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What do indoor tanning, shopping bags, junk food, alcoholic beverages, tobacco, “gas guzzling” cars, ozone-depleting chemicals, sugary drinks, marijuana, gasoline, coal, carbon-containing fuels, and financial transactions have in common? Taxes that discourage them. The United States taxes indoor tanning to reduce skin cancer, for example, while Washington DC taxes shopping bags to cut litter, and Mexico taxes junk food to fight obesity.

Governments hope these “corrective taxes” will reduce harms from pollution, unhealthy consumption, and other risky behaviors. But taxing “bads” can also bring in big money. A US carbon tax could easily raise more than $100 billion annually, for example, and a tax on sugary drinks could raise $10 billion.

How should governments use that money? As you might expect, policymakers, advocates, and analysts have proposed myriad ways to use the revenue to pay for new spending, to cut taxes, or, in a few cases, to reduce borrowing. In a new paper, however, Adele Morris and I argue that all these options boil down to four basic approaches:

Revenue Use Table 2

Advocates often suggest that revenue be put toward the same goal as the tax. Carbon tax revenues might subsidize energy efficiency or clean energy, for example, and sugary drink revenues might subsidize healthier food or nutrition information programs. Using revenue that way may make sense if you believe the tax won’t sufficiently change business and consumer choices. But there are downsides. A successful tax will typically reduce the potential benefits from other policies aimed at the same goal. As a result, it may make sense to roll back other policies, rather than expand them, when a substantial corrective tax is implemented. Directing revenues to the same goal may also limit lawmakers’ ability to build a coalition for a corrective tax, while other uses may attract supporters with other priorities.

Another approach is to use the revenue to offset the burdens that a corrective tax creates. New taxes on food, energy, and other products can squeeze household budgets, particularly for families with lower incomes. Shrinking the market for targeted products may disproportionately burden specific workers, industries, and communities. If a tax is large enough, moreover, it may slow overall economic activity. Tax cuts, expansions in transfer programs, or other spending increases may offset some of these harms while leaving the incentives intact. This is particularly important when taxes are intended to help people who suffer from internalities—health risks and other costs they unintentionally impose on themselves. In those cases, rebating revenue to affected consumers can help ensure that a tax actually helps the people who pay it.

A third approach is to use revenues to offset costs of the taxed activity. If an activity imposes costs on an identifiable group of people, it may make sense to compensate them for the harm. A US tax on coal does this, for example, by funding assistance to workers who develop black lung disease. Revenues can also cover some costs of providing public services that support the taxed activity. Fuel taxes paid by drivers, airplane passengers, and maritime shippers , for example, help fund the creation and maintenance of the associated infrastructure.

Finally, governments could treat corrective taxes like any revenue source, with receipts used to reduce borrowing, boost spending, or cut taxes in ways unrelated to the goal of the tax. Governments could allocate the money using ordinary budget processes, as Berkeley, California does with its soda tax revenue, or could earmark revenues to specific efforts, as France does by directing some financial transactions tax revenue to international aid.

Policymakers must consider a host of factors when deciding what mix of these options to pursue. Complete flexibility may allow them to put revenue to its best use over time. But surveys suggest that the public is often skeptical of corrective taxes if they don’t know how the revenue will be used. Many worry, for example, that the corrective intent of a tax may just be a cover story for policymakers’ real goal of expanding government.

Recycling corrective tax revenue into offsetting tax cuts can assuage that concern. But revenue neutrality has downsides as well. Matching incoming revenues and offsetting tax cuts may be difficult, given uncertainties in future revenues from a corrective tax and any offsetting tax cuts. In addition, it may be easier to achieve some distributional goals through spending than tax reductions. For example, a new spending program may be a more straightforward way to help coal miners hurt by a carbon tax than some kludgy tax credit. People who generally oppose wholesale revenue increases from corrective taxes should thus be open to modest deviations from revenue neutrality that provide a more effective way to accomplish policy goals.

With obesity and diabetes at record levels, many public health experts believe governments should tax soda, sweets, junk food, and other unhealthy foods and drinks. Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, and Mexico have such taxes. So do Berkeley, California and the Navajo Nation. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is waging a high-profile campaign to get Britain to tax sugar, and the Washington Post has endorsed the same for the United States.

Do such taxes make sense? My Urban Institute colleagues Maeve Gearing and John Iselin and I explore that question in a new report, Should We Tax Unhealthy Foods and Drinks?

Many nutrients and ingredients have been suggested as possible targets for taxes, including fat, saturated fat, salt, artificial sweeteners, and caffeine. Our sense, though, is that only sugar might be a plausible candidate.

Sugar in foods and drinks contributes to obesity, diabetes, and other conditions. By increasing the price of products that contain sugar, taxes can get people to consume less of them and thus improve nutrition and health. Health care costs would be lower, and people would live healthier, longer lives. Governments could put the resulting revenue to good use, perhaps by helping low-income families or cutting other taxes.

That’s the pro case for a sugar tax, and it’s a good one. But policymakers need to consider the downsides too. Taxes impose real costs on consumers who pay the tax or switch to other options that may be more expensive, less enjoyable, or less convenient.

That burden would be particularly large for lower-income families. We find that a US tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would be highly regressive, imposing more than four times as much burden, relative to income, on people in the bottom fifth of the income distribution as on those in the top fifth.

Another issue is how well sugar consumption tracks potential health costs and risks. If you are trying to discourage something harmful, taxes work best when there is a tight relationship between the “dose” that gets taxed and the “response” of concern. Taxes on cigarettes and carbon are well-targeted given tight links to lung cancer and climate change, respectively. The dose-response relationship for sugar, however, varies across individuals depending on their metabolisms, lifestyle, and health. Taxes cannot capture that variation; someone facing grave risks pays the same sugar tax rate as someone facing minute ones. That limits what taxes alone can accomplish.

In addition, people may switch to foods and drinks that are also unhealthy. If governments tax only sugary soda, for example, some people will switch to juice, which sounds healthier but packs a lot of sugar. It’s vital to understand how potential taxes affect entire diets, not just consumption of targeted products.

A final concern, beyond the scope of our report, is whether taxing sugar is an appropriate role for government. Some people strongly object to an expanding “nanny state” using taxes to influence personal choices. Others view taxes as acceptable only if individual choices impose costs on others. Eating and drinking sugar causes such “externalities” when insurance spreads resulting health care costs across other people. Others go further and view taxes as an acceptable way to reduce “internalities” as well, the overlooked harms consumers impose on themselves.

Policymakers must weigh all those concerns when considering whether to tax sugar. If they decide to do so, they should focus on content, not proxies like drink volume or sales value. Mexico, for example, taxes sweetened drinks based on their volume, a peso per liter. That encourages consumers to reduce how much they drink but does nothing to encourage less sugary alternatives. That’s a big deal because sugar content ranges enormously. Some drinks have less than 10 grams of sugar (2 ½ teaspoons) per serving, while others have 30 grams (7 ½ teaspoons) or more. Far better would be a content-based tax that encourages switching from the 30-gram drinks to the 10-gram ones.

Focusing on sugar content would bring another benefit. Most sugar tax discussions focus on changing consumer choices. But consumers aren’t in this alone. Food and beverage companies and retailers determine what products they make, market, and sell. Taxing drink volumes or the sales value of sugary food gives these companies no incentive to develop and market lower-sugar alternatives. Taxing sugar content, however, would encourage them to explore all avenues for reducing the sugar in what we eat and drink.

Note: I updated this post on December 15.

Should you face an extra tax if you drink soda? Eat potato chips? Uncork some wine? Light up a cigarette or joint? Toast yourself in a tanning booth? Many governments think so. Mexico taxes junk food. Berkeley taxes sugary soft drinks. Countless governments tax alcohol and tobacco. Several states tax marijuana. And thanks to health reform, the U.S. government taxes indoor tanning.

One rationale for these taxes is that some personal choices impose costs on other people, what economists call externalities. Your drinking threatens bystanders if you get behind the wheel. Tanning-induced skin cancer drives up health insurance costs.

Another rationale is that people sometimes overlook costs they themselves face, known as internalities. Limited self-control, inattention, or poor information can cause people to eat too many sweets, drink too much alcohol, or take up smoking only to later regret the harm.

In a new paper, Should We Tax Internalities Like Externalities?, I examine whether the internality rationale is as strong as the externality one. Economists have long argued that taxes can be a good way to put a price on externalities like the pollutants causing climate change, but does the same logic apply to internalities?

People who look down on certain activities sometimes think so, with taxes being a way to discourage “sinful” conduct. People who prioritize public health often favor such taxes as a way to encourage healthier behavior. Those who emphasize personal responsibility, by contrast, often oppose such taxes as infringing on individual autonomy—the overreaching “nanny state.”

Economists don’t have much to say about sin. But we do have ideas about balancing health and consumer autonomy. One approach is to focus on efficiency: How do the benefits of a tax compare to its costs? Internalities and externalities both involve people consuming too much because they overlook some costs. Taxes can serve as a proxy for those overlooked costs and reduce consumption to a more beneficial level. In that way, the logic of taxing internalities is identical to that for taxing externalities.

But that equivalence comes with a caveat. Internality taxes should be targeted only at harms we overlook. If people recognize the health risks of eating bacon but still choose to do so, there is no efficiency rationale for a tax. Informed consumers have decided the pleasure is worth the risk. Efficiency thus differs sharply from sin and public health views that would tax harmful products regardless of whether consumers appreciate the risks.

Economists often temper cost-benefit comparisons with concerns about the distribution of gains and losses. At first glance, taxes on internalities and externalities generate similar equity concerns. Both target consumption, so both may fall more heavily on poor families, which tend to spend larger shares of their incomes. But there’s another caveat. Internality taxes do not target consumption in general. Instead, they target products whose future costs consumers often overlook. Nearly everyone does that, but it may be more of a problem for people with low incomes. The stress of poverty, for example, can make it more difficult to evaluate the long-term costs of decisions today. As a result, taxes aimed at internalities are more likely to hit low-income families than are those aimed at externalities.

A third, paternalistic perspective focuses on people who overlook harms. Do internality taxes help them? To meet that standard, the benefit consumers get from reducing purchases must exceed their new tax burden. That can be a high hurdle. If consumers only buy a little less, they may end up with small health gains but a large tax bill. That might be a success from an efficiency perspective since the tax revenue ultimately helps someone. But it’s a loss from the perspective of affected consumers.

The economic case for taxing internalities is thus weaker than for taxing externalities. Internality taxes raise greater distributional concerns, and they place a new burden on the people they are intended to help. Internality taxes can still make sense if consumers find it easy to cut back on taxed products (so health gains are large relative to the new tax burden), if overlooked health risks are very large (as with smoking), or if governments rebate revenues to affected consumers. But when those conditions do not hold, we should be skeptical.

Can Nudges Improve Government?

Behavioral “nudges” can increase college enrollment by low-income students, boost health insurance take up, encourage federal workers to save for retirement, cut delinquencies on student loans, reduce vendor fraud, and save paper, according to the first annual report of the White House’s “nudge” unit.

President Obama established the unit—officially known as the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST)—to use insights from psychology, behavioral economics, and other decision sciences to improve federal programs and operations. Those social sciences increasingly appreciate what regular folks have long known: people are imperfect. We procrastinate. We avoid making choices. We get confused and discouraged by complex forms. We forget to do things. We sometimes lack the energy to weigh decisions thoroughly, so we act based on what we think our peers do or how choices are framed. And we sometimes cut corners when we think no one is looking.

Changing how people engage with the choices they face—“nudging” them—can reduce those imperfections and substantially affect their decisions. The SBST is exploring how that insight can improve government activities. To date, it’s completed more than 15 pilots exploring such questions as:

  • Can prompted choice and sending reminders increase service-member participation in employee retirement plans? Yes.
  • Can personalized text messages reduce “summer melt,” the failure to enroll of low-income students accepted to colleges? Yes.
  • Can reminder emails reduce student loan delinquencies? Yes, modestly.
  • Can a simple change to a form reduce vendor low-balling of the fees they owe the government? Yes, a bit.
  • Can redesigning a collection letter increase debt recovery? No, at least not the letter that SBST tested.
  • Can notifying doctors that they are especially high prescribers of controlled substances reduce inappropriate prescriptions in Medicare? No, but SBST is trying new notifications.
  • Can a pop-up box get employees to print double-sided rather than single-sided? Yes.

These examples run the gamut from the life-changing to the almost trivial. But they illustrate a common theme: details matter. Policy debates usually focus on high-level issues. Should health insurance be offered on exchanges? Should student loan repayments be limited as a share of a borrower’s income? But after such issues are settled, their impact depends on how policies are implemented. The nitty-gritty of designing forms, deciding how and when to prompt people, and framing and communicating options really matter.

The SBST’s first year also demonstrates the importance of testing new approaches before rolling them out at large scale. It isn’t enough to recognize that particular nudges can influence people. Where possible, agencies should test different approaches to see how they work in specific circumstances. Letters comparing your behavior to your peers’ may encourage people to conserve electricity and pay their taxes, for example, but as one pilot found, that doesn’t mean that they will get doctors to prescribe fewer opioids.

On Tuesday, President Obama signed an executive order making the SBST a permanent part of the White House and directing government agencies to use behavioral sciences to improve their programs and operations. That move is consistent with a larger, bipartisan effort to bring more evidence to bear on the design and implementation of federal programs. The government shouldn’t operate in the dark when there’s an opportunity to use evidence to make programs more efficient and effective.

That potential comes with responsibility, however. One of the most important lessons from behavioral science is that framing matters. Government nudges are a perfect case in point. I’ve been characterizing the SBST’s efforts as “pilots” and “testing new approaches” to improve government activities. Those words are innocuous or positive. As a recent headline illustrates, however, this effort can also be characterized as “President Obama Orders Behavioral Experiments on American People.” That sounds much more ominous.

That characterization reflects concern about the goals of government nudging and the oversight of experiments. Are they really trying to improve our government and lives? Or are they manipulating us to do whatever Uncle Sam wants?

The most effective response is transparency. Tell the American people about the experiments, their goals, and their results. The SBST deserves good marks on that dimension. Its first report provides a good deal of information about each of the pilot studies, both the successes and the failures. As behavioral approaches spread, the government should build on that transparency to ensure that policymakers, media, and the public have the evidence they need to judge their merits.

Climate change is hot. From the pope’s encyclical to the upcoming United Nations conference in Paris, leaders are debating how to slow and eventually stop the warming of our planet.

We economists think we have an answer: put a price on carbon dioxide and the other gases driving climate change. When emissions are free, businesses, consumers, and governments pollute without thinking. But put a price on that pollution and watch how clean they become.

That’s the theory. And it’s a good one. But translating it from the economist’s whiteboard to reality is challenging. A carbon price that works well in principle may stumble in practice. A real carbon price will inevitably fall short of the theoretical ideal. Practical design challenges thus deserve close attention.

To help policymakers, analysts, and the public address those challenges, Eric Toder, Lydia Austin, and I have published a new report, “Taxing Carbon: What, Why, and How,” on putting a price on carbon.

Some highlights:

  • Lawmakers could put a price on carbon either by levying a tax or by setting a limit on emissions and allowing trading of emission rights. These approaches have much in common. Politically, however, a carbon tax is on the upswing. Cap and trade failed in 2010, while interest in taxing carbon is growing, including three bills in Congress and endorsements from analysts of diverse ideological stripes.
  • Carbon prices already exist. At least 15 governments tax carbon outright, and more than 25 have emissions trading systems. Those efforts have demonstrated that the economists’ logic holds. If you put a price on carbon, people emit less.
  • Figuring out the appropriate tax rate is hard. The Obama administration estimates that the “social cost of carbon” is currently about $42 per metric ton. But the right figure could easily be double that, or half. That uncertainty is not a reason to not tax carbon. But it does mean we should maintain flexibility to revisit the price as new evidence arrives.
  • Taxing carbon could reduce the need for regulations, tax breaks, and other subsidies that currently encourage cleaner energy. Rolling back those policies, in particular EPA regulations for existing power plants, may make policy sense and will likely be essential to the politics of enacting a carbon tax. But the details matter. Rolling back existing policies makes more sense with a carbon tax that’s high and broad, than with one that’s low and narrow.
  • By itself, a carbon tax would be regressive: low-income families would bear a greater burden, relative to their incomes, than would high-income families. We can reduce that burden, or even reverse it, by recycling some carbon revenue into refundable tax credits or other tax cuts focused on low-income families.
  • By itself, a carbon tax would weaken the overall economy, at least for several decades. That too can be reduced, and perhaps even reversed, by recycling some carbon revenue into offsetting tax cuts, such as to corporate income taxes.
  • Unfortunately, there’s a tradeoff. The most progressive recycling options do the least to help economic growth. And the recycling options that do the most for growth would leave the tax system less progressive.
  • A global agreement on carbon reductions would be preferable to the United States acting alone.  Given the nation’s size and contribution to global emissions, a unilateral tax would make a difference, but would damage the competitiveness of some US industries. Special relief for these sectors could reduce the benefits of the tax, but may be necessary both practically and politically.

A carbon tax won’t be perfect. Done well, however, it could efficiently reduce the emissions that cause climate change and encourage innovation in cleaner technologies. The resulting revenue could finance tax reductions, spending priorities, or deficit reduction—policies that could offset the tax’s distributional and economic burdens, improve the environment, or otherwise lift Americans’ well-being.

The challenge is designing a carbon tax that delivers on that potential. We hope our new report helps elevate what will surely be a heated debate.

Return of the Cicadas

The world’s most fascinating insects live in the eastern United States. Periodical cicadas spend most of their lives underground, sucking up nutrients from tree and shrub roots. But every 13 or 17 years, they emerge en masse to reproduce. If you are in the right spot (this year, parts of Kansas and the Mississippi Valley), you can see thousands or tens of thousands all at once. (For information on Broods XXIII and IV, which are emerging this year, see magicicada.org).

Film-maker Samuel Orr is making a full-length documentary of their remarkable lives. His promotion video is an outstanding documentary in its own right:

Full disclosure: I provided some financial support for Sam’s documentary. And I posted a similar post two years ago.

The House recently changed the rules of budget scoring: The Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation will now account for macroeconomic effects when estimating the budget impacts of major legislation. Here are three things you should know as we await the first official dynamic score.

1. Spending and regulations matter, not just taxes

You might think dynamic scoring is just about taxes. It’s not. Spending and regulatory policies can also move the economy. Take the Affordable Care Act. CBO estimates that the law’s insurance subsidies will reduce labor supply by 1.5 to 2.0 percent from 2017 to 2024, some 2 to 2.5 million full-time equivalent workers. If CBO and JCT do a dynamic score of the House’s latest ACA repeal, this effect will be front and center.

The same goes for immigration reform. In 2013 (and in 2006), CBO and JCT included some macroeconomic effects in their score of comprehensive immigration reform, though they did not do a fully dynamic score. Under today’s rules, reform would show an even bigger boost to the economy and more long-term deficit reduction than the agencies projected in the earlier bills.

2. Dynamic scoring isn’t new

For more than a decade, CBO and JCT have published dynamic analyses using multiple models and a range of assumptions. For example, JCT projected former House Ways & Means Committee chairman Dave Camp’s tax reform plan would boost the size of the economy (not its growth rate) by 0.1 to 1.6 percent over 2014 to 2023. The big step in dynamic scoring will be winnowing such multiple estimates into the single set of projections required for official scores.

Observers understandably worry about how the scorekeepers will do that. For example, what will JCT and CBO do with certain forward-looking models that require assumptions not just about the policy in question but also about policy decisions Congress will make in the future? If the agencies score a tax cut today, do they also have to include future tax increases or spending cuts to pay for it, even if Congress doesn’t specify them? If so, how should the agencies decide what those offsetting policies are? Does the existence of such models undermine dynamic scoring from the start?

Happily, we already have a good sense of what the agencies will do, and no, the existence of such models doesn’t hamstring them. At least twice a year, CBO and JCT construct baseline budget projections under existing law. That law often includes scheduled policy changes, most notably the (in)famous “fiscal cliff” at the end of 2012. CBO and JCT had to include the macro effects of the cliff in their budget baseline at that time, even though they had no idea whether and how Congress might offset those policies further in the future. That’s dynamic scoring in all its glory, just applied to the baseline rather than analyzing new legislation. CBO and JCT didn’t need to assume hypothetical future policies to score the fiscal cliff, and they won’t need to in scoring legislation either.

3. Dynamic scoring won’t live up to the hype, on either side

Some advocates hope that dynamic scoring will usher in a new era of tax cuts and entitlement reforms. Some opponents fear that they are right.

Reality will be more muted. Dynamic scores of tax cuts, for example, will include the pro-growth incentive effects that advocates emphasize, leading to more work and private investment. But they will also account for offsetting effects, such as higher deficits crowding out investment or people working less because their incomes rise. As previous CBO analyses have shown, the net of those effects often reveals less growth than advocates hope. Indeed, don’t be surprised if dynamic scoring sometimes shows tax cuts are more expensive than conventionally estimated; that can easily happen if pro-growth incentives aren’t large enough to offset anti-growth effects.

Detractors also worry that dynamic scoring is an invitation for JCT or CBO to cherry pick model assumptions to favor the majority’s policy goals. Doing so runs against the DNA of both organizations. Even if it didn’t, the discipline of twice-yearly budget baselines discourages cherry picking. Neither agency wants to publish rosy dynamic scenarios that are inconsistent with how they construct their budget baselines. You don’t want to forecast higher GDP when scoring a tax bill enacted in October, and have that GDP disappear in the January baseline.

I am cautiously optimistic about dynamic scoring. Done well, it can help Congress and the public better understand the fiscal effects of major policies. There are still some process issues to resolve, most notably how investments might be handled, but we should welcome the potential for better information.

For more views, see the dynamic scoring forum at TaxVox, the blog of the Tax Policy Center.

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