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Feldstein and Summers on Tax Reform: A Lot of Common Ground–but Still Some Stumbling Blocks

October 1st, 2012 . by economistmom

Last week as part of the “Strengthening of America-Our Children’s Future” project that the Concord Coalition is a co-sponsor of, a forum was held in New York on the topic of “pro-growth tax reform.” Harvard economics professor and Romney adviser, Martin Feldstein, joined former Treasury secretary and Obama adviser, Lawrence Summers, to discuss what they consider “pro-growth” tax policy.  A preview of their discussion was provided by former Senator Sam Nunn’s co-anchoring of the CNBC “Squawk Box” show earlier that morning; in this segment Feldstein and Nunn discuss the potential for bipartisanship in tax reform, but Feldstein is also asked to react to comments that Summers had made on the show just before.  (This latter issue will be most appreciated by those who have been following the Tax Policy Center’s analysis of the Romney plan and Feldstein’s subsequent critique of the TPC analysis and defense of the Romney tax reform plan.)

At the event, Feldstein and Summers made it clear that when it comes to the notion of what is “pro-growth tax reform,” there is a lot of common ground between economists who favor the Rs and economists who favor the Ds.  Here are what I heard as some of the main points of agreement between Feldstein and Summers (what Summers referred to as the “structure that Marty and I have converged on”):

  1. “Pro-growth tax reform” means structuring the tax system to encourage longer-term expansion in the productive capacity (or “supply side”) of the economy.
  2. This suggests that a broader, more even tax base, which supports relatively low marginal tax rates, is the best way to raise necessary revenue with the least distortion to those supply-side economic decisions (how much to work, how much to save, how much to invest in human or physical capital).
  3. A first priority to follow the “broadening the tax base” strategy is to reduce existing “tax expenditures” that are considered inefficient and/or unfair.  Tax expenditures are economically equivalent to government spending programs and make government bigger than indicated by the levels of direct spending. (Cutting revenues by increasing tax expenditures grows, rather than shrinks, the size of government.)
  4. Tax expenditures could be reduced in a variety of ways that don’t have to target particular sectors of the economy (could be done in across-the-board, broad-brush ways–e.g., Feldstein likes the idea of capping the total amount to a percentage of gross income) and can be done in a progressive manner, where tax burdens are increased relatively more on higher-income households (e.g., the Obama budget proposal to limit itemized deductions and even other tax expenditures to the 28% rate).
  5. Tax reform does need to raise revenue (relative to the policy-extended, “business as usual” baseline, and even before any “dynamic scoring” type effects are accounted for) in order to contribute to deficit reduction and (therefore) be “pro-growth.”
  6. But “pro-growth tax policy” is a longer-term goal focused on mainly the supply side of the economy; we cannot immediately raise tax burdens in ways that would threaten putting our economy back in recession (by reducing demand for goods and services too severely).

But I also heard some remaining sources of disagreement between Feldstein and Summers, which are probably indicative of where “stumbling blocks” to bipartisan tax reform remain:

  1. Beyond decreasing tax expenditures/broadening the income tax base, what are some other features essential to “pro-growth” tax policy? (i) Feldstein seems to favor continued low or even lower effective tax rates on capital income (more consistent with a consumption base), while Summers seems to favor reducing or eliminating the current preferential rates on capital gains and dividends (consistent with reducing tax expenditures under an income base); (ii) Feldstein would favor keeping marginal tax rates low across the income spectrum, including at the very top, while Summers would favor a return to higher rates at the top as necessary to restore fairness (greater progressivity) to the system; (iii) Summers explicitly said that effective (average) corporate income tax rates are too low, not too high, while Feldstein argues for corporate tax reform that is revenue-neutral at best with lower marginal tax rates on profits earned abroad; (iv) Feldstein would probably argue for a lower upper bound on overall revenues/GDP than Summers would, as consistent with the “pro-growth” goal.
  2. Beyond deficit reduction, what is needed to grow the economy’s “supply side?” Feldstein would probably argue for working toward smaller government in scale and scope, while Summers clearly stated that pro-growth tax reform is (necessary but) “not sufficient” to address our nation’s growth needs, because we have “under-invested” in many things.  Beyond raising national saving by reducing the deficit, Summers believes government should more directly help the economy invest more in education, infrastructure, the environment, health care, etc.–the components of the productive capacity of the economy.  He stated that such public investments are a necessary complement to fiscal sustainability in a “pro-growth” fiscal agenda.  (And immediately, Summers emphasized that continued stimulus-type policies, to keep demand for goods and services up, are still necessary–although Feldstein did not disagree with this.)

The conversation between Feldstein and Summers is a good indicator of the potential for achieving bipartisan tax reform consistent with not just “growth” goals but fairness and fiscal responsibility goals as well.  The broad contours of the common ground are indeed well “grounded,” but some of the remaining points of disagreement might be significant-enough stumbling blocks to make meeting halfway still challenging.

The Debt As National Security Threat–and What To Do About It

September 17th, 2012 . by economistmom

Please tune in (go online) to watch today’s event–the second in a series of off-the-Hill hearings with formerly on-the-Hill people designed to highlight bipartisan views on the debt problem and how to solve it.  It will be live-streamed starting at 12:30 pm (going until around 3:30).  Today we hear from:

PANEL ONE

National Security Implications of America’s Debt

Featuring:

Robert Gates
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense (via Satellite)

Michael Mullen
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

PANEL TWO

The Bipartisan Plans to Address the Situation

Featuring:

Erskine Bowles
Former White House Chief of Staff; Co-chair, National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (via Satellite)

Pete Domenici
Former U.S. Senator (R-NM); Senior Fellow and Co-Chair, Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force

Alan Simpson
Former U.S. Senator (R-WY); Co-chair, National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (via Satellite)

Alice Rivlin
Former Director of the White House
Office of Management and Budget; Co-chair, Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force

The opening session of this “Strengthening of America” initiative–a joint one sponsored by The Concord Coalition, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and others–was held last Wednesday, at which former Treasury secretaries James Baker and Robert Rubin spoke.  Here’s a blog post by Concord’s Steve Winn summarizing that hearing.

Moody’s New Warning: No Secrets, No Surprise

September 13th, 2012 . by economistmom

On Tuesday of this week, the credit rating agency Moody’s issued this warning (emphasis added):

New York, September 11, 2012 — Budget negotiations during the 2013 Congressional legislative session will likely determine the direction of the US government’s Aaa rating and negative outlook, says Moody’s Investors Service in the report “Update of the Outlook for the US Government Debt Rating.”

If those negotiations lead to specific policies that produce a stabilization and then downward trend in the ratio of federal debt to GDP over the medium term, the rating will likely be affirmed and the outlook returned to stable, says Moody’s.

If those negotiations fail to produce such policies, however, Moody’s would expect to lower the rating, probably to Aa1.

Moody’s views the maintenance of the Aaa with a negative outlook into 2014 as unlikely. The only scenario that would likely lead to its temporary maintenance would be if the method adopted to achieve debt stabilization involved a large, immediate fiscal shock—such as would occur if the so-called “fiscal cliff” actually materialized—which could lead to instability. Moody’s would then need evidence that the economy could rebound from the shock before it would consider returning to a stable outlook.

What does Moody’s know that the rest of us don’t?  Nothing.  Should this shock us?  Not if the fiscal news thus far hasn’t already shocked us.

As Ezra Klein explains:

…Moody’s doesn’t have access to secret documents about the budget of the United States of America. They don’t know hidden facts about the country’s finances, or the willingness of the two political parties to come to a deficit-reduction deal. Moreover, the finances of the United States are better known and more widely discussed than the finances of any country or corporation in the entire world. Moody’s has no particular comparative advantage here. Its assessment of the federal government’s solvency is no more credible than the assessments made every day by think tanks, pundits, academics, reporters, politicians, and dozens of others. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Moody’s warning is simple… If those [budget] negotiations fail [to produce policies that stabilize the debt, the U.S. credit rating] will probably be knocked down by one notch.

And why shouldn’t it be? How many times should the American political system be permitted to fail to accomplish its stated aims before we begin concluding that there’s something structurally wrong in American politics that needs to be priced into our predictions of how well Washington will manage its budget going forward? How many times should one party in Congress be permitted to threaten that it will force the country to default on debts that it could pay before investors begin wondering whether the United States is as responsible a borrower as they believed it was prior to this kind of continuous brinksmanship?

As I had discussed with former Moody’s analyst Marc Joffe, in this Concord blog post and video, the really-low interest rates on U.S. Treasuries don’t seem to line up with what seems to be the not-so-safe-and-getting-riskier quality of the U.S. national debt.  Warnings from rating agencies like S&P and Moody’s just reinforce the implicit warnings that have been contained within the not-as-dramatic budget reports for years.  But might rating-agency warnings and downgrades have more impact than a CBO report in terms of affecting market interest rates?

Is Moody’s just making mischief?  As Ezra reminds us, the officials in charge of our country’s borrowing aren’t too fond of statements or actions that make it more expensive for the U.S. to borrow:

There tends to be a backlash when credit-ratings agencies take aim at the United States. When Standard & Poor’s began threatening a downgrade, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner snapped that handicapping political debates in Washington was not their “comparative advantage.”

But isn’t Moody’s just being fair and objective–as objective as one can be in analyzing our dysfunctional political system?  Well, yes–and in fact, as Ezra notes (emphasis added):

insofar as credit-rating agencies like Moody’s are wrong about Congress’s ability to make responsible fiscal decisions going forward, my worry isn’t that they’re being overly pessimistic. It’s that they still don’t understand how bad things have gotten.

Bill Clinton: Not a “Blood Bath”–Just Good Math

September 6th, 2012 . by economistmom

There’s no one quite like Bill Clinton to talk about how to achieve fiscal responsibility. He’s the master in terms of both the politics and the substance–or “mathematics” as he calls it. From the transcript of his speech:

[D]emocracy does not…have to be a blood sport, it can be an honorable enterprise that advances the public interest…

Now, we all know that [Obama]…tried to work with congressional Republicans on health care, debt reduction and new jobs. And that didn’t work out so well. (Laughter.) But it could have been because, as the Senate Republican leader said in a remarkable moment of candor two full years before the election, their number one priority was not to put America back to work; it was to put the president out of work…

In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s re-election was actually pretty simple — pretty snappy. It went something like this: We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough. So fire him and put us back in. (Laughter, applause.)

Now — (cheers, applause) — but they did it well. They looked good; the sounded good. They convinced me that — (laughter) — they all love their families and their children and were grateful they’d been born in America and all that — (laughter, applause) — really, I’m not being — they did. (Laughter, applause.)

And this is important, they convinced me they were honorable people who believed what they said and they’re going to keep every commitment they’ve made. We just got to make sure the American people know what those commitments are — (cheers, applause) — because in order to look like an acceptable, reasonable, moderate alternative to President Obama, they just didn’t say very much about the ideas they’ve offered over the last two years.

They couldn’t because they want to the same old policies that got us in trouble in the first place. They want to cut taxes for high- income Americans, even more than President Bush did. They want to get rid of those pesky financial regulations designed to prevent another crash and prohibit future bailouts. They want to actually increase defense spending over a decade $2 trillion more than the Pentagon has requested without saying what they’ll spend it on. And they want to make enormous cuts in the rest of the budget, especially programs that help the middle class and poor children.

As another president once said, there they go again. (Laughter, cheers, applause.)…

Now, let’s talk about the debt. Today, interest rates are low, lower than the rate of inflation. People are practically paying us to borrow money, to hold their money for them.

But it will become a big problem when the economy grows and interest rates start to rise. We’ve got to deal with this big long- term debt problem or it will deal with us. It will gobble up a bigger and bigger percentage of the federal budget we’d rather spend on education and health care and science and technology. It — we’ve got to deal with it.

Now, what has the president done? He has offered a reasonable plan of $4 trillion in debt reduction over a decade… for every $2 1/2 trillion in spending cuts, he raises a dollar in new revenues — 2 1/2-to-1. And he has tight controls on future spending. That’s the kind of balanced approach proposed by the Simpson-Bowles Commission, a bipartisan commission.

Now, I think this plan is way better than Governor Romney’s plan. First, the Romney plan failed the first test of fiscal responsibility. The numbers just don’t add up. (Laughter, applause.)

I mean, consider this. What would you do if you had this problem? Somebody says, oh, we’ve got a big debt problem. We’ve got to reduce the debt. So what’s the first thing you say we’re going to do? Well, to reduce the debt, we’re going to have another $5 trillion in tax cuts heavily weighted to upper-income people. So we’ll make the debt hole bigger before we start to get out of it.

Now, when you say, what are you going to do about this $5 trillion you just added on? They say, oh, we’ll make it up by eliminating loopholes in the tax code.

So then you ask, well, which loopholes, and how much?

You know what they say? See me about that after the election. (Laughter.)

I’m not making it up. That’s their position. See me about that after the election.

Now, people ask me all the time how we got four surplus budgets in a row. What new ideas did we bring to Washington? I always give a one-word answer: Arithmetic. (Sustained cheers, applause.)

If — arithmetic! If — (applause) — if they stay with their $5 trillion tax cut plan — in a debt reduction plan? — the arithmetic tells us, no matter what they say, one of three things is about to happen. One, assuming they try to do what they say they’ll do…cover it by…cutting those deductions, one, they’ll have to eliminate so many deductions, like the ones for home mortgages and charitable giving, that middle-class families will see their tax bills go up an average of $2,000 while anybody who makes $3 million or more will see their tax bill go down $250,000. (Boos.)

Or, two, they’ll have to cut so much spending that they’ll obliterate the budget for the national parks, for ensuring clean air, clean water, safe food, safe air travel. They’ll cut way back on Pell Grants, college loans, early childhood education, child nutrition programs, all the programs that help to empower middle-class families and help poor kids. Oh, they’ll cut back on investments in roads and bridges and science and technology and biomedical research.

That’s what they’ll do. They’ll hurt the middle class and the poor and put the future on hold to give tax cuts to upper-income people who’ve been getting it all along.

Or three, in spite of all the rhetoric, they’ll just do what they’ve been doing for more than 30 years. They’ll go in and cut the taxes way more than they cut spending, especially with that big defense increase, and they’ll just explode the debt and weaken the economy. And they’ll destroy the federal government’s ability to help you by letting interest gobble up all your tax payments.

Don’t you ever forget when you hear them talking about this that Republican economic policies quadrupled the national debt before I took office, in the 12 years before I took office — (applause) — and doubled the debt in the eight years after I left, because it defied arithmetic. (Laughter, applause.) It was a highly inconvenient thing for them in our debates that I was just a country boy from Arkansas, and I came from a place where people still thought two and two was four. (Laughter, applause.) It’s arithmetic.

We simply cannot afford to give the reins of government to someone who will double down on trickle down. (Cheers, applause.) Really. Think about this: President Obama — President Obama’s plan cuts the debt, honors our values, brightens the future of our children, our families and our nation. It’s a heck of a lot better.

It passes the arithmetic test, and far more important, it passes the values test. (Cheers, applause.)

Key Questions to Ask the Candidates (About Fiscal Policy)

August 27th, 2012 . by economistmom

Just released by the Concord Coalition, this good reading material for the start of the back-to-back conventions.  The intro to the document explains:

With the federal budget running annual deficits in excess of one trillion dollars, and many official and unofficial sources warning that current fiscal policies are not sustainable, it is vital that voters in 2012 demand realistic solutions from the candidates.

The fiscal challenges ahead are not a simple matter of too much “pork” or too many tax “loopholes.”

Our nation is undergoing an unprecedented demographic transformation against the backdrop of rising health care costs and falling national savings. It is an ominous combination for our economic future.

The retirement of the baby boomers, which began  in 2008, is ushering in a permanent shift to an older population — and a permanent rise in the cost of programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which already comprise 42 percent of the federal budget.

There is no plan to pay for it all other than running up the national debt. Some say that our political system only responds to a crisis. If that turns out to be true, we’re in big trouble.

Current budget projections are dominated by two factors: demographics and health care costs.

The Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds project that the number of Americans aged 65 and older will increase by almost 80 percent by 2035. In contrast, the working age population will grow by only 12 percent. This alone will strain the economy and budgetary resources.

Demographic change, however, is only part of the problem. For the past 40 years health care spending has consistently grown faster than the economy. If the same growth rate continues over the next 40 years, Medicare and Medicaid will absorb nearly as much of our nation’s economy as the entire federal budget does today.

No one can say exactly when a crisis will hit, but by the time it does the economy would likely be burdened with a debilitating amount of debt — leaving painful benefit cuts and steep tax increases as the only options. Doing nothing now to avoid this would be an act of fiscal and generational irresponsibility.

Key Questions Voters Should Ask Candidates

The following questions provide a framework for ensuring that candidates address some of the toughest choices they will face concerning the federal budget if they are elected. Background information is given to provide context and to help with follow-up questions, which should be asked whenever a candidate’s answer appears incomplete.

Read on for the actual questions and background material, and be well prepared to decipher the candidates’ responses to implicit or explicit questions like these that may come up on the campaign trail and at the debates.  Who knows–maybe at least one of you out there will even have a chance to ask a candidate one of these questions directly!

The 10-Year Fiscal Outlook Is a Story About Tax Policy Choices

August 22nd, 2012 . by economistmom

cbo-baselines-tax-vs-spending-aug2012

The Congressional Budget Office released their latest budget and economic outlook today, and although the basic messages are not really new, they do show some new ways of presenting their numbers that help reinforce those basic messages.

First, Figure 1-1 above, from page 3 of the report, highlights the difference between deficits under the current-law baseline (the bottom segment of the deficit bars) and deficits under the CBO’s “alternative fiscal scenario” where scheduled spending cuts are bypassed and expiring tax cuts are extended.  What’s clear from this chart is that:

  1. while current law produces economically-sustainable deficits (meaning deficits as a share of GDP that are lower than the growth rate of the economy), the alternative scenario produces hugely unsustainable deficits;
  2. it is choices over tax policy, not spending policy, that account for the bulk of the difference between the two policy scenarios within the 10-year budget window;
  3. by the end of the 10-year budget window, the additional interest payments alone associated with the extra deficit-financed policies under the alternative scenario swamp the entire deficit under the current-law baseline.  (Interest payments swell because: (i) the big difference between the scenarios starts immediately, (ii) interest compounds, and (iii) interest rates rise significantly over the 10-year window.)

Second, in Table 1-5 of the report (pages 18-19), a table showing the “budgetary effects of selected policy alternatives  not included in CBO’s baseline,” this year CBO offers a comparison of the cost of extending all the expiring Bush tax cuts (and continuing the related alternative minimum tax relief) with the cost of extending all but the upper bracket rate cuts.  The cost of extending all the tax cuts is $4.5 trillion over ten years.  The cost of extending all but the top bracket cuts is $3.7 trillion over ten years.  (Both costs are without associated interest costs.)  In other words, allowing the upper brackets to expire saves only about $800 billion out of $4.5 trillion–or just 18 percent of the total cost.  In other words, change the choice to extend the tax cuts to one extending just the “middle-class” tax cuts, and you only shave less than one fifth from the tax policy segments in the chart above, and policymakers would still be choosing to deviate quite substantially from the current-law baseline by extending and deficit-financing those tax cuts.  Based on the (over-)dramatic, political mud-slinging over the two parties’ tax policy positions, one would think there was a much bigger difference between extending the tax cuts “for the rich” and not.  (One big reason: the “not” isn’t really a “not,” because upper-income households still benefit the most, in dollar terms, from the lower-bracket rate reductions.)

By the way, it’s the data in Table 1-5 that the Concord Coalition uses to construct our “plausible baseline”–which I have emphasized before is not necessarily a statement of what is most likely to happen, but what is at least very “plausible” (possible, believable) from a “business as usual” perspective.  Concord’s updated plausible baseline, based on the updated CBO numbers, can be found here.

Third, Table 2-2 in the CBO report, on page 37 in the economic outlook chapter, makes an interesting comparison of the economic effects of the two different baselines at the beginning of the 10-year budget window (2013) and at the end (2022).  Because the alternative fiscal scenario involves higher deficits throughout, in 2013 GDP growth is higher and unemployment is lower, compared with the current-law baseline, because of the benefits of the continued stimulus to the demand side of the still-recovering economy.  But by 2022, GDP growth is lower and interest rates are higher under the alternative fiscal scenario, because of the longer-term economic cost associated with the higher debt and lower national saving.  This is a useful reminder that while the particular timing of the “fiscal cliff” (and sticking to current law, literally, over the next year) is problematic for the current economy, this shouldn’t rule out achieving the same amount of deficit reduction over the 10-year window that is implied by the current-law baseline.  (I’ve made this point before, and I’ll make it again and again until policymakers address the fiscal cliff appropriately.)

Don’t Talk About Offsets on the Campaign Trail: Part 2

August 15th, 2012 . by economistmom
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Paul Ryan’s Bipartisan Appeal
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

The Daily Show segment above and Ruth Marcus’ column in today’s Washington Post emphasize that, gee, the Romney-Ryan Medicare reform approach–no matter that the GOP team is still trying to define/refine it–is not that different from “Obamacare.”  As Ruth explains:

The Republican National Committee chairman says President Obama has “blood on [his] hands” for cutting Medicare. Mitt Romney blasts the president for having “robbed” the program of $700 billion.

Vice President Biden accuses Romney and running mate Paul Ryan of “gutting” Medicare. And, inevitably, President Obama warned that Romney-Ryan would “end Medicare as we know it.”

Aren’t you glad we’re having a sober policy discussion about how to rein in entitlement spending?

Such hyperbole was inevitable. The laws of political gravity drag every debate from the lofty realm of ideas to the grungy plain of invective. The more complex and weighty the issue, the more it is at risk of being distilled — distorted — into a 30-second caricature.

Let’s pause for a bit of fact-checking.

The cheeky response to the critique of Obama’s Medicare cuts is that Ryan assumes those very cuts in his budget — the one passed by the House and endorsed as “marvelous” by Romney. So there are robbers galore and blood to spread around.

The slightly less cheeky response is to say: Aren’t these the people who have been screaming about Medicare bankrupting the country? Shouldn’t they be praising cuts, not denouncing them?

The on-the-merits response is that the cuts — more accurately, reductions in the rate of growth — involve lower reimbursements to hospitals and nursing homes, reduced payments to insurers, higher premiums for better-off beneficiaries, and savings from reforms such as lower hospital readmissions.

In other words, Grandma might lose her free eyeglasses, but her basic benefits remain untouched.

So what are the candidates blaming each other about?  In essence, it’s the exact same part of their largely-the-same overall proposals: the part that saves money. The Democrats demonstrate this by showing Grandma being pushed off a cliff by the Republicans.  The Republicans characterize this as the Democrats throwing the $700 billion off the cliff–”robbing” it from the Medicare program (and the very same Grandma!) and “wasting” that money.

It’s part 2 of “don’t talk about saving money” lesson on the campaign trail–part 1 being the lesson I’m afraid Romney got on his tax reform approach once the implied details of a base-broadening offset were spelled out by the Tax Policy Center.  My point on that lesson (summarized best in my Concord version of the blog post) was that the lesson for Romney should have been for him to pare back his tax-cutting plans and make any offsets more progressive–rather than for him to rethink paying for the policy at all.

But any policy talk that honors the inevitable budget constraints–that there’s no such thing as a free tax cut or spending program–paints an easy target for a candidate.  The offset or “pay for” always involves a spending cut or a revenue (tax) increase, at least relative to a not-paid-for baseline, and instead of leading to a healthy debate about the different ways to reform our tax and spending programs in fiscally responsible ways, it leads to attacks on the other side for even suggesting their version of the “fiscally responsible” part–no matter how similar it actually is to one’s own fiscally responsible part!

This is how it’s going to go through the November election.  Expect the candidates to get looser and looser about the “fiscally responsible” pieces of their policy proposals.  Expect them to spell out only the goodies, not how they would pay for the goodies.  For voters to be able to see past the rhetoric and understand the real substance of the differences between the two presidential candidates’ policy positions, we’re going to need constant translations from people like Ruth and Jon Stewart, I guess.

Let’s Hit the “Reset” Button on the Bush Tax Cuts

July 12th, 2012 . by economistmom

reset_button2

Bill Gale is very wise in this CNN opinion piece.  He reminds us that policymakers continue to treat the Bush tax cuts with far more love than they deserve:

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama proposed to extend the Bush-era income tax cuts, which expire at the end of this year, for one year for people with income below $250,000. People with higher income would continue to receive all of the benefits of lower taxes on their first $250,000 of income, but the tax rate they face on income above that amount would rise.

One might wonder why we need more tax cuts, given that the Congressional Budget Office just released a study showing that tax burdens as a share of income for almost all households were the lowest in 2009 that they have been in decades and given that we face a long-term deficit problem that will require more revenues over time.

Given that the Bush tax cuts (whether all of them or even just most of them that President Obama has always wanted to continue and deficit finance) have proven unimpressive in terms of either short-term stimulus (they aren’t steered enough toward cash-constrained households) or longer-term, supply-side growth (the large deficits they cause mean national saving falls), Bill recommends this strategy (emphasis added):

A better way to stimulate the economy and move the broader debate forward would be to let all of the Bush tax cuts expire as scheduled and be considered as part of a broader tax reform and medium-term deficit reduction effort, and institute instead an explicitly temporary cut, again a payroll tax cut comes to mind.

This “reset” option strikes me as a good idea.  It would finally align the current-law and policy-extended revenue baselines, and force policymakers who really want to continue these costly tax cuts to either offset their cost (such as by broadening the tax base by reducing tax expenditures) or defend their deficit financing (harder once they’re no longer status quo).  Also, hitting the “reset” button makes getting rid of the Bush tax cuts perfectly consistent with Grover Norquist’s “No New Taxes” pledge (yes, really!), because: (i) letting current-law play out and the Bush tax cuts expire is not legislating a tax increase; and (ii) if policymakers then choose (even if fairly immediately and retroactively) to reenact the Bush tax cuts and offset their cost with base-broadening or other revenue increases (avoiding the status quo deficit financing), this would just be a revenue-neutral legislative action–also not a violation of the Grover pledge.

Sounds like a good plan to me!

Just a “Tax”

June 29th, 2012 . by economistmom

I find it kind of funny that, in the end, what saved President Obama’s health care reform law was to go ahead and call a tax (the crucial cost-controlling provision previously known as a “mandate”), a “tax.” From the Washington Post’s Robert Barnes (emphasis added):

At the core of the legislation is the mandate that Americans obtain health insurance by 2014.

The high court rejected the argument, advanced by the Obama administration, that the individual mandate is constitutional under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Before Thursday, the court for decades had said it gave Congress latitude to enact economic legislation.

But Roberts found another way to rescue it. Joined by the court’s four liberal justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — he agreed with the government’s alternative argument, that the penalty for refusing to buy health coverage amounts to a tax and thus is permitted.

Roberts summed up the split-the-difference decision: “The federal government does not have the power to order people to buy health insurance,” he wrote. “The federal government does have the power to impose a tax on those without health insurance.”

Later in the Post story, Justice Kennedy explains that the basic problem was that Congress (and implicitly the Obama Administration as well) wouldn’t call a tax a “tax” (bold added):

Kennedy said Roberts and the justices who joined him rewrote the statute in order to save it.

“The act requires the purchase of health insurance and punishes violation of that mandate with a penalty,” Kennedy said. “But what Congress called a ‘penalty,’ the court calls a tax. What Congress called a ‘requirement,’ the court calls an option. .?.?. In short, the court imposes a tax when Congress deliberately rejected a tax.”

It’s seems rather ironic to me that the authors of the health care legislation avoided the term “tax” to make the policy seem more acceptable to the American public–and in the process called its constitutionality into question.  Politicians work so hard to avoid that dirty word–as I’ve noted previously in different contexts.  Yet, taxing is one of the most appropriate things the federal government can do; it is essential in order to fund the public goods and services (such as “affordable [health] care”) that it provides.

Who knows what other things we might be able to accomplish by embracing the federal government’s taxing authority?!

(PS:  Here’s the Concord Coalition’s reaction to the decision.)

A Longer-Term View of the “Cliff”

June 5th, 2012 . by economistmom

cbo-long-term-outlook-cover-graphic-june2012

The Congressional Budget Office released its latest estimates of the long-term federal budget outlook today.  The graphic above comes from the report’s cover.  If you are familiar with the report, this year’s offers nothing that new, but it’s a good way to take a step back from current policy debates (dominated by the politics) and put impending decisions in the context of the bigger picture (important for the economics).  The biggest difference between the unsustainable deficits resulting from the business-as-usual “extended alternative fiscal scenario,” and the sustainable deficits that would occur under the “extended baseline scenario” (current law), continues to be–as it has ever since 2001 when the Bush tax cuts were first passed–what we do about expiring tax cuts.  From Table 1-2 in the report (page 12), under the “baseline”/current-law scenario where expiring tax cuts either actually expire or are extended but paid for with offsetting revenue increases, revenues grow from 15.8 percent of GDP in 2012 to 23.7 percent of GDP in 2037.  If instead the expiring tax cuts are extended and deficit financed (as has been standard practice since 2001), revenues only reach 18.5 percent of GDP in 2037–which happens to be right around the 40-year historical average policymakers who don’t want to raise taxes like to label the “right” level of revenues for the future.  Comparing primary deficits (the difference between revenues and non-interest spending), the CBO table and graphic show that the 2037 deficit is 7.7 percent of GDP under business as usual, but is a primary surplus of 1.1 percent of GDP under current law.  This implies that nearly 60 percent of the difference between the unsustainable deficits under business as usual and the sustainable ones under current law (or paygo-compliant extended policies) is explained by the financing of expiring tax cuts.  Only about 40 percent of the difference is explained by the difference in spending paths under the CBO’s two scenarios.  And if you look in further detail at the spending breakdown, you might notice that despite the major contribution of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security spending to  federal spending growth over the next several decades, the difference between the CBO’s two scenarios on these spending levels in 2037 is just 0.8 percent of GDP–in contrast to the 5.2 percent of GDP difference in revenue levels.

This just reminds me that the current debate over what to do about the “fiscal cliff” is not irrelevant, even if somewhat misguided.  The “fiscal cliff” is also largely about the expiring tax cuts, representing one possible way of making them comply with current law: let current law play out, literally, and let all the tax cuts expire at the end of this year–the Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax cut, AMT relief, everything!–along with letting the spending cuts of the “sequester,” and other cuts like those to Medicare physician payments, kick in as well.  The emphasis on this particular version of sticking to the current-law baseline is misguided because it makes it seem as if the choice is between the “cliff” in full form (which seems dangerous and not very smart given the state of the economy) and no cliff or fiscal restraint at all.  If that is the debate, it is easy to predict that “not at all” will win in the end (at the end of the year).  The CBO report in the context of the fiscal cliff debate is very relevant, however, in reminding us that current law offers us a path to longer-term fiscal sustainability–at least over the next couple decades–which we ought to be considering more seriously beyond the “take the cliff now–or not” question.  I’ve repeatedly harped on the point that sticking to the current-law baseline levels of revenues and spending (and even keeping the two sides of the ledger separate) doesn’t have to mean literally sticking to current law and that very particular composition and timing of the expiring tax cuts.  We could achieve sustainable deficits by sticking to strict pay-as-you-go rules on expiring tax cuts.  We do not have to let all the expiring tax cuts actually expire; we just have to be willing to pay for them over the next ten years.  Spreading out the timing of the revenue increase (and the spending cuts) could turn the fiscal “cliff” in current law into that more manageable “climb” towards fiscal sustainability I’ve talked about before–an admittedly tough climb, but one we cannot keep avoiding forever.

***UPDATE, 3:15 pm:  Here’s a link to the Concord Coalition’s press release on the CBO report.

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