As I have discussed previously, the evidence for global warming is overwhelming. I had hoped that President Trump would publicly recognize this scientific reality and decide to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement. Nevertheless, it will take more than three years for the U.S. to completely withdraw.
But in or out of the Paris Agreement, the best way for the U.S. to show leadership on this critical issue is to adopt a (revenue neutral) carbon tax. The American Enterprise Institute has just issued a comprehensive report on the desirability and feasibility of doing this.
Here is the gist of the AEI argument:
$40 per ton is often taken to be the social cost of carbon in the atmosphere. A carbon tax at this level would raise the cost of gasoline by 36 cents per gallon.
A carbon tax is a consumption tax. Taxing consumption rather than income promotes economic growth. The revenue neutral offset would likely be an income tax such as the payroll tax or corporate income tax.
A carbon tax need not disadvantage the U.S. globally since a border adjustment tax could be imposed on imports from countries without a carbon price regime.
Replacing arbitrary regulations. The primary carbon-reduction regulations currently in effect are the 1) Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for vehicles and 2) Clean Power Plan which limits power-sector carbon emissions at the state level. Leaving carbon abatement decisions to carbon producers is far more efficient than leaving it up to regulators.
Growing public acceptance. 84% of registered voters, including 72% of Republicans, support actions to accelerate the development and use of clean energy. Even 49% of conservative Republicans say that “Americans will make major changes to their way of life to address climate change.”
Conclusion. For the U.S. to adopt a carbon tax would be an even stronger statement of world leadership than participating in the Paris Agreement.
As the presidential election tightens and the likely margin of victory for either candidate continues to shrink, it becomes ever more apparent that we need a bipartisan approach to solving our most basic problems. My last post discusses the need for fundamental tax reform to get our economy growing faster to create more and better paying jobs. Today I remind my readers of the need for better fiscal policies as well to address our massive and steadily deteriorating debt problem.
As the American Enterprise Institute, among many other think tanks, makes abundantly clear, we are spending more and more of our federal budget on entitlements as opposed to all of the many other federal responsibilities which are lumped together as discretionary spending. In other words, the only way to fix our deficit and debt problems is to achieve better control over entitlement spending.
AEI has some excellent ideas on how to do this:
Social Security should move towards providing a universal flat benefit, set at the federal poverty level, for all U.S. residents aged 65 and older. Social Security would then become a guarantee against poverty in old age rather than a scheme for partially replacing pre-retirement earnings for middle and higher earning households.
Health Care. The Affordable Care Act should be replaced with a less regulated system (i.e. no mandates). The federal tax preference on employer plans could be limited to the cost of catastrophic (high deductible) insurance plus a contribution to health savings accounts. Households without employer coverage would receive a comparable tax credit.
Medicare would be converted into a premium support system with a fixed level of support comparable to that provided by employers.
Medicaid would be converted into a block grant program for the states based on the fixed, per capita costs for enrolled populations.
Other Safety-Net Programs should emphasize work as the key to improved economic prospects plus greater state control over resources in order to encourage innovation.
Conclusion. It should be emphasized as strongly as possible that the purpose of entitlement reform is to preserve and strengthen entitlements, not to weaken ordestroy them. Without such action we are headed for a much worse financial crisis than the one we had in 2008-2009 which will put all government social programs at risk.
Both political parties, both presidential candidates, most prominent economists and economics journalists, in other words, most opinion makers, favor faster economic growth. I have had several recent posts on this topic, here and here, pointing out especially the need to increase the rate of growth of worker productivity which in turn is heavily influenced by the rate of new business investment.
One of the most valuable policy changes in this respect is tax reform, with lower marginal rates paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions. The Republican House of Representatives has developed an excellent plan, “A Better Way,” which includes such extensive tax reform.
Simplification. The seven current individual tax rates would be reduced to just three: 12%, 25% and 33%. All deductions would be eliminated except for mortgage interest and charitable contributions. The standard deduction would be almost doubled. A 50% exclusion for capital gains, dividends and interest income would lower those tax rates in half.
Business taxes. The corporate tax rate would be cut from 35% to 20%, again by eliminating most deductions, and a territorial system adopted whereby taxes are only paid in the country where business is conducted. Immediate expensing for new investment would replace multiyear depreciation.
Effects. Base broadening by eliminating deductions will add 6.5 million new taxpayers. The number of taxpayers taking the standard deduction will increase by 37 million (from 70% to 95%). Total tax revenue will decrease by $227 billion over ten years. The effective marginal tax rate is slightly lower for most income groups.
Conclusion. The overall lower tax rates will boost economic growth. The ten year loss of tax revenue, while relatively small, is still a detriment and should be eliminated by shrinking the remaining mortgage interest deduction (which primarily benefits the wealthy).
I have been making the case for some time now that the rapidly increasing costs of U.S. health care, especially for the entitlement programs of Medicare and Medicaid, is the fundamental cause of our exploding national debt, and therefore these costs must be curtailed. The only way to fix this problem is for Americans to have more “skin in the game” regarding these costs. My last post, “The Inherent Instability of Obamacare,” discusses the separate but related problem that the Affordable Care Act is actuarially unsound because it misprices the basic risks involved in health insurance. This is why costs on the exchanges are going up so fast which, in turn, leads to fewer enrollees.
A good way to address this double whammy of problems is to use a plan developed (mostly) by the American Enterprise Institute in December, 2015. The main features are:
ACA Mandates, for both individuals and employers, would be abolished.
Retain tax preferences for employer-paid premiums, with an upper limit comparable to the cost of catastrophic health insurance.
Provide refundable tax credits to households without access to employer coverage, gradually replacing subsidies provided by ACA exchanges.
Persons with pre-existing conditions would have continuous coverage protection.
Medicare would migrate to a defined contribution, refundable tax credit model as above, with eligibility gradually rising to age 67.
Medicaid would be financed with block grants to the states and would supplement the refundable tax credit model.
Health Savings Accounts, to accompany high deductible plans, would be encouraged with a one-time federal tax credit matching enrollee contributions.
Health Care for Veterans would be integrated into mainstream care.
Summary. Abolishing the mandates means that coverage levels and price would be actuarially determined in the market place. Equal tax credits for insurance and help in setting up health savings accounts ensure fairness and widespread accessibility. The overall free market model will guarantee both low cost and the greatest possible degree of flexibility, innovation and quality of care.
For several years now Americans have been having a lively debate about income inequality and the supposedly shrinking middle class. The American Enterprise Institute scholar, Mark Perry, has an enlightening new post on this topic. The AEI has produced a vivid graphic showing that the American Middle Class (defined as the middle 50% of Americans by household income) has dramatically increased in income from 1971 through 2001 but has been stagnant since the Great Recession in 2008-2009. He has other charts showing that both the Low-Income group and the Middle-Income group have been shrinking since 1971 precisely because the High-Income group (defined to be households with $100,000 or more in income in constant 2014 dollars) has been growing so rapidly. Isn’t it obvious what we need to do to restore confidence to the Middle Class? Clearly we need to speed up economic growth. For example we could:
Implement broad-based tax reform. Lower the rates for both individual and corporate taxes, paid for by closing loopholes and limiting deductions. Better yet, shift from taxing income to taxing consumption.
Remove roadblocks to innovation by making it easier to start new businesses.
Improve K-12 education, especially for low-income kids who need extra help. Enhanced early childhood education, more emphasis on career (vocational) education, and charter schools in big cities are the way to get this done.
Make attending college more affordable. There are many good schools around the country which are not expensive to attend (the University of Nebraska at Omaha where I teach is one of them). College students and their families should make it a top priority to avoid huge debt. Attending a prestigious (and expensive) institution is simply not necessary to get a good education.
There are other more controversial ways to speed up economic growth such as increasing international trade and reforming our broken immigration system. But just the measures above will go a long way and shouldn’t be that difficult to implement.