Posts Tagged ‘Supply-side economics’

Since I’m a big fan of the Laffer Curve, I’m always interested in real-world examples showing good results when governments reduce marginal tax rates on productive activity.

Heck, I’m equally interested in real-world results when governments do the wrong thing and increase tax burdens on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship (and, sadly, these examples are more common).

My goal, to be sure, isn’t to maximize revenue for politicians. Instead, I prefer the growth-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve.

In any event, my modest hope is that politicians will learn that higher tax rates lead to less taxable income. Whether taxable income falls by a lot or a little obviously depends on the specific circumstance. But in either case, I want policy makers to understand that there are negative economic effects.

Writing for Forbes, Jeremy Scott of Tax Notes analyzes the supply-side policies of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu…argued that the Laffer curve worked, and that his 2003 tax cuts had transformed Israel into a market economy and an engine of growth. …He pushed through controversial reforms… The top individual tax rate was cut from 64 percent to 44 percent, while corporate taxes were slashed from 36 percent to 18 percent. …Netanyahu credits these reforms for making Israel’s high-tech boom of the last few years possible. …tax receipts did rise after Netanyahu’s tax cuts. In fact, they were sharply higher in 2007 than in 2003, before falling for several years because of the global recession. …His tax cuts did pay for themselves. And he has transformed Israel into more of a market economy…In fact, the prime minister recently announced plans for more cuts to taxes, this time to the VAT and corporate levies.

Pretty impressive.

Though I have to say that rising revenues doesn’t necessarily mean that the tax cuts were completely self-financing. To answer that question, you have to know what would have happened in the absence of the tax cut. And since that information never will be available, all we can do is speculate.

That being said, I have no doubt there was a strong Laffer Curve response in Israel. Simply stated, dropping the top tax rate on personal income by 20 percentage points creates a much more conducive environment for investment and entrepreneurship.

And cutting the corporate tax rate in half is also a sure-fire recipe for improved investment and job creation.

I’m also impressed that there’s been some progress on the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Netanyahu explained that the public sector had become a fat man resting on a thin man’s back. If Israel were to be successful, it would have to reverse the roles. The private sector would need to become the fat man, something that would be possible only with tax cuts and a trimming of public spending. …Government spending was capped for three years.

The article doesn’t specify the years during which spending was capped, but the IMF data shows a de facto spending freeze between 2002 and 2005. And the same data, along with OECD data, shows that the burden of government spending has dropped by about 10 percentage points of GDP since that period of spending restraint early last decade.

Here’s the big picture from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World. As you can see from the data on Israel, the nation moved dramatically in the right direction after 1980. And there’s also been an upward bump in recent years.

Since I’m not an expert on Israeli economic policy, I don’t know the degree to which Netanyahu deserves a lot of credit or a little credit, but it’s good to see a country actually moving in the right direction.

Let’s close by touching on two other points. First, there was one passage in the Forbes column that rubbed me the wrong way. Mr. Scott claimed that Netanyahu’s tax cuts worked and Reagan’s didn’t.

Netanyahu might have succeeded where President Reagan failed.

I think this is completely wrong. While it’s possible that the tax cuts in Israel has a bigger Laffer-Curve effect than the tax cuts in the United States, the IRS data clearly shows that Reagan’s lower tax rates led to more revenue from the rich.

Second, the U.S. phased out economic aid to Israel last decade. I suspect that step helped encourage better economic policy since Israeli policy makers knew that American taxpayers no longer would subsidize statism. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson there for other nations?

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During last night’s Democratic debate, Senator Bernie Sanders said he would not raise tax rates as high as they were in the 1950s. And if Twitter data is accurate, his comment about being “not that much of a socialist compared to [President] Eisenhower” was one of the evening’s most memorable moments.

But a clever line is not the same as smart policy. Promising not to raise top tax rates to 90 percent or above is hardly a sign of moderation from the Vermont politician.

Fortunately, not all Democrats are infatuated with punitive tax rates.

Or at least they didn’t used to be. When President John F. Kennedy took office, he understood that the Eisenhower tax rates (in fairness to Ike, he’s merely guilty of not trying to reduce confiscatory tax rates imposed by FDR) were harming the economy and JFK argued for across-the-board tax rate reductions.

…an economy hampered by restrictive tax rates will never produce enough revenues to balance our budget just as it will never produce enough jobs or enough profits. Surely the lesson of the last decade is that budget deficits are not caused by wild-eyed spenders but by slow economic growth and periodic recessions and any new recession would break all deficit records. In short, it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now.

Here’s a video featuring some of President Kennedy’s wisdom on lower tax rates.

If that wasn’t enough, here’s another video featuring JFK’s wisdom on taxation.

By the way, if Senator Sanders really wants the rich to pay more, one of the lessons reasonable people learned from the Kennedy tax cuts is that upper-income taxpayers respond to lower tax rates by earning and reporting more income. Here’s a chart from a study I wrote almost 20 years ago.

Last but not least, let’s preemptively address a likely argument from Senator Sanders. He might be tempted to say that he doesn’t want the 90-percent tax rate of the Eisenhower years, but that he’s perfectly content with the 70-percent top tax rate that existed after the Kennedy tax cuts.

But if that’s the case, instead of teaching Sanders a lesson from JFK, then he needs to learn a lesson from Ronald Reagan.

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Is “supply-side economics” a bad thing or good thing?

It depends on what one means by the phrase. If it means that all tax cuts are self financing or that low tax burdens are the sole key to prosperity, then critics are right about it being a form of “voodoo economics.” See this Kevin Williamson column for more details.

But if the term is simply a shorthand way of saying that low marginal tax rates on productive behavior are a good thing because of better incentives for work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship (not to mention tax compliance and good government), then supply-side economics should be non-controversial. See this piece by Alan Reynolds for more details.

As you might expect, folks on the left prefer the first definition of supply-side economics and they are instinctively hostile to big tax cuts. Especially during an election cycle.

Here’s the basic argument, from an article by John Cassidy in The New Yorker. He focuses his ire on Governor Bush, but his comments could just as easily been directed against other GOP candidates.

Here’s his basic premise.

…the Republican Party is heading on economic policy: back to the old-time religion of tax cuts. …Jeb Bush, the G.O.P. establishment’s standard-bearer, announced, as the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, a plan to cut federal income-tax rates across the board. …wouldn’t this plan inflate the deficit, which President Obama and Congress have just spent five years trying to reduce, and also amount to another enormous handout to the one per cent? Not in the make-believe world of “voodoo economics”.

Mr. Cassidy is particularly incensed by the notion that some people believe tax cuts “pay for themselves” by generating sufficiently large amounts of additional taxable income.

The “voodoo” accusation arose from the claim that, because the policies would encourage people to work harder and businesses to invest more, a lot more taxable income would be produced, and the reductions in tax rates wouldn’t lead to a commensurate reduction in the amount of tax revenues that the government collected. Indeed, some early voodoo economists, such as Arthur Laffer, claimed that there wouldn’t be any drop in revenues. By 1988…more than half a decade of gaping budget deficits had discredited the most extreme and foolhardy version of voodoo economics.

For what it’s worth, there are several problems with the above passages.

First, while some GOPers did make exaggerated claims about the power of tax cuts, the Reagan White House never claimed the tax cuts would by self financing and instead made the very reasonable argument that lower tax rates would improve economic performance.

Second, the lower tax rates on upper-income taxpayers did lead to huge increases in taxable income and big increases in tax revenue, so there are a few examples where lower tax rates “pay for themselves.”

Third, the 1980-1982 double-dip recession was the main reason for higher deficits. Once the Reagan tax cuts were implemented, red ink began to shrink and even the Congressional Budget Office projected deficits would continue falling if Reagan’s policies were left on auto-pilot.

But let’s argue about the present rather than the past. Citing the work of some pro-Bush economists, Cassidy argues that tax cuts won’t generate as much growth as Governor Bush says he will deliver.

…the four conservative luminaries whom the Bush campaign rounded up to advise him…said that Bush’s tax plan would raise the growth rate of the economy by 0.5 per cent a year, and that the regulatory changes he is proposing would add another 0.3 per cent to the annual growth rate. But because the annual growth rate over the past five years has been 2.2 per cent, that gets us to three per cent growth, not the four per cent that Bush is promising to deliver.

Since economists are lousy forecasters, I won’t pretend to know how much additional growth the Bush economic plan would produce. But I’ll be the first to admit that Cassidy has found a gap between Bush’s rhetoric and the numbers produced by his advisers.

But does that mean big tax cuts are implausible and unrealistic?

Cassidy certainly would like readers to conclude that Bush’s plan doesn’t add up.

…the economists’ paper…makes the familiar argument that tax cuts, by stimulating growth, will lead to “revenue feedbacks.” On this basis, which is known on Capitol Hill as “dynamic scoring,” the economists reduce the estimated fiscal cost of the Bush tax cuts by two-thirds. But even a third of $3.6 trillion is a lot of red ink.

Though he (sort of) acknowledges that the Bush folks have a counter-argument.

So are the economists actually contradicting Bush and saying that his plan would expand the deficit? Not quite. …they write, “The remaining revenue loss would be offset by reasonable, incremental feedback effects from the tax and regulatory reforms, meaningful spending restraint across the federal budget…” Of course, Bush hasn’t said yet where he would cut spending

I don’t know if Governor Bush intends to produce a detailed list of ways to restrain government spending. Nor do I know whether he would follow through if he got elected (his record in Florida can be interpreted in different ways).

But I know that it’s actually very simple to have large tax cuts along with concomitant spending restraint.

And Bush’s economic advisers also understand. Take a look at these passages from their report. Citing a version of my Golden Rule, they point out that huge savings are possible simply by reducing how fast the government’s budget expands every year.

Budget discipline and economic prosperity go hand in hand. …federal spending restraint is essential to maximizing economic growth. …the Governor’s economic reforms require strong fiscal discipline on the federal budget ledger’s spending side. …the required budget goal can be achieved by reducing the growth in federal outlays from its current upward trajectory by one percentage point per year. From 2017 to 2025, federal expenditures are projected to increase at an annual rate of 4.2 percent. Limiting the increase to 3.2 percent will produce over $400 billion in budget savings in 2025 and $1.4 trillion in savings between 2017 and 2025.

Needless to say, we should have big – and immediate – reductions in government spending.

And if government is allowed to expand, it would be better if the budget grew at the rate of inflation (2 percent) rather than 3.2 percent.

That being said, it’s remarkable that even a little bit of spending restraint is capable of generating huge savings over a 10-year period. And those savings make big tax cuts very plausible. Even for the folks who myopically fixate on red ink when they should be worried about the overall burden of government spending.

So the real issue is not whether sizable tax cuts are plausible. It’s whether advocates of good tax policy are willing to impose accompanying discipline on the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

That means a President like Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton rather than George Bush or Barack Obama.

Interestingly, Jeb Bush admits spending grew too fast while his brother was in office. Check out what he said toward the end of this interview.

For what it’s worth, I think the Bush White House was just as guilty as the GOP Congress, if not more, but that’s another fight over what happened in the past.

What really matters is that if Jeb Bush (or any other candidate for President) is serious about charting a different path and putting government on a diet, then big tax cuts are very realistic.

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In my 2012 primer on fundamental tax reform, I highlighted the three biggest warts in the current system.

1. High tax rates that penalize productive behavior such as work and entrepreneurship.

2. Pervasive double taxation that undermines saving and investment.

3. Corrupt loopholes and cronyism that lure people into using resources inefficiently.

These problems all need to be addressed, along with additional problems with the internal revenue code, such as worldwide taxation and erosion of constitutional freedoms and civil liberties.

Based on these criteria, I’ve already reviewed the tax reform plan put forth by Marco Rubio. And I’ve analyzed the proposal introduced by Rand Paul.

Now let’s apply the same treatment to the “Reform and Growth Act of 2017” that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has unveiled in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Bush identifies three main goals, starting with lower tax rates.

First, I want to lower taxes and make the tax code simple, fair and clear. …We will cut individual rates from seven brackets to three: 28%, 25% and 10%. At 28%, the highest tax bracket would return to where it was when President Ronald Reagan signed into law his monumental and successful 1986 tax reform.

This is a positive step, effectively wiping out the tax-rate increases imposed by Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Then Governor Bush takes aim at tax loopholes.

Second, I want to eliminate the convoluted, lobbyist-created loopholes in the code. For years, wealthy individuals have deducted a much greater share of their income than everyone else. We will retain the deductibility of charitable contributions but cap the deductions used by the wealthy and Washington special interests, enabling tax-rate cuts across the board for everyone.

This also is a step in the right direction, though it’s unclear what Bush is proposing – if anything – for other big tax loopholes such as the mortgage interest deduction, the healthcare exclusion, the state and local tax deduction, and the municipal bond exemption.

The final big piece of Jeb’s plan deals with America’s punitive treatment of business income.

Third, I believe that the tax code should no longer be an impediment to the nation’s competitiveness with China, Europe and the rest of the world. …To stop American companies from moving out of the country, I will cut the corporate tax rate from 35%—the highest in the industrial world—to 20%, which is five percentage points below China’s. We will end the practice of world-wide taxation on U.S. businesses, which fosters the insidious tactic called corporate “inversions.” …We will also allow businesses to fully and immediately deduct new capital investments—a critical step to increase worker productivity and wages.

All of these reforms are very good for growth.

A lower corporate tax rate, particularly combined with territorial taxation and “expensing” of investment expenditures, will make American companies far more competitive.

More important, these reforms will fix flaws in the tax code that reduce capital formation. And that will mean more investment and higher wages for American workers.

There are other positive features mentioned in the column that are worth celebrating. Governor Bush’s plan eliminates the death tax, which is an especially punitive form of double taxation.

His proposal also gets rid of the alternative minimum tax (AMT), which is a convoluted part of the tax code seemingly designed to grab more money from taxpayers in a very complicated fashion.

Now let’s move to a part of Bush’s plan that seems bad, but arguably is good. He’s proposing to get rid of interest deductibility for companies, which will increase double taxation (remember, investors who buy corporate bonds pay tax on the interest payments they receive from firms).

…we will eliminate most corporate tax deductions—which is where favor-seeking and lobbying are most common—and remove the deduction for borrowing costs. That deduction encourages business models dependent on heavy debt.

So why is this feature arguably good when one of the key goals of tax reform is eliminating double taxation?

For two reasons. First, we already have double taxation of dividends (i.e., equity-financed investment), so imposing double taxation on borrowing (i.e., debt-financed investment) creates a level playing field and addresses the bias for debt in the tax code.

To be sure, it would be best to level the playing field by having no double taxation of any kind, but presumably the Bush team also was paying attention to revenue constraints.

And this is the second reason why this portion of the plan arguably is good. The revenue implications of this change are non-trivial, so one could argue that it is helping to finance pro-growth changes such as a lower corporate tax rate and immediate expensing of business investment.

Let’s close by highlighting some unambiguously worrisome features of the Bush plan.

According to his column, an additional 15 million Americans no longer will have any income tax liability, largely because the plan almost doubles the standard deduction. It’s good for people not to have to pay tax, of course, but we already have a system where almost half of all households are exempt from the income tax. So the concern is that we have a growing share of the population that perceives government as a no-cost dispenser of goodies.

And one of those goodies is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is a form of income redistribution operated through the tax code. And Bush is proposing to expand the EITC, though there aren’t any details about this part of his plan.

Presumably Bush is including these provisions to somewhat fend off the class-warfare attack that his plan provides big tax cuts for the “rich” while not doing enough for the rest of the population. Yet upper-income taxpayers already pay the lion’s share of the income tax.

Even the IRS has acknowledged that the top 3 percent pay more than half the burden!

So a fair tax cut, by definition, will benefit the rich since they’re the ones who are carrying the load.

In any event, the purpose of good tax policy is to generate faster growth by improving incentives for work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship, and that’s where you get the big benefits for lower- and middle-income taxpayers.

Simply stated, the close you get to a Hong Kong-style flat tax, the closer you get to robust Hong Kong-type growth rates.

The bottom line is that Bush’s tax plan isn’t a touchdown. Like the Rubio plan and Paul plan, it’s not a Hall-Rabushka flat tax, which is the gold standard for tax reform. But it’s a big step in that direction. Bush takes the ball from the wrong side of the field and puts it on the right side of the field.

If implemented (and accompanied by the spending restraint needed to make the plan sustainable), Bush’s proposal would be a significant boost for the American economy and American taxpayers.

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Every so often, I’ll assert that some statists are so consumed by envy and spite that they favor high tax rates on the “rich” even if the net effect (because of diminished economic output) is less revenue for government.

In other words, they deliberately and openly want to be on the right side (which is definitely the wrong side) of the Laffer Curve.

Critics sometimes accuse me of misrepresenting the left’s ideology, to which I respond by pointing to a poll of left-wing voters who strongly favored soak-the-rich tax hikes even if there was no extra tax collected.

But now I have an even better example.

Writing for Vox, Matthew Yglesias openly argues that we should be on the downward-sloping portion of the Laffer Curve. Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, “the case for confiscatory taxation” is part of the title for his article.

Here’s some of what he wrote.

Maybe at least some taxes should be really high. Maybe even really really high. So high as to useless for revenue-raising purposes — but powerful for achieving other ends. We already accept this principle for tobacco taxes. If all we wanted to do was raise revenue, we might want to slightly cut cigarette taxes. …But we don’t do that because we care about public health. We tax tobacco not to make money but to discourage smoking.

The tobacco tax analogy is very appropriate.

Indeed, one of my favorite arguments is to point out that we have high taxes on cigarettes precisely because politicians want to discourage smoking.

As a good libertarian, I then point out that government shouldn’t be trying to control our private lives, but my bigger point is that the economic arguments about taxes and smoking are the same as those involving taxes on work, saving, investment.

Needless to say, I want people to understand that high tax rates are a penalty, and it’s particularly foolish to impose penalties on productive behavior.

But not according to Matt. He specifically argues for ultra-high tax rates as a “deterrence” to high levels of income.

If we take seriously the idea that endlessly growing inequality can have a cancerous effect on our democracy, we should consider it for top incomes as well. …apply the same principle of taxation-as-deterrence to very high levels of income. …Imagine a world in which we…imposed a 90 percent marginal tax rate on salaries above $10 million. This seems unlikely to raise substantial amounts of revenue.

I suppose we should give him credit for admitting that high tax rates won’t generate revenue. Which means he’s more honest than some of his fellow statists who want us to believe confiscatory tax rates will produce more money.

But honesty isn’t the same as wisdom.

Let’s look at the economic consequences. Yglesias does admit that there might be some behavioral effects because upper-income taxpayers will be discouraged from earning and reporting income.

Maybe…we really would see a reduction of effort, or at least a relaxation of the intensity with which the performers pursue money. But would that be so bad? Imagine the very best hedge fund managers and law firm partners became inclined to quit the field a bit sooner and devote their time to hobbies. What would we lose, as a society? …some would presumably just move to Switzerland or the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes. That would be a real hit to local economies, but hardly a disaster. …Very high taxation of labor income would mean fewer huge compensation packages, not more revenue. Precisely as Laffer pointed out decades ago, imposing a 90 percent tax rate on something is not really a way to tax it at all — it’s a way to make sure it doesn’t happen.

While I suppose it’s good that Yglesias admits that high tax rates have behavioral effects, he clearly underestimates the damaging impact of such a policy.

He presumably doesn’t understand that rich people earn very large shares of their income from business and investment sources. As such, they have considerable ability to alter the timing, level, and composition of their earnings.

But my biggest problem with Yglesias’ proposals is that he seems to believe in the fixed-pie fallacy that public policy doesn’t have any meaningful impact of economic performance. This leads him to conclude that it’s okay to rape and pillage the “rich” since that will simply mean more income and wealth is available for the rest of us.

That’s utter nonsense. The economy is not a fixed pie and there is overwhelming evidence that nations with better policy grow faster and create more prosperity.

In other words, confiscatory taxation will have a negative effect on everyone, not just upper-income taxpayers.

There will be less saving and investment, which translates into lower wages and salaries for ordinary workers.

And as we saw in France, high tax rates drive out highly productive people, and we have good evidence that “super-entrepreneurs” and inventors are quite sensitive to tax policy.

To be fair, I imagine that Yglesias would try to argue that these negative effects are somehow offset by benefits that somehow materialize when there’s more equality of income.

But the only study I’ve seen that tries to make a connection between growth and equality was from the OECD and that report was justly ridiculed for horrible methodology (not to mention that it’s hard to take serious a study that lists France, Spain, and Ireland as success stories).

P.S. This is my favorite bit of real-world evidence showing why there should be low tax rates on the rich (in addition, of course, to low tax rates on the rest of us).

P.P.S. And don’t forget that leftists generally view higher taxes on the rich as a precursor to higher taxes on the rest of the population.

P.P.P.S. In the interests of full disclosure, Yglesias says I’m insane and irrational.

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When I debate class warfare issues, here’s something that happens with depressing regularity.

I’ll cite research from a group like the Tax Foundation on how an overwhelming share of the income tax is borne by upper-income taxpayers.

The statist I’m arguing with will then scoff and say the Tax Foundation is biased, thus implying that I’m sharing bogus data.

I’ll then respond that the group has a very good reputation and that their analysis is directly based on IRS data, but I may as well be talking to a brick wall. It seems leftists immediately close their minds if information doesn’t come directly from a group that they like.

So I was rather happy to see that the Internal Revenue Service, in the Spring 2015 Statistics of Income Bulletin, published a bunch of data on how much of the income tax is paid by different types of taxpayers.

I’ll be very curious to see how they respond when I point out that their favorite government agency admits that the bottom 50 percent of earners only pay 2.8 percent of all income tax. And I’ll be every more curious to see how they react when I point out that more than half of all income taxes are paid by the top 3 percent of taxpayers.

There’s a famous saying, generally attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

With this in mind, I’m hoping that this data from the IRS will finally put to rest the silly leftist talking point that the “rich” don’t pay their “fair share.”

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that the debate about policy will be settled.

Getting statists to accept certain facts is just the first step.

But once that happens, we can at least hope that their minds will be opened to subsequent steps, such as understanding the economic impact of punitive tax rates, recognizing that high tax rates won’t necessarily collect more revenue, or realizing that ordinary workers suffer when harsh tax policies reduce economic vitality.

Though I’m not holding my breath and expecting miracles. After all, some leftists openly state that they don’t care if the economic damage of high tax rates is so significant that government doesn’t collect any tax revenue.

You can see an example of one of these spite-motivated people at the 4:20 mark of the video I narrated on class-warfare taxation.

P.S. Shifting to another tax topic, some of you may have heard about the massive data breach at the IRS. Here’s some of what CNN is reporting.

The Internal Revenue Service believes that a major cyber breach that allowed criminals to steal the tax returns of more than 100,000 people originated in Russia, Rep. Peter Roskam confirmed to CNN on Thursday. …The IRS announced Tuesday that organized crime syndicates used personal data obtained elsewhere to access tax information, which they then used to file $50 million in fraudulent tax refunds.

I suppose I could use this opportunity to take a few potshots at the IRS, but there’s a far more important issue to raise.

I’m guessing the IRS probably has the best computer security of any tax bureaucracy in the world. Yet even all the IRS’s expertise couldn’t stop hackers from obtaining sensitive information.

Now let’s contemplate something truly frightening. The Obama Administration wants the United States to be part of an OECD pact that obligates participating nations to promiscuously share information with dozens of other governments, including untrustworthy, hostile, and/or corrupt regimes such as Russia and China, not to mention make information available to jurisdictions that presumably will have very little technical capacity to guard data from hackers and identity thieves. Here’s the list of participating nations on the OECD website, and it includes Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Greece, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Romania, Saudi Arabia, and Ukraine.

Yet none of this reckless endangerment would be an issue if we had a simple territorial tax system like the flat tax. Under such a simple and fair system, only income inside America’s borders would be taxed (unlike the wretched system of worldwide taxation we have now), so there would be no need to have risky information-swapping deals with dodgy foreign governments.

P.P.S. Senator Rand Paul is one of the few lawmakers fighting to protect Americans from having their information shared with foreign governments.

P.P.P.S. Shifting back to the original topic of class-warfare taxation, here’s a lesson on the Laffer Curve I offered to President Obama.

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The American Enterprise Institute has published a comprehensive budgetary plan entitled, “Tax and spending reform for fiscal stability and economic growth.”

Authored by Joseph Antos, Andrew G. Biggs, Alex Brill, and Alan D. Viard, all of whom I know and admire, this new document outlines a series of reforms designed to restrain the growth of government and mitigate many of the tax code’s more punitive features.

Compared to current law, the plan is a huge improvement.

But huge improvement isn’t the same as perfect, so here’s my two cents on what’s really good, what’s partially good, and what has me worried.

I’ll start with something that’s both good and bad.

According to the latest CBO estimates, federal tax revenues for 2015 will absorb 17.7 percent of GDP and spending will consume 20.4 percent of economic output. Now look at this table showing the impact of the AEI proposal. As you can see, the burden of taxes and spending will both be higher in the future than today.

That’s obviously bad. One would think a conservative organization would present a plan that shrinks the size of government!

But here’s the catch. Under current law, the burden of government is projected to climb far more rapidly, largely because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs. So if we do nothing and leave government on auto-pilot, America will be saddled with a European-sized welfare state.

From that perspective, the AEI plan actually is good since it is based on reforms that stop most – but not all – of the already-legislated expansions in the size of the public sector.

So here’s the bottom line. Compared to what I would like to see, the AEI plan is too timid. But compared to what I fear will happen, the AEI plan is reasonably bold.

Now let’s look at the specific reforms, staring with tax policy. Here’s some of what’s in the report.

The goal of our tax reform is to eliminate the income tax’s inherent bias against saving and investment and to reduce other tax distortions. To achieve this goal, the income tax system and the estate and gift taxes would be replaced by a progressive consumption tax, in the form of a Bradford X tax consisting of a…37 percent flat-rate firm-level tax on business cash flow and a graduated-rate household-level tax, with a top rate of 35 percent, on wages and fringe benefits.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the AEI folks decided that it was very important to solve the problem of double taxation and not so important to deal with the problem of a discriminatory and punitive rate structure. Which is sort of like embracing one big part of the flat tax while ignoring the other big part.

We’d have a less destructive tax code than we have now, but it wouldn’t be as good as it could be. Indeed, the plan is conceptually similar to the Rubio-Lee proposal, but with a lot more details.

Not that I’m happy with all those additional details.

To address environmental externalities in a more cost-effective and market-based manner, energy subsidies, tax credits, and regulations would be replaced by a modest carbon tax. The gasoline tax would be increased to cover highway-related costs.

I’m very nervous about giving Washington a new source of revenue. And while I’m open (in theory) to the argument that a carbon tax would be a better (less worse) approach than what we have now, I’m not sure it’s wise to trust that politicians won’t pull a bait and switch and burden us with both a costly energy tax and new forms of regulatory intervention.

And I definitely don’t like the idea of a higher gas tax. The federal government should be out of the transportation business.

There are also other features that irk me, including the continuation of some loopholes and the expansion of redistribution through the tax code.

Child and dependent care expenses could be deducted… A 15 percent refundable credit for charitable contributions… A 15 percent refundable credit for mortgage interest… A refundable credit for health insurance…the EITC for childless workers would be doubled relative to current law.

Though I should also point out that the new tax system proposed by AEI would be territorial, which would be a big step in the right direction. And it’s also important to note that the X tax has full expensing, which solves the bias against investment in a depreciation-based system.

But now let’s look at the most worrisome feature of the plan. It explicitly says that Washington should get more money.

… we also cannot address the imbalance simply by cutting spending… The tax proposals presented in this plan raise necessary revenues… Over time, tax revenue would gradually rise as a share of GDP… The upward path of tax revenue is necessary to finance the upward path of federal spending.

This is very counterproductive. But I don’t want to regurgitate my ideological anti-tax arguments (click here if that’s what you want). Let’s look at this issue from a strictly practical perspective.

I’ve reluctantly admitted that there are potential tax-hike deals that I would accept, at least in theory.

But those deals will never happen. In the real world, once the potential for additional revenue exists, the appetite for genuine spending restraint quickly evaporates. Just look at the evidence from Europe about the long-run relationship between taxes and debt and you’ll see that more revenue simply enables more spending.

Speaking of which, now let’s shift to the outlay side of the fiscal ledger.

We’ll start with Social Security, where the AEI folks are proposing to turn Social Security from a substandard social insurance program, which is bad, to a flat benefit, which might even be worse since it involves a shift to a system that is even more focused on redistribution.

The minimum benefit would be implemented immediately, increasing benefits for about one third of retirees, while benefits for middle- and high-earning individuals would be scaled down to the wage-indexed poverty level between now and 2050.

Yes, the system they propose is more fiscally sustainable for government, but what about the fact that most workers are paying record amounts of payroll tax in exchange for a miserly monthly payment?

This is why the right answer is personal retirement accounts.

The failure to embrace personal accounts may be the most disappointing feature of the AEI plan. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the authors veered in this unfortunate direction because they put the cart of debt reduction ahead of the horse of good policy.

To elaborate, a big challenge for real Social Security reform is the “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers when younger workers are allowed to shift their payroll taxes to personal accounts. Dealing with this challenge presumably means more borrowing over the next few decades, but it would give us a much better system in the long run. But this approach generally isn’t an attractive option for folks who fixate on near-term government debt.

That being said, there are spending reforms in the proposal that are very appealing.

The AEI plan basically endorses the good Medicare and Medicaid reforms that have been part of recent GOP budgets. And since those two programs are the biggest drivers of our long-run spending crisis, this is very important.

With regards to discretionary spending, the program maintains sequester/Budget Control Act spending levels for domestic programs, which is far too much since we should be abolishing departments such as HUD, Agriculture, Transportation, Education, etc.

But since Congress presumably would spend even more, the AEI plan could be considered a step in the right direction.

Finally, the AEI plan calls for military spending to consume 3.8 percent of economic output in perpetuity. National defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government, but that doesn’t mean the Pentagon should get a blank check, particularly since big chunks of that check get used for dubious purposes. But I’ll let the foreign policy and defense crowd fight that issue since it’s not my area of expertise.

P.S. The Heritage Foundation also has thrown in the towel on personal retirement accounts and embraced a basic universal flat benefit.

P.P.S. On a completely different topic, here’s a fascinating chart that’s being shared on Twitter.

As you can see, the United States is an exception that proves the rule. I don’t know that there are any policy implications, but I can’t help but wonder whether America’s greater belief in self-reliance is linked to the tendency of religious people to believe in individual ethics and moral behavior.

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