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Archive for the ‘Tax Reform’ Category

In the world of tax policy, big-picture issues such as tax reform can capture the public’s attention (should we junk the IRS, instance, and adopt a flat tax?).

People also get very interested if politicians are threatening to grab more of their money.

But many tax issues are tedious and boring, even if they involve important issues.

Today, we’re going to discuss another one of the sleep-inducing tax issues – how to account for business losses.

This arcane issues has been attracting a bit of attention because the big coronavirus-driven emergency package included some changes to the tax treatment of such losses (making it easier to reduce overall tax liabilities by balancing losses in some years with profits in other years).

That upset two left-leaning members of Congress, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who editorialized in USA Today about the changes.

…tucked into its 880 pages were Republican-inserted tax provisions…that..allow certain investors…to cut their tax bills by shifting losses to prior tax years. …Large corporations were also authorized to convert losses from two years before the pandemic into immediate tax refunds. Businesses with losses when the economy was growing are rewarded for poor management or adverse market conditions that had absolutely nothing to do with the pandemic. …let’s reverse the damage. We are offering legislation to unwind this massive tax giveaway, to recover the lost revenues… Giant special interest tax breaks were not needed before and certainly have no place during a pandemic.

Is this right? Did a handful of GOP politicians insert a special favor for their friends in the business community?

For what it’s worth, I’m sure the answer to both questions is yes. Politicians are a very self-interested group and I’m sure there were dozens of provisions in the legislation that qualified for that type of criticism.

I’m interested, however, in whether the provisions moved policy in the right direction or the wrong direction.

Kyle Pomerleau with the American Enterprise Institute explains why the changes were desirable.

The liberalized treatment of losses is not a bailout and does not provide special treatment of certain industries. Loss deductions are an essential part of a well-functioning income tax. Businesses typically make multi-year investments. Those investments may lose money in some years make money in other years. The ability to either carry back losses to offset previous years’ taxes or carry forward losses to offset future taxes ensures that the tax system accurately measures income. Without loss deductions, a tax system would be biased against risky investment. …In the future, lawmakers should consider permanently liberalizing the treatment of losses.

Nicole Kaeding made similar arguments for the National Taxpayers Union.

The provision at hand, a loosening of net operating loss rules, isn’t cronyism. Instead, it reflects Congress’s priority of helping affected individuals and businesses weather our economic crisis by smoothing out “lumpy” tax burdens over time. Net operating losses (NOLs) are key features of the tax code. Tax years, calendar years, and business profitability don’t always align. Net operating loss provisions help smooth profits and losses across tax years to ensure that businesses are taxed on their economic income, not an accounting byproduct. …many have argued that it made little sense for Congress to revise loss rules for 2018 and 2019, when the virus wasn’t a consideration. In the abstract, that concern makes sense but policymakers were concerned about providing immediate liquidity to firms. A 2020 NOL doesn’t help a firm until they file their 2020 tax return in 2021. But allowing carrybacks for 2018 or 2019 allows firms to access capital quickly by amending their previous returns and claiming a refund.

For what it’s worth, I addressed this topic back in 2016 because it became a controversy in that year’s presidential campaign.

I didn’t pretend to know whether Trump was doing the right thing or wrong thing with his tax returns, but I made the argument that a fair and neutral tax system should have carry-forward rules.

Indeed, the business side of the flat tax expressly includes such provisions.

For what it’s worth, households used to have the option for “income-averaging,” which basically meant they could lower their overall tax rate by spreading a spike in income over several years.

A difference between households and businesses, though, is that businesses can suffer losses, while the worst thing that happens to a household is when income drops to zero.

The bottom line is that income averaging for people would be a helpful provision in the tax code, but carry-forward rules for businesses are a necessary provision.

P.S. That last sentence assumes goal is a tax system that is designed to extract money while imposing the smallest-possible amount of damage on economic efficiency.

At the risk of stating the obvious, a simple and fair tax system is not the goal of most politicians. In public, they prefer using the tax code as a tool for class-war demagoguery, and in private, they use it as a vehicle for auctioning off special provisions to their cronies.

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I’ve written dozens of columns explaining why it would be a terrible idea for the United States to enact a value-added tax.

But that’s not because I think consumption taxes are worse than income taxes. Indeed, sales taxes and VATs are less destructive because tax rates tend to be reasonable and there’s no double taxation of saving and investment.

My opposition is solely based on the fact that we shouldn’t give politicians an extra source of revenue to finance bigger government. That would effectively guarantee that the United States would morph into a stagnant European-style welfare state.

In other words, I’d be willing to accept a trade. Politicians get a VAT, but only if they permanently abolish the income tax.

There’s no chance of that happening in Washington, but it may happen in Nebraska, as reported by the North Platte Telegraph.

If Nebraskans can’t agree on reform…, state Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard has a sweeping answer: …Income and property taxes in Nebraska would be abolished — and the state sales tax replaced by a “consumption tax” to fund state and local governments — if a constitutional amendment spearheaded by Erdman were approved by lawmakers and voters. …It would need “yes” votes from 30 of the 49 senators on final reading to appear on November’s general election ballot. …Nebraska’s state and local governments now collect a combined $9.5 billion annually in taxes, which would require a 10% consumption tax rate to replace, Erdman said. …If income and property taxes go away, Erdman said, all the state and local departments or agencies that enforce, set and collect them wouldn’t be needed, either.

Here’s some additional coverage from KETV.

Imagine not having to pay any property or income taxes in Nebraska, but there’s a catch you’d pay a new consumption tax on just about everything you buy, such as food and medical services, things that are not taxed right now. That is the idea behind a new constitutional resolution introduced by state Sen. Steve Erdman. …He and nine other lawmakers introduced LR300CA on Thursday. The resolution would allow voters to decide whether to replace all those taxes with a consumption tax. It is like a sales tax and would be about 10.6% on everything, including services and food. …He said under this proposal, everyone would get a payment called a prebate of about $1,000, which would offset the cost for low-income families. Erdman said it would also eliminate the need for property tax relief and the state having to offer costly tax incentives to attract businesses. “This is fixing the whole issue, everything. This is eliminating all those taxes and replacing it with a fair tax,” Erdman said. “Nothing is exempt,” Erdman said.

I have no idea if this proposal has any chance of getting approval by the legislature, but Senator Erdman’s proposal for a broad-based neutral tax (i.e., no exemptions) would make Nebraska more competitive.

Which would be a good idea considering that the state is only ranked #28 according to the Tax Foundation and is way down at #44 according to Freedom in the 50 States.

In one fell swoop, Nebraska would join the list of states that have no income tax, which is even better than the states that have flat taxes.

P.S. The switch to a consumption tax would address the revenue side of the fiscal equation. Nebraska should also fix the spending side by copying its neighbors in Colorado and adopting a TABOR-style spending cap.

P.P.S. Unlike advocates of the value-added tax, proponents of a national sales tax support full repeal of the income tax. I don’t think that’s realistic since it’s so difficult to amend the Constitution, but their hearts are in the right place.

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The Trump tax plan, which was signed into law right before Christmas in 2017, had two very good features.

The former was important because the federal tax code was subsidizing high tax burdens in states such as New Jersey, Illinois, and California.

The latter was important because the United States, with a 35 percent corporate rate, had the highest tax burden on businesses among developed nations.

The 21 percent rate we have today doesn’t make us a low-tax nation, but at least the U.S. corporate tax burden is now near the world average.

There were many other provisions in the Trump tax plan, most of which moved tax policy in the right direction.

Now that a couple of years have passed, what’s been the net effect?

In a column for today’s Wall Street Journal, former Trump officials Gary Cohn and Kevin Hassett make the case that the tax plan has produced good results.

…the tax cut reduced the cost of installing new plant and machinery by about 10%, suggesting that capital spending would jump by the same amount. This would increase the amount of capital per worker and drive up productivity and wages. …This predicted increase in capital has materialized, and has translated into additional economic growth. …Capital spending was 4.5% higher in 2018 than pre-TCJA blue-chip forecasts, and this trend continued in 2019. This extra capital improved productivity and wages… Over the past year, nominal wages for the lowest 10% of American workers jumped 7%. The growth rate for those without a high-school diploma was 9%. …when President Obama hiked marginal tax rates, …labor-force participation dropping 0.7% after the tax increase for workers 35 to 44, but dropping 1.5% for workers over 55. After passage of the TCJA, the opposite pattern emerged, with labor-force participation for those between 35 and 44 increasing 0.4%, and labor-force participation for those over 55 increasing 1.3%. … Before Mr. Trump took office in January 2017, the Congressional Budget Office forecast the creation of only two million jobs by this point. The economy has in fact created seven million jobs since January 2017. …the U.S. is the only Group of Seven country that will post growth above 2% this year.

And the White House has been publicizing some positive numbers.

Such as an increase in investment.

I suppose one can argue that the Blue Chip consensus forecast was wrong and that the Trump tax plan had no effect, but that seems like an after-the-fact rationalization.

The White House also has been touting an increase in prime-age labor force participation.

These are impressive numbers. I’ve argued, for instance, that the employment/population ratio may now be a more important variable than the unemployment rate.

Regardless, the best numbers I’ve seen aren’t from the White House.

Andy Puzder recently shared this chart showing that workers in low-wage industries (the blue line) are enjoying the biggest gains.

I want everyone’s wages to increase, which is why I’m a big supporter of reforms that boost investment and productivity.

But I especially applaud when those reforms increase wages for those with modest incomes.

I’ll close with three caveats.

  1. Because Trump has been very weak on the issue of government spending, it’s quite likely that his tax cuts eventually will be repealed or offset by other tax increases.
  2. Trump obviously was talking nonsense when he claimed his tax plan would produce annual growth of 4 percent or higher. That being said, even more-modest increases in growth are very desirable.
  3. Trump’s tax increases on trade are bad for prosperity and therefore are offsetting some of the benefits of his tax reductions on corporate and household income.

The bottom line is that Trump has made tax policy better (or less worse), but always remember that tax policy is just one piece of a large puzzle when looking at economic policy.

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Whenever I review a tax proposal, I automatically check whether it is consistent with the “Holy Trinity” of good policy.

  1. Low marginal tax rates on productive activity such as work and entrepreneurship.
  2. No tax bias (i.e., extra layers of tax) penalizing saving and investment.
  3. No complicating preferences and loopholes that encourage inefficient economic choices.

A good proposal satisfies one of these three principles. A great proposals satisfies all of them.

And that’s a good way of introducing today’s topic, which is about whether we should replace “depreciation” with “expensing.” Or, for those who aren’t familiar with technical tax terminology, this issue revolves around whether there should be a tax penalty on new investment.

Erica York of the Tax Foundation has a nice summary of the issue.

While tax rates matter to businesses, so too does the measure of income to which those tax rates apply. The corporate income tax is a tax on profits, normally defined as revenue minus costs. However, under the current tax code, businesses are unable to deduct the full cost of certain expenses—their capital investments—meaning the tax code is not neutral and actually increases the cost of investment. …Typically, when businesses incur capital investment costs, they must deduct them over several years according to preset depreciation schedules, instead of deducting them immediately in the year the investment occurs. …the delay in taking deductions means the present value of the write-offs (adjusted for inflation and the time value of money) is smaller than the original cost. …The delay effectively shifts the tax burden forward in time as businesses face a higher tax burden today because they cannot fully deduct their costs, and it decreases the after-tax return on the investment. …Ultimately, this means that the corporate income tax is biased against investment in capital assets to the extent that it makes the investor wait years or decades to claim the cost of machines, equipment, or factories on their tax returns.

Here’s a visual depiction of how the current system works.

The key thing to understand is that businesses are forced to overstate their income, which basically means a higher tax rate on actual income (thus violating principle #1).

Back in 2017, Adam Michel and Salim Furth wrote about this topic for the Heritage Foundation.

Here is their main argument.

The current system gives companies a partial deduction for each dollar invested in the economy. The real value of the deduction depends on the vagaries of the tax code, future inflation, and the company’s cost of borrowing. The classification of investments by type and the somewhat arbitrary assignment of the number of years over which each investment must be written off are called depreciation schedules. The imperfect design of these schedules creates unequal tax rates on investment across industries. …Adopting full expensing would reduce effective tax rates everywhere, but especially in industries disfavored under the current system. The result would be more economically efficient: The tax code would no longer be steering investment to arbitrarily favored industries. …Expensing lowers the cost of capital investments. …Both the U.S. capital stock and the demand for labor to operate and service the new investments would be permanently larger. A larger capital stock and higher labor demand would increase the number of jobs and place upward pressure on wages.

A key takeaway is that the tax bias created by the current system is a penalty on new investment (thus violating principle #2).

And the current approach of depreciation also is incredibly complicated (thus violating principle #3).

Expensing can also significantly cut compliance costs. According to IRS research, business tax compliance costs are over $100 billion per year, representing a massive waste of money and effort. Other estimates place the cost of complying with depreciation schedules alone at over $23 billion annually, or 448 million hours each year. Considering that the total compliance cost for traditional C corporations is equal to 14 percent of their taxes paid, expensing could make major inroads toward simplifying business taxpaying and lowering compliance costs.

Unsurprisingly, some politicians are on the wrong side.

Not only are they against a neutral system based on expensing, Erica York explains that they want to make the current system even more biased against new investment.

…proposals to stretch deductions over longer periods of time, such as those from Senators Warren (D-MA) and Sanders (I-VT)…would increase the cost of capital, bias the tax code against investment, and lead to less capital accumulation and lower productivity, output, and wages.

Yes, I know readers are shocked to learn that “Crazy Bernie” and “Looney Liz” want to make a bad situation even worse.

Returning to the policy discussion, the fight over depreciation vs. expensing also matters for national competitiveness.

In another study for the Tax Foundation, Amir El-Sibaie looks at how the U.S. compares to other developed nations.

Currently, the U.S. tax code only allows businesses to recover an average of 67.7 percent of a capital investment (e.g., an investment in buildings, machinery, intangibles, etc.). This is slightly higher than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) average capital allowance of 67.2 percent. …Since 1979, overall treatment of capital assets has worsened in the U.S., dropping from an average capital allowance of 75.8 percent in the 1980s to an average capital allowance of 67.7 percent in 2018. Capital allowances across the OECD have also declined, but by a lesser extent over the same period: 72.4 percent in the 1980s to 67.2 percent in 2018. …The countries with the best average treatment of capital assets are Estonia (100 percent), Latvia (100 percent), and Slovakia (78.2 percent). Countries with the worst treatment of capital assets are Chile (41.7 percent), the United Kingdom (45.7 percent), and Spain (54.5 percent).

The bad news is that the United States is much worse than Estonia (the gold standard for neutral business taxation).

The good news is that we’re not in last place. Here’s a comparison of the United States to the average of other developed nations.

By the way, there are folks in the United Kingdom who want to improve that nation’s next-to-last score.

Here are some excerpts from a column in CapX by Eamonn Ives.

…successive governments have…cut the headline rate of corporation tax. …That said, some of the positive effects of the cuts to corporation tax were blunted by changes to the tax code which allow businesses to write off the cost of capital expenditure… Typically, corporate tax systems let firms deduct day to day expenses – like labour and materials – right away. However, the cost of longer-term investments – such as those in machinery and industrial premises – can only be deducted in a piecemeal manner, over a set period of time. …this creates a problem for businesses, because the more a tax deduction for capital investment is spread out, the less valuable it becomes to a firm. This is not only because of inflationary effects, but also due to what economists would call the time value of money… Thankfully, however, a solution is at hand to iron out this peculiarity. ‘Full expensing’ allows firms to immediately and entirely deduct the cost of any investment they undertake from their corporation tax bill.

He cites some of the research on the topic.

A 2017 study, from Eric Ohrn, found that in parts of America, full expensing has increased investment by 17.5%, and has increased wages by 2.5%. Employment also rose, by 7.7% after five years, as did production, by 10.5%. If the same results were replicated in the UK, the average worker could stand to earn a staggering additional £700 a year. Another academic study, this time from the UK itself, found that access to more generous capital allowances for small and medium sized enterprises which were offered prior to fiscal year 2008/09 increased the investment rate by 11%.

Let’s conclude.

When I discuss this issue, I usually start by asking an audience for a definition of profit.

That part is easy. Everyone agrees that profit is the difference between cost and revenue.

To show why depreciation should be replaced by expensing, I then use the very simple example of a lemonade stand.

In the start-up year for this hypothetical lemonade stand, our entrepreneur has total costs of $25 (investment costs for the actual stand and operating costs for the lemons) and total revenue of $30. I then explain the different tax implications of expensing and depreciation.

As you can see, our budding entrepreneur faces a much higher tax burden when forced to depreciate the cost of the lemonade stand.

For all intents and purposes, depreciation mandates that businesses overstate profits.

This is unfair. And it’s also bad economic policy because some people will respond to these perverse incentives by deciding not to invest or be entrepreneurial.

To be fair, businesses eventually are allowed to deduct the full cost of investments. But this process can take as long as 39 years.

Here’s another comparison, which shows the difference over time between expensing and a five-year deprecation schedule. I’ve also made it more realistic by showing a loss in the first year.

In both examples, our entrepreneur’s five-year tax bill is $3.

But the timing of the tax matters, both because of inflation and the “time value” of money. That’s why, in a good system, there should only be a tax when there’s an actual profit.

Needless to say, good tax reform plans such as the flat tax are based on expensing rather than depreciation.

P.S. This principle applies even if businesses are investing in private jets.

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In my libertarian fantasies, we dramatically shrink the size of the federal government and return to pre-1913 policy by getting rid of the income tax.

But if I’m forced to be at least vaguely realistic, the second-best option is scrapping the current tax code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax based on the “Holy Trinity” of good policy.

The third-best option (i.e., the best we can hope for in the real world) is to adopt incremental reforms that move the tax code in the right direction.

That happened in 2017. I’ve written many times about why it was a very good idea to reduce the tax rate on corporate income. And I’ve also lauded the 2017 law’s limitation on the state and local tax deduction.

Today, let’s focus on the changes in that law that reduced the tax preference for residential real estate.

The housing lobby (especially builders and realtors) tried to scare lawmakers that any reduction in their privileged tax status would cause a large amount of damage.

Yet, as reported last year by the New York Times, there was no adverse effect in the first year of the new tax law.

It wasn’t supposed to take long for the Trump tax cuts to hobble housing prices… Nearly nine months later, those warnings have not materialized. …Economists see only faint effects from the new law so far in housing data. They’re small, and they’re contained to a few high-priced, highly taxed ZIP codes, largely in blue states. They’re nothing close to the carnage that real estate groups warned about when the law was under debate last fall. …the tax law has unquestionably diminished the value of several federal subsidies for homeowners. It limits deductions for state and local taxes, including property taxes, to $10,000 per household, which hurts owners of expensive homes in high-tax states. It lowers the cap on the mortgage interest deduction, which raises housing prices by allowing homeowners to write off the interest payments from their loans, to $750,000 for new loans, down from $1 million.

To the extent the impact could even be measured, it was a net plus for the economy.

After the law passed, ZIP codes in the Boston area saw a 0.6 percentage point slowdown in home appreciation on the Massachusetts side — and a 0.1 percent acceleration on the New Hampshire side. The effect there is “not huge, it’s small,”… Experts say several forces are helping to counteract the diminished federal home-buying subsidies. …said Kevin Hassett, “…if you’re getting a lot of income growth, the income growth increases the demand for housing, and the mortgage interest deduction reduces it. And the effects offset.”

This chart from the story is particularly persuasive. If anything, it appears housing values rose faster after the law was changed (though presumably due to bad policies such as building restrictions and zoning laws, not just the faster growth caused by a a shift in tax policy).

There’s also no negative effect one year later. A report from today’s New York Times finds that the hysterical predictions of the housing lobby haven’t materialized.

Even though the tax preference was significantly reduced.

The mortgage-interest deduction, a beloved tax break bound tightly to the American dream of homeownership, once seemed politically invincible. Then it nearly vanished in middle-class neighborhoods across the country, and it appears that hardly anyone noticed. …The 2017 law nearly doubled the standard deduction — to $24,000 for a couple filing jointly — on federal income taxes, giving millions of households an incentive to stop claiming itemized deductions. As a result, far fewer families — and, in particular, far fewer middle-class families — are claiming the itemized deduction for mortgage interest. In 2018, about one in five taxpayers claimed the deduction, Internal Revenue Service statistics show. This year, that number fell to less than one in 10. The benefit, as it remains, is largely for high earners, and more limited than it once was: The 2017 law capped the maximum value of new mortgage debt eligible for the deduction at $750,000, down from $1 million.

Once again, the evidence shows good news.

…housing professionals, home buyers and sellers — and detailed statistics about the housing market — show no signs that the drop in the use of the tax break is weighing on prices or activity. …Such reactions challenge a longstanding American political consensus. For decades, the mortgage-interest deduction has been alternately hailed as a linchpin of support for homeownership (by the real estate industry)…. most economists on the left and the right…argued that the mortgage-interest deduction violated every rule of good policymaking. It was regressive, benefiting wealthy families… Studies repeatedly found that the deduction actually reduced ownership rates by helping to inflate home prices, making homes less affordable to first-time buyers. …In the debate over the tax law in 2017, the industry warned that the legislation could cause house prices to fall 10 percent or more in some parts of the country. …Places where a large share of middle-class taxpayers took the mortgage-interest deduction, for example, have not seen any meaningful difference in price increases from less-affected areas.

Incidentally, here’s a chart from the story. It shows that the rich have always been the biggest beneficiaries of the tax preference.

And now the deduction that remains is even more skewed toward upper-income households.

As far as I’m concerned, the tax code shouldn’t punish people simply because they earn a lot of money.

But neither should it give them special goodies.

For what it’s worth, the mortgage interest deduction is not a left-vs-right or statism-vs-libertarian issue.

I’ve crossed swords on a few occasions with Bill Gale of the Brooking Institute, but his column a few months ago in the Wall Street Journal wisely calls for full repeal of this tax preference.

With any luck, the 2017 tax overhaul will prove to be only the first step toward eventually replacing the century-old housing subsidy… This is a welcome change. The mortgage-interest deduction has existed since the income tax was created in 1913, but it has never been easy to justify. …Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have no mortgage-debt subsidies, yet their homeownership rates are slightly higher than in the U.S. A large reduction in the mortgage-interest deduction in Denmark in 1987 had virtually no effect on homeownership rates. …The next step should be to eliminate the deduction altogether. The phaseout should be gradual but complete.

Here’s another example.

Nobody would ever accuse the folks at Slate of being market friendly, so this article is another sign that there’s a consensus against using the tax code to tilt the playing field in favor of residential real estate.

One of the most remarkable things about the tax bill Republicans passed last year was how it took a rotary saw to the mortgage interest deduction. The benefit for homeowners was once considered a politically untouchable upper-middle-class entitlement, but the GOP aggressively curtailed it in order to pay for cuts elsewhere in the tax code. …just 13.8 million households will subtract mortgage interest from their 2018 returns, down from 32.3 million in 2017. …if Democrats ever get a chance to kill off the vestigial remains of the mortgage interest deduction down the line, they might as well. …any negative effect of the tax law seems to have been drowned out by a healthy economy.

I’ll close by digging into the archives at the Heritage Foundation and dusting off one of my studies from 1996.

Analyzing the flat tax and home values, I pointed out that rising levels of personal income were the key to a strong housing market, not the value of the tax deduction.

Everything that’s happened over the past 23 years – and especially the past two years – confirms my analysis.

Simply stated, economic growth is how we get more good things in society. That’s true for housing, as explained above, and it’s also true for charitable giving.

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The crown jewel of the 2017 tax plan was the lower corporate tax rate.

I appeared on CNBC yesterday to debate that reform, squaring off against Jason Furman, who served as Chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Here are a couple of observations on our discussion.

  • Jason Furman thinks it would be crazy to raise the corporate tax rate back to 35 percent. Yes, he wants to rate to be higher, but rational folks on the left know it would be very misguided to fully undo that part of the tax plan. That signifies a permanent victory.
  • Based on his comments about expensing and interest deductibility, he also seems to have a sensible view on properly and neutrally defining corporate income. These are boring and technical issues, but they have very important economic implications.
  • Critics say the lower corporate rate is responsible for big increases in red ink, but it’s noteworthy that the corporate rate was reduced by 40 percent and revenue is down by only 8.7 percent (a possible Laffer-Curve effect?). Here’s the relevant chart from the latest Monthly Budget Report from the Congressional Budget Office.

  • There’s a multi-factor recipe that determines prosperity, so it’s extremely unlikely that any specific reform will have a giant effect on growth, but even a small, sustained uptick in growth can be hugely beneficial for a nation.
  • There’s a big difference between a pro-market Democrat like Bill Clinton and some of the extreme statists currently seeking the Democratic nomination (just like there’s a big difference between Ronald Reagan and some of today’s big-government Republicans).
  • I close the discussion by explaining why “double taxation” is a profound problem with the current tax code. For all intents and purposes, we are punishing the savers and investors who generate future growth.

P.S. This wasn’t addressed in the interview, but I can’t resist pointing out that overall revenues for the current fiscal year have increased 2.2 percent, which is faster than needed to keep pace with inflation. So why has the deficit increased? Because spending has jumped by 5.8 percent. We have a spending problem in America, not a deficit problem. Fortunately, there’s a very practical solution.

P.P.S. It also wasn’t mentioned, but the other crown jewel of tax reform was the restriction on the state and local tax deduction.

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Welcome Instapundit readers! Thanks, Glenn

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Earlier today at the Friedman Conference in Australia, I spoke on the proper design of a tax system.

My goal was to explain the problem of double taxation.

I’ve repeatedly shared a flowchart to illustrate the pervasive double taxation in the current system (my example is for the United States, but many other nations make the same mistake).

And to help explain why this is economically misguided, I developed a (hopefully) compelling visual based on how to harvest apples.

But I’ve always wondered if I was presenting the information in an accessible and understandable manner. So for today’s presentation, I decided to experiment with some different visuals.

Here’s how I illustrated the current system.

As you can see, there are several additional layers of tax on people who save and invest their after-tax income.

And I explained to the crowd that this is very foolish since every economic theory agrees that saving and investment are key to long-run growth.

Even socialism. Even Marxism. (Socialists and Marxists are foolish to think government can be in charge of allocating capital, but at least they realize that future growth requires saving and investment.)

In other words, you don’t achieve good tax policy solely by having a low tax rate.

Yes, that’

s important, but genuine tax reform also means no bias against saving and investment.

Here’s another visual. This one shows the difference between the current system and the flat tax. As you can see, all the added layers of tax on saving and investment are jettisoned under true tax reform.

By the way, there are some people who prefer a national sales tax over a flat tax.

I question the political viability of that approach, but I’ve always defended the sales tax.

Why? Because it’s conceptually identical to the flat tax.

As you can see from this next visual, the difference between the two systems is that the flat tax grabs a bit of money when income is earned and the sales tax grabs a bit of money when income is spent (either today or in the future).

Remember, the goal is to eliminate the bias against saving and investing.

To economists who specialize in public finance, this is known as shifting to a “consumption base” system.

But I’ve never liked that language. What really happens under true tax reform is that we tax income, but using the right definition.

The current system, by contrast, is known as a “comprehensive income tax” with a “Haig-Simons” tax base. But that simply means a system that taxes some forms of income over and over again.

Time for one final point.

Some people like a value-added tax because it avoids the problem of double taxation.

That’s certainly true.

But this final visual shows that adding a VAT to the current system doesn’t solve the problem. All that happens is that politicians have a new source of revenue to expand the welfare state.

If a VAT was used to replace the current tax system, that might be a very worthwhile approach.

But that’s about as likely as me playing the outfield later this year for the New York Yankees.

P.S. The VAT visual is overly simplified and it sidesteps the logistical issue of whether politicians would go for a credit-invoice VAT or a subtraction-method VAT. But the visual is correct in terms of how a VAT would interact with the current system.

P.P.S. All you need to know about the VAT is that Reagan was against it and Nixon was for it.

 

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I recently appeared on CNBC to talk about everyone’s favorite government agency, those warm and cuddly folks at the IRS.

Our tax system is a dysfunctional mess, but you’ll notice that I mostly blamed politicians. After all, they are the ones who have unceasingly made the internal revenue code more complex, starting on that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was approved.

But I don’t want to give the IRS a free pass.

I’ve cited IRS incompetence and misbehavior in the past, most notably when discussing political bias, targeted harassment, and other shenanigans.

And, as illustrated by these five examples, we can always cite new evidence.

Such as lack of accountability.

…a new report from the Cause of Action Institute reveals that the IRS has been evading numerous oversight mechanisms, and it refuses to comply with laws requiring it to measure the economic impact of its rules. Congress has passed several laws, including the Regulatory Flexibility Act and the Congressional Review Act, that require agencies to report on their rules’ economic impact to lawmakers and the public. …These good-government measures are meant to ensure unelected bureaucrats can be checked by the public. …the IRS has made up a series of exemptions that allow it to avoid basic scrutiny. The agency takes the position that its rules have no economic effect because any impact is attributable to the underlying law that authorized the rule.

Such as inefficiency.

Private debt collectors cost the Internal Revenue Service $20 million in the last fiscal year, but brought in only $6.7 million in back taxes, the agency’s taxpayer advocate reported Wednesday. That was less than 1 percent of the amount assigned for collection. What’s more, private contractors in some cases were paid 25 percent commissions on collections that the I.R.S. made without their help…the report stated, “the I.R.S. has implemented the program in a manner that causes excessive financial harm to taxpayers and constitutes an end run around taxpayer rights protections.”

Such as rewarding scandal.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued more than $1.7 million in awards in fiscal 2016 and early fiscal 2017 to employees who had been disciplined by the agency, a Treasury Department watchdog said. “Some of these employees had serious misconduct, such as unauthorized access to tax return information, substance abuse and sexual misconduct,” the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) said in a report made public this week. …in fiscal 2016 and early fiscal 2017, the IRS had given awards to nearly 2,000 employees who were disciplined in the 12 months prior to receiving the bonus.

By the way, the IRS has a pattern of rewarding bad behavior.

Such as pursuing bad policy.

…for 35 years the Internal Revenue Service has exempted itself from the most basic regulatory oversight. …Tax regulations (like all regulations) have exploded in recent decades, and of course IRS bureaucrats impose their own policy judgments. The IRS has in recent years unilaterally decided when and how to enforce ObamaCare tax provisions, often dependent on political winds. In 2016 it proposed a rule to force more business owners to pay estate and gift taxes via a complicated new reading of the law. …Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s Treasury…department is inexplicably backing IRS lawlessness with a string of excuses.

Again, this is not the first time the IRS has interfered with congressional policy.

Such as stifling political speech.

The Internal Revenue Service infamously targeted dissenters during President Obama’s re-election campaign. Now the IRS is at it again. Earlier this year it issued a rule suppressing huge swaths of First Amendment protected speech. …The innocuously named Revenue Procedure 2018-5 contains a well-hidden provision enabling the Service to withhold tax-exempt status from organizations seeking to improve “business conditions . . . relating to an activity involving controlled substances…” The rule does not apply to all speech dealing with the listed substances, only that involving an “improvement” in “business conditions,” such as legalization or deregulation. …This is constitutionally pernicious viewpoint discrimination.

In other words, the bureaucrats didn’t learn from the Lois Lerner scandal.

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced people that I’m not going soft on IRS malfeasance, let’s look at the budgetary issue that was the focus of the CNBC interview.

Is the IRS budget too small? Should it be increased so that more agents can conduct more audits and extract more money?

Both the host and my fellow guest started from the assumption that the IRS budget has been gutted. But that relies on cherry-picked data, starting when the IRS budget was at a peak level in 2011 thanks in part to all the money sloshing around Washington following Obama’s failed stimulus legislation.

Here are the more relevant numbers, taken from lines 2564-2609 of this massive database in the OMB’s supplemental materials on the budget. As you can see, IRS spending – adjusted for inflation – has nearly doubled since the early 1980s.

In other words, we shouldn’t feel sorry for the IRS and give it more money.

To augment these numbers, I made two simple points in the above interview.

  • First, we should demand more efficiency from the bureaucracy.
  • Second, we should reform the tax code to eliminate complexity.

The latter point is especially important because we could dramatically improve compliance while also shrinking the IRS if we had a simple and fair system such as the flat tax.

Last but not least, here’s a clip from another recent interview. I explained that the recent shutdown will be used as an excuse for any problems that occur in the near future.

Standard operating procedure for any bureaucracy.

P.S. My archive of IRS humor features a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a Reason video, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a collection of IRS jokes, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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Since I’m a proponent of tax reform, I don’t like special favors in the tax code.

Deductions, exemptions, credits, exclusions, and other preferences are back-door forms of cronyism and government intervention.

Indeed, they basically exist to lure people into making decisions that otherwise aren’t economically rational.

These distortionary provisions help to explain why we have a hopelessly convoluted and deeply corrupt tax code of more than 75,000 pages.

And they also encourage higher tax rates as greedy politicians seek alternative sources of revenue.

This current debate over “tax extenders” is a sad illustration of why the system is such a mess.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy explains how special interests work the system.

Tax extenders are temporary and narrowly targeted tax provisions for individuals and businesses. Examples include the deductibility of mortgage-insurance premiums and tax credits for coal produced from reserves owned by Native American tribes. …These tax provisions were last authorized as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which retroactively extended them through the end of 2017, after which they have thus far been left to remain expired. If Congress indeed takes up extenders during the current lame-duck session, any extended provisions are likely to once again apply retroactively through the end of 2018, or perhaps longer. There are several problems with this approach to tax policy. Frequently allowing tax provisions to expire before retroactively reauthorizing them creates uncertainty that undermines any potential benefits from incentivizing particular behaviors.

To make matters more complicated, a few of the extenders are good policy because they seek to limit double taxation (a pervasive problem in the U.S. tax system).

…not all tax extenders are a problem. Some are meant to avoid or limit the double taxation of income that’s common in our tax code. Those extenders should be preserved. Yet others are straightforward giveaways to special interests. Those should be eliminated.

Veronique suggests a sensible approach.

It’s time for a new approach under which tax extenders are evaluated and debated on their individual merits. The emphasis should be on eliminating special-interest handouts or provisions that otherwise represent bad policy. Conversely, any and all worthy provisions should be made permanent features of the tax code. …The dire need to fix the federal budget, along with the dysfunctional effects from extenders, should provide the additional motivation needed to end this practice once and for all.

Needless to say, Washington is very resistant to sensible policies.

In part, that’s for the typical “public choice” reasons (i.e., special interests getting into bed with politicians to manipulate the system).

But the debate over extenders is even sleazier than that.

As Howard Gleckman explained for Forbes, lobbyists, politicians, and other insiders relish temporary provisions because they offer more than one bite at the shakedown apple.

If you are a lobbyist, this history represents scalps on your belt (and client fees in your pocket). If you are a member of Congress, it is the gift that keeps on giving—countless Washington reps and their clients attending endless fundraisers, all filling your campaign coffers, election after election. An indelible image: It is pre-dawn in September, 1986. House and Senate tax writers have just completed their work on the Tax Reform Act.  A lobbyist friend sits forlornly in the corner of the majestic Ways & Means Committee hearing room. “What’s wrong,” I naively ask, “Did you lose some stuff?” Oh no, he replies, he got three client amendments in the bill. And that was the problem. After years of billable hours, his gravy train had abruptly derailed. The client got what it wanted. Permanently. And it no longer needed him. Few make that mistake now. Lawmakers, staffs, and lobbyists have figured out how to keep milking the cash cow. There are now five dozen temporary provisions, all of which need to be renewed every few years. To add to the drama, Congress often lets them expire so it can step in at the last minute to retroactively resurrect the seemingly lifeless subsidies.

In other words, the temporary nature of extenders is a feature, not a bug.

This is a perfect (albeit depressing) example of how the federal government is largely a racket. It enriches insiders (as I noted a few days ago) and the rest of us bear the cost.

All of which reinforces my wish that we could rip up the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax. Not only would we get more growth, we would eliminate a major avenue for D.C. corruption.

P.S. I focused today on the perverse process, but I can’t help but single out the special tax break for electric vehicles, which unquestionably is one of the most egregious tax extenders.

EV tax credits…subsidize the wealthy at the expense of the lower and middle classes. Recent research by Dr. Wayne Winegarden of the Pacific Research Institute shows that 79 percent of EV tax credits were claimed by households with adjusted gross incomes greater than $100,000. Asking struggling Americans to subsidize the lifestyles of America’s wealthiest is perverse… Voters also shouldn’t be fooled by the promise of large environmental benefits. Modern internal combustion engines emit very little pollution compared to older models. Electric vehicles are also only as clean as the electricity that powers them, which in the United States primarily comes from fossil fuels.

I was hoping that provisions such as the EV tax credit would get wiped out as part of tax reform. Alas, it survived.

I don’t like when politicians mistreat rich people, but I get far more upset when they do things that impose disproportionate costs on poor people. This is one of the reasons I especially dislike government flood insuranceSocial Security, government-run lotteries, the Export-Import Bank, the mortgage interest deduction, or the National Endowment for the Arts. Let’s add the EV tax credit to this shameful list.

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There are three reasons why the right kind of tax reform can help the economy grow faster.

  1. Lower tax rates give people more incentive to earn income.
  2. Less double taxation boosts incentives to save and invest.
  3. Fewer loopholes improves incentives for economic efficiency.

Let’s focus on the third item. I don’t like special preferences in the tax code because it’s bad for growth when the tax code lures people into misallocating their labor and capital. Ethanol, for instance, shows how irrational decisions are subsidized by the IRS.

Moreover, I’d rather have smart and capable people in the private sector focusing how to create wealth instead of spending their time figuring out how to manipulate the internal revenue code.

That’s why, in my semi-dream world, I’d like to see a flat tax.* Not only would there be a low rate and no double taxation, but there also would be no distortions.

But in the real world, I’m happy to make partial progress.

That’s why I was happy that last year’s tax bill produced a $10,000 cap for the state and local tax deduction and reduced the value of other write-offs by increasing the standard deduction. Yes, I’d like to wipe out the deductions for home mortgage interest, charitable giving, and state and local taxes, but a limit is better than nothing.

And I’m also happy that lower tax rates are an indirect way of reducing the value of loopholes and other preferences.

To understand the indirect benefits of low tax rates, consider this new report from the Washington Post. Unsurprisingly, we’re discovering that a less onerous death tax means less demand for clever tax lawyers.

A single aging rich person would often hire more than a dozen people — accountants, estate administrators, insurance agents, bank attorneys, financial planners, stockbrokers — to make sure they paid as little as possible in taxes when they died. But David W. Klasing, an estate tax attorney in Orange County, Calif., said he’s seen a sharp drop in these kinds of cases. The steady erosion of the federal estate tax, shrunk again by the Republican tax law last fall, has dramatically reduced the number of Americans who have to worry about the estate tax — as well as work for those who get paid to worry about it for them, Klasing said. In 2002, about 100,000 Americans filed estate tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service, according to the IRS. In 2018, only 5,000 taxpayers are expected to file these returns… “You had almost every single tax professional trying to grab as much of that pot as they could,” Klasing said. “Now almost everybody has had to find other work.”

Needless to say, I’m delighted that these people are having to “find other work.”

By the way, I’m not against these people. They were working to protect families from an odious form of double taxation, which was a noble endeavor.

I’m simply stating that I’m glad there’s less need for their services.

Charles “Skip” Fox, president of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, said he frequently hears of lawyers shifting their focus away from navigating the estate tax, and adds that there has been a downturn in the number of young attorneys going into the estate tax field. Jennifer Bird-Pollan, who teaches the estate tax to law students at the University of Kentucky, said that nearly a decade ago her classes were packed with dozens of students. Now, only a handful of students every so often may be interested in the subject or pursuing it as a career. “There’s about as much interest in [the class] law and literature,” Pollan said. “The very, very wealthy are still hiring estate tax lawyers, but basically people are no longer paying $1,000 an hour for advice about this stuff. They don’t need it.”

Though I am glad one lawyer is losing business.

Stacey Schlitz, a tax attorney in Nashville, said when she got out of law school about a decade ago roughly 80 percent of her clients were seeking help with their estate taxes. Now, less than 1 percent are, she said, adding that Tennessee’s state inheritance tax was eliminated by 2016. “It is disappointing that this area of my business dried up so that such a small segment of society could get even richer,” Schlitz said in an email.

I hope every rich person in Nashville sees this story and steers clear of Ms. Schlitz, who apparently wants her clients to be victimized by government.

Now let’s shift to the business side of the tax code and consider another example showing why lower tax rates produce more sensible behavior.

Now that the corporate tax rate has been reduced, American companies no longer have as much desire to invest in Ireland.

US investment in Ireland declined by €45bn ($51bn) in 2017, in another sign that sweeping tax reforms introduced by US president Donald Trump have impacted the decisions of American multinational companies. …Economists have been warning that…Trump’s overhaul of the US tax code, which aimed to reduce the use of foreign low-tax jurisdictions by US companies, would dent inward investment in Ireland. …In November 2017, Trump went so far as to single out Ireland, saying it was one of several countries that corporations used to offshore profits. “For too long our tax code has incentivised companies to leave our country in search of lower tax rates. It happens—many, many companies. They’re going to Ireland. They’re going all over,” he said.

Incidentally, I’m a qualified fan of Ireland’s low corporate rate. Indeed, I hope Irish lawmakers lower the rate in response to the change in American law.

And I’d like to see the US rate fall even further since it’s still too high compared to other nations.

Heck, it would be wonderful to see tax competition produce a virtuous cycle of rate reductions all over the world.

But that’s a topic I’ve addressed before.

Today’s lesson is simply that lower tax rates reduce incentives to engage in tax planning. I’ll close with simple thought experiment showing the difference between a punitive tax system and reasonable tax system.

  • 60 percent tax rate – If you do nothing, you only get to keep 40 cents of every additional dollar you earn. But if you find some sort of deduction, exemption, or exclusion, you increase your take-home pay by an additional 60 cents. That’s a good deal even if the tax preference loses 30 cents of economic value.
  • 20 percent tax rate – If you do nothing, you get to keep 80 cents of every dollar you earn. With that reasonable rate, you may not even care about seeking out deductions, exemptions, and exclusions. And if you do look for a tax preference, you certainly won’t pick one where you lose anything close to 20 cents of economic value.

The bottom line is that lower tax rates are a “two-fer.” They directly help economic growth by increasing incentives to earn income and they indirectly help economic growth by reducing incentives to engage in inefficient tax planning.

*My semi-dream world is a flat tax. My dream world is when the federal government is so small (as America’s Founders envisioned) that there’s no need for any broad-based tax.

P.S. It’s not the focus of today’s column, but since I talked about loopholes, it’s worth pointing out that they should be properly defined. Sadly, that simple task is too challenging for the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office (or even the Republican party).

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Politicians who preach class warfare repeatedly assert that we need higher taxes on “the rich.”

Indeed, that’s been the biggest political issue (and oftentimes biggest economic issue) in every recent tax fight (the Trump tax reform and Obama’s fiscal cliff), as well as the issue that generates the most controversy when discussing tax reform.

So it seems almost inconceivable that the class-warfare crowd would support a change to the tax code that would only benefit the top-10 percent, right?

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening in the fight over the deduction for state and local taxes.

Democrats want to restore an unlimited deduction, thereby enabling people to shield more of their income from tax. But, as the Tax Foundation notes, that change only produces benefits for upper-income taxpayers.

Itemized deductions such as the SALT deduction are mostly utilized by higher-income individuals. As such, any change to the SALT deduction will chiefly impact them. In addition, the value of a deduction increases as a taxpayer’s statutory tax rate increases. A deduction against the top rate of 37 percent is more valuable than a deduction against the 32 percent tax rate. We estimate that eliminating the SALT deduction cap would have no impact on taxpayers in the bottom two income quintiles and a negligible impact on taxpayers in the third and fourth quintiles. …However, taxpayers in the top 5 and 1 percent of income earners would see an increase in after-tax income of 1.6 percent and 3.7 percent respectively.

And if restoring the deduction is “paid for” by raising the corporate tax rate, the net effect is to raise taxes on the bottom-90 percent in order to give a tax to top-10 percent.

Or, to be more precise, to give a tax cut to the top-1 percent.

Some of you may be thinking that the Tax Foundation leans right and therefore can’t be trusted.

So let’s look at some research from the Tax Policy Center, which is a joint project of the left-leaning Urban Institute and left-leaning Brookings Institution.

Only about 9 percent of households would benefit from repeal of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s (TCJA) $10,000 cap on the state and local property tax (SALT) deduction, and more than 96 percent of the tax cut would go to the highest-income 20 percent of households… For all middle-income taxpayers, the average tax cut would be $10. Those in the top 1 percent would pay an average of $31,000, or 2 percent of after-tax income, less.

And here’s the TPC chart showing how almost all the tax relief goes to upper-income taxpayers.

So what’s going on? Why are Democrats fighting for an idea that would give the rich a $31,000 tax cut while only providing $10 of relief for middle-class taxpayers?!?

The simple answer is that they think the loophole is a very valuable way of facilitating higher taxes and bigger government at the state and local level. And they’re right, so I don’t blame them.

But it’s nonetheless very revealing that they are willing to jettison their tax-the-rich rhetoric when it interferes with their make-government-bigger agenda.

P.S. This “SALT” debate strikes me as being similar to the Laffer-Curve debate, which requires folks on the left to choose whether it’s more important to punish rich people or to get more revenue to spend.

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Earlier this month, I talked about the economy’s positive job numbers. I said the data is unambiguously good, but warned that protectionism and wasteful spending will offset some of the good news from last year’s tax reform.

This is what’s frustrating about the Trump presidency.

Good policies in some areas are being offset by bad policies in other areas, so it’s not easy assigning an overall grade.

And it’s also difficult to predict the effect on economic performance. If you look at the formula for a prosperous economy, there’s no way of predicting whether Trump is a net positive or a net negative. At least in my humble opinion.

As such, I’ll be very curious to see what happens to America’s score in subsequent issues of Economic Freedom of the World.

It would be nice if the United States got back into the Top 10. For what it’s worth, I’m guessing America’s score won’t measurably improve.

That being said, if there was a pro-con debate on Trump’s performance, some people would be quite confident about declaring victory.

Mike Solon, a former budget staffer on Capitol Hill, offers the “pro” assessment in the Wall Street Journal.

Are low taxes key to a booming economy? Their success is harder than ever to deny after Friday’s report that the U.S. economy grew 4.1% in the second quarter, bringing the average quarterly growth rate during the Trump presidency to 2.9%. …In the first five quarters of the Trump presidency, growth has been almost 40% higher than the average rate during the Obama years, and per capita growth in gross domestic product has been 63% faster. …The CBO now projects that additional revenue from this economic surge will offset 88.2% of the estimated 10-year cost of the tax cut. …The CBO’s April revision projected an extra $6.1 trillion in GDP over the next decade—more than $18,000 of growth for every man, woman and child in America. …the Labor Department reports that worker bonuses have hit the highest level ever recorded. The Commerce Department reports that wages and salaries are growing almost 25% faster under President Trump than under Mr. Obama.

Since I have great confidence that lower tax rates are good for growth and that Laffer Curve-type feedback effects are real, I want to applaud what Mike wrote.

And since I’ve also dissed the idea of “secular stagnation,” I also like this part of his column.

Perhaps the most important narrative discredited by the economic revival is the “secular stagnation” excuse. Throughout the Obama years, progressive economists said Americans had become too old, lazy and complacent to achieve the growth that was regular before 2009. But somehow American workers overcame all of these supposed weaknesses when Mr. Trump changed federal policy. The problem was not our people but our government. Stagnation is not fate but a political choice.

Amen to that final sentence. Stagnation is the result of bad policy.

But my problem is that Trump has some bad policies that are offsetting his good tax reform. So I can’t help but think Mike is being too optimistic.

Let’s look at another perspective. It would be an exaggeration to state that Jimmy Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute is in the “con” camp, but he definitely is skeptical.

GOP hot takes will come as fast and furious as the economic growth. “The tax cuts worked!” “Trumponomics rocks!” …Celebrating a stronger economy is not a bad thing, of course. Over the long run, sustainable economic growth is what generates higher living standards and greater social mobility. But drawing sweeping conclusions from a single three-month period is problematic…it doesn’t necessarily tell you a whole lot about where the economy is heading. There were eight quarters of 3 percent growth or faster scattered across the Obama presidency, including four of 4 percent or faster and one of 5.2 percent. But there was never much follow-through, and overall the expansion muddled through at roughly a 2 percent annual pace. …even a very strong report won’t tell us whether the Trump tax cuts, passed in December, are “working.” It’s just too soon. …that process will play out over a numbers of years.

This is a very sensible perspective. I’ve repeatedly warned not to overstate the importance of short-run data. And I also fully agree that there’s often a time lag between the adoption of good policy and the evidence of good results.

But I have the same complaint about the Pethokoukis column as I did about the Solon column. There’s a sin of omission because both focused on the tax reform.

As I noted above, we also need to consider the other policies that have changed in the last 18 months.

I don’t know the answer, but maybe this image will illustrate why we should hesitate before making sweeping assessments.

And also keep in mind that we have no way of knowing whether there’s a Fed-created bubble in the economy. As I said in the interview, what if 2018 is akin to 2006? Back then, most people underestimated the possibility that easy money and Fannie-Freddie subsidies had created an unsustainable housing boom.

But even if we ignore that wild card, I can’t help but wonder whether Trump’s pro-growth polices and Trump’s anti-growth policies are resulting in a wash.

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Guided by the principles of a simple and fair flat tax, I’ve been toiling for decades in the vineyard of tax reform. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, I usually feel like Don Quixote, engaged in a futile quest. Convincing politicians to reduce their power is not an easy task, after all.

But it is possible to make incremental progress. I’ve argued, ad nauseam, about the need to lower the corporate tax rate and the benefits of ending the state and local tax deduction, and we actually took big steps in the right direction last year.

Indeed, while the final legislation was far from perfect, it was certainly better than I expected.

But there’s no such thing as a permanent victory in Washington. The debate has now shifted from “is the tax plan a good idea?” to “is the tax plan working?” And that was the focus of my recent CNBC debate with Austan Goolsbee, the former Chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Interestingly, Austan and I agreed on several issues.

At the risk of digressing, I should have mentioned that Trump’s corporate rate cut, while a big step in the right direction, should be viewed as a first step. As illustrated by this chart, the overall US corporate rate is still higher than the average for other advanced nations.

Let’s now get back to the interview. Goolsbee and I didn’t agree on everything.

  • Austan is fixated on class warfare, which I think is very bad economics because it means high marginal tax rates and/or a heavier tax bias against saving and investment.
  • He also frets about deficits, which is rather ironic since he didn’t seem to worry about red ink when Obama was pushing his failed stimulus scheme. In any event, I pointed out that there is no long-run tax cut.

Last but not least, here are some additional points from the interview

  • I repeatedly expressed concern that good tax policy won’t be very sustainable unless politicians restrain the excessive growth of government spending, both in the short run and long run.
  • I also pointed out that the restriction on the state and local tax deduction will help the national economy if it deters some big states from raising taxes (though that reform certainly isn’t slowing down the big spenders in New Jersey).
  • Even small differences in economic growth, if sustained over time, can make a big difference in living standards.
  • We should be worried that Trump will sabotage his tax cut with protectionism.

The bottom line is that last year’s tax plan resulted in a less-destructive tax code. That doesn’t guarantee fast growth since we also have to look at other policies, but it will help.

P.S. I indirectly tangled with Goolsbee in about taxes in 2010 and about spending in 2012.

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Better economic performance is the most important reason to adopt pro-growth reforms such as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

Even small increases in economic growth – especially if sustained over time – can translate into meaningful improvements in living standards.

But there are several reasons why it won’t be easy to “prove” that last year’s tax reform boosted the economy.

And there are probably other factors to mention as well.

The takeaway is that the nation will enjoy good results from the 2017 tax changes, but I fully expect that the class-warfare crowd will claim that any good news is for reasons other than tax reform. And if there isn’t good news, they’ll assert this is evidence against “supply-side economics” and totally ignore the harmful effect of offsetting policies such as Trump’s protectionism.

That being said, some of the benefits of tax reform are already evident and difficult to dispute.

Let’s start by looking at what’s happening Down Under, largely driven by American tax reform.

The Australian government announced Monday that the Senate will vote in June on cutting corporate tax rates after an opinion poll suggested the contentious reform had popular public support. …Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s conservative coalition wants to cut the corporate tax rate by 5 percent to 25 percent by 2026-27… Cormann said the need to reduce the tax burden on businesses had become more pressing for future Australian jobs and investment since the 2016 election because the United States had reduced its top corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. “Putting businesses in Australia at an ongoing competitive disadvantage deliberately by imposing higher taxes in Australia … puts Australian workers at an oncoming disadvantage and that is clearly the point that more and more Australians are starting to fully appreciate,” Cormann told reporters. Cormann was referring to a poll published in The Australian newspaper on Monday that showed 63 percent of respondents supported company tax cuts.

Wow.

What’s remarkable is not that Australian lawmakers are moving to lower their corporate rate. The government, after all, has known for quite some time that this reform was necessary to boost wages and improve competitiveness.

The amazing takeaway from this article is that ordinary people understand and support the need to engage in tax competition and other nations feel compelled to also cut business tax burdens.

All last year, I kept arguing that this was one of the main reasons to support Trump’s proposal for a lower corporate rate. And now we’re seeing the benefits materializing.

Now let’s look at a positive domestic effect of tax reform, with a feel-good story from New Jersey. It appears that the avarice-driven governor may not get his huge proposed tax hike, even though Democrats dominate the state legislature.

Why? Because the state and local tax deduction has been curtailed, which means the federal government is no longer aiding and abetting bad fiscal policy.

New Jersey’s new Democratic governor is finding that, even with his party in full control of Trenton, raising taxes in one of the country’s highest-taxed states is no day at the beach. Gov. Phil Murphy…has proposed a $37.4 billion budget. He wants to raise $1.7 billion in new taxes and other revenue… But some of his fellow Democrats, who control the state legislature, have balked at the governor’s proposals to raise the state’s sales tax and impose a millionaires tax. State Senate President Steve Sweeney has been particularly vocal. …Mr. Sweeney previously voted for a millionaire’s tax, but said he changed his mind after the federal tax law was passed in December. The law capped previously unlimited annual state and local tax deductions at $10,000 for individual and married filers, and Mr. Sweeney said he is concerned an additional millionaire’s tax could drive people out of the state. “I think that people that have the ability to leave are leaving,” he said.

Of course they’re leaving. New Jersey taxes a lot and it’s the understatement of the century to point out that there’s not a correspondingly high level of quality services from government.

So why not move to Florida or Texas, where you’ll pay much less and government actually works better?

The bottom line is that tax-motivated migration already was occurring and it’s going to become even more important now that federal tax reform is no longer providing a huge de facto subsidy to high-tax states. And that’s going to have a positive effect. New Jersey is just an early example.

This doesn’t mean states won’t ever again impose bad policy. New Jersey probably will adopt some sort of tax hike before the dust settles. But it won’t be as bad as Governor Murphy wanted.

We also may see Illinois undo its flat tax after this November’s election, which would mean the elimination of the only decent feature of the state’s tax system. But I also don’t doubt that there will be some Democrats in the Illinois capital who warn (at least privately) that such a change will hasten the state’s collapse.

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I had mixed feeling when I spoke yesterday in Bratislava, Slovakia, as part of the 2018 Free Market Road Show.

Last decade, Slovakia was a reform superstar, shaking off the vestiges of communism with a plethora of very attractive policies – including a flat tax, personal retirement accounts, and spending restraint.

As Marian Tupy explained last year, “…in 1998, Slovaks kicked out the nationalists and elected a reformist government, which proceeded to liberalise the economy, privatise loss-making state-owned enterprises and massively improve the country’s business environment. …In 2005, the World Bank declared Slovakia the “most reformist” country in the world.”

And these policies paid off. According to research from both Europe and the United States, Slovakia has enjoyed reasonably strong growth that has resulted in considerable “convergence” to western living standards.

But in recent years, Slovakia has gradually moved in the wrong direction, which means I have good and bad memories of my visits.

The nation’s strong rise and subsequent slippage can be seen in the data from Economic Freedom of the World.

The drop may not seem that dramatic. And in terms of Slovakia’s absolute score, it “only” fell from 7.63 to 7.31.

But what really matters (as I explained last year when writing about Italy) is the relative score. And if you take a closer look at the data, Slovakia has dropped in the rankings from #20 in 2005 to #53 in 2015.

This relative decline is not good news for a nation that wants to compete for jobs and investment. Moreover, I’m not the only one to be worried about slippage in Slovakia.

Jan Oravec is similarly concerned about a gradual erosion of competitiveness in his country.

…the World Economic forum, which compares the competitiveness of 140 countries around the world, Slovakia ranked 67th. …If we…look at the long-term evolution of the Slovak economy’s competitiveness not only in this, but in other rankings, we realize…a tragic story of a dramatic decline in our competitiveness. Let us start by looking back at our previous scores: In 2000, we ranked 38th, while in 2010 we painfully fell to 60th – today we hold the aforementioned 67th place. …If we take a look at the evolution of Slovakia’s situation from the last 10 years, we come to the conclusion that there has been a significant drop in the ranking of our competitiveness. While 10 years ago we usually ranked in the top third or quarter of the ranked countries, today we usually rank in the bottom half… An explanation to this negative trend is twofold: Other countries have been improving while our business environment has been worsening, or stagnating at best.

There are three glaring examples of slippage in Slovakia.

  • The first is that the flat tax was undone in 2012.
  • The second is that the private social security system was weakened.
  • The third is an erosion of fiscal discipline.

To be sure, it’s not as if Slovakia went hard left. The top tax rate under the new “progressive” system is 25 percent. And as I noted last month, that means high-income workers in Slovakia are still treated rather well compared to their counterparts in other industrialized nations.

And the leftist government in Slovakia weakened – but did not completely reverse – personal retirement accounts.

Jan Oravec explains the good reform that was adopted last decade.

During 2003 two main legislative acts – the Social Insurance Act and the Old-Age Pension Savings Act – were prepared by the reform team. …Prior to reform Slovaks were obliged to pay to the PAYGO system contributions of 28.75 % of their gross wages, and the system promised in exchange to pay an average old-age benefit amounting to 50 % of gross wages. The reform allowed workers to redirect a significant part of their contributions, 9 % of gross wage, to their personal retirement accounts.

Under current law, however, the amount that workers are allowed to place in private accounts has been reduced. Moreover, the government is forcing the accounts to invest in government bonds, which means workers will earn sub-par returns. These are bad changes, but at least personal accounts still exist.

Even the bad news on government spending isn’t horrible news. As you can see from this OECD data, the spending burden (measured as a share of GDP) has climbed to a higher plateau in recent years, wiping out some of the gains that were achieved thanks to a period of strong restraint early last decade. That being said, Slovakia is still in better shape than many other industrialized nations.

So where does Slovakia go from here?

That’s not clear. The Prime Minister that imposed some of the bad policies recently was forced out of office by scandal, but his replacement isn’t any better and there’s not another election scheduled until 2020.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Slovakia has one of Europe’s best pro-market think tanks, the Institute of Economic and Social Studies. Which hopefully means another wave of reform may happen. Hopefully including some of my favorite policies, such as a pure flat tax as well as some constitutional spending restraint.

P.S. Like other nations in Central and Eastern Europe, Slovakia faces demographic decline. To avert long-term crisis, reform is a necessity, not a luxury.

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California is a lot like France. They’re both wonderful places to visit.

And they’re both great places to live if you already have a lot of money.

But neither jurisdiction is very friendly to people who want to get rich. And, thanks to tax competition, that’s having a meaningful impact on migration patterns.

I’ve previously written about the exodus of successful and/or aspirational people from France.

Today we’re going to examine the same process inside the United States.

It’s a process that is about to get more intense thanks to federal tax reform, as Art Laffer and Steve Moore explain in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

In the years to come, millions of people, thousands of businesses, and tens of billions of dollars of net income will flee high-tax blue states for low-tax red states. This migration has been happening for years. But the Trump tax bill’s cap on the deduction for state and local taxes, or SALT, will accelerate the pace. …Consider what this means if you’re a high-income earner in Silicon Valley or Hollywood. The top tax rate that you actually pay just jumped from about 8.5% to 13%. Similar figures hold if you live in Manhattan, once New York City’s income tax is factored in. If you earn $10 million or more, your taxes might increase a whopping 50%. …high earners in places with hefty income taxes—not just California and New York, but also Minnesota and New Jersey—will bear more of the true cost of their state government. Also in big trouble are Connecticut and Illinois, where the overall state and local tax burden (especially property taxes) is so onerous that high-income residents will feel the burn now that they can’t deduct these costs on their federal returns. On the other side are nine states—including Florida, Nevada, Texas and Washington—that impose no tax at all on earned income.

Art and Steve put together projections on what this will mean.

Over the past decade, about 3.5 million Americans on net have relocated from the highest-tax states to the lowest-tax ones. …Our analysis of IRS data on tax returns shows that in the past three years alone, Texas and Florida have gained a net $50 billion in income and purchasing power from other states, while California and New York have surrendered a net $23 billion. Now that the SALT subsidy is gone, how bad will it get for high-tax blue states? Very bad. We estimate, based on the historical relationship between tax rates and migration patterns, that both California and New York will lose on net about 800,000 residents over the next three years—roughly twice the number that left from 2014-16. Our calculations suggest that Connecticut, New Jersey and Minnesota combined will hemorrhage another roughly 500,000 people in the same period. …the exodus could puncture large and unexpected holes in blue-state budgets. Lawmakers in Hartford and Trenton have gotten a small taste of this in recent years as billionaire financiers have flown the coop and relocated to Florida. …Progressives should do the math: A 13% tax rate generates zero revenue from someone who leaves the state for friendlier climes.

I don’t know if their estimate is too high or too low, but there’s no question that they are correct about the direction of migration.

And every time a net taxpayer moves out, that further erodes the fiscal position of the high-tax states. Which is why I think one of the interesting questions is which state will be the first to suffer fiscal collapse.

In large part, taxpayers are making a rational cost-benefit analysis. Some states have dramatically increased the burden of government spending. Yet does anyone think that those states are providing better services than states with smaller public sectors? Or that those services are worth all the taxes they have to pay?

Consider, for instance, the difference between New York and Tennessee.

New York spends nearly twice as much on state and local government per person ($16,000) as does economically booming Tennessee ($9,000).

Anyhow, I’m guessing the new restriction on the state and local tax deduction is going to change the behavior of state politicians. At least I hope so.

But nobody ever said politicians were sensible. Ross Marchand of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance explains that Massachusetts and New Jersey are still thinking about more class-warfare taxation.

Massachusetts and New Jersey are currently considering “millionaires’ taxes,” which would significantly increase top rates and spark a “race to the top” for revenue… Instead of helping out the middle class, a millionaires’ tax will result in an exodus from the state, squeezing out opportunities for working Americans. …Prominent millionaires respond to these proposals by threatening to leave, and research shows that the well-to-do regularly follow through on these promises.  …nearly all of the migration that does happen in top brackets has to do with tax changes. Researchers at Stanford University and the Treasury Department estimate that a 10 percent increase in taxes causes a 1 percent bump in migration, assuming no change in any other policy. …If New Jersey and Massachusetts approve new millionaires’ taxes, it is difficult to predict how much will be raised and where these funds will ultimately wind up. But if New York and California are any guide, income surtaxes will be destructive. When it comes to higher taxation, interstate migration is just the tip of the iceberg. Higher-tax states, for instance, see less innovative activity and scientific research according to an analysis by economists at the Federal Reserve and UC Berkeley.

My suggestion is that politicians in Massachusetts and New Jersey should look at what’s happening to California.

CNBC reports on the growing exodus from the Golden State.

Californians may still love the beautiful weather and beaches, but more and more they are fed up with the high housing costs and taxes and deciding to flee to lower-cost states such as Nevada, Arizona and Texas. …said Dave Senser, who lives on a fixed income near San Luis Obispo, California, and now plans to move to Las Vegas. “Rents here are crazy, if you can find a place, and they’re going to tax us to death. That’s what it feels like. At least in Nevada they don’t have a state income tax. And every little bit helps.” …Data from United Van Lines show some of the most popular moving destinations for Californians from 2015 to 2017 were Texas, Arizona, Oregon, Washington and Colorado. Other experts also said Nevada remains a top destination. …Internal Revenue Service data would appear to show that the middle-class and middle-age residents are the ones leaving, according to Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California. …Furthermore, Kotkin believes the outmigration from California may start to rise among higher-income people, given that the GOP’s federal tax overhaul will result in certain California taxpayers losing from the state and local tax deduction cap.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office for the California legislature has warned the state’s lawmakers about this trend.

For many years, more people have been leaving California for other states than have been moving here. According to data from the American Community Survey, from 2007 to 2016, about 5 million people moved to California from other states, while about 6 million left California. On net, the state lost 1 million residents to domestic migration—about 2.5 percent of its total population. …Although California generally has been losing residents to the rest of the country, movement between California and some states deviates from this pattern. The figure below shows net migration between California and individual states between 2007 and 2016. California gained, on net, residents from about one-third of states, led by New York, Illinois, and New Jersey.

Here’s the chart showing where Californians are moving. Unsurprisingly, Texas is the main destination.

By the way, state-to-state migration isn’t solely a function of income taxes.

A Market Watch column looks at the impact of property taxes on migration patterns.

Harty’s clients range from first-time buyers with sticker shock to people who’ve lived in and around Chicago all their lives. Each has a different story, but they share a common theme: many believe that Chicago-area property taxes are too high, and relief is just an hour away over the state line. …if all real estate is local, all real estate taxes may be even more so. …Attom’s data show that the average tax burden ranges from $10,612 in the most expensive metro area, Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut, to $525 in Montgomery, Alabama. And those are just averages. …taxes are “the icing on the cake” in areas that are seeing strong population inflows… Among the counties that saw the biggest percentage of in-migration in 2017, according to Census data, all are in Texas, Florida, Georgia, or the Carolinas. (Texas doesn’t have particularly low property taxes, but it has no personal income tax, making the overall tax burden much more manageable.) Cook County, where Chicago is located, had the biggest number of people leaving… Blomquist’s analysis of Census data showed that among all counties that had at least a 1% population increase, the average tax bill was $2,706, while in all counties with a least a 1% decline in population, the average was $3,900.

The key sentence in that excerpt is the part about Texas having relatively high property taxes, but making up for that by having no state income tax.

The same thing is true about New Hampshire.

But just imagine what it must be like to live in a state with high income taxes and high property taxes. If this map is any indication, places such as New York and Illinois are particularly awful for taxpayers.

Let’s close with a big-picture look at factors that drive state competitiveness.

Mark Perry takes an up-close look at the characteristics of the five states with the most in-migration and out-migration.

…four of the top five outbound states (Illinois ranked No. 46, Connecticut at No. 49, New Jersey at No. 48, and California at No. 47) were among the five US states with the highest tax burden — New York was No. 50 (highest tax burden). The average tax burden of the top five outbound states was 11.2%, with an average rank of 43.2 out of 50. In contrast, the top five inbound states have an average tax burden of 8.7% and an average rank of 16.6 out of 50. As would be expected, Americans are leaving states with some of the country’s highest overall tax burdens (IL, CT, CA and NJ) and moving to states with lower tax burdens (TN, SC and AZ). …that there are significant differences between the top five inbound and top five outbound US states when they are compared on a variety of measures of economic performance, business climate, tax burdens for businesses and individuals, fiscal health, and labor market dynamism. There is empirical evidence that Americans do “vote with their feet” when they relocate from one state to another, and the evidence suggests that Americans are moving from states that are relatively more economically stagnant, Democratic-controlled fiscally unhealthy states with higher tax burdens, more regulations and with fewer economic and job opportunities to Republican-controlled, fiscally sound states that are relatively more economically vibrant, dynamic and business-friendly, with lower tax and regulatory burdens and more economic and job opportunities.

Here’s Mark’s table, based on 2017 migration data.

As Mark said, people do “vote with their feet” for smaller government.

Which is one of the reasons I’m a big fan of federalism. When there’s decentralization, people can escape bad policy. And that helps to discipline profligate governments.

P.S. I’m writing today’s column from Switzerland, which is a very successful example of genuine federalism.

P.P.S. Americans are free to move from one state to another, and the uncompetitive states can’t stop the process. Unfortunately, the IRS has laws that penalize people who want to move to other nations. In this regard, the U.S. is worse than France.

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For the past 30 years, I’ve been criticizing both the tax code and the IRS. Which raises an interesting chicken-or-egg question about who should be blamed for our nightmarish tax system.

Should we blame IRS bureaucrats, who have a dismal track record of abusing taxpayers? Or should we blame politicians, who have been making the tax code more onerous ever since that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was adopted?

In this exchange with Stuart Varney, I take an ecumenical approach and blame both.

As you can see, I am slightly conflicted on this debate.

There are plenty of reasons to condemn the IRS, and not just because of what I mentioned in the interview about its deplorable campaign to suppress political speech by Tea Party organizations.

Yet there is an equally strong case to be made that politicians are the real problem. They are the ones who created the tax system. They are the ones who make it more complex with each passing year.

And they are the ones who constantly give more power and money to the IRS in hopes of generating more cash that can be used to buy votes.

Indeed, the most important thing I said in the interview is that the IRS budget has dramatically increased over the past few decades. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

So while I’m surely not a fan of the IRS, I’m probably even more critical of politicians since they’re the ones responsible for the bad laws that empower bureaucrats.

But that doesn’t really matter because the solution is the same regardless of whether one blames politicians or the IRS. Throw the tax code in the garbage and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax (or, if there are ever sufficient votes to undo the 16th Amendment, replace the internal revenue code with a national consumption tax).*

Let’s close with some humor. First, here’s a painful reminder (h/t: Reddit‘s libertarian page) of the relationship between taxpayers and politicians, though it’s worth noting that they want to grab your income regardless of whether there’s a lot or a little. In other words, the taxpayer could be holding a minnow and nothing would change.

Maybe I should add this image to my archive of IRS humor, which already features a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a Reason video, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a collection of IRS jokes, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

*In my libertarian fantasy world, we would return to the limited government created by the Founding Fathers, thus eliminating the need for any broad-based tax.

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I strongly applauded the tax reform plan that was enacted in December, especially the lower corporate tax rate and the limit on the deduction for state and local taxes.

But I’m not satisfied. Our long-run goal should be fundamental tax reform. And that means replacing the current system with a simple and fair flat tax.

And the recent tax plan only took a small step in that direction. How small? Well, the Tax Foundation just calculated that it only improved the United States from #30 to #25 in their International Tax Competitiveness Ranking. In other words, we have a long way to go before we catch up to Estonia.

 

It’s possible, of course, to apply different weights and come up with a different list. I think the Tax Foundation’s numbers could be improved, for instance, by including a measure of the aggregate tax burden. And that presumably would boost the U.S. score.

But the fact would remain that the U.S. score would be depressingly low. In other words, the internal revenue code is still a self-imposed wound and huge improvements are still necessary.

That’s why we need another round of tax reform, based on the three core principles of good tax policy.

  1. Lower tax rates
  2. Less double taxation
  3. Fewer loopholes

But how is tax reform possible in a fiscal environment of big government and rising deficits?

This is a challenge. In an ideal world, there would be accompanying budget reforms to save money, thus creating leeway for tax reform to be a net tax cut.

But even in the current fiscal environment, tax reform is possible if policy makers finance pro-growth reforms by closing undesirable loopholes.

Indeed, that’s basically what happened in the recent tax plan. The lower corporate rate was financed by restricting the state and local tax deduction and a few other changes. The budget rules did allow for a modest short-run tax cut, but the overall package was revenue neutral in the long run (i.e., starting in 2027).

It’s now time to repeat this exercise.

The Congressional Budget Office periodically issues a report on Budget Options, which lists all sort of spending reforms and tax increases, along with numbers showing what those changes would mean to the budget over the next 10 years.

I’ve never been a huge fan of this report because it is too limited on the spending side. You won’t find fleshed-out options to shut down departments, for instance, which is unfortunate given the target-rich environment (including TransportationHousing and Urban DevelopmentEducationEnergy, and Agriculture).

And on the tax side, it has a lengthy list of tax hikes, generally presented as ways to finance an ever-expanding burden of government spending. The list must be akin to porn for statists like Bernie Sanders.

It includes new taxes.

And it includes increases in existing taxes.

But the CBO report also includes some tax preferences that could be used to finance good tax reforms.

Here are four provisions of the tax code that should be the “pay-fors” in a new tax reform plan.

We’ll start with two that are described in the CBO document.

Further reductions in itemized deductions – The limit on the state and local tax deduction should be the first step. The entire deduction could be repealed as part of a second wave of tax reform. And the same is true for the home mortgage interest deduction and the charitable contributions deduction.

Green-energy pork – The House version of tax reform gutted many of the corrupt tax preferences for green energy. Unfortunately, those changes were not included in the final bill. But the silver lining to that bad decision is that those provisions can be used to finance good reforms in a new bill.

Surprisingly, the CBO report overlooks or only gives cursory treatment to a couple of major tax preferences that each could finance $1 trillion or more of pro-growth changes over the next 10 years.

Municipal bond interest – Under current law, there is no federal tax on the interest paid to owners of bonds issued by state and local governments. This “muni-bond” loophole is very bad tax policy since it creates an incentive that diverts capital from private business investment to subsidizing the profligacy of cities like Chicago and states like California.

Healthcare exclusion – Current law also allows a giant tax break for fringe benefits. When companies purchase health insurance plans for employees, that compensation escapes both payroll taxes and income taxes. Repealing – or at least capping – this exclusion could raise a lot of money for pro-growth reforms (and it would be good healthcare policy as well).

What’s potentially interesting about the four loopholes listed above is that they all disproportionately benefit rich people. This means that if they are curtailed or repealed and the money as part of tax reform, the left won’t be able to argue that upper-income taxpayers are getting unfair benefits.

Actually, they’ll probably still make their usual class-warfare arguments, but they will be laughably wrong.

The bottom line is that we should have smaller government and less taxation. But even if that’s not immediately possible, we can at least figure out revenue-neutral reforms that will produce a tax system that does less damage to growth, jobs, and competitiveness.

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Judged by the amount of attention various provisions produced, last year’s fight over tax reform was about reducing the corporate tax rate and limiting the deduction for state and local taxes.

But there were many other important changes, including a a big increase in the standard deduction (i.e., the amount households can protect from the IRS), a shift that will reduce the number of people who utilize itemized deductions.

A report in the Washington Post suggests that this reform could hurt charities.

Many U.S. charities are worried the tax overhaul bill signed by President Trump…could spur a landmark shift in philanthropy, speeding along the decline of middle-class donors… The source of concern is how the tax bill is expected to sharply reduce the number of taxpayers who qualify for the charitable tax deduction — a big driver of gifts to nonprofits. …the number of people who qualify for the charitable deduction is projected to plummet next year from about 30 percent of tax filers to as low as 5 percent. That’s because the new tax bill nearly doubles the standard deduction and limits the value of other deductions, such as for state and local taxes.

Many charities opposed this change.

One study predicts that donations will fall by at least $13 billion, about 4.5 percent, next year. …“The tax code is now poised to de-incentivize the heart of civic action in America,” said Dan Cardinali, president of Independent Sector, a public-policy group for charities, foundations and corporate giving programs. “It’s deeply disturbing.”  The tax bill’s treatment of charities led the Salvation Army to express serious concerns, and it’s why United Way opposed the legislation, as did the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cardinali’s group turned its home page — normally a place for a feel-good story — into a call to protest, with the banner headline: “KILL THE TAX REFORM BILL.” …Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), the main tax bill writer in the House…argued that people would soon have more money to donate because of the economic growth driven by the bill’s tax cuts

As an aside, here’s the part of the story that most irked me.

“The government has always seen fit to reward the goodness of Americans with a tax incentive,” said Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, development secretary at the Salvation Army.

Huh, how is it goodness if people are only doing it because they’re being bribed by the tax code?

But let’s stick with our main topic of whether the tax bill will hurt the non-profit sector.

A Bloomberg column also hypothesized that the GOP tax reform will be bad news for charities.

Will Americans give as generously now that the incentives have completely shifted? Recent research provides little hope for them. …last year’s tax reform…doubled the standard deduction, effectively eliminating most taxpayers’ ability to itemize deductions via contributions to charity…. Tax cost refers to the actual, post-tax price that someone pays when they make a donation. Imagine someone with a marginal tax rate of 25 percent. Every dollar donated only “costs” the taxpayer 75 cents after he or she takes the charitable deduction. …What happens when you change these “tax costs”? …Almost everyone who studied taxpayer behavior found that the charitable deduction encouraged people to donate more than they would if it didn’t exist. But studies yielded very different price elasticity figures ranging from -0.5 (a dollar in lost tax revenue generates an additional 50 cents in donations) to -4.0 (every dollar in forgone tax revenue generates a whopping four dollars of donations). A recent meta-analysis of approximately 70 of these studies yielded a price elasticity a median of -1.2. A recent study by Nicholas Duquette of the University of Southern California…examined how taxpayer contributions changed after the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which increased the tax cost of giving by dramatically lowering marginal tax rates. The result was eye-popping: A 1 percent rise in the tax cost of giving caused charitable donations to drop 4 percent.

I agree that lower tax rates increase the “tax cost” of giving money to charity.

And Reagan’s tax policy (the 1981 tax bill as well as the 1986 tax reform) had a huge impact. In 1980, it only cost 30 cents for a rich person to give a dollar to charity. By 1988, because of much lower tax rates, it cost 72 cents to give a dollar to charity.

Yet I’m a skeptic of Duquette’s research for the simple reason that real-world data shows that charitable contributions rose after Reagan slashed tax rates.

What Duquette overlooks is that charitable giving also is impact by changes in disposable income and net wealth. So the “tax cost” of donations increased, but that was more than offset by a stronger economy.

So our question today is whether we’re going to see a repeat of the 1980s. Will a reduction in the tax incentive for charitable giving be offset by better economic performance?

Some research from the Mercatus Center suggests that the non-profit sector should not fear reform.

…one study by William C. Randolph casts doubt on the claim that the deduction increases giving in the long run. Randolph’s paper analyzes both major tax reforms in the 1980s and follows individuals for 10 years, finding that taxpayers alter the timing of their giving in response to changes in tax policy, but not necessarily the total amount of giving. …lower-income households also donate to charities in large numbers. …However, very few of them benefit in terms of their tax burden, because many lower-income households have no positive tax liability. …For the 80 percent of middle-income filers who do not currently claim the charitable deduction, any cut in marginal tax rates is a pure benefit. Most taxpayers would be better served by eliminating the charitable contributions deduction and using the additional revenue to lower tax rates.

I would put this more bluntly. Only about 30 percent of taxpayers itemize, so 70 percent of taxpayers are completely unaffected by the charitable deduction. Yet many of these people still give to charity.

And they’ll presumably give higher donations if the economy grows faster.

This is one of the reasons the Wall Street Journal opined that tax reform will be beneficial.

…nonprofits…sell Americans short by assuming that most donate mainly because of the tax break, rather than because they believe in a cause or want to share their blessings with others. How little they respect their donors. …Americans don’t need a tax break to give to charities, which should be able to sell themselves on their merits. …The truth is that Americans will donate more if they have more money. And they will have more money if tax reform, including lower rates and simplification, helps the economy and produces broader prosperity. The 1980s were a boom time for charitable giving precisely because so much wealth was created. Like so many on the political left, the charity lobby doesn’t understand that before Americans can give away private wealth they first have to create it.

A column in the Wall Street Journal also augments the key points about generosity and giving patterns.

…a drop in the amount of deductible gifts does not necessarily mean an equivalent drop in actual giving. …recessions aside, Americans have steadily increased their giving despite numerous tax law changes. Individual donations increased by 4% in 2015 and another 4% in 2016. If donations continue to increase at such rates, it won’t take long to make up for changes brought about by tax reform. …Americans have continued to give to charities no matter what benefits the tax code conveys on them for doing so.

Last but not least, Hayden Ludwig, writing for the Washington Examiner, explains that charitable contributions increase as growth increases.

Liberal groups such as the National Council of Nonprofits claim that the plan will be “disastrous” for charities… The thrust of the Left’s argument is that allowing Americans to keep more of their money makes them stingier, and high taxes are needed to force Americans to take advantage of charitable tax write-offs. It’s ironic that anyone in the nonprofit sector, which is built entirely on the generosity of individuals and corporations, can argue that higher taxes encourage charity – or that charity needs to be legislated. …if the Left’s argument about tax incentives is true, we should see sharp declines in charitable donations after every tax cut in U.S. history. We don’t. According to a 2015 report in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, individuals’ charitable giving rose four percent in 1965 and more than two percent in 1966, following the Kennedy and Johnson tax cuts of 1964 and 1965, respectively. Between the Reagan tax cuts in 1981 and 1986, individual giving rose a whopping 21 percent from $119.7 billion to $144.9 billion. By 1989, individual giving grew another 4.7 percent. …The reason is simple: Prosperity and generosity are inextricably linked.

Amen. Make America more prosperous and two things will happen.

Fewer people will need charity and more people will be in a position to help them.

I’ll conclude by noting that the charitable deduction is the itemized deduction I would abolish last. Not because it is necessary, but because it doesn’t cause macroeconomic harm. The state and local tax deduction, by contrast, is odious and misguided because it subsidizes bad policy and the home mortgage interest deduction is harmful since it is part of a tax code that tilts the playing field and artificially lures capital from business investment to residential real estate.

Things to keep in mind for the next round of tax reform.

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To put it mildly, Italy’s economy is moribund. There’s been almost no growth for the entire 21st century.

Bad government policy deserves much of the blame.

According to Economic Freedom of the World, Italy is ranked only 54th, the worst score in Western Europe other than Greece. The score for fiscal policy is abysmal and regulatory policy and rule of law are also problem areas.

Moreover, thanks to decades of excessive government spending, the nation also has very high levels of public debt. Over the last few years, it has received official and unofficial bailouts from the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, and Italy is considered at high risk for a budgetary meltdown when another recession occurs.

And let’s not forget that the country faces a demographic death spiral.

You don’t have to believe me (though you should).

Others have reached similar conclusions. Here are excerpts from some VoxEU research.

Italy will increasingly need to rely on growth fundamentals to sustain its public debt. Unfortunately, the fundamentals do not look good. Not only was Italy severely battered by Europe’s double dip recession (its GDP is lower today than it was in 2005) but when we look at the growth of labour productivity…, we can see that Italy has been stagnating since the mid-90s. …At the end of 2016, Italy’s central government debt was the third-largest in the world…, at $2.3 trillion. …a debt crisis in Italy could trigger a global financial catastrophe, and could very possibly lead to the disintegration of the Eurozone. To avoid such a scenario, Italy must revive growth…a tentative policy prescription is for Italy, to remove those institutional barriers (such as corruption, judicial inefficiency and government interference in the financial sector) that stifle merit and contribute to cronyism.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute paints a grim picture.

Italy’s economic performance since the Euro’s 1999 launch has been appalling. …an over-indebted Italian economy needs a coherent and reform-minded government to get the country quickly onto a higher economic growth path. …since 2000, German per capita income has increased by around 20 percent, that in Italy has actually declined by 5 percent. Talk about two lost economic decades for the country. …if Italy is to get itself onto a higher economic growth path, it has to find ways improve the country’s labor market productivity… It has to do so through major economic reforms, especially to its very rigid labor market…being the Eurozone’s third largest economy, Italy is simply too big to fail for the Euro to survive in its present form. However, it is also said that being roughly ten times the size of the Greek economy, a troubled Italian economy would be too big for Germany to save.

Even the IMF thinks pro-market reforms are needed.

Average Italians still earn less than two decades ago. Their take-home pay took a dip during the crisis and has still not yet caught up with the growth in key euro area countries. …a key question for policymakers is how to enhance incomes and productivity… In the decade before the global financial crisis, Italy’s spending grew faster than its income, in important part because of increases in pensions. …The tax burden is heavy…a package of high-quality measures on the spending and revenue side the country could balance the need to support growth on the one hand with the imperative of reducing debt on the other. Such a package includes…lower pension spending that is the second highest in the euro area; and lower tax rates on labor, and bringing more enterprises and persons into the tax net. …together with reforms of wage bargaining and others outlined above, can raise Italian incomes by over 10 percent, create jobs, improve competitiveness, and substantially lower public debt.

There’s a chance, however, that all this bad news may pave the way for good news. There are elections in early March and Silvio Berlusconi, considered a potential frontrunner to be the next Prime Minister, has proposed a flat tax.

Bloomberg has some of the details.

A flat tax for all and 2 million new jobs are among the top priorities in the draft program of former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party… The program aims to relaunch the euro region’s third-biggest economy…and recoup the ground lost in the double-dip, record-long recession of the 2008-2013 period. …Forza Italia’s plan doesn’t cite a level for the planned flat income tax for individuals, Berlusconi has said in recent television interviews it should be 23 percent or even below that. The written draft plan says a flat tax would also apply to companies. The program pursues the balanced budget of the Italian state and calls public debt below 100 percent of GDP a “feasible” goal. It is currently above 130 percent.

Wow. As a matter of principle, I think a 23-percent rate is too high.

But compared to Italy’s current tax regime, 23 percent will be like a Mediterranean version of Hong Kong.

So can this happen? I’m not holding my breath.

The budget numbers will be the biggest obstacle to tax reform. The official number crunchers, both inside the Italian government and at pro-tax bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, will fret about the potential for revenue losses.

In part, those concerns are overblown. The high tax rates of the current system have hindered economic vitality and helped to produce very high levels of evasion. If a simple, low-rate flat tax is adopted, two things will happen.

  • There will be more revenue than expected because of better economic performance.
  • There will be more revenue than expected because of a smaller underground economy.

These things are especially likely in Italy, where dodging tax authorities is a national tradition.

That being said, “more revenue than expected” is not the same as “more revenue.” The Laffer Curve simply says that good policy produced revenue feedback, not that tax cuts always pay for themselves (that only happens in rare circumstances).

So if Italy wants tax reform, it will also need spending reform. As I noted when commenting on tax reform in Belgium, you can’t have a bloated public sector and a decent tax system.

Fortunately, that shouldn’t be too difficult. I pointed out way back in 2011 that some modest fiscal restraint could quickly pay big dividends for the nation.

But can a populist-minded Berlusconi (assuming he even wins) deliver? Based on his past record, I’m not optimistic.

Though I’ll close on a hopeful note. Berlusconi and Trump are often linked because of their wealth, their celebrity, and their controversial lives. Well, I wasn’t overly optimistic that Trump was going to deliver on his proposal for a big reduction in the corporate tax rate.

Yet it happened. Not quite the 15 percent rate he wanted, but 21 percent was a huge improvement.

Could Berlusconi – notwithstanding previous failures to reform bad policies – also usher in a pro-growth tax code?

To be honest, I have no idea. We don’t know if he is serious. And, even if his intentions are good, Italy’s parliamentary system is different for America’s separation-of-powers systems and his hands might be tied by partners in a coalition government. Though I’m encouraged by the fact that occasional bits of good policy are possible in that nation.

And let’s keep in mind that there’s another populist party that could win the election And its agenda, as reported by Bloomberg, includes reckless ideas like a “basic income.”

…economic malaise is increasingly common across Italy, where unemployment tops 11 percent and the number of people living at or below the poverty line has nearly tripled since 2006, to 4.7 million last year, or almost 8 percent of the population… “Poverty will be center stage in the campaign,” says Giorgio Freddi, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Bologna. …Five Star is a fast-growing group fueled by anger at the old political class. …a €500 ($590) monthly subsidy to the disadvantaged…is a key plank in Five Star’s national platform, and the group’s leaders have promised to quickly implement such a program if they take power. Beppe Grillo, the former television comedian who co-founded the party, says fighting poverty should be a top priority. A basic income can “give people back their dignity,”… The Five Star program echoes universal basic income schemes being considered around the world. …Five Star says the plan would cost €17 billion a year, funded in part by…tax hikes on banks, insurance companies, and gambling.

Ugh. Basic income is a very troubling idea.

I’ve already speculated about whether Italy has “passed the point of no return.” If the Five Star Movement wins the election and makes government even bigger, I think I’ll have an answer to that question.

Which helps to explain why I wrote that Sardinians should secede and become part of Switzerland (where a basic income scheme was overwhelmingly rejected).

In conclusion, I suppose I should point out that a flat tax would be very beneficial for Italy’s economy, but other market-friendly reforms are just as important.

P.S. Some people, such as Eduardo Porter in the New York Times, actually argue that the United States should be more like Italy. I’m not kidding.

P.P.S. When asked about my favorite anecdote about Italian government, I’m torn. Was it when a supposedly technocratic government appointed the wrong man to a position that shouldn’t even exist? Or was it when a small town almost shut down because so many bureaucrats were arrested for fraud?

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During the Obamacare bill-signing ceremony, Vice President Biden had a “hot mic” incident when he was overheard telling Obama that “this is a big f***ing deal.”

And he was telling the truth. It was a big deal (albeit a wrong deal) from a fiscal perspective and a health perspective. And it also was a very costly deal for Democrats, costing them the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. But it definitely was consequential.

Well, there’s another “big f***ing deal” in Washington, and it’s what just happened to the state and local tax deduction. It wasn’t totally repealed, as I would have preferred, but there’s now going to be a $10,000 limit on the amount of state and local taxes that can be deducted.

I’ve already explained why this is going to reverberate around the nation, putting pressure on governors and state legislators for better tax policy, and I augment that argument in this clip from a recent interview with Trish Regan.

The bottom line is that high-tax states no longer will be able to jack up taxes, using federal deductibility to spread some of the burden to low-tax states.

Let’s look at what this means, starting with a superb column in today’s Wall Street Journal by Alfredo Ortiz.

The great American migration out of high-tax states like New York and Illinois may be about to accelerate. The tax reform enacted last month caps the deduction for state and local taxes, known as SALT, at $10,000. …between July 1, 2016, and July 1, 2017, …high-tax states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and Rhode Island either lost residents or stagnated. …When people move, they take their money with them. The five high-tax states listed above have lost more than $200 billion of combined adjusted gross income since 1992… In contrast, Nevada, Washington, Florida and Texas gained roughly the same amount. If politicians in high-tax states want to prevent this migration from becoming a stampede, they will have to deliver fiscal discipline.

Mr. Ortiz shows how some state politicians already seem to realize higher taxes won’t be an easy option anymore.

New Jersey’s Gov.-elect Phil Murphy campaigned on a promise to impose a “millionaires’ tax.” But the Democratic president of the state Senate, Steve Sweeney, said in November that New Jersey needs to “hit the pause button” because “we can’t afford to lose thousands of people.” His next words could have come from a Republican: “You know, 1% of the people in the state of New Jersey pay about 42% of its tax base. And you know, they can leave.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio may need to rethink his proposed millionaires’ tax. George Sweeting, deputy director of the city’s Independent Budget Office, told Politico in November that eliminating the SALT deduction would “make it a tougher challenge if the city or the state wanted to raise their taxes.” New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli added: “If you lose that deductibility, I worry about more middle-class families leaving.” …the limit on the SALT deduction is a gift that will keep on giving. In the years to come it will spur additional tax cuts and forestall tax increases at the state and local level.

Though the politicians from high-tax states are definitely whining about the new system.

The Governor of New Jersey is even fantasizing about a lawsuit to reverse reform.

Murphy, a Democrat, said he has spoken with leadership in New York and California and with legal scholars about doing “whatever it takes”… Asked if that included a joint lawsuit with other states, Murphy said “emphatically, yes.” …Murphy said. “This is a complete and utter outrage. And I don’t know how else to say it. We ain’t gonna stand for it.”

Here’s a story from New York Times that warmed my heart last month.

…while Mr. Cuomo and his counterparts from California and New Jersey seemed dead-certain about the tax bill’s intent — Mr. Brown called it “evil in the extreme” — there were still an array of questions about how states would respond. None of the three Democrats offered concrete plans on what action their states might take.

They haven’t offered any concrete plans because the only sensible policy – lower tax rates and streamlined government – is anathema to politicians who like buying votes with other people’s money.

California will be hard-hit, but a columnist for the L.A. Times correctly observes tax reform will serve as a much-need wake-up call for state lawmakers.

…let’s be intellectually honest. There’s no credible justification for the federal government subsidizing California’s highest-in-the-nation state income tax — or, for that matter, any local levy like the property tax. Why should federal tax money from people in other states be spent on partially rebating Californians for their state and local tax payments? Some of those states don’t even have their own income tax, including Nevada and Washington. Neither do Texas and Florida. …federal subsidies just encourage the high-tax states to rake in more money and spend it. And they numb the states’ taxpayers. …Republican state Sen. Jeff Stone of Temecula put it this way after Trump unveiled his proposal last week: “For years, the Democrats who raise our taxes in California have said, ‘Don’t worry. The increase won’t matter all that much because tax increases are deductible.’” Trump’s plan, Stone continued, “seems to finally force states to be transparent about how much they actually tax their own residents.”

He also makes a very wise point about the built-in instability of California’s class-warfare system – similar to a point I made years ago.

Our archaic system is way too volatile. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office reported last week that income tax revenue is five times as volatile as personal income itself. The “unpredictable revenue swings complicate budgetary planning and contributed to the state’s boom-and-bust budgeting of the 2000s,” the analyst wrote. During the recession in 2008, for example, a 3.7% dip in the California economy resulted in a 23% nosedive in state revenue. The revenue stream has become unreliable because it depends too heavily on high-income earners, especially their capital gains. During an economic downturn, capital gains go bust and revenue slows to a trickle. In 2015, the top 1% of California earners paid about 48% of the total state income tax while drawing 24% of the taxable income.

Let’s close with some sage analysis from Deroy Murdock.

“Taxes should hurt,” Ronald Reagan once said. He referred to withholding taxes, which empower politicians to siphon workers’ money stealthily, before it reaches their paychecks. Writing the IRS a check each month, like covering the rent, would help taxpayers feel the public sector’s true cost. This would boost demand for tax relief and fuel scrutiny of big government. Like withholding taxes, SALT keeps high state-and-local taxes from hurting. In that sense, SALT is the opiate of the overtaxed masses. The heavy levies that liberal Democrats (and, inexcusably, some statist Republicans) impose from New York’s city hall to statehouses in Albany, Trenton, and Sacramento lack their full sting, since SALT soothes their pain. Just wait: Once social-justice warriors from Malibu to Manhattan feel the entire weight of their Democrat overlords’ yokes around their necks, they will squeal. Some will join the stampede to income-tax-free states, including Texas and Florida. …A conservative, the saying goes, is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Dumping SALT into the Potomac should inspire a similar epiphany among the Democratic coastal elite.

He’s right. This reform could cause a political shake-up in blue states.

P.S. Since I started this column with some observations about the political consequences of Obamacare, this is a good time to mention some recent academic research about the impact of that law on the 2016 race.

We combine administrative records from the federal health care exchange with aggregate- and individual-level data on vote choice in the 2016 election. We show that personal experiences with the Affordable Care Act informed voting behavior and that these effects could have altered the election outcome in pivotal states… We also offer evidence that consumers purchasing coverage through the exchange were sensitive to premium price hikes publicized shortly before the election… Placebo tests using survey responses collected before the premium information became public suggest that these relationships are indeed causal.

Wow. Obamacare there’s a strong case that Obamacare delivered the House to the GOP, the Senate to the GOP, and also the White House to the GOP. Hopefully the Democrats will be less likely to do something really bad or really crazy the next time they hold power.

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Since it’s the last day of the year, let’s look back on 2017 and highlight the biggest victories and losses for liberty.

For last year’s column, we had an impressive list of overseas victories in 2016, including the United Kingdom’s Brexit from the European Union, the vote against basic income in Switzerland, the adoption of constitutional spending caps in Brazil, and even the abolition of the income tax in Antigua and Barbuda.

The only good policies I could find in the United States, by contrast, were food stamp reforms in Maine, Wisconsin, and Kansas.

This year has a depressingly small list of victories. Indeed, the only good thing I had on my initial list was the tax bill. So to make 2017 appear better, I’m turning that victory into three victories.

  • A lower corporate tax rate – Dropping the federal corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent will boost investment, wages, and competitiveness, while also pressuring other nations to drop their corporate rates in a virtuous cycle of tax competition. An unambiguous victory.
  • Limits on the deductibility of state and local taxes – It would have been preferable to totally abolish the deduction for state and local taxes, but a $10,000 cap will substantially curtail the federal tax subsidy for higher taxes by state and local government. The provision is only temporary, so it’s not an unambiguous win, but the whining and complaining from class-warfare politicians in New York and California is music to my ears.
  • No border-adjustment tax – Early in 2017, I was worried that tax reform was going to be tax deform. House Republicans may have had good intentions, but their proposed border-adjustment tax would have set the stage for a value-added tax. I like to think I played at least a small role in killing this bad idea.
  • Regulatory Rollback – The other bit of (modest) good news is that the Trump Administration has taken some steps to curtail and limit red tape. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step.

Now let’s look elsewhere in the world for a victory. Once again, there’s not much.

  • Macron’s election in France – As I scoured my archives for some good foreign news, the only thing I could find was that a socialist beat a socialist in the French presidential election. But since I have some vague hope that Emanuel Macron will cut red tape and reduce the fiscal burden in France, I’m going to list this as good news. Yes, I’m grading on a curve.

Now let’s look at the bad news.

Last year, my list included growing GOP support for a VAT, eroding support for open trade, and the leftward shift of the Democratic Party.

Here are five examples of policy defeats in 2017.

  • Illinois tax increase – If there was a contest for bad state fiscal policy, Illinois would be a strong contender. That was true even before 2017. And now that the state legislature rammed through a big tax increase, Illinois is trying even harder to be the nation’s most uncompetitive state.
  • Kansas tax clawback – The big-government wing of the Kansas Republican Party joined forces with Democrats to undo a significant portion of the Brownback tax cuts. Since this was really a fight over whether there would be spending restraint or business-as-usual in Kansas, this was a double defeat.
  • Botched Obamacare repeal – After winning numerous elections by promising to repeal Obamacare, Republicans finally got total control of Washington and then proceeded to produce a bill that repealed only portions. And even that effort flopped. This was a very sad confirmation of my Second Theorem of Government.
  • Failure to control spending – I pointed out early in the year that it would be easy to cut taxes, control spending, and balance the budget. And I did the same thing late in the year. Unfortunately, there is no desire in Washington to restrain the growth of Leviathan. Sooner or later, this is going to generate very bad economic and political developments.
  • Venezuela’s tyrannical regime is still standing – Since I had hoped the awful socialist government would collapse, the fact that nothing has changed in Venezuela counts as bad news. Actually, some things have changed. The economy is getting worse and worse.
  • The Export-Import Bank is still alive – With total GOP control of Washington, one would hope this egregious dispenser of corporate welfare would be gone. Sadly, the swamp is winning this battle.

Tomorrow, I’ll do a new version of my annual hopes-and-fears column.

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Now that we have a final bill rather than a mere “agreement in principle,” let’s step back and consider some implications of tax reform.

There are three reasons to be pleased and one reason to worry.

Win: Less-destructive federal tax code

There are several provisions of the tax bill that will boost the economy, most notably dropping the federal corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. Slightly lower individual tax rates will also help growth, as will provisions such as the expanded death tax exemption and the mitigation of the alternative minimum tax.

How much faster will the economy perform? There are several estimates, with microeconomic-based models predicting better outcomes that Keynesian-based models. Here are some findings from two market-based models.

From the Tax Foundation:

…we estimate that the plan would increase long-run GDP by 1.7 percent. The larger economy would translate into 1.5 percent higher wages and result in an additional 339,000 full-time equivalent jobs. Due to the larger economy and the broader tax base, the plan would generate $600 billion in additional permanent revenue over the next decade on a dynamic basis. Overall, the plan would decrease federal revenues by $1.47 trillion on a static basis and by $448 billion on a dynamic basis.

From the Heritage Foundations:

We project that the final bill will increase the level of gross domestic product (GDP) in the long run by 2.2 percent. To put that number in perspective, the increase in GDP translates into an increase of just under $3,000 per household. Though we only estimate the change in GDP over the long run, most of the increase in GDP would likely occur within the 10-year budget window. …the final bill would increase the capital stock related to equipment by 4.5 percent, and the capital stock related to structures by 9.4 percent. We also estimate that the number of hours worked would increase by 0.5 percent.

And here is an estimate from a partially market-based model at the Joint Committee on Taxation:

We estimate that this proposal would increase the level of output (as measured by real Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) by about 0.7 percent on average over the 10-year budget window. That increase in output would increase revenues, relative to the conventional estimate of a loss of $1,436.8 billion by about $483 billion over that period. This budget effect would be partially offset by an increase in interest payments on the Federal debt of about $55 billion over the budget period. We expect that both an increase in GDP and resulting additional revenues would continue in the second decade after enactment, although at a lower level.*

And here is an estimate from a Keynesian-oriented model at the Tax Policy Center:

We find the legislation would boost US gross domestic product (GDP) 0.8 percent in 2018 and would have little effect on GDP in 2027 or 2037. The resulting increase in taxable incomes would reduce the revenue loss arising from the legislation by $186 billion from 2018 to 2027 (around 13 percent).

For what it’s worth, the market-based (or microeconomic-based) models are more accurate since they are based on the impact of tax-rate changes on incentives to engage in productive behavior.

That being said, proponents of tax reform should not expect Hong Kong-style growth. First, this is only a modest version of tax reform, not a game-changing step such as a simple and fair flat tax. As George Will opined today, “On a scale of importance from one (negligible) to 10 (stupendous), the legislation might be a three.”

Second, keep in mind that fiscal policy only accounts for about 20 percent of a nation’s economic performance. And if taxes and spending each account for half of that grade, policymakers in Washington have positively impacted a variable that determines 10 percent of America’s prosperity.

That may sound discouraging, but even small differences in economic growth make a big difference if sustained over time. As I noted in 2014:

…very modest changes in annual growth, if sustained over time, can yield big increases in household income. … long-run growth will average only 2.3% over the next 75 years. If good tax policy simply raised annual growth to 2.5%, it would mean about $4,500 of additional income for the average household within 25 years.

Win: Pressure for better tax policy in other nations

I consider myself to be the world’s bigger cheerleader and advocate of tax competition. I’ve even risked getting thrown in jail to promote fiscal rivalry between nations. And I’ve written several times about how this tax reform package is good because it will encourage better tax policy abroad (see here, here, and here).

I’ll bolster my argument today by sharing some excerpts from a Wall Street Journal editorial.

German economists at the Center for European Economic Research (ZEW) released a study last week finding that U.S. corporate tax reform will sharply improve incentives for foreigners to invest in America—at the expense of high-tax countries such as Germany. …In the ZEW model, U.S. firms needed a return of around 7.6% for an investment to be profitable under pre-reform tax law, compared to an EU average of 6%, and 5.7% in low-tax Ireland. The U.S. reform changes all this. America’s statutory and effective corporate rates will both be near the EU average, essentially even with Britain and the Netherlands and well below France (a 39% headline rate) and Germany (31%). …Companies from low-tax Ireland, high-tax Germany and the EU as a whole would all see their effective tax rates and their cost of capital for U.S. investment plummet under the reform.

Another German think tank reached a similar conclusion.

US administrations have refrained from any major corporate tax reform since that implemented by Reagan in 1986. This passivity has been remarkable in the sense that most industrial countries have put forward considerable corporate tax cuts in the last decades. This long period of inaction has now come to an end. …Without doubt, this far reaching corporate tax reform of the largest economy will change the setting of international tax competition.

And how will it change the setting?

First, a caveat. The German study looked at the likely impact of a 20-percent corporate rate, so keep in mind that updated numbers to reflect the 21-percent rate in the final deal would look slightly different.

Second, the corporate tax burden in the United States is still going to higher than the European average, even after the 21-percent rate is implemented. Here’s a chart from the German study and I’ve highlighted the current U.S. position and the post-tax reform position (“US_20%_Dep” is where we would be if “expensing” had been included).

Third, even though the reduction in the corporate rate is just a modest step in the right direction, it’s going to yield major benefits.

The US tax reform will affect the net-of-tax profitability of both inbound and outbound FDI as well as domestic investments. …in the case of Germany the reduction in the tax burden for German FDI in the US outweighs the reduction of the tax burden for US outbound FDI in Germany by almost factor 3. …FDI stocks in a country increases by 2.49% if the tax rate is reduced by one percentage point. … despite the overall expansion after the US tax reform which is expected to foster FDI in all countries, the US will benefit disproportionally by additional inward FDI. This comes at the cost of European countries which will face increasing outbound FDI flows to the US which are not accompanied with inbound FDI flows from the US in the same amount. …After the implementation of the US corporate tax reform, manufacturing FDI be particularly expanded. The US will attract additional inbound FDI of 113.5 billion EUR from investors located in the EU28. … European high-tax jurisdictions such as Germany will most likely be confronted with a higher net outflow of investments than European low-tax jurisdictions such as Ireland. Ultimately, the European high-tax jurisdictions will lose ground in the competition for FDI.

And here’s another chart from the study. It shows that it will be somewhat more profitable for U.S. companies to compete abroad, and a lot more profitable for foreign investors to put money in America.

Win: Pressure for better state tax policy

As I’ve repeatedly argued, getting rid of the deduction for state and local taxes is a very desirable policy. On the federal level, it’s good because that reform frees up some revenue that can be used to offset lower tax rates. On the state level, it’s good because politicians in high-tax areas will now feel a lot of pressure to lower tax rates.

Or, if you look at the glass being half empty, they’ll feel pressure not to further increase tax rates.

The Wall Street Journal has a new editorial on this topic, asking “how much will they have to cut income-tax rates to retain and attract the high-income earners who finance so much of their state budgets?”

The mere possibility is caused great angst in some circles.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last weekend declared that the GOP bill’s limit on the state-and-local tax deduction will trigger “an economic civil war” between high- and low-tax states. California Governor Jerry Brown has likened Republicans to “mafia thugs” while Mr. Cuomo calls the bill a “dagger at the economic heart of New York.”

Though only a select slice of taxpayers will be impacted, and some of them are in red states.

…the tax math will be tricky for many high-earners in states with the highest tax rates. …high earners in states with top rates exceeding 6.56% could see their tax bills increase. The nearby table shows the 17 states with top income-tax rates exceeding 6.56%. The four with the highest income tax rates have Democratic Governors—California, New York, Oregon and Minnesota—and liberal political cultures heavily influenced by public unions. …Iowa ranks fifth with a top rate of 8.98% that hits at a mere $70,785 for married couples, which is more punitive than even New Jersey’s 8.87% that hits households making more than $500,000. Wisconsin (7.65%), Idaho (7.4%), South Carolina (7%), Arkansas (6.9%) and Nebraska (6.84%) are among Donald Trump -voting states that also make the high-tax list. …This ought to put pressure on high-tax Midwestern states such as Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota to reduce their rates.

But the ultra-high-tax blue states are the ones that will really feel the squeeze to lower tax rates.

…limiting the deduction will increase the existing rate divide between high- and low-tax states. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have been losing billions of dollars each year in adjusted gross income from high earners fleeing to lower tax climes like Florida. Nevada will become an even more attractive tax haven for wealthy Californians. The problem is more acute when you consider that the top 1% of earners pay nearly 50% of state income taxes in California and New York, and 37% in New Jersey. States may experience significant budget carnage if more high earners defect. To head off a high-earner revolt, Mr. Cuomo could seek to eliminate the millionaire’s tax he campaigned against in 2010 but has repeatedly extended. Mr. Brown could campaign to repeal the 3% surcharge on millionaires he championed in 2012.

Loss: Failure to restrain federal spending puts tax reform at risk

Now that we’ve looked at three reasons to be optimistic about tax reform, let’s close with some grim news.

Republicans could have produced a far bolder tax reform plan had they been willing to restrain spending. That didn’t happen.

Instead, they only were able to produce a tax bill that featured a very modest – and temporary – amount of tax relief.

And because they were constrained by the budget numbers, many of the provisions impacting individuals are sunset at the end of 2025.

It’s not just a question of not doing the right thing. Republicans are actually making matters worse on the spending side of the budget. They are busting the budget caps and doing a lot of so-called emergency spending.

All this will come back to bite them when it’s time extend (or, better yet, make permanent) the provisions that are scheduled to expire. The bottom line if that it’s impossible to have a good tax code with an ever-growing burden of government spending.

* The Joint Committee on Taxation estimate is for the House-passed version of tax reform. An estimate of the final bill hasn’t been released, though it presumably will be similar.

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I don’t focus much on media bias because journalists generally aren’t dishonest. Instead, they choose which stories to highlight or downplay based on what advances their political agenda. Though every so often I’ll highlight an example of where bias leads to an egregious (maybe even deliberately dishonest) mistake.

Now we have an addition to that collection from a WonkBlog column in the Washington Post. The piece starts with an accurate observation that the tax plan on Capitol Hill isn’t a long-run tax cut.

Senate rules require the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act not to add to the federal deficit after 10 years. …The bill aims to cut corporate taxes in perpetuity…but they actually need to raise money to offset the permanent corporate tax reduction.

Yes, as I wrote two weeks ago, the long-run tax cuts have to be offset by long-run revenue increases. So that part of the column is fine.

We then get this rather dubious assertion.

Republicans are paying for a permanent cut for corporations with an under-the-radar tax increase on individuals.

In part, it’s a dodgy claim because there are provisions in the bill that collect more revenue from companies, such as the partial loss of interest deductibility and various base erosion rules. So if he wanted to be accurate, the author should have begun that sentence with “Republicans are partially paying for…”

But that’s only part of the problem. As you can see from this next excerpt, he cites a former Democrat staffer and doubles down on the allegation that individual taxpayers will be coughing up more money to Uncle Sam because of the legislation.

This chart, playing off what the Senate’s former top tax aide and New York University professor Lily Batchelder pointed out on Twitter on Friday evening, makes vividly clear where Republicans ultimately raise that money. …we know it’s individual taxpayers who ultimately bear the cost of the tax bill.

And here’s the chart that ostensibly shows that you and me are going to pay more money so evil corporations can enjoy a tax cut.

Notice, however, the part I circled in green. It shows that Republicans are repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate as part of their tax reform plan, and it also shows that repeal has budgetary effects.

So how is this a tax increase (the pink portion of the bar chart), as the Washington Post wants us to believe?

Needless to say, the honest answer is that it isn’t a tax hike. Getting rid of the mandate means people won’t get “fined” by the IRS if they choose not to buy health insurance. If anything, that should count as a tax cut.

But that’s not what’s represented by the pink part of the bar chart. Instead, it shows that when you get rid of the mandate and consumers choose not to get Obamacare policies, that automatically means that insurance companies will get fewer subsidies from Uncle Sam (getting access to that cash was one of the reasons the big insurance companies lobbied for Obamacare).

In other words, the chart actually is showing that corporate rate reduction is partially financed by a reduction in spending, which is a win-win from my perspective.

By the way, you don’t have to believe me. On page 9 of the Joint Committee on Taxation’s revenue estimate (which presumably will be posted on the JCT website at some point), you find this footnote about the “outlay effect” of repealing the mandate.

At the risk of stating the obvious, an “outlay effect” is when a change in law causes a shift in government spending. That’s what’s happening, not a tax increase on individuals.

By the way, the author sort of admits this is true in a passage buried near the bottom of the column.

…a number of analysts argue that it’s wrong to consider the loss of insurance related to the end of the ACA mandate a tax increase, because it reflects individuals’ choice not to get insurance.

That’s a pathetic attempt at justifying a dishonest article.

Here’s the bottom line.

  1. Individuals will be paying less money to the IRS because of this provision, not more.
  2. The fiscal impact of the provision is less spending, not more tax revenue.

Sadly, most readers will have no idea that they were deliberately misled.

P.S. The “alternative inflation measure” in the bill (the red portion of the bar chart) arguably is a tax increase. Or, for those who persuasively argue that it’s a more accurate measure, it’s a provision that will result in individual taxpayers sending more money to Uncle Sam compared to current law since the new measure (chained CPI) will result in smaller inflation adjustments to tax brackets and the standard deduction.

P.P.S. If repealing just one small piece of Obamacare will save about $300 billion over the next decade, imagine how much money we could save if the entire law was repealed.

P.P.P.S. Since I’ve previously explained how politicians use alchemy to turn spending increases into tax cuts, I guess it’s not surprising that some folks are using the same magic to turn spending cuts into tax increases.

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Adopting tax reform (even a watered-down version of tax reform) is not easy.

  • Some critics say it will deprive the federal government of too much money (a strange argument since it will be a net tax increase starting in 2027).
  • Some critics say it will make it more difficult for state and local governments to raise tax rates (they’re right, but that’s a selling point for reform).
  • Some critics say it will make debt less attractive for companies compared to equity (they’re right, though that’s another selling point for reform).
  • Some critics say it will cause capital to shift from residential real estate to business investment (they’re right, but that’s a good thing for the economy).

Now there’s a new obstacle to tax reform. Senator Marco Rubio says he wants some additional tax relief for working families. And he’s willing to impose a higher corporate tax rate to make the numbers work.

That proposal was not warmly received by his GOP colleagues since the 20-percent corporate rate was perceived as their biggest achievement.

But now Republicans are contemplating a 21-percent corporate rate so they have wiggle room to lower the top personal tax rate to 37 percent. Which prompted Senator Rubio to issue a sarcastic tweet about the priorities of his colleagues.

Since tax reform is partly a political exercise, with politicians allocating benefits to various groups of supporters, there’s nothing inherently accurate or inaccurate about Senator Rubio’s observation.

But since I inhabit the wonky world of public finance economics, I want to explain today that there are some adverse consequences to Rubio’s preferred approach.

Simply stated, not all tax cuts are created equal. If the goal is faster economic growth, lawmakers should concentrate on “supply-side” reforms, such as reducing marginal tax rates on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship (in which case, it’s a judgement call on whether it’s best to lower the corporate tax rate or the personal tax rate).

By contrast, family-oriented tax relief (a $500 lower burden for each child in a household, for instance) is much less likely to impact incentives to engage in productive behavior.

Most supporters of family tax relief would agree with this economic analysis. But they would say economic growth is not the only goal of tax reform. They would say that it’s also important to make sure various groups get something from the process. So if big businesses are getting a lower corporate rate, small businesses are getting tax relief, and investors are getting less double taxation, isn’t it reasonable to give families a tax cut as well?

As a political matter, the answer is yes.

But here’s my modest contribution to this debate. And I’m going to cite one of my favorite people, myself! Here’s an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal column back in 2014.

The most commonly cited reason for family-based tax relief is to raise take-home pay. That’s a noble goal, but it overlooks the fact that there are two ways to raise after-tax incomes. Child-based tax cuts are an effective way of giving targeted relief to families with children… The more effective policy—at least in the long run—is to boost economic growth so that families have more income in the first place. Even very modest changes in annual growth, if sustained over time, can yield big increases in household income. … long-run growth will average only 2.3% over the next 75 years. If good tax policy simply raised annual growth to 2.5%, it would mean about $4,500 of additional income for the average household within 25 years. This is why the right kind of tax policy is so important.

Now let’s put this in visual form.

Let’s imagine a working family with a modest income. What’s best for them, a $1,000 tax cut because they have a couple of kids or some supply-side tax policy that produces faster growth?

In the short run, compared to the option of doing nothing (silver line), both types of tax reform benefit this hypothetical family with $25,000 of income in 2017.

But the family tax relief (blue line) is better for their household budget than supply-side tax cuts (orange line).

But what if we look at a longer period of time?

Here’s the same data, but extrapolated for 50 years. And since there’s universal agreement that the status quo is not good for our hypothetical family, let’s simply focus on the difference between family tax relief (again, blue line) and supply-side tax cuts (orange line).

And what we find is that the family actually has more income with supply-side reform starting in 2026 and the gap gets larger with each subsequent year. In the long run, the family is much better off with supply-side tax policies.

To be sure, I’ve provided an artificial example. If you assume growth only increases to 2.4 percent rather than 2.5 percent, the numbers are less impressive. Moreover, what if the additional growth only lasts for a period of time and then reverts back to 2.3 percent?

And keep in mind that money in the future is not as valuable as money today, so the net benefit of picking supply-side tax cuts would not be as large using “present value” calculations.

Last but not least, the biggest caveat is that these two charts are based on the example in my Wall Street Journal column and are not a comparison of the different growth rates that might result from a 20-percent corporate tax rate compared to a 21-percent rate (even a wild-eyed supply-side economist wouldn’t project that much additional growth from a one-percentage-point difference in tax rates).

In other words, I’m not trying to argue that a supply-side tax cut is always the answer. Heck, even supply-side reform plans such as the flat tax include very generous family-based allowances, so there’s a consensus that taxpayers should be able to protect some income from tax and that those protections should be based on family size.

Instead, the point of this column is simply to explain that there’s a tradeoff. When politicians devote more money to family tax relief and less money to supply-side tax cuts, that will reduce the pro-growth impact of a tax plan. And depending on the level of family tax relief and the amount of foregone growth, it’s quite possible that working families will be better off with supply-side reforms.

P.S. A separate problem with Senator Rubio’s approach is that he wants his family tax relief to be “refundable,” which is a technical term for a provision that gives a tax cut to people who don’t pay tax. Needless to say, it’s impossible to give a tax cut to someone who isn’t paying tax. The real story is that “refundable tax cuts” are actually government spending. But instead of having a program where people sign up for government checks, the spending is laundered through the tax code.

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In early November, I reviewed the House’s tax plan and the Senate’s tax plan.

I was grading on a curve. I wasn’t expecting or hoping for something really bold like a flat tax.

Instead, I simply put forward a wish list of  a few incremental reforms that would make an awful tax system somewhat less punitive.

A few things to make April 15 more bearable.

Some changes that would give the economy a chance to grow faster and create more jobs so that living standards could improve. Is that asking too much?

It wasn’t even a long list. Just two primary goals.

And two secondary goals.

Based on those items, I think House and Senate GOPers did a reasonably good job (at least compared to my low expectations earlier in the year).

Now let’s look at the agreement in principle (AiP) that was just announced by House and Senate negotiators and assign grades to the key provisions. And we’ll start by looking at the items on my wish list.

Is there a big reduction in the corporate tax rate?

Yes. The deal would slash the current 35 percent rate to 21 percent. That’s not as good as 20 percent, but it’s nonetheless a huge improvement that will result in more investment, higher wages, and enhanced competitiveness. And since other nations will face pressure to further reduce their rates, there will be global economic benefits. Final grade: A-

Is the deduction for state and local taxes abolished?

Not completely. The agreement does impose a $10,000 cap on the amount of that can be deducted. Combined with a doubling of the standard deduction, this will significantly reduce the number of people who “itemize.” As such, there will be more resistance to bad tax policy by state and local governments. Final grade: B+

Is the death tax repealed?

Not fully. The deal doubles the exempt amount to more than $10 million, which will protect many more families from this pernicious form of double taxation (and the ones who will still be impacted are the ones with greater ability to protect themselves, albeit at the cost of allocating their capital less efficiently).  Final grade: B

Are special tax preferences for green energy wiped out?

No. This is a very disappointing feature of the agreement. I’m tempted to assign a failing grade, but that low mark should be reserved for provisions that actually are worse than current law. All that’s happening in the deal is that bad policy is being left in place. Final grade: C

A grade for everything else?

There are other provisions in the final deal that are worthy of attention. In most cases, lawmakers did move in the right direction when looking at the key principles of good tax reform (reducing tax rates, reducing double taxation, and reducing distortionary preferences). Final grade B

Here’s a partial list of the other provisions.

  • There is a modest reduction in personal tax rates, including a reduction in the top rate on households from 39.6 percent to 37 percent. It’s always good to lower marginal tax rates, especially for high earners.
  • The tax rate on pass-through businesses (i.e., smaller businesses that file personal tax returns rather than corporate returns) is indirectly reduced. This is good news, though it may lead to more complexity.
  • Full expensing of business investment for next five years. This would be a very good reform if it was permanent, though even temporary expensing is positive
  • The tax preference for housing is curtailed by allowing the write-off of interest only on mortgages up to $750,000. This is an improvement over current law, especially when combined with the higher standard deduction.
  • The corporate alternative minimum tax is abolished. This is good news.
  • The Obamacare individual mandate is repealed. This is good news, though it doesn’t solve the underlying problems with that law.
  • The individual alternative minimum tax is curtailed. Repeal would have been better, but this is an improvement over current law.

I’ll close with a caveat. An AiP is not the same as final legislative language. It’s not the same as votes for final passage in the House. Or the Senate. And it’s not the same as a presidential signature on a bill.

Aficianados of “public choice” are painfully aware that politicians and interest groups are depressingly clever about preserving their goodies. So while it seems like tax reform is going to happen, it’s not a done deal. When dealing with Washington, it’s wise to assume the worst.

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Both the House and Senate have approved reasonably good tax reform plans.

Lawmakers are now in a “conference committee” to iron out the differences between the two bills so that a consensus package can be a approved and sent to the White House for the President’s signature.

Sounds like we’re on the verge of getting a less-destructive tax system, right?

I hope so, but there are still some major hurdles. The conference committee has a difficult task. They’re only allowed $1.5 trillion in tax relief in the short run and have to produce a bill that is “revenue neutral” in the long run. That won’t be easy in an environment where interest groups are putting heavy pressure on lawmakers.

I joked that doing tax reform with these restrictions is like trying to fit an NFL lineman in Pee Wee Herman’s clothes. But the serious point is that genuine tax reform requires some revenue-raising provisions to offset the parts of the bill that reduce revenue.

Needless to say, the right way of doing this is by going after economically harmful tax preferences. I’ve already written (over and over and over again) that the deduction for state and local taxes should be on the chopping block. To their credit, lawmakers are curtailing that loophole.

Today, I want to make the case that housing preferences in the tax code also should be targeted. I’m not naive enough to think politicians are suddenly going to decide to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction. But the bills – especially the House version – slightly curtail preferences for housing and it would be nice if they went a bit further.

That would free up more revenue for pro-growth tax cuts and also be smart policy. Let’s look at what some expert voices, starting with market-oriented people.

Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute explains the provisions in the House bill for the Wall Street Journal.

Tax reform could make housing more affordable. Done correctly, it could increase the supply of homes by reducing federal tax subsidies for homeownership. The House’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act furthers this aim in several ways—by raising the standard deduction, capping new loans qualifying for the mortgage-interest deduction at $500,000, eliminating the deduction on loans for second homes and the deduction on cashing out home equity, and capping the property-tax deduction at $10,000.

The Senate bill raises the standard deduction as well, but otherwise basically gives housing a pass. In the conference committee, Senators should agree to the House approach. Pinto explains that homeownership will be higher with less “help” from Washington.

…the House tax bill would create about 870,000 additional available units over 10 years. This represents a boost of 14% (the current build rate will yield about 6.2 million units over 10 years). Cutting homeowner subsidies out of the tax code provides other important benefits. The percentage of mortgage holders who itemize would drop from about 60% to 12%. This would free nearly half of mortgaged homeowners from a massive federal tax incentive hanging over their financial decisions, thereby greatly reducing the market-distorting impact produced by the interest deduction. …Lower prices due to loss of subsidies will ultimately allow more low-wealth Americans to become homeowners, since less cash will be needed to close a purchase. Rents will remain roughly constant as house prices decline, thus reducing the cost of homeownership compared with renting—another positive outcome. …It is time to put the interests of taxpayers and aspiring homeowners ahead of the interests of the housing lobby. Tax reform—especially if the final bill fully implements the House’s subsidy cuts—will improve the housing market and make homeownership more accessible to all.

Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University of Georgia (home of the national championship-bound Bulldogs, I can’t resist pointing out) discusses the issue in Forbes.

About 64% of Americans own a house. Roughly two-thirds of those homeowners have a mortgage. Only 6% of all mortgages are for $500,000 or more. Put all those numbers together and you will find that home builders and realtors think their world is ending over policy changes to the mortgage interest deduction that impact only about 2.5% of American households. Plus, existing mortgages are grandfathered in, so anyone who purchased a home expecting the deduction will continue to enjoy it. …doubling the standard deduction means fewer people will itemize, meaning fewer will use the mortgage interest deduction. Importantly, those households that stop itemizing are doing so because the newly enlarged standard deduction provides them a lower tax burden. Households that have more after-tax income have more money to spend on houses, mortgage payments, and everything else in the economy. Housing is not being made unaffordable by the proposed tax reform since the vast majority of Americans will receive a moderate tax cut under the plan. Home builders and realtors seem concerned that a few rich Americans might not buy as expensive houses without as big a tax break, even though they will have more disposable income. …Housing depends much more on disposable income, the health of the job market, and Americans’ confidence in the economic future than it does on tax breaks. Don’t listen to the real estate industry; they will be just fine if the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passes.

George Will is not a fan of housing preferences in the tax code.

…only around 30 percent of taxpayers itemize their deductions. …not even half of all homeowners use the deduction. …the unpleasantness of 2008 demonstrated the downside of encouraging too much homeownership. Furthermore, the deduction might actually suppress homeownership by being priced into rising housing costs. Besides, Australia, Canada and Britain, which have no mortgage interest deductions, have homeownership rates comparable to that of the United States. …Homeownership is…not an investment because “it does not improve the productive capacity of the economy.” Indeed, the more money that flows into housing, the less flows into stocks, bonds or banks.

Amen. We should have learned from 2008 that it’s bad news for government to muck around in housing.

Yet some politicians can’t resist because of their desire to buy votes.

Kevin Williamson of National Review adds his two cents.

It’s time for…a proposal to reduce or eliminate the mortgage-interest deduction, a tax subsidy that makes having a big mortgage on an expensive house relatively attractive to affluent households… Do not hold your breath waiting for the inequality warriors to congratulate Republicans for proposing…significant tax increases on the rich. …Slate economics editor Jordan Weissmann, who is not exactly Grover Norquist on the question of taxes, describes the mortgage-interest deduction as “an objectively horrible piece of public policy that should be reformed,” and it is difficult to disagree with him. It distorts the housing market in favor of higher prices, which is great if you are old and rich and own a house or three like Bernie Sanders but stinks if you are young and strapped and looking to buy a house. It encourages buyers to take on more debt at higher interest rates than they probably would without the deduction, and almost all of the benefits go to well-off households in the top income quintile. It is the classic example of upper-class welfare. …mortgage subsidies are not randomly distributed. The mortgage-interest deduction is much more important to rich people in San Francisco, where the median home price exceeds $1 million, than it is to middle-class people in Tulsa, where the median home price is about $110,000. …The best course of action would be to eliminate the mortgage-interest deduction entirely over a relatively short period of time, say five years. …it is difficult to make a compelling case that subsidizing Lena Dunham’s mortgage on her $5 million Brooklyn apartment (or helping out whoever took that $4.2 million Trump apartment off Keith Olbermann’s hands) needs to be a top national policy priority.

Writing for the City Journal, Howard Husock explains why the deduction is bad policy.

…the deduction should be pruned or eliminated—not just because it is inequitable but also because it distorts the housing market. Currently, a taxpayer can deduct interest on a mortgage up to $1.1 million—substantially more than the median U.S. home value ($203,000). Not surprisingly, the Government Accountability Office has found that higher-income households are generally more likely to use the mortgage-interest and property-tax deductions. In 2008, the most recent tax year for which data are available, taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes of $100,000 or more “accounted for 13 percent of all returns but claimed nearly half (47 percent) of all mortgage interest and property tax deductions.” …The core problem with the MID, though, lies in how it affects housing markets. Inevitably, any policy that provides a tax reduction for those who buy or own homes increases the price of housing, through the implicit promise that the tax code will lower the effective house payments. MID supporters say that it encourages homeownership, but the Urban Institute finds that it mostly “rewards affluent households who would have bought homes anyway,” …Not surprisingly, the homebuilders lobby—among the hardiest of Washington swamp creatures—is fighting the proposal. …Reducing tax deductions that put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage should not be impeded by a special-interest group that has achieved its purported social goal—homeownership—in the U.S. at a rate (64 percent) that lags that of Canada (67 percent), where mortgage interest is not deductible.

Even folks on the left realize that housing preferences are bad policy.

Here are some excerpts from a Slate column.

It also must be said that the mortgage interest deduction is an objectively horrible piece of public policy that should be reformed. Currently, it’s an estimated $80 billion-plus subsidy that disproportionately helps upper-middle-class and wealthy households—according to the Tax Policy Center, 72 percent of its benefits go to the highest-earning 20 percent of taxpayers. This is to be expected, since wealthier people can buy larger houses and take out bigger mortgages. It also explains much of its political invulnerability; people who earn low- to mid-six-figures vote and very much treasure their slice of the welfare state that’s submerged in our tax code. But as a result, the deduction mostly encourages people who could have afforded homes anyway to buy bigger. Research has shown it does little if anything to expand homeownership overall, and may actually discourage it among younger American by driving up prices.

Derek Thompson of the Atlantic points out that housing preferences are a reverse from of class warfare.

Although about two-thirds of American households own a home, only one-quarter of them claim the deduction…households earning more than $100,000 receive almost 90 percent of the benefits. …it makes it harder for poor renters to join the class of homeowners. …Desmond writes, “a 15-story public housing tower and a mortgaged suburban home are both government-subsidized, but only one looks (and feels) that way.”

Scholars also find he deduction is not good policy.

A just-released academic study confirms that the right kind of tax reform will be very good for society, the economy, and homeownership.

The model demonstrates that repealing the regressive mortgage interest deduction decreases housing consumption by the wealthy, increases aggregate homeownership, improves overall welfare, and leads to a decline in aggregate mortgage debt. The mechanisms behind these results are intuitive. When both house prices and rents are allowed to adjust, the repeal of the mortgage interest deduction decreases house prices because, ceteris paribus, the after-tax cost of occupying a square foot of housing has risen. Reduced house prices allow low wealth, credit-constrained households to become homeowners because the minimum down payment required to purchase a house falls. At the same time, the elimination of the tax favored status of mortgages, acting in concert with the fall in equilibrium house prices, causes unconstrained households to reduce their mortgage debt. Because rents remain roughly constant as house prices decline, homeownership becomes cheaper relative to renting, which further re-enforces the positive effect of eliminating the mortgage interest deduction on homeownership. Importantly, the expected lifetime welfare of a newborn household rises because the tax reform shifts housing consumption from high income households (the main beneficiaries of the tax subsidy in its current form) to lower income families for whom the additional shelter consumption is relatively more valuable.

Now let’s look at experts who have strong arguments against the deduction, but who also comment on the distasteful role of special interests.

Matt Mitchell and Tad DeHaven, in a column for U.S. News & World Report, point out that the only real beneficiary of the deduction are interest groups (I call them swamp creatures) that want homeowners to go into debt in order to spend more money.

Motivated in part by a need to find revenue offsets for its broader tax cut proposal, the House has proposed to reduce the amount of mortgage debt taxpayers may deduct interest on from $1.1 million to $500,000; the Senate version would slightly reduce it to $1 million. But even these modest reforms have raised the ire of Big Housing. Indeed, even if both chambers had proposed to leave the mortgage interest deduction alone, this powerful lobby would still be upset that Congressional Republicans intend to raise the standard deduction: Doing so would cause fewer taxpayers to itemize, which means fewer people would claim the deduction. … the mortgage interest tax deduction…benefits wealthier Americans and the housing lobby at the expense of the majority of taxpayers, who receive no benefit…even the benefit for wealthier taxpayers is illusory “because the tax gains to homeowners are largely offset by increases in home prices.” That leaves the powerful housing lobby – represented most prominently by the National Association of Realtors and National Association of Homebuilders – as the real beneficiary. …why, then, has Big Housing fought so hard to keep the mortgage interest deduction? The answer is that although the deduction doesn’t affect home ownership, it does incentivize people to purchase more expensive homes. That translates into more money for realtors and home builders. And because the deduction is taken against the interest payment and not the down payment, it encourages home buyers to put more of the purchase on credit. So in reality, the deduction encourages home-borrowship, not homeownership. Did we mention that the Mortgage Bankers Association is also a prominent defender of the mortgage interest deduction?

Since we’re on the topic of swamp creatures, Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner explains that housing preferences are bad for families and good for interest groups.

That means a married couple who rents (or owns a modest house, say, less than $225,000) making $70,000 would probably see their federal income taxes fall by 25 percent. Some lower-income families — including homeowners — would have their federal income tax liability wiped out. Middle-class families who currently itemize their deductions (because they spend more $12,600 a year on mortgage interest and charitable giving) would have their taxes go down, and their tax-filing simplified. …Will this lower home prices? Probably yes, because the value of this deduction gets priced into homes. That is, this deduction wasn’t really helping homeowners anyway. Who was the deduction helping? Mortgage lenders and homebuilders mostly, also realtors. These are the special interests who created and who fight tirelessly to save this deduction. Removing an economic distortion that has inflated home prices will create some losers, sure, but that doesn’t make it bad. Inflated home prices have stultified mobility, delayed family formation, increased household debt, and otherwise tied up families’ assets.

Tom Giovanetti of the Institute for Policy Innovation also criticizes the interest groups defending special preferences.

One of the obstacles to fundamental tax reform has always been that there is an entrenched constituency that benefits in some way from every provision in the tax code, and that can be counted on to noisily oppose any change to it. These constituencies are often not taxpayers themselves but business interests that have built a business on a particular tax provision. An obvious example is the residential mortgage interest deduction. …current tax reform plans would increase the standard deduction available to taxpayers who choose not to itemize their deductions. In other words, the real estate industry has a targeted tax preference that is only available to home owners through the itemized deduction, and they don’t want to see that tax preference diluted by a higher standard deduction available to everyone else. This is an obnoxious argument for the real estate industry to be making. Giving a higher standard deduction to those who do not itemize doesn’t take anything away from taxpayers who do, and it would simplify tax filing for many taxpayers because it would make the standard deduction more attractive. Apparently the real estate industry doesn’t want Americans to get a tax break unless they agree to go into massive debt to buy a house.

The Wall Street Journal also opined about the odious role of interest groups.

…doubling the standard deduction…would make the first $24,000 of income for a married couple tax-free. What’s not to like? Plenty, says the housing lobby. The National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) and the National Association of Realtors each bashed the larger standard deduction on grounds that it would make the tax subsidy to their industries less appealing. …a reminder of how misguided the mortgage-interest deduction is. For starters, it distorts the allocation of capital by favoring housing, a form of consumption, over investments that might be more productive and raise everyone’s living standards. The deduction also disproportionately benefits the affluent, who buy more expensive homes with bigger mortgages. A 2013 Congressional Budget Office study found that 75% of the benefit of the mortgage-interest deduction goes to the top 20% of income earners. Two of three American tax filers don’t even itemize, which means they can’t deduct mortgage interest even if they have it. It’s also not clear the mortgage deduction is as critical to home ownership as advocates contend. Canada and Britain have similar rates of home ownership as the U.S. (nearly two thirds of their citizens) without a mortgage-interest deduction. …Republicans should reconsider giving housing a pass. For example, the GOP could limit the amount of mortgage-interest that could be deducted, or limit the deduction to borrowing below, say, $250,000. This would make the tax benefit less tilted to the affluent, and it would also provide more revenue for lower tax rates.

Since the WSJ editorial mentions that Canada has very high homeownership without any loopholes, let’s close today’s column by reviewing some additional global evidence.

In a chapter for a book on tax reform, Bill Gale of Brookings points out that the U.K. dramatically curtailed the tax benefit of housing without any adverse impact on homeownership.

Great Britain conducted a fascinating experiment showing both the political and economic viability of reducing mortgage subsidies.’ When tax subsidies for most forms of borrowing were eliminated in 1974-1975, subsidies for interest on the principal primary residence were retained, subject to a loan limit of £25,000. No subsidies were provided on second homes. The limit was raised to £30,000 in 1983-1984 and has stayed fixed since. …More recently, the subsidy has been provided only up to a fixed rate, set at 25 percent and then reduced to 15 percent for new loans in 1998. The British experience raises several interesting possibilities. …because the £30,000 limit is well below the average new mortgage loan, mortgage subsidies provide no marginal incentive for most taxpayers. …the decline in the value of the mortgage interest subsidy has been gradual, but huge. From 1974 to 1996, the value-thought of as the interest rate times the rate at which the subsidy is taken times the real loan limit-fell by about 90 percent. Nevertheless, finding much of an effect of the policies on the housing sector is difficult. From 1974 to 1994, homeownership rates, the ratio of mortgage debt to GDP, the ratio of mortgage debt to the housing stock, and the ratio of housing to fixed capital rose faster in the United Kingdom than in the United States. …the significant reduction in mortgage subsidies when homeownership rates were rising (by thirteen percentage points from 1974 to 1994) may make the events even more remarkable from a political perspective. The British experience and cross-country evidence that the presence of a deduction for mortgage interest does not greatly influence homeownership rates suggest that the value of subsidies for owner-occupied housing could be reduced.

Charles Hughes of the Manhattan Institute writes about the deduction’s downsides, but the part of his article that I want to highlight is the description of how Denmark curtailed housing preferences with no adverse consequences.

Many areas in the tax code introduce substantial distortions that are ripe for reform. One area is the mortgage interest deduction (MID), which allows claimants to deduct mortgage interest on their primary or secondary residences, up to a certain threshold. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the deduction for mortgage interest will reduce revenue by $72.4 billion this year, and by $234 billion through 2020, making it one of the most expensive tax expenditures in the tax code. Even at this magnitude, only about a quarter of tax filers claim the deduction… A new working paper analyzing the effects of the mortgage interest deduction in Denmark finds that it has no effect on homeownership rates in the long run, and it distorts decision-making about the size and price of which homes to buy. …the economists found no short- or long-run effects on home ownership.

Here’s a chart from that study. As you can see, dramatically curtailing the value of the deduction for mortgage interest did not have any noticeable impact on homeownership.

P.S. If you like the gory details of tax policy, I explained in 2012 that the problem with the tax code and housing isn’t the mortgage interest deduction, per se, but rather the fact that business investment doesn’t get the same treatment as residential real estate.

P.P.S. While lawmakers are debating whether to slightly limit preferences for housing, I should point out that there are two other huge loopholes – the municipal bond interest exemption and the healthcare exclusion – that basically were left untouched. Hopefully they will be on the chopping block for the next installment of tax reform.

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As part of yesterday’s column about the comparatively tiny – and temporary – tax cut in the Republican tax reform plan, I quoted a leftist columnist for US News & World Report, who argued that there should be a big tax increase (including a big tax hike on middle-income taxpayers) and that such a tax hike would not hurt the economy.

Today, I want to address the latter argument about taxes and economic growth. When this topic arises, I normally cite both public-finance theory and empirical research to make the case that taxes do impact economic performance, and I try to always stress that not all taxes are created equal.

And if the focus is corporate taxation, I usually share my primer on the issue, and then link to research from Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

But maybe it will be more persuasive to look at some new academic evidence from a study on U.S. corporate taxes by Professor Eric Ohrn (forthcoming in the American Economic Journal).

If you don’t want to dwell on the details, the paper’s abstract tells you the highlights. Simply stated, a lower corporate rate translates into more investment and less debt.

I exploit quasi-experimental variation created by the Domestic Production Activities Deduction, a corporate tax expenditure created in 2005. A one percentage point reduction in tax rates increases investment by 4.7 percent of installed capital, increases payouts by 0.3 percent of sales, and decreases debt by 5.3 percent of total assets. These estimates suggest that lower corporate tax rates and faster accelerated depreciation each stimulate a similar increase in investment, per dollar in lost revenue.

But hopefully there will be interest in some of the details from the study.

Here’s the problem Professor Ohrn identified.

…relatively little empirical work has been able to directly estimate the effects of a reduction in the corporate income tax rate on business activity. This study provides new evidence on these effects.

His evidence is based on the fact lawmakers created a lower tax rate for America-based manufacturing (a.k.a., the domestic production activities deduction, or DPAD).

In 2005, when the DPAD was implemented, firms could deduct 3 percent of manufacturing income. This rate was scaled to 6 percent in 2007 and 9 percent in 2010, where it remains today. As a result of the policy, after 2010, firms that derive all of their income from domestic manufacturing activities and face the top statutory corporate income tax rate have a 3.15 (= 0.09 × 35 percent) percentage point lower effective tax rate than firms with no domestic manufacturing activities. …I use data provided by the IRS Statistics of Income (SOI) Division. The SOI publishes the aggregate annual dollar values of the DPAD and Net Taxable Income for corporations in 75 unique industries and all businesses in 12 asset-classes (firm size bins).

And what did he find as he looked at the difference between firms with lower tax rates and higher tax rates?

It turns out that even modest differences in tax rates can have a big impact.

I find that the DPAD has a large effect on corporate behavior. A one percentage point reduction in the effective corporate income tax rate via the DPAD increases investment by 4.7 percent of installed capital, increases payouts by 0.3 percent of revenues, and decreases debt usage by 5.3 percent of total assets. …corporations respond strongly to the DPAD, and corporate income tax rate cuts more generally, by increasing investment and payouts and decreasing debt usage. The average firm does not report more taxable income per dollar of asset, suggesting that any increases in revenue generated by corporate tax rate reductions are the product of real effects such as investment but not decreased avoidance activity.

Here are a couple of charts from the study. The dark blue line represents companies with lower tax rates and the dashed line represents the ones with higher tax rates.

And since it’s good to have more investment and good to have less debt, both these findings re very positive.

Interestingly, the benefits of fixing depreciation laws (by moving in the direction of expensing) are quite similar to the benefits of lowering the corporate tax rates.

…a dollar spent by the government stimulates virtually the same amount of investment whether it is used to reduce corporate tax rates or accelerate depreciation expenses.

I hate to digress, but I can’t resist pointing out that I’m irked by the language about “a dollar spent by the government.” Professor Ohrn certainly seems to be a rigorous and capable economist, but he has a bit of a moral blind spot. If the federal government adopts a policy that allows a business to keep more of the money it earns, that is not “a dollar spent” by government.

Unless you have the bizarre mindset of some statists who think all output belongs to the state.

Anyhow, back to regularly scheduled programming.

We’re now at a critical point in the battle for tax reform. The House passed its version and now the Senate has passed its version. The good news is that there’s strong agreement on Capitol Hill to slash the corporate tax rate.

This latest study underscores why that reform will boost investment. And remember, when investment increases, that translates into higher wages for workers.

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Since the House has passed a tax cut and the Senate has passed a tax cut, it’s quite likely that there will be a consensus deal that will be signed into law.

Which makes me happy since any agreement presumably will include a lower corporate tax rate and the elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes.

But some folks don’t think this is good news.

Writing for U.S. News & World Report, Pat Garofalo argues that taxes should be going up.

The entire bill is premised off the belief that taxes are too high and need to go down, when the opposite is actually true. …the U.S. is, by developed country standards, a very low-tax country. It raises about a quarter of its gross domestic product in revenue at all levels of government, compared to about a third in the rest of the developed world, and well more than 40 percent in some countries. For the last several decades, the U.S. at the federal level alone has raised roughly 18 percent of GDP in taxes, while spending around 20 percent. Sorry, but that just doesn’t cut it. …other countries prove there’s plenty of room to raise more revenue without kneecapping economic growth. …America’s concentration of wealth is such that there’s plenty of room to raise taxes on the rich with nary an economic blip… it is possible, as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., does all the time, to make a case that, yes, taxes on the middle class will go up, but that the benefits will be more than worth it.

I won’t bother responding to all his inaccurate assertions, but I will give Mr. Garofalo credit for honesty. Unlike a lot of folks on the left, he openly acknowledges that the middle class will have to be pillaged to finance a European-style welfare state. I’ll add him to my list of honest leftists.

But honesty is not the same as accuracy.

Chris Edwards put together a very helpful chart showing federal taxes and revenues as a share of economic output. As you can see, America’s real fiscal problem is government spending. The tax cut being considered on Capitol Hill only causes a small – and completely temporary – drop in revenues.

This is such good information that it deserves a closer look.

I decided to look at the raw year-to-year numbers. I got the latest 10-year budget projections from the Congressional Budget Office, as well as the 10-year projections for the Senate tax bill from the Joint Committee on Taxation (the House bill’s numbers are very similar, so these figures presumably are a very accurate proxy of any final package).

Let’s start with a look at the annual baseline revenues (blue) and annual baseline spending (orange), along with the annual post-tax cut revenues (grey). As you can see, there’s very little difference in the two revenue lines. There’s some short-run aggregate tax relief, but that quickly begins to shrink. And by the 10th year, the federal government actually will be collecting more revenue!

Some people nonetheless will oppose even a tiny and temporary tax cut. They will claim they want to balance the budget (though oftentimes these are the same people who supported the faux stimulus and wanted the new Obamacare entitlement, so judge for yourself whether they are sincere).

Even in the unlikely event that they are sincere, their complaints don’t make sense since revenues will be higher after 10 years. And that’s not even properly considering the impact of additional economic growth, which would cause tax receipts to grow even faster.

But let’s set that aside and consider what would be necessary to balance the budget over the 10-year budget window. Earlier this year, I calculated that it would be possible to balance the budget and enact a $3 trillion tax cut so long as politicians would simply restrain federal spending so that it grew by 1.96 percent per year.

Based on the most recent numbers (and starting the spending restraint in 2019 rather than 2018), the budget can be balanced if federal spending grows by 2.67 percent annually. Since that’s much faster than what would be necessary to keep pace with inflation (projected to average about 2 percent per year), this wouldn’t require any “harsh” austerity.

By the way, if you want an example of successful multi-year spending restraint, we had a five-year de facto spending freeze from 2009-2014 (yes, those fights over debt limits, sequestration, and government shutdowns produced a big payoff).

Heck, when Clinton was in the White House, overall government spending grew by 3.2 percent annually between 1993 and 1999.

Surely Republicans can beat Bill Clinton’s record, right?

I’ll close by observing that we shouldn’t fixate on balancing the budget in any particular year. It’s much more important to shrink the burden of government spending. And that happens when the private sector grows faster than the federal budget.

To be sure, it’s also a good idea to shrink red ink, at least relative to our ability to finance debt. That happens whenever the private economy grows faster than federal borrowing.

The good news is that spending restraint is the one policy that achieves both goals.

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I have a fantasy of junking the entire corrupt tax system and adopting a simple and fair flat tax.

I have an even bigger fantasy of shrinking the size and scope of the federal government to what America’s Founders intended, in which case Washington wouldn’t need any broad-based tax.

But in the real world, where I know “public choice” determines political behavior, I have much more limited hopes and dreams.

I’ve been saying for months that tax reform will be a worthwhile success if it leads to a significantly lower corporate tax rate and the elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes.

And I recently added repeal of the death tax as a third item that would make me very happy.

Now let’s add a fourth item to my wish-list. The House version of tax reform actually does  a decent job of curtailing some of the egregious distortions that line the pocket of companies that peddle so-called green energy.

I know it must be a decent job since the GOP plan is causing angst for leftist journalists.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives…bill would slash incentives for renewable energy and the electric car industry. Environmental groups are frantic. …The House provision raising the most ire are proposed changes to the renewable electricity production tax credit, which benefits producers of wind, solar, geothermal and other types of renewable energy. …The House GOP plan would also repeal the Investment Tax Credit for big solar projects that start construction after 2027. House Republicans also propose eliminating the $7,500 credit for electric vehicle purchases. …the Senate bill may not include all of the House’s cuts to clean energy.

It is true that the Senate bill is very timid. But given that there will be a lot of pressure to find “offsets” in any final deal, I’m vaguely hopeful that some of the good provisions in the House bill will survive.

Let’s explore why that would be a very good outcome.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center is not a fan of cronyist subsidies to solar energy.

Under President Barack Obama, green energy subsidies were given out like candy. The failure of solar panel company Solyndra is well-known, but the problem extends well beyond the shady loan deal and its half-billion-dollar cost to taxpayers. Between 2010 and 2013, federal subsidies for solar energy alone increased by about 500 percent, from $1.1 billion to $5.3 billion (according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration), and all federal renewable energy subsidies grew from $8.6 billion to $13.2 billion over the same period. …However, that didn’t stop the largest U.S. solar panel manufacturer, SolarWorld, from filing for bankruptcy earlier this year despite $115 million in federal and state grants and tax subsidies since 2012, along with $91 million in federal loan guarantees. SolarWorld and fellow bankrupt manufacturer Suniva are now begging for even more government assistance, in the form of a 40-cent-per-watt tariff on solar imports and a minimum price of 78 cents (including the 40-cent tariff) a watt on solar panels made by foreign manufacturers.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute explains that wind energy is reliant on taxpayer handouts.

…government data shows that offshore wind power cannot survive in a competitive environment without huge taxpayer subsidies. Today, wind power receives subsidies greater than any other form of energy per unit of actual energy produced. …public subsidies for wind on a per megawatt-hour basis are 26 times those for fossil fuels and 16 times those for nuclear power. …The tax credit gives $23 for every megawatt-hour of electricity a wind turbine generates during the first 10 years of operation. …Yet, even with these incentives, only 4.7 percent of the nation’s electricity is currently supplied by wind power and that is entirely wind power from on-land turbines. …Think about it: Four large power plants could produce as much electricity as offshore wind turbines placed side by side along the entire Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Florida. Moreover, power plants last longer than wind turbines. A British study found that turbines need to be replaced within 12 to 15 years, and they must be imported from Europe.

Given the disgusting nature of ethanol subsidies, I wonder whether Mark’s headline can possibly be accurate.

In any event, Senator Alexander of Tennessee agrees that wind subsidies are a bad idea.

As we look at all the wasteful and unnecessary tax breaks that are holding us back, I have a nomination: At the top of the list should be ending the quarter-century-old wind production tax credit now — not two years from now. This giveaway to wind developers was meant to end in 1999 but has been extended by Congress ten different times. While the wind production tax credit is scheduled to be phased out by the end of 2019, we should do better and end it at the end of this year, and use the $4 billion in savings to lower tax rates. …Congress needs to stop its habit of picking winners and losers in the marketplace. Twenty-five years of picking wind developers over more-reliable sources of electricity hasn’t paid off. Imagine what innovation we might unleash if we used the billions wasted on wind energy to invest in research to help our free-enterprise system provide the abundance of cheap, clean, reliable energy we need to power our 21st-century economy.

A recipient of tax preferences discusses his undeserved benefits in a Wall Street Journal column.

…it’s only appropriate that I express appreciation for the generous subsidy you provided for the 28-panel, four-array, 8,540-watt photovoltaic system I installed on my metal roof last year. Thanks to the investment tax credit, I slashed my 2016 federal tax bill by $7,758. …thanks to the incentives for rooftop solar, I’ve snared three subsidies. …fewer rooftop solar projects are being installed in low-income neighborhoods. …According to a study done for the California Public Utility Commission, residents who have installed solar systems have household incomes 68% higher than the state average. Ashley Brown, executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, calls the proliferation of rooftop solar systems and the returns they provide to lucky people like me, “a wealth transfer from less affluent ratepayers to more affluent ones.” It is, Mr. Brown says, “Robin Hood in reverse.” Do I feel bad about being a solar freeloader? Yes, a little. …the local barista or school janitor—people who likely can’t afford solar panels—are paying incrementally more for the grid’s maintenance and operation. And the more that people like me install panels, the more those baristas and janitors have to pay.

By the way, the United States is not the only nation with green-energy boondoggles (remember Solyndra?).

I’ve previously written about the failure of such programs in Germany.

Let’s add to that collection with an all-too-typical story from the United Kingdom.

Britain is wasting hundreds of millions of pounds subsidising power stations to burn American wood pellets that do more harm to the climate than the coal they replaced, a study has found. Chopping down trees and transporting wood across the Atlantic Ocean to feed power stations produces more greenhouse gases than much cheaper coal, according to the report. It blames the rush to meet EU renewable energy targets… Green subsidies for wood pellets and other biomass were championed by Chris Huhne when he was Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary in the coalition government. Mr Huhne, 62, who was jailed in 2013 for perverting the course of justice, is now European chairman of Zilkha Biomass, a US supplier of wood pellets.

In a perverse way, I admire Mr. Huhne, who didn’t follow the usual revolving-door strategy of politician-to-cronyist. He apparently went politician-to-prisoner-to-cronyist.

If you head north in Great Britain, the foolishness mostly revolves around wind power.

…the blackmailing, money-printing sausage factory is a wind farm in Scotland. There are currently about 750 wind farms north of the border, with roughly 3,000 wind turbines. …The wind farms are distributed across Scotland, sometimes in very remote regions, so there is a real problem in getting their energy down to the English border – let alone getting it across. …Why has so much been built? Partly, it is because of income-support subsidies. This top-up of nearly 100 per cent over the wholesale price – funded, of course, from consumer bills – makes wind farms very attractive… Subsidies to onshore wind in the UK now cost a little under £600 million a year, with Scottish wind taking about half, yet the Scottish government continues to ignore the protests and consent to new wind farms as if they cost almost nothing at all. Which as far as Holyrood is concerned, is in fact true. Part of the attraction for Scottish politicians is that the subsidies that pay for Scottish wind farms come from consumers all over Great Britain. Scottish consumption is about 10 per cent of the British total – so when the Scottish government grants planning permission to the wind industry, it is simply writing a cheque drawn overwhelmingly on English and Welsh accounts. …The result is that there is a perverse incentive to locate wind farms in Scotland, even though they aren’t welcome and the grid can’t take their output.

You won’t be surprised to learn, by the way, that taxpayers in the U.K. have been subsidizing green groups.

From an economic perspective, the bottom line is that green energy is more expensive and it requires subsidies that line the pockets of politically connected people and companies. That’s true in America, and it’s true in other nations.

Which is unfortunate, because it gives a bad name to energy sources that probably will be capable of producing low-cost energy in some point in the future.

Indeed, my long-run optimism about green energy is one of the reasons why I’m such a big believer in capitalism and private property. I just don’t want politicians to intervene today and make it harder to achieve future innovation.

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