Quantcast

This fall eligible Alaskans will be receiving a check of $1,100 from their state government. Although the amount of the check can vary, Alaskans receive one every fall – no strings attached. Other state residents are probably more familiar with IRS tax refunds that come every spring, but this “tax refund” that Alaskans receive is unique. It’s a feature that residents have benefited from for decades, even in times when the government has experienced fiscal stress. Considering the state’s unique and distressed budget situation that I’ve described in an earlier post, I think it warrants a discussion of the fiscal viability of their refunds.

A narrow tax base reliant on volatile revenue sources, restricted funds, and growing spending are all factors that made closing Alaska’s budget gap this year very difficult. It even contributed to pulling down Alaska from 1st in our 2016 ranking of states by fiscal condition to 17th in our 2017 edition. Given this deterioration, it will be helpful to look into how and why Alaska residents receive dividend payments each year. There is no public finance rule that says giving refunds to residents is fiscally irresponsible, but there definitely are better ways to do it, and Alaska certainly hasn’t proven to display best practices.

Another state that we can look at for comparison is Colorado, which has a similar “tax refund” for residents but is structured very differently. Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) requires that higher than expected tax revenues each year be refunded to taxpayers and acts as a restraint on government spending growth. In contrast, Alaska’s check comes from the state’s Permanent Fund’s earnings that are generated from oil severance taxes each year, and acts more like a dividend from oil investment earnings.

Are distributing these refunds to taxpayers fiscally responsible? I am going to take a deeper look at these mechanisms to find out.

First, Alaska’s refund.

The figure below displays Alaska’s Permanent Fund checks since 2002 overlaid with the state’s revenue and expenditure trends, all adjusted for inflation. The highest check (in 2015 dollars) was $2,279 in 2008 and the lowest was $906 in 2012, with the average over this time period being about $1,497 per person. Although the check amounts do vary, Alaska has kept on top of delivering them, even in times of steep budget gaps like in 2002, 2009, and 2015. The Permanent Fund dividend formula is based on net income from the current plus the previous four fiscal years, so it makes sense that the check sizes are also cyclical in nature, albeit in a slightly delayed fashion behind oil revenue fluctuations.

Alaska’s dividend payments often end up on the chopping block during yearly budget debates, and there is growing pressure to at least have them reduced. Despite this, Alaska’s dividends are very popular with residents (who can blame them?) and probably won’t be going away for a long time; bringing a new meaning to the Permanent Fund’s name.

The Alaska Permanent Fund was established in 1976 by constitutional amendment and was seen as an investment in future generations, who might no longer have access to oil as a resource. Although this may have been decent forward-thinking, which is rare in state budgets, it does illustrate an interesting public finance story.

Alaska is a great example of a somewhat backwards situation. They generate high amounts of cash each year, but because of the way many of their funds are restricted they are forced to hoard much of it, and give the rest to citizens in the form of dividends. If a different state were to consider a similar dividend before dealing with serious structural budget flaws would be akin to putting the cart before the horse.

Luckily for Alaskan dividend recipients, there are many other areas that the state could reform first in order to improve their budget situation while avoiding cutting payments. As my colleague Adam Millsap has recommended, a fruitful area is tax reform. Alaska doesn’t have an income or sales tax; two of the most common sources of revenue for state governments. These are two potentially more stable sources of income than what the state currently has.

How does Colorado’s “tax refund” compare?

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) has a feature that requires any tax revenue growth beyond inflation and population growth be refunded to taxpayers. It was adopted by Colorado voters in 1992 and it essentially restricts revenues by prohibiting any tax or spending increases without voter approval.

A recent example of this playing out was in 2014 when the state realized higher than expected tax revenues as a result of marijuana legalization. At the point of legalization, the plan was to direct tax revenues generated from the sale of marijuana towards schools or substance abuse program funding. But because of the higher than expected revenues, TABOR was triggered and it would require voter approval to decide if the excess revenues would be sent back to taxpayers or directed to other state programs.

In November of 2015, Colorado voters approved a statewide ballot measure that gave state lawmakers permission to spend $66.1 million in taxes collected from the sale of marijuana. The first $40 million was sent to school construction, the next $12 million to youth and substance abuse programs, and the remainder $14.2 billion to discretionary spending programs. A great example that although TABOR does generally restrain spending, citizens still have power to decline refunds in the name of program spending they are passionate about.

 

The second figure here displays TABOR refunds compared with state revenues and expenditures over time. Adjusted for inflation, checks have varied from $18 in 2005 to $351 in 1999, much smaller than the Alaska dividend checks. TABOR checks have only tended to be distributed when revenues have exceeded expenses. The main reason why checks weren’t distributed between 2006 and 2009, despite a revenue surplus, was because of Referendum C which removed TABOR’s revenue limit for five years, allowing the state to keep collections exceeding the rule. The revenue limit has since been reinstated, but some question the effectiveness of TABOR given an earlier amendment in 2000 which exempts much of education spending from TABOR restrictions.

The main distinguishing factor between Colorado’s refund and Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend is that the former also acts as a constraint on spending growth. By requiring the legislature to get voter approval before any tax increase or spending of new money, it implements automatic checks on these activities. Many states attempt to do this through what are called “Tax and Expenditure Limits” or TELs.

The worry is that left unchecked, state spending can grow to unsustainable levels.

Tax and Expenditure Limits

A review of the literature up to 2012 found that although the earliest studies were largely skeptical of the effectiveness of TELs, as time has passed more research points to the contrary. TELs can restrain spending, but only in certain circumstances.

My colleague Matt Mitchell found in 2010 that TELs are more effective when they (1) bind spending rather than revenue, (2) require a super-majority rather than a simple majority vote to be overridden, (3) immediately refund revenue collected in excess of the limit, and (4) prohibit unfunded mandates on local government.

Applying these criteria to Colorado’s TABOR we see that it does well in some areas and could improve in others. TABOR’s biggest strength is that it immediately refunds revenue collected in excess of the limit in its formula, pending voter approval to do otherwise. Automatically refunding surpluses makes it difficult for governments to use excess funds irresponsibly and also gives taxpayers an incentive to support TABOR.

Colorado’s TABOR does well to limit revenue growth according to a formula, rather than to a fixed number or no limitation at all. The formula partially meets Mitchell’s standards. It stands up well with the most stringent TELs by limiting government growth that exceeds inflation and population growth, but could actually be improved if it limited actual spending growth rather than focusing on tax revenue. When a TEL or similar law limits revenues, policymakers can respond by resorting to implementing more fees or borrowing. There’s some evidence of this occurring in Colorado, with fees becoming more popular as a way to raise revenue since TABOR’s passing. A spending-based TEL is more difficult to evade.

Despite its faults, Colorado’s TABOR structure appears to be doing better than attempts to constrain spending growth in other states. The National Conference of State Legislatures still considers it one of the strictest TELs in the nation. Other states, like Arkansas, could learn a lot from Colorado. A recent Mercatus study analyzes Arkansas’ Revenue Stabilization Law and suggests that it is missing a component similar to Colorado’s TABOR formula to refund excess revenues.

How much a state spends is ultimately up to its residents and legislature. Some states may have a preference for more spending than others, but given the tendency for government spending to grow towards an unsustainable direction, having a conversation about how to slow this is key. Implementing TEL-like checks allows for spending to be monitored and that tax dollars be spent more strategically.

Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend is not structured as well as Colorado’s, but perhaps the state’s saving grace is that it has a relatively well structured TEL. Similarly to Colorado’s TABOR, Alaska’s TEL limits budget growth to the sum of inflation and population growth and is codified in the constitution. Alaska’s TEL doesn’t immediately refund revenue that is collected in excess of the limit to taxpayers as Colorado’s TABOR does, but it does target spending rather than revenues.

Colorado’s and Alaska’s TELs can compete when it comes to restraining spending, but Colorado’s is certainly more strict. Colorado’s expenditures have grown by about 55 percent over the last decade, while Alaska’s has grown approximately 120 percent.

The Lesson

Comparing Colorado and Alaska’s situations reveals two different ways of giving tax refunds to residents. Doing so doesn’t necessarily have to be fiscally irresponsible. Colorado has provided refunds to residents when state revenues have exceeded expenses and as a result this has acted as a restraint on over-spending higher than expected revenues. Although Colorado’s TABOR has been amended over time, its general structure illustrates the effectiveness of institutional restrains on spending. The unintended effects of TABOR, such as the increase in fees, could be well addressed by specifically targeting spending rather revenue, like in the case of Alaska’s TEL. Alaska may have had their future residents’ best intent in mind when they designed their Permanent Fund Dividend, but perhaps this goal of passing forward oil investment earnings should have been paired with preparing for the potential of cyclical budget woes.

According to the Center for Retirement Research, about 52 percent of households are “at risk of not having enough to maintain their living standards in retirement” and that the retirement landscape is making “the outlook for retiring Baby Boomers and Generation Xers far less sanguine than for current retirees.” This growing problem for younger generations is highlighted by the Economic Policy Institute’s finding that almost half of households headed by someone between the ages of 32 and 61 have nothing saved for retirement. A confluence of factors has led to a predicament for millennials as they try to prepare for retirement in a drastically changing job market.

The millennial generation has grown to be an integral part of the workforce, and private sector companies are increasing their efforts to understand what they value most a job. A Deloitte survey reveals that a good work/life balance, opportunities to progress/be leaders, flexibility, and a sense of meaning emerge as the most important factors when evaluating job opportunities. What’s more, millennials are not likely to stick around for a job that doesn’t meet this criteria. The same survey found that if given the choice during the next year, one in four millennials would quit his or her current employer to join a new organization or to do something different.

This flightiness appears to be a characteristic of many young people and to be happening in tandem with, if not contributing to, an increasingly transient job market. This phenomenon, corroborated by other surveys, demonstrates that more and more millennial workers are changing jobs at a higher rate than previous generations. It is not as common to stick with your first or second job until retirement, as it once was for Baby Boomers. The “loyalty challenge” facing companies, paired with changes in technology and culture, has in turn been transforming the landscape of retirement options.

As workers become more transient, companies are forced to provide more portable retirement plan options. During the past two decades, the private sector has done just that by transitioning from offering primarily defined benefit retirement plans to offering more defined contribution plans. This change is to be expected in part because of the flexibility it provides for beneficiaries. Defined contribution plans allow for workers to take their benefits more easily with them from job to job.

The public sector has not quite caught up to this trend. Public sector plans have had much more difficulty staying solvent and much of this is because of the prevalence of defined benefit plans. Mercatus scholars, along with many economists, have long criticized the poor incentive structure of these plans. If these aren’t reason enough for policymakers to offer defined contribution plans in their place, then maybe their changing workforces will.

Much of the debate over growing pension liabilities has focused on whether public sector compensation costs are fair either in comparison to other states or to the private sector. But much less has been said about what is fair across generations.

Most pension reform efforts at the state level target changes in benefits for younger employees while preserving the benefits of older workers. Although this is largely the result of legal and political constraints, such changes have the potential to force younger generations of public-sector workers to shoulder a disproportionate share of the cost of reforms, as their retirement benefits become more uncertain, thus violating a crucial criterion of “intergenerational equity” for pension reform.

Pension experts Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh reveal in a 2008 study that the intergenerational transfer of pension debt could be quite large. They predict a 50 percent chance of underfunding across the states amounting to more than $750 billion, even before adjusting for risk. In other words, if left alone, the pension bills of today are going to be handed to the generations of tomorrow.

A new Mercatus paper uncovers how similar intergenerational equity issues have developed in the state of Oregon. The author, legal scholar Scott Shepard, writes:

“…the system radically favors (generally older) workers who started before 1996 and 2003, respectively – not just in expected ways, like seniority pay bumps, but in deeply structural ways; earlier-hired employees simply get a significantly better pay-and-benefit package for every minute of their climb up the seniority ladder.”

Oregon’s pension system, along with many other states’ plans, started out offering extremely generous benefits, but as this has grown increasingly unsustainable, the state is being forced to deal with reality and reign in benefits for newer workers.

The unfair retirement landscape that this creates is largely the result of many past poor policy decisions and although this difference in benefits between age groups is far from intentional, how Oregon – and other states in similar positions – responds can be. Changing demographic trends may lend reason for public pension officials to consider moving towards defined contribution plan structures, or at least providing the option.

Shepard strongly urges Oregon to make this shift. He describes a number of benefits; from the perspective of the state, taxpayers, and future generations:

“First, payments must be made when due, rather than being shifted off to future generations. This may seem painful to present taxpayers, but the long-term effect is to ensure a more honest government, in that politicians cannot make promises that their (unrepresented) descendants end up paying for generations later, long after the promisors have reaped the political benefits of making unfunded promises, only to have retired from the scene when payment comes due. This inability to promise now and pay later has a corollary benefit of thwarting the impulse to make extravagant pension promises, as the payments come due immediately, rather than being foisted off on future generations.”

Offering defined contribution plans for workers can provide a more sustainable option that would prevent this equity issue from worsening.

In addition to the accountability and savings that offering a defined contribution option provides, like we have seen demonstrated in Utah and Michigan, this also has the potential to lead to higher worker satisfaction.

With millennials looking to save money for retirement through more portable means, policymakers will want to offer benefits packages that match these preferences. Private sector workers and some public – including Federal and public university – workers lie at the forefront of those benefiting from the defined contribution trend. Most state public plans, however, still fall behind, which has continuing implications for public plan solvency and intergenerational equity.

A new paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (working version here) finds that the combination of intelligence and a willingness to break the rules as a youth is associated with a greater tendency to operate a high-earning incorporated business as an adult i.e. be an entrepreneur.

Previous work examining entrepreneurship that categorizes all self-employed persons as entrepreneurs has often found that entrepreneurs earn less than similar salaried workers. But this contradicts the important role entrepreneurs are presumed to play in generating economic growth. As the authors of the new QJE paper remark:

“If the self-employed are a good proxy for risk-taking, growth-creating entrepreneurs, it is puzzling that their human capital traits are similar to those of salaried workers and that they earn less.”

So instead of looking at the self-employed as one group, the authors separate them into two groups: those who operate unincorporated businesses and those who operate incorporated businesses. They argue that incorporation is important for risk-taking entrepreneurs due to the limited liability and separate legal identity it provides, and they find that those who choose incorporation are more likely to engage in tasks that require creativity, analytical flexibility and complex interpersonal communications; all tasks that are closely identified with the concept of entrepreneurship.

People who operate unincorporated businesses, on the other hand, are more likely to engage in activities that require high levels of hand, eye and foot coordination, such as landscaping or truck driving.

Once the self-employed are separated into incorporated and unincorporated, the puzzling finding of entrepreneurs earning less than similar salaried workers disappears. The statistics in the table below taken from the paper show that on average incorporated business owners (last column) earn more, work more hours, have more years of schooling and are more likely to be a college graduate than both unincorporated business owners and salaried workers based on two different data sets (Current Population Survey (CPS) and National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY)).

(click table to enlarge)

The authors then examine the individual characteristics of incorporated and unincorporated business owners. They find that people with high self-esteem, a strong sense of controlling one’s future, high Armed Forces Qualifications Test scores (AFQT)—which is a measure of intelligence and trainability—and a greater propensity for engaging in illicit activity as a youth are more likely to be incorporated self-employed.

Moreover, it’s the combination of intelligence and risk-taking that turns a young person into a high-earning owner of an incorporated business. As the authors state, “The mixture of high learning aptitude and disruptive, “break-the-rules” behavior is tightly linked with entrepreneurship.”

These findings fit nicely with some notable recent examples of entrepreneurship—Uber and Airbnb. Both companies are regularly sued for violating state and local ordinances, but this hasn’t stopped them from becoming popular providers of transportation and short-term housing.

If the founders of Uber and Airbnb always obtained approval before operating the companies would be hindered by all sorts of special interests, including taxi commissions, hotel industry groups and nosy neighbors. Seeking everyone’s approval—including the government’s—before operating likely would have meant never getting off the ground and the companies know this. It’s interesting to see evidence that many other, less well-known entrepreneurs share a similar willingness to violate the rules if necessary in order to provide their goods and services to customers.

Recently I wrote about the decline in the U.S. prime-age male labor force participation (LFP) rate and discussed some of the factors that may have caused it. One of the demand-side factors that many people think played a role is the decline in manufacturing employment in the United States.

Manufacturing has typically been a male-dominated industry, especially for males with less formal education, but increases in automation and productivity have resulted in fewer manufacturing jobs in the United States over time. As manufacturing jobs disappeared, the story goes, so did a lot of economic opportunities for working-age men. The result has been men leaving the labor force.

However, the same decline in manufacturing employment occurred in other countries as well, yet many of them experienced much smaller declines in their prime-age male LFP rates. The table below shows the percent of employment in manufacturing in 1990 and 2012 for 10 OECD countries, as well as their 25 to 54 male LFP rates in 1990 and 2012. The manufacturing data come from the FRED website and the LFP data are from the OECD data site. The ten countries included here were chosen based on data availability and I think they provide a sample that can be reasonably compared to the United States.

country 25-54 LFP rate, manuf table

As shown in the table, all of the countries experienced a decline in manufacturing employment and labor force participation over this time period. Thus America was not unique in this regard.

But when changes in both variables are plotted on the same graph, the story that the decline in manufacturing employment caused the drop in male LFP rate doesn’t really hold up.

country 25-54 LFP rate, manuf scatter plot

The percentage point change in manufacturing employment is across the top on the x-axis and the percentage point change in the prime-age male LFP rate is on the y-axis. As shown in the graph the relationship between the two is negative in this sample, and the change in manufacturing employment explains almost 36% of the variation in LFP rate declines (the coefficient on the decline in manufacturing employment is -0.322 and the p-value is 0.08).

In other words, the countries that experienced the biggest drops in manufacturing employment experienced the smallest drops in their LFP rate, which is the opposite of what we would expect if the decline in manufacturing employment played a big role in the decline of the LFP rate across countries.

Of course, correlation does not mean causation and I find it hard to believe that declines in manufacturing employment actually improved LFP rates, all else equal. But I also think the less manufacturing, less labor force participation story is too simple, and this data supports that view.

America and Italy experienced similar declines in their male LFP rates but neither experienced the largest declines in manufacturing employment over this time period. What else is going on in America that caused its LFP decline to more closely resemble Italy’s than that of Canada, Australia and the UK, which are more similar to America along many dimensions?

Whatever the exact reasons are, it appears that American working-age males responded differently to the decline in manufacturing employment over the last 20 + years than similar males in similar countries. This could be due to our higher incarceration rate, the way our social safety net is constructed, differences between education systems, the strength of the economy overall or a number of other factors. But attributing the bulk of the blame to the decline of manufacturing employment doesn’t seem appropriate.

Many working-age males aren’t working: What should be done?

April 24, 2017

The steady disappearance of prime-age males (age 25-54) from the labor force has been occurring for decades and has recently become popular in policy circles. The prime-age male labor force participation rate began falling in the 1950s, and since January 1980 the percent of prime-age males not in the labor force has increased from 5.5% […]

Read the full post →

What’s going on with Alaska’s budget?

April 7, 2017

Alaska is facing another budget deficit this year – one of $3 billion – and many are skeptical that the process of closing this gap will be without hassle. The state faces declining oil prices and thinning reserves, forcing state legislators to rethink their previous budgeting strategies and to consider checking their spending appetites. This […]

Read the full post →

Mutant Capitalism rears its ugly head in Arlington

March 23, 2017

Confectionery-giant Nestlé plans to move its U.S. headquarters from California to 1812 North Moore in the Rosslyn area of Arlington in the next few years. This should be great news for the people of Arlington—a world-famous company has decided that Arlington County is the best place to be in the U.S. This must be due […]

Read the full post →

Government Spending and Economic Growth in Nebraska since 1997

March 10, 2017

Mercatus recently released a study that examines Nebraska’s budget, budgetary rules and economy. As the study points out, Nebraska, like many other states, consistently faces budgeting problems. State officials are confronted by a variety of competing interests looking for more state funding—schools, health services and public pensions to name a few—and attempts to placate each […]

Read the full post →

An Overview of the Virginia State Budget and Economy

March 6, 2017

By Adam Millsap and Thomas Savidge Virginia’s economy has steadily grown over time in spite of expenditures outpacing revenues each year since 2007. However, economic growth within the state is not evenly distributed geographically. We examine Virginia’s revenue and expenditure trends, highlighting the sources of Virginia’s revenue and where it spends money. Then we discuss […]

Read the full post →

Innovation and economic growth in the early 20th century and lessons for today

February 22, 2017

Economic growth is vital for improving our lives and the primary long-run determinant of economic growth is innovation. More innovation means better products, more choices for consumers and a higher standard of living. Worldwide, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty due to the economic growth that has occurred in many […]

Read the full post →