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Archive for the ‘Fiscal Policy’ Category

Leftists don’t have many reasons to be cheerful.

Global economic developments keep demonstrating (over and over again) that big government and high taxes are not a recipe for prosperity. That can’t be very encouraging for them.

They also can’t be very happy about the Obama presidency. Yes, he was one of them, and he was able to impose a lot of his agenda in his first two years. But that experiment with bigger government produced very dismal results. And it also was a political disaster for the left since Republicans won landslide elections in 2010 and 2014 (you could also argue that Trump’s election in 2016 was a repudiation of Obama and the left, though I think it was more a rejection of the status quo).

But there is one piece of good news for my statist friends. The tax cuts in Kansas have been partially repealed. The New York Times is overjoyed by this development.

The Republican Legislature and much of Kansas has finally turned on Gov. Sam Brownback in his disastrous five-year experiment to prove the Republicans’ “trickle down” fantasy can work in real life — that huge tax cuts magically result in economic growth and more, not less, revenue. …state lawmakers who once abetted the Brownback budgeting folly passed a two-year, $1.2 billion tax increase this week to begin repairing the damage. …It will take years for Kansas to recover.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that Paul Krugman also is pleased.

Here’s some of what he wrote in his NYT column.

…there was an idea, a theory, behind the Kansas tax cuts: the claim that cutting taxes on the wealthy would produce explosive economic growth. It was a foolish theory, belied by decades of experience: remember the economic collapse that was supposed to follow the Clinton tax hikes, or the boom that was supposed to follow the Bush tax cuts? …eventually the theory’s failure was too much even for Republican legislators.

Another New York Times columnist did a victory dance as well.

The most momentous political news of the past week…was the Kansas Legislature’s decision to defy the governor and raise income taxes… Kansas, under Gov. Sam Brownback, has come as close as we’ve ever gotten in the United States to conducting a perfect experiment in supply-side economics. The conservative governor, working with a conservative State Legislature, in the home state of the conservative Koch brothers, took office in 2011 vowing sharp cuts in taxes and state spending, except for education — and promising that those policies would unleash boundless growth. The taxes were cut, and by a lot.

Brownback’s supply-side experiment was a flop, the author argues.

The cuts came. But the growth never did. As the rest of the country was growing at rates of just above 2 percent, Kansas grew at considerably slower rates, finally hitting just 0.2 percent in 2016. Revenues crashed. Spending was slashed, even on education… The experiment has been a disaster. …the Republican Kansas Legislature faced reality. Earlier this year it passed tax increases, which the governor vetoed. Last Tuesday, the legislators overrode the veto. Not only is it a tax increase — it’s even a progressive tax increase! …More than half of the Republicans in both houses voted for the increases.

If you read the articles, columns, and editorials in the New York Times, you’ll notice there isn’t a lot of detail on what actually happened in the Sunflower State. Lots of rhetoric, but short on details.

So let’s go to the Tax Foundation, which has a thorough review including this very helpful chart showing tax rates before the cuts, during the cuts, and what will now happen in future years (the article also notes that the new legislation repeals the exemption for small-business income).

We know that folks on the left are happy about tax cuts being reversed in Kansas. So what are conservatives and libertarians saying?

The Wall Street Journal opined on what really happened in the state.

…national progressives are giddy. Their spin is that because the vote reverses Mr. Brownback’s tax cuts in a Republican state that Donald Trump carried by more than 20 points, Republicans everywhere should stop cutting taxes. The reality is more prosaic—and politically cynical. …At bottom the Kansas tax vote was as much about unions getting even with the Governor over his education reforms, which included making it easier to fire bad teachers.

And the editorial also explains why there wasn’t much of an economic bounce when Brownback’s tax cuts were implemented, but suggests there was a bit of good news.

Mr. Brownback was unlucky in his timing, given the hits to the agricultural and energy industries that count for much of the state economy. But unemployment is still low at 3.7%, and the state has had considerable small-business formation every year since the tax cuts were enacted. The tax competition across the Kansas-Missouri border around Kansas City is one reason Missouri cut its top individual tax rate in 2014.

I concur. When I examined the data a few years ago, I also found some positive signs.

In any event, the WSJ is not overly optimistic about what this means for the state.

The upshot is that supposedly conservative Kansas will now have a higher top marginal individual income-tax rate (5.7%) than Massachusetts (5.1%). And the unions will be back for another increase as spending rises to meet the new greater revenues. This is the eternal lesson of tax increases, as Illinois and Connecticut prove.

And Reason published an article by Ben Haller with similar conclusions.

What went wrong? First, the legislature failed to eliminate politically popular exemptions and deductions, making the initial revenue drop more severe than the governor planned. The legislature and the governor could have reduced government spending to offset the decrease in revenue, but they also failed on that front. Government spending per capita remained relatively stable in the years following the recession to the present, despite the constant fiscal crises. In fact, state expenditure reports from the National Association of State Budget Officers show that total state expenditures in Kansas increased every year except 2013, where expenditures decreased a modest 3 percent from 2012. It should then not come as a surprise that the state faced large budget gaps year after year. …tax cuts do not necessarily pay for themselves. Fiscal conservatives, libertarians, …may have the right idea when it comes to lowering rates to spur economic growth, but lower taxes by themselves are not a cure-all for a state’s woes. Excessive regulation, budget insolvency, corruption, older demographics, and a whole host of other issues can slow down economic growth even in the presence of a low-tax environment.

Since Haller mentioned spending, here’s another Tax Foundation chart showing inflation-adjusted state spending in Kansas. Keep in mind that Brownback was elected in 2010. The left argued that he “slashed” spending, but that assertion obviously is empty demagoguery.

Now time for my two cents.

Looking at what happened, there are three lessons from Kansas.

  1. A long-run win for tax cutters. If this is a defeat, I hope there are similar losses all over the country. If you peruse the first chart in this column, you’ll see that tax rates in 2017 and 2018 will still be significantly lower than they were when Brownback took office. In other words, the net result of his tenure will be a permanent reduction in the tax burden, just like with the Bush tax cuts. Not as much as Brownback wanted, to be sure, but leftists are grading on a very strange curve if they think they’ve won any sort of long-run victory.
  2. Be realistic and prudent. It’s a good idea to under-promise and over-deliver. That’s true for substance and rhetoric.
    1. Don’t claim that tax cuts pay for themselves. That only happens in rare circumstances, usually involving taxpayers who have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income. In the vast majority of cases, tax cuts reduce revenue, though generally not as much as projected once “supply-side” responses are added to the equation.
    2. Big tax cuts require some spending restraint. Since tax cuts generally will lead to less revenue, they probably won’t be durable unless there’s eventually some spending restraint (which is one of the reasons why the Bush tax cuts were partially repealed and why I’m not overly optimistic about the Trump tax plan).
    3. Tax policy matters, but so does everything else. Lower tax rates are wonderful, but there are many factors that determine a jurisdiction’s long-run prosperity. As just mentioned, spending restraint is important. But state lawmakers also should pay attention to many other issues, such as licensing, regulation, and pension reform.
  3. Many Republicans are pro-tax big spenders. Most fiscal fights are really battles over the trend line of spending. Advocates of lower tax rates generally are fighting to reduce the growth of government, preferably so it expands slower than the private sector. Advocates of tax hikes, by contrast, want to enable a larger burden of government spending. What happened in Kansas shows that it’s hard to starve the beast if you’re not willing to put government on a diet.

By the way, all three points are why the GOP is having trouble in Washington.

The moral of the story? As I noted when writing about Belgium, it’s hard to have good tax policy if you don’t have good spending policy.

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I don’t like international bureaucracies that push statist policies.

In a perverse way, though, I admire their brassiness. They’re now arguing that higher taxes are good for growth.

This isn’t a joke. They never offer any evidence, of course, but it’s now routine to find international bureaucrats asserting that there will be more prosperity if more resources are taken out of the private sector and given to politicians (see the 3:30 mark of this video for some evidence).

Christine Lagarde, the lavishly paid head of the IMF, is doubling down on this bizarre idea that higher tax burdens are a way to generate more growth for poor nations.

…we are here to discuss an equally powerful tool for global growth — domestic resource mobilization. …taxes, and the improvement of tax systems, can boost development in incredible ways… So today, allow me first to explain the IMF’s commitment to capacity development and second, to outline strategies governments can use to generate stable sources of revenue…the IMF has a third important development mission — capacity development.

Keep in mind that all of the buzz phrases in the preceding passages – “resource mobilization” and “capacity development” – refer to governments imposing and collecting more taxes.

Again, I’m not joking.

…the focus of our event today — enabling countries to raise public tax revenues efficiently.

And there’s plenty of rhetoric about how higher taxes somehow translate into more prosperity.

Resource mobilization can, if pursued wisely, become a key pillar of strong economy… For many developing countries, increased revenue is a necessary catalyst to reach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and can be a driver of inclusive growth. Yet in some countries revenue remains stagnant, as the resources needed to enhance economic and civic life sit on the sidelines.

Wow, money that the government doesn’t grab apparently will just “sit on the sidelines.”

Lagarde’s entire speech was a triumph of anti-empiricism.

For instance, the western world went from poverty to prosperity in the 1800s when government was very small, averaging less than 10 percent of economic output.

Yet Lagarde makes an unsubstantiated assertion that today’s poor nations should have tax burdens of at least 15 percent of GDP (the OECD is even worse, arguing that taxes should consume 25 percent of economic output).

How significant is the resource problem? Developing countries typically collect between 10 to 20 percent of GDP in taxes, while the average for advanced economies is closer to 40 percent. IMF staff research shows that developing countries should aim to collect 15 percent of GDP to improve the likelihood of achieving stable and sustainable growth.

By the way, I should not that the IMF partnered with Oxfam, the radical left-wing pressure group, at the conference where her speech was delivered (sort of like the OECD cooperating with the crazies in the Occupy movement).

Moreover, her support for higher taxes is rather hypocritical since she doesn’t have to pay tax on her munificent salary.

I’ve also written about the various ways the IMF has endorsed higher taxes in the United States.

It’s also worth noting that the IMF boss thinks America should have a bigger welfare state as well. Here’s some of what she said about policy in the United States.

Policies need to help lower income households – including through a higher federal minimum wage, more generous earned income tax credit, and upgraded social programs for the nonworking poor. …There is a need to deepen and improve the provision of reasonable benefits to households… This should include paid family leave to care for a child or a parent, childcare assistance, and a better disability insurance program. I would just note that the U.S. is the only country among advanced economies without paid maternity leave at the national level.

The IMF even figured out a way to criticize the notion of lower corporate taxation in the United States.

The IMF…said that already highly leveraged U.S. companies may not be in a position to translate a cash-flow boost from U.S. Republican tax reform proposals into productive capital investments that can aid sustainable growth. Instead, the Fund said the slug of cash, which is likely to include repatriation of profits held overseas by multinational corporations, could be channelled into risks such as purchases of financial assets, mergers and dividend payouts. Such temptations would be highest in the information technology and health care sectors, according to the report. “Cash flow from tax reforms may accrue mainly to sectors that have engaged in substantial financial risk taking,” the IMF said. “Such risk taking is associated with intermittent large destabilising swings in the financial system over the past few decades.”

Basically, the bureaucrats at the IMF want us to believe that money left in private hands will be poorly used.

That’s a strange theory, but the oddest part of this report is that the IMF actually argued that a small repatriation holiday in 2004 somehow caused the recession of 2008 (almost all rational people put the blame on the Federal Reserve and the duo of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac).

The report noted that past major tax changes typically were followed by increases in financial risk-taking, including the tax reforms in 1986 and a corporate tax repatriation “holiday” in 2004. In both cases, these led to leverage buildups that were followed by recessions, in 1990 and 2008. …inflation and interest rates could rise more sharply than expected. This could increase market volatility and raise debt service costs for already-stretched corporate balance sheets, the IMF said. …”Tighter financial conditions could lead to distress” for weaker firms, the IMF said, noting that resulting losses would be borne by banks, life insurers, mutual funds, pension funds, and overseas institutions.

But the U.S. isn’t special.

The IMF wants higher tax burdens everywhere. Such as the Caribbean.

Over the past decade, governments in the Caribbean region have introduced the value-added tax (VAT) to modernize their tax system, rapidly mobilize revenue… VAT…has boosted revenues, the VAT has not reached its potential. …The paper also finds that although tax administration reforms can boost revenues, countries have just started… These reforms need to intensify in order to have a more significant impact on compliance and revenue.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer has a very dim assessment of the International Monetary Fund’s actions.

He starts with some background information.

The original vision of the IMF was as an agency attending to global stability… Along with the World Bank, the agency was created at an alcohol-fueled conference of 730 delegates from 44 nations, convened 72 years ago in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. No matter that the delegates from one of the important attendees, the Soviet Union, did not speak English: Harry Dexter White, the head of the U.S. delegation, was a Soviet agent who kept Moscow informed of the goings-on. …Today’s IMF includes 189 nations, has some 2,700 employees and an annual budget in excess of $1 billion, almost 18 percent of which comes from U.S. taxpayers.

He then points out that the IMF has a bad habit of putting dodgy people in charge.

In 2004 Rodrigo Rato took the top chair and served until 2007, when he resigned to face trial in Spain for a variety of frauds involving over 70 bank accounts, and the amassing of a €27 million fortune in a web of dozens of companies. Sr. Rato was succeeded by Dominique Strauss-Kahn… Strauss-Kahn did a reasonable job until arrested in New York City on charges of imposing himself on a hotel maid whose testimony proved so incredible that all criminal charges were dropped. But DSK did settle her civil suit for a reported $1.5 million… Madame Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister, took over as managing director. …Lagarde now faces a criminal trial in France for approving a 2008 arbitration decision award of £340 million to a major financial supporter of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy that was later reversed by an appeals court.

And he notes that these head bureaucrats are lavishly compensated.

…her job…pays $500,000 per year, tax free, plus benefits and a $75,000 allowance to be paid “without any certification or justification by you, to enable you to maintain, in the interests of the Fund, a scale of living appropriate to your position as Managing Director.” The salary is twice the take-home pay of the American president, who must pay taxes on his $400,000 salary… Vacations and sick leave follow generous European standards.

Last but not least, he points out that IMF economists have a lousy track record.

All of which might be money well spent if the IMF had been reasonably successful in one of its key functions—forecasting the outlook for the international economy. …one can’t help wondering what is going on in the IMF’s highly paid forecasting shop. A study of the 189 IMF members by the Economist finds 220 instances between 1999 and 2014 in which an economy grew one year before sinking the next. “In its April forecasts the IMF never once foresaw the contraction looming in the next year.” The magazine’s random-number generator got it right 18 percent of the time.

If all the IMF did was waste a lot of money producing inaccurate forecasts, I wouldn’t be overly upset.

After all, economists seemingly specialize in getting the future wrong. My problem is that the IMF pushes bad policy.

Let’s close with a defense of the bureaucracy.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute argues that the IMF is needed because of future crises.

A number of recent senior U.S. Treasury nominations, who are known for their antipathy towards the International Monetary Fund, seems to signal that President Trump might want to have a smaller IMF. Before he yields to the temptation of trying to downsize that institution, he might want to reflect on the fact that there is a high probability that during his term he will be confronted with a global economic crisis that will require a large IMF… It is generally not a good idea to think about downsizing the fire brigade on the eve of a major conflagration. In the same way, it would seem that President Trump would be ill-advised to think about reigning in the IMF at a time when there is the real prospect of a global economic crisis during his term of office.

I actually agree with much of what Desmond wrote about the possibility of economic and fiscal crisis in the near future.

The problem, though, is that the IMF is not a fire brigade. It’s more akin to a collection of fiscal pyromaniacs.

P.S. In the interest of fairness, I want to acknowledge that we sometimes get good analysis from the IMF. Economists from that bureaucracy have concluded (two times!) that spending caps are the most effective fiscal rule. They also made some good observations about tax policy earlier this year. And IMF researchers in 2016 concluded that smaller government and lower taxes produce more prosperity. Moreover, an IMF study in 2015 found that decentralized government works better.

P.P.S. On the other hand, I was greatly amused in 2014 when the IMF took two diametrically opposed positions on infrastructure spending in a three-month period. And I also think it’s funny that IMF bureaucrats inadvertently generated some very powerful evidence against the VAT.

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Time for an update on the perpetual motion machine of Keynesian economics.

We’ll start with the good news. The Treasury Department commissioned a study on the efficacy of the so-called stimulus spending that took place at the end of last decade. As discussed in this news report, the results were negative.

…a scathing new Treasury-commissioned report…argues the cash splash actually weakened the economy and damaged local industry… The report, …says the…fiscal stimulus was “unnecessarily large” and “misconceived because it emphasised transfers, unproductive expenditure…rather than tax relief and/or supply side reform”.

The bad news, at least from an American perspective, is that it was this story isn’t about the United States. It’s a story from an Australian newspaper about a study by an Australian professor about the Keynesian spending binge in Australia that was enacted back in 2008 and 2009.

I actually gave my assessment of the plan back in 2010, and I even provided my highly sophisticated analysis at no charge.

The Treasury-commissioned report, by contrast, presumably wasn’t free. The taxpayers of Australia probably coughed up tens of thousands of dollars for the study.

But this is a rare case where they may benefit, at least if policy makers read the findings and draw the appropriate conclusions.

Here are some of the highlights that caught my eye, starting with a description of what the Australian government actually did.

The GFC fiscal stimulus involved a mix of new public expenditure on school buildings, social housing, home insulation, limited tax breaks for business, and income transfers to select groups. Stimulus packages were announced and implemented in the December 2008, March 2009 quarters and ran into subsequent quarters.

For what it’s worth, there are strong parallels between what happened in the U.S. and Australia.v

Both nations had modest-sized Keynesian packages in 2008, followed by larger plans in 2009. The total American “stimulus” was larger because of a larger population and larger economy, of course, and the political situation was also different since it was one government that did the two plans in Australia compared to two governments (Bush in 2008 and Obama in 2009) imposing Keynesianism in the United States.

Here’s a table from the report, showing how the money was (mis)spent in Australia.

Now let’s look at the economic impact. We know Keynesianism didn’t work very well in the United States.

And the report suggests it didn’t work any better in Australia.

…fiscal stimulus induced foreign investors to take up newly issued relatively high yielding government bonds whose AAA credit rating further enhanced their appeal. This contributed to exchange rate appreciation and a subsequent competitiveness… Worsened competitiveness in turn reduced the viability of substantial parts of manufacturing, including the motor vehicle sector. …Government spending continued to rise as a proportion of GDP… This put upward pressure on interest rates… this worsened industry competitiveness contributed to major job losses, not gains, in manufacturing and tourism. …In sum, fiscal stimulus was not primarily responsible for saving the Australian economy… Fiscal stimulus later weakened the economy.

Though there was one area where the Keynesian policies had a significant impact.

Australia’s public debt growth post GFC ranks amongst the highest in the G20. Ongoing budget deficits and rising public debt have contributed to economic weakness in numerous ways. …Interest paid by the federal government on its outstanding debt was under $4 billion before the GFC yet could reach $20 billion, or one per cent of GDP, by the end of the decade.

We got a similar result in America. Lots more red ink.

Except our debt started higher and grew by more, so we face a more difficult future (especially since Australia is much less threatened by demographics thanks to a system of private retirement savings).

The study also makes a very good point about the different types of austerity.

…a distinction can be made between “good” and “bad” fiscal consolidation in terms of its macroeconomic impact. Good fiscal repair involves cutting unproductive government spending, including program overlap between different tiers of government. On the contrary, bad fiscal repair involves cutting productive infrastructure spending, or raising taxes that distort incentives to save and invest.

Incidentally, the report noted that the Kiwis implemented a “good” set of policies.

…in New Zealand…marginal income tax rates were reduced, infrastructure was improved and the regulatory burden on business was lowered.

Yet another reason to like New Zealand.

Let’s close by comparing the burden of government spending in the United States and Australia. Using the OECD’s dataset, you see that the Aussies are actually slightly better than the United States.

By the way, it looks like America had a bigger relative spending increase at the end of last decade, but keep in mind that these numbers are relative to economic output. And since Australia only had a minor downturn while the US suffered a somewhat serious recession, that makes the American numbers appear more volatile even if spending is rising at the same nominal rate.

P.S. The U.S. numbers improved significantly between 2009 and 2014 because of a de facto spending freeze. If we did the same thing again today, the budget would be balanced in 2021.

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The federal income tax is corrosive and destructive. It’s almost as if a group of malicious people decided to deliberately design a system that imposes maximum damage while also allowing the most corruption.

The economic damage is not only the result of high tax rates and pervasive double taxation, but also because of loopholes that exist to bribe people into making economically unwise decisions.

These include itemized deductions for mortgages and charitable contributions, as well as the fringe benefits exclusion and the exemption for municipal bond interest. And there are many other corrupt favors sprinkled through a metastasizing tax code.

But there’s a strong case to be made that the worst loophole is the deduction for state and local taxes. Why? For the simple reason that it encourages, enables, and subsidizes bad policy.

Here’s how it works. State and local lawmakers can increase income taxes or property taxes and be partially insulated from political blowback because their taxpayers can deduct those taxes on their federal return.

And it’s a back-door way of giving a special break to upper-income taxpayers because the deduction is more valuable to people in higher tax brackets.

Let’s look at an example that’s currently in the news. Democrats in the Illinois state legislature want a big increase in the personal income tax. If they succeed and boost taxes by an average of $1000, high-income taxpayers who take advantage of the deduction may only suffer a loss of as little as $600 since their federal tax bill may fall by almost $400.

For politicians, this is an ideal racket. They can promise various interest groups $1000 of goodies while reducing take-home pay by a lesser amount.

Let’s review some recent commentary on this topic.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue last weekend.

Chuck Schumer aspires to raise taxes on every rich person in America, save one protected class: coastal progressives. …Like many other Democrats, he’s apoplectic about a plan to end the state and local tax deduction. …One goal of tax reform is to reduce unproductive tax loopholes, and ending the state and local deduction would generate revenue to finance lower rates: The deduction is worth about $100 billion a year… About 88% of the benefits in 2014 flowed to taxpayers who earn more than $100,000, while 1% went to those who earn less than $50,000. California alone reaps nearly 20% of the benefit…and a mere six states get more than half. …The folks underwriting this windfall are in Alaska, South Dakota, Wyoming and other places without a state income tax. …Eliminating the deduction would be a powerful incentive for Governors to cut state taxes on residents who are suddenly exposed to their full liability. …killing the state and local deduction would pay a double dividend: The first is creating a more equitable tax code with a broader base and lower rates. The second is spurring reform in states that are long overdue for a better tax climate.

Writing earlier this year for National Review, Kevin Williamson was characteristically blunt.

It’s time for…blue-state…tax increases that would fall most heavily on upper-income Americans in high-tax progressive states such as California and New York. …eliminate the deduction for state income taxes, a provision that takes some of the sting out of living in a high-tax jurisdiction such as New York City (which has both state and local income taxes) or California, home to the nation’s highest state-tax burden. Do not hold your breath waiting for the inequality warriors to congratulate Republicans for proposing these significant tax increases on the rich. …allowing for the deduction of state taxes against federal tax liabilities creates a subsidy and an incentive for higher state taxes. California in essence is able to capture money that would be federal revenue and use it for its own ends, an option that is not practically available to low-tax (and no-income-tax) states such as Nevada and Florida. It makes sense to allow the states to compete on taxes and services, but the federal tax code biases that competition in favor of high-tax jurisdictions.

And Bob McManus adds his two cents in an article for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

Voters in all heavy-tax, high-spending states have no one to blame for their situation save themselves. At a minimum, it seems clear that deductibility—by softening the impact of federal taxation—encourages outsize state and local spending. States that take advantage of deductibility—mostly in the Northeast and on the West Coast—are in effect subsidized by states that have kept tighter control on their spending. …New York’s top-of-the-charts spending puts the state at the pinnacle…with New Yorkers paying a national high of 12.7 percent of income in state and local levies. Local property taxes in New York are astronomical and not coming down any time soon. …deductibility has powerful friends—among them the public-employee unions… New York and the nation would benefit if deductibility was jettisoned. …end the incentive for the tax-and-spend practices that have been so economically corrosive to big-spending Blue states.

Let’s close with the should-be-obvious point that the goal isn’t to repeal the state and local tax deduction in order to give politicians in Washington more money to spend. Instead, every penny of that revenue should be used to finance pro-growth tax reforms.

That creates a win-win situation of better tax policy in Washington, while also creating pressure for better tax policy at the state and local level.

For what it’s worth, both Trump and House Republicans are proposing to get rid of the deduction.

P.S. I mentioned at the start of this column that it would not be unreasonable to think that the tax code was deliberately designed to maximize economic damage. But even a curmudgeon like me doesn’t think that’s actually the case. Instead, our awful tax system is the result of 104 years of “public choice.”

P.P.S. Itemized deductions and other loopholes create distortions by allowing people to understate their income if they engage in approved behaviors. There are also provisions of the tax code – such as depreciation and worldwide taxation – that force taxpayers to overstate their income.

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Illinois is a mess. Taxes and spending already are too high, and huge unfunded liabilities point to an even darker future.

Simply stated, politicians and government employee unions have created an unholy alliance to extract as much money as possible from the state’s beleaguered private sector.

That’s not a surprise. Indeed, it’s easily explained by the “stationary bandit” theory of government.

But while the bandit of government may be stationary, the victims are not. At least not in a nation with 50 different states. Indeed, Illinois Policy reports that a growing number of geese with golden eggs decided to fly away after a big tax hike in 2011.

Politicians enacted Illinois’ 2011 income-tax hike during a late-night legislative session in January 2011 and raised the state’s personal income-tax rate to 5 percent from 3 percent. This 67 percent income-tax hike lasted for four years, during which time Illinois experienced record wealth flight. …The short-term increase in tax revenue gained from higher tax rates is offset by the long-term loss of substantial portions of Illinois’ tax base. The average income of taxpayers leaving Illinois rose to $77,000 per year in 2014, according to new income migration data released by the IRS. Meanwhile, the average income of people entering Illinois was only $57,000. …During the four years of the full income-tax hike, prior to its partial sunset in 2015, Illinois lost $14 billion in annual adjusted gross income, or AGI, to other states, on net.

Illinois has always had an unfavorable ratio when comparing the incomes of immigrants and emigrants. But you can see from this chart that there was a radically unfavorable shift after the tax hike.

Here’s a table from the article showing the 10-worst states.

Illinois leads this list of losers by a comfortable margin. Connecticut, meanwhile, has a strong hold on second place (which shouldn’t be a surprise).

The IP report observes that the states benefiting from internal migration have much better fiscal policy. In particular, most of them are on the admirable list of states that don’t impose income taxes.

…the top five states with favorable income differentials were Florida, Wyoming, Nevada, South Carolina and Texas. Notably, 4 of 5 of these states have no income tax, and none of them have a death tax.

It’s worth noting that the high-tax approach is not producing good results.

Instead, as reported by Bloomberg, the Land of Lincoln is the land of red ink.

Illinois had its bond rating downgraded to one step above junk by Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings, the lowest ranking on record for a U.S. state… Illinois’s underfunded pensions and the record backlog of bills…are equivalent to about 40 percent of its operating budget. …investors have demanded higher premiums for the risk of owning its debt. Moody’s called Illinois “an outlier among states” after suffering eight downgrades in as many years. …like other states, has no ability to resort to bankruptcy to escape from its debts. A downgrade to junk, though, would add further financial pressure by increasing its borrowing costs.

Amazing, in spite of this ongoing meltdown, the Democrats who control the state legislature are pushing hard to once again increase the income tax.

Heck, they want to increase all sorts of taxes. Including higher burdens on the financial industry.

Kristina Rasumussen, the President of Illinois Policy, warned in the Wall Street Journal that this was not a good recipe.

Proponents here call it the “privilege tax.” …The Illinois bill would put a 20% levy on fees earned by investment advisers. It passed the state Senate in a 32-24 vote Tuesday, and backers are hoping to get it through the House before the legislative session ends May 31. The new tax is pitched as a way to squeeze more revenue—as much as $1.7 billion a year—from hedge funds and private-equity firms… An earlier version of the Illinois proposal included a provision so that the 20% tax would take effect only if and when New York, New Jersey and Connecticut enacted similar measures. But the bill as written now would impose the tax regardless, and lawmakers will simply have to hope other states follow suit. Yet who says financiers can’t do their jobs just as well in Palm Beach, Fla.—or London, Zurich or Hong Kong? The progressives peddling this idea don’t understand that Chicago competes for these businesses not only with New York and Greenwich, Conn., but with anywhere that can offer cellphone service and an internet connection. …Railing against supposed “fat cats” might satisfy progressive groups, but lawmakers shouldn’t be in the business of hounding the people who help connect capital with new opportunities for growth. …Rather than focus on how to make everyone miserable together, policy makers should work to increase their states’ competitiveness. A start would be to rally against this proposed privilege tax and instead fix the spiraling pension costs and outdated labor rules that are dragging Illinois and other blue states down.

Let’s hope the governor continues to reject any and all tax increases.

If he does hold firm, he’ll have allies.

Including the Chicago Tribune, which recently editorialized about the state’s dire position

Illinois legislators fumble repeated attempts to send a balanced budget to Gov. Bruce Rauner; while the stack of Illinois’ unpaid bills climbs by the minute; while our leaders prioritize politics over policy… Employers and other taxpayers are hopping over Illinois’ borders with alarming regularity. …What an embarrassment. What a dereliction of duty. …Illinois, boasting the lowest credit rating and the highest population loss of any state in the country, has doubled down. State government is in a full-blown crisis. Again. Since January, Democrats have discussed plans to raise income taxes and borrow money to pay down bills. They approved bills that would make Illinois a less attractive place to do business; under one proposal, Illinois would have the highest minimum wage of all its neighboring states.

This is some very sensible analysis from a newspaper that endorsed Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

Even more important, the state’s taxpayers are mostly on the correct side.

Illinoisans feel the strain of the state’s two-year budget impasse, but they are emphatic that tax hikes should not be part of any budget deal. These are the findings of a new poll of likely Illinois voters… Only 31 percent of survey respondents support raising the state income tax to end the budget impasse. An increase in the state sales tax is even more unpopular, with 76 percent of survey respondents opposed. Another key takeaway from the poll: A plurality (49 percent) of respondents who are directly affected by the state budget impasse prefer a cuts-only, no-tax-hike budget. …Survey respondents were also asked what they think of political candidates who support raising taxes to end the budget impasse. The poll found that likely Illinois voters will be unforgiving of candidates for governor or the General Assembly who raise the state income tax or sales tax.

I suspect taxpayers realize that higher taxes will simply lead to more spending.

Indeed, a leftist in the state inadvertently admitted that the purpose of tax hikes is to enable more spending.

If there is to be any hope for the future in Illinois, Governor Rauner needs to hold firm. So long as Republicans in the state legislature hold firm, he can use his veto power to stop any tax hikes.

Or he can be Charlie Brown.

P.S. Illinois is invariably near the bottom in comparisons of state fiscal policy. The one saving grace is that the state has a flat tax. If the statists ever succeed in replacing that system with a so-called progressive tax, it will just be a matter of time before the state passes New York and California in the real race to the bottom.

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Neither involves nudity, but I’ve written about libertarian porn and poverty porn.

To augment that list, my former colleague Brian Riedl, now with the Manhattan Institute, has produced some fiscal porn. Nothing sexual, so you can disregard this column if that’s your thing. However, if you share my salacious interest in smaller government and more freedom, you’ll be squirming in your seat as you read parts of his column.

He starts with a simple observation.

President Trump’s…bold proposal to cut discretionary spending – excluding defense – from $619 billion this year to $429 billion a decade from now. That is a 30 percent reduction.

And Brian points out it’s a real cut, not a “Washington cut” that occurs when spending doesn’t rise as fast as previously planned.

I admit that my heart is beating faster.

But I shouldn’t get too excited. Brian points out that Trump doesn’t specify which domestic discretionary programs would get cut, either over the next several years or by 2027 when total outlays for that category are supposed to be $429 billion.

…the budget shows initial cuts followed by an across-the-board sequestration that would top $100 billion by 2027.

Brian doesn’t think politicians would want to accept a sequester.

I’d be happy with that outcome. Perhaps even pruriently happy.

But he may be right about the preferences of the political class.

So he decided to put together his own budget for domestic discretionary programs. In effect, a roadmap for lawmakers who may actually be serious about controlling the size and scope of Washington.

I extrapolate the budget’s own reductions, and fill in the remaining gaps based on my own experience crafting federal budgets for several leading presidential campaigns and working as a federal budget economist in the Senate.

He starts by going after the federal bureaucracy’s lavish compensation.

Federal employment and its generous compensation would be reduced. The federal civilian workforce could be downsized by 10 percent by replacing only one-third of the workers who leave their jobs ($7 billion saved in 2027), slowing the annual growth rate of federal civilian employee pay by half a percentage point ($12 billion), and requiring federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement plans ($7 billion).

I call this a good start. Not only is my heart racing, I’m flushed with anticipation.

Brian follows with ideas to raise revenue that – under D.C.’s bizarre budget rules – get counted as negative spending.

Other potential cross-agency reforms include raising user fees to better reflect program costs ($3 billion), and raising $10 billion annually by 2027 through modest federal asset and land sales (which Congress could classify as an offset to discretionary spending).

I don’t object to genuine user fees (such as setting entrance fees to national parks so costs are covered). And I certainly don’t object to selling federal land and other federal assets.

That being said, I prefer genuine spending cuts, so these provisions don’t excite me. My pulse has returned to normal. He’s ruined the mood!

But Brian then gets my heart racing again with some take-no-prisoners fiscal slashing.

With regard to specific programs, two-thirds of non-defense discretionary spending goes to federal operations, and the rest to state and local government grants. …federal operations could be targeted for deeper reforms. The Administration could shelve NASA’s human space exploration program ($10 billion), and halve the National Science Foundation and energy research (saving $6 billion). President Trump’s privatization targets include Amtrak ($1 billion); much of the Federal Aviation Administration (saving $10 billion); agriculture research ($1 billion); AmeriCorps and related programs ($1.5 billion); and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities and public broadcasting ($0.7 billion combined). President Trump proposes cutting international spending nearly in half. Drastic reductions in the $45 billion foreign assistance budget.

I’m especially hot and bothered about what Brian suggests for Amtrak, the NEA, the CPB, and foreign aid.

And what he proposes for federal grants has me panting with desire.

…the completion of the interstate highway system leaves little reason for Washington to continue collecting the federal gas tax and redistributing it to states. Congress could save $40 billion in federal spending (and taxes) by eliminating the federal middle man and allowing states to collect and spend the tax themselves on projects of their choice. Other federal grant programs that could be devolved to states include housing aid to the poor (reduce by $30 billion and retain the final $10 billion for the hardest-hit states); means-tested food, child care, and home energy assistance ($10 billion); Head Start and other family service programs ($11 billion); job training ($6 billion); social services ($2 billion); economic development ($8 billion); justice ($2 billion); pollution control ($4 billion); disaster preparation ($2 billion); and numerous small public health grants ($6 billion). …lawmakers could freeze the two largest K-12 programs (special education and Title I grants to low-income school districts) at today’s combined $29 billion level, while eliminating dozens of small and largely unnecessary K-12 grant programs ($6 billion). Freezing Pell Grant spending at $24 billion, despite rising population, would require trimming either eligibility standards or the $4,860 annual maximum award.

A very good list, though I think he should get the federal government totally out of the education business, so his budget porn leaves something to be desired.

However, now for…ummm…the climax of Brian’s column (is that pun too obvious?).

Altogether, these reforms would reduce 2027 non-defense discretionary outlays to the $429 billion target proposed by President Trump.

And I must be young and virile, because the question that immediately comes to mind is what Brian can propose to get us to $329 billion. And then $229 billion.

By the way, Brian then ruins the mood with a final sentence. Maybe I’m reading it wrong, but I think he’s implying that the above cuts are too much and he’s only proposing them because Trump won’t address the old-age entitlements,

Such cuts are the price of balancing the budget without addressing the soaring Social Security and Medicare costs that are driving the deficit upwards.

My view is that we should bank all the savings to domestic discretionary that Brian identifies, accept all the reforms Trump proposes for Medicaid and other means-tested programs, and then add some reform of the other entitlements to the mix.

If Brian goes along with that, I won’t be upset if he doesn’t send flowers the next day.

P.S. If you’re looking for real porn, this isn’t the right website. I’ve commented (here, here, and here) on porn stars and politics, but you won’t find any “visuals.” Similarly, I’ve commented (here and here) on bureaucrats and porn, but you’ll have to use your imagination if you want some nakedness. And even when I’ve touched on the intersection of porn and public policy (here, here, and here), everything is PG-rated.

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In this interview with Dana Loesch, I make several points about the Trump budget, including the need to reform means-tested entitlements and Obamacare (with a caveat from my Second Theorem of government), as well as some comments on foreign aid and fake budget cuts.

But those are arguments that I make all the time. Today, I want to call attention to the mid-point of the interview when I explain that President Trump is actually in a strong position to get a win, notwithstanding all the rhetoric about his budget being “dead on arrival.”

Simply stated, while he can’t force Congress to enact a bill that reforms entitlements, his veto power means he can stop Congress from appropriating more money that he wants to spend.

But if he wants to win that battle, he needs to be willing to allow a partial government shutdown.

Which he wasn’t willing to let happen when he approved a bad deal a few weeks ago to fund the government for the rest of the 2017 fiscal year.

But we have some good news. He may have learned from that mistake, at least if we take this tweet seriously.

Amen. Trump should be firm and explicitly warn Congress that he will veto any appropriations bill that spends one penny above what he requested in his budget.

And if Congress doesn’t comply, he should use his veto pen and we’ll have a partial shutdown, which basically effects the “non-essential” parts of the federal government that presumably shouldn’t be funded anyhow.

The only way Trump loses that fight is if enough Republicans join with Democrats to override his veto. But that’s unlikely since it is mostly Democrat constituencies (government bureaucrats and other recipients of taxpayer money) who feel the pinch if there’s a partial shutdown.

This is a big reason why, as we saw during the Clinton years, it’s Democrats who begin to cave so long as Republicans don’t preemptively surrender.

The bottom line is that being tough on the budget isn’t just good policy. As Ronald Reagan demonstrated, there are political rewards when you shrink the burden of government and enable faster growth.

P.S. I’m not convinced that Trump actually wants smaller government, but I hope I’m wrong. This upcoming battle will be very revealing about where he really stands.

P.P.S. And if we do have a shutdown fight, I hope it will generate some amusing political humor, such as what’s at the bottom of this post. Other examples of shutdown-related humor can be enjoyed by clicking here, hereherehere, and here.

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