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”.

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!


Thoughts on the Current Economic Environment

Filed Under (Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Aug 16, 2011

Larry DeBrock and I were interviewed by News Bureau Business & Law Editor Phil Ciciora, on the chances of another recession, and what the government needs to do to avert another economic crisis.  Below are our responses.

Jeff Brown: The recent volatility in financial markets is one of several indications that we are operating in an environment marked by high levels of economic uncertainty. While I continue to believe that the most likely scenario going forward is that we will continue to experience a very slow recovery marked by a prolonged period of high unemployment, I also believe there is something on the order of a one-in-four chance that we will fall into a second recession.

It appears that markets are responding to three primary concerns. First, we have had a mixed set of economic indicators released in recent weeks suggesting that the recovery in the U.S. is still quite fragile. Second, the sovereign debt problems in Europe – Greece, Spain and Portugal, among others – are weighing heavily on the minds of many investors, as Europe is a major trading partner. Third, there is tremendous political and policy uncertainty about the willingness and ability of the U.S. to get its fiscal house in order.

The down-to-the-wire debt ceiling debate has clearly signaled to the world that our economic policy-making process is dysfunctional, thus casting some doubt on whether we have the political backbone to address the serious fiscal problems that lie before us. Also, the fact that Congress kicked the can down the road by leaving the hard choices in the hands of a Congressional “super-committee” creates tremendous policy uncertainty, leaving individuals and companies unsure what tax rates they will face in the future.

The current economic environment is extremely difficult to navigate. Many believe we need short-term stimulus, such as reducing payroll taxes or increasing government spending, in order to boost economic activity. From a longer-term perspective, the problem is that these are the wrong policies for reducing deficits. And many of the proposals for stimulus really do very little good over the long run because of their explicitly temporary nature.

The most important thing to understand is that the private sector, and not the government, is the real engine of job growth over the long run. So the best thing the government can do is to create a policy environment that is pro-growth.

How do we do this? First, quickly come up with a credible plan for reducing our long-term deficits, one that is more heavily focused on spending cuts than on revenue increases. Second, reform our tax system so that we promote, rather than penalize, business investment, entrepreneurial activity and work. In short, shift taxes away from work and investment (things we want more of) and onto consumption. Third, once we have placed the country on a sustainable fiscal path with reduced spending and pro-growth tax reform, make the tax regime as permanent as possible so that individuals and companies can make long-term decisions with some confidence that the rules won’t change in the middle of the game.

Larry DeBrock:  I am not sure of the true impact of the S&P downgrade. If you look at U.S. Treasuries, the yields have fallen steadily in the days since the announcement by S&P, which indicates that investors are still very much interested in purchasing U.S.-issued debt. Still, the downgrade did have a big impact on both consumer and investor psychology. The inability of Congress to show leadership in the recent debt limit spectacle combined with the formal announcement of a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating has certainly caused some unnerving volatility in the stock market.

Are we headed for another recession? Quite possibly. Americans are impatient and wish for a rapid return to full employment and strong growth in our country’s gross domestic product. But history indicates that the recovery from a deep recession such as we have just experienced is always a slow process. And, this “recovery” is different in that our government is responding in a manner we have not seen before. In other recessions, the government acted “counter-cyclically” in that it would increase its spending in the face of an economic slowdown. In the current climate, our 50 statehouses as well as our lawmakers in Washington are acting to decrease spending. This “pro-cyclical” response has undoubtedly contributed to the slow pace of job recovery and could contribute to factors that end in a double-dip recession.

The response of the Federal Reserve to announce a stable two-year plan to hold interest rates low is a movement in the right direction. However, interest rates have been low for quite some time. The flight away from risk, as indicated by the increase in prices of U.S. Treasuries despite the S&P pronouncement, is very real. The Fed may have to consider another round of quantitative easing, this time aimed at removing riskier assets from the market.

The most troubling economic news is really the debt crisis in Europe. Economists have long argued that having a single currency across multiple sovereign nations with independent fiscal policies was a recipe for disaster. As each week seems to highlight another example of this incompatibility, the Eurozone economies will continue to struggle. And if Europe experiences an economic slowdown, our economy will certainly share some of that pain.

Vacation Blog

Filed Under (Environmental Policy) by Don Fullerton on Aug 6, 2011

Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming of Climatologists

Dateline: August 6, 2011, Champaign, Illinois

Researchers at the University of Illinois have discovered new environmental damages from the burning of fossil fuel with resulting emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other Greenhouse Gases (GHG).  In particular, when these anthropogenic emissions accumulate in the atmosphere and react with sunlight, they may cause climatologists to become hotter and hotter.  So far, this effect has only been observed experimentally in the laboratory, but these experiments confirm the theory among atmospheric chemists that continuation of such emissions for several decades is bound to result not only in global warming of these climatologists and other environmentalists, but also extreme behavioral events similar to hurricanes, floods, and droughts.  

The next key step of this research program, at the University, is to increase data collection quickly, in order to try to ascertain whether the recent aberrations in climatologists’  behavior is within the normal statistical variations or may in fact already by caused by the existing increases in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases.  The stronger hypothesis, yet to be tested, is that the increased concentrations of these gasses in the atmosphere is not just predicted globally to cause agitation and warming of these environmental scientists, but that it is already having such effects.  Already, certain climatologists have experienced high blood pressure, increased internal temperatures above 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and occasional apoplectic seizures.  These extreme behavioral events could be occurring naturally, however, so the hypothesis is not yet proven that these events can be attributed to anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.  More research is required, and researchers at the University of Illinois are applying to the National Science Foundation for that research funding, which may require millions of dollars.

Green Taxes: Potential Revenue for Illinois?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Jul 1, 2011

In early January 2011, the State of Illinois enacted legislation to raise the personal income tax rate from 3% to 5% and to increase the corporate income rate from 4.8% to 7%.  Along with a cap on spending growth, these tax increases reduce the state’s projected budget deficit in 2011 by $3.8 billion (from $10.9 to $7.1 billion), according to the University of Illinois and their Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA Fiscal Fallout #5).  The governor justified the tax increases on the grounds that the State’s “fiscal house was burning” (Chicago Tribune, January 12, 2011).  Dan Karney and I wrote a recent piece for the IGPA Forum, but we don’t debate the reasons for the underlying fiscal crisis in the State of Illinois, nor argue the merits of cutting spending versus raising revenue to balance the budget.  Instead, we just stipulate that politicians decided to raise revenue as part of the solution to the State’s deficit.  Then we analyze the use of “green taxes” as an alternate means of raising revenue that could mitigate or eliminate the need for increasing income taxes.

In general, green taxes are taxes either directly on pollution emissions or on goods whose use causes pollution.  In the revenue-raising context however, the basic argument for green taxes can be summarized by the adage: “tax waste, not work”.  That is, taxes on labor income discourages workers from engaging in productive activities and thus hurts society, while taxing waste discourages harmful pollution and thus benefits society.  In addition, the revenue raised from these green taxes can help the State’s fiscal crisis. 

While many green taxes could be implemented, we focus on four specific examples that have the potential to raise large amounts of revenue: carbon pricing, gasoline taxes, trucking tolls, and garbage fees.  Indeed, as we show, a reasonable set of tax rates on these four items can generate as much revenue as the income tax increase.  That is, imposing green taxes can completely fill the $3.8 billion difference between the projected baseline deficit ($10.9 billion) and the post-tax deficit ($7.1 billion). 

Yet we omit many other potentially high-revenue green taxes.  For example, the State could tax nitrogen-based fertilizers that contribute to nitrogen run-off pollution in streams, rivers, and lakes.  These omissions do not imply that other green taxes could not be implemented.  Also, the simple analysis does not include behavioral responses by consumers and businesses.  Rather, we apply hypothetical green taxes directly to historical quantities of emissions (or polluting products) in order to obtain an approximate level of potential revenue generation.  

In a short series of blogs, one per week, we now discuss each of the four green taxes and their potential for revenue generation.  This week: Carbon Pricing.

In 2008, electricity generators in the State of Illinois emitted almost 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency (EIA).  See the State Historical Tables of their Estimated Emissions by State (EIA-767 and EIA-906).  While the United States has no nationwide price on carbon – neither a tax nor a cap-and-trade (permit) policy – some jurisdictions within the United States have imposed their own carbon policies.  For instance, a coalition of Northeastern states implemented the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to limit CO2 emissions using a permit policy.  To date, RGGI’s modest effort has already generated close to $1 billion in revenue for the coalition states.

If Illinois were to adopt its own carbon pricing policy, then even a modest tax rate or permit price could raise significant revenue.  For instance, a $5 per metric ton CO2 price on emissions from electricity producers generates about $500 million in revenue (or 14.4% of the $3.8 billion raised from the state’s income tax hike).  By way of comparison, if the extra $500 million in emission taxes were entirely passed on to consumers in the form of higher electricity bills, then the average consumer’s bill would increase by 3.75%  (where $13.3 billion is spent annually on electricity in Illinois).

Table 1 reports the possible “revenue enhancement” from the $5 per metric ton tax, along with three other pricing scenarios.  Both the $5 and $10 rates are hypothetical prices created by the authors for expositional purposes.  In contrast, the $20 per metric ton price is approximately the carbon price faced by electricity producers in Europe’s Emission Trading System (ETS).  At the $20 rate, a carbon tax in Illinois generates almost $2 billion – over half of the tax revenue from the income tax increases.  Finally, the $40 tax rate (or carbon price) is from Richard S. J. Tol (2009), “The Economic Effects of Climate Change,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23(2): 29-51.  It is an estimate of the optimal carbon price that accounts for all of the negative effects from carbon emissions.  At this “optimal” price, the revenue from pricing carbon in Illinois by itself could replace the needed tax revenue from the State’s income tax increase.

Don’t be fooled . . .

Filed Under (Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Apr 15, 2011

 . . .  by proposals to cut taxes.  Fiscally, such proposals are dangerously irresponsible.  The U.S. debt is huge, and the annual deficit is adding to it daily.  Increasing proportions of our debt are owned by China and other countries.  We need to reduce the annual deficit, just to reduce the huge current interest payments on the debt, which crowd out other beneficial forms of government spending. 

As much as the taxpayers might wish for tax cuts, those tax cuts would only add to the nation’s future fiscal woes.  The claim that a tax cut might raise revenue is counterintuitive, pandering, and certainly not supported by any recent economic history.  President Reagan enacted the biggest tax cut in history at the time, and the deficit ballooned.  He also had to backtrack several times with tax increases to fix the problem.  President Clinton raised taxes, which was followed by one of the strongest sustained recoveries in our nation’s history (and years of U.S. budget surplus).  President Bush cut taxes again, which was followed by deficits that exceeded those of the Reagan Administration.   It’s only logical, face it, that tax cuts lead to deficits!

Given the current huge U.S. deficit, the only responsible course is some combination of spending cuts, continued borrowing during a period of deficit reduction, and selected tax increases.  We have choices to face, about who should suffer from those spending cuts and who should face the  tax increases, but none of THAT debate can deny the fundamental reality that somebody has to suffer from spending cuts, and somebody has to face tax increases.

Gas prices are back in the news

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Mar 11, 2011

Gas prices are back in the news, simply because gas prices are rising.  Reporters like to discuss WHY gas prices are rising, but who knows?  The price of gasoline or crude oil can vary with any change, either in supply or demand.  We can always point to shifts in demand (like the growing economies of China and India), and we can always point to shifts in supply (like the shutdown of production due to unrest in countries of the Middle East and North Africa).  But it’s very difficult to sort out the net impact of each such factor, since the price is affected daily by so many different changes.

Instead of trying to answer that question here and now, let’s take a step back and look at whether any of the current changes are really that unusual.  Is the price of gas really high by historical standards?  And how much of that gas price is driven by energy policy, taxes, and factors under the control of policymakers?  In other words, let’s just look at the facts for now, and then try to analyze them later!

Here are the facts, for the fifty years since 1960.  The first figure below is from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).  Look first at the BLUE line, where we see what you already know:  the nominal price of gasoline has risen from $0.31/gallon to what’s now $3.56/gallon.  It’s driving us broke, right?

Well, not so fast.  The RED line corrects for inflation, showing all years’ prices in 2011 dollars.  So both series stand at $3.56/gallon in 2011, but the red line shows that the “real” (inflation-corrected) price of gasoline back in 1960 was $2.33/gallon.  In fact, compare the red line from 1960 to 2009: over those fifty years, the real price of gasoline only changed from $2.33 to $2.42 per gallon – virtually no change in the real price at all! 

From 2009 to 2011 the real price increased beyond $2.42, rising to $3.56/gallon, but that may be temporary.  You can see that the red line bounces around for the whole fifty year period.   In 1980, the real price was $3.35/gallon, so the current price is not much different from previous upward blips in the real price of gas.

Now look at the U.S. Federal Gasoline Tax Rate, in the next figure.  The red line in the next figure shows that the nominal statutory tax rate was four cents per gallon for years, and then it was increased in various increments to 18 cents per gallon today.  But of course, inflation has changed the real value of that tax rate as well.  Using 2011 dollars again, both real and nominal tax rates are 18 cents per gallon today.  But in 2011 dollars, the 4 cents per gallon back in 1960 was really equivalent to 29 cents today.  In other words, the real gas tax in the green line has fallen from 29 cents per gallon fifty years ago to only 18 cents today.

The gas price may be rising, but not due to any increase in the Federal gas tax.  That Federal gas tax is falling in real terms.  In the next entry, we’ll take a look at the various State gas tax rates, and we’ll look at how many of those taxes are fixed per gallon – so that they fall in real terms as inflation reduces the real value of those State tax rates.

If It’s Difficult, Then Let’s Just Not Do It?

Filed Under (U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Dec 17, 2010

Last week, when President Obama announced his compromise with Republicans over the Bush era tax cuts, the general perception throughout the media left one feeling like the Democrats just had their milk money stolen.  All the talk of being taken hostage by the Republicans did little to ease that feeling.  After working through all the talking points, politicking, and pandering, however, this much is clear: the debate has no obvious winners and losers.  Both sides are getting watered down versions of what they really wanted. The basic premise of the deal is as follows:

  1. The Bush era tax cuts are extended for everyone for the next two years. 
  2. Unemployment benefits are extended for 13 months. 
  3. The estate tax is back, in modified form. 
  4. Social Security taxes are cut for one year.

 The tax cut at the top may help the rich more than desired by Democrats, but then the extra Social  Security tax cut will help low-income families, and ALL those cuts will help stimulate the moribund economy.

The crux of the Republicans argument is that we are in danger of a double dip recession if the tax cuts expire, a talking point the White House has not been shy about echoing in recent days.  Interesting to note is a perceived contradiction by Republicans whereby they refuse to approve anything that might add to the national debt, such as the 9/11 Emergency Responders bill.  Yet, extending the tax cuts implies 3.9 trillion dollars in lost revenue over the next ten years.  The GOP counters that since the cuts are currently in effect, it’s not technically adding to the deficit. 

 What is missing from the equation here is any viable long term plan agreed upon by both parties.  Yes, we get to do it all again, in just two years!   The long term deficit can still be cut, but any meaningful cuts will have to include Medicaid, Social Security, and the military.  God speed the politician brave enough to raise those issues.  Our elected officials are really doing little more than pushing these problems off for the next 24 months, as one party attempts to out-politic the other.  It’s a Ponzi Scheme, as pointed out in my earlier blog!

 If the American Congress could tackle as many issues every month as they are through the month of December, American politics would look a lot different.  We have seen critical votes attempting to resolve critical issues ranging from the 9/11 Responders health care, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and now the Bush era tax cuts, the estate tax, unemployment benefits extension, and more, all rolled into one.  If only Congress could exist as a permanent lame duck!

Why are we doing this?

Filed Under (About this Blog, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Sep 10, 2010

The primary purpose of this blog is to help citizens to read the newspaper and understand some public policy debate from more analytical perspectives.  Each of us truly believes that economic analysis has something to say about the world, and particularly about public policy.  So we give examples of what economics would say about one problem or another.

Often, when I explain some economic analysis, somebody says “well, that’s just good common sense!”.   Exactly.  Good economic analysis should be just good common sense.  Think about direct effects, and indirect effects, and then line up all the pros and cons.  The problem is that good common sense is just so rare these days.  Especially in politics.

I don’t mean to make political statements here, in this blog about how to analyze economic problems.  But let’s look critically at some statements by politicians AND economists, and use some good common sense.  Consider what you’ve heard: “I support a new research and development tax credit, because it will create jobs”.  Really?  Maybe.  But that can’t be the true primary purpose.  What does your common sense say?  If the true goal were to create jobs, then create jobs!  Government could hire people, or provide specific tax incentives targeted toward new hires.  The purpose of an R&D tax credit ought to be incentives to do R&D!  It should stand or fall on those merits.

There may be plenty of good reasons to enact an R&D credit, but let’s discuss THOSE reasons.  Let’s have an informed discussion.  Most importantly, let’s help newspaper readers decipher this kind of pandering, reject it, and insist upon hearing the true advantages and disadvantages of the policy.  Let’s have an informed debate and make the best decisions.

For another example, take the current debate about whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts that are soon to expire.  Some say that this recession is the wrong time to raise taxes, while others point to huge budget deficits that would be made worse by cutting taxes. In particular, President Obama wants to make permanent the tax cuts on those earning less than $250,000 per year, and not extend the cuts on those earning more.  (Actually, of course, you have undoubtedly noticed the semantic problem, where Republicans say it would “raise taxes”, while Democrats say “not extend the Bush-era tax cuts”).

Let’s look critically.  This debate raises THREE separate issues, where many commentators have deliberately confused the issue by talking about one when they really mean something else.  The three issues are (1) details of good tax policy, (2) the recession, and (3) how much to tax the rich compared to the poor or middle class.

First, policymakers could raise some taxes and lower others.  The analysis of good tax policy involves many such choices about each credit or deduction, which requires details and debate on each such feature of the tax code.  Raising or lowering the rate of tax is not the only option; policymakers COULD provide targeted credits (i.e. for jobs or for R&D), or they could simply enforce existing laws and collect from those who currently cheat!

Second, both sides of the debate point to the recession, as a reason to cut taxes on the middle class, or as a reason to cut taxes on the rich.  Both of those arguments are beside the point.  Politicians like to appeal to the fears of voters by invoking the recession and jobs.  But it can’t possibly make much difference to the recession whether we cut taxes on the rich, or cut taxes on the poor or middle class – for the same overall tax revenue.  

Third, the key to this debate is not whether to raise or lower overall taxes.  It’s about the balance of taxes on the rich vs. poor.  On THAT debate, economics has no special role!  It’s a matter of personal preference, ethics, or social justice.  Society must decide how much to take from the rich in order to help the poor through tax cuts or social safety net.  Both sides of the debate are being disingenuous by appealing to other arguments, that a tax cut will hurt the deficit or help the economy.  We are not debating any major tax cut or stimulus here; the debate is all about how much to tax the rich vs. how much to tax the poor or middle class, those under $250,000 per year. has an excellent insight into this debate over the actual utility of the tax cuts and what their designed goal is versus their stated goal.  I encourage you to check out her post from 9/13, “Those ‘Best for Nothing’ Bush/Obama Tax Cuts”.  In it she makes the case that “for whatever economic goal you can think of, whether short-term or longer-term, there’s some fiscal policy even better suited for that goal.  So the Bush/Obama tax cuts aren’t ‘good for nothing.’  They’re just ‘best for nothing’.”