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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Policy’

It’s both amusing and frustrating to observe the reaction to President Trump’s budget.

I’m amused that it is generating wild-eyed hysterics from interest groups who want us to believe the world is about to end.

But I’m frustrated because I’m reminded of the terribly dishonest way that budgets are debated and discussed in Washington. Simply stated, almost everyone starts with a “baseline” of big, pre-determined annual spending increases and they whine and wail about “cuts” if spending doesn’t climb as fast as previously assumed.

Here are the three most important things to understand about what the President has proposed.

First, the budget isn’t being cut. Indeed, Trump is proposing that federal spending increase from $4.06 trillion this year to $5.71 trillion in 2027.

Second, government spending will grow by an average of almost 3.5 percent per year over the next 10 years.

Third, because the private economy is projected to grow by an average of about 5 percent per year (in nominal terms), Trump’s budget complies with the Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

Now that we’ve established a few basic facts, let’s shift to analysis.

From a libertarian perspective, you can argue that Trump’s budget is a big disappointment. Why isn’t he proposing to get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development? What about shutting down the Department of Education? Or the Department of Energy? How about the Department of Agriculture, or Department of Transportation?

And why is he leaving Social Security basically untouched when taxpayers and retirees would both be better off with a system of personal retirement accounts? And why is Medicare not being fundamentally reformed when the program is an ever-expanding budgetary burden?

In other words, if you want the federal government to reflect the vision of America’s Founders, the Trump budget is rather disappointing. It’s far from a Liberland-style dream.

But for those who prefer to see the glass as half-full, here are a couple of additional takeaways from the budget.

Fourth, as I wrote yesterday, there is real Medicaid reform that will restore federalism and save money.

Fifth, domestic discretionary spending will be curtailed.

But not just curtailed. Spending in the future for this category will actually be lower if Trump’s budget is approved. In other words, a genuine rather than fake budget cut.

I’ll close with my standard caveat that it’s easy to put good ideas (or bad ideas) in a budget. The real test is whether an Administration will devote the energy necessary to move fiscal reforms through Congress.

Based on how Trump was defeated in the battle over the final spending bill for the current fiscal year, there are good reasons to be worried that good reforms in his budget won’t be implemented. Simply stated, if Trump isn’t willing to use his veto power, Congress will probably ignore his proposals.

P.S. You may have noticed that I didn’t include any discussion of deficits and debt. And I also didn’t address the Administration’s assertion that the budget will be balanced in 10 years if Trump’s budget is approved. That’s because a fixation on red ink is a distraction. What really matters is whether the burden of spending is falling relative to the private sector’s output. In other words, the entire focus should be on policies that generate spending restraint and policies that facilitate private sector growth. If those two goals are achieved, the burden of red ink is sure to fall. Whether it happens fast enough to balance the budget in 2027 is of little concern.

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When President Trump released his so-called “skinny budget” back in March (dealing with the parts of Leviathan that are annually appropriated), I applauded several of the specific recommendations.

  • Shutting down the wasteful National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Defunding National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
  • Terminating the scandal-plagued Community Development Block Grant program.

The only problem is that I didn’t sense – and still don’t see – any serious effort to push through these much-needed fiscal reforms (and the same is true for his proposed tax cut).

The bottom line is that Trump has the power to achieve the bulk of his agenda, but only if he is willing to veto pork-filled bills and force a partial government shutdown. But he’s already blinked once in this type of battle, so the spending lobbies feel confident that he can be rolled again.

But let’s set that aside. The White House is about to release the President’s full budget and there already is considerable angst about potential reforms to Medicaid. Here are some excerpts from a report in the Washington Post.

President Trump’s first major budget proposal on Tuesday will include massive cuts to Medicaid…more than $800 billion over 10 years. …Trump’s decision to include the Medicaid cuts is significant because it shows he is rejecting calls from a number of Senate Republicans not to reverse the expansion of Medicaid that President Barack Obama achieved as part of the Affordable Care Act. The House has voted to cut the Medicaid funding… The proposed changes will be a central feature of Trump’s first comprehensive budget plan…it will seek changes to entitlements — programs that are essentially on auto­pilot and don’t need annual authorization from Congress.

I have two reactions to this story.

First, the Washington Post is lying (and not for the first time). There will be no Medicaid cuts in Trump’s budget. Contrary to the headline, there aren’t “big cuts” and there won’t be any “slashing.” We won’t see the actual numbers until tomorrow, but I can state with complete certainty that the Trump Administration is merely going to propose a reduction in how fast the program’s budget increases.

Second, it’s a very good idea to slow down the growth of Medicaid spending.

Here is some background information on the program, starting with an article in The Week by Shikha Dalmia

Medicaid is arguably the civilized world’s worst health insurance program. …This joint federal and state program has historically allowed the feds to give states 50 cents for every dollar they spent on purchasing health coverage for the poor. Because of this federal largesse, Medicaid has grown astronomically, becoming the single biggest ticket item on virtually every state budget. …President Obama essentially money-bombed states into expanding it even further. He told states that Uncle Sam would pick up 100 percent of the tab for the first three years for every additional person they covered up to 138 percent of the poverty level. …Medicaid now covers almost 75 million Americans. And even before ObamaCare took effect, Medicaid paid for almost half of all births in America. …The combined annual cost of the program now exceeds half a trillion dollars (with the feds’ share at 63 percent and states’ at 37 percent) — which adds up to roughly $7,000 for every man, woman, and child covered by the program. …Several reputable studies have found that Medicaid patients experience no better health outcomes than uninsured people, and arguably even slightly worse outcomes. …ObamaCare is like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Taking it apart and reassembling it is easier said than done — even if it’s the right and smart thing to do. And if Republicans can’t figure out a way to do so, American patients and taxpayers will be the big losers.

And here are some excerpts from a Wall Street Journal editorial.

The…important goal is to change the incentives over the long term and eliminate the perverse formulas that discount the welfare of the truly needy. …A helpful revolution in Medicaid would be to end the match rate that rewards higher spending and move to block grants. States would get some fixed pot of money annually, determined by how many people are enrolled. The pots might be expensive in the early years, but states would become accountable for marginal per capita spending growth over time. Governors can be assuaged by ending Medicaid’s command-and-control regulatory model, freeing them to use new tools to control costs.

James Capretta of the American Enterprise has additional details, particularly showing how the “federal medical assistance percentage” encourages higher spending.

In 1965, the authors of Medicaid thought they were creating a program that would provide federal structure, uniformity, and some funding for the many state programs that were already providing relatively inexpensive “indigent care” services to low-income households. …Medicaid has grown into the largest health care program in the country by enrollment, with 66 million participants and with annual federal and state costs of more than $550 billion. …Medicaid spending has increased rapidly nearly every year since the program was enacted, creating significant pressure in federal and state budgets. …The Medicaid FMAP is the fundamental flaw in the program’s current design and the main reason it is so costly. States can initiate new spending in Medicaid—spending that often will boost economic activity in the state—and federal taxpayers pay for at least half the cost. At the same time, savings from state-initiated Medicaid-spending cuts are also shared with federal taxpayers. For instance, in a state where the FMAP is 60 percent, the governor and state legislators face the unattractive prospect of keeping only $1.00 of every $2.50 in Medicaid savings they can identify and implement. The other $1.50 goes to the federal treasury. Put another way, governors and state legislators are reluctant to impose $2.50 in budgetary pain for a $1.00 gain to their bottom line.

The solution to this rigged system, he explains, is block grants or per-capita caps.

The…important structural change would be the switch to some form of fixed federal funding to states. The federal government would continue to heavily support the Medicaid program, but the commitment would have a limit, which would give states a strong incentive to manage the program for efficiency and cost control. One approach would be a block grant. Under a block grant, the federal government would make fixed, aggregate payments to the states based on historical spending patterns. Cost overruns at the state level would require the state to find additional resources within the state budget. Conversely, states that were able to control costs would enjoy the full benefits of their efforts. …Under per capita caps, the federal government would establish for each state a per-person payment for each of the main eligibility categories in the Medicaid program: the elderly, the blind and disabled, nondisabled adults, and children. The federal government would then make payments to the states based on the number of Medicaid enrollees in each of these categories. The per capita payment would be based on historical spending rates for the various categories of beneficiaries in each state and, again, would be indexed to a predetermined growth rate.

By the way, I previously shared two very depressing charts from Jim’s article.

In a 2012 column for Forbes, Avik Roy explains why reform will produce good results.

People on Medicaid have far worse health outcomes than those with private insurance, and in many cases those with no insurance at all. …there are…substantial efficiencies that can be gained by giving states broad flexibility in the way they care for the poor. Indeed, this is what made block-granting welfare in 1996 such a spectacular success. …three states—Rhode Island, Indiana, and New York—have taken advantage of more flexibility to save money while delivering better care. …Rhode Island was able to save $100 million, and slow the growth of Medicaid from 8 percent per year to 3 percent, by making a few tweaks to their program that they couldn’t before…under a block-grant system, states can identify ways to save money while improving care, and other states can adopt best practices.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Professor Regina Herzlinger and Dr. Richard Boxer elaborate on how a new system would work.

Republicans should combine two ideas popular in their party: block grants and health savings accounts. The former would let states tailor their Medicaid policies to their local communities, while the latter would give enrollees the ability to choose their own insurers and providers. In essence, Washington could give the states Medicaid block grants, allocated per capita, to provide beneficiaries with high-deductible insurance and health savings accounts. …Health savings accounts, which force medical providers to compete for consumers who pay out of their own pocket, also reduce overall costs. When employers introduce such accounts, health-care costs are reduced by about 5% for each of the next three years, according to a 2015 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Nicholas Eberstadt, in an article for Commentary, points out the Medicaid is an employment killer.

21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work. …According to the Census Bureau’s SIPP survey (Survey of Income and Program Participation), as of 2013, over one-fifth (21 percent) of all civilian men between 25 and 55 years of age were Medicaid beneficiaries. For prime-age people not in the labor force, the share was over half (53 percent). …means-tested benefits cannot support a lavish lifestyle. But they can offer a permanent alternative to paid employment, and for growing numbers of American men, they do. The rise of these programs has coincided with the death of work for larger and larger numbers of American men not yet of retirement age.

And the icing on the cake is that Medicaid finances much of the opioid problem in America.

[The Medicaid card] pays for medicine—whatever pills a doctor deems that the insured patient needs. …For a three-dollar Medicaid co-pay, therefore, addicts got pills priced at thousands of dollars, with the difference paid for by U.S. and state taxpayers. A user could turn around and sell those pills, obtained for that three-dollar co-pay, for as much as ten thousand dollars on the street. …Medicaid inadvertently helped finance America’s immense and increasing appetite for opioids in our new century.

And if we want a cherry on top of the icing, Medicaid also is a cesspool of fraud, as reported by Reason.

Every year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) releases a report putting a dollar figure on the amount of improper payments in Medicaid. …it shows that the program…spends a substantial portion of its annual budget…On fraud, on waste, on services not rendered, not medically necessary, or incorrectly billed. Last year, for example, the GAO found that about 9.8 percent of federal Medicaid expenditures, or about $29 billion, was spent improperly. …This year, the total has risen once again. About 10.5 percent, or $36 billion, of federal spending on the program isn’t up to snuff, according to a GAO report released this morning.

On that issue, my “favorite” example of Medicaid fraud was perpetrated by Russian diplomats.

Last but not least, Charlie Katebi discusses Medicaid problems in a column for the Federalist.

Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway said Trump wants to “block-grant Medicaid to the states” to ensure “those who are closest to the people in need will be administering.” …Block grants would cap federal Medicaid funding and let states decide how to use those dollars. It would introduce flexibility and budget discipline to a program that sorely needs both. …Medicaid’s funding formula incentivizes policymakers to expand the program at the expense of core state government functions. …Medicaid’s structure also hurts its beneficiaries. …Washington bars reformers from making meaningful changes without going through a lengthy and restrictive approval process. This forces states to control costs the only way they can: paying doctors less. States have cut Medicaid’s reimbursement so low that many providers simply refuse to treat its beneficiaries. …Block grants promise to break Medicaid’s vicious cycle of rising costs and declining care. Spendthrift politicians would no longer be able to expand Medicaid and expect the federal government to foot the bill. But state-level reformers will enjoy greater authority to streamline and improve the program.

I may as well close with the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

The video was released in 2011, but nothing has changed…except that the numbers today are far worse, in part because of Obama’s Medicaid expansion.

P.S. Based on CBO’s long-run forecast, Trump also should reconsider his views on old-age entitlements and support Medicare reform and Social Security reform.

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As far as I’m concerned, no sentient human being could look at what happened in the United States in the 1980s and not agree that high tax rates on upper-income taxpayers are foolish and self-destructive.

Not only did the economy grow faster after Reagan lowered rates, but the IRS even collected more revenue (a lot more revenue) because rich people earned and reported so much additional income.

That should be a win-win for all sides, though there are some leftists who hate the rich more than they like additional revenue.

Anyhow, I raise this example because there are politicians today who think it’s a good idea to go back to the punitive tax policy that existed in the 1970s.

Hillary Clinton proposed big tax hikes in last year’s campaign. And now, as reported by the U.K.-based Times, the Labour Party across the ocean is openly embracing a soak-the-rich agenda.

Labour’s tax raid on the country’s 1.3 million highest earners could raise less than half the £4.5 billion claimed by the party, experts said last night. The policy was announced by Jeremy Corbyn as part of plans to raise £48 billion through tax increases. …At the manifesto’s heart are plans to lower the threshold for the 45p tax rate from £150,000 to £80,000 and introduce a 50p tax band for those earning more than £123,000 a year. …Labour said that the increases could raise as much as £6.4 billion to help to fund giveaways such as the scrapping of tuition fees and more cash for the NHS, schools and childcare.

Here’s a chart from the article, showing who gets directly hurt by Corbyn’s class-warfare scheme.

But here’s the amazing part of the article.

The Labour Party, which has become radically left wing under Corbyn, openly acknowledges that the Laffer Curve is real and that there will be negative revenue feedback.

Under Labour’s calculation, if no one changed their behaviour as a result of the tax changes, a future government would raise an extra £6.4 billion a year. In its spending commitments the party is assuming that the new measures would bring in about £4.5 billion.

This is remarkable. The hard-left Labour Party admits that about 30 percent of the tax increase will disappear because taxpayers will respond by earning and/or reporting less taxable income.

That’s a huge concession to the real world, which is more than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton ever did. Welcome to the supply side, Jeremy Corbyn!

Moreover, establishment organizations such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies also incorporate the Laffer Curve in their analysis. But even more so.

They say Labour’s class-warfare tax hike would – at best – raise less than half as much as the static revenue estimate.

The IFS said that even this reduced figure looked optimistic and the changes were more likely to raise £2 billion to £3 billion — about half the amount claimed. “The amount of extra revenue these higher tax rates would raise is very uncertain,” Paul Johnson, director of the IFS, said. “What we do know is that raising tax levels on those people earning over £150,000 does not bring in additional revenues because the kind of people on these kinds of incomes are significantly more able to work around the tax system.

Now let’s compared the enlightened approach in the United Kingdom to the more primitive approach in the United States.

The official revenue-estimating body on Capitol Hill, the Joint Committee on Taxation, has only taken baby steps in the direction of dynamic scoring (which is an improvement over their old approach of static scoring, but they still have a long way to go).

Fortunately, there are some private groups who do revenue estimates, similar to the IFS in the UK.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget put together this very useful table comparing how the Tax Foundation and the Tax Policy Center “scored” the Better Way Plan.

The key numbers are in the dark blue rows. As you can see, the Tax Foundation assumes about 90 percent revenue feedback while the left-leaning Tax Policy Center only projects about 22 percent revenue feedback.

Since not all tax cuts/tax increases are created equal, the 22-percent revenue feedback calculation by the Tax Policy Center does not put them to the left of the Labour Party, which assumed 30-percent revenue feedback.

Indeed, the Labour Party’s tax hike is focused on upper-income taxpayers, who do have more ability to respond when there are changes in tax policy, so a high number is appropriate. However, there are some very pro-growth provisions in the Better Way Plan, such as a lower corporate tax rate, expensing, death tax repeal, etc, so I definitely think the Tax Foundation’s projections are closer to the truth.

For policy wonks, Alan Cole of the Tax Foundation explained why their numbers tend to differ.

The bottom line is that we are slowly but surely making progress on dynamic scoring. Even folks on the left openly acknowledge that higher tax rates impose at least some damage. You know what they say about a journey of a thousand miles.

P.S. None of this changes the fact that I still don’t like the BAT, but I freely admit that the economy would grow much faster if the overall Better Way Plan was enacted.

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As I’ve written before, our fight to restrain the size and scope of government will be severely hamstrung – perhaps even mortally wounded – if the crowd in Washington ever succeeds in getting a value-added tax as a new source of revenue.

This is why many statists are pushing so hard for the VAT. It’s a money machine for big government.

But what makes this battle especially frustrating is that there are some otherwise sensible people who are on the wrong side of the issue. I was stunned, for instance, when Rand Paul and Ted Cruz included VATs as part of their presidential tax plans.

And I’ve been less surprised, but still disappointed, to find support for a VAT from people such as Tom Dolan, Greg Mankiw, and Paul Ryan, as well as Kevin Williamson, Josh Barro, and Andrew Stuttaford. And I wrote that Mitch Daniels, Herman Cain, and Mitt Romney were not overly attractive presidential candidates because they expressed openness to the VAT (methinks it is time to create a VAT Hall of Shame).

Now I have three more people to add to the list.

In a column for the Washington Times, Professor Peter Morici argues for a VAT instead of the income tax.

The current system imposes terribly high rates and a myriad of special-interest credits and deductions. It requires expensive record keeping that drives taxpayers mad and complex auditing functions at the Internal Revenue Service that have proven susceptible to political abuse… The most effective reform would be to simply junk the personal and corporate income taxes in favor of a VAT. The Treasury annually collects about $2 trillion through personal and corporate taxes. This could be replaced by an 11 percent national sales tax on all private purchases and payments.

This is good in theory, but it’s a high-risk fantasy. The politicians in DC who want a VAT are not proposing to get rid of other taxes. Instead, they want the VAT in addition to income taxes.

So unless Morici has some plan to fully repeal income taxes (and to amend the Constitution to prohibit income taxes from being imposed in the future), his support for a VAT plays into the hands of those who want a new levy to finance bigger government (which is exactly what happened in Europe).

Even more troubling, he confirms my fears that the border-adjustable tax serves as a stalking horse for a VAT.

Several House Republicans, led by Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, propose to do essentially this for the corporate but not the personal income tax. …This proposal has…flaws. …The answer is simple — generalize Mr. Brady’s reforms to include the personal income tax as well. Junk it and impose a VAT of 11 percent on all economic activities.

Maybe now people will appreciate my concerns about the BAT.

Last but not least, I can’t resist pointing out that Morici is flat wrong about the VAT and trade. Heck, even Paul Krugman agrees with me on that topic.

Foreign governments rely more on value-added taxes (VAT), which approximates a national sales tax. Those are rebatable on exports and applied to imports under World Trade Organization rules… This places U.S.-based businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

Now let’s look at another column with a misguided message.  Writing for The Hill, Jim Carter of Emerson and former Congressman Geoff Davis argue for a VAT.

…enact a payroll tax holiday similar to the one Americans enjoyed in 2011 and 2012. Only this time the tax holiday would be permanent. …How can the government make up for the revenue lost from the payroll tax cut? One idea: eliminate the deduction that businesses get for the wages and benefits they pay their employees. …this would generate a massive $11.6 trillion in revenue over 10 years.

Call me crazy, but I get very nervous about plans that generate “massive…revenue” for Washington. Especially when the plan proposed by Carter and Davis is actually a subtraction-method VAT.

And just like Morici, they think the House Better Way Plan paves the way for that pernicious levy.

Abolishing labor deductibility also generates enough revenue to lower the tax rates on business income five percentage points below the rates envisioned by the House Republican “blueprint” for tax reform… Add the House blueprint’s other provisions…this modified House blueprint would be roughly revenue-neutral.

Moreover, Carter and Davis don’t even pretend that the income tax might be abolished. They prefer instead to go after the payroll tax, which is far less damaging.

Moreover, they want to add other statist policies to their VAT scheme.

Add President Trump’s childcare proposals and a Republican commitment to link tax reform to additional infrastructure funding, and congressional Democrats would have little excuse not to work with Republicans.

Of course Democrats would be interested. They would be getting the VAT they desperately need if they want to take entitlement reform off the table. And they also are being offered bad childcare policy and bad infrastructure policy as a bonus.

Now let’s look at a Washington Post column by Alan Murray.

…in tax policy, as in health-care policy, the United States is notoriously ineffective and inefficient. As the world’s richest nation, the United States has more capacity to tax than any other country. But…we rank near the bottom of industrialized nations in our effectiveness at doing so. …Reid…devotes a chapter to the value-added tax, which he calls “the most successful taxation innovation of the last sixty years.” …it turns out to be relatively easy to enforce. …Reid quotes former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan saying a VAT is the “least worst” way to raise taxes. “It has been adopted in every major nation on earth and in most small nations as well,” he says.

Yes, you read correctly. He’s grousing that the federal government isn’t demonstrating “effectiveness” when it comes to maximizing its “capacity to tax.”

This is the same statist mentality that led the World Bank to rank the United States near the bottom for “tax effort.”

For what it’s worth, I’m grateful that America hasn’t copied Europe by trying to squeeze every possible penny from taxpayers. And I’m specifically thankful that we haven’t copied them by imposing a VAT to finance bigger government.

I was amused by this passage in Murray’s column.

Critics of Reid’s plan, of course, won’t be hard to find. …Conservatives will attack the value-added tax as a money machine that leads to bigger government.

Of course supporters of limited government will make that complaint. That’s why statists want a VAT. Heck, Murray’s column openly states that the VAT would boost America’s “capacity to tax.”

For those who favor restraints on government, the last thing we want is a government that figures out ways to extract more revenue from the economy’s productive sector.

Let’s close by citing some research published last year.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Professor Ed Lazear of Stanford University warns that a VAT, even if part of an otherwise attractive tax plan, almost surely will lead to an increased burden of government spending.

…keeping a value-added tax low and substituting it for other more-regressive taxes has proven almost impossible. All 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, except the U.S., have a VAT. …26 countries have higher VATs now than they did when they first instituted the tax. …The U.K., Italy and Denmark have all raised their VATs by 10 percentage points or more. The VAT, wherever it has been implemented, has been a money machine for big government.

What about the notion that VATs simply replace other taxes?

Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

…for every 1 percentage point that the VAT increases, the tax burden rises by about 0.8 of a percentage point. Were it a pure substitute tax, raising the VAT would have no effect on total taxes collected because other taxes would be reduced by a corresponding amount. Unfortunately, that hardly ever happens. …America may be headed toward a European-style VAT tax and ever-larger government.

Prof. Lazear has some additional data posted at the Hoover Institution website. Here’s a chart that should frighten every fiscally responsible person.

And don’t forget the chart I shared showing how the VAT has jumped significantly in Europe in the past few years.

To conclude, here’s my video on why the value-added tax is so dangerous to good fiscal policy.

P.S. You can enjoy some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT by clicking here and here.

P.P.S. And my clinching argument is that Reagan opposed a VAT and Nixon supported a VAT. That tells you everything you need to know.

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Seven years ago, I wrote about the “Butterfield Effect,” which is a term used to mock clueless journalists.

A former reporter for the New York Times, Fox Butterfield, became a bit of a laughingstock in the 1990s for publishing a series of articles addressing the supposed quandary of how crime rates could be falling during periods when prison populations were expanding. A number of critics sarcastically explained that crimes rates were falling because bad guys were behind bars and invented the term “Butterfield Effect” to describe the failure of leftists to put 2 + 2 together.

Journalists are especially susceptible to silly statements when writing about the real-world impact of tax policy.

They don’t realize (or prefer not to acknowledge) that changes in tax rates alter incentives to engage in productive behavior, and this leads to changes in taxable income. Which leads to changes in tax revenue, a relationship known as the Laffer Curve.

Here are some remarkable examples of the Butterfield Effect.

  • A newspaper article that was so blind to the Laffer Curve that it actually included a passage saying, “receipts are falling dramatically short of targets, even though taxes have increased.”
  • Another article was entitled, “Few Places to Hide as Taxes Trend Higher Worldwide,” because the reporter apparently was clueless that tax havens were attacked precisely so governments could raise tax burdens.
  • In another example of laughable Laffer Curve ignorance, the Washington Post had a story about tax revenues dropping in Detroit “despite some of the highest tax rates in the state.”
  • Likewise, another news report had a surprised tone when reporting on the fully predictable news that rich people reported more taxable income when their tax rates were lower.

And now we can add to the collection.

Here are some excerpts from a report by a Connecticut TV station.

Connecticut’s state budget woes are compounding with collections from the state income tax collapsing, despite two high-end tax hikes in the past six years. …wealthy residents are leaving, and the ones that are staying are making less, or are not taking their profits from the stock market until they see what happens in Washington. …It now looks like expected revenue from the final Income filing will be a whopping $450 million less than had been expected.

Reviewing the first sentence, it would be more accurate to replace “despite” with “because.”

Indeed, the story basically admits that the tax increases have backfired because some rich people are fleeing the state, while others have simply decided to earn and/or report less income.

The question is whether politicians are willing to learn any lessons so they can reverse the state’s disastrous economic decline.

But don’t hold your breath. We have an overseas example of the Laffer Curve, and one of the main lessons is that politicians are willing to sacrifice just about everything in the pursuit of power.

Here are some passages from a story in the U.K.-based Times.

The SNP is expected to fight next month’s general election on a commitment to reintroduce a 50p top rate of tax… The rate at present is 45p on any earnings over £150,000. …civil service analysis suggested that introducing a 50p top rate of tax in Scotland could cost the government up to £30 million a year, as the biggest earners could seek to avoid paying the levy by moving their money south of the border.

If you read the full report, you’ll notice that the head of the Scottish National Party previously had decided not to impose the higher tax rate because revenues would fall (just as receipts dropped in the U.K. when the 50 percent rate was imposed).

But now that there’s an election, she’s decided to resurrect that awful policy, presumably because a sufficient number of Scottish voters are motivated by hate and envy.

This kind of self-destructive behavior (by both politicians and voters) is one of the reasons why I’m not overly optimistic about the future of Scotland if it becomes an independent nation.

P.S. I’m not quite as pessimistic about the future of tax policy in the United States. The success of the Reagan tax cuts is a very powerful example and American voters still have a bit of a libertarian streak. I’m not expecting big tax cuts, to be sure, but at least we’re fighting in the United States over how to cut taxes rather than how to raise them.

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Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House.

In theory, that means a long-overdue opportunity to eliminate wasteful programs and cut pork-barrel spending.

In reality, it mostly means business as usual.

Politicians in Washington just reached a deal to fund the government for the rest of the current fiscal year. As reported by the Washington Post, it’s not exactly a victory for libertarians or small-government conservatives.

Democrats are surprised by just how many concessions they extracted in the trillion-dollar deal, considering that Republicans have unified control of government. …Non-defense domestic spending will go up, despite the Trump team’s insistence he wouldn’t let that happen. The president called for $18 billion in cuts. Instead, he’s going to sign a budget with lots of sweeteners that grow the size of government. …the NIH will get a $2 billion boost — on top of the huge increase it got last year. …Planned Parenthood…will continue to receive funding at current levels. …after the deal was reached…, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi quickly put out celebratory statements. …“Overall, the compromise resembles more of an Obama administration-era budget than a Trump one,” Bloomberg reports. …Reuters: “While Republicans control the House, Senate and White House, Democrats scored … significant victories in the deal.” …Vox: “Conservatives got almost nothing they wanted.”

I guess you could call this a triumph of “public choice” over campaign rhetoric. Politicians did what’s in the best interest of politicians rather than what would be best for the nation.

I’m disappointed, as you might expect. But as I say in this interview, there are far more important battles. I’ll gladly accept a bit of pork and profligacy in the 2017 budget if that clears the decks for much-needed repeal of Obamacare and long-overdue reform of the tax code.

But here’s the catch. I don’t expect that these reforms will actually happen. Yes, the deck has been cleared, but I don’t think Republicans will take advantage of the opportunity.

The fundamental problem, which I pointed out in a different interview, is that there’s not a governing majority for smaller government. And that has some very grim implications.

Even more depressing, I point out that only Trump has the power to turn things around. Yet I see very little evidence that he, a) believes in smaller government, or b) is willing to expend any political capital to achieve smaller government.

To make matters worse, Republicans have convinced themselves that they lose the spin battle whenever there is a shutdown or some other high-stakes fiscal fight with Democrats.

For what it’s worth, I’m trying to remind Republicans that it is in their long-run political interests to do the right thing (as Reagan demonstrated). That’s why, in the first interview, I said they need to gut Obamacare and lower taxes if they want to do well in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for the “stupid party” to behave intelligently.

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If I had to pick my least-favorite tax loophole, the economist part of my brain would select the healthcare exclusion. After all, that special preference creates a destructive incentive for over-insurance and contributes (along with Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, etc) to the third-party payer crisis that is crippling America’s healthcare system.

But if I based my answer on the more visceral, instinctive portion of my brain, I would select the deduction for state and local taxes. As I’ve previously noted, that odious tax break enables higher taxes at the state and local level. Simply stated, greedy politicians in a state like California can boost tax rates and soothe anxious state taxpayers by telling them that they can use their higher payments to Sacramento as a deduction to reduce their payments to Washington.

What’s ironic about this loophole is that it’s basically a write-off for the rich. Only 30 percent of all taxpayers utilize the deduction for state and local taxes. But they’re not evenly distributed by income. Here’s a sobering table from a report by the Tax Foundation.

The beneficiaries also aren’t evenly distributed by geography.

Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing in dark blue that only a tiny part of the country benefits from this unfair loophole for high-income taxpayers.

As you can see from the map, the vast majority of the nation deducts less than $2,000 in state and local taxes.

But if you really want to see who benefits, don’t simply look at the dark blue sections. After all, most of those people would happily give up the state and local tax deduction in exchange for some of the other policies that are part of tax reform – particularly lower tax rates and less double taxation.

And I suspect that’s even true for the people who hugely benefit from the deduction. The biggest beneficiaries of this loophole are concentrated in a tiny handful of wealthy counties in New York, California, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

As you can see, they reap enormous advantages from the state and local tax deduction, though I suspect these same people also would benefit if tax rates were lowered and double taxation was reduced.

Regardless of who benefits and loses, there’s a more fundamental question. Should federal tax law be distorted to subsidize high tax burdens at the state and local level?

Kevin Williamson of National Review says no.

…the deduction of state taxes against federal tax liabilities creates a subsidy and an incentive for higher state taxes. California in essence is able to capture money that would be federal revenue and use it for its own ends, an option that is not practically available to low-tax (and no-income-tax) states such as Nevada and Florida. It makes sense to allow the states to compete on taxes and services, but the federal tax code biases that competition in favor of high-tax jurisdictions.

The Governor of New York, by contrast, argues that the tax code should subsidize his profligacy.

It would be “devastating on the state of New York, California, et cetera, if you didn’t allow the people of this state to deduct their state and local taxes,” Cuomo told reporters… State and local governments have been working to preserve the deduction, and they argue that doing away with the preference would hurt states and localities’ flexibility to make tax changes.

By the way, I noticed how the reporter displays bias. Instead of being honest and writing that that the loophole enables higher taxes, she writes that the loss of the preference “would hurt states and localities’ flexibility to make tax changes.”

Gee, anyone want to guess how that “flexibility” is displayed?

Though at least the reporter acknowledged that the deduction is primarily for rich people in blue states.

…the deduction…is viewed as disproportionately benefiting wealthy people. It also tends to be used in areas that lean Democratic.

And that’s confirmed by a 2016 news report from the Wall Street Journal.

Repealing the federal deduction for state and local taxes would make 23.6% of U.S. households pay an average of $2,348 more to the Internal Revenue Service for 2016. But those costs—almost $1.3 trillion over a decade—aren’t evenly spread… Ranked by the average potential tax increase, the top 13 states (including Washington, D.C.), as well as 16 of the top 17, voted twice for President Barack Obama. …And nearly one-third of the cost would be paid by residents of California and New York, two solidly Democratic states. …President Ronald Reagan tried repealing the deduction as part of the tax-code overhaul in 1986, but he was rebuffed by congressional Democrats and state officials. …Republicans argue that the break subsidizes high state taxes, because governors and legislators know they can raise income taxes on their citizens and have the federal government pick up part of the tab. …half the cost of repealing the deduction would be borne by households making $100,000 to $500,000, using a broad definition of income. Another 30% would be borne by households making more than $1 million. Under the GOP plans, residents of high-tax states wouldn’t necessarily pay more in federal taxes than they do now. They would benefit from tax-rate cuts.

Here’s one final image that underscores the unfairness of the deduction.

The Tax Policy Center has a report on the loophole for state and local taxes and they put together this chart showing that rich people are far more likely to take advantage of the deduction. And it’s worth much more for them than it is for lower-income Americans.

How much more? Well, more than 90 percent of taxpayers earning more than $1 million use the deduction and their average tax break is more than $260,000. By contrast, only a small fraction of taxpayers earning less than $50 thousand annually benefit from the deduction and they only get a tax break of about $3,800.

Yet leftists who complain about rich people manipulating the tax system usually defend this tax break.

It’s enough to make you think their real goal is bigger government.

I’ll close by calling attention to the mid-part of this interview. I shared it a couple of days ago as part of a big-picture discussion of Trump’s tax plan. But I specifically address the state and local tax deduction around 3:00 and 4:30 of the discussion.

P.S. In addition to the loophole that encourages higher taxes at the state and local level, there’s also a special tax preference that encourages higher spending at the state and local level. Sigh.

P.P.S. Now, perhaps, people will understand why I want to rip up the current system and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

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