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Posts Tagged ‘Supply-Side’

While I’m glad Republicans are finally talking about smaller government, I’ve expressed some disappointment with the GOP Pledge to America. Why “reform” Fannie and Freddie, I asked, when the right approach is to get the government completely out of the housing sector. Jacob Sullum of Reason is similarly underwhelmed. He writes:
In the “Pledge to America” they unveiled last week, House Republicans promise they will “launch a sustained effort to stem the relentless growth in government that has occurred over the past decade.” Who better for the job than the folks who ran the government for most of that time? …Republicans, you may recall, had a spending spree of their own during George W. Bush’s recently concluded administration, when both discretionary and total spending doubled — nearly 10 times the growth seen during Bill Clinton’s two terms. In fact, says Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, “President Bush increased government spending more than any of the six presidents preceding him, including LBJ.” Republicans controlled the House of Representatives for six of Bush’s eight years.
Redemption is a good thing, however, so maybe the GOP actually intends to do the right thing this time around. One key test is whether Republicans do a top-to-bottom housecleaning at both the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation.
These Capitol Hill bureaucracies are not well known, but they have enormous authority and influence. As the official scorekeepers of spending (CBO) and tax (JCT) bills, these two bureaucracies can mortally wound legislation or grease the skids for quick passage.
Unfortunately, that clout gets used to dramatically tilt the playing field in favor of bigger government. It was CBO that claimed that Obama’s stimulus created jobs, even though the head of CBO was forced to admit that the jobs-created number was the result of a Keynesian model that was rigged to show exactly that result . You would think that would shame the bureaucrats into producing honest numbers, but CBO continues to produce absurd job creation estimates regardless of the actual rate of unemployment.
CBO favors deficits and debt when it is asked to analyze proposals for more spending, but it rather conveniently changes its tune when the discussion shifts to tax increases. Since we’re on the topic of twisted economic analysis, CBO actually relies on a model which, for all intents and purposes, predicts that economic performance is maximized with 100 percent tax rates.
The Joint Committee on Taxation, meanwhile, is infamous for its assumption that taxes have no impact – at all – on economic output. In other words, instead of showing a Laffer Curve, JCT would show a straight line, with tax revenues continuing to rapidly climb even as tax rates approach 100 percent.  This creates a huge bias against good tax policy, yet JCT is impervious to evidence that its approach is wildly flawed.
And don’t forget that CBO and JCT both bear responsibility for Obamacare since they cranked out preposterous estimates that a giant new entitlement would lead to lower budget deficits.
Not that we need additional evidence, but the head of the CBO just repeated his higher-taxes-equal-more-growth nonsense in testimony to the Senate Budget Committee. With this type of mindset, is it any surprise that fiscal policy is such a mess?
Douglas Elmendorf said extending breaks due to expire at year’s end would increase demand in the next few years by putting more money in consumers’ pockets. Over the long term, he said, the tax cuts would hurt the economy because the government would have to borrow so much money to finance them that it would begin competing with private companies seeking loans. That, in turn, would drive up interest rates, Elmendorf said.
I’ve already written once about how the GOP sabotaged itself when it didn’t fix the problems with these scorekeeping bureaucracies after 1994. If Republicans take power and don’t raze CBO and JCT, they will deserve to become a permanent minority party.

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Thanks to the Obamacare legislation, we already know there will be a new 3.9 percent payroll tax on all investment income earned by so-called rich taxpayers beginning in 2013. And the capital gains tax rate will jump to 20 percent next year if the President gets his way. This sounds bad (and it is), but the news is even worse than you think. Here’s a new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that exposes the atrociously unfair practice of imposing this levy on inflationary gains.

The mini-documentary uses a simple but powerful example of what happens to an investor who bought an asset 10 years ago for $5,000 and sold it this year for $6,000. The IRS will want 15 percent of the $1,000 gain (Obama wants the tax burden on capital gains to climb to 23.9 percent, but that’s a separate issue). Some people may think that a 15 percent tax is reasonable, but how many of those people understand that inflation during the past 10 years was more than 27 percent, and $6,000 today is actually worth only about $4,700 after adjusting for the falling value of the dollar? I’m not a math genius, but if the government imposes a $150 tax (15 percent of $1,000) on an investor who lost nearly $300 ($5,000 became $4,700), that translates into an infinite tax rate. And if Obama pushed the tax rate to almost 24 percent, that infinite tax rate gets…um…even more infinite.

The right capital gains tax, of course, is zero.

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Here’s a clever video produced by the Winston Group, comparing the tax policies of two Democratic Presidents. Having previously highlighted Kennedy’s tax-cutting approach, it is painful for me to observe the class warfare approach of the Obama Administration.

What’s especially fascinating is that JFK intuitively understood the Laffer Curve, particularly the insight that deficits usually are the result of slow growth, not the cause of slow growth.

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Kevin Hassett and Alan VIard of the American Enterprise Institute have a column in the Wall Street Journal showing how Obama’s proposed tax hikes will impose significant harm on small business owners and other entrepreneurs. Higher tax rates are damaging for the obvious reason that business cash flow gets diverted to the IRS, but also because they alter the price (or tradeoff) between work and leisure and between consumption and investment. This means less productive activity, which is just another way of saying reduced national income.

Vice President Joe Biden harshly rejected House Minority Leader John Boehner’s assertion that the hikes would harm small businesses, saying that “he has created this myth that a tax cut for millionaires is actually a tax cut for small business. There aren’t 3% of small businesses in America that would qualify for that tax cut.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi flipped the number around, saying that the planned tax increases would exempt “98% of American families and about 97% of small businesses.”

…The 3% figure, which is computed from IRS data, is based on simply counting the number of returns with any pass-through business income. So, if somebody makes a little money selling products on eBay and reports that income on Schedule C of their tax return, they are counted as a small business. The fact that there are millions of people in the lower tax brackets with small amounts of business income may be interesting for some purposes, but it is irrelevant for the assessment of the economic impact of the tax hikes.

The numbers are clear. According to IRS data, fully 48% of the net income of sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S corporations reported on tax returns went to households with incomes above $200,000 in 2007. That’s the number to look at, not the 3%.

…A pair of papers by economists Robert Carroll, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Harvey Rosen and Mark Rider that were published in 1998 and 2000 by the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed tax return data and uncovered high responsiveness of sole proprietors’ business activity to tax rates. Their estimates imply that increasing the top rate to 40.8% from 35% (an official rate of 39.6% plus another 1.2 percentage points from the restoration of a stealth provision that phases out deductions), as in Mr. Obama’s plan, would reduce gross receipts by more than 7% for sole proprietors subject to the higher rate.

These results imply a similar effect on proprietors’ investment expenditures. A paper published by R. Glenn Hubbard of Columbia University and William M. Gentry of Williams College in the American Economic Review in 2000 also found that increasing progressivity of the tax code discourages entrepreneurs from starting new businesses.

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In the private sector, no business owner would be dumb enough to assume that higher prices automatically translate into proportionately higher revenues. If McDonald’s boosted hamburger prices by 30 percent, for instance, the experts at the company would fully expect that sales would decline. Depending on the magnitude of the drop, total revenue might still climb, but by far less than 30 percent. And it’s quite possible that the company would lose revenue. In the public sector, however, there is very little understanding of how the real world works. Here’s a Reuters story I saw on Tim Worstall’s blog, which reveals that Bulgaria and Romania both are losing revenue after increasing tobacco taxes.

Cash-strapped Bulgaria and Romania hoped taxing cigarettes would be an easy way to raise money but the hikes are driving smokers to a growing black market instead.

Criminal gangs and impoverished Roma communities near borders with countries where prices are lower — Serbia, Macedonia, Moldova and Ukraine — have taken to smuggling which has wiped out gains from higher excise duties.

Bulgaria increased taxes by nearly half this year and stepped up customs controls and police checks at shops and markets. Customs office data, however, shows tax revenues from cigarette sales so far in 2010 have fallen by nearly a third.

…Overall losses from smuggling will probably outweigh tax gains as Bulgaria struggle to fight the growing black market, which has risen to over 30 percent of all cigarette sales and could cost 500 million levs in lost revenues this year, said Bezlov at the Center for the Study of Democracy.

While the government expected higher income from taxes in 2010 it has already revised that to the same level as last year. “However, this (too) looks unlikely at present,” Bezlov added.

Romania, desperately trying to keep a 20 billion-euro International Monetary Fund-led bailout deal on track, has a similar problem after nearly doubling cigarette prices in 2009 then hiking value added tax.

Romania’s top three cigarette makers — units of British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Philip Morris — contributed roughly 2 billion euros to the budget in taxes in 2009, or just under 2 percent of GDP.

They estimate about a third of cigarettes in Romania are smuggled and say this could cost the state over 1 billion euros.

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I know I’ve beaten this drum several times before, but the Wall Street Journal today has a very good explanation of why class-warfare tax policy will backfire. The Journal’s editorial focuses on what happened after the 2003 tax rate reductions. And below the excerpt, you’ll find a table I prepared showing what happened with tax revenues from the rich following the Reagan tax cuts. The simple message is that lower tax rates are the best way to soak the rich.

Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation recently dropped a study claiming that millionaires will pay $31 billion of the $36 billion in revenue that it expects will be raised next year if tax rates rise as scheduled on January 1.

…If you believe that, you probably also believed Joint Tax when it predicted that the rich would gain a huge tax windfall when tax rates were cut in 2003. Let’s go to the videotape.

According to the most recent IRS data on actual tax payments, total revenues collected over the period 2003-07 were about $350 billion higher than Joint Tax and the Congressional Budget Office predicted when the 2003 tax cuts were enacted. Moreover, the wealthiest taxpayers paid a larger share of all income taxes from the beginning to the end of this period. The IRS data show that in 2003 those with incomes above $200,000 paid $313 billion in income tax. By 2007 they paid $610 billion.

…Guess what income group paid the most in higher taxes after tax rates were cut? Millionaires. From 2003 to 2008, millionaires increased their tax payments to $249 billion from $132 billion. One reason for the big increase in payments: the number of returns declaring $1 million or more in income increased 76% to 319,000 from 181,000 as the economy expanded.

The IRS data are a useful reminder of how dependent Uncle Sam is on the rich to pay the government’s bills.

…We’re not saying that tax cuts “pay for themselves.” What we are saying is that the 2003 tax cuts proved again, as we should have learned in the 1960s and 1980s, that rich people are the most responsive to changes in tax rates. When tax rates are high, the wealthy invest less, hire accountants to protect more of their income from the IRS, and park more of their money in tax shelters, such as municipal bonds.

…That’s why it’s a fantasy to think that raising income and capital gains and dividend tax rates on the rich is going to pry $31 billion out of millionaire households. History teaches that the best way to soak the rich and reduce the deficit is to promote rapid economic growth. But that’s less likely to happen in 2011 if the economy is rear-ended with the biggest tax increase in at least 16 years.

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Unfortunately, I’m not talking about President Obama, though the current occupant of the White House could learn a lot from a previous Democratic President.

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National Review captures a key difference between Reagan and Obama, writing that Reagan was willing to incur short-run political pain to make America healthier and stronger.  Obama, by contrast, has pursued the free-lunch Keynesian approach. Only time will tell whether Obama becomes another Jimmy Carter, but he certainly isn’t doing himself any favors by continuously pushing to expand the burden of government.

Both men faced seemingly intractable economic problems with no easy solution, but Reagan understood that curing the nation’s debilitating inflation was going to involve a good deal of short-term economic pain and political unpopularity, and he was prepared to endure that. By contrast, Obama has done everything in his power to avoid painful corrections — at great cost to future taxpayers.  It is increasingly evident that his policies have merely put off these corrections or dragged them out, and that we have not avoided them at all. Reagan’s willingness to accept painful and unpopular but necessary economic adjustments — and Obama’s lack of the same fortitude — is the essence of what separates the two men.

…The blowback that resulted from Volcker’s decision to put the economy into a coma was swift and severe. The sharp recession that ensued once Volcker started shrinking the money supply prompted Democrats and Republicans alike to introduce legislation to rein in the Fed. But Reagan refused to back any such action or even criticize Volcker in public. In private, Reagan was candid about what needed to be done, according to the late Bob Novak’s reporting on the subject: “I’m afraid this country is just going to have to suffer two, three years of hard times to pay for the [inflationary] binge we’ve been on,” Reagan said. It is impossible to imagine Obama speaking such unpopular truths in public or in private after having so often expressed the opinion that a massive debt-fueled government-spending program would create millions of jobs and reconstruct an economy torn asunder by years of binging on debt.

…[H]is unpopular moves laid the groundwork for three decades of unprecedented economic expansion. So far, we have seen no evidence that Obama’s unpopular policies will pay those kinds of dividends. Like Reagan, Obama inherited an economy with structural problems requiring painful adjustments. Unlike Reagan, he has tried to put off those adjustments or cover them up with feel-good stimulus programs. Reaganomics worked. Obamanomics? Let’s just say it will be interesting to see how much longer those trend lines overlap.

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There’s been a bit of chatter in the blogosphere about a recent post on Ezra Klein’s blog featuring estimates from various economists about the revenue-maximizing tax rate. It won’t come as a surprise that people on the right tended to give lower estimates and folks on the left had higher guesses. Donald Luskin of National Review estimated 19 percent, for instance, while Emmanuel Saez, Dean Baker, Bruce Bartlett, and Brad DeLong all gave answers around 70 percent.

There are two things that are worth noting.

First, every single answer is to the right of the Joint Committee on Taxation. The revenue-estimators on Capitol Hill assume that taxes have no impact on overall economic performance. As such, even confiscatory tax rates have very little impact on taxable income. The JCT operates in a totally non-transparent fashion, so it is difficult to know whether they would say the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 90 percent, 95 percent, or 100 percent, but it is remarkable that a mini-bureaucracy with so much power is so far out of the mainstream (it’s even more remarkable that Republicans controlled Congress for 12 years, yet never fixed this problem, but that’s a separate story).

Second, very few of the respondents made the critically important observation that it should not be the goal of tax policy to maximize revenue. After all, the revenue-maximizing point is where the damage to the overall economy is so great that taxable income falls enough to offset the impact of the higher tax rates. Greg Mankiw of Harvard and Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal indicated they understood this point since they both explained that the long-run revenue-maximizing rate was lower than the short-run revenue-maximizing rate. But Martin Feldstein of Harvard explicitly addressed this issue and hit the nail on the head.

Why look for the rate that maximizes revenue? As the tax rate rises, the “deadweight loss” (real loss to the economy rises) so as the rate gets close to maximizing revenue the loss to the economy exceeds the gain in revenue…. I dislike budget deficits as much as anyone else. But would I really want to give up say $1 billion of GDP in order to reduce the deficit by $100 million? No. National income is a goal in itself. That is what drives consumption and our standard of living.

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I’m still dealing with the statist echo chamber, having been hit with two additional attacks for the supposed sin of endorsing Reaganomics over Obamanomics (my responses to the other attacks can be found here and here). Some guy at the Atlantic Monthly named Steve Benen issued an critique focusing on the timing of the recession and recovery in Reagan’s first term. He reproduces a Krugman chart (see below) and also adds his own commentary.

Reagan’s first big tax cut was signed in August 1981. Over the next year or so, unemployment went from just over 7% to just under 11%. In September 1982, Reagan raised taxes, and unemployment fell soon after. We’re all aware, of course, of the correlation/causation dynamic, but as Krugman noted in January, “[U]nemployment, which had been stable until Reagan cut taxes, soared during the 15 months that followed the tax cut; it didn’t start falling until Reagan backtracked and raised taxes.”

This argument is absurd since the recession in the early 1980s was largely the inevitable result of the Federal Reserve’s misguided monetary policy. And I would be stunned if this view wasn’t shared by 90 percent-plus of economists. So it is rather silly to say the recession was caused by tax cuts and the recovery was triggered by tax increases.

But even if we magically assume monetary policy was perfect, Benen’s argument is wrong. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’ll just call attention to my previous blog post which explained that it is critically important to look at when tax cuts (and increases) are implemented, not when they are enacted. The data is hardly exact, because I haven’t seen good research on the annual impact of bracket creep, but there was not much net tax relief during Reagan’s first couple of years because the tax cuts were phased in over several years and other taxes were going up. So the recession actually began when taxes were flat (or perhaps even rising) and the recovery began when the economy was receiving a net tax cut. That being said, I’m not arguing that the Reagan tax cuts ended the recession. They probably helped, to be sure, but we should do good tax policy to improve long-run growth, not because of some misguided effort to fine-tune short-run growth.

The second attack comes from some blog called Econospeak, where my newest fan wrote:

I’m scratching my head here as I thought the standard pseudo-supply-side line was that the deficit exploded in the 1980’s because government spending exploded. OK, the truth is that the ratio of Federal spending to GDP neither increased nor decreased during this period. Real tax revenues per capita fell which is why the deficit rose but this notion that the burden of government fell is not factually based.

Those are some interesting points, and I might respond to them if I wanted to open a new conversation, but they’re not germane to what I said. In my original post (the one he was attacking), I commented on the “burden of government” rather than the “burden of government spending.” I’m a fiscal policy economist, so I’m tempted to claim that the sun rises and sets based on what’s happening to taxes and spending, but such factors are just two of the many policies that influence economic performance. And with regard to my assertion that Reagan reduced the “burden of government,” I’ll defer to the rankings put together for the Economic Freedom of the World Index. The score for the United States improved from 8.03 to 8.38 between 1980 and 1990 (my guess is that it peaked in 1988, but they only have data for every five years). The folks on the left may be unhappy about it, but it is completely accurate to say Reagan reduced the burden of government. And while we don’t yet have data for the Obama years, there’s a 99 percent likelihood that America’s score will decline.

This is not a partisan argument, by the way. The Economic Freedom of the World chart shows that America’s score improved during the Clinton years, particularly his second term. And the data also shows that the U.S. score dropped during the Bush years. This is why I wrote a column back in 2007 advocating Clintonomics over Bushonomics. Partisan affiliation is not what matters. If we want more prosperity, the key is shrinking the burden of government.

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