Tag Archives: loopholes

Affording My Brave New World

An even longer one. Sorry.


Even if you found yesterday’s post persuasive, a UBI seems politically impossible and cost prohibitive.

Politically, shifting from a paternalistic and judgmental “welfare” system to one awarding benefits based upon membership in the polity would not only require a significant culture change, but would be vigorously opposed by the large number of companies and individuals whose interests are served by America’s current patchwork of programs, subsidies and policies.

Then there’s the issue of cost.

Although Americans’ deeply-ingrained belief that people are poor because they made bad choices or didn’t work hard enough continues to be a barrier to a more generous and equitable social safety net, the most significant impediment to passage of a Universal Basic Income is the argument that has consistently been made to thwart universal healthcare– that America, rich as the country is, simply cannot afford such a Brave New World. This argument flies in the face of evidence from counties with far more robust safety nets: In 2012, the U.S. spent an estimated 19.4% of GDP on social expenditures, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Denmark spent 30.5%, Sweden 28.2% and Germany 26.3%. All of these countries have a lower central government debt to GDP ratio than the United States.

While specific economic recommendations aren’t possible in the absence of concrete, “fleshed out” policy proposals, it’s possible to identify ways in which universal programs might be financed, and how they might affect economic growth. The short answer is that both the UBI and some version of Medicare-for-All could be funded by a combination of higher taxes, savings through cost containment, economies of scale, reduction of welfare bureaucracy, the elimination or reform of existing subsidies, and meaningful reductions in America’s bloated defense budget.

Debates over taxes rarely if ever consider the extent to which individual taxpayers actually save money when government relieves them of the expense of a service. Even now, requiring citizens to make out-of-pocket payments for such things as scavenger services (in lieu of municipal garbage collection), or private police and fire protection or schooling, would vastly exceed the amounts individual households pay in taxes for those services. Low-income citizens, of course, would be unable to afford them.

The American public is positively allergic to taxes, even when a majority financially benefits from them. If low-and-middle income American families did not have to pay out-of-pocket for health insurance, and could count on a stipend of $1000/month, most would personally be much better off, even if they experienced increases in their tax rates. They would likely see other savings as well: for example, if the U.S. had national health care, auto and homeowners’ insurance rates could be expected to decline, because insurance companies wouldn’t have to include the costs of medical care in the event of an accident or injury in their actuarial calculations. Research also predicts the country would see a decline in crime, child and spousal abuse and similar behaviors that have been found to increase under the stresses associated with poverty. (The extent of such reductions and the cost savings attributable to them is speculative, but a substantial level of abatement seems likely.)

Most tax increases, obviously, would be levied against those capable of paying them. Americans used to believe in progressive taxation, and not simply to raise revenue. Taxes on the very wealthy were originally conceived as correctives, like tobacco taxes, that should be judged by their social impact as well as their ability to generate revenue. High tax rates on the rich were intended to reduce the vast accumulations of money that serve to give a handful of people a level of power deemed incompatible with democracy.

A recent report from the Guardian calculated the results of (relatively modest) increases in taxes on the very rich.

Right now they pay about 30% of their income in taxes. Increasing their overall average tax rate by about 10 percentage points would generate roughly $3tn in revenue over the next 10 years, while still leaving the 1% with an average post-tax annual income of more than $1.4m. (That new tax rate, by the way, would be about the same as the overall rate the richest 1% paid back in the 1940s and 1950s.)

As indicated, in addition to reducing inequality, progressive taxation does raise money, and there is widespread agreement that the very rich aren’t paying their share. At the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman caused a mini-sensation by telling the uber-wealthy assembled there than the “real issue” in the battle for equality is tax avoidance and the failure of rich people to pay what they should. Momentum is clearly building for more progressive tax rates than the United States currently imposes.

There is also growing anger directed at the generosity of various tax credits and deductions, aka “loopholes,” that allow immensely profitable corporations to reduce their tax liabilities (or escape them completely). The use of offshore tax havens and other creative methods of eluding payment devised by sophisticated tax lawyers employed by the uber-wealthy is an ongoing scandal.

Real-world experiments like Governor Sam Brownback’s tax cuts in Kansas confirm that, contrary to the ideological arguments against imposing higher taxes on wealthy “makers,” high marginal rates don’t depress economic growth and cutting taxes doesn’t trigger an increase in either job creation or economic growth. In 1947, the top tax rate was 86.45% on income over $200,000; in 2015, it was 39.60% on income over $466,950. During that time span, researchers have found very little correlation between economic growth and higher or lower marginal rates. In 2012, the Congressional Research Service published a research study that rebutted the presumed inverse correlation between tax rates and economic growth.

Climate change is affecting America’s weather, increasing the urgency of efforts to reduce carbon emissions and increase the development and use of clean energy sources. Yet the United States spends twenty billion dollars a year subsidizing fossil fuels, including 2.5 billion per year specifically earmarked for searching out new fossil fuel resources, at a time in human history when the development of those resources is contraindicated. According to Oil Change International, permanent tax breaks to the US fossil fuel industry are seven times larger than those for renewable energy. At current prices, the production of nearly half of all U.S. oil would not be economically viable but for federal and state subsidies.

During the 2015-2016 election cycle oil, gas, and coal companies spent $354 million in campaign contributions and lobbying, and received $29.4 billion in federal subsidies in total over those same years – an 8,200% return on investment. The OCI report concluded that: “Removing these highly inefficient [fossil fuel] subsidies – which waste billions of dollars propping up an industry incompatible with safe climate limits – should be the first priority of fiscally responsible climate, energy, and tax reform policies.” Not incidentally, eliminating these subsidies would free up funds for other uses, including the social safety net.

Then there are farm subsidies– another 20 Billion dollars annually. Arguments for and against terminating these subsidies are more complicated than for fossil fuel subsidies, but the case for means-testing them is strong.  In 2017, the USDA released a report showing that approximately half the money went to farmers with household incomes over $150,000. As Tamar Haspel wrote in the Washington Post, “That means billions of dollars, every year, go to households with income nearly three times higher than the median U.S. household income, which was $55,775 that year.”

Farm subsidies were created during the Depression in order to keep family farms afloat and ensure a stable national food supply. Since 2008, however, the top 10 farm subsidy recipients have each received an average of $18.2 million – that’s $1.8 million annually, $150,000 per month, or $35,000 a week. These farmers received more than 30 times the average yearly income of U.S. families. Millionaires are benefitting from a program originally established to protect family farms during times of economic distress.

Most citizens understand why government should not be providing billions of dollars to support companies that make climate change worse, or adding to the bottom lines of already-profitable corporate farms. Efforts to cut the military budget encounter genuine anxieties about endangering national security, as well as more parochial concerns from lawmakers representing districts with economies heavily dependent upon military bases or contractors. Those concerns may explain why U.S. military spending in 2017 was over 30% higher in real terms than it was in 2000.

The United States will spend $716 billion in 2019, and annually spends more than twice what Russia, China, Iran and North Korea spend collectively.

Critics of the military budget make three basic arguments: the budget is much bigger than threats to U.S. security require; very little of the money appropriated supports efforts to fight terrorist groups that pose the real threat in today’s world; and the countries that might threaten America  militarily are historically few and weak. (Russia, for example, has an energy-dependent economy roughly the size of Italy’s. According to America’s intelligence community, its efforts to destabilize the U.S. are made through social media, assaults by “bots,” and hacks into vulnerable data repositories, not military action.)

The massive amounts that America spends on its military are used to support bases and troops that are ill-suited to the conduct of modern-day defense. (Even the Pentagon has estimated that base capacity exceeds need by 20%) The existence of this enormous military capacity also creates an incentive to substitute military intervention for the exercise of diplomacy and soft power (as the Japanese proverb warns, when the tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.)

An argument can also be made that we are supporting a military establishment that is prepared to fight the last war, not the next one.

As one military expert has written, “counterterrorism is poorly served by manpower-intensive occupational wars, which rarely produce stability, let alone democracy.” He argues the U.S. could safely cut the military budget by 25%; even if he is wrong about the size of the savings that could be realized, knowledgable observers suggest that modernizing military operations, restraining America’s all-too-frequent interventions into the affairs of other countries, and focusing on actual threats would translate into very significant savings.

The elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, and the reduction of farm subsidies and military expenditures would allow lawmakers to achieve substantial savings while pursuing important policy goals. The government ought not be abetting climate change or further enriching wealthy Americans, and it is past time to reconfigure national defense to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

Andy Stern lists a number of ways a UBI might be funded, including “cashing out” all or most of the existing 126 welfare programs that currently cost taxpayers $1 trillion a year. The UBI would make many if not most of these programs unnecessary.

Stein also lists a number of targeted tax proposals, including a Value Added Tax (VAT), that have been suggested by economists supportive of a UBI. As he points out, these and other proposals constitute a “menu” of possibilities. (Another example: If the UBI allows workers to cover basic essentials, taxpayers would be relieved of the need to supplement the wages of McDonalds and Walmart workers,  saving government some ten billion dollars annually.) If and when America has a Congress that is serious about reforming both our democratic decision-making structures and our social infrastructure, that menu provides a number of options from which to choose.

America’s problem is a lack of political will to confront the special interest groups that currently feed at the government trough, not a lack of realistic funding mechanisms.

“Tax” Is Not A Four-Letter Word

As Congress takes up consideration of the tax bill of 2017–what the President and GOP have labeled “tax reform,” and what impartial observers describe as tax cuts mostly for the wealthy–it’s time for a re-run of my rant on the subject of taxation.

I’ve been particularly incensed by the appearance in Indiana of a TV spot aimed at Senator Joe Donnelly. Donnelly is a Democrat (moderate, of the Hoosier variety) considered vulnerable in 2018. The spot features a lovely young woman talking about the importance of tax reform–no specifics, no definitions, just a plea to Donnelly to support “fair” taxation.

I’m all for fair taxation, and I’m willing to bet everyone reading this is, too. I’m also willing to bet that definitions of a “fair” tax system vary widely (the devil, as we all know, being in the details). The one thing we should all recognize, however–whatever our personal opinions about “fairness”–is the difference between tax reform and tax cuts. 

As Jared Bernstein recently wrote in an article in the American Prospect,

In D.C. tax-debate parlance, “tax reform” means something specific: cutting tax rates and broadening the tax base. Rate reductions lose revenue, but you make it up by closing loopholes, exemptions, and favorable treatments of one type of income over another, thus broadening the income upon which taxes are levied.

As Bernstein points out (and we all know), most loopholes are the result of lobbying by special interests, not some disinterested analysis of their utility, making them very hard to eliminate. Even more pernicious is the belief–an article of faith in the GOP–that lower rates will generate more economic activity and thus more tax revenue. There is absolutely no evidence supporting this theory, and considerable evidence rebutting it, but it refuses to die.

In the current tax debate—no surprise—the Trump administration and the Republican Congress are predicting that their tax cuts will return large growth effects. They claim their plan—and to be clear, there is, as of yet, no plan—will increase the real GDP growth rate by at least half, from around 2 percent to 3 percent or 4 percent, and that this increase will offset much of the costs of the cuts.

This was the same story told by Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II, and in every case the results belied the claims. The most recent example, from the state of Kansas, is particularly germane to this discussion, because it reveals flaws in the same ideas being bandied about by the current Congress.

Tax policy experts estimate that the measures being discussed would cost government $6.5 trillion in revenues over ten years, and dramatically increase the deficit the GOP pretends to care about.

The vast majority of the benefits of these measures accrue to the wealthiest households: Almost 50 percent of the cuts go to the top 1 percent, while 6 percent go to the middle fifth. About 27 percent of the gains go to the 120,000 families in the top tenth of the top 1 percent, whose average pretax income is $11 million.

If anything remotely like this package passes, it will exacerbate levels of inequality that already exceed those of the Gilded Age.

According to the Brookings Institute,

this tax reform plan gives a lift to growing inequality, and signals that the GOP is okay with persistent poverty and with the inability of one-third of us to feed our kids. It’s time to ask ourselves, how do we craft tax reform for the long term—reform that tackles American poverty and inequality and creates the conditions for inclusive economic growth?

I would suggest that genuine tax reform begins with the recognition that “tax” is not a four-letter word. Taxes are the dues we pay for social peace and stability, for the myriad of services that modern societies require and their citizens demand, and from which we all benefit.

We currently have a system that incentivizes the “haves” to evade their responsibility to pay a fair share, or even to discuss what a fair share would look like. Until we have that conversation, we may see tax cuts–mostly for the already privileged– but we won’t see anything resembling genuine tax reform.



That Terrible Corporate Tax Burden

One of the reasons I became a faithful reader of Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars is that he disdains the euphemisms that “polite” commentators use to convey their criticisms, and simply tells it like it is. A good example is a recent post about the “confusion”–or deliberate obfuscation–surrounding discussions of corporate tax rates.

As he began,

Republicans love to claim that America’s corporate taxes are the highest in the developed world. This is a lie. The marginal tax rates, up to 35%, are among the highest. The actual rates paid are a fraction of that. In fact, some of the most profitable companies in the world pay no federal taxes at all.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy used the tax information filed by  258 profitable Fortune 500 companies to analyze what those corporations actually paid. The companies chosen for the analysis collectively earned more than $3.8 trillion in profits over the eight-year period of the analysis.

Although the top corporate rate is 35 percent, the study found that 100 of the companies  — nearly 40 percent — paid zero taxes in at least one year between 2008 and 2015.

Eighteen, including General Electric, International Paper, Priceline.com and PG&E, incurred a total federal income tax bill of less than zero over the entire eight-year period — meaning they received rebates.

This result was entirely legal. The companies simply took advantage of numerous loopholes in the tax code. Some, including American Electric Power, Con Ed and Comcast, qualified for accelerated depreciation. That allowed them to write off most of the costs of  new equipment and machinery well before it wore out–or in “tax speak,” well before before the end of its “useful life.”

Facebook, Aetna and Exxon Mobil, among others, saved billions in taxes by giving options to top executives to buy stock in the future at a discount. The companies then get to deduct their huge payouts as a loss. Facebook used excess tax benefits from stock options to reduce its federal and state taxes by $5.78 billion from 2010 to 2015, the institute found.

As Ed reminds us, “In the 1950s, corporate taxes were about one-third of all federal revenue; today, it’s under 10%. And the burden is then transferred to individual taxpayers.”

Conservative economists will remind us that ultimately, individual consumers will pay corporate taxes–that the taxes companies pay will be factored into the prices of the goods they sell. And that is absolutely true. But it is a far fairer and much more honest way to do business.

The prices of consumer goods should reflect the actual cost of producing them, and taxes are–or should be– part of that cost. We don’t want the manufacturer who is “disposing” of his waste illegally to be able to undercut the prices of the guy who is following the rules, and we don’t want companies with more “creative” tax avoidance strategies to undercut competitors who are paying their fair share . Capitalist markets only work properly when pricing is honest.

Our current system doesn’t reward innovation; it rewards “game playing.” Lobbyists sneak arcane loopholes into our increasingly complicated tax code. Those loopholes further tilt the playing field, distorting market forces in ways that favor the companies that  can afford the lobbyists.

I’m all in favor of lowering the top marginal corporate tax rate, if we get rid of the loopholes at the same time. (We should start with those that provide an incentive for moving American businesses to off-shore tax havens–but we shouldn’t stop there.)

The current system allows corporations to whine about the tax rate in public, while making out like bandits behind the scenes. It’s dishonest, it’s anti-competitive, and it shifts the tax burden in ways that are unfair to individual taxpayers and a drag on the economy.

A responsible Congress would eliminate or dramatically reduce the loopholes and readjust the tax burden. Our Congress, however, is too busy making the system worse.