toward criticism of the House GOP leadership instead. If things go badly with this CR gambit, the House GOP will have given themselves a self inflicted wound just as they are trying to get out of town and not screw up what should be a good year for their candidates.

How nauseating.

I realize that the Export-Import Bank is a relatively minor issue and that I should mostly care about whether politicians do the right think on big topics such as entitlement reform. After all, that’s what really counts if we want to avoid fiscal catastrophe.

But I can’t stop myself from foaming at the mouth when self-proclaimed supporters of free markets undermine the argument for economic liberty with cronyist deals.

Obamacare is another example of big business being against free markets. We already know that the big pharmaceutical firms cut a special deal with the Obama White House.

The big insurance companies also had their snouts in the trough. Not only did they get legislation that mandated the purchase of their products, but they also got language that provides bailouts if they aren’t able to profit from Obamacare.

What’s really amazing, though, is that some Republicans are willing to go along with Obamacare bailouts for those major companies.

The good news is that Florida Senator Marco Rubio is in the right side. Here’s some of what he wrote about bailouts for health insurance companies for Fox News.

 …section 1342 of the ObamaCare law…established so-called “risk corridors”. According to this provision, taxpayers will make up the difference for health insurance companies whose plans lose money under ObamaCare. Last November, as it became clearer what this section of the law actually meant, I introduced legislation repealing it and protecting taxpayers from being forced to cover insurers’ ObamaCare losses. …In recent weeks, the public has learned that senior White House officials have been working closely with insurers behind the scenes to make sure that their earlier bailout deal, which helped assure ObamaCare’s passage in 2010, would stand and that a taxpayer-funded bailout was still, in fact, on the table. …On this ObamaCare bailout, as with so many issues, Washington politicians are misleading average Americans and planning to stick them with the bill. This is government favoritism and corporate cronyism at its worst. …It’s time to repeal and replace it, but at the very least, we should make it the law of the land that health insurers won’t be bailed out by taxpayers.

I’ll also add a moral argument.

As far as I’m concerned, I want the health insurance companies to suffer major losses. I want the business community to see that it’s a mistake to get in bed with big government.

Though I guess I’m actually making a practical argument. I may be motivated by morality, but the companies hopefully will do a cost-benefit analysis and decide that it’s too risky to strike deals with the political class.

By the way, Republicans often do the wrong thing because they’re afraid that voters favor the statist agenda of dependency.

But that’s not the case for Obamacare bailouts for health insurances companies. Here’s some polling data on the issue that showed up on my Twitter feed.

Let’s close by sharing some of what the editors at National Review wrote about both the Obamacare bailout and Export-Import Bank subsidies.

Congressional Republicans keep saying they oppose Obamacare. Yet they’re refusing to take the simplest and easiest action against it. …Some Republicans say that the insurance companies should not be penalized for the defects of the law. Why not? They have freely chosen to participate in the exchanges, and they should bear the risks of that decision — which include the risk that Congress might decide not to shovel tax dollars at them. The alternative, after all, is to punish taxpayers. …The debate over the Export-Import Bank is one test of Republican sincerity about ending corporate welfare. These taxpayer subsidies are another: If Republicans can’t take on corporate welfare when doing so advances one of their party’s most popular and basic commitments, when will they?

Amen. Both of these issues are tests for the GOP.

Actually, they should get added to a long list of issues that tell us whether Republicans have any sincerity (or brains) in the fight against statism.

o No tax increases, since more money for Washington will encourage a bigger burden of government and undermine prosperity.

o To stop bailouts for Europe’s decrepit welfare states, no more money for the International Monetary Fund.

o Reform the biased number-crunching methodology at the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation.

o No more money from American taxpayers to subsidize the left-wing bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

P.S. If you’re in the mood for some dark humor, here’s the federal government’s satirical bailout application form.

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If you like to go along to get along, I suggest you don’t become a libertarian. At least not if you follow politics or work in Washington.

Otherwise, you’re doomed to a life of endlessly pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. Here are three examples.

1. When almost every Republican and Democrat argued for a Keynesian-style stimulus in 2008, libertarians had the lonely job of explaining that you don’t get more growth by increasing the burden of government spending.

2. And when most Republicans and Democrats said we needed a TARP bailout that same year, it was libertarians who futilely argued that the “FDIC-resolution” approach was a far more sensible way of dealing with the government-created crisis.

3. More recently, there were a bunch of stories complaining that 2013 was a very unproductive year for Congress, and libertarians were among the few to state that we’re better off with fewer laws rather than more laws.

The same is true for “bipartisanship.” Almost every pundit, politician, and lobbyist in Washington will extol the virtues of bipartisanship. But what they really mean is that they want both Republicans and Democrats to join arms in a business-as-usual game.

Indeed, the standard libertarian joke is that you get bipartisanship when the Stupid Party and the Evil Party both agree on something. Needless to say, that often means laws that are both stupid and evil.

Which is a good description of Bush’s 2008 stimulus and the corrupt TARP legislation.

But since we’re at the end of the year, I don’t want to get overly depressed. So let’s share some cartoons that celebrate the Murray-Ryan budget, which is the most recent example of “bipartisanship.”

We’ll start with ones that have a Christmas theme.

The politicians were glad to escape the fiscal constraint of sequestration, but Lisa Benson is not overly impressed by their cooperative effort.

Budget Deal Cartoon 8

Gary Varvel isn’t very happy, either.

Budget Deal Cartoon 1

Varvel is very explicit in this cartoon about Democrats and Republicans being united against taxpayers.

Budget Deal Cartoon 4

The bag should have been labelled “spending,” but that’s a minor complaint.

Steve Breen points out that the budget deal achieved three out of four goals.

Budget Deal Cartoon 2

And Michael Ramirez astutely identifies too much spending as the problem and shows that the budget deal did nothing to address that issue.

Budget Deal Cartoon 3

Here’s another Lisa Benson cartoon, though this one focuses on establishment GOPers trying to hook the Tea Party on the demon rum of big government.

Budget Deal Cartoon 5

Sort of reminds me of this great Henry Payne cartoon about Obama and Greece. Or maybe this Nate Beeler cartoon about weak-willed GOPers.

I’ve saved the best for last.

This Glenn McCoy cartoon shows what bipartisanship really means inside the DC beltway.

Budget Deal Cartoon 6

McCoy had another cartoon last year with a similar theme, as did Michael Ramirez.

In closing, I want to say something vaguely optimistic. The Murray-Ryan budget deal was unfortunate, but it was a rather minor setback compared to the kinds of “bipartisan” big-government schemes we got during the Bush years.

It was sort of akin to the fiscal cliff deal at the beginning of the year. Government got a bit bigger and a bit more expensive, but it was peanuts compared to TARP, the prescription drug entitlement, and many of the other schemes that eroded economic liberty last decade.

P.S. Fairness requires that I point out that bipartisanship doesn’t automatically mean bad legislation. The bipartisan 1997 budget deal between the GOP Congress and Bill Clinton cut some taxes and reduced the growth of federal spending. And the successful sequester came about because of the bipartisan 2011 debt limit legislation.

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There’s a saying in the sports world about how last-minute comebacks are examples of “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.”

I don’t like that phrase because it reminds me of the painful way my beloved Georgia Bulldogs were defeated a couple of weeks ago by Auburn.

But I also don’t like the saying because it describes what Obama and other advocates of big government must be thinking now that Republicans apparently are about to do the opposite and “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

More specifically, the GOP appears willing to give away the sequester’s real and meaningful spending restraint and replace that fiscal discipline with a package of gimmicks and new revenues.

I warned last month that something bad might happen to the sequester, but even a pessimist like me didn’t envision such a big defeat for fiscal responsibility.

You may be thinking to yourself that even the “stupid party” couldn’t be foolish enough to save Obama from his biggest defeat, but check out these excerpts from a Wall Street Journal report.

Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), chief negotiators for their parties, are closing in on a deal… At issue are efforts to craft a compromise that would ease across-the-board spending cuts due to take effect in January, known as the sequester, and replace them with a mix of increased fees and cuts in mandatory spending programs.

But the supposed cuts wouldn’t include any genuine entitlement reform. And there would be back-door tax hikes.

Officials familiar with the talks say negotiators are stitching together a package of offsets to the planned sequester cuts that would include none of the major cuts in Medicare or other entitlement programs that Mr. Ryan has wanted… Instead, it would include more targeted and arcane measures, such as increased fees for airport-security and federal guarantees of private pensions.

But the package may get even worse before the ink is dry.

Democrats on Thursday stepped up their demands in advance of the closing days of negotiations between Ms. Murray and Mr. Ryan. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) brought a fresh demand to the table by saying she wouldn’t support any budget deal unless in included or was accompanied by an agreement to renew expanded unemployment benefits that expire before the end of the year—which would be a major threat to any deal.

Gee, wouldn’t that be wonderful. Not only may GOPers surrender the sequester and acquiesce to some tax hikes, but they might also condemn unemployed people to further joblessness and despair.

That’s even worse than the part of the plan that would increase taxes on airline travel to further subsidize the Keystone Cops of the TSA.

But look at the bright side…at least for DC insiders. If the sequester is gutted, that will be a big victory for lobbyists. That means they’ll get larger bonuses, which means their kids will have even more presents under the Christmas tree.

As for the rest of the nation? Well, you can’t make an omelet without scrambling a few eggs.

P.S. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that this looming agreement isn’t as bad as some past budget deals, such as the read-my-lips fiasco of 1990.

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I’m glad I work for a principled and libertarian organization. At the Cato Institute, there’s never any pressure to say or do the wrong thing for partisan reasons.

When Republicans screw up, I don’t have to think twice about exposing their misdeeds.

I have repeatedly criticized President Bush (and his former top aide) for expanding the burden of government. Buying votes with other people’s money isn’t compassionate.

Incurable spendaholics?

I have excoriated former GOP Hill staffers who became lobbyists for various special interests groups looking to fleece taxpayers. Stealing is wrong, even when you get a lot of money to use government as middleman.

I have slammed a former Reagan Administration official for defending earmarks. I think it is morally offensive that he gets rich by facilitating the transfer of money from taxpayers to powerful interest groups.

I have condemned the former Senate Republican leader for defending Obamacare. I think it is disgusting that he puts his lobbying income ahead of America’s best interests.

I have denounced Illinois Republican legislators for killing school choice. I think it is downright nauseating that they condemn inner-city children to terrible schools in exchange for campaign contributions from teacher unions.

And I have pointed out that statist policies don’t become acceptable merely because they come from Republican presidential candidates. The road to serfdom oftentimes is bipartisan.

We now have another candidate for our “Republican Hall of Shame.” The governor of Ohio, John Kasich, is embracing Obamacare. Moreover, not only does he want bad healthcare policy, but he’s using third-world tactics and making morally reprehensible arguments.

The Wall Street Journal savages Kasich in a stinging editorial. Here’s a key excerpt that explains the overall situation.

…there are still a few disciples with faith in an ObamaCare higher power, and one of them happens to run Ohio. Governor John Kasich is so fervent a believer that he is even abusing his executive power to join the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Not to be sacrilegious, but the Republican used to know better. Now Mr. Kasich seems to view signing up for this part of ObamaCare as an act of Christian charity and has literally all but claimed that God told him to do so.

But Gov. Kasich has a slight problem. The legislature hasn’t approved this budget-busting part of Obamacare. So Kasich has decided that he can arbitrarily change policy, just like Obama did with the employer mandate and the Obamacare exemption for Capitol Hill.

The problem is that his evangelizing failed to convert the Ohio legislature, which is run by Republicans who understand the brutal budget and regulatory realities of participating in new Medicaid. So Mr. Kasich simply decided to cut out Ohio’s elected representatives and expand Medicaid by himself. …he appealed to an obscure seven-member state panel called the Controlling Board, which oversees certain state capital expenditures and can receive or make grants. …Mr. Kasich asked the panel to approve $2.56 billion in federal funding, and then he’ll lift eligibility levels via executive fiat. It’s a gambit worthy of President Obama, who also asserts unilateral powers to suspend laws that displease him and bypass Congress.

But what’s really nauseating is that Kasich equates big government and welfare spending with religious values.

Mr. Kasich really must feel like he’s guided by the Holy Spirit… “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor,” to quote one of his favorite lines.

I suppose I could make a joke about communists presumably being super religious if you use this twisted metric, but there’s a serious point to be made. I’m not a religious scholar, but I wrote several years ago that, “Doesn’t Christianity (and, I assume, Judaism and other faiths) require individuals – using free will – to act charitably? Using the coercive power of government to forcibly redistribute other people’s money, by contrast, is moral preening at best.”

Moreover, Kasich must be delusional if he thinks making government bigger is good for the poor. Redistribution traps the poor in dependency and a larger public sector hinders economic growth, making life even more difficult for the less fortunate.

Heck, just compare Hong Kong and Argentina over the past 50-plus years and ask yourself which jurisdiction afforded more opportunity for those trying to climb the economic ladder.

Fortunately, the battle isn’t over yet.

Thirty-nine House Republicans signed a formal protest and some of them are threatening to sue, and well they should. They argue that circumventing the legislature subverts the Ohio constitution’s separation of powers and exceeds the statutory legal authorities of the Controlling Board, which is supposed to “take no action which does not carry out the legislative intent of the General Assembly.”

I don’t know whether a legal case will be successful, but I can share data showing that Ohio already is in deep fiscal trouble.

It ranks 39th in the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index.

It was the 7th-worst state on controlling spending over the past decade.

It ranks in the bottom 10 on measures of bureaucrats to teachers.

It was listed as one of America’s 11 states facing an economic death spiral.

And John “Barack” Kasich thinks he’ll make Ohio better by adding an additional layer of government spending to finance Obamacare expansion?!?

What makes this situation so sad is that Kasich was Chairman of the House Budget Committee in the mid-1990s, so he deserves some of the credit for restraining federal spending during that period, a very successful policy that led to better economic performance and budget surpluses.

P.S. Kasich’s push to expand Medicaid shows one of the reasons the program should be reformed. He’s being lured by the promise that Washington will pick up the entire tab for the first few years. Afterwards, state taxpayers will get saddled with some of the burden, but Kasich probably assumes he won’t be around to deal with that problem. This is why the entire program should be block-granted to the states. If Kasich really thinks God wants a bigger Medicaid system, he should go to Ohio voters and ask them to pay for it.

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I sometimes make fun of Republicans for being the “Stupid Party,” but I get genuinely agitated when they’re the “Statist Party.”

You can forgive someone for not being intelligent, after all, but it’s much harder to look the other way when they deliberately and knowingly do the wrong thing.

And that seems to be a good description of how the GOP handled the recent farm bill.

Farm subsidiesFirst, some background. The farm bill traditionally has also been the legislation that funded food stamps. The special interests adopted this approach because it created an unholy alliance of big-city Democrats and farm-state Republicans, with both groups agreeing to support each other’s wasteful spending.

Advocates of smaller government have long objected to this arrangement for the simple reason that neither agriculture subsidies nor food subsidies are proper functions of the federal government.

So it seemed like good news when the House of Representatives defeated a $1 trillion farm bill last month. And it seemed like even better news when House GOP leaders announced that they would separate the farm subsidies and food stamps into separate pieces of legislation.

But here’s where we run into problems. The insiders and special interests who are cozy with the GOP used this new approach as an excuse to increase the role of the federal government!

I’m not joking. Darren Bakst of the Heritage Foundation explains what happened.

When the House leadership first announced it would separately consider the food stamp and farm components of the “farm” bill, it looked like they got the message that current farm policy was in dire need of reform. With separation, real reform to rein in market-distorting programs and special interest handouts could finally happen. But now that separation has occurred, they’ve forgotten the very reason why separation was needed in the first place. …With the passage of this bill, the House has gone even further to the left than the Senate bill. It would spend more money than Obama on the largest farm program, crop insurance. …In fact, they made this new bill even worse—by making sneaky changes to the bill text so that some of the costliest and most indefensible programs no longer expire after five years, but live on indefinitely. This means the sugar program that drives up food prices will be harder to change, because it doesn’t automatically expire. It also means the new and radical shallow loss program that covers even minor losses for farmers will indefinitely be a part of the law.

To be fair, there were a few changes that arguably moved the ball in the right direction.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal opined.

The new farm bill still has more subsidies than is desirable, especially amid a booming agriculture economy and record land prices. The supports for prospering sugar and dairy farmers are especially dreary. Republicans defeated a proposal by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan to put income limits for receiving subsidies, so “farmers” with non-farm incomes of nearly $1 million a year can still dun taxpayers. But at least the bill spends $20 billion less over 10 years than current law. One major reform is the repeal of a 1949 law that reinstates New Deal-era production controls and price supports if Congress failed to pass a new bill.

I’m not an expert on agriculture subsidies, but I think the Heritage Foundation has a stronger argument. In any event, it’s unambiguously true that House Republicans didn’t use this opportunity to approve big, pro-market reforms.

Moreover, the Republicans have left themselves wide open to the charge that they’re perfectly happy to subsidize rich contributors while not subsidizing those with modest incomes.

Ross Douthat was very critical of the GOP ploy in his New York Times column.

It should go without saying that America’s agriculture policy has always been a terrible, stupid, counterproductive exercise in self-dealing cronyism. But when House Republicans severed the traditional connection, arbitrary but politically effective, between farm subsidies and food stamps, it briefly seemed like they were looking for an opportunity to put libertarian populist principle into practice, by separating both outlays in order to trim or reform both separately. But no — instead they were just making it easier for the party’s congressmen to vote for a bloated, awful big government program that benefits mostly-Republican states and interest groups, knowing that they weren’t also voting for something that pays out to the (mostly-Democratic) poor as well. This is egregious whatever you think of the food stamp program… Practically any conception of the common good, libertarian or communitarian or anywhere in between, would produce better policy than a factionally-driven approach of further subsidizing the rich.

Sort of confirms my argument that the worst people in Washington are GOP insiders.

Needless to say, this approach creates a big opening for the left, as illustrated by this cartoon.

Big Ag GOP

But the reason this cartoon is effective is that it is based on reality. Republicans did push through a wasteful farm bill. And they don’t have any plans to deal with the food stamp component.

And even though there will be some agreement on food stamps, the GOP has left itself open to the charge that they want handouts for their rich friends and nothing for the poor.

From a libertarian perspective, I don’t care if Republicans open themselves up to unflattering stereotypes.

But I do want to abolish the Department of Agriculture at some point. And I also want to clean up the cesspool of corruption in Washington by shrinking the size and scope of the federal government.

Unfortunately, we seem to be moving in the wrong direction and the farm bill is merely the latest example of a very bad trend.

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Among the right-leaning policy wonks and intellectuals in Washington, there’s a lot of attention being given to the something called “reform conservatism.”

Underlying this school of thought is the notion that the Reagan-era message no longer works since Republicans have lost the popular vote in five out of the last six elections.

A few people have asked my opinion about this movement, and since Ross Douthat of the New York Times just put together a good description of this school of thought, it makes it easy for me to offer my thoughts.

But before digging into his column, I think that some of the angst on the right is misplaced. Why blame a Reagan-era message for GOP electoral problems when all the Republicans presidential nominees in recent years have favored big government? Does anybody really think that Bush 41, Dole, Bush 43, McCain, and Romney were Reaganites?!?

Could any of those candidates have given these remarks, at least with any credibility? Or made these comments in a sincere fashion? It’s much more plausible to say that Republicans have lagged because they didn’t have candidates with a Reagan-style message.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Republicans would have fared poorly even if Reaganites had been nominated. Does “reform conservatism” offer a path to electoral salvation.

Here’s what Douthat identifies as the “two major premises” of reform conservatism.

1. First, he writes that the “core economic challenge facing the American experiment is not income inequality per se, but rather stratification and stagnation — weak mobility from the bottom of the income ladder and wage stagnation for the middle class.” Conservatives, he says, should strive to make “family life more affordable, upward mobility more likely, and employment easier to find.”

2. Second, he warns that the “existing welfare-state institutions we’ve inherited from the New Deal and the Great Society, however, often make these tasks harder rather than easier: Their exploding costs crowd out every other form of spending, require middle class tax increases and threaten to drag on economic growth.”

I’m not an expert on income mobility, so I’m not sure I would identify stratification and stagnation as the nation’s core economic challenge, but he may be right. Regardless, it’s definitely a good idea to have more mobility.

And I definitely agree that the welfare state hinders upward mobility by creating dependency. And he’s right that this is a drag on growth. That being said, I disagree with his assertion that rising entitlement expenditures crowd out other spending and lead to middle class tax hikes. Those things may happen at some point, particularly once we get into the peak years for retiring baby boomers, but they haven’t happened yet.

The more important question, at least to me, is what sort of policies do reform conservatives embrace? Here’s Douthat’s list, bolded, followed by my thoughts.

a. A tax reform that caps deductions and lowers rates, but also reduces the burden on working parents and the lower middle class, whether through an expanded child tax credit or some other means of reducing payroll tax liability. Tax Distribution CBOI obviously like the idea of lowering rates and reducing deductions since that moves the system closer to a flat tax. That being said, it’s difficult to reduce the tax burden on the lower middle class since they pay very little income tax under the current system (see accompanying table from CBO). But I like the idea of addressing the payroll tax, though I disagree with their approach (see section “c” below).

b. A repeal or revision of Obamacare that aims to ease us toward a system of near-universal catastrophic health insurance, and includes some kind of flat tax credit or voucher explicitly designed for that purpose. I fully agree with repeal of Obamacare, and I think an unfettered marketplace would evolve into a system of near-universal catastrophic insurance, but I don’t want the federal government subsidizing or coercing that approach (though current healthcare policy has far more subsidies and coercion, so Douthat’s plan would be a big improvement over the status quo).

c. A Medicare reform along the lines of the Wyden-Ryan premium support proposal, and a Social Security reform focused on means testing and extending work lives rather than a renewed push for private accounts. I’m glad they embrace Medicare reform, but I’m puzzled by the hostility to personal retirement accounts.  If you increase the retirement age and/or means test, you force people to pay more and get less, yet Social Security already is a bad deal for younger workers. So why make it worse? How can that be good for those with low mobility? Personal accounts would be akin to a tax cut for such workers since the payroll tax would be transformed into something much closer to deferred compensation.

d. An immigration reform that tilts much more toward Canadian-style recruitment of high-skilled workers, and that doesn’t necessarily seek to accelerate the pace of low-skilled immigration. As I noted in this interview, I very much favor bringing more high-skilled people into the country.

e. A “market monetarist” monetary policy as an alternative both to further fiscal stimulus and to the tight money/fiscal austerity combination advanced by many Republicans today. I try to avoid monetary policy. That being said, I’m a bit skeptical of “market monetarism.” No nation has ever tried this system, so it’s uncharted territory, and I’m reluctant to embrace an approach which is premised on the notion that bubbles can’t exist (what about the tech bubble of the late 1990s or the housing bubble last decade?!?). I’m also suspicious of a system which requires an activist central bank. Watch this George Selgin video if you want to know why.

f. An attack not only on explicit subsidies for powerful incumbents (farm subsidies, etc.) but also other protections and implicit guarantees, in arenas ranging from copyright law to the problem of “Too Big To Fail.” Amen. I fully agree.

Since I’m a tax policy wonk, let me address in greater detail some of the tax reform proposals put forward by reform conservatives.

Jim Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute is identified in the column as a reform conservative, and he recently expressed skepticism about the flat tax in a column for National Review.

It’s an elegant, compelling model that might work  splendidly if you were creating a tax code ex nihilo. …America, however, is in a much different place. Millions of individuals and businesses have made long-term plans based on expectations that the tax code will remain more or less the same. Half the nation, thanks to all those deductions and credits, pays no income tax. …it’s unlikely the U.S. can keep spending down at historical levels of 20 percent to 21 percent of GDP while also maintaining a floor for defense spending at 4 percent of output. The best a group of AEI scholars could manage was limiting spending to 23 percent of GDP by 2035.

The clear implication of his column is that we need a tax system that raises more revenue. I obviously disagree. We should never “feed the beast” by giving politicians more money to spend.

Pethokoukis also says the flat tax is politically unrealistic. Since I’m not expecting a flat tax in my lifetime, I obviously can’t argue with that statement. But he then proposes another plan that would be far less popular – and far more dangerous.

One solution is to take the essentially flat consumption tax devised by economists Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka and give it a progressive rate structure. Or we could combine a consumption tax with a flat income tax on wealthier Americans, as suggested by Yale’s Michael Graetz.

So we should keep the income tax as a vehicle for class warfare and augment it with a VAT?!? Yeah, good luck trying to sell that idea. And Heaven help us if it ever succeeded since politicians would have another major source of tax revenue.

Another plan, which Douthat explicitly cites in his paper, was put together by Robert Stein, a former Bush Treasury official. He thinks traditional supply-side policies today are either irrelevant or unpopular.

Lowering tax rates today could still enhance the incentives to invest, particularly in the corporate sector. But the distortions caused by marginal tax rates are not nearly as great as they were in 1980. And attempts to solve other problems caused by the tax code itself — like the biases in favor of consumption over saving, or home building over business investment — could never in themselves garner the public support necessary for a major overhaul.

As I noted, I’m not holding my breath for a flat tax, so I can’t disagree with Stein’s prognostication.

He also has a very novel way of defining the problem we should be trying to fix.

…it is time to rethink how the tax code treats ­parents. …raising children is hardly just another pastime: It is one of the most important services any American can perform for our country. …even as Social Security and Medicare depend on large numbers of future workers, they have created an enormous fiscal bias against procreation, undermining an important motive for raising children: to safeguard against poverty in old age. ……our system of taxes and entitlements not only fails to reward parents — it actively discourages Americans from having children. …Recent studies (especially work by Michele Boldrin, ­Mariacristina De Nardi, and Larry Jones and by Isaac Ehrlich and Jinyoung Kim) show that Social Security and Medicare actually reduce the fertility rate by about 0.5 children per woman. In European countries, where retirement systems are larger, the effect is closer to one child per woman.

As a libertarian, the beginning section of that passage grated on me. My children are individuals, not a “service” to prop up entitlement programs. I agree with Stein that these programs are a problem, but the solution is to reform entitlements, not to rejigger the tax code in hopes of pumping out more taxpayers.

Stein disagrees.

Unfortunately, these negative effects on fertility cannot be cured simply by converting old-age entitlement programs into mandatory savings programs, as the Bush administration proposed for Social Security in 2005. After all, requiring workers to save for retirement through private financial instruments would also crowd out the traditional motive to raise kids.

Instead, he wants to change the tax system based on the notion that today’s kids are tomorrow’s taxpayers.

…the present value of future Social Security and Medicare contributions for a typical worker born today is about $150,000. Rewarding parents for creating these future contributions suggests annual tax relief of about $8,500 per child. To correct for this inadequate treatment of households with ­children, the existing dependent exemption for children, the child credit, the ­child-care credit, and the adoption credit should be replaced with one new $4,000 credit per child that can be used to offset both income and payroll taxes. (This amount is set much closer to the $3,250 figure than the $8,500 one mostly to reduce the plan’s negative impact on federal revenue.)

I have no philosophical objection to some form of exemption – or even credit – based on family size. Almost all flat tax systems, for instance, have some sort of family allowance.

But it’s also important to realize that bigger family allowances generally don’t have pro-growth effects. It’s the marginal tax rate that impacts incentives.

And Stein, unfortunately, would “pay” for his credits by raising marginal tax rates on a significant share of taxpayers.

Some of these costs would be offset by eliminating itemized deductions (other than mortgage interest and charitable contributions). The rest would have to be offset by ­allowing the top rate of 35% to touch more taxpayers than it currently affects. …who pays more? Primarily high-income workers, but also upper-middle-class taxpayers who do not have children in the home (either because they have decided not to raise children at all, or because their children have already turned 18). To be blunt, the plan is a tax hike on the rich and makes the tax code even more progressive than it is today.

To be fair, Stein also proposes some good policies such as AMT repeal and reductions in double taxation, so he’s definitely not in the Obama class-warfare camp. But it’s also fair to say that his plan won’t do much for growth. Some tax rates are lowered but others are increased.

Yet if you really want families to be in stronger shape, more growth is the only long-run solution.

Moreover, it’s not clear that Stein’s agenda would be terribly popular. Though I confess that’s just a guess since no politician has latched onto the idea in the years since the proposal was unveiled.

Returning to the broader issue of “reform conservatism,” it’s difficult to assign an overall grade to the movement since I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to interpret it as a political strategy or an economic plan.

Regardless, I guess I’m generally sympathetic. I assume the RCers want government to be smaller than it is today and I don’t think you have to be a 100 percent libertarian to be my ally in the fight to restrain excessive government. And I also think it’s a good idea for people to be thinking of how to best articulate a message of smaller government. Heck, I do that every time I go on TV or give a speech.

So I reserve the right to object to any of the specific proposals that reform conservatives put forward (such as the tax plans discussed above), but I like the project.

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In recent months, people have asked me why I’m acting all giddy and optimistic. Am I hooked on cocaine? Have I fallen in love? Did I inherit several million dollars?

These questions started after I said the fiscal cliff was a smaller loss than I expected. Then people wondered what was going on when I wrote that we should celebrate the sequester victory. The questions got more intense when I opined that the Tea Party had made a positive difference. And people were even more nonplussed when I wrote that we should enjoy a win over the IMF.

But I’m not the only person thinking that things may be heading in the right direction.

Conn Carroll explains his optimism in the Washington Examiner. He starts by noting how bad Congress was back in 2009 and 2010.

…its liberal predecessor passed a trillion-dollar stimulus, enacted a government takeover of health care and institutionalized the power of Wall Street’s Too Big To Fail banks by passing the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.

Then he explains that the new Tea Party Congress has changed the fiscal outlook.

…if you look at the hard numbers — if you look at the tax-and-spending trajectory that the United States was on before the 112th Congress was sworn into office, and then look at the path the U.S. is on now — you’d see that Republicans in Congress have made tremendous progress in shrinking the size and scope of the federal government.

But is there any proof?

Conn points out that the CBO “baselines” from early 2011 showed government growing very rapidly.

…the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released its annual Budget and Economic Outlook for fiscal years 2011 through 2021. That document showed the federal government was on track to spend…a total of almost $50 trillion ($49.8 trillion to be exact) through 2021. At the same time, tax revenues were set to rise from just 14.8 percent of GDP in 2011 to 20.8 percent in 2021.

The same estimates from early this year, by contrast, show government growing at a slower pace.

The CBO’s Budget and Economic Outlook for fiscal years 2013 through 2023 shows just how much House Republicans have actually accomplished. The federal government is now on track to spend just $46.2 trillion through 2021. That is a $3.6 trillion spending cut. And instead of taxes eating up 21 percent of the U.S. economy in 2021, now the government is set to take in just 18.9 percent.

Here are the respective baselines from those CBO publications. Let’s start by looking at how spending is projected to grow at a slower pace for the rest of the decade.

2011-2013 Spending Projections

That’s $3.5 trillion of savings. Not genuine spending cuts, of course, but it’s real progress if government doesn’t grow as fast.

Here are the revenue numbers.

2011-2013 Revenue Projections

This data basically shows that the tax burden will be much smaller than projected because about 98 percent of the Bush tax cuts were made permanent as part of the fiscal cliff deal.

And if you believe in the Starve-the-Beast theory (and you should), this will make it harder for politicians to increase the burden of government spending in the future.

Conn also notes that the unemployment rate has fallen.

Despite all of this supposedly economy-killing “austerity,” unemployment has steadily fallen, too. When Republicans took control of the House in 2011, the nation’s unemployment rate was 9 percent. Today, it has fallen to 7.7 percent.

If this seems like a familiar point, it’s because I share his assessment. I wrote back in February of last year that gridlock was a positive thing for the economy since it reduced the likelihood of new bad policies.

What’s remarkable about these developments, as Conn notes, is that folks were expecting Obama to have momentum as his second term began.

Just three months ago, many in Washington were predicting Obama would steamroll Republicans into accepting higher taxes for millions of earners, undoing the sequester and maybe even passing new stimulus spending. Instead, Republicans have stayed unified, outfoxed Obama, preserved and made permanent most of last decade’s tax cuts (including permanent indexing of the Alternative Minimum Tax) and let the sequester cuts occur on schedule. As a result, Obama’s approval ratings have tumbled, and his entire second-term agenda is in jeopardy.

The final sentence in that excerpt explains why I’m feeling semi-optimistic. Obama’s agenda of more taxes and more spending is being thwarted.

To be sure, that doesn’t mean we’re seeing good policies of tax reform and fiscal restraint. And we still face a very dour fiscal future unless entitlements are reformed.

But we’re going in the wrong direction at a slower pace, and that beats the alternative.

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