How to Achieve Sensible Tax Reform

 

Experts across the political spectrum agree that the U.S. tax code is a huge mess and needs to be reformed as well as simplified.  It is also generally accepted that lower tax rates will lead to faster economic growth.
As Congress turns its attention to tax reform, Senate Democrats have stated the basic principles which they would like to see included in any changes which are made:

  • Increase the wages of working families. This could be accomplished by lowering tax rates for all individuals across the board, paid for by eliminating (or at least shrinking) many of the personal deductions in the tax code. The approximately two thirds of all taxpayers who do not itemize deductions would then receive a tax cut, equivalent to a wage increase.
  • Promote domestic investment and improve middle class job growth. Lower tax rates will give businesses and entrepreneurs a bigger incentive to invest in business expansion and therefore grow the economy faster and create more new jobs.

  • Modernize our outdated business and international tax system. Our corporate tax rate at 35% is the highest in the developed world and, at the same time, produces below average revenue (see chart). Another reform would be to adopt business expensing (immediate tax write-off for new investment). Again, all such changes should be paid for by eliminating loopholes and shrinking deductions.
  • Any rewrite of the tax code must be deficit neutral. As important and valuable as tax reform is, it has to take into account our country’s most fundamental problem: our huge and rapidly growing national debt and therefore end up being deficit neutral overall.

Conclusion. The above principles, stated by the Senate Democrats, represent a sound approach to reforming the U.S. tax system. I hope that the Republicans are willing to recognize the validity of these proposals and include the Democrats in developing a bipartisan tax reform plan.

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The Need to Put Medicaid on a Budget

The GOP healthcare plan, both the House version and the Senate version, are highly imperfect. Yet they each do one thing which is badly needed. They put Medicaid on a budget. The current open-ended Medicaid program, whereby each state is reimbursed by the federal government for a percentage of its costs (the average is 53%), would be replaced by an annual per-capita payment which would increase only at the rate of inflation. It is estimated that the new per-capita budget would reduce federal Medicaid payments by about 25% after 10 years.


In order to get the federal debt under control, all three major entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, must be reined in and the current GOP plan would start doing this for Medicaid.
Reining in spending like this will force states to alter the way they regulate and administer Medicaid and the New York Times columnist Ron Lieber points out some of the challenges which will arise if Medicaid has to operate more efficiently:

Nursing homes. One third of people who turn 65 will eventually end up in a nursing home. Furthermore, 62% of nursing home residents cannot pay for nursing homes on their own. The average annual cost of a semi=private room is $82,000.
Home and community-based care. Medicaid is required to pay for nursing homes and may also pay for home and community-based care which is much less expensive and lets seniors stay in their own homes.
Optional services for low-income people and the disabled. Optional services besides long-term home care include dental care for adults, therapy for disabled children at school, prosthetic limbs and prescription drugs.

Conclusion. Changing Medicaid from open-ended funding to a strict federal budget which grows at the rate of inflation will put a large burden on state Medicaid administrators and require some difficult tradeoffs to control spending. But this is absolutely essential as a first step towards controlling the rapid increase of entitlement spending.

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An Emerging Democratic Agenda

 

I am just as personally embarrassed by President Donald Trump as most other people I know. He is rude towards other world leaders and especially our own allies.  His destructive behavior endangers even his own policy initiatives.  He was elected by blue-collar workers who feel left behind in today’s global economy.  But how can he possibly lead others in implementing policies to help even his most avid supporters?


What is the Democratic Party doing about this?  First of all, they are trying to stop acting so elitist toward the working class.  But more fundamentally a new progressive social agenda apparently is emerging, here and here.  It has many attractive features but there is one big thing missing, namely fiscal responsibility:

  • A “public apprenticeship” jobs program. The idea here is to maintain the employment rate for prime-age workers without a bachelor’s degree at the 2000 level of 79%. This would require the creation of 4.4 million jobs, ideally at a living wage of $15 per hour plus Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, and therefore at a wage of $36,000 per year. This would cost $158 billion per year.
  • A universal child allowance of $250 per month. This would cost $190 billion per year, although half could be offset by consolidating less-efficient existing programs. This would cut child poverty by 40%.
  • An expansion of the earned income tax credit. A family of four making $40,000 per year would get a tax credit of $6000 instead of the current credit of $2000. This would cost $1 trillion over ten years. The idea here is extra motivation to hold a job.

 

Conclusion. Who is opposed to creating millions of new living wage jobs to put the unemployed and underemployed back to work? Such a program would give our economy a huge boost.  Who is opposed to cutting child poverty in half (or doing even better)?  But how in the world would we make room for such new programs in the federal budget?  With $500 billion annual deficit spending already, we need to curtail federal spending, not increase it.

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Responsible Tax Reform II. The Trump Plan

 

Responsible tax reform will be highly beneficial for the U.S. economy because:

  • Economic growth will be speeded up by lowering tax rates on businesses, thereby encouraging more investment.
  • National debt will shrink because faster growth will produce more tax revenue. But this only works if the revised tax plan is revenue neutral to begin with.

The Trump tax plan, described here and here, has the following features:

  • three tax brackets, reduced from seven. Simplification like this is a good idea.
  • double the standard deduction. This puts more money in the pockets of the average tax payer who does not itemize deductions and is therefore a good idea.
  • repeal of the alternative minimum tax. This only affects wealthy people and should be retained, if necessary, to make sure that overall reform does not increase the deficit.
  • lower capital gains tax. This will encourage more investment but should not be included unless the overall plan is revenue neutral.
  • repeal of inheritance tax. This tax feature should be retained until our annual budget deficits are eliminated, i.e. until we achieve balanced budgets on an annual basis.
  • preserving deductions for mortgage interest and charitable contributions. The mortgage interest deduction should be greatly reduced from its current level of $1 million per residence. Wealthy taxpayers don’t need that much help. Raising the standard deduction will already help middle income taxpayers.
  • cutting the corporate tax rate. This is an excellent idea as long as its revenue loss is made up elsewhere. It will encourage multinational corporations to bring their overseas profits back home for reinvestment in the U.S.

Conclusion. The Trump tax plan has some good features as well as some poor ones. Reducing tax rates is a good idea.  But adding to annual deficits is a very bad idea.  With some effort it is possible to reduce tax rates in a revenue neutral way.

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Keeping Global Warming in Perspective

 

The evidence for man-made global warming is now overwhelming. For example:

  • The extent of artic summer sea ice is steadily shrinking.
  • The world’s oceans are getting warmer.
  • Spring in the U.S. is coming sooner each year on average.

The three biggest carbon emitters in the world are China, the U.S. and India in that order. But what is also true, and not sufficiently well appreciated, is that carbon emissions in the U.S. are dropping while they are still increasing in China and India:

  • In the 2015 Paris climate agreement, China pledged that it would start reducing carbon emissions by 2030 but, in the meantime, is still continuing to open coal burning power plants.
  • In the U.S. carbon emissions have been steadily decreasing since 2000 (see chart).
  • In India the economy is growing at 7% per year and 240 million people still lack electric power. This means that carbon emissions from coal burning are likely to double in the years ahead.

Coal use in the U.S. will continue to drop with or without enforcement of the Obama era Clean Power Plan because natural gas is now so plentiful and so much less expensive than coal. The best way for the U.S. to continue showing leadership in combatting global warming is for it to adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax.  This would let the market sort out which type of energy is the cleanest and most efficient in meeting our country’s growing energy needs.  In fact a carbon tax might even be beneficial for the coal industry by creating a strong incentive to develop carbon capture and storage technology.
Conclusion. Most Americans now agree that global warming is real and that this presents a huge threat to human civilization.  It is likely that a revenue-neutral carbon tax will be adopted by our country in the near future.

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Trump’s Bark Is Worse than His Bite

 

The anti-Trump fervor seems to be slowly dying down as his appointees take hold of their agencies and begin to promulgate new policies. I have expected this to happen because of the excellent quality of many of the people he has appointed.
Here are a few recent developments:

  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said that “the border is complicated as far as building a physical wall” and there are all sorts of problems to be resolved before it can be done.
  • Reality is setting in with regard to Russia policy “given Russia’s continued provocations in terms of weapon’s deployments, overtures to Iran, cyber intrusions and intervention in Ukraine.”
  • The Brookings Institution has just issued a new report showing that school choice options are increasing in the country’s largest school districts. This indicates that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is in the mainstream by supporting more choice.
  • Coal jobs Trump vows to save no longer exist.  In other words, cancelation of the Obama Clean Power Plan will have little effect on the huge drop in coal use because coal has become so much more expensive than natural gas.
  • Of course, the Trump 2018 Budget Proposal will be heavily modified by Congress but it does contain some good ideas. Agriculture, Foreign Aid and Community Development Block Grants are all ripe for big cuts.
  • The biggest unknown with respect to administrative action concerns trade policy. The question here is what concessions he can get from China and Mexico without starting a disastrous trade war.

What is mainly lacking at this point is any significant action by Congress on the Trump agenda. What will happen with healthcare reform, tax reform and deficit reduction, for example?

Conclusion. Trump is doing fine so far but it is on relatively straightforward issues under his control. Hopefully he will be able to make progress on the bigger issues as well which require working with Congress.

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What, if Anything, Will Restrain Donald Trump?

 

The Atlantic magazine has just released a remarkable essay written by the political commentator, David Frum, entitled, “How to Build an Autocracy.”  Says Mr. Frum, “Donald Trump will not set out to build an authoritarian state.  His immediate priority seems likely to be to use the presidency to enrich himself.  But as he does so, he will need to protect himself from legal risk.  Being Trump, he will also inevitably wish to inflict payback on his critics.  Construction of an apparatus of impunity and revenge will begin haphazardly and opportunistically.  But it will accelerate.  It will have to.”

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Let’s assume that Mr. Frum is correct that Trump’s top priority is to enrich himself.  What will stop him from doing this?  A recent column in the New York Times points out that:

  •  54% of registered voters in congressional districts represented by Republicans view Mr. Trump favorably compared with only 42% who view him unfavorably.
    In these same districts, 87% of registered Republicans view Mr. Trump favorably.
  • In other words, the Republican dominated Congress is unlikely to strongly oppose his sleazy and self-enriching behavior.

But there are other constraints on what he does in office:

  • As I said in a recent post in order for Mr. Trump to be reelected in 2020, he will need to substantially speed up economic growth in order to increase the wages of his key blue-collar supporters. He clearly wants to accomplish this.
  • On the other hand, the conservative Republican base, including its representatives in the House such as the Freedom Caucus, will simply not support huge increases in deficit spending for anything (except an emergency) including infrastructure, the military or unfunded tax cuts.
  • In fact, Rep Mick Mulvaney (R, SC), a deficit hawk, has been nominated to become the Trump Administration’s Budget Director. In March the debt ceiling will have to be raised. I expect the many fiscal conservatives in Congress to insist on significant fiscal restraint (e.g. a ten year plan to balance the budget) as a tradeoff for raising the debt ceiling.

Conclusion. Just because Republicans are tolerant of Mr. Trump’s personal behavior does not mean he can successfully ignore the strong Republican desire for fiscal restraint.

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