Tag Archives: fiscal

Trump’s Fiscal Brainstorm: Cut Taxes for the Rich

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This year’s US presidential election campaign differs radically from past patterns, including in the departure of the Republican nominee from many of the policy positions traditionally taken by his party.  Examples are his lack of support for international trade, military alliances, or the institution of marriage.   But when Donald Trump released some positions on tax policy recently, the differences with Hillary Clinton’s proposals fell very much along usual party lines.  His is the kind of tax policy that has long been favored by Republican presidential candidates and congressmen:  tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the rich and that are not accompanied with any plans to pay for them.

Should we pay attention to campaign platforms?

Of course there are reasons for hesitating to judge presidential candidates by their platforms.  Plans announced in the campaign are often a poor guide to what the president will actually do once in office.  Candidate George W. Bush, for example, promised in 2000 to renounce nation-building adventures abroad, to maintain fiscal responsibility, and to treat greenhouses gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act.  Needless to say, his administration rocketed off 180 degrees in the opposite direction on these issues.

Mr. Trump, in particular, changes his positions with head-spinning frequency, denying that he said things that he is on record as having said a short time before.   A common tactic is to accuse the media of making up the earlier statements, even when the earlier statements are on tape.  Another tactic is to say that he was only being sarcastic.

Are we supposed to take seriously, for example, his statements during the primary debates that American workers’ wages are too high?   Or that he could and would happily contemplate negotiating the terms of the national debt with creditors, otherwise known as defaulting?   Are we supposed to overlook such reckless statements, and ascribe them to an earlier period when he was “young and irresponsible”?

Compare the zig-zags that Trump has pulled off with the minor shifts that have been sufficient in the past to get other politicians tarred with “flip-flopping”.  Remember, for example, the reaction when John Kerry in 2004 said “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”   (The earlier Democratic measure that he supported would have paid for the $87 billion in Iraq war funding by reducing Bush’s tax cuts, whereas  the version that he voted against instead irresponsibly added the cost to the national debt.)

In any case, we policy wonks are obliged to try to evaluate the policy plans that the candidates offer.  The alternative is to leave the national discussion focused entirely on the current week’s poll results, reporting unedifyingly whether the candidates are rising or falling among voters classified by various combinations of gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

How the parties differ

Some positions that a candidate may truly hold don’t deserve the attention they receive because in practice he or she stands little or no chance of being able to bring them about if elected. An obvious case is when their proposals are blocked by the other party if it has a majority in congress.  Another case is international constraints.  Although there is a lot of attention to trade agreements this year, promises by presidential candidates to negotiate a new improved trade agreement are seldom if ever implementable once they get to office.  (The truth is, in international negotiations such as TPP, the US has already gotten about the best deal it can get, one that is much better than most people realize.)

The difference between the two parties lies not in some fantasized ability to reverse the rise in inequality by turning the clock back 50 years on trade, or even on somehow reversing the long-term shift from manufacturing to services.  Rather the difference lies in some very practical live policy issues, particularly some that would reverse the trend that leaves many workers behind.  Examples include universal health care (extending the ACA, i.e., Obamacare, rather than abolishing it), infrastructure spending ($275 billion cumulative, in Secretary Clinton’s campaign proposal), compensation for those who lose jobs due to trade (or other forces beyond their control), and a more progressive tax structure (including expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit).

Trump’s tax plan

Trump made his most serious attempt at a fiscal plan on August 8.   The tax proposal has four salient features, fairly described as tax cuts for the rich.  There is no indication how the tax cuts will be paid for and every indication that they will sharply expand the budget deficit, as happened when Reagan and Bush enacted record budget-busting policies.   All of this is very much in line with proposals from Republican politicians over the last four decades, all the while attacking Democrats for running deficits.

  • Trump proposes to abolish the estate tax entirely. Bush and congressional Republicans tried hard to do this, and got close, but didn’t quite make it.  Trump, like his predecessors, tries to hide the fact that only the very rich would benefit because the current estate exemptions are so high:  $10.9 million for the estate of a married couple (and half that for an individual).  In the most recent year available, only 4,700 estates in the entire country, out of 6 million deaths, required the reporting of some estate tax liability.  Trump repeated the old fairy tale of farms or small businesses that have to be sold by heirs to pay the estate tax; but Republicans after all these years are still unable to come up with specific instances of this actually happening.
  • He proposes to cut corporate income taxes very sharply, to 15%. It is true that the US corporate income tax rate is among the highest in the world, at 35%, and that this probably contributes to companies keeping profits overseas, rather than repatriating them to the US.  But as most tax policy experts will tell you, a reduction in the overall rate should be accompanied by base-broadening.  In particular, we should abolish corporate tax deductions such as those designed to encourage corporate debt and oil drilling.  We could thereby reduce harmful distortions in the economy while simultaneously making up revenue.
  • Trump’s proposals to cut personal income taxes have now changed a bit.
    • Before the primaries, his fiscal proposals included cutting the top marginal income tax rate from 39.6 %, the current level, to 25%. Independent analysts pointed out that his tax policies would lose about $10 trillion in revenue over the first decade, a mind-bogglingly big number.  They would rapidly drive to record levels the national debt as a share of GDP, which has been coming down over the last five years.  His most recent proposal is to cut the marginal tax rate for high earners by about half as much, to 33%.
    • A new proposal, apparently added at the urging of daughter Ivanka Trump: Allow tax deductions for the entirety of average child care costs.  Any such deductions benefit only those in high enough tax brackets to itemize deductions (like mortgage interest), which is mostly those who earn more than $75,000.   That is well above US median household income of $54,462 in 2015.

The Democrats would love to be able to accuse Trump of designing his tax cuts so as directly to benefit him, his family, and people like them.   It is harder to make this accusation because the candidate still refuses to release his own income tax records (unlike all previous candidates since Richard Nixon).  There is no shortage of guesses as to what it is that Trump must be trying to hide.  One good guess is that in some years he has paid no taxes at all, by taking advantage of loopholes already available to big real estate developers.  If so, his annual tax bill can’t be cut further.  But he would still gain from the elimination of the estate tax.

How to pretend that tax cuts = fiscal discipline

Basic arithmetic says “government outlays minus tax receipts equals the budget deficit.”  Republican presidential candidates have seemingly had trouble understanding this equation since 1980.  They propose large specific tax cuts without specific spending cuts, and yet claim they are going to reduce the deficit.  The outcome was the record increases in budget deficits during the terms of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Trump’s tax cut proposals follow in this tradition of fiscal irresponsibility. The budget plans are still too vague — particularly with respect to discretionary government spending, social security and Medicare – to allow an informed estimate of their impact on the federal deficit and national debt.  But the candidate may be subjected to pressure to become more specific as the date of the election draws near.

Trump may look to his predecessors’ strategies for guidance.  It is worth recalling the four magic tricks that politicians calling themselves fiscal conservatives have been using for 35 years, evasions to facilitate making fiscal promises with a straight face.  These tricks are often deployed in sequence, one succeeding another as they fail to work.

(1) The “Magic Asterisk.”   The candidate promises to balance the budget at the same time as cutting taxes by spending cuts that are not specified but supposedly will be in the future (“future savings to be identified”).

(2) “Rosy Scenario.”  One can forecast an increase in tax receipts if one forecasts an increase in the national rate of growth of income.  One PhD economist has finally signed on as an adviser to the Trump campaign (though he has apparently yet to talk to the candidate); he has suggested that under a Trump presidency the American GDP growth rate will magically double.  This is the same tactic adopted by Jeb Bush during the primaries, and many other politicians before.

(3) The Laffer hypothesis.  But why should growth double?   Reagan, Bush, McCain, and other candidates signed on to the proposition that their proposed cuts in tax rates will spur economic activity so much that total tax revenue (the tax rate times the economic base) will go up rather than down.   Although this “Laffer proposition” has been disproved many times, and the economic advisers to those three candidates clearly disavowed it, the temptation to square the budgetary circle by making this claim is too strong to resist.  Watch for Trump to come out with it.

(4) The “Starve the Beast” hypothesis.  Finally, after the other justifications for big tax cuts turned out wrong, Presidents Reagan and Bush fell back on the theory that, even though tax revenue had in fact fallen rather than rising, this was a good thing after all: it would politically force congress to approve spending cuts.  But these are cuts that the president himself never gets around to proposing.

Perhaps it is inevitable that candidates at the platform-making stage wish away such real-world constraints as congressional politics or international realities, leaving voters disappointed after taking office by failed “promises”.  But politicians shouldn’t be able to wish away the constraints of arithmetic — not when the promises reflect the same failed sleight of hand that has been tried and exposed so many times before.

[A shorter column appeared at Project Syndicate. Comments can be posted there or at Econbrowser.]

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Fiscal Education for the G-7

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As the G-7 Leaders gather in Ise-Shima, Japan, on May 26-27, the still fragile global economy is on their minds.  They would like a road map to address stagnant growth. Their approach should be to talk less about currency wars and more about fiscal policy.

Fiscal policy vs. monetary policy

Under the conditions that have prevailed in most major countries over the last ten years, we have reason to think that fiscal policy is a more powerful tool for affecting the level of economic activity, as compared to monetary policy.  The explanation can be found in elementary macroeconomics textbooks and has been confirmed in recent empirical research:  the effects of fiscal stimulus are not likely to be limited, as in more normal times, by driving up interest rates, crowding out private demand, running into capacity constraints, provoking excessive inflation, or overheating in other ways.  Despite the power of fiscal policy under recent conditions, economists continue to lavish more attention on monetary policy.  Why?

Sometimes I think the honest reason we economics professors are attracted to monetary policy is that central bankers tend to be like us, with PhDs, and to hold nice conferences.

The reason that one usually hears, however, is that fiscal policy is “politically constrained.”   This is an accurate statement, but not a good reason for us to give up on it.  Indeed, if the political process gets fiscal policy wrong, which it does, that is all the more reason for economists to offer their contributions.

Of course if one is a central banker, or is advising a central banker, then one must concentrate on the job at hand, which is monetary policy.  But precisely because there is a limit to what central bankers can say about fiscal policy, there is more need for the rest of us to do it.

The heyday of activist fiscal policy was 50 years ago. The position “we are all Keynesians now” was attributed to Milton Friedman in 1965 and to Richard Nixon in 1971.  In the late 20th century, most advanced countries managed to pursue countercyclical fiscal policy on average: generally reining in spending or raising taxes during periods of economic expansion and enacting fiscal stimulus during recessions. The result on average was to smooth out the business cycle (as Keynes had intended).  It was the developing countries that tended to follow procyclical or destabilizing policies.

Leaders forget how to do counter-cyclical fiscal policy in the US, Europe and Japan

After 2000, however, some countries broke out of their familiar patterns. Too many political leaders in advanced countries pursued procyclical budgetary policies: they sought fiscal stimulus at times when the economy was already booming, thereby exaggerating the upswing, followed by fiscal austerity when the economy turns down, thereby exacerbating the recession.

Consider mistakes in fiscal policy made by leaders in three parts of the world — the US, Europe, and Japan.

US President George W. Bush began the century by throwing away the large fiscal surpluses that he had inherited from Bill Clinton, and then continued with big tax cuts and rapid spending increases even during 2003-07, as the economy reached its peak.  It was during this period that Vice President Cheney reportedly said “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”

Predictably, the rising debt left the government feeling less able to enact fiscal stimulus when it was really needed, after the Great Recession hit in December 2007.  At precisely the wrong time, Republicans “got religion” deciding that deficits were bad after all.  Thus when President  Barack Obama took office in January 2009, with the economy in freefall, the opposition party voted against his fiscal stimulus.  Fortunately they failed then, and the stimulus was able to make a big contribution to reversing the freefall in the economy in 2009.  But having regained the Congress in 2011, they did succeed in blocking Obama’s further attempts to stimulate the still-weak economy for three years. The Republicans appear to be consistently procyclical.

Greece is the “poster boy” of an advanced country that unhappily switched to a systematically procyclical fiscal policy after the turn of the current century.  Its first mistake was to run excessive budget deficits during the expansionary period 2003-08 (like the Bush Administration).  Then, as if operating under the theory that “two wrongs make a right,” Greece was induced after its crisis hit to adopt tight austerity in 2010, which greatly worsened the fall in GDP. The goal was to restore its debt/GDP ratio to a sustainable path; but instead the ratio rose at a sharply accelerated rate, because of the fall in GDP.

Europeans suffer even more than other countries from basing their budget plans on official forecasts that are unnecessarily biased, which can lead to procyclical fiscal policy.   Before 2008, not just Greece, but all euro members were overly optimistic in their forecast and so at times “unexpectedly” exceeded the 3% ceilings on their budget deficits.  After 2008, qualitatively similar stories of procyclical fiscal contraction, leading to falling income and accelerating debt/GDP, also held in Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy.

The native land of austerity philosophy is, of course, Germany.  The Germans had (reluctantly) gone along with an agreement at the London G-20 Leaders Summit of April 2009 that the US, China, and other major countries would expand demand in order to address the Great Recession.  But when the Greek crisis hit at the end of that year, the Germans reverted to their deeply held beliefs in fiscal rectitude.

At first the IMF went along with the other members of the troika in believing — or at least pretending to believe — that fiscal discipline in the European periphery countries would not greatly damage their GDPs and thus could restore their debt/GDP ratios to sustainable paths.  But in January 2013, Fund Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard released a paper that was widely interpreted as a mea culpa.  It concluded that fiscal multipliers were much higher than the IMF (among other forecasters) had thought, suggesting that the austerity programs might have been excessive.  This conclusion was based on a statistical finding that the countries which had attempted the biggest fiscal retrenchment in response to the crisis turned out to experience the most damage to GDP relative to what the IMF forecasters had expected. Today, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde explains to the Germans that Greece cannot achieve the elusive path of a sustainable debt/GDP ratio if it is not given further debt relief and is instead told to run primary budget surpluses of 3 ½ percent of GDP.

Now to Japan, host of this week’s G-7 meeting.  In April 2014, even though the economy had been so weak that the Bank of Japan had been pursuing aggressive quantitative easing, Prime Minister Abe went ahead with a planned increase in the consumption tax (from 5% to 8%).  As many had predicted, Japan immediately went back into recession.  Even though the first arrow of Abenomics, the monetary stimulus, had been fired appropriately, it was evidently less powerful than the second arrow, fiscal policy, which unfortunately had been fired in the wrong direction.

Prime Minister Abe has indicated that he is sticking with his plan to go ahead with a further rise in the consumption tax (to 10%), scheduled for April 2017.  It is easy to see why Japanese officials worry about the country’s huge national debt.  But, as near-zero interest rates signal, creditworthiness is not the current problem; weakness in the economy is.  A more effective way of addressing the long-run sustainability of the debt is to announce a 20-year path of very small annual increases in the consumption tax, calculated so as to demonstrate to investors that the ratio of debt to GDP will come down in the long term.

Developing countries

Not all is bleak on the country scoreboard of cyclicality.  Some developing countries did achieve countercyclicalfiscal policy after 2000.  They took advantage of the boom years to run budget surpluses, pay down debt and build up reserves, which allowed them the fiscal space to ease up when the 2008-09 crisis hit.  Chile is the poster boy of those who “graduated” from procyclicality. Others include Botswana, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Korea.  China’s 2009 stimulus was very countercyclical.

Unfortunately some, like Thailand, who achieved countercyclicality in the last decade, have suffered backsliding since then.  Brazil, for example, failed to take advantage of the renewed commodity boom of 2010-11 to eliminate its budget deficit, which explains much of the mess it is in today now that commodity prices have fallen.

Politicians everywhere might improve their game if they re-read their introductory macroeconomics textbooks.

[This is an extended version of a column appearing at Project Syndicate.  Comments can be posted there or at Econbrowser.]

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Forecasting 2016 Economic Developments & Candidates’ Reactions

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     As the new year starts, Politico asks a set of economists for forecasts.  Prognostication from 23 appears at “Could the Economy Tank in 2016?

By the way, I think my forecast last time, two years ago, turned out to hold up pretty well:

Something important will get better in 2014: Fiscal policy will stop hurting the economyThe biggest impediment to economic expansion over the last three years has been destructive budget policy coming out of the CongressThere are good grounds for optimism in 2014. For the first time in four years, Congress will probably not inflict contractionary fiscal policy on the American people. If the government sector stops making a negative contribution, that will show up as economic growth.”

This time I focused on the following question from Politico:

Q: How will the 2016 presidential candidates have to adapt to economic realities and unforeseen developments in the coming year, such as the risk of recession, as they make the case to voters about their own economic visions?

A:  Recessions are not forecastable.  A downturn is no more likely in 2016 than in a typical year, nor less likely.

The next president will, like his or her predecessors, have to shift gears from the campaign and adjust to a very different set of developments and realities upon taking office.  But this is because of politics, not mainly because of uncertainty regarding what lies ahead.   The adjustment process will not begin until after the election, even if major new developments in the domestic or global economy take place during 2016.  The polite way to phrase it is to observe that “politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose.”

Republican nominees, for example, always promise to cut taxes, increase military spending, protect seniors, and yet to run a strong budget balance, even though that combination is arithmetically impossible.  Democratic nominees too make unrealistic claims about how they will be able to combine spending increases with budget discipline.   Unforeseen disasters – financial, economic, national security – do not cause candidates to rethink their plans, but only to double down.   It is only after they take office that they are forced to confront the arithmetic, and sometimes they can postpone facing up to it for several years.

Some presidents adjust to fiscal realities immediately, during the presidential transition (Bill Clinton), some after a year or two of fiscal failure (Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush), and some later still (George W. Bush).   But none do it before the election.

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