The Third “Justification” for a Progressive Income Tax

Filed Under (Finance, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Aug 31, 2012

Here is the third in a series of blogs that I started on May 18.  The first was called “Why YOU may LIKE Government ‘Theft’”.  In it, I listed four possible justifications for government to act like Robin Hood, taking from the rich to give to the poor.  The point is to think about whether the top personal marginal tax rate really should be higher or lower than currently, as currently debated these days in the newspapers.

However, perhaps we should also remember what is wrong with government using high marginal tax rates to take from the rich in order to help the poor.  The problem is that a higher personal marginal tax rate distorts individual behavior, particularly labor supply and savings behavior, by discouraging work effort and investment.  Since those are good for the economy, high marginal tax rates are bad for the economy!  In fact, economic theory suggests that the “deadweight loss” from taxation may increase roughly with the square of the tax rate.  In other words, doubling a tax rate (e.g. from 20% to 40%) would quadruple the excess burden of taxes – the extent to which the burden on taxpayers exceeds the revenue collected.

The point is just that we face tradeoffs.  Yes, we have four possible reasons that we as a society may want higher tax rates on the rich in order to provide a social safety net, but we also have significant costs of doing so.  Probably somewhere in the middle might help trade off those costs against the benefits, but it’s really a matter of personal choice when you vote: how much do you value a safety net for those less fortunate that yourself?  And how much do you value a more efficient tax system and economy?

In the first blog on May 18, I listed all four justifications, any one of which may or may not ring true to you.  If one or more justification is unconvincing, then perhaps a different justification is more appealing.  In that blog, I put off the last three justifications and mostly just discussed the first one, namely, the arguments of “moral philosophy” for extra help to the poor.   As a matter of ethics, you might think it morally just or fair to help the poor starving masses.  That blog describes a range of philosophies, all the way from “no help to poor” (Nozick) in a spectrum that ends with “all emphasis on the poor” (Rawls).

In the second blog on July 13, I discussed the second justification.  Aside from that moral theorizing, suppose the poor are not deemed special at all: every individual receives the exact same weight, so we want to maximize the un-weighted sum of all individuals’ “utility”, as suggested by Jeremy Bentham, the “founding figure of modern utilitarianism.”  His philosophy is “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”.   Also suppose utility is not proportional to income, but is instead a curved function, with “declining marginal utility”.  If so, then a dollar from a rich person is relatively unimportant to that rich person, while a dollar to a poor person is very important to that poor person.  In that case, equal weights on everybody would still mean that total welfare could increase by taking from the rich to help the poor.

The point of THIS blog is a third justification, quite different in the sense that it does NOT require making anybody worse off (the rich) in order to make someone else better off (the poor).  It is a case where we might all have nearly the same income and same preferences, and yet we might all be better off with a tax system that has higher marginal tax rates on those with more income, and transfers to those with little or no income.  How?  Suppose we’re all roughly equally well off in the long run, or in terms of expectations, but that we all face a random element in our annual income.  Some fraction of us will have a small business that experiences a bad year once in a while, or become unemployed once in a while, or have a bad health event that requires us to stop work once in a while.  To protect ourselves against those kinds of bad outcomes, we might like to buy insurance, but private insurance companies might not be able to offer such insurance because of two important market failures:

  1. Because of “adverse selection”, the insurance company might get only the bad risks to sign up, those who are inherently more likely to become unemployed or to have a bad year.
  2. Because of “moral hazard”, insurance buyers might change their behavior and become unemployed on purpose, or work less and earn less.

With those kinds of market failure, the private market might fail altogether, and nobody is able to buy such insurance.  Yet, having such insurance can make us all better off, by protecting us from actual risk!

Potentially, if done properly, the government can help fix this market failure.  Unemployment insurance is one such attempt.  But the point here is just that a progressive income tax can also act implicitly and partially as just that kind of insurance:

In each “good” year, you are made to pay a “premium” in the form of higher marginal tax rates and tax burden.  Then, anytime you have a “bad” year such as losing your job or facing a difficult market for the product you sell, you get to receive from this implicit insurance plan by facing lower tax rates or even getting payments from the government (unemployment compensation, income tax credits, or even welfare payments).

I don’t mean that the entire U.S. tax system works that way; I only mean that it has some element of that kind of plan, and it might help make some people happier knowing they will be helped when times are tough.  But you can decide the importance of that argument for yourself.

Next week, the final of my four possible justifications for progressive taxation.

Energy and Environmental Policies are All Interrelated

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Aug 3, 2012

Recent debate at the state and national level has focused on whether to enact a climate policy to control greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide.  The fact is, however, that we already have policies that affect such emissions, whether we like it or not.  Such policies can be coordinated and rational, or they can be piecemeal, inconsistent, and counter-productive.  Almost any policy designed to improve energy security, for example, would likely affect oil prices and energy efficiency, just as any policy to encourage alternative fuels would also affect energy security, electricity prices, consumer welfare, and health!  Here is a guide for thinking about how some of these policies work, and which combinations might work better than others.

The most obvious existing policy that affects carbon dioxide emissions is the gasoline tax that applies both at state and federal levels.  If that tax encourages less driving and more fuel-efficient cars, then it also impacts urban smog and global warming as well as protecting us from the whims of oil-rich nations with unstable governments.   In fact, with respect to the price at the pump, a tax on emissions would look a lot like a tax on gasoline, and vice versa.  Averaged over all state and federal taxes, the U.S. gasoline tax is about $0.39 per gallon, far less than around the rest of the world.  Most countries in the OECD have a tax over $2/gallon.

For the most part, the U.S. has chosen to avoid tax approaches to energy and environmental policy and instead uses various mandates, standards, and subsidies.   Cars sold in the U.S. are required to meet emission-per-mile standards for most local and regional pollutants like fine particles, sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxides (NOX), and volatile organic compounds (VOC) that contribute to ozone smog.  Those rules make cars more expensive but have successfully cleaned the air in major cities and around the country.  They also have the side effect of reducing greenhouse gases.  Another mandate is the “Corporate Average Fuel Economy” (CAFE) standards that require each auto manufacturing company to meet a minimum for the average miles-per-gallon of their fleet of cars sold each year.  For each big gas-guzzler they sell, the company needs to sell more small fuel-efficient cars to bring the average back down.  To meet this standard, every car company must raise the price of their gas guzzlers (to sell fewer of them) and reduce the price of their small fuel-efficient cars (to sell more of them).  The effect is the same as having a tax on big cars and subsidy on small cars.

These energy and environmental policies are also intricately related to other tax policies, as well as government spending!  For any chosen size of government and overall tax bite, any dollar not collected in gasoline tax is another dollar that must instead be collected from payroll taxes, income taxes, corporate profits tax, or state and local sales tax.  When looked at through that lens, gasoline taxes may not be that bad – or at least not as bad as some of those other taxes we must pay instead. 

Every state and local government is also worried about the pricing of electricity by huge electric companies that might naturally have monopoly power over their customers.  Production efficiency requires a large plant, so a small remote town might be served only by one power company (with no competition from neighbors far away, since too much power is lost during transmission).  So the public utility wants to regulate electricity prices, perhaps with block pricing that helps ensure adequate provision to low-income families.   Yet the pricing of electricity inevitably affects electricity use, which affects coal use, urban smog, and greenhouse gas emissions.  These policies are intricately related.

And these policies are related to government spending, since they affect car and gasoline purchases and therefore required spending on roads and highways as well as train tracks and mass transit in cities.  These environmental and energy policies affect human health, and therefore health spending by government – as necessary to pay for additional illness caused by emissions from cars, power plants, and heat from burning fossil fuel. 

We have no way to avoid these inter-connections.  You are a consumer who wants lower gas taxes and electricity prices, but you also own part of the power company and auto manufacturers through your mutual fund or pension plan.  You pay other taxes on income and purchases, and you breathe the air, so you are affected by emissions and need health care.  We might as well think holistically and act for the good of everybody, because we are everybody!

Why YOU may LIKE Government “Theft”

Filed Under (Finance, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on May 18, 2012

Or, alternatively, “Why I Love Teaching”!  First, teaching lets me grandstand a bit, if that help students really think about the world around us.  Second, it lets me pretend to be an expert in fields other than economics, even fields such as philosophy (see below).  Third, trying to teach about a topic forces me to think hard about that topic myself!  A case in point is the standard lecture on “Justifications for Government Policy to Redistribute Income”, otherwise known as “Robin Hood”, otherwise known as government “theft” from the rich to give to the poor.   

One thing currently happening in the world around us is a heightened political debate about whether the top income tax rate is too low or too high.  See the diagram below.  So this “lecture topic” is not just textbook irrelevance.  It might even help YOU to think about what you read in the newspaper!  Then please decide for yourself.

I see four possible justifications, any one of which may or may not ring true to you.  If one or more justification is unconvincing, however, then perhaps a different justification is more appealing. 

1.)    As described below, some in the field of “moral philosophy” have found ethical justifications for extra help to the poor.

2.)    Even if the poor are not deemed special in that way, and all individuals receive equal weight, it may still be that a dollar from a rich person is relatively unimportant to that rich person, while a dollar to a poor person is very important to that poor person (higher marginal utility).  If so, then equal weights on everybody would still mean that total welfare could increase by taking from the rich in order to help the poor. 

3.)    If incomes are generally uncertain, so that any individual might do well in some years and not in other years, then government might actually make all of us happier by the provision of implicit “insurance” – taking premiums in good times in order to help any person who suffers bad times.

4.)    A reduction in income equality could be a “public good”, like the classic example of a lighthouse that benefits all ships whether they have helped to pay for it or not.  Everybody’s individual incentive is therefore not to pay (to “free ride”).  The private market never exists.  But government can raise welfare for all shippers by taxing all ships and using the funds to build and operate the lighthouse.  Similarly, if many people would LIKE to have more income equality in society, they could “free ride” on others who do give voluntarily to help the underprivileged. If so, then government could fix that market failure by taxing everybody and using the funds to improve income equality.

Having used up several paragraphs already, I will miss the chance to explain all four of these important points adequately in this one blog, and so I’ll save a few for the next blog.  Let’s just start with the first one.

In the field of moral philosophy, some libertarians such as Robert Nozick believe that theft itself is ethically wrong, that each person is morally entitled to the fruits of their own labor.  No person is allowed to steal from a rich neighbor, even to give to the poor, so why would government be allowed to do so?  If theft is morally wrong in itself, then government should not be redistributing from rich to poor, no matter how needy the poor nor how worthy the cause.  On the other hand, by the way, government steals from individuals through taxes in order to build highways and provide for national defense, and so one may wonder why theft is justified for some purposes and not others.  One way out of that problem is to decide that a tax for public purposes is not in fact “theft”.

In contrast, John Rawls argues that the moral choice is to help the poor.  Actually he has two important ideas.  One is that those who are already rich have no moral justification to argue for reducing taxes on the rich, just as those who are poor have no moral justification to argue for raising taxes on the rich.  Such positions are merely self-interested.  Therefore, a useful thought experiment is to put yourself in what Rawls calls the “Original Position”, at the beginning of the World, before places have been assigned in the wide distribution of incomes and well-being.  That is, suppose resources are limited, and that the world will inevitably have a distribution of different human abilities and disabilities.  You don’t yet know your IQ, or whether you will have any particular talents in music, sports, the arts, or management.  Our job in this “original position” is to write a constitution, a set of rules for government and human interaction.

The purpose of this thought experiment is to try to strip away self-interest and think about how rules “ought” to be designed.  And then, Rawls’ second idea is about what any of us would likely decide to do in such a position.  He argues that the only natural choice, indeed the only logical choice, is to be extremely risk averse.  We are not talking about twenty bucks you might lose at the Casino, where risk is fun.  Instead, we are talking about your entire life’s prospects, where risk is not fun.  It must be great to be Brad Pitt, but what if you end up with little talent or ability.  You could end up homeless, or worse.   Given that risk, he argues, one should design the rules such that society would take good care of those who are disadvantaged, unlucky, or disabled.  You might well be the person on the bottom of the totem pole.

His treatise, called “A Theory of Justice” is 600 pages, so I haven’t even read it all!  So I won’t try to explain all the reasoning, but the interesting point is the connection between risk aversion and redistribution.  Rawls himself is extremely risk averse, saying we ought to maximize the welfare of the poorest person with the minimum income – the “maximin” strategy.  That does not mean perfect equality, as he points out that the poorest person’s welfare might be improved by giving the most talented individuals plenty of incentive to work hard and invent new technology that generates plenty of profits, market success, and economic growth.  But cutting the tax rate on the rich is only justified for Rawls if that really does improve the welfare of the poorest.

Well, out of space for today, so I’ll save the other justifications for next time.  But in case you don’t like the justifications of Rawls, those other justifications (#2 through #4) are completely different!

Negative Leakage

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Apr 20, 2012

What is that, a gastrointestinal disorder?   No, it’s the title of one of my recent research papers  (joint with Dan Karney and Kathy Baylis) about unilateral efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG).   When worldwide agreement is not possible, then the question is whether GHG abatement policy might be implemented by only one country, or bloc of countries (or region or sector).   The fear of any one country or bloc is that they would only raise their own cost of production, make themselves less competitive, and lose business to firms in other countries that may increase production and emissions.  When only one country limits their emissions, any positive effect on emissions elsewhere is called “leakage”.

Yes, that’s a word in economics, see .

In efforts to “abate” or to reduce GHG emissions, the fear of lost business has pretty much deterred any attempt at unilateral climate policy.  That positive leakage might be called a “terms of trade effect” (TTE), because unilateral policy raises the price of exports and reduces the price of imports.   But our recent research paper points out a major effect that could offset part of that positive leakage.  The “negative leakage” term in the equation might be called an “abatement resource effect” (ARE).   That is, one additional thing happening is that the domestic firms face higher costs of their emissions, and so they want to substitute away from GHG emissions and instead use other resources for abatement – such as windmills, solar cells, energy efficient machinery, hybrids, electric cars, and even “carbon capture and sequestration” (CCS).  Thus they have at least SOME incentive to draw resources AWAY from other sectors or other countries.  If that effect is large, the result might shrink those other sectors’ operations overall, and thus possibly SHRINK emissions elsewhere.

I don’t mean to oversell this idea, because it probably does not completely offset the usual  positive “terms of trade effect”.  But in some circumstances it COULD be large, and it COULD result in net negative leakage.  The best example is probably to think about a tax or permit price for carbon emissions only in the electricity generating sector, within one country.  For simplicity, suppose there’s no trade with any other countries, so the only choice for consumers in this country is how much to spend on “electricity” and how much to spend on “all other goods”.   Demand for electricity is usually thought to be inelastic, which means consumers buy almost the same amount even as the price rises.  If firms need to produce almost as much electricity, while substantially reducing their GHG emissions, they must invest a lot of labor AND capital into windmills, solar panels, and CCS.  With any given total number of workers and investment dollars in the economy, then fewer resources are used to produce “all other goods”.

The ability of consumers to substitute between the two goods (electricity vs “all other”) is called the “elasticity of substitution in utility.”  The ability of firms to substitute between GHG emissions and those OTHER inputs is called the “elasticity of substitution in production”.  If the former is bigger than the latter, then net leakage is positive.  If the latter is bigger than the former, then net leakage can be negative.

Okay, too technical.  But the point is that other researchers have missed this “abatement resource effect” and overstated the likely positive effect on leakage.  And that omission has led to overstated fears about the bad effects of unilateral carbon policy.  What we show is that those fears are overstated, in some cases, where leakage may not be that bad.  With some concentration on those favorable cases, one country might be able to undertake some good for the world without fear that they just lose business to other sectors.

Expensive Houses for Low-Income Families?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Feb 3, 2012

A recent NY Times has an article about SOL Austin, an acronym for Solutions Oriented Living.  This housing development is interesting for at least two reasons.  First, the designs and materials are intended to be “sustainable” (whatever that means), but also “net zero” (which I gather means that it will produce all the energy consumed).  The houses have solar panels and geothermal wells.

Second, however, it is interesting because it is in east Austin, the low-income part of town.  In fact, a 1928 “city plan” decided that east Austin would be “designated African-American”.  The 1962 construction of Interstate I-35 further divided east from west.  The relatively flat east side of Austin had all the industrial blight, pollution, and low-income housing.  In fact, it was quite cheap!  The hilly west side of Austin had the fancy new upscale houses with views of the Hill Country.

One would think that the intellectual-academic, left-leaning, high-income households of west Austin might be more interested in sustainable housing that could go “off the grid.”  Why then are these developers building super-energy-efficient houses in east Austin?

Well, for one thing, the 2010 census showed a 40% increase in east Austin’s white population and a drop in minority population.  In correlated fashion, land prices in east Austin have risen considerably.  In fact, a different article in the NY Times tells about a study based on the 2010 census finding that all residential segregation in U.S. cities has fallen significantly.  Cities are more racially integrated than at any time since 1910.  It finds that all-white enclaves “are effectively extinct”.  Black urban ghettos are shrinking. “An influx of immigrants and the gentrification of black neighborhoods contributed to the change, the study said, but suburbanization by blacks was even more instrumental.”

Since I’m visiting here in Austin, Texas, it is easy enough to go see the new development.  As you can see in the snapshot below, the houses have a modern box-like style.  They range from 1,000 to 1,800 square feet.  That explains the article’s reference to “matchbox” houses.    But the roofs are sloped enough to hold photovoltaic arrays and to channel rainwater into barrels.  

The developers said they wanted to “examine sustainability on a more holistic level, that would not just look at green buildings, but in our interest in affordability, in the economic and social components of sustainability as well.”  As stated in the NY Times article, the developers “hammered out a plan with … the nonprofit Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, to sell 16 of the 40 homes to the organization.  The group, in turn, sold eight of the houses at a subsidized rate to low-income buyers (who typically were able to buy a house valued at more than $200,000 for half price).”  Each of those 16 subsidized homes has a photovoltaic array on the roof, though not necessarily large enough to produce all of the needed power for the house.

Of the “market-rate” houses, all sold at prices in the low $200,000’s.  Eleven have been sold, and thirteen have yet to be built.  Because of the financial and housing crisis, however, the “holistic” development ideas have not worked perfectly.  Homeowners got rebates from Austin Energy and tax credits from the federal government. So far, however, only four market-rate house owners paid the extra $24,000 for photovoltaic arrays substantial enough to fully power a house.  Only one is also heated and cooled by a geothermal well.  But they all have thermally efficient windows, foam insulation, and Energy Star appliances.

So far, only one couple paid to install the geothermal well and the extra energy monitoring system:  a systems engineer and a microbiologist.  So, “sustainability” in low-income neighborhoods might still require some gentrification.

Health Reform and Cost Reduction: So Far, No Good

Filed Under (Health Care) by Nolan Miller on Jan 25, 2012

Since the 1960’s, Medicare has the authority to conduct pilot studies to determine whether particular innovations might reduce the cost of providing healthcare services to Medicare beneficiaries.  The 2010 health reform law (PPACA) expanded this power, giving Medicare the authority to expand nationally any program that has been shown to reduce projected spending and improve quality.  While many of us were disappointed by PPACA’s lack of attention to cost reduction (and quality improvement), there was reason to hope that, out of the garden of demonstration projects, a few flowers might bloom.  Unfortunately, while the first group of demonstration projects has taught us something about what kinds of demonstrations we should look at in the future, none successfully reduced overall Medicare spending (including the costs of implementing the pilot programs).

Broadly speaking, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Studies (CMS – note the government did successfully save money by removing the second “M” from the acronym!) has focused on two types of programs: disease management programs aimed at improving care for patients with chronic conditions and reduce costs by decreasing the likelihood of costly complications and hospital admissions, and value-based payment programs that attempt to reward providers for quality and efficiency of care rather than paying them for providing more care (as is the case in the standard Medicare fee-for-service model).  Earlier this month, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a series of reports (here and here, and summarized here and here

 The results on the disease management programs were uniformly disappointing.  Quoting from the CBO Issue Brief on the topic:

 The evaluations show that most programs have not reduced Medicare spending: In nearly every program involving disease management and care coordination, spending was either unchanged or increased  relative to the spending that would have occurred in the absence of the program, when the fees paid to the participating organizations were considered.

 The results for the Value-Based Payment initiatives were somewhat mixed.  One of the four programs considered, in which CMS made bundled payments to providers to cover all hospital and physician services for patients receiving coronary artery bypass surgeries, rather than paying for each service (and each additional service) that the hospitals and physicians chose to provide, reduced overall spending by about 10 percent.  The other three programs were less successful, and on average the savings generated by the four programs were far less than the costs and fees associated with running them.

 So, does this mean that the demonstration projects were a failure?  Not necessarily.  No reasonable person thinks that reducing Medicare spending is going to be easy.  If it were, we would have done it already.  Even in the failed demonstration projects there are lessons to be learned about where we should look for cost savings in the future.  In its issue brief, CMO lists several of these.  In my mind, the two most important are the need to limit the costs of interventions and the need to move away from the fee-for-service model of care delivery.

Regarding the costs of interventions, a number of the projects CMS implemented actually did improve quality and efficiency of care.  However, they were unable to generate savings sufficient to offset the fees paid to service providers and the other costs associated with the programs.  It is possible that if these costs could be reduced, perhaps through a competitive bidding process, disease management programs might prove to deliver the savings we suspect they can.

Regarding the need to move beyond the fee-for-service model, the CBO issue brief sums things up as:

Demonstrations aimed at reducing spending and increasing quality of care face significant challenges in overcoming the incentives inherent in Medicare’s fee-for-service payment system, which rewards providers for delivering more care but does not pay them for coordinating with other providers, and in the nation’s decentralized health care delivery system, which does not facilitate communication or coordination among providers. The results of those Medicare demonstrations suggest that substantial changes to payment and delivery systems will probably be necessary for programs involving disease management and care coordination or value-based payment to significantly reduce spending and either maintain or improve the quality of care provided to patients.

In light of this, the next thing to keep your eye on are is Medicare’s experiment with so-called “Accountable Care Ogranizations,” a program that will offer comprehensive provider groups bundled payments for taking care of all of a group of patients’ healthcare needs, where these payments will be based in part on how well the ACO meets certain quality goals.  The Medicare ACO experiment is just getting under way now. We’ll see whether it is more successful in bringing down costs than CMS’s earlier experiments.

Nothing Good about Cheaters

Filed Under (U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Jan 13, 2012

Taxes are bad, on that we can agree.  So not paying taxes must be good, right? 

Wrong.  A reform to cut taxes for everybody might be a good idea (or not).  But having millions of individuals cheat to reduce their own taxes is never a good idea.  It is a tax cut without reason, without fairness, and without the incentive or cost advantages of a cut in tax rates.

Just to focus on that last point, note that some people have to go to a lot of trouble to re-arrange their affairs to be able to cheat on their taxes, and they have to take on extra risk to do so – the risk of getting caught.  So their net “advantage” from cheating is much less than their dollars of tax savings. That cost of tax cheating does not apply to the case where Congress and the President agree to cut taxes for everybody, because then all those dollars stay in the private sector instead of being wasted.

The IRS has just released new numbers on the “tax gap” in the United States, the amount of U.S. tax liability that goes unpaid.  From 2001 to 2006, as you can see in the table below, the tax gap increased from $290 billion to $385 billion.  Just to reverse the increase in unpaid tax would gain the much-discussed and much-needed $100 billion revenue per year, or $1 trillion over ten years.  The percent of tax voluntarily paid has fallen from 83.7% to 83.1%.  After expected small amounts are recovered by our meager enforcement efforts, the “overall net compliance rate” has fallen from 86.3% to 85.5%. 

The average taxpayer cheats on about 15% of their tax liability, but almost nobody is “average.”  Rather, the huge majority of Americans earn wages and salaries that are reported by their employers to the IRS, on which tax withholding is paid by the employer to the IRS.  Workers cannot cheat on that income, and so the huge majority of Americans pay all of their tax due.  The cheating is highly concentrated among other Americans, especially those who are self-employed and get paid in cash that is never even reported to the IRS.   In fact, the IRS estimates that noncompliance or misreporting is 1% of  wages and salaries, but a huge 56% of proprietor income!

This issue is covered nicely in the blog by Bruce Bartlett, who also points out that “The number of IRS employees fell to 84,711 in 2010 from 116,673 in 1992 despite an increase in the population of the United States of 53 million over that period.” Fewer auditors chase large numbers of tax cheaters, so of course compliance falls.  When I worked at the U.S. Treasury Department, in the Office of Tax Analysis, I used to hear about revenue/cost ratios of ten to one!  That is, one additional dollar spent on enforcement could generate an additional ten dollars of revenue.  And the problem has only gotten worse since then.

We don’t want a huge number of IRS enforcement agents to strike fear into the hearts of average law-abiding Americans who do pay their taxes on time.  But a lot of us might feel better about our country if a few more IRS agents struck some fear into the hearts of those who are supposed to pay their taxes and don’t!  And those cheaters don’t have to bear extra cost of getting caught, if they just paid taxes instead of cheating.


The WSJ is “Wrong”: The U.S. is NOT a Net Exporter of Petroleum

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Finance, Other Topics, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Dec 2, 2011

Just a couple days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that “U.S. exports of gasoline, diesel and other oil-based fuels are soaring, putting the nation on track to be a net exporter of petroleum products in 2011 for the first time in 62 years.”  Taken literally, this fact is strictly “correct”, but it is misleading.  It is therefore very poor reporting.  The authors either don’t understand the words they use, or they are deliberately trying to mislead readers.

The reason it is misleading is because the article implies the U.S. is headed toward “energy independence”, and that implication is wrong.  It goes on to say:  “As recently as 2005, the U.S. imported nearly 900 million barrels more of petroleum products than it exported.  Since then the deficit has been steadily shrinking until finally disappearing last fall, and analysts say the country will not lose its ‘net exporter’ tag anytime soon.”  That statement and several expert quotes in the article clearly imply the U.S. is headed toward “energy independence”.   

Strictly speaking, the WSJ is correct that the U.S. exports more “petroleum products” than it imports, … but “petroleum products” do not include crude oil!!  “Petroleum products” include only refined products like gasoline, diesel fuel, or jet fuel.  The implication is only that the U.S. has a large refinery capacity!

The U.S. is a huge net importer of crude oil, and a huge net importer of all “crude oil and petroleum products” taken together, as you can see from the chart  below (provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration).   In other words, we import boatloads of crude oil, we refine it, and then we export slightly more refined petroleum products than we import of refined petroleum products.  Big deal.

If the WSJ reporters knew what they were talking about, or if they were not trying to mislead readers, then they should have just stated that the U.S. is a huge net importer of all “crude oil and petroleum products” taken together.  They didn’t.  That is why I conclude they do not understand the point, or that they are trying to misrepresent it. Neither conclusion is good for the Wall Street Journal.

They are simply wrong when they say:  “The reversal raises the prospect of the U.S. becoming a major provider of various types of energy to the rest of the world, a status that was once virtually unthinkable.”  Just look at the figure!


To Reduce Energy Use, Buy an 8-cylinder 1980 Bonneville!

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Nov 4, 2011

My green choice is to get about 12 miles to the gallon.  Here is why it’s so green.

Some people think it’s obvious that I ought to buy a hybrid or other fuel-efficient vehicle.  But that’s just wrong.  Certainly some drivers should have a hybrid car to reduce emissions and energy use, namely somebody like my brother who has an hour commute each day, driving 20,000 or more miles per year.   But not everybody.   Take for example a person like me who lives near work, rides a bicycle, and doesn’t like spending hours in the car – even for a road trip to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite.  I use the car once a week for the grocery store, or a restaurant, driving less than 5,000 miles per year.

Let’s suppose a hybrid gets 50 miles per gallon, so my 5,000 miles per year would cost about 100 gallons ($300 per year).   The standard non-hybrid gets 25 miles per gallon, which would cost twice as much ($600 per year).  I’d save $300 per year in the hybrid.  But that doesn’t mean I should buy a hybrid.  A new hybrid like a Toyota Prius costs about $6,000 extra to get that great fuel-efficiency (about $26,000 instead of $20,000).    In other words, it would take twenty years for my $300-per-year savings to make up for the extra $6,000.  It’s not worthwhile for me.  If my brother drives four times as much, however, he could break even in just five years.

So far, that means I should not buy a hybrid.  Does that mean I buy the normal new car with 25 mpg for $20,000?  No!  I should buy a beaten old 8-cylinder Bonneville, which looks like a tank and gets only half the mileage!  That Bonneville may be headed for the junk heap, so it’s certainly cheaper, even if I have to pay more for gas.

But even ignoring the price of the Bonneville, I claim that the fuel-use of the Bonneville is less than the fuel use of the normal new car!  Why?  Consider the emissions from fuel used in production.  The fuel used to make the Bonneville back in 1980 is a “sunk cost”, a done deal that does not change whether that car gets junked now or later.  In other words, keeping that Bonneville off the junk heap requires no extra fuel and emissions to produce it.  But buying a new car does involve more fuel and emissions just to produce it.  Think about all the emissions from the steel mill, the tire factory, the glass furnace, and the electric generating plant that provides power for the tools and machinery to make the new car.

In other words, I can reduce total fuel use and emissions much more if I purchase the 1980 Bonneville and drive it 5,000 miles per year, than if I buy a new car with twice the mpg.  Now all I need is a bumper sticker for my 1980 Bonneville to say how green I really am!


A Look at Herman Cain’s 999 Tax Plan

Filed Under (Finance, Other Topics, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Oct 21, 2011

The point of this blog is to inject some substance into discussion of Presidential candidates. To see the problem, consider what I wrote on my facebook page: “In an airport for an hour yesterday, we could not avoid hearing CNN talk about the upcoming presidential debate. For the entire hour, we heard only comments like: Perry needs to come out swinging; or, ‘Is Cain a viable candidate?’; or, Bachmann has really fallen in the polls; or, ‘This now boils down to a two-man race’, followed immediately by the wisdom that ‘Yes, but we don’t know yet who the two men are.’  What inanity! It is JUST a horse race! Not a single comment during the entire hour had anything whatever to do with any substantial issue of policy. Is this all we get?”

There must be more to consider, in this important decision.  So, I started by looking at Herman Cain’s 999 tax reform plan.  See more at his website, with the key bullets in the insert below. 

Bear in mind that I’m a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury (1985-87), so I worked hard on President Reagan’s successful “Tax Reform Act of 1986” to lower the rates and broaden the base.  Since 1986, however, Congress has managed to reintroduce plenty of new deductions and tax breaks, while raising the rate.  Maybe it’s time to do something again!

Cain’s proposal has a lot of similarities to the 1986 reform, if perhaps more extreme.  It is meant to be revenue neutral, raising the same total tax.  It would eliminate virtually ALL deductions, like mortgage interest paid, and it would cut rates drastically.  It would eliminate the income tax as we know it, and introduce a national sales tax (or value added tax).   What about the accuracy of Cain’s claims below?  By reducing rates drastically, this proposal probably WOULD reduce the distorting effects of taxation by reducing the interference of taxes in the productive activities of workers and business – what economists call “deadweight loss”.  For similar reasons, it probably would provide greater incentive for work and investment, and therefore probably provide some stimulus to growth.  That’s all for the good.

However, ANY tax reform plan of ANY politician EVER, no matter what motivation, will always have two effects to watch out for.  First, any tax reform will always raise taxes on some taxpayers and reduce taxes for others.  It will have distributional effects worth analyzing.  Second, it will therefore create disruptions and reallocations.  Activities to pay additional tax may shrink – laying off workers who may remain unemployed for some time until they can re-train and find work in other activities that now face lower tax rates and hope to expand.  That is, for only one example, the Cain plan might hurt homeowners and homeownership by eliminating the mortgage interest deduction.  With such pervasive changes, however, the disruptions will be widespread and costly in themselves.

Finally, for now, note the point about distributional effects.  Nothing in any of Cain’s bullets says anything whatever about distributional effects.   I’m afraid this point is the Achilles heel of Cain’s 999 plan.  According to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, Cain’s plan will greatly reduce taxes of those with the highest incomes and raise total taxes on those with low incomes.  It is ‘regressive’.  And you don’t even need to read the TPC analysis to know this is true.  Cain’s plan cuts the top personal rate from 35% to 9%.  There is no amount of tax-base broadening for those high income taxpayers that can get back the same tax revenue from them.  And currently those with the least income pay no Federal tax at all.   Under Cain’s plan, everybody will pay the 9% sales tax, on everything they buy.  Moreover, if those low-income individuals are working, they will probably bear some additional burden of the 9% business tax that applies to all profits AND wages paid: it applies to all sales revenue minus purchases and capital investment, not subtracting wages paid to workers.

I’d personally favor another revenue-neutral reform like the TRA of 1986, one that lowers the rates and broadens the base.  Such a reform would undoubtedly cause some disruptions and adjustments costs.  And it would help some while hurting others.  But perhaps it could be designed in a way that also tries to be distributionally neutral, not adding tax burdens on those least fortunate while cutting taxes on those already doing well.