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Posts Tagged ‘Government intervention’

There are many powerful arguments for junking the internal revenue code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax.

  1. It is good to have lower tax rates in order to encourage more productive behavior.
  2. It is good to get rid of double taxation in order to enable saving and investment.
  3. It is good the end distorting preferences in order to reduce economically irrational decisions.

Today, let’s review a feature of good tax reform that involves the second and third bullet points.

Under current law, there is double taxation of corporate income. This means that companies must pay a tax on income, but that the income is then taxed a second time when distributed to the owners of the company (i.e., shareholders).

This means that the effective tax rate is a combination of the corporate income tax rate and the tax rate imposed on dividends. And this higher tax rate is an example of why double taxation discourages capital formation and thus leads to lower wages.

But this double taxation of dividends also creates a distortion because there isn’t double taxation of corporate income that is distributed to bondholders. This means companies have a significant tax-driven incentive to rely on debt, which is risky for them and the overall economy.

Curtis Dubay has a very straightforward explanation of the problem.

In debt financing, a business raises money by issuing debt, usually by selling a bond. In equity financing, a business raises funds by selling a share in the business through the sale of stock. The tax system provides a relative advantage to financing capital expenditures through debt because under current tax law, businesses can deduct their interest payments on the debt instruments, but dividend payments to shareholders are not deductible. Thus, equity is disadvantaged because it is double taxed while debt correctly faces only a single layer of taxation.

By the way, when public finance people write that something is “not deductible” or non-deductible, that simply means it subject to the tax (much as the non-deductibility of imports under the BAT is simply another way of saying there will be a tax levied on all imports).

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the analysis. Curtis then explains why it doesn’t make sense to create an incentive for debt.

The double tax on equity makes debt a relatively more attractive way for businesses to finance themselves, all else equal. As a result, businesses will take on more debt than they otherwise might. …This is a serious problem because carrying significant amounts of debt can make businesses less stable during periods when profitability declines. Interest payments on debt are a fixed cost that businesses must pay regardless of their performance. This can be onerous and endanger a business’s solvency when profits fall.

He points out that the sensible way of putting debt and equity on a level playing field is by getting rid of the double tax on dividends, not by imposing a second layer of tax on interest.

…it does not make sense to equalize their tax treatment by eliminating interest deductibility for businesses. Doing so would further suppress economic growth, job creation, and wage increases. Instead, Congress should end the double taxation of income earned through equity financing in tax reform by eliminating taxes on saving and investment, including capital gains and dividends.

Incidentally, what Curtis wrote isn’t some sort of controversial right-wing theory. It’s well understood by every public finance economist.

The International Monetary Fund, for instance, is generally on the left on fiscal issues (and that’s an understatement). Yet in a study published by the IMF, Ruud A. de Mooij outlines the dangers of tax-induced debt.

Most tax systems today contain a “debt bias,” offering a tax advantage for corporations to finance their investments by debt. …One cannot compellingly argue for giving tax preferences to debt based on legal, administrative, or economic considerations. The evidence shows, rather, that debt bias creates significant inequities, complexities, and economic distortions. For instance, it has led to inefficiently high debt-to-equity ratios in corporations. It discriminates against innovative growth firms, impeding stronger economic growth. … recent developments suggest that its costs to public welfare are larger—possibly much larger—than previously thought. …The economic crisis has also made clear the harmful economic effects of excessive levels of debt… These insights make it more urgent to tackle debt bias by means of tax policy reform.

What’s the solution?

Well, just as Curtis Dubay explained, there are two options.

What can be done to mitigate debt bias in the tax code? In a nutshell, it will require either reducing the tax deductibility of interest or introducing similar deductions for equity returns.

And the author of the IMF study agree with Curtis that the way to create neutrality between equity and debt is by using the latter approach.

Abolishing interest deductibility would indeed eliminate debt bias, but it would also introduce new distortions into investment, and implementing it would be very difficult. …The second option, introducing a deduction for corporate equity, has better prospects. …such an allowance would bring other important economic benefits, such as increased investment, higher wages, and higher economic growth.

And Mooij even acknowledges that there’s a Laffer Curve argument for getting rid of the double tax on dividends.

The main obstacle is probably its cost to public revenues, estimated at around 0.5 percent of GDP for an average developed country. …In the long term, the budgetary cost is expected to be significantly smaller, since the favorable economic effects of the policy change would broaden the overall tax base. And in fact, a number of countries have successfully introduced variants of the allowance for corporate equity, suggesting that it is not only conceptually desirable but also practically feasible.

Another study from the International Monetary Fund, authored by Mooij and  Shafik Hebous, highlights the damage caused by luring companies into taking on excessive debt.

Excessive corporate debt levels are a serious macroeconomic stability concern. For instance, high debt can increase the probability of a firm’s bankruptcy in case of an adverse shock… Given this concern about excessive corporate debt, it is hard to understand why almost all tax systems around the world encourage the use of corporate debt over equity. Indeed, most corporate income tax (CIT) systems allow interest expenses, but not returns to equity, to be deducted in calculating corporate tax liability. This asymmetry stimulates corporations to use debt over equity to finance investment.

We get the same explanation of how to address the inequity in the tax treatment of debt and equity.

Effectively, there are two ways in which debt bias can be neutralized: either by treating equity more similar as debt by adding an allowance for corporate equity (ACE); or by treating debt more similar for taxation as equity by denying interest deductibility for corporations.

And we get the same solution. Stop double taxing dividends.

ACE systems have been quite widely advocated by economists and implemented in some countries, such as Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Switzerland, and Turkey. Evaluations generally suggest that these systems have been effective in reducing debt bias… Yet, many countries are still reluctant to introduce an ACE due to the expected revenue loss.

By the way, the distortionary damage becomes greater when tax rates are onerous.

A recent academic study addresses the added damage of extra debt that occurs when tax rates are high.

For a country like the United States with a relatively high corporate income tax rate (a statutory federal rate of 35%), theory argues that firms in this country should have significant leverage. …The objective of our study is to estimate how much such variation in tax structure arising from global operations explains the variation in capital structure that we observe among US publicly traded multinational firms. …We employ the BEA’s multinational firm data and augment it with international tax data… Using our calculated weighted average tax rate, we include otherwise identified explanatory variables for capital structure and estimate in a multivariate regression setting how much our blended tax rate measure improves our understanding of why capital structure varies across firms and, to a lesser extent, across time. …Economically, this coefficient corresponds to a 7.1% higher book leverage ratio for a firm with a 35% average tax rate over the sample period compared to an otherwise identical firm with a 25% average tax rate. These results demonstrate that, contrary to some of the earlier literature finding that tax effects were negligible, firms that persistently confront high tax rates have significantly more debt, both economically and statistically, than otherwise equivalent firms who persistently face lower corporate income tax rates. …Irrespective of whether we examine leverage ratios based on book values or market values, whether we include cash or not, or if we alternatively examine interest coverage, we find that multinational firms confronting lower tax rates use less debt. The results are not only statistically significant, but the coefficient magnitudes suggest that these effects are first order

There’s some academic jargon in the above excerpt, so I’ll also include this summary of the paper from the Tax Foundation.

A new paper published in the Journal of Financial Economics finds that countries with high tax rates on corporate income also have higher corporate leverage ratios. …Using survey data of multinational corporations from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the authors…find that businesses that report their income in high tax jurisdictions have corporate leverage ratios that are substantially higher than those in low tax jurisdictions. More precisely, they find that a business facing an average tax rate of 35% has a leverage ratio that is 7.1% higher than a similar firm facing an average tax rate of 25%.

By the way, here are the results from another IMF study by Mooij about how the debt bias is connected to high tax rates.

We find that, typically, a one percentage point higher tax rate increases the debt-asset ratio by between 0.17 and 0.28. Responses are increasing over time, which suggests that debt bias distortions have become more important.

The bottom line is that the U.S. corporate tax rate is far too high. And when you combine that punitive rate with a distortionary preference for debt over equity, the net result is that we have companies burdened by too much debt, which puts them (and the overall economy) in danger when there’s a downturn.

So the obvious solution (beyond simply lowering the corporate rate, which should be a given) is to get rid of the double tax on dividends.

The good news is that Republicans want to move in that direction.

The not-so-good news is that they are not using the ideal approach. As I noted last year, the “Better Way Plan” proposed by House Republicans is sub-optimal on this issue.

Under current law, companies can deduct the interest they pay and recipients of interest income must pay tax on those funds. This actually is correct treatment, particularly when compared to dividends, which are not deductible to companies (meaning they pay tax on those funds) while also being taxable for recipients. The House GOP plan gets rid of the deduction for interest paid. Combined with the 50 percent exclusion for individual capital income, that basically means the income is getting taxed 1-1/2 times. But that rule would apply equally for shareholders and bondholders, so that pro-debt bias in the tax code would be eliminated.

For what it’s worth, I suggest this approach was acceptable, not only because the debt bias was eliminated, but also because of the other reforms in the plan.

…the revenue generated by disallowing any deduction for interest would be used for pro-growth reforms such as a lower corporate tax rate.

Though I can’t say the same thing about the border-adjustability provision, which is a poison pill for tax reform.

P.S. While the preference for debt is quite harmful, I nonetheless still think the worst distortion in the tax code is the healthcare exclusion.

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I’m flabbergasted when people assert that America’s costly and inefficient healthcare system is proof that free markets don’t work.

In hopes of helping them understand what’s really going on, I try to explain to them that an unfettered market involves consumers and producers directly interacting with their own money in an open and competitive environment.

I then explain why that’s not a description of the U.S. system. Not even close. As I noted in Part I, consumers directly finance only 10.5 percent of their healthcare expenses. Everything else involves a third-party payer thanks to government interventions such as Medicare, Medicaid, the healthcare exclusion, the Veterans Administration, etc.

Obamacare then added another layer of intervention to the existing mess. By my rough calculations, that costly boondoggle took the country from having a system that was 68-percent controlled and dictated by government to a system where government dictates and controls 79 percent of the system.

This is very relevant because Republicans in Washington are now trying to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, but they’re confronting a very unpleasant reality. Undoing that legislation won’t create a stable, market-driven healthcare system. Instead, we’d only be back to where we were in 2010 – a system where government would still be the dominant player and market forces would be almost totally emasculated.

The only difference is that Republicans would then get blamed for everything that goes wrong in the world of healthcare rather than Obama and the Democrats (and you better believe that’s a big part of the decision-making process on Capitol Hill).

Yes, the GOP plan would save some money, which is laudable, but presumably the main goal is to have a sensible and sustainable healthcare system. And that’s not going to happen unless there’s some effort to somehow unravel the overall mess that’s been created by all the misguided government policies that have accumulated over many decades.

This isn’t a new or brilliant observation. Milton Friedman wrote about how government-controlled healthcare leads to higher costs and lower quality back in 1977, but I can’t find an online version of that article, so let’s look at what he said in a 1978 speech to the Mayo Institute.

I realize that many people won’t have 45 minutes of spare time to watch the entire video, so I’ll also provide some excerpts from a column Friedman wrote back in the early 1990s that makes the same points. He started by observing that bureaucratic systems have ever-rising costs combined with ever-declining output.

…a study by Max Gammon…comparing input and output in the British socialized hospital system…found that input had increased sharply, while output had actually fallen. He was led to enunciate what he called “the theory of bureaucratic displacement.” In his words, in “a bureaucratic system . . . increase in expenditure will be matched by fall in production. . . . Such systems will act rather like `black holes,’ in the economic universe, simultaneously sucking in resources, and shrinking in terms of `emitted production.'” …concern about the rising cost of medical care, and of proposals to do something about it — most involving a further move toward the complete socialization of medicine — reminded me of the Gammon study and led me to investigate whether his law applied to U.S. health care.

Friedman then noted how this bureaucratic rule operated in the United States after the healthcare exclusion was adopted during World War II.

Even a casual glance at figures on input and output in U.S. hospitals indicates that Gammon’s law has been in full operation for U.S. hospitals since the end of World War II… Before 1940, input and output both rose, input somewhat more than output, presumably because of the introduction of more sophisticated and expensive treatment. The cost of hospital care per resident of the U.S., adjusted for inflation, rose from 1929 to 1940 at the rate of 5% per year; the number of occupied beds, at 2.4% a year. Cost per patient day, adjusted for inflation, rose only modestly. The situation was very different after the war. From 1946 to 1989, the number of beds per 1,000 population fell by more than one-half; the occupancy rate, by one-eighth. In sharp contrast, input skyrocketed. Hospital personnel per occupied bed multiplied nearly seven-fold and cost per patient day, adjusted for inflation, an astounding 26-fold.

Friedman then explained that the adoption of Medicare and Medicaid hastened the erosion of market forces.

One major engine of these changes was the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. A mild rise in input was turned into a meteoric rise; a mild fall in output, into a rapid decline. …The federal government’s assumption of responsibility for hospital and medical care for the elderly and the poor provided a fresh pool of money, and there was no shortage of takers. Personnel per occupied bed, which had already doubled from 1946 to 1965, more than tripled from that level after 1965. Cost per patient day, which had already more than tripled from 1946 to 1965, multiplied a further eight-fold after 1965. Growing costs, in turn, led to more regulation of hospitals, further increasing administrative expense.

Remember, Friedman wrote this article back in 1991. And the underlying problems have gotten worse since that time.

So what’s the bottom line? Friedman pointed out that the problem is too much government.

The U.S. medical system has become in large part a socialist enterprise. Why should we be any better at socialism than the Soviets?

And he explained that there’s only one genuine solution.

The inefficiency, high cost and inequitable character of our medical system can be fundamentally remedied in only one way: by moving in the other direction, toward re-privatizing medical care.

Some readers may be skeptical. Even though he cited lots of historical evidence, perhaps you’re thinking Friedman’s position is impractical.

So let’s fast forward to 2017 and look at some very concrete data assembled by Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute. He looks at medical costs over the past 18 years and compares what’s happened with prices for things that are covered by third-party payer (either government or government-distorted private insurance) and prices for cosmetic procedures that are financed directly by consumers.

As you can see, the relative price of health care generally declines when people are spending their own money and operating in a genuine free market. But when there’s third-party payer, relative prices rise.

Perry explains the issue very succinctly.

Cosmetic procedures, unlike most medical services, are not usually covered by insurance. Patients paying 100% out-of-pocket for elective cosmetic procedures are cost-conscious, and have strong incentives to shop around and compare prices at the dozens of competing providers in any large city. Providers operate in a very competitive market with transparent pricing and therefore have incentives to provide cosmetic procedures at competitive prices. Those providers are also less burdened and encumbered by the bureaucratic paperwork that is typically involved with the provision of most standard medical care with third-party payments. Because of the price transparency and market competition that characterizes the market for cosmetic procedures, the prices of most cosmetic procedures have fallen in real terms since 1998, and some non-surgical procedures have even fallen in nominal dollars before adjusting for price changes. In all cases, cosmetic procedures have increased in price by far less than the 100.5% increase in the price of medical care services between 1998 and 2016 and the 176.6% increase in hospital services.

In other words, a free market can work in healthcare. And it gives us falling prices and transparency rather than bureaucracy and inefficiency. Maybe when they’ve exhausted all other options, Republicans will decide to give freedom a try.

P.S. If you want to get a flavor for how competition and markets generate better results, watch this Reason TV video and read these stories from Maine and North Carolina.

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It’s relatively easy to demonstrate how certain regulations make our lives less pleasant (inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, inadequate washing machines, crummy dishwashers, etc).

Furthermore, it’s also simple to highlight examples of foolish and preposterous regulations.

And it’s a straightforward exercise (at least conceptually) to argue that regulations should pass some sort of cost-benefit test.

What’s not so easy, however, is getting folks to grasp the overall impact of red tape on growth and living standards. After all, most normal people don’t want to learn about wonky concepts such as the production possibilities frontier. And I also doubt there are many people who are interested in the technical challenge of how to measure the aggregate impact of thousand of rules and restrictions.

But these issues matter. A lot. According to Economic Freedom or the World, the regulatory burden is just as important as the fiscal burden when determining a nation’s competitiveness and economic outlook. Simply stated, our living standards are determined by productivity, which is determined by how wisely labor and capital are combined to generate output.

With this in mind, a new study from the European Central Bank helpfully examines the degree to which regulation hinders the efficient allocation of those factors of production.

The focus of this paper is on the…misallocation of labour and capital in eight macro-sectors (which include manufacturing and services) for five large euro-area countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) during the period 2002-2012. …The paper then investigates the potential determinants of changes in input misallocation by looking at traditional structural determinants, namely restrictive product and labour market regulations. …regulations that shelter firms from competition might result in poor allocation of resources because low productive firms will keep operating instead of downsizing or exiting. Similarly, stringent labour market regulation, in the form of high hiring and firing costs, might also thwart resource allocation.

For those who are interested in such things, the study looks at what drives improvements in productivity. Is it firms becoming more efficient because of competition, or is “reallocation” as weak companies vanish and dynamic new firms emerge?

The short answer, as illustrated by the table, is that both play a role.

Here are some of the issues considered in the ECB study.

In our full empirical specification, as well as initial conditions in misallocation, …we first examine the role of two structural factors, i.e. changes in both product and labour market regulations. In the presence of high barriers to entry, unproductive firms are able to survive and therefore retain productive resources which are not shifted to the most efficient firms in a given industry (Schiantarelli 2008; Restuccia and Rogerson 2013; Andrews and Cingano 2014). Furthermore, more stringent employment regulation might prevent firms from adjusting their workforce to optimal levels, therefore hampering the efficient reallocation of workers across firms (Haltiwanger, Scarpetta and Schweizer 2014; Bartelsman, Gautier and de Wind 2011). Moreover, in the labour misallocation regressions we also include an interaction term between the changes in product and labour market regulations.

Here are their estimates of both product market regulation and labor market regulation for selected nations.

It’s good to see that there’s a slight trend toward less regulation of product markets. A few nations have modestly reduced regulation of labor markets, but the most interesting observation is that this is an area where the United States has a major advantage. Only Germany is even close to America in allowing markets to operate with a high level of freedom.

Having examined the issues covered by the study, let’s now consider the results.

All discussed capital misallocation results are robust to the inclusion of market distortions, i.e. to regulatory and credit constraints. …The general decline in PMR over the period considered dampened capital misallocation dynamics… Stricter product market regulation is found to have led to higher labour misallocation growth. But we also find that more stringent labour market regulations positively correlate with labour misallocation growth, particularly in sectors characterized by more stringent product market regulations. Thus, these results support the idea that the positive effect of the tightness of PMR on labour misallocation growth is amplified if also EPL becomes more restrictive. Seen from an inverse perspective, the gains in the allocative efficiency of labour are larger if both kinds of regulation are jointly loosened.

Here’s the bottom line.

Our results therefore suggest that in order to foster a more efficient within-sector allocation of inputs across firms structural reforms, such as those lowering entry barriers for firms, removing size-contingent regulations that prevent firms from reaching their optimal size and enhancing bankruptcy regulations that facilitate the exit of unproductive firms, would be warranted. The loosening of PMR and EPL in recent years in some countries has proven to dampen misallocation dynamics, yet there is still room for further reductions, as shown for example when comparing the level of regulation with that in the U.S.

Unfortunately, I don’t expect that this study will have any sort of impact on the debate. The people who already understand the negative impact of regulation now have more evidence about the value of unfettered markets and creative destruction.

But the politicians and interest groups won’t care. They are interested in accumulating power and obtaining unearned benefits. To the extent that they would even bother to read the study, they would conclude that they should fight extra hard to preserve the status quo since they will realize that there are fewer favors to distribute when genuine capitalism is allowed to operate.

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I don’t have strong views on global warming. Or climate change, or whatever it’s being called today.

But I’ve generally been skeptical about government action for the simple reason that the people making the most noise are statists who would use any excuse to increase the size and power of government. To be blunt, I simply don’t trust them. In Washington, they’re called watermelons – green on the outside (identifying as environmentalists) but red on the inside (pushing a statist agenda).

But there are some sensible people who think some sort of government involvement is necessary and appropriate.

George Schultz and James Baker, two former Secretaries of State, argue for a new carbon tax in a Wall Street Journal column as part of an agenda that also makes changes to regulation and government spending.

…there is mounting evidence of problems with the atmosphere that are growing too compelling to ignore. …The responsible and conservative response should be to take out an insurance policy. Doing so need not rely on heavy-handed, growth-inhibiting government regulations. Instead, a climate solution should be based on a sound economic analysis that embodies the conservative principles of free markets and limited government. We suggest…creating a gradually increasing carbon tax…, returning the tax proceeds to the American people in the form of dividends. And…rolling back government regulations once such a system is in place.

A multi-author column in the New York Times, including Professors Greg Mankiw and Martin Feldstein from Harvard, also puts for the argument for this plan.

On-again-off-again regulation is a poor way to protect the environment. And by creating needless uncertainty for businesses that are planning long-term capital investments, it is also a poor way to promote robust economic growth. By contrast, an ideal climate policy would reduce carbon emissions, limit regulatory intrusion, promote economic growth, help working-class Americans and prove durable when the political winds change. …Our plan is…the federal government would impose a gradually increasing tax on carbon dioxide emissions. It might begin at $40 per ton and increase steadily. This tax would send a powerful signal to businesses and consumers to reduce their carbon footprints. …the proceeds would be returned to the American people on an equal basis via quarterly dividend checks. With a carbon tax of $40 per ton, a family of four would receive about $2,000 in the first year. As the tax rate rose over time to further reduce emissions, so would the dividend payments. …regulations made unnecessary by the carbon tax would be eliminated, including an outright repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

They perceive this plan as being very popular.

Environmentalists should like the long-overdue commitment to carbon pricing. Growth advocates should embrace the reduced regulation and increased policy certainty, which would encourage long-term investments, especially in clean technologies. Libertarians should applaud a plan premised on getting the incentives right and government out of the way.

I hate to be the skunk at the party, but I’m a libertarian and I’m not applauding. I explain some of my concerns about the general concept in this interview.

In the plus column, there would be a tax cut and a regulatory rollback. In the minus column, there would be a new tax. So two good ideas and one bad idea, right? Sounds like a good deal in theory, even if you can’t trust politicians in the real world.

However, the plan that’s being promoted by Schultz, Baker, Feldstein, Mankiw, etc, doesn’t have two good ideas and one bad idea. They have the good regulatory reduction and the bad carbon tax, but instead of using the revenue to finance a good tax cut such as eliminating the capital gains tax or getting rid of the corporate income tax, they want to create universal handouts.

They want us to believe that this money, starting at $2,000 for a family of four, would be akin to some sort of tax rebate.

That’s utter nonsense, if not outright prevarication. This is a new redistribution program. Sort of like the “basic income” scheme being promoted by some folks.

And it creates a very worrisome dynamic since people will have an incentive to support ever-higher carbon taxes in order to get ever-larger checks from the government. Heck, the plan being pushed explicitly envisions such an outcome.

I’ve made the economic argument against carbon taxes and the cronyism argument against carbon taxes. Now that we have a real-world proposal, we have the practical argument against carbon taxes.

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In one of my periodic attempts to create themes for these columns, I developed a “fiscal fights with friends” category.

  • Part I was a response to Riehan Salam’s well-meaning critique of the flat tax.
  • Part II was a response to a good-but-timid fiscal plan from folks at AEI.
  • Part III was a response to Jerry Taylor’s principled case for an energy tax.
  • And I’m going to retroactively categorize my friendly attacks on the destination-based cash-flow tax as Part IVa, Party IVb, and Part IVc.

Today’s column could be considered Part IIIb since I’m going to revisit the case against energy taxes. Except it’s not going to be a friendly assessment. That’s because there’s a legitimate case (made by Jerry) for a carbon tax, based on the notion that it could address an externality, obviate the need for command-and-control regulation, and provide revenue to finance pro-growth tax cuts.

But there’s also a distasteful argument for such a tax and it revolves around crony capitalists seeking to obtain unearned wealth by imposing costs on their competitors.

Elon Musk already is infamous for trying to put taxpayers on the hook for some of his grandiose schemes. Now, as reported by Bloomberg, he wants an energy tax on American consumers.

Tesla Motors Inc. founder Elon Musk is pressing the Trump administration to adopt a tax on carbon emissions, raising the issue directly with President Donald Trump and U.S. business leaders at a White House meeting Monday regarding manufacturing.

But what the article doesn’t mention is that such a tax would make his electric cars more financially attractive. It’s rather unseemly (and I’m bending over backwards for a charitable characterization) that a rich guy is pushing a tax on the rest of us as a way of lining his pockets.

What’s ironic, though, is that he’s probably being short-sighted because a carbon tax presumably would hit coal, and that’s a common source of energy for electrical generation. So while regular drivers would pay a lot more for gas, Tesla drivers would pay more at charging stations.

Some big oil companies also are flirting with an energy tax for cronyist reasons. An article in the Federalist notes that some of those firms support carbon taxes because they want to create hardships for their competitors.

…carbon taxes do not affect all fossil fuels equally. So just as some fossil fuels are much more carbon-intensive than others, here we can begin to understand how, beyond the benefits of predictability, a carbon tax might actually help some fossil-fuel providers… As a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper illustrates, for example, in the United States a tax on carbon would disproportionately impact the use of coal relative to natural gas for energy production. …Don’t be surprised, then, if some domestic producers of natural gas end up promoting a carbon tax, not only out of concern for regime stability but also out of a concern to make their product more competitive in the energy marketplace.

To be fair, I suppose that Musk and the energy companies might actually think energy taxes are a good idea, so their support may have nothing to do with self interest.

But it’s always a good idea to “follow the money” when looking at how policy really gets made in Washington.

Even more depressing, the adoption of one bad policy may lead to the expansion of another bad policy. More specifically, some proponents of energy taxes admit that ordinary taxpayers and consumers will be hurt. But rather than realize that a new tax is a bad idea, they decide to match a tax increase with more spending. Here is a blurb from a report by the American Enterprise Institute.

Using emissions and other data from 2013 and 2014, we also find that the revenue from the carbon tax could be enough to expand the EITC to childless workers and hold other low income households harmless, combining a regressive tax with progressive benefits.

This is not good. The EITC already is the fastest-growing redistribution program in Washington. Making it even bigger would exacerbate the fiscal burden of the welfare state.

P.S. Now that I think about it, because much of my work on spending caps is designed to educate policymakers that a focus on balanced budget rules is well-meaning but misguided, I’m going to classify my columns on spending caps as Part Va, Part Vb, Part Vc, Part Vd, Part Ve, Part Vf, Part Vg, Part Vh, Part Vi, and Part Vj of my fiscal-fights-with-friends collection.

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Red tape is a huge burden on the American economy, with even an Obama Administration bureaucracy acknowledging that costs far exceed supposed benefits.

And the problem gets worse every year.

If I had to pick the worst example of foolish regulation, there would be lots of absurd examples from the federal government, and the crazy bureaucrats at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission probably would be at the top of the list.

But the worst regulations, at least if measured by the harm to lower-income Americans, probably are imposed by state governments. Yes, I’m talking about the scourge of occupational licensing.

A report published by The American Interest elaborates on this problem.

…it’s important that policymakers don’t lose sight of more subtle ways the government has distorted the economy to favor the politically connected. One example: Onerous occupational licensing laws that force people to undergo thousands of hours of often redundant and gratuitous training to perform jobs like auctioneering, tree trimming, and hair styling. …licensing laws are the result of higher-skilled professionals seeking to protect their market share at the consumers’ expense. …This not just a minor concern for a few key industries; it is a weight dragging down the entire economy, raising prices while blocking access to less-skilled trades. The Obama administration has already recommended that states look at ways to loosen these requirements.

Yes, you read correctly. This is an issue where the Obama Administration was basically on the right side.

I’m not joking. Here are excerpts from a White House statement last year.

Today nearly one-quarter of all U.S. workers need a government license to do their jobs. The prevalence of occupational licensing has risen from less than 5 percent in the early 1950s with the majority of the growth coming from an increase in the number of professions that require a license rather than composition in the workforce. …the current system often requires unnecessary training, lengthy delays, or high fees. This can in turn artificially create higher costs for consumers and prohibit skilled American workers like florists or hairdressers from entering jobs in which they could otherwise excel.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah is a strong advocate of curtailing these protectionist regulations and allowing capitalism to flourish. Using teeth-whitening services as an example, he explained the downside of government-enforced cartels in an article for Forbes.

Should only dentists be allowed to whiten people’s teeth? …This may sound like a silly question… Keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration already regulates teeth-whitening products for safety and that virtually no one has ever been injured by someone administering these products. But in a number of states throughout the country, dentists began losing teeth-whitening customers to non-dentists who had set up kiosks in shopping malls and were charging less money for the same teeth-whitening services. These upset dentists then went to their state dental-licensing boards and urged those boards to add teeth whitening to the definition of “the practice of dentistry.” These state boards complied… The results were unemployed teeth whiteners, more expensive teeth whitening, and higher profits for the dentists. …An organized cartel (the dentists)…used the threat of government punishment to enforce their monopoly.

Unfortunately, Senator Lee explains, this is a problem that goes way beyond teeth whitening.

…when the deeper question of occupational licensing is applied to the broader economy, it turns out that there are millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars at stake. …dentists are not the only professionals using government power to harm consumers and line their pockets. A 2013 study found that 25% of today’s workforce is in an occupation licensed by a state entity, up from just 5% in 1950. And the number of licensed professionals is not growing because everyone is suddenly becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, it is the number of professions requiring licenses that is growing. Security guards, florists, barbers, massage therapists, interior decorators, manicurists, hair stylists, personal trainers, tree trimmers and auctioneers work in just some of the many, many professions that state legislatures have seen fit to cartelize.

But do consumers get some sort of benefit as a result of all this red tape?

Nope.

According to a study by University of Minnesota Professor Morris Kleiner, “Occupational licensing has either no impact or even a negative impact on the quality of services provided to customers by members of the regulated occupation.” Occupational licensing has grown not because consumers demanded it, but because lobbyists recognized a business opportunity where they could use government power to get rich at the public’s expense. …Consumers end up paying $200 billion in higher costs annually, prospective professionals lose an estimated three million jobs, and millions more Americans find it harder to live where they want due to licensing requirements.

By the way, the barriers to mobility are a major problem. A professor at Yale Law School crunched the numbers and found that occupational licensing has undermined the great America tradition of moving where the jobs are.

Here are some details from the abstract of the study.

Rates of inter-state mobility, by most estimates, have been falling for decades. Even research that does not find a general decline finds that inter-state mobility rates are low among disadvantaged groups and are not increasing despite a growing connection between moving and economic opportunity. …governments, mostly at the state and local levels, have created a huge number of legal barriers to inter-state mobility. Land-use laws and occupational licensing regimes limit entry into local and state labor markets.

In an article for Reason, Ronald Bailey highlights some of the key findings from the scholarly study.

From the end of World War II through the 1980s, the Census Bureau reports, about 20 percent of Americans changed their residences annually, with more than 3 percent moving to a different state each year. Now more are staying home. In November, the Census Bureau reported that Americans were moving at historically low rates: Only 11.2 percent moved in 2015, and just 1.5 percent moved to a different state. …Yale law professor David Schleicher blames bad public policy. …Schleicher identifies and analyzes the policies that limit people’s ability to enter job-rich markets and exit job-poor ones. …Why? First, lots of job-rich areas have erected barriers that keep job-seekers from other regions out. The two biggest barriers are land use and occupational licensing restrictions. …Schleicher notes that more than 1,100 occupations require licensing in at least one state, but fewer than 60 are regulated in all states. A 2015 White House report on occupational licensing found that “interstate migration rates for workers in the most licensed occupations are lower by an amount equal to nearly 15 percent of the average migration rate compared to those in the least licensed occupations.”

Let’s close by putting this in practical terms.

Imagine you don’t have a lot of education. And you definitely don’t have out-of-state licenses that are necessary for dozens of professions.

Are you going to move where there are more jobs?

Several decades ago, the answer likely was yes. Now, the incentive for mobility has been curtailed thanks to licensing laws that are really nothing more than regulatory protectionism.

Such laws should be repealed, or struck down by the courts as illegal restraints on trade.

P.S. Here’s some dark libertarian humor on this topic.

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All things considered, I like small businesses more than big businesses.

Not because I’m against large companies, per se, but rather because big businesses often use their political influence to seek unearned and undeserved wealth. If you don’t believe me, just look at the big corporations lobbying for bad policies such as the Export-Import Bank, Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, bailouts, and the green-energy scam.

It’s almost as if cronyism is a business model.

By contrast, the only bad policy associated with modest-sized firms is the Small Business Administration. And I suspect the majority of little firms wouldn’t even notice or care if that silly bit of intervention was shut down.

Rather than seeking handouts, small businesses generally are more focused on fighting back against excessive government.

That’s because taxes and red tape can be a death sentence for a mom-and-pop firm. Literally, not just figuratively.

The Daily News reports on the sad closing of popular restaurant in New York City.

For 25 years, China Fun was renowned…the restaurant’s sudden Jan. 3 closing, blamed by management on suffocating government demands. …“The state and municipal governments, with their punishing rules and regulations, seems to believe that we should be their cash machine to pay for all that ails us in society.” …Albert Wu, whose parents Dorothea and Felix owned the eatery, said the endless paperwork and constant regulation that forced the shutdown accumulated over the years. …Wu cited one regulation where the restaurant was required to provide an on-site break room for workers despite its limited space. And he blamed the amount of paperwork now required — an increasingly difficult task for a non-chain businesses. “In a one-restaurant operation like ours, you’re spending more time on paperwork than you are trying to run your business,” he griped. Increases in the minimum wage, health insurance and insurance added to a list of 10 issues provided by Wu. “And I haven’t even gone into the Health Department rules and regulations,” he added. …“For smaller businesses like China Fun, each little thing that occurs makes it harder,” said Malpass. “Each regulation, each tax — you put it all together and it’s just a hostile business environment.”

This is rather unfortunate, but perhaps it is a “teachable moment.”

There are two things that came to mind as I read this story.

  • First, at some point a camel’s back is broken by too much straw. Politicians often claim that a particular tax or regulation imposes a very small burden. Perhaps that is true, but when you have dozens of taxes and hundreds of regulations, those various and sundry small burdens become very onerous. I’ve made the point before that you don’t need perfect policy for the economy to function. You just need “breathing room.” Well, China Fun ran out of breathing room. A casualty of big government, though it remains to be seen if anyone learns from this experience.
  • Second, complicated taxes and regulations are a much bigger burden for small companies compared to big corporations. Every large firm has teams of lawyers and accountants to deal with tax and regulatory compliance. That’s expensive and inefficient, of course, but such costs nonetheless consume only a very small fraction of total revenue. For small businesses, by contrast, those costs consume an enormous percentage of time, energy, and resources for owners. For all intents and purposes, bad government policy creates a competitive advantage for big firms over small firms.

The moral of the story is that we should have smaller government. Not just lower taxes (and simpler taxes), but also less regulation and red tape.

Not just because such policies are good for overall economic performance, but also because small businesses shouldn’t be disadvantaged.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of how government tilts the playing field in favor of big companies (at least the corrupt big companies), let’s enjoy some humor on that topic.

Starting with Uncle Sam’s universal bailout application form. And we also have the fancy new vehicle from Government Motors.

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