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.

The Second “Justification” for a Progressive Income Tax

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

Way back on May 18, I wrote a blog 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.  This combination of economics and philosophy is meant to help each of us think about what really should be the top personal marginal tax rate: should it be higher or lower than currently?  This topic is hotly debated these days in the newspapers!

In that blog, 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.  I put off the last three justifications to later blogs and mostly just discussed the first one, namely, that some “ethicists” in the field of “moral philosophy” have found ethical justifications for extra help to the poor.  The moral justification may be the most common or usual one; 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).

But that’s not the only reason to have some degree of progressivity in our income tax system (taking higher percentages of income from those with more income).  The second justification basically says okay, let’s skip the moral theorizing.  Instead, suppose the poor are not deemed special at all.  Suppose that ALL individuals receive the exact same weight.  Suppose the objective is to maximize the un-weighted sum of all individuals’ wellbeing (or what we call “utility”).  Actually, this is perhaps the view of Jeremy Bentham, who came to be considered the “founding figure of modern utilitarianism.”  His philosophy is “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”.  That is, just add up all individual utilities, without weights, and maximize that sum.

So far, that might sound like no justification for taking from the rich to give to the poor.  However, we did not say just add up their incomes, or to maximize total GNP.   Instead, one might also believe that utility is not proportional to income, but is instead a curved function, as in the diagram below.  In other words, “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 in order to help the poor.

The only remaining question is the degree of curvature, or the rate at which marginal utility declines.  If it is a nearly straight line, then we might not want much redistribution.  But if it has a lot of curvature, then the sum of utilities could be maximized by taking more from the rich than we do currently.

So, what do you think?  I invite your comments.

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!

Privatize, Privatize, Privatize!

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Finance, Other Topics, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Apr 6, 2012

Many advocates of small government have many ideas for how to move activities out of the public sector and into the private sector.  Social Security can be privatized, using fully-funded private retirement investment accounts.  Education can be privatized, with vouchers that can be used by parents to choose the best private school or charter school.  All could save money for the federal budget, by taking advantage of the more efficient operations of the private sector.

In this blog, I’ll describe my new idea for privatization.  Why not privatize the military!  Many rich Republicans want more military spending, and I can imagine that they might well be willing to pay for it.   Why not let them?  Now, they are probably not willing to simply donate money to the federal government, with no recognition, nor any private return on their investment.  But, we could provide the same kind of naming rights as many private operations: FedEx Field is the home of the Washington Redskins, because FedEx paid for the naming rights and they get PR advantages of doing so.  The name of the business school at the University of Texas is the “McCombs School of business”, because Red McCombs paid for the naming rights, and he gets PR advantages of doing so.  The J. Paul Getty Museum is the name of a major art museum in Los Angeles, presumably because somebody in the Getty family or foundation paid for the naming rights and gets PR advantages of doing so.

So, the idea is to write the name of any major donor on any piece of military equipment for which that donor covers at least half the cost.  Pay for half a tank, and it will be the “Your Name Here” Army Battle Tank, with the name engraved on the equipment.  You can even visit it, at certain times of year under certain conditions, and have your picture taken with it.  If you are willing to pay a little more, half the cost of a cruise missile, you can have your name on that instead.

Now I’m not suggesting that the donor ought to be allowed to decide when to push the button.  Nor even make any decisions at all.  The payment is just to help out the U.S. Federal Budget deficit, with recognition for doing so.  I’d bet that a good number of millionaires would really be willing to pay, for that kind of prestige.  It might even be greater recognition if the missile were actually used!  The well-heeled U.S. businessman might even get more U.S. business activity, after the newspaper announces that the “Your Name Here” cruise missile was launched at Tehran, killing 137 innocent civilians, but successfully deterring the Iranian government from pursuing a nuclear weapon that might kill even more.

Cheaper Gasoline, or Energy Independence: You Can’t Have Both

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Mar 23, 2012

Politicians like to say they want the U.S. to produce at least as much energy as it consumes – “energy independence”.  And they certainly want to reassure consumers that they are doing something about the high price of gasoline.  But the two goals are inconsistent.  You can’t have both.  Indeed, the current high price of oil is exactly what is now REDUCING our dependence on foreign oil!

We all know the price of gasoline has been increasing lately, now well over $4 per gallon in some locations.  Five-dollar gas is predicted by Summer.  In addition, the New York Times just reported that our dependence on foreign oil is falling.  “In 2011, the country imported just 45 percent of the liquid fuels it used, down from a record high of 60 percent in 2005.”  The article points out that this strong new trend is based BOTH on the increase of U.S. production of oil AND on the decreased U.S. consumption of it.  And both of those factors are based on the recent increases in oil and gasoline prices.  Those higher prices are enough to induce producers to revisit old oil wells and to use new more-expensive technology to extract more oil from those same wells.  The higher prices also are enough to induce consumers to conserve.  Purchases of large cars and SUVs are down.  Many people are driving less, even in their existing cars.  A different article on the same day’s New York Times, on the same front page, also reports that “many young consumers today just do not care that much about cars.”

Decreased dependence on foreign oil does sound like good news.   Actually, it is good for a number of reasons. (1)  It is good for business in oil-producing states, helping raise them out of the current economic slow-growth period.  (2) It is good for national energy security, not to have to depend on unstable governments around the rest of the world.  (3)  It reduces the overall U.S. trade deficit, of which the net import of oil was a big component.  And (4) the reduced consumption of gasoline is good for the environment. 

On the other hand, the increased U.S. production of oil is not good for the environment, as discussed in the same newspaper article just mentioned.   As an aside, I would prefer to do more to decrease U.S. consumption of oil – not only from increased fuel efficiency but also by the use of alternative non-fossil fuels – and perhaps less from increased U.S. production of oil from dirty sources such as shale or tar sands.  But that’s not the point for the moment.

The point for the moment is just that maybe the higher price of gasoline is a GOOD thing!  We can’t take even small steps toward decreasing U.S. dependence on foreign oil UNLESS oil and gas prices rise.  Any politician who tells you otherwise is pandering for your vote.  It is the high price of oil that is both increasing U.S. production and decreasing U.S. Consumption.



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.

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.


Energy Independence?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Dec 19, 2011

With crude oil prices hovering near $100 per barrel, the issue of energy independence is sure to be a frequent topic in the upcoming presidential election. Don Fullerton, a finance professor and energy policy expert at Illinois, spoke with News Bureau Business and Law editor Phil Ciciora about whether the goal of energy independence is a viable one or just another pipe dream.

Is energy independence a realistic goal for the U.S.?

It seems like it’s mostly senators from oil-rich states who want to talk about oil and energy independence, because they want subsidies for the oil industry. So it’s really only for political reasons that energy independence has been hyped as an important or worthwhile goal.

If we really are concerned about reducing our dependence on foreign oil, then the implication is to tax oil, not to subsidize it! A tax on oil would discourage its use, which would have three good effects. First, it would discourage imports. Second, it would reduce drilling in the U.S., and thus help keep more oil in the ground for future contingencies. Third, it would encourage the development of other energy technologies such as biofuel, solar power, wind power and better battery technology. Those other technologies are the only realistic route to true energy independence.

Plus, there’s absolutely no way we’re going to achieve energy independence through oil because we’ve basically used up most of our oil. For all practical purposes, we don’t have much more oil. That’s why we either have to rely on other countries or switch to new technologies.

An attempt to achieve energy independence would also be a bad move for energy security, because it just says, “Let’s drain America first.” If so, we’ll be in an even worse situation later. Whatever we still have in reserve should be left there for its option value. If we did have another serious war where we really needed oil that we couldn’t import, those reserves might be good to have.

Do the new sources of domestic energy in the Dakotas and the Gulf of Mexico hold much promise for solving our energy problems?

Sure, there are some new sources of energy in the U.S. – really, natural gas and shale oil – but however much we have won’t bring us any closer to energy independence. Even if we do discover a few new fields of crude oil, it’s not going to make much of a difference.

As the price of crude rises even higher, the oil companies can go back to old and existing fields and drill a little deeper. That extraction is expensive, but it’s worthwhile if the price of oil is back near $100 per barrel. It wasn’t worthwhile earlier because the extra drilling cost was more than the oil was worth. But now that the price of crude is high enough, they can make money if they drill deeper on these old wells.

What happens to energy prices if the European economy continues to sputter?

If Europe experienced, say, a 10- to 20-percent drop in gross national product, then you might actually notice a dip in the price of oil in the U.S. But economic growth in the U.S. would also slow. So just because the price of oil might fall a little bit doesn’t make their troubles good for us, since we would be affected, too. We certainly don’t want to hope for a recession in Europe to make oil cheaper. First of all, the price wouldn’t fall that much. Second, there would be a whole host of negative implications for the U.S.

What (if anything) will bring the price of oil down again?

The only ways to get a significant change in the price of oil would be through a major recession, a major technological breakthrough, or huge policy changes. If the whole world got together and agreed to a new, stringent version of the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon emissions, that would have an impact. If the whole world were to reduce the burning of fossil fuels by 20 percent – that would also have an effect. But we don’t want another recession, nor will all nations agree to such a treaty.

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!


Nothing is Wrong with a “Do-Nothing” Congress!

Filed Under (Finance, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Nov 18, 2011

The Budget Control Act of 2011 established a joint congressional committee (the “Super Committee”) and charged it with the responsibility of reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years.  If the Super Committee fails to reach an agreement, automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion over 10 years are triggered, starting in January 2013.  These are said to be “across the board”, but they are not.   They would apply $600 billion to Defense, and $600 to other spending.  Entitlements are exempt, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) and refundable tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and child tax credit.  These entitlements are exempt from the cuts because anyone who qualifies can participate (that spending is determined by participation, not by Congress).

In addition, the Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire at the end of 2012, so doing nothing means that tax rates would jump back to pre-2001 levels.  That combination might be the best thing yet for our huge budget deficit.

The Federal government’s annual deficit has been more than $1 trillion since 2009.  Continuation of that excess spending might create a debt crisis similar than the one now in Europe.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the trigger would cut $54.7 billion annually in both defense and non-defense spending from 2013 through 2021.  Meanwhile, U.S. defense spending is around $700 billion per year, with cuts of about $35 billion per year already enacted, so the automatic trigger would reduce defense spending from about $665 billion to about $610 billion.  Some may view that 10% cut as draconian, but the simple fact is that the U.S. needs to wind down its spending on two wars.  Congress and voters are fooling themselves if they think the U.S. can continue to spend the same level on defense, not raise taxes, and make any major dent in the huge annual deficit.

The same point can be made for automatic cuts in Social Security, which in its current form is unsustainable.  Since it was enacted in 1935, life expectancy has increased dramatically, which means more payouts than anticipated.  Birth rates have declined, which means fewer workers and less payroll tax than anticipated.  The system will run out of money in 2037.  Congress either needs to raise taxes or cut spending.  But they won’t do either!  The only solution might be the automatic course, without action by Congress!

For further reading, see “Why doing nothing yields $7.1 trillion in deficit cuts”.