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Republicans are fighting about taxes. But they’re fighting with each other, not Democrats. I’ve already written about this topic once, but the issue has become more heated, and the stakes have become much larger. And this time I’m going to focus on the political implications.

First, some background. One side of this battle is led by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who is the organizer of the no-tax-increase pledge. Grover argues that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending and that higher taxes are economically and politically foolish.

The other side of the conflict is led by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who argues that America’s fiscal problem is too much red ink and that higher taxes are a necessary price to strike a deal with Democrats that supposedly will reduce budget deficits.

The first  skirmish in this fight involved ethanol tax credits. Senator Coburn wanted to get rid of the credit, which everyone agrees is economically destructive and fundamentally corrupt.

But there’s a catch. when you get rid a tax preference, even an odious one, that means the government gets more money. In other words a tax increase. Senator Coburn has no problem with that outcome.

Grover Norquist says that all of the arguments against ethanol are correct, but he says that any proposal to get rid of the credit should be accompanied by a tax cut of equal magnitude.

If the ethanol credit is worth about $6 billion per year, as Senator Coburn’s office states, then find a tax cut of similar size, pair it with the ethanol credit, and kill two birds with one stone. Seems like the best of all possible outcomes, which is why Grover is correct from a policy perspective.

The fight over the ethanol credit may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but it was symbolically important – particularly since it is a precursor for the much bigger fight about whether GOPers should agree to a budget deal with Democrats.

Indeed, this may already be happening as part of the “Gang of Six” negotiations, with Senator Coburn and two other Republican Senators joining three Democrats in putting together some sort of grand compromise (presumably something similar to what was proposed by Obama’s Fiscal Commission).

In this case, the tax increase could be enormous, well over $1 trillion. No wonder this battle is getting heated. Here are some excerpts from a recent story in the Washington Post.

Republicans are feuding over whether to abandon the party’s long-held opposition to higher taxes in pursuit of a deficit-cutting deal with Democrats. …both sides say this cuts to the core of a quandary for the GOP: Will the cause of trimming deficits run aground on the conservative principle that the government must not increase the amount of money it takes in through taxes? …“If we don’t do something, what we’ve done is put the country at risk,” Coburn said in an interview. “I agree we ought to cut spending, but will we ever get the spending cut to the level that we need to without some type of compromise?” Norquist…argues that bipartisan deals struck by Presidents Ronald Reagan in 1982 and George H.W. Bush in 1990, both of which entailed increased taxes, resulted in bigger government rather than spending cuts that both men thought they had secured. “This is a fantasy on the part of the liberal Democrats that the Republicans would be stupid enough to repeat 1990 and throw away a winning hand politically,” Norquist said.

As the excerpt correctly acknowledges, this issue deals with both economics and politics. From an economic perspective, there are all sorts of important issues:

1. What is better for the economy, lower spending or higher taxes?

2. Is it possible to balance the budget without higher taxes?

3. Would tax increases be used for deficit reduction or more spending?

But I covered these issues in my earlier post, so lets’ look at the political implications. Grover asked, in the Washington Post article, “Why would you elect a Republican Senate if they just sat down with Obama and raised everyone’s taxes?” And I was quoted about how abandoning the no-tax-hike position would heavily damage the GOP.

How the debate among Republicans is resolved in the coming weeks will play a large role in determining whether a grand bipartisan bargain on deficit reduction is possible. “There’s a significant split over whether to put taxes on the table,” said Dan Mitchell, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute and a Norquist ally. Mitchell said the disagreement largely pits House and Senate Republicans against each other and gives Democrats a potential political edge. “Obama has it within his power to drive a big wedge between House and Senate GOP-ers and turn the tax issue from something that works on behalf of Republicans into something that works against them,” he said.

To elaborate on the last point, the no-tax-increase pledge helps the GOP because it sends a signal to all voters that they will not be raped and pillaged (at least in excess of what is happening now).

This puts Democrats in a tough position. They can play the politics of class warfare (as Obama likes to do) and say only the “rich” will pay higher taxes, but voters don’t dislike their upper-income neighbors. Moreover, they probably suspect that Democrats have a very broad definition of what counts as rich, so they instinctively gravitate to the GOP position. After all, the only sure way of avoiding a tax hike on yourself is to oppose tax hikes for everyone.

If Republicans put tax increases on the table, however, the politics get turned upside down. Instead of being united against all tax increases, voters realize somebody is going to get mugged and they have an incentive to make sure they’re not the ones who get victimized.

That’s when soak-the-rich taxes become very appealing. Democrats, for all intents and purposes, can appeal to average voters by targeting the so-called rich. And even though voters will be skeptical about what Democrats really want, they don’t want to be the primary target of the political predators in Washington.

Think of it this way. You’re a wildebeest running away from a pack of hyenas, but you know one member of your herd will get caught and killed. You despise hyenas, but at that critical moment, you’re main goal is wanting another member of the herd to bite the dust.

This is why surrendering to tax increases put Republicans in a no-win situation. They oppose class-warfare taxes because they understand the disproportionately damaging impact of higher top income tax rates and increased double taxation of dividends and capital gains. So when GOPers get bullied into agreeing to raise taxes, they want to target less destructive sources of revenue. But that usually means that taxes that are more likely to hit the middle class.

Needless to say, Democrats almost always win if there is a fight on whether to tax the middle class or to tax the rich.

Senator Coburn’s heart is in the right place, but he is creating a win-win situation for Democrats. By putting taxes on the table, he is giving Democrats a policy victory and a political victory.

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President Obama didn’t offer a budget plan yesterday. The White House hasn’t released anything beyond a set of talking points.

But that’s not terribly surprising since his speech was really the opening salvo of his 2012 reelection fight. And it’s clear that a central theme of his campaign will be class warfare.

But if we translate his campaign-style demagoguery into the overall budget framework, we get something like this fiscal continuum. Obama, for all intents and purposes, has taken the moderately left-wing proposal crafted by his Fiscal Commission and moved it significantly in the wrong direction by adding class-warfare tax policy. As such, he is close to the left end of the line, which represents “Statism.”

The Ryan plan, by contrast, is the moderately right-wing mirror image of the Fiscal Commission. But rather than cementing in place bigger government, as proposed by Simpson and Bowles,  Ryan’s budget slowly shrinks the fiscal burden of government. As such, it is on the “Liberty” side of the continuum.

America’s Founding Fathers had the right idea, of course, They envisioned a very limited central government, and for much of our nation’s history, the federal budget consumed about 3 percent of GDP. Unfortunately, the Hoover-Roosevelt policies began the process of moving America in the wrong direction, and federal spending now consumes nearly one-fourth of America’s economic output.

But enough history. Let’s revisit Obama’s speech and the accompanying talking points. In addition to the class warfare (more on that below), we also see an explicit call to reduce the growth of Medicare spending by “strengthening the Independent Payment Advisory Board.”

In other words, Obama wants to use his control of the purse strings to give bureaucrats more ability to decide what kind of care seniors can receive. It’s politically incorrect to call this type of entity a “death panel,” so I’ll simply contrast Obama’s top-down bureaucratic approach with the Ryan plan, which is based on giving vouchers to future seniors so they can pick the health plans that best fit their needs (people over 55 would be stuck with the current system). And since this is very similar to the system used to provide health care for Members of Congress and their staff, you know it must work reasonably well.

Let’s briefly return to the tax side of the fiscal equation. I’ll have more to say about this in a separate post giving a behind-the-scenes look at what Democrats really hope to achieve in the area of tax policy, but I want to offer a basic explanation of why the soak-the-rich approach is doomed to fail. There are five reasons in this video to reject class warfare, including a very important warning that high tax rates on the rich almost always are a tactical move to facilitate higher taxes for the rest of us.

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Responding to widespread criticism of his AWOL status on the budget fight, President Obama today unveiled a fiscal plan. It already is being criticized for its class warfare approach to tax policy, but the most disturbing feature may be a provision that punishes the American people with higher taxes if politicians overspend.

Called a “debt failsafe trigger,” Obama’s scheme would automatically raise taxes if politicians spend too much. According to the talking points distributed by the White House, the automatic tax increase would take effect “if, by 2014, the projected ratio of debt-to-GDP is not stabilized and declining toward the end of the decade.”

Let’s ponder what this means. If politicians in Washington spend too much and cause more red ink, which happens on a routine basis, Obama wants a provision that automatically would raise taxes on the American people.

In other words, they play and we pay. The last thing we need is a perverse incentive for even more reckless spending from Washington.

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This Thursday, April 7, Senator Corker of Tennessee will be the opening speaker at the Cato Institute’s conference on “The Economic Impact of Government Spending” (an event that is free and open to the public, so register here if you want to attend).

The Senator will be discussing his proposal to cap and then gradually reduce the burden of government spending, measured as a share of gross domestic product. With federal outlays currently consuming about 25 percent of economic output, excessive federal spending is America’s main fiscal problem.

Corker’s proposal would put federal spending on a 10-year glide path so that it eventually shrinks to 20.6 percent of GDP. This chart, from the Senator’s upcoming presentation, shows that government will grow at a much slower pace as a result of this restraint. Indeed, total savings over the 10-year period, measured against a baseline that assumes the federal government is left on auto-pilot, would exceed $5 trillion.There are two things to admire about Senator Corker’s CAP plan.

First, he correctly understands that the problem is the size of government. As explained in this video, spending is the problem and deficits are a symptom of that problem.

Unfortunately, many policy makers focus on the budget deficit, which often makes them susceptible to misguided policies such as higher taxes. At best, such an approach merely substitutes one bad way of financing federal spending with another bad way of financing federal spending. And it’s much more likely that higher taxes will simply lead to more spending, thus exacerbating the real problem.

Second, Corker’s legislation has a real enforcement mechanism. If Congress fails to produce a budget that meets the annual spending cap, there is a “sequester” provision that automatically takes a slice out of almost every federal program.

Modeled after a similar provision in the successful Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law of the 1980s, this sequester puts real teeth in the CAP Act and ensures that the burden of government spending actually would be reduced.

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I commented yesterday about the silly idea, being promoted by a few politicians, to impose a tax on toilet paper. That post mostly was an opportunity to have some fun mocking greedy government because even a dour pessimist like me doesn’t expect that idea to get very far.

But there’s a new tax idea that sounds equally absurd, but actually is a much greater threat to taxpayers. The bureaucrats at the Congressional Budget Office have issued a report suggesting a tax based on the number of miles driven. Since such a tax almost surely (despite initial assertions to the contrary) would be in addition to existing gas taxes, this would be a way for politicians to grab more of our money.

But that’s not the only thing we should worry about. To impose such a tax, the government obviously would need the ability to track our vehicle usage. At the risk of stating the obvious, my driving patters are not the government’s business.

Here’s a blurb from a report in The Hill.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) this week released a report that said taxing people based on how many miles they drive is a possible option for raising new revenues and that these taxes could be used to offset the costs of highway maintenance at a time when federal funds are short.

The report discussed the proposal in great detail, including the development of technology that would allow total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to be tracked, reported and taxed, as well as the pros and cons of mandating the installation of this technology in all vehicles.

…The report was requested by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who held a hearing on transportation funding in early March. In that hearing, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the Obama administration is hoping to spend $556 billion over the next six years, much of which would go to federal transportation improvement projects.

Conrad said in response that federal funds are tight, and in asking for recommendations on how to raise that money, he noted the possibility of a VMT tax as a way to solve the problem of collecting less in taxes as people move to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

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There’s a significant debate now taking place in Washington – largely behind closed doors, but sometimes covered by the media – on whether fiscal conservatives should maintain a rigid no-tax-increase position. One side of the debate features Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, which is the organization that maintains the no-tax increase pledge. The other side features Senator Coburn of Oklahoma, who is part of a small group of GOP Senators who might be willing to increase the tax burden as part of a deal that supposedly reduces deficits.

I’m a huge fan of Senator Coburn, who was in favor of cutting wasteful spending before it became fashionable. His office, for instance, releases a “Pork Report” every couple of days. But you shouldn’t read it if you have high blood pressure, because it will confirm (and reconfirm, and reconfirm, ad nauseum) your worst fears about tax dollars getting wasted.

Nonetheless, I’m on Grover’s side on this tax debate for two reasons.

First, we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem or a deficit/debt problem. Red ink is undesirable, to be sure, but it is a symptom of the underlying problem of a government that is too big and spending too much.

But don’t believe me. Here is a chart from the House Budget Committee showing long-run projections for spending and revenues over the next 70 years. As you can see, the long-run fiscal shortfall is completely caused by higher spending. In other words, 100 percent of red ink is due to government spending. So why put taxes on the table?

But this chart actually understates the case against tax increases. It uses revenue numbers from the Congressional Budget Office’s “alternative” forecast, which shows taxes steady at 19.3 percent of GDP. That’s more than the historical average of about 18 percent of GDP, which surely indicates that revenues are not the problem.

However, that 19.3 percent estimate is completely artificial. As CBO states in its long-run forecast, “the alternative fiscal scenario also incorporates unspecified changes in tax law that would keep revenues constant as a share of GDP after 2020.”

I’ll actually be delighted if we can permanently keep federal revenues below 20 percent of GDP, but I’m not overly optimistic because the tax burden is projected to automatically increase over time. And I’m not talking about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts or the alternative minimum tax. Yes, those factors would push up tax revenues (at least based on static revenue estimates), but the tax burden also is expected to climb because even modest economic growth slowly but surely pushes more and more people into higher tax brackets.

This second chart shows CBO’s estimate of personal income tax revenue based on current policy (as opposed to estimates based on current law, which includes already legislated tax hikes). To be more specific, it shows how much revenue the government will collect from the individual income tax even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent and the AMT is indexed.

As you can see, the aggregate individual income tax burden will increase by roughly 5 percentage points of GDP when compared to the long-run average of about 8 percent of GDP (the CBO estimate only goes to 2035, so I extrapolated to show the same time period as the first chart). And remember, this is the forecast of what will happen to income tax revenues even if politicians don’t impose any new laws to coercively extract more revenue.

This might not be too bad if other taxes were falling, but that’s not what CBO is projecting. As such, this big increase in revenue from the individual income tax means that the overall tax burden will climb by approximately the same amount.

In other words, revenue likely will rise close to 25 percent of GDP as we approach the next century. So if we use this more realistic baseline, we can say that more than 100 percent of the long-run deficit problem is because spending is out of control.

The second reason for a firm no-tax increase position is that higher taxes are a very ineffective way of reducing budget deficits. Indeed, tax increases generally backfire and lead to more red ink. To understand why, it’s important to put away the calculator and instead consider the real world of politics and public policy. For instance:

o  Tax increases rarely raise as much revenue as predicted by government forecasters. This is because of “Laffer Curve” effects, as taxpayers change their behavior to earn less income and/or report less income. Simply stated, people respond to incentives, and this means taxable income falls as tax rates increase.

o  Tax increases erode pressure to control spending. Why would politicians want to make tough decisions and upset special interest groups, after all, when there is going to be more revenue (or at least the expectation of more revenue)? Using more colloquial language, trying to control spending with higher taxes is like trying to cure alcoholics by giving them keys to a liquor store.

o  Milton Friedman was right when he said that, “In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.” In other words, if politicians think they can get away with deficits averaging, say, 5 percent of GDP in the long run, then the the only impact of higher taxes is an equal amount of additional spending – while still retaining deficits of 5 percent of GDP.

The real-world evidence certainly points in this direction. We’ve seen “bipartisan budget summits” several times in Washington, and the result is more spending rather than lower deficits. Americans for Tax Reform has a good analysis of what happened after the two big budget summits in 1982 and 1990, but I think the problem is best captured by my adaptation of a famous Peanuts cartoon strip.

Every year, if my aging memory is correct, Lucy would ask Charlie Brown if he wanted to kick the football. At first, Charlie was skeptical. But Lucy always managed to trick him into giving it a try. And the inevitable result was Charlie Brown lying on his back wondering why he had been so foolish.

In the Washington version of this cartoon, Democrats hypnotize gullible Republicans with ostensibly sincere promises of future spending restraint. Republicans eventually acquiesce, naively assuming that Democrats will be their new best-friends-forever in the fight against big government.

Needless to say, that’s not the way the story ends.

Ronald Reagan is reported to have said that the 1982 tax increase was the “biggest mistake” of his presidency. And since Congress never followed through on commitments to reduce spending by $3 for every $1 of higher taxes, he wryly remarked that, “I’m still waiting on those three dollars of spending cuts I was promised from Congress.”

Like Ronald Reagan, Tom Coburn wants to do the right thing. But good intentions are not the same as good policy. America’s fiscal challenge is too much spending. Government is too big and it is wasting too much money. Taking more money from the American people is not the way to solve that problem.

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One of my presentations at CPAC addressed America’s long-term entitlement crisis. I was part of a panel organized by the National Taxpayers Union, and I discussed how to solve the long-run fiscal problems caused by Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The lighting and focus leave something to be desired, but hopefully my message is crisp and clear.

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