Archive for February, 2010

In case you hadn’t heard:  the DC area was socked with a boatload of snow over the weekend. We got 27 inches here in Bethesda, and many areas received comparable amounts (pay no attention to the official measure at National Airport which is mysteriously low at 18 inches).

The Washington Post reports on some of the etiquette questions that the snow has created. Being an economist, however, I would describe them as property rights questions. For example, what are your rights if you dig out a parking space?

Boston has codified its citizens’ right to benefit from their backbreaking snow-clearing labor; a city law says that if you dig out your car in a snow emergency, a lawn chair or trash can renders the spot yours for at least two days while you’re away at work. In Chicago, blocking a parking spot is illegal, but city officials acknowledge an informal rule of dibs if you’ve done the digging.

“I know this is public property, but if you spent hours laboring, I mean, come on, I think you have the right to say that is my spot,” said Tanya Barbour, who spent two hours Sunday shoveling free her silver Ford Expedition in the 1500 block of T Street NW. “If someone had clearly taken the time to shovel it out, I would not take that spot because I would not want that done to me.”

Across the District and in the Maryland suburbs Monday, many were not relying on Barbour’s honor system. Some used Boston-style markers — lawn chairs, recycling bins, orange cones, a mattress, even two bar stools with a Swiffer on top — to try to save spots along residential streets.

Keith Green, 37, said he’s heard too many scary stories to slip into a spot someone has blocked off. After the 1996 storm, a man was killed outside New York after a dispute over a shoveled parking spot. In Philadelphia in 2000, it happened again. In South Boston, a handful of assaults, slashed tires and other cases of vandalism end up in District Court each year after drivers are perceived to have broken the code.

In the District, said city transportation spokesman John Lisle, blocking spots is illegal. “We would hope people would work together and clear out several spaces instead of just one, but you can’t block a space,” he said.

In Chicago, Matt Smith, a spokesman for the Streets and Sanitation Department, said the lesson from a more snow-savvy city is that although “staking out a spot may save your space temporarily, it’s bound to create problems with your neighbors.”

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The Problem with Tax Expenditures

Last week, Len Burman published a provocative op-ed suggesting that President’s Obama idea of freezing non-security discretionary spending amounts to “chump change” and that if he wants to make real budget improvements the President should propose to freeze tax expenditures (i.e., all the various preferences in our famously complex tax code). By Len’s calculations, such a freeze would increase tax revenues by $3.5 trillion over the budget window, 14 times as much as the $250 billion in spending reductions from the narrow spending freeze.

Over at the National Journal, John Maggs interviewed Len about his proposal and then asked various experts for their reactions.  Here’s what I wrote:

Len is right to focus attention on tax expenditures. They involve big money, distort our conception of the size of government, often disproportionately favor the affluent, and receive too little oversight.

He’s also right that they deserve special attention when Congress decides that it wants to increase tax revenues. As Len says in the interview: “Cutting tax expenditures is a much better way to do this than raising marginal tax rates since the former tends to improve economic efficiency by reducing economic distortions — for example, among different kinds of investments — while the latter increases the economic cost of taxation.”

Of course, there are some complications. In addition to the obvious political challenges, tax expenditure cutters face another problem: agreeing on what provisions should actually be characterized as tax expenditures. One could, of course, just use whatever definitions the Treasury and the Joint Committee on Taxation use. But analysts do not agree on which provisions are really spending programs in disguise.

Some cases are easy. Tax credits for using ethanol-blended motor fuels are clearly spending programs run through the tax code. But then there are items like the 15% tax rate on capital gains and dividends. That rate is scored as a tax expenditure in the current system because 15% is lower than the rates on ordinary income. It wouldn’t be viewed as a tax expenditure, however, by analysts who believe that a consumption tax, rather than an income tax, should be the lodestar for judging tax policies. My point is not to take sides on that issue, but just to point out that there is sincere debate about which items labeled as tax expenditures should be viewed as hidden spending programs and which as good tax policy.

In response to one question, Len raises the idea of subjecting all tax expenditures to annual reauthorization as one way to rein them in. I appreciate the desire for greater oversight, but I find this idea worrisome. We are already cursed with a tax system in which an enormous number of provisions are scheduled to expire. That creates needless uncertainty, placing a real burden on businesses and families and often undermining the very intent of the tax provisions. As a case in point, consider the research and experimentation tax credit, which Congress extends every year or two. That’s absurd. If the credit is good policy, it should be enacted on a permanent (or, at least, prolonged) basis so that it provides a clear signal to firms that engage in R&E. Conversely, if it’s bad policy, we should kill it. Revisiting it every year will just enrich lobbyists, distract legislators from more important issues, and weaken any incentives it might create.

I expect that the same holds true for many other tax expenditures. Some deserve to be enacted for prolonged periods to accomplish their goals. Some deserve annual review. And many deserve to be killed.

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The most encouraging item in todays jobs report was the sharp drop in underemployment (which includes not only those who are unemployed but also marginally attached workers and those who are part time for economic reasons). The underemployment rate fell to 16.5%, down from its peak of 17.4% last October and from 17.3% in December:

The headline unemployment rate also declined; it now stands at 9.7%, down from its 10.1% peak in October and from 10.0% in December.

These declines are encouraging, but the labor market obviously has a long way to go. Just how far was reinforced by BLS’s updated figures on the number of payroll jobs. Total job losses now stand at 8.4 million since the recession began at the end of 2007.

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In the past two weeks, my students and I have been discussing the importance of property rights. One message: creating property rights isn’t enough. You also need a way to enforce those rights; otherwise, they may be meaningless.

Which brings us to the universal problem of shared refrigerators. At Georgetown, our refrigerator has a big handwritten sign that says, in essence, “Don’t Take Other People’s Food.” I wonder how well that works?

I learned about another solution from many Facebook friends this morning (see also this post by Tyler Cowen): a sandwich bag with trompe l’oeil mold:

The bag reminds me of a sign in a gem/jewelry store in Australia. The entrance was like walking through a mine shaft with all sorts of quartz crystals sticking out of the wall. Rather than ask the customers to please not touch the crystals, the store had a sign that said: “Danger, the crystals contain poison. Do not touch.” When I asked, the proprietor confessed that the crystals were harmless, but they had to fib in order stop customers from trying to break off the crystals.

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At a time of unsustainable deficits, deficit neutrality is a remarkably lame vision for climate policy.

Last year, President Obama proposed to raise $500 billion over ten years through a cap-and-trade system that would limit carbon emissions. This year his climate policy raises nothing.

The president still backs cap-and-trade, but he has caved into congressional pressure to give away or spend all that potential revenue rather than use it to help taxpayers. Cap-and-trade has thus become cap-and-spend.

The new policy is described as follows in a footnote to Table S-2 of the budget:

A comprehensive market-based climate change policy will be deficit neutral because proceeds from emissions allowances will be used to compensate vulnerable families, communities, and businesses during the transition to a clean energy economy. Receipts will also be reserved for investments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including support of clean energy technologies, and in adapting to the impacts of climate change, both domestically and in developing countries.

I am sympathetic to the idea that the value of some emission allowances should be used to compensate some families, communities, and businesses as the system ramps up. But studies have repeatedly found that such compensation would require only a fraction of the overall value of the allowances. There should still be plenty of room for allowances that are ear-marked for deficit reduction.

Proponents of the bills currently pending in Congress counter by pointing out that allowance giveaways would get smaller in later decades, helping cut future deficits.

I wouldn’t bet on it. In my experience, these dessert-now-spinach-later policies usually get renegotiated just as the spinach course is about to begin. The alternative minimum tax is about to hit more taxpayers? Let’s patch it for a year. Doctors are about to get their Medicare payments cut? Let’s put that off for another year. Terrorism risk insurance is about to phase out of existence? Let’s extend it for a few more years until we are ready. And on and on.

If we are serious about using some allowances for deficit reduction, we are better off doing it immediately, not creating beneficiary groups who will lobby for extensions when their free dessert is coming to an end.

And faced with $10 trillion or more in deficits over the next decade, we could really use the money.

Note: In his 2010 budget, the president proposed to raise $624 billion in revenues from a cap-and-trade program. $120 billion was earmarked for investing in clean energy technologies, so I netted it out in calculating the $500 billion figure above. The president proposed using those funds to pay for a permanent extension of the making work pay tax program, but they could also have been used to reduce the deficit. (See Table  S-2 from last year’s budget)

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1. Big deficits. Under the President’s specific proposals, deficits will total $10 trillion from 2010-2020. Oh, and if existing policies (as defined by the administration) run their course, those deficits would actually be $12 trillion. Those are gigantic numbers. Under either scenario, our debt would grow faster than the economy every single year. That’s simply not sustainable.

2. The Fiscal Commission warning label. Budget-watchers know Table S-1 as the place to go for budget totals. In today’s budget, however, Table S-1 had a new feature: a box describing the President’s Fiscal Commission:

The Administration supports the creation of a Fiscal Commission. The Fiscal Commission is charged with identifying policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run.  Specifically, the Commission is charged with balancing the budget excluding interest payments on the debt by 2015. The result is projected to stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio at an acceptable level once the economy recovers.  The magnitude and timing of the policy measures necessary to achieve this goal are subject to considerable uncertainty and will depend on the evolution of the economy.  In addition, the Commission will examine policies to meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook, including changes to address the growth of entitlement spending and the gap between the projected revenues and expenditures of the Federal Government.

I think of this as a warning label because it’s trying to warn readers that the official deficit forecasts are too pessimistic if, and some would say this is a big if, the commission has an impact.

I think the commission is a step in the right direction, and I welcome the President’s willingness to set an intermediate fiscal goal, even as I might quibble about some details. In addition, I wish he had gone further and specified a target for reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio by, say, 2020.

3. The freeze on non-security discretionary spending. When this was announced last week, I was stunned by heat it generated in the blogosphere. Folks on the left decried it as harmful budget cutting in the face of a weak economy, and folks on the right decried is a sham that would have no effect. I spent about an hour trying to figure it out and decided I couldn’t find enough information to have an informed view one way or the other.

Now that the budget is out, I feel vindicated in that view. To fully understand the trajectory of non-security discretionary spending, you need to consider such obscure bits of budget arcana as the obligation limitations used for transportation funding (ob lims, to the initiated), the proposed conversion of Pell grants from discretionary to mandatory spending, the reassignment of bioshield from security to non-security spending, and the fact that Census spending is particularly high in fiscal 2010 because of the decennial census. I haven’t actually crunched the numbers, but that’s not my point tonight. Instead, my point is simply how hard it can sometimes be to match budget reality to budget communications.

More tomorrow.

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