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Archive for February, 2013

Here’s a good laugh line if you find yourself in a policy meeting about how to reduce gasoline use: suggest increasing the gasoline tax. During my time in the White House, I attended several meetings on this topic, and inevitably someone (sometimes me) would offer that simple idea. Everyone would then chuckle at its political insanity, and the conversation would turn to Washington’s policy of choice, increasing fuel efficiency standards for autos and cars.

Those standards certainly can reduce future gasoline usage. But they are an incredibly inefficient way to do so. For some new evidence of just how inefficient, let’s turn the microphone over to the aptly-named Valerie Karplus, an MIT researcher, writing in the New York Times:

Politicians of both parties understandably fear that raising the gas tax would enrage voters. It certainly wouldn’t make lives easier for struggling families. But the gasoline tax is a tool of energy and transportation policy, not social policy, like the minimum wage.

Instead of penalizing gasoline use, however, the Obama administration chose a familiar and politically easier path: raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. The White House said last year that the gas savings would be comparable to lowering the price of gasoline by $1 a gallon by 2025. But it will have no effect on the 230 million passenger vehicles now on the road.

Greater efficiency packs less of a psychological punch because consumers pay more only when they buy a new car. In contrast, motorists are reminded regularly of the price at the pump. But the new fuel-efficiency standards are far less efficient than raising gasoline prices.

In a paper published online this week in the journal Energy Economics, I and other scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimate that the new standards will cost the economy on the whole — for the same reduction in gas use — at least six times more than a federal gas tax of roughly 45 cents per dollar of gasoline. That is because a gas tax provides immediate, direct incentives for drivers to reduce gasoline use, while the efficiency standards must squeeze the reduction out of new vehicles only. The new standards also encourage more driving, not less. (Emphasis added.)

A gas tax wouldn’t be a win-win all around, of course. People would pay more in taxes immediately. So you might well want to pair the tax with other policies (e.g., offsetting tax reductions) to ameliorate that hit. (The same concern applies to carbon taxes.)

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Taxes are the Swiss Army Knife of economic and social policy. With enough ingenuity, you can attempt almost any policy goal, from encouraging health insurance to discouraging pollution to stimulating the economy, to name just three. Over at Bloomberg Businessweek, Rina Chandran explains yet another use: helping a troubled economy achieve the moral and economic equivalent of a currency devaluation, without actually devaluing. That’s particularly intriguing for countries in the Euro zone:

The idea of fiscal devaluation originates with John Maynard Keynes. [Harvard Professor Gita] Gopinath’s insight was to advocate fiscal devaluation for Europe’s beleaguered currency union in a 2011 paper she co-authored with her colleague Emmanuel Farhi and former student Oleg Itskhoki, now an assistant professor at Princeton. …

The paper examines a “remarkably simple alternative” that doesn’t require countries to abandon the euro and devalue their currencies to revive growth through exports, Gopinath says. By increasing value-added taxes while cutting payroll taxes, a government can affect gross domestic product, consumption, employment, and inflation much as a currency devaluation would.

The higher VAT raises the price of imported goods as foreign companies pay the levy on the products and services they export to that country. The lower payroll tax helps offset the extra sales tax for domestic companies, reducing the need for them to raise prices. Since exports are VAT-exempt, the payroll cost saving allows producers to sell goods more cheaply overseas, simulating the effect of a weaker currency, according to the paper. The policy also can help on the fiscal front, as increased competitiveness can lead to higher tax revenue, Gopinath says.

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The balanced budget amendment introduced by Senate Republicans yesterday contains a striking error. As written, it would limit federal spending much more than they claim or, I suspect, intend (I said the same back in 2011, when this first came up).

The senators want to balance the budget by limiting spending rather than raising tax revenues. They thus propose the following, according to a press release from sponsor Senator John Cornyn:

Requirement to Balance the Budget. With limited exceptions, the federal budget must be balanced.

Presidential Requirement to Submit a Balanced Budget. Prior to each fiscal year, the President must submit to Congress a balanced budget that limits outlays to 18 percent of GDP.

18 Percent Spending Cap. With limited exceptions, Congress must limit outlays to 18 percent of GDP.

That 18 percent figure is in line with average tax revenues over the past four decades, but well below average spending, which has been about 21 percent.

So what’s the error? The way the amendment would implement the spending limit:

Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed 18 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States for the calendar year ending before the beginning of such fiscal year, unless two-thirds of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific amount in excess of such 18 percent by a roll call vote. (Emphasis added.)

The amendment thus doesn’t limit spending to 18 percent of the current fiscal year’s GDP; it limits it to 18 percent of GDP in the previous calendar year.

At first glance that may not sound like much. But it works out to be 21 months during which inflation and real growth will almost always be boosting GDP. For example, fiscal 2014 starts in October of this year. If the amendment were effective today, spending would be limited to 18 percent of last year’s GDP—that’s calendar 2012, which started (of course) in January 2012.

That 21-month lag has a big effect on the spending limit. Consider fiscal 2018, the first year it could conceivably take effect (because of a waiting period in the amendment). The Congressional Budget Office projects that nominal GDP that year will be $20.9 trillion. So the Republicans’ fiscal 2018 spending limit ought to be 18 percent of that, a bit less than $3.8 trillion. But the amendment would look back to calendar 2016 to set the limit. CBO estimates that year’s GDP at roughly $19.1 trillion, nearly $2 trillion less than for fiscal 2018. The amendment would thus limit fiscal 2018 spending to a bit more than $3.4 trillion. That’s only 16.4 percent of GDP that year, about $330 billion less than the Republicans’ stated goal.

If you do the same math for the remaining years in CBO’s latest outlook, fiscal 2019 through 2023, that gap never falls below $300 billion.

The same drafting error came up when GOP senators introduced a balanced budget amendment in 2011. When I wrote about it then, several commentators suggested that perhaps it wasn’t an error, but rather a sneaky way to try to limit spending even further. I am not so cynical. Drafting a spending target based on GDP isn’t easy, since you don’t know what future GDP will be. So I can understand why someone drafting this might try to use a measure of GDP that’s already known, albeit subject to much revision. But they goofed.

It’s disappointing that no one has fixed this error in the intervening 18 months. I am not a fan of an arbitrary constitutional limit on spending—even with a supermajority escape valve—but as a fan of arithmetic, let me offer one simple approach: use a GDP forecast from whatever entity is responsible for the spending forecast. For the president’s budget submission, that would be the Office of Management and Budget, and for the congressional process it would be either CBO or the House and Senate Budget Committees. That would make the GDP forecast even more politically sensitive, of course, but it’s better than a formula that misses its intended target by $300 billion each year.

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Two great tastes often taste great together. Chocolate and peanut butter. Oreos and milk. Popcorn and butter. Could the same be true of carbon taxes and corporate tax reform? Done right, each could be flavorful. But would they be even tastier together?

My Tax Policy Center colleague Eric Toder and I explore that question in a new paper. We find that using a carbon tax to help pay for corporate tax reform has several attractions and one big drawback. A well-designed tax swap could combat climate change, make our corporate tax system more competitive, and reduce long-term deficits, but would be quite regressive, increasing tax burdens on most Americans while cutting them on those with the highest incomes.

Let’s start with the good news. Putting a price on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would be an efficient way to reduce future emissions, encourage greener technologies, and reduce future risks of climate change. A carbon tax would make real the adage that you should tax things that you don’t want–like pollution–rather than things you do.

A carbon tax could also raise substantial revenue. One common proposal, a $20 per ton tax rising at 5.6 percent annually, would raise north of $1 trillion over ten years. That money could help reduce future deficits, pay for offsetting tax cuts, or a combination of both.

Which brings us to corporate reform. Just about everyone wants to cut America’s corporate tax rate, now the highest in the developed world. President Obama wants to lower the federal rate from 35 percent to 28 percent. Many Republicans, including House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, hope to get down to 25 percent or even lower. But they are all having a hard time finding a way to pay for such rate cuts. It’s easy to talk about closing “loopholes” and “special interest” tax breaks in the abstract, but in practice it’s difficult to cut back enough to make such large rate cuts.

Enter the carbon tax. A reasonable levy could easily pay for cutting the corporate tax rate to 28 percent or even lower. In fact, such rate cuts would require only a fraction of carbon revenues if lawmakers also identify some significant tax breaks to go after. The remaining carbon revenues could then finance deficit reduction or other policies.

Cutting the corporate tax rate would boost the U.S. economy, reduce many distortions in our existing code, and weaken multinationals’ incentives to play accounting games to avoid U.S. taxes. The resulting economic gains might even be enough to offset the economic costs of the carbon tax. That’s a tasty recipe.

Except for one missing ingredient: fairness. Like other consumption taxes, a carbon tax would fall disproportionately on low-income families. Cutting corporate income taxes, on the other hand, would disproportionately benefit those with higher incomes. A carbon-for-corporate tax swap would thus be quite regressive.

Eric and I used TPC’s tax model to measure this regressivity for a stylized carbon tax that would raise revenues equal to 1 percent of American’s pre-tax income. As illustrated by the light blue bars in the chart below, that carbon tax would boost taxes by more than 1 percent of pre-tax income for households in the bottom four income quintiles—1.8 percent, for example, in the lowest fifth of the income distribution. The increase would be smaller at higher incomes. Folks with the highest incomes would bear a significantly lower relative burden—just 0.75 percent of their pre-tax income, for the top 20 percent of households.

carbonTax6-05

Pairing a carbon tax with an offsetting cut in corporate taxes would make things more regressive (dark blue bars). Lower corporate rates would benefit taxpayers at all income levels, workers and investors alike. But the biggest savings would go to high-income households. Cutting corporate taxes offsets less than a third of carbon tax burden for households in the first three income quintiles, but more than offsets the carbon tax burden in the highest-income group. The net effect would be a tax cut for high-income taxpayers, and tax increases for everyone else.

That regressivity is a serious concern. A carbon-for-corporate tax swap may be a recipe for environmental and economic improvement, but it isn’t a complete one. As Eric and I discuss in the paper, lawmakers should therefore consider other policy ingredients—per capita credits, for example—that could help protect low-income households and potentially make a carbon-for-corporate tax swap a more balanced policy option.

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In today’s New York Times, Greg Mankiw offers a nice explanation for why many economists favor immigration:

First, many economists, especially conservative ones, have a libertarian streak. Ever since Adam Smith taught us about the wonders of free markets and the magic of the invisible hand, we have been loath to prohibit mutually advantageous trades between consenting adults. If an American farmer wants to hire a worker to pick fruits and vegetables, the fact that the worker happens to have been born in Mexico does not seem a compelling reason to stop the transaction.

Second, many economists, especially liberal ones, have an egalitarian streak. They follow the philosopher John Rawls’s theory of justice in believing that policy should be particularly attuned to its impact on the least fortunate. When thinking about immigration, there is little doubt that the least fortunate, and the ones with the most at stake in the outcome, are the poor workers who yearn to come to the United States to make a better life for themselves and their families.

Third, economists of all stripes recognize that our own profession has benefited greatly from an influx of talent from abroad.

I’d add a fourth item to Greg’s list: Many economists, both liberal and conservative, have a cosmopolitan streak. They thus place great weight on the wellbeing of foreigners, not just native Americans. From the libertarian side, that means caring about the liberty of the Mexican worker, not just the American farmer. And from the egalitarian side, that means caring about the poor immigrant worker seeking a better life, not just the person who employs them or the resident worker competing for similar work.

Such cosmopolitanism isn’t universal, of course. For example, some economists oppose greater immigration on the egalitarian, but non-cosmopolitan, concern that it would drive down wages for existing U.S. workers. On average, though, that perspective seems less common among economists than among non-economists.

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Back to economics soon. In the meantime, please enjoy this remarkable video of thousands of Olive Ridley sea turtles congregating on Oaxaca’s beaches to lay their eggs (ht: Deep Sea News):

 

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