Tag Archives: income tax

What’s going on with Alaska’s budget?

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 shouldn’t be a surprise to state legislators though – the budget process during the past two years ended in gridlock because of similar problems. And these issues have translated into credit downgrades from the three major credit agencies, each reflecting concern about the state’s trajectory if no significant improvements are made.

Despite these issues, residents have not been complaining, at least not until recently. Every fall, some earnings from Alaska’s Permanent Fund get distributed out to citizens – averaging about $1,100 per year since 1982. Last summer, Governor Walker used a partial veto to reduce the next dividend from $2,052 to $1,022. Although politically unpopular, these checks may be subject to even more cuts as a result of the current budget crisis.

The careful reader might notice that Alaska topped the list of the most fiscally healthy states in a 2016 Mercatus report that ranks the states according to their fiscal condition (using fiscal year 2014 data). For a state experiencing so much budget trouble, how could it be ranked so highly?

The short answer is that Alaska’s budget is incredibly unique.

On the one hand, the state has large amounts of cash, but on the other, it has large amounts of debt. Alaska’s cash levels are what secured its position in our ranking last year. Although holding onto cash is generally a good thing for state governments, there appears to be diminishing returns to doing so, especially if there is some structural reason that makes funds hard to access for paying off debt or for improving public services. It is yet to be seen how these factors will affect Alaska’s ranking in the next edition of our report.

Another reason why Alaska appeared to be doing well in our 2016 report is that the state’s problems – primarily spending growth and unsustainable revenue sources – are still catching up to them. Alaska has relied primarily on oil tax revenues and has funneled much of this revenue into restricted permanent trusts that cannot be accessed for general spending. When the Alaska Permanent Fund was created in the 1980s, oil prices were high and production was booming, so legislators didn’t really expect for this problem to occur. The state is now starting to experience the backlash of this lack of foresight.

The first figure below shows Alaska’s revenue and expenditure trends, drawing from the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs). At first look, you’ll see that revenues have generally outpaced spending, but not consistently. The state broke even in 2003 and revenues steadily outpaced expenditures until peaking at $1,266 billion in 2007. Revenues fell to an all-time low of $241 billion following the recession of 2008 and then fluctuated up and down before falling drastically again in fiscal year 2015.

alaska-revenues-exp4.5.17

The ups and downs of Alaska’s revenues reflect the extremely volatile nature of tax revenues, rents, and royalties that are generated from oil production. Rents and royalties make up 21 percent of Alaska’s total revenues and oil taxes 6 percent – these two combined actually come closer to 90 percent of the actual discretionary budget. Alaska has no personal income tax or sales tax, so there isn’t much room for other sources to make up for struggling revenues when oil prices decline.

Another major revenue source for the state are federal grants, at 32 percent of total revenues. Federal transfers are not exactly “free lunches” for state governments. Not only do they get funded by taxpayers, but they come with other costs as well. There is research that finds that as a state becomes more reliant on federal revenues, they tend to become less efficient, spending more and taxing more for the same level of services. For Alaska, this is especially concerning as it receives more federal dollars than any other state in per capita terms.

Federal transfers as an income stream have been more steady for Alaska than its oil revenues, but not necessarily more accessible. Federal funds are usually restricted for use for federal programs and therefore their use for balancing the budget is limited.

A revenue structure made up of volatile income streams and hard-to-access funds is enough by itself to make balancing the budget difficult. But Alaska’s expenditures also present cause for concern as they have been growing steadily, about 10 percent on average each year since 2002, compared with private sector growth of 6 percent.

In fiscal year 2015, education was the biggest spending category, at 28% of total expenditures. This was followed by health and human services (21%), transportation (11%), general government (10%), the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend (9%), public protection (6%), and universities (5%). Spending for natural resources, development, and law and justice were all less than 5 percent.

The next figure illustrates the state’s biggest drivers of spending growth since 2002. Education and general government spending have grown the most significantly over the past several years. Alaska Permanent Fund spending has been the most variable, reflecting the cyclical nature of underlying oil market trends. Both transportation and health and human services have increased steadily since 2002, with the latter growing more significantly the past several years as a result of Medicaid expansion.

alaska-spendinggrowth4.5.17

Alaska’s spending is significantly higher than other states relative to its resource base. Spending as a proportion of state personal income was 31 percent in fiscal year 2015, much higher than the national average of 13 percent. A high level of spending, all else equal, isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you have the revenues to support it, but as we see from this year’s budget deficit, that isn’t the case for Alaska. The state is spending beyond the capacity of residents to pay for current service levels.

What should Alaska do?

This is a complicated situation so the answer isn’t simple or easy. The Alaska government website provides a Microsoft Excel model that allows you to try and provide your own set of solutions to balance the budget. After tinkering with the state provided numbers, it becomes clear that it is impossible to balance the deficit without some combination of spending cuts and changes to revenues or the Permanent Fund dividend.

On the revenue side, Alaska could improve by diversifying their income stream and/or broadening the tax base. Primarily taxing one group – in this case the oil industry – is inequitable and economically inefficient. Broadening the base would cause taxes to fall on all citizens more evenly and be less distortive to economic growth. Doing so would also smooth revenue production, making it more predictable and reliable for legislators.

When it comes to spending, it is understandably very difficult to decide what areas of the budget to cut, but a good place to start is to at least slow its growth. The best way to do this is by changing the institutional structure surrounding the political, legislative, and budgeting processes. One example would be improving Alaska’s tax and expenditure limit (TEL), as my colleague Matthew Mitchell recommends in his recent testimony. The state could also look into item-reduction vetoes and strict balanced-budget requirements, among other institutional reforms.

Ultimately, whatever steps Alaska’s legislators take to balance the budget this year will be painful. Hopefully the solution won’t involve ignoring the role that the institutional environment has played in getting them here. A narrow tax base reliant on volatile revenue sources, restricted funds, and growing spending are all factors that have led many to think that Alaska is and always will be “different.” But what constitutes sound public financial management is the same regardless of state. Although Alaska’s situation is unique, their susceptibility to fiscal stress absent any changes is not.

What else can the government do for America’s poor?

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1996 welfare reforms, which has generated some discussion about poverty in the U.S. I recently spoke to a group of high school students on this topic and about what reforms, if any, should be made to our means-tested welfare programs.

After reading several papers (e.g. here, here and here), the book Hillbilly Elegy, and reflecting on my own experiences I am not convinced the government is capable of doing much more.

History

President Lyndon Johnson declared “War on Poverty” in his 1964 state of the union address. Over the last 50 years there has been some progress but there are still approximately 43 million Americans living in poverty as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Early on it looked as if poverty would be eradicated fairly quickly. In 1964, prior to the “War on Poverty”, the official poverty rate was 20%. It declined rapidly from 1965 to 1972, especially for the most impoverished groups as shown in the figure below (data from Table 1 in Haveman et al. , 2015). (Click to enlarge)

poverty-rate-1965-72

Since 1972 the poverty rate has remained fairly constant. It reached its lowest point in 1973—11.1%—but has since fluctuated between roughly 11% and 15%, largely in accordance with the business cycle. The number of people in poverty has increased, but that is unsurprising considering the relatively flat poverty rate coupled with a growing population.

census-poverty-rate-time-series-2015

Meanwhile, an alternative measure called the supplemental poverty measure (SPM) has declined, but it was still over 15% as of 2013, as shown below.

poverty-rate-time-series

The official poverty measure (OPM) only includes cash and cash benefits in its measure of a person’s resources, while the SPM includes tax credits and non-cash transfers (e.g. food stamps) as part of someone’s resources when determining their poverty status. The SPM also makes adjustments for local cost of living.

For example, the official poverty threshold for a single person under the age of 65 was $12,331 in 2015. But $12,331 can buy more in rural South Carolina than it can in Manhattan, primarily because of housing costs. The SPM takes these differences into account, although I am not sure it should for reasons I won’t get into here.

Regardless of the measure we look at, poverty is still higher than most people would probably expect considering the time and resources that have been expended trying to reduce it. This is especially true in high-poverty areas where poverty rates still exceed 33%.

A county-level map from the Census that uses the official poverty measure shows the distribution of poverty across the 48 contiguous states in 2014. White represents the least amount of poverty (3.2% to 11.4%) and dark pink the most (32.7% to 52.2%).

us-county-poverty-map

The most impoverished counties are in the south, Appalachia and rural west, though there are pockets of high-poverty counties in the plains states, central Michigan and northern Maine.

Why haven’t we made more progress on poverty? And is there more that government can do? I think these questions are intertwined. My answer to the first is it’s complicated and to the second I don’t think so.

Past efforts

The inability to reduce the official poverty rate below 10% doesn’t appear to be due to a lack of money. The figure below shows real per capita expenditures—sum of federal, state and local—on the top 84 (top line) and the top 10 (bottom line) means-tested welfare poverty programs since 1970. It is from Haveman et al. (2015).

real-expend-per-capita-on-poverty-programs

There has been substantial growth in both since the largest drop in poverty occurred in the late 1960s. If money was the primary issue one would expect better results over time.

So if the amount of money is not the issue what is? It could be that even though we are spending money, we aren’t spending it on the right things. The chart below shows real per capita spending on several different programs and is also from Haveman et al. (2015).

expend-per-cap-non-medicaid-pov-programs

Spending on direct cash-assistance programs—Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—has fallen over time, while spending on programs designed to encourage work—Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)—and on non-cash benefits like food stamps and housing aid increased.

In the mid-1970s welfare programs began shifting from primarily cash aid (AFDC, TANF) to work-based aid (EITC). Today the EITC and food stamps are the core programs of the anti-poverty effort.

It’s impossible to know whether this shift has resulted in more or less poverty than what would have occurred without it. We cannot reconstruct the counterfactual without going back in time. But many people think that more direct cash aid, in the spirit of AFDC, is what’s needed.

The difference today is that instead of means-tested direct cash aid, many are calling for a universal basic income or UBI. A UBI would provide each citizen, from Bill Gates to the poorest single mother, with a monthly cash payment, no strings attached. Prominent supporters of a UBI include libertarian-leaning Charles Murray and people on the left such as Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker.

Universal Basic Income?

The details of each UBI plan vary, but the basic appeal is the same: It would reduce the welfare bureaucracy, simplify the process for receiving aid, increase the incentive to work at the margin since it doesn’t phase out, treat low-income people like adults capable of making their own decisions and mechanically decrease poverty by giving people extra cash.

A similar proposal is a negative income tax (NIT), first popularized by Milton Friedman. The current EITC is a negative income tax conditional on work, since it is refundable i.e. eligible people receive the difference between their EITC and the taxes they owe. The NIT has its own problems, discussed in the link above, but it still has its supporters.

In theory I like a UBI. Economists in general tend to favor cash benefits over in-kind programs like vouchers and food stamps due to their simplicity and larger effects on recipient satisfaction or utility. In reality, however, a UBI of even $5,000 is very expensive and there are public choice considerations that many UBI supporters ignore, or at least downplay, that are real problems.

The political process can quickly turn an affordable UBI into an unaffordable one. It seems reasonable to expect that politicians trying to win elections will make UBI increases part of their platform, with each trying to outdo the other. There is little that can be done, short of a constitutional amendment (and even those can be changed), to ensure that political forces don’t alter the amount, recipient criteria or add additional programs on top of the UBI.

I think the history of the income tax demonstrates that a relatively low, simple UBI would quickly morph into a monstrosity. In 1913 there were 7 income tax brackets that applied to all taxpayers, and a worker needed to make more than $20K (equivalent to $487,733 in 2016) before he reached the second bracket of 2% (!). By 1927 there were 23 brackets and the second one, at 3%, kicked in at $4K ($55,500 in 2016) instead of $20K. And of course we are all aware of the current tax code’s problems. To chart a different course for the UBI is, in my opinion, a work of fantasy.

Final thoughts

Because of politics, I think an increase in the EITC (and reducing its error rate), for both working parents and single adults, coupled with criminal justice reform that reduces the number of non-violent felons—who have a hard time finding employment upon release—are preferable to a UBI.

I also support the abolition of the minimum wage, which harms the job prospects of low-skilled workers. If we are going to tie anti-poverty programs to work in order to encourage movement towards self-sufficiency, then we should make it as easy as possible to obtain paid employment. Eliminating the minimum wage and subsidizing income through the EITC is a fairer, more efficient way to reduce poverty.

Additionally, if a minimum standard of living is something that is supported by society than all of society should share the burden via tax-funded welfare programs. It is not philanthropic to force business owners to help the poor on behalf of the rest of us.

More economic growth would also help. Capitalism is responsible for lifting billions of people out of dire poverty in developing countries and the poverty rate in the U.S. falls during economic expansions (see previous poverty rate figures). Unfortunately, growth has been slow over the last 8 years and neither presidential candidate’s policies inspire much hope.

In fact, a good way for the government to help the poor is to reduce regulation and lower the corporate tax rate, which would help economic growth and increase wages.

Despite the relatively high official poverty rate in the U.S., poor people here live better than just about anywhere else in the world. Extreme poverty—think Haiti—doesn’t exist in the U.S. On a consumption rather than income basis, there’s evidence that the absolute poverty rate has fallen to about 4%.

Given the way government functions I don’t think there is much left for it to do. Its lack of local knowledge and resulting blunt, one size fits all solutions, coupled with its general inefficiency, makes it incapable of helping the unique cases that fall through the current social safety net.

Any additional progress will need to come from the bottom up and I will discuss this more in a future post.

Northern Cities Need To Be Bold If They Want To Grow

Geography and climate have played a significant role in U.S. population growth since 1970 (see here, here, here, and here). The figure below shows the correlation between county-level natural amenities and county population growth from 1970 – 2013 controlling for other factors including the population of the county in 1970, the average wage of the county in 1970 (a measure of labor productivity), the proportion of adults in the county with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1970 and region of the country. The county-level natural amenities index is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and scores the counties in the continental U.S. according to their climate and geographic features. The county with the worst score is Red Lake, MN and the county with the best score is Ventura, CA.

1970-13 pop growth, amenities

As shown in the figure the slope of the best fit line is positive. The coefficient from the regression is also given at the bottom of the figure and is equal to 0.16, meaning a one point increase in the score increased population growth by 16 percentage points on average.

The effect of natural amenities on population growth is much larger than the effect of the proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is another strong predictor of population growth at the metropolitan (MSA) and city level (see here, here, here, and here). The relationship between county population growth from 1970 – 2013 and human capital is depicted below.

1970-13 pop growth, bachelors or more

Again, the relationship is positive but the effect is smaller. The coefficient is 0.026 which means a 1 percentage point increase in the proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1970 increased population growth by 2.6 percentage points on average.

An example using some specific counties can help us see the difference between the climate and education effects. In the table below the county where I grew up, Greene County, OH, is the baseline county. I also include five other urban counties from around the country: Charleston County, SC; Dallas County, TX; Eau Claire County, WI; San Diego County, CA; and Sedgwick County, TX.

1970-13 pop chg, amenities table

The first column lists the amenities score for each county. The highest score belongs to San Diego. The second column lists the difference between Green County’s score and the other counties, e.g. 9.78 – (-1.97) = 11.75 which is the difference between Greene County’s score and San Diego’s score. The third column is the difference column multiplied by the 0.16 coefficient from the natural amenity figure e.g. 11.75 x 0.16 = 188% in the San Diego row. What this means is that according to this model, if Greene County had San Diego’s climate and geography it would have grown by an additional 188 percentage points from 1970 – 2013 all else equal.

Finally, the last column is the actual population growth of the county from 1970 – 2013. As shown, San Diego County grew by 135% while Greene County only grew by 30% over this 43 year period. Improving Greene County’s climate to that of any of the other counties except for Eau Claire would have increased its population growth by a substantial yet realistic amount.

Table 2 below is similar to the natural amenities table above only it shows the different effects on Greene County’s population growth due to a change in the proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

1970-13 pop chg, bachelor's table

As shown in the first column, Greene County actually had the largest proportion of adults with bachelor’s degree or higher in 1970 – 14.7% – of the counties listed.

The third column shows how Greene County’s population growth would have changed if it had the same proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher as the other counties did in 1970. If Greene County had the proportion of Charleston (11.2%) instead of 14.7% in 1970, its population growth is predicted to have been 9 percentage points lower from 1970 – 2013, all else equal. All of the effects in the table are negative since all of the counties had a lower proportion than Greene and population education has a positive effect on population growth.

Several studies have demonstrated the positive impact of an educated population on overall city population growth – often through its impact on entrepreneurial activity – but as shown here the education effect tends to be swamped by geographic and climate features. What this means is that city officials in less desirable areas need to be bold in order to compensate for the poor geography and climate that are out of their control.

A highly educated population combined with a business environment that fosters innovation can create the conditions for city growth. Burdensome land-use regulations, lengthy, confusing permitting processes, and unpredictable rules coupled with inconsistent enforcement increase the costs of doing business and stifle entrepreneurship. When these harmful business-climate factors are coupled with a generally bad climate the result is something like Cleveland, OH.

The reality is that the tax and regulatory environments of declining manufacturing cities remain too similar to those of cities in the Sunbelt while their weather and geography differ dramatically, and not in a good way. Since only relative differences cause people and firms to relocate, the similarity across tax and regulatory environments ensures that weather and climate remain the primary drivers of population change.

To overcome the persistent disadvantage of geography and climate officials in cold-weather cities need to be aggressive in implementing reforms. Fiddling around the edges of tax and regulatory policy in a half-hearted attempt to attract educated people, entrepreneurs and large, high-skill employers is a waste of time and residents’ resources – Florida’s cities have nicer weather and they’re in a state with no income tax. Northern cities like Flint, Cleveland, and Milwaukee that simply match the tax and regulatory environment of Houston, San Diego, or Tampa have done nothing to differentiate themselves along those dimensions and still have far worse weather.

Location choices reveal that people are willing to put up with a lot of negatives to live in places with good weather. California has one of the worst tax and regulatory environments of any state in the country and terrible congestion problems yet its large cities continue to grow. A marginally better business environment is not going to overcome the allure of the sun and beaches.

While a better business environment that is attractive to high-skilled workers and encourages entrepreneurship is unlikely to completely close the gap between a place like San Diego and Dayton when it comes to being a nice place to live and work, it’s a start. And more importantly it’s the only option cities like Dayton, Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis and Detroit have.

Does an income tax make people work less?

Harry Truman famously asked for a one-handed economist since all of his seemed reluctant to decisively answer anything: “on the one hand,” they’d tell him, but “on the other…”

When asked whether an income tax makes people work more or less, the typical economist gives the sort of answer that would have grated on Truman like a bad music critic.

If, however, we change the question slightly and make it more realistic, it’s possible to give a decisive answer to the question. Income taxes do reduce overall labor supply. This is something that economists James Gwartney and Richard Stroup explained in the pages of the American Economic Review some 30 years ago. And last week, the CBO’s much-discussed report on the ACA and labor-force participation illustrated their point nicely.

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You tell me it’s the institution…

When scandals erupt, the human tendency is to look for some nefarious person wearing a black hat and blame them. However psychologically satisfying this may be, it is not particularly helpful. It offers no constructive solution to avoid future problems, other than to be “ever-vigilant” against bad behavior.

In contrast, law professor Victor Fleischer’s take on the unfolding IRS scandal is a nice example of a more-useful reaction, one that focuses on the institutional factors that made the scandal likely to happen in the first place:

The root of the problem is poor institutional design, not a political conspiracy. Current law forces the I.R.S. to enforce a vague set of campaign finance laws that have next to nothing to do with raising revenue.

It is constructive to apply Fleischer’s approach to another unfolding scandal. In the past few weeks, the press has reported that the FBI is investigating Virginia Governor McDonnell for his ties to a major donor, Jonnie Williams. Williams, described by McDonnell as a close family friend, paid for the food at McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding reception and loaned the first family his fancy sports car for a day. In the last few years, the governor and the first lady seem to have given Williams’s company, Star Scientific, free promotion. For example, in August of 2011, McDonnell appeared at an event promoting Star Scientific at the Executive Mansion. And in June of 2011, the first lady flew to Florida to tout the company’s product, a dietary supplement.

The inquiry apparently began out of concern for the possibility of a quid pro quo: perhaps the governor and the first lady offered this free promotion in exchange for political and personal favors? For their part, the governor and first lady have maintained that it is their job is to promote Virginia businesses.

Indeed, the state legislature seems to think this is part of the governor’s job. Over the years, legislators have given the governor a host of tools to offer exclusive privileges to particular businesses. For example, the Governor’s Opportunity Fund “is a discretionary incentive available to the Governor to secure a business location or expansion project for Virginia.” There’s also the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund. This too gives grants “at the discretion of the Governor.” You can read about these and other programs at the “business incentives” section of the Virginia Economic Partnership website. There, you will see that privileges include subsidies, matching grants, in-kind donations such as training, corporate and individual income tax credits, sales and use tax exemptions, property tax exemptions, and various financing programs. (In the case of Star Scientific, the governor seems not to have availed himself of any of these programs. Instead, he and his wife seem to have simply talked favorably about the company, just as they frequently talk favorably about other Virginia businesses.)

Presumably legislatures give governors the authority to grant special favors to firms because they believe these favors benefit the state. But the evidence that targeted incentives lead to any sort of widespread prosperity is quite scant. And as my research has emphasized, privileges lead to a host of economic problems because they undermine competition, encourage wasteful privilege-seeking, and put politicians rather than consumers in charge of allocating capital and resources.

But the Virginia story illustrates another cost of privilege: it inevitably invites questions of impropriety. The fact is, it is very difficult to devise objective criteria for dispensing privileges to particular firms. So one doesn’t have to look very hard to find apparently subjective decisions: Was Solyndra awarded half a billion taxpayer dollars because it had a superior business model? Or was it given money because green energy is politically popular and the vice president wanted to host a ribbon-cutting ceremony there? Did the Administration offer trade protection to domestic solar panel makers because the Chinese were engaged in “unfair competition” or because domestic solar panel manufacturers are politically powerful and well-connected?

I don’t see how these questions could possibly be answered definitively. Instead of trying to pretend that they can be, we should change the institutions that inevitably give rise to charges of impropriety. We should stop presuming that an elected official’s job description includes the promotion of particular businesses. If we stop asking politicians to pick winners and losers, there will be no more scandals about whom they pick.

Full disclosure: A few years ago, Governor McDonnell appointed me to serve on Virginia’s Joint Advisory Board of Economists. Once a year I travel to Richmond and offer my opinion on the state’s economic and fiscal forecasts. I am not compensated for my participation.

What is a loophole?

In the Pathology of Privilege, I had this to say about “accelerated depreciation,” an artifact of the corporate tax code that many consider to be a loophole:

If income is the base of taxation, it makes sense to allow firms to “write off” expenses necessary to earn that income. For capital items that wear out over time, expenses should be written off as the items wear out. Some provisions of the tax code, however, permit firms to write off big capital expenses in one year rather than gradually as the items depreciate. These provisions privilege those firms that happen to make large capital purchases.

The idea that “accelerated” depreciation is a loophole can be traced back to Stanley Surrey, the Harvard law professor whose work in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s influenced many tax reformers, including Senator Bill Bradley and officials in the Reagan Treasury Department. When the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation began cataloguing loopholes in their annual “tax expenditure” list in 1972, they too called accelerated depreciation a loophole. Here is how Leonard Berman and Joel Slemrod describe the issue in Taxes in America:

Why not let businesses write off their investments right away? It would make the process of determining taxable income easier, as businesses would no longer have to keep track of depreciation schedules for long-lived capital goods. The problem is that it would mean abandoning the attempt to tax business income, or at least part of it. Only a small fraction of the cost of a factory that will last twenty years is really a cost of earning income this year. (p. 72, emphasis original).

This thinking persuaded me to list accelerated depreciation alongside other tax loopholes as a privilege. In conversations with friends and colleagues over the last few weeks, however, I’ve come to change my mind on this one. Why?

To begin with, it is not obvious that generality requires corporate taxation at all. Though much maligned, Mitt Romney’s famous statement that “corporations are people” is—in some form or another—taught in just about every economics 101 course. When a government levies a tax on a corporation, some combination of the following three groups pay it: customers, investors, or employees. All three, it goes without saying, are humans. Moreover, as every student of economics knows, the statutory incidence of a tax is not the same as its economic incidence. Even if legislators earnestly want investors (or managers) to bear 100 percent of the tax, it is supply and demand, and not legislator intent which ultimately determines who pays. Each of these groups is already taxed in some other way, through sales, payroll, income, or capital gains taxes. So when a government levies a corporate income tax, it is imposing an additional levy on someone and this, by itself, is a violation of generality.

Second, if we are going to tax businesses, it isn’t clear that the tax base should be corporate income. Note that Berman and Slemrod say that immediate expensing would mean abandoning “the attempt to tax business income.” That’s because it would essentially turn the corporate income tax into a corporate consumption tax. And that may be a good thing. Capital taxation is notoriously inefficient. This is one reason why Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka permitted immediate 100 percent expensing in their famous flat consumption tax (which, by the way, would apply to all businesses, not just corporations).

Setting these concerns aside, doesn’t accelerated depreciation privilege capital-intensive firms over labor-intensive firms? This is an argument often made against accelerated depreciation. But if you think this through, it’s not a particularly strong argument. Labor-intensive firms (appropriately) get to write off the salaries that they pay their employees as they make payroll. That makes sense. So long as we are taxing income, we shouldn’t penalize those that have to incur expenses in order to earn that income. Why shouldn’t capital-intensive firms also get to expense equipment when they cut the check for the equipment? The rate at which equipment breaks down bears no relation to the expense of buying it. In fact, one could go a step further and argue that any measure requiring capital-intensive firms to write off their expenses over a long period of time amounts to a privilege to labor-intensive firms.

I am always open to new arguments and in light of my changed view, I’ve decided to update the paper and remove these lines.

The battle of the taxes

In my last post, I discussed several exciting tax reforms that are gaining support in a handful of states. In an effort to improve the competitiveness and economic growth of these states, the plans would lower or eliminate individual and corporate income taxes and replace these revenues with funds raised by streamlined sales taxes. Since I covered this topic, legislators in two more states, Missouri and New Mexico, have demonstrated interest in adopting this type of overhaul of their state tax systems.

At the same time, policymakers in other states across the country are likewise taking advantage of their majority status by pushing their preferred tax plans through state legislatures and state referendums. These plans provide a sharp contrast with those proposed by those states that I discussed in my last post; rather than prioritizing lowering income tax burdens, leaders in these states hope to improve their fiscal outlooks by increasing income taxes.

Here’s what some of these states have in the works:

  • Massachusetts: Gov. Deval L. Patrick surprised his constituents last month during his State of the State address by calling for a 1 percentage point increase in state income tax rates while simultaneously slashing state sales taxes from 6.25% to 4.5%. Patrick defended these tax changes on the grounds of increasing investments in transportation, infrastructure, and education while improving state competitiveness. Additionally, the governor called for a doubling of personal exemptions to soften the blow of the income tax increases on low-income residents.
  • Minnesota: Gov. Mark Dayton presented a grab bag of tax reform proposals when he revealed his two-year budget plan for the state of Minnesota two weeks ago. In an effort to move his state away from a reliance on property taxes to generate revenue, Dayton has proposed to raise income taxes on the top 2% of earners within the state. At the same time, he hopes to reduce property tax burdens, lower the state sales tax from 6.875% to 5.5%, and cut the corporate tax rate by 14%.
  • Maryland: Last May, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley called a special legislative session to balance their state budget to avoid scheduled cuts of $500 million in state spending on education and state personnel. Rather than accepting a “cuts-only” approach to balancing state finances, O’Malley strongly pushed for income tax hikes on Marylanders that earned more than $100,000 a year and created a new top rate of 5.75% on income over $250,000 a year. These tax hikes were signed into law after the session convened last year and took effect that June.
  • California: At the urging of Gov. Jerry Brown, California voters decided to raise income taxes on their wealthiest residents and increase their state sales tax from 7.25% to 7.5% by voting in favor of Proposition 30 last November. In a bid to put an end to years of deficit spending and finally balance the state budget, Brown went to bat for the creation of four new income tax brackets for high-income earners in California. There is some doubt that these measures will actually generate the revenues that the governor is anticipating due to an exodus of taxpayers fleeing the new 13.3% income tax and uncertain prospects for economic growth within the state. 

It is interesting that these governors have defended their proposals using some of the same rhetoric that governors and legislators in other states used to defend their plans to lower income tax rates. All of these policymakers believe that their proposals will increase competitiveness, improve economic growth, and create jobs for their states. Can both sides be right at the same time?

Economic intuition suggests that policymakers should create a tax system that imposes the lowest burdens on the engines of economic growth. It makes sense, then, for states to avoid taxing individual and corporate income so that these groups have more money to save and invest. Additionally  increasing marginal tax rates on income and investments limits the returns to these activities and causes people to work and invest less. Saving and investment, not consumption, are the drivers of economic growth. Empirical studies have demonstrated that raising marginal income tax rates have damaging effects on economic growth. Policymakers in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maryland, and California may have erred in their decisions to shift taxation towards income and away from consumption. The economies of these states may see lower rates of growth as a result.

In my last post, I mused that the successes of states that have lowered or eliminated their state income taxes may prompt other states to adopt similar reforms. If the states that have taken the opposite approach by raising income taxes see slowed economic growth as a result, they will hopefully serve as a cautionary tale to other states that might be considering these proposals.

States Aim to Eliminate Corporate and Individual Income Taxes

Although the prospects of fundamental tax reform on the federal level continue to look bleak, the sprigs of beneficial tax proposals in states across the US are beginning to grow and gain political support. Perhaps motivated by the twin problems of tough budgeting options and mounting liability obligations that states face in this stubborn economy, the governors of several states have recommended a variety of tax reform proposals, many of which aim to lower or completely eliminate corporate and individual income taxes, which would increase state economic growth and hopefully improve the revenues that flow into state coffers along the way.

Here is a sampling of the proposals:

  • Nebraska: During his State of the State address last week, Gov. Dave Heineman outlined his vision of a reformed tax system that would be “modernized and transformed” to reflect the realities of his state’s current economic environment. His bold plan would completely eliminate the income tax and corporate income tax in Nebraska and shift to a sales tax as the state’s main revenue source. To do this, the governor proposes to eliminate approximately $2.8 billion dollars in sales tax exemptions for purchases as diverse as school lunches and visits to the laundromat. If the entire plan proves to be politically unpalatable, Heineman is prepared to settle for at least reducing these rates as a way to improve his state’s competitiveness.
  • North Carolina: Legislative leaders in the Tar Heel State have likewise been eying their individual and corporate income taxes as cumbersome impediments to economic growth and competitiveness that they’d like to jettison. State Senate leader Phil Berger made waves last week by announcing his coalition’s intentions to ax these taxes. In their place would be a higher sales tax, up from 6.75% to 8%, which would be free from the myriad exemptions that have clogged the revenue-generating abilities of the sales tax over the years.
  • Louisiana: In a similar vein, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has called for the elimination of the individual and corporate income taxes in his state. In a prepared statement given to the Times-Picayune, Jindal emphasized the need to simplify Louisiana’s currently complex tax system in order to “foster an environment where businesses want to invest and create good-paying jobs.” To ensure that the proposal is revenue neutral, Jindal proposes to raise sale taxes while keeping those rates as “low and flat” as possible.
  • Kansas: Emboldened by the previous legislative year’s successful income tax rate reduction and an overwhelmingly supportive legislature, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback laid out his plans to further lower the top Kansas state income tax rate from the current 4.9% to 3.5%. Eventually, Brownback dreams of completely abolishing the income tax. “Look out Texas,” he chided during last week’s State of the State address, “here comes Kansas!” Like the other states that are aiming to lower or remove state income taxes, Kansas would make up for the loss in revenue through an increased sales tax. Bonus points for Kansas: Brownback is also eying the Kansas mortgage interest tax deduction as the next to go, the benefits of which I discussed in my last post.

These plans for reform are as bold as they are novel; no state has legislatively eliminated state income taxes since resource-rich Alaska did so in 1980. It is interesting that the aforementioned reform leaders all referenced the uncertainty and complexity of their current state tax systems as the primary motivator for eliminating state income taxes. Seth Giertz and Jacob Feldman tackled this issue in their Mercatus Research paper, “The Economic Costs of Tax Policy Uncertainty,” last fall. The authors argued that complex tax systems that are laden with targeted deductions tend to concentrate benefits towards the politically-connected and therefore result in an inefficient tax system to the detriment of everyone within that system.

Additionally, moving to a sales tax model of revenue-generation may provide state governments with a more stable revenue source when compared to the previous regime based on personal and corporate income taxes. As Matt argued before, the progressive taxation of personal and corporate income is a particularly volatile source of revenue and tends to suddenly dry up in times of economic hardship. What’s more, a state’s reliance on corporate and personal income taxes as a primary source of revenue is associated with large state budget gaps, a constant concern for squeezed state finances.

If these governors are successful and they are able to move their states to a straightforward tax system based on a sales tax, they will likely see the economic growth and increased investment that they seek.

Keep an eye on these states in the following year: depending on the success of their reforms and tax policies, more states could be soon to follow.

Eileen Norcross on News Channel 8 Capital Insider discussing Virginia and the fiscal cliff

Last week I appeared on NewsChannel 8’s Capital Insider to discuss how the fiscal cliff affects Virginia. There are several potential effects depending on what the final package looks like. Let’s assume the deductions for the Child Care Tax Credit, EITC, and capital depreciation go away. This means, according to The Pew Center, where the state’s tax code is linked to the federal (like Virginia) tax revenues will increase. That’s because removing income tax deductions increases Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) on the individual’s income tax filing (or on the corporation’s filing) thus the income on which the government may levy tax increases. According to fellow Mercatus scholar, Jason Fichtner, that could amount to millions of dollars for a state.

On the federal budget side of the equation,the $109 billion in potential reductions is now equally shared between defense and non-defense spending. Of concern is the extent to which the region’s economy is dependent on this for employment. Nearly 20 percent of the region’s economy is linked to federal spending. Two points: The cuts are reductions in the rate of growth in spending. For defense spending, they are relatively small cuts representing a return to 2007 spending levels as Veronique points out. So, these reductions not likely to bring about the major shakeup in the regional economy that some fear. Secondly, the fact that these cuts are causing worry is well-taken. It highlights the importance of diversification in an economy.

Where revenues, or GDP, or employment in a region is too closely tied to one industry, a very large and sudden change in that industry can spell trouble. An analogy: New Jersey’s and New York’s dependence on financial industry revenues via their income tax structure led to a revenue shock when the market crashed in 2008, as the New York Fed notes.

On transportation spending there are some good proposals on the table in the legislature and the executive. Some involve raising the gas tax (which hasn’t been increased since 1986), and others involve tolls. The best way to raise transportation revenues is via taxes or fees that are linked to those using the roads. Now is no time to start punching more holes in the tax code to give breaks to favored industries (even if they are making Academy-award quality films) or to encourage particular activities.

Virginia’s in a good starting position to handle what may be in store for the US over the coming years. Virginia has a relatively flat tax structure with low rates. It has a good regulatory environment. This is one reason why people and businesses have located here.

Keep the tax and regulatory rules fair and non-discriminatory and let the entrepreneurs discover the opportunities. Don’t develop an appetite for debt financing. A tax system  is meant to collect revenues and not engineer individual or corporate behavior. Today, Virginia beats all of its neighbors in terms of economic freedom by a long shot. The goal for Virginia policymakers: keep it this way.

Here’s the clip

New Edition of Rich States, Poor States out this Week

The fifth edition of Rich States, Poor States  from the American Legislative Exchange Council is now available. Utah took the top spot in the ranking of states’ economic competitiveness, as it has every year the study has been produced. Utah excels in the ranking system because it is a right-to-work state, it has a flat personal income tax, and no estate tax, among other factors considered in the study.

The other states that round out the top ten for Economic Outlook include South Dakota, Virginia, Wyoming, North Dakota, Idaho, Missouri, Colorado, Arizona, and Georgia. On the bottom end of the ranking, the states with the worst Economic Outlook are Hawaii, Maine, Illinois, Vermont, and New York at number 50 for the fourth year in a row.

Several measures of economic competitiveness offer supporting evidence that these states have some of the worst policies for business including Mercatus’ Freedom in the 50 States and the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index.

The authors of Rich States, Poor States, Arthur Laffer, Stephen Moore, and Jonathan Williams demonstrate Tiebout Competition in action. They find a strong correlation between the states that have high Economic Outlook rankings with the states that are experiencing the highest population growth through domestic migration. Likewise, the states that experienced the largest losses due to out-migration include Ohio and New York, ranking 37th and 50th respectively.

The study draws attention to the role that unfunded pension liabilities play for states’ future competitiveness, as this debt will require difficult and unpopular policy decisions as current tax dollars have to be used to fund past promises. Laffer, Moore, and Williams draw a comparison between Wisconsin’s recent reforms that put it on a more sustainable path compared to its neighbor Illinois:

In stark contrast to Wisconsin’s successes, the story in Illinois is not so uplifting. Over the last 10 years, Illinois legislators have continuously ignored the pension burden in their state—so much so that Illinois has one of the worst pension systems in the nation, with an estimated unfunded liability ranging from $54 billion to $192 billion, depending on your actuarial assumptions. Furthermore, the official state estimates do not include the $17.8 billion in pension obligation bond payments that are owed. In addition, Illinois policymakers have spent beyond their means, borrowed money they don’t have, and made promises to public employee unions that they cannot fulfill. Not only did Illinois face significant unfunded pension liabilities, but also lawmakers had to confront large deficits and potential cuts to state programs.

While the policies that improve state economic competitiveness are clear, the path to achieving them is difficult after voters grow accustomed to programs that their states cannot afford. However the bitter medicine of reform is worthwhile, as we know that economic freedom is not only better for business, but evidence shows it also improves individuals’ well-being.