The Slippery Slope

Beyond defining and protecting property rights, most governments dip into the private market for one reason or another (e.g., national defense) to some extent.  In doing so, they reward (e.g., subsidize) or penalize (e.g., tax) specific firms and/or industries. These firms have a MUCH stronger incentive to protect their interests than do the general public with regard to these activities. As a result of this asymmetry, firms spend more (fight harder) to protect their privileges than do the general public to protect a fair and competitive marketplace. As a result of these incentives, government privileges tend to grow over time and are hard to reverse. Governments keep getting bigger and bigger. Worse yet, if taxes do not match these increases in government costs, i.e., if the government borrows to finance them, these asymmetric incentives are even stronger.

These realities are now being confronted by the Republican Party as it attempts to agree on which government budget items to cut in order to reduce the fiscal deficit without raising taxes. As Steve Clemons reported in this morning’s Semafor Principles: “When Speaker Kevin McCarthy only has four votes of wiggle room in passing GOP legislation, the corn caucus can be as powerful as the Freedom Caucus. After a proposed repeal of biofuels subsidies prompted a rebellion by Midwestern lawmakers, leadership is making changes to a bill they presented as non-negotiable”

The Chips Act of 2022 provides an even costlier example that will be almost impossible to get rid of. The Act provides $52 billion in manufacturing grants and research investments and establishes a 25% investment tax credit to incentivize semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S.”  It makes financially attractive what was on its own an inefficient and costlier way to acquire these produces than buying them abroad. It makes us poorer as do other “Buy American” requirements.

Especially now with a labor shortage (we should increase legal immigration), moving workers to subsidized areas means taking them away from producing what the market found more profitable. It reduces overall output and our standard of living. If we insist on producing our own tanks and airplanes for national security reasons, that is a cost we should probably bare.  But for 5G phone service, Tik Toc, steel from Canada, or whatever???? Tell your congressman to stop subsidizing these special interests. And if they are really justified by national security, pay the cost properly with tax revenue.

Keep it limited and keep it simple

The first and second rules of good government

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. We can never remind ourselves of this fact too often. As I have written many times, government by its very nature is a slippery slope. We need government and we need good and efficient government for a number of things that only governments can provide. But it is in the very nature of government that it naturally expands its scope and power unless prevented from doing so – over and over again. It is also in its very nature that it is relatively inefficient and slow moving because of the need for cumbersome checks and balances. Private enterprises are disciplined by the market (their need to profitably satisfy consumers). Governments are more difficult to monitor and keep honest. But we need them so some (hopefully limited and enumerated things) are properly assigned to government.

Government is especially difficult to keep in check the more it intrudes into activities in and of the private sector. This is a good reason for resisting such extensions in the first place. The repeated cycles of corrupting our tax code with special breaks for special groups provides but one example of the danger. After pretty much cleaning up the income tax in 1986, special interest favors gradually crept back in until now it is again a total mess. Economists continue to debate the best approach to taxation (see my summary: The-principles-of-tax-reform in the Cayman Financial Review July 2013), but they are generally agreed that a broad tax base with low or flat marginal rates is the most neutral (least distorting of the economy), efficient, and fair way to raise the money to pay for what the government does. In short, special tax brakes for specially groups are generally bad (watch a few episodes of the Netflex series House of Cards to get a feel for the problem).

I was brought back to this topic by a recent Washington Post article on proposals by Senator Ron Wyden, the new Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to restore all kinds of special favors to the tax code, basically ignoring the recent, laudable efforts of the House Ways and Means Committee, lead by Representative David Camp, to remove them and clean up our scandalous income tax law. “Senator to revive array of tax breaks”/2014/03/26/. Once a favor (tax break or subsidy) is extended to a special interest group it has a much stronger interest in defending it than the rest of us (the general tax payers) have in fighting it to take it away.

A few of Wydern’s proposals tell you all you need to know (once again, think House of Cards): “Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) plans Monday to unveil a proposal to temporarily extend the breaks, which include such popular policies as a credit for corporate research and development, an incentive for commuters who use mass transit and a special deduction for sales tax in states such as Florida and Texas, which do not tax income.

“Democratic aides said Wyden plans to ask the committee to vote separately on some of the more controversial provisions. For instance, senators will be asked whether to revive a much-maligned break to promote development at NASCAR racetracks, as well as a credit for the purchase of electric motorcycles and golf carts that barely survived a 2012 effort to weed out special-interest provisions.

“However, Democratic aides expect the entire list of temporary tax policies — known as “tax extenders” — to emerge intact from the committee, adding nearly $50 billion to this year’s budget deficit.”