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Archive for the ‘Fiscal Policy’ Category

The American Enterprise Institute has published a comprehensive budgetary plan entitled, “Tax and spending reform for fiscal stability and economic growth.”

Authored by Joseph Antos, Andrew G. Biggs, Alex Brill, and Alan D. Viard, all of whom I know and admire, this new document outlines a series of reforms designed to restrain the growth of government and mitigate many of the tax code’s more punitive features.

Compared to current law, the plan is a huge improvement.

But huge improvement isn’t the same as perfect, so here’s my two cents on what’s really good, what’s partially good, and what has me worried.

I’ll start with something that’s both good and bad.

According to the latest CBO estimates, federal tax revenues for 2015 will absorb 17.7 percent of GDP and spending will consume 20.4 percent of economic output. Now look at this table showing the impact of the AEI proposal. As you can see, the burden of taxes and spending will both be higher in the future than today.

That’s obviously bad. One would think a conservative organization would present a plan that shrinks the size of government!

But here’s the catch. Under current law, the burden of government is projected to climb far more rapidly, largely because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs. So if we do nothing and leave government on auto-pilot, America will be saddled with a European-sized welfare state.

From that perspective, the AEI plan actually is good since it is based on reforms that stop most – but not all – of the already-legislated expansions in the size of the public sector.

So here’s the bottom line. Compared to what I would like to see, the AEI plan is too timid. But compared to what I fear will happen, the AEI plan is reasonably bold.

Now let’s look at the specific reforms, staring with tax policy. Here’s some of what’s in the report.

The goal of our tax reform is to eliminate the income tax’s inherent bias against saving and investment and to reduce other tax distortions. To achieve this goal, the income tax system and the estate and gift taxes would be replaced by a progressive consumption tax, in the form of a Bradford X tax consisting of a…37 percent flat-rate firm-level tax on business cash flow and a graduated-rate household-level tax, with a top rate of 35 percent, on wages and fringe benefits.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the AEI folks decided that it was very important to solve the problem of double taxation and not so important to deal with the problem of a discriminatory and punitive rate structure. Which is sort of like embracing one big part of the flat tax while ignoring the other big part.

We’d have a less destructive tax code than we have now, but it wouldn’t be as good as it could be. Indeed, the plan is conceptually similar to the Rubio-Lee proposal, but with a lot more details.

Not that I’m happy with all those additional details.

To address environmental externalities in a more cost-effective and market-based manner, energy subsidies, tax credits, and regulations would be replaced by a modest carbon tax. The gasoline tax would be increased to cover highway-related costs.

I’m very nervous about giving Washington a new source of revenue. And while I’m open (in theory) to the argument that a carbon tax would be a better (less worse) approach than what we have now, I’m not sure it’s wise to trust that politicians won’t pull a bait and switch and burden us with both a costly energy tax and new forms of regulatory intervention.

And I definitely don’t like the idea of a higher gas tax. The federal government should be out of the transportation business.

There are also other features that irk me, including the continuation of some loopholes and the expansion of redistribution through the tax code.

Child and dependent care expenses could be deducted… A 15 percent refundable credit for charitable contributions… A 15 percent refundable credit for mortgage interest… A refundable credit for health insurance…the EITC for childless workers would be doubled relative to current law.

Though I should also point out that the new tax system proposed by AEI would be territorial, which would be a big step in the right direction. And it’s also important to note that the X tax has full expensing, which solves the bias against investment in a depreciation-based system.

But now let’s look at the most worrisome feature of the plan. It explicitly says that Washington should get more money.

… we also cannot address the imbalance simply by cutting spending… The tax proposals presented in this plan raise necessary revenues… Over time, tax revenue would gradually rise as a share of GDP… The upward path of tax revenue is necessary to finance the upward path of federal spending.

This is very counterproductive. But I don’t want to regurgitate my ideological anti-tax arguments (click here if that’s what you want). Let’s look at this issue from a strictly practical perspective.

I’ve reluctantly admitted that there are potential tax-hike deals that I would accept, at least in theory.

But those deals will never happen. In the real world, once the potential for additional revenue exists, the appetite for genuine spending restraint quickly evaporates. Just look at the evidence from Europe about the long-run relationship between taxes and debt and you’ll see that more revenue simply enables more spending.

Speaking of which, now let’s shift to the outlay side of the fiscal ledger.

We’ll start with Social Security, where the AEI folks are proposing to turn Social Security from a substandard social insurance program, which is bad, to a flat benefit, which might even be worse since it involves a shift to a system that is even more focused on redistribution.

The minimum benefit would be implemented immediately, increasing benefits for about one third of retirees, while benefits for middle- and high-earning individuals would be scaled down to the wage-indexed poverty level between now and 2050.

Yes, the system they propose is more fiscally sustainable for government, but what about the fact that most workers are paying record amounts of payroll tax in exchange for a miserly monthly payment?

This is why the right answer is personal retirement accounts.

The failure to embrace personal accounts may be the most disappointing feature of the AEI plan. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the authors veered in this unfortunate direction because they put the cart of debt reduction ahead of the horse of good policy.

To elaborate, a big challenge for real Social Security reform is the “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers when younger workers are allowed to shift their payroll taxes to personal accounts. Dealing with this challenge presumably means more borrowing over the next few decades, but it would give us a much better system in the long run. But this approach generally isn’t an attractive option for folks who fixate on near-term government debt.

That being said, there are spending reforms in the proposal that are very appealing.

The AEI plan basically endorses the good Medicare and Medicaid reforms that have been part of recent GOP budgets. And since those two programs are the biggest drivers of our long-run spending crisis, this is very important.

With regards to discretionary spending, the program maintains sequester/Budget Control Act spending levels for domestic programs, which is far too much since we should be abolishing departments such as HUD, Agriculture, Transportation, Education, etc.

But since Congress presumably would spend even more, the AEI plan could be considered a step in the right direction.

Finally, the AEI plan calls for military spending to consume 3.8 percent of economic output in perpetuity. National defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government, but that doesn’t mean the Pentagon should get a blank check, particularly since big chunks of that check get used for dubious purposes. But I’ll let the foreign policy and defense crowd fight that issue since it’s not my area of expertise.

P.S. The Heritage Foundation also has thrown in the towel on personal retirement accounts and embraced a basic universal flat benefit.

P.P.S. On a completely different topic, here’s a fascinating chart that’s being shared on Twitter.

As you can see, the United States is an exception that proves the rule. I don’t know that there are any policy implications, but I can’t help but wonder whether America’s greater belief in self-reliance is linked to the tendency of religious people to believe in individual ethics and moral behavior.

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In my ultimate fantasy world, Washington wouldn’t need any sort of broad-based tax because we succeeded in shrinking the federal government back to the very limited size and scope envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

In my more realistic fantasy world, we might not be able to restore constitutional limits on Washington, but at least we could reform the tax code so that revenues were generated in a less destructive fashion.

That’s why I’m a big advocate of a simple and fair flat tax, which has several desirable features.

The rate is as low as possible, to minimize penalties on productive behavior.

There’s no double taxation, so no more bias against saving and investment.

And there are no distorting loopholes that bribe people into inefficient choices.

But not everyone is on board, The class-warfare crowd will never like a flat tax. And Washington insiders hate tax reform because it undermines their power.

But there are also sensible people who are hesitant to back fundamental reform.

Consider what Reihan Salam just wrote for National Review. He starts with a reasonably fair description of the proposal.

The original flat tax, championed by the economists Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, which formed the basis of Steve Forbes’s flat-tax proposal in 1996, is a single-rate tax on consumption, with a substantial exemption to make the tax progressive at the low end of the household-income distribution.

Though if I want to nit-pick, I could point out that the flat tax has effective progressivity across all incomes because the family-based exemption is available to everyone. As such, a poor household pays nothing. A middle-income household might have an effective tax rate of 12 percent. And the tax rate for Bill Gates would be asymptotically approaching 17 percent (or whatever the statutory rate is).

My far greater concerns arise when Reihan delves into economic analysis.

…the Hall-Rabushka tax would be highly regressive, in part because high-income households tend to consume less of their income than lower-income households and because investment income would not be taxed (or rather double-taxed).

This is a very schizophrenic passage since he makes a claim of regressivity even though he acknowledged that the flat tax has effective progressivity just a few sentences earlier.

And since he admits that the flat tax actually does tax income that is saved and invested (but only one time rather than over and over again, as can happen in the current system), it’s puzzling why he says the system is “highly regressive.”

If he simply said the flat tax was far less progressive (i.e., less discriminatory) than the current system, that would have been fine.

Here’s the next passage that rubbed me the wrong way.

…there is some dispute over whether ending the double taxation of savings would yield significant growth dividends. Chris William Sanchirico of Penn Law School takes a skeptical view in a review of the academic research on the subject, in part because cutting capital-income taxation as part of a revenue-neutral reform would require offsetting increases in labor-income taxation, which would dampen long-term economic growth in their own right.

I’m not even sure where to start. First, Reihan seems to dismiss the role of dynamic scoring in enabling low tax rates on labor. Second, he cites just one professor about growth effects and overlooks the overwhelming evidence from other perspectives. And third, he says the flat tax would be revenue neutral, when virtually every plan that’s been proposed combines tax reform with a tax cut.

On a somewhat more positive note, Reihan then suggests that lawmakers instead embrace “universal savings accounts” as an alternative to sweeping tax reform.

Instead of campaigning for a flat tax, GOP candidates ought to consider backing Universal Savings Accounts (USAs)… The main difference between USAs and Roth IRAs is that “withdrawals could be made at any time for any reason,” a change that would make the accounts far more attractive to far more people. …Unlike a wholesale shift to consumption taxation, USAs with a contribution limit are a modest step in the same general direction, which future reformers can build on.

I have no objection to incremental reform to reduce double taxation, and I’ve previously written about the attractiveness of USAs, so it sounds like we’re on the same page. And if you get rid of all double taxation and keep rates about where they are now, you get the Rubio-Lee tax plan, which I’ve also argued is a positive reform.

But then he closes with an endorsement of more redistribution through the tax code.

Republicans should put Earned Income Tax Credit expansion and other measures to improve work incentives for low-income households at the heart of their tax-reform agenda.

I want to improve work incentives, but it’s important to realize that the EIC is “refundable,” which is simply an inside-the-beltway term for spending that is laundered through the tax code. In other words, the government isn’t refunding taxes to people. It’s giving money to people who don’t owe taxes.

As an economist, I definitely think it’s better to pay people to work instead of subsidizing them for not working. But we also need to understand that this additional spending has two negative tax implications.

  1. When politicians spend more money, that either increases pressure for tax increases or it makes tax cuts more difficult to achieve.
  2. The EIC is supposed to boost labor force participation, but the evidence is mixed on this point, and any possible benefit with regards to the number of people working may be offset by reductions in actual hours worked because the phase out of the EIC’s wage subsidy is akin to a steep increase in marginal tax rates on additional labor supply.

In any event, I don’t want the federal government in the business of redistributing income. We’ll get much better results, both for poor people and taxpayers, if state and local government compete and innovate to figure out the best ways of ending dependency.

The rest of Reihan’s column is more focused on political obstacles to the flat tax. Since I’ve expressed pessimism on getting a flat tax in my lifetime, I can’t really argue too strenuously with those points.

In closing, I used “friendly fight” in the title of this post for a reason. I don’t get the sense that Mr. Salam is opposed to good policy. Indeed, I would be very surprised if he preferred the current convoluted system over the flat tax.

But if there was a spectrum with “prudence” and “caution” on one side and “bold” and “aggressive” on the other side, I suspect we wouldn’t be on the same side. And since it’s good for there to be both types of people in any movement, that’s a good thing.

P.S. I got a special treat this morning. I was at Reagan Airport for a flight to Detroit at the same time as a bunch of America’s World War II vets arrived on an Honor Flight to visit the WWII Memorial.

Here’s my rather pathetic attempt to get a photo of one of the vets being greeted.

Since I’ll never be in demand as a photographer, you should watch this video to learn more about this great private initiative to honor World War II veterans.

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America has a giant long-run problem largely caused by poorly designed entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

So when I wrote last month about proposals by some Democrats to expand Social Security, I was less than enthusiastic.

…demographic changes and ill-designed programs will combine to dramatically expand the size of the public sector over the next few decades. So it’s really amazing that some politicians, led by the clownish Elizabeth Warren, want to dig the hole deeper. …I’m surprised demagogues such as Elizabeth Warren haven’t rallied behind a plan to simply add a bunch of zeroes to the IOUs already sitting in the so-called Social Security Trust Fund. …If Hillary winds up endorsing Warren’s reckless plan, it will give us another data point for our I-can’t-believe-she-said-that collection.

But it turns out I may have been too nice in my analysis.

As reported by USA Today, independent researchers have discovered that Social Security is even more bankrupt than suggested by official estimates.

New studies from Harvard and Dartmouth researchers find that the SSA’s actuarial forecasts have been consistently overstating the financial health of the program’s trust funds since 2000. “These biases are getting bigger and they are substantial,” said Gary King, co-author of the studies and director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. “[Social Security] is going to be insolvent before everyone thinks.” …Once the trust funds are drained, annual revenues from payroll tax would be projected to cover only three-quarters of scheduled Social Security benefits through 2088.

By the way, I’m not overly enamored with this analysis since it is based on the assumption that the Social Security Trust Fund is real when it’s really nothing but a collection of IOUs.

But if you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe the Clinton Administration, which admitted back in 1999 (see page 337) that the Trust Fund is just a bookkeeping gimmick.

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures–but only in a bookkeeping sense. …They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury, that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.

In other words, what really matters is that Social Security spending is climbing too fast and consuming an ever-larger share of economic output.

That means – in the absence of reform – that more and more money will be diverted from the economy’s productive sector, in the form of taxes or borrowing, to finance benefits.

And when I write “more and more money,” that’s not a throwaway statement.

Returning to the USA Today report, academic experts warn that the long-term shortfall in the program is understated because it is based on 75-year estimates even though the program doesn’t have an expiration date.

The bigger problem with the Social Security Administration is not disclosure, it’s accounting, said Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University professor of economics… Kotlikoff…wants the agency to calculate its liabilities using fiscal gap accounting, which considers the difference between the government’s projected financial obligations and the present value of all projected future tax and other revenue. …Under this accounting system, SSA’s projected unfunded liabilities would be $24.9 trillion (instead of the $10.6 trillion projected in 2088). …17 Nobel Prize-winning economists have endorsed Kotlikoff’s push for the SSA and other government agencies to use the fiscal gap accounting method more broadly. “We have a situation that is like Enron accounting,” Kotlikoff said. “And the public doesn’t want to hear about it.”

At the risk of being pedantic, I’m also not enamored with either approach mentioned in the above passage.

Sure, we should acknowledge all expenses and not arbitrarily assume the program disappears after 75 years, but the approach used to calculate “unfunded liabilities” is artificial since it is based on how much money would need to be invested today to finance future promised benefits (whether for 75 years or forever).

Needless to say, governments don’t budget by setting aside trillions of dollars to meet future expenses. Social Security, like other programs, is funded on a pay-as-you-go basis.

That’s why the most appropriate way to measure the shortfall is to take all projected future deficits, adjust them for inflation, and calculate the total. When you do that, the Social Security shortfall is a staggering $40 trillion.

And that’s based on just a 75-year estimate, so the real number is much higher.

Though keep in mind that this is just an estimate of the fiscal shortfall. What really matters is the total level of spending, not how much is financed with red ink.

Which is why the only real answer is genuine reform.

For further information, here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity on the need to modernize the system with personal retirement accounts.

But if you prefer to trust politicians, you can always support the left’s favored solution.

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

P.P.S. The “Trust Fund” is real only in the sense that the government’s legal authority to pay benefits will be constrained when the IOUs are used up. That’s why the USA Today article says that the government at that point would be able to pay only about 3/4ths of promised benefits (though one imagines that future politicians will simply override that technical provision and require full payments).

P.P.P.S. Many nations have adopted genuine reform based on private retirement savings, including Australia, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Chile, and The Netherlands.

P.P.P.P.S. Because of lower life expectancies, African-Americans are very disadvantaged by the Social Security system. A system of personal accounts presumably wouldn’t help them live longer, but at least they would have a nest egg to pass on to their kids.

P.P.P.P.P.S. And don’t fall for the false argument that financial markets are too unstable for personal retirement accounts

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I’ve openly stated that there are tax-hiking budget deals that theoretically would be attractive.

But notice that “theoretically” is part of that sentence.

That’s because in the real world, tax hikes have a poisonous effect on fiscal policy. Instead of being the lubricant that produces concessions from the big-government crowd, the prospect of additional revenue is like putting blood in the water when hungry sharks are circling.

The bottom line is that trying to cure deficits with taxes is like trying to cure alcoholics by giving them keys to a liquor store.

Indeed, the New York Times accidentally proved my point by putting together a chart showing that the only successful budget deal was the one that cut taxes instead of raising them.

So this is why I’m a huge fan of Americans for Tax Reform’s no-tax-hike pledge.

Simply stated, I want to restrain – and hopefully reduce – the burden of government spending. And that definitely won’t happen if politicians think more revenue is an option.

So I get excited any time voters express the same sentiment. As such, you can imagine my feeling of happiness that Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected a big tax increase that was supported almost the entire political establishment.

Here are some of the joyous details from a Detroit Free Press report.

With all counties reporting, 1.4 million Michiganders voted no on Proposal 1 while less than 351,000 voted yes, according to the Michigan Secretary of State’s office. The 80-20 rejection may be the most one-sided loss for a proposed constitutional amendment in state history. …Proposal 1 would have hiked the state sales tax to 7% from 6%, taken the sales tax off fuel sales, and hiked fuel taxes — raising close to $1.3 billion extra for roads. When fully implemented, the plan would have also generated about $200 million a year more for schools; $116 million for transit and rail; sent $111 million more to local governments; and given a $260-million tax break to low- and moderate-income families through restoration of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

If the Michigan earned-income credit works the same way as the one in Washington, it’s not a tax break. It’s simply a wage subsidy, a form of redistribution that gets laundered through the tax code.

But that’s not terribly relevant for purposes of today’s discussion. What really matters is that politicians were pushing a big increase in the overall burden of spending financed by a big increase in the overall burden of taxation.

And they had special interests on their side, which enabled them to out-spend the pr0-taxpayer side by a margin of about 20-1.

the Safe Roads Yes committee, which pushed for a yes vote on Proposal 1, reported raising $9.6 million to spend on its campaign. Of that, $5.8 million came from the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, a lobbying group for road builders and their suppliers. …The main no committee, the Coalition Against Higher Taxes and Special Interest Deals, reported raising just under $500,000 as of Monday.

But special-interest money doesn’t necessarily translate into votes. At least it didn’t in Michigan on Tuesday.

By the way, I’m not claiming voters always make the right choices. As we saw from referenda in Oregon and California, they can sometimes be lured into voting yes on tax hikes if they’re told “the rich” are the only ones who will pay.

John Miller of Hillsdale College (site of my flat tax v. fair tax debate) explains that the politicians in Lansing were simply too greedy. Writing for the Wall Street Journal before the vote, Miller suggests voters were unhappy that they were being asked for a big tax hike, when 40 percent of the money was going to be diverted to non-transportation purposes.

…the measure would generate more than $2 billion in revenue a year. Yet the amount that would go to transportation—mostly roads and bridges, but also bike paths, light rail and “streetscape” projects that aim to improve the look of downtown areas—is only about $1.2 billion. …In other words, taxpayers will get less than $1.2 billion in roadwork for the price of more than $2 billion.

How typical. Politician proposed a tax hike for one reason, but then hijacked their own plan and made it a Christmas tree of special-interest spending.

P.S. Here are my five policy and five political reasons against higher taxes in Washington.

P.P.S. The international evidence also shows that higher taxes are a recipe for bigger government and more debt.

P.P.P.S. I don’t fixate too much on the bias of the establishment media. It’s annoying, to be sure, but it doesn’t help to get all agitated about things outside of my control. That being said, I thought it was very revealing that the home pages of both the New York Times and Washington Post didn’t have any stories on the Michigan referendum. If the vote had gone the other way, I feel 99 percent confident in stating that the story would have been prominently displayed with lots of “analysis” about why the vote was hugely important.

P.P.P.P.S. Needless to say, Republicans who refuse to take the no-tax-hike pledge should be viewed with considerable suspicion.

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Even small differences in economic growth make a big difference to living standards over time.

I frequently share this chart, which highlights how long it takes to double economic output based on different growth rates.

I also use real-world examples to show how some nations become much richer than other nations within just a few decades because of better policy and faster growth.

Here’s another way to approach the issue. Let’s use a hypothetical example to reinforce the importance of growth. If we went back to 1870 and assumed our economy’s nominal growth rate was one percentage point slower than it actually was (in other words, averaging 4.76 percent each year rather than 5.76 percent), our living standards today would be only 1/4th of current levels.

That’s a huge difference in national prosperity. We’d be about the level of Kazakhstan today!

In a column for the Wall Street Journal last week, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy and businessman Louis Woodhill used the same approach to make a similar point about the incredible importance of long-run growth. They go back even further in time and come up with an even more sobering example.

The recovery that began in 2009 is the weakest in postwar history. Millions have dropped out the labor force, frustrated by lack of opportunity. Lower-income workers are underemployed, middle-incomes have not advanced as in the past, and government dependency has increased. …ignored is what really matters: rapid, sustained economic growth. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the U.S. economy will grow by a meager 2.3% over the next decade… At this growth rate, Americans face a future of stagnation, inequality and despair. Here’s why: From 1790 to 2014, U.S. GDP in real dollars grew at an average annual rate of 3.73%. Had America grown at the CBO’s “economic speed limit” of 2.3% for its entire history, GDP would be $780 billion today instead of more than $17 trillion. And GDP per capita would be $2,433, lower than Papua New Guinea’s.

This is why (good) economists are so fixated on economic growth. It’s vital for our long-run living standards.

Which means, of course, that we’re also fixated on the importance of free markets and small government. We understand that an economy will grow much faster if the burden of government is constrained (think Hong Kong or Singapore).

But if the public sector is bloated, with high levels of spending, taxation, regulation, cronyism, and protectionism, then it’s very difficult for the productive sector of the economy to flourish.

Let’s augment our understanding by comparing two nations, Estonia and Croatia, that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Estonia has been a role model for pro-growth reform. According to Economic Freedom of the World, the small Baltic nation quickly moved to reduce the burden of government (including a flat tax) and Estonia consistently has been in the top 20 of all nations.

Croatia, by contrast, has lagged. While its economic freedom score has improved, the progress has been modest and Croatia has never been ranked higher than #70.

So what are the real-world results of what happened in these two nations?

The simple answer is that good policy yields good results. Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing per-capita GDP in both Estonia and Croatia.

The most relevant lesson, which I highlighted, is that Croatia was much richer at the beginning of the post-Soviet period.

But Estonia quickly caught up because of its reforms. And over the past 10 years, Croatia has fallen significantly behind.

The key takeaway is that growth matters. And if you want growth, you need economic freedom.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned Wall Street Journal column. Cassidy and Woodhill are totally correct to worry about the “new normal” of anemic growth.

Fortunately, we know the policies that will rejuvenate the economy. And maybe we’ll get a chance to implement those policies after the 2016 election.

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For the people of China, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news, as illustrated by the chart, is that economic freedom has increased dramatically since 1980. This liberalization has lifted hundreds of millions from abject poverty.

The bad news is that China still has a long way to go if it wants to become a rich, market-oriented nation. Notwithstanding big gains since 1980, it still ranks in the lower-third of nations for economic freedom.

Yes, there’s been impressive growth, but it started from a very low level. As a result, per-capita economic output is still just a fraction of American levels.

So let’s examine what’s needed to boost Chinese prosperity.

If you look at the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, there are five major policy categories. As you can see from this table, China’s weakest category is “size of government.” I’ve circled the most relevant data point.

The bottom line is that China could – and should – boost its overall ranking by improving its size-of-government score. And that means reducing the burden of government spending and lowering tax rates.

With this in mind, I was very interested to see that the International Monetary Fund just published a study entitled, “China: How Can Revenue Reforms Contribute to Inclusive and Sustainable Growth.”

Did this mean the IMF was recommending pro-growth tax reform? After reading the following sentence, I was hopeful.

We highlight tax policies that can facilitate economic transition to high income status, promote fiscal sustainability and make growth more inclusive.

After all, surely you make the “transition to high income status” with low tax rates rather than high tax rates, right?

Moreover, the study also acknowledged that China’s tax burden already is fairly substantial.

Tax revenue has accounted for about 22 percent of GDP in 2013…the overall tax burden is similar to the tax-to-GDP ratio for other Asian economies such as Australia, Japan, and Korea.

So what did the IMF recommend? A flat tax? Elimination of certain taxes? Reductions in double taxation? Lowering the overall tax burden?

Hardly.

The bureaucrats actually want China to become more like France and Greece.

I’m not joking. The IMF study actually wants people to believe that making the income tax more punitive will somehow boost prosperity.

Increasing the de facto progressivity of the individual income tax would promote more inclusive growth.

Amazingly, the IMF wants more “progressivity” even though the folks in the top 20 percent are the only ones who pay any income tax under the current system.

…around 80 percent of urban wage earners are not subject to the individual income tax because of the high basic personal allowance.

But a more punitive income tax is just the beginning. The IMF wants further tax hikes.

Broadening the base and unifying rates would increase VAT revenue considerably. …tax based on fossil fuel carbon emission rates can be introduced. …the current levies on local air pollutants such as SO2 and NOX emissions and small particulates could be significantly increased.

What’s especially discouraging is that the IMF explicitly wants a higher tax burden to finance an increase in the burden of government spending.

According to the proposed reform scenario, China could potentially aim to increase public expenditures by around 1 percent of GDP for education, 2‒3 percent of GDP for health care, and another 3–4 percent of GDP to fully finance the basic old-age pension and to gradually meet the legacy costs of current obligations. These would add up to additional social expenditures of around 7‒8 percent of GDP by 2030… The size of additional social spending is large but affordable as part of a package of fiscal reforms.

Indeed, the study explicitly says China should become more like the failed European welfare states that dominate the OECD.

Compared to OECD economies, China has considerable scope to increase the redistributive role of fiscal policy. …These revenue reforms serve as a key part of a package of reforms to boost social spending.

You won’t be surprised to learn, by the way, that the study contains zero evidence (because there isn’t any) to back up the assertion that a more punitive tax system will lead to more growth. Likewise, there’s zero evidence (because there isn’t any) to support the claim that a higher burden of government spending will boost prosperity.

No wonder the IMF is sometimes referred to as the Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy.

P.S. If you want to learn lessons from East Asia, look at the strong performance of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea, all of which provide very impressive examples of sustained growth enabled by small government and free markets.

P.P.S. I was greatly amused when the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund mocked the Europeans for destructive welfare state policies.

P.P.P.S. Click here if you want some morbid humor about China’s pseudo-communist regime.

P.P.P.P.S. Though I give China credit for trimming at least one of the special privileges provided to government bureaucrats.

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Who benefits most from the death tax?

There are two obvious answers.

First, politicians presumably benefit since they get more money to spend. Yes, it’s true that the tax discourages capital formation and may actually lose revenue in the long run, but politicians aren’t exactly famous for thinking past the next election cycle.

Second, there are some statists who are motivated by envy and resentment. These are the folks who make class-warfare arguments about the death tax being necessary to prevent the “rich” from accumulating more wealth, even though evidence shows large family fortunes dissipate over time.

Both of those answers are correct, but they don’t fully explain why this pernicious levy still exists.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner has a must-read piece for the American Enterprise Institute. He reveals the groups that actually are spending time and money to defend this odious version of double taxation.

…about two-thirds of Americans tell pollsters that they oppose the death tax. …But some segments of the population feel differently — most notably, the estate-planning industry. A survey by an industry magazine in 2011 found that 63 percent of estate-planning attorneys opposed repeal of the estate tax. That’s fitting. The death tax forces people to engage in complex and expensive estate planning. Lobbying disclosure forms show that the insurance industry is lobbying on the issue these days. The Association for Advanced Life Underwriting, which represents companies that sell estate-planning products, lobbied on the issue last year, as it has for years. Last decade, AALU funded a group called the Coalition for America’s Priorities, which attacked estate tax repeal as a tax break for Paris Hilton. …When the estate tax was last before Congress, the life insurance industry revved up the troops, spending $10 million a month on lobbying in the first half of 2010. In that stretch, only three industries spent more, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

I concur with Tim.

Indeed, I remember giving a speech back in the 1990s to a group of estate-planning professionals. In my youthful naiveté, I expected that these folks would very much appreciate my arguments against the death tax.

Instead, the reception was somewhat frosty.

Though not nearly as hostile, I must confess, as the treatment I got when speaking about the flat tax to a group of tax lobbyists for big corporations.

In both cases, I was surprised because I mistakenly assumed that my audiences actually cared about the best interests of their clients or employers.

In reality, they cared about what made them rich instead (economists and other social scientists call this the principal-agent problem).

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at more of Tim’s article. He cites the Clintons to make a key point about rich people being able to avoid the tax so long as they cough up enough money to the estate-planning industry.

Those same techniques, however, often are not available to farmers, small business owners, and others who are victimized by the levy.

The Clintons may be stupid-rich, but they aren’t stupid — they’re using estate-planning techniques to avoid the estate tax. Bloomberg News reported in 2014 that the Clinton family home has been divided, for tax purposes, into two shares, and those shares have been placed in a special trust that will shield Chelsea from having to pay the estate tax on the full value of the home when she inherits it. Also, the Clintons have created a life insurance trust — a common tool wealthy people use to provide liquidity for heirs to pay the estate tax. The Clintons’ games, and the estate-planning industry’s interest in the tax, highlights how the tax fails at its stated aims of preventing the inheritance of wealth and privilege. Instead, the estate tax forces the wealthy to play games in order to pass on their wealth. These games don’t add anything to the economy, they just enrich the estate-planning industry. Those whose wealth is tied up in a small or medium-sized business, on the other hand, aren’t always capable of playing the estate planning games. They’re the victims.

The bottom line is that the tax should be abolished for reasons of growth.

But it also should be repealed because it’s unfair to newly successful entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners, all of whom generally lack access to the clever tax-planning tools of those with established wealth.

And it should be repealed simply because it would be morally satisfying to reduce the income of those who benefit from – and lobby for – bad government policy.

P.S. The U.S. death tax is more punitive than the ones imposed by even France and Venezuela.

P.P.S. It’s particularly hypocritical for the Clintons to support the death tax on others while taking steps to make sure it doesn’t apply to them.

P.P.P.S. In a truly repugnant development, there are efforts in the U.K. to apply the death tax while people are still alive.

P.P.P.P.S. On a more positive note, a gay “adoption” in Pennsylvania helped one couple reduce exposure to that state’s death tax.

P.P.P.P.P.S. If you live in New Jersey, by contrast, the best choice is to move before you die.

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