Wednesday, April 26, 2017

When politicians can’t see their own loopholes

TaxesAccording to a 2008 IRS report, the Federal Tax Code “has grown so long that it has become challenging even to figure out how long it is.”

A search of the Code conducted in the course of preparing this report turned up 3.7 million words. A 2001 study published by the Joint Committee on Taxation put the number of words in the Code at that time at 1,395,000. A 2005 report by a tax research organization put the number of words at 2.1 million, and notably, found that the number of words in the Code has more than tripled since 1975.

In last night’s State of the Union, President Obama spoke eloquently about the need for tax reform to clean up the code:

To hit the rest of our deficit reduction target, we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested, and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected.  After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks?  How is that fair?  How does that promote growth?

Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.

The American people deserve a tax code that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms, and more time expanding and hiring; a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can’t pay a lower rate than their hard-working secretaries.

Amen. Unfortunately, a few minutes later, the President said:

Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we have made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years.

And a few lines after that:

We’ll give new tax credits to businesses that hire and invest.

The tax code didn’t get to be as complicated as it is by accident. Every complication; every loophole; every deduction, exemption, and credit got there because some elected official had a clever idea. It got there because someone dreamed up an innovative scheme to use the tax code as a way to encourage some sort of behavior.

The code is the way it is because politicians who decry loopholes and special-interest privileges can’t see that their own clever schemes are part of the problem.

photo by: John-Morgan
February 13, 2013

The battle of the taxes

In my last post, I discussed several exciting tax reforms that are gaining support in a handful of states. In an effort to improve the competitiveness and economic growth of these states, the plans would lower or eliminate individual and corporate income taxes and replace these revenues with funds raised by streamlined sales taxes. Since I covered this topic, legislators in two more states, Missouri and New Mexico, have demonstrated interest in adopting this type of overhaul of their state tax systems.

At the same time, policymakers in other states across the country are likewise taking advantage of their majority status by pushing their preferred tax plans through state legislatures and state referendums. These plans provide a sharp contrast with those proposed by those states that I discussed in my last post; rather than prioritizing lowering income tax burdens, leaders in these states hope to improve their fiscal outlooks by increasing income taxes.

Here’s what some of these states have in the works:

  • Massachusetts: Gov. Deval L. Patrick surprised his constituents last month during his State of the State address by calling for a 1 percentage point increase in state income tax rates while simultaneously slashing state sales taxes from 6.25% to 4.5%. Patrick defended these tax changes on the grounds of increasing investments in transportation, infrastructure, and education while improving state competitiveness. Additionally, the governor called for a doubling of personal exemptions to soften the blow of the income tax increases on low-income residents.
  • Minnesota: Gov. Mark Dayton presented a grab bag of tax reform proposals when he revealed his two-year budget plan for the state of Minnesota two weeks ago. In an effort to move his state away from a reliance on property taxes to generate revenue, Dayton has proposed to raise income taxes on the top 2% of earners within the state. At the same time, he hopes to reduce property tax burdens, lower the state sales tax from 6.875% to 5.5%, and cut the corporate tax rate by 14%.
  • Maryland: Last May, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley called a special legislative session to balance their state budget to avoid scheduled cuts of $500 million in state spending on education and state personnel. Rather than accepting a “cuts-only” approach to balancing state finances, O’Malley strongly pushed for income tax hikes on Marylanders that earned more than $100,000 a year and created a new top rate of 5.75% on income over $250,000 a year. These tax hikes were signed into law after the session convened last year and took effect that June.
  • California: At the urging of Gov. Jerry Brown, California voters decided to raise income taxes on their wealthiest residents and increase their state sales tax from 7.25% to 7.5% by voting in favor of Proposition 30 last November. In a bid to put an end to years of deficit spending and finally balance the state budget, Brown went to bat for the creation of four new income tax brackets for high-income earners in California. There is some doubt that these measures will actually generate the revenues that the governor is anticipating due to an exodus of taxpayers fleeing the new 13.3% income tax and uncertain prospects for economic growth within the state. 

It is interesting that these governors have defended their proposals using some of the same rhetoric that governors and legislators in other states used to defend their plans to lower income tax rates. All of these policymakers believe that their proposals will increase competitiveness, improve economic growth, and create jobs for their states. Can both sides be right at the same time?

Economic intuition suggests that policymakers should create a tax system that imposes the lowest burdens on the engines of economic growth. It makes sense, then, for states to avoid taxing individual and corporate income so that these groups have more money to save and invest. Additionally  increasing marginal tax rates on income and investments limits the returns to these activities and causes people to work and invest less. Saving and investment, not consumption, are the drivers of economic growth. Empirical studies have demonstrated that raising marginal income tax rates have damaging effects on economic growth. Policymakers in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maryland, and California may have erred in their decisions to shift taxation towards income and away from consumption. The economies of these states may see lower rates of growth as a result.

In my last post, I mused that the successes of states that have lowered or eliminated their state income taxes may prompt other states to adopt similar reforms. If the states that have taken the opposite approach by raising income taxes see slowed economic growth as a result, they will hopefully serve as a cautionary tale to other states that might be considering these proposals.

February 8, 2013

States Aim to Eliminate Corporate and Individual Income Taxes

Although the prospects of fundamental tax reform on the federal level continue to look bleak, the sprigs of beneficial tax proposals in states across the US are beginning to grow and gain political support. Perhaps motivated by the twin problems of tough budgeting options and mounting liability obligations that states face in this stubborn economy, the governors of several states have recommended a variety of tax reform proposals, many of which aim to lower or completely eliminate corporate and individual income taxes, which would increase state economic growth and hopefully improve the revenues that flow into state coffers along the way.

Here is a sampling of the proposals:

  • Nebraska: During his State of the State address last week, Gov. Dave Heineman outlined his vision of a reformed tax system that would be “modernized and transformed” to reflect the realities of his state’s current economic environment. His bold plan would completely eliminate the income tax and corporate income tax in Nebraska and shift to a sales tax as the state’s main revenue source. To do this, the governor proposes to eliminate approximately $2.8 billion dollars in sales tax exemptions for purchases as diverse as school lunches and visits to the laundromat. If the entire plan proves to be politically unpalatable, Heineman is prepared to settle for at least reducing these rates as a way to improve his state’s competitiveness.
  • North Carolina: Legislative leaders in the Tar Heel State have likewise been eying their individual and corporate income taxes as cumbersome impediments to economic growth and competitiveness that they’d like to jettison. State Senate leader Phil Berger made waves last week by announcing his coalition’s intentions to ax these taxes. In their place would be a higher sales tax, up from 6.75% to 8%, which would be free from the myriad exemptions that have clogged the revenue-generating abilities of the sales tax over the years.
  • Louisiana: In a similar vein, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has called for the elimination of the individual and corporate income taxes in his state. In a prepared statement given to the Times-Picayune, Jindal emphasized the need to simplify Louisiana’s currently complex tax system in order to “foster an environment where businesses want to invest and create good-paying jobs.” To ensure that the proposal is revenue neutral, Jindal proposes to raise sale taxes while keeping those rates as “low and flat” as possible.
  • Kansas: Emboldened by the previous legislative year’s successful income tax rate reduction and an overwhelmingly supportive legislature, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback laid out his plans to further lower the top Kansas state income tax rate from the current 4.9% to 3.5%. Eventually, Brownback dreams of completely abolishing the income tax. “Look out Texas,” he chided during last week’s State of the State address, “here comes Kansas!” Like the other states that are aiming to lower or remove state income taxes, Kansas would make up for the loss in revenue through an increased sales tax. Bonus points for Kansas: Brownback is also eying the Kansas mortgage interest tax deduction as the next to go, the benefits of which I discussed in my last post.

These plans for reform are as bold as they are novel; no state has legislatively eliminated state income taxes since resource-rich Alaska did so in 1980. It is interesting that the aforementioned reform leaders all referenced the uncertainty and complexity of their current state tax systems as the primary motivator for eliminating state income taxes. Seth Giertz and Jacob Feldman tackled this issue in their Mercatus Research paper, “The Economic Costs of Tax Policy Uncertainty,” last fall. The authors argued that complex tax systems that are laden with targeted deductions tend to concentrate benefits towards the politically-connected and therefore result in an inefficient tax system to the detriment of everyone within that system.

Additionally, moving to a sales tax model of revenue-generation may provide state governments with a more stable revenue source when compared to the previous regime based on personal and corporate income taxes. As Matt argued before, the progressive taxation of personal and corporate income is a particularly volatile source of revenue and tends to suddenly dry up in times of economic hardship. What’s more, a state’s reliance on corporate and personal income taxes as a primary source of revenue is associated with large state budget gaps, a constant concern for squeezed state finances.

If these governors are successful and they are able to move their states to a straightforward tax system based on a sales tax, they will likely see the economic growth and increased investment that they seek.

Keep an eye on these states in the following year: depending on the success of their reforms and tax policies, more states could be soon to follow.

January 24, 2013

The Home Mortgage Interest Deduction: A Bad Deal for Taxpayers

A new policy brief released by the Mercatus Center and co-authored by Jeremy Horpedahl and Harrison Searles analyzes one of the most popular—and therefore one of the most difficult to reform—subsidies in the tax code: the home mortgage interest deduction. This study touches on many of the points that Emily talked about in her op-ed on the subject last month; namely, this policy’s failure to achieve its intended effects and the fact that a lion’s share of the benefits go to high-income homeowners. Despite widespread enthusiasm for the home mortgage interest deduction, the authors argue that the benefits of this policy are overstated and the consequences are understated.

The home mortgage interest deduction is one of the largest tax expenditures in the U.S. tax code, second only to the non-taxation of employer-provided health insurance and pension contributions. Proponents of the home mortgage interest deduction argue that this policy provides needed tax relief to the middle class and encourages the oft-invoked American dream of homeownership. These folks may be surprised to learn, as Horpedahl and Searles point out, that a mere 21.7% of taxpayers even claim this benefit. What’s more, most of these benefits don’t go to the middle class, but rather to households with incomes of over $200,000. Here’s a breakdown of the tax savings from the brief:


The claim that this policy is necessary to encourage home ownership is dubious as well. The authors explain:

Empirical evidence supports the claim that the mortgage interest deduction has little effect on homeownership rates in the United States. Between 1960 and 1997, homeownership rates stayed within a narrow range of 62 to 66 percent, despite the fact that the implicit tax subsidy fluctuated dramatically. During the recent housing bubble, the homeownership rate rose to 69 percent, but it has since returned to the historical range. This rise appears to have been unrelated to the mortgage interest deduction, though it was almost certainly related to other housing policies that encouraged the bubble. More sophisticated analysis suggests that the homeownership rate would be modestly lower without the deduction, by around 0.4 percent.

Ironically, the home mortgage interest deduction likely creates the perverse effect of discouraging homeownership by artificially raising home values. Economic intuition suggests, and empirical studies have supported, that the deduction does not provide much in the way of savings at all since the value of the deduction is simply capitalized into the value of home prices. The artificially higher house prices prevent would-be home owners on the margins of affordability from purchasing a home within their price range. This effect, combined with the low rates of deduction claims and concentration of benefits to high-income earners, likely contributes to the inefficacy of the home mortgage interest deduction to boost homeownership to the degree that its proponents envisioned.

Additionally, countries like Canada and Australia have managed to produce comparable rates of home ownership as the US without the crutch of a mortgage interest deduction.

While the home mortgage interest deduction doesn’t do much for increasing the number of houses, it has a knack for increasing the size of houses, as a study by Lori Taylor of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas pointed out. The deduction has had the unintended consequence of directing capital and labor to high-income residential housing projects that might not have been taken without government intervention—and the benefits overwhelmingly go to the wealthy.

This is all before considering the regressive effects of the policy by design: low- and middle-income renters are made to subsidize the increasingly opulent residences (and sometimes the extra vacation homes!) of their more well-off peers while they struggle to make ends meet in a sometimes-inhospitable economy. This injustice, combined with the inefficacy of the tax deduction to increase homeownership in any meaningful way, causes the justifications for the mortgage interest deduction to grow scarce.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that this policy, which evaded the fate of its similar counterpart—the credit card interest deduction—during the tax fight of 1986, continues as law not because of good economics but because of bad political incentives.

Horpedahl and Searles offer three proposals for scaling back the home mortgage interest deduction: policymakers could 1) eliminate the deduction entirely, 2) eliminate the deduction while simultaneously lowering marginal income tax rates to compensate for the virtual tax increase, or 3) stop the deduction and replace it with a tax credit that taxpayers could redeem upon purchase of their first house. Horpedahl and Searles demonstrate that while this deduction is popular with the public and the real estate industry, it is simply a bad deal for most taxpayers.

January 8, 2013

To Raise Taxes or to Close Loopholes?

Imagine for a moment that you are interested in lowering your nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio. Let’s assume you are determined to ignore the experience of other nations and you are dead-set on lowering your debt-to-GDP ratio by raising revenue rather than by cutting spending.

This leaves you with two choices:

Choice A: increase tax rates.

Choice B: leave rates where they are but close loopholes.

President Obama’s erstwhile deficit commission, Simpson-Bowles, favored Choice B. And I think it is fair to say that most economists do as well. Why? Put simply, a rate increase has deleterious demand and supply-side effects, whereas a loophole closing only has deleterious demand-side effects. If you raise rates, people are incentivized to spend less and work less (or hide more of their income from the IRS). But if you close loopholes, people are incentivized to spend less while their incentive to work is unchanged.  What’s more, when you close loopholes, you tend to remove other distortions in the economy (think: mortgage interest deduction) and you diminish the incidence of government-favoritism.

There are at least three strikes against the fiscal cliff deal struck this week:

  1. It ignored the evidence that tax increases are more economically harmful than spending cuts.
  2. It opted to raise revenue through rate increases rather than loophole closings.
  3. It actually expanded corporate tax loopholes!

On the last point, don’t miss Vero’s pieces here and here, Tim Carney’s pieces here and here, Matt Stoller’s piece here, and Brad Plumer’s piece here.

January 4, 2013

The Bush Tax Cuts

This episode should have advocates of limited government asking themselves an important question: are tax cuts without spending cuts good for the cause of limited government? Decades ago, Milton Friedman answered this question with a resounding yes. Cut taxes, he counseled, and starve the beast. With less revenue, spending will fall too. Tax cutters from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush have been convinced of “starve the beast” ever since.

But there is another Nobel laureate with free market bona fides who begs to differ. James Buchanan, a founding father of public choice economics—which uses the tools of economics to shed light on the incentives of policy makers—has long questioned “starve the beast.” When politicians are legally and politically permitted to run deficits, he warned, they will simply fund government by borrowing. In this case, tax cuts give voters the illusion that government spending is cheap. And with government seeming less-costly, voters will be happy to have more of it.

That’s me, writing on the Bush Tax Cuts in the latest issue of Reason. It was part of broader piece, edited by Peter Suderman on the fiscal cliff and it includes great essays by Charles Blahous, James Pethokoukis, Veronique de Rugy, Tad DeHaven, Susan Dudley, Maya MacGuineas, and Marc Goldwein. The whole piece can be found here.

Also this week, I did a podcast with the Heartland Institute on the Bush Tax Cuts, based on my research with Andrea Castillo.

Finally, Lars Christensen has some insightful comments on our paper here.

On behalf of all of us at Mercatus and Neighborhood Effects, Happy Holidays to all.

 

December 21, 2012

Don’t like the fiscal cliff? You’ll hate the fiscal future.

Absent an eleventh-hour deal—which may yet be possible—the Federal government will cut spending and raise taxes in the New Year. In a town that famously can’t agree on anything, nearly everyone seems terrified by the prospect of going over this fiscal cliff.

Yet for all the gloom and dread, the fiscal cliff embodies a teachable moment. At the risk of mixing metaphors, we should think of the fiscal cliff as the Ghost of the Fiscal Future. It is a bleak lesson in what awaits us if we don’t get serious about changing course.

First, some background. Over the last four decades, Federal Government spending as a share of GDP has remained relatively constant at about 21 percent. This spending was financed with taxes that consumed about 18 percent of GDP and the government borrowed to make up the difference.

After a decade of government spending increases and anemic economic growth, federal spending is now about 24 percent of GDP (a post WWII high, exceeded only by last year’s number) and revenues are about 15 percent of GDP (the revenue decline can be attributed to both the Bush tax cuts and to the recession).

But the really telling numbers are yet to come.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office now projects that, absent policy change, when my two-year-old daughter reaches my age (32), revenue will be just a bit above its historical average at 19 percent of GDP while spending will be nearly twice its historical average at 39 percent of GDP. This is what economists mean when they say we have a spending problem and not a revenue problem: spending increases, not revenue decreases, account for the entirety of the projected growth in deficits and debt over the coming years.

Why is this so frightful? The Ghost of the Fiscal Future gives us 3 reasons:

1) As spending outstrips revenue, each year the government will have to borrow more and more to pay its bills. We have to pay interest on what we borrow and these interest payments, in turn, add to future government spending. So before my daughter hits college, the federal government will be spending more on interest payments than on Social Security.

2) When the government borrows to finance its spending, it will be competing with my daughter when she borrows to finance her first home or to start her own business. This means that she and other private borrowers will face higher interest rates, crowding-out private sector investment and depressing economic growth. This could affect my daughter’s wages, her consumption, and her standard of living. In a vicious cycle, it could also depress government revenue and place greater demands on the government safety net, exacerbating the underlying debt problem.

This is not just theory. Economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have examined 200-years’ worth of data from over 40 countries. They found that those nations with gross debt in excess of 90 percent of GDP tend to grow about 1 percentage point slower than otherwise (the U.S. gross debt-to-GDP ratio has been in excess of 90 percent since 2010)

If, starting in 1975, the U.S. had grown 1 percentage point slower than it actually did, the nation’s economy would be about 30 percent smaller than it actually is today. By comparison, the Federal Reserve estimates that the Great Recession has only shrunk the economy by about 6 percent relative to its potential size.

3) Things get worse. The CBO no longer projects out beyond 2042, the year my daughter turns 32. In other words, the CBO recognizes that the whole economic system becomes increasingly unsustainable beyond that point and that it is ludicrous to think that it can go on.

What’s more, if Congress waits until then to make the necessary changes, it will have to enact tax increases or spending cuts larger than anything we have ever undertaken in our nation’s history. As Vero explains:

By refusing to reform Social Security, lawmakers are guaranteeing automatic benefit cuts of about 20-something percent for everyone on the program in 2035 (the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2035, the combined retirement and disability trust funds will run dry in 2033, and both will continue to deteriorate).

In other words, if we fail to reform, the fiscal future will make January’s fiscal cliff look like a fiscal step. I’ve never understood why some people think they are doing future retirees a favor in pretending that entitlements do not need significant reform.

You might think that we could tax our way out of this mess. But taxes, like debt, are also bad for economic growth.

But it is not too late. Like Scrooge, we can take ownership of the time before us. We can make big adjustments now so that we don’t have to make bigger adjustments in a few years. There is still time to adopt meaningful entitlement reform, to tell people my age to adjust our expectations and to plan on working a little longer, to incorporate market incentives into our health care system so that Medicare and Medicaid don’t swallow up more and more of the budget.

Some characterize these moves as stingy. In reality, these types of reforms would actually make our commitments more sustainable. And the longer we wait to make these inevitable changes, the more dramatic and painful they will have to be.

For all the gloom and dread, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was Scrooge’s savior. In revealing the consequences of his actions—and, importantly, his inactions—the Ghost inspired the old man to take ownership of the “Time before him” and to change his ways.

Let us hope that Congress is so enlightened by the Ghost of the Fiscal Cliff.

December 21, 2012

Maryland’s budget troubles continue into the New Year

Each year a committee made up of Maryland state legislators gets together to set a spending growth limit for Maryland’s general fund budget. The Spending Affordability Committee (SAC) has been in place for 30 years. Originally created to avoid instituting a Tax and Expenditure Limit (TEL), the SAC has proven unable to stop the persistent structural deficit which emerged in 2007. This year the SAC recommends a budget of $37 billion, one billion more than last year. That’s an increase in spending of 4 percent

In a paper for the Maryland Journal entitled, “The Appearance of Fiscal Prudence” Benjamin Van Metre and I detail the flaws of the SAC process based on our read of the official reports. The main problem with the process is that lawmakers have convinced themselves that the SAC imposes fiscal prudence on the legislature. We find while there is some formulaic guidance in the form of a limit based on the growth in personal income, it only applies to part of  the budget. The SAC also involves policymakers deliberating over spending “needs” while referring to revenue estimates. The result is not a hard limit on spending but a recipe for a budget soufflé. To be fair, the SAC wasn’t designed to be a hard limit. It was built to be flexible.That’s fine if the SAC is clear about its own limitations in setting a spending limit.

What’s interesting is that over the years there’s been a bit of hand-wringing in the SAC reports about fast-growing areas of the budget – the Transportation Trust Fund, Medicaid, and a growing reliance on debt finance. Debt limits are covered by a separate legislative committee, the Capital Debt Affordability Committee (CDAC). But, the SAC’s warnings about debt tiered up with the CDAC’s increase in the debt cap. It leads one to conclude that these two committees are, at best, talking past one another.

Given the recent history of Maryland it’s more likely legislators will continue finding ways to fund “increased needs.” And they will do so by seeking more revenues in the form of new taxes, tax rate increases, and debt.  As one legislator put it with this year’s SAC recommendation, ”we’re setting our citizens up for massive tax increases.”

 

 

December 17, 2012

Eileen Norcross on News Channel 8 Capital Insider discussing Virginia and the fiscal cliff

Last week I appeared on NewsChannel 8′s Capital Insider to discuss how the fiscal cliff affects Virginia. There are several potential effects depending on what the final package looks like. Let’s assume the deductions for the Child Care Tax Credit, EITC, and capital depreciation go away. This means, according to The Pew Center, where the state’s tax code is linked to the federal (like Virginia) tax revenues will increase. That’s because removing income tax deductions increases Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) on the individual’s income tax filing (or on the corporation’s filing) thus the income on which the government may levy tax increases. According to fellow Mercatus scholar, Jason Fichtner, that could amount to millions of dollars for a state.

On the federal budget side of the equation,the $109 billion in potential reductions is now equally shared between defense and non-defense spending. Of concern is the extent to which the region’s economy is dependent on this for employment. Nearly 20 percent of the region’s economy is linked to federal spending. Two points: The cuts are reductions in the rate of growth in spending. For defense spending, they are relatively small cuts representing a return to 2007 spending levels as Veronique points out. So, these reductions not likely to bring about the major shakeup in the regional economy that some fear. Secondly, the fact that these cuts are causing worry is well-taken. It highlights the importance of diversification in an economy.

Where revenues, or GDP, or employment in a region is too closely tied to one industry, a very large and sudden change in that industry can spell trouble. An analogy: New Jersey’s and New York’s dependence on financial industry revenues via their income tax structure led to a revenue shock when the market crashed in 2008, as the New York Fed notes.

On transportation spending there are some good proposals on the table in the legislature and the executive. Some involve raising the gas tax (which hasn’t been increased since 1986), and others involve tolls. The best way to raise transportation revenues is via taxes or fees that are linked to those using the roads. Now is no time to start punching more holes in the tax code to give breaks to favored industries (even if they are making Academy-award quality films) or to encourage particular activities.

Virginia’s in a good starting position to handle what may be in store for the US over the coming years. Virginia has a relatively flat tax structure with low rates. It has a good regulatory environment. This is one reason why people and businesses have located here.

Keep the tax and regulatory rules fair and non-discriminatory and let the entrepreneurs discover the opportunities. Don’t develop an appetite for debt financing. A tax system  is meant to collect revenues and not engineer individual or corporate behavior. Today, Virginia beats all of its neighbors in terms of economic freedom by a long shot. The goal for Virginia policymakers: keep it this way.

Here’s the clip

December 4, 2012

Eileen Norcross on News Channel 8 Capital Insider discussing Virginia and the fiscal cliff

Last week I appeared on NewsChannel 8′s Capital Insider to discuss how the fiscal cliff affects Virginia. There are several potential effects depending on what the final package looks like. Let’s assume the deductions for the Child Care Tax Credit, EITC, and capital depreciation go away. This means, according to The Pew Center, where the state’s tax code is linked to the federal (like Virginia) tax revenues will increase. That’s because removing income tax deductions increases Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) on the individual’s income tax filing (or on the corporation’s filing) thus the income on which the government may levy tax increases. According to fellow Mercatus scholar, Jason Fichtner, that could amount to millions of dollars for a state.

On the federal budget side of the equation,the $109 billion in potential reductions is now equally shared between defense and non-defense spending. Of concern is the extent to which the region’s economy is dependent on this for employment. Nearly 20 percent of the region’s economy is linked to federal spending. Two points: The cuts are reductions in the rate of growth in spending. For defense spending, they are relatively small cuts representing a return to 2007 spending levels as Veronique points out. So, these reductions not likely to bring about the major shakeup in the regional economy that some fear. Secondly, the fact that these cuts are causing worry is well-taken. It highlights the importance of diversification in an economy.

Where revenues, or GDP, or employment in a region is too closely tied to one industry, a very large and sudden change in that industry can spell trouble. An analogy: New Jersey’s and New York’s dependence on financial industry revenues via their income tax structure led to a revenue shock when the market crashed in 2008, as the New York Fed notes.

On transportation spending there are some good proposals on the table in the legislature and the executive. Some involve raising the gas tax (which hasn’t been increased since 1986), and others involve tolls. The best way to raise transportation revenues is via taxes or fees that are linked to those using the roads. Now is no time to start punching more holes in the tax code to give breaks to favored industries (even if they are making Academy-award quality films) or to encourage particular activities.

Virginia’s in a good starting position to handle what may be in store for the US over the coming years. Virginia has a relatively flat tax structure with low rates. It has a good regulatory environment. This is one reason why people and businesses have located here.

Keep the tax and regulatory rules fair and non-discriminatory and let the entrepreneurs discover the opportunities. Don’t develop an appetite for debt financing. A tax system  is meant to collect revenues and not engineer individual or corporate behavior. Today, Virginia beats all of its neighbors in terms of economic freedom by a long shot. The goal for Virginia policymakers: keep it this way.

Here’s the clip

December 4, 2012

States Look to Rainy Day Funds to Avoid Future Crises

For the past nine quarters, state revenue collections have been increasing and are now approaching 2008 levels after adjusting for inflation. Many state policymakers are no longer facing the near-ubiquitous budget gaps of fiscal year 2012, but at the moment those memories seem to remain fresh in their minds.

Many states are looking to rainy day funds as a tool to avoid the revenue shortfalls they have experienced since the recession. In Wisconsin, for example, Governor Walker recently made headlines by building up the states’ fund to $125.4 million. In Texas, the state’s significant Rainy Day Fund has reached over $8 billion, behind only Alaska’s fund that holds over $18 billion.

A June report from the Tax Foundation shows Texas and Alaska are the only states with funds that are significant enough to protect states from budget stress in future business cycle downturns. As the Tax Foundation analysis explains, state rainy day funds can be a useful to smooth spending over the business cycle. Research that Matt Mitchell and Nick Tuszynski cite demonstrates that rainy day funds governed by strict rules about when they may be tapped do achieve modest success in smoothing revenue volatility. Because most states have balanced budget requirements, when tax revenues fall during business cycle downturns, states must respond by raising taxes or cutting spending, both pro-cyclical options. If states are required to contribute to rainy day funds when they have revenue surpluses and then are able to draw on these savings during downturns in order to avoid tax increases or spending cuts, this pro-cyclical trend can be avoided.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation points out some of the benefits of large rainy day funds:

Maintaining large “rainy day” funds  benefits Texas and Alaska in three ways:

1) These states do not rely  on large pots of one-time funding to pay for ongoing expenses, but rather balance their books by bringing spending in line with revenues;

2) These states  have reserves on hand to deal with emergencies; and

3) Having a large “rainy day” fund improves the states’ bond rating which means lower interest rates for borrowing.

However, even as more states begin making significant contributions to their rainy day funds, they have not fulfilled their pension obligations. According to states’ own estimates of their pension liabilities, states’ unfunded pension liabilities total about $1 billion. However using private sector accounting methods, states are actually on the hook for over $3 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities. Because states do not use the risk-free discount rate to value these liabilities, the surpluses they think they have to contribute to rainy day funds are illusions.

Even if states were already contributing appropriately to their pension funds and systematically contributed to rainy day funds during revenue upswings, it’s not clear that rainy day funds are a path toward fiscal discipline.  Because of the perpetual tendency for government to grow, it’s unlikely that state policymakers will take any steps to reduce the growth of government during times of economic growth. If states successfully save tax revenues in rainy day funds to avoid having to make spending cuts during recessions, states will not have to decrease spending at any point during the business cycle. States’ balanced budget requirements can provide a mechanism that helps states cut spending in some areas when revenues drop off, but rainy day funds obviate this requirement. Successful use of rainy day funds could contribute to the trend of states’ spending growing fast than GDP.

Supporters of substantial rainy day funds should acknowledge that these cushions — which on the one hand may provide significant benefits to taxpayers — come at the expense of cyclical opportunities to cut the size of state governments to bring them in line with tax revenues. Without the necessity of cutting spending at some point, state budgets might grow more rapidly that they already are, hindering economic growth in the long run. Whether or not rainy day funds increase the growth rate is an empirical question that advocates should research before recommending this strategy, and this possible drawback should be weighed against their potential to reduce revenue volatility.

October 24, 2012

The Real Public Choice Economics of Big Bird

In an informative post last week, Matt Yglesias pointed out that the few hundred million dollars a year that go to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are in many ways the “least important” of Big Bird’s government-granted privileges. A far more important privilege is the spectrum on which Big Bird is broadcast. Public TV stations:

don’t have to bid at auction for access to the broadcast spectrum they use. It’s just been given away for free. The decision to allocate some of that spectrum to public TV stations is, at a fundamental level, why they exist.

Matt also points out that another important privilege—one which Tyler Cowen highlights in his book Good and Plenty—is the tax deduction for charitable contributions from viewers like you.

Matt’s post was titled “The Real Economics of Big Bird,” but I’d point out that it also provides a lesson in the real public choice economics of big bird. The President has eagerly mocked his rival’s interest in Big Bird, correctly pointing out that our trillion dollar deficit is not going to be solved by cutting a few hundred million dollars from Sesame Street. But this line of argument misses the public choice lesson.

First, Sesame Street is able to obtain so many government-granted privileges in part because these privileges are inconspicuous. This is known as “fiscal illusion,” and it is an idea which pervades James Buchanan’s research: when people are not clearly presented with the bill for government intervention, they will gladly accept more intervention.

In my research on government-granted privilege, I’ve noticed that the least-conspicuous forms of privilege are often the most popular among politicians. Farm subsidies are the exception, not the rule. Typically, privileges don’t appear as line items in the budget. More often, they are hidden. Think of the Export-Import bank which doesn’t subsidize Boeing, but instead subsidizes firms that buy planes from Boeing. Loan guarantees, tax credits, and favorable regulatory treatment are more-common still and each of these privileges is rather difficult to see.

Second, Sesame Street’s privileges are an illustration of the problem of concentrated benefits and diffused costs. Sesame Street’s direct (and even indirect) subsidy is tiny, especially when it is spread out among 311 million Americans. But it is precisely this characteristic of government spending which has allowed it to get out of hand. Too many government programs concentrate benefits on a comparatively small section of society and disperse the costs over the multitude of taxpayers and consumers. This means that those who benefit from a particular program have a strong incentive to get organized and lobby on its behalf. It is big money for them. But it also means that the millions who pay for the program have little incentive to get organized to oppose it. It’s just pennies to them.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were the only government program. But it’s not. Stealth bombers, bridges to nowhere, sugar subsidies, ethanol mandates, light bulb regulations, etc. all have this characteristic. They impose costs on multitudes and confer benefits on a handful. Add it all up and you have a government that spends $7 million every minute.

As the late Everett Dirksen put it, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

October 11, 2012

Do Taxes Affect Economic Growth?

The CRS has a new report by Thomas Hungerford that has attracted some attention. It seems to suggest that taxes do not affect economic growth. To be precise, it seems to suggest that the top marginal tax rates of two taxes in particular—the personal income tax rate and the capital gains tax rate—have little statistically significant effect on economic growth.

A few comments:

First, as William McBride of the Tax Foundation notes in an excellent post, the study only examines two taxes.

The largest tax on investment is the corporate income tax, but the CRS report ignores corporate rates, even though other studies have found corporate taxes to be the most economically damaging.

Second, Will also rightly notes that the study focuses exclusively on the statutory rates of these two taxes, ignoring their actual incidence.

Because Congress has larded up the tax code with piles of credits, exemptions, and deductions, statutory rates often have little relationship to the rates people actually pay (just ask GE). For that, we need an estimate of effective marginal tax rates. As it turns out, many (most?) researchers who study taxes in the U.S. do attempt to get at this. Barro and Redlick’s piece is one example. It employs a tax model which accounts for the “complexity of the federal individual income tax due to the alternative minimum tax, the earned-income tax credit (EITC), phase-outs of exemptions and deductions, and so on.” Using this measure, Barro and Redlick find taxes do have “significantly negative effects on GDP.”

Third, the piece makes no attempt to account for reverse-causality (what economists call endogeneity).

Put simply, tax rates do not change randomly. If they did, that’d be great for researchers because randomization is the gold standard of the scientific method. But because policy makers are not so keen to let economists experiment with the national economy, tax rates don’t change randomly. Instead, governments tend to change rates in response to changing economic conditions; they cut taxes when the economy is weak and they raise taxes when the economy is strong. This makes disentangling cause and effect quite difficult.

Imagine we studied new drug treatments this way. Instead of large scale controlled experiments with randomized treatments and placebos, what if we only had one patient, and we only gave her a treatment when her condition worsened? If, after the treatment, her condition deteriorated further, would we conclude that the drug did her in? A simple statistical test would say so: drug applied, condition worsened. But such a test would ignore the fact that she only got the drug because she was sick to begin with! The point is that it’d be irresponsible to conclude anything from such a small sample and without trying to control for reverse-causality.

That’s why economists go to great lengths to mimic the conditions of a controlled, randomized experiment. In the case of tax studies, the best example of this is the study by Christina and David Romer. They painstakingly combed the archives of presidential speeches and government documents to identify tax changes that came about for reasons other than the condition of the economy. They found that these sorts of plausibly exogenous tax changes had quite significant macroeconomic effects. In their words:

Our results indicate that tax changes have very large effects on output. Our baseline specification implies that an exogenous tax increase of one percent of GDP lowers real GDP by almost three percent.

Fourth, I also take issue with the way the report characterizes some of the existing literature. For example, Hungerford writes that:

There is substantial evidence…to suggest that labor supply responses to wages and tax changes are small for both men and women.

This is only true if the question is whether people who already have jobs change their labor supply in response to tax changes. Increasingly, however, the literature has identified another margin that matters: lifetime decisions about schooling, fertility, and work experience. If taxes affect these things, then they still affect labor supply, even if they don’t seem to affect short-term decisions about how much labor to supply. As Michael Keane’s recent piece illustrates, taxes have a very pronounced effect along this margin, especially among women.

The CRS report is interesting. And its results should be added to the body of literature on taxes. But it is hardly reason to throw out decades of other research which suggests taxes do harm growth:

 

September 21, 2012

Giving Illinois local governments control over their workers’ pensions

The Chicago Tribune makes a “modest proposal” this week. Discouraged by the inaction of the Illinois General Assembly on state-wide pension reform, the editorial board supports the idea that costs for teacher pensions should be shifted and shared with local governments. Republicans, fearful of property tax hikes, don’t like the notion. But the Tribune makes a good point: the cost shift should be accompanied with the ability of local governments to directly negotiate with their employees minus the influence of Springfield. It’s an interesting idea.

Ultimately, pension reform must proceed according to certain principles that clarify the following:

a) What is the true and full value of the benefit? The market valuation principle.

b) How do you incentivize such a system to properly value, steward, and fund benefits? The principal-agent problem.

c) How do you connect the full employee wage/benefit bill with taxpayers who enjoy the services? The fiscal illusion problem.

Right now, it’s a mess. Government accounting is a still a jumble. (But the real value is always knowable via market valuation.) No entity currently has the incentive to properly value and fund these systems. And in fact, we continue to see risk-taking and the shifting of assets into alternative investments, the issuance of Pension Obligation Bonds, and the deferral of reforms. Politicians have a short-term horizon.

And then there is the problem of “disjointed finance.”

Take the case of New Jersey. Local governments negotiate with their employees over wages. But pension policy is set by the state. New Jersey municipalities get an annual bill to fund their employee pensions based on the state actuary’s calculations. Local officials don’t have any sense of what those obligations look like going forward. The state’s annual funding calculations low-ball what is needed to fund the benefits. Could it be that such opacity leads local governments to offer wage enhancements, or hiring increases, that translate into total compensation packages that they can’t afford?

The Chicago Tribune’s idea only works if Illinois local governments accurately calculate what is needed on an annual basis to fund the pensions they negotiate with their workers and to have a full assessment of the value of compensation packages over time. How is market valuation incentivized? Perhaps Moody’s move to calculate pensions based on a corporate bond yield will have an effect. Or perhaps plans need to be managed by a third-party, as Roman Hardgrave and I suggest in our 2011 paper. 

Tying local costs to local taxpayers is a good idea. Another phenomenon the pension problem has revealed is gradual separation of taxing and spending in American public finance over the course of the past half century. That has produced a growing fiscal illusion in finance – where things seem less expensive than they actually are since the costs are spread over larger groups of taxpayers. Local costs are spread among state taxpayers, and now the worry is that state pension costs and debts will be spread across national taxpayers. At least, it’s been suggested.

In his 2012 budget, Governor Quinn alluded to a federal government guarantee  of Illinois’ pension debt. It’s not a popular idea with Congress at the moment. But it appears to have been part of the political calculations of those who are responsible designing and enforcing the rules that guide Illinois’ budget and determine pension policy.

 

 

 

 

September 20, 2012

The Problem with States’ Rights

This week, Eileen Norcross hosted a fiscal federalism symposium, bringing together scholars of various disciplines to discuss some of the challenges that our system of federalism faces today. Part of the discussion centered around Michael Greve’s new book The Upside-Down Constitution.

One of his key points is a reminder of the reason federalists believed that states’ rights are important. We shouldn’t care about states’ rights for the sake of states’ rights — states are merely groups of residents. Rather, we should care about people’s rights, and how these can be better protected in a federalist system than under a centralized government. This distinction sometimes gets lost when people advocate states’ rights rather than states’ enumerated powers. The problem with advocating states’ rights is that this nuance paves the way for states to collude rather than to compete.

A clear example of this collusion happened in 1984 when Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Because setting a drinking age does not fall under the federal government’s enumerated powers, when Congress wanted to change the rules in this area, it had to bargain using tax dollars. States that kept a drinking age in place below 21 would have lost 10-percent of their federal highway funding dollars.

While this may sound like the federal government is coercing the states, it’s key to remember that the goal of federalism is individuals’ rights. With the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, the states and federal government colluded to bring an end to competition in policy. This Act made state policy in this area the same, taking away Americans’ opportunity to choose to live in states with lower drinking ages.

When multiple levels of government pay for a given service, such as roads, many opportunities arise for this type of collusion, leading to the growth of government and the erosion of competition between governments. A competitive federalism means both that governments have incentives to provide the policy environments that their residents want and that people will have greater variety of policy climates to choose from. If the drinking age is an important issue to a family, competitive federalism could provide them with the option of living in a city or state with a higher or lower minimum age.

In the coming year, we hope to pursue research exploring what institutions limit competition within American federalism and what institutions prevent collusion between the federal, state, and local jurisdictions.

 

September 17, 2012

Taxing People to Advocate for Taxing People

Back in April I blogged on a CDC program that seemed to be using taxpayer dollars to fund lobbying for more taxes. In his column this week, George Will picks up on the same program and offers a few more details. Here is a snippet:

In Cook County, Ill., according to an official report, recipients using some of a $16 million CDC grant “educated policymakers on link between SSBs [sugar-sweetened beverages] and obesity, economic impact of an SSB tax, and importance of investing revenue into prevention.”

Along the way, Will also highlights some excellent work coauthored by my colleague Sherzod Abdukadirov. Leaving legality aside, Will asks, “is such “nutrition activism” effective?”

Not according to Michael L. Marlow, economics professor at California Polytechnic State University, and Sherzod Abdukadirov of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Writing in Regulation (“Can Behavioral Economics Combat Obesity?”), a quarterly publication of the libertarian Cato Institute, they powerfully question the assumptions underlying paternalistic policies such as using taxes to nudge individuals to make consumption choices that serve their real but unrecognized interests — e.g., drinking fewer SSBs.

 

August 24, 2012

Strategy and politics in the of phrasing of bond referendum

How detailed should bond referendum be? The Arlington County Board heard comments from the public on the FY 2013 capital spending plan a few weeks ago. At issue was $153 million in local GO bond referendum that will be on the ballot on November 6th. The Arlington Sun Gazette reports there are four major “bundles.”

  • $31.946 million for Metro, neighborhood traffic calming, paving and other transportation projects
  • $50.533 million for parks, including the Long Bridge Park aquatics and fitness center and parkland acquisition
  • $28.306 million for Neighborhood Conservation and other “community infrastructure” projects
  • $42.62 million for design and construction of various school projects.

At issue was the language accompanying the bond packages. The Arlington County Civic Federation contends the $45 million dedicated to the acquatics center be listed as a separate item rather than bundled under the general category of park improvements.

Scott McCaffrey writes that the County Board has been bundling bonds under thematic groupings for many years as a strategy to lessen voter opposition, an interesting claim.

How explicit does language have to be in municipal General Obligation bond offerings? States typically require GO bond debt be subject to voter approval before issuance, but how does ballot language matter to the outcome?

While not addressing the matter specifically a few related questions have been pursued in the literature. Damore, Bowler and Nicholson in their paper, “Agenda Setting by Direct Democracy: Comparing the Initiative and the Referendum” (State Politics and Policy Quaterly, forthcoming) considers if agenda setters use the referendum process to extract greater spending than the median voter desires. Some of this research indicates that voters are less likely to support state referendum for tax increases but that between 1990 and 2008, 80 percent of bond referendum received voter approval.

As to the need for particular language, there are strategies. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) lists six steps governments can take to improve their chances of getting a bond approved. This includes, “measure design” or “developing ballot language that appeals to voters and clearly explains how this measure addresses the particular issue targeted by the bonds meets the needs of the community.”

I did find anecdotal evidence that politicians struggle with language on ballot questions, in an effort to strike a balance between clarity and increased likelihood of passage. The Rockford Illinois School Board appears to be hemmed-in by how it phrases bond questions. The more detailed the questions the more legally-bound the board is to spend the money as specifically approved by voters.

Speaking of language, in writing this post I was unsure if I should be using”referenda” as the plural of “referendum”. “Referenda” sounds more natural to me but “referendum” appears to be used more often.

Given the difficulty of the original Latin grammar (referendum is a “gerund” and has no plural), it turns out there is an unsettled debate over this. Either is correct according to the Irish paper The Daily Edge. I felt better knowing that even The British Parliament debated over which plural form to use back in 1998. It turns out whether one uses the Latin “referenda” or the Anglicized “referendum” is purely a matter of taste.

August 14, 2012

Next Page »