James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Why Henry Blodget is wrong about taxes

Apr 6, 2010 16:06 UTC

Henry Blodget says he’s pretty confident taxes are headed higher to deal with the historic rise in federal spending  and agrees with Northern Trust’s Paul Kasriel that higher rates won’t be an economy killer. Blodget quotes Kasriel:

The economy performed pretty well in the eight years ended 2000 even though the top marginal tax rate was higher in these eight years than it was in the prior eight years. The economy did not perform better because of the increase in the top marginal tax rate. Nevertheless, this increase was not sufficient to derail economic progress. In the eight years ended 2008, the economy performed relatively poorly despite the lower top marginal tax rate.  The economy did not under-perform because of the marginal tax rate cut. Nevertheless, the cut in the tax rate was not sufficient to enhance economic performance. The point of all this is that although tax rates matter, they are not all that matters.

Me: I agree that taxes matter but they are not the only thing that matters. But they do matter a lot.  Back when tax rates rose in the 1990′s, the economy was starting from a position of strength, not weakness. There was already  a powerful, self-sustaining recovery in place. Let me point out this 2009 study that examined the affect of higher marginal tax rates on the rich:

Taxes trigger a host of behavioral responses designed to minimize the burden on the individual. … all such responses are sources of inefficiency, whether they take the form of reduced labor supply, increased charitable contributions, increased expenditures for tax professionals, or a different form of business organization, and thus they add to the burden of taxes from society’s perspective.

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 X and increase government revenue, which can in principle be used to benefit other taxpayers. … Using our previous … 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.

And this is before the 2011 tax increases and the increase in taxes related to healthcare reform. We are probably now on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve.  Greg Mankiw also makes the case that Americans are not undertaxed compared with the rest of the planet’s advanced economies.


I would also add there were 3 growth drivers during the 1990’s. 1) The initial build-out of the Internet when firms spent billions on fiber, chips, software, webhosting, etc. 2) The Y2K computer conversion increased demand for some of the same equipment plus lots of high-paying software programmers. 3) Now we also found out the Clinton HUD lowered the lending standards for home ownership and set off a housing boom to boot.

The first two aren’t coming back, and who knows about the third.

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How America might get a VAT of its own

Apr 6, 2010 00:14 UTC

When will the other chaussure drop? Now that America has gone French (and German and British) with universal healthcare, expect Washington to eventually propose a European-style, value-added consumption tax to pay for it — as well as the rest of the historic rise in federal spending. But U.S. voters are in a severe anti-tax mood. It might take another financial crisis to give politicians the will and hubris to ignore them.

Here’s how it might all play out:

1) For Washington insiders, it’s a matter of “when” not “if.” Politicians and economists I chat with from the White House to Capitol Hill to the Federal Reserve think a VAT inevitable. Healthcare reform has only hardened that consensus. Spending cuts to pay for expanded coverage may not happen. Either way, the budget numbers scream for action. Annual federal spending as a share of GDP will likely outpace revenue by at least six percentage points for years to come. Trillion-dollar deficits the norm.

2) Just slashing spending is one option. But that would require a radical reshaping of social-insurance schemes as outlined by Rep. Paul Ryan in his recent white paper, “A Roadmap for America’s Future.” The war over healthcare would seem a minor skirmish by comparison.  A battle worth fighting, but a coalition of the willing might be small.

3) Maybe a broad income tax increase? So far Washington has shown an appetite for nicking only the rich. And one study suggests the tax burden on wealthy households is approaching — or has perhaps even exceeded — the revenue-maximizing level. That’s right, America is on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve again. Even assuming the rich wouldn’t flee to tax shelters, top income tax rates would need rise to economy-crushing levels to balance the budget.

4) Anyway, it’s smarter to tax consumption broadly rather than work and investment narrowly. Especially in an economy that needs less of the former and more of the latter. And that is what a VAT does. Few doubt its ability to raise massive amount of revenue with fewer disincentives than the current system. But if the economics are clear, the politics are a puzzle in Tea Party America. VAT proponents assume political intransigence without a financial crisis to spur action, just as market chaos helped get the $700 billion bank rescue passed in 2008.

5) Yet there is a reasonable scenario where America would accept a VAT. In fact, it is the only scenario under which we should accept a VAT.

First, Washington would have to demonstrate it could manage the public purse by reforming entitlements in a Ryan-esque manner. A tall order, but a necessary prerequisite or else voters would fear that entire six-point budget gap would be closed by tax hikes via a VAT. So, in the end, government spending needs to be dramatically cut. (Preferably, we would never need to get past this step.;)

Second, a VAT would have to completely overwrite the current complex and inefficient tax code. If not, voters would fear getting hit by both VAT and income tax hikes. A VAT can’t be an add on.

Third, every sales receipt in America would have to indicate the VAT penalty. But politicians love the hidden aspect of a VAT as way of duping voters. To them opaqueness is a feature, not a bug.

Fourth, the intended tax burden should be kept level at first. A pro-growth VAT — one that does away with corporate and investment taxes — might produce more revenue merely by expanding the economic pie.

Still a tough sell. Better skip the part about the French.


Democrats: taxing and spending us into bankruptcy.

$14 trillion debt. $2 trillion deficits. High unemployment. A president living like Louis XVI.

Of course, it’s all George Bush’s fault!

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The other government mandate

Apr 1, 2010 17:49 UTC

Forget about being forced to buy health insurance. Aren’ t Americans pretty much forced  by our complex tax code to buy tax prep software or see an accountant? That is a mandate, too, notes Howard Gleckman of TaxVox:

The government does not specifically require us to hire paid tax preparers or buy commercial software, of course. But it has, in effect, left millions of taxpayers with no real choice. Congress has created a tax code that makes it nearly impossible for many Americans to file returns without paid help. And even those who could … are so intimidated by the whole process that they pay people to help them anyway.

Thus, in 2005, 89 percent of individual taxpayers either used commercial software or hired paid preparers to help them do their civic duty. Just 11 percent, according to my colleague Eric Toder, filed returns on their own.

Yet, we just shrug and pay our $59 for commercial software or pony up between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars to paid preparers. No constitutional challenges. No state attorneys general at the barricades. Many of us, in fact, are likely to spend more money hiring a human being to do our taxes than we’ll pay in penalties for refusing to buy insurance ($95 in 2014 increasing to $695 by 2016). Indeed, I’m willing to bet that more of us will pay somebody to prepare a tax return than will purchase medical coverage, despite the insurance mandate.


People pay $95+ for tax software? The program I use is $30, and I only use it because my dad buys it.

Unless you’re itemizing, the form isn’t that difficult. The biggest operation it asks is addition and subtraction.

Preventing the Great Stagnation

Mar 31, 2010 19:14 UTC

David Gitlitz, chief economist at High View Economics, has a thought or two about my “20-year bust” post:

Gordon is very good in his areas of expertise, but you’re right to point out that there’s nothing predetermined about this. Enacting full bore Obanomics would make even Gordon’s outlook look like a day at the beach. On the other hand, adopting a supply-side, free-market growth strategy would put in place the incentives to reinvigorate entrepreneurship and innovation and put us on track to restore at least the historical trend rate of productivity growth.

Me: Markets have a funny way of driving policy. A high-debt, high-tax, high-regulation economy would not be good for the dollar, bonds or stocks. And while we are on the topic, an interesting post from the great Larry Kudlow on where taxes are heading.

7 reasons a VAT is a dicey proposition

Mar 29, 2010 15:38 UTC

My guy Pete Davis over at Capital Gains and Games unsheathes the katana and slices up the VAT. Not so easy to implement he says. A brief summary of his reasons (though read the whole thing, of course):

1. Like the U.K. when it adopted its VAT in 1973, the U.S. will struggle for at least two years and probably longer to implement a VAT.

2. Compared to our income tax, the VAT is regressive.

3. Tax reformers lambast the complexity of our income tax with good reason, but somehow assume that the same people who legislated that complexity will legislate a clean VAT.

4. I can’t think of a faster way to kill Rust Belt jobs than to impose a VAT.

5. Housing would be hurt by a VAT even if it is zero rated.

6. Exporters would benefit from a VAT, but that benefit would be partially offset to the extent that the dollar appreciated against the currencies of our trading partners.

7. State government sales tax revenues would be directly impacted by a federal VAT.

Don’t fund healthcare by taxing capital

Mar 25, 2010 02:32 UTC

Washington will have difficulty producing a stranger bit of public policy than raising investment taxes to pay for healthcare reform. Remember, the consensus critique of the U.S economy is that it’s been plagued by too much consumption and debt. O.K., fine. So the answer is penalizing savings and investment? Really? Pure Bizarro economics for that and a number of other reasons:

1) It will hit the middle-class eventually. Wealthier Americans — families making over $250,000, individuals $200,000 — are the supposed targets here. Add in the new 3.8 percent Medicare tax to the year-end expiration of the 2003 Bush tax cuts, and they will see their capital gains and dividend rates will soar from 15 percent currently to 23.8 percent and 43.4 percent in 2013, respectively. But the income levels aren’t indexed for inflation. So the taxes will reach further down the income ladder each year. Assuming steady inflation, the tax in 2013 will actually affect households making over $226,000 and individuals $183,000. Another crack in the Obama tax pledge.

2) It is an expensive way to raise government revenue. Most studies show that raising the cost of capital lowers business investment and productivity. That translated into a lower standard of living. Hardly surprising, really. Taxes matter. Tax something and you tend get less of it. That’s a principle embedded, for instance, in calls to put a price on carbon, something the White House supports. Or in this, less economic growth.
3) It creates an accidental industrial policy. People should make economic decisions based on economic merit and efficiency, not because the tax code puts its thumb on the scale. For instance: Companies are financed either by issuing debt or selling shares. By raising taxes on equity, you further bias the tax code toward debt since interest can already be deducted from taxes. This imbalance was something an Obama tax commission, led by Paul Volcker, thought needed remedy. Instead, it will be worsened. The differing cap gains and dividend rates also tilt the tax code in favor of profit-poor companies (but with bright prospects and high stock price appreciation) over those throwing off cash.

4) It moves the tax code in the wrong direction. Economists favor paying for healthcare, as well as cutting the U.S. budget gap, with consumption taxes. (That would include eliminating the mortgage interest deduction to reduce housing consumption.) That could be a straight value-add tax. Or, better, a Hall Rabushka flat consumption tax. Actually, taking investment taxes to zero is a quick and dirty way to create a consumption tax since all you can do with income is save it or spend it. Of course, cutting spending should be the first order of business. Create a better tax system, reduce expenditure and then see where you are at as far as the deficit goes.

5) It puts politics over sound policy. For an administration that tries to follow economic consensus, this is an odd deviation. Politics explains it. Consumption taxes are broad taxes. The only taxes Washington finds palatable are those on upper incomes, such as found on Wall Street. But taxing the capital they provide to pay for healthcare will only sicken the American economy.


There’s currently a Medicare prescription drug loophole between roughly $2700 and $6200 worth of medicine. The reform bill each supplies a $250 rebate to Medicare beneficiaries that fall into this loophole and offers for the gap’s closing.healthcare fund

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Spreading the wealth

Mar 24, 2010 17:20 UTC

David Leonhardt of the NYT just noticed that tax rates are going up  and wealth is being redistributed. This makes him happy. But right now American faces a wealth creation problem. And if that isn’t working, every other problem facing America looks a lot worse. He also assumes that wealthier Americans won’t change their behavior, reducing the government’s take. Again, here is WH CEA Chair Christina Romer’s take on higher taxes when she was a econ prof at Berkeley: “Tax increases appear to have a very large, sustained, and highly significant negative impact on output … [and] that tax cuts have very large and persistent positive output effects.”


Hmm, so what is her position on these issues now? Did she sell out just to get an appointment in Obama’s administration? Or does she argue these positions internally, but to no avail. Inquiring minds wnat to know.

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VAT Attack! Obama and middle-class tax hikes

Feb 11, 2010 18:12 UTC

As long-time readers know, I am convinced that the Obama administration is itching to slap the US economy with a value-added tax. Team Obama just needs to figure out how to do it politically. Listen to the POTUS in this BBW interview:

The whole point of it is to make sure that all ideas are on the table. So what I want to do is to be completely agnostic, in terms of solutions. What I can’t do is to set the thing up where a whole bunch of things are off the table. Some would say we can’t look at entitlements. There are going to be some that say we can’t look at taxes, and pretty soon, you just can’t solve the problem.

In short, how I read this is that Obama is willing to consider a broad-based tax hike on the middle class. Smells like a VAT. But I don’t see how the WH gets there absent a financial crisis that puts Washington into a panic, just as happened with TARP. Maybe if Congress rejects the proposals of the new deficit commission, a bad market reaction would be a catalyst to action.

Of course, Obama could suggest the Hall-Rabushka flat consumption tax, a favorite with conservatives. It is like a VAT with part of the tax paid directly by individuals. This makes the tax more transparent, which politicians don’t like. To them, transparency is a bug not a feature. But the concern on the right is that an invisible VAT would make it too easy to raise taxes and finance a vast expansion of government. But even with an H-B tax, conservatives have no interest in a tax that would raise the tax burden as a way of increasing revenue as a portion of GDP from around 18 percent.


VAT is the worst idea that has come out of the conservative think tanks like Cato Inst. and others. It is regressive, will impoverish the middle class of America even more and will be a nightmare to administer.

However, the US must increase its tax revenues. How? Pass an intangibles tax (tax on net worth) on all individuals, corporations, trusts, PICs, etc. with a net worth over $10 million. Just 1% intangibles tax on the super wealthy would more than balance the budget and not disturb one bit the life styles of over 99% of Americans.

Already states like NH and Fla have an intangibles tax instead of an income tax. The Federal Government should do the same thing.

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Obama and middle-class tax cuts

Feb 3, 2010 15:35 UTC

The Tax Foundation thinks the White House is too sensitive about charges that middle-class taxes are going up:

The Administration’s outrage is a bit overdone, though, for three reasons:

Democrats didn’t support most of the middle-class tax cuts in 2001. The only Bush tax cut provisions that enjoyed any Democratic Party support in 2001 were the 10% rate and the doubling of the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000. In running for president, Obama made the political calculation that the middle- and upper-middle income tax cuts (marriage penalty relief, cutting the 28% rate to 25%, and cutting the 31% rate to 28%) were unassailable; hence the $250K threshold promise. (Throw AMT relief in that basket.) In his progressive heart, Obama can’t really believe those cuts were virtuous. And now the Administration is desperate for big new sources of tax revenue, so there is suspicion that middle-class tax hikes are coming. As many commentators are pointing out, the new fiscal commission is exactly the vehicle that could deliver those tax hikes in a way that would look as if the President were being forced to do it, that he didn’t break his tax promise willingly.
Bush’s middle-class tax cuts were huge. Even now the President uses the phrase “mostly for the wealthy” in describing the Bush tax cuts as a package, which is false (at least by his own, new definition of wealthy — over $250K). Even the most anti-Bush tax think tank in town, Citizens for Tax Justice, can’t come up with numbers that portray the tax cuts for people over $250K as reaching 50% of the whole package.

So many shocking things have happened that rational expectations are shaken. No one thought this Congress and Administration would allow the estate tax to reach full repeal, as it did on January 1, a month ago. But they did, violating every premise of progressive tax policy. And quite aside from politics, it’s a nightmare for executors. Following that shocker was the health bill train wreck, resulting in a level of political and fiscal uncertainty that is almost unprecedented for a non-crisis situation.


Well it’s April 15th and middle class taxes went down. A lot.

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Cutting spending vs. raising taxes

Feb 2, 2010 16:45 UTC

The Washington consensus is that taxes will go up sharply because there is no will to cut spending. Yet that may not be the view outside of the 202 area code.I just got back from a wing-ding at the Hoover Institution where economist Robert Hall quite matter-of-factly assumed big future spending  cuts because, in his opinion, Washington did not have the will to broadly raise taxes. Certainly, the new Obama budget sticks to the Dem pattern of only raising investment and incomes taxes on the so-called wealthy, at least transparently.


Judging by the way they behaved during the State of The Union address, the elephants have no answers, and the donkeys are braying their usual song. So I have no confidence that the status quo will be changed anytime soon. The whole issue of spending and taxing could be rendered moot if we scrapped the whole tax code and started over. I have even written a book about it. But since I am only one person, my vote will not count, and the politicos will blithely skip off into lalaland with our tax money until the nation goes bankrupt.