Why Not Taxes?

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by: John Cochrane

Reaction to the Washington Post op-ed (blog post, pdf) on debt has been sure and swift. We suspected we might get criticized by Republicans for complaining that deficits are a problem. Instead, the attack came from the left. Justin Fox hit first, followed by a joint op-ed by Martin Baily, Jason Furman, Alan Krueger, Laura Tyson and Janet Yellen. It's almost an official response from the Democratic economic establishment.

Their bottom line, really, is that entitlements and deficits are not a problem. They put the blame pretty much entirely on the recently enacted corporate tax cut. (I'm simplifying a bit. As did they, a lot.)

By contrast, we focused on entitlement spending - Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, VA, pensions, and social programs - as the central budget problem, and entitlement reform (not "cut") together with a strong focus on economic growth as the best answer. Our warning was that interest costs could rise sharply and unexpectedly and really bring down the party.

Well, deficit equals spending minus tax revenue, so why not just raise taxes to solve the budget problem?

First, let's get a handle on the size and source of the problem.

I. Roughly speaking the long-term deficit gap is 5 rising to 10 percentage points of GDP. And the big change is entitlements - social security, Medicare, Medicaid, pensions.

For example, even Fox's graph shows social security spending rising from 11% of GDP in 2006 and asymptoting at 18% of GDP.

The most recent 2017 CBO long-term budget outlook is quite clear. Long before the tax cut that so upsets our critics was even a glimmer in the President's eye, they were warning of budget problems ahead:

If current laws generally remained unchanged, the Congressional Budget Office projects,... debt... would reach 150 percent of GDP in 2047. The prospect of such large and growing debt poses substantial risks for the nation...

Why Are Projected Deficits Rising?

In CBO's projections, deficits rise over the next three decades-from 2.9 percent of GDP in 2017 to 9.8 percent in 2047-because spending growth is projected to outpace growth in revenues (see figure below). In particular, spending as a share of GDP increases for Social Security, the major health care programs (primarily Medicare), and interest on the government's debt.

The CBO gives us these nice graphs to make the point:

Another CBO graph follows. Top graph - where is the spending increase? Social security, health and interest. Not "other noninterest spending."

(In the bottom graph, you see a rosy forecast that individual income taxes will rise a few percent of GDP to help pay for this. Don't be so sure. This comes from inflation pushing us into higher tax brackets and assuming Congress won't do anything about it. Notice also how small corporate taxes are in the first place.)

The more recent CBO budget and economic outlook is equally clear - the near-term problem is 5 percentage points of GDP:

CBO estimates that the 2018 deficit will total $804 billion.... [GDP is $20 Trillion, so that's 4% of GDP]... In CBO's projections, budget deficits continue increasing after 2018, rising from 4.2 percent of GDP this year to 5.1 percent in 2022... Deficits remain at 5.1 percent between 2022 and 2025... Over the 2021-2028 period, projected deficits average 4.9 percent of GDP...

Then, things get worse:

In CBO's projections, outlays for the next three years remain near 21 percent of GDP, which is higher than their average of 20.3 percent over the past 50 years. After that, outlays grow more quickly than the economy does, reaching 23.3 percent of GDP... by 2028.

That increase reflects significant growth in mandatory spending - mainly because the aging of the population and rising health care costs per beneficiary are projected to increase spending for Social Security and Medicare, among other programs. It also reflects significant growth in interest costs, which are projected to grow more quickly than any other major component of the budget, the result of rising interest rates and mounting debt...

And that's only 2028.

You see the problem in our critic's complaint:

"The primary reason the deficit in coming years will now be higher than had been expected is the reduction in tax revenue from last year's tax cuts, not an increase in spending. This year, revenue is expected to fall below 17 percent of gross domestic product."

Let us take the estimate that the recent tax cut cost $1.5 trillion over 10 years, i.e., $150 billion per year, or 0.75% of GDP. Compared to the $800 trillion current deficit, it's small potatoes. Compared to the 5 percent to 10 percent of GDP we need to find in the sock drawer, it's peanuts. (Compared to the $10 trillion or more racked up in the last 10 years, it's not huge either!)

Here is what the CBO has to say about it:

For the next few years, revenues hover near their 2018 level of 16.6 percent of GDP in CBO's projections. Then they rise steadily, reaching 17.5 percent of GDP by 2025. At the end of that year, many provisions of the 2017 tax act expire, causing receipts to rise sharply-to 18.1 percent of GDP in 2026 and 18.5 percent in 2027 and 2028. They have averaged 17.4 percent of GDP over the past 50 years.

17, maybe 18. We're waddling around in the 1% range, when the problem is in the 10% range. The long-run budget problem has essentially nothing to do with the Trump tax cut. It has been brewing under Bush, Obama and Trump. It fundamentally comes from growth in entitlements an order of magnitude larger.

It is simply not true that "The primary reason the deficit in coming years will now be higher than had been expected is the reduction in tax revenue from last year's tax cuts, not an increase in spending."

To call us "dishonest" for merely repeating what's been in every CBO long-term budget forecast for the last two decades really is unworthy of these economists' stature.

To be clear, I agree with the critic's complaint about the tax cut:

"The right way to do reform was to follow the model of the bipartisan tax reform of 1986, when rates were lowered while deductions were eliminated."

Yes! As in many previous blog posts, I am very sad that the chance to do a big 1986 seems to have passed. A large, revenue-neutral, distribution-neutral, savage cleaning and simplification of the tax code would have been great. There are some elements in the current one - the lower marginal corporate rate is nice, and there is some capping of deductions. But it fell short of my dreams.

If only these immensely influential authors had been clamoring for their friends in the resistance to join forces and pass such a law, rather than (Larry and Jason, in particular) spend the whole time arguing that corporate tax cuts just help the rich, perhaps it might have happened.

All that aside, though, we're still talking about 0.75% of GDP, compared to a 5-10% of GDP problem. The long-run deficit problem does not come from this tax cut.

II OK, so why not just tax the rich to pay for entitlements?

I hope I have sufficiently dismissed the main line of this particular criticism - that deficits are all due to the Trump tax cut, and all we have to do is put corporate rates back to 35% and all will be well.

On to the larger question, echoed by many commenters on our piece. OK, social security and health are expensive. Let's just tax the rich to pay for it. Like Europe does, so many say.

I do think that, roughly speaking, we could pay for American social programs with European taxes. That is, 40% payroll taxes rather than our less than 20%; 50% income taxes, starting at very low levels; 20% VAT; various additional taxes, like 100% vehicle taxes and gas that costs 3 times ours.

I don't think we can pay for European social programs with European taxes, because Europe can't do it. Their debt/GDP ratios are higher than ours. And their lower growth rates both are the result of this system and compound the problem.

That's the option: heavy middle class taxes for middle class benefits at the cost of substantially lower growth, which itself then drives the needed tax rates up further.

America, in fact, already has a more progressive tax system than pretty much any other country. Making it more progressive would increase economic distortions dramatically.

A key principle here is that the overall marginal tax rate matters. There is a tendency, especially on the left, to quote only the top Federal marginal rate of about 40%, and to say, therefore, that high-income Americans pay less taxes than most of Europe. But that argument forgets we also pay state and, sometimes, local taxes.

The top federal tax rate is about 40%. In California, we add 13% state income tax, and with no deductibility we're up to 53% right there. But what matters is every wedge between what you produce for your employer and the value of what you get to consume. So we have to add the 7.5% sales tax, and we're up to 60.5% already.

But we're not done. The Federal corporate tax is now 21%, and California adds 8.84% - so roughly 29% combined. Someone is paying that. If, like sales tax, it comes out of higher prices, then add it to the sales tax. Those on the left say no, corporate taxes are all paid by rich people, which is why they were against lowering them. OK, then they contribute fully to the high-income marginal rate.

What about property tax? The main thing people do with a raise in California is to buy a bigger house. Then, they pay 1% property tax. As a rough idea, suppose you pay 30% of your income on housing and the price is 20 times the annual cost (typical price/rent ratio). Then, you are paying 6% of your income in property taxes. Add 6 percentage points.

I'm not done. All distortions matter. In much of Europe, they charge taxes and then provide people health insurance. We have a cross-subsidy scheme, in which you overpay to subsidize others. It's the same as a tax, except much less efficient. In terms of economic damage and the overall marginal rate, it should be included. If you live in a condo whose developer was forced to provide "affordable housing" units, you overpaid just like a tax and a transfer. And so on. I won't try to add these in, but all distortions count.

In sum, we're at a pretty high marginal tax rate already. The notion that we can just blithely raise another 10% of GDP from "the rich" alone without large economic damage does not work. This isn't a new observation. Just about every study of how to pay for entitlements comes to the same conclusion.

Again, my argument is not about sympathy for the rich. It is a simple cause and effect argument. Marginal tax rates a lot above 70% are going to really damage the economy and not bring in the huge revenue we would need.

Bottom line: Paying for the current entitlements entirely by taxes would involve a big tax hike on middle income Americans.

III Answers

The most important answer is economic growth. 30 years of 3% growth rather than 2% growth gives you 35% more GDP, and thus, 35% more tax revenue. If federal revenues are 20% of GDP, that's 7% of the previous GDP right there. Deregulation and tax reform - get on with the lower marginal rates and simplification that we agree on - are important.

(The CBO also writes:

In CBO's projections, the effects of the 2017 tax act on incentives to work, save, and invest raise real potential GDP throughout the 2018-2028 period...

The largest effects on GDP over the decade stem from the tax act. In CBO's projections, it boosts the level of real GDP by an average of 0.7 percent and nonfarm payroll employment by an average of 1.1 million jobs over the 2018-2028 period. During those years, the act also raises the level of real gross national product (GNP) by an annual average of about $470 per person in 2018 dollars.

This is not a terrible result!)

Our op-ed was clear to say social program "reform" not just "cut." Little things like changing indexing and retirement ages make a big difference over 30 years. We argue for reducing the growth and expansion of entitlements, not "cut." Removing some of the very high work disincentives would help people get off some programs. Europe is facing this too, and many countries are a good deal more stringent about qualification than we are.

Our critics say that to point out America cannot pay for the entitlements we have currently promised "dehumanizes the value of these programs to millions of Americans." No. Failing to reform entitlements now and gently will lead to chaotic cuts in the future, on programs that people depend on. If we're going to throw around accusations of heartlessness, denying the problem is the heartless approach.