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Archive for the ‘Tax Increase’ Category

I’ve argued (repeatedly) that we should abolish the Department of Transportation and allow states to make decisions on how to fund and whether to fund transportation projects.

As an interim measure to control federal spending, involvement, and intervention, I’ve explained that Congress should do nothing to increase revenues into the highway trust fund.

Supporters of centralization disagree, arguing that there would be inadequate transportation funding if the federal government doesn’t have a large – and growing – role. Most of them want a higher gas tax to finance an expansion of federal transportation spending.

I’ve never thought this claim made sense. After all, how do you magically get more roads built by sending money in a leaky budget to Washington, only to then turn around and send those funds in a leaky budget back to the states? Seems to me like that’s nothing more than a unsavory recipe for an additional layer of bureaucracy and lobbying.

Well, we now have some very powerful evidence from a report in the Washington Post that states will act – at least once they conclude that “free” money from Uncle Sam won’t be as forthcoming.

While Congress remains stalled on a long-term plan for funding highways, state lawmakers and governors aren’t waiting around. Nearly one-third of the states have approved measures this year that could collectively raise billions of dollars through higher fuel taxes, vehicle fees and bonds to repair old bridges and roads and relieve traffic congestion, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. The surge of activity means at least half of the states — from coast to coast, in both Republican and Democratic areas — now have passed transportation funding measures since 2013. And the movement may not be done yet. …The widespread focus on transportation funding comes as state officials are becoming frustrated by federal inaction in helping to repair roads and bridges described as crumbling, aging and unsafe.

By the way, I have no idea if these states are making sensible decisions. Indeed, based on what was proposed (and rejected) in Michigan, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of these initiative contain wasteful pork-barrel projects (just like when funded from DC). And my colleague Chris Edwards has poked holes in the assertion that we’re facing an infrastructure crisis.

But who cares? The beauty of federalism is that states are free to make their own decisions so long as they’re playing with their own money.

If they waste the money and make bad choices, at least the damage will be contained. And voters presumably have some ability to change the direction of policy if repeated mistakes are made.

To get a sense of how things would work at the state level with real federalism, here are some excerpts from a column in the Tampa Tribune by Karen Jaroch, a member of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit agency.

…what if you could pay less at the pump? With passage of H.R. 2716 — the Transportation Empowerment Act — this could be possible. H.R. 2716 would devolve the responsibility for our surface transportation programs (including transit) to the states by incrementally decreasing the federal gas tax over five years from 18.3 cents to 3.7 cents per gallon. That reduction would empower the states to fund and manage it — not politicians and Washington bureaucrats. The bill was filed by Florida’s U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, and cosponsored by Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, with Sen. Marco Rubio co-sponsoring the bill’s twin in the Senate.

I can understand why Florida lawmakers are especially interested in decentralization.

As you can see from this map and table, the Sunshine State is one of many that lose out because of the redistribution inherent in a centralized scheme.

The real question if why politicians in California, Texas, and Ohio aren’t also pushing for federalism.

Though it’s important to underscore that this issue shouldn’t be determined based on which states get more money or less money. It’s really about getting better decisions when states raise and spend their own money.

Particularly when compared to a very inefficient Washington-centric system, as Ms. Jaroch explains.

Well-heeled lobbyists and those in Congress who would see their power base decline are in opposition. …The feds fund roughly 30 percent of Florida’s transportation infrastructure; however, the costly regulations, red tape and strings they tack on permeate the process almost universally. As a board member of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), I’ve witnessed the agency routinely shackled by federal handcuffs that are common when accepting federal funds. H.R. 2716 would wrest control from D.C. bureaucrats and politicians in 49 other states that have never commuted on our streets and roads and instead empower state and local agencies like HART that are better positioned to make these decisions. …A new state-led process would be controlled entirely by Floridians and would be absent the horse trading and infighting between 49 other states, two houses of Congress, a president of a different party and a myriad of federal agencies.

Last but not least, state and local governments will be far less likely to engage in boondoggle spending if they can’t shift some of the cost to Uncle Sam.

P.S. While decentralization is a good first step, the ideal end point is to have more private-sector involvement in transportation.

P.P.S. If you think the federal government’s involvement is bad now, you probably don’t even want to know about some of the ideas floating around Washington for further greedy and intrusive revenue grabs.

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Defenders of Social Security often make a point of stating that the retirement system is a form of “social insurance” because people become eligible for benefits by paying into the system.

Welfare programs, by contrast, give money to people simply as a form of income redistribution.

Proponents of the status quo are right. Sort of.

Social Security is an “earned benefit.” The payroll taxes of workers are somewhat analogous to a premium payment and retirement benefits are somewhat analogous to a monthly annuity payment.

But “somewhat analogous” isn’t the same as real insurance. Money isn’t invested and set aside to pay benefits. Instead, Social Security is a pay-as-you-go program, which means the payroll taxes of current workers are paying for the benefits paid to current retirees.

If a private insurance company did the same thing, its owners would be arrested for operating a Ponzi Scheme.

But the government can get away with this kind of system because it can coerce younger workers to participate.

Or, to be more accurate, the government can get away with this approach so long as there are a sufficient number of new workers who can be forced into the program.

The problem, of course, is that the combination of longer lifespans and fewer births means that Social Security is promising far more than it can deliver.

And we’re talking real money, even by Washington standards. According to the Social Security Trustees, the cash-flow deficit over the next 75 years is approaching $40 trillion. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

So how can this mess be solved?

At the risk of over-simplifying, there are four options.

1. Do Nothing. Some politicians want to stick their heads in the sand and pretend there isn’t a problem. They argue that the “Trust Fund” can finance promised benefits until the early 2030s. But the so-called Trust Fund has nothing but IOUs, which means that benefits can only be paid by additional government borrowing. As you can imagine, that doesn’t bother most politicians since they don’t think past the next election cycle. But this red-ink approach isn’t a solution because the IOUs will run out in less than 20 years. So what happens at that point? Retirees would have their benefits automatically reduced.

2. Personal Retirement Accounts. The reform solution would allow younger workers to shift their payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts. This “funded” approach is working very well in nations such as Australia, Chile, and the Netherlands. Since there would be less payroll tax revenue going to government, there would be a “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers. But this approach would be less expensive than trying to deal with the unfunded liabilities of the current system.

3. Limit Benefits. For those that recognize the problem but don’t want genuine reform, that leaves only two other possible choices. One of those choices is to reduce benefits by modest amounts today to preempt large automatic benefit reductions when there no longer are any IOUs in the Trust Fund. Raising the retirement age would be one way of reducing outlays since people would have to spend more time working and less time collecting benefits in retirement. Another option is means-testing, which means taking away benefits from people whose income from other sources is considered too high.

4. Increase Taxes. The other option for non-reformers is to generate more tax revenue. An increase in the payroll tax rate is a commonly cited option. Politicians have already done that many times, with the payroll tax having climbed from 3 percent when the program started to 12.4 percent today. Another option would be to bust the “wage base cap” and impose the payroll tax on more income. Under current law, because the program is supposed to be analogous to private insurance, there’s a limit on how much income is taxed and a limit on how much benefits are paid. Imposing the tax on all income would break that link and turn the program into an income-redistribution scheme, but it would generate more money.

Now take a guess which of the four options is getting the most interest from Hillary Clinton?

As reported by the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton is signalling that she wants to change Social Security so it is less of a social insurance program and more akin to welfare.

At a town hall here Tuesday, she said she’d be open to a Social Security tax increase proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), her radical rival in the primary. During the 2008 campaign, Clinton had flatly rejected such an increase. Her comments this week could suggest that she has warmed to the idea, or that she is responding to a broader shift to the left among Democrats. …Clinton…described an approach similar to Sanders’s — raising taxes only on the wealthiest earners to avoid an increase for people who consider themselves upper middle class. “We do have to look at the cap, and we have to figure out whether we raise it or whether we raise it a little and then jump over and raise it more higher up,” Clinton said. …Sanders’s proposal — increasing payroll taxes, but only for the wealthiest earners — resembles the one President Obama laid out as a candidate in 2008. …At the time, Clinton opposed the idea. “I’m certainly against one of Senator Obama’s ideas, which is to lift the cap on the payroll tax,” she said in a Democratic primary debate then.

So Hillary’s original position was the do-nothing approach, but now she feels pressured to go with the class-warfare tax-hike approach.

As a side note, I think it’s noteworthy that the article acknowledges that the current “wage base cap” exists because there’s also a cap on benefits.

…the wealthy don’t pay taxes on their earnings above a certain amount each year, it’s important to keep in mind that they also don’t receive benefits on those earnings later on.

But I suspect this kind of detail doesn’t matter to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and the rest of the class-warfare crowd.

They simply want to maintain (or even expand!) the social welfare state in America. Vive la France!

For more information, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

And here’s a link to my video on why personal retirement accounts are the ideal option.

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If you took a poll of Washington’s richest and most powerful people, you would probably find more than 90 percent of them support tax increases.

At first glance, this doesn’t make sense. Why would a group of upper-income people want tax hikes? Are they self-loathing and guilt-ridden?

Perhaps, but there’s a better explanation. These are people whose lavish lifestyles are because of big government. And when government gets even bigger, they have more chances to obtain unearned wealth.

So it makes perfect sense for them to support tax increases. They may send an additional 5 percent of their income to the IRS, but their income will be 20 percent higher because of all the money sloshing around Washington.

Once you understand their motivations, it’s easy to understand why Washington insiders are so supportive of “bipartisan budget deals” and why they salivate so much for a value-added tax.

And you can also see why they’re so anxious to get a President who hasn’t signed the no-tax-hike pledge.

Which may explain why Jeremy Scott, the editor of Tax Notes, is upset that Governor Jeb Bush is now expressing opposition to tax hikes. Here’s some of what he wrote for Forbes, starting with a description of Bush’s original open-to-tax-hikes position.

Before announcing his candidacy, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he wouldn’t agree to Grover Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes, and he hinted that he would, in fact, trade $10 of spending cuts for $1 of tax increases. …he went out of his way earlier this year to talk about his flexibility on fiscal policy.

That part of Mr. Scott’s column is accurate.

I also noticed Gov. Bush’s stance at the time, albeit it caused me to worry because politicians will never impose meaningful spending restraint and reform entitlements if they think tax increases are feasible.

Anyhow, Scott then points out that Gov. Bush seems to have moved to an anti-tax hike position.

At an August 2 conference…, Bush flatly said no when asked if he would accept tax hikes as part of a budget deal. “We’ve raised taxes. What we need to be doing is entitlement reform, curbing the growth of spending, creating a high-growth scenario,” the former governor elaborated.

I’m not sure if what Bush said puts him firmly in the no-tax-hike camp, but it’s certainly true that his rhetoric has moved in the right direction.

Which doesn’t make Scott happy. And here’s where he veers from accurate reporting to sloppy and bizarre assertions.

If Jeb Bush needs to shore up his right flank on taxes, it reveals that the GOP has veered far from its positional flexibility that made the 1980s so successful for tax reform efforts. President Reagan was willing to accept tax increases as part of grand bargains on taxes and fiscal policy. …the GOP…won’t control 60 seats in the upper chamber. That means they will need at least some Democratic support. And no party will want to undertake tax reform without at least some bipartisanship. A Jeb Bush victory in 2016 seemed like the best-case scenario for people who want some kind of broad tax reform. His retreat on a willingness to compromise is a major blow to those hopes.

Wow, that’s a lot of misleading statements in a short excerpt.

Let’s correct some of Mr. Scott’s mistakes.

  1. The 1986 Tax Reform Act was revenue neutral. In other words, it was designed so that the government didn’t get any additional money. Scott is completely wrong to assert that a willingness to raise taxes is a prerequisite for tax reform.
  2. Scott is correct that Reagan acquiesced to some tax increases, but he conveniently fails to share the data showing that “grand bargains” with tax hikes invariably failed to produce good results. The only deal that led to a balanced budget was the 1997 agreement that lowered taxes.
  3. It is incorrect to assert that 60 votes are needed in the Senate to enact major fiscal legislation. Yes, the filibuster still exists, but budget rules explicitly allow “reconciliation” bills that don’t require supermajority support.
  4. A pro-tax hike candidate is only the “best-case scenario” if one thinks that voters should be tricked by using tax reform as a Trojan Horse for tax increases.

The final point is the one that really matters. To reiterate what I stated earlier, the Washington establishment is unified in its support of higher taxes for the obvious reason that more money flowing to Washington is good news for politicians, bureaucrats, consultants, lobbyists, cronyists, special interests, contractors, and other insiders.

Simply stated, a bigger government means they get richer (and they’ve been quite successful, as you can see from this depressing map).

Here’s the bottom line.

Using the term “grand bargain” also doesn’t change the fact that higher taxes will lead to weaker growth, more spending, and larger deficits.

And (mis)using the term “tax reform” doesn’t change the fact that higher taxes will lead to weaker growth, more spending, and larger deficits.

Nor does a reference to “flexibility” change the fact that higher taxes will lead to weaker growth, more spending, and larger deficits.

I could continue, but you get the point.

P.S. Let’s close by shifting to another topic. Many people express disbelief when I argue that politicians such as Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders are not socialists.

In my defense, I’m making a technical point about the economic definition of socialism, which means government ownership of the means of production. And the vast majority of American leftists don’t seem overly interested in having government steel companies, government banks, or government farms. They prefer instead to allow private ownership combined with high levels of taxation and regulation.

If you want to see a real socialist, look on the other side of the Atlantic, where the Labour Party appears poised to elect a complete loon as its leader. The U.K.-based Independent reports that Jeremy Corbyn favors “common ownership” of industry.

…the man who has set alight the leadership race says the party needs to reinstate a clear commitment to public ownership of industry in a move which would reverse one of the defining moments in Labour’s history. …Corbyn reveals that he wants to reinstate Clause Four, the hugely symbolic commitment to socialism scrapped under Tony Blair 20 years ago, in its original wording or a similar phrase that weds the Labour Party to public ownership of industry. …The old Clause Four stated that the party was committed to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”

I can’t think of any Democrats who admit to favoring similar language for their party platform.

Though I should acknowledge that we have a government-run rail company in America, a government-run postal service, a government-run retirement system, and a government-run air traffic control system, all of which would be better in the private sector. And I’m sure Obama, Sanders, and many other politicians would be opposed to privatization.

So maybe the most accurate way of describing leftist politicians in America is to say that they’re redistributionists with a side order of socialism.

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I have a very mixed view of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is an organization representing self-styled deficit hawks in Washington.

They do careful work and I always feel confident about citing their numbers.

Yet I frequently get frustrated because they seem to think that tax increases have to be part of any budget deal, regardless of the evidence that such an approach will backfire.

So when CRFB published a “Fiscal FactChecker” to debunk 16 supposed budget myths that they expect during this campaign season, I knew I’d find lots of stuff I would like…and lots of stuff I wouldn’t like.

Let’s look at what they said were myths, along with my two cents on CRFB’s analysis.

Myth #1: We Can Continue Borrowing without Consequences

Reality check: CRFB’s view is largely correct. If we leave policy on autopilot, demographic changes and poorly structured entitlement programs  will lead to an ever-rising burden of government spending, which almost surely will mean ever-rising levels of government debt (as well as ever-rising tax burdens). At some point, this will lead to serious consequences, presumably bad monetary policy (i.e., printing money to finance the budget) and/or Greek-style crisis (investors no longer buying bonds because they don’t trust the government will pay them back).

The only reason I don’t fully agree with CRFB is that we could permanently borrow without consequence if the debt grew 1 percent per year while the economy grew 3 percent per year. Unfortunately, given the “new normal” of weak growth, that’s not a realistic scenario.

Myth #2: With Deficits Falling, Our Debt Problems are Behind Us

Reality check: The folks at CRFB are right. Annual deficits have dropped to about $500 billion after peaking above $1 trillion during Obama’s first term, but that’s just the calm before the storm. As already noted, demographics and entitlements are a baked-into-the-cake recipe for a bigger burden of government and more red ink.

That being said, I think that CRFB’s focus is misplaced. They fixate on debt, which is the symptom, when they should be more concerned with reducing excessive government, which is the underlying disease.

Myth #3: There is No Harm in Waiting to Solve Our Debt Problems

Reality check: We have a spending problem. Deficits and debt are merely symptoms of that problem. But other than this chronic mistake, CRFB is right that it is far better to address our fiscal challenges sooner rather than later.

CRFB offers some good analysis of why it’s easier to solve the problem by acting quickly, but this isn’t just about math. Welfare State Wagon CartoonsIt’s also important to impose some sort of spending restraint before a majority of the voting-age population has been lured into some form of government dependency. Once you get to the point when more people are riding in the wagon than pulling the wagon (think Greece), reform becomes almost impossible.

Myth #4: Deficit Reduction is Code for Austerity, Which Will Harm the Economy

Reality check: The folks at CRFB list this as a myth, but they actually agree with the assertion, stating that deficit reduction policies “have damaged economic performance and increased unemployment.” They even seem sympathetic to “modest increases to near-term deficits by replacing short-term ‘sequester’ cuts”, which would gut this century’s biggest victory for good fiscal policy!

There are two reasons for CRFB’s confusion. First, they seem to accept the Keynesian argument about bigger government and red ink boosting growth, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary. Second, they fail to distinguish between good austerity and bad austerity. If austerity means higher taxes, as has been the case so often in Europe, then it is unambiguously bad for growth. But if it means spending restraint (or even actual spending cuts), then it is clearly good for growth. There may be some short-term disruption since resources don’t instantaneously get reallocated, but the long-term benefits are enormous because labor and capital are used more productively in the private economy.

Myth #5: Tax Cuts Pay For Themselves

Reality check: I agree with the folks at CRFB. As a general rule, tax cuts will reduce government revenue, even after measuring possible pro-growth effects that lead to higher levels of taxable income.

But it’s also important to recognize that not all tax cuts are created equal. Some tax cuts have very large “supply-side” effects, particularly once the economy has a chance to adjust in response to better policy. So a lower capital gains tax or a repeal of the death tax, to cite a couple of examples, might increase revenue in the long run. And we definitely saw a huge response when Reagan lowered top tax rates in the 1980s. But other tax cuts, such as expanded child credits, presumably generate almost no pro-growth effects because there’s no change in the relative price of productive behavior.

Myth #6: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Taxing the Top 1%

Reality check: The CRFB report correctly points out that confiscatory tax rates on upper-income taxpayers would backfire for the simple reason that rich people would simply choose to earn and report less income. And they didn’t even include the indirect economic damage (and reductions in taxable income) caused by less saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Ironically, the CRFB folks seem to recognize that tax rates beyond a certain level would result in less revenue for government. Which implies, of course, that it is possible (notwithstanding what they said in Myth #5) for some tax cuts to pay for themselves.

Myth #7: We Can Lower Tax Rates by Closing a Few Egregious Loopholes

Reality check: It depends on the definition of “egregious.” In the CRFB report, they equate “egregious” with “unpopular” in order to justify their argument.

But if we define “egregious” to mean “economically foolish and misguided,” then there are lots of preferences in the tax code that could – and should – be abolished in order to finance much lower tax rates. Including the healthcare exclusion, the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable giving deduction, and (especially) the deduction for state and local taxes.

Myth #8: Any Tax Increases Will Cripple Economic Growth

Reality check: The CRFB folks are right. A small tax increase obviously won’t “cripple” economic growth. Indeed, it’s even possible that a tax increase might lead to more growth if it was combined with pro-growth policies in other areas. Heck, that’s exactly what happened during the Clinton years. But now let’s inject some reality into the conversation. Any non-trivial tax increase on productive behavior will have some negative impact on economic performance and competitiveness. The evidence is overwhelming that higher tax rates hurt growth and the evidence is also overwhelming that more double taxation will harm the economy.

The CRFB report suggests that the harm of tax hikes could be offset by the supposed pro-growth impact of a lower budget deficit, but the evidence for that proposition if very shaky. Moreover, there’s a substantial amount of real-world data showing that tax increases worsen fiscal balance. Simply stated, tax hikes don’t augment spending restraint, they undermine spending restraint. Which may be why the only “bipartisan” budget deal that actually led to a balanced budget was the one that lowered taxes instead of raising them.

Myth #9: Medicare and Social Security Are Earned Benefits and Should Not Be Touched

Reality check: CRFB is completely correct on this one. The theory of age-related “social insurance” programs such as Medicare and Social Security is that people pay into the programs while young and then get benefits when they are old. This is why they are called “earned benefits.”

The problem is that politicians don’t like asking people to pay and they do like giving people benefits, so the programs are poorly designed. The average Medicare recipient, for instance, costs taxpayers $3 for every $1 that recipient paid into the program. Social Security isn’t that lopsided, but the program desperately needs reform because of demographic change. But the reforms shouldn’t be driven solely by budget considerations, which could lead to trapping people in poorly designed entitlement schemes. We need genuine structural reform.

Myth #10: Repealing “Obamacare” Will Fix the Debt

Reality check: Obamacare is a very costly piece of legislation that increased the burden of government spending and made the tax system more onerous. Repealing the law would dramatically improve fiscal policy.

But CRFB, because of the aforementioned misplaced fixation on red ink, doesn’t have a big problem with Obamacare because the increase in taxes and the increase in spending are roughly equivalent. So the organization is technically correct that repealing the law won’t “fix the debt.” But it would help address America’s real fiscal problem, which is a bloated and costly public sector.

Myth #11: The Health Care Cost Problem is Solved

Reality check: CRFB’s analysis is correct, though it would have been nice to see some discussion of how third-party payer is the problem.

Myth #12: Social Security’s Shortfall Can be Closed Simply by Raising Taxes on or Means-Testing Benefits for the Wealthy

Reality check: To their credit, CRFB is basically arguing against President Obama’s scheme to impose Social Security payroll taxes on all labor income, which would turn the program from a social-insurance system into a pure income-redistribution scheme.

On paper, such a system actually could eliminate the vast majority of Social Security’s giant unfunded liability. In reality, this would mean a huge increase in marginal tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners, which would have a serious adverse economic impact.

Myth #13: We Can Solve Our Debt Situation by Cutting Waste, Fraud, Abuse, Earmarks, and/or Foreign Aid

Reality check: Earmarks (which have been substantially curtailed already) and foreign aid are a relatively small share of the budget, so CRFB is right that getting rid of that spending won’t have a big impact. But what about the larger question. Could our fiscal mess (which is a spending problem, not a “debt situation”) be fixed by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse?

It depends on how one defines “waste, fraud, and abuse.” If one uses a very narrow definition, such as technical malfeasance, then waste, fraud, and abuse might “only” amount to a couple of hundred billions dollars per year. But from an economic perspective (i.e., grossly inefficient misallocation of resources), then entire federal departments such as HUD, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, etc, should be classified as waste, fraud, and abuse.

Myth #14: We Can Grow Our Way Out of Debt

Reality check: CRFB is correct that faster growth won’t solve all of our fiscal problems. Unless one makes an untenable assumption that economic growth will be faster than the projected growth of entitlement spending. And even that kind of heroic assumption would be untenable since faster growth generally obligates the government to pay higher benefits in the future.

Myth #15: A Balanced Budget Amendment is All We Need to Fix the Debt

Reality check: CRFB accurately explains that a BBA is simply an obstacle to additional debt. Politicians still would be obliged to change laws to fulfill that requirement. But that analysis misses the point. A BBA focuses on red ink, whereas the real problem is that government is too big and growing too fast. State balanced-budget requirement haven’t stopped states like California and Illinois from serious fiscal imbalances and eroding competitiveness. The so-called Maastricht anti-deficit and anti-debt rules in the European Union haven’t stopped nations such as France and Greece from fiscal chaos.

This is why the real solution is to have some sort of enforceable cap on government spending. That approach has worked well in jurisdictions such as Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado. And even research from the IMF (a bureaucracy that shares CRFB’s misplaced fixation on debt) has concluded that expenditure limits are the only effective fiscal rules.

Myth #16: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Cutting Welfare Spending

Reality check: The federal government is spending about $1 trillion this year on means-tested (i.e., anti-poverty) programs, which is about one-fourth of total outlays, so getting Washington out of the business of income redistribution would substantially lower the burden of federal spending (somewhat offset, to be sure, by increases in state and local spending). And for those who fixate on red ink, that would turn today’s $500 billion deficit into a $500 billion surplus.

That being said, there would still be a big long-run problem caused by other federal programs, most notably Social Security and Medicare. So CRFB is correct in that dealing with welfare-related spending doesn’t fully solve the long-run problem, regardless of whether you focus on the problem of spending or the symptom of borrowing.

This has been a lengthy post, so let’s have a very simple summary.

We know that modest spending restraint can quickly balance the budget.

We also know lots of nations that have made rapid progress with modest amounts of spending restraint.

And we know that the tax-hike option simply leads to more spending.

So the only question to answer is why the CRFB crowd can’t put two and two together and get four?

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When giving speeches outside the beltway, I sometimes urge people to be patient with Washington. Yes, we need fundamental tax reform and genuine entitlement reform, but there’s no way Congress can make those changes with Obama in the White House.

But there are some areas whether progress is possible, and people should be angry with politicians if they deliberately choose to make bad decisions.

For instance, the corrupt Export-Import Bank has expired and there’s nothing that Obama can do to restore this odious example of corporate welfare. It will only climb from the grave if Republicans on Capitol Hill decide that campaign cash from big corporations is more important than free markets.

Another example of a guaranteed victory – assuming Republicans don’t fumble the ball at the goal line – is that there’s no longer enough gas-tax revenue coming into the Highway Trust Fund to finance big, bloated, and pork-filled transportation spending bills. So if the GOP-controlled Congress simply does nothing, the federal government’s improper and excessive involvement in this sector will shrink.

Unfortunately, Republicans have no desire to achieve victory on this issue. It’s not that there’s a risk of them fumbling the ball on the goal line. By looking for ways to generate more revenue for the Trust Fund, they’re moving the ball in the other direction and trying to help the other team score a touchdown!

The good news is that Republicans backed away from awful proposals to increase the federal gas tax.

But the bad news is that they’re coming up with other ideas to transfer more of our income to Washington. Here’s a look at some of the revenue-generating schemes in the Senate transportation bill.

Since the House and Senate haven’t agreed on how to proceed, it’s unclear which – if any – of these proposals will be implemented.

But one thing that is clear is that the greed for more federal transportation spending is tempting Republicans into giving more power to the IRS.

Republicans and Democrats alike are looking to the IRS as they try to pass a highway bill by the end of the month. Approving stricter tax compliance measure is one of the few areas of agreement between the House and the Senate when it comes to paying for an extension of transportation funding. …the Senate and House are considering policy changes for the IRS ahead of the July 31 transportation deadline. …With little exception, the Senate bill uses the same provisions that were in a five-month, $8 billion extension the House passed earlier this month. The House highway bill, which would fund programs through mid-December, gets about 60 percent of its funding from tax compliance measures. …it’s…something of a shift for Republicans to trust the IRS enough to back the new tax compliance measures. House Republicans opposed similar proposals during a 2014 debate over highway funding, both because they didn’t want to give the IRS extra authority and because they wanted to hold the line on using new revenues to pay for additional spending.

Gee, isn’t it swell that Republicans have “grown in office” since last year.

But this isn’t just an issue of GOPers deciding that the DC cesspool is actually a hot tub. Part of the problem is the way Congress operates.

Simply stated, the congressional committee system generally encourages bad decisions. If you want to understand why there’s no push to scale back the role of the federal government in transportation, just look at the role of the committees in the House and Senate that are involved with the issue.

Both the authorizing committees (the ones that set the policy) and the appropriating committees (the ones that spend the money) are among the biggest advocates of generating more revenue in order to enable continued federal government involvement in transportation.

Why? For the simple reason that allocating transportation dollars is how the members of these committees raise campaign cash and buy votes. As such, it’s safe to assume that politicians don’t get on those committees with the goal of scaling back federal subsidies for the transportation sector.

And this isn’t unique to the committees that deal with transportation.

It’s also a safe bet that politicians that gravitate to the agriculture committees have a strong interest in maintaining the unseemly system of handouts and subsidies that line the pockets of Big Ag. The same is true for politicians that seek out committee slots dealing with NASA. Or foreign aid. Or military bases.

The bottom line is that even politicians who generally have sound views are most likely to make bad decisions on issues that are related to their committee assignments.

So what’s the solution?

Well, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a shift to random and/or rotating committee assignments, so the only real hope is to have some sort of overall cap on spending so that the various committees have to fight with each other over a (hopefully) shrinking pool of funds.

That’s why the Gramm-Rudman law in the 1980s was a step in the right direction. And it’s why the spending caps in today’s Budget Control Act also are a good idea.

Most important, it’s why we should have a limit on all spending, such as what’s imposed by the so-called Debt Brake in Switzerland.

Heck, even the crowd at the IMF has felt compelled to admit spending caps are the only effective fiscal tool.

Maybe, just maybe, a firm and enforceable spending cap will lead politicians in Washington to finally get the federal government out of areas such as transportation (and housing, agriculture, education, etc) where it doesn’t belong.

One can always hope.

In the meantime, since we’re on the topic of transportation decentralization, here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing how gas taxes vary by states.

This data is useful (for instance, it shows why drivers in New York and Pennsylvania should fill up their tanks in New Jersey), but doesn’t necessarily tell us which states have the best transportation policy.

Are the gas taxes used for roads, or is some of the money siphoned off for boondoggle mass transit projects? Do the states have Project Labor Agreements and other policies that line the pockets of unions and cause needlessly high costs? Is there innovation and flexibility for greater private sector involvement in construction, maintenance, and operation?

But this is what’s good about federalism and why decentralization is so important. The states should be the laboratories of democracy. And when they have genuine responsibility for an issue, it then becomes easier to see which ones are doing a good job.

So yet another reason to shut down the Department of Transportation.

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What’s the best way to generate growth and prosperity for the developing world?

Looking at the incredible economic rise of jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore, it’s easy to answer that question. Simply put in place the rule of law, accompanied by free markets and small government.

But that answer, while unquestionably accurate, would mean less power and control for politicians and bureaucrats.

So you probably won’t be surprised to learn that when politicians and bureaucrats recently met to discuss this question, they decided that development could be best achieved with a policy of higher taxes and bigger government.

I’m not joking.

Reuters has a report on a new cartel-like agreement among governments to extract more money from the economy’s productive sector. Here are some key passages from the story.

Rich and poor countries agreed on Thursday to overhaul global finance for development, unlocking money for an ambitious agenda… The United Nations announced the deal on its website… Development experts estimate that it will cost over $3 trillion each year to finance the 17 new development goals… Central to the agreement is a framework for countries to generate more domestic tax revenues in order to finance their development agenda… Under the agreement, the UN Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters will be strengthened, the press release said.

Though there’s not total agreement within this crooks’ cartel. There’s a fight over which international bureaucracy will have the biggest role. Should it be the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is perceived as representing the interests of revenue-hungry politicians from the developed world?

Or should it be the United Nations, which is perceived as representing the interests of revenue-hungry politicians from the developing world?

Think of this battle as being somewhat akin to the fight between various socialist sects (Mensheviks, Trotskyites, Stalinists, etc) as the Soviet Union came to power.

Bloomberg has a story on this squabble.

Responsibility for tax standards should be moved to the UN from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group of 34 rich countries, according to a position paper endorsed by 142 civil-society groups. …Tove Maria Ryding from the European Network on Debt and Development, [said] “Our global tax decision-making system is anything but democratic, excluding more than half of the world’s nations.”

I’m tempted to laugh about the notion that there’s anything remotely democratic about either the UN or OECD. Both international organizations are filled with unelected (and tax-free) bureaucrats.

But more importantly, it’s bad news for either organization to have any power over the global economy. Both bureaucracies want to replace tax competition with tax harmonization, precisely because of a desire to enable big expansion is the size and power of governments.

This greed for more revenue already has produced some bad policies, including an incredibly risky scheme to collect and share private financial information, as well as a global pact that could be the genesis of a world tax organization.

And there are more troubling developments.

Here are some excerpts from another Bloomberg report.

Step aside, Doctors Without Borders. …A team called Tax Inspectors Without Borders will be…established next week by the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. …Tax Inspectors Without Borders would take on projects or audits either by flying in to hold workshops…or embedding themselves full time in a tax agency for several months… “There is a lot of enthusiasm from developing countries” for this initiative, said John Christensen, the U.K.-based director of the nonprofit Tax Justice Network.

Gee, what a surprise. Politicians and bureaucrats have “a lot of enthusiasm” for policies that will increase their power and money.

But at the risk of repeating myself, the more serious point to make is that bigger government in the developing world is not a recipe for economic development.

The western world became rich when government was very small. As noted above, Hong Kong and Singapore more recently became rich with small government.

But can anyone name a country that became rich with big government?

I’ve posed that question over and over again to my leftist friends and they never have a good answer.

If we want the third world to converge with rich nations, they need to follow the policies that enabled rich nations to become rich in the first place.

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Explaining why statists are wrong about policy is a necessary part of what I do, but it sometimes can get a bit predictable. So I’ve decided to periodically pick fights with people who generally are on the right side.

By the way, I’m definitely not talking about Republicans, who oftentimes are among the most worst people in Washington.

I’m talking about friendly fights with other policy wonks.

My first friendly fight featured my complaints about an anti-flat tax column by Reihan Salam of National Review, mostly because I think he got some economic analysis wrong even though I largely agreed with his political analysis.

My second friendly fight featured my grousing about the fiscal plan put forth by the American Enterprise Institute, which openly proposed that the tax burden should increase to enable a larger burden of government spending.

Time for a third fight. My former Cato colleague Jerry Taylor is now head of the Niskanen Center. He wrote a paper in March making “The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax.” Here’s some of what he wrote.

…conservatives should say “yes” to a revenue-neutral carbon tax …so long as the tax displaces EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and eliminates a host of tax preferences provided to green energy producers. If federal and state governments are going to act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, better that they do so at the least economic cost possible. A carbon tax…promises to do that by leaving the decision about where, when, and how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to market actors (via price signals) rather than to regulators (via administrative orders). A carbon tax would also produce revenue that can be used to provide offsetting tax cuts. …Suggestions have been made to use those revenues to offset cuts in the corporate income tax, the capital gain s tax, personal income taxes, payroll taxes, and sales taxes. If the carbon tax is less economically harmful than the tax it displaces, a revenue neutral carbon tax is worth embracing even if we leave aside the environmental benefits. …Morris calculates that her carbon tax would bring in about $88 billion in the first year,rising to $200 billion a year after 20 years

Everything Jerry wrote is theoretically reasonable, particularly since he is proposing a carbon tax as a replacement for counterproductive regulation and he also says the tax revenue can be used to lower other tax burdens.

But theoretically reasonable is not the same as practical policy or good policy. What if politicians pull a bait and switch, imposing a carbon tax but then not following through on the deal?

Jerry addresses these concerns.

Many conservatives resist carbon taxes because they believe that increases in federal revenues will increase the size of government. But virtually every proposed carbon tax put on the political table includes offsetting tax cuts to ensure revenue neutrality. Revenue neutral carbon taxes will not increase the size of the federal treasury. …The true definition of government’s size is not how many dollars the treasury extracts from the economy. It is best measured by how many resources are reallocated as a consequence of government. To the extent that carbon taxes are more efficient than command-and-control regulation at achieving the aims of greenhouse gas emission constraint, a carbon tax would serve to decrease the size of government relative to the status quo.

Those are fair points, and I particularly agree that fiscal policy is an incomplete measure of the burden of government.

So Jerry is right that a particular regulation might be more damaging that a particular tax.

Jerry continues to address concerns on the right about a carbon tax.

Many conservatives have argued that no matter how compelling the case for a carbon tax might be, it will be rendered intolerable by the time it emerges from the legislature. Politics, not economics, will dictate the tax rate. Exceptions and favors for politically popular industries will litter the code. And despite promises to the contrary, the inefficient regulations will never die. Economist Tom Tietenberg of Colby College examined the literature pertaining to the 15 major pollution tax and fee programs instituted worldwide and found that while concerns about the translating economic theory into political practice are not baseless, they are overstated.

I find Jerry to be less persuasive on this front. I’m not sure foreign evidence tells us much, in part because almost all other nations have parliamentary forms of government where the party in power, by definition, exercises both executive and legislative control in a system of strong party discipline.

Our separation-of-powers system, by contrast, necessarily requires consensus among Senators, Representatives, and the White House, further complicated by the necessity of moving legislation through committees. All of this results in the kinds of compromises and horse trading that can take clean theoretical concepts and turn them into Byzantine reality.

Heck, just consider the internal revenue code, which has become a nightmare of complexity.

But that’s not my main concern with Jerry’s proposed carbon tax.

My real objection is that I have zero trust that Washington won’t use the new tax as a tool for expanding the size and cost of government.

This isn’t just idle speculation or misplaced paranoia. The crowd in Washington is salivating for a new source of revenue. The Wall Street Journal opines on this development, citing the soon-to-be leader of Senate Democrats.

Chuck Schumer is…already planning for 2017…predicting that the political class might join hands and pass a carbon tax. “…many of our Republican friends will say we’ve been starving the government for revenues,” Mr. Schumer told an environmental event on Capitol Hill according to the Politico website, “but many of them will not be for raising [income tax] rates.” So Republicans and Democrats will both be hunting for revenues and “you might get a compromise” over a new carbon tax, he added.

The editors at the WSJ are not sold on this idea, to put it mildly.

It’s amusing that Sen. Schumer thinks a federal government that spends nearly $4 trillion and 21% of national output a year is “starving” for anything. …Our view of a carbon tax is that it might be acceptable as part of a tax reform that eliminated—entirely—some current revenue source such as the payroll or corporate income tax. But we don’t expect to live long enough to see that day. A slippery compromise would trade a new carbon tax for a reduction in some tax rates, but the politicians would soon return to raising those rates again. The U.S. would be left with the current tax burden plus the new carbon tax—and a permanently larger government.

The folks at the WSJ hit the nail on the head. More spending is the most realistic outcome if politicians get a new tax, whether it’s an energy tax, a value-added tax, a wealth tax, or a financial transactions tax.

And Jerry actually confirms my fears. Just yesterday, he posted some comments on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial, and what he wrote perfectly captures why advocates of smaller government are so resistant to a carbon tax.

He went from advocating a revenue-neutral (and regulation-eliminating) carbon tax in March to now saying it’s okay to have a net increase in the tax burden!

…there is a very strong, conservative case for doing exactly what Sen. Schumer proposed this week (if the revenues are used to reduce the deficit, as Sen. Schumer implied, rather than to fund more spending).

And keep in mind that Sen. Schumer doubtlessly intends to spend every penny (and more) that is generated by this new tax, so the real-world outcome would be even worse.

By the way, Jerry then ventures into the world of fiscal policy, asserting that there’s no hope of fiscal restraint and that Republicans should simply figure out ways to increase the tax burden.

This may be unpopular with Republicans at the moment, but sooner or later, bills must be paid. And there’s no chance whatsoever that those bills are going to be paid by savings gained from budget cuts alone. If a carbon tax is not going to provide the necessary revenues, then what do Republicans propose as a source of revenue in its stead?

Wow, there’s a lot wrong in those three sentences.

But I’ll just focus on a few points.

But you don’t have to believe me. Just read what leftists have said they want to do with the money from a new energy tax.

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