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Archive for the ‘Fiscal Policy’ Category

The Congressional Budget Office just released its new long-run fiscal forecast.

Most observers immediately looked at the estimates for deficits and debt. Those numbers are important, especially since America has an aging population, but they should be viewed as secondary.

What really matters are the trends for both taxes and spending.

Here are the three things that you need to know.

First, America’s tax burden is increasing. Immediately below are two charts. The first one shows that revenues will consume an addition three percentage points of GDP over the next three decades. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, our long-run problem is not caused by inadequate revenue.

The second of the two charts shows that most of the increase is due to “real bracket creep,” which is what happens when people earn more income and wind up having to pay higher tax rates.

So even if Congress extends the “Cadillac tax” on health premiums and extends all the temporary provisions of the 2017 Tax Act, the aggregate tax burden will increase.

Second, the spending burden is growing even faster than the tax burden.

And if you look closely at the top section of Figure 1-7, you’ll see that the big problems are the entitlements for health care (i.e., Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare).

By the way, the lower section of Figure 1-7 shows that corporate tax revenues are projected to average about 1.3 percent of GDP, which is not that much lower than what CBO projected (about 1.7 percent of GDP) before the rate was reduced by 40 percent.

Interesting.

Third, we have our most important chart.

It shows that the United States is on a very bad trajectory because the burden of government spending is growing faster than the private economy.

In other words, Washington is violating my Golden Rule.

And this leads to all sorts of negative consequences.

  • Government consumes a greater share of the economy over time.
  • Politicians will want to respond by raising taxes.
  • Politicians will allow red ink to increase.

The key thing to understand is that more taxes and more debt are the natural and inevitable symptoms of the underlying disease of too much spending.

We know the solution, and we have real world evidence that it works (especially when part of a nation’s constitution), but don’t hold your breath waiting for Washington to do the right thing.

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I’ve argued for many years that a Clean Brexit is the right step for the United Kingdom for the simple reason that the European Union is a slowly sinking ship.

Part of the problem is demographics. Europe’s welfare states are already very expensive and the relative costs will increase dramatically in coming years because of rising longevity and falling birthrates. So I expect more Greek-style fiscal crises.

The other part of the problem is attitudinal. I’m not talking about European-wide attitudes (though that also is something to worry about, given the erosion of societal capital), but rather the views of the European elites.

The notion of “ever closer union” is not just empty rhetoric in European treaties. It’s the ideological preference of senior European leaders, including in many nations and definitely in Brussels (home of the European Commission and the European Parliament).

In practical terms, this means a relentless effort for more centralization.

All policies that will accelerate Europe’s decline.

What’s happening with the taxation of air travel is a good example. Here are some excerpts from a story in U.S. News & World Report.

The Netherlands and France are trying to convince fellow European nations at a conference in The Hague to end tax exemptions on jet fuel and plane tickets… In the first major initiative on air travel tax in years, the conference on Thursday and Friday – which will be attended by about 29 countries – will discuss ticket taxes, kerosene levies and value-added tax (VAT) on air travel. …The conference will be attended by European Union economics commissioner Pierre Moscovici and finance and environment ministers. …The conference organizers hope that higher taxes will lead to changes in consumer behavior, with fewer people flying

The politicians, bureaucrats, and environmental activists are unhappy that European consumers are enjoying lightly taxed travel inside Europe.

Oh, the horror!

A combination of low aviation taxes, a proliferation of budget airlines and the rise of Airbnb have led to a boom in intra-European city-trips. …Research has shown that if the price of air travel goes up by one percent, demand will likely fall by about one percent, according to IMF tax policy division head Ruud De Mooij. He said that in a typical tank of gas for a car, over half the cost is tax…”Airline travel is nearly entirely exempt from all tax… Ending its undertaxation would level the playing field versus other modes of transport,” he said. …Environmental NGOs such as Transport and Environment (T&E) have long criticized the EU for being a “kerosene tax haven”.”Europe is a sorry story. Even the U.S., Australia and Brazil, where climate change deniers are in charge, all tax aviation more than Europe does,” T&E’s Bill Hemmings said. …The EU report shows that just six out of 28 EU member states levy ticket taxes on international flights, with Britain’s rates by far the highest at about 14 euros for short-haul economy flights and up to 499 euros for long-haul business class. …Friends of the Earth says there are no easy answers and that the only way to reduce airline CO2 emissions is by constraining aviation trough taxation, frequent flyer levies and limiting the number of flights at airports.

The only semi-compelling argument in the story is that air travel is taxed at preferential rates compared to other modes of transportation.

Assuming that’s true, it would be morally and economically appropriate to remove that distortion.

But not as part of a money-grab by European politicians who want more money and more centralization.

As you can see from this chart, the tax burden in eurozone nations is almost 50 percent higher than it is in the United States (46.2 percent of GDP compared to 32.7 percent of GDP according to OECD data for 2018).

And it’s lower-income and middle-class taxpayers who are paying the difference.

So here’s a fair trade. European nations (not Brussels) can impose additional taxes on air travel if they are willing to lower other taxes by a greater amount. Maybe €3 of tax cuts for every €1 of additional taxes on air travel?

Needless to say, nobody in Brussels – or in national capitals – is contemplating such a swap. The discussion is entirely focused on extracting more tax revenue.

P.S. There’s some compelling academic evidence that the European Union has undermined the continent’s economic performance. Which is sad since the EU started as a noble idea of a free trade area and instead has become a vehicle for statism.

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Proponents of bigger government sometimes make jaw-dropping statements.

I even have collections of bizarre assertions by both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

What’s especially shocking is when statists twist language, such as when they claim all income is the “rightful property” of government and that people who are allowed to keep any of their earnings are getting “government handouts.”

A form of “spending in the tax code,” as they sometimes claim.

Maybe we should have an “Orwell Award” for the most perverse misuse of language on tax issues.

And if we do, I have two potential winners.

The governor of Illinois actually asserted that higher income taxes are needed to stop people from leaving the state.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker…blamed the state’s flat income tax for Illinois’ declining population. …“The people who have been leaving the state are actually the people who have had the regressive flat income tax imposed upon them, working-class, middle-class families,” Pritzker said. Pritzker successfully got the Democrat-controlled state legislature to pass a ballot question asking voters on the November 2020 ballot if Illinois’ flat income tax should be changed to a structure with higher rates for higher earners. …Pritzker said he’s set to sign budget and infrastructure bills that include a variety of tax increases, including a doubling of the state’s gas tax, increased vehicle registration fees, higher tobacco taxes, gambling taxes and other tax increases

I’ve written many times about the fight to replace the flat tax with a discriminatory graduated tax in Illinois, so no need to revisit that issue.

Instead, I’ll simply note that Pritzker’s absurd statement about who is escaping the state not only doesn’t pass the laugh test, but it also is explicitly contradicted by IRS data.

In reality, the geese with the golden eggs already are voting with their feet against Illinois. And the exodus will accelerate if Pritzker succeeds in killing the state’s flat tax.

Another potential winner is Martin Kreienbaum from the German Finance Ministry. As reported by Law360.com, he asserted that jurisdictions have the sovereign right to have low taxes, but only if the rules are rigged so they can’t benefit.

A new global minimum tax from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is not meant to infringe on state sovereignty…, an official from the German Federal Ministry of Finance said Monday. The OECD’s work plan…includes a goal of establishing a single global rate for taxation… While not mandating that countries match or exceed it in their national tax rates, the new OECD rules would allow countries to tax the foreign income of their home companies if it is taxed below that rate. …”We respect the sovereignty for states to completely, freely set their tax rates,” said Martin Kreienbaum, director general for international taxation at the German Federal Ministry of Finance. “And we restore sovereignty of other countries to react to low-tax situations.” …”we also believe that the race to the bottom is a situation we would not like to accept in the future.”

Tax harmonization is another issue that I’ve addressed on many occasions.

Suffice to say that I find it outrageous and disgusting that bureaucrats at the OECD (who get tax-free salaries!) are tying to create a global tax cartel for the benefit of uncompetitive nations.

What I want to focus on today, however, is how the principle of sovereignty is being turned upside down.

From the perspective of a German tax collector, a low-tax jurisdiction is allowed to have fiscal sovereignty, but only on paper.

So if a place like the Cayman Islands has a zero-income tax, it then gets hit with tax protectionism and financial protectionism.

Sort of like having the right to own a house, but with neighbors who have the right to set it on fire.

P.S. Trump’s Treasury Secretary actually sides with the French and supports this perverse form of tax harmonization.

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I wrote yesterday about the leadership race for the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.

The most important goal is to find a leader who will deliver a “clean Brexit,” but I also pointed out that it would be very desirable to select a Prime Minister who will support much-needed supply-side reforms to make the U.K. more attractive for jobs and investment.

Today, let’s turn our attention to the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

The accompanying table of data (from page 65 of HM Treasury’s Statistical Analyses of Public Expenditure) shows annual spending in nominal and inflation-adjusted terms, as well as the burden of spending as a share of economic output.

If you look at trends, you’ll notice a bit of progress in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher and then some backsliding last decade when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were in charge.

But the most surprising results can be found this decade.

Starting in 2011, there’s been some impressive spending restraint. Nominal outlays have increased by an average of 1.7 percent annually.

And since the private sector has grown at a faster pace, that means the overall burden of government spending – measured as a share of gross domestic product – has declined.

I’ve never thought of David Cameron (Prime Minister from 2010-2016) or Theresa May (Prime Minister since 2016) as fiscal conservatives, but they deserve credit for keeping spending under control.

(Too bad we can’t say the same thing about Donald Trump!)

In any event, the new leader of the Conservative Party should maintain this approach. Or, better yet, go one step further by institutionalizing some sort of Swiss-style spending cap.

There’s also a lesson for the rest of us.

What’s happened in the United Kingdom is additional confirmation that my Golden Rule is the right approach to fiscal policy.

Nations with multi-year periods of spending restraint always get good fiscal results.

We even had such an experience in the United States (back when Republicans pretended to care about spending).

Let’s close with this chart, based on IMF data, showing what’s happened this decade in the United Kingdom.

P.S. Unsurprisingly, Paul Krugman got everything backwards when he examined U.K. fiscal policy earlier this decade.

P.P.S. While they did a surprisingly good job on spending restraint, that doesn’t change the fact that Cameron was bad on tax policy and May was a failure on Brexit.

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The Conservative Party in the United Kingdom is in the process of selecting a new leader to replace the disastrous Theresa May as Prime Minister.

The most important goal for the Tories is to find someone who will deliver a clean Brexit and thereby extricate the country from a decrepit and declining European Union.

But once Brexit does happen, adopting pro-growth policies will be very important – especially if the European Union petulantly tries to make the transition painful by rejecting a free trade agreement.

The good news is that the United Kingdom is ranked #9 for overall economic liberty according to the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World, so it has a strong foundation for competitiveness.

The bad news is that the U.K. is only ranked #120 for fiscal policy.

Since that’s the weak spot, let’s see what can be done to move in the right direction.

Let’s look at the tax side of the fiscal equation. According to the Tax Foundation’s International Tax Competitiveness Index, the U.K. is in the bottom half (almost in the bottom third). And I’ve circled the country’s dismal ranking for individual taxes.

By the way, I don’t think this Index is a perfect measure. As I pointed out back in 2016, it needs to include a size-of-government variable.

Nonetheless, it’s a great place to start.

Now let’s consider the fiscal plans of various candidates for Tory leader.

The U.K.-based Mirror has a helpful summary.

Frontrunner Boris Johnson has promised a massive income tax cut for Britain’s richest people – by raising the 40p threshold from £50,000 to £80,000. …Meanwhile Home Secretary Sajid Javid has said he would partially reverse swingeing Tory cuts to the police and recruit 20,000 police officers. He also planned a tax cut for the richest 1% of taxpayers in the UK by removing the 45p rate of income tax, if it pays off overall. …Michael Gove has pledged to scrap VAT replacing it with a simpler sales tax. …Meanwhile Esther McVey has vowed to cut taxes – without saying which – and slash £7billion from the foreign aid budget and spend it on school and police. …Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab…promised to shrink the state and slash public spending by reducing the basic rate of income tax from 20p to 15p over time – including a 1p drop “straight away”. …Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants to cut corporation tax further to 12.5%. That would make the UK’s tax rate by far the lowest in the G20 and turn the country into a tax haven. …Rory Stewart has himself already said he would double spending on climate change and the environment as he warned the UK must do more in the face of an “environmental cataclysm”. Former Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom…is committed to “low taxes, incentives for enterprise and strong employment opportunities”.

A mixed bag.

Rory Stewart seems to have the most statist mindset (he’s also very weak on Brexit), but it’s not clear who has the best fiscal plan.

Let’s look at more data. The Wall Street Journal opined this morning on this topic.

The editorial starts with an indictment of the current system.

Britain’s Byzantine tax system still drags on investment, productivity and growth despite important recent improvements. The top corporate rate has fallen to 19% from 30% since 2007 and is due to hit 17% next year. But the top personal rate, paid on incomes above £150,000, has fallen only to 45% from 50%. Coupled with abrupt income cutoffs in eligibility for allowances and credits, British taxpayers in practice can experience a marginal rate as high as 60% for each additional pound of income between £100,000 and £124,000, and 65% for families with three children earning between £50,000 and £60,000, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Add taxes on pension contributions at higher incomes and some workers pay marginal rates above 100% on parts of their income—paying more than a pound in tax for each additional pound they earn. …Social-insurance and property taxes add more burdens.

And this doesn’t even include the fact that the U.K. has above-average death taxes and higher-than average levels of double taxation.

How do Tory candidates propose to deal with these problems?

The best Conservative leadership proposals so far come from Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Home Secretary Sajid Javid.Mr. Hunt pledges to reduce the corporate rate to 12.5% to match Ireland’s low rate… Mr. Javid would cut the top individual rate to 40%. …Frontrunner Boris Johnson promises to increase the threshold at which the 40% rate kicks in, to £80,000 from £50,000. The 4.2 million people estimated to see their taxes reduced won’t complain. But tweaking brackets does nothing to fix the current tax code’s bad rate incentives for top earners—the entrepreneurs and investors post-Brexit Britain needs to attract. …Brexit hardliner Dominic Raab would cut the lower personal rate for earners between £12,500 and £50,000 to 15% from 20%. Any rate cut is welcome, but this would help many households that already receive more in benefits than they pay in tax. Environment Secretary Michael Gove would replace the 20% value-added tax with a lower-rate U.S.-style sales tax, which would be a boon to low-income households. But neither would fix broken incentives to work and invest as incomes rise.

As you can see, it’s a mix of mediocre-to-good ideas.

Much like when Republicans generated a bunch of plans when competing for the nomination in 2016.

Of course, let’s also keep in mind that Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party also has a tax plan, which is a poisonous collection of class-warfare provisions that would make the U.K. less attractive for jobs and investment.

Which means it is especially important, as the WSJ concludes, to have a compelling case for growth instead of redistribution.

…the only way Britain can prosper post-Brexit is by becoming a magnet for investment and human talent. If voters want the party of income redistribution, they’ll choose Labour. Tories have to be the credible party of growth, with a leader willing and able to make the reform case.

In other words, is there another Margaret Thatcher somewhere in the mix?

P.S. If you want to enjoy some Brexit-themed humor, click here and here.

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The folks at USA Today invited me to opine on fiscal policy, specifically whether the 2017 tax cut was a mistake because of rising levels of red ink.

Here’s some of what I wrote on the topic, including the all-important point that deficits and debt are best understood as symptoms of the real problem of too much spending.

Now that there’s some much needed tax reform to boost American competitiveness, we’re supposed to suddenly believe that red ink is a national crisis. What’s ironic about all this pearl clutching is that the 2017 tax bill actually increases revenue beginning in 2027, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. …This isn’t to say that America’s fiscal house is in good shape, or that President Donald Trump should be immune from criticism. Indeed, the White House should be condemned for repeatedly busting the spending caps as part of bipartisan deals where Republicans get more defense spending, Democrats get more domestic spending and the American people get stuck with the bill. …The real lesson is that red ink is bad, but it’s only the symptom of the real problem of a federal budget that is too big and growing too fast.

I also pointed out that the only good solution for our fiscal problems is some sort of spending cap, similar to the successful systems in Hong Kong and Switzerland.

Heck, even left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF have pointed out that spending caps are the only successful fiscal rule.

Now let’s look at a different perspective. USA Today also opined on the same topic (I was invited to provide a differing view). Here are excerpts from their editorial.

…more than anyone else, Laffer gave intellectual cover to the proposition that politicians can have their cake and eat it, too. …Laffer argued — on a cocktail napkin, according to economic lore, and elsewhere — that tax reductions would pay for themselves. These “supply side” cuts would stimulate growth so much, revenue would rise even as tax rates declined. This is, of course, rubbish. In the wake of the massive 2017 tax cuts, …the budget deficit is projected to run a little shy of $1 trillion… To run such large deficits a decade into a record economy recovery, is a massive problem because they will soar to dangerous heights the next time a recession strikes.

I think the column misrepresents the Laffer Curve, but let’s set that issue aside for another day.

The editorial also goes overboard in describing the 2017 tax cut as “massive.” As I noted in my column, that legislation actually raises revenue starting in 2027.

That being said, the main shortcoming of the USA Today editorial is that it doesn’t acknowledge that America’s long-run fiscal challenge (even for those who fixate on deficits and debt) is entirely driven by excessive spending growth.

Indeed, all you need to know is that nominal GDP is projected to grow by an average of about 4.0 percent annually over the next 30 years while the federal budget is projected to grow 5.2 percent per year.

This violates the Golden Rule of sensible fiscal policy.

And raising taxes almost certainly would make this bad outlook even worse since the economy would be weaker and politicians would jack up spending even further.

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Earlier today at the Friedman Conference in Australia, I spoke on the proper design of a tax system.

My goal was to explain the problem of double taxation.

I’ve repeatedly shared a flowchart to illustrate the pervasive double taxation in the current system (my example is for the United States, but many other nations make the same mistake).

And to help explain why this is economically misguided, I developed a (hopefully) compelling visual based on how to harvest apples.

But I’ve always wondered if I was presenting the information in an accessible and understandable manner. So for today’s presentation, I decided to experiment with some different visuals.

Here’s how I illustrated the current system.

As you can see, there are several additional layers of tax on people who save and invest their after-tax income.

And I explained to the crowd that this is very foolish since every economic theory agrees that saving and investment are key to long-run growth.

Even socialism. Even Marxism. (Socialists and Marxists are foolish to think government can be in charge of allocating capital, but at least they realize that future growth requires saving and investment.)

In other words, you don’t achieve good tax policy solely by having a low tax rate.

Yes, that’

s important, but genuine tax reform also means no bias against saving and investment.

Here’s another visual. This one shows the difference between the current system and the flat tax. As you can see, all the added layers of tax on saving and investment are jettisoned under true tax reform.

By the way, there are some people who prefer a national sales tax over a flat tax.

I question the political viability of that approach, but I’ve always defended the sales tax.

Why? Because it’s conceptually identical to the flat tax.

As you can see from this next visual, the difference between the two systems is that the flat tax grabs a bit of money when income is earned and the sales tax grabs a bit of money when income is spent (either today or in the future).

Remember, the goal is to eliminate the bias against saving and investing.

To economists who specialize in public finance, this is known as shifting to a “consumption base” system.

But I’ve never liked that language. What really happens under true tax reform is that we tax income, but using the right definition.

The current system, by contrast, is known as a “comprehensive income tax” with a “Haig-Simons” tax base. But that simply means a system that taxes some forms of income over and over again.

Time for one final point.

Some people like a value-added tax because it avoids the problem of double taxation.

That’s certainly true.

But this final visual shows that adding a VAT to the current system doesn’t solve the problem. All that happens is that politicians have a new source of revenue to expand the welfare state.

If a VAT was used to replace the current tax system, that might be a very worthwhile approach.

But that’s about as likely as me playing the outfield later this year for the New York Yankees.

P.S. The VAT visual is overly simplified and it sidesteps the logistical issue of whether politicians would go for a credit-invoice VAT or a subtraction-method VAT. But the visual is correct in terms of how a VAT would interact with the current system.

P.P.S. All you need to know about the VAT is that Reagan was against it and Nixon was for it.

 

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