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Archive for October, 2015

Last year, I wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal making the case that families would benefit more from lower tax rates rather than targeted tax credits.

My argument was simple and straightforward.

Child-based tax cuts are an effective way of giving targeted relief to families with children… The more effective policy—at least in the long run—is to boost economic growth so that families have more income in the first place. Even very modest changes in annual growth, if sustained over time, can yield big increases in household income.

I then had a follow-up piece that expanded the discussion, responding to critics but also noting that advocates of lower rates and supporters of targeted credits at least agree on the importance of reducing double taxation and also want to address non-fiscal impediments to growth.

Now it’s time for a third installment in the series.

The Wall Street Journal opined today against tax credits, citing the challenges that have arisen on the other side of the ocean.

Parliament blocked David Cameron’s plan to reform family tax credits. There’s a warning here for conservatives…about the dangers of social engineering through taxation. At issue is a convoluted tax benefit developed by Tony Blair in 2003 that was supposed to reward low-income work and childbearing. …This policy hasn’t worked.

The editorial points out that welfare reforms deserve credit for a somewhat improved job market.

Moreover, there’s scant evidence of desirable effects on birthrates (an important issue because of the collapsing welfare state, as discussed yesterday).

To the degree there are more births, it is because of the U.K.’s large immigrant population. Tax policy has no significant impact.

A 2013 Office for National Statistics study noted that the combination of economic climate and tax policy “does not have a clear impact in a particular direction.”

But there definitely is a measurable impact in other ways. People now expect to get checks from the government based on the size of their families.

…the tax credits have become a new entitlement for the child-rearing middle class. …eliminating the credits has proved to be politically difficult. The tax-credit system is so entrenched that it’s as hard to reform as any other entitlement… That’s a lesson for Americans as a debate about tax reform gathers momentum.

And the WSJ expands the lesson.

…the most pro-family tax policies are those that do the most to boost broad-based growth and raise incomes, which means a flatter tax code with lower rates and fewer distorting credits and exemptions. As Britain shows, the danger of using the tax code for pro-natalist social planning is that you end up with an expensive new entitlement that is merely another mechanism for income redistribution and can’t be reformed.

And if you want evidence, just look at how the so-called earned income tax credit has become the federal government’s fastest-growing entitlement program.

So why expand the problems of the EITC by creating new and bigger credits?

Especially since the tax code already is a convoluted and corrupt mess.

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily, Amity Shlaes and Gregory Thornbury make the case for a low-rate flat tax instead of expanded credits.

The fixation on family tax benefits abides, even though the tax code already features dozens of credits and deductions installed in the name of children. …The assumption that such credits are the best gift for the religious family dates back 100 child credits ago… But that doesn’t mean that the policy truly benefits families.

They explain that growth is more important.

And you’re more likely to get a better-performing economy when marginal tax rates are reasonable.

…a better policy for families, then and today, is a tax code that does more to realize their aspirations than any political lobby. Such a plan has no child credits but would be simpler and flatter, with a top rate of, say, 20%, 18%, 15% or even, as Carson would have it, 10%. The reasons why this is so have to do with standard tax parameters such as marginal rates and standard tax concepts such as the incentive.

Keep in mind, by the way, that there are tradeoffs. If politicians want big credits, they will want to make up for the foregone revenue by raising tax burdens elsewhere.

Costly tax breaks like the child credit are one reason why top rates are so high in the first place. To compensate for the revenue that such a break forgoes, lawmakers raise rates at the top of the tax schedule or lower the point at which the top rate kicks in.

Last but not least, there’s a moral component to this debate.

There are taxes in the Bible. But nowhere does the Bible say that a great share of the rich man’s money has to go to a secular government. And it never crosses the minds of today’s politicians that they encourage their constituents to violate the 10th Commandment when they stoke resentment and envy. …Our code does feel like a maze because progressivity represents behavioral engineering par excellence. It treats humans like rats who struggle through, avoiding trap doors and hunting for chunks of cheddar cheese without ever gaining much idea of where they are. It’s time for a tax code that treats humans with dignity.

And that tax code, needless to say, is a simple and fair flat tax.

Which, for what it’s worth, includes a generous exemption based on family size. So the goal is to provide some tax relief to families, but to keep it reasonable so that other objectives (such as growth) can be realized.

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In my speeches, I routinely argue that an aging population is one of the reasons why we need genuine entitlement reform.

A modest-sized welfare state may be feasible if a country has a “population pyramid,” I explain, Welfare State Wagon Cartoonsbut it’s a recipe for fiscal chaos when changing demographics result in fewer and fewer people pulling the wagon and more and more people riding in the wagon.

And if you somehow doubt that’s what is happening in America, check out this very sobering image showing that America’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder.

The bottom line is that demographics and entitlements will mean a Greek fiscal future for America and other nations.

To bolster my case (particularly for folks who might be skeptical of a libertarian message), I frequently cite pessimistic long-run fiscal data from international bureaucracies such as the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

I’m not a big fan of these organizations because they routinely endorse statist policies, but I figure skeptics will be more likely to listen to me if I point out that even left-leaning international bureaucracies agree the public sector is getting too large.

And now I have more evidence to cite. A new report from the International Monetary Fund explores “The Fiscal Consequences of Shrinking Populations.” Here’s what you need to know.

Declining fertility and increasing longevity will lead to a slower-growing, older world population. …For the world, the share of the population older than age 65 could increase from 12 percent today to 38 percent by 2100. …These developments would place public finances of countries under pressure, through two channels. First, spending on age-related programs (pensions and health) would rise. Without further reforms, these outlays would increase by 9 percentage points of GDP and 11 percentage points of GDP in more and less developed countries, respectively, between now and 2100. The fiscal consequences are potentially dire…large tax increases that could stymie economic growth.

Let’s now look at a couple of charts from the study.

The one of the left shows that one-third of developed nations already have negative population growth, and that number will jump to about 60 percent by 2050. And because that means fewer workers to support more old people, the chart on the right shows how the dependency ratio will worsen over time.

So what do these demographic changes mean for fiscal policy?

Well, if you live in a sensible jurisdiction such as Hong Kong or Singapore, there’s not much impact, even though birthrates are very low, because government is small and people basically are responsible for setting aside income for their retirement years.

And if live in a semi-sensible jurisdiction such as Australia or Chile, the impact is modest because personal retirement accounts preclude Social Security-type fiscal challenges.

But if you live just about anywhere else, in places where government somehow is supposed to provide pensions and health care, the situation is very grim.

Here’s another chart from the new IMF report. If you look at developed nations, you can see a big increase in the projected burden of government spending, mostly because of rising expenditures for health care.

At this stage, I can’t resist pointing out that this is one reason why the enactment of Obamacare was a spectacularly irresponsible decision.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

Returning to the IMF report, the authors contemplate possible policy responses.

They look at increased migration, but at best that’s a beggar-thy-neighbor approach. They look at increased labor force participation, which would be a very good development, but it’s hard to see that happening when nations have redistribution policies that discourage people from being in the workforce.

And the report is very skeptical about the prospects of government-induced increases in birthrates.

Boosting birth rates could slow down population aging and gradually reduce fiscal pressures. …However, a “birth rate” solution to aging is unlikely to work for most countries. The pronatalist policies seem to have only modest effects on the number of births, although they might affect the timing of births.

So that means the problem will need to be addressed through fiscal policy.

The IMF’s proposed solutions include some misguided policies, but I was surprisingly pleased by the recognition that steps were needed to limit the growth of government.

Regarding pensions, the IMF suggested higher retirement ages, which is a second-best option, while also suggesting private retirement savings, which is the ideal solution.

Reforming public pension systems can help offset the effects of aging. Raising retirement ages is an especially attractive option… For example, raising retirement ages over 2015–2100 by an additional five years (about 7 months per decade) beyond what is already legislated would reduce pension spending by about 2 percentage points of GDP by 2100 (relative to the baseline) in both the more and less developed countries. …increasing the role of private retirement saving schemes could be helpful in offsetting the potential decline in lifetime retirement income.

But if you recall from above, the biggest problem is rising health care costs.

And kudos to the IMF for supporting market-driven competition. Even more important, though, the international bureaucracy recognizes that the key is to limit the government’s health care spending to the growth of the private economy (sort of a a healthcare version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule).

…health care reform can be effective in containing the growth of public health spending. …There is past success in improving health outcomes without raising costs through promoting some degree of competition among insurers and service providers. …Containing the growing costs of health care would help reduce long-term fiscal risks. On average, health care costs are projected to increase faster than economic growth. …Assuming policies are able to keep the growth of health care costs per capita in line with GDP per capita, health care spending will increase at a slower rate, reflecting only demographics. Under this scenario, public health care spending pressures would be greatly subdued: by 2100, health spending would be reduced by 4½ percentage points of GDP in the more developed countries.

Interestingly, of all the options examined by the IMF, capping the growth of health care spending had the biggest positive impact on long-run government spending.

So what lessons can we learn?

Most important, the IMF study underscores the importance of the Medicaid reform and Medicare reform proposals that have been included in recent budgets on Capitol Hill.

In addition to making necessary structural changes, both of these reforms cap the annual growth of health care spending, which is precisely what the IMF report says will generate the largest savings.

So we’re actually in a very unusual situation. Some lawmakers want to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time.

But not all of them. Some politicians, either because of malice or ignorance, think we should do nothing, even though that will mean a very unpleasant future.

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The tax-reform landscape is getting crowded.

Adding to the proposals put forth by other candidates (I’ve previously reviewed the plans offered by Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, and Donald Trump), we now have a reform blueprint from Ted Cruz.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, the Texas Senator unveiled his rewrite of the tax code.

…tax reform is a powerful lever for spurring economic expansion. Along with reducing red tape on business and restoring sound money, it can make the U.S. economy boom again. That’s why I’m proposing the Simple Flat Tax as the cornerstone of my economic agenda.

Here are the core features of his proposal.

…my Simple Flat Tax plan features the following: • For a family of four, no taxes whatsoever (income or payroll) on the first $36,000 of income. • Above that level, a 10% flat tax on all individual income from wages and investment. • No death tax, alternative minimum tax or ObamaCare taxes. • Elimination of the payroll tax and the corporate income tax… • A Universal Savings Account, which would allow every American to save up to $25,000 annually on a tax-deferred basis for any purpose.

From an economic perspective, there’s a lot to like. Thanks to the low tax rate, the government no longer would be imposing harsh penalties on productive behavior. Major forms of double taxation such as the death tax would be abolished, creating a much better environment for wage-boosting capital formation.

And I’m glad to see that the notion of a universal savings account, popularized by my colleague Chris Edwards, is catching on.

Moreover, the reforms Cruz is pushing would clean up some of the most complex and burdensome sections of the tax code.

But Cruz’s plan is not a pure flat tax. There would be a small amount of double taxation of income that is saved and invested, though the adverse economic impact would be trivial because of the low tax rate.

And the Senator would retain some preferences in the tax code, which is somewhat unfortunate, and expand the earned income credit, which is more unfortunate.

It maintains the current child tax credit and expands and modernizes the earned-income tax credit… The Simple Flat Tax also keeps the current deduction for all charitable giving, and includes a deduction for home-mortgage interest on the first $500,000 in principal.

But here’s the part of Cruz’s plan that raises a red flag. He says he wants a “business flat tax,” but what he’s really proposing is a value-added tax.

…a 16% Business Flat Tax. This would tax companies’ gross receipts from sales of goods and services, less purchases from other businesses, including capital investment. …My business tax is border-adjusted, so exports are free of tax and imports pay the same business-flat-tax rate as U.S.-produced goods.

His proposal is a VAT because wages are nondeductible. And that basically means a 16 percent withholding tax on the wages and salaries of all American workers (for tax geeks, this part of Cruz’s plan is technically a subtraction-method VAT).

Normally, I start foaming at the mouth when politicians talking about value-added taxes. But Senator Cruz obviously isn’t proposing a VAT for the purpose of financing a bigger welfare state.

Instead, he’s doing a swap, imposing a VAT while also getting rid of the corporate income tax and the payroll tax.

And that’s theoretically a good deal because the corporate income tax is so senselessly destructive (swapping the payroll tax for the VAT, as I explained a few days ago in another context, is basically a wash).

But it’s still a red flag because I worry about what might happen in the future. If the Cruz plan is adopted, we’ll still have the structure of an income tax (albeit a far-less-destructive income tax). And we’ll also have a VAT.

So what happens 10 years from now or 25 years from now if statists control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and they decide to reinstate the bad features of the income tax while retaining the VAT? They now have a relatively simple way of getting more revenue to finance European-style big government.

And also don’t forget that it would be relatively simple to reinstate the bad features of the corporate income tax by tweaking Cruz’s business flat tax/VAT.

By the way, I have the same specific concern about Senator Rand Paul’s tax reform plan.

My advice to both of them is to ditch the VAT and keep the payroll tax. Not only would that address my concern about enabling the spending proclivities of statists in the future, but I also think Social Security reform is more feasible when the system is financed by the payroll tax.

Notwithstanding my concern about the VAT, Senator Cruz has put forth a plan that would be enormously beneficial to the American economy.

Instead of being a vehicle for punitive class warfare and corrupt cronyism, the tax code would simply be the method by which revenue was collected to fund government.

Which gives me an opportunity to raise an issue that applies to every candidate. Simply stated, no good tax reform plan will be feasible unless it’s accompanied by a serious plan to restrain government spending.

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I periodically make comparisons of the United States and Europe that are not very flattering for our cousins across the Atlantic.

Though this isn’t because of any animus toward Europe. Indeed, I always enjoy my visits. And some of America’s best (albeit eroding) features, such as rule of law and dignity of the individual, are a cultural inheritance from that continent.

Nor am I trying to overstate America’s competitiveness, which actually has eroded considerably during this century.

Instead, I’m simply trying to make the narrow point that too much government is already causing serious problems in Europe, and I’m worried those problems are spreading to the United States.

Yet some of our statist friends, most notably Senator Bernie Sanders, think America should deliberately choose to be more like Europe.

They have this halcyon vision that the average European is more prosperous and they exclaim that this is proof that a big welfare state is benign. Or perhaps even beneficial.

So it was with great interest that I read a new article by Ryan McMaken of the Mises Institute. He takes a data-driven look at the America-v-Europe economic debate.

The battle over the assumed success of European socialism continues. Many European countries like Sweden have gained a reputation as being very wealthy in spite of their highly regulated and taxed economies. From there, many assume that the rest of Europe is more or less similar, even if slightly poorer. But if we look more closely at the data, a very different picture emerges.

Actually, I have a minor disagreement with the above passage.

Countries like Sweden and Denmark are highly taxed, but it’s not true that they’re highly regulated.

Or, to be more accurate, there almost surely is too much regulation in those nations, but since we’re discussing the relative economic performance of the United States and Europe, the relevant point is that there’s less government intervention in certain European countries (particularly Nordic nations) than there is in the United States.

The only reason that they generally lag behind the United States in the overall rankings is that they have very bad fiscal policy and that more than offsets the advantage they generally have over America in other categories.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s focus on the main point of the article, which is an effort to produce a neutral comparison of living standards in European nations and American states.

…if one is going to draw broad conclusions about poverty among various countries, GDP numbers are arguably not the best metric. For one, GDP per capita can be skewed upward by a small number of ultra-rich persons.  …I thought it might be helpful to use data that relies on median income data instead, so as to better account for inequalities in income and to get a better picture of what the median resident’s purchasing power.

McMaken uses OECD data to calculate relative levels of median income.

The nationwide median income for the US is in red. To the left of the red column are other OECD countries, and to the right of the red bar are individual US states. These national-level comparisons take into account taxes, and include social benefits (e.g., “welfare” and state-subsidized health care) as income. Purchasing power is adjusted to take differences in the cost of living in different countries into account. Since Sweden is held up as a sort of promised land by American socialists, let’s compare it first. We find that, if it were to join the US as a state, Sweden would be poorer than all but 12 states, with a median income of $27,167.

And here’s the chart he described (click to enlarge). Remember, this is a look at the income of the median (rather than mean) household, so the numbers are not distorted by the presence of people like Bill Gates.

Here’s some additional analysis based on his number-crunching.

With the exception of Luxembourg ($38,502), Norway ($35,528), and Switzerland ($35,083), all countries shown would fail to rank as high-income states were they to become part of the United States. In fact, most would fare worse than Mississippi, the poorest state. For example, Mississippi has a higher median income ($23,017) than 18 countries measured here. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and the United Kingdom all have median income levels below $23,000 and are thus below every single US state. …Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, has a median income ($25,528) level below all but 9 US states.

We could stop at this point and declare that the United States was more economically prosperous than all European nations other that oil-rich Norway and the twin financial centers of Switzerland and Luxembourg.

This doesn’t bode well for Bernie Sanders’ claim that America should be more like Sweden and Denmark.

But McMaken expands upon his analysis and explains that the above numbers actually are too generous to Europeans.

We’ve already accounted for cost of living at the national level (using PPP data), but the US is so much larger than all  other countries compared here, we really need to consider the regional cost of living in the United States. Were we to calculate real incomes based on the cost of living in each state, we’d find that real purchasing power is even higher in many of the lower-income states than we see above. Using the BEA’s regional price parity index, we can take now account for the different cost of living in different states.

And he produces a new graph, once again featuring the United States average in red, with other developed nations to the left and numbers for various states to the right.

McMaken gives some added context to these new adjusted-for-cost-of-living numbers.

…there’s less variation in the median income levels among the US states. That makes sense because many states with low median incomes also have a very low cost of living. …This has had the effect of giving us a more realistic view of the purchasing power of the median household in US states. It is also more helpful in comparing individual states to OECD members, many of which have much higher costs of living than places like the American south and midwest.  Now that we recognize how inexpensive it is to live in places like Tennessee, Florida, and Kentucky, we find that residents in those states now have higher median incomes than Sweden (a place that’s 30% more expensive than the US) and most other OECD countries measured.

And here’s the most powerful data from his article.

Once purchasing power among the US states is taken into account, we find that Sweden’s median income ($27,167) is higher than only six states… We find something similar when we look at Germany, but in Germany’s case, every single US state shows a higher median income than Germany. …None of this analysis should really surprise us.

In other words, even when we limit the comparison to Europe’s more successful welfare states, the United States does better.

Not because America is a hyper-free market jurisdiction like Hong Kong or Singapore. Instead, the U.S. does better simply because European nations deviate even further from the right recipe for prosperity.

I commented on some of these issues in this interview with Dana Loesch of Blaze TV, specifically noting that living standards in Denmark and Sweden are below American levels.

I also recycled my assertion that Bernie Sanders isn’t even a real socialist, at least if we’re relying on the technical economic definition of having the government own the means of production.

P.S. In typically blunt yet analytically rigorous fashion, Thomas Sowell identifies where Obama belongs on the economic spectrum.

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During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan famously said “there you go again” when responding to one of Jimmy Carter’s attacks.

Well, the Gipper’s ghost is probably looking down from Heaven at the new budget deal between congressional leaders and the Obama Administration and saying “there they go again.”

That’s because we basically have a repeat of the distasteful 2013 budget deal.

The new agreement, like the 2013 deal, busts the budget caps. In this case, the politicians in DC have approved $50 billion of additional spending for the 2016 fiscal year (which started on October 1) and $30 billion of additional spending in the 2017 fiscal year (starting October 1, 2016).

Which means that the President gets to further undo his biggest fiscal defeat.

And what do Republicans get in exchange?

Many of them want higher defense spending, of course, and some of them doubtlessly are happy to have more domestic spending as well. Those politicians are presumably happy, at least behind closed doors.

So let’s rephrase the question: What do advocates of fiscal restraint get in exchange?

Well, if you peruse the agreement, it’s apparent they don’t get anything. Sure, there are some promises of future restraint. But if the 2013 deal and the current agreement are any indication, those promises don’t mean much.

The deal has a handful of back-door revenue increases, including an assumption that the IRS will be more aggressive in squeezing money out of taxpayers. And there are some budget gimmicks, along with some tinkering with entitlement programs, especially the fraud-riddled disability program, that ostensibly will lead to some modest savings.

The net result is that we have a pact that leads to guaranteed spending increases over the nest few years, combined with some nickel-and-dime proposals that will probably offset each other in the future.

So the bad news – assuming the goal is enforceable spending restraint – is that policy has moved in the wrong direction.

In other words, I was right to worry that Republicans would fumble away a guaranteed victory.

And this deal probably sets the stage for another bad deal two years in the future since more spending in 2016 and 2017 will make it harder to meet the spending caps for 2018 and beyond.

Now for the good news…

Ooops, there isn’t any good news.

About the only positive thing to say is that this new agreement is not a huge defeat. There will still be budget caps, which is better than no spending caps.

And the new spending, while wasteful and counterproductive, is relatively small in the context of an $18 trillion economy.

Moreover, the deal only partially unwinds the fiscal discipline that already has been achieved thanks to the spending caps.

Last but not least, nothing in this deal precludes a better and more comprehensive spending cap, perhaps modeled after Switzerland’s very successful debt brake, once Obama is out of the White House.

P.S. This new deal also increases the debt limit. Some view this as a defeat, but it more properly should be viewed as a missed opportunity to get some much-needed reforms.

That being said, I can’t resist commenting on the deliberately dishonest scare tactics from our statist friends. They routinely claim that the United States government would have to default on its debt and cause a global crisis unless there is approval for more borrowing.

For instance, exuding an air of faux hysteria, one writer for the Washington Post asserted that, “Failure to raise the debt ceiling would unleash hell on the U.S. economy.” Another Washington Post columnist fanned the flames of fake despair, writing, “The chaos…is about to have some very serious effects on the entire country.” And a third Washington Post reporter falsely fretted that not raising the debt limit by November 3rd, “could plunge the United States into default, an outcome that…could lead to economic catastrophe.”

Oh, please, we’ve heard this song and dance before. But it’s utter nonsense.

Here’s some of what I said as part of my testimony to the Joint Economic Committee in 2013.

…there is zero chance of default. Why? Because…annual interest payments are about $230 billion and annual tax collections are approaching $3 trillion. …there’s no risk of default – unless the Obama Administration deliberately wants that to happen. But that’s simply not a realistic possibility.

But some folks may wonder whether my analysis is accurate. After all, maybe I’m some sort of nihilistic libertarian who fantasizes about laying waste to Washington.

And other than the nihilistic part, that’s actually a good description of my long-run goals.

But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. So for backup, let’s look at some identical analysis from an ultra-establishment source, as reported in The Hill.

Moody’s Investors Service announced Monday that, despite dire warnings from the Treasury Department, the government would find a way to pay money owed on its debt, regardless of whether lawmakers agree to raise the $18.1 trillion borrowing cap. …”Even if the debt limit is not raised, …the government will order its payment priorities to allow the Treasury to continue servicing its debt obligations,” says Moody’s Senior Vice President Steven Hess.

Gee, maybe all the mouth-breathing partisans at the Washington Post are the ones who are wrong. Along with the partisan and status-quo voices from the political establishment.

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Since the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is getting crowded, I’ve decided we need a system to limit new entrants.

So today we’re doing an experiment. We’ll look at two separate stories about lazy and overpaid bureaucrats, and the comments section will determine which one actually is most deserving of joining the Hall of Fame.

Let’s start in Italy, where Alberto Muraglia stakes his claim to membership. Here are some excerpts from a story in the UK-based Times.

Video footage of a policeman clocking in for work in his underpants before allegedly heading back to his bed has become the symbol of an embarrassing absenteeism scandal among council employees in San Remo, on the Italian Riviera. Alberto Muraglia, a pot-bellied, 53-year-old officer, was secretly filmed as he clocked on at council offices. He lives in the same building, a converted hotel, where he occupies a caretaker flat — allowing him to register his presence at work, and then go back to bed, it is alleged.

To be fair, our Italian contestant has an excuse for his truancy.

Though it’s about as plausible as the Groucho Marx quote, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”

Mr Muraglia’s wife, Adriana, said the family had an alibi for every instance in which her husband was suspected of clocking in at 5.30am, opening the gates to the council building, and then returning to bed. “Some mornings, if he was a few minutes late pulling on his trousers, he would clock in in that manner and then get fully dressed immediately after and go off to work,” Mrs Muraglia told La Stampanewspaper. “Some mornings he may have forgotten, and he telephoned me to clock in on his behalf.”

In any event, Signor Muraglia is not the only bureaucrat scamming the system.

More than a hundred employees — 75 per cent of the council workforce — are under investigation for allegedly skiving off in the resort town…investigators…filmed employees swiping their time cards, and sometimes those of multiple colleagues, before turning tail and heading off to pursue other interests. One employee, filmed paddling a kayak on the Mediterranean, is alleged to have spent at least 400 hours away from his desk in the planning office, a dereliction of duty estimated to have cost San Remo council more than €5,600.

Though I have to say 400 hours away from his desk is chicken feed compared to the Italian doctor who worked only 15 days in a nine-year period.

And I like how the bureaucrats awarded themselves bonuses for their…um…hard work.

Eight of the suspected skivers shared a €10,000 productivity bonus last year.

Just like the IRS bureaucrats and VA bureaucrats who got bonuses for improper behavior.

I guess there must be an unwritten rule in government: The worse your performance, the higher your compensation.

Now let’s see how Alberto compares to our American contestant. As reported by the Contra Costa Times, former City Manager Joe Tanner is scamming taxpayers for a lavish pension, yet he’s asking for more on the basis of a shady deal he made with the City Council.

By working just two and a half more years, retired Vallejo City Manager Joseph Tanner boosted his starting annual pension from $131,500 to $216,000. He wants more, claiming he’s entitled to yearly retirement pay of $307,000. …he is now taking his six-year dispute to the state Court of Appeal. At issue is whether CalPERS must pay benefits on a contract Tanner and the Vallejo City Council concocted to boost his pension.

An extra $85,000 of pension for the rest of his life just for working 2-1/2 years?

Geesh, and I though the Philadelphia bureaucrat who is getting $50,000 of yearly loot for the rest of her life, after just three years of “work,” had a good deal. She must be feeling very envious of Mr. Tanner.

Yet Mr. Tanner isn’t satisfied.

Here’s the part that seems like it should be amusing, but it’s not actually funny when you realize that government employee pensions are driving states into fiscal chaos.

Ironically, Tanner was a critic of pension excesses. …Yet his personal spiking gambit was breathtaking. The case exemplifies how some top public officials try to manipulate their compensation to grossly inflate their retirement pay. …Tanner’s quest for another $90,000 a year, plus inflation adjustments, for the rest of his life is unreasonable.

Here’s how he schemed to pillage taxpayers.

His first contract with Vallejo called for $216,000 in base salary, plus a list of add-on items that would soon be converted to salary, bringing his compensation to $306,000. But when CalPERS advised that the amount of those add-ons would not count toward his pension, he insisted the contract be fixed. The result: His contract was amended. The add-ons were eliminated and his base salary was simply increased to $306,000, plus management incentive pay and other items that brought the total to about $349,000. If CalPERS used that number, his pension would have started at $307,000 a year. CalPERS says it was an obvious subterfuge. The amended contract was never put before the City Council at any public meeting. And there was never a truthful public explanation for it.

Of course there wasn’t a truthful explanation.

Whether bureaucrats are negotiating with other bureaucrats or whether they’re negotiating with politicians, a main goal is to hide details in order to maximize the amount of money being extracted from taxpayers.

By the way, the example of Mr. Tanner is odious, but it’s not nearly as disgusting as what happened in another California community.

Before inviting readers to vote, I want to make a serious point. Government employee pensions are a fiscal black hole because they are “defined benefits” (DB plans), which means annual payments to retirees are driven by formulas. And those formulas often include clauses that create precisely the perverse incentives exploited by Mr. Tanner.

The right approach is to reform the system so that bureaucrats instead are in a “defined contribution” system (DC plans), which basically operates like IRAs and 401(k)s. A bureaucrat’s retirement income is solely a function of how much is contributed to his or her account and how much it earns over time. By definition, there is no unfunded liability. There’s no fiscal nightmare for future taxpayers.

Now that I have that cry for fiscal prudence out of my system, I invite readers to vote. Does the shirking underwear-clad Italian bureaucrat deserve to join the Hall of Fame, or should that honor be bestowed on the scheming and hypocritical American bureaucrat?

P.S. While I think DC plans are inherently superior (and safer for taxpayers) than DB plans, I will acknowledge that some nations manage to run DB plans honestly.

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It’s time for a lesson in tax economics.

Though hopefully today’s topic won’t be as dry and boring as my missives on more technical issues like depreciation and worldwide taxation.

That’s because we’re going to talk about the taxation of workers, which is something closer to home for most of us.

And our lesson comes from Belgium, where the government wants a “new social contract” based on lower “direct” taxes on workers in exchange for higher “indirect” taxes on consumers.

Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg column by Jean-Michel Paul.

Belgium’s one-year-old government announced measures, radical by that country’s standards, to move the burden of taxation to consumption from labor.  The measures are being hailed as the start of a new social contract in the heart of Europe.

But before discussing this new contract, let’s look at how Belgium’s system evolved. Monsieur Paul explains that his nation has a bloated welfare state, which has resulted in heavy taxes on workers (vigorous tax competition precludes onerous taxes on capital).

…In order to sustain large government expenses of more than 50 percent GDP on top of servicing its debt, Belgium became the OECD’s second most-taxed economy. …Belgium made a choice: It decided to heavily tax labor, which it figured, wrongly, was stuck. At the same time, it decided to provide attractive tax treatment to highly mobile capital. The gambit meant that Belgium attracted a large number of wealthy families from higher tax countries, particularly France and the Netherlands, eager to take advantage of the low rates of tax on capital. However, Belgian workers got hammered. In 2014 Belgian workers were the most taxed labor in the developed world, taking home only 46 percent of employers’ labor costs.

Here’s a chart from the article, showing that Belgian workers are the most mistreated in the developed world.

Keep in mind, by the way, that average rates only measure the overall burden of taxation.

Marginal tax rates, which are what matters most for incentives, are even higher.

According to Wikipedia, the personal income tax has a top rate of 50 percent, and that punitive rate hits a lot of ordinary workers (it’s imposed on income “in excess of €37750”). But there’s also a 13 percent payroll tax on workers and a concomitant payroll tax of more than 30 percent on employers (which, needless to say, is borne by workers).

So an ambitious Belgian worker who wants to earn more money will be confronted by the ugly reality that the government will get the lion’s share of any additional income. Geesh, no wonder Belgium gets a high score (which is not a good outcome) in the World Bank’s “tax effort report card.”

Not surprisingly, high tax rates on labor have led to some predictably bad consequences.

The entrepreneurial class is voting with its feet and regular workers are being taxed into the unemployment line.

This unusual policy mix has increasingly created problems. …Educated professionals and entrepreneurs, those most in demand in other countries, have voted with their feet in borderless Europe. As a result, productivity growth has been limited and Belgium’s economy remained low-growth. Its business start-up rate is the second lowest of the EU. …Whole segments of the country’s industrial tissue, such as the automobile sector, have gradually closed down… This has led to what the European Commission described as “a chronic underutilisation of labour” (read: unemployment) especially among the least qualified and the young. Youth unemployment stands at over 22 percent. …In its 2015 country report the Commission noted that this “reflects Belgium’s high social security charges on labour, which add to the large tax wedge”

Given these horrid numbers, it’s understandable that some policy makers in Belgium want to make changes.

But as Americans have learned (very painfully), “change” doesn’t necessarily mean better policy.

So let’s see what Belgian policy makers have in mind.

The new policy…is to reduce taxes on labor and increase indirect taxes to compensate. Social Security taxes on companies are being reduced to 25 percent from 33 percent over the next two years, bringing an increase in the net after-tax income of 100 euros ($113) per month for low and middle-wage earners. This is mainly financed by an increase in value added tax on electricity consumption. …Belgium is the first to implement what some call a “social VAT” (a tax on consumption to finance social security). …it rewards work and may well change the entitlement mind-set that has hampered innovation and job growth for decades. …a significant step in the right direction, correcting some of the worst distortions of Belgium’s social model.

In other words, politicians in Belgium want to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Workers will be allowed to earn more of their income when they earn it, but the government will grab more of their income when they spend it.

Now for the economics lesson.

People work because they want to earn money. And they want to earn money so they can spend it. In other words, as Adam Smith observed way back in 1776, “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.”

Now ask yourself whether the change in Belgian tax policy will boost employment when there’s no change in the tax wedge between pre-tax income (the income you generate) and post-tax consumption (the income you get to spend)?

The answer presumably is no.

This doesn’t mean that the proposed reform is completely useless. It appears that the VAT increase is achieved by ending a preferential tax rate on electricity consumption. And since I don’t like distorting tax preferences, I’m guessing the net effect of the overall package is slightly positive.

In other words, the lower payroll tax rate is unambiguously good and the increase in the VAT burden is only partially bad (I would be more critical if the proposal included an increase in the VAT rate rather than the elimination of a preference).

That being said, now let’s address Belgium’s real problem. Simply stated, it’s impossible to have a good tax system when government spending consumes more than 50 percent of economic output.

In no uncertain terms, an excessive burden of government spending is the problem that needs to be solved.

P.S. Interestingly, Belgium’s tax shift is somewhat similar to Rand Paul’s tax plan. In addition to all the other changes envisioned by the Kentucky Senator, he would get rid of the payroll tax and replace it with a value-added tax.

P.P.S. In addition to much smaller government, I suspect Belgium also needs to split into two different countries.

P.P.P.S. To get an idea of Belgium’s challenge, the politicians in Brussels actually criticize Germany for being too capitalistic.

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