If We Give Everybody Cash, Let’s Tax It

Giving people cash is a great way to soften COVID-19’s economic blow. But it’s sparked a classic debate. Should the federal government give money to everyone? Or target it to people with low incomes?

Targeting has the potential to deliver the biggest benefit per dollar spent. But eligibility requirements add complexity and will inevitably screen out some people who need help. Universality is simpler and recognizes that we are all in this together.

Happily, we can combine the best features of both approaches: Let’s give cash to everyone, and then tax it later. By distributing money today, we get the speed and inclusiveness of universality. By taxing it later, we can recapture some of the benefits from those who needed them least.

One approach is simply to tax the assistance just like any other income. A person with little income this year would keep the full government payment of, say, $1,000. But a billionaire in California would net only $500. At tax time next year, Uncle Sam would get $370 back and California would get $130. The billionaire would receive half as much as the person with little income. And states with income taxes would get a much-needed boost in revenues.

Ben Ritz of the Progressive Policy Institute has proposed another approach: structuring the money as a pre-paid tax credit and then clawing back some of it at tax time. The clawback system could be designed to accomplish any distributional and fiscal goal you want. For example, you might phase out the credit entirely for folks earning more than $150,000. Another possibility would be to link the credit amount to some measure of income loss, not just income level, by comparing the income changes across tax years.

Any of these approaches would reduce the fiscal cost of the cash payments and thus, for the same overall cost, allow them to be bigger for those who get them. Taxing the payments as income, for example, might create a 11 percent offset in new federal revenues. (That figure is based on a report Elaine Maag and I did on carbon dividends, an idea for universal payments linked to a carbon tax.) A taxable payment of $1,125 would then have the about same net fiscal cost as an untaxed $1,000 payment. Under Ritz’s proposal, a more aggressive clawback approach could allow even bigger payments for the same overall cost.

The payments described here should not be treated as income in determining eligibility and benefits in safety net programs. They should be treated as income if we were enacting universal payments in normal times. But times are decidedly not normal. There is no reason for these temporary payments to reduce the efficacy of the existing safety net.

I favor targeting assistance to people with low incomes or sudden income loss if it’s easy to do so. There’s clearly more bang per buck in directing aid to those who likely need it most. Australia has already enacted one program along those lines. But if we go with universal payments, let’s make the payments taxable.

Economic Policy in the Time of COVID-19

COVID-19 poses a severe threat not only to public health but also to the overall US economy. The nation’s policy response should focus on four basic strategies.

First, we should embrace those economic losses that protect health. The steps needed to combat the coronavirus will inevitably reduce economic activity. We want risky activities to stop. Social distancing is in. Gatherings are out. Reducing economic activity will reduce the overall size of the economy. But we all know Gross Domestic Product is not a measure of social wellbeing. That’s especially true today.

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Second, we should help people get through this sudden financial shock. Millions of workers will see their incomes fall from reduced work hours, furloughs, and layoffs. Restaurants, bars, and many other small businesses will see their revenues crater.

Expanding existing safety net programs—as the House-passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act does for unemployment insurance, Medicaid, and food assistance—is a good start. So is supporting paid sick leave. But those programs miss many people.

That’s why we are seeing new proposals to get money out the door quickly. Making direct payments to households—recently proposed by Jason Furman (former economic advisor to President Obama), Greg Mankiw (former advisor to President Bush), and now Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT)—is one approach. Targeting payments to low income households, as Australia is doing, is another. Giving money to employers who keep workers on their payrolls is a third. Whichever approach we take, a priority is getting support out quickly to soften what may be an unprecedented loss in income.

Third, we should protect our economy’s productive capacity so it can rebound once the virus risk recedes. COVID-19 shouldn’t destroy otherwise healthy businesses and nonprofits.

The Federal Reserve will play a role by ensuring smooth functioning of credit markets. Adding liquidity to Treasury markets, as the Fed is doing, is a good step. It may well take more steps in the days ahead. But that won’t be enough.

Congress and President Trump should help fundamentally healthy firms that are facing sudden cash flow stress and lack good financing options. Lending to small businesses is a natural first step. Trump has proposed expanding lending authority by the Small Business Administration. Other nations have announced similarly-focused programs. The United Kingdom, for example, has introduced new business interruption loans.

What to do for larger businesses is a harder question. Many large businesses do have private financing options. Or would if they had managed their balance sheets better. Expect spirited debate about where to draw the line between good and bad bailouts and, for that matter, about what constitutes a bailout. (I’ll have more to say about that in another post.)

Fourth, we should make full use of our economy’s productive capacity once the virus recedes. Rebounding supply will help only if demand keeps up.

The Fed has taken a first step to support demand by cutting its target interest rate to effectively zero and expanding its purchases of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. Those steps will soften the decline in consumer and business spending.

Whether that will be enough is anyone’s guess. With effective actions now, the economy may rebound quickly once the virus threat abates. Unfortunately, it’s also possible that economic activity will lag. If that happens, fiscal policy can help boost demand. The actions we take now to provide income support will help and could be continued. We also have the usual arsenal of tax (e.g., lowering payroll taxes) and spending (e.g., aid to states) options.

In recent days, America has made great strides in the first strategy, embracing the economic losses necessary to fight the virus. In coming days, the priority will shift to the next two, helping people survive the resulting sudden income loss and defending our productive capacity so it can rebound quickly. Policymakers may also take initial steps to support demand to make full use of that capacity. But the ultimate scope of those efforts will need to track the still-unknown size of the longer-term challenge.

The 3-2-1 on Economic Growth: Hope for 3, Plan for 2, Pray it isn’t 1

How fast will the US economy grow? When mainstream forecasters consult their crystal balls, they typically see real economic growth around 2 percent annually over the next decade. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and midpoint estimates of Federal Reserve officials and private forecasters cluster in that neighborhood.

When President Trump looks in his glowing orb, he sees a happier answer: 3 percent.

That percentage point difference is a big deal. Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney recently estimated the extra growth could add $16 trillion in economic activity over the next decade and almost $3 trillion in federal revenues.

But could our economy really grow that fast? Maybe, but we’d need to be both lucky and good. We’ve grown that fast before. But it’s harder now because of slower population growth and an aging workforce. And there are signs that productivity growth has slowed in recent years.

To illustrate the challenge, I’ve divvied up past and projected economic growth (measured as the annual growth rate in real gross domestic product) into three components: the growth rates of population, average working hours, and productivity.

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The link between population and growth is simple: more people means more workers generating output and more consumers buying it. Increased working hours have a similar effect: more hours mean more output and larger incomes. Hours go up when more people enter the labor force, when more workers find jobs, and when folks with jobs work more.

Productivity measures how much a worker produces in an hour. Productivity depends on worker skills, the amount and quality of capital they use, managerial and organizational capability, technology, regulatory policy, and other factors.

As the first column illustrates, the US economy averaged 3 percent annual growth over more than six decades. Healthy growth in population and productivity offset a slight decline in average hours. Of course, that six-decade average includes many ups and downs. The Great Recession and its aftermath dragged growth down to only 1.4 percent over the past decade. In the half century before, the United States grew faster than 3 percent.

Mainstream forecasters like the CBO and the Federal Reserve expect slower future growth along all three dimensions. People are having fewer children, and more adults are moving beyond their child-rearing years, so population growth has slowed. Our workforce is aging. Baby boomers are cutting back hours and retiring, and younger workers aren’t fully replacing them, so average working hours will decline. Productivity growth has slowed sharply in recent years, for reasons that are not completely clear. Productivity is notoriously difficult to forecast, but recent weakness has inspired many forecasters to expect only moderate growth in the years to come.

Proponents of President Trump’s economic agenda offer a rosier view. Four prominent Republican economic advisers—John F. Cogan, Glenn Hubbard, John B. Taylor, and Kevin Warsh—recently argued that policy, not just demographic forces, has brought down recent growth. They claim supply-side policy reforms—cutting tax rates, trimming regulation, and reducing unproductive spending—can bring it back up. They argue that encouraging investment, reinvigorating productivity growth, and drawing enough people into the labor force to offset the demographic drag would generate persistent 3 percent growth.

Many analysts doubt such supply-side efforts can get us to 3 percent growth (e.g., here, here, here, and here). Encouraging investment and bringing more people into the labor force could certainly help, but finding a full percentage point of extra growth from supply-side reforms seems like a stretch. Especially if you plan to do it without boosting population growth.

The most direct supply-side policy would be expanding immigration, especially among working-age adults (reducing our exceptional rates of incarceration could also boost the noninstitutional population). But the Trump administration’s antipathy to immigration, and that of some Republicans in Congress, pushes the other way. Cutting legal immigration in half over the next decade could easily take 0.2 percentage points off future growth (see this nifty interactive tool from ProPublica and Moody’s Analytics). Three percent growth would then be even more of a stretch.

Another group of economists believes that demand-side policies—higher spending and supportive monetary policy—could lift growth above mainstream forecasts.

One trio of economists took a critical look at past efforts to forecast potential GDP growth, a key driver of long-run growth forecasts. They conclude that forecasters, including those at the Federal Reserve and the CBO, have overreacted to temporary economic shocks, overstating potential growth when times are good and understating it when times are bad. We’ve recently had bad times, so forecasters might be underestimating potential GDP almost 10 percent. If so, policies that boost demand could push up growth substantially in coming years. (For a related argument, see here.)

So where does that leave us?

Well, every crystal ball (and glowing orb) is cloudy. We should all be humble about our ability to forecast the economy over the next decade. Scarred by the Great Recession and its aftermath, forecasters may be inadvertently lowballing potential growth. Good luck and good supply- and demand-side policies might deliver more robust growth than they anticipate. But those scars remind us we can’t always count on good policy, and luck sometimes runs bad.

We can hope that luck and good policy lift growth to 3 percent. But it’s prudent to plan for 2 percent, and pray we don’t fall to 1 percent.

Three Things You Should Know About Dynamic Scoring

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.

The Federal Reserve is Not Ending Its Stimulus

Yesterday, the Federal Reserve confirmed that it would end new purchases of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities (MBS)—what’s known as quantitative easing—in October. In response, the media are heralding the end of the Fed’s stimulus:

“Fed Stimulus is Really Going to End and Nobody Cares,” says the Wall Street Journal.

“Federal Reserve Plans to End Stimulus in October,” reports the BBC.

This is utterly wrong.

What the Fed is about to do is stop increasing the amount of stimulus it provides. For the mathematically inclined, it’s the first derivative of stimulus that is going to zero, not stimulus itself. For the analogy-inclined, it’s as though the Fed had announced (in more normal times) that it would stop cutting interest rates. New stimulus is ending, not the stimulus that’s already in place.

The Federal Reserve has piled up more than $4 trillion in long-term Treasuries and MBS, thus forcing investors to move into other assets. There’s great debate about how much stimulus that provides. But whatever it is, it will persist after the Fed stops adding to its holdings.

P.S. I have just espoused what is known as the “stock” view of quantitative easing, i.e., that it’s the stock of assets owned by the Fed that matters. A competing “flow” view holds that it’s the pace of purchases that matters. If there’s any good evidence for the “flow” view, I’d love to see it. It may be that both matter. In that case, my point still stands: the Fed will still be providing stimulus through the stock effect.

P.P.S. I wrote about this last year during the tapering debate. In the lingo of that post, the Fed is moving from quantitative easing to quantitative accommodation. To actually eliminate the stimulus, the Fed would have to move on to quantitative tightening.

Why Do Economists Have a Bad Reputation?

Because macroeconomists have messed it up for every one else , says Noah Smith at The Week:

To put it mildly, economists have fallen out of favor with the public since 2008. First they failed to predict the crisis, or even to acknowledge that such crises were possible. Then they failed to agree on a solution to the recession, leaving us floundering. No wonder there has been a steady flow of anti-economics articles (for example, this, this, and this). The rakes and pitchforks are out, and the mob is ready to assault the mansion of these social-science Frankensteins.

But before you start throwing the torches, there is something I must tell you: The people you are mad at are only a small fraction of the economics profession. When people in the media say “economists,” what they usually mean is “macroeconomists.” Macroeconomists are the economists whose job is to study business cycles — booms and busts, unemployment, etc. “Macro,” as we know it in the profession, is sort of the glamor division of econ — everyone wants to know whether the economy is going to do well or poorly. Macro was what Keynes wrote about, as did Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek.

The problem is that it’s hard to get any usable results from macroeconomics. You can’t put the macroeconomy in a laboratory and test it. You can’t go back and run history again. You can try to compare different countries, but there are so many differences that it’s hard to know which one matters. Because it’s so hard to test out their theories, macroeconomists usually end up arguing back and forth and never reaching agreement.

Meanwhile, there are many other branches of economics, doing many vital things.

What are those vital things? Some economists find ways to improve social policies that help the unemployed, disabled, and other vulnerable populations. Others design auctions for Google. Some evaluate development polices for Kenya. Others help start-ups. And on and on. Love it or hate it, their work should be judged on its own merits, not lumped in with the very different world of macroeconomics.