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Archive for June, 2011

Republicans are demanding a deficit-reduction package that’s entirely spending cuts. Democrats insist that revenues must also be included.

Are these positions completely irreconcilable? Not if both sides are willing to attack the spending hidden in our tax code.

I explore this idea for finding common ground in a new essay in National Affairs, “Spending in Disguise”:

A great deal of government spending is hidden in the federal tax code in the form of deductions, credits, and other preferences that seem like they let taxpayers keep their own money but are actually spending in disguise. Those preferences complicate the code and often needlessly distort family and business decisions. Their magnitude raises the possibility of a dramatic reform of the tax code—making it simpler, fairer, and more pro-growth—that would amount to both cutting spending and increasing government revenue at once, and without raising tax rates. 

Such a reform would not eliminate the need for serious spending cuts, of course, nor would it take tax increases off the table. But it could dramatically improve the government’s fiscal outlook and make the task of budget negotiators far easier. It will only be possible, however, if we clearly understand how spending is hidden in the tax code and what reformers might do about it—if we see that tax policy and spending policy are not always as distinct as we might think.

In short, there is a deal to be done in which revenues go up solely because spending in the tax code goes down.

The trillion-dollar question is whether President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and Leader Reid can cut that deal by August 2nd. If not, one side will have to cave on a core principle (no prize for guessing which party that’s likely to be), or we will find out just how painful it really is to run out of fresh borrowing room.

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In Washington’s economic circles, the only animals we usually have to worry about are hawks and doves. (And the occasional raccoon or vole.)

If you’re doing development research in Ghana, however, things are more complicated.  Zipping from village to village on her motorcycle, my friend Liz has become intimately familiar with the behavior — often stochastic – of different animals when confronted with a moto rider:

Goats are the ideal animal to encounter on the road in Northern Ghana. Street smart and properly aware of their place in the road hierarchy, they will run away and off the road at the approach of a vehicle. …

While goats are the ideal animal to encounter on the road, sheep are bane of Ghanaian drivers. Dismally stupid, they will invariably run directly into traffic. … The difference in behavior between sheep and goats makes distinguishing the two a key survival skill in Tamale. Remember: tail up, goat; tail down, sheep.
If only it were that easy to distinguish the real budget hawks and doves.
 
 

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Recent weeks has brought much chatter — from both Republicans and Democrats — about offering companies a temporary tax holiday for repatriating foreign earnings. A typical proposal would effectively tax any repatriated earnings at 5.25% this year, rather than the usual rates which can be as a high as 35%.

Proponents tout this as a form of economic stimulus. But, as my Tax Policy Center colleagues Bill Gale and Ben Harris point out, that’s doubtful. In “Don’t Fall for Repatriation” at Politico, they say:

In addition, firms are unlikely to invest the repatriated funds. Congress passed a similar repatriation tax holiday in 2004 and required firms to create domestic jobs or make new domestic investments to get the tax break. Nonetheless, the firms, on average, used the tax break to repurchase shares or pay dividends — not to increase investment.

The holiday, instead, turned into a massive tax break for shareholders — resulting in little or no economic gain or job market expansion. Why? Because money is fungible, to satisfy the requirements of the law, corporations reported repatriated funds as the source of money for investments or jobs they would have created anyway — and used other funds to increase shareholder wealth.

Today, domestic firms are sitting on near-record levels of liquid assets. The reason they’re not investing or creating more jobs is not a cash shortage. 

 Bill and Ben also note the costs of a repatriation holiday:

First, allowing repatriation today means less taxable corporate profits in the future — which would translate into less government revenue.

Second, and perhaps even more costly than the lost revenue, would be the dangerous precedent that firms would expect regular repatriation holidays. This expectation may persuade firms to hoard profits overseas and perhaps even move production abroad, betting that Congress will eventually grant another “one-time” tax break.

Indeed, the prior tax holiday was supposed to discourage firms from holding profits overseas. But instead, firms stockpiled new reserves, presumably in anticipation of another holiday. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that these two factors would contribute to the $79 billion 10-year price tag on a second repatriation.

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My latest column in the Christian Science Monitor:

America sometimes takes its exceptionalism too far.

Case in point: We are the only major economy that talks openly of default.

Government debt has ballooned throughout the developed world in the aftermath of the Great Recession. France and Britain are as deep in debt as the United States, for example, and Japan is much further in the hole.

But their leaders never mention the possibility of default. Why would they? If you have the ability to pay your bills, there’s no reason to scare your creditors.

But that’s exactly what we do in America. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been warning about the risks of default since January.

If we don’t increase the debt limit by early August, he tells us, default becomes a real possibility. And that could pose grievous risks to our already weak economy.

Many Republicans play down that risk. Echoing famed investor Stanley Druckenmiller, some argue that a temporary default would be acceptable if it’s part of a larger political strategy that brings future deficits under control.

But that is a dangerous game.

Large swaths of America’s financial infrastructure have been built on the assumption that US Treasuries pay on time. And financial markets would likely punish the US with higher interest rates if we defaulted. That’s what happened in 1979, for example, when back office snafus caused Treasury to unintentionally miss payments to some investors.

This time, Fitch, Moody’s, and Standard & Poors are threatening to cut the US credit rating if we choose to default. Given the risks, most observers recognize that default is not, and should not be, an option. The US is not a deadbeat nation.

But does that mean the debt limit has to go up in early August? Some Republicans say no because of a simple fact: Every month, the federal government collects more in taxes than it pays in interest. With careful cash management (which would likely have to start before the August deadline), Mr. Geithner should be able to prioritize debt payments and thus avoid debt default.

As best as I can tell, that argument is correct, but it’s hardly a reason for complacency. America is currently spending about $100 billion more each month than it collects in revenues. If we hit the debt limit, we won’t be able to pay everyone who is rightly expecting to be paid.

Geithner can and should ensure that our debtholders get paid.

But someone – perhaps millions of someones – won’t be paid on time. Contractors, federal workers, program beneficiaries, or state and local governments will suddenly find themselves short on their cash flow.

That won’t be good for the economy. Even though it’s not as bad as debt default, it still would paint the US as a deadbeat.

The US faces severe fiscal challenges in the years ahead. It’s perfectly reasonable that lawmakers want to combine an increase in the debt limit with efforts to rein in future deficits.

But that worthy goal should not weaken our commitment to paying – on time and in full – the obligations that we have already incurred.

As the debt limit draws near, our leaders should stop playing with fire and craft instead a plan to rein in future deficits without threatening our struggling recovery.

That’s a difficult balancing act, requiring tough compromises across the political spectrum. But as everybody knows on Capitol Hill and beyond, it would be the best step for the nation and our fragile economy.

It would also be exceptional.

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Judging by my Twitter feed, the most captivating story of the day is Jose Antonio Vargas’s account, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” Writing in the NYT Magazine, Vargas recounts how his mother sent him to the United States when he was 12 and how, in the subsequent years, he built a career as a successful journalist. But he never became a legal resident:

I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it.

I’ve tried. Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream.

But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.

Last year I read about four students who walked from Miami to Washington to lobby for the Dream Act, a nearly decade-old immigration bill that would provide a path to legal permanent residency for young people who have been educated in this country. At the risk of deportation — the Obama administration has deported almost 800,000 people in the last two years — they are speaking out. Their courage has inspired me.

There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. We’re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own.

What should America do with immigrants like Vargas? Deporting him has got to be wrong answer. In almost all regards, he’s behaved like a model citizen, working hard, contributing to society, and playing by most of the rules. America is better for him being here. But, as his account makes clears, he knowingly and repeatedly misled employers and violated employment and documentation laws. Is there some balance by which he can become a legal resident, with hopes one day of becoming a citizen, yet still bear some penalty for breaking the law?

P.S. Vargas first offered his account to his old employer, the Washington Post. As Paul Farhi recounts, the Post gave the story a careful vetting and decided to drop it because Vargas had withheld some information. Vargas then went to the NYT, which rushed the piece into this week’s NYT Magazine. As Farhi notes:

This gave the story a singular distinction: It may be the first published by the New York Times that was developed, fact-checked and substantially edited by editors at The Washington Post.

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David Eagleman thinks that advances in neuroscience should transform our criminal justice system. Writing in The Atlantic, Eagleman emphasizes how genetic and environmental factors influence cognitive function:

We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens—equal before the law—possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt.

Because we did not choose the factors that affected the formation and structure of our brain, the concepts of free will and personal responsibility begin to sprout question marks. Is it meaningful to say that Alex made bad choices, even though his brain tumor was not his fault? Is it justifiable to say that the patients with frontotemporal dementia or Parkinson’s should be punished for their bad behavior?

It is problematic to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone breaking the law and conclude, “Well, I wouldn’t have done that”—because if you weren’t exposed to in utero cocaine, lead poisoning, and physical abuse, and he was, then you and he are not directly comparable. You cannot walk a mile in his shoes.

The legal system rests on the assumption that we are “practical reasoners,” a term of art that presumes, at bottom, the existence of free will. The idea is that we use conscious deliberation when deciding how to act—that is, in the absence of external duress, we make free decisions. This concept of the practical reasoner is intuitive but problematic.

The “practical reasoner” assumption is, of course, fundamental to much of economics as well. Used thoughtfully, it’s extremely useful for examining how reflective, ends-oriented agents behave. But it’s problematic, to say the least, if we assume that everyone is always a rational actor.

Eagleman argues that the criminal justice system should be sensitive to the cognitive differences among people. Some people murder as the result of calculated, rational decisions, but others murder because brain tumors destroy their ability to control themselves. Those differences matter when thinking about deterrence, treatment, and punishment.

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Last week, I argued that Governor Tim Pawlenty’s aspiration for 5% economic growth over a full decade is implausible since the United States has achieved such steady growth only once since World War II.

Over at Economics One, Stanford economics professor John Taylor offers a more positive take, defending the goal and offering a recipe for achieving it: 1% from population growth, 1% from employment growing faster than the population, and 2.7% from productivity growth.

Add it all up and you get 4.7% growth, a bit short of Pawlenty’s target but close enough for government work.

That sounds great, and I hope it happens, regardless of who is president. But let’s take a moment to kick the tires on Taylor’s assumptions.

Two seem fine:

  • His population growth assumption is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, it matches the estimate used by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in its most recent Economic Report of the President (Table 2-2).
  • His productivity growth assumption is optimistic, but realistically so. Nonfarm productivity has grown at a 2.7% pace, on average, since 1996. Few analysts see that persisting. CEA forecasts assume 2.3%, for example. But the U.S. economy has demonstrated that 2.7% productivity growth is possible for a decade or more.

Three other assumptions are problematic.

  • Taylor uses a very optimistic assumption about how much employment growth can exceed population growth. Today, about 58% of the working age population has a job. That woefully low level ought to rise as the Great Recession recedes. Taylor assumes that we can boost that ratio back to its 2000 level of almost 65%. But 2000 was the tail end of a technology boom that lifted America’s employment-to-population ratio to record heights. Since then, the working population has aged, so the employment-to-population ratio will be persistently lower even in good times. CEA thus forecasts that labor force changes will trim about 0.3% annually from potential growth in coming years. Getting the employment-to-population ratio back up to 65% thus won’t happen unless we have an even bigger boom than the late 1990s delivered.
  • Taylor assumes that workers will keep working the same number of hours that they do today. That sounds innocuous except for one thing: average hours have been declining. CEA estimates that trimmed 0.3% per year from potential economic growth from 1958 to 2007 and will trim another 0.1% per year from 2010 through 2021.
  • Taylor assumes that the rest of the economy will enjoy the same productivity growth as the nonfarm business sector. In reality, the other parts of the economy – most notably government – are lagging behind. CEA estimates that slower productivity growth outside the nonfarm business sector trimmed 0.2% from potential economic growth from 1958 to 2007 and sees an even bigger bite, 0.4% annually, in the coming decade.

Taylor’s scenario thus assumes that everything breaks right for the U.S. economy for a full decade, with remarkable job growth and remarkable productivity growth in the economy as a whole. Not impossible but, unfortunately, not likely either.

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