Another Reason for Tax Reform to Be Revenue Neutral

 

My last post noted that with our unemployment rate down to 4.2% and with median household income having increased by 3.2% in 2016, the emphasis now should be totally directed to addressing our number one long term problem:

  • Massive national debt. With a deficit of $668 billion for Fiscal Year 2017, our debt now stands at 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest it has been since the end of WWII. It is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to go much higher without significant changes in current policy.

Obviously our annual deficits are way too large and we need to shrink them dramatically. One way to start doing this is to speed up economic growth which will increase tax revenue especially by creating more jobs and better paying jobs.  Faster economic growth is quite feasible and this is one of the main goals of tax reform, now being considered by Congress.  But it needs to increase growth without increasing the deficit which is entirely doable.

But there is another big reason for revenue neutral tax reform as well. The dollar has depreciated by 10% in 2017 while the stock market has increased by 13%.  The S&P price-earnings ratio has risen to 30 at present which is way above average.  All of this means that we are in a loose money financial bubble.  For Congress to make our annual deficits worse than they already are, with deficit increasing tax reform, would make this bubble even bigger and therefore be highly irresponsible.

Conclusion. When interest rates return to much higher normal levels, as they inevitably will, interest payments on our debt will grow dramatically and cause a huge budget crunch. If ignored, this situation will eventually lead to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.

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New Urgency in Deficit and Debt Control

 

The general theme of this blog is major fiscal and economic issues facing the U.S. such as slow economic growth and huge debt. But our currently low unemployment rate of 4.4% and several trends, here and here, suggest that economic growth may already be starting to pick up.
This means that our huge debt, now 77%, for the public part on which we pay interest, the highest it has been since right after WWII, is now one of the very biggest problems facing our country.
Consider:

  • The only practical way to “solve” our debt problem (so to speak) is for each year’s annual deficit to be less than economic growth for that year. When this happens, then the debt will decrease as a percentage of GDP. If this pattern were to hold year after year, then debt would continue to shrink. This is exactly what happened from 1946 until about 1980 but since then the pattern has reversed and the debt has increased. It has grown especially fast since the financial crisis in 2008 (see chart).
  • The Fiscal Year 2017 deficit is $700 billion out of a total GDP of $20 trillion, which computes to 3.5% of GDP, well above the 2% annual growth of GDP for the 2017 FY. This means that our debt got worse in 2017.
  • Congress has already approved $15 billion in disaster relief for Hurricane Harvey. Now the White House is asking for $29 billion more ($12.8 billion for new disaster relief, especially for Puerto Rico, and $16 billion for the National Flood Insurance Program).  Congress has also approved a big increase in the Defense Budget, to $700 billion, for the 2018 FY.
  • Congress will soon be approving a budget for 2018 and then start working on a tax reform package. Given the likely increases in both military spending and disaster relief described above, it is now even more important for the new budget to show overall spending restraint and for the tax reform package to be revenue neutral.

Conclusion. Let’s hope that Congress gets the message about the new urgency of our debt problem and acts accordingly!

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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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The GOP Congress Needs to Get Back to Fundamentals

 

Granted that it is hard to implement good policy with a populist President like Donald Trump who is most interested in stirring up his base, nevertheless the Republican Congress is making some serious policy mistakes:

  • Healthcare. The GOP should accept the fact that universal healthcare is a desirable societal goal and is here to stay. The Graham-Cassidy bill is bad policy because some states, such as debt-ridden Illinois, can’t possibly handle healthcare on their own. The fact that the ACA needs operational fixes gives the Republicans leverage for insisting on cost lowering changes in a bipartisan bill.
  • Tax Reform. The GOP should focus on the most serious problems in our tax system. The complexity of the tax code is partly responsible for the fact that taxes paid lag true tax liabilities by an estimated 16% or $406 billion per year.  As an example of waste, the IRS has paid out $132 billion in EITC benefits over the last decade to people who were ineligible.
    Our uncompetitive corporate tax rate of 35% encourages multinational companies to leave their profits overseas rather than bringing them back home for reinvestment.  Even so, corporate tax revenue as a share of GDP is less than in most other developed countries.
    Republicans claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility and should therefore be highly uncomfortable with any tax plan which reduces federal revenue and increases our already very large annual deficits.  With a low unemployment rate of 4.4%, any additional artificial (deficit financed) fiscal stimulus is likely to kick off a new round of inflation.

Conclusion. Republicans have a relatively short window of opportunity to enact policy changes beneficial for the country. They need to get serious about what is really important before time runs out.

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A Different Perspective on U.S. Healthcare Reform

 

U.S. healthcare policy is now in limbo. The Affordable Care Act has withstood Congressional attempts to repeal it, but it has many flaws which need to be repaired.  Primarily, the ACA expands access to healthcare in the U.S. (good) but does nothing to control burgeoning costs for both individuals and the federal budget (bad).


One option for both further expansion of access as well as cost control is Bernie Sanders’ single-payer “Medicare for All” plan.  A different option is universal catastrophic care for all Americans not already covered by Medicare or Medicaid (including those receiving employer provided health insurance).


A different perspective is provided by an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine.  According to the authors, Eric Schneider and David Squires, the U.S. also faces (in addition to the challenge of much better cost control) several performance challenges such as:

  • Lack of access to affordable and comprehensive insurance coverage for too many people.
  • Relative underinvestment in primary care. Other developed countries have a higher percentage of their professional workforces dedicated to primary rather than specialty care and deliver a wider range of services at first contact.
  • Administrative inefficiency of the U.S. healthcare system. The solution here is to change our reimbursement systems to use global payments, fee schedules, formularies and defined benefits.
  • Disparities in the delivery of care. People with low incomes, low educational attainment, and other social and economic challenges face greater health risks and thus need even greater access to primary healthcare.

Conclusion. The U.S. compares poorly with other advanced countries in both the quality and cost efficiency of its healthcare system. Healthcare costs in the U.S, are a huge drain on the economy and will ultimately cause huge fiscal problems if not brought under much greater control.

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Why Our National Debt Is a Very Serious Problem for All Americans, but Especially the Poor

 

Congress has just postponed the debt ceiling until December 8 but at least they didn’t repeal it.  It is crucial to retain regular and explicit debt ceilings as a reminder of the urgency of putting our debt on a downward course (as a percentage of GDP).
As a reminder:

  • The debt now stands at 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest it has been since right after WWII. The $15 trillion public debt right now is essentially “free” money because interest rates are so low. But interest rates will inevitably return to more normal, and higher, historical levels and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket.
  • The entitlement programs of Social Security. Medicare and Medicaid are the drivers of our debt problem because their costs are increasing so rapidly. Medicaid costs the federal government almost $400 billion per year. Medicare costs the federal government $400 billion per year more than it receives in FICA taxes and premiums paid.

The attached chart demonstrates the scope and urgency of the problem.  By 2032, just fifteen years from now, all federal tax revenues will be required to pay for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest payments on the debt. This means that all of ordinary discretionary spending: on defense, various government operations and social welfare programs will be paid for entirely from new deficit spending and, in the process, will almost inevitably suffer huge cutbacks.  The lower-income and poor people, who are the most reliant on government programs to get by, will be the most adversely affected.

Conclusion. Such a dreary scenario of drastically tightened government spending does not have to occur. It can be avoided by immediately starting to make sensible curtailments, not actual spending cuts, all along the line.  Do our national leaders have the common sense and fortitude to do this?

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