Smart Tax Reform Could Shrink the Government

Max Baucus and Dave Camp, leaders of the Senate and House tax-writing committees, are on the road promoting tax simplification. One goal: cleaning out the mess of deductions, exclusions, credits, and other tax breaks that complicate the code.

Done well, such house cleaning could make for a simpler, fairer, more pro-growth tax code. It could also shrink government’s role in the economy. Eric Toder and I explore that theme in a recently released paper, Tax Policy and the Size of Government. Here’s our intro:

How big a role the government should play in the economy is always a central issue in political debates. But measuring the size of government is not simple. People often use shorthand measures, such as the ratio of spending to gross domestic product (GDP) or of tax revenues to GDP. But those measures leave out important aspects of government action. For example, they do not capture the ways governments use deductions, credits, and other tax preferences to make transfers and influence resource use.

We argue that many tax preferences are effec¬tively spending through the tax system. As a result, traditional measures of government size understate both spending and revenues. We then present data on trends in U.S. federal spending and revenues, using both traditional budget measures and measures that reclassify “spending-like tax preferences” as spending rather than reduced revenue. We find that the Tax Reform Act of 1986 reduced the government’s size significantly, but only temporarily. Spending-like tax prefer¬ences subsequently expanded and are now larger, relative to the economy, than they were before tax reform.

We conclude by examining how various tax and spending changes would affect different measures of government size. Reductions in spending-like tax preferences are tax increases in traditional budget accounting but are spending reductions in our expanded measure. Increasing marginal tax rates, in contrast, raises both taxes and spending in our expanded measure. Some tax increases thus reduce the size of government, while others increase it.

Eric and I first presented this line of reasoning in How Big is the Federal Government? in March 2012. Our latest paper, recently published in the conference proceedings of the National Tax Association, is a pithier presentation of those ideas.

Immigration, Dynamic Scoring, and CBO

Immigration policy poses an unusual challenge for the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. If Congress allows more people into the United States, our population, labor force, and economy will all get bigger. But CBO and JCT usually hold employment, gross domestic product (GDP), and other macroeconomic variables constant when making their budget estimates. In Beltway jargon, CBO and JCT don’t do macro-dynamic scoring.

That non-dynamic approach works well for most legislation CBO and JCT consider, with occasional concerns when large tax or spending proposals might have material macroeconomic impacts.

That approach makes no sense, however, for immigration reforms that would directly increase the population and labor force. Consider, for example, an immigration policy that would boost the U.S. population by 8 million over ten years and add 3.5 million new workers. If CBO and JCT tried to hold population constant in their estimates, they’d have to assume that 8 million existing residents would leave to make room for the newcomers. That makes no sense. If they allowed the population to rise, but kept employment constant, they’d have to assume a 3.5 million increase in unemployment. That makes no sense. And if they allowed employment to expand, but kept GDP constant, they’d have to assume a sharp drop in U.S. productivity and wages. That makes no sense.

Because increased immigration has such a direct economic effect, the only logical thing to do is explicitly score the budget impacts of increased population and employment. And that’s exactly what CBO and JCT intend to do. In a letter to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan on Thursday, CBO Director Doug Elmendorf explained that the two agencies would follow the same approach they used back in 2006, the last time Congress considered (but did not pass) major immigration reforms.

In scoring the 2006 legislation, JCT estimated how higher employment would boost total wages and thus increase income and payroll taxes, and CBO estimated how a bigger population would boost spending on programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps, and Social Security. They found that the legislation would boost revenues by $66 billion over the 2007-2016 budget window and would boost mandatory spending by $54 billion; various provisions also authorized another $25 billion in discretionary spending subject to future appropriations decisions.

I remember that estimate well since I was then CBO’s acting director. At the time, I thought this was a pretty big deal, doing a dynamic score of a major piece of legislation. I expected some reaction or controversy. Instead, we got crickets. It just wasn’t a big deal. The direct economic effects of expanded immigration—bigger population, bigger work force, more wages—were so straightforward that folks accepted this exception from standard protocol. I hope the same is true this time around.

Note: The approach CBO and JCT will use in scoring immigration legislation is only partially dynamic. It accounts for the direct effects of increased immigration, such as a bigger population and labor force, but not indirect effects such as changing investment. In other words, it follows the standard convention of excluding indirect changes in the macroeconomy; the innovation is accounting for the direct effects. We used the same approach in 2006, analyzing indirect effects in a companion report separate from the official budget score. CBO and JCT will take the same approach this time around.

What’s the Mix of Spending and Revenue in the President’s Deficit Reduction Proposal?

President Obama’s budget identifies a group of policies as a $1.8 trillion deficit reduction proposal. I found the budget presentation of this proposal somewhat confusing; in particular, it is difficult to see how much deficit reduction the president wants to do through spending cuts versus revenue increases.

After some digging into the weeds, I pulled together the following summary to answer that question:

Budget Chart 2

The proposal would increase revenue by $750 billion over the next decade. Much media coverage has been incorrectly suggesting an increase of either $580 billion (revenue from limiting tax breaks for high-income taxpayers and implementing a “Buffett Rule”) or $680 billion (adding in the revenue that would come from using chained CPI to index parameters in the tax code).

But there’s another $67 billion in additional revenue. Almost $47 billion would come from greater funding for IRS enforcement efforts that lead to higher collections. To get that funding, Congress must raise something known as a “program integrity cap.” The administration thus lists this as a spending policy, but the budget impact shows up as higher revenues (assuming it works—such spend-money-to-make-money proposals don’t always go as well as claimed, although there is evidence that IRS ones can). Several similar administrative changes in Social Security and unemployment insurance add almost $1 billion more.

Another $20 billion would come from increasing federal employee contributions to pension plans. That sounds like a compensation cut to me and, I bet, to affected workers, and would be implemented through spending legislation. Under official budget accounting rules, however, it shows up as extra revenue as well.

In total, then, “spending” policies would generate more than $67 billion in new revenue.

Taken as a whole, the president’s deficit reduction proposal includes $750 billion in revenue increases, $808 billion in programmatic spending cuts, and $202 billion in associated debt service savings. The proposal thus involves about $1.1 in programmatic spending cuts for every $1 of additional revenue.

At least according to traditional budget accounting. If you believe (as I do) that many tax breaks are effectively spending in disguise, the ratio of spending cuts to tax increases looks much higher. From that perspective, much of the $529 billion that the president would raise by limiting deductions, exemptions, and exclusions for high-income taxpayers should really be viewed as a broadly-defined spending cut. I haven’t had a chance to estimate how much of that really is cutting hidden spending, but even if only three-quarters is, the ratio of broadly-defined spending cuts to tax increases would be 3.5-to-1.

A New Gig Starting June

A bit of personnel news from my day job at the Urban Institute and the Tax Policy Center:

First, I will be moving upstairs (both figuratively and literally) as the Urban Institute’s first director of economic policy initiatives, starting in June. I’ve loved my time at TPC, but this is a great chance to work with colleagues throughout Urban on an even broader range of economic and fiscal policy issues.  And I won’t be leaving TPC entirely; as an institute fellow affiliated with the center, I will continue to chime in on tax and budget issues. With luck, I will also get time to do more writing, including for this blog.

Second, I am thrilled that Len Burman will be returning as TPC director. Len is currently the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Professor of Public Affairs at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, but his real claim to fame is being one of TPC’s founders and its leader through 2009. TPC wouldn’t be TPC without Len’s vision and effort, and I consider it a real coup to get him back.

For all the details, please see today’s official announcement.

Raising Gas Taxes Beats Boosting CAFE Standards

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.)

How Creative Tax Policy Can Substitute for Devaluation

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.

The Balanced Budget Amendment’s $300 Billion Error

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.