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Archive for the ‘News Appearance’ Category

It’s not easy being a libertarian in the policy world of Washington. I view the flat tax as a timid intermediate step, with the real goal being a tiny federal government (like the Founding Fathers envisioned) that can be financed without any broad-based tax.

Yet even my timid intermediate step is considered radical and impractical by DC standards. There’s no discussion of fundamental tax reform. Instead, the  debate revolves around whether we can reduce a couple of tax rates in one part of the code and “pay for” those changes by altering some provisions in another part of the code.

This is very frustrating, which is why I joked with Neil Cavuto that we could kill two birds with one stone by trading Trump, Hillary, Manafort, and Podesta to Russia in exchange for that country’s 13 percent flat tax.

But I want to address a couple of serious points in the interview.

To conclude, most people assume that something will pass simply because GOPers desperately need some sort of victory to compensate for their failure to repeal (or even just tinker with) Obamacare.

That’s true, but that doesn’t change the fact that any bill can be defeated if Democrats are unified in opposition and a small handful of Republicans decide to vote no.

By the way, I’m not completely unsympathetic to some of the Republicans who are wavering on whether to vote for a reform bill. Consider their predicament: If there’s a bill that cuts the corporate tax rate and gets rid of the deduction for state and local income taxes (to my chagrin, I’m assuming property taxes will still be deductible), that will be a net plus for the economy. But, depending on other provisions in the legislation, it may mean that a non-trivial number of voters (especially from high-tax states) will be hit with a tax increase.

Members of Congress who want good policy can explain to those voters that the economy will grow faster. They can tell those voters that their state politicians now will be more likely to reduce state income tax burdens. I think those assertions are true, but voters looking at higher tax burdens probably won’t care about those long-run effects.

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I’ve been arguing all year that a substantially lower corporate tax rate is the most vital goal of tax reform for reasons of competitiveness.

And I continued to beat that drum in an interview last week with Fox Business.

The Wall Street Journal agrees that the time has come for a lower corporate rate. Unless, of course, one would prefer the United States to fall even further behind other countries.

President Emmanuel Macron last week pushed a budget featuring substantial tax relief through the National Assembly. The top rate on corporate profits will fall to 28% by 2020 from 33.33% today, and Mr. Macron has promised 25% by 2022. …Critics branded Mr. Macron “the President for the rich” for these overhauls, but the main effect will be to stimulate investment and job creation… The Netherlands also is jumping on the bandwagon. Prime Minister Mark Rutte promises to cut the top corporate rate to 21% from 25% by 2021… Do American politicians really want to have to explain to voters why they let the U.S. trail even France?

For the most part, opponents of tax reform in the United States understand that they have lost the competitiveness argument. So they will pay lip service to the notion that a lower corporate rate is desirable (heck, even Obama notionally agreed), but they will fret about the loss of tax revenue and a supposed windfall for the “rich.”

I agree that tax revenues will decrease, at least in the short run. But there’s some very good research showing the long-run revenue-maximizing corporate rate is somewhere between 15 percent and 25 percent.

And Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute reviewed fifty years of data for industrialized nations and ascertained that lower tax rates are associated with rising revenue.

There’s also good evidence from Canada and the United Kingdom if you want country-specific examples of the relationship between corporate tax rates and corporate tax revenue.

By the way, even left-leaning multilateral bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have published research showing the same thing.

And what about the debate over whether the “rich” benefit?

That issue is a red herring. Yes, shareholders of companies, on average, have higher incomes, and they will benefit if the rate is reduced, but I’ve never been motivated by animosity against those with more money (assuming they earned their money rather than mooching off the government).

What does get my juices flowing, however, is growth. And if we can get more dynamism in the economy, that translates into more jobs and higher income.

A new report from the Council of Economic Advisers estimates the potential benefit for ordinary people.

Reducing the statutory federal corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent would, the analysis below suggests, increase average household income in the United States by, very conservatively, $4,000 annually. …Moreover, the broad range of results in the literature suggest that over a decade, this effect could be much larger.

There’s some good cross-country data showing nations with lower corporate tax rates do better.

Between 2012 and 2016, the 10 lowest corporate tax countries of the OECD had corporate tax rates 13.9 percentage points lower than the 10 highest corporate tax countries, about the same scale as the reduction currently under consideration in the U.S. The average wage growth in the low tax countries has been dramatically higher.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

As you can see, there’s a clear divergence between higher-tax and lower-tax nations. Though, given the limited time period in the chart and the fact that many other factors can impact wage growth, I’m actually more persuaded by some of the other empirical research cited in the CEA report.

Arulpalapam et al (2012) find that workers pay nearly 50 percent of the tax, while Desai et al (2007) estimate a worker share of 45 to 75 percent. Gravelle and Smetters (2006) generate a rate of 21 percent when the rate of capital mobility across countries is moderate and 73 percent when capital can flow freely, evidence that the labor incidence is likely both dynamic and positively correlated with the rate of international capital transfers. A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study (Randolph, 2006) finds that workers bear 70 percent of the corporate income tax burden in the baseline and 59 to 91 percent in alternative specifications. In a summary study, Jensen and Mathur (2011) argue for an assumption of greater than 50 percent. …A cross-country study by Hassett and Mathur (2006) based on 65 countries and 25 years of data finds that the elasticity of worker wages in manufacturing after five years with respect to the highest marginal tax rate in a country is as low as -1.0 in some specifications, although other sets of control variables increase the elasticity to -0.3. Expanded analysis by Felix (2007) follows the Hassett and Mathur strategy, but incorporates additional control variables, including worker education levels. Felix settles on an elasticity of worker wages with respect to corporate income taxes of -0.4, at the high end of the Hassett and Mathur range. …Felix (2009) estimates an elasticity of worker wages with respect to corporate income tax rates based on variation in the marginal tax rate across U.S. states. In this case, the elasticity is substantially lower; a 1 percentage point increase in the top marginal state corporate rate reduces gross wages by 0.14 to 0.36 percent over the entire period (1977-2005) and by up to 0.45 percent for the most recent period in her data (2000-2005). …Desai et al (2007)…measure both the changes in worker wages and changes in capital income associated with corporate income tax changes. The estimated labor burden of the corporate tax rate varies from 45 to 75 percent under various specifications in the paper.

That’s a lot of jargon, so I suspect that many readers will find data from Germany and Australia to be more useful when considering how workers benefit from lower corporate rates.

P.S. While I think a lower corporate tax rate may result in more revenue over time, that’s definitely not my goal.

P.P.S. The biggest obstacle to good tax policy is the unwillingness of Republicans to impose even a modest amount of spending restraint.

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In my 30-plus years in Washington, I’ve lived through some very bad pieces of legislation.

But the most depressing experience was probably the TARP bailout. In part, it was depressing because bad government policy created the conditions for the crisis, so it was frustrating to see the crowd in Washington blame capitalism (in effect, a repeat of what happened in the 1930s).

Far more depressing, however, was the policy response. Thanks largely to the influence of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, the Bush Administration decided to bail out the big firms on Wall Street rather than use “FDIC resolution,” which would have bailed out depositors but at least shut down big institutions that were insolvent.

In other words, TARP was pure cronyism. Wall Street firms had “invested” in Washington by giving lots of contributions to politicians and TARP was their payoff.

With this background, you’ll understand why I asserted in this interview that the dissolution of two business advisory councils is the silver lining to the black cloud of Charlottesville.

Since that was just one segment of a longer interview and I didn’t get a chance to elaborate, here are some excerpts from an article in Harvard Business Review by Robert Litan and Ian Hathaway about the connection between anemic productivity numbers (which I wrote about last week) and cronyism.

Baumol’s writing raises the possibility that U.S. productivity is low because would-be entrepreneurs are focused on the wrong kind of work. In a 1990 paper, “Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive, and Destructive,” Baumol argued that the level of entrepreneurial ambition in a country is essentially fixed over time, and that what determines a nation’s entrepreneurial output is the incentive structure that governs and directs entrepreneurial efforts between “productive” and “unproductive” endeavors. Most people think of entrepreneurship as being the “productive” kind, as Baumol referred to it, where the companies that founders launch commercialize something new or better, benefiting society and themselves in the process. A sizable body of research establishes that these “Schumpeterian” entrepreneurs, those that are “creatively destroying” the old in favor of the new, are critical for breakthrough innovations and rapid advances in productivity and standards of living. Baumol was worried, however, by a very different sort of entrepreneur: the “unproductive” ones, who exploit special relationships with the government to construct regulatory moats, secure public spending for their own benefit, or bend specific rules to their will, in the process stifling competition to create advantage for their firms. Economists call this rent-seeking behavior.

That’s the theory.

What about evidence? Well, Obamacare could be considered a case study since it basically was a giveaway to big pharmaceutical firms and big health insurance companies.

But the authors look at the issue more broadly to see if there is an economy-wide problem.

Do we…see a rise in unproductive entrepreneurship, as Baumol theorized? …James Bessen of Boston University has provided suggestive evidence that rent-seeking behavior has been increasing. In a 2016 paper Bessen demonstrates that, since 2000, “political factors” account for a substantial part of the increase in corporate profits. This occurs through expanded regulation that favors incumbent firms. Similarly, economists Jeffrey Brown and Jiekun Huang of the University of Illinois have found that companies that have executives with close ties to key policy makers have abnormally high stock returns.

This is very depressing.

I don’t want companies to do well because the CEOs cozy up to politicians. If entrepreneurs and corporations are going to be rolling in money, I want that to happen because they are providing valued goods and services to consumers.

I wrote about Bessen’s research last year. It’s very unsettling to think that companies make more money because of political connections than they do from research and development.

There are two reasons this is troubling.

First, it means slower growth because government intervention is undermining the efficient allocation of labor and capital that occurs with productive entrepreneurship.

Second, cronyism is very corrosive because people equate business with capitalism, so their support for capitalism declines when they see companies getting special favors.

I wish ordinary people understood that big business and free enterprise are not the same thing.

Though I fully understand their disdain for certain big companies. Consider the way a select handful of big companies use the Export-Import Bank to obtain undeserved profits. How about the way big agri-businesses rip off consumers with the ethanol scam. Don’t forget H&R Block is trying to get the IRS to drive competitors out of the market. Big Sugar also gets a sweet deal by investing in politicians. Another example is the way major electronics firms enriched themselves by getting Washington to ban incandescent light bulbs. Needless to say, we can’t overlook Obama’s corrupt green-energy programs that fattened the wallets of well-connected donors. And General Motors became Government Motors thanks to politicians fleecing ordinary Americans.

The bottom line is that it’s time to save capitalism from the rent seekers in the business community.

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I’m rather frustrated about the lack of real results from the Republicans in Washington.

Yet Trump and some GOPers want to take credit for a rising stock market, as if that is some sort of positive reaction to their non-accomplishments.

As you can see from this interview, I don’t completely reject this hypothesis. After all, stock values are a reflection of the market’s expectations of future after-tax profits. So if investors think that good reforms – such as a lower corporate tax rate – are going to happen, then it makes sense that the value of financial assets will increase.

By the way, I can’t resist commenting on the claim from the Economic Policy Institute that the stock market is a “meaningless indicator” that has nothing to do with the well-being of workers.

That’s nonsense. Assuming we’re looking at genuine and durable increases in stock values (rather than a bubble), that’s a reflection of a growing economy, which translates into more income for workers.

In the language of economists, capital and labor are complimentary goods. More of one increases the value of the other. Which is why I told the folks at Politifact that it’s good for workers in the long run when financial assets become more valuable since that presumably means more investment.

Dan Mitchell, a scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute, agreed that “capital and labor compete for shares of income in the short run.” Over the long term, however, “there is no trade-off between corporate profits and labor income,” he said.

But let’s focus on the bigger issue of whether Trump deserves any credit for the stock market’s performance.

Ira Stoll, writing for the New York Sun, shares some very appropriate caveats.

The stock market, in other words, is like a lot of things: politicians want to take credit for it when news is good, but absolve themselves of responsibility when news is bad. One might hope for a more consistent perspective from journalists or from independent research organizations. Imagine, say, an election-day to election-day presidential job-performance dashboard that included data on measures such as stock market performance, the value of the dollar, job creation, unemployment, labor force participation, and real GDP growth. It can indeed be hard to isolate a president’s influence on all these things from other variables, such as, say, the composition of Congress. Should Mr. Obama or President Clinton get credit for the stock market booms in their terms? Or should the Republican Congresses under which they occurred? How does one accurately account for the period between the election and inauguration, when stock market gains may reflect anticipated improvements, but growth results measure existing budgets and policies?

Having given lots of reasons to be cautious, Stoll nonetheless thinks investors are buoyed by the pro-growth parts of Trump’s agenda.

…steps Mr. Trump takes — reducing regulation or slowing the growth of it, reducing corporate income tax rates, allowing more energy exploration — will outweigh any negatives. In other words, there’s a decent case that Mr. Trump does deserve at least some credit for the stock market gains.

I don’t have any objection to this analysis.

Though allow me to add another caveat to the list. As I explained when discussing the same topic back in March (see final interview) and indirectly suggested in the above interview, Trump is playing a risky game.

What if the stock market is artificially inflated because of the Fed’s easy-money policy? If that’s the case, there almost certainly will be a correction and stock values will drop.

This won’t be Trump’s fault, but he’ll then be very vulnerable when opponents argue that he should be blamed. As the old saying goes, live by the sword, die by the sword.

In my humble opinion, politicians (at least the ones who support good policy on net, and I still don’t know whether Trump is in this category) should argue for good policy because that will lead to higher per-capita income over time.

And they also should say, in the interests of accuracy, that it generally takes time to see good results.

Consider the lesson of the Reagan years. The first couple of years were a bit bumpy, both because some of Reagan’s good reforms – particularly the tax cuts – were slowly phased in and because some short-run pain was inevitable as inflation was brought under control (an overlooked and very beneficial achievement). But once his policies kicked in, the economic results were very positive.

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It’s depressing to see how Republicans are bungling the Obamacare issue. But it’s also understandable since it’s politically difficult to reduce handouts once people get hooked on the heroin of government dependency (a point I made even before Obamacare was enacted).

Unfortunately, I fear that the GOP might bungle the tax issue as well. I was interviewed the other day by Dana Loesch on this topic and highlighted several issues.

Here’s the full discussion.

What’s especially frustrating about this issue is that taxes should be reduced. A lot.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute debunks six tax myths. Here they are, followed by my two cents.

Myth #1: Long-term deficits are driven by tax cuts and falling revenues

Fact: They are driven entirely by rapid spending growth

Brian nails it. I made this same point earlier this year. Indeed, because the tax burden is projected to automatically increase over time, it is accurate to say that more than 100 percent of the long-run fiscal problem is caused by excessive spending (particularly poorly designed entitlement programs).

Myth #2: Democratic tax proposals would significantly reduce the deficit

Fact: Their most common proposals would raise little revenue

Once again, Brian is right. There are ways to significantly increase the tax burden in America, such as a value-added tax. But the class-warfare ideas that attract a lot of support on the left won’t raise much revenue because upper-income taxpayers have substantial control over the timing, level and composition of their income.

Myth #3: Taxing millionaires and corporations can balance the long-term budget

Fact: These taxes cannot cover Washington’s current commitments, much less new liberal wish lists

Since even the IRS has admitted that upper-income taxpayers finance a hugely disproportionate share of the federal government, it hardly seems fair to subject them to even more onerous penalties. Especially since the IRS data from the 1980s suggest punitive rates could lead to less revenue rather than more.

Myth #4: The U.S. income tax is more regressive than other nations

Fact: It is the most progressive in the entire OECD

There are several ways to slice the data, so one can quibble with Brian’s assertion. But when comparing taxes paid by the rich compared to taxes paid by the poor, it is true that the United States relies more on upper-income taxpayers than any other developed nation. Not because we tax the rich more, but because we tax the poor less.

Myth #5: The U.S. tax code is becoming more regressive over time

Fact: It has become increasingly progressive over the past 35 years

Brian is right. Child credits, changes in the standard deduction and personal exemptions, and the EITC have combined in recent decades to take millions of households off the tax rolls. And since the U.S. thankfully does not have a value-added tax, lower-income people are largely protected from taxation.

Myth #6: Tax rates do not matter much to economic growth

Fact: They are among the most important factors

There are many factors that determine a nation’s economic success, including trade policy, regulation, monetary policy, and rule of law, so a good tax code isn’t a guarantor of prosperity and a bad tax system doesn’t automatically mean malaise. But Brian is right that taxation has a significant impact on growth.

In the interview, I said that I had two fantasies. First, I want to junk the corrupt internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

Second, I’d ultimately like to shrink government so much that we could eliminate the income tax entirely.

Many people don’t realize that income taxes only began to plague the world about 100 years ago.

If we can somehow restore the kind of limited government envisioned by America’s Founders, the dream of no income tax could become a reality once again.

But if Republicans can’t even manage to cut taxes today, when they control both the executive and legislative branch, then neither one of my fantasies will ever become reality.

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I don’t like the income tax that’s been imposed by our overlords in Washington. Indeed, I’ve speculated whether October 3 is the worst day of the year because that’s the date when the Revenue Act of 1913 was signed into law.

I don’t like state income taxes, either.

And, as discussed in this interview about Seattle from last week, I’m also not a fan of local income taxes.

From an economic perspective, I think a local income tax would be suicidally foolish for Seattle. Simply stated, this levy will drive some well-heeled people to live and work outside the city’s borders. And when revenues fall short of projections, Seattle politicians likely will compensate by increasing the tax rate and also extending the tax so it is imposed on those with more modest incomes. And that will drive more people out of the city, which will lead to an even higher rate that hits even more people.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Though I pointed out that this grim outcome may be averted if the courts rule that Seattle doesn’t have the legal authority to impose an income tax.

But I also explained in the discussion that a genuine belief in federalism means that you should support the right of state and local governments to impose bad policy. I criticize states such as California and Illinois when they expand the burden of government. And I criticize local entities such as Hartford, Connecticut, and Fairfax County, Virginia, when they expand the burden of government.

But I don’t think that Washington should seek to prohibit bad policy. If some sub-national governments want to torment their citizens with excessive government, so be it.

There are limits, however, to this bad version of federalism. State and local governments should not be allowed to impose laws outside their borders. That’s why I’m opposed to the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act. And they shouldn’t seek federal handouts to subsidize bad policy, such as John Kasich’s whining for more Medicaid funding.

Moreover, a state or local government can’t trample basic constitutional freedoms, for instance. If Seattle goes overboard with its anti-gun policies, federal courts presumably (hopefully!) would strike down those infringements against the 2nd Amendment. Likewise, the same thing also would (should) happen if the local government tried to hinder free speech. Or discriminate on the basis on race.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that these are all examples of the Constitution’s anti-majoritarianism (which helps to explain why the attempted smear of James Buchanan was so misguided).

The bottom line is that I generally support the rights of state and local governments to impose bad policy, so long as they respect constitutional freedoms, don’t impose extra-territorial laws, and don’t ask for handouts.

And I closed the above interview by saying it sometimes helps to have bad examples so the rest of the nation knows what to avoid. Greece and France play that role for the industrialized world. Venezuela stands alone as a symbol of failed statism in developing world. Places like Connecticut and New Jersey are poster children for failed state policy. And now Seattle can join Detroit as a case study of what not to do at the local level.

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I spend a lot of my time fretting about how federal spending is going to become an ever-larger (and unsustainable) burden in the future.

And I periodically will write about how I wish we still had the very small federal government envisioned by the Founding Fathers (and which largely existed up until the 1920s).

But I haven’t spent that much time looking at how we got to where we are today, other than in 2015 when I cited a very interesting report from the Joint Economic Committee that provided decade-by-decade data on changes in the burden of federal spending.

But I had a chance to touch on this issue in a recent interview when asked to comment on the unfortunate milestone of a $4 trillion federal budget.

Building on that discussion, here are three charts, based on numbers from table 1.3 of OMB’s historical budget data, showing what has happened to federal outlays.

This first graph shows changes in nominal spending over time. As I pointed out in the interview, it took 200 years before the crowd in Washington got spending up to $1 trillion.

But in the past three decades, it has skyrocketed to $4 trillion.

But nominal spending numbers are not the most useful data when looking at long-run changes.

After all, we’ve had lots of inflation. Simply stated, dollars today are worth a lot less than dollars in the past.

So this second chart shows inflation-adjusted federal outlays. As you can see, we have a graph that doesn’t look quite the same. It’s much easier to see the budgetary impact of World War II, for instance, and post-war spending growth isn’t quite as dramatic.

Though it’s still significant. As I noted in the interview, the burden of inflation-adjusted federal spending has doubled since 1985.

But even inflation-adjusted data doesn’t tell the real story.

The most important numbers, at least from an economic perspective, are the ones that measure the burden of federal spending relative to the size of the private economy.

And that’s what I show in this final chart measuring federal spending as a share of economic output (gross domestic product).

Now it’s very easy to see that World War II involved a massive one-time fiscal cost. But the most important data is what happened after the war. The burden of federal outlays initially dropped to 12 percent of GDP. That’s higher than it was before the war, but at least in retrospect not a bad place to be.

Unfortunately, there’s been a gradual expansion in the economic burden of the federal budget ever since.

Though if you pay close attention to the numbers, there are some interesting secondary stories. You’ll notice that the negative upward trend was reversed during the Reagan years and we continued to make progress during the Clinton years.

Unfortunately, policy then moved in the wrong direction under Bush and Obama.

Which brings me back to where I started. As bad as the numbers are today, they are likely to get worse in the future because of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs. So unless we have genuine entitlement reform, we will become a failed welfare state.

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