An Unproductive Discussion

I saw this video of David Letterman’s interview of Rand Paul from 2011 posted on Carpe Diem:

I suggest skipping past Paul’s corny attempts at humor near the beginning and watch the last five to six minutes of the discussion. It’s a great example of how someone’s ignorance, Letterman’s in this case, can be mistaken for legitimate arguments by stating platitudes and refusing to accept facts.

In one example, Letterman characterizes Republicans as the party that just wants to give tax breaks to the rich and big business.

Paul points out that there’s the idea that the rich don’t pay their fair share isn’t accurate. They, in fact, pay most of the taxes. He says the top 1% income earners pay a third of income taxes collected and the top 50% pay 96%. Letterman gets some claps for replying:

…I think there’s something wrong with those numbers. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with them…

I’ll give Letterman credit. After the applause, he then says:

Thank you, you’re applauding my stupidity, God bless you.

I’d like to know if Letterman followed up to learn more about these facts to see if he could build a more valid counterpoint than “I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong.” If he did, what did he find? Did it change his mind?

What do you do when you encounter facts that go against what you previously believed? I don’t know about you, but I find that intriguing and I usually dig in deeper.

Earlier in the conversation (4 minute mark), Letterman demonstrates his ignorance by confusing the national deficit with the debt.  “The American debt is what, $3 trillion?”

Paul explains that the deficit is running about $2 trillion each year, but total debt has accumulated up to $14 trillion.

Letterman blows by this fact. He just learned that something he thought was $3 is nearly 5 times as big and he has no reaction. A reasonable person should respond, “Holy cow! $14 trillion? How did that happen? I had no idea that it was that much. What was I thinking?”

I will give Letterman some credit here. He asks how continuing to borrow will affect him. Paul tries to explain, but I don’t think it made much sense to Letterman.

I would have said the Soviet Union, Greece, Cyprus and Detroit are good examples of what can happen. It’s tough to tell how far down the road that is, but that’s the direction borrowing leads.

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Ask, how much? Part 2

In the same EconTalk podcast with Morris Fiorina that I wrote about in this post, Fiorini describes another ‘how much’ scenario:

…I saw a paper presented yesterday on taxes. And it was very interesting that the population according to these surveys does think we should have more taxes on the rich. But then when you ask them, what are the rich actually paying, they underestimate, of course, what the rich are currently paying. And, what’s interesting is they think the rich should be paying less than they actually are. But you ask them, what is the fair tax to pay for various income brackets? They come in at figures that are actually below what the rich, what people in those brackets are actually paying. So here’s a case of people being uninformed and mal-informed at the same time.

Just curious about the Supreme Court’s Windsor v. U.S. decision

I’m glad the Edith Windsor won her case. I think she deserves it.

The Supreme Court found that not allowing a survivor of a same-sex marriage (as recognized by Canada) to claim the U.S. Federal estate tax deduction that is available for survivors of heterosexual marriages violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution (Amendment 14).

For those who agree with me on the outcome of this case, but also wish to continue to apply different tax rules to high and low-income earners through a progressive tax code, I’m curious to hear why you think holding these two positions is consistent and why the latter position doesn’t violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

By the way, I don’t believe the problem is what the state defines as marriage. I think the problem is that we have a state so entwined in our lives that what it defines as marriage matters.

In this case, if there was no estate tax, there would have been no court case for the Supreme Court to rule on.

I have just one follow-up question for the Ms. Windsor. I’m curious if when her spouse was alive if she filed suit to be able to file a joint Federal income tax return to enjoy the same marriage tax penalty as heterosexual marriages.

The mountain of disincentives

I recommend reading John Cochrane’s post about the job market and his thoughts regarding what a few other prominent economists believe are problems and solutions.

Here he addresses Alan Blinder’s prescription to give tax breaks to companies that expand payrolls (emphasis mine):

Is this really the right way to run a country? When “policy makers” want more employment, they slap on a complex, tax break on top of a mountain of disncentives. Presumably they then will remove this tax break, and pages 536,721 to 621,843 of the tax code describing it, despite the lobbying by large corporations who have figured out how to exploit it for billions of dollars, once the Brookings Institution decides that there is “enough” employment (!), and “policy-makers” no longer need to encourage it?
How are the existing hundreds of bits of social engineering in the tax code working out? Do we really need more of this?  Isn’t it time to return to a tax code that raises money for the government at minimal distortion?

Exactly.

And, great question, how are the existing hundreds of bits of social engineering in the tax code working out? 

Consider one of the most popular bits of social engineering: the mortgage interest deduction. How has that influenced home ownership rates? Does anybody know?

I read a lot of economics and I haven’t heard much about that.

Conventional wisdom is that it encourages home ownership by lowering its cost. But, this assumes home prices didn’t change because of the deduction or that renters don’t realize a similar benefit since their landlords deduct interest on their rental property loans.

Are we to believe that the stock market discounts future cash flows into stock prices, but the housing market doesn’t do the same for home prices?

Let me try are more concrete example. You want to purchase a certain new car and your choice is between two versions of the same model. They are exactly the same, except one thing: gas mileage. Version 1 gets 20 mpg and version 2 gets 30 mpg.

Would you be willing to pay more for version 2? Maybe. How much more? If you drive 10 thousand miles a year, version 2 will save you $500 a year. If you own the car for 5 years, that’s $2,500. You may not be willing to part with the full $2,500 of savings — after all, there’s some risk to that. Gas prices will fluctuate and your driving habits might change, but you would likely pay more.

That’s very similar thinking to how some, not all, home buyers factor in expected tax savings when buying a home.

Jon Stewart’s view on taxes

While flipping channels tonight, I came across a segment of the Jon Stewart Show where Mr. Stewart claims John Boehner referring to taxation as theft showed a lack of understanding of the United States Constitution.

Here’s a link to the full clip.

I’d be open for Mr. Stewart, or the writer of that joke, to point me to the part of the Constitution he believes Mr. Boehner doesn’t understand.

Article I, Section 8 of the CoTUS gives Congress the power to ‘lay and collect’ taxes. However, it does not say that taxes are not theft.

I’ll give Mr. Stewart the benefit of the doubt that he is referring to meaning of theft as the unlawful taking of another person’s property without their permission. Since the Constitution makes taxing power lawful, then (I’m guessing) Stewart believes taxes are not theft.

However, some folks believe the more salient meaning of theft is the part where another person’s property is taken without their permission. In that view, many taxes are theft.

I’d rather have elected officials who see taxes the way Speaker Boehner sees them than the way Mr. Stewart sees them.

Stewart was miffed that Boehner’s (what he thought was a) “mistake” didn’t get media attention, while President Obama’s lack of understanding of Star Wars and Star Trek did.

Maybe others in the media were concerned that Mr. Boehner’s view on taxes would make sense to people, especially folks fresh off their 2% payroll tax holiday.

“I think we should…”

On Twitter, Jeff Brown asks:

If democrats/liberals like the idea of taxing everyone, do they themselves take any exemptions?

Of course they do.

I’ve had this discussion with folks who always think taxing more is a good idea.

My first frustration with them: They rarely acknowledge that government spending is a problem.

My second: They aren’t willing to voluntarily give more money to government and lead by example, which I take to be a revealed preference. It reveals that they don’t truly believe the government is the best place to put their marginal dollars. But, it cost them nothing to demand that others pay more to gain adoration.

I have heard a few claim that they aren’t “as aggressive as they could be” when it comes to claiming deductions. Bless their hearts. It’s for the greater good that they don’t bend the tax laws.

My third: They don’t think ahead. What do they think happens if tax rates are raised and that actually results in more tax revenue (which is a big if, at least over multiple years)?  Do they believe government, with its long history of irresponsible spending, is going to put that extra revenue toward cutting the deficit?

Government will find a way to spend that, too, and continue to run deficits.

Which, gets us back to my first frustration and demonstrates to me that these folks really don’t think much. Rather, they only parrot what sounds good.

It’s easy to spot these folks. They liberally use the phrase “I think we should…” to lead off the edicts they feel they are entitled to impose on the rest of us without ever giving due consideration to chance that they may just be wrong.

They made their own pies

Wealth redistribution is often discussed in terms of “divvying up the pie fairly.” Nobody seems too interested in where exactly the pie came from.

Recently, I saw this on Twitter from the Ayn Rand Bot (thanks to @downtownjeff for RT that one):

When great industrialists made fortunes on a free market…they created new wealth—they did not take it from those who had not created it.

Great point.

‘Government is overhead’ follow-up

Last August, I wrote this post about how I think we should view government as an overhead expense. Yesterday, Edward wrote the following response to that post:

A very interesting post. I agree with your premise that government is overhead. However, if you look at government expenditures relative to GDP, they are lower than the average overhead rates of successful companies. Currently this rate is 19 percent or so (gov/gdp) and for companies this number is in the high twenties. Why is it that anti-tax folks presume that the correct level for our national enterprise is even lower than the faultless private sector can achieve?

This is my response to Edward.

The Federal government is not the only overhead in the economy. It’s a piece of it. Comparing Federal government spending to all business overhead is an apples-to-oranges comparison.

For example, all government — Federal, state and local — is part of overhead. According to this graph, all government spending makes up nearly 40% of GDP, which is more than ten percentage points higher than Edward’s ‘high twenties’ benchmark.

And still, all government is only a part of the economic overhead. For example, all the overhead tied to successful companies that Edward mentions, is also economic overhead.

Also, anything we do to comply with the government is overhead. For example, the time and money you and the companies you deal with spend to keep records and prepare your taxes — at all levels — is economic overhead that does not show up in government spending.  That’s time or money that we could have spent doing something productive, like cleaning our toilets.

Edward then asked a question that I’m really glad he asked:

Why is it that anti-tax folks presume that the correct level for our national enterprise is even lower than the faultless private sector can achieve?

First, as I pointed out above, economic overhead is higher than the ‘faultless private sector’.

Second, and more important, folks of my political persuasion don’t believe the private sector is faultless, as Edward suggests. Far from it. I’d guess the failure rate of government and private sector is about the same. Why wouldn’t it be? Both are run by humans after all.  Are the humans in government less fallible than the humans in the private sector, or vice versa? No.

One reason we favor the private sector is the difference in how it and government naturally respond to failure. The private sector is better in this regard, though not perfect.

The private sector — you, Edward and I — reward organizations that provide us with stuff we value by buying that stuff and we punish the others by not buying their stuff.

When it comes to government, that success/fail feedback isn’t quite as strong, and sometimes it’s the opposite of what it should be.

For example, for years the answer to “Public schools are failing!” was “Public schools need more money!”

This sounded reasonable to a lot of folks. I bet those same folks would scoff if “Public schools” was  replaced in those two sentences with “Enron”.

We realize that giving more money to the corrupt leaders of Enron so it could try to “fix its problems” and save some jobs would have made no sense.  Those corrupt leaders would have blown that money on themselves.

The market clobbered Enron’s stock and put it out of business long before the government even figured out what was going on.

We realized that the best thing was for Enron to go out of business. The market naturally stripped the fraudsters running Enron of their power. Its failure caused some painful collateral damage to people down the totem pole, but it also taught a generation of people valuable lessons in prudence, investment diversification and ‘if it sounds too good to be true…”  And, all this happened without taking the whole economy with it. Markets naturally isolated the disturbance.

This wouldn’t be the case a few years later when government actually encouraged fraudulent practices in home lending.

I also believe that the success/feedback loop is weak in overhead functions, whether those functions are in private companies or government.

I’ve been a part of overhead of private organizations most of my career. I’ve witnessed this from the inside. Strong underlying businesses can feed crony, corrupt and political bureaucracies in the overhead departments, precisely because the success/fail feedback loop is weak.

It wasn’t a stretch for me to recognize that government also had this success/fail feedback problem.

Again, that is precisely the reason government tends to grow in good times and bad and is one reason why anti-tax folks would like to minimize government and overhead.

Politicians tell you they can solve your problems if you vote for them and allow them to spend your money (or the rich guy’s money) and too many people believe them.

Bottom-up experimentation

The nice thing about having 50 states is that we get to experiment with policies and see what works and what doesn’t.

As individuals, it’s nice to have choices, too. If you’re not happy with your state, rather than struggle to convince more people to vote with you, you can just choose to move to another state that has more attractive policies.

In the Wall Street Journal today, Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore take advantage of the information we have from the 50 experiments on tax policies to build a persuasive case that lower taxes is good for everyone. I recommend reading, A 50-State Tax Lesson for the President.  Here’s a good snippet:

Every year for the past 40, the states without income taxes had faster output growth (measured on a decadal basis) than the states with the highest income taxes. In 1980, for example, there were 10 zero-income-tax states. Over the decade leading up to 1980, those states grew 32.3 percentage points faster than the 10 states with the highest tax rates. Job growth was also much higher in the zero-tax states. The states with the nine highest income tax rates had no net job growth at all, and seven of those nine managed to lose jobs.

Then there’s the question of in-migration from state to state—or how people vote with their feet. As common sense would dictate, people try to move from anti-growth states and cities to more welcoming climates. There are relevant factors other than tax policy, of course (as in North Dakota today, where the oil boom has brought about the lowest unemployment rate in the nation), but in general the most popular destination states don’t have income taxes. That’s as true recently as it was 40 years ago.

Over the past decade, states without an income tax have seen 58% higher population growth than the national average, and more than double the growth of states with the highest income tax rates. Such interstate migration left Texas with four new congressional seats this year and spanked New York and Ohio with a loss of two seats each.