The Economy Under Trump in 8 Charts – Mostly as Under Obama, Except Now With a Sharp Rise in the Government Deficit

A.  Introduction

President Trump is repeatedly asserting that the economy under his presidency (in contrast to that of his predecessor) is booming, with economic growth and jobs numbers that are unprecedented, and all a sign of his superb management skills.  The economy is indeed doing well, from a short-term perspective.  Growth has been good and unemployment is low.  But this is just a continuation of the trends that had been underway for most of Obama’s two terms in office (subsequent to his initial stabilization of an economy, that was in freefall as he entered office).

However, and importantly, the recent growth and jobs numbers are only being achieved with a high and rising fiscal deficit.  Federal government spending is now growing (in contrast to sharp cuts between 2010 and 2014, after which it was kept largely flat until mid-2017), while taxes (especially for the rich and for corporations) have been cut.  This has led to standard Keynesian stimulus, helping to keep growth up, but at precisely the wrong time.  Such stimulus was needed between 2010 and 2014, when unemployment was still high and declining only slowly.  Imagine what could have been done then to re-build our infrastructure, employing workers (and equipment) that were instead idle.

But now, with the economy at full employment, such policy instead has to be met with the Fed raising interest rates.  And with rising government expenditures and falling tax revenues, the result has been a rise in the fiscal deficit to a level that is unprecedented for the US at a time when the country is not at war and the economy is at or close to full employment.  One sees the impact especially clearly in the amounts the US Treasury has to borrow on the market to cover the deficit.  It has soared in 2018.

This blog post will look at these developments, tracing developments from 2008 (the year before Obama took office) to what the most recent data allow.  With this context, one can see what has been special, or not, under Trump.

First a note on sources:  Figures on real GDP, on foreign trade, and on government expenditures, are from the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) of the Department of Commerce.  Figures on employment and unemployment are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the Department of Labor.  Figures on the federal budget deficit are from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  And figures on government borrowing are from the US Treasury.

B.  The Growth in GDP and in the Number Employed, and the Unemployment Rate

First, what has happened to overall output, and to jobs?  The chart at the top of this post shows the growth of real GDP, presented in terms of growth over the same period one year before (in order to even out the normal quarterly fluctuations).  GDP was collapsing when Obama took office in January 2009.  He was then able to turn this around quickly, with positive quarterly growth returning in mid-2009, and by mid-2010 GDP was growing at a pace of over 3% (in terms of growth over the year-earlier period).  It then fluctuated within a range from about 1% to almost 4% for the remainder of his term in office.  It would have been higher had the Republican Congress not forced cuts in fiscal expenditures despite the continued unemployment.  But growth still averaged 2.2% per annum in real terms from mid-2009 to end-2016, despite those cuts.

GDP growth under Trump hit 3.0% (over the same period one year before) in the third quarter of 2018.  This is good.  And it is the best such growth since … 2015.  That is not really so special.

Net job growth has followed the same basic path as GDP:

 

Jobs were collapsing when Obama took office, he was quickly able to stabilize this with the stimulus package and other measures (especially by the Fed), and job growth resumed.  By late 2011, net job growth (in terms of rolling 12-month totals (which is the same as the increase over what jobs were one year before) was over 2 million per year.  It went to as high as 3 million by early 2015.  Under Trump, it hit 2 1/2 million by September 2018.  This is pretty good, especially with the economy now at or close to full employment.  And it is the best since … January 2017, the month Obama left office.

Finally, the unemployment rate:

Unemployment was rising rapidly as Obama was inaugurated, and hit 10% in late 2009.  It then fell, and at a remarkably steady pace.  It could have fallen faster had government spending not been cut back, but nonetheless it was falling.  And this has continued under Trump.  While commendable, it is not a miracle.

C.  Foreign Trade

Trump has also launched a trade war.  Starting in late 2017, high tariffs were imposed on imports of certain foreign-produced products, with such tariffs then raised and extended to other products when foreign countries responded (as one would expect) with tariffs of their own on selected US products.  Trump claims his new tariffs will reduce the US trade deficit.  As discussed in an earlier blog post, such a belief reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the trade balance is determined.

But what do we see in the data?:

The trade deficit has not been reduced – it has grown in 2018.  While it might appear there had been some recovery (reduction in the deficit) in the second quarter of the year, this was due to special factors.  Exports primarily of soybeans and corn to China (but also other products, and to other countries where new tariffs were anticipated) were rushed out in that quarter in order arrive before retaliatory tariffs were imposed (which they were – in July 2018 in the case of China).  But this was simply a bringing forward of products that, under normal conditions, would have been exported later.  And as one sees, the trade balance returned to its previous path in the third quarter.

The growing trade imbalance is a concern.  For 2018, it is on course for reaching 5% of GDP (when measured in constant prices of 2012).  But as was discussed in the earlier blog post on the determination of the trade balance, it is not tariffs which determine what that overall balance will be for the economy.  Rather, it is basic macro factors (the balance between domestic savings and domestic investment) that determine what the overall trade balance will be.  Tariffs may affect the pattern of trade (shifting imports and exports from one country to another), but they won’t reduce the overall deficit unless the domestic savings/investment balance is changed.  And tariffs have little effect on that balance.

And while the trend of a growing trade imbalance since Trump took office is a continuation of the trend seen in the years before, when Obama was president, there is a key difference.  Under Obama, the trade deficit did increase (become more negative), especially from its lowest point in the middle of 2009.  But this increase in the deficit was not driven by higher government spending – government spending on goods and services (both as a share of GDP and in constant dollar terms) actually fell.  That is, government savings rose (dissavings was reduced, as there was a deficit).  Private domestic savings was also largely unchanged (as a share of GDP).  Rather, what drove the higher trade deficit during Obama’s term was the recovery in private investment from the low point it had reached in the 2008/09 recession.

The situation under Trump is different.  Government spending is now growing, as is the government deficit, and this is driving the trade deficit higher.  We will discuss this next.

D.  Government Accounts

An increase in government spending is needed in an economic downturn to sustain demand so that unemployment will be reduced (or at least not rise by as much otherwise).  Thus government spending was allowed to rise in 2008, in the last year of the Bush administration, in response to the downturn that began in December 2007.  This continued, and was indeed accelerated, as part of the stimulus program passed by Congress soon after Obama took office.  But federal government spending on goods and services peaked in mid-2010, and after that fell.  The Republican Congress forced further expenditure cuts, and by late 2013 the federal government was spending less (in real terms) than it was in early 2008:

This was foolish.  Unemployment was over 9 1/2% in mid-2010, and still over 6 1/2% in late-2013 (see the chart of the unemployment rate above).  And while the unemployment rate did fall over this period, there was justified criticism that the pace of recovery was slow.  The cuts in government spending during this period acted as a major drag on the economy, holding back the pace of recovery.  Never before had a US administration done this in the period after a downturn (at least not in the last half-century where I have examined the data).  Government spending grew especially rapidly under Reagan following the 1981/82 downturn.

Federal government spending on goods and services was then essentially flat in real terms from late 2013 to the end of Obama’s term in office.  And this more or less continued through FY2017 (the last budget of Obama), i.e. through the third quarter of CY2018.  But then, in the fourth quarter of CY2017 (the first quarter of FY2018, as the fiscal year runs from October to September), in the first full budget under Trump, federal government spending started to rise sharply.  See the chart above.  And this has continued.

There are certainly high priority government spending needs.  But the sequencing has been terribly mismanaged.  Higher government spending (e.g. to repair our public infrastructure) could have been carried out when unemployment was still high.  Utilizing idle resources, one would not only have put people to work, but also would have done this at little cost to the overall economy.  The workers were unemployed otherwise.

But higher government spending now, when unemployment is low, means that workers hired for government-funded projects have to be drawn from other activities.  While the unemployment rate can be squeezed downward some, and has been, there is a limit to how far this can go.  And since we are close to that limit, the Fed is raising interest rates in order to curtail other spending.

One sees this in the numbers.  Overall private fixed investment fell at an annual rate of 0.3% in the third quarter of 2018 (based on the initial estimates released by the BEA in late October), led by a 7.9% fall in business investment in structures (offices, etc.) and by a 4.0% fall in residential investment (homes).  While these are figures only for one quarter (there was a deceleration in the second quarter, but not an absolute fall), and can be expected to eventually change (with the economy growing, investment will at some point need to rise to catch up), the direction so far is worrisome.

And note also that this fall in the pace of investment has happened despite the huge cuts in corporate taxes from the start of this year.  Trump officials and Republicans in Congress asserted that the cuts in taxes on corporate profits would lead to a surge in investment.  Many economists (including myself, in the post cited above) noted that there was little reason to believe such tax cuts would sput corporate investment.  Such investment in the US is not now constrained by a lack of available cash to the corporations, so giving them more cash is not going to make much of a difference.  Rather, that windfall would instead lead corporations to increase dividends as well as share buybacks in order to distribute the excess cash to their shareholders.  And that is indeed what has happened, with share buybacks hitting record levels this year.

Returning to government spending, for the overall impact on the economy one should also examine such spending at the state and local level, in addition to the federal.  The picture is largely similar:

This mostly follows the same pattern as seen above for federal government spending on goods and services, with the exception that there was an increase in total government spending from early 2014 to early-2016, when federal spending was largely flat.  This may explain, in part, the relatively better growth in GDP seen over that period (see the chart at the top of this post), and then the slower pace in 2016 as all spending leveled off.

But then, starting in late-2017, total government expenditures on goods and services started to rise.  It was, however, largely driven by the federal government component.  Even though federal government spending accounted only for a bit over one-third (38%) of total government spending on goods and services in the quarter when Trump took office, almost two-thirds (65%) of the increase in government spending since then was due to higher spending by the federal government.  All this is classical Keynesian stimulus, but at a time when the economy is close to full employment.

So far we have focused on government spending on goods and services, as that is the component of government spending which enters directly as a component of GDP spending.  It is also the component of the government accounts which will in general have the largest multiplier effect on GDP.  But to arrive at the overall fiscal deficit, one must also take into account government spending on transfers (such as for Social Security), as well as tax revenues.  For these, and for the overall deficit, it is best to move to fiscal year numbers, where the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides the most easily accessible and up-to-date figures.

Tracing the overall federal fiscal deficit, now by fiscal year and in nominal dollar terms, one finds:

The deficit is now growing (the fiscal balance is becoming more negative) and indeed has been since FY2016.  What happened in FY2016?  Primarily there was a sharp reduction in the pace of tax revenues being collected.  And this has continued through FY2018, spurred further by the major tax cut bill of December 2017.  Taxes had been rising, along with the economic recovery, increasing by an average of $217 billion per year between FY2010 and FY2015 (calculated from CBO figures), but this then decelerated to a pace of just $26 billion per year between FY2015 and FY2018, and just $13 billion in FY2018.  The rate of growth in taxes between FY2015 and FY2018 was just 0.8%, or less even than just inflation.

Federal government spending, including on transfers, also rose over this period, but by less than taxes fell.  Overall federal government spending rose by an average of just $46 billion per year between FY2010 and FY2015 (a rate of growth of 1.3% per annum, or less than inflation in those years), and then by $140 billion per year (in nominal dollar terms) between FY2015 and FY2018.  But this step up in overall spending (of $94 billion per year) was well less than the step down in the pace of tax collection (a reduction of $191 billion per year, the difference between $217 billion annual growth over FY2010-15 and the $26 billion annual growth over FY2015-18).

That is, about two-thirds (67%) of the increase in the fiscal deficit since FY2015 can be attributed to taxes being cut, and just one-third (33%) to spending going up.

Looking forward, this is expected to get far worse.  As was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, the CBO is forecasting (in their most recent forecast, from April 2018) that the fiscal deficits under Trump will reach close to $1 trillion in FY2019, and will exceed 5% of GDP for most of the 2020s.  This is unprecedented for the US economy at full employment, other than during World War II.  Furthermore, these CBO forecasts are under the optimistic scenario that there will be no economic downturn over this period.  But that has never happened before in the US.

Deficits need to be funded by borrowing.  And one sees an especially sharp jump in the net amount being borrowed in the markets in CY 2018:

 

These figures are for calendar years, and the number for 2018 includes what the US Treasury announced on October 29 it expects to borrow in the fourth quarter.  Note this borrowing is what the Treasury does in the regular, commercial, markets, and is a net figure (i.e. new borrowing less repayment of debt coming due).  It comes after whatever the net impact of public trust fund operations (such as for the Social Security Trust Fund) is on Treasury funding needs.

The turnaround in 2018 is stark.  The US Treasury now expects to borrow in the financial markets, net, a total of $1,338 billion in 2018, up from $546 billion in 2017.  And this is at time of low unemployment, in sharp contrast to 2008 to 2010, when the economy had fallen into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression  Tax revenues were then low (incomes were low) while spending needed to be kept up.  The last time unemployment was low and similar to what it is now, in the late-1990s during the Clinton administration, the fiscal accounts were in surplus.  They are far from that now. 

E. Conclusion 

The economy has continued to grow since Trump took office, with GDP and employment rising and unemployment falling.  This has been at rates much the same as we saw under Obama.  There is, however, one big difference.  Fiscal deficits are now rising rapidly.  Such deficits are unprecedented for the US at a time when unemployment is low.  And the deficits have led to a sharp jump in Treasury borrowing needs.

These deficits are forecast to get worse in the coming years even if the economy should remain at full employment.  Yet there will eventually be a downturn.  There always has been.  And when that happens, deficits will jump even further, as taxes will fall in a downturn while spending needs will rise.

Other countries have tried such populist economic policies as Trump is now following, when despite high fiscal deficits at a time of full employment, taxes are cut while government spending is raised.  They have always, in the end, led to disasters.

Taxes on Corporate Profits Have Collapsed

A.  Introduction:  The Plunge in Corporate Profit Tax Revenues

Corporate profit tax revenues have collapsed following the passage by Congress last December of the Trump-endorsed Republican tax plan.  And this is not because corporate profits have decreased:  They have kept going up.  The initial figures, for the first half of 2018, show federal corporate profit taxes (also referred to as corporate income taxes) collected have fallen to an annual rate of roughly just $150 billion.  This is only half, or less, of the $300 to $350 billion collected (at annual rates) over the past several years.  See the chart above.

The estimates on corporate profit taxes actually being paid through the first half of 2018 come from the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA, and commonly also referred to as the GDP accounts) produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.  The figures are collected as part of the process of producing the GDP accounts, but for various reasons the figures on corporate profit taxes are not released with the initial GDP estimates (which come out at the end of the month that follows the end of each quarter), but rather one month later (i.e. on August 29 this time, for the estimates for the April to June quarter).  The quarterly estimates are seasonally adjusted (which is important, as tax payments have a strong seasonality to them), and are then shown at annual rates.  While we already saw such a collapse in corporate tax revenues in the figures for the first quarter of 2018 (first published in May), it is always best with the estimates of GDP and its components to wait until a second quarter’s figures are available to see whether any change is confirmed.  And it was.

This initial data on what is actually now being collected in taxes following the passage of the Republican tax plan last December suggests that the revenue losses will be substantially higher than the $1.5 trillion over ten years that the staff at the Joint Committee on Taxation (the official arbiters for Congress on such matters) forecast.  Indeed, the plunge in corporate profit tax collections alone looks likely to well exceed this.  On top of this, there were also sharp cuts in non-corporate business taxes and in income taxes for those in higher income groups.

This blog post will look at what the initial figures are revealing on the tax revenues being collected, as estimated in the GDP accounts.  The focus will be on corporate income taxes, although in looking at the total tax revenue losses we will also look briefly at what the initial data is indicating on reductions in individual income taxes being paid.

The chart above shows what the reduction has been in corporate profit taxes in dollar terms.  In the next section below we will look at this in terms of the taxes as a share of corporate profits.  That implicit average actual tax rate is more meaningful for comparisons over time, and it has also plunged.  And the implicit actual rate now being paid, of only about 7% for the taxes at the federal government level, shows how misleading it is to focus on the headline rate of tax on corporate profits of 21% (down from 35% before the new law).  The actual rate being paid is only one-third of this, as a consequence of the numerous loopholes built into the law.  The Republican proponents of the bill had argued that while they were cutting the headline rate from 35% to 21%, they were also (they asserted) ending many of the loopholes which allowed corporations to pay less.  But in fact numerous loopholes were added or expanded.

The next section of the post will then look at this in the longer term context, with figures on the implicit corporate profit tax rate going back to 1950.  The implicit rate has fallen steadily over time, from a rate that reached over 50% in the early 1950s, to just 7% now.  While Trump and his Republican colleagues argued the cut in corporate taxes was necessary in order for the economy to grow, the economy in fact grew at a faster pace in the 1950s and 1960s, when the rate paid varied between 30 and 50%, than it has in recent decades despite the now far lower rates corporations face.

But this is for the federal tax on corporate profits alone.  There are also taxes on corporate profits imposed at the state and local level, as well as by foreign governments (although such foreign taxes are then generally deductible from the taxes due domestically).  This overall tax burden is more meaningful for understanding whether the overall burden is too high.  But, as we shall see below, that rate has also fallen steadily over time.  There is again no evidence that lower rates lead to higher growth.

The final substantive section of the post will then look more closely at the magnitude of the revenue losses from the December bill.  They are massive, and based on the initial evidence could very well total over $2 trillion over ten years for the losses on the corporate profit tax alone.  The losses from the other tax cuts in the new law, primarily for the wealthy and for non-corporate business, will add to this.  A very rough estimate is that the losses in individual income tax revenues may total an additional $1 trillion, bringing the total to over $3 trillion.  This is double the $1.5 trillion loss in revenues originally forecast.

But first, an analysis of what we see from the initial evidence on what is being paid.

B.  Profit Taxes as a Share of Corporate Profits

The chart at the top of this post shows what has been collected, by quarter (but shown at an annual rate), by the federal tax on corporate profits over the last several years.  Those figures are in dollars, and show a fall in the first half of 2018 of a half or more compared to what was collected in recent years.  But for comparisons over time, it is more meaningful to look at the implicit corporate tax rate, as corporate profits change over time (and generally grow over time).  And this can be done as the National Income and Product Accounts include an estimate of what corporate profits have been, as part of its assessment of how national income is distributed among the major functional groups.

That share since 2013 has been:

Between 2013 and 2016, the implicit rate (quarter by quarter) varied between about 15 and 17%.  It came down to about 14% for most of 2017 for some reason (possibly tied to the change in administration in Washington, with its new interpretation of regulatory and tax rules), but one cannot know from the aggregate figures alone.  But the rate then fell sharply, by half, to just 7% after the new tax law entered into effect.

A point to note is that the corporate profit figures provided here are corporate profits as estimated in the National Income and Product Accounts.  They are a measure of what corporate profits actually are, in an economic sense, and will in general differ from what corporate profits are as defined for tax purposes.  Thus, for example, accelerated depreciation allowed for tax purposes will reduce taxable corporate profits.  But the BEA estimates for the NIPA accounts will reflect not the accelerated depreciation allowed for tax purposes, but rather an estimate of what depreciation actually was.  Thus the figures as shown in the chart above will be a measure of what the true average corporate tax rate actually was, before the adjustments made (as permitted under tax law) to arrive at taxable corporate profits.

That average rate is now just 7%.  That is only one-third of the headline rate under the new law of 21%.  Provisions in the tax code allow corporations to pay far less in tax than what the headline rate would suggest.  This is not new (the headline rate previously was 35%, but the actual average rate paid was just 15 to 17% between 2013 and 2016, and 14% in most of 2017).  But Trump administration officials had asserted that many of the loopholes allowing for lower taxes would be ended under the new tax law, so that the actual rate paid would be closer to the headline rate.  But this clearly did not happen.  As many independent analysts pointed out before the bill was passed, the new tax law had numerous provisions which would allow the system to be gamed.  And we now see the result of that in the figures.

C.  Corporate Taxes in a Longer Term Context

The cuts in corporate profit taxes are not new.  Taxes on corporate profits in the US used to be far higher:

In the early 1950s, the federal tax on corporate profits (actually paid, not the headline rate) reached over 50%.  While it then fell, it kept to a rate of between about 30% and 50% through the 1950s and 60s.  And this was a period of good economic growth in the US – substantially faster than it has been since.  A high tax rate on corporate profits did not block growth.  Indeed, if one looked just at the simple correlation, one might conclude that a higher tax on corporate profits acts as a spur to growth.  But this would be too simplistic, and I would not argue that.  But what one can safely conclude is that a high rate of tax on corporate profits does not act as a block to more rapid growth.

There have also been important distributional consequences, however.  Corporate wealth is primarily owned by the wealthy (duh), and the sharp decline in taxes paid on corporate profits means that a larger share of the overall tax burden has been shifted to taxes on individual incomes, which are primarily borne by the middle classes.  Based on figures in the NIPA accounts, in 1950 taxes on individual incomes (including Social Security taxes) accounted for 47% of total federal taxes, while taxes on corporate profits accounted for 35% (with the rest primarily various excise taxes such as on fuels, liquor, tobacco, etc., plus import duties).  By 2017, however, the share of taxes on individual incomes had grown to 87.4%, while the share on corporate profits had declined to just 8.6%.  There was a gigantic shift away from taxes on wealth to taxes on individual incomes – taxes that are borne primarily by the middle class.  And that share will now fall further in 2018, by about half.

The chart above is for federal corporate profit taxes alone.  It could be argued that what matters to growth is not just the corporate profit taxes paid at the federal level, but all such taxes, including those paid at the state and local level, as well as to foreign governments (although the taxes paid abroad are generally deductible on their domestic taxes, so that will be a wash).

That chart looks like:

This follows the same path as the chart for federal corporate profit taxes alone, with a similar decline.  With the federal share of such taxes averaging 84% over the period (up to 2017), this is not surprising.  The federal share will now fall sharply in 2018, due to the new tax law.  But over the 1950 to 2017 period, the chart covering all taxes on corporate profits is basically a close to proportionate increase over what the tax has been at the federal level alone.

So the same pattern holds, and the total of the taxes on corporate profits varied between 33% to over 50% in the 1950s and 60s, to between 15 and 20% in recent years before the plunge in the first half of 2018 to just 10%.  But the relatively high taxes in the 1950s and 60s did not lead to slow growth in those years, nor did the low taxes in recent decades lead to more rapid growth.  Rather, one had the reverse.

D.  An Estimate of the Revenue Losses Due to the Tax Bill

These initial figures on the taxes actually being paid following the passage of the Republican tax bill allow us to make an estimate of what the revenue losses will turn out to be.  These will be very rough estimates, as we only have data for half a year, and one should be cautious in extrapolating this to what the losses will be over a decade.  But they can give us a sense of the magnitude.  And it is large.  As we will see below, based on the evidence so far the revenue losses (from the cuts in both corporate taxes and in personal income taxes) might be over $3 trillion over ten years, or about double the $1.5 trillion loss estimate originally forecast.

First, for the federal taxes on corporate profits, as the largest changes are there:  As was discussed before (and seen in the charts above), corporate profit taxes paid as a share of corporate profits were relatively flat between 2013 and 2016, varying between 15 and 17% each quarter, before falling to 14% for most of 2017.  For the full 2013 to 2017 period, the simple average was 15.3%.  The implicit rate then fell to just 7.0% in the first half of 2018.  Had the rate instead remained at 15.3%, corporate profit taxes collected in 2018 would have been $184 billion higher (on an annual basis).

This is not small, and is twice as high as the estimate of the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation of revenue losses of $91 billion in FY2019 (the first full year under the new tax regime) from all the tax measures affecting businesses (including non-corporate businesses, and covering both domestic business and overseas business).  It is three times as high as the estimated loss of $60 billion in FY18, but the new tax law did not affect the first quarter of FY2018 (October to December).

One should be cautious with any extrapolation of this loss estimate going forward, as not only is the time period of actual experience under the new tax regime short (only a half year), but the law is also a complicated one, with certain provisions changing over time.  But a simple extrapolation over ten years, based on the assumption that corporate profits grow at just a modest 3% a year in nominal terms (meaning 1% a year in real terms if inflation is 2% a year), and that the tax rate on corporate profits will be 7.0% a year (as seen so far in 2018) rather than the 15.3% of recent years, implies that the reduction in corporate profit tax revenues will sum to about $2.1 trillion.

Note that the losses would be greater (everything else equal) if the assumed growth rate of corporate profits is higher.  But the results are not very sensitive to this.  The total losses over ten years would be $2.2 trillion, for example, at an assumed nominal growth rate of 4% (i.e. with inflation still at 2%, then with corporate profits growing at 2% a year in real terms, or double the 1% rate of the base scenario).  Note this also counters the argument of some that such tax cuts will lead to such a large spurt in growth that total tax collections will rise despite the cut in the rates.  As will be discussed below, there is no evidence that this has ever been the case in the US.  But even assuming there were, the argument is undermined by the basic arithmetic.  In the example here, a doubling of the assumed growth rate of profits (from 1% in real terms to 2%) would imply taxes on corporate profits would still fall by $2.0 trillion over the next ten years.  This is not far from the $2.1 trillion loss if there is no rise at all in the growth of corporate profits.  And a doubling of the real growth rate is far above what anyone would reasonably assume could follow from such a cut in the tax rate.

Second, there were also substantial cuts in individual income taxes, although primarily for the wealthy.  While far less in proportional terms, the substantially higher taxes that are now paid by individuals than by corporations means that this is also significant for the totals.

Specifically, individual (federal) income taxes as a share of GDP in the NIPA accounts were quite steady in the quarterly GDP accounts for the period from 2015Q1 to 2017Q4, varying only between 8.22% and 8.44%.  The average was 8.31%.  But then this fell to an average of 7.89% in the first half of 2018 (7.90% in the first quarter, and 7.87% in the second quarter).  Had the rate remained at 8.31%, then $86 billion more in revenues (at an annual rate) would have been collected.

Extrapolating this out for ten years, assuming again just a modest rate of growth for GDP of 3% a year in nominal terms (i.e. just 1% a year in real terms if inflation is 2% a year), the total loss would be $1.0 trillion.  With a higher rate of growth, and everything else the same, the losses would again be larger.  This extrapolation is, however, particularly fraught, as the Republicans wrote into their bill that the cuts in individual taxes would be reversed in 2026.  They did this to keep the forecast cost of the tax bill to the $1.5 trillion envelope they had set, and an effort is already underway to make this permanent (Speaker Paul Ryan has said he will schedule a vote on this in September).  But even if we left out the tax revenue losses in the final two years of the period, the losses in individual taxes would still reach about $0.8 trillion.

Adding the lower revenues from the taxes on corporate profits and the taxes on individual incomes, the total revenue losses would come, over the ten years, to about $3 trillion.  This is double the $1.5 trillion loss that had been forecast.  It is not a small difference.

To give a sense of the magnitude, the loss in 2018 alone (a total of $270 billion) would allow a doubling of the entire budgets (based on FY2017 actual outlays) of the Departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor; the Environmental Protection Agency; all international assistance programs (foreign aid); NASA; the National Science Foundation; the Army Corps of Engineers (civil works); and the Small Business Administration.  Note I am not arguing that all of their budgets should necessarily be doubled (although many should, indeed, be significantly increased).  Rather, the point is simply to give readers a sense of the size of the revenues lost as a consequence of the tax cut bill.

As another comparison to give a sense of the magnitude, just half of the lost revenue (now and into the future) would suffice to fund fully the Social Security Trust Fund for the foreseeable future.  If nothing is done, the Social Security Trust Fund will run out at some point around 2034.  Republicans have asserted that nothing can be done for Social Security except to scale back (already low) Social Security pensions.  This is not true.  Just half of the revenues that will be lost under the tax cut bill would suffice to ensure the pensions can be paid in full for at least 75 years (the forecast period used by the Social Security trustees).

But as noted above, proponents of the tax cuts argue that the lower taxes will spur growth.  This has been discussed in earlier posts on this blog, where we have seen that there is no evidence that this will follow.  There are not only basic conceptual problems with this argument (a misreading of basic economics), but also no indication in what we have in fact observed for the economy that this has ever been the case (whether in the years immediately following the major tax cuts of Reagan or Bush, nor if one focuses on the longer term).

Administration officials have not surprisingly argued that the relatively rapid pace of growth in the second quarter of 2018 (of 4.2% at an annual rate in the end-August BEA estimates) is evidence of the tax cut working as intended.  But it is not.  Not only should one not place much weight on one quarter’s figures (the quarterly figures bounce around), but this followed first-quarter figures which were modest at best (with GDP growth of an estimated 2.2% at an annual rate).

But more fundamentally, one should dig into the GDP figures to see what is going on.  The argument that tax cuts (especially cuts in corporate profit taxes) will spur growth is based on the presumption that such cuts will spur business investment.  More such investment, especially in equipment, could lead to higher productivity and hence higher growth.  But growth in business investment in equipment has slowed in the first half of 2018.  Such investment grew at the rates of 9.1%, 9.7%, 9.8%, and 9.9% through the four quarters of 2017 (all at annual rates).  It then decelerated to a pace of 8.5% in the first quarter of 2018 and to a pace of 4.4% in the second quarter.  While still early (these figures too bounce around a good deal), the evidence so far is the exact opposite of what proponents have argued the tax cut bill would do.

So what might be going on?  As noted before, there is first of all a good deal of volatility in the quarterly figures for GDP growth.  But to the extent growth has accelerated this year, a more likely explanation is simple Keynesian stimulus.  Taxes were cut, and while most of the cuts went to the rich, some did go to the lower and middle classes.  In addition, government spending is now rising, while it been kept flat or falling for most of the Obama years (since 2010).  It is not surprising that such stimulus would spur growth in the short run.

The problem is that with the economy now running at or close to full capacity, such stimulus will not last for long.  And when it was needed, in the years from 2010 until 2016, as the economy recovered from the 2008/09 downturn (but slowly), such stimulus measures were repeatedly blocked by a Republican-controlled Congress.  This sequence for fiscal policy is the exact opposite of the path that should have been followed.  Contractionary policies were followed after 2010 when unemployment was still high, while expansionary fiscal policies are being followed now, when unemployment is low.  The result is that the fiscal deficit is rising soon to exceed $1 trillion in a year (5% of GDP), which is unprecedented for a period with the economy at full employment.

E.  Conclusion

We now have initial figures on what is being collected in taxes following the tax cut bill of last December.  While still early, the figures for the first two quarters of 2018 are nonetheless clear for corporate profit taxes:  They have fallen by half.  Corporate profit taxes paid would be an estimated $184 billion higher in 2018 had the tax rate remained at the level it had been over the last several years.

While this post has not focused on personal income taxes, they too were cut.  The reduction here was more modest – only by about 5% overall (although certain groups got far more, while others less).  But with their greater importance in overall federal tax collections, this 5% reduction is leading to an estimated $86 billion reduction in revenues (in 2018) from this source.

Based on what has been observed in the first two quarters of 2018, the two taxes together (corporate and individual) will see a combined reduction in taxes paid of about $270 billion in 2018.  Extrapolating over ten years, the combined losses may be on the order of $3 trillion.

These losses are huge.  And they are double what had been earlier forecast for the tax bill.  Just half of what is being lost would suffice to ensure Social Security would be fully funded for the foreseeable future.  And the rest could fund programs to rebuild and strengthen the physical infrastructure and human capital on which growth ultimately depends.  Or some could be used to reduce the deficit and pay down the public debt.  But instead, massive tax cuts are going to the rich.

The Mismanagement of Fiscal Policy Under Trump: Deficits When There Should be Surpluses

A.  Introduction

Since World War II, the US has never run such high fiscal deficits in times of full employment as it will now.  With the tax cuts pushed through by the Republican Congress and signed into law by Trump in December, and to a lesser extent the budget passed in March, it is expected that the US will soon be running a fiscal deficit of over $1.0 trillion a year, exceeding 5% of GDP.  This is unprecedented.

We now have good estimates of how high the deficits will grow under current policy and in a scenario which assumes (optimistically) that the economy will remain at full employment, with no downturn.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published on April 9 its regular report on “The Budget and Economic Outlook”, this year covering fiscal years 2018 to 2028.  In this report to Congress and to the public, the CBO assesses the implications of federal budget and tax policy, as set out under current law.  The report normally comes out in January or February of each year but was delayed this year in order to reflect the tax bill approved in December and also the FY18 budget, which was only approved in March (even though the fiscal year began last October).

The forecast is that the deficits will now balloon.  This should not be a surprise given the magnitude of the tax cuts pushed through Congress in December and then signed into law by Trump, but recall that the Republicans pushing through the tax bill asserted deficits would not increase as a result.  The budget approved in March also provides for significant increases in legislated spending – especially for the military but also for certain domestic programs.  But as will be discussed below, government spending (other than on interest) over the next decade is in fact now forecast by the CBO to be less than what it had forecast last June.

The CBO assessment is the first set of official estimates of what the overall impact will be.  And they are big.  The CBO forecasts that even though the economy is now at full employment (and assumed to remain there for the purposes of the scenario used), deficits are forecast to grow to just short of $1 trillion in FY2019, and then continue to increase, reaching over $1.5 trillion by FY2028.  In dollar terms, it has never been that high – not even in 2009 at the worst point in the recession following the 2008 collapse of the economy.

That is terrible fiscal policy.  While high fiscal deficits are to be expected during times of high unemployment (as tax revenues are down, while government spending is the only stabilizing element for the economy when both households and corporations are cutting back on spending due to the downturn), standard policy would be to limit deficits in times of full employment in order to bring down the public debt to GDP ratio.  But with the tax cuts and spending plans this is not going to happen under Trump, even should the economy remain at full employment.  And it will be far worse when the economy once again dips into a recession, as always happens eventually.

This blog post will first discuss the numbers in the new CBO forecasts, then the policy one should follow over the course of the business cycle in order to keep the public debt to GDP under control, and finally will look at the historical relationship between unemployment and the fiscal deficit, and how the choices made on the deficit by Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress are unprecedented and far from the historical norms.

B.  The CBO Forecast of the Fiscal Deficits

The forecasts made by the CBO of the fiscal accounts that would follow under current policies are always eagerly awaited by those concerned with what Congress is doing.  Ten-year budget forecasts are provided by the CBO at least annually, and typically twice or even three times a year, depending on the decisions being made by Congress.

The CBO itself is non-partisan, with a large professional staff and a director who is appointed to a four-year term (with no limits on its renewal) by the then leaders in Congress.  The current director, Keith Hall, took over on April 1, 2015, when both the House and the Senate were under Republican control.  He replaced Doug Elmensdorf, who was widely respected as both capable and impartial, but who had come to the end of a term.  Many advocated that he be reappointed, but Elmensdorf had first taken the position when Democrats controlled the House and the Senate.  Hall is a Republican, having served in senior positions in the George W. Bush administration, and there was concern that his appointment signaled an intent to politicize the position.

But as much as his party background, a key consideration appeared to have been Hall’s support for the view that tax cuts would, through their impact on incentives, lead to more rapid growth, with that more rapid growth then generating more tax revenue which would partially or even fully offset the losses from the lower tax rates.  I do not agree.  An earlier post on this blog discussed that that argument is incomplete, and does not take into account that there are income as well as substitution effects (as well as much more), which limit or offset what the impact might be from substitution effects alone.  And another post on this blog looked at the historical experience after the Reagan and Bush tax cuts, in comparison to the experience after the (more modest) increases in tax rates on higher income groups under Clinton and Obama.  It found no evidence in support of the argument that growth will be faster after tax cuts than when taxes are raised.  What the data suggest, rather, is that there was little to no impact on growth in one direction or the other.  Where there was a clear impact, however, was on the fiscal deficits, which rose with the tax cuts and fell with the tax increases.

Given Hall’s views on taxes, it was thus of interest to see whether the CBO would now forecast that an acceleration in GDP growth would follow from the new tax cuts sufficient to offset the lower tax revenues following from the lower tax rates.  The answer is no.  While the CBO did forecast that GDP would be modestly higher as a result of the tax cuts (peaking at 1.0% higher than would otherwise be the case in 2022 before then diminishing over time, and keep in mind that these are for the forecast levels of GDP, not of its growth), this modestly higher GDP would not suffice to offset the lower tax revenues following from the lower tax rates.

Taking account of all the legislative changes in tax law since its prior forecasts issued in June 2017, the CBO estimated that fiscal revenues collected over the ten years FY2018 to FY2027 would fall by $1.7 trillion from what it would have been under previous law.  However, after taking into account its forecast of the resulting macroeconomic effects (as well as certain technical changes it made in its forecasts), the net impact would be a $1.0 trillion loss in revenues.  This is almost exactly the same loss as had been estimated by the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation for the December tax bill, which also factored in an estimate of a (modest) impact on growth from the lower tax rates.

Fiscal spending projections were also provided, and the CBO estimated that legislative changes alone (since its previous estimates in June 2017) would raise spending (excluding interest) by $450 billion over the ten year period.  However, after taking into account certain macro feedbacks as well as technical changes in the forecasts, the CBO is now forecasting government spending will in fact be $100 billion less over the ten years than it had forecast last June.  The higher deficits over those earlier forecast are not coming from higher spending but rather totally from the tax cuts.

Finally, the higher deficits will have to be funded by higher government borrowing, and this will lead to higher interest costs.  Interest costs will also be higher as the expansionary fiscal policy at a time when the economy is already at full employment will lead to higher interest rates, and those higher interest rates will apply to the entire public debt, not just to the increment in debt resulting from the higher deficits.  The CBO forecasts that higher interest costs will add $650 billion to the deficits over the ten years.

The total effect of all this will thus be to increase the fiscal deficit by $1.6 trillion over the ten years, over what it would otherwise have been.  The resulting annual fiscal deficits, in billions of dollars, would be as shown in the chart at top of this post.  Under the assumed scenario that the economy will remain at full employment over the entire period, the fiscal deficit will still rise to reach almost $1 trillion in FY19, and then to over $1.5 trillion in FY28.  Such deficits are unprecedented for when the economy is at full employment.

The deficits forecast would then translate into these shares of GDP, given the GDP forecasts:

The CBO is forecasting that fiscal deficits will rise to a range of 4 1/2 to 5 1/2% of GDP from FY2019 onwards.  Again, this is unprecedented for the US economy in times of full employment.

C.  Fiscal Policy Over the Course of the Business Cycle

As noted above, fiscal policy has an important role to play during economic downturns to stabilize conditions and to launch a recovery.  When something causes an economic downturn (such as the decision during the Bush II administration not to regulate banks properly in the lead up to the 2008 collapse, believing “the markets” would do this best), both households and corporations will reduce their spending.  With unemployment increasing and wages often falling even for those fortunate enough to remain employed, as well as with the heightened general concerns on the economy, households will cut back on their spending.  Similarly, corporations will seek to conserve cash in the downturns, and will cut back on their spending both for the inputs they would use for current production (they cannot sell all of their product anyway) and for capital investments (their production facilities are not being fully used, so why add to capacity).

Only government can sustain the economy in such times, stopping the downward spiral through its spending.  Fiscal stimulus is needed, and the Obama stimulus program passed early in his first year succeeded in pulling the economy out of the freefall it was in at the time of his inauguration.  GDP fell at an astounding 8.2% annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2008 and was still crashing in early 2009 as Obama was being sworn in.  It then stabilized in the second quarter of 2009 and started to rise in the third quarter.  The stimulus program, as well as aggressive action by the Federal Reserve, accounts for this turnaround.

But fiscal deficits will be high during such economic downturns.  While any stimulus programs will add to this, most of the increase in the deficits in such periods occur automatically, primarily due to lower tax revenues in the downturn.  Incomes and employment are lower, so taxes due will be lower.  There is also, but to a much smaller extent, some automatic increase in government spending during the downturns, as funds are paid out in unemployment insurance or for food stamps for the increased number of the poor.  The deficits will then add to the public debt, and the public debt to GDP ratio will rise sharply (exacerbated in the short run by the lower GDP as well).

One confusion, sometimes seen in news reports, should be clarified.  While fiscal deficits will be high in a downturn, for the reasons noted above, and any stimulus program will add further to those deficits, one should not equate the size of the fiscal deficit with the size of the stimulus.  They are two different things.  For example, normally the greatest stimulus, for any dollar of expenditures, will come from employing directly blue-collar workers in some government funded program (such as to build or maintain roads and other such infrastructure).  A tax cut focused on the poor and middle classes, who will spend any extra dollar they receive, will also normally lead to significant stimulus (although probably less than via directly employing a worker).  But a tax cut focused on the rich will provide only limited stimulus as any extra dollar they receive will mostly simply be saved (or used to pay down debt, which is economically the same thing).  The rich are not constrained in how much they can spend on consumption by their income, as their income is high enough to allow them to consume as much as they wish.

Each of these three examples will add equally to the fiscal deficit, whether the dollar is used to employ workers directly, to provide a tax cut to the poor and middle classes, or to provide a tax cut to the rich.  But the degree of stimulus per dollar added to the deficit can be dramatically different.  One cannot equate the size of the deficit to the amount of stimulus.

Deficits are thus to be expected, and indeed warranted, in a downturn.  But while the resulting increase in public debt is to be expected in such conditions, there must also come a time for the fiscal deficits to be reduced to a level where at least the debt to GDP ratio, if not the absolute level of the debt itself, will be reduced.  Debt cannot be allowed to grow without limit.  And the time to do this is when the economy is at full employment.  It was thus the height of fiscal malpractice for the tax bills and budget passed by Congress and signed into law by Trump not to provide for this, but rather for the precise opposite.  The CBO estimates show that deficits will rise rather than fall, even under a scenario where the economy is assumed to remain at full employment.

It should also be noted that the deficit need not be reduced all the way to zero for the debt to GDP ratio to fall.  With a growing GDP and other factors (interest rates, the rate of inflation, and the debt to GDP ratio) similar to what they are now, a good rule of thumb is that the public debt to GDP ratio will fall as long as the fiscal deficit is around 3% of GDP or less.  But the budget and tax bills of Trump and the Congress will instead lead to deficits of around 5% of GDP.  Hence the debt to GDP ratio will rise.

[Technical note for those interested:  The arithmetic of the relationship between the fiscal deficit and the debt to GDP ratio is simple.  A reasonable forecast, given stated Fed targets, is for an interest rate on long-term public debt of 4% and an inflation rate of 2%.  This implies a real interest rate of 2%.  With real GDP also assumed to grow in the CBO forecast at 2% a year (from 2017 to 2028), the public debt to GDP ratio will be constant if what is called the “primary balance” is zero (as the numerator, public debt, will then grow at the same rate as the denominator, GDP, each at either 2% a year in real terms or 4% a year in nominal terms) .  The primary balance is the fiscal deficit excluding what is paid in interest on the debt.  The public debt to GDP ratio, as of the end of FY17, was 76.5%.  With a nominal interest rate of 4%, this would lead to interest payments on the debt of 3% of GDP.  A primary balance of zero would then imply an overall fiscal deficit of 3% of GDP.  Hence a fiscal deficit of 3% or less, with the public debt to GDP ratio roughly where it is now, will lead to a steady debt to GDP ratio.

More generally, the debt to GDP ratio will be constant whenever the rate of growth of real GDP matches the real interest rate, and the primary balance is zero.  In the case here, the growth in the numerator of debt (4% in nominal terms, or 2% in real terms when inflation is 2%) matches the growth in the denominator of GDP (2% in real terms, or 4% in nominal terms), and the ratio will thus be constant.]

Putting this in a longer-term context:

Federal government debt rose to over 100% of GDP during World War II.  The war spending was necessary.  But it did not then doom the US to perpetual economic stagnation or worse.  Rather, fiscal deficits were kept modest, the economy grew well, and over the next several decades the debt to GDP ratio fell.

For the fiscal balances over this period (with fiscal deficits as negative and fiscal surpluses as positive):

Fiscal balances were mostly but modestly in deficit (and occasionally in surplus) through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  The 3% fiscal deficit rule of thumb worked well, and one can see that as long as the fiscal deficit remained below 3% of GDP, the public debt to GDP ratio fell, to a low of 23% of GDP in FY1974.  It then stabilized at around this level for a few years, but reversed and started heading in FY1982 after Reagan took office.  And it kept going up even after the economy had recovered from the 1982 recession and the country was back to full employment, as deficits remained high following the Reagan tax cuts.

The new Clinton budgets, along with the tax increase passed in 1993, then stabilized the accounts, and the economy grew strongly.  The public debt to GDP ratio, which had close to doubled under Reagan and Bush I (from 25% of GDP to 48%), was reduced to 31% of GDP by the year Clinton left office.   But it then started to rise again following the tax cuts of Bush II (plus with the first of the two recessions under Bush II).  And it exploded in 2008/2009, at the end of Bush II and the start of Obama, as the economy plunged into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The debt to GDP ratio did stabilize, however, in the second Obama term, and actually fell slightly in FY2015 (when the deficit was 2.4% of GDP).  But with the deficits now forecast to rise to the vicinity of 5% of GDP (and to this level even with the assumption that there will not be an economic downturn at some point), the public debt to GDP ratio will soon be approaching 100% of GDP.

This does not have to happen.  As noted above, one need not bring the fiscal deficits all the way down to zero.  A fiscal deficit kept at around 3% of GDP would suffice to stabilize the public debt to GDP ratio, while something less than 3% would bring it down.

D.  Historical Norms

What stands out in these forecasts is how much the deficits anticipated now differ from the historical norms.  The CBO report has data on the deficits going back to FY1968 (fifty years), and these can be used to examine the relationship with unemployment.  As discussed above, one should expect higher deficits during an economic downturn when unemployment is high.  But these deficits then need to be balanced with lower deficits when unemployment is lower (and sufficiently low when the economy is at or near full employment that the public debt to GDP ratio will fall).

A simple scatter-plot of the fiscal balance (where fiscal deficits are a negative balance) versus the unemployment rate, for the period from FY1968 to now and then the CBO forecasts to FY2028, shows:

While there is much going on in the economy that affects the fiscal balance, this scatter plot shows a surprisingly consistent relationship between the fiscal balance and the rate of unemployment.  The red line shows what the simple regression line would be for the historical years of FY1968 to FY2016.  The scatter around it is surprisingly tight.  [Technical Note:  The t-statistic is 10.0, where anything greater than 2.0 is traditionally considered significant, and the R-squared is 0.68, which is high for such a scatter plot.]

An interesting finding is that the high deficits in the early Obama years are actually very close to what one would expect given the historical norm, given the unemployment rates Obama faced on taking office and in his first few years in office.  That is, the Obama stimulus programs did not cause the fiscal deficits to grow beyond what would have been expected given what the US has had in the past.  The deficits were high because unemployment was high following the 2008 collapse.

At the other end of the line, one has the fiscal surpluses in the years FY1998 to 2000 at the end of the Clinton presidency.  As noted above, the public debt to GDP ratio stabilized soon after Clinton took office (in part due to the tax increases passed in 1993), with the fiscal deficits reduced to less than 3% of GDP.  Unemployment fell to below 5% by mid-1997 and to a low of 3.8% in mid-2000, as the economy grew well.  By FY1998 the fiscal accounts were in surplus.  And as seen in the scatter plot above, the relationship between unemployment and the fiscal balance was close in those years (FY1998 to 2000) to what one would expect given the historical norms for the US.

But the tax cuts and budget passed by Congress and signed by Trump will now lead the fiscal accounts to a path far from the historical norms.  Instead of a budget surplus (as in the later Clinton years, when the unemployment rate was similar to what the CBO assumes will hold for its scenario), or even a deficit kept to 3% of GDP or less (which would suffice to stabilize the debt to GDP ratio), deficits of 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 % of GDP are foreseen.  The scatter of points for the fiscal deficit vs. unemployment relationship for 2018 to 2028 is in a bunch by itself, down and well to the left of the regression line.  One has not had such deficits in times of full employment since World War II.

E.  Conclusion

Fiscal policy is being mismanaged.  The economy reached full employment by the end of the Obama administration, fiscal deficits had come down, and the public debt to GDP ratio had stabilized.  There was certainly more to be done to bring down the deficit further, and with the aging of the population (retiring baby boomers), government expenditures (for Social Security and especially for Medicare and other health programs) will need to increase in the coming years.  Tax revenues to meet such needs will need to rise.

But the Republican-controlled Congress and Trump pushed through measures that will do the opposite.  Taxes have been cut dramatically (especially for corporations and rich households), while the budget passed in March will raise government spending (especially for the military).  Even assuming the economy will remain at full employment with no downturn over the next decade (which would be unprecedented), fiscal deficits will rise to around 5% of GDP.  As a consequence, the public debt to GDP ratio will rise steadily.

This is unprecedented.  With the economy at full employment, deficits should be reduced, not increased.  They need not go all the way to zero, even though Clinton was able to achieve that.  A fiscal deficit of 3% of GDP (where it was in the latter years of the Obama administration) would stabilize the debt to GDP ratio.  But Congress and Trump pushed through measures to raise the deficit rather than reduce it.

This leaves the economy vulnerable.  There will eventually be another economic downturn.  There always is one, eventually.  The deficit will then soar, as it did in 2008/2009, and remain high until the economy fully recovers.  But there will then be pressure not to allow the debt to rise even further.  This is what happened following the 2010 elections, when the Republicans gained control of the House.  With control over the budget, they were able to cut government spending even though unemployment was still high.  Because of this, the pace of the recovery was slower than it need have been.  While the economy did eventually return to full employment by the end of Obama’s second term, unemployment remained higher than should have been the case for several years as a consequence of the cuts.

At the next downturn, the fiscal accounts will be in a poor position to respond as they need to in a crisis.  Public debt, already high, will soar to unprecedented levels, and there will be arguments from conservatives not to allow the debt to rise even further.  Recovery will then be even more difficult, and many will suffer as a result.

What a Real Tax Reform Could Look Like – III: A Carbon Tax to Address Climate Change

Source:  James Hansen, Global Temperatures, update of December 18, 2017

 

A.  Introduction

The final element of a comprehensive tax reform would be a tax to address climate change.  Previous posts have looked at what a true reform of corporate and individual income taxes could look like, plus what could be done to ensure Social Security benefits can continue to be paid in accord with current formulae, and indeed enhanced.  This post will look at a tax on greenhouse gas emissions (commonly called a carbon tax, as carbon dioxide is the primary contributor) to address global warming.

There is no doubt the planet is warming –  the chart above shows the most recent estimates.  And this is primarily due to our economies pouring into the air carbon dioxide and certain other gases (such as methane) that lead to heat being retained by the atmosphere.  These greenhouse gases have warmed the planet, leading to an increased frequency of extreme weather events such as the series of remarkably intense hurricanes that hit the US this August and September.  The cost, already being incurred, has been staggering.  Early estimates of the cost of just Hurricanes Harvey (which hit Texas) and Irma (which hit Florida) reach $290 billion.  Hurricane Maria (which hit Puerto Rico) may have cost Puerto Rico as much as $95 billion according to an early estimate (and this excludes the cost to other Caribbean nations it hit).

As I am writing this (January 3, 2018), record-breaking cold has swept over much of the eastern half of the US.  And it is forecast to get worse over the next few days.  Trump has, not surprisingly, tweeted that this cold shows that global warming is not true.  But this illustrates well his ignorance.  First, there is more to the world than the eastern US.  There is also today unseasonably warm weather in the western US (especially Alaska, relative to what is normal there), as well as in Europe, Russia, and especially Siberia.  Overall, the average global surface temperature today is 0.5 degrees Celsius above the 1979 to 2000 average for this time of year, and 0.9 degrees Celsius above that average in the Northern Hemisphere.  But second, that blast of cold hitting the eastern US should not be taken as a surprising outcome of global warming.  Warming leads to greater volatility in atmospheric currents, including in the jet streams that allow (or block) cold air to come down from the Arctic.

One cannot, of course, attribute with certainty any particular severe weather event (whether hurricanes, extreme hot or cold temperatures, drought or floods, and more) to climate change.  We had severe weather events before global warming became significant.  But the same is true of lung cancer and smoking:  One cannot attribute any individual’s death from lung cancer to his or her smoking.  People died of lung cancer before smoking became common.  The issue, rather, is that smoking increases the likelihood of getting lung cancer.  Similarly, global warming increases the likelihood and hence frequency of severe weather events.

And that is precisely what we have seen.  Severe weather events have increased in number in recent years as the planet has warmed and as climate change models have predicted.  A database maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, the home of the National Weather Service) has kept track since 1980 of the number of weather and climate disasters in the US which each cost $1 billion or more (in 2017 prices).  Over that close to 37 year period the 7 worst years (in terms of the number of such disasters) have all come in the last 10 years (including 2017, which as of end September already had tied the worst full year so far, and will exceed it once fourth quarter data is included).

Global warming, arising from man-made emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (natural gas), and certain other gases (together, greenhouse gases or GHGs, for the greenhouse effect they cause), is thus imposing a huge cost already on society, and one which will get worse as the planet warms further.  It is thus a mark of confusion to say, as Trump and many Republican politicians have, that we cannot “afford” to address the causes of the warming planet.  We are already bearing the costs, and those costs will get far worse if nothing is done.  The question is whether steps will be taken to reduce those costs by addressing the underlying causes.

The issue is that the costs such GHG emissions cause are not being borne by those who emit those gases.  The emitters of GHGs are in effect being subsidized, and encouraged to burn fossil fuels rather than make use of a cleaner alternative.  And when a producer is not bearing the full cost of what he is producing, it will be badly done.  The key is to charge a tax or fee on such production equal to the cost being imposed on others, so that the producer faces the full cost of what he is making.  The producer will then have a reason to make suitable choices on how the product can be made at the least cost to all.  And consumers, facing the full costs of what they are buying, can then make suitable choices on whether to buy one product or another.

A suitable tax on greenhouse gas emissions would bring prices in line with the total costs being incurred.  A comprehensive tax reform should include this.  And it would be straightforward to implement.  There is indeed a well worked out plan being promoted by a group of traditional Republican conservatives, the Climate Leadership Council, with the active involvement and endorsements of several Treasury Secretaries in past Republican administrations (Hank Paulson, James Baker, and George Schultz); as well as of individuals such as Michael Bloomberg and liberal and conservative economists such as Larry Summers, Martin Feldstein, and Gregory Mankiw; companies such as ExxonMobil, General Motors, and Shell; and environmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International.

It is a good plan, and I would suggest basically just copying it.  The proposal will be explained below.  A one-page summary of the Climate Leadership Council’s specific proposal is available here, while a more complete description is available here.  A very similar proposal has also been assessed by the US Treasury, with a brief summary of the Treasury analysis available on the Climate Leadership Council website here, while the complete Treasury analysis is available here on the Treasury website (assuming the Trump administration has not taken it down).  The Treasury assessment is excellent, as it reviews precisely how one could implement such a tax, including the practicalities, and arrives at specific quantitative estimates of the impact on different income groups.  The analysis below will basically follow the variant of the plan as assessed by the Treasury.

This post will first provide a description of that plan, how it could be implemented, and what the impact on prices might be.  Importantly, clean alternatives exist for many of the processes which emit GHGs, particularly from the burning of fossil fuels, which thus can be substituted for processes emitting those gases.  This would limit the price impact and smooth the way to sharp reductions in GHG emissions.  Furthermore, a key feature of this plan is that the revenues that would be collected by the carbon tax would all be rebated to the American population.  The final section will discuss this and the distributional implications.  The plan would be revenue neutral – the aim is to change prices so that they fully reflect the costs being incurred, not to raise revenues.  And the rebates would be distributionally positive, with the bottom seven deciles of the population (the bottom 70%) coming out ahead after the rebates.  Only the top three deciles (top 30%) would see a net loss, as a direct consequence of their disproportionate share in consumption of goods that cause the GHG emissions in the first place.

B.  A Carbon Tax to Address Climate Change

In brief, under this proposal a tax would be charged for each unit of GHG pollution emitted.  The Climate Leadership Council would set the tax to start at $40 per ton of CO2, with the taxes on other GHGs set in proportion based on their global warming impact per ton relative to that of CO2.  This is often called simply a carbon tax, although it is in fact a tax on CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions and on other GHGs in proportion to their global warming impact.  The tax would then rise in real terms over time.  The start date would presumably have been 2018, although this was not explicit (the proposal came out in early 2017).  The Treasury variant examined a price of $49 per ton of CO2-equivalent starting in 2019 (with some phasing in of the goods to which it would apply until 2021), and then increasing at a rate of 2% a year in real terms from 2019.

Importantly, all revenues collected would be returned directly to the American population.  The impact on the federal budget thus would be revenue neutral.  There would also be border adjustments for imports and exports (discussed below).  The Treasury estimates that at $49 per ton, the carbon tax would lead to a rebate in the first year (2019) of $583 per person, or $2,332 for a family of four.  Scaling this in proportion, a $40 per ton carbon tax would lead to a rebate of $476 per person, or $1,904 for a family of four.  And the tax would be highly progressive.  The Treasury estimated that there would on average be net income gains for the bottom 70% of the population.  That is, their rebates would be greater than the higher amounts they would need to spend on goods and services to reflect the cost of the carbon tax.

In more detail, under this plan a price (whether $40 or $49 to start) would be charged which reflects the cost to society of the GHGs being emitted as part of the production process for the good or service being produced.  This is called the “social cost of carbon”, and while the concept is clear, it is difficult in practice to estimate precisely.  Its value will depend on factors which are difficult to know at this point in time, including the full cost to our economies (starting now and extending many decades into the future) as a consequence of climate change, the cost of technologies to limit GHG emissions (again starting now, and then for decades into the future), and the appropriate values for parameters such as the proper discount rate to use to put the costs and benefits over this range of time all into the prices of today.  A fundamental difficulty of GHG emissions is that their impact is not just in the near term, but can extend for centuries.  They remain in the atmosphere for a very long time.

Thus while starting at a reasonable cost of carbon (whether $40 or $49) is important, probably more important is how this price should be adjusted over time to reflect actual experience.  Some predictability in the path is also valuable, so firms can make their investment decisions accordingly.  Thus the Climate Leadership Council plan would have the price rise in real terms over time at some unspecified pace, while the Treasury assessment assumed concretely a rise of 2% a year in real terms.  Such a 2% real increase is reasonable.

One should, however, also recognize the inherent uncertainty, as the proper price on carbon is difficult to know before we have any experience with such a plan.  Thus one should allow for reassessment and adjustment, perhaps every five years or so, with the pace of price adjustment increased or decreased depending on the observed response.  The pace would be raised if we find that GHG emissions are not falling at the pace needed, or reduced if we find GHGs are falling at a more rapid pace than anticipated and needed.  Past experience with market mechanisms to reduce pollution (in particular the use of trading schemes to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides pollution) worked surprisingly well, with costs well below what had been anticipated and what would have been incurred through traditional regulatory regimes.  The same would be likely, in my view, if we would start to price GHG emissions.

Pricing GHG emissions is also relatively straightforward administratively for the bulk of GHG sources.  Fully 76% of GHG emissions in the US come from the burning of fossil fuels.  This rises to 83% if one adds in the emission of GHGs in the production of the fossil fuels themselves (at the mine or well-head) plus from the non-energy use of fossil fuels.  The carbon tax thus could be applied at the level of the limited number of power plants that still burn coal; at the level of petroleum refineries where substantially all crude oil must be processed; and at the level of gas pipelines as substantially all natural gas is transported via pipelines.  A limited number of industrial plants then account for a significant share of the remainder.  These include from the use of coking coals in the production of iron and steel; from the production of petrochemicals such as plastics; and GHGs resulting from the production of cement, glass, limestone, and similar products.  For these, it would be straightforward to apply a carbon tax at the factory or plant level.  There would remain GHG emissions from a range of resources, including in particular in agriculture (accounting for about 8% of GHG emissions in the US), and the Treasury analysis assumes the carbon tax would not apply to those sources.  But they are a small share of the total, and an issue one could address in the future.

A key part of the plan is that there would also be a border tax adjustment, where exports would receive a rebate for the carbon taxes paid on their production, while imports would be charged a carbon tax based on the GHGs emitted in their production.  The rebate for exports means that US production would not be disadvantaged by being located here, and there would be no incentive from this source to move such plants abroad.  This addresses the Trump criticism (and confusion) that such carbon taxes will make US industry uncompetitive.  And imports would be charged a carbon tax based on their GHG emissions to the extent such imports do not already reflect such charges (which would likely be the case, as they too would likely be given rebates in their home countries on carbon taxes paid, just as US exports would be).

A feature of this border tax adjustment is that revenues for the US would be generated (and rebated to the US population) in the case where other countries are not themselves charging a carbon tax (or the equivalent, such as in a cap and trade system), but also (given the US trade structure) even when they are.  In the first case, where other countries are not at first themselves charging such a tax, imposing the carbon tax on such imports will generate revenues which would be distributed to the US population.  This would provide a strong incentive for those other countries to join the US and start to charge a similar carbon tax.  And such a border adjustment for the carbon tax would be compliant with WTO rules on trade, as the tax would simply be ensuring that imported goods are being taxed the same as their domestic equivalents are (just as is true for a value-added tax).  This is not discrimination against imports, but rather equal treatment.

In the second case, where trading partners are themselves all charging a similar carbon tax (let’s assume), the US would still come out ahead in carbon tax revenues due to our trade structure.  US imports of goods are about 50% higher than its exports of goods, and it is primarily in the production of goods that GHGs are emitted.  Partially offsetting this in the overall trade balance, US exports of services are about 50% higher than its imports of services.  But services are a smaller share of trade, plus services are not as intensive as goods in the GHGs emitted.  Overall, the US has a current account deficit (more imports of goods and services than exports), matched by capital inflows being invested in the US.  With such a trade structure, the carbon taxes charged on imports will substantially exceed whatever is rebated on exports.  The US population would come out ahead.  Put another way, producers of goods being sold in the US are currently being provided a subsidy by not charging them for the cost we are incurring due to the greenhouse gases being emitted in their production.  Given the US trade structure, a substantial share of this subsidy is going to foreign producers.  A tax on such GHG emissions is simply the removal of this subsidy.

C.  Price Impacts, and the Viability of Clean Alternatives

Applying the carbon tax will lead producers to raise their prices if they do not otherwise adjust their processes.  For transportation fuels, for example, the Treasury analysis estimated that at $49 per ton of CO2 (and its equivalent for other GHGs), the tax would equal 44 cents per gallon for gasoline, or 50 cents per gallon for diesel fuel.  While significant, such increases are not huge.  There have been far greater fluctuations in such fuel prices in recent years in response to the price of crude oil rising or falling, and consumers and the economy have been able to accommodate such changes.

More broadly, and expressed in terms of percentage increases, the Treasury analysts estimated that if the cost increases from the carbon tax were all fully passed along, the price of gasoline would rise by 11.8%, home heating oil by 12.4%, and air transportation by 7.5%.  The price of natural gas would go up by 27.0% and the price of electricity by 16.9%, but note these are the prices of just the energy alone.  The delivered price to our homes also includes distribution and other charges.  For natural gas, for example, the energy component of my bill (in Washington, DC) was just 44% of my total bill over the last 12 months, so a 27% increase in the wholesale cost of natural gas would mean a 15% increase in my overall bill for gas.  There would be no reason for distribution and other such charges to go up by any significant amount, as their costs depend on the volume delivered and not on the wholesale cost of the gas being delivered (and similarly for electricity).  Overall, the Treasury analysis forecasts that prices in general would go up by 2.6% if the new carbon tax (at $49 per ton of CO2) were fully passed forward.

But the higher costs would provide incentives both to producers to change how they make things, and to consumers to take into account the total costs in their decisions on what to buy.  One would see this most importantly (given its share as a source of GHG emissions) in how electricity is produced.  Generating electricity by the burning of fossil fuels is now heavily subsidized, in effect, as nothing is charged for the cost of the damage done (hurricanes and other severe weather events, and more) by the resulting GHG emissions.  But even with such subsidies going to those who burn fossil fuels, solar and wind produced power is now competitive (even without the subsidies going to solar and wind – see below) for newly built power plants, and indeed has been for some years.  See the careful analysis of the relative costs that is undertaken annually by Lazard (see here for their November 2017 report).  Indeed, Lazard found in its 2017 analysis that at current costs, utility-scale solar and wind generation is now often cheaper than just the operating costs of coal or nuclear plants, thus encouraging such substitution even when the capital costs of coal and nuclear plants are treated as a sunk cost.

Furthermore, solar and wind technology is still developing, with costs falling rapidly, while at this point the further reduction in costs in traditional power generation is slow.  Lazard estimates the levelized cost of energy production at a new installation (in terms of dollars of overall costs, including capital costs, per megawatt hour of electricity generated, and excluding explicit subsidies on renewables) fell by 72% between 2009 and 2017 for utility-scale solar installations and by 47% for wind generation (to prices of $50 and $45 per megawatt hour, for solar and wind respectively; this is equivalent to 5 cents and 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour).  In contrast, the cost for power generated by coal fell by just 8% over this period (to $102 per megawatt hour) and by 28% for natural gas (to $60).  And the full levelized cost for nuclear power generation actually rose by 20% over the period (to $148).

There is, of course, wide variability in the cost of solar and wind across the country, depending on local conditions.  Existing coal and nuclear plants are also of various ages and efficiencies, and hence also of varying costs.  Thus overall averages tell only part of the story.  The cost competitiveness (on average) of new installations does not mean that all new installations will be solar or wind, much less that all generation would or could shift immediately.  But the now competitive costs have led to a bit over 50% of all new generation capacity built in the US over the last 10 years (2007 to 2016) to come from installations of solar, wind, or other renewables (with most of the solar coming only in the second half of that period).

No transition will be instantaneous, but should a significant carbon tax be imposed (of $40 or $49, for example), one should see an acceleration in the pace of such substitution of renewables for fossil fuels.  And with such substitution, the impact on higher power prices will be limited in time, and should soon decline.

The other major user of fossil fuels is transportation, and here one sees a similar dynamic.  Electric battery powered cars are now either competitive in cost or close to it (depending on how one values other attributes, such as better performance and inherently easier maintenance), and a carbon tax will accelerate the transition to such vehicles.  And battery-powered vehicles are not just limited to cars.  Tesla has announced plans to produce heavy trucks powered by batteries, with a range of up to 500 miles on a charge.  Costs would be more than competitive with traditional fueled heavy trucks, and a substantial number of pre-orders have indeed already come in from owners of large trucking fleets.  There is an interest at least in trying this.  And with battery-powered heavy trucks possible, the same is true for full-size buses.

Again, starting to charge for the costs borne by society from the CO2 and other GHGs emitted in transportation would accelerate the shift to less polluting vehicles.  It won’t happen overnight.  But that shift will limit the extent and duration of higher costs stemming from charging a carbon tax.

And while such a tax alone will not lead to zero GHG emissions with current technologies available, it would be a giant step in that direction.  It would also provide a strong incentive to develop the technologies that would carry this further and at a lower cost.

D.  Distributional Implications

Finally and importantly, the funds collected by the carbon tax would be fully rebated to all Americans, with the same amount rebated per person.  The Treasury analysis estimated that at $49 per ton of CO2 in 2019, the carbon tax would collect funds sufficient to provide a rebate of $583 per person (for the year), or $2,332 for a family of four.  The rebate could be provided annually or quarterly, or even monthly, and through the IRS or Social Security.

The rebates would also be distributionally positive.  The poor would indeed benefit on a net basis.  Being poor, they do not consume that much, and thus do not account for a high share of GHG emissions.  The rich, in contrast, not only consume more (they are rich, and can afford more), but the products they buy are also more polluting in greenhouse gases (big gas-guzzling cars rather than small fuel-efficient ones; jet travel for vacations but not public transit; large homes kept heated and air-conditioned rather than smaller homes and apartments; etc.).  Thus the rich will receive back less than what is paid in carbon taxes on the goods they consume, while the poor will receive back more.  Furthermore, because the poor are poor, a given dollar amount rebated to them will be a higher percentage of their (low) incomes, than the same dollar amount would be (in percentage terms) for the rich.

The impacts are significant.  The Treasury analysis (based on data they use for their tax simulation models) concluded that the impacts by family income decile would be:

Net Impact on Income from $49 per ton Carbon Tax, with $583 per Person Rebate, by Family Decile

Decile

% of Income

0 to 10

+8.9%

10 to 20

+4.7%

20 to 30

+3.1%

30 to 40

+2.0%

40 to 50

+1.2%

50 to 60

+0.6%

60 to 70

+0.1%

70 to 80

-0.3%

80 to 90

-0.7%

90 to 100

-1.0%

Families are ranked here by income decile, so the first decile (0 to 10%) is made up of the 10% of families (in number) who have the lowest incomes, the second decile (10 to 20%) is made up of the 10% of families with the next lowest incomes, and so on, up to the richest 10% of families (90 to 100%).

The results indicate that on a net basis (i.e. after taking account of the higher prices that would be paid on goods purchased, reflecting the carbon tax at $49 per ton), the lowest income decile families would see an increase in their real incomes of 8.9% following the $583 per person rebate.  This is quite substantial.  And the analysis found there would be a similar, positive, gain for all families up through the 7th decile, although at diminishing shares of their income.  The top 3 deciles would end up paying more on a net basis, due to their greater purchases of goods where greenhouse gases are emitted (both in total amount and in the mix of their goods).  But the net cost reaches just 1% of incomes for the richest decile.  It is only a small share in part because their incomes are of course the highest.  This tax is not unaffordable.

E.  Conclusion

To conclude, imposing a carbon tax is administratively practical, would bring prices and costs in line with the costs being borne by society when greenhouse gases are emitted, and even with current technologies would lead to a significant shift away from processes that are warming our planet.  It is a fundamental confusion to assert, as Trump and others have done, that “we cannot afford it”.  That is nonsense:  We are paying the costs already (in an increased frequency of severe weather events, in droughts in some areas and floods in others, and other such impacts), and they will get far worse if nothing is done.  Furthermore, such a carbon tax would not reduce our competitiveness when applied equally to imported items (and rebated for exports).  Indeed, with our current trade structure, the US would come out ahead financially by starting to charge for GHG emissions.

Such a tax also would be distributionally highly progressive, as the poor would come well ahead on a net basis with the revenues collected being rebated back to the population.  Indeed, it is estimated that the bottom 70% of the population would come out ahead on a net basis.  And while the rich would end up paying more, reflecting their greater consumption and the GHG intensity of the goods they buy, this would come just to 1% of the incomes of the richest 10% of the population.

Such a tax on GHG emissions would be the final component of what a comprehensive tax reform really should have looked like.  As discussed in the preceding posts on this blog, there should have been a reform to simplify corporate and individual income taxes (with all sources of income taxed similarly), plus action taken on Social Security taxes to ensure the system will be sustained for the foreseeable future.  None of this was done.  Nor was any action taken to address climate change, where the subsidy we are implicitly providing fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions (by not charging for the damage being done as a result of those emissions) could have been addressed by a tax on such emissions.

This is not surprising, unfortunately.  There are important vested interests in the fossil fuel industries (coal, oil, and gas) that benefit from not being charged for the damage their fuels are causing.  As a rationalization of this, Trump and much of the Republican Party continue to deny that climate change even exists.  But the result will be that the damage being done, already large, will grow over time.  Plus, once the doubters do finally recognize it, the actions that will then need to be taken will be more costly and disruptive than if action were taken now.

As discussed above, there is no practical or special administrative difficulty to addressing the climate change problem now.  It would be straightforward to implement a tax on GHG emissions.  And the sooner this is done, the better.

What a Real Tax Reform Could Look Like – II: Social Security

A.  Introduction

The previous post on this blog looked at what a true tax reform could look like, addressing issues pertaining to corporate and individual income taxes.  This post will look at what should be done for Social Security and the taxes that support it.  Our federal tax system involves more than just income taxes.  Social Security taxes are important, and indeed many individuals pay more in Social Security taxes than they do in individual income taxes.  Overall, Social Security taxes account for just over a quarter of total federal revenues collected in FY2017, and are especially important for the poor and middle classes.  With a total tax of 12.4% for Social Security (formally half paid by the employee and half by the employer, but in reality all ultimately paid by the employee), someone in the 10% income tax bracket is in fact paying tax at a 22.4% rate on their wages, someone in a 15% bracket is actually paying 27.4%, and so on up to the ceiling on wages subject to this tax of $128,400 in 2018.  They also pay a further 2.9% tax on wages for Medicare (with no ceiling), but this post will focus just on the Social Security side.

And as is well known, the Social Security Trust Fund is forecast to be depleted by around 2034 if Congress does nothing.  Social Security benefits would then be automatically scaled back by about 22%, to a level where the then current flows going into the Trust Fund would match the (cut-back) outflows.  This would be a disaster for many.  Congress needs to act.

A comprehensive tax reform thus should include measures to ensure the Social Security Trust Fund remains solvent, and is at a minimum able, for the foreseeable future, to continue to pay its obligations in full.  Also, and as will be discussed below, Social Security benefit payments are embarrassingly small.  Cutting them further is not a “solution”.  And despite their small size, many now depend on Social Security in their old age, especially as a consequence of the end of most private company defined benefit pension schemes in recent decades.  We really need to look at what can be done to strengthen and indeed expand the Social Security safety net.  The final section below will discuss a way to do that.

B.  Remove the Ceiling on Wages Subject to Social Security Tax

As was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, the Social Security Trust Fund is forecast to run out by around 2034 not because, as many presume, baby boomers will now be retiring, nor because life expectancies are turning out to be longer.  Both of these factors were taken into account in 1983, when following recommendations made by a commission chaired by Alan Greenspan, Social Security tax rates were adjusted and other measures taken to ensure the Trust Fund would remain solvent for the foreseeable future.  Those changes were made in full awareness of when the baby boomers would be retiring – they had already been born.  And while life expectancy has been lengthening, what matters is not whether life expectancy has been growing longer or not, but rather whether it has been growing to be longer than what had earlier been forecast when the changes were made in 1983.  And it hasn’t:  Life expectancy has turned out to be growing more slowly than earlier forecast, and for some groups has actually been declining.  In itself, this would have lengthened the life of the Social Security Trust Fund over what had been forecast.  But instead it was shortened.

Why is it, then, that the Trust Fund is now forecast to run out by around 2034 and not much later?  As discussed in that earlier post, the Greenspan Commission assumed that wage income inequality would not change going forward.  At the time (1983) this was a reasonable assumption to make, as income inequality had not changed much in the post World War II decades leading up to the 1980s.  But from around 1980, income distribution worsened markedly following the Reagan presidency.  This matters.  Wages above a ceiling (adjusted annually according to changes in average nominal wages) are exempted from Social Security taxes.  But with the distribution of wages becoming increasingly skewed (in favor of the rich) since 1980, adjusting the ceiling according to changes in average wages will lead to an increasing share of wages being exempted from tax.  An increasing share of wage income has been pulled into the earnings of those at the very top of the income distribution, so an increasing share of wages has become exempt from Social Security taxes.  As a direct consequence, the Social Security Trust Fund did not receive the inflows that had been forecast.  Thus it is now forecast to run out by 2034.

Unfortunately, we cannot now go back in time to fix the rates and what they covered to reflect the consequences of the increase in inequality.  Thus what needs to be done now has to be stronger than what would have been necessary then.  Given where we are now, one needs to remove the ceiling on wages subject to the Social Security tax altogether to ensure system solvency.  If that were done, the depletion of the Social Security Trust Fund (with all else unchanged, including the benefit formulae) would be postponed to about 2090.  Given the uncertainties over such a time span (more than 70 years from now), one can say this is for the foreseeable future.

The chart at the top of this post (taken from the earlier blog post on this issue) shows the paths that the Social Security Trust Fund to GDP ratio would take.  If nothing is done, the Trust Fund would be depleted by around 2034 and then turn negative (not allowed under current law) if all benefits were continued to be paid (the falling curve in black).  But if the ceiling on wages subject to tax were removed, the Trust Fund would remain positive (the upper curves in blue, where the one in light blue incorporates the impact of the resulting benefit changes under the current formulae, as benefits are tied to contributions).

As discussed in that earlier blog post, the calculations indicate the Social Security Trust Fund then would remain solvent to a forecast year of about 2090.  That is over 70 years from now, and the depletion at that time is largely driven by the assumption (by the Social Security demographers) on how fast life expectancy is forecast to rise in the future.  This could again be over-estimated.

Lifting the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security tax would also be equitable:  The poor and middle classes are subject to the 12.4% Social Security tax on all of their wages; a rich person should be similarly liable for the tax on all of his or her earnings.  And I cannot see the basis for any argument that a rich person making a million dollars a year cannot afford the tax, while a poor person can.

C.  Apply the Social Security Tax to All Forms of Income, Not Just Wages, and Then Raise Benefits

But I would go further.  In the modern era, there is no reason why the Social Security tax should be applied solely to wage earnings, while earnings from wealth are not taxed at all.  As one of the basic principles of taxation noted in the previous post on tax reform, all forms of income should be taxed similarly, and not with differing rates applied to one form (e.g. 12.4% on wages) as compared to another (e.g. 0% on income from wealth).

Broadening the base would allow, if nothing else is changed, for a reduction in the rate to produce the same in revenues.  We can calculate roughly what that lower rate would be.  Making use of IRS data for incomes reported on the Form 1040s in 2015 (the most recent year available), one can calculate that if Adjusted Gross Income (line 37 of Form 1040) was used as the base for the Social Security tax rather than just wages, the Social Security tax rate could be cut from 12.4% to 8.6% to generate the same in revenues.  That is, taxing all reported income (including income from wealth) at an 8.6% rate (instead of taxing just wages at 12.4%) would generate sufficient revenues for the Social Security Trust Fund to remain solvent for the foreseeable future.  This would be a more than 30% fall in the taxes on wages, but also, of course, a shift to those who also earn a substantial share of their income from wealth.

[Note:  There would also be second-order effects as Social Security benefits paid are tied to the taxes paid over the highest 40 years of an individual’s earnings, there is some progressivity in the formulae used, and taxes on all earnings rather than just on wages will shift the share of the taxes paid towards the rich.  But the impact of these second-order effects would be relatively small.  Also, the direction of the impact would be that the break-even tax rate could be cut a bit further to allow for the same to be paid out in benefits, or a bit more in benefits could be paid for the same tax rate.  But given that the impact would be small, we will leave them out of the calculations here.]

The 8.6% tax on all forms of income would generate the revenues needed to keep the Social Security Trust Fund solvent at the benefit levels as defined under current law.  But Social Security benefit payments are embarrassingly small.  Using figures for September 2017 from the Social Security Administration, the average benefit paid (in annualized terms) for all beneficiaries is just $15,109, for retired workers it is $16,469, and for those on disability it is $12,456.  These are not far above (and for disability indeed a bit below) the federal poverty guideline level of $13,860 in 2017 for a single individual.  And the average benefit levels, being averages, mean approximately half of the beneficiaries are receiving less.

Yet even at such low levels, Social Security benefits account for 100% of the income of 20% of beneficiaries aged 65 or higher; for 90% or more of the incomes of 33% of those aged beneficiaries, and 50% or more of the incomes of 61% of those aged beneficiaries (data for 2014; see Table 9.A1).  And for those aged 65 or older whose income is below the federal poverty line, Social Security accounts for 100% of the income of 50% of them, for 90% or more of the income of 74% of them, and for 50% or more of the income for 93% of them (see Table 9.B8).  The poor are incredibly dependent on Social Security.

Thus we really should be looking at a reform which would allow such benefit payments to rise.  The existing levels are too low to serve as an effective safety net in a country where defined benefit pension plans have largely disappeared, and the alternative approach of IRAs and 401(k)s has failed to provide adequate pensions for many if not most workers.

Higher benefits would require higher revenues.  To illustrate what might be done, suppose that instead of cutting the Social Security tax rate from the current 12.4% to a rate of 8.6% (which would just suffice to ensure the Trust Fund would remain solvent at benefit levels as defined under current law), one would instead cut the tax rate just to 10.0%.  This would allow average Social Security benefits to rise by 15.8% (= 10.0%/8.6%, but based on calculations before rounding).  One can work out that based on the distribution of Social Security benefit payments in 2015 (see table 5.B6 of the 2016 Annual Statistical Supplement), that if benefits were raised by 5% for the top third of retirees receiving Social Security and by 10% for the middle third, then the extra revenues would allow us to raise the average benefit levels by 45% for the bottom (poorest) third:

Annual Social Security Benefits

Avg in 2015

% increase

New

Difference

   Bottom Third of Retirees

$8,761

45%

$12,733

   $3,972

   Middle Third of Retirees

$16,010

15%

$18,411

   $2,401

   Top Third of Retirees

$23,591

5%

$24,771

   $1,180

Overall for Retirees

$16,044

15.8%

$18,574

   $2,531

This would make a significant difference to those most dependent in their old age on Social Security.  The poorest third of retirees receiving Social Security received (in December 2015 and then annualized) a payment of just $8,761 per year.  Increasing this by 45% would raise it to $12,733.  While still not much, it would be an increase of almost $4,000 annually.  And for a married couple where both had worked and are now receiving Social Security, the benefits would be double this.  It would make a difference.

D.  Conclusion

Conservatives have long been opposed to the Social Security system (indeed since its origin under Roosevelt), arguing that it is a Ponzi scheme, that it is unsustainable, and that the only thing we can do is to scale back benefits.  None of this is true.  Rather, Social Security has proven to be a critically important support for the incomes of the aged.  An astonishingly high share of Americans depend on it, and its importance has only increased with the end of defined benefit pension schemes for most American workers.

But there are, indeed, problems.  Due to the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security tax, and the sharp increase in inequality starting in the 1980s under Reagan and continuing since, an increasing share of wages in the nation have become exempt from this tax.  As a consequence, and if nothing is done, the Trust Fund is now forecast to run out in 2034.  This would trigger a scaling back of the already low benefits by 22%.  This would be a disaster for many.

Lifting the ceiling on wages, so that all wages are taxed equally, would resolve the Trust Fund solvency issue for the foreseeable future (to a forecast year of about 2090).  Benefits as set under the current formulae could then be maintained.  Furthermore, if the base for the tax were extended to all forms of income (including income from wealth), and not limited just to wages, benefits as set under current formulae could be sustained with the tax rate cut from the current 12.4% to a new rate of just 8.6%.

But as noted above, current benefits are low.  One should go further.  Cutting the rate to just 10%, say, would allow for a significant increase in benefits.  Focussing the increase on the poorest, who are most dependant on Social Security in their old age, a rate of 10% applied to all forms of income would allow benefits to rise by 5% for the top third of retirees, by 15% for the middle third, and by a substantial 45% for the bottom third.  This would make a real difference.