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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Policy’

Greece has confirmed that a nation can spend itself into a fiscal crisis.

And the Greek experience also has confirmed that bailouts exacerbate a fiscal crisis by enabling more bad policy, while also rewarding spendthrift politicians and reckless lenders (as I predicted when Greece’s finances first began to unravel).

So now let’s look at a third question: Can a country tax itself to death? Greek politicians are doing their best to see if this is possible, with a seemingly endless parade of tax increases (so many that even the tax-loving folks at the IMF have balked).

At the very least, they’ve pushed the private sector into hospice care.

Let’s peruse a couple of recent stories from Ekathimerini, an English-language Greek news outlet. We’ll start with a rather grim look at a very punitive tax regime that is aggressively grabbing money from taxpayers with arrears.

Tax authorities have confiscated the salaries, pensions and assets of more that 180,000 taxpayers since the start of the year, but expired debts to the state have continued to rise, reaching almost 100 billion euros, as the taxpaying capacity of the Greeks is all but exhausted. In the month of October, authorities made almost 1,000 confiscations a day from people with debts to the state of more than 500 euros. In the first 10 months of the year, the state confiscated some 4 billion euros.

But the Greek government is losing a race. The more it raises taxes, the more people fall behind.

in October alone, the unpaid tax obligations of households and enterprises came to 1.2 billion euros. Unpaid taxes from January to October amounted to 10.44 billion euros, which brings the total including unpaid debts from previous years to almost 100 billion euros (99.8 billion), or about 55 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The inability of citizens and businesses to meet their obligations is also confirmed by the course of public revenues, which this year have declined by more than 2.5 billion euros. The same situation is expected to continue into next year, as the new tax burdens and increased social security contributions look set to send debts to the state soaring.

The fact that revenues have declined should be a glaring signal to politicians that they are past the revenue-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve.

But the government probably won’t be satisfied until everyone in the private sector is in debt to the state.

There are now 4.17 million taxpayers who owe the state money. This means that one in every two taxpayers is in arrears to the state, with 1,724,708 taxpayers facing the risk of forced collection measures. Of the 99.8 billion euros of total debt, just 10-15 billion euros is still considered to be collectible.

Here’s another article from Ekathimerini that looks at how Greece is doubling down on suicidal fiscal policy.

Greece is defying the prevalent trend among the world’s industrialized nations for reducing tax rates in order to boost investment and competitiveness… According to the report, in contrast to the majority of OECD member states, Greece has raised taxes and social security contributions as government policy is geared toward reaching fiscal targets, even though this inevitably harms the crisis-hit country’s competitiveness.

It’s hard to think of a tax that Greek politicians haven’t increased.

Greece…is also the only one among them that increased taxes on labor and corporate profits. …eight OECD member states reduced rates in 2017 on an average of 2.7 percent…, in stark contrast to Greece, which…has the highest corporate tax rates in the OECD compared to 2008. Many countries also offered breaks and reductions on income tax, …also cutting social contributions in 2015-2016. Not so Greece, which in 2016 raised both, thereby increasing the overall burden on low-income earners by 1.5 percent. Greece was also the only country in the OECD to raise value-added tax rates in 2016.

And what was accomplished by all these tax increases? Less tax revenue and recession. That’s a lose-lose scenario by almost any standard.

…in the 2014-2015 period, 25 of the 32 countries for which data is available recorded an increase in tax-to-GDP levels. The report…mentions Greece as an exception to this trend as well, noting that the country was in recession in that two-year period.

Even an establishment outlet like the U.K.-based Financial Times has noticed.

Unemployment is at 23 per cent and 44 per cent of those aged 15-24 are out of work. More than a fifth of Greeks get by without basics such as heating or a telephone connection. …Sweeping new taxes imposed across the economy have already left communities scrabbling to survive. …this year will bring €1bn worth of new taxes on cars, telecoms, television, fuel, cigarettes, coffee and beer… New taxes have eroded disposable incomes still further. Value added tax has increased to 24 per cent on food, disproportionately hurting the poor, for whom living costs represent a far higher proportion of income. Most detested is the Enfia property levy, which brings in €2.65bn a year – roughly €650 from each of Greece’s four million households. …recent direct taxes like the new estate tax have affected households that have seen their income decline greatly during the crisis. The rise of VAT, meanwhile, only adds to the cost of life of poor families.” …this month, new levies will mean the taxes paid by his business will jump 29 per cent.

Interestingly, the article acknowledges that profligate politicians created the mess, while also noting that the Greek people also deserve blame.

…blame is laid on the politicians who spent the 27 years of Greece’s EU membership before the crisis loading the country with debt to fund increased defence expenditure, more public sector jobs and higher pension and other social benefit payments. …“The Greek people should be blamed. We voted for these people,” he concludes.

The problem, of course, is that Greek voters don’t show any interest in now voting for politicians who will clean up the mess. Simply stated, too many people in the country are living off the government.

In other words, even though it’s mathematically possible to fix the problems, the erosion of societal capital suggests that Greece may have reached the point of collapse.

From a fiscal perspective, this chart from OECD data confirms that policy is getting worse rather than better. Measured as a share of economic output, taxes and spending have both become a bigger burden over the past 10 years.

What makes this chart especially depressing is that economic output is lower today than it was in 2005, which means that the problem isn’t so much that annual tax receipts and spending level are climbing, but rather that the private economy is declining.

Let’s close with an additional look at the moribund Greek economy and a discussion of how the bailouts have made a bad situation even worse.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized on the impact of ever-higher taxes and a still-stifling bureaucratic business environment.

…the bailout is not in fact working, if you think the goal should be to restore Athens to sound public finances and to offer Greeks economic hope for the future. The European Commission’s autumn forecast predicts eurozone economic growth of 2.2% this year, the fastest in a decade. But Greece is falling further behind. …Investment has collapsed in the country, to 11% of GDP last year from 26% of GDP in 2007. …The bailouts are creating a dangerous situation in which the government has enough cash to meet its debts but no one else in Greece can thrive.

And here’s the scary part. What happens when there’s another global recession? The already-bad numbers in Greece will get even worse. Not a pleasant thought.

P.S. If you want to know why I’m not optimistic about Greece’s future, how can you expect good policy from a nation that subsidizes pedophiles and requires stool samples to set up online companies? I’d be more hopeful if Greek politicians instead had learned some lessons from Slovakia or Latvia.

P.P.S. Notwithstanding a the constant stream of bad policy, I am capable of feeling sorry for Greece.

P.P.P.S. Newer readers may not be familiar with my collection of Greek-related humor. This cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations. Speaking of stereotypes, the Greeks are in a tight race with the Italians and Germans for being considered untrustworthy.

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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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When Ronald Reagan slashed tax rates in America in the 1980s, the obvious direct effect was more prosperity in America.

But the under-appreciated indirect effect of Reaganomics was that it helped generate more prosperity elsewhere in the world.

Not because Americans had higher income and could buy more products from home and abroad (though that is a nice fringe benefit), but rather because the Reagan tax cuts triggered a virtuous cycle of tax competition. Politicians in other countries had to lower their tax rates because of concerns that jobs and investment were migrating to America (Margaret Thatcher also deserves some credit since she also dramatically reduced tax rates and put even more competitive pressure on other nations to do the same thing).

If you look at the data for developed nations, the average top income tax rate in 1980 was more than 67 percent. It’s now closer to 40 percent.

And because even countries like Germany and France enacted supply-side reforms, the global economy enjoyed a 25-year renaissance of growth and prosperity.

Unfortunately, there’s been some slippage in the wrong direction in recent years, probably caused in part be the erosion of tax competition (politicians are more likely to grab additional money if they think targeted victims don’t have escape options).

But we may be poised for a new virtuous cycle of tax competition, at least with regards to business taxation. A big drop in the U.S. corporate tax rate will pressure other nations to lower their taxes as well. And if new developments from China and Europe are accurate, I’ve been underestimating the potential positive impact.

Let’s start with news from China, where some officials are acting as if dropping the U.S. corporate tax rate to 20 percent is akin to economic warfare.

U.S. tax cuts—the biggest passed since those during the presidency of Ronald Reagan three decades ago—have Beijing in a bind. Prominent in the new tax policy are generous reductions in the corporate tax and a rationalization of the global tax scheme. Both are expected to draw capital and skilled labor back to the United States. …In April, Chinese state-controlled media slammed the tax cuts, accusing the U.S. leadership of risking a “tax war”… On April 27, state-run newspaper People’s Daily quoted a Chinese financial official as saying, “We’ve made our stance clear: We oppose tax competition.” …Beijing has good reason to be afraid. …“Due to the tax cut, the capital—mostly from the manufacturing industry—will flow back to the U.S.,” Chen said.

While Chinese officials are worried about tax competition, they have a very effective response. They can cut tax rates as well.

…the Communist Party had promised to implement financial policy that would be more beneficial for the general public, but has not put this into practice. Instead, Beijing has kept and expanded a regime whereby heavy taxes do not benefit the people…, but are used to prop up inefficient state-owned enterprises… Chinese officials and scholars are considering the necessity of implementing their own tax reforms to keep up with the Trump administration. …Zhu Guangyao, a deputy minister of finance, said in a meeting that it was “indeed impossible” to “ignore the international effects” of the American tax cut, and that “proactive measures” needed to be taken to adjust accordingly. …a Chinese state-run overseas publication called “Xiakedao” came out with a report saying that while Trump’s tax cuts put pressure on China, the pressure “can all the same be transformed into an opportunity for reform.” It remains to be seen whether communist authorities are willing to accept a hit to their tax revenue to balance the economy and let capital flow into the hands of the private sector.

The Wall Street Journal also has a story on how China’s government might react to U.S. tax reform.

…economic mandarins in Beijing are focusing on a potentially… immediate threat from Washington— Donald Trump’s tax overhaul. In the Beijing leadership compound of Zhongnanhai, officials are putting in place a contingency plan to combat consequences for China of U.S. tax changes… What they fear is…sapping money out of China by making the U.S. a more attractive place to invest.

Pardon me for digressing, but isn’t it remarkable that nominally communist officials in China clearly understand that lower tax rates will boost investment while some left-leaning fiscal “experts” in America still want us to believe that lower tax won’t help growth.

But let’s get back to the main point.

An official involved in Beijing’s deliberations called Washington’s tax plan a “gray rhino,” an obvious danger in China’s economy that shouldn’t be ignored. …While the tax overhaul isn’t directly aimed at Beijing, …China will be squeezed. Under the tax plan now going through the U.S. legislative process, America’s corporate levy could drop to about 20% from 35%. Over the next few years, economists say, that could spur manufacturers—whether American or Chinese—to opt to set up plants in the U.S. rather than China.

It’s an open question, though, whether China will respond with bad policy or good policy.

Imposing capital controls to limit the flow of money to the United States would be an unfortunate reaction. Using American reform as an impetus for Chinese reform, by contrast, would be serendipitous.

The sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code, estimated to result in $1.4 trillion in U.S. cuts over a decade, is also serving as a wake-up call for Beijing, which for years has dragged its feet on revamping China’s own rigid tax system. Chinese businesses have long complained about high taxes, and the government has pledged to reduce the levies on them. …Chinese companies face a welter of other taxes and fees their U.S. counterparts don’t, including a 17% value-added tax. …Chinese employers pay far-higher payroll taxes. Welfare and social insurance taxes cost between 40% and 100% of a paycheck in China. World Bank figures for 2016 show that total tax burden on Chinese businesses are among the highest of major economies: 68% of profits, compared with 44% in the U.S. and 40.6% on average world-wide. The figures include national and local income taxes, value-added or sales taxes and any mandatory employer contributions for welfare and social security.

I very much hope Chinese officials respond to American tax cuts with their own supply-side reforms. I’ve applauded the Chinese government in the past for partial economic liberalization. Those policies have dramatically reduced poverty and been very beneficial for the country.

Lower tax rates could be the next step to boost living standards in China.

By the way, the Chinese aren’t the only ones paying attention to fiscal developments in the United States. The GOP tax plan also is causing headaches in Europe, as reported by CNN.

Germany, France, Britain, Spain and Italy have written to Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin… The letter argues that proposed changes to the U.S. tax code could give American companies an advantage over foreign rivals. …They said the provision could also tax the profits of foreign businesses that do not have a permanent base in the U.S. …The finance ministers said they opposed another measure in the Senate bill that could benefit American companies.

I have two responses. First, I actually agree with some of the complaints in the letter about selected provisions in the tax bill (see, for instance, Veronique de Rugy’s analysis in National Review about the danger of the BAT-like excise tax). We should be welcoming investment from foreign companies, not treating them like potential cash cows for Uncle Sam.

That being said, European officials are throwing stones in a glass house. They are the ones pushing the OECD’s initiative on “base erosion and profit shifting,” which is basically a scheme to extract more money from American multinational firms. And let’s also remember that the European Commission is also going after American companies using the novel argument that low taxes are a form of “state aid.”

Second, I think the Europeans are mostly worried about the lower corporate rate. German officials, for instance, have already been cited for their fear of a “ruinous era of tax competition.” And politicians at the European Parliament have been whining about a “race to the bottom.”

So I’ll give them the same advice I offered to China. Respond to Americans tax cuts by doing the right thing for your citizens. Boost growth and wages with lower tax rates.

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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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I gave a speech last night at the University of Texas Arlington on the topic of “Is America turning into Greece? How the growth of government and debt risk creating a dismal future for young Americans.”

Not a very succinct title, I realize, but I wanted to warn students that they are the ones who will suffer if today’s politicians fail to enact genuine entitlement reform. And since I told them I wasn’t expecting reform with Trump in the White House, my message was rather gloomy.

My only good news is that I told students that nations such as Italy, Japan, and France likely would suffer fiscal crises before the you-know-what hit the fan in America.

Though it would have been better if my speech was today. I could have cited this Robert Samuelson column from the Washington Post.

No one can say we weren’t warned. For years, scholars of all shapes and sizes — demographers, economists, political scientists — have cautioned that the populations of most advanced countries are gradually getting older, with dramatic consequences for economics and politics. But we haven’t taken heed by preparing for an unavoidable future. The “we” refers not just to the United States but to virtually all advanced societies. In fact, America’s aging, though substantial, is relatively modest compared with that of many European countries and Japan. …The problem is simple. Low birth rates and increasing life expectancies result in aging populations. Since 1970, average life expectancy at age 60 in OECD countries has risen from 18 years to 23.4 years; by 2050, it’s forecast to increase to 27.9 years — that is, to nearly 90. The costs of Social Security and pensions will explode. …The implication: Unless retirement ages are raised sharply or benefits are cut deeply, more and more of the income of the working-age population will be siphoned off through higher taxes or cuts in other government spending to support retirees.

Here’s a table from the article that shows the radical erosion in the age-dependency ratio for selected nations. To give you an idea what the numbers mean, a ratio of 33 (Greece today) means that each worker is supporting one-third of a retiree while a ratio of 73 (Greece in 2050) means that each worker is supporting three-fourths of a retiree.

The Greek numbers are grim, of course, and Italy and Japan are also in very bad shape.

And it’s worth noting that the ratio in China will rapidly deteriorate.

An article in New Scientist makes a similar observation about dramatic demographic change.

Could the population bomb be about to go off in the most unexpected way? Rather than a Malthusian meltdown, could we instead be on the verge of a demographic implosion? To find out how and why, go to Japan, where a recent survey found that people are giving up on sex. Despite a life expectancy of 85 and rising, the number of Japanese is falling thanks to a fertility rate of just 1.4 children per woman… Half the world’s nations have fertility rates below the replacement level of just over two children per woman. Countries across Europe and the Far East are teetering on a demographic cliff, with rates below 1.5. On recent trends, Germany and Italy could see their populations halve within the next 60 years.

The most sobering information is contained in a new report from my “friends” at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. I’m definitely not a fan of the OECD’s policy work, but it does a good job of collecting apples-to-apples data.

Let’s start with the OECD’s calculations of how the old-age dependency ratio will change in various nations.

It’s not good to have a very tall black line in Figure 1.1, so we can confirm the bad news about Italy, Greece, and Japan. But note that Spain, Portugal, and South Korea also face a grim future. Simply stated, tomorrow’s workers will face an enormous burden.

There are two reasons for these grim numbers.

First, we’re living longer. That’s good news for us, but it’s bad news for the sustainability of tax-and-transfer entitlement programs (i.e., this partially explains why Social Security in the U.S. has a $44 trillion shortfall).

This chart shows that increasing longevity is a big reason why both men and women are spending more years in retirement (though there’s a glimmer of good news since the data shows that we’re no longer retiring at ever-younger ages).

In addition to living longer, we’re also having fewer kids.

This is a big deal because more babies today mean more future taxpayers.

But you can see from this table that birthrates have declined in America, as well as in other developed nations (keep in mind that a fertility rate of 2.1 is needed to keep the native-born population from shrinking).

Even more shocking, check out the demographic data for Japan and South Korea. Birth rates in Japan already had fallen by 1960 and they’re even lower today. But the numbers for South Korea are staggering.

Wow.

I guess it’s now easy to understand this story from South Korea.

Students at two South Korean universities are being offering courses that make it mandatory for them to date their classmates as the country battles to reverse one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Seoul’s Dongguk and Kyung Hee universities say the courses on dating, sex, love and relationships target a generation which is shunning traditional family lives. …She said: ”Korea’s fall in population has made dating and marriage important but young Koreans are too busy these days and clumsy in making new acquaintances.” And as part of the course, students have to date three classmates for a month… Seoul has spent about £50 billion trying to boost the birth rate.

I don’t know what’s the strangest part of the article, the part about having to date your classmates as part of homework (do you get extra credit if the girl gets pregnant?!?) or the part about the government squandering an astounding 50 billion pounds (about 67 billion dollars) on trying to encourage kids (I guess politicians never learn).

Or this story from Japan that brings back painful memories of high school.

Talk about a shrinking population. A survey of Japanese people aged 18 to 34 found that almost 70 percent of unmarried men and 60 percent of unmarried women are not in a relationship. Moreover, many of them have never got close and cuddly. Around 42 percent of the men and 44.2 percent of the women admitted they were virgins. The government won’t be pleased that sexlessness is becoming as Japanese as sumo and sake. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has talked up boosting the birthrate through support for child care, but until the nation bones up on bedroom gymnastics there’ll be no medals to hand out. …Boosting the birthrate is one of the coveted goals of the Abe administration, which has declared it will raise the fertility rate from the current 1.4 to 1.8 by 2025 or so.

The bottom line, as Samuelson suggested in his column, is that western nations are facing a baked-in-the-cake demographic-fiscal crisis.

What’s sad is that we know the crisis will happen, but politicians in most nations have no intention of solving the problems.

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The late Mancur Olsen was a very accomplished academic economist who described the unfortunate tendency of vote-seeking governments to behave like “stationary bandits,” seeking to extract the maximum amount of money from taxpayers.

I’m not nearly as sophisticated, so I simply refer to this process as “goldfish government.”

Tax competition is a way of discouraging this self-destructive behavior. Politicians are less likely to over-tax and over-spend if they know that jobs and investment can migrate from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions (borders can be a hassle, but they are beneficial since they presumably represent a limit on the reach of a government’s power).

This is why I’m a big fan of so-called tax havens.

I want politicians to be afraid that the geese with the golden eggs may fly away. This is one of the reasons why “offshore” nations play a very valuable role in the global economy.

But it’s important to realize that there’s also a moral argument for tax havens.

Ask yourself whether you would want the government to have easy access to your nest egg (whether it’s a lot or a little) if you lived in Russia? Or Venezuela? Or China? Or Zimbabwe?

Ask yourself whether you trust the bureaucracy to protect the privacy of your personal financial information if you lived in a country with corruption problems like Mexico? Or India? Or South Africa?

Here’s a story from France24 that underscores my point.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Sunday that businessmen who move assets abroad are committing “treason”, adding that his government should put an end to the practice. “I am aware that some businessmen are attempting to place their assets overseas. I call on the government not to authorise any such moves, because these are acts of treason,” Erdogan said in televised comments to party members in the eastern town on Mus.

Allow me to translate. What Erdogan is saying is “I don’t want escape options for potential victims of expropriation.” For all intents and purposes, he’s basically whining that he can’t steal money that is held offshore.

Which, of course, is why offshore finance is so important.

Professor Tyler Cowen elaborates in a Bloomberg column.

I’d like to speak up for offshore banking as a significant protection against tyranny and unjust autocracy. It’s not just that many offshore financial institutions, such as hedge funds registered in the Cayman Islands, are entirely legal, but also that the practice of hiding wealth overseas has its upside. …offshore…accounts make it harder for autocratic governments to confiscate resources from their citizens. That in turn limits the potential for tyranny.

Tyler looks at some of the research and unsurprisingly finds that there’s a lot of capital flight from unstable regimes.

A recent study shows which countries are most likely to use offshore banking, as measured by a percentage of their gross domestic product. …The top five countries on this list, measured as a percentage of GDP, are United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Argentina, based on estimates from 2007. In all of those cases the risk of arbitrary political confiscations of wealth is relatively high. …When I consider that list of countries, I don’t think confidential offshore banking is such a bad thing. …consider some of the countries that are not major players in the offshore wealth sweepstakes. China and Iran, for instance, have quite low percentages of their GDPs held in offshore accounts, in part because they haven’t been well integrated into global capital markets. …Are we so sure it would be bad for more Chinese and Iranian wealth to find its way into offshore banks? The upshot would be additional limits on the power of the central leaders to confiscate wealth and to keep political opposition in line.

So what’s the bottom line?

Simple. People need ways of protecting themselves from greedy government.

From the vantage point of Western liberalism, individuals should be free from arbitrary confiscations of their wealth, connected to threats against their life and liberty, even if those individuals didn’t earn all of that wealth justly or honestly. There is even a “takings clause” built into the U.S. Constitution. On top of these moral issues, such confiscations may scare off foreign investment and slow progress toward the rule of law.

By the way, the moral argument shouldn’t be limited to nations with overtly venal governments that engage in wealth expropriation. What about the rights of people in nations – such as Argentina and Greece – where  governments wreck economies because of blind incompetence? Shouldn’t they have the ability to protect themselves from wealth destruction?

I actually raised some of these arguments almost 10 years ago in this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. There’s lots of evidence that politicians raise tax rates when tax competition is weakened.

P.P.S. Which is why I’m very happy that Rand Paul is leading the fight against a scheme for a global tax cartel.

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