corporate income tax reform, corporate taxes, defense spending, estate taxes, government deficit, government spending, infrastructure, Investors Business Daily, Obama budget, Reason, Sequestration, stepped-up basis, tax inversion, Timothy Taylor
President Obama has thoughtfully dangled lots of freebies before the eyes of Americans in his proposed budget under the guise of “middle-class economics.” It’s not clear that the middle class will benefit over the long haul, but this certainly isn’t about forsaking present pleasure for future gain. It’s just about politics. Obama hopes his budget establishes a superior negotiating position with Republicans, and he hopes that the opposition to many of his giveaways will allow Democrats to tar the GOP as hard-hearted. In introducing his proposal, the president derided what he called the “mindless austerity” of the sequestration spending caps (which his budget would exceed by a mere $74 billion), but as Reason notes, the “sequestration process was the White House’s idea in the first place.”
Investor’s Business Daily has this to say in their editorial:
“The era of big government would be back with a vengeance. Obama wants a preposterous 7% spending hike this year for government agencies — with more nanny-state money for schools, early-childhood education, roads and bridges, child care, green energy and corporate welfare for manufacturers.”
All of these priorities are behaviorally non-neutral, heavily cross-subsidized and of questionable value, at best. Of course, everybody wants a high-speed rail line as long as the fare is heavily subsidized. Beyond that yearning, the poor state of American transportation infrastructure is something of a myth. Just as stupefying is the proposed increase in defense spending, which will end up as the most popular provision among hawks in Congress. From Reason:
“President Obama’s budget requests $561 billion for defense spending, which includes the biggest baseline Pentagon budget ever. Sequestration caps for military were already loosened from initial levels in a budget deal made in 2013. And the Pentagon has managed to keep spending freely on boondoggles like the Joint Strike Fighter—a $400 billion futuristic fighter that has serious trouble with basic functionality, like flying—and a program to build new nuclear bombers and subs expected to cost about $350 billion. This is not a picture of a fighting force that is desperately starving for cash.”
On the revenue side, the Obama budget would increase taxes by $1.6 trillion over 10 years. Some of the details are discussed here, including $200 billion in corporate tax reform. As explained by Timothy Taylor, the so-called reform is a hodge-podge of 67 different provisions. For the 2017 budget year, these would add revenue of about $19 billion, but when Taylor totals the top ten provision, those come to $49 billion. The $30 billion difference consists of various items such as “simplification and tax relief for small business,” which might represent sensible changes, and “incentives for manufacturing, research, and clean energy.” Those are tax breaks and subsidies. From Taylor: “Clearly, the temptation to redistribute the “special deductions, credits, and other tax preferences,” rather than ending them, remains strong.”
The current 35% U.S. corporate income tax rate is the highest in the industrialized world. The idea of corporate tax reform is to reduce the tax rate in exchange for eliminating various deductions, which is laudable in itself. Unfortunately, the Obama plan also proposes a tax on corporate profits earned and held abroad (not repatriated). Taylor explains the rub:
“Here, I’ll juse [sic] make the point that the U.S. is unique among the major economies in that it claims the right to tax the profits of U.S. corporations wherever in the world they are earned. Other countries only tax profits earned within their borders. Of course, this is one reason why U.S. companies sometimes seek to merge with a foreign firm and transfer their official ownership abroad. A foreign-controlled domestic company in the United States is taxed only on its U.S. profits; in contrast, if a company with the same structure is a U.S.-controlled firm, then the U.S. government claims the right to tax its foreign profits as well. This is a real issue for US corporate tax reform in a globalizing economy, and the approach in this budget document bascially just doubles down on going after revenue from abroad.”
Other tax increases proposed by Obama include an increase in the rate on dividends (already double-taxed) and capital gains (with its implicit inflation tax on wealth), capital gains taxation of assets at death (elimination of stepped-up basis), higher estate taxes, limits on itemized deductions, and several others. All of these complexities in the tax code could be eliminated entirely with real tax reform and simplification, but that would prevent the president’s beneficent “middle-class economics,” more appropriately called middle-class pandering. Higher taxes undermine economic growth: first, by reducing disposable income and spending, the traditional Keynesian explanation; second, and more fundamentally, by reducing incentives to work, invest and take risks that increase the economy’s productive potential over time. When it all plays out, a budget with a $1.6 trillion increase in taxes, no matter where the direct burden falls, will not help the middle class.
Finally, the Obama budget includes optimistic assumptions about economic growth. Even under that outlook, the budget deficit is expected to rise from $474 billion in 2016 to $687 billion in 2025. The debt will keep expanding, absorbing private saving, leaving a smaller pool of capital available for private investment.
The president’s efforts to grow the state apparatus continue with this budget proposal. It might be “toast” as a package, but the political bidding war continues. Much depends on the ability of Americans to resist the goodies dangled before them by the White House candyman. That much is required to reverse the ongoing slide into dependency on the state.