My recent posts about the American Idea have argued that our country has a great future before it. We have a strong and prosperous economy and are the world’s leading innovator. Furthermore there are clear cut and effective ways to address the income inequality and poverty which hold back many Americans from fully sharing the benefits of our remarkably successful society.
But there is one huge problem our political system is ignoring which will lead to a major crisis if left unattended much longer.
I am referring, of course, to our gargantuan:
National Debt, now sitting at 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the largest it has been since the end of WWII. It is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep steadily getting worse without major changes in current policy. Right now all of this debt is essentially “free money” because interest rates are so low.
Economic growthis created by tax cuts but only 10-20% of the lost revenue from tax cuts is offset by new growth.
Democrats, on the other hand, don’t take the debt seriously, except when arguing against Republican tax cuts. Debt deniers claim that the risk of government overspending is inflation, not bankruptcy. What they don’t understand is that
Interest rates will return to more normal (and much higher) historical levels eventually and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket by hundreds of billions of dollars every year. This will crowd out all sorts of spending on popular domestic programs. It is likely to lead to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
Conclusion. For all of our nation’s great strengths, we are in a very serious fiscal pickle, with no clear cut path of orderly resolution. Realistically our debt problem cannot be wound down without committed Presidential leadership and this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
With the unemployment rate now down to 4.2% and household incomes having recently reached an all-time high, the first order of government business should be:
Fiscal responsibility which means to start reducing the size of the national debt, which is now 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest since the end of WWII. The only practical way to do this is to begin to shrink the size of our annual deficits from the very high level of almost $700 billion for the 2017 Fiscal Year which just ended on September 30.
A responsible budget for the 2018 Fiscal Year can have a deficit of at most $500 billion which amounts to 2.5% of our total GDP of $20 trillion. A realistic forecast for economic growth in the coming year is 2.5% of GDP which means that a deficit for the 2018 FY of $500 billion would at least not increase our debt as a percentage of GDP.
Budgets for later years need to actually shrink (not just hold steady) the debt. The goal should be to decrease annual deficits down close to zero which would mean achieving a balanced budget. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the cumulative deficits will climb by $10 trillion over the next ten years under current policy, pushing the debt up to 91% of GDP in 2027.
Tax reform, to be considered next by Congress, is likely to stall if it is not pursued within a sensible fiscal policy just as healthcare reform stalled last summer. Sensible tax reform, both growth enhancing and revenue neutral, is quite doable and will make the debt problem that much easier to solve.
Conclusion. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that our rapidly growing debt puts us in a dire fiscal bind. We must change policy significantly and soon or else we will put our prized liberty and prosperity in grave danger.
In my last post I made the case that the two fundamental principles for effective tax reform are:
Faster economic growth, to create more jobs and bigger pay raises.
Revenue neutrality, since more debt at this time is just too risky.
And then I went on to suggest the specific changes in the tax code which would achieve these goals:
Reducing the corporate tax rate to approximately 20%.
Full expensing for business investment replacing depreciation spread out over many years.
Simplification of rules for individuals such as fewer tax rates and fewer credits.
Achieving revenue neutrality by eliminating as many deductions as necessary to pay for the above tax rate cuts.
There are different ways to accomplish all this and I recently described one attractive plan put together by the Tax Foundation. The Republican Congressional Leadership (Big Six) has proposed a different plan which has been analyzed by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Unfortunately CRFB concludes that this plan will cost $2.2 trillion over ten years in lost revenue. But it could be modified in the following ways to become revenue neutral:
The mortgage interest deduction is maintained but limited to one dwelling and $500,000, down from the current limit of two homes and $1 million.
The tax exemption for employer provided health insurance is limited. This not only increases tax revenue but also forces the 150 million Americans who receive health insurance from their employer to take an active role in holding down the cost of healthcare.
Drop the proposal of establishing a maximum “pass through” rate of 25% for business owners. Any such proposal would be subject to wide spread abuse. Businesses would be benefitting from the full expensing provision above and their owners should pay taxes at the same rates as everyone else.
Keep the estate tax until annual deficits are greatly reduced. It only brings in $20 billion per year but every little bit helps.
Conclusion. These common sense changes in the Big Six plan would make it revenue neutral and still capable of achieving a significant boost to the economy.
I have been criticizing the Republican Congress lately for straying from fundamentals in attempting to reform healthcare and tax policy. What are the fundamentals for tax reform? In my opinion they are:
Faster economic growth. The economy has averaged only 2% annual growth since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. The unemployment rate has slowly fallen to the current 4.4% level and a labor shortage is now developing. But wage gains for the broad middle class and especially blue collar workers have been minimal. Faster growth will put pressure on employers to raise wages faster to acquire the skilled workers they need.
Revenue neutrality. With the public debt (on which we pay interest) now 77% of GDP, the highest since the end of WWII, and predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting steadily worse without major changes in policy, it would be the height of irresponsibility for Congress to approve tax changes which increase our annual deficits.
Given these two basic principles, what should be the specific changes made to tax law? Here are my priorities:
Lowering the corporate tax rate from its current level of 35% to a competitive level, approximately 20%, with other developed countries. This would be a huge incentive for our multinational corporations to bring their foreign profits back home.
Full expensing for business investment is allowed, replacing depreciation over a period of years, to speed up new investment.
Simplification of the rules for individuals, such as with fewer tax rates and fewer credits, so that fewer errors will be made and a greater proportion of true tax liabilities will be collected.
Create revenue neutrality for the above tax rate cuts by eliminating, or at least shrinking, many deductions and closing loopholes.
Conclusion. Tax reform will be highly beneficial for the economy if it is done correctly. This means ignoring many of the special interest provisions which have also been suggested for conclusion. I will discuss these in my next post.
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.
From a reader of my blog: I think he is too flawed, self-centered and sociopathic to accomplish much. I believe that tax reform will become tax cuts for the wealthy (no inheritance tax, etc.) and dealing with budget deficits will not happen. I know you think Trump will be contained by the conservative members of Congress. The Republicans seem unwilling to confront him or speak out as long as his base continues to be very loyal. I think he is so wounded now that it will be hard to accomplish much.
Granted that Donald Trump is hopelessly ensnared in controversy and incapable of changing his ways, he still has many opportunities to do something positive. For example regarding our extremely serious debt problem, he could focus on:
Coming up with a budget that reduces the debt path. No one expects the budget to be balanced in one year. Last year’s Republican plan would have taken ten years to get the job done. The important thing is to clearly move in this direction.
Focusing healthcare reform on cost control. Give the Democrats credit for expanding healthcare access with the Affordable Care Act. But now focus on reining in the cost of healthcare in America.
Enacting fiscally responsible tax reform. Most people agree that the tax code is a complicated mess and, especially, that the corporate tax rate is too high. There are many ways to achieve lower tax rates and simplification in a revenue neutral way.
Stop digging the debt hole deeper by just adding new initiatives. There will always be attractive new programs which are worth pursuing. But in adding them to the federal budget, other programs which are no longer effective need to be phased out.
Reforming entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These are the big drivers of national debt. Without entitlement reform, all other efforts to restrain federal spending will be insufficient.
Conclusion. There is nothing easy about pursuing the above agenda. Implementing it will be highly controversial with lots of vociferous opposition. It will take strong leadership to push it through. But it represents a huge opportunity for a controversial president to do something worthwhile.
The Trump Administration has proposed a tax reform plan, with both good and bad features, and it is not yet known how Congress will respond to it. In the meantime we should focus on what tax reform can accomplish if does right:
Lower tax rates. Most observers agree that lower tax rates will increase economic growth by encouraging more business investment. Since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009, GDP has grown at the historically slow rate of 2% per year. Any additional growth will be beneficial by tightening the job market, thereby creating more jobs as well as higher wages for the already employed.
Revenue neutrality. Our public debt (on which we pay interest) is now 77% of GDP, the highest it has been since right after WWII. At the present time interest rates are so low that the debt is almost “free” money. But interest rates will inevitably rise back to more normal levels in the future. When this does happen, whether it be sooner or later, interest payments on our ever increasing debt will skyrocket, and eat up as much as a third of federal tax revenue. A huge fiscal crisis will then occur, far worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
Observing historical precedent. There have been five tax rate cuts in the last half century: (Kennedy (1964), Reagan (1981, 1986) and Bush (2001, 2003)). Note that public debt was 40% or less of GDP at the time of each of these tax cuts (see chart). The revenue losses associated with each was temporary and the first three at least strongly stimulated new growth.
Conclusion. Our national debt is much too high at the present time to adopt a tax reform plan with an extravagant disregard for revenue loss. The current debt level is so high (and projected to keep getting steadily worse) that modest tax rate cuts, coupled with significant spending restraint, is clearly called for.