Free Markets, Free People


What’s Just Like Death?

Taxes, as the saying goes, in that both are certain to come to us all. The corollary is that once government spending outpaces tax receipts by a significant enough amount, then taxes will inevitably rise. Or, at least, that should be the corollary.

We’ve already heard about calls for raising the top income rate to 90%. Now Marc Pascal, writing at The Moderate Voice, lays out a more comprehensive plan:

The first of several stimulus packages has just passed but it is just the beginning of our efforts to address our immediate and long-term economic problems.

After 2010, the federal operating budget will face trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. They have to be addressed for the long-term prosperity of our country and our future credit-worthiness in the world.

Eventually every American has to dig in and pay more taxes to help our country and our fellow citizens. We must put in place the laws and mechanisms to steadily increase taxes after 2010. We have to owe up to our massive public and private financial messes. Cutting federal earmarks and waste will not eliminate even half the annual deficits. The federal budget gap will require increasing taxes by over $500 billion by 2011. Fiscally irresponsible and spoiled children hate to hear this news but it’s our only choice for our collective long-term prosperity.

It is true that people don’t want to hear this, and I don’t think that is limited to “fiscally irresponsible and spoiled children.” Indeed, the inevitable raising of taxes was one of the arguments against the stimulus package, so I’m not sure to whom Pascal is referring.

A number of prominent publicly-minded millionaires and billionaires including Warren Buffet have recommended higher income taxes on themselves and their friends for several years. Certainly Mr. Buffet has been right more than most politicians and it’s time to effectuate his recommendations. Their altruistic economic view may simply be a rational response for their long-term preservation and that of the nation as a whole.

Actually, their view is not altruistic at all. The very rich, with the financial means to hire the very best in tax advice, are quite skilled at arranging their affairs so as to minimize their tax burden. When Warren Buffet clamors for raising taxes on the rich, you can be sure that he does not intend to pay as much as he possibly can to the federal government. However, those in the middle income brackets surely will. Buffet and brethren simply hope that those taxpayers will somehow be mollified by the fantasy that “the rich are paying their share too.”

On to the plan:

The Bush tax cuts should expire by their own terms by 2010 and marginal income taxes will return to the rate of 39% for incomes over $250,000. Additionally, and instead of capping executive pay, we should create a new marginal tax rate of 49% for earning over $1 million.

That is actually a somewhat more reasonable plan than some that have be floated, but still a pipe dream in terms of raising tax revenues to cover the trillions in spending contemplated (and as yet revealed) over the next four years. Even if the rich were to pay every possible penny of their income above $1 Million in taxes at that rate, how long to do you suppose they would do it for? If you had a choice of living quite comfortably and making around a million dollars, knowing that you’d keep something close to 70% – 75% of the money, would you really continue working hard enough to earn more than that if you knew you would only receive 50 cents on the dollar?

If there are any short-term tax cuts, they should be combined with long-term tax increases. The 2009 FICA payroll tax for social security is a 6.2% tax rate on every dollar earned up to a gross annual income of $106,800. For more than a decade, everyone has agreed that to save social security (without increasing the retirement age, the tax rate, or lowering the average monthly benefits of just under $1,000 per person) the best solution is to raise the taxable income limit so the wealthy contribute more to the entire system. We could provide both a short-term economic stimulus to the majority of Americans and save social security for the long term.

Let’s lower the FICA social security tax rate for rest of 2009 and all of 2010 to 5.5% but raise the income limit to $250,000. In 2011, let’s raise it to 5.75% and set the income limit to $500,000. By 2012, the rate would be 6% and the taxable income unlimited. This would simply parallel the 1.45% FICA tax for Medicare and Medicaid imposed on all earned income. Its rate will probably have to be raised to 2% after 2010 to pay for existing programs and any expansions of benefits.

Again, not an entirely unreasonable plan considering the alternatives. But what’s never mentioned when someone suggests raising the income level for FICA is that, while more tax revenue would be raised, federal liabilities would also be increased. That’s because the government is simply taking more money now and promising to pay more benefits upon retirement. That does nothing to reduce the burden of current spending, which was supposed to be the point of the tax increases.

As near as I can tell, this part of the plan would have the effect of hastening the looming entitlements crisis in exchange for perhaps pushing the current one off down the road a bit. The end result looks more like a perfect budgetary storm as the bills we’re racking up today and the entitlements we’ve promised in the future, begin to overlap.

Across the political spectrum, most people agree that our various transportation, water/sewer, and electrical grid infrastructures have been long neglected. Infrastructure spending is the best use of government stimulus money because more jobs are created both quickly and over the long term. Just to modernize our existing infrastructures systems will cost at least 2 trillion dollars over the next 10 years. Furthermore, we must also invest in new energy technologies, mass transit and high speed rail lines – all of which will cost billions more. We can’t put off such spending and we have to be honest about paying for them over the foreseeable future without resorting to further borrowing.

This is a part of the supposedly Keynesian argument that government spending provides a greater multiplier than private spending. Of course, as Bruce has pointed out before, if that were the case then why have private spending at all?

Furthermore, I really don’t understand how government spending on infrastructure and energy technologies creates jobs.

In the infrastructure realm, once a government project is done, then the job disappears. If the job is done quickly, efficiently and completed on time then it’s not government work the job just disappears that much more quickly. And after that? How does a brand new bridge create a job after it’s built? Even worse, what happens if the project turns out like the Big Dig in Boston (which seems to be much more likely)? Sure people will have jobs for longer, but the supposed benefit of the structure will shoved further into the future and the taxpayers will be on the hook for a lot more than they signed on for. How does that sort of project stimulate the economy?

With respect to new energy technologies, I’m all for it. But with the government choosing which technologies to fund, how do we know we’re getting the best there is to offer? That’s not typically the case where government picks winners and losers. And just because something is “green” does not mean that it is efficient, beneficial to the economy, and/or capable of saving anyone money in the short (or long) term. In fact, it probably means the opposite of one or all of those things. Instead, why doesn’t government get out of the way and allow nuclear power plants to be built, thus saving taxpayers billions of research dollars. That’s technology that we already have, and it’s green. Otherwise, these sorts of proposals are little more than a massive wealth transfer from one group of people to the politically favored few. There is nothing stimulative about that.

Across Europe, the average tax per gallon of gasoline ranges from $4 to $6. The U.S. federal gasoline tax is a paltry 18.3 cents per gallon with each penny raising $850 million to $1 billion per year depending upon how much Americans drive. Only when gasoline hit $4 a gallon during last summer did we start taking mass transit, buying hybrids, shunning gas guzzlers, demanding more energy-efficient cars and buildings, and seriously considering alternative solar, wind and nuclear power, and our own oil and gas reserves. The best and only way to ensure long-term energy independence is to have a serious financial incentive that hits everyone.

OK, if we accept the premise that less fuel consumption is better for Americans, then Pascal has a good point here. Of course, I’m not sure why gas station owners or truck salesman are any less deserving of being stimulated than other Americans, but that seems to be a staple of these plans. Moreover, Pascal’s plan doesn’t look all that much different than how transportation projects are already funded at the federal level.

While we should not enact excessive gasoline taxes, we can at least impose an additional and modest oil import fee on foreign barrels of oil.

More importantly, we should increase the federal gasoline tax from 18.3 to 75 cents per gallon, by monthly increments of about 5 cents per gallon over 12 months. The overall U.S. gasoline price per gallon by the end of 2010 should still be around $3.00 but the U.S. would have $70 billion a year to pay for our many needed transportation and energy infrastructure projects. This would be the responsible, mature, and intelligent solution for raising the necessary funds for these projects.

Presumably, Pascal means that we would charge this import fee to the American refiners who distribute gasoline in the country. And Pascal does suggest that he thinks this would be a tax on everyone, which in addition to the increased gas tax it would be. Strangely, this is the sort of protectionist measure one sees where domestic industries are beset by low-cost foreign competitors, yet domestic production is practically forbidden. Instead, Pascal wants to drive demand for gasoline down, so he advocates raising the costs of gasoline indirectly. Would that have the effect of increasing demand for more domestic oil? Perhaps. But it would certainly raise costs for all Americans, whether we all buy hybrids (which are much more expensive) or not, and again I don’t see how raising prices is stimulative.

Overall Mr. Pascal’s tax proposal is not altogether outlandish, and certain elements of it are almost certain to come to pass. What’s so horrible is that these sorts of plans are only necessary (and inevitable) because the government has been spending far more than it takes in for quite some time now. Even if you think that the Bush tax cuts “cost” the federal government money, you have to admit that the one thing that every administration has had in common, whether Republican or Democrat, is that federal spending never decreases. Regardless of whether tax-and-spend is better/worse than cut-taxes-and-spend, the situation we find ourselves in today is precisely because spending never seems to drop, not because tax rates go up and down.

To be sure, there is nothing evil per se about deficit spending. Whether it’s bad or not depends on where the money is going, and how the costs are intended to be recouped. But at some point the piper must be paid, and when that time comes one would hope that all the spending had created some wealth with which to pay him.

Stumulative bridge for sale

Stimulative bridge for sale

Obviously taking money from Peter and giving it to Paul (minus a transfer fee, of course) won’t accomplish that goal. And neither does building a new bridge from Paul’s house to Peter’s. Indeed, unlike people, the government can’t work harder in an effort to “do something” and create wealth, because that’s not what governments do. The only things that government is any good at is making rules and enforcing (some of) them. Although those two actions can protect wealth and the opportunities to create wealth, neither action actually creates wealth.

Thus, we’re left with the unshakable propositions that (1) government spending necessitates taxes, (2) deficit spending necessitates tax increases, (3) tax increases necessitate higher prices, (4) higher prices produce less consumer spending, (5) less consumer spending results in less business revenues, (6) less business revenues means fewer jobs and less wages, (7) fewer jobs, less wages and less business revenues means less tax dollars, and (8) fewer jobs, less wages, less business revenues and less tax dollars means … more government spending is necessary?

If you believe that last one, then I have a bridge I’d like to build you. It will be ready for use immediately upon the check clearing.