James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Dealing with debt: America needs a growth experiment

May 10, 2010 15:20 UTC
Europe’s debt problems should inspire Americans to explore just how the U.S. will solve its own fiscal woes. I mean, no one is going to cut us a check like Germany and France just did for Greece. This is a topic I tackle in a piece I just wrote for The Weekly Standard. A few key points:
1) Cutting spending and raising taxes is a risky formula. It doesn’t have a great track record:
Since 1980, some 30 debt-plagued nations have tried to reduce their indebtedness through such austerity measures. In practically all cases, according to a new study by financial giant UBS, the increase in national debt was only slowed, not reversed, by such policy pain.
2) Trying to take more from rich people has its limits. Higher and higher income taxes or even wealth taxes create incentive to find tax havens and avoid productive work or capital allocation.
3) Cutting spending is better than raising taxes. Hey, I even have a study to prove it:
A 2009 study by Harvard University’s Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna. It examined 40 years of debt reduction plans by advanced economies and found that “those based upon spending cuts and no tax increases are more likely to reduce deficits and debt over GDP ratios than those based upon tax increases.” They’re also associated with higher economic growth.
4) Less spending +more growth. This is my money graf from the piece:
But what if (a) government spending tracks current projections over the next 70 years, (b) government revenue as a percentage of GDP stays at its historic average of 18 percent, and (c) the economy were somehow to grow a bit faster than its 20th-century average, about 3.5 percent. Under those conditions, according a recent study by JPMorgan Chase, a much wealthier America (generating $100 trillion in tax revenue rather than $50 trillion) would be able to afford projected spending without raising taxes. The long-term budget gap would vanish. … Indeed, that is typically how successful countries in the UBS study managed to get their books in order; they grew their economies faster than they added debt. … Easier said than done, of course. … And there is no one policy to help make that happen. It will take a full-spectrum effort: lower taxes on companies and capital, pork-free spending on infrastructure and basic research (beyond health care), an education system that teaches students rather than feathering the nests of teachers’ unions. Every aspect of U.S. public policy will need to be optimized for economic growth.

Chinese firms are moving manufacturing plants to the US because land is cheaper here than in Beijing. THAT is growth


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Now here is a tax bill I like, mostly

May 4, 2010 20:31 UTC

The good folks at the Heritage Foundation alert me to a House bill proposed by Republicans Jim Jordan and Jason Chaffetz: Here is what H.R. 5209 would do: 1) Eliminate the tax on capital gains; 2) Reduce corporate income tax to 12.5 percent; 3) Kill the death tax; 4) Immediate expensing of business expenses; 5) Reduce payroll tax by half for 2010.

Me: The payroll tax cut would be a huge revenue loser, as would the death tax. But the rest seem smartly targeted for economic growth. Given the budget deficit, tax-cutters need to be really smart and pick reductions that optimize economic growth.


Concern for the long term budget deficit should be a priority over optimizing growth now. Any tax cut should be balanced by a tax increase somewhere else.

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Wealth taxes, Washington’s next bad idea

May 3, 2010 16:04 UTC

Some Democrats seem to have no problem raising the cost of capital.  Dividend taxes rates are scheduled to triple, while capital gains rates will only increase by a mere 60 percent. But as a I poke around the liberal idea factories here in Washington, I am hearing more and more about wealth taxes on the wealthy, just like they have in Europe.

This goes far beyond estate and property taxes.  In theory, even portfolios would be taxed on paper gains, from 1 percent to 3 percent. If applied to just the top 1 percent of taxpayers, such a tax could theoretically raise $300 billion in new revenue. Assuming, of course, all those rich folks didn’t hightail it to tax havens abroad. (Just ask Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey about capital flight in the fact of high taxes.) No wonder so many nations want to crack down on these pockets of economic freedom.

I would dismiss the idea as nonsense if it were not for the fact that Democrats a) constantly complain about U.S. income inequality, b) seem so cavalier about cranking up taxes on wealthier Americans and c) think boosting taxes is the only way to deal with the budget deficit.


If this were to pass for only the top 1 percent, and half of them left the US, what would be the net tax revenue afterward?

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Becker vs. Posner on the VAT

Apr 26, 2010 14:35 UTC

The online conversation between Gary Becker and Richard Posner is one of my favorite things on the web. Currently they are taking on the the idea of the US implementing a value-added tax. First a bit from Becker, as excerpted by me:

1) A flat VAT tax would be more efficient for two reasons than a progressive income tax that raises the same revenue: it does not discourage savings relative to consumption, and it induces fewer distortions on other behavior because it has flat rather than rising tax rates. A flat income tax eliminates the effects of rising tax rates, but still distorts savings behavior.

2) The downside of a value added tax to anyone concerned about growing government spending and taxing is very much related to its upside; namely, that a VAT is a more efficient and relatively painless tax. … For example, the VAT rate in Europe started low but now ranges from 15 to 25%, and averages about 20%. In Denmark, for example, the VAT rate was 9% in 1962, but quickly rose to 25% by 1992, and has remained at that level.

3) However, the problems is that a VAT would be introduced not as a partial or full substitute for personal and corporate income taxes, but rather as an additional tax. This would make it much easier to close the fiscal gap by maintaining or increasing government spending and overall tax levels.

4) Since high taxes and high levels of government spending would discourage economic growth and raise rather than lower the overall distortions in an economy, I am highly dubious about introducing a VAT into the federal tax system unless accompanied by a major overall of this system. One big improvement that does not involve a VAT would be to flatten the present income tax rates and greatly reduce the various exemptions, so that the tax basis is widened. Even then it is necessary to be vigilant about combating the incentives government officials have to increase flat taxes over time, whether they are flat income taxes or flat value added taxes.

Now Posner:

1) Because (assuming no exemptions) the tax base for a VAT is so broad—all goods and services—a VAT can generate enormous tax revenues at a low tax rate, which reduces the distortionary effect of the tax. … The VAT also avoids the double taxation of savings under a corporate plus individual income tax system, further encourages savings by making consumption more costly, and reduces the disincentive effects of heavy income taxation. … Of course the benefits of the VAT are greatest if it is substituted for income taxes and other inefficient taxes rather than being added to the existing tax system to generate additional tax revenues.

2) Becker’s main objection to the adoption of the VAT by the federal government, which is similar to the objection to taxes on Internet sales and indeed any new taxes that do not merely replace existing taxes, is that by increasing government revenues it will increase the size of government relative to the private economy, and if (as is doubtless true) government is less efficient, the result will be a reduction in economic welfare. … I agree but on the other side of the issue is our awful fiscal situation.

3) In light of the nation’s fiscal bind, the imposition of a federal VAT becomes a more attractive prospect. One immediate beneficial effect, provided that the VAT was not entirely additive to existing taxes but was coupled with some reduction in corporate and payroll taxes, would be a reduction in export prices and therefore an increase in exports and hence a reduction in our trade deficit, which is a contributor to our public debt. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade permits VAT to be rebated on exports, thus lowering the cost to the foreign buyers.

4) More important, the VAT would increase federal tax revenues with minimal distortion because it is an efficient tax. To the extent (even if modest) that it replaced less efficient taxes, it would increase economic efficiency and thus increase the rate of economic growth. Most important, by discouraging consumption in favor of savings, a VAT would reduce the interest rate on our public debt and the Treasury’s dependence on foreign lenders.

The reality behind the VAT

Apr 22, 2010 14:27 UTC

Over at the very fine TaxVox blog, Howard Gleckman writes a good explanatory piece on the current VAT debate. But this one  part really struck me:

Our current revenue system has reached its breaking point. To fix our terrible budget problem, we are going to have to cut spending. But we are also going to have to raise more revenue. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why we wouldn’t want to do so in the most efficient way possible. And that may lead us to a consumption tax in one form or another, Senate resolutions notwithstanding.

Me:  That was directed at conservative critics of the VAT.  Now from what I can tell, plenty of conservatives would have no problem with a VAT if it a) replaced the income tax and b) was designed to boost tax revenue by boosting economic growth.  And as far as a way of increasing the tax burden, the budget cuts are going to have to come first. Optimize government, try to quick the pace of GDP growth and then raise taxes if necessary.


The VAT is horrible because it is hidden. The income tax is beautiful because it is seen as it is taken. The VAT and hence the size of government can be increased to extraordinary levels and most people don’t even notice.

One reason America has been able to separate itself from the long-term secular decline of Europe is that our taxes have remained low, because our taxes are seen. In Europe by contrast, massive governments dominate every aspect of life and people end up much less free and much more dependent on their state.

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The latest on Obama and the VAT

Apr 22, 2010 13:51 UTC

OK, here is what President Obama said on CNBC to reporter John Harwood about a value-added tax:

HARWOOD: If reducing consumption is a good idea, could you see the potential for a value-added tax in this country?

OBAMA: You know, I know that there has been a lot of talk around town lately about the value-added tax. That is something that has worked for some countries. It’s something that would be novel for the United States. And before I start saying that this makes sense or that makes sense, I want a better picture of what our options are. And my first priority is to figure out how can we reduce wasteful spending so that, you know, we have a baseline of the core services that we need and the government should provide, and then we decide how do we pay for that. As opposed to figuring out how much money can we raise and then not have to make some tough choices on the spending side.

Me: Well,  I certainly agree with the general principle that we should optimize government and then see how much money we need.  But the important thing here is that a) despite Ways & Means Chair Sander Levin badmouthing the idea and b) 85 Senate votes against the idea, c) the White House won’t rule the idea out. Not all.   I also noticed that  the NYTimes has yet to run a correction on Hardwood’s piece that the WH has run the numbers on how much they think a 5 percent VAT would raise (nearly $300 billion a year). That, despite the WH saying they have not done so. It should also be noted that Obama seems to be qualifying his pledge to not raise middle-class taxes as applying only to income taxes.


“Obama seems to be qualifying his pledge to not raise middle-class taxes as applying only to income taxes.”

He has to, because other wise he’s already broken it for all the smokers who are happily uninsured and like to go tanning.

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Team Obama already running the numbers on a VAT

Apr 19, 2010 12:55 UTC

Talk about burying the lede. This from the NYTimes and my pal John Harwood:

One way to reach that 3 percent [deficit-to-GDP] goal, by the calculations of Mr. Obama’s economic team: a 5 percent value-added tax, which would generate enough revenue to simultaneously permit the reduction in corporate tax rates Republicans favor.

Me. Not only does it look like they are considering a VAT, the only offset would be lower corporate taxes. The whole thing would be a net tax increase, obviously. I mean, that is the whole point, despite all the talk about its efficient, pro-growth effects. A VAT of that size would raise $250-$300 billion a year in new tax revenue.


Not sure why Obama should give a hoot what Republicans want, since the people don’t either. And I don’t like VAT on principle. Still…

Given a choice between that, cutting Defense Pork or asset-stripping Goldman Sachs to achieve realistic budget aims, some fool somewhere’s always gonna be crazy enough to pick VAT.

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5 reasons why the Tea Partiers are right on taxes

Apr 16, 2010 15:28 UTC

Here is the new Washington Consensus: American taxes must be raised dramatically to deal with exploding federal debt since spending can’t/shouldn’t be cut. Only the rubes and radicals of the Tea Party and their Contract from America movement think otherwise. And don’t worry, the economy will be just fine.

Don’t believe it. While you will never hear this in the MSM, there is plenty of academic research supporting the idea that cutting taxes and spending is the ideal economic recipe for growth, jobs incomes and fiscal soundness. (This all assumes that America’s amazing turnaround since 1980 isn’t proof enough.)  Just take a look:

1) Tax cuts boost economic growth more than increased government spending. Cutting spending is a better way to reduce budget deficits than raising taxes. “Large Changes in Fiscal Policy: Taxes Versus Spending” — Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna, October 2009:

We examine the evidence on episodes of large stances in fiscal policy, both in cases of fiscal stimuli and in that of fiscal adjustments in OECD countries from 1970 to 2007. Fiscal stimuli based upon tax cuts are more likely to increase growth than those based upon spending increases. As for fiscal adjustments, those based upon spending cuts and no tax increases are more likely to reduce deficits and debt over GDP ratios than those based upon tax increases. In addition, adjustments on the spending side rather than on the tax side are less likely to create recessions.

2) Tax cuts boost growth. Tax increases hurt growth, especially if used to finance increased government spending. “The Macroeconomic Effects of Tax Changes: Estimates Based on a New Measure of Fiscal Shocks” — Christina Romer and David H. Romer, July 2007:

In short, tax increases appear to have a very large, sustained, and highly significant negative impact on output. Since most of our exogenous tax changes are in fact reductions, the more intuitive way to express this result is that tax cuts have very large and persistent positive output effects. … The resulting estimates indicate that tax increases are highly contractionary. The effects are strongly significant, highly robust, and much larger than those obtained using broader measures of tax changes. The large effect stems in considerable part from a powerful negative effect of tax increases on investment. We also find that legislated tax increases designed to reduce a persistent budget deficit appear to have much smaller output costs than other tax increases.

3) Cutting corporate taxes boosts growth. “The Effect of Corporate Taxes on Investment and Entrepreneurship” — Simeon Djankov, Tim Ganser, Caralee McLiesh, Rita Ramalho, Andrei Shleifer, January 2008:

We present new data on effective corporate income tax rates in 85 countries in 2004. The data come from a survey, conducted jointly with PricewaterhouseCoopers, of all taxes imposed on “the same” standardized mid-size domestic firm. In a cross-section of countries, our estimates of the effective corporate tax rate have a large adverse impact on aggregate investment, FDI, and entrepreneurial activity. For example, a 10 percent increase in the effective corporate tax rate reduces aggregate investment to GDP ratio by 2 percentage points. Corporate tax rates are also negatively correlated with growth, and positively correlated with the size of the informal economy.

4) Tax rates are reaching dangerous levels where higher rates bring in less money. “The Elasticity of Taxable Income with Respect to Marginal Tax Rates” — Emmanuel Saez, Joel Slemrod and Seth Giertz, May 2009:

Following the supply-side debates of the early 1980s, much attention has been focused on the revenue-maximizing tax rate. A top tax rate above [X] is inefficient because decreasing the tax rate would both increase the utility of the affected taxpayers with income above [Y] and increase government revenue, which can in principle be used to benefit other taxpayers. Using our previous example … the revenue maximizing tax rate would be 55.6%, not much higher than the combined maximum federal, state, Medicare, and typical sales tax rate in the United States of 2008.

5) Cutting corporate taxes boosts wages. “Taxes and Wages” — Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur, June 2006:

Corporate taxes are significantly related to wage rates across countries. Our coefficient estimates are large, ranging from 0.83 to almost 1-thus a 1 percent increase in corporate tax rates leads to an almost equivalent decrease in wage rates (in percentage terms). … Higher corporate taxes lead to lower wages. A 1 percent increase in corporate tax rates is associated with nearly a 1 percent drop in wage rates.

There are plenty more, of course. The Tax Foundation lists a dozen recent studies how harmful business taxes are to growth, jobs and wages. Economist Greg Mankiw has determined America is far from a low tax nation. More like in the middle. And let me add this from economist Scott Sumner:

When I started studying economics the US was much richer than Western Europe and Japan, but was also growing more slowly than other developed countries. They were still in the catch-up growth phase from the ravages of WWII. But since Reagan took office the US has been growing faster than most other big developed economies, and at least as fast in per capita terms. They’ve plateaued at about 25% below US levels, when you adjust for PPP. This is the steady state.  …   Why is per capita GDP in Western Europe so much lower than in the US? Mankiw seems to imply that high tax rates may be one of the reasons. … So I think Mankiw is saying that if we adopt the European model, there really isn’t a lot of evidence that we’d end up with any more revenue than we have right now. … Of course the progressives’ great hope is that we’ll end up like France. But Brazil also has high tax rates, how do they know we won’t end up like Brazil?


This guy seems to be confusing economic growth with creating an economic bubble.

The simple reality is that tax increases lead to higher GDP growth and lower unemployment. And cutting taxes lead to lower GDP growth and higher unemployment.

Take a look at the stark reality yourself.

http://img27.imageshack.us/img27/3633/ta xrates.jpg

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A few thoughts on Tax Day

Apr 15, 2010 13:45 UTC

1) Dems have ripped the Bush tax cuts yet want to keep 95 percent of them.

2) Even the middle class ones may only be extended through the 2012 election by Congress. That will make for a nice presidential campaign issue!

3) New research shows that raising taxes on rich may now cost more revenue than it produces. We are on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve, people.

4) If WH thinks Americans consume too much and save too little, why do they want to raise taxes on savings and investment?

5) Why raise taxes on capital when the first quarter of 2010 saw the lowest commitments to venture capital since 1993.

6) These tax hikes (letting the Bush tax hikes expire on the so-called wealthy) would hit the bulk of small biz profits.


I like your 6 points, and add my own.

7) Only cutting spending is not sufficient to cut the national debt, despite Senator Ryan’s nice looking plan.

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After FDR’s New Deal …

Apr 12, 2010 17:20 UTC

The death of FDR in 1944 meant no New Deal, The Sequel. What did happen? This (via the WSJ):

Instead, Congress reduced taxes. Income tax rates were cut across the board. FDR’s top marginal rate, 94% on all income over $200,000, was cut to 86.45%. The lowest rate was cut to 19% from 23%, and with a change in the amount of income exempt from taxation an estimated 12 million Americans were eliminated from the tax rolls entirely.

Corporate tax rates were trimmed and FDR’s “excess profits” tax was repealed, which meant that top marginal corporate tax rates effectively went to 38% from 90% after 1945.

Georgia Sen. Walter George, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, defended the Revenue Act of 1945 with arguments that today we would call “supply-side economics.” If the tax bill “has the effect which it is hoped it will have,” George said, “it will so stimulate the expansion of business as to bring in a greater total revenue.”

Me: Research indicates that top U.S. tax rates are already on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve. And our corporate tax rates are highly uncompetitive internationally. All play into a New Normal thesis over the long term.