Alternative Minimum Corporate Tax, Brad Polumbo, Carried Interest, Chuck Schumer, CMS, Drug Price Controls, Eric Boehm, Fossil fuels, Green Energy, Inflation Reduction Act, IRS, Joe Biden, Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, Lois Lerner, Medicare Part D, Obamacare Subsidies, Private equity, Stock Buybacks, Sweat Equity, Tax Burden, Tax Enforcement, Tax Incidence, Wharton Economics, William C. Randolf
The “Inflation Reduction Act” (IRA) is about as fatuous a name for pork-barrel spending and taxes as its proponents could have dreamt up! But that’s the preposterous appellation given to the reconciliation bill congressional Democrats hope to approve. Are we to believe that Congress suddenly recognizes the inflationary effects of governments deficits? Well, the trouble is the projected revenue enhancements (taxes) and cost savings are heavily backloaded. It’s mostly spending up front, which is exactly how we got to this point. There are a number of provisions intended to increase domestic energy production in the hope of easing cost-push, supply-side price pressures. However, provisions relating to fossil fuel production are dependent on green energy projects in the same locales. So, even if we get more oil, we’ll still be pissing away resources on wind and solar technologies that will never be reliable sources of power. Even worse, the tax provisions in the bill will have burdens falling heavily on wage earners, despite the Administration’s pretensions of taxing only rich corporations and their shareholders.
The IRA (itself an irritating acronym) would add $433 billion of new federal outlays through 2031 (*investments*, because seemingly every federal outlay is an “investment” these days). At least that’s the deal that Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin agreed to. As the table below shows, these outlays are mostly for climate initiatives, but the figure includes almost $70 billion of extended Obamacare subsidies. There is almost $740 billion of revenue enhancements, which are weighted toward the latter half of the ten-year budget window.
The deal reduces the federal budget deficit by about $300 billion over ten years, but that takes a while… somewhat larger deficits are projected through 2026. I should note that the Congressional Budget Office has issued a new score this week that puts the savings at a much lower $102 billion. However, that “new” score does not reflect the changes demanded by Kyrsten Sinema (R-AZ).
Budget projections are usually dependent on assumptions about the duration of various measures, among many other things like economic growth. For example, the increased Obamacare subsidies are an extension, and the scoring assumes they end in 2026. It’s hard to believe they won’t be extended again when the time comes. Over ten years, that would cut the deficit reduction roughly in half.
The bill is laden with green energy subsidies intended to reduce CO2 emissions. They will accomplish little in that respect, but what the subsidies will do is enrich well-healed cronies while reducing the stability of the electric grid. Tax credits for electric vehicles will be utilized primarily by wealthier individuals, though there are tax credits for energy-efficient appliances and the like, which might benefit a broader slice of the population. And while there are a few provisions that might address supplies of fossil fuels and investment in nuclear energy, these are but a sop to Joe Manchin and misdirection against critics of Joe Biden’s disastrous energy policies.
Should we be impressed that the Democrats have proposed a bill that raises revenue more than spending? For their part, the Democrats insist that the bill will impose no new taxes on those with taxable incomes less than $400,000. That’s unlikely, as explained below. As a matter of macroeconomic stability, with the economy teetering on the edge of recession, it’s probably not a great time to raise taxes on anyone. However, Keynesians could say the same thing about my preferred approach to deficit reduction: cutting spending! So I won’t press that point too much. However, the tax provisions in the IRA are damaging not so much because they depress demand, but because they distort economic incentives. Let’s consider the three major tax components:
1. IRS enforcement: this would provide about $80 billion in extra IRS funding over 10 years. It is expected to result in a substantial number of additional IRS tax audits (placed as high as 1.2 million). Democrats assert that it will raise an additional $400 billion, but the CBO says it’s likely to be much lower($124 billion). This will certainly ensnare a large number of taxpayers earning less than $400,000 and impose substantial compliance costs on individuals and businesses. A simplified tax code would obviate much of this wasteful activity, but our elected representatives can’t seem to find their way to that obvious solution. In any case, pardon my suspicions that this increase in funding to enforce a Byzantine tax code might be used to weaponize the IRS against parties harboring disfavored political positions. Shades of Lois Lerner!
2. Carried Interest: Oops! Apparently the Democrat leadership just bought off Kyrsten Sinema by eliminating this provision and replacing it with another awful tax…. See #3 below. The next paragraph briefly discusses what the tax change for carried interest would have entailed:
The original bill sought to end the favorable tax treatment of “carried interest”, which is earned by private equity managers but is akin to the “sweat equity” earned by anyone making a contribution to the value of an investment without actually contributing a proportionate amount of capital. I’ve written about this before here. Carried interest income is taxed at the long-term capital gains tax rate, which is usually lower than tax rates on ordinary income. This treatment is really the same as for any partnership that allocates gains to partners, but populist rhetoric has it that it is used exclusively by nasty private equity managers. Changing this treatment for private equity firms would represent gross discrimination against firms that make a valuable contribution to the market for the ownership control of business enterprises, which helps to discipline the management of resources in the private sector.
3. Tax on Corporate Stock Buy-Backs: it’s not uncommon for firms to use cash they’ve generated from operations to repurchase shares of stock issued in past. Unaccountably, Democrats regard this as a “wasteful” activity designed to unfairly enrich shareholders. However, it is a perfectly legitimate way for firms to return capital to owners. The tax would create an incentive for managers to choose less efficient alternatives for the use of excess funds. In any case, the unrestricted freedom of owners to empower managers to repurchase shares is a fundamental property right.
A tax on corporate stock buybacks can result in the triple taxation of corporate profits. Profits are taxed at the firm level, and if the firm uses after-tax profits to repurchases shares, then the profits are taxed again, and further, any gain to shareholders would be subject to capital gains tax. This is one more violation of the old principle that income should be taxed once and only once.
The proposed excise tax on buy-backs now added to the IRA is *expected* to raise more revenue than the carried interest revision would have, but adjustments to behavior have a way of stymying expectations. Research has demonstrated that firms who buy back their shares often outperform their peers. But again, there are always politicians who wish to create more frictions in capital markets because firms and investors are easy political marks, and because these politocos do not understand the key role of capital markets in allocating resources efficiently between uses and across time.
4. Corporate taxes: Imposing a minimum tax rate of 15% on corporate book income above $1 billion is a highly controversial part of the IRA. While supporters contend that the burden would fall only on wealthy shareholders, in fact the burden would be heavily distributed across lower income ranges. First, a great many working people are corporate shareholders through their individual or employer-sponsored savings plans. Second, corporate employees shoulder a large percentage of the burden of corporate taxes via reduced wages and benefits. Here’s Brad Polumbo on the incidence of the corporate tax burden:
“William C. Randolph of the Congressional Budget Office found that for every dollar raised by the corporate tax, approximately 70 cents comes out of workers’ wages. Further confirming this finding, research from the Kansas City Federal Reserve concluded that a 10% increase in corporate taxes reduces wages by 7%.”
This again demonstrates the dishonesty of claims that no one with an income below $400,000 will be taxed under the IRA. In addition, almost 50% of the revenue from this minimum tax will come from the manufacturing sector:
As Eric Boehm states at the last link, “So much for improving American manufacturers’ competitiveness!” Incidentally, it’s estimated that the bill would cause differential increases in the effective corporate tax on investments in equipment, structures, and inventories. This is not exactly a prescription for deepening the stock of capital or for insulating the American economy from supply shocks!
5. Medicare Drug Prices: A final source of deficit reduction is the de facto imposition of price controls on certain prescription drugs under Medicare Part D. A small amount of savings to the government are claimed to begin in 2023. However, the rules under which this will be administered probably won’t be established for some time, so the savings may well be exaggerated. It’s unclear when the so-called “negotiations” with drug companies will begin, but they will take place under the threat of massive fines for failing to agree to CMS’s terms. And as with any price control, it’s likely to impinge on supply — the availability of drugs to seniors, and it is questionable whether seniors will reap any savings on drugs that will remain available.
Do Words Have No Meaning?
The IRA’s vaunted anti-inflationary effects are a pipe dream. A Wharton Study found that the reduction in inflation would be minuscule:
“We estimate that the Inflation Reduction Act will produce a very small increase in inflation for the first few years, up to 0.05 percent points in 2024. We estimate a 0.25 percentage point fall in the PCE price index by the late 2020s. These point estimates, however, are not statistically different than zero, thereby indicating a very low level of confidence that the legislation will have any impact on inflation.”
Over 230 economists have weighed in on the poor prospects that the IRA will achieve what its name suggests. And let’s face it: not even the general public has any confidence that the IRA will actually reduce inflation:
The Inflation Reduction Act is a destructive piece of legislation and rather galling in its many pretenses. I’m all for deficit reduction, but the key to doing so is to cut the growth in spending! Reducing the government’s coerced absorption of resources relative to the size of the economy prevents “crowding out” of private, voluntary, market-tested activity. It also prevents the need for greater tax distortions that undermine economic performance.
The federal government has played host to huge pandemic relief bills over the past two years. Then we have Joe Biden’s move to forgive student debt, a benefit flowing largely to higher income individuals having accumulated debt while in graduate programs. And then, Congress passed a bill to subsidize chip manufacturers who were already investing heavily in domestic production facilities. All the while, the Biden Administration was doing everything in its power to destroy the fossil fuel industry. So now, Democrats hope to follow-up on all that with a bill stuffed with rewards for cronies in the form of renewable energy subsidies, financed largely on the backs of the same individuals who they’ve sworn they won’t tax! The dishonesty is breathtaking! This crowd is so eager to do anything before the midterm elections that they’ll shoot for the nation’s feet!