I hate to sound like a deficit hawk, but…

I’d like to elaborate on this post more soon with more detail (and fun graphs), but the topic of fiscal policy and continuing federal budget deficits has been on my mind lately. My thoughts are:

  1. The economy is operating close enough to full potential that any Keynesian deficit-financed stimulus would potentially be counterproductive at this point. Similarly, continued annual deficits increasingly run the risk of crowding out private sector spending as resources are used to fuller capacity. If crowding out were to occur, interest rates would almost certainly rise, hurting growth. Though economic slack does remain, we should be increasingly cautious about running large-ish deficits in the coming years.
  2. Our long-term debt sustainability issues (which are our actual problems) certainly are not helped by short-term debt accumulation. Though acceptable in times of economic downturn and during recovery, short-term debt accumulation is less acceptable when an economy is both growing and has almost returned to near full operating capacity. If we continue to run structural (e.g. cyclical = 0) deficits, as we have for the past four decades, even in good times, our capacity to deal with the coming surge of entitlement spending will be greatly diminished. In many ways, though, we’re already too late on this regard.
  3. It might even be optimal to try to run a balanced or even more than balanced (e.g. surplus) budget for a few years. Normally, the rule-of-thumb is that, in the long run, annual debt growth (which roughly equal annual deficits) must be equal to or less than annual economic growth in the long-run (indicating that even balanced budgets are technically required for sustainability). Though this is now the case at the moment, our current deficit of around 3% of GDP is only small enough to about stabilize our debt/GDP ratio of around 75%, not reduce it. And arguably, reductions in debt/GDP would be preferable soon to give us more room for the coming entitlement spending and any future recessions we might encounter (and also to reduce the risk of a debt crisis).
  4. At the very least, we should continue to try to reduce our structural budget deficits while promoting long-term government investments (for example, in infrastructure, R&D, etc.). At the present time, further fiscal stimulus would seem inappropriate; the window for action has passed.
  5. Reduction of budget deficits is not only about timing, but rates of change (which is where the calculus comes in). Any plan must not just offer targets and amounts, but how quickly those targets and amounts are to be achieved and any feedback loops that might ensue
  6. None of the presidential candidates offers a viable long-term deficit reduction/debt stabilization plan, which is appalling. Indeed, many (especially Trump and Sanders) would dramatically increase our rate of debt accumulation in a very unsustainable way. Though many candidates offer proposals for productive spending, both that spending and, more crucially, the coming increase in mandatory program spending should be at least partially paid for, via tax increases or spending cuts. None elaborate on such a plan.

In my world, the government would:

  1. Enact reforms to mandatory programs (e.g. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) that progressively reduced benefit growth and raised more dedicated revenue (for example, by increasing the payroll taxes’ income cap)
  2. Reduce wasteful spending in the form of corporate subsidies (e.g. agricultural, fossil fuel), DOD procurement waste, redundant programs (for example, many overlapping government assistance programs)
  3. Raise general revenue (via reductions in excludability of health insurance from taxation, gradual phase-out of mortgage interest deduction, caps on deductions/deductability of some items, etc.)
  4. Modestly raise spending on direct R&D and R&D tax credit, transportation (highway) funding, job training programs

A more detailed discussion of the fiscal situation and solutions I would endorse will follow soon. But I thought it would be good to write down my general thoughts on the matter.

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Achieving a “2020” Vision

I wouldn’t be surprised if people on the internet have already used this play on words, but seriously – why isn’t this a major campaign slogan yet? Even if the vision is inarticulate and 2020 has nothing to do with the objectives, it’s still a catchy phrase.

But I take it one step further by integrating it into a neat little tax plan. Specifically: 20% flat rate. $20,000 standard deduction. By 2020.  It’s that easy.

Here’s how my dream plan would work:

  • Repeal the current income tax code.  Replace with a 20% flat rate applied to all taxable income (including capital income).  This provision contains a lot of benefits, with some amendable drawbacks.  A flat 20% rate would be fair and efficient.  Everyone could calculate it (exactly 1/5 of their taxable income), and its simplicity would destroy the artificial need for tax-preparation services.  This saves the economy billions in both dollars & hours.  It is reasonably fair – proportionally, everyone pays the same, but the rich still pay more in absolute amounts.  It would not change the tax owed by those with capital income too much (already, the top rate on capital gains is around 20%).  Additionally, its simplicity is pro-poor, who often lack the resources for tax consultation services.  Granted, it would represent, in some ways, a “tax hike” for many lower and middle-income people (who previously had lower rates applied to their incomes).  But this can be at least partially (if not fully) offset by a much higher personal exemption and preservation/improvement of a few antipoverty tax-credits (see below).
  • Introduce a $20,000 personal exemption for all households, indexed to inflation.  Starting in 2020, this generous exemption amount would be fully phased in.  It essentially means that not a penny of every dollar up to $20,000 per year will have the income tax applied to it.  In this way, people at or near poverty would not see their tax burdens increased (for many, potentially decreased compared to the current system).  Indeed, it’s at least five times larger than the current personal exemption ($4,000) and provides complete relief to people whose income is nearly twice the poverty line ($11,770/year in 2015).  The exemption amount would be adjusted for non-real increases in income (e.g. inflation) on an annual basis, chained to the index of the candidate’s choice.  Such a high exemption amount should help pave the way for elimination (or near-elimination) of any deductions (especially itemized deductions, such as the mortgage interest deduction, which primarily benefits wealthy taxpayers).  Among the biggest benefits in the vision’s exemption provision is that it allows for some continued progressivity in the tax code.  For example, a person with $20,000 in annual income would pay 0% in income taxes ($20,000 total income – $20,000 exemption = $0 in taxable income * 20% = $0 in taxes = 0% of total income); in contrast, someone with an income of $100,000 would pay about 16% in income taxes ($100,000 total income – $20,000 exemption = $80,000 in taxable income * 20% = $16,000 in taxes = 16% of total income).  So, the effective tax rate is progressive (increases by income), but it is proportionally the same for everyone above $20,000.

And there you have it.  Those two elements – the 20% rate with the $20,000 personal exemption – form the 2020 in the plan.  Benefits, already described somewhat above, include:

  • Simple calculation
  • Elements of fairness (combo of progressivity and equal proportionality)
  • Would likely boost growth & efficiency of tax collections
  • Could very well boost economic growth
    • simple calculation = less time & resources devoted to calculation = higher productivity, savings
    • lower rates boost economic demand and/or supply

Drawbacks include an uncertain impact on the federal budget and the tax burden of the poor/middle class.  For the former, there is reason to think that this plan could well boost tax revenues (thereby helping to close the annual deficit).  The simple calculation of the tax could boost compliance, and the higher growth it could produce would mean higher incomes = more revenues.  Additionally, the elimination of many deductions and credits would save a ton of money; currently, federal tax expenditures total around $1 trillion per year.  As for the burden on the poor/middle class, this plan could entail the loss of several tax credits or deductions that currently benefit them.  To mitigate the impact, some of these credits/deductions could be maintained, but at the threat of making the plan less fiscally sustainable.  Additionally, the impact on those whose incomes are not high but fairly above the poverty line (e.g. those above $20,000, but not too far above) is concerning; it’s unclear whether the proposed tax plan would represent a sizable increase in their tax burden relative to the current system (despite the $20,000 exemption).  People will also scream that this is a tax cut for the rich (who face marginal tax rates of up to almost 40% in the highest income quintiles).  However, it’s important to remember that even the effective income tax rate of the richest in America usually comes in around 20%.  With the 20% rate applied to all of the income of the super-rich (except the first $20,000), their effective rate will basically be 20%.  And with the elimination of some of their favorite deductions and loopholes, it could even represent a tax hike for them.

For too long, our political system has been paralyzed by short-term thinking and an unhealthy attachment to everyday opinion polls.  Now more than ever is the time for policymakers to start projecting clear, attainable visions for the future, with workable frameworks.  When it comes to the tax code, this plan isn’t anywhere near perfect; not by a long shot.  But it’s a place for them to start.

 

 

 

American Freedom: it’s time to put a ring on it

Well, this is it. Any day now (possibly within just hours of this posting), the Supreme Court will finally determine the constitutional status of gay marriage nationwide; and in the process, will likely end up overturning the few remaining barriers to a new era of positive freedom for the United States. Though being deliberated on by just nine elderly justices, I’m confident their determination will reflect both the overwhelming tide of public opinion and the true meaning of liberty as intended by the Constitution. It is something that is inevitable; it is something that is unprecedented; and simultaneously, at the same time, it is something that is long, long overdue.

To many, this will be a bitter pill to swallow (surprise!) . I know, because at one point, that would’ve been my situation. Social conservatism is a very powerful force in this country. That’s not at all inherently a bad thing (I’d argue much of that sentiment is actually a force for much good), and many well-meaning, good people, people whom I love very much, hold very traditional, socially conservative values.  And they have a right to do so.  But the ideology and core beliefs that they espouse has a tendency (sometimes, but not always) to overrule independent thinking, or the ability to think of different possibilities and to adapt accordingly (although to be fair, that’s generally true for all ideologies).  The value system that structures “traditionalists'” world, in reaction to a non-traditional concept, tells them no, or that it’s wrong, and that no other reality can or ever should exist.  Whether it be for moral or religious or status quo reasons, preservation of “tradition” (as constructed) is key.  Anything else is a threat, and is labeled as wrong and undesirable accordingly.

I deeply understand all of this; again, like I said, I was at that point once.  But I strongly challenge all those who still hold “traditional” views to seriously rethink their positions; if not on every social issue (which is understandable), then at the very least on this issue of gay marriage.  Because the arguments for gay marriage are simply overwhelming on all angles – from a societal, economic, and moral standpoint.  Now, it should go without saying I won’t be able to address anywhere near the full amount of arguments both sides pose (nor do I really want to), and I’m certainly not an expert on anything.  But here are a few brief things that I think people who oppose gay marriage should consider (and yes, full disclosure, my opinion is injected into many of these arguments):

1)  First and foremost, having “unconventional” attractions is simply NOT a choice.  Too many people, too many studies, too many instances in the animal kingdom confirm this.  And I have no idea why someone would EVER choose (given rampant societal discrimination) to have “unconventional” attractions.  It’s a perfectly natural thing that just is.  If this cannot be swallowed, spend some time on it (especially if you want to even begin considering gay marriage pros/cons).  If second-hand sources don’t suit you, then please, go out and meet people who have these “unconventional” attractions (there are many such people – more than you’d think – and whether they identify as LGBTQ or not).  Your perspective will be transformed; perhaps not instantly, but inevitably, it will be.

2) America is (quite simply) built for freedom (including religious) and the pursuit of happiness.  If you object to gay marriage, you can freely say so, refuse to endorse it, say you think it is wrong, etc.  Those are all legitimate beliefs you are entitled to personally have.  But America’s promise is to allow all people to live their lives as they see fit to pursue happiness (as long as they are not harming anyone else).  If you object on religious grounds, that’s fine; but America is not about forcing people (via the government, of all institutions) to be confined to your beliefs, or for you to be forced to follow theirs.  Let’s not deny any group of people their right to pursue happiness; especially those who are not harming others or infringing upon anyone else’s rights.

3) Gay marriage does NOT harm anything, including the institution of marriage.  Quite the contrary; it bestows countless benefits from almost every angle imaginable.  To put it in a rambling, incoherent sort of way: economically, expanded marriage rights increases people’s financial security, decreasing expenditures on social assistance programs. This reduces the budget deficit, resulting in lower-than-status-quo-trajectory debt levels.  Psychologically/economically, expanded marriage rights boosts happiness/self esteem, leading to higher productivity and more economic growth. This allows for more tax revenues/less social expenditures, again resulting in a lower budget deficit and lower-than-status-quo-trajectory debt levels.  Socially, expanded marriage rights helps to save (not destroy) the institution of marriage, which is already crumbling due to 50% + divorce rates among “traditional” marriages.  Socially again, expanded marriage rights helps to reinvigorate the nuclear family (again, crumbling largely due to high divorce rates).  Again from a social standpoint, marriage is not an unchanging institution (it has changed countless times over centuries and millenia).  Thus, the expansion of marriage rights does not constitute an attack on marriage.   Socially/morally, expanded marriage rights allows for continued/easier discussion on the inherent humanity and entitlement to equality of LGBTQ people, providing progress towards further acceptance and integration (among other economic, psychological, social benefits, etc.).  Morally, it also represents a basic expansion of positive freedoms (freedoms to do something, not from something), which, especially in this case , is a very good thing.    And the list can go on and on and on.

Nothing I’m writing here is in any way revolutionary, or is something that hasn’t been said before. Really, all I’m doing is simply adding my voice to the voices of millions of my (far more courageous) fellow millennials in calling for full marriage equality within the United States, and providing a short list of supporting rationales. But I felt like I should at least go on record expressing said support, mere hours/days before a ruling, even if it ultimately does nothing to change the minds of naysayers.  Because right now, fifteen years into the 21st century, it is time for American freedom to start reaching its fullest extent possible – and for us to finally do the right thing, and put a ring on it. Those who have been denied the right to marry whom they love, simply because of who they are, surely deserve nothing less than that.

1024px-HRC_marriage_equality_sign.svg

A Spring Cleaning for American Monetary Policy

The past several months have witnessed profound transformations in the state of America’s economic outlook. Output growth has accelerated, with annualized GDP growth rates of 4.6%, 5.0%, and 2.2% in Q2, Q3, and Q4 of 2014, respectively.  This has been accompanied by similarly impressive gains in the pace of job creation, with a full year’s worth of monthly net employment gains of over 200,000, and an unemployment rate increasingly dipping into “natural rate” territory (estimated to be between 5.2 & 5.5%, though recently revised to around 5.1%).  Oil prices have plunged since late 2014, helping to spur aggregate demand.  And the FY 2016 budget released by the Obama administration in early February continued the turnaround in federal fiscal policy, with large increases in proposed discretionary spending initiatives promising to accelerate (if implemented) the transition towards a more accomodative policy stance.

Real GDP Growth has trended upward in recent quarters.  Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Real GDP Growth has trended upward in recent quarters. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Monthly net payroll growth has steadily increased as output growth has accelerated

Monthly net payroll growth has steadily increased as output growth has accelerated

The U3 unemployment rate measure is slowly converging towards the estimated natural rate of unemployment (NAIRU).

The U3 unemployment rate measure is slowly converging towards the estimated natural rate of unemployment (NAIRU).

All of this points towards an economy that is rapidly strengthening and should continue to do so as the year continues.  The impacts of oil & natural gas price declines have yet to fully ripple through the economy in the form of increased manufacturing competitiveness and higher consumption.  Firming employment figures should boost aggregate demand as more earnings are recycled into discretionary household purchases.  Higher stock and housing prices will continue to translate into “wealth-effect” consumer spending.  And rising retail sales should further spur investment, boosting current and long-run growth in the process.  Ceteris paribus – all else held equal (such as geopolitical happenings) – and there is little reason to expect for strong economic growth not to continue.

With the arrival of Spring on March 20th and the accompanying wave of household cleaning, as well as this unexpected barrage of good economic news, it is a good time to take stock of the current policy trajectory.  Considering it is in the news so much, and bears so much direct import on the macroeconomy, of primary concern is the stance of monetary policy.  How soon should the Fed tighten?

Currently, the main policy tool that is modulated by the Federal Reserve, the Federal Funds Target Rate, is set in a range from 0 – 0.25% – the lowest levels in its history.  This has been the case since late 2008, and the 6+ years since then has likewise marked the longest period of accomodative policy in history.

This is set to change.

Rumor has it that a long-awaited hike in interest rates (read: Fed Funds Target Rate) will proceed by the middle to late-middle of this year, though the rate of increase will be fairly gradual, perhaps around 50 basis points to .75% by late this year.  This has been the assumption of investors for awhile now, and seems to be the likeliest course of action.  But is it a good course of action?

My views are mixed, but side with pessimists who feel that even these gradual steps are too rapid.  First among my concerns is that the American economy is still no where close to “full employment”, one of the key elements of the Fed’s dual mandate.  The Economic Policy Institute estimates that U3 rates closer to 4.0% (instead of 5 – 5.5%) are more consistent with NAIRU (n0n-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment).  This would make sense, for though unemployment is now within reach of the Fed’s estimates for NAIRU, inflation has continued to trend down (turning into outright deflation in recent months as lower oil prices feed into general prices), and wage growth remains stagnant (at 2% nominal growth, real wage growth is too low to feed into wage-push inflation).

fredgraph

Rates of inflation are well below the Fed’s 2% annual target

 

Nominal Wage Growth Tracker

As demonstrated by the Economic Policy Institute’s Nominal Wage Tracker, wages are rising too slowly to be consistent with target wage and inflation growth.

 

We would expect wage growth to strengthen as we near the natural full rate of unemployment.  Rising demand for workers while the labor supply becomes more scarce boosts the bargaining power of workers to negotiate higher wages.  This wage growth is partially a pre-requisite for higher rates of inflation (closer to the 2% target).  Higher wages means that prices usually must be increased for businesses to maintain profits, and these higher prices then necessitate further wage hikes, creating a positive upward spiral that feeds into rising inflation.  Since both nominal wage growth and inflation rates are well below target, it appears that full employment has not yet been reached.

Some will argue that the existence of monetary policy impact lags (how long it takes for a policy change to have an effect) would justify a rate increase now, as several months from now, it may well be that full employment is reached and wage and price increases are accelerating, to the point that tighter policy is needed to mitigate.  However, even if it were so that we reach full employment on current trajectory (which, if EPI is right and NAIRU is closer to 4.0%, will be a ways into the future), I still think holding off on an increase is justifiable.  For one thing, wage growth has been subpar for many years – allowing it to catch up back to pre-recession trends wouldn’t be a bad idea.  This is especially true if the Fed is worried about the sustainability of the expansion.  Wage increases are necessary for increases in consumer spending (the driving force of the U.S. economy) to be sustained.  Allowing for months, if not a few years, of above-average wage & inflation growth might not be a bad thing for the sake of sustainability.

Given the existence of multiple tools to combat inflationary pressures and to prevent higher inflation rates from being too ingrained, I think the biggest drawback of this proposal of delayed tightening is that the Fed risks overshooting its employment target (meaning that unemployment is below its natural rate for an extended period of time).  Technically, this would be a violation of its dual mandate.  However, invoking the argument about this policy helping to produce long-run economic sustainability (to maintain full employment and stable prices), a temporary overshooting of the dual mandate targets might be statutorily justified.  It all depends on the timeframe the Fed chooses to create policy, which historically has been rather short (within months/a few years).  This is the difficult balancing act the Fed must consider, and which is statutorily ambiguous.

If it were to think more of the possible long-run consequences of its policies (especially as it relates to the dual mandate), an already difficult task suddenly becomes much, much more complex.  Further thinking and a cleaning of its future policy stance is in order…

TBC

Building a New Era of Governance – Part 1

*Note: the views expressed in this posting are my own, and do not in any way represent the views of any other group or institution, public or private


Last Tuesday, November 4th, it is fair to say that the second Republican “wave” since 2010 swamped Congress and state governments across the nation. In Congress, the GOP managed to pick up at least 7 seats in the Senate (giving them a majority of 52, over the key threshold of 51), as well as at least 12 seats in the House (increasing their majority to at least 244). Gubernatorial elections also proved to be a route for the Democrats, as the Republicans snatched up another 3 governor-ships from the Democrats.

Despite these impressive gains, however, they will prove to be utterly meaningless unless Republicans in Congress can seize this opportunity to act in a bold, pragmatic, and bipartisan manner to go about conducting the nation’s business. More than anything, people are simply disgusted and fed up with what is shaping up to be (by many measures) one of the least productive governmental terms in American history (see chart).  While some may view inaction as a good thing (less activity means a smaller government = good, right?) I do not see this stagnation as benefiting anyone.  Even if few bills are passed, old ones already enacted are left to atrophy and will not be updated regularly to adapt to changing circumstances, creating new problems.  Additionally, it takes legislation to repeal legislation; inaction does not mean the government is in fact getting any smaller (and assuming a smaller government is even desirable in the first place).

Overall, as many pundits have noted, it is best to view the results of this election as an expression of disillusionment with a lack of leadership on either side of the aisle and a desperate plea for governance, as opposed to an endorsement of some ideological mandate. Especially when it comes to Congress, people are incredibly irritated that its members are well-paid, work part time (with much of their time spent campaigning), and yet very little of the country’s increasingly urgent problems are attended to. It is true, what many business-minded people would say: if the government were a private entity, they would’ve pushed out of the market a long, long time ago.

4.10.14.2

In terms of bills passed per legislative session, the 113th Congress is shaping up to be among the least productive in recent history

It is true that the outlook for an increase in Congressional productivity remains bleak, at least for the next two years. It’s a well-established pattern by now that American government doesn’t do too much unless a single political parties occupies both the Whitehouse and controls both chambers of Congress. However, this need not be an excuse for inaction; in fact, it cannot. The following is an agenda that I think Republicans can pursue that will not only help to solve the problems the public wants solved (and in a way that is congruent with the wishes of the electorate), but to help to build a new era of lasting American governance.

1) Lengthen the terms of the President, House, and Senate.  Of the many issues facing the country, this one (along with the next two agenda items) may seem like one of the least deserving of our attention.  However, relatively short Senate, Presidential, and (especially) House terms I believe has had a dramatic impact on the productivity of individual members.  Since elections come so frequently, many in the federal government must be in a near constant campaign mode that not only distracts them from legislative work but serves to polarize their “views”, making bipartisan consensus much more difficult.  At least attempting a Constitutional amendment, though quite unlikely to pass, could get the ball rolling on a future reform down the road.  Enactment of this reform, along with the following agenda item, could help to address the entrenched legislative paralysis.

2) Find a way to tie Congressional & Presidential pay to performance.  This one would be tough to implement (requiring another Constitutional amendment) and to find sufficient political support for, but I think it is an absolute must if we are to make meaningful legislative activity a core incentive for our politicians.  In my view, an independent committee (much like a state-level Civil Service Commission) would simply be given power to set Congressional & Presidential salaries and benefits upon a non-biased, impartial “performance review”.  This commission would be made up of individuals equally divided between the main political parties and would themselves be subject to background checks to ensure institutional independence

Many other potential reforms, such as a partial or complete scrapping of First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) representation in favor of more proportional representation and the outsourcing of congressional redistricting to independent commissions could help to both decrease the partisanship of the federal legislature and increase the “representative-ness” of individual members of Congress.  Ironically, the prospects of these reforms passing is weak at best; nonetheless, they would be crucial for the government to enact productive agendas in the future, and thus should be given priority in the agenda of the 114th Congress, even if chances of passage are slim.

As for other politically-feasible policy objectives that should be on the Congressional calendar:

3) Immigration reform.  No, seriously.  As discussed in more detail in my post “Why Republicans Should Embrace Comprehensive Immigration Reform”, the United States is in desperate need of both low and high-skilled labor, especially as the population ages in the coming decades.  Allowing in more immigrants (especially high-skilled) is not only politically reachable but is in line with a Republican emphasis on supply-side economic reforms.  Emphasis on increased border security (which is a prerequisite for any action for the party base, even if redundant and impractical) could be combined with reforms and/or increased funding to streamline the legal naturalization process.  At the very least, both Democrats and Republicans agree on the need for more high-skilled immigrants and an increase on the cap for H-1B work visas.  Increasing visa caps could help stem the tide of illegal immigrants (which Republicans are more concerned about anyway) via the substitution effect.  For best chances of passage, I would leave out measures that deal with illegal immigrants currently residing in the U.S. – a piecemeal, incremental approach would work best here.  Overall, immigration reform is an almost cost-free method to spur the economy in both the short and long-term, and considering how long it has been on the national agenda, it is incomprehensible that some sort of agreement cannot occur.

Due in part to an aging population, the U.S. Labor Force Participation Rate has reached levels not seen since 1978, increasing the need for new sources of labor

4) Corporate tax reform 

Again, opportunities for bipartisan agreement are rife here.  Everyone knows the corporate tax code is an unmitigated disaster, with high rates, too many loopholes, lost revenue, and distorted economic activity.  Make the system more territorial, modify depreciation schedules, scale down MNC deferral opportunities, eliminate tax expenditures, and reduce marginal rates.  Specific expenditures that are especially worthy of the chopping block are special preferences for oil & gas operations, insurance companies, corporate jets.  This operation need not be revenue-neutral, either; although this would technically constitute a tax “increase”, the removal of distortions and tax compliance hurdles will act as a counter-acting tax cut.  The government can gain revenue by increasing effective rates while simultaneously increasing growth and leaving businesses feeling better off than they do under the current tax regime.

5) Replace the sequester with targeted cuts & incremental, implement long-term reforms

The era of yawning short-term fiscal deficits is over – temporarily, at least.  Indeed, America has witnessed its fastest pace of fiscal consolidation since World War 2, with deficits as a percentage of GDP falling from 9.8% of GDP in FY 2009 to 2.8% of GDP in FY 2014 – a swing of 7% in just 6 fiscal years.  This has come about due to a variety of factors, including economic growth, slightly higher taxes and broad-based cuts to discretionary outlays.  It is this last option that is cause for concern, however, as the cuts initially enacted in the Budget Control Act of 2011 (the founding legislation of the so-called “sequester”) are quite blunt.  They also come at a time when discretionary spending is approaching record lows as a percentage of GDP, and arguably when increased federal spending on items such as infrastructure are desperately needed and interest rates remain at historic lows.  Additionally, they have subtracted from economic growth in the short-term, lengthening the time needed to close the output gap between real and potential GDP.  As has been projected for decades now, the biggest threat to American fiscal sustainability is the coming explosion in mandatory spending.  Therefore, the new GOP-led Congress must enact gradual but effective entitlement reform now – the longer it waits (as past Congresses have), the more abrupt the future adjustment.

Fiscal policy has not been this contractionary since the end of World War 2

Fiscal policy has not been this contractionary since the end of World War 2

Economic growth since 2009 has increased revenues and decreased "automatic stabilization" spending.  Meanwhile, higher taxes have also increased revenues, and new spending cuts have been enacted.

Economic growth since 2009 has increased revenues and decreased “automatic stabilization” spending. Meanwhile, higher taxes have also increased revenues, and new spending cuts have been enacted.

Non-defense discretionary spending has fallen to record lows as a percentage of the American economy

Non-defense discretionary spending has fallen to record lows as a percentage of the American economy…

...even as interest rates remain at record lows

…even as interest rates remain at record lows

Debt Held

The true threat to America’s finances comes from the coming explosion in mandatory “entitlement” spending. Congress much enact tough reforms now to stem this tide of red ink.

 

To be continued…

The Imperative of Tax Reform in a Distracted World

Taxes. Nobody likes them, nobody wants them, and they’re only considered good when they’re going one direction: down. But they are fundamentally necessary for any society to function. In fact, if levied at moderate rates and the revenues they generate are properly spent, taxes are key for societal prosperity.

In America’s case, taxes are generally somewhat lower, especially at the federal level, compared to other developed countries . This is not to say that Americans don’t pay a significant amount of tax. Being a country with a sizeable tax burden and one that is relatively low tax are not mutually exclusive concepts. Still, at the federal level, marginal income tax rates and top rates are generally lower than those prevailing in Europe, and a Federal sales tax simply does not exist (also unlike Europe). When factoring in state and local taxes, levels are equalized a bit more, but burdens still are generally lower in America.

Figure-2

Americans’ average tax burdens generally lower than peer countries

However, looking at rates and the revenue bite is only a part of the burden story. As is often said, America’s federal tax code is, quite simply, horrendous. In addition to the normal complexities of a progressive system (e.g. different rates for different brackets at various stages of income generation), the tax code is stuffed with various deductions, exemptions, credits, and loopholes that impose a not-so-insignificant burden on all Americans.  In the aggregate, this complexity is in itself a massive tax (or set of taxes). Precious time and real dollars must be spent to navigate and understand the code, resources that could be used for far more productive uses. The real tragedy of all this complexity is that it ultimately benefits no one in the end. The government does not generate revenue from complexity (indeed, it loses revenue from the loopholes and from reduced economic activity). Society as a whole wastes resources that could otherwise generate positive returns to try and minimize their burdens. The result is the potential for slower growth and lower living standards than would have been the case.

In this way, the net economic burden of America’s federal tax code could actually be on par with (or even exceed) the burden experienced in European countries (especially when including state and local codes). It is naturally rather difficult to put a value on this non-revenue burden, though most estimates place it at at least a few hundred billion dollars annually for the country as a whole.

Since personal income taxes represent a sizeable portion of the federal tax code (and its various complexities), many proposed “solutions” to the federal tax code burden (assuming it is labeled as a problem) focus on restructuring the federal income tax. One of the most popular proposals is replacing the current structure with a flat personal income tax.

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The Income Tax is the single largest source of Federal Tax Revenue

There are many laudable benefits to a flat tax. For one, it would be much easier for each taxpayer to calculate his or her “effective tax rate”. With a progressive income tax, rates change as income progresses. For (hypothetical) example, each dollar of taxable income within the $1 to $9,999 range would have a rate applied to each dollar, say, 10%. However, dollars within the $10, 000 through $19,999 bracket would have a different rate, say 15%, applied to each dollar. Naturally then, this makes calculating the effective tax rate (the total amount of tax as a percentage of total income) rather difficult. With a flat tax, however, there are no brackets – for all taxable income, the same rate is applied to each dollar. This makes the flat tax rate and effective tax rate essentially equal (assuming no credits, deductions, exemptions, or loopholes). In this way, unlike the current income tax structure, an individual can know with much greater certainty how much of their income will be withheld.  The need to outsource tax liability calculations to a firm is reduced, if not eliminated, freeing up resources and largely destroying a major source of federal lobbying efforts.

Second, in my view, a flat tax conceivably has something for everyone to like. It is simple, transparent, and does not penalize people who generate more income, which is especially important to conservatives . They see it as being neutral and as a means to boost individual productivity, efficiency, savings, and investment. However, a flat tax still makes people with higher income pay more in absolute amounts. The difference is that the proportion of income that goes to taxes is the same for everyone. For a simplistic example, let’s say there are two individuals A and B. Say A has a taxable income of $100 and B has a taxable income of $1000. If a flat rate of 10% is applied, A will pay $10 in tax while B will pay $100. B, being higher income, still pays more than A in taxes. But the proportion payed is the same for both A and B. This seems fair and attractive to both ends of the American political spectrum.

Third, the elimination of brackets and all of the other complexities riddling the current code would likely boost public confidence in the government and would reduce the feeling that a person is being unfairly taxed at arbitrary rates within arbitrary brackets.  This increased confidence might boost tax collection and faith in political institutions, which has been severely lacking in recent years.

Of course, the flat tax has many drawbacks. One of the most important concerns raised by critics of the flat tax is that it lacks the counter-cyclical elements of progressive income taxes.  For example: during a recession, incomes generally fall.  Falling incomes will place individuals in lower top tax brackets (meaning they have to “progress” through less brackets).  This means a lower effective tax rate – in essence, the structure of a progressive tax code means that it provides an effective tax cut during recessions or periods of slow economic activity.  In other words, it acts as an automatic stabilizer.  This is not so for flat taxes – the rate is always the same, regardless of changes in income.  The only route for effective tax cuts in a flat-tax world is via discretionary fiscal policy – actual legislative action – to reduce the applied rate.  This runs into the problems of policy lags – recognition lags, implementation lags, and impact lags.  It takes time for policymakers to identify economic conditions and the need for change, more time to actually make and implement a policy change, and even more time for an implemented change to have an affect – by which point, the policy change may be inappropriate for the macroeconomic environment.  If policymakers ever move towards a flat tax one day, they may have to consider a revamp of federal automatic stabilization systems for smoothing out the business cycle – and if not, the onus of economic stabilization will continue shifting towards monetary policy.

A second and virtually identical concern is the lack of progressiveness of flat taxes.  The US income tax code is currently considered among the most progressive in the developed world.  However, overall progressiveness in America’s redistribution systems is rather low, as many other federal, state, and local taxes are regressive, and “social assistance” programs, regardless of their impact of work incentives, are fairly skimpy by rich country standards.  Make the income tax code flat, and you remove a major source of progressiveness in America’s redistribution systems and would almost certainly increase after-tax income inequality.  Depending on your views regarding redistribution and income inequality, this could be either a good thing or a bad thing.

Regardless of whether a flat tax is pursued or not, it is (quietly) agreed by both the American Left and the American Right that the tax code needs radical simplification.  Right now, though, the imperative of tax reform has been pushed to the side to make way for a focus on ISIS, poverty reduction, immigration, and healthcare issues (to name a few), and ironically, the complexities that tax reform would attempt to solve helps to further ensure that such reform never takes place.  It is overcoming this entrenched policy stagnation that is the great task of our times.

Our 5-Year-Old Recovery: A Belated Birthday Wish

So much has been happening lately that it’s hard to know what is most deserving to talk about. Outside the US, the biggest news is that the middle east is further accelerating its long post-Arab Spring slide, with Iraq plunging back into civil war and tensions between Israel and Palestine yet again escalating.  Here at home, meanwhile, the Supreme Court has ruled against the Obama Administration on issues ranging from mandated contraception vs. religious freedom to “recess” presidential appointments.

Perhaps the strangest news, however, is that the current business cycle expansion (the economic recovery” turned 5 years old in June.  This comes at the heels of revelations that just a month prior, we finally reached pre-recession levels of total employment (really no achievement at all, since growth in the potential labor force thoughout all this time still leaves a massive jobs gap.  Not only is it unprecedented that the 5th birthday of the recovery comes only one month after a return to pre-recession employment levels, but it’s also unprecedented that such a large output gap remains at a point where we’re likely closer to the next recession than the end of the last one.   At 61 months, it is now past the average of 58 months for all post-war recoveries.

Now that the party has died down, its time to face some ugly truths.  First of all, longevity does not imply good health.  Despite repeated predictions, this recovery has proven to be neither broad-based nor robust, and unfortunately, its running out of time to ever show sustained periods of health.  From indicators ranging from GDP growth to income growth to productivity growth (etc, etc), there has been sub-par performance.  There are many plausible reasons why (both supply and demand-side explanations), which have been discussed to the point of exhaustion.  I’ll re-list the main ones anyway:

  • contractionary fiscal policy
  • inadvertently contractionary monetary policy? (see Vox.com explanation)
  • lingering effects of private debt deleveraging on consumer spending
  • lack of public investment in physical & nonphysical capital
  • High energy costs
  • Business uncertainty (due to regulations, policy ambiguity, shaky macroeconomic environment, etc.)
  • High or complex taxes, especially corporate taxes

Considering that this year is shaping up to be another economic disappointment recovery-wise, and the recovery’s rapid aging, we now face the troubling prospect of entering the next recession far from having truly recovered from the last one.  By recovered, I mean not just a complete closing of the output gap.  My definition also includes labor market healing, such as a reversal of skills erosion and a return to full employment, as well as meaningful gains in median income and wealth.  Since it is increasingly likely that none of this will happen, would a small recession now be far more painful than usual?  And what will we do policy-wise?  Monetary policy is, at least in terms of fed funds targeting, is as loose as it can get, and its doubtful the federal government will be willing to pursue aggressive fiscal stimulus like they did in 2008 and 2009.

Although it is good news that the recovery is 5, and I wish it a belated happy birthday, its longevity should not make us complacent about past, present, or future performance.  Overall, past performance has been weak, present performance is weak, and it is likely that, in the near future, only more pain will appear.  It’s a rather sad, but realistic, outlook.

The clock is ticking…