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.

Should Economists Pay More Attention to Politics?

Economists often ignore politics when analyzing policy issues or view politics as a problem to overcome rather than as fundamental. When evaluating a carbon tax, for example, I try to tote up its potential environmental benefits, its hit to consumers and producers, what happens to the revenues, etc. I might also ponder what policy tweaks could facilitate a political coalition willing to enact such a tax. But I don’t typically worry about how a carbon tax would change the balance of power among coal, oil, nuclear, natural gas, and nuclear interests or between energy consumers and producers.

In the latest Journal of Economic Perspectives, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that this approach is short sighted, sometimes dangerously so. They argue that economic policy analysts should evaluate how policy decisions might change the future balance of political power and, thereby, the efficiency and fairness of future economic decisions:

There is a broad—even if not always explicitly articulated—consensus amongst economists that, if possible, public policy should always seek ways of reducing or removing market failures and policy distortions. In this essay, we have argued that this conclusion is often incorrect because it ignores politics. In fact, the extant political equilibrium may crucially depend on the presence of the market failure. Economic reforms implemented without an understanding of their political consequences, rather than promoting economic efficiency, can significantly reduce it.

Our argument is related to but different from the classical second-best caveat of Lancaster and Lipsey (1956) for two reasons. First, it is not the interaction of several market failures but the implications of current policy reforms on future political equilibria that are at the heart of our argument. Second, though much work still remains to be done in clarifying the linkages between economic policies and future political equilibria, our approach does not simply point out that any economic reform might adversely affect future political equilibria. Rather, building on basic political economy insights, it highlights that one should be particularly careful about the political impacts of economic reforms that change the distribution of income or rents in society in a direction benefiting already powerful groups. In such cases, well-intentioned economic policies might tilt the balance of political power even further in favor of dominant groups, creating significant adverse consequences for future political equilibria.

Our argument is that economic policy should not just focus on removing market failures and correcting distortions but, particularly when it will affect the distribution of income and rents in society in a direction that further strengthens already dominant groups, its implications for future political equilibria should be factored in. It thus calls for a different framework, explicitly based in political economy, for the analysis of economic policy. Much of the conceptual, theoretical, and empirical foundations of such a framework remain areas for future work.

They offer several examples, including the allocation of natural resource rights (an Australian approach promoted democracy, while one in Sierra Leone did not) and financial and banking regulation / deregulation in the United States.

Well worth a read.

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.

Why Many Economists Favor Immigration

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.

Five Key Facts about the House Debt Limit Bill

On Wednesday, the House will vote on a bill to delay the upcoming debt limit showdown. The bill includes no spending cuts, no tax increases, and no platinum coins of unusual size. Instead, it will “suspend” the debt limit through May 18 to give lawmakers time to pass a budget in each chamber. To give them extra incentive, it also includes a new twist: If they fail to pass a budget by April 15, it will withhold their pay.

Here are five things you should know about the bill.

1. The bill doesn’t just suspend the debt limit, it raises it.

Section 1(a) of the bill suspends the debt limit through May 18. You might think that the current limit would go back into effect on May 19. And it would, except for section 1(b) which increases the debt limit to reflect new debt issued between now and then.

The bill thus increases the debt limit by an amount to be determined later. That unusual structure lets lawmakers tie the debt limit increase to a specific date, rather than an amount. It also means they get to increase the debt limit, presumably by several hundred billion dollars, without having to expressly vote for such an amount.  It’s a less transparent, and therefore less painful, way to increase the debt limit.

2. Treasury can’t build up an enormous cash hoard.

In principle, Treasury could use this reprieve to build up a pile of cash before the new limit is determined on May 19. For example, Treasury could issue an extra $500 billion in debt and hold the proceeds as cash to cover deficits once the new limit is in place.

But the bill drafters already thought of that. To prevent such gaming, the bill limits the obligations that could be financed with new debt. An obligation isn’t covered “unless the issuance of such obligation was necessary to fund a commitment incurred by the Federal Government that required payment before May 19, 2013.” In short, no funny stuff.

3. Nevertheless, the bill could allow Treasury running room well beyond May 19.

We first hit the debt limit on New Year’s Eve. Since then, Treasury Secretary Geithner has raised cash by engaging in extraordinary (albeit now-familiar) measures such as stuffing IOUs into federal employee retirement accounts in place of the federal debt they own.

A big question is whether the bill would allow the Treasury Secretary to undo those extraordinary measures and reload for the next time we hit the debt limit. The folks at the Bipartisan Policy Center, who do a great job tracking the debt limit, believe that it would. If so, the bill would put off the day of debt limit reckoning well beyond May 19.

4. Because of a constitutional issue, the bill threatens to delay congressional pay, not eliminate it.

With prompting from the group No Labels, lawmakers had toyed with the idea of not paying the members of Congress if they fail to pass a budget resolution by April 15 (“No Budget, No Pay”). But that idea ran afoul of the 27th Amendment  (the weird one that was ratified in 1992 after passing Congress back in 1789). It says:

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

To avoid “varying” the amount of compensation, the bill would escrow congressional pay until each chamber passes its budget or the end of the 113th Congress. In short, No Budget, No Pay Until January 2015.

5. Members of Congress don’t need to enact a budget to get paid on time.

The bill doesn’t require that lawmakers actually enact a budget. That would be a hard task, since it would require the Republican House to agree with the Democratic Senate on a budget plan.

Instead, the bill focuses on the first steps of the process, in which the House and Senate pass their own budget resolutions. If the House passes a budget, its members would get paid on schedule, and the same for the Senate (which hasn’t done a budget for several years). But there is no new penalty if the House and Senate can’t agree on a final budget.

Treasury Puts the Kibosh on Platinum Coins

Ezra Klein reports an official statement from Anthony Coley, a Treasury spokesperson, killing the platinum coin strategy:

“Neither the Treasury Department nor the Federal Reserve believes that the law can or should be used to facilitate the production of platinum coins for the purpose of avoiding an increase in the debt limit.”

So R.I.P. platinum coins of  unusual size.

The administration has previously ruled out another oft-discussed debt-limit safety valve, overriding the limit based on the 14th amendment. So “Plan B” discussions will now move to two other alternatives that have been bandied about: prioritizing payments or, as Ed Kleinbard suggested the other day, issuing scrip like California did a couple years ago. Of course, issuing scrip *is* prioritizing payments, but with the added feature (or complication) of a written, transferable IOU.

Is the Trillion-Dollar Platinum Coin Clever or Insane?

Policy wonks are debating whether a trillion-dollar platinum coin would be a clever or insane way for President Obama to play hardball with Republicans in the upcoming debt limit battle. Here’s what you should know about this crazy-sounding idea:

1.     A legal loophole gives the Treasury Secretary apparently unlimited authority to mint platinum coins.

Treasury is forbidden from printing money to cover government deficits. Treasury must issue debt, while the Federal Reserve independently controls our nation’s monetary printing press.

That is exactly as it should be. But there is an arcane exception for platinum coins. To serve coin collectors, Treasury can issue platinum coins of any denomination. That creates an intriguing loophole: Treasury could bypass the collector market and mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin. By depositing it at the Federal Reserve, Treasury could keep paying bills after we’ve fully exhausted our borrowing limit.

2.     Most observers think this is a terrible idea, but the legal arguments against it are weak at best.

A who’s who of commentators has already objected to the coin on legal, economic, political, and image grounds (see, for example, John Carney, Matt Cooper, Tyler Cowen, Kevin Drum, Jim Hamilton, Heidi Moore, and Felix Salmon). I’m no lawyer, but the legal arguments seem wholly unconvincing. The language of the statute is clear, and in any case, the executive branch gets away with expansive actions in extreme times. During the financial crisis, for example, Treasury aggressively interpreted its authorities in order to bail out GM and Chrysler and to backstop money market funds. If default became a real possibility, the same expansiveness could easily justify a platinum coin.

3.     The economic arguments against the coin are stronger but manageable.

There’s a good reason that Treasury is forbidden from printing money to pay our debts: inflation. Many economies have been ruined when profligate governments turned to printing money. But minting the platinum coin needn’t mean monetizing our debt. The Federal Reserve has ample ability to offset any inflationary impact by selling some of the trillions in Treasury securities it already owns. As long as the Fed does its job, inflation would not be a risk.

4.     The best arguments against the platinum coin involve image and politics.

Minting a trillion-dollar coin sounds like the plot of a Simpsons episode or an Austin Powers sequel. It lacks dignity. And despite modern cynicism, that means something.

It would also be premature. President Obama and the Republican and Democratic members of Congress have roughly two months to strike a debt limit deal. There is no reason to short-circuit that process, as painful as it may be, with preemptive currency minting as the now-famous #MintTheCoin petition to the White House suggests.

5.     Nonetheless the platinum coin strategy might be better than the alternatives if we reach the brink of default.

Analysts have considered a range of other options for avoiding default, including prioritizing payments, asserting the debt limit is unconstitutional, and temporarily selling the gold in Fort Knox. All raise severe practical, legal, and image problems.

In this ugly group, the platinum coin looks relatively shiny. In particular, it would be much less provocative than President Obama asserting the debt limit is unconstitutional. That nuclear option would create a political crisis, while a platinum coin could be a constructive bargaining chip. As Josh Barro notes, President Obama could offer to close the platinum coin loophole as part of a deal to raise or eliminate the debt ceiling.

6.     If necessary, Treasury should mint smaller platinum coins, not a trillion-dollar one.

A trillion-dollar coin is eye-catching and ridiculous. That’s why it’s filled the punditry void left by the fiscal cliff. But a single coin makes no policy sense. No federal transactions occur in trillion-dollar increments.

Among the largest transactions are Treasury bond auctions, which today raise about $25 billion at a time. If necessary, Treasury could issue individual $25 billion coins, each in lieu of a needed bond auction. Still ridiculous, to be sure, but less so as it would calibrate coin issuance to immediate financing needs.

Steve Randy Waldman suggests as even more granular approach: issuing coins denominated in millions not billions. Such “small” denominations would be even less ridiculous and could potentially be used in transactions with private firms, not just Fed deposits.

Of course, the best path would be a bipartisan agreement to increase the debt limit, address spending cuts, and strengthen our fiscal future, all settled before the precipice. If we reach the brink, however, minting million- or billion-dollar platinum coins would be better than default.