The New Tax Bill Is Likely to Take Us over a Fiscal Cliff

 

The Republican tax bill has now come out of conference and will soon be voted on by both the House and the Senate. It is expected to easily pass both chambers and be signed by the President. As I have discussed extensively on this blog, I have no argument with the individual features of this bill.  They will definitely increase economic growth which is highly desirable.
The problem is that the tax bill will also add $1 trillion to the debt over ten years (as scored by the JCT).  It is simply outrageous for the GOP to consciously add $1 trillion to our already $15 trillion debt (the public part on which we pay interest), which at 77% and climbing, is the highest it has been since right after WWII.


But the damage will be even worse than this.  The trillion dollar artificial stimulus is likely to overheat an already briskly growing economy.  As the Economist reports in its latest issue:

  • Second quarter growth of 3.1% and third quarter growth of 3.3% are very strong.
  • Median household income grew 5.2% in 2015 and 3.2% in 2016.
  • The average net worth of households in the middle income quintile grew by 34% between 2013 and 2015.
  • The wages and salaries of production workers grew at a 3.8% pace in the third quarter of 2017.
  • The unemployment rate at the end of 2018 is likely to be between 3.4% and 3.8%.

Economic growth is good because it raises living standards across the board. But faster growth also means higher inflation which means higher interest rates as the Federal Reserve responds.  Higher interest rates mean higher interest payments on our massive debt. Every time the Federal Reserve raises interest rates by ¼ %, the interest payments on our debt will increase by about $38 billion per year.  A 2% increase in interest rates, likely within two years, means a $300 billion increase in annual interest (on top of the $266 billion paid in FY 2017).  Our massive debt will soon become a huge burden for the federal budget.

Conclusion. Adding $1 trillion to the debt on top of the existing debt is a terrible idea. Such artificial stimulus at a time when GDP growth is already picking up will drive up interest rates all the faster and greatly speed up the day of reckoning for extreme fiscal irresponsibility.

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What Are the Good Features in the Republican Tax Bill?

 

I have made very clear in recent posts that one negative feature of the tax bill, increasing national debt by $1 trillion over ten years, greatly outweighs its good features.  For this reason I ask Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer to put the welfare of our country ahead of the demands of her Republican colleagues and vote against the bill.


Nevertheless, the tax bill does have beneficial features and I would like to acknowledge them here.  Major ones are:

  • Lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% and moving to a territorial system, making us far more internationally competitive and encouraging our multinational corporations to bring their foreign profits back home.
  • Establishing immediate expensing of capital investment, thereby speeding up business investment and increasing economic growth.
  • Reducing itemized deductions for state and local taxes and mortgage interest, but not eliminating them as should be done for much greater revenue savings.
  • Increasing the standard deduction to $12,000/$24,000 (for singles/couples) which will reduce the number of individual taxpayers who itemize deductions from 30% to just 6%. This single feature alone achieves major simplification.
  • Measuring inflation adjustments for income thresholds by the Chained Consumer Price Index (CCPI) rather than the current CPI. CCPI takes consumer behavior into account when computing inflation and will lead to an increase in tax revenue over time.
  • Eliminating the individual mandate for the ACA which will lead to fewer healthy people signing up for health insurance. This begins a process of healthcare cost reform which must continue much further to significantly reduce the cost of American healthcare. Much more later.

Conclusion. The good features in the tax bill do not nearly outweigh the awfulness of adding $1 trillion to our debt over the next ten years. The Republican Party should be ashamed of itself for such poor fiscal and economic stewardship.  What is it thinking?

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Who Is Responsible for the Atrocious GOP Tax Bill?

 

I want to emphasize as strongly as possible that cutting the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20% is a very good idea. It makes the U.S. much more competitive with other developed countries and thereby encourages our multinational companies to bring their foreign profits back home for reinvestment in the U.S.  It will also encourage international companies from other countries to set up shop here and thereby contribute to more jobs and better paying jobs in the U.S.
As I pointed out in my last post, the tax plan needs to be revenue neutral to be beneficial.  Very unfortunately, the current plan adds $1 trillion to our already out-of-control debt over the next ten years.  Furthermore, our currently hot economy (3% growth for two quarters in a row) is likely to overheat from an artificial stimulus of $1 trillion.  This will cause inflation to speedup more quickly and force the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates precipitously to head it off.  This will lead to much higher interest payments on our debt which, in turn, will lead to a new and much worse fiscal crisis in the relatively near future.


I live in Omaha and most of my blog readers likewise live in Nebraska.  The Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the Senate.  One Republican Senator, Bob Corker, from Tennessee, has already announced his opposition to the Tax Plan (now in Conference Committee) because he “will not vote to add even one more cent to the deficit.”  Thus the Republicans will not be able to pass this atrocious tax bill if they lose even two more votes (fifty votes needed with the VP able to break a tie).
If this awful legislation does become law, and Nebraska Senators Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse vote for it, we will be justified in holding each of them personally responsible.

Conclusion. The GOP is on the verge of making a very bad mistake. The party with a reputation for fiscal responsibility is on the verge of throwing it away for what will turn out to be a very short term gain.

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The GOP Tax Plan: Bad Economic Policy and Bad Fiscal Policy

 

It is a very good idea to cut the top corporate tax rate to 20% or so from its current 35% level. This will make the U.S. competitive with other developed countries and encourage our multinational companies to bring their foreign profits back home for reinvestment in the U.S.  It will also encourage other foreign companies to set up shop in the U.S.
My last post, however, strongly criticizes the current GOP tax plan, now in Conference Committee, because it will add $1 trillion to our already huge debt:

  • Current national debt, at 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest) is the highest it has been since right after WWII, and is already predicted by CBO to keep getting worse, without major changes in current policy. When interest rates eventually return to more normal and higher levels, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket. And this will continue indefinitely, eventually leading to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.

This means that the GOP tax plan, by adding an additional $1 trillion to our debt, is terrible fiscal policy. But the situation is even worse than this.  It is also bad economic policy:

  • Economic growth is finally becoming robust.  We now have had two quarters in a row of 3% growth. In 2015 median household income grew by 5.2% with another 3.2% added in 2016. Blue collar wages are beginning to take off (see chart).  The overall unemployment rate has dropped to 4.1%. Even the unemployment rate for Americans age 25 and older, without a high school diploma, has dropped to 5.2% (see second chart).

Conclusion. The last thing our economy needs right now is the artificial stimulus caused by a deficit-financed tax cut. It is likely to overheat an already hot economy and thereby ignite inflation which will force the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates much faster than would otherwise be necessary.

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Ignoring Massive Public Debt Is Morally Unacceptable

 

The House and Senate have now each passed their own versions of tax reform and a conference will come up with a single version acceptable to both legislative chambers. Each of the individual bills has been scored to add $1 trillion to the national debt over a ten year period and so the final bill will probably have the same feature.  This is a badge of dishonor on the controlling Republican Congress for the following reasons:

  • Yes, economic growth at 2.1% of GDP since the end of the Great Recession is too slow and has caused stagnant wages for millions of middle- and lower-income workers. Even though the unemployment rate has now dropped to 4.1% and the economy has grown at a rate of 3% for the past two quarters, there is still much labor slack to make up for.
  • Yes, the corporate tax rate is too high and encourages multinational companies to invest overseas. Immediate expensing for new business investment would also speed up growth and thereby create new jobs and higher wages.
  • Revenue neutral tax reform is “easily” accomplished by “simply” offsetting all tax rate cuts by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions by an equal amount. Since two thirds of taxpayers do not itemize deductions, it is primarily the higher income taxpayers who benefit from tax deductions and they can afford to pay higher taxes.

  • Current national debt, at 77% of GDP (for the public debt on which we pay interest), is the highest it has been since right after WWII, and is already predicted by the CBO to steadily keep getting worse. When interest rates eventually return to more normal and higher levels, interest payments on the debt will soar. And this will continue indefinitely, eventually leading to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.

The GOP tax plan should be killed. Although a revenue-neutral tax plan could be put together and would be beneficial, the current plan makes our debt much worse and should be killed. We simply must make shrinking the debt a very high priority and not be distracted from getting this done.

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What Ever Happened to Fiscally Responsible Tax Reform?

 

“I think this level of national debt is dangerous and unacceptable. My preference on tax reform is that it be revenue neutral.  What I’m hoping we will avoid is a trillion dollar stimulus.  Take you back to 2009.  We borrowed $1 trillion and nobody could find that it did much of anything.  So we need to do this carefully and correctly, and the issue of how to pay for it needs to be dealt with responsibly”

Senator Mitch McConnell (R, KY), 2016

Here is where we are today:

  • The world has seen remarkable human progress over the past 200 years. What has brought this about is specialization and trade, i.e. economic growth.
  • Since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009, economic growth in the U.S. has averaged just 2.1%, a remarkably slow recovery by historical standards. This has led to stagnant wage growth especially for blue collar workers. Finally growth is up over 3% for the past two quarters and wage growth is surging.
  • The U.S. corporate tax rate at 35% is not internationally competitive and encourages multinational corporations to move their operations overseas. A lower rate of 20% or so would encourage U.S. multinationals to bring their profits home and also encourage foreign companies to set up shop in the U.S.
  • What all of this means is that we still need tax reform (i.e. lower tax rates) but not fiscal stimulus.
  • The Republican tax plan now moving through Congress will increase our already outrageously excessive debt by $1 trillion over ten years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, the official scorekeeper for the U.S. Senate.
  • The Republican Congress will be making a huge mistake by implementing the current plan which has now passed both the House and the Senate. The GOP will no longer be able to make a credible case that it is the party of fiscal responsibility.

Conclusion. With a (public, on which we pay interest) debt of $15 trillion, and growing rapidly, the U.S. is approaching fiscal insolvency. The Republican tax plan will add an additional $1 trillion to this debt over the next ten years.  This is unconscionable behavior.

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Which Is Worse: Republican Hypocrisy about Debt or Democratic Complacency about It?

 

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.

Republicans are very good at deploring the debt but quick to forget about it, when it gets in the way of cutting taxes.  Note that:

  • Economic growth is 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.

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The Republicans Need to Adopt a Responsible Budget Plan for 2018

 

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.

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Fundamental Principle for Tax Reform II. What to Avoid

 

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.

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Fundamental Principles for Tax Reform

 

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.

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