Taxing in the 21st Century

Several Republican Presidential candidates (Trump, Bush, Rubio, Paul, Kasich, Jindal, Santorum, and Cruz to name a few) have outlined fairly specific tax plans aimed at accelerating U.S. economic growth. Most follow a similar pattern of eliminating deductions and lowering rates, which has worked quite well in the past (the Reagan Recovery being the standout example as seen in Chart 1). While the impulse to dust off the Reagan playbook is quite strong given the empirical data, conservatives really need to aggressively rethink how we tax and be careful not to knee-jerk back to past solutions. It is on this point where Sen. Ted Cruz’s tax plan stands out and should be applauded. While I have reservations about how the specifics of his tax plan, he has shown the greatest willingness to move away from the orthodoxy and rethink the nature of our tax code (more on his plan will follow)

Chart 1

r v o vc

With each passing day, the Reagan era grows more distant (an admitted redundancy that is still important to remember), and reflexively returning to his playbook is fraught with political danger (more and more voters were not old enough to cast a ballot for him) and policy danger. Conservatives need to do a better job delineating solutions from principles. Principles are what we believe (and as such are relatively unchanging) whereas solutions are how we implement principles (and as such change as the problems change). It is a disservice to Reagan’s legacy to simply suggest cutting marginal rates is the best answer to a slow economy as this implies there is a magic formula that would solve any problem.

The genius of the Reagan Administration was its ability to take conservative principles and apply them to policies to craft specific solutions to the problems of the day. We need to keep these principles, but today’s problems may necessitate different solutions. In brief as conservatives, we believe in returning power to the individual and away from the collective. Ultimately, individuals make better decisions regarding their own lives than a bunch of bureaucrats can hope to. This means entrusting power in the people and keeping government interference to a minimum.

Armed with these beliefs, Reagan focused his tax relief on capital. In 1981, the US was suffering from high unemployment and high inflation (stagflation). Reagan took over an economy that was treating capital poorly. As can be seen in the following chart, labor was gaining share in the economy—at the expense of capital, leading to a retrenchment in investment. There was a supply of capital crisis. When capital is treated poorly (ie 70% marginal tax rates and windfall profit taxes), holders of capital are less likely to invest it. When you don’t see capital investment, an economy grows too tight, sending prices skyrocketing (Chart 3, NB inflation is inverted). As prices soared, consumer confidence fell, leading to less spending and subsequently an even worse environment for investing.

Chart 2

obama econ

Chart 3

pce

Recognizing the supply problem the economy faced, Reagan freed up capital by rolling back regulations and focusing tax cuts on top marginal rates (bringing them down from 70% to 50% and later 28%). Reagan’s capital-aimed economic policies worked remarkably well, bringing inflation down and consumer confidence back (Chart 3) while economic growth soared (Chart 1). Reagan took conservative principles (empowering the individual rather than the collective) and applied them to the problems of the day (unfavorable policies inhibiting capital and causing an inflation shock) to create policies that bettered the lives of Americans.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, we have conservatives offering a variety of tax plans aiming to spur growth. When looking at tax plans, we need to drill down to the basics and ask the question: why we tax? The answer is simple: to fund government expenditures. There are some things government must spend money on (ie defense), and we cannot sustainably borrow money to pay for everything. Depending on the speed one wants to bring down our debt load, tax revenue likely needs to be 17.5-20.5% of GDP on average over the medium term.

It then becomes a matter of constructing a tax code that has the best impact on the economy over the medium term. In a sense, offering a tax break to one group needs to be offset by taxing another group; for instance, opting against an estate tax (which many conservatives call for) would cost revenue that needs to be made up elsewhere. On the other hand, eliminating ineffective deductions (the deductibility of corporate interest expense perhaps?) helps to fund tax breaks elsewhere. Ultimately, we would build a tax system that generates the necessary revenue while having the best economic impact, and this tax code could be dramatically different from our current convoluted mess (spoiler alert: it would be).

Most importantly, the efficient tax code would change over time because our economy is ever-changing. While conservatives should continue to push for as low of a tax burden as possible with a simple code that leaves individuals with as much power as possible, how that translates into marginal rates, deductions, and so forth can change a bit. Reagan faced an economy that treated capital poorly, and so, he lessened capital’s tax burden. Today’s economy is far different. Under Obama (as you can see in Chart 2), labor has done absolutely terrible, losing share to capital. This decline helps to explain why aggregate economic statistics (like 5% unemployment) seem out of whack with how most in the middle class feel. As such, it is critical to build a tax code that incentivizes work to get people back into the work force and working. This requires creative thinking from expanding the earned income tax credit, to contemplating the implications of a negative marginal tax rate bracket, and closing loopholes that provide little economic bang for the buck.

On the whole, it is hard to look at most of the Republican tax plans and not believe they would be better than the status quo, though none is without flaws. Most plans (like Rubio, Bush, and Kasich) stick relatively close to traditional conservative orthodoxy, but Cruz’s stands out. Cruz basically throws out the current system, has a 10% income flat tax, and a 16% business flat tax. Per the Tax Foundation, the Cruz plan costs about $3.6 trillion over a decade, but based on their view that the economy will be 13% larger (a plausible but definitely not unfriendly view), they see it only costing $770 billion. The US, in aggregate, is certainly not under-taxed, so there is nothing wrong with a tax plan that offers a moderate tax cut like Cruz’s does. I would note (that based on my rudimentary number-crunching) most of the growth driven revenue gains would be realized at the back end of the decade with years 9 and 10 generating up to $1 trillion of the incremental $2.8 trillion in revenue. Essentially, the revenue hit is not $77 billion/year, rather, it is much larger upfront and shrinks, possibly even gaining revenue at the tail end.

At first glance, it looks like Cruz provides labor with a massive tax cut, given the low 10% rate that for a family of 4 kicks in after 36k. However, his business tax would tax both profits and payrolls. So an employee earning $100,000 would pay a 10% flat tax, but his employer would also pay a 16% tax ($16,000). Under current law, the Social Security payroll tax is only 6.2%, so Cruz is really using a tax increase on payrolls to fund cuts elsewhere. Frankly relative to current law, Cruz is providing a dis-incentive to employee people.

Alongside this, Cruz would allow for the immediate expensing of equipment. Put in simple terms, buying a robot would not be subject to a 16% tax but hiring a worker would be. We continue to see a push towards automation in the economy. While painful for the worker being automated out, this is a good thing. I think we would all agree that on net ATMs have been a positive, even though they were a negative for bank tellers. Businesses should automate when the underlying economics make sense, but we don’t want decisions being made for tax purposes. An economy functions most efficiently when capital is allocated based on underlying economics and not tax implications. When taxes start changing allocation decisions, a government is picking winners and losers, which more often than not ends badly (how’d that Solyndra loan work out?).

Now, the government should not actively impede automation as this would leave the US poorly positioned in world trade and slow growth. The tax code should be neutral on the matter, and let economic reality be the determinant. Amazingly, this is one of the few things our current code does somewhat well. Employers pay a payroll tax but can deduct payroll immediately while purchases of equipment are deducted over multiple years (ignoring temporary tax breaks). When calculating the present value of the tax implications of the decision (a worker or machine), they roughly cancel out (or come fairly close), meaning that business owner would choose the economically wisest.

Cruz’s plan tilts the playing field away from workers and towards capital, incentivizing automation. Now if the pre-tax economics of hiring a worker or automating are the same, a business would choose to automate because it receives more favorable tax treatment. Interestingly, there is a pretty good case to be made that this plan would have worked particularly well in 1980 when the cost of capital was too high. Similar to Reagan’s steep marginal rate cuts, the Cruz plan would incentivize investing and have increased aggregate supply to bring inflation under control.

While Cruz’s plan benefits from original thinking, it solves past problems and would likely exacerbate the trend in chart 2 where labor has lost ground under Obama. This is one reason why I think the Tax Foundation’s growth expectations could be a bit optimistic. The Foundation does say the capital stock rises 44%, which makes sense as lower taxation would create more capital. The fact it grows 3x the economy does show the diminishing return of excess capital in the current environment. In fact, the issues with our capital stock could be dealt with more simply and just as effectively in two strokes. First, stop taxing repatriated profits at 35%, which would bring back $2 trillion. Second, Dodd-Frank has disincentivized bank lending, and as such, banks are carrying $2.5 trillion in excess cash. Roll back some of these regulations, and banks would be free to increase lending to small business and others, which would push growth faster.

Cruz (and others) are fighting the last war, focusing tax cuts in places where they will provide less growth. Reagan’s ingenuity was not that he lowered taxes but that he recognized the problems he was facing and structured his tax cuts in a way to solve those problems. Labor and capital supply an economy, and he faced a capital crisis. By fixing that, he put us on a path for 25 years of prosperity. Today, capital is doing well, and our crisis is on the labor front. Labor force participation is lower than it should be, wage stagnation is real, and capital has done fairly well with the top doing very well under Obama (who has helped exacerbate the very inequality he rails against). Again, the solution to this problem is not to punish the top to subsidize everyone else as that slows growth over time. However while Reagan tried to stimulate capital, we need to stimulate labor. This means debating a larger EITC, considering negative marginal rates, incentivizing job training, and eliminating certain loopholes (like carried interest and interest deductibility) to fund lower marginal rates. It also means keeping capital gains taxes and rethinking total opposition to the estate tax (or at least the stepped-up basis).

Reagan’s principles and the tenets of supply-side economics are as relevant as ever, but conservatives need to engage in further debate about how those principles apply to today’s challenges. The best answer could be wholesale change to the tax code (like Cruz has boldly suggested) or sticking a bit closer to the status quo. Taxes at the end of the day are a means to an end, a way to fund government while creating the conditions for the most robust growth. This requires an analysis of what breaks provide the least value and what taxes slow growth the most in today’s economy (and then eliminating those breaks to fund the elimination of those taxes!). It also requires a deeper debate on what part of the supply curve needs the stimulus. Admittedly, stimulating labor, without doing so at the expense of capital, is a challenge but not an insurmountable one (pairing labor-focused cuts with fewer deductions, a quasi-territorial corporate system, modified Dodd-Frank, and reformed estate tax is our best bet in my estimation).

Conservatives need to do a better job explaining how our principles and faith in the American people rather than government translate into solutions for today and are not merely regurgitated answers to the problems of 35 years ago. That is a pre-requisite for winning elections, and more importantly, it is the only way to actually make the American public better off. Re-examining our tax orthodoxy is a good place to start. Hats off to Senator Cruz for doing just that. While I would question the specifics of his plan, he is starting a debate we very much need to have.

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