Friday, October 27, 2017

Economists and taxes

My last post on taxes continued the question, who bears the burden of the corporate tax? Will a reduction in corporate taxes benefit stockholders or workers? It was a fun technical discussion.

But the whole time I want to scream: That is the wrong question! And the public economists job should be to scream from the rafters, that is the wrong question!  By just accepting the question, we are doomed to bad answers.

The public, and politicians, analyze taxes entirely through the lens of who gains and who loses. Income redistribution, yes, but also redistribution from renters to homeowners, married to unmarried, young to old, city dwellers to farmers, Texans to Californians, and so on. The political and popular discussion is about taxES, and who pays what.

Economists serve best when they offer thoughts outside the standard left-right partisan divide. Our first function should be always to remind people that marginal tax rates matter to the economy not taxes. 

Our second insight is always to analyze things comprehensively. The Federal income tax is not what counts, the entire wedge between work and consumption matters. Whether the corporate tax is progressive or not does not matter, whether the overall tax code is progressive (plus the overall spending code, and forced cross-subsidy code!) matters.   Don't tax wine over beer to redistribute; tax goods evenly and achieve progressivity through a progressive income (or better, consumption) tax, or spend money on programs to help people whose distress is correlated (imperfectly) with beer drinking.

Economists may feel their moral sentiments about redistribution are really important. But we have little professional reason to argue our feelings are better than anyone else's. What we can argue is, if you'r going to do more or less redistribution, do it efficiently and comprehensively.

In this context, the current tax reform proposal, and its instant dismissal from self-identified Democratic economists, echoing political rhetoric, is a deep disappointment.

The economists' tax reform starts with a detailed breakdown by income. (I'm caving to political reality that our nation is obsessed with income, not more meaningful measures of economic advantage and disadvantage.) Then, we create a tax reform in which each group pays the same amount (ideally, bears the same burden), but trades lower marginal rates for fewer deductions, exemptions, and for the reduction or elimination of taxes that either highly distort economic activity or lead to lots of inefficient avoidance  (corporate, rates of return, estate).

In short, we aim for a revenue-neutral, redistribution-neutral, reform. We recognize that eventually tax rates must be high enough to cover spending. There isn't a big need to argue over Laffer effects. Even if scored as statically revenue neutral, when the economy booms, revenue flows in, and we have paid off the debt we can start lowering rates. We recognize that if the structure if the tax reform is fixed, we can later continue to argue over the right amount of redistribution.

1986 came close. It wasn't perfect. But at least the rhetoric was this, and politicians explained this goal to the public. You will pay the same taxes, but at lower rates for fewer deductions, and the economy will grow. And lo, it did.

For thirty-one years, we have waited to finish the job. As the tax code grew more complex, with higher statutory rates and more deductions, we waited to redo the job. Reform proposal came and went, with at least a nod to this amount of economic sense.

But no more. Now tax policy is all redistribution all the time. Democratic politicians have decided that their mantra is "tax cuts for the rich." Well, a slogan is a slogan. More sadly, self-identified democratic economists echo this mantra, and little other. Anytime you're arguing one side's talking point or another, you're doing little to illuminate a discussion.

Each provision is examined in isolation for its redistributive impact. It's profoundly hypocritical of course.  Tax deductions are indeed a "tax cut for the rich" since people in the 40% marginal bracket who itemize get a lot more than Joe and Jane down in the lower brackets. But you hear either silence, or pretzel logic defense, such as the New York Times defense of the profoundly regressive deduction for state and local taxes.

I was disappointed at both the rhetoric and the small progress of the administration's proposal's to date. Yes, cutting the corporate rate is a good idea. But they don't even try to argue for marginal rate reductions or incentives. The buzzword is to give "tax cuts to help the middle class," which the left can then argue is a "lie" or not. Once you fall for redistributionist rhetoric, once you say that tax policy is all about giving the right people more and the wrong people less money, I think the hope for a tax reform that actually gets the economy going is dim.

The holy trinity was off the table from the start -- home mortgage interest deduction, charitable deduction, and employer-provided health deduction. The fourth horseman of the apocalypse, the deduction for state  and local taxes, is in danger. (Sorry for mixing metaphors!) This is like a wayward husband saying, "sure, I'll clean up my act. However, the drinking, gambling, and smoking are off the table." The corporate tax reduction does not seem to be coming with a serious cleanup of the thousands of deductions and extenders, each catnip to the lobbyists who keep them in place.

The political challenge for a reform is to say to each group, "you're going to give up your deduction, yes even interest on future home mortgages. But, your rates will go down so much that you will end up paying no more overall, and as the economy grows you will pay less. I want your help holding the fort against those who will demand their deductions and subsidies." That's a deal that pretty much held together in 1986. But if we go into the negotiation saying "oh, and by the way the big three are getting theirs unscathed," and "therefore really big rate reductions are off the table," then the hope of putting that coalition together is gone. It's  a free for all, call your congressperson and make sure you keep yours.

The bottom line: I support the current tax proposal, as incomplete and flawed as it is. It is a step in the right direction. We get the corporate tax rates down to those common in that low-tax free-market nirvana, Europe. It is not, however, 1986 on its own.

I do not support the rhetoric. "Tax cuts" do not work absent spending cuts. Cuts in distorting marginal tax rates matter. The people in charge must surely understand this, so the choice to market it as "tax cuts for the middle class" represents, I think, an unwise rhetorical choice.  The American people are smart enough to understand this, and playing redistribution, bidding for support with handouts, is not a winning game.

Moreover, the sense I have from talking to people, less enshrined in economic theory, is that massive tax complexity and uncertainty are larger drags on growth than a stable simple but high tax rate would be. I see "simplification" in the rhetoric, but no substantial simplification in the body of the proposal. It leaves most of the "finish 1986" job undone, and unless magic happens on entitlement reform, this tax bill will be undone soon as the deficit widens. If it is all we get, and if it is passed as Obamacare was passed, with no votes from the other party, it will not give the sense of permanence necessary to induce a lot of investment and growth.

It needs to be a first step, not this generation's tax reform for the next 31 years. I understand the politics. Republican leadership needs to do something. If Democrats will unite in "resistance" to a bill celebrating mom and apple pie, they need to do something on their own. If they do something, and look like winners, they can get support to do more. But it must be that first step. And even so, I would have hoped for some more courage in the first step. Enshrining the triplet of deductions without  a fight, not even mentioning marginal rates, makes it ever harder to remove them in a second step.

And I wish I were hearing a lot of this, and not just echoing the political line "tax cuts for the rich," from top economists more critical of the proposals.

Corporate tax burden again

This post continues the question, who bears the burden of the corporate tax? The next post will have broader thoughts on the tax plan and economists' reaction to it.

I'm responding in many ways to Larry Summers, who weighed in on the corporate taxes issue in a Washington Post oped. He eloquently and concisely makes most of the arguments floating around now against the corporate tax cut, so I don't have to wade through the venom in Krugman posts to find nuggets of economic sense that one discuss on objective grounds.

This is a long post, so let me summarize the conclusions

1) Even if stockholders do bear the burden of the corporate tax, that is entirely the stockholders who are there when the tax is announced. Current stockholders bear little or no burden.

2) The novel "monopoly" argument is seriously deficient.

3) Even if stockholders bear the burden of the corporate tax, the corporate tax is an insanely inefficient way to make a more progressive tax code.

So who does bear the burden of the corporate tax? 

I think every economist in this debate admits, if some reluctantly, that "corporations" pay no taxes. As an accounting matter, every cent corporations pay comes from higher prices, lower wages, or lower payments to shareholders. The only question is which one.  And indirect general equilibrium effects are central.  The question is not just, how do corporations respond immediately, but how do wages, prices, and capital in the whole economy adjust. "Make corporations pay their fair share" is just nonsense.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hall graphs

Bob Hall gave a lovely talk on wages, and how a reduction in the cost of capital from tax or regulatory reform might raise capital, and by doing so raise labor productivity and hence wages.  The graphs speak for themselves.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Greg's algebra

How much do workers gain from a capital tax cut? This question has reverberated in oped pages and blogosphere, with the usual vitriol at anyone who might even speculate that a dollar in tax cuts could raise wages by more than a dollar. (I vaguely recall more blogosphere discussion which I now can't find, I welcome links from commenters. Greg was too polite to link to it.)

Greg Mankiw posted a really lovely little example of how this is, in fact, a rather natural result.

However, Greg posted it as a little puzzle, and the average reader may not have taken pen and paper out to solve the puzzle. (I will admit I had to take out pen and paper too.) So, here is the answer to Greg's puzzle, with a little of the background fleshed out.

The production technology is \[Y=F(K,L)=f(k)L;k\equiv K/L\] where the second equality defines \(f(k)\). For example \(K^{\alpha}L^{1-\alpha}=(K/L)^{\alpha}L\) is of this form. Firms maximize \[ \max\ (1-\tau)\left[ F(K,L)-wL \right] -rK \] \[ \max\ (1-\tau)\left[ f\left( \frac{K}{L}\right) L-wL \right] -rK \]

Friday, October 20, 2017

Taylor for Fed

I might as well share with blog readers my favorite for the Fed: John Taylor.

A preface is in order though.

Monetary policy is not, right now, the flaming hot mess that characterizes so much of the Federal Government. And all the candidates are good.

The Fed's official mandate is low interest rates, low inflation, and maximum employment -- as large as monetary policy can make it. Interest, inflation, and unemployment are each lower than they have been in living memory. The stock market is high yet surprisingly quiet (low volatility).

One may question whether this is because or despite the Fed. (My view, largely despite.) One may quibble about low growth and labor force participation. One may worry about over-regulation, though Congress mandated most of it. But by the standards of the Fed's mandate, we must admit that the outcomes we see are fine. In any other branch of the Federal government, performance like this relative to mandates, together with a tradition of reappointment, would argue for Ms. Yellen's swift reappointment.

Ms. Yellen's critics, such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, are forced to argue that she might fall short faced with future challenges. She might keep interest rates too low for too long, and let inflation pick up. (Inflation is still nowhere in sight.) She might raise interest rates too fast if the economy does start to grow more, in fear of inflation, and choke off supply side growth. (Yes, the two criticisms are inconsistent.) She might not handle the next crisis well.

Indeed. And taking the measure of people and trying to figure out how they will deal with future challenges is just what this process is supposed to be about. One can also complain that the process of monetary policy has too much discretion, too many speeches, and needs a more stable rules based approach. I have complained that the Fed is massively over-regulating finance, and this will cause a less competitive and efficient financial system in the future.

But recognize that all this is hypothetical, and there is little to complain right now about in the outcomes we tasked the Fed to achieve.

Still, let us suppose Mr. Trump decides he wants a new person at the Fed. Why John?

John is, quite simply, the top monetary economist of his generation. He understands the theory, he understands the empirical work, he deeply knows the history. He took the baton from Milton Friedman.

How does inflation work anyway?

Monetary policy, central banking and inflation are hard. It's well to remember that. Today's blog post adds up a few things that seem like they're obvious but are not.

Inflation is hard. 

Central bankers are puzzled at persistently low inflation.  From WSJ,
Ms. Yellen said, as the “biggest surprise in the U.S. economy this year has been inflation.” 
“My best guess is that these soft readings will not persist, and with the ongoing strengthening of labor markets, I expect inflation to move higher next year,” Ms. Yellen said, adding that “most of my colleagues on the [interest-rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee] agree.”
Of course, they've been expecting that for several years now.  And she seems fully aware that they may be wrong once again:
She cautioned, however, that U.S. central bankers recognize recent low inflation could reflect something more persistent. “The fact that a number of other advanced economies are also experiencing persistently low inflation understandably adds to the sense among many analysts that something more structural may be going on,”  
"Something more structural" is a pretty vague statement, for the head of an agency in charge of inflation, that has hundreds of economists looking at this question for years now! That's not criticism. Inflation is hard.

Why is it so hard? The standard story goes, as there is less "slack" in product or labor markets, there is pressure for prices and wages to go up. So it stands to perfect reason that with unemployment low and after years of tepid but steady growth, with quantitative measures of "slack" low, that inflation should rise, as Ms. Yellen's first quote opines.

That paragraph contains a classic economic fallacy, that of composition; the confusion of relative prices and the level of prices and wages overall. If labor markets get "tight," companies finding it hard to find workers, then yes, one expects wages to rise. But one expects wages to rise relative to prices. You only tempt workers to move to your company by offering them wages that allow them to buy more. Similarly, if there is strong demand for a company's products, its prices will rise. But those prices rise relative to other prices and to wages. Offering a company higher prices when its wages, costs, and competitor's prices are all rising does nothing to get it to produce more.

So, in fact, standard economics makes no prediction at all about the relationship between inflation -- the level of prices and wages overall; or (better) the value of money -- and the tightness or slackness of product and labor markets! The fabled Phillips curve started as a purely empirical observation, with no theory.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Tyler: Equity financed banking is possible!

Tyler Cowen wrote an extended blog post on bank leverage, regulation and economic growth on Marginal Revolution. Tyler thinks the "liquidity transformation" of banks is essential, and that we will not be able to avoid a highly levered banking system, despite the regulatory bloat this requires, and the occasional financial crisis. As blog readers may know, I disagree.

A few choice quotes from Tyler, though I encourage you to read his entire argument:
I think of the liquidity transformation of banks in terms of...Transforming otherwise somewhat illiquid activities into liquid deposits. That boosts risk-taking capacities, boosts aggregate investment, and makes depositors more liquid in real terms.  
Requiring significantly less bank leverage, at any status quo margin, probably will bring a recession. 
...many economies are stuck with the levels of leverage they have, for better or worse. 
I fear ... that we will have to rely on the LOLR function more and more often. 
I don’t find the idea of 40% capital requirements, combined with an absolute minimum of regulation, absurd on the face of it. But I don’t see how we can get there, even for the future generations.
Depressing words for a libertarian, usually optimistic about markets.

This is a good context to briefly summarize why "narrow", or (my preferred) equity-financed banking is in fact reasonable, and could happen relatively quickly.

Tyler's main concern is that people need a lot of "liquidity" -- think money-like bank accounts -- and that unless banks can issue a lot of deposits, backed by mortgages and similar assets, bad things will happen -- people won't have the "liquidity" they need, and businesses can't get the investment they need.

Here are a few capsule counter arguments.  In particular, they are reasons why the economy of, say 1935 or even 1965 might have required highly levered banks, but we do not.

1) We're awash in government debt.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Cowen on Fed Chair

Tyler Cowen has a good thought on the Fed chair question. The next chair has to be a good politician, in all the positive senses of that word, more than a good technocrat:
The Fed has functioned as a technocracy for a long time, but might the future bring a Fed that is irrevocably split between competing factions? ...the future could bring a Fed divided over how much it should assert its political independence, how much it should assume responsibility for possible asset bubbles, how it should respond to an international financial crisis, or how much it should align with an “America First” mindset. .... 
The backdrop is this: Ben Bernanke’s Fed, with its bailouts during the financial crisis, ate up a lot of the Fed’s political capital, though arguably for the worthwhile cause of saving the financial system. As a result, the Fed no longer has its pre-crisis credibility. As long as the American economy is on the path of a slow and steady recovery, with relatively high asset prices, that’s bearable. 
But the next time major economic volatility comes around, Fed decisions will be scrutinized and politicized like never before. This will happen in the mainstream media, on social media, and perhaps by our very own president in his tweets or offhand remarks. The key factor for any Fed leader will be the ability to maintain and project a coherent, unified voice at the Fed, so that the Fed remains an island of relative sanity in the polarized nation. This will be a problem of crisis management, but unlike Bernanke’s crisis management it will be fought first and foremost in the trenches of public opinion.
(The open vice chair positions are good ones for technocrats, who need to be able to translate the abstruse language of the staff.)

My related thought: We focus a lot on interest rate policy, but most of what the Fed does these days is financial regulation and supervision, and those decisions are likely much more important going forward.  The challenging question there is "macro-prudential." Is it the Fed's job to worry about "asset bubbles," and to micromanage "credit booms" and their eventual busts? Or is it better for the Fed to limit its authority, to preserve independence, credibility, and insulation from political demands for action and political criticism of its actions, by pronouncing there are economic events beyond its scope?

Moreover, if the Fed is to limit the scope of its financial dirigisme, it had better do so beforehand not afterwards. If everyone expects the Fed to set prices and bail out hither and yon, and then the Fed gets religion (perhaps under relentless political pressure), the crisis will be so much worse. Bernanke also benefitted from acting far beyond expectations of what he would or could do. The next chair will be in the opposite situation, have to set limits of crisis reaction, and disappoint expectations. It's much better to do that ahead of time -- and much harder for an institution like the Fed to scale back people's expectations, and to renounce and pre-commit against attractive-sounding powers.


Narayana Kocherlakota predicts Jerome Powell. In line with some of the above thoughts, Narayana's view basically is that monetary policy is doing fine. Low unemployment, low inflation, low interest rates, low macro and financial volatility. Mission accomplished. Moreover, if there is a hawk vs. dove question, President Trump looks likely to be on the dove side of it. (Sadly, I doubt that rules and precommitment vs. discretion is ringing in the appointment decision.) However, supervision and regulation is the key issue going forward, and Narayana views Powell as Yellen monetary policy plus a regulatory/supervisory reform.

(I learned to use both words from Ms. Yellen's Jackson hole speech. Regulation is rules, supervision is sending Fed people to look over banks' shoulders. It's a good distinction.)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Atlas on Health

My colleague Scott Atlas has a superb oped in today's (October 4) Wall Street Journal. Instead of just arguing about health insurance and how we, via the government, will subsidize and pay for health care demand, let's fix the equally catastrophically broken health supply system.
"Republicans have now failed twice to repeal and replace ObamaCare. But their whole focus has been wrong. The debate centered, like ObamaCare, on the number of people with health insurance. A more direct path to broadening access would be to reduce the cost of care. This means creating market conditions long proven to bring down prices while improving quality—empowering consumers to seek value, increasing the supply of care, and stimulating competition."
This is the kind of out of the box, out of the usual left-right mudslinging idea that might someday spark a bipartisan reform, if our legislators could someday get past scoring symbolic points and sit down to actually fix something. (I have written similar ideas, but nowhere near as clearly, or as based in lots of fact-based scholarship and detail as Scott has.)

VAT -- full text

Now that 30 days have passed, the full text of the WSJ oped advocating a VAT instead of all other federal taxes. Previous post with extra comments.

By John H. Cochrane
Sept. 4, 2017 2:38 p.m. ET

Soon the Trump administration and congressional leaders will unveil their tax-reform proposal. Reports indicate the proposal will include some reductions in corporate and personal rates and the end of some tax deductions. But true reform is likely to be stymied by the usual interests, by those who see the tax code primarily as a way to transfer income to or from favored or disfavored groups, and by politicians who dole out deductions, exemptions and subsidies to supporters.

So if the process stays its normal course, don’t expect the complex and dysfunctional U.S. tax code to change much. But if our leaders were to attempt a really fundamental reform, they could break the political logjam. Changes must be simple, understandable and attractive to voters. And only fundamental reform paired with deregulation can hope to raise economic growth to 3% or more.

The best way to do this is to eliminate entirely the personal and corporate income tax, estate tax and all other federal taxes, and to implement instead a national value-added tax—essentially a national sales tax.