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  • Modernize our outdated business and international tax system.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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How Donald Trump Could Redeem Himself

 

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.

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Responsible Tax Reform III. Avoid Complacency about Debt

 

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.

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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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Principles for Responsible Tax Reform

President Trump has just unveiled the outline of his tax reform proposal. Tax reform done right can give our economy a needed shot in the arm.  The big question is, of course, what is the right way to do it?
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has proposed some sensible guidelines:

  • Promote Economic Growth and Dedicate the Gains to Deficit Reduction. The Joint Committee on Taxation and the Treasury Department have estimated that comprehensive tax reform can increase the growth rate of GDP over the next decade by .05 to .25% per year. For example, a .2% increase would reduce our debt by $550 billion over ten years (see chart). This does not fix our fiscal problems but it helps.

  • Maintain or Reduce Current Deficits. Make sure that any tax rate cuts are offset by revenue increases (i.e. shrinking tax deductions) so that the annual deficit is not increased. Ultimately, our fiscal challenges are unlikely to be solved without reducing spending, reforming entitlements and increasing revenue.
  • Set Permanent Tax Policy. The reconciliation process in the Senate, whereby a simple majority can approve legislation, disallows any increase in the debt beyond ten years. In other words, permanent tax reform will require a sixty vote majority to override a filibuster. This is the only way to achieve sound policy.
  • Avoid Unjustified Timing Shifts and Other Gimmicks. A timing shift is a gimmick if it doesn’t make economic sense. For example, gradually reducing tax rates, rather than cutting them immediately, would only delay revenue losses by shifting them to the future, and is therefore a gimmick.
  • Rely on Reasonable Economic Assumptions. A good example of a faulty economic assumption is to arbitrarily assume that a tax rate reduction will create 3% annual GDP growth and therefore pay for itself over a sufficiently long time period. Such a proposal was made by the economist Stephen Moore in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

Conclusion. Slow economic growth and massive debt are our country’s two biggest problems. Tax reform done right will speed up growth without worsening the debt.  I will be paying close attention to the forthcoming debate on this issue.

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What to look for in President Trump’s First Budget

 

As a new administration prepares to take office in January, one of the key indicators of President Trump’s approach to government will be his first budget. This is especially true since the Republican controlled Congress is likely to take a Republican President’s budget seriously.

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One of our nation’s chief fiscal watchdogs, the Concord Coalition, has summarized the most important things to look for:

  • What is the overall fiscal target? President Obama’s recent budgets have aimed at stabilizing the debt as a share of the economy. House Republicans have aimed for a more ambitious goal of balancing the budget within ten years, gradually reducing the debt as a share of the economy. What path will Mr. Trump recommend?
  • What specific tax cuts will be proposed and what are the likely revenue effects? During the campaign Mr. Trump proposed tax cuts amounting to $5.9 trillion in revenue loss over ten years. Even with dynamic scoring, taking the stimulatory effects of his tax cuts into effect, the revenue loss is still $3.9 trillion over ten years. Such huge revenue losses will make our debt much worse than it is already and won’t be approved by Congress.
  • What will the budget recommend for the federal debt limit? Currently the debt limit is suspended until March 16, 2017 when it will return at whatever level it is on that date. Congress will then have several months to reset it. Whatever the President recommends will send a strong signal, positive or negative, to the financial markets.
  • What economic growth rates will the budget assume?   GDP growth has averaged 2.6% for the past 30 years. Any predicted long term growth rate higher than this will lack credibility without strong justification.

Conclusion. Mr. Trump has the opportunity to institute the change in course which so many Americans would like to see. His first budget will set the tone and provide an important clue as to whether or not he is serious about doing this.

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How to Get Our Economy Back On Track

 

My last several posts have expressed dissatisfaction with both presidential candidates and the hope that whoever wins in November (very likely Hillary Clinton) will work with the Republican House of Representatives to implement its “A Better Way” plan for national renewal.
In particular, faster economic growth would produce more jobs and better paying jobs and hence is highly desirable.  As many people, including myself,  have pointed out, it is low productivity growth caused by low business investment, which is largely responsible for slow economic growth.
The economist John Taylor has an excellent analysis of this problem.  He points out that the rate of economic growth equals the growth of labor productivity plus the growth of employment.

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He then shows that:

  • Productivity growth slowed from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s, then increased until the mid-2000s, and has slowed way down in the past ten years.
  • The labor force participation rate has dropped dramatically since the Great Recession but only a small part of this drop off was caused by demographic trends (i.e. more retirees).

    capture72Such relatively long cycles of productivity growth and decline (longer than normal business cycles) suggests that government policy is having a major effect on economic performance. According to Mr. Taylor, what is needed is:

  • Tax reform to lower tax rates to improve incentives for work and investment.
  • Regulatory reform to prevent regulations which fail cost-benefit tests.
  • Free trade agreements to open markets.
  • Entitlement reforms to prevent a debt explosion.
  • Monetary reform to restore predictability in financial markets.

Conclusion. Mr. Taylor makes a very strong case that faster economic growth is not only possible but even achievable in the short run if our national leaders would just make some common sense policy changes.

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