How to Protect Social Security and Medicare

Recently, the social security trustees offered yet another stark reminder that America is nearing an entitlement crisis. Within a decade, the Medicare hospital trust fund will be insolvent; within two decades, social security will be. When that happens, each program will be forced to automatically cut benefits—in the case of social security by over 20%. To fully fund the shortfall for the next 75 years, we would need to immediately inject about $17.5 trillion into the two programs, $3.5 trillion into Medicare and $14 trillion into Social Securitya financial impossibility. 

Over time, it is a financial necessity to make some changes to the programs, like a gradual increase in the retirement age, to improve their financial situation and ensure they will be there for future generations. Donald Trump promised to govern on behalf of the forgotten men and women of the working class who in particular rely on these programs in their sunset years, which is why it is critical he takes steps to sure up their finances. 

 

Now, not only is it financially impossible to fully fund these programs for perpetuity today, it is unnecessary. The $17.5 trillion shortfall is a best-efforts estimate that can shift materially if for instance economic growth is faster than forecast, which would result in higher tax revenue. Nonetheless, Social Security and Medicare clearly face shortfalls, and we should find ways to extend the trust funds’ lives. Fortunately, there actually is a way to materially extend these programs’ lives, reduce today’s budget deficit, make mortgage rates lower, and not reduce benefits by a dollar. 

 

The United States Treasury should sell $2 trillion in zero  couponputable, perpetual bonds (more on their structure below) to the Federal Reserve, America’s central bankIn turn, about $600 billion would be granted to the Medicare hospital trust fund and $1.4 trillion to Social Security’s trust fund. With these additional sums, Medicare would be able to meet current benefits into the mid-2030s, about a 10 year improvement, and Social Security into the mid-2040s, about a 5 year improvement. This step would provide more security and certainty to older Americans and give us more time to make gradual changes to the programs for future beneficiaries to further extend their solvency. 

 

Now as is the case with existing trust fund sums, this $2 trillion would be invested over time in US treasury debt. With the budget deficit likely to surpass $800 billion annually in coming years, the trust funds’ buying power would essentially cancel out 2-2.5 years of new budget deficits. By buying US debt, we would be selling fewer treasuries to private investors, this reduced supply would mean we can sell our debt at a higher price, all else equal. In other words, we would sell debt at a lower interest rate. Paying less in interest would bring down the US budget deficit somewhat. Additionally, US treasury interest rates are the benchmark off of which most banks determine their mortgage rates, business loan interest rates, and so forth. So, a lower treasury rate will translate to lower mortgage rates, making home buying more affordable. 

 

To some, this may sound too good to be true. If we are putting more money into entitlement programs, and bringing down the cost of debt in the process, there must be a catch, and they would point to the $2 trillion in bonds the government would sell to the Federal Reserve. Note though that the bonds sold to the Fed are “zero coupon,” which means they pay no interest, meanwhile the trust funds would be using the proceeds to buy US treasury debt that does pay interest. Additionally, these zero-coupon bonds are “perpetual,” meaning they never have to be paid back. In reality, these Fed-owned bonds hold no economic value. However, the Fed would “print” $2 trillion to send to Medicare and Social Security in exchange for them. At this point, some may say I am merely proposing printing money to pay for entitlements, which will cause inflation and weaken the dollar. As I will explain, that is actually not what I am proposing, but first, let me rebut the case that printing money in the first place would definitely be inflationary.

 

Over the past ten years, the Federal Reserve has printed about $3.4 trillion buying treasury and mortgage bonds, nearly quintupling its balance sheet to $4.3 trillion. During this time, the US dollar has actually strengthened by over 26% on a trade-weighted basis and core inflation has averaged less than 1.6%, below the Fed’s target of 2%. The many predictions that Fed policy would create runaway inflation simply have not come true. 

 

Moreover, it is worth noting that the fashion in which the Federal Reserve operates its monetary policy has exacerbated income inequality and the stagnation of median incomes for the past two decades. Targeting 2% inflation, the Fed tends to raise interest rates as we near full employment. Now, it is during periods of at or near full employment where workers are more in demand than in supply, meaning they enjoy the greatest wage increase. Immediately after a recession, even as business improves, there are many people eager for work, so businesses don’t have to increase wages even as the business grows, leading to higher profit margins. Periods of full employment reverse this with workers getting a bigger share of the pie. However in its fear of inflation, the Fed raises rates as the labor market improves, truncating the time spent in a tight labor market relative to the time in a loose labor market

 

As this continues over each economic cycle, business owners get a gradually increasing piece of the economic pie at the expense of workers, widening inequality and leaving our middle class behind. In fact, over the past twenty years, core inflation has averaged 1.7%, missing the Fed’s 2% target and showing its preference for low-inflation periods when businesses have the bargaining power to tight labor market periods when workers do. Using the Fed balance sheet to support entitlement programs that particularly benefit middle and working class Americans would help counteract this bias. 

 

Now to those still unsatisfied by my argument that using the Fed to create money is not problematic, I wish to explain why I am not proposing printing money. Rather than have the Fed print $2 trillion, I recommend selling $2 trillion in zero coupon, putable, perpetual bonds. True, zero coupon perpetual bonds have no economic value, but note the word “putable.” Putable means the Fed can “put back” (sell) the bonds at face value to the treasury if certain conditions are met. Namely, in any month when the core PCE index (the Fed’s preferred inflation measure) rises by 3-3.5% year over year, $50 billion of bonds are put back, 3.5-4% $75 billion, 4-4.5% $100 billion, 4.5-5% $125 billion, and over 5% $150 billion.

 

Essentially if I am wrong, and this program causes inflation to rise materially above the Fed’s 2% target, the Fed would be able to sell the bonds back, taking the US dollars back out of circulation, thereby tightening policy to bring inflation back down. Given that inflation hasn’t passed 3% on an annual basis in 26 years, it is likely that little if any of this $2 trillion bond is ever put back to the treasury. And if such a period comes sufficiently in the future, the amount saved on interest payments thanks to Social Security and Medicare buying treasury debt may well exceed the cost of buying back these putable bonds. I would venture a prediction that this $2 trillion bond issuance does not lead inflation to breach the putable levels over the forecastable horizon.

 

Given the structural undershoot of inflation, a middle class that has been left behind, and the pressing need to provide support to Medicare and Social Security, selling these bonds to the Federal Reserve is a gamble well worth taking. I would recommend beginning with this $2 trillion program, because the sum is large enough to postpone our entitlement crisis several years, but I wouldn’t attempt to fund all of the $17 trillion shortfall today as that would raise the risk of causing excess inflation, undermining the purpose of the program. Rather, it is best to take one step likely to succeed today, and then, 5-10 years down the road, the exercise can always be repeated if it proves as successful as I anticipate.

 

While virtually all Americans agree it is critical to preserve these programs as best as possible, some may question the wisdom of perpetuating them in their current form, and to them I would highlight some key points. First, we should ask honestly ourselves whether Congressional Democrats and Republicans, who both clearly like to spend money when in power, would actually permit Social Security and Medicare to cut benefits when their trust funds run dry? Or rather, would they either raise taxes or sell more debt to the public to fund the shortfall? It seems clear to me that it is better to try my strategy of issuing perpetual debt than issuing debt that has to be repaid to investors or raising taxes on hard-working Americans.

 

Some others may argue that it is unwise to take this course of action when there would remain a $15 trillion problem. To them, I would make two points. First, I think it better to solve part of the problem than none of it. Second, I don’t pretend this plan is a be-all, end-all solution. Rather, it is intended to add several years of viability to these programs to ensure they can meet the promises made to those at or near retirement who need certainty. It would be fantastic if this $2 billion Federal Reserve bond were paired with measures like gradually lifting the retirement age by 2 years starting in 2024 and moving future Social Security benefit cost of living adjustments to chained-CPI from headline CPI. These measures combined with the $2 trillion cash infusion would greatly extend the lives of Medicare and Social Security. Like President Reagan in 1986, I believe Republicans should take the lead in solving entitlement problems before the crisis is upon us. However, I would rather issue this zero-coupon bond then permanently raise taxes.

 

Last, it is critical to emphasize again that while America faces a public debt problem and a deficit problem, it does not face an inflation problem. That is largely because the Federal Reserve has run a structurally hawkish monetary policy that has led to below target inflation and lackluster median wage growth. While the Fed, through its quantitative easing program, has been happy to buy bonds to push up asset prices and make the rich richer, it has consistently acted to raise rates and slow the economy as it senses that upward wage pressures are increasing.As such, the one risk my policy increases, inflation (albeit as highlighted above, I emphasize my skepticism inflation would materially rise), is one the economy can afford, if only to counteract the years of overly hawkish Fed policy that have left the middle class behind. Moreover, given the putable nature of my bonds, any period of higher inflation would be short-lived as the Fed puts the bonds back to the Treasury and takes dollars out of circulation. All told, these risks stack up attractively versus the potential of putting $2 trillion into entitlements without issuing debt that has to be repaid or raising taxes.

 

Donald Trump was elected President because he promised to bring new thinking to our politics, and given the size of their problems, new and innovative thinking is needed to secure Social Security and Medicare. Issuing $2 trillion in zero coupon, putable, perpetual bonds to the Federal Reserve would greatly enhance these programs’ viability at no cost to taxpayers. In fact, by pushing down treasury bonds’ interest rates, taxpayers would save money in coming years.

 

Let’s act now to protect the retirements of America’s forgotten men and women.

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No, Trump Won’t Doom Conservatism

As the calendar prepares to turn, one fact has remained constant: Donald Trump is the clear leader in Republican Primary national polls. He is almost certainly trailing Ted Cruz in Iowa but maintains a large lead in New Hampshire where establishment candidates have fractured the vote and should he win there is poised for strong showings through the March 1 “SEC Primary.” While national polls have dubious predictive power, establishment types are increasingly antsy about Trump’s staying-power as they (correctly) believe he would struggle in a general election. Take George Will for instance who last week declared in a column entitled, “If Trump wins the nomination, prepare for the end of the conservative party”:

“It is possible Trump will not win any primary, and that by the middle of March our long national embarrassment will be over. But this avatar of unfettered government and executive authoritarianism has mesmerized a large portion of Republicans for six months. The larger portion should understand this:

One hundred and four years of history is in the balance. If Trump is the Republican nominee in 2016, there might not be a conservative party in 2020 either.”

Now, there are two issues with Will’s column. First, a Trump nomination would not be the end of a conservative party in America. Presidential campaigns lend themselves to hyperbole (“this is a mildly important election” doesn’t turn out the vote so well), and that is the case here. Given his poor standing with Hispanics and women voters, I agree Trump would likely lose and lose badly. The only path I see would be choosing someone like David Petreaus as his Vice-President (to calm voters antsy about making Trump Commander-in-Chief) and go for an Upper Midwest strategy. Against Hillary Clinton, one would have to put the odds of a Trump victory at less than 15%, barring some dramatic economic collapse or terrorist attack that destroys President Obama’s popular standing.

Even if Trump lost though, the GOP is not doomed. Surely, many prognosticators saw disaster for liberals after Michael Dukakis suffered the third straight Democratic ignominy in 1988. In the three elections from 1980-1988, the GOP carried the electoral vote a combined 1440-174. That is called being lost in the wilderness, yet Democrats have proceeded to win 5 of the next 6 popular votes, and in 2008, America elected the most liberal man to be President since at least Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (Ideologically, Obama is probably to the left of Johnson, he is merely less effective at making his agenda law). My point here is that political persuasions are “stickier” or more entrenched than we sometimes give them credit for, and to suggest the GOP is one defeat from obsolescence is over the top, particularly with Republicans controlling the House and 31 Governor’s Mansions from which conservative reform agendas are being carried out. Would a third term for the Democratic Party have significant long-term consequences? Yes. Is the conservative party a terrible candidate away from disappearing? No.

Second, there is this sense that Trump is a cancer on conservatism when in reality Trump is exploiting a cancer that has already grown on the movement. Will is right to call out Trump’s constant boasting as a sign of a lack of self-esteem (this is an ironic charge from a man whose columns read like a self-conscious showcase of as many inane, multisyllabic words as possible in an effort to prove his intellectual superiority), and I too am no Trump fan, taking serious issue with his rhetoric, past policy flip-flops, Muslim travel suspension, and so forth. Trump is no typical conservative by any stretch, but his popularity in conservative precincts is easy to understand.

The intellectual, donor, and corporate establishment has grown increasingly adrift from the base with a rising elitism poisoning the conservative movement. Elements of the party have morphed from capitalist to corporatists with large, entrenched firms enjoying a convoluted tax code that serves to raise the barriers to entry. As explained in a bit more depth below (and in much more detail here) economic policy coming from the party seems to either reflexively reflect 1980s policies or benefit the monied interests. I’ve always struggled as to how a conservative can be an elitist given that the ideology is one optimistic about the skills of ordinary people. We have so much faith in man, we prefer to endow each individual with power rather than leaving it the hands of centralized bureaucrats who deem themselves experts. Conservativism is inherently populist, but often one can feel conservative DC elites looking down at Trump supporters and the citizenry at large.

Justifiably or not, the Republicans are viewed as the party of the elites, and that is problematic. Just examine the 2012 exit polls:

Romney lost 35%-63% among voters earning under $30,000 and 42%-57% among voters earning $30,000-$49,999. Romney lost the overall popular voter 47.2% to 51.1%, but if he had done 5% better among those earning under 50k (going from 38% to 43%), the popular vote would have been 49.2% for Romney to 49.1% for Obama. Obama still would have likely have won the Electoral College (Romney getting 253 instead of 206 votes, short of the 270 needed to win), but it would have been closer. For all of the talk about doing better with Hispanic voters to win elections, doing better with the working and middle class is critical for the Republican Party to win national elections (admittedly, doing better with the working and middle class likely entails doing better with Hispanic voters).

53% of voters thought Romney policies favored the rich; only 34% thought the middle class was favored. 21% of voters believed the most important quality was having a President who “cares about people like me.” Romney lost those voters 18% to 81%, and this block of voters was decisive in delivering the election for the President. Republicans have a clear empathy problem. Now, there are two possibilities here. One, the republicans offer the right policies for these voters and are doing a terrible job communicating them, or two, the policy mix is bad for these voters and they are acting rationally by voting for Democrats. As the Democrats are keen to offer free stuff, winning the communications battle will invariably be tough, but there is definitely room for improvement, especially as conservative policies can help lift working people more than an entangling, 20th century safety net. Plus, republicans don’t have to win these voters outright, just do less badly.

There are strains in the Republican Party that are offering wise policies, focused on improving and expanding the earned income tax credit, eliminating marriage disincentives, and successfully employing charters schools as Washington DC has done. Leaders like Paul Ryan, Mike Lee, and Marco Rubio have each come up with some good proposals in these areas, but Republicans have failed to come out with a comprehensive economic policy that all Americans, poor, middle class, and wealthy, can buy into in part because few in the party seem to recognize that the past 15 years, under both Presidents Bush and Obama, have been lousy for the middle and working class. President Bush’s economic record is far from perfect. This country has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs in 20 years and seen real median income declines since 1997:

Under President Reagan, America saw stellar economic growth, but his policies addressed specific problems, including a lack of capital and squeezed margins. His tax cuts were aimed at fixing specific problems and are not a timeless solution in and of themselves. Today’s problems are different with a job-skills mismatch, burdensome lending regulations, inefficient deductions, and internationally obsolete code, and the solutions need to address these ills while recognizing policies must help the working and middle class lift themselves up (different from the Bernie Sanders approach of tearing the rich down). Has any somewhat viable Republican Presidential candidate made an argument they will help workers?

Trump has. The premise of his campaign is helping workers. He has said Super PACs screw Americans because politicians become beholden to corporate donors. Our free trade agreements have cost us jobs because our leaders are terrible negotiators (and if you were one of the 5 million who lost a manufacturing job, you would have some sympathy for this argument). Over the summer, Trump said, “the middle class is getting clobbered in this country. You know the middle class built this country, not the hedge fund guys, but I know people in hedge funds that pay almost nothing and it’s ridiculous, OK?” It is unsurprising that Trump has built a strong base of support amongst working and middle class voters in GOP primary polls because his campaign is directly targeted to them.

Now, this is separate from arguing Trump policies would actually help the middle class (this is very debatable), but he, being a master brander, has done an excellent job selling it. It has been easy for him because the establishment has shown no interest in reaching out to these voters in years. Did Romney ever prosecute the case as to how ordinary Americans would be better off? Exit polls (and memories of the campaign) say “no;” the establishment has no built in credibility. We’ve gone from Reagan calling all Americans “heroes” to Romney decrying “the 47%” behind closed doors. Plus, no other candidate has made a compelling argument to these voters. Ben Carson has an inspiring life story but has been unable to offer a specific policy vision on economic or foreign affairs. Jeb Bush is just constitutionally incapable of making compelling arguments, and while he has promised 4% growth, he has never articulated how his plans ensure the growth will be enjoyed by all. Rubio hits some of the right notes, like an expanded-EITC, but has focused on foreign affairs (he is best positioned to appeal to working people in my opinion but has failed to make a clear effort). Ted Cruz’s tax plan would likely hurt workers and creates a VAT that disincentivizes employment—it’s an unimaginably idiotic tax plan to be frank.

Trump’s competitors have made it easy, proving utterly incapable or uninterested in offering an inclusive economic message. Given 15 years of stagnation and a republican establishment that has made little substantive effort to include them, working and middle class voters are understandably frustrated and willing to go for an unorthodox candidate. Enter Trump who has a message tailored for them and who has faced no competition on the economic populist front. No wonder he polls so high.

Trump isn’t a doctrinaire conservative, but conservatives have failed to update policies or explain how our vision economic plans can help all Americans. That is the movement’s failing. Blaming Trump voters for being unprincipled for backing a (charitably) inconsistent conservative has proven pointless in bringing down his support and is perhaps unfair to his supporters. If you offer voters nothing, don’t be surprised if they look elsewhere and ignore your warnings. Voters are perhaps willing to look past Trump’s faults because they see no alternative—what has the conservative movement done for a steelworker the past decade?

By failing to build a conservative economic plan that can work for all Americans and then failing to sell our vision in a clear and convincing fashion in all corners of the country from Wall Street to 125th Street, we have left the field wide open for Trump. Within reason, conservatism and populism are not at odds, for what good is a policy that does not benefit most of the populace? Who is better positioned to argue that their policies will help people than the party promising to return power to the people? If there is no conservative party in 2020 or 2024, it won’t be because of Trump. It will be because Republicans have failed miserably in being the Opportunity Party.

A Conservative Argument for the Estate Tax

On this “Giving Tuesday,” Mark Zuckerberg announced in a public letter to his just-born daughter that he and his wife would be donating 99% of their Facebook stock. The gift is aimed at advancing “human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation.” This gift is a massive commitment of $45 billion (at Facebook’s current share price) that has the potential to truly better the world. Don’t feel too badly for their daughter, Max, who is still in-line to get about $450 million (at today’s market price), or about 2x Mitt Romney’s net worth.

In light of Zuckerberg’s action, it seemed pertinent to briefly discuss the estate tax, and why I actually think conservatives should support it (despite deftly dubbing it the “death tax”) as I have alluded to in the past. My view is admittedly out of the orthodoxy and runs counter to our slate of Republican Presidential contenders who want to eliminate the tax.

Briefly before delving into my argument, I would emphasize my support for an estate tax in principle and not for our idiotically concocted one. Under current law, all estates beyond $5.4 million pay the same marginal tax rate of 40%. A small business owner with $30 million faces the same marginal rate as Warren Buffett, which is absurd. A primary concern of mine (and all conservatives…hopefully) is the ability of the super-wealthy to maintain their status for generations, which cannot be done at $30 million but can be at $30 billion. That small business owner or farmer also likely has less liquid wealth, and heirs could be forced to sell to pay the taxman, which argues for a lower initial rate. For illustrative purposes, I would propose a progressive estate tax of perhaps 15% for $5-15 million, 25% for $15-25 million, 35% for $25-$50 million, 50% for $50-$250 million, and 70% for $250 million and higher. I would also allow one’s tax burden to be nullified by charitable donations. That would mean the Zuckerberg estate would face no estate tax liability as it is donating over 70% to charity.

 

  1. Tax Code Efficiency

As some government spending is required and 100% debt funding is unsustainable, we have to tax. The conversation turns to how much we have to tax (dependent on how much we spend) and how we structure our tax code to generate the requisite revenue. Some liberals have this fixation on a “fair” tax code with no discernible definition of fairness. Conservatives focus on an efficient tax code, which is to say the code that has the least retardant impact on growth. Such a tax code would allow the economy to perform the best, all else equal, and help the poor and middle class improve their standing and their standard of living.

This requires taxing the least productive segments the most and most productive the least. Plus as we need to generate a certain amount of revenue, the decision to tax one party is in a sense a decision to not tax another (dynamic scoring adjusted). The estate tax generates about $20 billion in revenue per year or less than 1% of total federal revenue, so it isn’t particularly big (though I would put forth that $20 billion is still a lot of money, call me old-fashioned). If we want to generate the same aggregate revenue, we would have to increase other taxes by that $20 billion. One could argue income and corporate taxes are on today’s productivity whereas an estate tax is on the accumulated productivity of the past. Which tax would appear to drag on economic growth more?

From a different perspective, the estate tax in a sense takes money away from the ensuing generations (the heirs), and as I explain in point 2, it is very uncertain they will use the funds in a productive fashion whereas income is more clearly associated with productivity. Whom would you rather tax if you want a tax code that is likely to impact productivity the least? While there are individual exceptions no doubt, in aggregate, the estate tax targets less productive capital (from either vantage point), meaning we can tax more productive capital and labor less (to the tune of about $20 billion/year), which at the margins should support growth. (In full disclosure, I would note the Tax Foundation seems to disagree with me, though I would suggest it overstates the productivity of the estate capital taxed).

I would also note that I actually hope my estate tax generates no revenue because individuals choose to donate to charity in lieu of paying a tax to the government as my concept would allow. On the whole, charities can be far more productive users of capital than government bureaucracy. While this would lead to lower revenue, it would alleviate the welfare burden on our government, allowing spending to fall (in all likelihood more than the tax revenue shortfall).

2. Capitalism Requires Meritocracy and Efficient Use of Capital

For a capitalist society to work efficiently, individuals and organizations need to benefit based on merits. The most talented should do better and accumulate wealth because they are superior allocators of capital. It is a good thing Warren Buffett has $75 billion and your Uncle Billy doesn’t because Buffett is more adept at making wise investments and is more likely to pursue projects that generate value. Individuals should rise and fall based in large part on their ability and willingness to work hard.

Large estates are large because someone had a talent and was able to generate value. A just and efficient society is glad and benefits from their accumulation of wealth. However, there is no guarantee their children are equally talented/hard-working. Without an estate tax, those funds can be passed down to a generation that wastes the funds (the Paris Hilton’s of the world if you will). Now, some inheritors do tremendous things with the inheritance, but just as many (more I would argue) do not. In aggregate, society does best when capital is tied with those who are the best allocators of it not those with the best last name.

The American Dream is founded on the idea anyone with enough hard work can rise in society. An aristocracy enjoying the fruits of past generations’ labor can stifle advancement and lead to economic malaise, undermining the advancement of others. That isn’t a capitalist or conservative society. It is a corporatist society benefitting entrenched, status quo players. If we really thought passing down things blindly was so great, why did we ever revolt against monarchial rule? The American experiment is directly juxtaposed to aristocracy, which can arise without an estate tax.

Now, this is not to suggest passing down money is bad. It is wonderful to give one’s children the ability to do anything (problems arise when they have so much they can afford to do nothing). The ability to provide a better life for one’s children, even after one’s passing, can be a key motivator that increases productivity. The danger doesn’t lie in someone passing down $5 million, which can easily be wasted in a generation (or shorter), the danger is in the $5 billion passed down that can let numerous generations ride on the coattails of success. That is why a progressive estate tax is far more rational as it more directly deals with the meritocracy issue without punishing parents for wanting to give their kids and grandkids more opportunity.

Inherited wealth on a large scale can breed laziness and an under-productive over-class in an extreme. For families to rise, some inevitably must fall. An estate tax actually helps to engender meritocracy and thereby enhance growth over time.

3. The wealthy are already disbursing their estates to society

Since launching several years ago, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s The Giving Pledge has been a stunning success, getting 138 billionaires to pledge half their wealth (or more) to charity. Again, these participants, under my conception of an estate tax, would essentially face no estate tax liability, since I would fully credit any charitable contributions against the theoretical tax liability. It is telling that so many of the most fortunate choose to give away the vast majority of their wealth. They are beneficiaries of my second point (meritocracy) and understand the importance of preserving that structure, rather than letting future generations fritter away their hard earned wealth. Of course beyond the pledge, countless wealthy individuals are exceptionally generous as well.

Now admittedly, not everyone is a member of the pledge, and some would probably prefer to pass on everything. However, there is some wisdom to the crowd—that is a basic tenet of market economics. For instance, stock prices are fairly efficient and good (probably the best) barometers of fair value because a wide crowd, everyone in capital markets, is buying and selling to the crowd-determined appropriate price. History has proven it hard to beat. Perhaps, the actions of the world’s richest signals the proper policy? While I wouldn’t blindly follow the crowd, it does merit some thought. Moreover, given how much wealth is being donated anyway, the estate tax, if done right, will actually be used in very few instances.

4. It really isn’t double taxation

A common refrain conservatives use against the estate tax is that it is double taxation (taxing already taxed income). That is a bit simplistic, and I would note much of our tax structure, including sales tax, some income taxes, some capital gains taxes etc. are double-taxes. If possible, eliminating all forms of double-taxation would require increased taxation on primary forms of income (unless you are willing to shed hundreds of billion in revenue per year). It isn’t clear that is a preferable system.

Now some estates are as classically argued “double taxed,” but most of the largest estates are not. Most large estates come from entrepreneurs and business founders whose wealth is the equity in their business. This wealth is not taxed prior to death. To illustrate, let’s take the case of Mark Zuckerberg and assume he died Monday before deciding to donate money. He has $45 billion in Facebook stock, but this wealth has never been taxed because it is paper wealth. We tax income (which his Facebook holdings are not) and realized capital gains, and since he is still holding FB shares, the gains are unrealized. When he dies (in the hypothetical), he has actually never been taxed on his wealth. The estate tax would be his first tax not a double tax. Most large estates are similar; much of the estate tax revenue is primary not double taxation.

Plus under current law, the cost-basis of an estate is “stepped-up,” meaning that $45 billion capital gain disappears as his heir marks up the cost-basis to the market price at death. If you eliminate the estate tax without eliminating the step-up feature, his wealth is never once taxed as it passes generation by generation. Meanwhile, workers and W-2 earners (almost all Americans) pay taxes every paycheck. That does not strike me as an efficient structure. Now, we want to incentivize entrepreneurship as they create jobs but no taxation is a bit much. Plus, our current system, in which taxes are deferred until gains are realized, is already an incentive as it lowers the present value of an entrepreneur’s tax bill relative to an employee.

Even if double taxation is inherently bad, which is far from clear and would require a far more drastic overhaul likely resulting in a large consumption tax (which has many negative side-effects), much of the estate tax revenue, particularly from the largest estates, is not a double tax but actually a primary tax. The true picture is a bit more complicated than the political talking points suggest (how unusual!).

5. The confiscation argument against the estate tax doesn’t hold

One constant argument against the estate tax is that it is the confiscation of hard earned wealth, which the government should not be in the business of doing. We could use that rationale for any tax however. The income tax also confiscates the earnings of individuals. Taxation is inherently coercive (optional taxes tend not to generate much revenue), so unless one is willing to argue against all taxes, it is hard to justifiably singling out the estate tax. In any functioning society, there has to be some taxation to pay for public goods. Someone worth $10 billion can still pass down over $3 billion after taxes/charity, which is still a tremendous sum despite my highly progressive proposal. Every tax is by its nature confiscatory and coercive. It is inconsistent to use this argument, often put forth by conservatives sadly, to oppose an estate tax while supporting other taxes.

 

Recognizing this can be an emotional issue for some, hopefully, these arguments at least give pause for further reflection. People of good will and of different political persuasions can disagree on this issue as I don’t see the estate tax as a clear conservative/liberal issue despite how our political parties use it. Ultimately, conservatism is best served when we push for comprehensive tax reform that, yes, includes a reformed estate tax. A conservative-oriented, merit-based society that has an efficient tax code actually necessitates an estate tax, and the two most frequent criticisms of the taxes are a bit lacking.

Death to the death tax is neither conservative nor wise policy.

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

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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.