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Archive for the ‘Fiscal Policy’ Category

I wrote last year about why Puerto Rico got into fiscal trouble.

Like Greece and so many other governments, it did the opposite of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Instead of a multi-year period of spending restraint, it allowed the budget to expand faster than the private sector for almost two decades.

As the old saying goes, that’s water under the bridge. Since we can’t un-ring the bell of excessive spending in the past, what’s the best option for the future?

The House of Representatives has approved a rescue plan that is getting mixed reviews.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute is supportive but not enthusiastic about the proposal.

The proposed Puerto Rican Restructuring Bill is to be welcomed as a first step towards resolving the island’s chronic debt problem… However, …the bill will be little more than a stop-gap measure to get us through the U.S. election cycle without a full blown Puerto Rican economic and financial crisis before November.

The legislation creates a board with some power to force fiscal and economic reforms.

…a seven-member oversight board…is to have exclusive control to ensure that Puerto Rico’s fiscal plans are enacted and enforced as well as to ensure that necessary reforms are undertaken to help the island regain fiscal solvency. The bill also includes a stay on debt-related litigation to create an environment for consensual negotiations with creditors. It is explicit that it will not involve taxpayer money to bail out the island.

So if there’s no taxpayer money involved, why do people say the legislation is a bailout?

Because the proposal allows Puerto Rico to defer payments on existing debt and then to restructure at least some of that debt. And “restructure” is a politically correct way of saying “partial default.”

So Puerto Rico will be bailed out to the extent that it will be able to stiff bondholders to some degree.

…it would afford the island with a temporary stay on debt principal repayments to allow more time for the voluntary restructuring of its debt mountain. That stay would forestall an otherwise disorderly Puerto Rican default as early as July 1, when some $2 billion in debt repayments come due.

Lachman views that as the least worst of the possible options, so this indirect bailout is not an argument against the legislation. At least from his perspective.

He’s more worried about the fact that much more needs to be done to restore growth on the island.

…it should be obvious that if the island’s economy were to continue to contract at its present rate of around 1 percent a year and if 2 percent of its able-bodied population were to continue to migrate to the mainland each year as is presently the case, the island would become progressively less capable of servicing its $72 billion in public debt or honoring its $45 billion in pension liabilities. A lack of restoring economic growth would also mean that the island would probably need a series of debt write-downs over time.

Writing for Forbes, Ryan Ellis has a much more optimistic assessment of the overall deal.

…the bill is a big win for limited government conservatives. It has no taxpayer bailout of Puerto Rico–not a single dime of taxpayer money is sent down there. …Puerto Rico will have to work their own way out of $72 billion in debt and defaults. They will be helped by an “oversight board”…modeled after the D.C. control board from the 1990s and 2000s, and their job is to approve fiscal plans and budgets, conduct audits, etc.

But Ryan acknowledges that “work their own way out of” is just another way of saying that there is likely going to be a partial default.

The oversight board…will first try to get the 18 classes of bondholders to agree to a voluntary debt restructuring with the Puerto Rican government and government sponsored enterprises. If that fails, the control board will recommend a debt restructuring plan to be enforced by a non-bankruptcy federal judge.

That being said, he’s confident that the legislation won’t be a template for profligate states such as Illinois and California.

Congress is exercising its Constitutional authority to provide all “needful and useful” laws to govern possessions, which is a separate power from the federal bankruptcy clause. There’s no risk of “contagion” to other states.

Though he agrees with Lachman that there’s very little hope for a growth spurt.

It lacks the necessary pro-growth reforms needed for Puerto Rico to get out of its decade-long depression, reverse migration back to the island, attract capital, and create jobs.

Which is why Ryan likes the ideas being pushed by Congressman McArthur of New Jersey. He’s especially fond of territorial taxation for American companies that do business on the island.

The solution is to enact the same type of international tax reform we want to do in the rest of the world–the U.S. companies pay tax in Puerto Rico, but don’t have to pay a second tax to the IRS just to bring the money home. That’s what the rest of the world does, and it’s called “territoriality.” It’s a basic principle of conservative tax reform to move from our outdated “worldwide” tax system to a “territorial” one. There is no better place to start than Puerto Rico.

That would be a good step, and it would be a nice bookend to the very good law Puerto Rico already has for high-income taxpayers from the mainland.

Other conservatives have a less sanguine view of the legislation. Here are excerpts from a coalition statement.

People, companies, states, and territories don’t just “go” broke. Willful prior activity is required. …Puerto Rico has a long history of financial mismanagement brought about by progressive politics and crony capitalism.

Amen. Puerto Rico got in trouble because of bad policy. And the bad policy wasn’t just excessive spending. There have also been grossly misguided interventions such as price controls.

So it’s quite understandable that signatories to this statement are not overly excited that Puerto Rico will have a route for partial default.

Progressive politicians, who are already seeking an indirect bailout – in the form of upending the existing legal structure to allow bankruptcy ‐‐ in the U.S. Congress, argue that a bailout or bankruptcy will help the people of Puerto Rico.

They correctly list several procedural reforms and also point out that there are some obvious policy reforms that should be undertaken.

Sensible economic reforms include allowing Puerto Rico (1) to set its own minimum wage law, including not having a minimum wage law; (2) to be exempt from U.S. overtime rules (which have just been greatly expanded by presidential fiat); and (3) to be exempt from the Jones Act, a protectionist measure that regulates U.S. shipping practices.

Sadly, the legislation is very tepid on these non-fiscal reforms.

So what’s the bottom line? Should the law get three cheers, as Ryan Ellis argues? Two cheers as Desmond Lachman prefers? Or only one cheer (or maybe no cheer), which seems to be the position of some conservative activists?

My answer depends on my mood. When I’m going through a fire-breathing-libertarian phase, I’m with the conservatives. Puerto Rico spent itself into a ditch so they should suffer the consequences.

But when I’m in my long-time-observer-of-Washington mode, I try to imagine the best possible (or least-worst possible) outcome, then I think Paul Ryan and the Republicans did a decent job.

In other words, this is like the fiscal cliff deal back in late 2012. Disappointing in many respects, but not as bad as I would have predicted.

The key question now is whether Republicans insist on putting good people on the oversight board.

And that’s not a trivial concern. I remember thinking the 2011 debt limit fight led to a decent outcome because we got sequester-enforced caps on discretionary spending (not as good as a comprehensive spending cap, but still a good step).

And we even got a sequester in early 2013. But then later that year, and last year as well, Republicans joined with Democrats to bust the spending caps.

That doesn’t bode well for any policy that requires long-run fiscal discipline. Though maybe GOPers will be tougher this time since the spending restraint will be imposed on people who don’t vote in congressional elections.

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Much of my work on fiscal policy is focused on educating audiences about the long-run benefits of small government and modest taxation.

But what about the short-run issue of how to deal with a fiscal crisis? I have periodically weighed in on this topic, citing research from places like the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund to show that spending restraint is the right approach.

And I’ve also highlighted the success of the Baltic nations, all of which responded to the recent crisis with genuine spending cuts (and I very much enjoyed exposing Paul Krugman’s erroneous attack on Estonia).

Today, let’s look at Cyprus. That Mediterranean nation got in trouble because of an unsustainable long-run increase in the burden of government spending. Combined with the fallout caused by an insolvent banking system, Cyprus suffered a deep crisis earlier this decade.

Unlike many other European nations, however, Cyprus decided to deal with its over-spending problem by tightening belts in the public sector rather than the private sector.

This approach has been very successful according to a report from the Associated Press.

…emerging from a three-year, multi-billion euro rescue program, Cyprus boasts one of the highest economic growth rates among the 19 eurozone countries — an annual rate of 2.7 percent in the first quarter. Finance Minister Harris Georgiades says Cyprus turned its economy around by aggressively slashing costs but also by avoiding piling on new taxes that would weigh ordinary folks down and put a serious damper on growth. “We didn’t raise taxes that would burden an already strained economy,” he told The Associated Press in an interview. “We found spending cuts that weren’t detrimental to economic activity.”

Cutting spending and avoiding tax hike? This is catnip for Dan Mitchell!

But did Cyprus actually cut spending, and by how much?

That’s not an easy question to answer because the two main English-language data sources don’t match.

According to the IMF data, outlays were sliced to €8.1 billion in 2014, down from a peak of €8.5 in 2011. Though the IMF indicates that those numbers are preliminary.

The European Commission database shows a bigger drop, with outlays of €7.0 billion in 2015 compared to €8.3 billion in 2011 (also an outlay spike in 2014, presumably because of a bank bailout).

The bottom line is that, while it’s unclear which numbers are most accurate, Cyprus has experienced a multi-year period of spending restraint.

And having the burden of government grow slower than the private sector always has been and always will be the best gauge of good fiscal policy.

By contrast, there’s no evidence that tax increases are a route to fiscal probity.

Indeed, the endless parade of tax hikes in Greece shows that such an approach greatly impedes economic recovery.

Though not everybody in Cyprus supports prudent policy.

Critics have accused the government of working its fiscal gymnastics on the backs of the poor — essentially chopping salaries for public sector workers. Pambis Kyritsis, head of the left-wing PEO trade union, said the government’s “neo-liberal” policies coupled with the creditors’ harsh terms have widened the chasm between the have and have-nots to huge proportions. …Georgiades turned Kyritsis argument around to reinforce his point that there shouldn’t be any let-up in the government’s reform program and fiscal discipline.

In the European context, “liberal” or “neo-liberal” means pro-market and small government (akin to “classical liberal” or “libertarian” in the United States).

Semantics aside, it will be interesting to see whether Finance Minister Georgiades is correct about maintaining spending discipline as the economy rebounds.

As the above table indicates, there are several examples of nations getting good results by limiting the growth of government spending. But there are very few examples of long-run success since very few nations have politicians with the fortitude to control outlays if the economy is growing and generating an uptick in tax revenue (which is why states like California periodically get in trouble).

This is why the best long-run answer is some sort of constitutional spending cap, similar to what exists in Switzerland or Hong Kong.

The bottom line if that spending restraint is good short-run policy and good long-run policy. Though I doubt Hillary Clinton will learn the right lesson.

P.S. Cyprus also is a reasonably good role model for how to deal with a banking crisis.

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I have no idea whether Donald Trump believes in bigger government or smaller government. Higher taxes or lower taxes. More intervention or less. Sometimes he says things I like. Sometimes he says things that irk me.

Politicians are infamous for being cagey, but “The Donald” is an entirely different animal. Instead of using weasel words that create wiggle room, he simply makes bold statements that are impossible to reconcile.

Consider his views on government debt.

Here’s an interview with Dana Loesch of Blaze TV from earlier this week. I was in Zurich and it was past midnight, so I was a tad bit undiplomatic about Trump’s endlessly evolving views. Simply stated, it’s not a good idea to default. And it’s not a good idea to monetize debt either.

For what it’s worth, while Trump is oscillating between different position on debt, one of his top advisers is claiming that his plan will produce a multi-trillion dollar surplus.

Sigh.

The sensible approach would be for Trump to make simple points.

  1. Debt is a symptom and the real problem is too much spending.
  2. The solution is to follow the Golden Rule.
  3. Therefore, impose a Swiss-style spending cap.

But he hasn’t asked me for advice, so I’m not holding my breath waiting for him to say the right thing.

It’s also a challenge to decipher Trump’s position on tax policy.

He actually put forth a good tax proposal, but nobody takes it seriously since he doesn’t have a concomitant plan to restrain spending.

So his campaign supposedly designated Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore to modify the plan, but then said the original proposal would stay unchanged.

This does not create a sense of confidence.

Trump also is getting pressure on his personal tax situation. He said he would release his tax return(s). Now he says he won’t. I speculated on what this implies in an essay for Time, listing five reasons why he may decide to keep his returns confidential.

The first two reasons deal with a desire for privacy and a political concern that he may appear to be less wealthy than he’s led folks to believe.

First, he may resent the idea of letting the world look at his tax returns for reasons of personal privacy, which is an understandable sentiment. …Can Trump get away with stonewalling on his returns? Perhaps. President Barack Obama refused to release his college transcript and didn’t seem to suffer any political damage. …Second, Trump’s tax return will probably show a surprisingly low level of income, and he might be concerned that such a revelation would erode the super-successful-billionaire aura that he has created.

I also suspect he’s worried that his tax return will make him look like…gasp…a tax avoider.

Third, to the degree that Trump’s return shows a lower-than-expected amount of taxable income, this will probably be because his accountants and tax lawyers have carefully plumbed the 75,000-page internal revenue code for deductions, credits, exemptions, exclusions and other preferences… Since we all seek to legally minimize our tax liabilities, that shouldn’t be a political problem. …That normally would be a persuasive answer, but voters may look askance when they learn that Trump is taking advantage of mysterious provisions dealing with things they don’t understand, like depreciation, carryforwards, foreign tax credits, muni bonds and deferral. …Fourth, for very wealthy individuals and large companies, the complexity of the tax code means there’s no way of knowing if a tax return is accurate. …Given Trump’s persona, he presumably pushes the envelope.

Last but not least, I imagine Trump has “offshore” structures.

Fifth, it’s highly likely that Trump does business with so-called tax havens. For successful investors and entrepreneurs with cross-border economic activity, this is almost obligatory because jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands have ideal combinations of quality governance and tax neutrality. …But in a political environment where the left has tried to demonize “offshore” tax planning, any revelations about BVI companies, Panama law firms, Jersey trusts and Liechtenstein accounts will be fodder for Trump’s many enemies.

Needless to say, I greatly sympathize with Trump’s desire to minimize his tax burden and I applaud his use of so-called tax havens (which are routinely utilized by wealthy Democrats).

And I even sympathize with his desire for privacy even though divulging personal financial information is now a routine obligation for politicians.

The point I should have made in my essay is that Trump would be in a stronger position if he said from the start that his tax returns are nobody else’s business.

And shifting back to policy, he’ll be in a stronger position if he picks a message and sticks to it (though ideally not the same message as Hillary Clinton).

P.S. Since I mentioned Obama’s still-secret college transcript, I may as well share this very clever mock transcript that explains a lot about his misguided approach to policy.

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In my presentations about how to deal with budgetary deterioration and fiscal crisis, I often share with audiences a list of nations that have achieved very positive results with spending restraint.

The middle column shows how these countries limited the growth of government spending for multi-year periods.

The next column of numbers reveals how multi-year spending restraint leads to significant reductions in the amount of economic output that is diverted to the government.

And when you address the underlying problem of excessive government spending, you automatically ameliorate the symptom of red ink, as shown in the final column of numbers.

At this point, I usually ask the audience whether they’ve ever seen a similar table that purports to show nations that have obtained similarly good results with tax increases.

The answer is no, of course, though it’s not really a fair question to people who don’t study fiscal policy.

More important, I ask the same question when I have debates with my statist friends from left-wing organizations. They generally try to change the subject. Some of them bluster about “fairness.” And a few of them think Sweden is an acceptable answer until I point out that it became rich when government was small but began to lose ground once a large welfare state was imposed beginning in the 1960s (as explained in this video).

But Sweden wouldn’t be a good answer even if its economy hadn’t slowed down. That’s because the question is how to climb out of a fiscal hole. In which case Sweden actually provides evidence for my position!

To understand why tax increases aren’t the right way to deal with a fiscal mess, let’s look at Greece. From the moment the crisis began, Greek politicians started raising taxes. And they haven’t stopped, with many of the tax hikes being cheered by international bureaucracies.

This is a never-ending story.

With new chapters being written all the time. Here’s a report from Reuters on the latest “reform” package from Greece. As you might suspect, it’s basically a bunch of tax hikes. Here’s what the politicians approved on social insurance taxes.

Sets social security contributions at 20 percent of employees’ net monthly income – with 13.3 percent burdening employers and 6.7 percent employees. Reforms the social security contribution base from notional to actual incomes for the self-employed, including farmers and lawyers, forcing them to make a contribution to pension funds which is phased in over a five-year period to 20 percent of their income.

There are also income tax increases.

Lowers the income tax-free threshold, or personal allowance, to an average of around 8,800 euros a year from around 9,500; makes income bands narrower, increases tax coefficients. Lowest tax band is now 22 percent on a gross income of 20,000 a year compared to 22 percent for 25,000 euros which existed previously. The upper tax band, of 45 percent, is now imposed on gross incomes exceeding 40,000 as opposed to 42 percent on income above 42,000 under the previous arrangement. Includes EU farming subsidies on taxable income.

And there are further income tax hikes as part of the “solidarity” levy, which is basically another income tax.

Solidarity Levy…on net incomes ranges from the lowest 2.2 percent on incomes from 12,000 to 20,000 a year, to 5.0 percent up to 30,000, and 6.5 percent up to 40,000. The highest band is 10 percent on incomes above 220,000. By comparison, the highest band in that category was 8.0 percent before the new reform was pushed through, on earnings exceeding half a million euros.

And there also will be more double taxation.

Dividends Tax: Increases to 15 percent from 10 percent.

You would think this big package of tax hikes might satisfy the crowd in Athens for a year or two.

But that would be a very bad assumption. Amazingly, the politicians in Greece already are looking for additional victims, as reported by ABC News.

Already, a new bill is being prepared, calling for higher taxes on a range of products, from tobacco to beer to broadband Internet connections. This bill is expected to pass later in the month.

And they’re not exactly apologetic about their tax-aholic actions.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his ministers defended their plans, saying…that taxes were better than spending cuts. …Labor Minister George Katrougalos, who introduced the bill, said that…the bill’s provisions showed the way forward for social policy in a Europe dominated by pro-market “neoliberals.”

Sadly, Mr. Katrougalos may be correct. I won’t be surprised if the rest of Europe follows Greece off the cliff.

Though he’s smoking crack if he thinks the rest of the continent is dominated by neoliberals (i.e., classical liberals or libertarians).

Not that we’ve established that Greece has been trying to solve its fiscal mess with tax hikes, let’s look at the results.

Has debt been reduced? Hardly, though to be fair it seems to have stabilized.

In any event, we haven’t seen the big reductions in debt that are associated with spending restraint

And what about the economy? Here, the news is uniformly grim, doubtlessly in large part because of all the tax hikes.

It’s rather ironic this chart is based on periodic IMF forecasts since that bureaucracy is infamous for advocating endless tax hikes.

One wonders if the IMF bureaucrats will eventually learn some lessons?

I’m not holding my breath, just like I’m not optimistic that Greek politicians will address the real problem in their country of excessive dependency caused by a bloated public sector.

But maybe the rest of us (other than Hillary and Bernie) can learn what not to do.

P.S. For more information, here’s my five-picture explanation of the Greek mess.

P.P.S. And if you want to know why I’m so dour about Greece’s future, how can you expect good policy from a nation that subsidizes pedophiles and requires stool samples to set up online companies?

P.P.P.S. To offset the grim message of today’s column, let’s close with my collection of Greek-related humor.

This cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.

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I wrote yesterday about the Obama Administration’s head-in-the-sand approach regarding the anti-competitive nature of America’s corporate tax system (though maybe fiddling while Rome burns is a better metaphor).

Fortunately, some nations have more sensible policy makers. Even in Europe, which might come as a surprise to the pair of class warriors battling for the Democratic nomination.

Consider, for instance, what’s happening in Norway.

Norway will cut the corporate income tax rate to 23 percent from the current 27 percent by 2018…the country’s political parties announced on Wednesday. The basic personal tax rate will also be cut to 23 percent from 27 percent. …As part of the deal, further reductions in the company tax rate will be considered in the future. The compromise included…a small cut in Norway’s wealth tax.

What’s most remarkable about this story from Scandinavia is not that there’s a tax cut, though that surely would be a shock to Bernie Sanders’s mythological view of the Nordic nations.

I think it’s even more noteworthy that Norway already has a far lower corporate tax rate than the United States, yet the government is implementing a further reduction.

And Croatia also is poised to move policy in the right direction.

The reports from government circles that, as part of the tax reform, it could abolish the highest income tax rate of 40 percent have been welcomed by many observers. …“We support such a move. Croatia has a huge ‘brain drain’ of highly educated people, and they fall into the category of those whose salaries are covered by the 40 percent tax rate. Therefore, this decision would contribute to such people remaining in Croatia”, said Bernard Jakelić, the deputy director of the Croatian Employers’ Association. …Former Finance Minister Boris Lalovac (SDP) agreed that the abolition of the tax bracket would be a step in the right direction. …“Croatia is the only country in the region which has such a high rate of income tax. None of the countries in the region have income tax rates higher than 25 percent, and many countries have a flat tax. Its abolition would simplify the tax system and contribute to the reduction of the shadow economy. After all, the taxation of income at a rate of 25 percent is enough”, said Lalovac.

I especially like that the former finance minister makes both an argument based on tax competition and an argument based on the moral principle that there should be a limit on how much government should tax.

Maybe GOPer some day will be smart enough to include a moral component when seeking better tax policy. Especially if they learn that it’s politically persuasive.

So where can voters find a candidate who might implement such reforms in the United State?

Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post suggests that there is a “fiscally conservative” option already available.

Suppose you’re a hardcore fiscal conservative. …All you care about is getting the nation’s fiscal house in order. …the candidate you should vote for might surprise you. …the most fiscally conservative presidential contender left standing is…

Drum roll, please.

…Hillary Clinton.

No, it isn’t April Fool’s Day.

Ms. Rampell wants us to believe that Hillary Clinton is fiscally conservative because her agenda of much bigger government is matched by proposals for much higher taxes.

I’m not joking. Here’s what Rampell wrote.

Here’s the bottom line for the nation’s bottom line: Clinton’s spending increases and other proposals that cost money have a total price tag of about $1.8 trillion over the next decade. But her offsets, which come mostly from tax hikes, would save an estimated $1.9 trillion over that same period… Maybe when (if) voters start to notice this, Clinton will finally receive the praise she’s been due, from arithmetic fans and fiscal conservatives alike.

I suppose this is the point where I should explain that good fiscal policy is defined by a modest-sized government and a tax code that is designed to raise revenue in a relatively non-destructive fashion, not by whether lots of wasteful spending is okay if accompanied by lots of destructive tax hikes (i.e., a fixation on fiscal balance).

But I’ve made that point many times before, so instead I’ll merely observe that Ms. Rampell is either shockingly uninformed or (more likely) she thinks that she has some really stupid right-leaning readers who can be easily tricked into voting for Clinton.

And since we’re focusing on Mrs. Clinton’s ideological bona fides, ask yourself whether Ira Stoll of the New York Sun was describing a “fiscally conservative” candidate last December.

Call it Hillary’s Reichsfluchtsteuer. The former secretary of state and senator from New York, Hillary Clinton, reportedly will announce on Wednesday plans to impose an “exit tax” on companies that move their headquarters out of America or merge with foreign firms to escape America’s unreasonably high corporate taxes. …the Reichsfluchtsteuer, or Reich flight tax, was a 25% levy imposed originally…by the pre-Hitler, centrist government of Heinrich Brüning… Not exactly something to try to emulate. …As I pointed out back in 2012, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a product of the United Nations, says, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own” and “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” …it is unjust to force people or companies to stay where they do not want to be. …In 1963, at the Berlin Wall, President Kennedy said,Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” Hillary Clinton’s exit tax would do exactly what Kennedy said we’ve never had to do: set up a virtual wall, in the form of a tax, to prevent companies from leaving America.

There’s something rather odious about a politician who wants to extort money from taxpayers as a price for re-domiciling. As a general rule, only very evil regimes levy such taxes.

Speaking of unsavory regimes, let’s play a fill-in-the-blank game. Here’s the first sentence from a recent Associated Press story.

___________ is looking to increase revenue from taxation.

Is the answer Hillary Clinton? That’s a good answer, but not correct in this case. What about Bernie Sanders of Barack Obama? Once again, smart guesses but not accurate for this story.

Give up? Well, here’s your answer.

The Islamic State extremist group is looking to increase revenue from taxation.

I share this item because this it reminded me of the time I gave a speech about reforming the welfare state and a leftist in the audience basically accused me of being a racist because the KKK also didn’t like the welfare state. The fact that I urged reform in part because poor people are hurt by such programs apparently didn’t matter to my accuser.

That being said, if we accept his logic, I guess this means we can accuse Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Barack Obama of being in favor of Islamic terrorism because they share a goal with the Islamic State crazies.

Sigh. Needless to say, Hillary isn’t a radical Islamist. Just like Obama isn’t a communist simply because he was endorsed last election by the former head of the U.S. Communist Party.

I just wish folks on the left were equally prudent about avoiding absurd guilt-by-association charges.

P.S. Bruce Bartlett also claimed (presumably for the same disingenuous reason) that Obama is a conservative because of his proposed tax hikes, so Ms. Rampell is not alone.

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Imagine if you had the chance to play basketball against a superstar from the NBA like Stephen Curry.

No matter how hard you practiced beforehand, you surely would lose.

For most people, that would be fine. We would console ourselves with the knowledge that we tried our best and relish he fact that we even got the chance to be on the same court as a professional player.

But some people would want to cheat to make things “equal” and “fair.” So they would say that the NBA player should have to play blindfolded, or while wearing high-heeled shoes.

And perhaps they could impose enough restrictions on the NBA player that they could prevail in a contest.

But most of us wouldn’t feel good about “winning” that kind of battle. We would be ashamed that our “victory” only occurred because we curtailed the talents of our opponent.

Now let’s think about this unseemly tactic in the context of corporate taxation and international competitiveness.

The United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world, combined with having the most onerous “worldwide” tax system among all developed nations.

This greatly undermines the ability of U.S.-domiciled companies to compete in world markets and it’s the main reason why so many companies feel the need to engage in inversions.

So how does the Obama Administration want to address these problems? What’s their plan to reform the system to that American-based firms can better compete with companies from other countries?

Unfortunately, there’s no desire to make the tax code more competitive. Instead, the Obama Administration wants to change the laws to make it less attractive to do business in other nations. Sort of the tax version of hobbling the NBA basketball player in the above example.

Here are some of the details from the Treasury Department’s legislative wish list.

The Administration proposes to supplement the existing subpart F regime with a per-country minimum tax on the foreign earnings of entities taxed as domestic C corporations (U.S. corporations) and their CFCs. …Under the proposal, the foreign earnings of a CFC or branch or from the performance of services would be subject to current U.S. taxation at a rate (not below zero) of 19 percent less 85 percent of the per-country foreign effective tax rate (the residual minimum tax rate). …The minimum tax would be imposed on current foreign earnings regardless of whether they are repatriated to the United States.

There’s a lot of jargon in those passages, and even more if you click on the underlying link.

So let’s augment by excerpting some of the remarks, at a recent Brookings Institution event, by the Treasury Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Tax Affairs. Robert Stack was pushing the President’s agenda, which would undermine American companies by making it difficult for them to benefit from good tax policy in other jurisdictions.

He actually argued, for instance, that business tax reform should be “more than a cry to join the race to the bottom.”

In other words, he doesn’t (or, to be more accurate, his boss doesn’t) want to fix what’s wrong with the American tax code.

So he doesn’t seem to care that other nations are achieving good results with lower corporate tax rates.

I do not buy into the notion that the U.S. must willy-nilly do what everyone else is doing.

And he also criticizes the policy of “deferral,” which is a provision of the tax code that enables American-based companies to delay the second layer of tax that the IRS imposes on income that is earned (and already subject to tax) in other jurisdictions.

I don’t think it’s open to debate that the ability of US multinationals to defer income has been a dramatic contributor to global tax instability.

He doesn’t really explain why it is destabilizing for companies to protect themselves against a second layer of tax that shouldn’t exist.

But he does acknowledge that there are big supply-side responses to high tax rates.

…large disparity in income tax rates…will inevitably drive behavior.

Too bad he doesn’t draw the obvious lesson about the benefits of low tax rates.

Anyhow, here’s what he says about the President’s tax scheme.

The President’s global minimum tax proposal…permits tax-free repatriation of amounts earned in countries taxed at rates above the global minimum rate. …the global minimum tax plan also takes the benefit out of shifting income into low and no-tax jurisdictions by requiring that the multinational pay to the US the difference between the tax haven rate and the U.S. rate.

The bottom line is that American companies would be taxed by the IRS for doing business in low-tax jurisdictions such as Ireland, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Bermuda.

But if they do business in high-tax nations such as France, there’s no extra layer of tax.

The bottom line is that the U.S. tax code would be used to encourage bad policy in other countries.

Though Mr. Stack sees that as a feature rather than a bug, based on the preposterous assertion that other counties will grow faster if the burden of government spending is increased.

…the global minimum tax concept has an added benefit as well…protecting developing and low-income countries…so they can mobilize the necessary resources to grow their economies.

And he seems to think that support from the IMF is a good thing rather than (given that bureaucracy’s statist orientation) a sign of bad policy.

At a recent IMF symposium, the minimum tax was identified as something that could be of great help.

The bottom line is that the White House and the Treasury Department are fixated at hobbling competitors by encouraging higher tax rates around the world and making sure that American-based companies are penalized with an extra layer of tax if they do business in low-tax jurisdictions

For what it’s worth, the right approach, both ethically and economically, is for American policy makers to focus on fixing what’s wrong with the American tax system.

P.S. When I debunked Jeffrey Sachs on the “race to the bottom,” I showed that lower tax rates do not mean lower tax revenue.

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What’s the worst loophole (properly defined) in the cluttered internal revenue code?

I think the deduction for state and local taxes is very bad policy since it enables higher tax burdens in states such as California, New Jersey, and Illinois. The exemption for municipal bond interest is another misguided provision since it makes it easier for states to finance spending with debt.

Special favors in the tax code for ethanol also deserve scorn and disdain, and I’m also not a fan of the charitable deduction or the ways in which housing gets preferential treatment.

But if I had to pick just one tax preference to repeal, it would be the so-called healthcare exclusion. This is the policy that enables employers to deduct the cost of health insurance policies they buy for their employees.

You may think that deduction is reasonable. After all, employers also can deduct the wages and salaries they pay their employees. But here’s the catch. Employees pay tax on their wages and salaries, but they don’t have to pay tax on the value of their health insurance, even though such policies obviously are a form of compensation.

Moreover, since this type of compensation is shielded from both income taxes and payroll taxes, the playing field is therefore very tilted, which generates some very perverse results.

First, some background. As part of a broader analysis of the non-taxation of fringe benefits, Scott Greenberg of the Tax Foundation explains how government has created a big incentive to take income in the form of fringe benefits rather than wages and salaries.

…eighty years ago, it was relatively uncommon to offer workers compensation other than their regular wages and salaries. In 1929, only 1.9 percent of employee pay took the form of fringe benefits. By 2014, fringe benefits had risen to 19.2 percent of worker compensation.

Here’s a chart looking at the historical data.

Greenberg says this distortion in the tax code is unfair.

…the growing trend of unreported fringe benefits is “inequitable and inefficient.” This claim is spot on. For an illustration, imagine two employees, one of whom makes a salary of $100,000, and one of whom makes a salary of $80,000 and benefits worth $20,000, which largely go unreported. Although both workers receive the same overall compensation, the first employee is subject to a significantly higher tax burden than the second, which seems plainly unfair.

Moreover, the distortion lures people into making economically foolish choices.

Furthermore, this arrangement incentivizes companies to shift more compensation towards benefits, to help employees avoid taxes. This leads to an inefficient allocation of resources, towards services that employers might not have been willing to pay for in the absence of tax incentives.

He’s correct

Writing for the Weekly Standards, Ike Brannon looks specifically at the biggest tax-free fringe benefit.

…allowing employers to provide health insurance tax-free to their workers is terrible policy, a truism that any honest economist—whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise—would agree with. …First, workers end up with more health insurance than they would ever purchase on their own (since tax-free health insurance is worth more than income that’s taxed at 30%-50%), which gives people less take-home pay to spend as they see fit. Second, more generous health insurance entails lower co-pays as well as other provisions that insulate the worker from the actual cost of their health care. As a result, people become less sensitive to prices when seeking health care, and they consume more of it—most of which does nothing to improve health outcomes, numerous studies have shown.

For further details on this unfortunate tax preference, A. Barton Hinkle looks at the evolution of the health exclusion in a column for Reason.

…the original sin of the American health-care marketplace…was committed back in World War 2, when inflation led workers to demand higher wages – which many employers could not afford to pay because of price controls. …With wages frozen, employers needed another way to compete for labor made scarce by the draft. So some began offering health coverage. The practice took root, spread, and outlasted the war. In 1949 the National Labor Relations Board ruled that health benefits counted as wages for the purpose of union negotiations. Five years later, the IRS ruled that health coverage was not taxable income. The result was a double incentive for employers to offer fatter health benefits in lieu of fatter paychecks. …The result: a skyrocketing, ultimately unsustainable increase in national outlays for health care. …In short, for decades the federal government has encouraged employers to provide gold-plated health-care plans.

Joe Antos of the American Enterprise Institute explains how the “healthcare exclusion” is bad fiscal policy, bad health policy, and bad economic policy.

If we hope to move to an efficient healthcare system that is fair to everyone, Congress will have to take on the largest subsidy in the tax code. …Premiums paid for employment-based health insurance are excluded from federal income and payroll taxes.

When describing provisions that allow people to keep more of their own money, I would prefer to say largest distortion rather than largest subsidy, but I realize I’m being pedantic. Regardless of word choice, the net effect of this preference is negative.

The tax exclusion…fuels the rapid growth of health spending, contributes to stagnating wage growth, and disadvantages low-wage workers. Because there is no limit on how much can be excluded from taxes, workers are encouraged to buy more expensive coverage than they would otherwise…makes consumers less sensitive to prices and promotes the use of medical services, including services that may not provide much value to the patient.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the problems associated with the exclusion.

The exclusion has caused a shift in compensation from taxable cash wages to greater health benefits which are not taxed. Between 1999 and 2015, the average employer contribution for family coverage nearly tripled while wage rates increased by only about half.

By the way, our leftists friends should oppose the exclusion for class-warfare reasons.

…workers in higher tax brackets benefit the most from the exclusion. The Joint Committee on Taxation found that the average savings for tax filers with incomes less than $30,000 was about $1,650 compared to about $4,580 for those with incomes over $200,000.

To deal with these negative effects, Antos proposes a modified version of the “Cadillac tax” from Obamacare combined with tax credits for consumers who purchase their own health insurance.

That’s better than the status quo, but the ideal solution is a flat tax, which would eliminate the deduction provided to employers for compensation in the form of fringe benefits.

In their book on tax reform, Professors Hall and Rabushka explain the obvious beneficial consequence of a level playing field for all forms of compensation.

The flat tax eliminates the distortion toward fringe benefits created by the fact that employers can deduct them, thereby receiving a subsidy that can be passed on to their employees. The best alternative, and one we expect your employer to select, is to offer you higher pay in exchange for lower fringes. You can then use the extra cash to buy whatever combination of benefits you desire.

This will make the healthcare marketplace much more efficient.

Here’s what I wrote about the healthcare exclusion way back in 2009, as part of a column on government-created inefficiency in the health sector.

…social engineering in the tax code created this mess. Specifically, most of us get some of our compensation in the form of health insurance policies from our employers. And because that type of income is exempt from taxation, this encourages so-called Cadillac health plans.  …our gold-plated health plans now mean we use insurance for routine medical costs. This means, of course, we have the paperwork issues discussed above, but that’s just a small part of the problem. Even more problematic, our pre-paid health care system is somewhat akin to going to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. We have an incentive to over-consume since we’ve already paid. Except this analogy is insufficient. When we go to all-you-can-eat restaurants, at least we know we’re paying a certain amount of money for an unlimited amount of food. Many Americans, by contrast, have no idea how much of their compensation is being diverted to purchase health plans. …this messed-up approach causes inefficiency and higher costs. We consumers don’t feel any need to be careful shoppers since we perceive that our health care is being paid by someone else. Should we be surprised, then, that normal market forces don’t seem to be working? (though it is worth noting that costs keep falling and quality keeps rising in the few areas – such as laser-eye surgery and cosmetic surgery – that are not covered by insurance) Imagine if auto insurance worked this way? Or homeowner’s insurance? Would it make sense to file insurance forms to get an oil change? Or to buy a new couch? That sounds crazy. The system would be needlessly bureaucratic, and costs would rise because we would act like we were spending other people’s money.  But that’s what would probably happen if government intervened in the same way it does in the health-care sector.

By the way, to make sure politicians don’t get a windfall of new revenue, the healthcare exclusion should only be repealed as part of a reform that also lowers tax rates.

Here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that highlights how the healthcare exclusion is a major cause of the third-party payer problem.

And if you like videos, I strongly recommend this Reason TV explanation of how simple and affordable healthcare can be in the absence of government-created third-party payer.

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