Should we subsidize college educations?

“According to a national report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (sheeo.org), high school graduates earn an average of almost $30,000 per year. Bachelor’s graduates earn an average of just over $50,000 a year. And those with a higher level degree (master’s, doctorate or professional) average nearly $70,000 per year. This translates to a significant earnings gap over the course of one’s life.” https://www.educationcorner.com/benefit-of-earning-a-college-degree.html “According to the SSA, the average wage in 2017 was $48,251.57.” https://wallethacks.com/average-median-income-in-america/  Moreover, college graduates generally have more interesting and secure jobs.

Who should pay for those advantages? The students themselves, or their families, have often borrowed the money to cover their educational expenses. Currently they owe $1.6 trillion  “Here’s-what-trillion-student-loan-debt-is-doing-US-economy”. Democratic party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposes to cancel all of it. He would also make all public colleges and community colleges tuition free.

Is that a good idea? Is it fair and does it encourage or enable a better use of our human resources? A proper evaluation requires indicating who would pay for it if not the students themselves. From the above data we see that college graduates make a lot more than everyone else on average—almost double the income of high school graduates.

If the $1.6 trillion in education debt is cancelled, the burden of repaying it (most of it was lent by banks, often guaranteed by the government) will be shifted from the better off (students who will receive higher incomes in the future because of their college educations) to tax payers. Total tax collections by the federal government in 2018 were $3.3 trillion, half of which was income tax, 35% was payroll tax (social security) and only 6% was corporate income tax.  https://www.pgpf.org/budget-basics/who-pays-taxes

Senator Sanders says he will cancel all student debt within six months. Does he plan to cut spending on other programs by $1.6 trillion, a 36% cut, or to increase taxes by $1.6 trillion (the deficit for FY 2019 is already forecast to be $0.9 trillion), or some mix of these?  According to Charles Lane: “Sanders and other left-leaning Democrats promise to pay for tuition-free college and Medicare-for-all with higher taxes on the top 1 percent of earners. Most Nordic countries, by contrast, have zero estate tax. They fund generous programs with the help of value-added taxes that heavily affect middle-class consumers…. The Nordic countries tried direct wealth taxes such as the one that figures prominently in the plans of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); all but Norway abandoned them because of widespread implementation problems.”   “Democrats-use-Nordic-nations-as-models-of-socialism”

The Tax Policy Center “estimates that 69 percent of taxes collected for 2019 will come from those in the top quintile, or those earning an income above $157,900 annually. Within this group, the top one percent of income earners — those earning more than $783,300 in income per year — will contribute over a quarter of all federal revenues collected.”  Can we and should we try to squeeze even more out of them?

The effective federal tax rate for the top 1% income earners in 2018 was 29.6%, compared to 12.1% for the middle quartile of income earners and 2.9% for the bottom quartile (almost none of which was income tax). It is not obvious where the burden of this gift to the prospectively better off college grads will fall. But it seems to involve a lot of income transfers, which seem to sound nice to our new “socialists.”

 

Attorney General Barr’s News Conference

I, and everyone I know, want to know the facts of any collusion between Trump and his associates and Russia. I am confident that the Mueller investigation provides them as well as we could expect. Attorney General Barr’s news conference this morning summarizing that report was clear and transparent. He did an exemplary and impressive job. The complaints from some Democrats on the Hill that Barr should not have held this press conference until after they had read Mueller’s report were unfounded and frankly embarrassing. Please let’s move on.

My assessment of Trump’s administration today, which is what we should be debating, is very mixed. Adjusting and lightening the regulatory burdens that have been holding our economy back is largely good in my view (though each must be judged individually) as are the tax reforms making the system simpler and fairer. While the tax reforms did not go far enough, they were a big improvement over the existing tax law.

Trump’s attitude toward trade and the protection of inefficient American firms is ill informed and damaging to American’s economy as a whole (as opposed to coal and steel producers). His bullying and unilateral approach is clumsy, amateurish, and counterproductive. The EU, Canada, Japan and others would be happy to join us in confronting China’s bad trade behavior, if Trump were willing to work together and not busy attacking them as well.

I supported Trump’s campaign promises of restraint in deploying American troops around the world, but he has not delivered. His message to the Senate accompanying his veto of the bill passed by both houses of Congress (54-46 in the Senate and 247-175 in the House) a few weeks ago invoking the War Powers Resolution to end U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen reflects a truly shocking affront to our Constitution: “This resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future.”  The truth is just the opposite. The constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress and the almost blank check congress gave Presidents following 9/11 cannot meaningfully be stretched to include what we are doing in Yemen.

Trump continues to undercut and weaken American leadership in the international organizations and agreements that have contributed so much to post WWII peace and prosperity. This will be increasingly harmful to our and the world’s legitimate interests.

In his spare time, the President thoughtfully advised the French on fighting the fire in Notre Dame. What an embarrassment and fire experts say that his advice was wrong.

Please, let’s fight the real battles and stop wasting time on the phony ones.

Modern Monetary Theory—A Critique

So called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has become popular with Green New Dealers because it claims to remove or at least loosen traditional constraints on government spending.  MMT offers unconventional ideas about the origins of money, how money is created today, and the role of fiscal policy in the creation of money. It argues that government can spend more freely by borrowing or printing money than is claimed by conventional monetary theory. “The most provocative claim of the theory is that government deficits don’t matter in themselves for countries—such as the U.S.—that borrow in their own currencies….  The core tenets of MMT, and the closest it gets to a theory, are that the economy and inflation should be managed through fiscal policy, not monetary policy, and that government should put the unemployed to work.” James Mackintosh,  “What  Modern Monetary Theory Gets Right and Wrong’  WSJ April 2, 2019.

In fact, despite its efforts to change how we conceive and view monetary and fiscal policies, MMT abandons market based countercyclical monetary and fiscal policies for targeted central control over the allocation of resources. It would rely on specific interventions to address “road blocks” upon the foundation of a government guaranteed employment program.

MMT is an unsuccessful attempt to convince us that we can finance the Green New Deal and a federal job guarantee painlessly by printing money. But it remains true that shifting our limited resources from the private to the public sector should be judged by whether society is made better off by such shifts.  Printing money does not produce free lunches.

Where does money come from?

It has been almost 50 years since the U.S. dollar (or any other currency for that matter) has been redeemable for gold or any other commodity whose market value thus determined the value of money. It remains true, however, that money’s value depends on its supply given its demand. The supply of money these days reflects the decisions of the Federal Reserve and other central banks.

The traditional story for the fractional reserve banking world we live in is that a central bank issues base or high-powered money (its currency and reserve deposits of banks with the central bank) that is generally given the status of “legal tender.”  You must pay your taxes with this money.  We deposit some of that currency in a bank, which provides the bank with money it can lend. When the bank lends it, it deposits the loan in the borrower’s deposit account with her bank, thus creating more money for the bank to lend.  This famous money multiplier has resulted in a money supply much larger than the base money issued by the central bank. In July 2008, base money (M0) in the United States was $847 billion dollars while the currency component of that plus the public’s demand deposits in banks (M1) was almost twice that — $1,442 billion dollars. Including the public’s time and savings deposits and checkable money market mutual funds (M2) the amount was $7,730 billion.  [I am reporting data from just before the financial crisis in 2008 because after that the Federal Reserve began to pay interest on bank reserve deposits at the Fed in order to encourage them to keep the funds at the Fed rather than lending them and thus multiplying deposits. This greatly increased and distorted the ratio of base money to total money, i.e. reduced the multiplier. In October 2015 at the peak of base money M0 = $4,060 billion, of which only $1,322 billion was currency in circulation.]

The neo Chartalists, now known as MMTists, want us to look at this process differently.  In their view banks create deposits by lending rather than having to receive deposits before they can lend.  While a bank loan (an asset of the bank) is extended by crediting the borrower’s deposit account with the bank (a liability of the bank), the newly created deposit will almost immediately be withdrawn to pay for whatever it was borrowed for.  Thus, the willingness of banks to lend must depend on their expectations of being able to finance their loans from existing or new deposits, by borrowing in the interbank or money markets, or by the repayment of previous loans at an interest rate less than the rate on its loans.

The money multiplier version of this story assumes a reserve constraint, i.e., it assumes that the central bank fixes the supply of base money and bank lending and deposit creation adjust to that.  The MMT version reflects the fact that monetary policy these days targets interest rates leaving base money to be determined by the market.  Traditionally the Fed set a target for the over-night interbank lending rate—the so-called Fed Funds rate.  In order to maintain its target interest rate, the central bank lends or otherwise supplies to the market whatever amount of base money is needed to cover private bank funding needs at that rate.  The market determination of the money supply at a given central bank interest rate is, in fact, similar to the way in which the market determines the money supply under currency board rules under which the central bank passively supplies whatever amount of money the market wants at the fixed official price (exchange rate) of the currency.  With the Federal Reserve’s introduction of interest on bank reserve deposits at Federal Reserve Banks, including excess reserves (the so-called Interest On Excess Reserves – IOER), banks’ management of their funding needs for a given policy rate now involve drawing down or increasing their excess reserves.

According to MMT proponents, loans create deposits and repayment of loans destroys deposits.  This is a different description of the same process described by the money multiplier story, which focuses on the central bank’s control of reserves and base money rather than interest rates. It is wrong to insist that deposits are only created by bank lending and equally wrong to insist that banks can only lend after they receive deposits.

How is Base Money Produced?

MMT applies the same approach to the creation of base or high-powered money (HPM) by the government as it does to the creation of bank deposits by the private sector:

“It also has to be true that the State must spend or lend its HPM into existence before banks, firms, or households can get hold of coins, paper notes, or bank reserves…. The issuer of the currency must supply it first before the users of the currency (banks for clearing, households and firms for purchases and tax payments) have it. That makes it clear that government cannot sit and wait for tax receipts before it can spend—no more than the issuers of bank deposits (banks) can sit and wait for deposits before they lend.”[1]

This unnecessarily provocative way of presenting the fact that government spending injects its money into the economy and tax payments and t-bond sales withdraws it does not offer the free lunch for government spending that MMT wants us to believe is there. Central banks can finance government spending by purchasing government debt, but this does not give the Treasury carte blanche to spend without concern about taxes and deficit finance.  This is the core of MMT that we must examine carefully.

MMT claims that:

“(i) the government is not constrained in its spending by its ability to acquire HPM since the spending creates HPM….  Spending does not require previous tax revenues and indeed it is previous spending or loans to the private sector that provide the funds to pay taxes or purchase bonds….

“(iii) the government deficit did not crowd out the private sector’s financial resources but instead raised its net financial wealth.

“Regarding (iii), the private sector’s net financial wealth has been increased by the amount of the deficit. That is, the different sequencing of the Treasury’s debt operations does not change the fact that deficits add net financial assets rather than “crowding out” private sector financial resources.”[2]

MMT is correct that federal government spending does creates money. But what if the resulting increase in money exceeds the public’s demand (thus reducing interest rates), or the destruction of money resulting from tax payments or public purchases of government debt reduces money below the public’s demand (thus increasing interest rates)?  MMT claims to be aware of the risk of inflation and committed to stable prices (an inflation target) but ignore it most of the time.

If the central bank sets its policy interest rate below the market equilibrium rate, it will supply base money at a rate that stimulates aggregate demand. If it persists in holding short term interest rates below the equilibrium rate it will eventually fuel inflation, which will put upward pressure on nominal interest rates requiring ever increasing injections of base money until the value of money collapses (hyperinflation). If instead the central bank money’s price is fixed to a quantity of something (as it was under the gold standard, or better still a basket of commodities) and is issued according to currency board rules (the central bank will issue or redeem any amount demanded by the market at the fix price), arbitrage will adjust the supply so as to keep the market price and the official price approximately the same (for a detailed explanation see my: “Real SDR Currency Board”).  Unlike an interest rate target, a quantity price target is stable.

Does the Story Matter?

But does the MMT story of how money is created open the door for government to spend more freely and without taxation, either by borrowing in the market or directly from the central bank?  According to MMT, “One of the main contributions of Modern Money Theory (MMT) has been to explain why monetarily sovereign governments have a very flexible policy space that is unencumbered by hard financial constraints.  Not only can they issue their own currency to meet commitments denominated in their own unit of account, but also any self-imposed constraint on their budgetary operations can be by-passed by changing rules.”[3]

MMT maintains that: “Politicians need to reject the urge to ask ‘How are we going to pay for it?’…   We must give up our obsession with trying to ‘pay for’ everything with new revenue or spending cuts….  Once we understand that money is a legal and social tool, no longer beholden to the false scarcity of the gold standard, we can focus on what matters most: the best use of natural and human resources to meet current social needs and to sustainably increase our productive capacity to improve living standards for future generations.”[4]

MMT proclaims that a government that can borrow in its own currency “has an unlimited capacity to pay for the things it wishes to purchase and to fulfill promised future payments, and has an unlimited ability to provide funds to the other sectors. Thus, insolvency and bankruptcy of this government is not possible. It can always pay….  All these institutional and theoretical elements are summarized by saying that monetarily sovereign governments are always solvent, and can afford to buy anything for sale in their domestic unit of account even though they may face inflationary and political constraints.”[5] But inflating away the real value of obligations (government debt) is economically a default.  Moreover, debt cannot grow without limit without debt service costs absorbing the government’s entire budget and even the inflation tax has its hyperinflation limit (abandonment of a worthless currency).

MMT advocates do acknowledge that at some point idle resources will be used up and that this process would then become inflationary, but this caveat is generally ignored.  But if MMT is serious about an inflation constraint, we must wonder about their criticism of asking how government spending will be paid for.  In this regard MMT is a throwback to the old Keynesianism, which implicitly assumed a world of perpetual unemployment.

Is There a Free Lunch?

MMT states that when the government spends more than its income (and thus must borrow or print money) private sector wealth is increased “because spending to the private sector is greater than taxes drawn from the private sector, the private sector’s net financial wealth has increased.”  As explained below this deficit spending increases the private sector’s holdings of government securities, but not necessarily its net financial wealth.

Whether we take account of the future tax liabilities created by this debt in the public’s assessment of its net wealth (Ricardian equivalence) or not, we must ask where the public found the resources with which it bought the debt. Did it substitute T-bonds for corporate bonds, i.e. did the government’s debt (or monetary) financing of government spending crowd out private investment thus leaving private sector wealth unchanged, or did it come from reduced private consumption, i.e. increased private saving. Any impact on private consumption will depend on what government spent its money on.  MMT claims that “the government deficit did not crowd out the private sector’s financial resources but instead raised its net financial wealth,” is simply asserted and is unsupported.  Whether the shift in resources from the private sector to the public sector is beneficial depends on whether the value of the government’s resulting output is greater than is the reduced private sector output that financed it.

One way or another, government spending means that the government is commanding resources that were previously commanded by or could be commanded by the private sector.  If the government takes resources by spending newly created money that the central bank does not take back, prices will rise to lower its real value back to what the public wants to hold. This is the economic equivalent of the government defaulting on its debt, contrary to MMT’s claim that default is impossible.  This inflation tax is generally considered the worst of all taxes because it falls disproportionately on the poor.  In fact, MMT proponents rarely mention or acknowledge the distinction between real and nominal values that are, or should be, central to discussions of monetary policy. The exception to the inflationary impact of monetary finance is if the resources taken by the government were idle, i.e. unemployed, which, obviously, is the world MMT thinks it is in.

MMT claims to have exposed greater fiscal space than is suggested by conventional analysis. They claim that government can more freely spend to fight global warming or to fund guaranteed jobs or other such projects by printing (electronic) money. However, the market mechanism they offer for preventing such money from being inflationary (market response to an interest rate target that replaces unwanted money with government debt), implies that such spending must be paid for with tax revenue or borrowing from the public.  Both, in fact all three financing options (taxation, borrowing, and printing money), shift real resources from the private sector to the public sector and only make society better off if the value of the resulting output is greater than that of the reduced private sector output. There is nothing new here.

Fiscal Policy as Monetary Policy

Government spending increases M and the payment of taxes reduces it.  MMT wants to use taxation to manage the money supply rather than for government financing purposes.  MMT wants to shift the management of monetary policy from the central bank to the finance ministry (Treasury).  The relevant question is whether this way of thinking about and characterizing monetary and fiscal policy produces a more insightful and useful approach to formulating fiscal policy.  Does it justify shifting the responsibly for monetary policy from the central bank to the Finance Ministry?  Should taxes be levied so as to regulate the money supply rather than finance the government (though it would do that as well)?

In advocating this change, MMT ignores the traditional arguments that have favored the use of central bank monetary policy over fiscal policy (beyond automatic stabilizers) for stabilization purposes.  None of the challenges of the use of fiscal policy as a countercyclical tool (timing, what the money is spent for, etc.) established with traditional analysis have been neutralized by the MMT vision and claim of extra fiscal space.  In fact, as we will see below, despite their advocacy of fiscal over monetary policy for maintaining price stability, MMT supporters have little interest in and no clear approach to doing so as they prefer to centrally manage wages and prices in conjunction with a guaranteed employment program.

But the arguments against MMT are stronger than that. The existing arrangements around the globe (central banks that independently execute price stability mandates and governments that determine the nature and level of government spending and its financing) are designed to protect monetary stability from the inflation bias of politicians with shorter policy horizons (the time inconsistence problem). The universal separation of responsibilities for monetary policy and for fiscal policy to a central bank and a finance ministry are meant to align decision making with the authority responsible for the results of its decisions (price stability for monetary policy and welfare enhancing levels and distribution of government spending and its financing).  It is the sad historical experience of excessive reliance on monetary finance and the costly undermining of the value of currencies that resulted that have led to the world-wide movement to central bank independence.  MMT is silent on this history and its lessons.  As pointed out by Larry Summers in an oped highly critical of MMT, the world’s experience with monetary finance has not been good. Modern Monetary Theory-a-foolish-pursuit-for-democrats

The establishment of central bank operational independence in recent decades is rightly considered a major accomplishment.  MMT advocates bring great enthusiasm for more government spending—especially on their guaranteed employment and green projects, which will need to be justified on their own merits.  MMT’s way of viewing money and monetary policy adds nothing to the arguments for or against these policies.

The Bottom Line

To a large extent, most of the above arguments by MMT are a waste of our time as MMT advocates actually reject the macro fine tuning of traditional Keynesian analysis. “This approach of government intervention aims at avoiding direct intervention to achieve the goal (e.g. hiring to achieve full employment, or price controls to achieve low inflation), but rather using indirect “tools” while letting market participants push the economy toward desired goals by tweaking their incentives.  MMT does not agree with this approach. The government should be directly involved continuously over the cycle, by putting in place structural macroeconomic programs that directly manage the labor force, pricing mechanisms, and investment projects, and constantly monitoring financial developments….  But MMT goes beyond full employment policy as it also promotes capital controls for open economies, credit controls, and socialization of investment. Wage rates and interest rate management are also important.”[6]  No wonder Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is excited by MMT.

MMT attempts, unsuccessfully in my opinion, to repackage and resurrect the empirically and theoretically discredited Keynesian policies of the 1960s and 70s.  A 2019 survey of leading economists showed a unanimous rejection of modern monetary theory’s assertions that “Countries that borrow in their own currency should not worry about government deficits because they can always create money to finance their debt” and “Countries that borrow in their own currency can finance as much real government spending as they want by creating money.” http://www.igmchicago.org/surveys/modern-monetary-theory  Both the excitement and motivation for MMT seem to reflect the desire to promote a political agenda, without the hard analysis of its pros and cons—its costs and benefits.

****************************

[1] Fullwiler, Scott, Stephanie Kelton & L. Randall Wray (2012), ‘Modern Money Theory: A Response to Critics’, in Modern Monetary Theory: A Debate,  Modern Monetary Theory: A Debate, http://www.peri.umass.edu/fileadmin/pdf/working_papers/working_papers_251-300/WP279.pdf,  2012, page 19

[2] Ibid. page 22-23.

[3] Tymoigne and Wray, 2013 http://www.levyinstitute.org/publications/modern-money-theory-101

[4] Stephanie Kelton, Andres Bernal, and Greg Carlock, “We Can Pay For A Green New Deal” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-green-new-deal cost_n_5c0042b2e4b027f1097bda5b  11/30/2018

[5] Tymoigne and Wray, op cit. p. 2 and 5

[6] Ibid. pp. 44-45.

Trump and interest rates

There seems to be no norm or conventional wisdom that President Trump is not willing to overturn. Following Fed Chairman Powell’s congressional testimony Tuesday in which he confirmed the Fed’s intention to continue its gradual increase in its policy interest rate, Trump said: “I don’t like all of this work that we’re putting into the economy and then I see rates going up.”  The statement is wrong on multiple accounts.

The economy is now fully employed and interest rates probably should have been returned to normal some time ago.  The alarming current and projected fiscal deficits of the federal government will force interest rates and trade deficits still higher.  This is Trump’s fault– not Powell’s.  “Who pays uncle Sam’s deficits?”  The major policies threatening to undermine the economic boost from tax and regulatory reforms are Trump’s trade policies (pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, stalling and threatening U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA, Steel and Aluminum tariffs (taxes) on our friends in Canada, Mexico and the EU, and a deepening trade war with China).  Leaving the TPP  Resisting the interest rate increases needed to keep inflation at 2% would increase the most regressive tax around (inflation).

But Presidential interference in implementing monetary policy, as is now being undertaken by President Erdoğan in Turkey, violates a long established principle and practice of central bank independence.  Historically, inflation, which falls heaviest on the poor and undermines economic efficiency and growth, has resulted primarily from governments turning to their central banks for financing in misguided and ultimately futile efforts to keep interest rates (government borrowing costs) low.

President Trump can save the economic benefits of his tax and regulatory reforms by rejoining the TPP, rapidly concluding amendments to NAFTA that improve productive efficiency and fairness, dropping the steel and aluminum tariffs, ending the trade war with China, joining with the EU, Canada, Japan and others to bring China into compliance with the rules of a strengthened WTO, and establishing a fiscal budget surplus primarily through entitlement reform.

What is SALT really about?

Here is the proper way to understand the SALT issue—whether State and Local Taxes should be deducted from taxable income on which federal taxes are levied.

Assume that taxpayer 1 (Jack) in state A and taxpayer 2 (Mary) in state B both have earned incomes of $150,000 each. If Uncle Sam needs to raise $60,000 each year from its income tax and applies a flat tax on each taxpayers’ total income, it would need to impose a tax rate of 20% (150,000+150,000=300,000*0.2=60,000). Each taxpayer would pay $30,000 in federal taxes.

Assume that Jack chooses to buy an expensive car costing $100,000 while Mary makes a more frugal choice and buys a $40,000 car. No one would think that they should be allowed to deduct the cost of their cars from their incomes for purposes of their federal income tax, but what if they could? Jack would now have $50,000 in federally taxable income (150,000-100,000) while Mary would have taxable income of$110,000 (100,000-40,000). To raise the same $60,000 needed by the Feds, the federal tax rate would need to be increased to 37.5% (50,000+110,000=160,000*0.375=60,000). Of the $60,000 in federal tax revenue, Jack would pay $18,750 (50,000*0.375) and Mary would pay $41,250 (110*0.375). Not only does Jack get a better car but he also pays less taxes. In fact, this tax treatment subsidizes Jack’s expensive car to the amount of $11,250 (30,000-18,750). This is likely to lead Jack to buy a more expensive car than he would have chosen if spending only his own money. Clearly that would be neither fair nor economically efficient.

Replace “car” in the above example with “state government expenditures”. Jack may well choose to have (and pay the higher taxes to finance) more extensive state government services than does Mary. That is fine as long as you are free to choose whether you live in state A or state B. But should Mary be forced to pay (subsidize) some of Jack’s tastes for larger state government expenditures? Surely not, but that is exactly what allowing tax payers to deduct their SALT from their taxable income for federal tax purposes does. Eliminating that deduction would restore fairness and remove any artificial inducement for larger state expenditures. In this way, every one would be free to support the level of state spending they are willing to pay for.

SALT—More press nonsense on tax reform

The elimination of State and Local Tax (SALT) deductions from the proposed tax reforms working their way through Congress has become a hot topic. Fine, but please keep the discussion honest. Sadly my local newspaper, The Washington Post, is not setting a good example: “In-towns-and-cities-nationwide-fears-of-trickle-down-effects-of-federal-tax-legislation”

First a word about tax reform vs tax reduction. We are now in the 9th year of economic recovery, one of the longest on record. It won’t go on forever. Ideally the Federal government’s budget should balance its expenditures and revenue over the business cycle. That allows for aggregate demand stimulating deficits during business downturns. These deficits result from so called automatic stabilizers—the fall in tax revenue from the fall in taxable income plus increased transfer payments to the unemployed. But a cyclically balanced budget also requires budget surpluses during the business expansion phase. The U.S. economy is now fully employed (in fact, unfilled vacancies exceed those looking for work). The Federal Reserve has finally increased inflation to its target rate of 2%. We should now have budget surpluses to make room for the deficits that will follow during the upcoming downturn.

But our fiscal situation is much worse than that. The large increase in “entitlement” expenditures for my greedy generation as we retire (greatly increasing unfunded social security and health benefits) will push our fiscal debt held by the public, now at 77% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), to over 150% of GDP within 30 years if current laws remain unchanged. See the figure below.

Taxes will either need to be increased (not reduced) or entitlement expenditures reduced (which means increased less than current law provides). My point is that reducing tax revenue at this time is irresponsible without at least matching expenditure cuts. The proposed tax reforms now in congress would increase the debt by $1,500 billion dollars over the next ten years on a static forecast basis, meaning without taking into account the increased growth and thus tax revenue that might result from the tax reforms, which no one expects to wipe out all of the static forecast of $1,500 billion.

Fed debt      Congressional Budget Office forecasts

While it is irresponsible to cut tax revenue at this time, it is highly desirable to reform how that revenue is raised. The existing taxes distort the economy and thus reduce our incomes in a number of ways. They grant favors to many special interest groups via allowing them to deduct specific expenditures from their taxable incomes (i.e. from the tax base). These so called tax subsidies encourage activities over what the private economy would otherwise under take. One very damaging example is the deduction of interest payments by businesses and individuals, which has encouraged excessive borrowing and indebtedness. The most popular of these is the mortgage interest deduction by homeowners. This tax subsidy benefits homeowners relative to renters, i.e. it benefits the wealthier at the expense of the poor. How well meaning middle and upper income American’s can justify this with a straight face is beyond me.

But what about the SALT deductions? By eliminating such deductions, i.e. by broadening the tax base, the same revenue can be raised with a lower tax rate. Other things equal (such as revenue), lower tax rates are good because they influence taxpayer decisions less. For example, companies are more likely to invest in the U.S. rather than abroad if the corporate tax rate is reduced from its current 35%, virtually the highest in the world, to 20%, which is closer to the rate in most developed countries.

Reducing tax subsidies to state and local governments is also good because it reduces an artificial encouragement for larger state and local government expenditures. If Californians are willing to pay more state taxes for larger state expenditures they are welcome to do so. But there can be no justification for transferring federal tax revenue from states with lower expenditures and matching taxes to California and other high spending states. To a large extent the existing SALT deductions transfer income from poorer states to wealthier ones. Who can support that with a straight face?

How information is presented can have a significant effect on how it is understood or viewed. How did Renae Merle and Peter Jamison of The Washington Post (see link above) report the proposed elimination of the SALT deduction? They reported that, “In San Diego County, the elimination of what is commonly called the “SALT” deduction could affect about a third of households, said Greg Cox, a member of the board of supervisors. The average middle-income resident would lose a $16,000 deduction.” They failed to note that the third of households affected are the wealthiest third. According to CNBC: “More than half of taxpayers who are earning $75,000 and above claim SALT deductions on their federal income tax returns as do more than 90 percent of taxpayers who make $200,000 or more.”

share of SALT

Furthermore, the figure $16,000 is misleading in two respects. The loss of a $16,000 deduction would increase taxes for a single person earning $200,000 annually by $5,280 at the current tax rate of 33%. However, broadening the tax base by eliminating the SALT and other deductions allows raising the same revenue with a lower tax rate. To measure the actual tax impact both effects must be combined. Current congressional proposals are to reduce the rate for the above person to 25%, which would result in an increased tax of $4,000. None of this would affect the poor directly. I assume that Renae Merle and Peter Jamison were just careless rather than letting their biases get the best of them, but you can make your own judgment.

The SALT deduction cannot be justified on either economic or fairness grounds, but there is sadly a good chance congress will cave in to the pressure from the wealthier states to keep it or at least some of it.

 

 

 

Tax reform and the press

I have written several articles about the need for serious tax reform in the U.S. and set out the basic principles of good tax law accepted by most economists. “US Federal Tax Policy”, Cayman Financial Review, Issue 16, Third Quarter 2009. https://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/47/  Cayman Financial Review, July 2013

Taxing consumption is best, but if income is taxed, it should be broadly defined and taxed uniformly. Income tax reform should follow the mantra “broaden the base and lower the rate” for the revenue needed to finance whatever the government spends. The main dispute tends to focus on whether and how progressive the tax rate should be. I favor a flat rate as the fairest and simplest regime. This means that a person with twice the taxable income would pay twice the tax. Many others favor a progressive rate—a marginal tax rate that increases with income—, which means that someone with twice the taxable income might pay 3 or 4 times as much in taxes. In 2016 the “top 1%” by income paid over 50% of all federal income tax revenue collected and the top 20% paid 84%.

I raise this issue because any judgment of whether a reduction of the top U.S. marginal tax rate from its current 39.6% to 38.5%, as currently proposed by the U.S. Senate, increases or decreases the fairness of the system depends on whether you consider 39.6% fair or too high or too low. I consider it too high and a reduction to 38.5% too little, so I would say that the tax reform is unfair to the top income groups by not lowering the top tax rate enough. The press almost uniformly refers to any cut in the top rate as favoring the rich (rather than reducing discrimination against the rich).

But what prompted this note was the blatant bias reflected in the following Washington Post article that claims to report the winners and losers in the current Senate tax reform proposals. Winners-and-losers-in-the-Senate-GOP-tax-plan   In the losers column the article states the following for the poor:

“The poor. More than 70 million Americans don’t make enough money to have to pay federal income taxes. Many of those people currently receive money back from the government because they qualify for refundable credits. Under the Senate plan, those credits aren’t going away, but they also aren’t growing. On top of that, the plan raises America’s debt, which will likely require cost cuts somewhere down the line. Republicans have proposed sizable cuts in the past to some safety net programs used by the poor.”

According to the author of the article, Heather Long, the poor lose because they don’t gain anything!!! Seventy million of them don’t pay taxes to begin with so there is not much that tax reform can do to lower their taxes. The existing tax credit paid to these people will remain but is not increased. Thus Heather concludes that the poor are losers because they didn’t gain anything. I agree with Heather’s implicit objection to the plan’s increasing the federal government’s debt, but avoiding that would require higher taxes for someone and has nothing to do with making the poor worse off that I can see.

Any tax reform that is revenue neutral (unfortunately this one will increase the debt by 1.5 trillion dollars over ten years.) necessarily increases taxes for some while lowering them for others.  It should not be judged by whether it will result in President Trump paying more taxes or less, as some press would have it.  It should be judged by whether the resulting realignment of tax obligations is fairer and economically more efficient (neutral). Sadly it is rarely discussed in these terms.

Taxing the Wealthy

The administration has “backed a tax plan that analysts say would greatly benefit the wealthy.” I want to unpack that and take a closer look at what it might mean.

“The Trump tax plan drops the top bracket from 39.6 to 35 percent, and allows for the possibility of a 25 percent top rate through a pass-through entity.” The Washington Post Fact Checker

I want to explore two questions. Would the proposed income tax changes reduce the taxes paid by the average wealthy tax payer (say the top ten percent, who in 2016 paid 80% of all income taxes)? Would that be a good thing or a bad thing and in what ways should we judge that question?

To evaluate the impact on taxes paid by dropping the marginal tax rate from 39.5 to 35 percent we must also take into account the increase in taxable income resulting from broadening the tax base (eliminating some of the existing deductions from taxable income such as State and Local Taxes and interest paid on other than mortgage debt, etc). The conventional wisdom of tax reform is to lower the rates and broaden the base. This can be done in amounts that leave tax revenue unchanged (revenue neutral). Whether the wealthy pay more or less from the proposed modest drop in the tax rate will depend on how successful congress is in fighting off the special interest groups that will try to preserve their special interest deductions.

There are two other important considerations when evaluating the revenue impact of a rate cut. To the extent that lower marginal tax rates encourage greater investment, the economy will grow more than otherwise. This is an additional way in which the tax base is increased and with it the tax revenue generated from whatever the tax rate might be. While there is no case in which the economy grew fast enough to recover all of the revenue lost from cutting the rate, faster growth generally recovered some of it. But a bigger revenue boost can also come from the wealthy repatriating more of their income held abroad to be taxed in the U.S.

But let’s assume, all things considered, that lowering the marginal tax rate for the wealthy reduces the taxes they pay. Is that a good or a bad thing? Leaving aside the point above about increasing economic activity in the U.S., what should the standard of judgment be of what is fair? Obviously people with more income should pay more taxes but how much more? If current tax rates (and deductions) are unfairly high for the wealthy, then lowering them is a good thing. If they are unfairly low, they should be raised. In short, it is not necessarily appropriate to say that something that lowers the taxes paid by the wealthy is a bad thing. The core question is thus: what is our standard of fairness?

Tax burdens are generally discussed in relation to the share of ones income paid in taxes. Rather than comparing the fairness of a millionaire with an income of $5,000,000 paying $1,000,000 in taxes with the average American family income of $50,000 paying $10,000, we look at the tax burden in relation to the share of ones income paid in taxes. In the preceding example, both the millionaire and the average family are paying 20% of their incomes in taxes. In fact, the average share of income paid in taxes of the top 10% of income earners was almost 20% in 2012 while the bottom 50% (most of whom paid no federal income taxes) was 3.3%. A flat tax rate (same marginal rate for everyone), which means that a person with twice the income pays twice the tax, is my standard of fairness. Many others believe that it is fair for the rates to be progressive (higher marginal rate for higher incomes).

My point is that it is wrong to conclude that any reduction in the taxes paid by the wealthy is good or bad unless we have first agreed on the standard of fairness and whether existing tax payments exceed or fall below that standard.

It is important to note also that there are many other taxes that people pay. While most America families pay no federal income taxes, they do generally pay wage (social security) taxes, sales taxes, property taxes and other taxes. “The Principles of Tax Reform”

 

Next up: Tax Reform

Hopefully the tax reform law to be adopted by Congress in the coming months will closely resemble The Better Way Tax proposed outline by Congressmen Paul Ryan and Kevin Brady on June 24, 2016. Their plan would be revenue neutral (i.e., would raise the same revenue as existing income tax laws by a combination of a broadened tax base and lower marginal tax rates), and would dramatically simplify returns for both individuals and companies. It would remove many distortions in investment and resource allocation decisions and thus promote growth and fairness. It would include an incentive to repatriate the U.S. corporate profits held abroad, estimated in 2015 to be $2.6 trillion, and by basing taxes on income earned in the U.S., it would eliminate the tax minimization strategy of shifting production abroad.

Unlike tax systems in most other countries, both U.S. individual and corporate income taxes are currently source based, meaning broadly speaking that an American’s income is taxed on his or her income wherever it is earned. Even Americans living and earning income abroad pay U.S. income taxes on it. Similarly companies operating in the U.S. pay U.S. taxes on their income no matter where it is earned. However, it is not taxed until they bring it home. This unusual approach to taxation for companies operating globally has given rise to all kinds of strategies for reducing U.S. taxes by earning income in (or attributing it to) low tax jurisdictions.

Under the Better Way proposals business income will be taxed on a territorial or destination rather than source bases. In addition to removing a tax bias for debt financing (by eliminating the deduction of interest costs) and expensing capital investments rather than amortizing them over their estimated life, businesses will be taxed on the basis of their income from domestic sales only. Their so-called Destination Based Cash Flow Tax comes close to being a consumption tax (the gold standard tax bases among economists). https://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/47/  Cayman Financial Review, July 2013. A key feature of their proposal is that the tax would be levied on business revenue from domestic sales of goods and services and not on goods and services sold abroad. For domestic sales the tax would be the same whether they are imports or were produced domestically.

This would remove the existing tax subsidy for imports. As congressman Brady put it in a June 24, 2016 WSJ article: “And because ’Made in America’ products and services currently face a price disadvantage both at home and abroad, American exports will no longer be taxed, and imports will not be subsidized. Competition will occur on price, quality and service—rather than tax regimes.” “The GOP plan for tax sanity.” It would also remove the existing double taxation of exports, the income from which is now taxable as part of American business income and is taxed again at whatever rates apply in the country receiving them.

This is all very sensible and in fact the practice of most other countries that rely heavily on VATs (Value Added Taxes). Regrettably for public understanding, this proposed treatment has been dubbed a “Border Adjustment Tax” by which imports are taxed and exports are exempted from U.S. taxation. This sounds rather different, but it isn’t. It suggests punitive (protectionist) treatment of imports when in fact, as explained above, it gives imports the same tax treatment as received by domestically produced goods.

Some have argued that by removing the import subsidy (i.e. by taxing them at the same rate as domestically produced goods), American consumers of “cheap” imports will have to pay more. It is certainly true that subsidies encourage consumption in excess of a competitive market rate just as subsidizing debt (by deducting interest costs from taxable income) encourages excessive borrowing. So if people import less because they must pay more for such imports without their subsidy, resource allocation and economic efficiency will be improved. However, the reduced demand for foreign currency needed to pay for imports and the increased supply of those currencies to buy larger amounts of American exports are expected to appreciate the exchange rate of the dollar for these currencies. An appreciated exchange value of the dollar will reduce the cost of imports and increase the cost to foreigners of American exports. The impact on import and export prices of the “Border Adjustment Tax” and the resulting exchange rate adjustment are expected to approximately off set each other.

It is tempting for each affected group to evaluate the fairness of proposed tax reforms on the basis of whether it increases their taxes or lowers them (and thus increases someone else’s taxes). On that basis any tax change will always have proponents and opponents. The proper basis for judging a reform’s fairness is in relation to a broadly agreed concept of fairness. This calls for a John Rawlsian veil of ignorance, i.e., judging the fairness of a tax system without knowing in whose shoes you will stand.

There is much more to the prospective tax reform proposals, including unfortunately changes that might be made to buy off special interests affected one way or another, and it promises to be an interesting debate. I hope that it is more open and considered by all (Republicans and Democrats) than was the case for the now (temporarily) abandoned effort to reform Obamacare. And in the end I hope that something very close to the Better Way proposals of last year is adopted. The reality of a bipartisan approach to Tax reform is unfortunately unlikely under the current climate, but we can always hope and dream.