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Archive for the ‘Fiscal Policy’ Category

If tax policy was a religion, the Holy Trinity of reform would be very straightforward.

But if tax policy was a meal, the first two items would be the dessert and the last item would be the vegetable. Simply stated, politicians like lowering tax rates and reducing double taxation because that makes most people happy (at least the ones who actually pay tax).

But when you take away loopholes, the people who benefit from those preferences are unhappy. And they get very noisy. Interest groups hire lobbyists. Trade associations spring into action. Campaign contribution get dispensed.

If tax policy was a movie, it would be Revenge of the Swamp Creatures.

In this clip from a recent interview, I talk about some of the dessert, specifically a much-needed reduction in the corporate tax rate.

Bu today I want to focus more on the vegetables of itemized deductions.

Here’s some of what Reuters reported last month about the swamp gearing up to protect its privileges.

…industry groups and other sectors of society are gearing up to fight proposed changes to the personal income tax. …proposed changes to the personal tax code have already stirred opposition from realtors, home builders, mortgage lenders and charities.

And here’s a description of what might happen and the impact.

To simplify the tax code, Republicans have proposed eliminating nearly all tax write-offs including those for state and local taxes, then doubling the standard deduction. This would eliminate the incentive to itemize and should drastically reduce the number of taxpayers who do so. Currently, many taxpayers use itemized deductions, claiming write-offs for things like charitable contributions, interest paid on a mortgage and state and local taxes. If the standard deduction becomes larger, fewer taxpayers will need to itemize, reducing the incentive to hold a mortgage or contribute to charity. …Estimates suggest more than half of taxpayers would stop itemizing under the proposed plan.

Should we hope that these reforms occurs? If people lose or forego itemized deductions, would that be a good outcome?

As a long-time fan of the flat tax, I’m obviously not a fan of these preferences. Though I always stress that I only want to get rid of loopholes if the money is used to finance lower tax rates. At the risk of stating the obvious, I don’t want the money being used to finance bigger government.

Let’s see what others have said, starting with Justin Fox’s column for Bloomberg. He’s not happy that loopholes disproportionately benefits taxpayers with above-average incomes.

Let’s talk about upper-middle-class entitlements, the subsidies that flow almost entirely to those in the upper fifth or even tenth of the income distribution. …Why do these subsidies continue…? Mainly, it seems, because they’ve been granted to a sizable, influential population who, it is feared, will fight any effort to take them away. There are other interested parties, too — the real estate industry and mortgage lenders in the case of the mortgage interest deduction… But mainly it’s the millions of upper-middle-class Americans who, like me and my family, are beneficiaries of tax subsidies.

He’s right. I’m more upset about the economic distortions these preference create, but there’s no doubt that upper-income taxpayers reap most of the benefits.

Here’s his conclusion, which I think is spot on.

…if these tax breaks had never become law, no one would really miss them. Houses might cost a bit less. College might be slightly cheaper. Income tax rates might be a little lower. The economy might run a little bit more smoothly. So … how do we get to that place from here?

By the way, Fox includes a chart showing how richer taxpayers get more benefit from the mortgage interest deduction.

That’s certainly true, and I’ve previously shared data showing how the middle class gets almost nothing from itemized deductions compared to high-income taxpayers.

Let’s focus specifically on those goodies for the rich. This chart from the Tax Foundation reveals that the state and local tax break is especially lucrative.

For what it’s worth, the state and local deduction is my least favorite, so I’d like to see this chart change.

Though the healthcare exclusion may do even more economic damage (I assume it’s not included in the above chart since it’s an exclusion rather than a deduction).

But the bottom line of today’s column is that we’re not going to get the dessert of lower tax rates unless policy makers are willing to eat some vegetables – i.e., get rid of some tax preferences. Or, to be more exact, it will be impossible, given congressional budget rules, to have any sort of meaningful permanent reforms of the tax system unless there are revenue raisers to offset the tax cuts.

P.S. In any discussion of tax preferences, it’s important to properly define a loophole. Folks on the right generally think income should be taxed only one time (technically, they favor “consumption-base” taxation). So a loophole is a provision that results in zero tax on a particular activity.

Folks on the left generally think the tax code should impose double taxation (technically, they favor “Haig-Simons” taxation). So they have a much bigger list of loopholes, mostly focused on provisions that limit the extra layers of tax imposed on income that is saved and invested. You see this approach from the Joint Committee on Taxation. You see it from the Government Accountability Office. You see it from the Congressional Budget Office. Heck, you even see Republicans mistakenly use this benchmark.

By the way, Justin Fox presumably is in the Haig-Simons camp since his column treats the capital gains tax and 401(k)s as loopholes. But he cited one of my columns, so I can’t bring myself to criticize him.

P.P.S. It (almost) goes without saying that many folks on the left want to curtail tax breaks. They openly argue that it is good to divert a larger share of income into the hands of politicians and in order to facilitate bigger government. Some of them are even honest enough (crazy enough?) to openly assert that all income belongs to the government.

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Whenever I see an otherwise sensible person express support for a value-added tax, it triggers a Pavlovian response. And it’s not a favorable reaction.

But I just read a pro-VAT column and I liked it.

So what happened? Have I surrendered to big government? Did I ingest some magic mushrooms?

Actually, I think you’ll agree that I’m still the same lovable guy. Yes, Professor John Cochrane of the University of Chicago (also a Cato adjunct scholar) has a column in the Wall Street Journal that embraces a VAT. But unlike all of the others I just cited, he includes a condition that is mandatory, necessary, vital, and non-negotiable. It’s so important that it deserves the opposite of fine-print treatment.

…eliminate entirely the personal and corporate income tax, estate tax and all other federal taxes. …it is essential that the VAT replace rather than add to the current tax system, as it does in Europe.

Amen. John hits the nail on the head.

The VAT isn’t theoretically bad. Like the flat tax, it would have one rate. There also would be no double taxation of saving and investment. And it also can be designed to have no loopholes.

In other words, the good news is that the VAT – when compared to the internal revenue code – is a less-destructive way of generating revenue.

The bad news, though, is that the VAT is capable of generating a lot of revenue. And as we’ve seen in Europe, that’s a recipe for enabling a larger burden of government spending.

Which is why the idea of a VAT should only be on the table if the plan would first abolish all other federal taxes. Which is what John is proposing.

Except I’d take it one step farther. Just like I’ve argued when contemplating a national sales tax, I’d only allow the VAT if we first repeal the 16th Amendment and replace it with something so ironclad that even John Roberts and Ruth Bader Ginsberg couldn’t rule in favor of an income tax at some point in the future.

By the way, John is right that the economy would grow faster if the income tax was totally abolished. The current system is filled with warts.

Much of the current tax mess results from taxing income. Once the government taxes income, it must tax corporate income or people would incorporate to avoid paying taxes. Yet the right corporate tax rate is zero. Every cent of corporate tax comes from people via higher prices, lower wages, or lower payments to shareholders. And a corporate tax produces an army of lawyers and lobbyists demanding exemptions. An income tax also leads to taxes on capital income. Capital income taxes discourage saving and investment. But the government is forced to tax capital income because otherwise people can hide wages… The estate tax can take close to half a marginal dollar of wealth. This creates a strong incentive to blow the family money on a round-the-world cruise, to spend lavishly on lawyers, or to invest inefficiently to avoid the tax. …A reformed tax code should involve no deductions—including the holy trinity of mortgage interest, employer-provided health insurance, and charitable deductions. The interest groups for each of these deductions are strong. But if the government doesn’t tax income in the first place, these deductions vanish without a fight.

By the way, I will quibble with a couple of things he wrote.

First, I don’t necessarily think the correct corporate tax rate is zero. What’s important is eliminating either the corporate tax or the tax on dividends. That way the income is only taxed once. And since it’s probably administratively easier to tax the income once at the business level rather than once at the shareholder level, I’m not fixated on abolishing the corporate tax.

Second, it’s very important to get rid of double taxation (what he calls “capital income”), but you don’t need a VAT to make that happen. There’s no double taxation with a flat tax.

Third, he should have explicitly included the state and local tax deduction in his list of loopholes to abolish (I’m guessing he assumed it would be the first deduction on the chopping block and therefore didn’t need to be mentioned).

There’s another part of John’s column that deserves attention. He points out that you need to have small government if you want a low tax burden.

…if the federal government is going to spend 20% of gross domestic product, the VAT will sooner or later have to be about 20%. Tax reform is stymied because politicians mix arguments over the rates with arguments over the structure of taxes. This is a mistake. They should first agree to fix the structure of the tax code, and later argue about rates—and the spending those rates must support.

At the risk of being pedantic, I think the VAT rate would have to be significantly above 20 percent, both because the tax base will be smaller than GDP and also because there will be loopholes or rebates. But the point he’s making is spot on. You can’t have a low tax rate and a big government. I’ve made the same point when writing about Belgium and Germany, nations where middle-class taxpayers are pillaged because the welfare state is too big.

My bottom line on this issue is that Professor Cochrane has produced a column showing that a VAT is theoretically worth considering, but only if all other federal taxes are permanently abolished.

But since that’s not going to happen any time soon, I don’t think there’s any reason to ease up on my dogmatic (and pragmatic) opposition to that levy.

P.S. My clinching argument is that Reagan opposed a VAT and Nixon supported a VAT. That tells you everything you need to know.

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Why were the Reagan tax cuts so successful? Why did the economy rebound so dramatically from the malaise of the 1970s?

The easy answer is that we got better tax policy, especially lower marginal tax rates on personal and business income. Those lower rates reduced the “price” of engaging in productive behavior, which led to more work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

That’s right, but there’s a story behind the story. Reagan’s tax policy (especially the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981) was good because the President and his team ignored the class-warfare crowd. They didn’t care whether all income groups got the same degree of tax relief. They didn’t care about static distribution tables. They didn’t care about complaints that “the rich” benefited.

They simply wanted to reduce the onerous barriers that the tax system imposed on the economy. They understood – and this is critically important – that faster growth was the best way to help everyone in America, including the less fortunate.

Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal thinks that Donald Trump may be taking the same approach. Her column today basically argues that the President is making a supply-side case for growth. She starts by taking a shot at self-styled “reform conservatives.”

In May 2014, a broad collection of thinkers and politicians gathered in Washington to celebrate a new conservative “manifesto.” The document called for replacing stodgy old Reaganite economics with warmer, fuzzier handouts to the middle class.

She’s happy Trump isn’t following their advice (and I largely agree).

Donald Trump must have missed the memo. …Mr. Trump wants to make Reagan-style tax reform great again.

The class-warfare crowd is not happy about Trump’s pro-growth message, Kimberley writes.

The left saw this clearly, which explains its furious and frustrated reaction to the speech. …Democratic strategist Robert Shrum railed in a Politico piece that the “plutocrat” Mr. Trump was pitching a tax cut for “corporations and the top 1 percent” yet was getting away with a “perverted populism.” …Mr. Trump is selling pro-growth policies—something his party has forgotten how to do. …The left has defined the tax debate for decades in terms of pure class warfare. Republicans have so often been cast as stooges for the rich that the GOP is scared to make the full-throated case for a freer and fairer tax system. …Mr. Trump isn’t playing this game—and that’s why the left is unhappy. The president wants to reduce business tax rates significantly… He wants to simplify the tax code in a way that will eliminate many cherished carve-outs. …his address was largely a hymn to supply-side economics, stunning Democrats who believed they’d forever dispelled such voodoo. …Mr. Trump busted up the left’s class-warfare model. He didn’t make tax reform about blue-collar workers fighting corporate America. Instead it was a question of “our workers” and “our companies” and “our country” competing against China. He noted that America’s high tax rates force companies to move overseas. He directly and correctly tied corporate rate cuts to prosperity for workers, noting that tax reform would “keep jobs in America, create jobs in America,” and lead to higher wages.

Amen. That’s the point I made last week about investment being the key to prosperity for ordinary people.

Ms. Strassel concludes by putting pressure on Congress to do its job and get a bill to the President’s desk.

His opening salvo has given Republicans the cover to push ahead, as well as valuable pointers on selling growth economics. If they can’t get the job done—with the power they now have in Washington—they’d best admit the Democrats’ class-warfare “populism” has won.

I largely agree with Kimberley’s analysis. Trump’s message of jobs, growth, and competitiveness is spot on. His proposal for a 15 percent corporate rate would be very good for the economy. And I also agree with her that it’s up to congressional Republicans to move the ball over the goal line.

But I also think she’s giving Trump too much credit. As I point out in this interview, the Administration isn’t really playing a major role in the negotiations. The folks on Capitol Hill are doing the real work while the President is waiting around for a bill to sign.

Moreover, I’ve been repeatedly warning that there are some very difficult issues that Congress needs to decide.

Since big companies will benefit from a lower corporate rate, will there be similar tax relief for small businesses that file using “Schedule C” of the individual income tax? That’s a good idea, but there are big revenue implications.

Since Republicans (and this definitely includes Trump) are weak on spending, will they achieve deficit neutrality (necessary for permanent reform) by eliminating loopholes? That’s a good idea, but interest groups will resist.

Unfortunately, the White House isn’t offering much help on these issues. The President simply wants big tax cuts and is leaving these tough decisions to everyone else.

P.S. I should have been more specific in the interview. I said we would have a flat tax in my “fantasy world” but that I would settle for partial reform in my “ideal world.” I was grading on a curve, so I want to redeem myself. Here’s how things really rank.

P.P.S. I’m very hopeful that lawmakers will get rid of the deduction for state and local taxes. Not only would that provide some revenue that can be used for pro-growth changes, but it also would get rid of a very unfair distortion that enables higher taxes in states such as Illinois, California, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

P.P.P.S. I have no objection to family-oriented tax relief and other policies that target middle-class taxpayers. Such provisions are politically useful since they expand the coalition of supporters. But I want policy makers to understand that economic growth is the best way of helping everyone – including the poor. That’s why supply-side provisions should be the primary focus of any tax package.

P.P.P.P.S. The class-warfare crowd doesn’t like lower tax rates on upper-income taxpayers. They argue that rich people won’t pay enough and that the government will be starved of revenue. Yet they have no answer when I show them this IRS data. Or this data from the United Kingdom. Or this data from France.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Notwithstanding the title of today’s column, I don’t think Trump is a principled supply-sider like Reagan. But it might be accurate to say he’s a practical supply sider like President John F. Kennedy.

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While I realize there’s zero hope of ripping up America’s awful tax code and getting a simple and fair flat tax, I’m nonetheless hopeful that there will be some meaningful incremental changes as part of the current effort to achieve some sort of tax reform.

A package that lowers the corporate rate, replaces depreciation with expensing, and ends the death tax would be very good for growth, and those good reforms could be at least partially financed by eliminating the state and local tax deduction and curtailing business interest deductions so that debt and equity are on a level playing field.

All that sounds good, and a package like this should be feasible since Republicans control both Congress and the White House (especially now that the BAT is off the table), but I warn in this interview that there are lots of big obstacles that could cause tax reform to become a disaster akin to the Obamacare repeal effort.

Here’s my list of conflicts that need to be solved in order to get some sort of plan through Congress and on to the President’s desk.

  • Carried interest – Trump wants to impose a higher capital gains tax on a specific type of investment, but this irks many congressional GOPers who have long understood that any capital gains tax is a form of double taxation and should be abolished. The issue apparently has some symbolic importance to the President and it could become a major stumbling block if he digs in his heels.
  • Tax cut or revenue neutrality – Budget rules basically require that tax cuts expire after 10 years. To avoid this outcome (which would undermine the pro-growth impact of any reforms), many lawmakers want a revenue-neutral package that could be permanent. But that means coming up with tax increases to offset tax cuts. That’s okay if undesirable tax preferences are being eliminated to produce more revenue, but defenders of those loopholes will then lobby against the plan.
  • Big business vs small business – Everyone agrees that America’s high corporate tax rate is bad news for competitiveness and should be reduced. The vast majority of small businesses, however, pay taxes through “Schedule C” of the individual income tax, so they want lower personal rates to match lower corporate rates. That’s a good idea, of course, but would have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.
  • Budget balance – Republicans have long claimed that a major goal is balancing the budget within 10 years. That’s certainly achievable with a modest amount of spending restraint. And it’s even relatively simple to have a big tax cut and still achieve balance in 10 years with a bit of extra spending discipline. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s very little appetite for spending restraint in the White House or Capitol Hill, and this may hinder passage of a tax plan.
  • Middle class tax relief – The main focus of the tax plan is boosting growth and competitiveness by reducing the burden on businesses and investment. That’s laudable, but critics will say “the rich” will get most of the tax relief. And even though the rich already pay most of the taxes and even though the rest of us will benefit from faster growth, Republicans are sensitive to that line of attack. So they will want to include some sort of provision designed for the middle class, but that will have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.

There’s another complicating factor. At the risk of understatement, President Trump generates controversy. And this means he doesn’t have much power to use the bully pulpit.

Though I point out in this interview that this doesn’t necessarily cripple tax reform since the President’s most important role is to simply sign the legislation.

Before the 2016 election, I was somewhat optimistic about tax reform.

A few months ago, I was very pessimistic.

I now think something will happen, if for no other reason than Republicans desperately want to achieve something after botching Obamacare repeal.

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Most people understand that there’s a Social Security crisis, but they only know half the story.

The part of the crisis they grasp is that the program is basically bankrupt, though I doubt many of them realize that the long-run shortfall is a staggering $44 trillion.

The part of the crisis that generally is overlooked is that the program is a lousy deal for workers. They pay record amounts of tax into the system in exchange for a shaky promise of a modest monthly check. For all intents and purposes, they are being charged for a steak, but they’re getting a hamburger (with Medicare, by contrast, people are charged for a hamburger and they receive a hamburger but taxpayers pay for a steak that nobody gets).

For groups with lower-than-average life expectancy, such as poor people and minorities, Social Security is even worse. They pay into the system throughout their working lives, but then they don’t live long enough to collect a decent amount of benefits.

I narrated a video that was partly focused on how people could have more retirement income if we shifted to a system of personal retirement accounts, but this video from Learn Liberty directly addresses this issue.

By the way, I have one minor complaint with this excellent video. Social Security is not forced savings. There’s no money set aside. Yes, there’s a “trust fund,” but it contains nothing but IOUs. And if you don’t believe me, see what the Clinton Administration wrote back in 1999.

It would be more accurate to say the system is a pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer entitlement.

But I’m digressing, so let’s focus on some potential good news. Americans actually have a pretty good track record of saving for their own retirement. Indeed, total pension assets (measured as a share of economic output) in the United States rival those of nations that have mandatory private retirement systems.

So it presumably shouldn’t be that difficult to transition to a private retirement system in America.

Which was a key takeaway from a column in the Wall Street Journal last week by Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute. He starts with a pessimistic observation on how major politicians have addressed the crisis.

During last year’s presidential campaign, the candidates promised not to cut Social Security benefits (Donald Trump) and even to increase them (Hillary Clinton). …the Trump administration should reconsider its pledge not to cut Social Security benefits. The program is 25% underfunded over the long term, the Congressional Budget Office projects.

But the good news is that many Americans already are saving for retirement, so it wouldn’t be disruptive to extend personal retirement accounts to the entire population.

…private plans such as 401(k)s have allowed more people than ever to save for retirement…61% of workers… Contributions to private plans have…risen from an average 5.8% of wages in 1975 to 8% in 2014. …in 1984 only 23% of households received benefits from private retirement plans. By 2007 that had risen to 45%. Moreover, during the same period the benefits that the median household received from private plans rose by 141% above inflation, versus only 25% for Social Security benefits.

This is a system that should be expanded, with a prudent transition from a bankrupt Social Security system to a safer and more lucrative system of personal retirement accounts.

And that would be a much better outcome than what the current system will give us.

…Scandinavian-level tax rates or multi-trillion dollar unfunded entitlement liabilities.

P.S. Responding to those who worry about stock market downturns and the implications for retirement income, my colleague Mike Tanner showed that even people retiring after the 2008 crash would have been better off with personal retirement accounts.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

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To be blunt, Republicans are heading in the wrong direction on fiscal policy. They have full control of the executive and legislative branches, but instead of using their power to promote Reaganomics, it looks like we’re getting a reincarnation of the big-government Bush years.

As Yogi Berra might have said, “it’s deja vu all over again.”

Let’s look at the evidence. According to the Hill, the Keynesian virus has infected GOP thinking on tax cuts.

Republicans are debating whether parts of their tax-reform package should be retroactive in order to boost the economy by quickly putting more money in people’s wallets.

That is nonsense. Just as giving people a check and calling it “stimulus” didn’t help the economy under Obama, giving people a check and calling it a tax cut won’t help the economy under Trump.

Tax cuts boost growth when they reduce the marginal tax rate on productive behavior such as work, saving, investment, or entrepreneurship. When that happens, people have an incentive to generate more income. And that leads to more national income, a.k.a., economic growth.

Borrowing money from the economy’s left pocket and then stuffing checks (oops, I mean retroactive tax cuts) in the economy’s right pocket, by contrast, simply reallocates national income.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons why the economy didn’t get much benefit from the 2001 Bush tax cut, especially when compared to the growth-oriented 2003 tax cut. Unfortunately, Republicans haven’t learned that lesson.

Republicans have taken steps in the past to ensure that taxpayers directly felt the benefits of tax cuts. As part of the 2001 tax cuts enacted by President George W. Bush, taxpayers received rebate checks.

The article does include some analysis from people who understand that retroactive tax cuts aren’t economically beneficial.

…there are also drawbacks to making tax changes retroactive. …such changes would add to the cost of the bill, but would not be an effective way to encourage new spending and investments. “It has all of the costs of the tax cuts but none of the economic benefits,” said Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget President Maya MacGuineas, who added that “you don’t make investments in the rear-view mirror.”

I’m not always on the same side as Maya, but she’s right on this issue. You can’t encourage people to generate more income in the past. If you want more growth, you have to reduce marginal tax rates on future activity.

By the way, I’m not arguing that there is no political benefit to retroactive tax cuts. If Republicans simply stated that they were going to send rebate checks to curry favor with voters, I’d roll my eyes and shrug my shoulders.

But when they make Keynesian arguments to justify such a policy, I can’t help but get upset about the economic illiteracy.

Speaking of bad economic policy, GOPers also are pursuing bad spending policy.

Politico has a report on a potential budget deal where everyone wins…except taxpayers.

The White House is pushing a deal on Capitol Hill to head off a government shutdown that would lift strict spending caps long opposed by Democrats in exchange for money for President Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico, multiple sources said.

So much for Trump’s promise to get tough on the budget, even if it meant a shutdown.

Instead, the back-room negotiations are leading to more spending for all interest groups.

Marc Short, the White House’s director of legislative affairs, …also lobbied for a big budget increase for the Pentagon, another priority for Trump. …The White House is offering Democrats more funding for their own pet projects.

The only good news is that Democrats are so upset about the symbolism of the fence that they may not go for the deal.

Democrats show no sign of yielding on the issue. They have already blocked the project once.

Unfortunately, I expect this is just posturing. When the dust settles, I expect the desire for more spending (from both parties) will produce a deal that is bad news. At least for those of us who don’t want America to become Greece (any faster than already scheduled).

Republican and Democratic congressional aides have predicted for months that both sides will come together on a spending agreement to raise spending caps for the Pentagon as well as for nondefense domestic programs.

So let’s check our scorecard. On the tax side of the equation, we’ll hopefully still get some good policy, such as a lower corporate tax rate, but it probably will be accompanied by some gimmicky Keynesian policy.

On the spending side of the equation, it appears my fears about Trump may have been correct and he’s going to be a typical big-government Republican.

It’s possible, of course, that I’m being needlessly pessimistic and we’ll get the kinds of policies I fantasized about in early 2016. But I wouldn’t bet money on a positive outcome.

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There are some charming traditions, like the swallows returning every year to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano.

But other traditions are far less impressive, most notably the make-believe hysteria that occurs every time the federal government approaches its “debt limit.”

High-level government officials will publicly fret that a failure to increase the limit will produce an unprecedented calamity because the Treasury Department will be forced to default on U.S. government debt, thus triggering a global panic.

And this triggers anxiety in predictable quarters.

A story in USA Today is representative of the sky-is-falling mentality.

Congress will confront a potentially devastating financial crisis in September as lawmakers scramble to…prevent the nation from defaulting on its debt for the first time in history. …The debt limit, set by Congress, is the legal amount the U.S. Treasury can borrow to pay the government’s existing bills, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, tax refunds, interest on the national debt, and other obligations. The government has never defaulted on its debt before, and no one knows for sure what the impact would be. However, economists warn that it could plunge the U.S. back into recession and spark a global economic crisis.

Paul Krugman is predictably hysterical about the prospect.

The odds of a self-inflicted US debt crisis now look pretty good: hard-line Republicans are eager to hold the economy hostage… So it looks fairly likely that by October or so there will come a day when the U.S. government stops paying some of its bills, including interest on debt. How bad will that be? The truth is that we don’t know.. Until now, US debt has played a special role in the world economy, because it is — or was — the ultimate safe asset, the thing people can use to secure transactions with no questions about it retaining its value. …Taking away that role could be very nasty.

Even some establishment voices are fanning the flames, including Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Our economic standing is too sterling and the global economy too important to imperil over the disagreements of American domestic politics — as fundamental as they may be. It is the height of recklessness — a view held for decades reflected in the fact that raising the debt ceiling was once a mundane piece of housekeeping that garnered no attention. It was practically automatic.

And Professor Edward Kleinbard of the University of Southern California also thinks the apocalypse is nigh.

Sometime in October, the United States is likely to default on its obligation to pay its bills as they come due, having failed to raise the federal debt ceiling. This will cost the Treasury tens of billions of dollars every year for decades to come in higher interest charges and probably trigger a severe recession. …almost all economists and policy makers agree on the enormous fiscal, economic and reputational costs of default. That’s why, in the past, we’ve always managed to avoid it.

Sounds ominous, right?

And I agree that it would be very bad news if the U.S. government didn’t pay all interest and principal to bondholders, as scheduled.

But here’s the good news. The odds of that happening are about the same as the odds of me being the keynote speaker at the next convention of the Socialist Party.

As I’ve said over the years in television interviews, at press conferences, and in congressional testimony (on more than one occasion), there won’t be a default for the simple reason that the federal government collects far more money than needed to pay all bondholders without any delay.

And nothing has happened to the budget numbers to change that analysis.

Here are the latest CBO projections on major budget aggregates. I’ve circled total tax receipts for the next three years, as well as annual net interest payments. As you can see, the Treasury will be collecting more than 10 times as much revenue as needed to fulfill obligations to the folks who have lent money to Uncle Sam.

By the way, some of you may be thinking I’m a cranky libertarian who is blind to the danger of default.

Well, I am a libertarian, and I do get cranky about the various shenanigans in Washington, so let me engage in what’s known as an “appeal to authority.”

Here’s what the Congressional Budget Office said in its recent report on the debt limit.

When Would the Extraordinary Measures and Cash Run Out, and What Would Happen Then? If the debt limit is not increased above the amount that was established on March 16, 2017, the Treasury will not be authorized to issue additional debt that increases the amount outstanding. …That restriction would ultimately lead to delays of payments for government programs and activities, a default on the government’s debt obligations, or both.

In other words, the government can choose to pay interest on the debt and defer other bills. As I’ve repeatedly said in all my public pronouncements, a default will occur only if an administration wants it to occur.

But that’s not going to happen. Just as Obama’s various Treasury Secretaries would have “prioritized” payments to bondholders, Trump’s Treasury Secretary will do the same thing if push comes to shove.

Some budget experts on the left know this is true so they try to blur the issue by stating that it is “default” to postpone payment on any type of government spending. Here’s some of what Kleinbard wrote in his column.

…some conservative policy makers besides Mr. Mulvaney have convinced themselves that crashing into the debt ceiling won’t be a big deal because the government can “prioritize” its bill payments, so that interest on Treasury debt will be paid on a current basis, while other bills sit unpaid. Understanding the false allure of prioritization requires a little background. …there are profound doubts as to whether the Treasury could even implement prioritization, beyond ring fencing interest payments, because its payment systems are designed to pay all claims as they are due, regardless of their origin. More important, prioritization is default by another name. The consequences are the same, regardless of which i.o.u.s Treasury chooses to dishonor. All valid claims against the United States are backed by the credit of the United States… The deliberate nonpayment of billions of dollars of uncontested claims every month thus constitutes default, even if the Treasury is paying some of its other debts.

The last sentence in the above excerpt is bunk. Postponing or deferring bills is not good budget policy. It’s basically what happens in poorly governed places like Greece and Illinois. But it’s not default. There wouldn’t be any risk to financial markets if the Treasury Department was late in disbursing farm subsidy checks or Medicaid reimbursements.

Let’s close by indulging one of my fantasies. If Donald Trump wanted to force good policy from Congress, he could threaten to veto any debt limit that wasn’t accompanied by something desirable such as a spending cap or entitlement reform. The politicians on Capitol Hill would balk of course, but Trump could shrug his shoulders and start “prioritization” once the debt limit was reached. So long as all bondholders received promised payments, there would be no danger to financial markets. By contrast, however, the various interest groups feeding at the federal trough would begin to squeal once their checks started slowing down. At some point, Congress would be forced to capitulate.

In other words, Trump has the capacity to score a big victory on the debt limit, just like he has the unilateral ability to score a big victory on Obamacare repeal and/or the 2018 spending bills.

I’m not holding my breath for this to happen, but it’s nice to dream. Especially since a big fight over the debt limit today (if successful) could save us from something far worse in the future.

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