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Archive for the ‘Fiscal Policy’ Category

The best policy for a state (assuming it wants growth and competitiveness) is to have no income tax. Along with a modest burden of government spending, of course.

The next-best approach is for a state to have a flat tax. If nothing else, a flat tax inevitably will have a reasonable rate since it’s politically difficult to pillage everyone (though Illinois is trying very hard to be an exception to that rule).

Moreover, a flat tax also sends a signal that politicians in the state don’t (or can’t) play the divide-and-conquer game of periodically raising taxes on different income groups.

Today, we have some good news. Kentucky has ditched its so-called progressive income tax and joined the flat tax club. The Tax Foundation has the details (including the changes in the state’s ranking).

…legislators in Kentucky overrode Governor Matt Bevin’s veto to pass HB 366, a tax reform package, in the last few days of the session. Ultimately, HB 366…increases Kentucky’s ranking on the State Business Tax Climate Index from 33rd to 18th. …Here’s how HB 366 changes Kentucky’s tax code: Replacing the current six-bracket individual income tax, which has a top rate of 6.0 percent, with a 5 percent single rate individual income tax; …Replacing the current three-bracket corporate income tax, with its top rate of 6.0 percent, with a 5 percent flat rate; …Expanding the sales tax base to include select services…; and Raising the cigarette tax from 60 cents to $1.10 per pack. …the changes in this tax reform package dramatically improve the state’s tax climate. By broadening bases while lowering rates, starting to correct the inequities in the sales tax base, and taking steps to make the state more friendly to investment, policymakers in the state took a responsible approach to comprehensive tax reform.

Kentucky will have a better tax system, but there is a dark lining to the silver cloud of reform.

The legislation is a net tax increase, meaning state politicians will have more money to spend (which is a variable that is not included in the Tax Foundation’s Business Tax Climate Index).

As a big fan of the no-tax-hike pledge, that makes me sympathetic to some of those who opposed the legislation.

But I confess that I’m nonetheless happy that there’s now another state with a flat tax.

Which motivated me to create a five-column ranking for states with regards to the issue of personal income tax.

The best states are in the first column, since they don’t impose any income tax. The second-best option is a flat tax, and then I have three options for so-called progressive tax regimes. A “low-rate” state means the top bracket is less than 5 percent and a “class-warfare” state means the top bracket is higher than 8 percent (with other states in a middle group).

Kentucky has moved from the fourth column to the second column, which is a nice step. Very similar to what North Carolina did a few years ago.

Kansas, by contrast, recently went from the fourth column to the third column and then back to the fourth column.

And I may have to create a special sixth column for states such as California.

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Politicians routinely assert that they want more economic growth. That’s a laudable sentiment, although I doubt their sincerity for the simple reason that these are the same people who frequently impose policies that discourage productive economic activity.

Growth occurs when there’s an increase in the quantity and/or quality of labor and capital. These so-called factors of production determine how efficiently we produce and how much we produce.

Which is why there should be low taxes on labor and capital.

And it’s also a good idea for these factors of production to be taxed at the same rate so government policy isn’t tilting the playing field.

Unfortunately, we don’t have low taxes and we also don’t have neutral taxes.

Indeed, Timothy Egan argues in the New York Times that these two factors of production are not taxed equally. I agree.

Except Egan completely bungles the analysis and preposterously claims that labor is taxed at a higher rate.

Dear Government: Enclosed please find my 2017 tax form, and a check for the amount I owe, just ahead of the deadline. …you’re still punishing me for working — taxing wages and business income at a much higher rate than the money I make doing nothing, like holding stocks. Plus, you’re still taxing Warren Buffett at a lower rate than his secretary, despite his plea for fairness.

Wow, he manages to cram a lot of inaccuracy into a couple of sentences.

In reality, the current tax code is very biased against saving and investment.

Here’s some of what I wrote when I debunked Warren Buffett’s deeply flawed claim about relative tax burdens back in 2011.

…dividends and capital gains are both forms of double taxation. …if he wants honest effective tax rate numbers, he needs to show the…corporate tax rate. …Moreover, …Buffett completely ignores the impact of the death tax

For years, I’ve been recycling a chart showing how the American tax code mistreats saving and investment. But that chart became outdated by the fiscal cliff deal, then became even more inaccurate because of Obamacare tax hikes, and most recently became even more inaccurate thanks to the Trump tax plan.

So here’s an up-to-date version.

And for purposes of today’s issue, the top side and left side of the flowchart combine to show how labor income is taxed and the top side and right side of the flowchart combine to show how capital is taxed.

The problem with Egan’s analysis is that he compares taxes on labor income (as high as 37 percent) with the 23.8 percent rate on dividends and/or capital gains. Yet that’s either incredibly sloppy or grievously dishonest because that income also gets hit by the corporate income tax.

And it’s worth pointing out that stocks and other financial assets are purchased with after-tax dollars (captured by the top portion of the chart).

P.S. Adding payroll taxes to the flowchart doesn’t change anything. There would be an additional levy at the top of the chart, leading to a lower level of after-tax earning. So the net result is simply that people have less money to either spend or invest.

P.P.S. Warren Buffett periodically – and inaccurately – asserts that his tax rate in higher than his secretary’s tax rate. Yet his theoretical support for higher tax burdens crashes into the reality of his professional tax-minimization behavior.

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I’m in Brussels, where I’m participating in an “Economic Freedom Summit” on the unfriendly turf of the European Parliament.

My role was to chair a panel earlier today about whether Venezuela can recover from socialism. I obviously have an opinion on that topic, but I want to write today about some information that was shared on the panel about transition economies.

Andrei Illarionov, a former adviser to Vladimir Putin, gave a talk about economic reform in Russia. I also have an opinion on that topic, but that’s also not today’s issue.

Instead, I want to share some of his charts on the broader topic of government spending and economic growth.

As you might expect, he showed the negative correlation between the size of government and economic performance in Russia.

He also had numbers for the United States, though for a much longer period of time.

He also had the data for Germany.

And also the numbers for Japan.

Since the panel’s main focus was countries making the transition from communism, Andrei also looked at the relationship between government spending and growth rates in those nations.

Last but not least, here are his calculations based on 56 years of data in developed countries, on the impact of government spending on economic growth.

This is powerful data, even when you factor in the caveats Andrei mentioned in the discussion.

For all intents and purposes, the lines in Andrei’s various charts are measures of the downward sloping portion of the Rahn Cure. I explain in this video.

I’ve shared research on government spending and economic performance on any occasions, including some findings from a very good book published by London’s Institute for Economic Affairs.

And it’s worth noting that even the left-leaning OECD has produced findings very similar to Andrei’s data.

  • The OECD admitted in one study that “a reduction in the size of the government could increase long-term GDP by about 10%, with much larger effects in some countries.”
  • The OECD admitted in another study that “a cut in the tax-to-GDP ratio by 10 percentage points of GDP (accompanied by a deficit-neutral cut in transfers) may increase annual growth by ½ to 1 percentage points.”
  • The OECD admitted in a different study that “an increase of about one percentage point in the tax pressure (or, equivalently one half of a percentage point in government consumption, taken as a proxy for government size)…could be associated with a direct reduction of about 0.3 per cent in output per capita. If the investment effect is taken into account, the overall reduction would be about 0.6-0.7 per cent.”

And the IMF also has a statist orientation, but it also has confessed that larger governments hinder growth, writing that “A tax cut for the middle-class, financed from a lump-sum reduction in government spending, …raises the steady state GDP by just under 1 percent after 5 years… in the simple case where the tax cuts are paid for by lump sum cuts in government spending, the personal income tax multiplier is around 3.”

In other words, the research clearly shows that shrinking the burden of government spending is a great recipe to promote greater prosperity. Andrei’s data is simply another layer of evidence.

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The Congressional Budget Office just released its annual Economic and Budget Outlook, and almost everyone in Washington is agitated (or pretending to be agitated) about annual deficits exceeding $1 trillion starting in the 2020 fiscal year.

All that red ink isn’t good news, but I’m much more concerned (and genuinely so) about this line from CBO’s forecast. In just 10 years, the burden of federal spending is going to jump from 20.6 percent of GDP to 23.6 percent!

Simply stated, we’ve entered the era of baby boomer retirement. And because we have some very poorly designed entitlement programs, that means the federal budget – assuming we leave it on autopilot – is going to consume an ever-growing share of our national economic output.

The bottom line is that Washington is violating my Golden Rule.

Let’s look at the underlying numbers. Federal spending is projected by CBO to grow by an average of about 5.5 percent per year over the next decade while nominal GDP is estimated to grow by just 4.0  percent annually.

And that unfortunate trend isn’t limited to the nest 10 years. CBO’s latest long-run forecast, which I discussed last year, shows a never-ending deterioration of America’s fiscal position.

Hello Greece.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this mess.

A modest amount of spending restraint can quickly reverse our fiscal troubles and put us on a path to a balanced budget. More importantly, limits on the growth of spending can slowly reduce the size of the federal government relative to the private sector.

Here’s a chart, based on CBO’s numbers, that shows how much Uncle Sam is spending this year (a bit over $4.1 trillion), along with a blue line showing projected tax revenues over the next 10 years (blue line). And I’ve shown what happens if spending is “only” allowed to increase by either 2 percent annually (orange line) or 3 percent annually (grey line) over the next decade.

This chart is basically everything you need to know. It shows that our fiscal situation is not hopeless. All we have to do is make sure government is growing slower than the productive sector of the economy.

A good rule of thumb, as suggested in the chart title, is that government shouldn’t grow faster than the rate of inflation.

And we’ve done it before.

  • During the Clinton years, the United States enjoyed a multi-year period of spending restraint. We got a balanced budget because of that frugality. More important, spending fell as a share of GDP.
  • During the Obama years, we benefited from a five-year de facto spending freeze. Deficits dropped dramatically and the nation experienced the biggest drop in the relative burden of spending since the end of World War II.

And many other nations also have also managed multi-year periods of spending restraint.

Let’s close with a video I narrated which illustrates how modest spending discipline generates good outcomes.

It’s from 2010, so the numbers are no longer relevant, but otherwise the analysis applies just as strongly today.

P.S. I’m not overly optimistic that President Trump is serious about solving this problem. His proposed a semi-decent amount of spending restraint in last year’s budget, but then he signed into law a grotesque budget-busting appropriations bill.

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Five former Democratic appointees to the Council of Economic Advisers have a column in today’s Washington Post asserting that we should not blame entitlements for America’s future fiscal problems.

The good news is that they at least recognize that there’s a future problem.

The bad news is that their analysis is sloppy, inaccurate, and deceptive.

They start with an observation about red ink that is generally true, though I think the link between government borrowing and interest rates is rather weak (at least until a government – like Greece – gets to the point where investors no longer trust its ability to repay).

The federal budget deficit is on track to exceed $1 trillion next year and get worse over time. Eventually, ever-rising debt and deficits will cause interest rates to rise. …the growing debt will take an increasing toll.

But the authors don’t want us to blame entitlements for ever-rising levels of red ink.

It is dishonest to single out entitlements for blame.

That’s a remarkable claim since the Congressional Budget Office (which is not a small government-oriented bureaucracy, to put it mildly) unambiguously shows that rising levels of so-called mandatory spending are driving our long-run fiscal problems.

CBO’s own charts make this abundantly clear (click on the image to see the original column with the full-size chart).

So how do the authors get around this problem?

First, they try to confuse the issue by myopically focusing on the short run.

The primary reason the deficit in coming years will now be higher than had been expected is the reduction in tax revenue from last year’s tax cuts, not an increase in spending.

Okay, fair enough. There will be a short-run tax cut because of the recent tax legislation. But the column is supposed to be about the future debt crisis. And that’s a medium-term and long-term issue.

Well, it turns out that they have to focus on the short run because their arguments become very weak – or completely false – when we look at the overall fiscal situation.

For instance, they make an inaccurate observation about the recent tax reform legislation.

…the tax cuts passed last year actually added an amount to America’s long-run fiscal challenge that is roughly the same size as the preexisting shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare.

That’s wrong. The legislation actually increases the long-run tax burden.

And that’s in addition to the long-understood reality that the tax burden already is scheduled to gradually increase, even measured as a share of economic output.

Once again, the CBO has a chart with the relevant data. Note especially the steady rise in the burden of the income tax (once again, feel free to click on the image to see the original column with the full-size chart).

The authors do pay lip service to the notion that there should be some spending restraint.

There is some room for…spending reductions in these programs, but not to an extent large enough to solve the long-run debt problem.

But even that admission is deceptive.

We don’t actually need spending reductions. We simply need to slow down the growth of government. Indeed, our long-run debt problem would be solved if imposed some sort of Swiss-style or Hong Kong-style spending cap so that the budget couldn’t grow faster than 3 percent yearly.

In any event, they wrap up their column by unveiling their main agenda. They want higher taxes.

Additional revenue is critical…responding to the looming fiscal challenge required a balanced approach that combined increased revenue with reduced spending. Two bipartisan commissions, Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin, proposed such approaches that called for tax reform to raise revenue as a percent of GDP…set tax policy to realize adequate revenue.

As I already noted, the tax burden already is going to climb as a share of GDP. But the authors want an increase on top of the built-in increase.

And it’s very revealing that they cite Simpson-Bowles, which is basically a left-wing proposal of higher taxes combined with the wrong type of entitlement reform. To be fair, the Domenici-Rivlin plan  has the right kind of entitlement reform, but that proposal is nonetheless bad news since it contains a value-added tax.

The bottom line if that the five Democratic CEA appointees who put together the column (I’m wondering why Austan Goolsbee didn’t add his name) do not make a compelling case for higher taxes.

Unless, of course, the goal is to enable a bigger burden of government.

Which is the message of this very appropriate cartoon.

Needless to say, this belongs in my “Government in Cartoons” collection.

P.S. Entitlement spending is not only to blame for our future spending problems. It’s also the cause of our current spending problems.

P.P.S. In a perverse way, I actually like the column we discussed today. Five top economists on the left put their heads together and tried to figure out the most compelling argument for higher taxes. Yet what they produced is shoddy and deceptive. In other words, they didn’t make a strong argument because they don’t have a strong argument. Reminds me of Robert Rubin’s anemic argument last year against the GOP tax plan.

P.P.P.S. Four former presidents offer good advice on the topic of taxation.

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My major long-run project during Obama’s presidency was to educate Republicans in Washington about the need for genuine entitlement reform. I explained to them that the United States was doomed, largely because of demographics, to suffer a Greek-style fiscal future if we left policy on autopilot.

Needless to say, I didn’t expect any positive reforms while Obama was in the White House.

Instead, I proselytized for fiscal sanity in hopes that the GOP might be willing to fix our fiscal mess if they had total control of the White House and Congress after the 2016 election.

And it seemed like things were moving in the right direction.

After they took power in 2010, House Republicans repeatedly voted for budget resolutions that included meaningful changes to Medicaid, Medicare, and Obamacare, as well as reductions in wasteful pork-barrel spending. And after the 2014 GOP landslide, Senate Republicans also voted for a budget resolution that assumed good reform.

Then we got the unexpected Trump victory in 2016 and Republicans held all the levers of power starting in 2017.

Sounds like good news for advocates of spending restraint, right?

That may be true in some alternative universe, but that’s definitely not the case in Washington.

As I warned before the election, President Trump is a big-government Republican. And a majority of congressional GOPers, after years of chest beating about the importance of spending restraint, suddenly have decided that the swamp is really a hot tub.

In 2017, my main gripe was that Republicans committed a sin of omission. They had power and didn’t adopt good reforms.

In 2018, they shifted to a sin of commission, voting to bust the spending caps as part of an orgy of new spending.

And guess what they want to do for an encore?

In the ultimate add-insult-to-injury gesture, Republicans (at least the ones in the House) are hoping voters will overlook their profligacy because they’re going to have a symbolic vote on a poorly drafted version of a balanced budget amendment.

The House is slated to vote next week on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution… The decision to bring the measure — which would require Congress not to spend more than it brings in — to the floor comes just weeks after the passage of a $1.3 trillion spending package that is projected to add billions to the deficit. …The measure has virtually no chance of becoming law as it would need Democratic support in the Senate and ratification from the majority of states.

This is insulting.

These clowns vote to expand the burden of spending and now they want to hoodwink voters with a sham vote for something that has no chance of happening (an amendment requires two-thirds support from both the House and Senate, and then would require ratification from three-fourths of state legislatures).

Do they really think we’re that stupid?!?

To make matters worse, they’re not even proposing a good version of an amendment. Here’s the core provision of H.J. Res 2.

Section 1. Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year, unless three-fifths of the whole number of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific excess of outlays over receipts by a rollcall vote.

Sound reasonable and innocuous, but I’ve been telling folks on Capitol Hill this is the wrong approach. I pointed out that 49 out of 50 states have some form of balanced budget requirement, yet that doesn’t stop states such as Illinois, California, and New Jersey from over-taxing and over-spending, or from accumulating more debt.

I also explained that the so-called Maastricht rules in the European Union operate in a similar fashion, yet that hasn’t stopped nations such as Greece, France, and Italy from over-taxing and over-spending, or from accumulating more debt.

The problem, I explained, is that anti-deficit rules simply give politicians an excuse to raise taxes (which leads to more spending and more red ink, but I don’t think that causes many sleepless nights for elected officials).

If Republicans are going to go through the trouble of having a phony and symbolic vote, they should at least craft a good amendment. In other words, they should rally behind some sort of spending cap modeled after what exists in Switzerland and Hong Kong. They could even use Representative Kevin Brady’s widely praised MAP Act as a template.

A spending cap is far superior to a balanced-budget rule for two reasons.

  1. A spending cap puts the focus on the real problem of excessive growth of government. And if you impose some sort of cap that complies with the Golden Rule, you simultaneously address the real problem of too much spending and the symptom of red ink.
  2. A spending cap is much easier to enforce since politicians know that spending can only increase each year by, say 2 percent. A balanced-budget rule, by contrast, is inherently unstable and unworkable because annual revenues can jump or fall significantly depending on economic conditions.

And it’s not just me saying this. Even left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund (twice), the European Central Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (twice) have acknowledged that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Republican politicians are behaving in a despicable fashion.

So you can understand my caustic and frustrated responses in this recent interview with Charles Payne. I’m upset because it’s quite likely that Trump’s spending splurge eventually is going to lead to higher taxes.

I pointed out in the interview that Trump was in a position of power. He could have won the budget fight if he was willing to play hardball with a shutdown.

And I also explained that there shouldn’t be a Washington infrastructure plan for the simple reason that we shouldn’t have a federal Department of Transportation.

Let’s conclude with some sarcasm. I don’t know if the former leader of Tanzania ever uttered this quote I saw on Reddit‘s Libertarian Meme page. But if he did say it, he was spot on.

And here’s a clever bit of humor that I saw on Reddit‘s Libertarian page.

Except the image is unfair. I’ve crunched the numbers. Democrats generally don’t increase spending as fast as Republicans.

With one impressive exception.

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I’m a big fan of federalism because states have the flexibility to choose good policy or bad policy.

And that’s good news for me since I get to write about the consequences.

One of the main lessons we learn (see here, here, here, here, and here) is that high-earning taxpayers tend to migrate from states with onerous tax burdens and they tend to land in places where there is no state income tax (we also learn that welfare recipients move to states with bigger handouts, but that’s an issue for another day).

In this interview with Stuart Varney, we discuss whether this trend of tax-motivated migration is going to accelerate.

I mentioned in the interview that restricting the state and local tax deduction is going to accelerate the flight from high-tax states, which underscores what I wrote earlier this year about that provision of the tax bill being a “big [expletive deleted] deal.”

I suggested that Stuart create a poll on which state will be the first to go bankrupt.

And there’s a lot of data to help people choose.

Technically, I don’t think bankruptcy is even possible since there’s no provision for such a step in federal law.

But it’s still an interesting issue, so I decided to create a poll on the question. To make it manageable, I limited the selection to 10 states, all of which rank poorly in one of more of the surveys listed above. And, to avoid technical quibbles, the question is about “fiscal collapse” rather than bankruptcy, default, or bailouts. Anyhow, as they say in Chicago, vote early and vote often.

P.S. I asked a similar question about bankruptcies in developed nations back in 2011. Back then, it appeared Portugal might be the right answer. Today, I’d pick Italy.

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