• Tag Archives taxes
  • Yes, You Can Be for Lower Taxes and Smaller Deficits


    One needn’t support the recently-enacted tax legislation to be disturbed by the tenor of much criticism of it. Many opponents, and indeed some press reporting, took for granted that if one voted for a significant tax cut after having expressed longstanding concerns about federal deficits, one must be an irredeemable hypocrite. But lower taxes and smaller deficits can coexist.

    Some examples of the criticism: Neera Tanden wrote in NBC news of the “staggering hypocrisy” inherent in passing “shameful tax cut legislation” after sponsors had previously warned of a “forthcoming debt crisis.” Robert Schlesinger opined in US News & World Report that the legislation suggested “an incredible case of cognitive dissonance or simple breathtaking hypocrisy and/or duplicity.” Ezra Klein fumed at Vox that lawmakers who supported the bill were “nihilists.”

    This refrain was repeated on editorial pages nationwide: you could be for deficit reduction, or alternatively, you could be for tax cuts. Only a nihilist hypocrite could possibly have taken both positions.

    The Case for Lower Taxes and Smaller Deficits

    Beyond its closed-mindedness, this outpouring of indignation was all premised on a mistaken foundational assumption. It is entirely possible to be for both lower taxes and smaller deficits. In fact, I would argue this was not only possible but that it represented the most responsible policy position given the projections lawmakers faced when the tax bill was debated. (Disclaimer: the following should not be misinterpreted as necessarily an endorsement of the specific tax legislation, nor of prioritizing tax relief over fiscal consolidation.)

    When the tax bill was debated, lawmakers faced baseline budget projections that looked like this:

    Everything on this graph is shown as a percentage of GDP, so in effect, this shows how both federal spending and (to a lesser extent) revenue collections are growing faster than our economic output. Beyond the time window shown here, the long-term fiscal picture looked even worse. Spending would continue to rise dramatically faster than our ability to finance it, threatening escalating deficits in the decades ahead.

    The graph also shows that undertaxation is not the cause of this fiscal gap. Over the next decade, tax burdens were actually projected to be higher than the historical average and to increase gradually faster than our economic capacity.

    This was not and is not a stable situation. Taxing and spending as a share of our economy cannot keep increasing forever. (Actually, there is a theoretical sense in which we can spend more than 100% of our economic output if all spending takes the form of domestic income transfers. In other words, we could theoretically tax people several times the amount of their income, provided that we simultaneously write government checks that give it all back to them.

    However, this is neither practicable nor politically feasible. In the real world, we must moderate both our tax and spending growth. Fixing this problem within historical political norms would mean cutting future spending growth substantially – but importantly, also lowering some future tax growth, even as projected deficits are reduced.

    In other words, the baseline budget picture was such that there was no contradiction between reducing projected deficits and lowering projected tax collections. Indeed, that is exactly what a solution consistent with historical experience would require.

    The Case against Lower Taxes and Smaller Deficits

    Now, there is a standpoint from which it would be inconsistent to claim support for both lower taxes and smaller deficits – specifically if one argued that projected spending growth must never be slowed. Some progressives seek not only to preserve currently projected spending growth but to add enormously to it.

    In this mindset, deficits could only be closed if tax collections rise faster than projected. Importantly, this would still not produce a stable budget situation because tax collections would need to grow much faster than Americans’ ability to pay them. Nevertheless, some advocates effectively take this policy position.

    But those who voted for the tax bill are not generally guilty of this. To the contrary, those members have repeatedly been assailed for their allegedly heartless determination to cut spending. House Speaker Paul Ryan has even been depicted — in one particularly revolting ad a few years ago — as dumping an innocent grandmother out of her wheelchair over a cliff, because of his efforts to address rising entitlement spending. And just a few months before their tax vote, lawmakers were attacked for supposedly taking away people’s health care because of their efforts to tackle hundreds of billions of dollars in projected spending growth under the ACA.

    Credit and Criticism Where It’s Due

    It is legitimate to oppose legislation to slow the growth of federal spending, if one believes that spending is needed. But one cannot fairly attack legislators who try to address runaway spending growth, and then later assail those same legislators as hypocrites for widening the deficit.

    Now, it is fair to criticize sponsors of deficit-widening legislation for denying they are increasing the debt. There has been a regrettable amount of such denial, where the public would have been better served to hear arguments as to why the benefits of tax cuts outweighed the downside of a debt increase.

    One can simply assume growth-stimulation effects under which tax cuts do not add to long-term debt, but non-partisan scorekeepers widely reject them — in the same way they rejected assumptions crafted during the last administration to conclude additional stimulus spending could pay for itself. Advocates should acknowledge adverse fiscal consequences of any legislation under consideration, even as they argue for its passage.

    The bottom line is this: prior to the tax legislation, lawmakers faced projections in which both tax burdens and spending patterns exceeded historical norms and were projected to rise still further, driven principally by growth in the major federal health entitlements and Social Security. The merits of this specific tax bill aside, a responsible and sustainable fiscal policy would reduce both projected spending and deficits substantially, while also slowing tax growth somewhat, and ensuring that neither taxes nor spending ultimately grow faster than our ability to finance them.

    Recognizing these realities involves no hypocrisy, but attacking lawmakers for fiscal recklessness — just a few months after taking political advantage of their efforts to rein in part of the federal spending explosion — most certainly does.

    Reprinted from Economics 21.

    Charles Blahous

    Charles Blahous is a senior research fellow for the Mercatus Center, a research fellow for the Hoover Institution, a public trustee for Social Security and Medicare, and a contributor to e21.

    This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

  • Raising Millionaires’ Taxes Will Drive Them Away


    Thanks to a frenzied December on Capitol Hill, 2017 will be known as the year of tax reform. But political developments in several blue states may mean that tax relief is significantly clawed back. Massachusetts and New Jersey are currently considering “millionaires’ taxes,” which would significantly increase top rates and spark a “race to the top” for revenue at a time when the federal government is actively lowering rates.

    To states such as New Jersey and Massachusetts with red-hot liberal resentment over tax reform, a millionaires’ tax might seem like necessary progressive corrective action. Hidden behind the rhetoric, though, is a flimsy case for states trying to raise taxes on the wealthy. Instead of helping out the middle class, a millionaires’ tax will result in an exodus from the state, squeezing out opportunities for working Americans.

    Tax Migration

    State lawmakers with blue electorates often experience generous program funding promises that conflict with balanced-budget requirements. When faced with expanding spending and shrinking revenues, large tax increases are the go-to policy option. Prominent millionaires respond to these proposals by threatening to leave, and research shows that the well-to-do regularly follow through on these promises. Despite inter-state migration by upper-income groups being lower than average, nearly all of the migration that does happen in top brackets has to do with tax changes.

    Researchers at Stanford University and the Treasury Department estimate that a 10 percent increase in taxes causes a 1 percent bump in migration, assuming no change in any other policy. This implies that typical levels of tax migration would still result in a net increase of revenue for a state looking to raise taxes on top earners. But it does mean that the bounty is not as great as some state lawmakers would like to imagine. Shifts in executive compensation sources make the payoff to state governments even smaller.

    The ultimate destination for the remaining pool of money that does get into state coffers depends on the state. New York State’s experience offers a cautionary tale of what happens when transparency and accountability take a back seat to special interests. In 2009, then-Governor Paterson and state lawmakers urged a temporary 8.97 percent tax on individuals earning over $1 million (or couples earning over $2 million) to shore up funding through the end of the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009.

    This new rate proved to be anything but temporary and is still on the books (albeit slightly lowered to 8.82 percent), following a two-year extension signed into law last year. The $3.5 billion annual revenue pads wasteful spending in Albany, as costs balloon for expensive infrastructure projects and waste at Albany agencies. Meanwhile, lawmakers have proven incapable of clamping down on record shortfalls.

    Tried and Failed

    California’s experience with a millionaires’ tax is only slightly less terrible. A 1 percent surtax on incomes above $1 million, implemented in 2004, is specifically designated for the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), which funds counseling and rehab services for at-risk, low-income populations. But despite transparency over the funding, per-person program costs have ballooned and the state has presented no data attesting to the efficacy of the program.

    This does not mean that there are no praiseworthy program results; some statistical findings suggest that increased mental health efforts have led to a decline in emergency room usage and decreases in other government spending. But if the program recoups around 85 percent of costs, as some studies suggest, then a millionaires’ tax is not necessary.

    If California clamped down on some of the rampant waste found in infrastructure line-items, payments for mental health would be possible and set the state up for long-run budgetary savings. Better yet, Sacramento could fund specific programs via “charitable donations” as a way for taxpayers to get around the new state and local deduction cap.

    If New Jersey and Massachusetts approve new millionaires’ taxes, it is difficult to predict how much will be raised and where these funds will ultimately wind up. But if New York and California are any guide, income surtaxes will be destructive. When it comes to higher taxation, interstate migration is just the tip of the iceberg. Higher-tax states, for instance, see less innovative activity and scientific research according to an analysis by economists at the Federal Reserve and UC Berkeley. Any benefits of millionaires’ taxes do not make up for the economic and social toll caused by fewer innovative activities and correspondingly lower job creation.

    In the midst of game-changing federal reforms and widespread blue resentment, scapegoating the rich is a proven political strategy. But millionaires’ taxes make for terrible governance and dubious benefits.

    Reprinted from Economics 21.

    Ross Marchand

    This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

  • A Federal Gas Tax Will Only Fuel Bureaucracy


    The Trump administration will release its long-awaited infrastructure plan in coming weeks. The plan is expected to include $200 billion over 10 years of federal funding. Where will the money come from? The president has pondered raising the federal gas tax.

    Revenues from the 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax go into the Highway Trust Fund and are then dished out to the states. But 98 percent of U.S. streets and highways are owned by state and local governments, and the owners should do the funding. States that need to improve their highways can increase their own gas taxes, sales taxes, issue debt, add user charges, or pursue public-private partnerships.

    There is no advantage in raising federal highway revenues rather than the states raising their own. The states can tackle their own infrastructure challenges, and about half of them have raised their transportation taxes in the past five years.

    Supporters of a federal gas tax hike say that the tax has not been raised since 1993, and its real value has been eroded by inflation. That is true. But the federal gas tax rate more than quadrupled between 1983 and 1993 from 4 cents to 18.4 cents, as shown in the chart below. The 4-cent rate would be 9.8 cents in today’s dollars, so the real gas tax rate has risen substantially since the early 1980s.

    The chart shows that the states have steadily raised their own gas taxes in recent years. API discusses state gas taxes here, and they emailed me data back to 1994. (I’ve interpolated a few missing years). The state average — currently 33 cents — includes both gasoline excise taxes and other taxes on gasoline.

    I hope Trump does not go down the road of gas tax increases. Pumping more money through federal bureaucracies would fuel more top-down planning and inefficiency. Funding for highways and other infrastructure should be handled by state and local governments and the private sector.

    More on infrastructure here and here.

    Reprinted from Cato At Liberty.

    Chris Edwards

    Chris Edwards is the director of tax policy studies at Cato and editor of DownsizingGovernment.org.

    This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.