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!

Simple Logic is Enough

Filed Under (Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Jun 15, 2012

Despite being in a Department of Finance, my own background and research is in economics and public policy (hence the “Center for Business and Public Policy” in our department).  I don’t claim expertise in finance, per se.   On the other hand, it seems that both sides of the JP Morgan debate are using discussion of the Volcker Rule and their other financial expertise to obscure the basic logic of government bank regulation.  It is a basic logic of incentives, which does not require expertise in finance!

JP Morgan wants to make money; we can hardly blame them for that.  In economics generally, we let companies try to make money, as they have the expertise in their own line of business to determine the risk-reward tradeoff.  If they lose money, then they lose money.  They might even be able to buy various kinds of insurance – that’s between the company and their insurer.  A person or company with insurance might have incentive to undertake riskier activities, since any gains are retained, while losses go to the insurer.  But the insurance company might enter the deal willingly, to charge premiums, especially if it can require the company or person to limit some of their riskier activities.  Your auto insurance has co-insurance and deductibles, to make you pay at least part of a loss and to restore some of your incentive for precaution.  

But when a bank becomes “too big to fail”, the U.S. government is thrown into the role of insurer, without being able to collect premiums, co-insurance, or deductibles.  It is not a “deal” between the bank and their insurer, because the government has no choice.  Because of financial contagion, a single major bank failure could bring down the whole system and cause horrific recession.

Given that the bank’s biggest losses must be covered by their insurer (the U.S. government), the bank has more incentive to undertake even riskier activities: they get any profits, and they don’t suffer the worst losses.   Any private insurer would require the bank to limit their riskiest activities, in order to be willing to sell that insurance.  But the government is the insurer by default, with no private “deal” allowing the government to require limits on the riskiest activities in order to be willing to offer that insurance.

To be sure, the bank still must be careful about some risks, as many different kinds of losses would reduce their profits without requiring government bailout.  The recent JP Morgan case did not create danger of bankruptcy or bailout, because their $2 billion loss on that one operation only offset part of their positive profits!  But any bank that is “too big to fail” has less incentive to avoid the really big losses that could cause bankruptcy, because that would require the government to bail them out.

The government could pass laws and regulations to limit the banks’ riskiest activities, and that is the purpose of the much discussed Volcker Rule.  I will leave the discussion of the details to the experts in finance.  For example, the Volcker Rule may or may not be the best way to regulate banks.  The effects depend a lot on the rule’s design, implementation, and enforcement!  Maybe some other rule or incentive-management would be better.  I will leave those details to the experts.  Instead, the point here is just the simple logic that the government is not a private insurer who would require limitations on risky activity to be willing to sell insurance.  The government must provide insurance, so they must have some kind of regulation to limit banks’ risky activities: higher capitalization requirement, Volcker rule, or other regulations.   

I did in fact talk to some of the finance department’s experts, like Jeff Brown and George Pennacchi.  George notes that “the incentive to take big risks declines as a bank finances itself with more shareholders’ equity (capital), and in JPMorgan’s defense they are one of the most highly capitalized banks, which helped them survive the crisis.”  He adds that “If banks carry government deposit insurance, whether explicit or implicit due to Too-Big-to-Fail, then the government should limit their activities to protect taxpayers from losses.”  Moreover, “it is noteworthy that, prior to the establishment of deposit insurance in 1933, banks had much greater capital (financing via shareholders’ equity) and made much less risky loans. … Indeed, there are several recent “narrow bank” proposals to greatly limit the activities of banks that issue insured deposits.”  He has a review of the topic on his website (forthcoming in the Annual Review of Financial Economics).

The bottom line is that in a private deal between a bank and its insurance company, the bank would have to agree to limit risky activity in exchange for being able to buy this insurance.  With government as insurer, they get the insurance regardless.  So just look at their incentives!  The banks have incentive to make money, and so they have incentive to take more risks since they can keep any profits and not cover the biggest losses.  AND they have incentive to lobby Congress to avoid government regulations.  We switch from a private market “deal” to the world of politics!  If they can get Congress to limit regulation of banks, they can make riskier investments, make more money, and not have to cover the biggest losses.

So just think about those incentives, next time you hear a bank executive use the jargon of financial expertise to make the case against “unfair interference by government regulators into the private market”.

What is “Sustainability”?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Finance, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on May 4, 2012

My own research area is environmental and natural resource economics, which others often call “sustainability”.  That’s actually embarrassing, because I don’t know what it means.  For a renewable resource like timber, it seems pretty easy:  you just plant trees, let them grow, cut them down, and then plant trees again.  For a nonrenewable resource like oil, it’s impossible: once a barrel of oil is consumed, it’s gone forever.  The only way to make oil “sustainable” is not to use it, which does not make any sense, because oil has no value at all if it can’t be used.

So, sustainability is either obvious or impossible.  The concept seems to be of no use whatever.  So I turn to people smarter than me, to get some answers.  By “smarter than me”, in this case, I mean (1.) Nobel-Prize winning economist Robert Solow, and (2.) whoever writes for Wikipedia.

Way back in 1991, Robert Solow wrote “Sustainability: An Economist’s Perspective”, in which he says:  “It is very hard to be against sustainability. In fact, the less you know about it, the better it sounds.”   He says he has seen various definitions, but they all turn out to be vague.  So his essay is an attempt to make it more precise.  “Pretty clearly the notion of sustainability is about … a moral obligation that we are supposed to have for future generations.”   But you can’t be morally obligated to do something that is not feasible!  He notes UNESCO’s definition:  “… every generation should leave water, air, and soil resources as pure and unpolluted as when it came on earth.”   But taken literally, that injunction “would mean to make no use of mineral resources; it would mean to do no permanent construction, … build no roads, build no dams, build no piers.”  That is neither feasible nor desirable!

Instead, he suggests that sustainability might be both feasible and desirable if it is defined as “an obligation to conduct ourselves so that we leave to the future the option or the capacity to be as well off as we are.”   In the final analysis, what that means is that we don’t necessarily have to leave all the oil in the ground, if we leave something else of equal or greater value, some other investment that can be used by future generations to produce and consume as we do, and which they can leave to other generations after them.  It is a holistic concept, both simple and operational.  We only need to add the value of all assets, subtract all liabilities, and make sure that the net wealth we bequeath is not less than we inherited. 

We can use oil, but we should not simultaneously be running huge government budget deficits that reduce the net wealth left to our children and their children.  The measure of “net wealth” should include the value of ecosystems, fresh water supplies, biodiversity, and oil, as well as productive farmland, infrastructure, machinery, and other productive assets.   All those values are extremely difficult to measure, but at least the concept is clear.

Has that message been adopted since 1991?  It certainly does not seem to be part of the thinking of the U.S. Congress and the rest of our political system.   What are they using for guidance?

Wikipedia says  “Sustainability is the capacity to endure. For humans, sustainability is the long-term maintenance of responsibility, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions, and encompasses the concept of stewardship, the responsible management of resource use.”  Okay, well, that’s still pretty vague, by Solow’s standards.  Let’s see if they make it more specific: “In ecology, sustainability describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time, a necessary precondition for the well-being of humans and other organisms. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems.”

I’m sorry, that kind of specificity does not make it more operational.   They haven’t read Solow.  In fact, the whole entry seems to read like it is intended to maximize the number of times it can link to other Wikipedia entries!

“Moving towards sustainability is also a social challenge that entails, among other factors, international and national law, urban planning and transport, local and individual lifestyles and ethical consumerism. Ways of living more sustainably can take many forms from controlling living conditions (e.g., ecovillages, eco-municipalities and sustainable cities), to reappraising work practices (e.g., using permaculture, green building, sustainable agriculture), or developing new technologies that reduce the consumption of resources.”

Actually, the only phrase in the whole entry that really struck me was “more sustainably.”  Now, I REALLY do not know that THAT means.  Our current trajectory is either sustainable, or it’s not!  If future generations can live forever, how can they live longer than that?  And if not, well, …

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”.

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!


Closing the Barn Door after the Horses Escape

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

The New York Times today says that the Federal Housing Finance Agency is set to sue major U.S. banks such as Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche Bank, among others.  The U.S. government argues that the banks sold packaged mortgages as securities to investors while ignoring evidence that the homeowners’ incomes were inflated or falsified.  That is, the banks failed to perform the due diligence required under securities law.  When many of those homeowners were unable to pay their mortgages, the securities backed by the mortgages tanked.  Housing and financial crises ensued.

Kinda late, isn’t it?  Well, certainly it’s too late this time, to prevent the housing and financial crises of the past few years.  What is the point of the suit, then?  Does the U.S. Federal government really need the money that they can get from these banks, as damages, and will they give it back to all of us who lost money during those years?  The U.S. might sue for around a billion dollars, which is peanuts these days.  Divided by 333 million Americans, that would be about three dollars each.  Why bother?

An important conceptual point here is the difference between ex post liability (after the fact) and ex ante incentives (beforehand).   The point of this suit is not to collect a billion dollars after the fact, although arguments are made about the fairness of those liable to pay for damages.  Rather, the point is to provide the proper incentives to private companies before the next time.  To a private company, a billion dollars really is a lot of money.  If they have to worry about the loss of a billion dollars, for ignoring their legal responsibilities, then maybe next time they’ll be more careful to follow the law.

Government regulation can take alternative forms.  One alternative is to send auditors and inspectors into every bank, every day, to check what they are doing.  That would be very expensive.  A cheaper alternative is to let the banks decide for themselves if they are exercising due diligence, but with the “threat” hanging over their head that they might get sued if they don’t.

Are U.S. Taxes Too High?

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

The last-minute deal between Congress and the President managed to save the day, just before the deadline, but it’s not a very specific plan.   Any coherent long term plan for serious deficit reduction will still have to include cuts to defense and cuts to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.  But the Republicans did not want to cut defense, the Democrats did not want to cut Medicare, and they can’t cut the large portion of the Federal budget that goes to interest payments on existing debt.  So instead, in the short run, they load high percentage cuts onto the small percentage of the remaining Federal budget that could be called discretionary.  Thus it seems we will experience very large cuts to items like National Parks, environmental programs, highways, training, education, and social infrastructure.

If the American people really want a government that is extremely small, especially compared to other developed economies such as those in the OECD, then the deficit problem could conceivably be solved by spending cuts alone (as long as those cuts include defense and entitlements).  Certainly some Tea Party Republicans want a Federal budget that small.  But I suspect that some other Republicans only think they want a Federal budget that small and would change their minds once they see the decimation of so many Federal programs.

In 2009, before the current round of cuts, the United States ranked third-to-last among the 23 OECD countries for the percentage of GDP collected by government.  I’m sure we would not want to match the 48% collected by some Scandinavian countries, or even the 40% collected by other European countries.  Somewhere in the middle, Canada appears with 31% of GDP collected by government.  The United States stood at only 24%, which exceeds only Mexico and Chile.  With only spending cuts and no increase in taxes, the U.S. could soon have the smallest government among all 23 nations of the OECD.  The following graph is from the Toronto Globe and Mail.


What might this mean for our state? Illinois is quite unusual, having just raised the State income tax to cover some of the growing annual deficit.  Other states with new Republican governors have drastically cut spending instead of raising taxes.  These actions might nudge Illinois upward, in the ranking of states by the ratio of tax collections to total state income, but it may allow Illinois to meet more of its obligations (including unfunded pension liabilities).  If Illinois did not raise any taxes, it may have had to renege on some such promises.

Republicans would tell you that smaller government and a smaller tax bite is always better for job growth.  But it’s a matter of degree, and a matter of balance.  A state with the smallest possible budget would have very little spending on infrastructure, road quality, sanitation, police protection, education, training, and other social services.  Yet many of those programs are important for businesses to be able to function properly.  The trick is to find the right balance, with spending on the minimal decent level of such programs, as necessary for businesses and employees alike.

With no increase in Federal taxes, the recent deal on cuts in spending is likely to mean cuts in all kinds of Federal discretionary spending, including grants to the states.  The U.S. Congress will then be likely to enact more unfunded state mandates, which means requiring the states to spend their own money to provide basic services that the Federal government used to provide.  State governors and legislators will be unhappy about these changes, with even more pressure on state governments.

Should we raise the amount of income subject to Social Security taxes?

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Jul 18, 2011

 The political climate in Washington has finally shifted to one in which long-term deficit reduction has become a priority.  This is definitely a good thing, given that our long term fiscal path is unsustainable and that any changes we enact will have to be much more painful the longer we wait to enact them. 

While Social Security is only one piece of the federal budget, it is a topic that merits attention.  As part of the debate, one idea that seems to be gaining traction (at least among Democrats) is the idea of raising the amount of income subject to the 12.4% Social Security payroll tax.  Currently, this tax is applied to the first $106,800 of income.  Consistent with this, only income up to $106,800 is counted in the computation of Social Security benefits.  This cap is indexed over time so that it rises with average wage growth.

It has been pointed out by many scholars and analysts that the share of the overall payroll in the U.S. that is above this “taxable maximum” has grown over the decades, a consequence of rising income inequality.  As such, many are calling for this cap to be gradually raised so that it covers a fraction of total payroll that is consistent with decades past.  A common benchmark is to raise contributions by an additional increment – such as an additional 2% per year – until 90 percent of all earnings are covered.  Social Security Actuaries have estimated that, at this rate, it would take about four decades to reach the new, higher taxable maximum, which would be equivalent to about $215,000 today (so roughly a doubling of the income subject to the tax).

Many have argued for this in terms of “fairness.”  Basically, the argument goes, why should the rich not have to pay these taxes on the income above the cap?  The usual argument against raising the cap is that this is essentially 12.4% increase in marginal tax rates on mid/high level earners, and that this level of a tax hike would reduce labor supply incentives and lead to loss of efficiency and reduced economic growth.  In short, it is a classic example of “equity versus efficiency.”  Or so it seems …

In some very good testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee a few weeks ago, Dr. Mark Warshawsky presented some additional arguments against raising the cap.  [Full disclosure – Mark and I are former co-authors, and we also served on the Social Security Advisory Board together for two years.]  In his testimony, Mark raises four additional points that have are often missed, some of which call into question the argument that raising this tax is “fair.”  These four points are:

  1.  “It unfairly targets a specific segment of the population that has not seen particularly large gains in earnings.”  Mark gives a great explanation of this, showing that the vast majority of the increase in earnings for the top 20 percent of the income distribution is actually concentrated in the top 1 percent (in other words, there is growing income inequality even at the top).  Raising the cap from $106,800 to $215,000 would be slamming those who have experienced only moderate earnings growth.
  2. “It is an extra burden in addition to the new taxes imposed on this and other groups to finance Medicare and in the recent health care legislation to finance health insurance coverage for poor and middle-income households.“  The populist tendency is to want to “tax the rich.”  But Mark points out that we have been hitting this group pretty hard.  As he notes, “In 1991, the earnings cap for Medicare Health Insurance (HI) payroll taxes was increased, and in 1994, it was lifted entirely. So these workers already have seen a significant payroll tax increase of 2.9 percent of earnings. Moreover, under the new health care law, an additional HI payroll tax of 0.9 percent will be collected from workers with earnings over $200,000 for single filers and $250,000 for joint filers, effective for taxable years after December 31, 2012. These earnings thresholds are not indexed and hence many of the workers to be hit by this HI tax rate increase will be the same individuals to be hit by the proposed increase in the Social Security taxable maximum. In addition, there is a new tax of 3.8 percent on unearned income of individuals with modified adjusted gross income above $250,000 (in the case of a joint return) or $200,000 (in the case of a single filer return). On top, of course, a progressive income tax structure exists at the federal level and in most states and localities.”
  3. “It will cut private retirement savings.”  Mark calculates that those people affected by this would reduce their private savings by about 4 percent, this coming at a time when personal savings rates are already abysmally low (and even if you do not care about their savings rates directly, it is important to remember that savings is what drives investment, which in turn is what drives economic growth.)
  4. “It represents an unnecessary expansion of the Social Security program.”  This arises because these proposals would grant some additional benefits in return for the additional taxes (although the incremental benefits are a small fraction of the incremental taxes), meaning that we are expanding a fiscally unsustainable program for people who do not really need it (high earners).  You might object by stating that we should treat it as a pure tax and not provide any incremental benefits, but then that just magnifies the other downsides.


Let’s be clear – our fiscal situation is pretty dire, and we need to balance the budget.  As much as I would like this to be done primarily on the spending side, I recognize that we are going to need to raise some revenue.  But of all the possible ways of expanding the nation’s revenue that might providing some efficiency gains (e.g., carbon tax, eliminating numerous corporate tax deductions, limiting tax expenditures, etc.), raising the cap on Social Security should be pretty low on the list.


Would a 28% Limit on Itemized Deductions be Fair?

Filed Under (U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Jul 11, 2011

About two weeks ago, I was contacted by a company that was interested in talking to me for 30 minutes about what information I found valuable as a member of an Audit Committee for a large corporate board.  Their creative (and effective) approach to getting me to take 30 minutes out of my busy schedule to talk to them was to offer to make a $300 charitable donation to any charity of my choosing.  Because I am currently volunteering on a capital campaign to help a local non-profit institution undertake a major capital project, I figured this was a worthwhile effort.  I could help this organization deliver better information to board members, and my favorite non-profit would benefit financially. 

There are two ways to treat this transaction on my taxes.  First – which is the easy route which I suspect most people take – would be to simply ignore this transaction on my taxes, with the rationale being that I received no money.  The second way (and the one that may be the technically correct way to do it – but I will have to check with my accountant!) is to report it as $300 of taxable income, and then also report a $300 tax deductible contribution to the non-profit.  Either way, my tax liability is unchanged by having spent 30 minutes doing this – the charitable deduction exactly offsets any income.

But if the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats have their way, and if I were to perform such a civic act in the future, I would owe about $21 in taxes on this transaction, even though I never received a penny.  Why?

As reported in the July 5 Wall Street Journal article by John McKinnon and Carol Lee, Democrats would like to impose a cap on the value of itemized deductions.  Instead of allowing me to offset my income at my 35% marginal tax rate, they would cap it at 28%.  So, now, I would pay a 35% tax on the $300, and then only get to deduct 28% of $300.  Thus, I pay the difference (7% of $300) in taxes, even though I never saw the money.

Is this fair? 

The main point I want to make with this blog is that “fairness” is not a well-defined economic concept.  It does seem “unfair” to me that I may now have to send the government another $21 just because I decided to do spend 30 minutes helping out these two organizations, even though I did not personally profit from it.  Interestingly, however, the Democrats are justifying this policy solely on the basis of “fairness.”  As the WSJ article states: “Democrats argue that high-income people unfairly benefit from any given tax deduction now more than middle-class people do, just because they are in higher tax brackets.”

I find the Democrats’ position is a difficult one.  We have a progressive tax system that imposes higher marginal tax rates on higher incomes.  Basically, the rich pay more, on average.  So then we decide – for reasons that may be the subject of a future post – that some activities (such as charitable contributions) should be tax deductible.  But then we argue that it is not fair to give a tax deduction to the high earners because they “benefit” more.  But the only reason they “benefit” more from the tax deduction is because we have imposed a higher tax on them to begin with!  So in the name of fairness, we levy higher taxes on the rich, and then in the name of fairness we complain about its implications?

My bottomline is that “fairness” is not actually a well-defined concept.  It is also not a topic on which the economics profession has any comparative advantage in addressing.  We are much better at understanding the impact of policy on incentives, and even on how a policy affects resource distribution (a topic which is presumably related to many concepts of fairness).  So I am always a bit wary when people make unequivocal statements about fairness to justify a policy. 

My treatment of this topic is, admittedly, quite incomplete.  Among the issues I have not addressed, but may in future posts:   1) Is it desirable to allow tax deductions for certain activities at all?  2) Do we think we have too much or too little in the way of charitable giving?  3) What impact would such a policy have on the charities that rely on voluntary donations?  Stay tuned …